A Movie Called Mud

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Set in the bayou of rural Arkansas, Mud unfolds as slowly as the river on which it is set. And that's a good thing — it's a back porch story crawling with snakes and daddy longlegs, one that ought to be savored like a mint julep as it develops toward its unexpectedly thrilling climax.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two 14-year-old boys on the cusp of manhood. They're old enough to be talking about girls, but young enough to be looking for a clubhouse. As Mud opens, the boys are pushing off in a ramshackle motorboat to explore an island where they find the perfect magical clubhouse — a cabin cruiser that has lodged high in a tree, probably during a storm that flooded the river the previous season. There they meet a mysterious drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who engages the boys as his gofers by urging them to bring him food and supplies from town and promising to pay them if they do.

Mud is waiting for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to come and join him. Juniper is the love of his life. He has loved her since he was Ellis' age. He knows she will come, and when she does, Mud can escape. Meanwhile, he becomes the leader of this strange little club of boys.

Neckbone is wary. He's suspicious of this stranger with the gun in his waistband who is waiting for a girl but is afraid to be seen in public. He wants to go home and never come back. But Ellis is more open to helping the fugitive. Ellis is looking for something, and Mud seems to represent what that "something" is. It isn't adventure, exactly, although that is certainly part of the attraction; it's something deeper.

Ellis is late returning to their houseboat, where his father, Senior (Ray McKinnon), has already iced and loaded the day's catch of fish that they will sell door-to-door. At the end of the day Senior withholds half of Ellis' pay because he was late. "I work you hard because life is hard," he says, but he says it kindly. He is simply teaching Ellis a lesson: be an ant, not a grasshopper. Grasshoppers die when winter comes.

Later, when Senior discovers that Ellis and Neckbone have been filching supplies from the local junkyard, he shouts angrily at Ellis, "Don't you have any respect for a man's livelihood?" Ellis understands. Senior is a good father who teaches his son self-reliance and respect for the property of others. But it's hard on Ellis. His father isn't fun. Even his mother wants to leave the river and move into town.

Ellis is more drawn to the reckless Mud, a man who is driven by love, even though he knows that Mud's life is dangerous. Ellis is looking for something to believe in. He is looking for true love.

There is plenty of love in this story — the requited kind and the unrequited kind, the married kind and the unmarried kind, the fatherly kind and the brotherly kind. And the kind that gets you killed. But Ellis can't see it, because he's just a little too young for the nuances. His parents love each other, but they are talking about divorce. Neckbone doesn't remember his parents and lives with his uncle, who has a different girl every other night. Ellis likes a girl at school, and even fights for her honor, the way Mud would do. So he doesn't understand why she can't be faithful to him. He wants to believe in fidelity.

Ellis is looking for love, but he is also looking for himself — the self he will be when he grows up. In many respects, Mud is a foil for Ellis's father. Should he follow in Senior's footsteps, or should he break out on his own, which in reality would just be following in Mud's footsteps?

This is a film about choices, about looking forward and looking back. Mud is also looking for love. Like Neckbone, he grew up without parents, and Juniper seems to represent love and loyalty to him. Like Ellis, he is looking for himself, and he sees a lot of himself in these two boys.

All of this unfolds subtly and naturally — I don't want to give the impression that it's gooey or romantic. This is a man's kind of love story. There is plenty of suspense, shooting, and fighting as out-of-town bounty hunters come looking for Mud and figure out that the boys know where he is. All the story lines come together in a dramatic climax. And the film contains one of the most astounding race sequences I have ever seen, comparable in passion and tension to the end of the Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010). Simply an exquisite piece of filmmaking.

Matthew McConaughey is the quintessential good ol’ boy. He loves the South and treats it as if it were another character in his films. But the real star of this film is 16-year-old Tye Sheridan as 14-year-old Ellis. He is an actor to watch during the next decade. He has the sly charm and good looks of a young Tom Cruise, with the emotional depth and versatility of Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom began acting in their early teens. Sheridan is completely at ease in this role that appears deceptively simple. He makes the film wondrous.


Editor's Note: Review of "Mud," directed by Jeff Nichols. Everest Entertainment, 2013, 130 minutes.



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The Carnival at Dallas

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The spectacle of five presidents — Carter, Bush, Clinton, the other Bush, Obama — meeting to compliment one another at the opening of the second Bush’s presidential library reminded me irresistibly of chapter 26 of Candide, the Symposium of Monarchs. In that episode, Voltaire satirizes authority by arranging for six kings to discover that they are staying at the same inn at Venice. Their conversation reveals their inanity and (as Voltaire would have it) the inanity of human life. Whatever you think of Voltaire’s ideas, it’s a very funny chapter.

So here we have our own Symposium of Monarchs, a meeting of men who have wielded infinitely more power than any king of the Old Regime. Who are these people?

None of them had any qualification whatever for the office once assumed by Washington. In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone, among all the varied occupants of the presidential chair, who was less qualified than they were. Maybe John Tyler. In fact, none of them was impelled to the position by anything other than ambition for office.

Two of them — the Bushes — are agreeable human beings, and the elder Bush was a war hero, a real war hero. Unfortunately, neither father nor son had any intellectual qualifications. The younger Bush reads history but is incapable of profiting from his studies. The elder Bush showed himself incapable of understanding even his own emphatic promise not to raise taxes. He folded as soon as the opposing party offered to sell him a bridge in Brooklyn. He bought the bridge, and lost the presidency. The younger Bush was unable to understand even the rudimentary principles of limited government. But you could say that about all of them. None of them showed even the faintest understanding of his oath of office.

Carter is a mean, twisted, little man, a disgusting specimen of self-righteousness and vindictiveness. My goal in life is to stay as far away as possible from things like that.

Intellectual qualifications . . . unlike virtually all former presidents, none of the five, with the possible exception of Carter, is able to speak in his own voice for even one minute without committing a gross grammatical error. None of them, including the current president, himself reputedly the author of a book, is capable of an accurate allusion to anybody else’s book. Most of them don’t even try. Listen to Obama’s speeches; notice what or whom he mentions. It’s always “a teacher in Montana” or “a little girl in New Jersey.” Acton? Madison? Webster? Whitman? Churchill? Cather? Twain? And here they are at the dedication of a library.

Experience? Carter and Clinton were goofball governors of Southern states. The Bushes were rich people. Obama was a black student who was elected, for unknown but surmisable reasons, editor of a college law review, then a hack politician employed by the Chicago political machine.

Personal qualifications? Great personalities? Commanding leadership? Eccentric and interesting insights? Inspiring examples of morality? All these people, except the elder Bush, who was a professional promiser and non-fulfiller, can properly be called professional liars. Some lied with an exuberance appropriate to men who really enjoy the sport. On Carter, see Robert Novak’s autobiography; you’ll be entertained. On Clinton, consult your memories. On Obama, just listen to the man. On the younger Bush . . . I’m not referring to his theories about Iraq, on which he appears to have been sincerely deluded. On such issues as censorship (freedom of speech is sacred, but take all this sex off the internet), big government (I’m against it, but raise high the roofbeams, carpenters!), and immigration (open the gates, but pretend to be building walls), he lied with abandon.

Which one of these people would you like to serve with on a condo board? A department committee? A working group of any kind? Chorus of “None!” Carter would automatically attack as “racist” anyone who disagreed with him. Obama, a good casting choice for Creon in Antigone, would insist on lecturing everyone like a high school principal. The Bushes would never finish a sentence. Clinton would be looking for a deal that would enrich himself and promote the career of his banshee wife. And which one of them would you like to have a beer with? Which one — to return to the Candide analogy — would you like to encounter at the Carnival of Venice?

My answer used to be, “All of them but Carter.” Carter is a mean, twisted, little man, a disgusting specimen of self-righteousness and vindictiveness. My goal in life is to stay as far away as possible from things like that. But I used to say that if I lived next door to Obama or one of the other recent presidents, I would enjoy talking to him. I used to say that I imagined he would be a good neighbor. A couple of years ago, I got in trouble at a libertarian conference by saying these things.

If these men had remained private citizens, if they had never, accidentally, been elevated to the presidency, would I have wanted to schmooze with them?

But now I’m not so sure. I guess it’s still true about the good neighbor part. None of the non-Carter presidents fits the profile of a bad neighbor, if only because none of them cares very much about who waters the lawn. (Some underling will do it.) On Centre Street in San Diego, this noble disengagement would be a relief. It’s a long way, however, from qualifying someone for political power. I don’t think that Obama, Clinton, or the Bushes would start baying at the moon, or building houses for po’ folk in my back yard. But do I want to have a beer with one of these presidents? Maybe not.

True, I’d like to hear them discuss their political experiences. I wouldn’t object; I’d just listen. I’d buy a whole saloonful of beers, just to be able to do that . . . except . . . except for this vagrant thought: if these men had remained private citizens, if they had never, accidentally, been elevated to the presidency, would I have wanted to schmooze with them? Would I have thought they merited a change in my schedule?

The obvious answer is: Hell no! Are you kidding?

If Obama were a high school principal, or even a congressman, who would want to talk with him? There is nothing, nothing whatever, that is interesting about the man, except the weird political processes that elected him — on which he himself is unlikely to be an authority. Ditto Clinton — of no interest unless you’re one of those old-timey guys who liked to hang with the whores and the cops and collect their observations. The Bushes? Sorry. Life is short. As Gertrude Stein opined, “There’s no there, there.”

When, in Voltaire’s novel, Candide meets his useless monarchs, and so many of them at once, he is at first convinced that he is “witnessing a masquerade.” Then he says, “Gentlemen, this is an odd joke. Why are you all kings?”

He never gets an answer.




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Opening Gambit

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From the Ridiculous to the Ridiculous

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If you care about language, that distinctively human enterprise, I don’t imagine that your duty is to preserve every expression and form of speech you inherited from the past, rejecting all innovations. Why would you do that?

No reason. That’s why I welcome such expressions as “tweet,” “message” (used as a verb), “embedded” (as in “a journalist embedded in the military”), and even “homie” (“homeboy”). They are expressive of situations, and concepts, that older words could not express. As a writer about prisons and criminology, I have no objection to “perp” and “cellie,” punchy variations on earlier words, and in actual use by large and informed communities (cops and convicts). As an academic bureaucrat, I have no principled objection to “silo” (used as a verb, meaning “cause to be isolated in one’s own bureaucratic zone”): it’s an apt metaphorical description of a real phenomenon. It’s also a fad word, and to be regretted on that score; and I don’t particularly enjoy the association with cows and fodder — although nonbureaucrats are welcome to enjoy it. But as Dr. Johnson said, the expression is sound at bottom. There’s an alternative expression, “stove-pipe,” which is used on television because (A) most TV people never saw a farm, but they may have seen a ski lodge with a decorative stove; and (B) the other TV people don’t want to insult, or seem to insult, the farmers, those sterling exemplars of heartland values. Me, I prefer “silo,” because that word brings the reality closer to the metaphor. People can work in silos, but they can’t work in stove pipes.

But lookit. We have no need for “issue,” one of our most common locutions, whenever this is employed as an inept euphemism for “problem.” My objection goes double for naked uses of the word, uses without an adjective or other explanatory signal. To say that a teenager “has issues” is no better than to say that he or she “has problems,” although it removes all conceptual punch from the noun. It “means” anything from “the kid is sometimes unhappy” to “the kid is a homicidal maniac.” Away with it.

Then we come to the medicinal use of “issues.” An omnipresent radio ad in my part of the world touts the services of a doctor who will deal with both “erectile issues” and “premature issues.” In other words, he will deal with anything that ails you, from your inability to come to your tendency to come like a fire hydrant before the fire even starts. These are “issues”? I think not. They may be problems, vexations, disgraces, even pleasures. But they are not “issues.” “Issues” means “things that are subject to debate.” Maybe coming right away is an issue, whose effects can be debated. If so, debate them. If not, say what you mean by “issues,” and why you insist on bringing them up.

To say that a teenager “has issues” means anything from “the kid is sometimes unhappy” to “the kid is a homicidal maniac.” Away with it.

The transition from “problems” to “issues” is an ominous sign for our civilization — in two ways. The first has to do with the anesthetization of real difficulties. To turn a problem, which is or ought to be a call to serious thought and action, into a mere issue, which is something to be contemplated or mused upon or dealt with by taking a pill . . . that is a terrible thing. Hitler was not an issue; he was a problem. Cancer is not an issue; it is a problem that people need to confront. A weird teenage kid isn’t an issue that you should sit around and jaw about; he or she is a problem that needs to be solved, if you can.

The other way in which issue is a problem involves the politicization of discourse, a process that proceeds apace in our chronically post-1960s society. “Issue” is a word appropriate to public debate; “problem” may include that sort of thing, but it also embraces the vastly larger area of difficulties and challenges in human (not merely political) life. “Issue” dissolves the distinction; it is, therefore, in the truest sense of the word, an evil locution.

Going on to lesser, though related, forms of evil . . . . I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, one of the worst innovations ever made in the world of writing is the slash. I mean the thing that comes between the two words in such expressions as

social/economic
men/women
novels/poetry
directors/administrators
climate/warming
and any other expression/phrase in which a slash could possibly be used/inserted.

A slash is a sign that a writer cannot or will not decide whether to use one word or another (which means one concept or another), or to use them both — which usually means that he or she is averse to conceptual thought. He or she can’t devote precious time to deciding whether to say “philosophy and ideology,” or “philosophy or ideology,” or “philosophy or ideology, or both,” or just “philosophy” or “ideology,” and therefore decides to let the reader slop along as well as possible with “philosophy/ideology,” required to make his or her own speculative decisions about what the author might possibly mean.

There is never a legitimate use for a slash. Say what you mean — if you mean anything.

“Climate/warming” raises an especially weighty issue/problem. The transition, or hesitation, between the two terms is emblematic of the concept creep that often, and illegitimately, establishes the terms of contemporary political debate. Consider “segregation.” In the 1950s and 1960s, “segregation” meant separation of races by law or governmental action. In the 1970s “segregation” came illicitly to mean “any situation in which blacks were not represented proportionately to whites.” Thus, I suppose, whites were segregated from black gospel music. It was a literally insane migration of meaning, but it exercised immense political and judicial influence, during a whole generation. A finding of statistical “segregation” might result in judicial mandates to alter fundamental patterns of life across a city or even a whole metropolitan area. Such findings, and the verbal confusions on which they were based, were significantly responsible for the “white flight” that rendered inner city neighborhoods more “segregated,” and more “impoverished,” than they had ever been before.

The cry of “segregation” is still, sometimes, heard today. In general, however, “diversity” has taken its place. The advantage of “diversity” is that no one can say what it means, although it means, at least, everything that “desegregation” used to mean, or not mean.

And speaking of the politicization of discourse . . . This month’s Boston bombing was too barbaric, and too ridiculous, to be politicized in an overt manner, among people not predisposed to see any bad event as an American conspiracy. But it was socialized in ways that illustrate how far politicized perceptions have seeped into the language of otherwise normal people.

In other words, he will deal with anything that ails you, from your inability to come to your tendency to come like a fire hydrant before the fire even starts.

A mysterious statement! Here’s what I mean. The two alleged culprits, the Tsarnaev brothers, were universally described by their acquaintances as quiet, too quiet to leave any specific insights or memory traces. Yet they were also universally described as nice boys of whom nothing evil could be believed.

This, I submit, is an unusual take on reality. Not only are such statements obviously self-confuting — how can you testify to someone’s niceness when you also testify that you don’t know anything much about him? — but they also turn the speakers into the kind of joke that everybody can recognize. “Yeah, I lived down the street from the guy . . . Real nice guy. Didn’t see much of him. He kept to himself. But I just can’t believe he’d do a thing like this.” For how many years has everyone been laughing about junk commentary like that? Yet it continues to be made, and communicated to the nation, after every fresh act of violence. One can only conclude that many people believe they have a duty to utter and purvey such absurd observations. Someone has taught them that duty.

I think the “someone” is the schools and the media, which continually preach that everyone is equal and equally good at heart — even such people as the Tsarnaev brothers. “He was one of the nicest kids,” said a college “friend” of the younger alleged murderer. “Every time I saw him, he made sure to say hi.” Yes, a very nice guy. The kind of guy who allegedly spent the weekend blowing legs off kids and the next few days working out in the college gym and partying with his chance acquaintances. “A fully assimilated American,” pronounced many of the TV news reporters.

The media are the principal enforcers of this bizarre social programming (I won’t call it education). “Possible bombing suspect cornered on boat,” said the CNN onscreen headline, even as Dzokhar Tsarnaev was being taken away under arrest, following a final blowout with the cops. Yes, a possible suspect. Not perhaps a real suspect, but maybe, just maybe, a possible one. The network was even more ignorant of words than it was slow with news, but it was careful to communicate its own niceness. “Possible suspect” indeed.

Widely and trustingly reported was the testimony of Dzokhar’s assistant high school wrestling coach (and who better to discern the inner truth about this sweet young man?). “A smart kid,” he said. And not just smart but a real American, according to the New York Times. “Boy at Home in U.S.,” it prattled. Evidence of smartness? Maybe the fact that Dzokhar managed to run over his brother with a stolen SUV, probably causing his death. Evidence of being at home in America? People on Fox News continually specified what they regarded as evidence in this category: Dzokhar smoked weed all the time and liked hip-hop music. Who says that Fox is the conservative network?

Petty grammarian that I am, I’m almost as discouraged by signs of creeping illiteracy as I am by proof of galloping nonsense. Reporting the giddy adventures of the Tsarnaev family — poster children for open immigration, who planted themselves in America by claiming political persecution from Russia, collected all the benefits they could in this country, then kept drifting back to Russia — the established media talked about one or another of them “starting school in America” or heroically “graduating high school in America.” This is the kind of locution one hears in supermarket ads, which encourage us to “Shop Bingo’s!” — Bingo’s being the place at which one is incited to shop. So “shop” is something one does to Bingo’s, just as “graduate” or “start” is something one does to a school. “Tell me, Dzokhar, what did you do to your high school?” “I graduated it.” Maybe, given enough time in the “adopted country” to which he was so well “assimilated,” he would have gone farther and blown it up.

As I admitted, I’m petty. But in the long run, literacy may be even more important than the Boston Marathon. True literacy requires the ability to recognize and reproduce basic patterns of language — to know, for example, when to use a transitive verb and when to use an intransitive one.

Or to know how to deal with strong verbs. There aren’t very many; you should be able to master them. But no. On Good Friday, the Fox News Jerusalem correspondent noted that “Christians sung hymns.” When I was in grade school, the grand example of strong verbs, the one that we were made to study, presumably because it was the easiest, was “sing-sang-sung.” Today, it seems, you can become a foreign correspondent without havinggraduated grade school.

It was a literally insane migration of meaning, but it exercised immense political and judicial influence, during a whole generation.

One thing I wasn’t taught at the Henrietta Township Rural Agricultural School was the progression “spit-spat-spat.” The reason was that everybody knew it. When you told the teacher on a fellow third-grader, there was no indecision about how to phrase your accusation. You said, “Teacher, teacher! Tommy Johnson spat on the playground!” Maybe that’s because backwoods people still read the Bible, actually sat and read the thing, and therefore knew about stuff like this. But when, in 2013, Justin Bieber, heartthrob of millions, or at least thousands, was accused of dealing unfairly with a neighbor, the headlines took this form, “Man Claims Bieber Spit on Him.” Hardly a “spat” in a carload, although the Los Angeles Times ran a story with “spat” in the body but “spit” in the headline. And, to remember other bodily functions, when was the last time you heard somebody say that he “shat” this morning? He (or she) may be too insecure about language to dare saying “shitted” (which is good); but if so, he’s bound to take the long way about and say “took a shit.”

This is not a good sign. It’s a sign that the rich sonic resources of the English language are being wantonly pissed away.

Worse is the steady progress of “snuck,” that strange folk attempt to create a new strong verb. Talk about backwoods language, and the language of children! Until recently, “snuck” was recognized by all, even its habitual users, as a colorful low-level colloquialism, ordinarily used for comic effect, and never to be used in formal writing. Then, a few years ago, it started showing up in presidential press conferences, news reports written by the weekend staff, and other low-end outlets. And now, here it is! It’s arrived! Snuck has made it to the headlines. Chronicling the behavior of an Ohio murderer who behaved badly at his sentencing, respectable news agencies offered headlines of this kind: “How TJ Lane Snuck in a Shirt with ‘Killer’ on it.” They weren’t trying to be entertaining; they were just being ignorant. And not one of them headlined “sneaked.”

Here’s a headline I’d like to see: “How Illiteracy Snuck in Everywhere.”




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Sci-Fi for Thinkers

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What will we do when earth is no longer habitable, either because of environmental pollution or because of an annihilating war? Several films this season imagine a dystopian future in which humans have to leave the earth to survive: Oblivion, with Tom Cruise; After Earth, with Will Smith; and Elysium, with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. All have seemed promising. The first to be released is Oblivion, and it is satisfying in all the ways you want a film to satisfy — the acting is good, the special effects are thrilling, and the story is meaty enough to maintain the interest of philosophical viewers.

The film opens in a bleak, silt-covered New York where earthquakes and tsunamis caused by the destruction of the moon have made the landscape completely unrecognizable. Occasional bits of rubble tell us this was once the public library or the Empire State Building or Giants Stadium. I imagine that an ancient Roman returning to the Forum today would experience the same sense of loss, seeing the great temples and marketplace reduced to a few broken columns. The voice of our hero Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) explains, "We won the war, but we lost the planet" (while defending it against alien invaders). The anti-war message is pretty clear: there are no victors in a nuclear war.

I couldn't help noticing the similarities to Luke Skywalker's battle at the end of the first Star Wars movie. That set the benchmark for special effects, and we haven't seen fundamental changes, even after 35 years.

A skillfully written exposition quickly brings us into the story. Humans have moved to a moon of Saturn, but a few "techs," such as Harper, have remained behind to oversee the creation of energy cells from seawater that will be transported to the new community, and to patrol the area for scavenging aliens called, appropriately, "Scavs." Jack is the ground tech, and his wife Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) watches the computer screens from their sky-high tower home to warn him of potential danger. "Security and maintenance," Harper admits wryly. "We're the mop-up crew." A modern-day Crusoe and Friday or Adam and Eve, they are the only people on this part of earth.

Several exciting skirmishes with the scavs give Cruise fans the thrills they expect in an action movie. He even ends up with the scar across the bridge of his nose that is becoming as much a trademark as his footrace through most of his movies. Adding to the assignment are wild chases through the canyons of broken buildings while being pursued by rogue drones. But I couldn't help noticing the similarities to Luke Skywalker's battle at the end of the first Star Wars movie, back in 1977. That set the benchmark for special effects, and we haven't seen fundamental changes, even after 35 years.

What sets this film apart is its subtle references to history, literature, and philosophy, especially to the image of the cave in Plato's Republic. Jack is careful to stay inside the perimeter of safety, away from the radiation-tainted grids identified by their computer screens. Victoria watches carefully, warning him if he strays too close to the boundary. Who holds the truth? How do we know? Plato asked that question millennia ago, and the question remains.

What is really on the other side of the perimeter? Victoria turns out to be the "Adam" in this reverse Eden, so obedient that she won't even accept a flower that Jack brings her from outside the tower, because it is forbidden. Jack is the "Eve," always pushing the limits to satisfy his curiosity. He cannot coax her to join him. Victoria's kind of blind compliance is essential for tyranny to succeed.

The opportunity to contemplate the conflicts between man and machine, nature and science, and free will and obedience makes this a thinking person's action movie. It is sci-fi of the best caliber. But as the movie ended and the credits rolled, I overheard the person behind me say cynically, "That was a one-timer." I guess we can't all be thinkers.


Editor's Note: Review of "Oblivion," directed by Joseph Kosinski. Universal Pictures, 2013, 126 minutes.



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Flattering Flim-Flammers of Fear

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The two most common motivators used in politics are flattery and fear. The behavior of the pundits and pols, in the wake of the 2012 elections, is especially instructive. We are being told, either plainly or by insinuation, that those who voted the way our professional manipulators desired are the good people, the smart and responsible people, the grownups. And that those who didn’t vote their way are parasites out to suck our blood, or just plain nasties who hate us and are bent on our destruction.

If this isn’t true, and it isn’t, what does it tell us about the character of those who promote themselves and their agenda by telling us such things? We keep hearing that character matters. Is that true? If so, are people who use tactics like those the best ones to entrust with power and authority?

The GOP is moving — with lightning speed — toward more accommodating policies toward women, Hispanics, and gays. Am I somewhat cynical about this sudden conversion? Of course I am. But I can’t help being amused by the reaction it’s getting from the Democrats’ paid drones. “Don’t believe your lying ears,” they’re shrieking.

The hysteria with which we’re being warned that Republicans are insincere and opportunistic is actually quite funny. How are the Dems to scare us anymore if the GOP refuses to cooperate by being scary? Don’t the Republicans know how unfair they’re being by changing the rules of the game?

Flattery and fear are the tools of lazy communicators. They are smoke and mirrors, calculated to keep us from thinking deeply about the issues that affect us. Those who use them hope we won’t notice that they really have nothing more to offer us. They think we’re stupid little children, upon whom such dirty tricks may easily be played. But if people fall for those tricks, time after time, where are the alleged communicators to get the idea that it’s wrong to use them?

A friend of mine is very relieved that Mitt Romney lost the presidential election. Now, he assures me, “they” won’t be murdering gays in the streets. But who on earth is telling him such balderdash? I want to know so I can point and laugh — and so I won’t ever make the mistake of voting for such flim-flammers, or of even taking seriously anything they have to say.

This is the same friend who went into meltdown mode the first time he spotted the “Gary Johnson 2012” sticker in my front window. “Oh, my God,” he gasped. “You can’t possibly vote for him!” When I asked why not, he wouldn’t tell me. Though I can be sure he probably heard of the horrors of a Gary Johnson presidency from the same sages who told him that President Romney’s legions would be hunting gays down and clubbing us like baby seals.

What the impressionable masses are hearing is so insane that I’m not sure even they quite believe it. Which is why, when I ask where they’re getting this stuff, they appear to be too embarrassed to tell me. The result of all this flattery and fearmongering is that we are becoming a vain and fearful people. That many Americans can’t even listen to political discourse, anymore, without being unctuously buttered up or frightened out of their wits does not bode well for the survival of our freedoms.

We’re beginning to believe that our lives must be run by those who tell us we’re perfect, or at least the surviving remnant of human goodness in civilization, and that they — and only they — will protect us from all the evil forces out to end our world. It’s like living in a comic book. Those of us who retain a healthy skepticism about such hoopla must not only think, but encourage others to do the same. Pointing and laughing at the puppeteers is constructive. Pointing and laughing at the misguided souls who dance at the end of their strings is not.




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Hayek, the Stones, Beckham . . . and Kotter?

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Nobel Prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek died in 1992 at the hoary age of 92. He lived long enough to have heard the Beatles and Rolling Stones, perhaps seen an episode or two of Welcome Back, Kotter, the 1970s situation comedy centered on the travails of a high school teacher and his “at-risk” students; but not long enough to experience the rise of European soccer’s invasion of the US, personified by the move of England’s David Beckham’s to the Los Angeles Galaxy team in 2007 — for a slightly exaggerated $250 million price.

Hayek recently came to mind during a spirited debate with a retired teacher friend over educational policy. She brought up that old canard about our market society having misplaced economic values because teachers are not compensated as well as rock or sports stars. Her assumption — a common one — was that monetary compensation ought to be commensurate with intrinsic worth; and if rock and sports stars are paid more than teachers, our society must value entertainment much more than education — prima facie evidence of market failure that ought to be rectified.

Whew! I didn’t know where to begin. But since the toughest part of a good discussion is clarifying terms and premises, I backpedaled to them.

First of all, the term “society,” though a useful abstraction, has been inappropriately reified and pumped up with steroids. Ayn Rand questioned its notion of “society” as a tangible entity by prosaically listing its components — the butcher, the baker, etc. That allowed her, quite fairly, to dismiss concrete conclusions from its meta-usage, much as we now dismiss the merely statistical reality of a .3 child in the typical American family of 2.3 children.

Second, “economic values” is another high-sounding but meaningless term. Hayek dismissed this inflated premise as prosaically and brilliantly as Rand. He insisted, indeed, that “there is no such thing as ‘economic values’ ”:people have values; economic markets are the most efficient means to realize them. “Economic values” makes as much sense as “biological, physical, or chemical values.”

Conservatives and libertarians often stumble over the same concepts and fall into the same trap. But instead of trying to correct the terms of debate, they go with the flow and say that it’s just fine if folks value entertainment more than education — that’s their choice in a free society. Moreover, who’s to draw the distinction between one and the other?

Cutting through the Gordian knot of highfalutin conclusions, Hayek explained that the price disparity between rock or sport stars and teachers was simply due to old-fashioned supply-and-demand: there are few of the former and lots of the latter. No overwrought conclusions about social values — no concerns about “society” respecting good teachers less than it does Beckham — are warranted.

Since Hayek’s death not much has changed on this front, except for one crucial distribution, which proves Hayek’s insight. Teachers are still a dime a dozen, and public schools lack any mechanism for recognizing or rewarding superstars, while a degree in education remains about the easiest such degree to acquire. (I know, having received a complimentary MA for neither fee nor work.) Sports stars are — mostly — still members of protected cartels that keep supply low and prices high. But the music industry has undergone some radical upheavals.

Back in the 1970’s — the heyday of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who — rock stars were, well . . . Rock Stars. Today, the high-end popular music market has broadened to include country music, hip-hop, world music, opera, cross-over collaborations, and a variety of independent “others,” with a concomitant dilution of the take. Additionally, in this technologically sophisticated post-Napster era, recorded music is cheaper. A DJ I know, lately from WNYU, guesses that the Beatles or the Stones made more than $30 million in 1970. Accounting for inflation, that’s about $300 million in today’s dollars (see “Cash Poor” in last year’s Liberty).

Dr. Dre, a hip-hop superstar and Forbes magazine’s highest paid musician in 2012, earned a measly $110 million — followed by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd at $88 million, Elton John at $80 million, U2 at $78 million, and Take That (a British boy band) at $69 million. Justin Bieber, only 18 years old, was the tenth highest paid pop star in 2012 at $55 million. The take at the top has tanked.

But what about musicians in the trenches; how do they compare with teachers, and the general population?

The average personal gross income in 2012 for musicians was $55,561, with only $34,455 coming from their music endeavors, according to Artist Revenue Streams. The average US teacher salary (grades 1-12) was about $52,000 — according to many sources. Per capita personal income for the entire country in 2010 was $39,945, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Today, the Rolling Stones keep rolling on; David Beckham is on the cusp of retirement; the quality of US public education keeps deteriorating . . . and Frederick Hayek is probably rolling over in his grave.




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Home Run

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When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and Congress adopted the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery and involuntary servitude were officially ended in the United States. But racism and segregation were far from over. In fact, relations between blacks and whites remained so tense that during the ensuing century the US sanctioned a number of "Jim Crow" laws mandating segregation under the "separate but equal" interpretation.

Laws can mandate actions, but they cannot mandate public opinion. It took the free market, in the form of "America's favorite pastime," to start ending Jim Crow.

Baseball was America's most popular sport during most of the 20th century. Whites played it. Blacks played it. Women played it. But they didn't play it together. Early segregation was a form of protectionism. African-American players, such as Bud Fowler and Moses "Fleetwood" Walker, played on integrated teams in the 1880s, but they were so good that white players began to feel threatened that they would lose their positions and their jobs. "Whites Only" signs began to appear in locker rooms.

Soon two different leagues were formed. African American fans would often attend MLB games (sitting in the "Colored" section, of course) but with very few exceptions, whites would not attend NLB games. Consequently they seldom saw such baseball greats as Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, and Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays, who played in the Negro League.

They might have stayed there, too, unnoticed by the mainstream history books, if it weren't for Wesley Branch Rickey and the free market. Rickey was owner and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wanted to win the World Series, and that meant hiring the best players in baseball. He also wanted to fill the seats at Ebbets Field, and that meant expanding the appeal for African-American fans. Rickey decided it was time to integrate Major League Baseball, and he was just the man to do it: a thick-skinned, cigar-smoking Methodist named after John Wesley himself.

The story of how Branch Rickey integrated major league sports is told in an outstanding new film called 42, Jackie Robinson's number for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the only number that has been permanently retired by all of baseball in honor of his courage and grit. With strong actors in both supporting and leading roles and a quotable script that tells the story with honesty and unfeigned respect, it is a film that should not be missed.

Rickey (Harrison Ford) is the quintessential libertarian hero. He wants to right a wrong he committed as a coach at Wesleyan University when he "didn't do enough for a fine black pitcher." But most of all, Rickey is motivated by profit and success. He wants to sell tickets, and he wants a World Series pennant. "Dollars aren't black or white," he says to his critics; "they're green." To accomplish both the win and the ticket sales, he hires the first African-American Major League baseball player. Rickey knows it won't be easy. By wooing black audiences, he may lose the existing white fans. One of his advisors warns, "There's no law against hiring a Negro player, but there's a code. Break that code, and you'll pay for it." But Rickey believes he can persuade people to change their opinions simply by giving them a great show. And public opinion would change laws.

Choosing the right player was essential to the success of his plan. He couldn't have a hothead. In their initial meeting, Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) asks Rickey, "You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?" and Rickey responds, "I want a player who has the guts not to fight back." Robinson would have to endure namecalling, physical threats, beanballs, bad calls, and more. His teammates would have to try to overcome their own prejudices, some without success.

Robinson was no pushover. Before becoming a Dodger he refused to acquiesce to Jim Crow laws. He played in UCLA's integrated team. As a member of the US military he was court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of the bus. In the film, when he is not allowed to use a gas station's toilet while his Negro league baseball team stops for gas, he says to the attendant, "Then take that hose out of the tank and we'll get our 99 gallons of gas somewhere else." The attendant lets them use the toilet, and they buy the gas. Dollars aren't black or white; they're green.

Rickey was taking a big risk, because public opinion could just as easily have turned against him and the Dodgers. But he knew the power of the free market.

It isn't easy for Robinson to hold his tongue and his temper. He has to endure degradation from all sides. One of the worst offenders is Phillies’ coach Ben Chapman, who shouts racial slurs whenever Robinson comes up to bat. Chapman defends his actions by saying, "Hey, it ain't nothing. We call DiMaggio a wop. We call Hank Greenberg a kike," as though that makes it right. Rickey encourages Robinson to remain strong. "You can't meet the enemy on his own low ground," he says when the desire to fight back is almost overwhelming.

But there are moments to make one proud as well. After a cop forces Robinson off a southern baseball field for mixing with whites, saying, "That's our law here, and I'm going to enforce it," a local man approaches Robinson looking like nothing so much as a redneck racist. But he smiles shyly and says, "If a man's got the goods, he deserves a chance. I'm pulling for you. A lot of us are." Watching the tide of public opinion slowly turn produces a profound cathartic effect throughout the film.

The physical and emotional struggle Robinson endures is mitigated not only by Rickey, who stands by him like a father, but also by his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), who soothes and uplifts him throughout the film.42 is as much a love story as it is a sports story.

Some of the best moments in the film occur simply when Robinson plays baseball. He had a loose, bouncing way of moving on the field. His arms seemed to stretch an extra foot when he dove for a ball, and he danced between the bases as he threatened to steal. His smile was magical. Relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman slips into that role with an ease as natural as the ballplayer he portrays. Waiting about a mile off base while the pitcher prepares for his windup, his fingers twinkle and dance and he bounces low in his knees, just daring the pitcher to throw him out. His relaxed smile is charming and disarming, confirming Rickey's decision that Robinson was the right man for the right time. As Mordecai said of Esther, who risked her life for the lives of the Jewish people, "Who knows but that you were born for such a time as this?" Robinson seems to have been born for his time.

Branch Rickey was born for such a time as well. He knew that laws can control actions, but they can't force people to overcome their prejudices. (Hell, it was laws and political activism that created segregation in the first place!) But he knew the power of the free market. Rickey was taking a big risk, because public opinion could just as easily have turned against him and the Dodgers. But he was certain that once he proved black players would make baseball better, other teams would have to follow. To some extent the worries of those early baseball players who rejected Bud Fowler and Moses Walker were warranted. Major league sports are dominated by minority players today. But the game is enriched because of it. And America is richer too.

 


Editor's Note: Review of "42," directed by Brian Helgeland. Warner Brothers, 2013, 128 minutes.



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The Budget Charade

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On April 10 President Obama submitted his fiscal 2014 budget to Congress. Sixty-five days late and 2,400 pages long, it calls for $3.77 trillion in spending, with a projected deficit of $744 billion. It turns off the automatic budget cuts imposed by sequestration, and thus increases federal spending by some $160 billion over fiscal 2013. Its projections assume that over $5 trillion will be added to the national debt during the next ten years.

One never quite gets used to these figures; they boggle the mind. Only 50 years ago the federal government’s annual budget was under $100 billion (about $700 billion in today’s money), and deficits were small. Then the irresponsible policies of Lyndon Johnson (guns and butter: massive domestic spending increases and a major war fought without raising taxes) and Richard Nixon (fiat money replacing gold) began America’s descent into virtual bankruptcy. Johnson opened the floodgates of deficit spending. Nixon launched the lamentable decline of the once almighty dollar.

Deficit spending and fiat money have a symbiotic relationship; they march together on the path to fiscal doom. The policies of every succeeding president have only made these problems worse. Needless to say, Congress has been equally irresponsible, whether under Democrat or Republican leadership. It is the votes of Congress, after all, that transform bad economics into law.

Only 50 years ago the federal government’s annual budget was under $100 billion (about $700 billion in today’s money), and deficits were small.

The president’s budget proposals were preceded by those of the Senate and the House. In late March the Democrat-controlled Senate passed a budget that increases taxes by almost $1 trillion over ten years, while still adding over $5 trillion to the national debt. “The only good news is that the fiscal path the Democrats laid out in their budget resolution won’t become law,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. That’s true, but on the other hand I can’t see the Congress passing a budget that will be much of an improvement over the Democrats’ plan. Certainly the Republican-led House provided nothing but faux leadership on the issue.

The Republicans in the House unveiled their budget a few days before the Senate acted. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan produced a plan based on political impossibilities. It repeals Obamacare. It turns Medicare into a voucher program. Neither of these ideas has the slightest chance of becoming law anytime soon, and Ryan knows it. Ryan’s budget reduces the top tax rate from 35 to 25%, eliminates the alternative minimum tax, and repeals the tax increases contained in Obamacare, yet assumes that revenues will remain level. It says nothing about which loopholes it will close and which deductions it will eliminate to make the revenue projection real. In other words, it is a through-and-through political document, and not a serious plan designed to bring spending and deficits under control. Even if its fantastical proposals were enacted, it would still require ten years to bring the budget into balance.

Given the Great Recession, it is practically impossible to balance the budget in ten years’ time — the risk of sending the economy into a tailspin of 1930s proportions is just too great. But no officeholder has put forward a serious proposal to balance the budget on any timetable. The one attempt to do so, flawed though it may be, is the plan offered in 2010 by the Simpson-Bowles commission. Unfortunately, the politicians, led by the president (Obama) who created the commission, have done nothing to implement its recommendations. Simpson-Bowles allows 40 years to get to a balanced budget. Yet no politician will touch it, beyond giving it mild and passing praise. The “sacrifices” it entails are apparently too great for politicians to contemplate.

In his budget Obama proposed a change in the way in which cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients are figured. This small, helpful step saves a few billion a year, but does not address the root problem, which is demographic. And while Obama claims he will cut $400 billion from Medicare over ten years, the savings are supposed to be found by cutting payments to providers, a sure recipe for reducing the number of doctors who will take Medicare patients. In any case, if this is all the Democrats are prepared to do on entitlement reform (and the left wing of the party is up in arms about even these small changes), then surely insolvency (for Medicare at least) is inevitable.

We have a spending problem. It’s a problem that cannot be resolved by simply raising taxes. Both the welfare and the warfare state require drastic reform, as does the tax code. And generational oppression — the old sucking up resources at the expense of the young — must be curbed. Yet where is the political will or wisdom to accomplish these necessary things? It is utterly lacking. What then does the future hold?

I predict that the idea of inflating our way out of debt will at some point take hold in political, academic, and media circles. Such a course would deal a death blow to the dollar, and leave wage earners, savers, and other responsible people even worse off than they are now. But it might get the politicians off the hook, at least temporarily. The pols will blame anyone and everyone but themselves for the inflation they have created, and retire on indexed pensions while the rest of us eat grass.

We seem set on this course already. In the 1980s Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker killed the inflationary dragon that had plagued the world economy for a decade and more. It has until now stayed dead; indeed, deflation is the worry of the moment. But in the wake of the Great Recession, central bankers, egged on by politicians, have been printing money like crazy. With the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of England all engaged in “quantitative easing,” the return of the dragon looks inevitable at some point. A world awash in fiat money must suffer inflation eventually.

Where is the political will or wisdom to accomplish these necessary things? It is utterly lacking.

Central bankers believe that they will know when to turn off the printing presses. They envision themselves acting at just the right moment to prevent the outbreak of serious inflation. This seems about as likely as an investor timing the market correctly — that is, the chance of getting it right appears very small. The question of timing aside, turning off the presses is certain to cause a crash in the bond market and a rise in interest rates, with dire consequences not just for the arbitrageurs, but for the world economy. History provides little comfort for those who believe in the capacity of central bankers to prevent economic catastrophe. Volcker may have saved the world economy back in the early ’80s, but he stands almost alone. The behavior of central bankers today reminds one of Alan Greenspan’s abysmal performance during his last decade as Fed chairman. One may even be justified in comparing the central bankers of today to John Law.

A bargain (grand or otherwise) between Democrats and Republicans over the federal budget is unlikely to do more than put off the day of reckoning. The necessary, thoroughgoing reforms are so politically unpalatable that they will almost certainly never be enacted. The budget process in Washington is a charade. And so I ask myself, can I learn to like the taste of grass?




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One from Column A, One from Column B

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