Economic Policy

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Jesuits, and Failed Jesuits

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Don’t you hate it when people say, “Let me be clear on one thing . . . Let me make this perfectly clear”? Don’t you think, “So, you’ve been unclear about all those other things, and you knew it, but you went on being unclear anyway?” Don’t you immediately conclude that these people are about to tell you some enormous lie?

President Nixon was always talking in the “clear” mode. He was always “making one thing perfectly clear.” Now, President Obama has become an addict to the same approach.

“So, I wanta be very clear,” he announced on June 7, “nobody’s listening to the content of people’s phone calls.” Please define “nobody,” “listening,” “content,” “people,” and “phone calls.” Surely, the government is listening to somebody’s phone calls. May we simply conclude, from Obama’s clarifying remarks, that the government is listening to your calls, and mine? Or that it would if it could, and it probably can?

This administration began with the famous self-advertisement that it would be the most “transparent” in history. Obama reiterated the claim on February 14 of this year: “This is the most transparent administration in history.” That should have been a clue to several things.

1. Anybody who uses such a cliché as “transparent” hasn’t been giving a whole lot of thought to whatever he says.

2. For Obama and company, “history” is everything they don’t know, and have no intention of looking up. That covers a lot of territory. Do you think the claim of transparency issued from a careful, or even a superficial, investigation of the forty-some presidential administrations in American history? Do you think that Obama asked someone to research the matter and find out what degree of transparency prevailed in the Buchanan administration? On what basis, do you think, can Obama assert that he is more transparent than Jefferson? Or Truman, who was always blurting things out? Or all those 19th-century presidents who walked freely around Washington, meeting strangers and talking with them, and sometimes being pelted with oranges when the conversation didn’t go so well? So much for “history.”

In the preceding paragraph I noted a number of historical facts that Obama has undoubtedly never heard of: the mouthiness of President Truman, the orange attack on President Pierce, the existence of President Buchanan. Maybe I should add the existence of strangers — persons who are neither enemies nor part of one’s official circle. I don’t think Obama has any knowledge of strangers, although they (i.e., we) are the people he is supposed to be transparent to.

It’s an expression, supposed to be interpreted as sincerity, that most closely resembles the facial contortions of a person about to have a bowel movement, and wondering what this strange phenomenon might be.

But speaking of history: impartiality impels me to deplore the absence of even the vaguest historical sense among the Republican leadership. Consider the remarks of Rep. Steve King (R-IA) at the Tea Party rally in Washington on June 19. Referring to the current spying scandals, he intoned: “This big brother has gotten a lotta creepier than George Orwell ever thought it would get.” No, Orwell thought a lot of things. Read a book, Mr. King.

3. Eventually, the most transparent administration in history would have to spend virtually all its time trying to clear things up after its constant, hilariously comic attempts to fool people.

One of the most notorious clarifiers is Attorney General Eric Holder. He has spent many moons clarifying what went on with Fast and Furious, and look at the damned thing now. And I’m sure you will recall the statement he made on May 15 in response to congressional questions about whether journalists can be prosecuted for divulging or attempting to divulge classified information: "Well, I would say this. With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I've ever been involved in, heard of or would think would be a wise policy. In fact, my view is quite the opposite."

Attorney General Holder, though a total moron, is a fairly accomplished liar. It’s not to his credit, of course.

This remark was emitted with a look that has become nearly universal among clarifiers in the Obama administration, from the chief clarifier on down, but is perhaps most vividly manifested by the attorney general. It’s an expression, supposed to be interpreted as sincerity, that most closely resembles the facial contortions of a person about to have a bowel movement, and wondering what this strange phenomenon might be. It’s the expression of a self-righteousness too pure to be acquainted with self-doubt, a self-righteousness now shocked to discover these strong and painful rumblings, deep inside. Can it be that the truth is coming out? If so, how can this be prevented?

Lately, truth has been coming out more quickly than usual. Only a few days were required for Holder’s May 15 testimony to be publicly falsified. Yet the truth about Fast and Furious and most of the other matters about which Holder has been questioned is still to emerge. Holder, though a total moron, is a fairly accomplished liar. It’s not to his credit, of course: he does it by being a Washington insider, known and feared by the rest of them; and by being capable of looking blank on virtually all occasions. I guess that’s easy for him.

Anyway, he is certainly a more accomplished liar than James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence. On March 12 Clapper was testifying before a committee that included Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a prominent opponent of secret investigations of US citizens. Clapper had been given a copy of Wyden’s questions in advance. He wasn’t blindsided or bushwhacked by the senator. But look what happened.

Sen. Wyden: So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question: Does the NSA [National Security Agency] collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Clapper: No, sir.

Wyden: It does not.

Clapper, massaging his forehead and trying to look profound, like a professor being pushed to the farthest corner of speculation in the field of his most abstruse research: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.

Wyden: All right. Thank you. I'll have additional questions to give you in writing on that point, but I thank you for the answer.

On June 9, after an obscure employee of a government contractor informed the world of the wholly predictable truth, that the NSA collects telephone data on tens of millions of Americans, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News pressed Clapper on the exchange with Wyden. Clapper suggested that the senator's question was unfair:

First as I said, I have great respect for Senator Wyden. I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked “When are you going to start — stop beating your wife” kind of question, which is meaning not answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no.

Clapper indicated that he didn’t think "collection" of phone data was taking place unless government officials were actually reviewing the contents of the (billions of) conversations that they have records on.

Most people, even college professors, know that “when are you going to stop beating your wife?” questions — ordinarily known as “when did you stop beating your wife?” questions — are entirely different from the kind of question Clapper was asked. But this is just one of those things that the Director of National Intelligence doesn’t know. I think that most people — all we strangers and little people out here in the dark — know more about life and human communication than Mr. Clapper does.

One thing that few people know is the word “equivocation.” It means a type of lying, as when somebody asks, “Did you go to the liquor store today?” and you answer, “No, I didn’t, and if I did, it was only unwittingly” — because the place isn’t called The Liquor Store; it’s called Ye Olde Liquor Shoppe. Equivocation isn’t just lying; it’s an especially nasty form of lying. It’s a favorite with self-righteous elitists, who think that any lie they tell is sanctioned by their cause or their position. The Jesuit order was famous for its crafty equivocations; hence the term “Jesuitical.”

Following the Clapper interview, President Obama’s press secretary told inquiring minds that Obama regarded Clapper’s answer to Sen. Wyden as “straight and direct.” This wasn’t a Jesuitical response; it was a blatant, impudent, aggressive, in yo’ face, down home stupid lie, a lie so flamboyant that no one could be expected to regard it as anything other than what I just said it was.

Obama is just such a silly guy with words. He’s always using them in a sneaky though obvious way, like a teenager who thinks that his Eddie Haskell smarm is coming across as sincerity and respect.

Now what? What are we to conclude from this? Is Obama stupider than everyone else? I wouldn’t go that far. His lie prompts the question (no, it does not beg the question — that’s something different): what hold does the intelligence community have on the president?

That is not a conspiracy-theory question. That is a political and personal question.

Ever willing to criticize myself, I am happy to say that there are two reasons for questioning the assumptions from which my question proceeds. One is the possibility that Obama is simply a leftwing proponent of government in all its forms. In his speech to the graduates of Ohio State University on May 5, he took on critics of government:

Unfortunately [he said], you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

The “we,” of course, is he. But the contempt appears to be directed against all the foes of “government” — as opposed to his usual targets, such as “special interests,” non-Democratic “politicians,” Republican voters, global warming skeptics, people who cling to God and guns, etc. So maybe he believes that as soon as someone is associated with a government that is legitimate in his terms, that person can do no ill, say nothing other than what is straight and direct. If true, this would explain a lot.

The other problem with the question I asked is that Obama is just such a silly guy with words. He’s always using them in a sneaky though obvious way, like a teenager who thinks that his Eddie Haskell smarm is coming across as sincerity and respect. I picture Obama and his staff staying up late, writing his stuff out, and sharing high fives because this time they’ve really put the horsemeat in the hotdogs, and nobody else will notice.

An example. On June 17, on the Charlie Rose Show, on PBS (where else?), Obama assured every American citizen, “What I can say [pause pause pause] unequivocally [pause pause pause] is that if you are a US person, the NSA cannot listen [jabbing the air] “to your telephone calls.” In other words, you won’t be electronically raped by the federal government. Rose, of course, was hibernating too deeply to ask The President what the hell he meant by “US person.” But Obama didn’t want to say “citizen.” Why? The only explanation I can think of (and one that does not exclude nearly complete rhetorical incompetence) is that he wants all the illegal immigrants (US persons, persons present in the United States at any given millisecond of recorded time) to vote for the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, they can be spied on just the same as the rest of us; that’s democracy.

I think that almost everyone who is sentient, and aware of what Obama said, got the point, and the point is that Obama and his crew cannot be trusted with the English language. Almost everyone concluded that Obama, and whoever writes these things for him, was really talking about immigration, and that when he said that the NSA wasn’t listening to your phone calls, he meant that of course the NSA is listening to your phone calls, but the important thing is that the illegal immigrants be legalized so they can vote for all the Obamas of the future.

So when Obama says that the chief of national intelligence is straight and direct, why should I make a mystery out of it? It’s all nonsense anyway.

Postscript: Yahoo! News has finally done something good: it has tabulated White House spokesman Jay Carney’s verbal techniques for escaping public scrutiny: “Over the course of 444 briefings since taking the job, the White House press secretary has dodged a question at least 9,486 times.” This is a classic.




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Not Your Typical Zombie Movie

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As zombie movies go, World War Z is one of the best. “Big deal,” you might respond. “I don’t like zombie movies anyway.” Well, neither do I. But World War Z is the first blockbuster of the season that is truly worth seeing, and that’s because it isn’t really a zombie movie. It’s an exciting, suspenseful action film; a tense, intelligent sci-fi thriller; and a tender, emotional family story that just happens to be swarming with gnashing, growling, undead zombies.

In this film a rabies-like virus or toxin has suddenly developed and is being spread through saliva-to-bloodstream contact. If you are bitten by an infected person, you are immediately transformed into a rabid, howling, teeth-gnashing, pack-swarming zombie. And there is no three-week incubation with this virus; people are transformed in twelve seconds. One moment our hero is being aided by another sympathetic character; the next moment he is running for his life from the same character. This creates ever-changing rushes of emotion for the audience.

The film begins with our hero, Gerry (Brad Pitt) driving with his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters (Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove) on what seems to be an ordinary day. Gradually they notice anomalies: too many helicopters are in the air; traffic has come to a standstill; emergency vehicles are ramming their way through traffic; and people are running — running for their lives. Gerry and his family start running too. Anyone who lived in New York on 9/11 or has seen films of that day (and that includes everyone on the planet) can understand the terror of knowing something is up, but not knowing what it is.

Inner-city residents have already learned this truth: police don’t prevent crime, they just clean up after it. So you’d better have a gun to protect yourself.

What makes this film so good is that it doesn’t rely on the blood and gore of a standard zombie film to titillate the audience. In fact, we don’t see much of that at all — the gore remains discreetly at a distance, in the shadows. We don’t need to see it to know it’s there. In fact, the acting of the zombified humans is one of the most powerful parts of the film, because we can still see the humanness that was once theirs. Michael Jenn is especially good as the zombie who threatens Gerry inside a lab vault, not with vicious physical attacks but with an eerie quiet, his teeth barely chattering as he sniffs the air and listens for evidence of Gerry’s location.

The film subtly encourages us to focus, not on gore, but on the family relationships of the characters and to think about what we would do in a disaster, how we would react, and how those around us would react.

First, of course, is the looting. Everyone needs supplies, so how do you decide who gets food, who gets medicine, who gets to be evacuated to an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean and who has to go to a landlocked refugee camp? Money is meaningless, but Gerry has a rifle. That gets him the inhalers his asthmatic daughter needs. It also allows him to protect his wife from would-be attackers (the pre-zombie kind). Cops run into the fray, but they have no intention of keeping the peace — they too are just looking for supplies. Inner-city residents have already learned this truth: police don’t prevent crime, they just clean up after it. So you’d better have a gun to protect yourself.

The film also asks us to think about the nature of epidemics. Most viruses send people to bed, not out into the streets like these zombies. But people infected by the flu or the plague or smallpox can be just as deadly, infecting their care-givers, their friends, their family. One man whom Gerry meets tells him, “My wife and my son were running away. A zombie caught her and then she . . .” In twelve seconds she was a carrier, and the nearest person to her was the son she was trying to protect. I know one sweet, well-meaning family who decided not to have their children vaccinated for fear of autism. Somehow their older children got whooping cough and brought it home to their six-week-old brother, who died in less than a week. Viruses do not have to turn people into marauding zombies to make them deadly. And metaphorically, of course, the virus of a bad philosophy can infect whole communities and generations of people.

The film’s treatment of the kind of issues I’ve mentioned gives it a subtlety and an intellectuality that fast-paced thrillers seldom have. But it is a fast-paced thriller, one that is entertaining as well as insightful.

As a former investigator for the UN, Gerry has access to a helicopter that can whisk his family to the safety of the aircraft carrier. There a UN group is figuring out how to stop the virus. A crew must be sent to “ground zero,” the place where the virus was first seen, and they need Gerry to protect the virologist. But like John Russell (Paul Newman) in Hombre (1967), he feels no altruistic responsibility to risk his life to save the community, even though he possesses the best skills for success. “I can’t help you,” he tells the UN commander, Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena). “I can’t leave my family.” “Then you can’t have a bunk on this ship,” Thierry replies.

Again, we are forced to consider the question of how to distribute scarce goods when money has become meaningless. Gerry reluctantly agrees to lead the team, not to save the world, but to protect his own family. Productivity and protection become the media of exchange when paper money no longer matters. One can’t help applying this thought to the reversal of priorities in our current economic situation, in which non-producing citizens are given food, shelter, and medical care at the expense of the productive element of society.

The film’s metaphorical power becomes abundantly clear in a vivid scene in which the zombies form a Masada-like ramp by climbing on top of each either to scale the wall that has been built around Jerusalem to keep the zombies at bay. Ants will do this too, swarming en masse and even crushing those beneath them in order to gain access to food.

This representation of the baser side of animal nature, in contrast to the nobility and intelligence of humans, is rather refreshing for a Hollywood movie. The credits begin with images of birds flocking, ants swarming, and wolves baring their teeth, reminding us that the animal kingdom isn’t as benign as we lately have been led to believe. Humans are good after all! In this story, we can root for our heroes as they struggle to thwart nature’s latest mutation, instead of flagellating ourselves with guilt for being the destroyers of all things good. The virologist who volunteers to find a cure for the diseasedeclares, “Mother Nature is a serial killer. And like a serial killer, she wants to get caught.”

Luckily for us, we humans have the right kind of brains for catching her.


Editor's Note: Review of "World War Z," directed by Marc Forster. Paramount Pictures, 2013, 116 minutes.



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Good News about Hispanic Grads

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Amid the ever-spreading presidential scandals, the country is focused on bad news in DC. So it is gratifying to report some good news nationally. The news is about a major improvement in Hispanic educational outcomes.

A report just released by the Pew Research Center shows that for the first time, a higher percentage of Latino high school graduates — an impressive 69% — is enrolling in college for this fall than are graduates identified as “white” (at 67%). Since the beginning of the 2008 recession, the percentage of Hispanic grads enrolling in college has steadily grown, while the percentage of whites has declined slightly.

More importantly, in 2011, the percentage of Latinos dropping out of high school hit a new low. Only 14% of Hispanics (aged 16 to 24) were dropouts, which is half the rate of a decade earlier (it was 28% in 2000). The dropout rate among whites also fell, from 7% in 2000 to 5% in 2011.

The Pew report suggests that this dramatic increase in Hispanic educational attainment is likely due to two factors. First, Hispanic families are increasingly cognizant of the fact that America has a completely knowledge-based economic system. A recent (2009) Pew survey found that nearly nine out of ten Latinos aged 16 or older agreed that a college degree is necessary to rise to the top in today’s economy, which is a much higher figure than that for the general population (of which only three out of four agreed with the proposition).

Second, the recent recession hit Hispanic youth harder than it did white youth. Since the recession started, unemployment among Latino youth (defined as ages 16 to 24) has gone up 7%, as opposed to only 5% among white youth.

Indeed, while the Pew report doesn’t note this, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data show with crystal clarity the correlation between educational attainment and unemployment. For example, the BLS records that the overall unemployment rate for the year 2005 was about 5%. But within that general figure was a wide difference among workers. For those with professional degrees, unemployment was a miniscule 1.1%; for those with doctoral degrees, it was only 1.4%; for those with master’s degrees, 1.7%; for those with bachelor’s degrees, 2.3%; for those with associate’s degrees (community college degrees), it was 3.0%; for those with a high school diploma and some college, 3.9%; among those with only a diploma, 4.3% — still below the national average unemployment rate for the year. But among workers with no high school diploma, it was 6.8%, or over a third higher than the national rate. Even in a boom economy, high school dropouts are dramatically more likely to be unemployed.

And in 2009 — a year when the unemployment rate was 7.9% — the BLS data show that the employment gap between those with little education and those with more only widened further. That year, the unemployment rate among workers with professional degrees was 2.3%; among those with doctoral degrees, 2.5%; master’s degrees, 3.9%; bachelor’s degrees, 5.2%; associate’s degrees, 6.8%; a diploma and some college, 8.6%; a high school diploma alone, 9.7%; and no diploma, 14.6%. This means that in a time of high unemployment, the unemployment rate among high school dropouts was nearly double the national average.

There is still work to be done to bring Hispanic educational attainment up to equality with that of whites. To begin with, while the Latino dropout rate has fallen by half during the last decade, it is still nearly three times the rate for whites.

Moreover, Hispanic students are still less likely than white students to enroll at four-year colleges, by a wide margin — 56% versus 72% — and are less likely to attend full-time, or graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

And of course, both Latinos and whites trail Asians when it comes to enrollment in college: recent Asian high-school grads are enrolling in college at an astonishing 84% rate.

Still, the Pew report is very welcome news. One hopes that the members of Congress still desperately fighting immigration reform will read it, and think it over.




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Iran: A Shaft of Light in the Darkness

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On June 14 Iran held a presidential election. Emerging as the winner was Hassan Rowhani, a cleric of relatively moderate views. Rowhani took over 50% of the vote in a six-candidate field, thus avoiding a runoff. Over 70% of the electorate turned out to vote, and large crowds filled the streets of Tehran and other cities to celebrate the election result.

By all accounts the election was free and fair, without the manipulation and fraud that marked the 2009 contest. Of course, the candidates for president were selected, or given permission to run, by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nevertheless, Iran is by Middle Eastern standards a functioning democracy. And Iranians are more pro-Western than any other people in the Islamic world, except perhaps the Turks.

The Iranian people have, through their votes, expressed a desire to re-engage with the West, and particularly the United States. This is hardly surprising, given the economic suffering caused by the sanctions under which Iran has been living since 2006. Rowhani, while ruling out direct talks with the US for the moment, appears to want some kind of deal on the nuclear issue that has plagued US-Iranian relations for more than a decade. He was Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, during the presidency of another moderate cleric, Mohammad Khatami. Khatami and Rowhani were responsible for Iran’s voluntary suspension of nuclear enrichment in 2004, a concession that brought no meaningful response from the US and its European allies. As a result, the hardliners in Tehran have been in the saddle since the Khatami presidency ended in 2005.

Iran will never agree to end uranium enrichment completely. Indeed, it has a right to enrich for peaceful purposes under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, in the present environment Iran may be willing to limit enrichment to less than 20% (at 20% enrichment uranium can be converted to weapons-grade material relatively quickly), and allow meaningful international inspections of its nuclear facilities. Given that President Obama has categorically ruled out containment as a response to a nuclear Iran, this option seems to be the only one other than war available to us. War would be a catastrophe for both Iran and the US.

The US has been given something very rare in international relations — a second chance. During the Khatami presidency from 1997 to 2005, the US failed to seize opportunities for an American-Iranian détente. The Clinton administration was too timid; the Bush administration had no interest in improved relations. Given the importance of the Persian Gulf region, and Iran’s status as a regional actor, every effort must be made to reach a modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic. Rowhani’s decisive victory has given him weight to counterbalance the hardliners in Tehran. By reaching out to him we can perhaps tip the scales in favor of peace.




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Limitless Opportunities

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One of the advantages of running a film festival — especially a libertarian film festival — is that I have the opportunity to view dozens of interesting movies. (And dozens of dull ones too, of course . . .) One documentary on third-party candidates offers the ubiquitous refrain that limitation is the key to fairness:

Limit income. Limit cars. Limit profits. Limit children. Limit consumption. Limit the quality of life in order to increase the fairness of life. We will all have less, but at least we will all be equal. I couldn't help thinking of Winston Churchill's epigram about capitalism and socialism: "The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries."

By contrast, libertarianism offers limitless possibilities by encouraging entrepreneurship, innovation, choice, and accountability.

So, speaking of limits, I say: Limit government. Limit phony crony capitalism. Limit hands in one another's pockets. But don't limit the opportunity to produce and create. And don't limit people’s right to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Such thought-provoking films this year! Can't wait to share them with our viewers.




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Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Vaccinator

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As if the IRS, Fast and Furious, Benghazi, Verizon-NSA, and AP journalists scandals weren’t enough to damn the Obama administration and sour the public’s perception of its self-declared high ideals, along comes Vaccination-gate — a misuse of power that “may yet kill hundreds of thousands,” according to the May 2013 issue of Scientific American.

The magazine’s analysis states: “In its zeal to identify Osama bin Laden or his family, the CIA used a sham hepatitis B vaccination project to collect DNA in the neighborhood where he was hiding. The effort apparently failed, but the violation of trust threatens to set back global public health efforts by decades.” The administration has not denied the CIA plot.

The program started in a poor neighborhood of Abbottabad, “no doubt to give it an air of legitimacy,” SA opines. “Yet after the first in a standard series of three hepatitis B shots was given, the effort was abandoned so that the team could move to bin Laden’s wealthier community.” It is this lapse in protocol that betrayed the program for the bluff it was.

The deadly chickens are already roosting. “Villagers along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border chased off legitimate vaccine workers, accusing them of being spies. Taliban commanders banned polio vaccinations in parts of Pakistan, specifically citing the bin Laden ruse as justification.” After nine vaccine workers were murdered in Pakistan last December, the UN withdrew its vaccination teams. Two months later, gunmen killed ten polio workers in Nigeria. Though other accusations may be at work there — such as a rumor of a Western plot to sterilize girls — it’s a sign that the violence against vaccinators may be spreading.

Leslie F. Roberts of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health says that the distrust sowed by the fraudulent campaign in Pakistan could conceivably postpone polio eradication for 20 years, leading to 100,000 more cases that might otherwise not have occurred, with the victims “forevermore” blaming the US.

Humanitarian workers adhere to an international code of conduct that requires their services to be provided on the basis of need alone, not national agendas. NGOs, QUANGOs (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization)and such are already suspect, and occasionally banned, in some parts of the world. Using healthcare workers — protected noncombatants in conventional wars — to prosecute the war on al Qaeda can only make matters worse.

What might this administration’s fast and loose attitude toward international healthcare protocols presage for the implementation of our own Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act?

ldquo;forevermore




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Syria: Heading Toward War?

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On June 13 the administration announced that it will begin supplying small arms and ammunition to rebels battling the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. It also indicated that it may decide at some point to send the rebels heavy weapons of the antitank variety. Off the table, at least for now, is the possibility of supplying the rebels with antiaircraft missiles.

The US has been supplying nonlethal aid to the so-called Free Syrian Army since 2012. The rebels are in fact a disparate grouping of Sunni Muslims, who range ideologically from mildly pro-Western to fanatical supporters of al-Qaeda. The pro-Westerners are by far the weakest group among the rebels. Hence the US hesitancy about supplying those antiaircraft missiles: it’s all too likely that they would fall into the hands of terrorists, who would use them to shoot down US military aircraft and passenger jets.

It is difficult to understand the administration’s decision to escalate our involvement, even in this small way. This spring the war turned definitely in the Syrian regime’s favor. In May a key leader of the Syrian Free Army admitted that the FSA lacked the power to topple the Assad regime. Supplying military aid now, when the rebels’ cause appears lost, seems foolish.

It may be that the administration is hoping to keep the rebels in the fight long enough to get a negotiated settlement. This analyst, however, believes that the Syrian regime, backed by Iran and Russia, is in a position to crush the rebels eventually. The peace conference to be held in Geneva starting in July will be a talking shop of the kind beloved by diplomats but incapable of stopping the fighting. The fight in Syria will be to a finish. Bashar al-Assad is almost certainly going to survive, although low-grade guerrilla conflict may persist for years.

The supplying of arms represents a commitment of US resources and prestige to the rebel cause. Will airstrikes, and possibly ground troops, follow?

The only possible way to alter the course of events in Syria is for the Western powers to intervene with force. The Syrian air force would have to be destroyed, or at least grounded. Heavy weapons and other matériel would have to be supplied to the rebels, and trainers (i.e., boots on the ground) would be necessary if the rebels were to employ these weapons effectively. This raises the question of whether the Assad regime would respond by employing chemical weapons.

Ostensibly, the US decision to supply the rebels with small arms came as a result of a US finding that Assad’s forces had already used chemical weapons against the rebels. A resort to chemical warfare on a larger scale raises the specter of a major US intervention, including ground troops. Securing or destroying Assad’s chemical weapons would require far more than a commando-style raid by Navy Seals or the Army’s Delta Force. At a minimum, two combat brigades with accompanying support forces, i.e., 10,000 to 15,000 troops, would be needed. That this might lead to an even deeper US involvement is, given the vagaries of war, quite possible.

The Syrian conflict is a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Muslims (the Alawite sect, to which Assad and his supporters belong, is an offshoot of Shiism). The Sunni forces, all but a small portion of them, are anti-Western, and include al-Qaeda affiliated elements. We have already experienced the difficulties of sorting out such a situation. Needless to say, another Iraq is the last thing America needs.

So far, the drumbeat for war maintained by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham has fallen on deaf ears. According to the polls, 60% of the American people do not want a war in Syria. There is no great media push for war, as there was in Iraq. Establishment figures such as Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, are opposed to military intervention. Most importantly, and to his everlasting credit, the president has no desire to fight. Yet he has failed to come out and say frankly that Syria is a situation we cannot solve, and that to intervene in it would be a colossal blunder. His political timidity is baffling, given that he has no more elections to worry about.

The McCains of the world may yet have their way. The supplying of arms represents a commitment of US resources and prestige to the rebel cause. Will airstrikes, and possibly ground troops, follow? Incremental steps can lead to a deeper involvement, as Vietnam proved. There has been a small US force in Jordan for some time. In April Secretary of Defense Hagel announced that it would be augmented in order to “increase readiness and prepare for a number of scenarios.” It actually represents the germ of an advanced headquarters for a Central Command expeditionary force, should one be ordered into Syria. This constitutes another drop, and a significant one, in the trickle toward war. One hopes that Obama will find the courage to turn off the tap.

rsquo;s all too likely that they would fall into the hands of terrorists, who would use them to shoot down US military aircraft and passenger jets.em




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The Pharaohs of the Current Dynasty

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The thing that interests me most about the intelligence scandals is the revelation of how amateurish the people who run our Great National Institutions seem to be.

I had assumed that the government was doing exactly what it has been revealed to be doing — getting everyone’s telephone records. I had assumed that any serious terrorist would assume the same. But if Edward Snowden was able to “reveal” the taking of this super-secret information, how many other people could reveal the same, or more?

Snowden is a badly educated young man who in his early twenties began a meteoric ascent through various spy agencies. Either the government’s secrets are so massive and take so many hands to manage, or the government is so ridiculously bad at contracting with people to take care of them, that the mighty inwards of the government’s self-knowledge end up in the grasp of Edward Snowden and the like. The same could be said, and more, about Bradley (Bradass87) Manning, who appears to have been put in a job where he dealt with military secrets because he was so outrageously unqualified for any other job.

Should I now mention some dramatis personae of other current scandals — Lois Lerner, Susan Rice, Kathleen Sebelius, Eric Holder? Qualified to handle secrets? They’re not even qualified to handle the secret of their own incompetence.

Now we have FBI Director Robert Swan Mueller, a 12-year veteran in his job, who received, a week in advance, a list of questions that he would be asked by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, but who on June 13 repeatedly assured Chaffetz’s congressional committee that he didn’t know anything about anything, finally apologizing, not very contritely, for failing to do his “homework.” Tell me, what else does the guy have to do?

If you’re like me, you grew up thinking of the FBI, the CIA, the NSA — anything with three initials — as a monument to strong organization. They were cunning; they were tricky; they might be malevolent; but they were tightly and cleverly administered. They were places where people who looked like David Niven, men who knew the world, subtly schemed to outwit their enemies. As for the US military, they were so hard-assed that they would never even consider hiring a person like me. And they still wouldn’t. But they trained Bradass87 as an intelligence analyst.

The image that now comes to mind is about as far from David Niven as you could get. It’s General James Clapper (USAF, rtd.), current director of national intelligence — the stereotyped representation of a befuddled, forehead-rubbing, double-talking academic bureaucrat, a man who doesn’t seem to understand what he himself is saying, much less understand the world. With people like this posing as pharaohs, what must the rest of the human pyramid be like?




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The Never-Ending Trek

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Wookiee vs. Trekkie: The friendly competition between Star Wars and Star Trek aficionados has raged for decades. Star Trek was more scientific and cool, emphasizing the technology of "Beam me up" rather than the intuition of "Feel the force." Even their goals were different: the cast of Star Trek was on a mission merely to observe the universe, while the cast of Star Wars was out to save it. But Star Trek's "Prime Directive" demonstrates democracy at its worst: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." No wonder I've never been a Trekkie.

The latest episode of Star Trek — Star Trek: Into Darkness — is a bit of a muddle between these two fan-chises: some characters early in the film look and talk like Ewoks, a la Return of the Jedi; they meet in a jazzy bar populated by strange rubber-bodied creatures a la Star Wars: and the film begins with our heroes fleeing alien creatures on an alien world without our knowing why, a la The Empire Strikes Back. James Kirk (Chris Pine) even looks a lot like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in the second two Star Wars films, after Hamill's aquiline nose became pugged from a car accident he had between films.

The technique of beginning a film at the climax of a storyline that the audience hasn’t seen is recognized as Cubby Broccoli's trademark opening for the James Bond films, and it’s used in this movie too. It succeeds in giving the audience an early adrenaline rush. Just five minutes into the film we see Spock falling into a churning volcano. (Hmmm. Spock is a Vulcan. Vulcan is the god of volcanoes and the forge . . . shouldn't he have felt right at home there?) After his dramatic rescue (no spoiler alert here, since this happens ten minutes into the film), that storyline ends, and we settle into the central conflict for this film.

In this episode a former Starfleet commander (Benedict Cumberbatch) has turned rogue (a la Darth Vader . . . there they go again!), and the crew of the Enterprise is enlisted to go after him. That's about all you need to know. There's a lot of warp speed action, dodging of asteroids, climbing around on cool CGI-generated equipment, and fist-to-fist fighting — love how these Star Trek films come full circle and use brawn over brain or technology when people are fighting; Star Wars still goes in for those laser swords.

The Star Trek films were popular in the ’80s and ’90s, but they started to wear thin, as the original actors started to wax larger, both in age and in heft. The only way to continue the franchise was to turn from sequel to prequel. That worked extremely well in Star Trek (2009). It was fun to ooh and ahh over the excellent casting selections and see the back stories of the characters who have become a part of our cultural fabric for more than four decades. And director J.J. Abrams successfully repackaged Star Trek from a cerebral exercise in philosophy to an action-packed sci-fi adventure.

It was also cool in the 2009 movie to see the young Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) fall in love with the young Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana). For nearly 50 years the biggest challenge for the Star Trek crew has not been fighting Klingons but trying to get Mr. Spock to feel and express emotion. Spock is a Vulcan, and Vulcans don't have feelings (odd that the god of fire would be chosen as the name for the passionless planet, isn't it?). But Spock is also half human, and in every film there is the possibility that his human heart might kick in and overpower his logic. All of that has happened in previous episodes, however, so that too is starting to wear thin. We get it: with enough provocation, Mr. Spock can cry. He can kiss. He can bicker with his girlfriend. Enflamed by a desire for revenge, he can even beat an enemy to a pulp with his bare hands. He's becoming positively touchy-feely.

Star Trek fans love this movie. Reviewers seem to like it too. I thought it was pretty good, for what it is. But my patience for the whole Star Trek franchise is starting to wear thin. Or maybe I'm just waxing old. I'd rather just see a movie that boldly goes where no man has gone before.


Editor's Note: Review of "Star Trek: Into Darkness," directed by J.J. Abrams. Paramount Pictures, 2013, 129 minutes.



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Fish in a Barrel

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Many leftist “progressives” are determined to disarm the populace. They can’t fathom why anyone might find this strange. Their hearts brim with concern for women, gays, people of color, and the poor! But their efforts, if successful, would leave these people more vulnerable to violence than they are right now, and probably more than anyone else.

Our self-appointed benefactors want us to depend on them. Keeping us from depending on ourselves for our own protection is naturally part of the plan. Citizens without recourse to effective self-defense are like fish in a barrel. The barrel may be easy to protect, but the fish are easy to kill.

Over a period of several months, when I was a teenager, I would hear heavy footsteps on the walkway outside my bedroom window. I never so much as caught a glimpse of who was out there. But something drew him back to my bedroom window time after time.

Then one evening I was home alone, sitting in the very den where I now write this essay. It had to be pretty obvious I was sitting there, at a well-lit desk. All at once, the window began to slide open. I ran down the hall to my mother’s bedside table, opened the drawer, and got out the .25 caliber pistol. Meanwhile, back in the den, the uninvited visitor was struggling to pry open the window all the way. I entered the room, picked up the phone, and loudly called the police.

Could I have fended off the prowler without a firearm? I’m glad I never had to find out.

Sounding bored — as if she didn’t believe me, or simply didn’t care — the dispatcher told me she would “send someone out.” The prowler had to hear my end of that conversation, but it did nothing to stop him from trying to get in. I flipped open the curtains, pointing the gun out into the darkness beyond the window. All I saw of him was his shadowy backside as he turned and fled.

About forty minutes later, a police cruiser rolled lazily by. It slowed very slightly in front of my house, then sped on. No one stopped. Nor did anyone from the police department even bother to call and find out if the issue had been successfully resolved — in short, whether I was alive or dead.

I don’t think I heard those footsteps during the next few nights after the near break-in. But a few days afterward, a young man was arrested only a couple of blocks from our house. He’d allegedly beaten his mother to death because she wouldn’t give him money for drugs. I do know I never heard the footsteps after that.

If the mother-murderer and the prowler were one and the same, could I have fended him off without a firearm? I’m glad I never had to find out. But without a gun, against a man big enough to murder a grown woman with his bare hands, a teenaged girl would have had less than a fighting chance.

A quarter century later, when my father suffered a heart attack, I moved back into my childhood home to help care for him. When he died, the house became mine. Though it is in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, there have been several break-ins on my street. Never have the police shown up until after the prowlers have fled. In every case, it has been the homeowner or a neighbor who has driven them away.

It warms my heart that progressives care so much about my safety. Are they right that I don’t need a gun because they’ll protect me themselves? I hope I never have to find out about that, either.




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Imperium Sinarum Delendum Est

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On June 7 and 8 President Obama will meet Chinese president Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California. The meeting is being billed as an informal, “shirtsleeves” summit with a minimum of ceremonial distractions, allowing the two leaders to focus on the issues dividing their respective nations.

Make no mistake, this meeting of the uncrowned emperors of East and West is serious business. The world’s sole superpower and its up-and-coming rival are jockeying for prestige and influence around the globe. Remarkably, it is a mystery just which side asked for the meeting; neither wants to appear to be a supplicant. Yet for the moment at least it is we who are more in need of the other side’s help. Obama’s national security advisor, Tom Donilon, was in Beijing from May 26–28, laying the groundwork for the summit by speaking to Xi and the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (roughly equivalent to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), General Fan Chanlong. Donilon and the president are seeking Chinese cooperation to —

  1. Halt the People’s Liberation Army’s repeated hacking of US computer networks, and the theft of US intellectual property and government and industrial secrets.
  2. Persuade North Korea to cease its highly provocative behavior toward South Korea, Japan, and the US.
  3. Obtain a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war and the removal of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
  4. Further tighten the sanctions regime imposed on Iran because of its nuclear program.

That the Chinese are playing us on all these fronts is patent. After temporarily halting the cyberattacks when the US government went public about them in February, the PLA’s notorious Unit 61398 resumed operations (using somewhat different techniques) in May, on the very eve of Donilon’s visit. The Chinese then agreed to hold “talks” with us about hacking! (What’s to talk about? Stop the hacking!)

On North Korea, the Chinese are supposedly putting denuclearization of the Korean peninsula above their concerns for stability there. The Chinese have described this as a “big gift” to the US. In fact, the change has been merely rhetorical. North Korea depends upon China for its economic survival. China has the power to dictate to North Korea; it refuses to do so because it fears a collapse of the North Korean regime. China’s biggest concern is that a unified, democratic Korea will bring US troops and weaponry even closer to Northeast China. Verbiage aside, it prefers to leave the North Korean thorn in America’s flesh.

China has in reality been most unhelpful to us on every big issue affecting our bilateral relations. Nor should we expect any real changes.

As for Syria and Iran, China’s role has been anything but helpful. China has important economic and military ties with Syria, and supports the continuation of the Assad regime. And although it voted for the last round of United Nations sanctions against Iran, it continues to enjoy valuable economic relations with that country (particularly in the energy field), and will never put these in jeopardy. Two months ago its foreign ministry publicly deprecated the idea of “blind” (i.e., more comprehensive) sanctions.

China has in reality been most unhelpful to us on every big issue affecting our bilateral relations. Nor should we expect any real changes as a result of this summit. China, although wary of US military power and political influence, sees itself as ascending toward its rightful place as the world’s leading state, the Middle Kingdom reborn. Its economy will eventually surpass that of the US to become the largest in the world. Its military spending has been rising dramatically, though still far below that of the US. Its self-confidence is clearly growing. A recent New York Times article (“Chinese President to Seek New Relationship With U.S. in Talks,” May 28), contained the following paragraph:

It is a given, Chinese and American analysts say, that Mr. Xi and his advisors are referring to the historical problem of what happens when an established power and a rising power confront each other. The analysts said the Chinese were well aware of the example of the Peloponnesian War, which was caused, according to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, by the fear that a powerful Athens instilled in Sparta.

Contemplate for a moment the bizarre notion of China, an authoritarian, reactionary, and (if truth be told) semi-barbarous state, comparing itself to Periclean Athens. The true historical paradigm for the current US-China relationship is the Anglo-German rivalry in the years leading up to World War I. Fortunately, our position vis-à-vis China is somewhat more favorable than the one Britain found itself in before 1914. But we are in danger of squandering the important advantages that accrue to us. We must, first and foremost, recognize the true nature of present-day China.

The Han Chinese empire is the last great colonial empire on earth. About 40% of its national territory is non-Chinese. Tibet and Xinjiang are truly captive nations, ruled from Beijing with an iron hand, exploited and colonized by Chinese carpetbaggers. But Chinese ambitions extend far beyond the current imperium. Already eastern Siberia is being quietly converted into a Chinese colony (on this, and also Tibet and Xinjiang, see Parag Khanna, The Second World, 71–84). China’s most important long-range task is not the recovery of Taiwan, but rather the conquest and colonization of sparsely populated and resource-rich Australia. This obvious objective for an overpopulated and resource-hungry China goes unmentioned in conventional diplomatic and media circles today because it remains a distant prospect, and a frightening one. But its logic is irrefutable.

We should be cutting defense for the sake of our own economic wellbeing. Victory without war is the goal, and it can be achieved.

Without question, China’s long-range goal is to dominate the area between Hawaii and Suez. Its economic penetration of Africa and Latin America continues apace. Ideally, from the Han point of view, the later 21st century will find Europe (geographically a mere peninsula extending from the Eurasian supercontinent) and North America isolated in an otherwise Chinese-dominated world. If China can achieve this, the fate of both Europe and America will, of course, be sealed.

Like those of all past would-be world dominators, China’s ambitions are fantastic and unlikely to be realized, assuming we take the steps necessary to prevent their realization. The Obama administration has made a good first move in the global chess game with its pivot to Asia. In ten years’ time most of the US Navy will be based in the Pacific. But much more needs to be done. I am not talking about war or even an arms race. War with China is the last thing we should want. Nor should we burden ourselves economically by trying to spend China into the ground, as Ronald Reagan did with the Soviet Union. Indeed, we should be cutting defense for the sake of our own economic wellbeing. Victory without war is the goal, and it can be achieved.

The following steps would constitute a rational program to contain China and, eventually, break up the Han empire:

  1. Recognize that the Middle East is of dwindling importance and that East Asia is now the focal point of world affairs.
  2. Tighten America’s military and economic bonds with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Vietnam, and India with the objective of establishing a cordon sanitaire against Chinese expansionism.
  3. Apply economic pressures (naming China a currency manipulator, tariffs against dumping, etc.) designed to throw a wrench into the Chinese economic juggernaut.
  4. Initiate an active propaganda campaign designed to foster internal dissatisfaction with the Communist Party’s monopoly of political power, highlight corruption within the Party and the PLA, foster tensions between Han Chinese and other ethnicities, and encourage Muslim and other religious opposition to the atheist regime.
  5. Cyberwarfare should be reserved as an ultima ratio should the Chinese persist in their impertinent hacking.

While it would be going much too far to describe China as a giant with feet of clay, the Chinese state has its weak points. Corruption is rife and the rule of law mainly absent. The political class is inbred and largely divorced from the population. Economically, the state capitalist model that China is following, while superior to socialism, contains serious flaws and inefficiencies that would be periodically flushed out in a freer market. Environmental and other necessary regulatory regimes are in their infancy, or yet to be established, with consequences in terms of pollution, disease, and manmade disasters that dwarf anything seen in the West. Tensions between Han Chinese and the subject peoples are real, and probably growing. Centrifugal forces lie just beneath the surface of Chinese society. We should be working to bring these forces to life.

World politics in the so-called Modern Era (16th century to the present) has been marked by a series of political-economic-military struggles between the English-speaking peoples and a succession of powers seeking world domination. Spain, France, Germany, and Soviet Russia all failed in their efforts to master the world, foiled as much by the political aptitude and coalition-building of the English speakers as by the latter’s economic and military power. Until 1917 Britain bore the main weight of these struggles. In 1917 and 1941, when Germany proved too powerful for Britain to defeat, America weighed in with what proved decisive effect. In the Cold War against the USSR, America took the lead, with Britain a junior partner. Now, in the 21st century, the last in the line of would-be world dominators is reaching for global supremacy. This does not mean war is inevitable, or even likely. But a political and economic struggle is underway from which one side or the other will emerge triumphant.

What was practiced upon the Soviet Union must be practiced upon China as well. Containment combined with economic and political steps to weaken and finally break up the Han empire should be our policy in this struggle that will decide the fate of the world, probably for centuries to come. The idea that we can allow China — a corrupt, repressive, and brutal imperium, an evil empire whether we care to recognize it as such or not — to dominate the world, is unthinkable.




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Deist Dystopia

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Yet another film about earth's dystopian future hit the theaters this week, with at least two slated for later this summer. We humans seem to need some scolding about our profligate ways, and Hollywood, that bastion of restraint, is just the town to let us have it.

In After Earth, humans have again evacuated from earth to a distant location in space after destroying the home planet by pollution, overpopulation, and nuclear war. It is now a thousand years later, and "everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans." (Although one has to wonder how this evolution occurred, considering that no humans remained behind to contribute to the natural selection process . . .)

On the new planet, Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) is a young cadet who wants to become a brave and respected ranger like his father Cypher Raige (Will Smith). But mostly Kitai just wants to be accepted by his father, who seems distant, cold, and demanding, more like a commander than a father.

When Cypher is called up for a mission, he decides to bring Kitai along. The ship is damaged in a magnetic storm and crash lands on — you guessed it — earth, where all those animal predators have evolved to kill humans. Strapped in during the crash, Kitai is unhurt, but Cypher's legs are both badly broken, and the other crew members are dead. The only hope of survival is to retrieve the emergency beacon from the wreckage of the tail, 100 kilometers away. Kitai must make the journey by himself, through unfamiliar land where predators have evolved . . . well, you get the picture.

For a sci-fi film populated by savage beasts terrorizing a likeable young boy, After Earth is surprisingly bland and extremely slow moving.

The predators are attracted to humans through the pheromones released by fear. No fear, no predators. Cypher encourages his son with the film's philosophical tag line: "Danger is real. Fear is a choice." It's a powerful concept, and if there is only one takeaway from the film, it's a good one. "Fear is not real," Cypher explains. "Fear is a product of our thoughts of the future. We are all telling ourselves a story. Fear exists only in the imagination. Stay focused in the present, and there is nothing to fear." I kind of like this version that I found on Facebook today: "Surrender to what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be."

Unfortunately, "fear is a choice" is about the only takeaway. For a sci-fi film populated by savage beasts terrorizing a likeable young boy and an actor known for both his wisecracks and his ability to save planets, After Earth is surprisingly bland and extremely slow moving. Trapped by his broken legs, Cypher himself can't move. Instead of movement, we see his stoic reserve, his pain-induced wooziness, and his pensive flashbacks of family times at home.

Midway through, the film turns into a heavy-handed allegory. Before sending Kitai off into the lone and dreary wilderness, Cypher dresses him in a mechanized space suit equipped with a 360-degree camera and heat sensors. This gives Cypher a bird's eye view of Kitai's surroundings; Cypher can see everything in front of Kitai and behind him. Thus Cypher operates as an unseen, disembodied voice who guides Kitai from a position of omniscience. The boy must trust his father's voice and obey his commands in order to survive. At one point Kitai's receiver stops working. He can't hear his father's voice, but his father can still hear him. He thinks that his father is no longer watching him, but of course the father is there all along. The deist allegory is crystal clear, and rather satisfying if you like that sort of thing. I sort of do.

It makes even more sense when the credits roll and M. Night Shyamalan's name appears as director. Shyamalan is known for the spiritual themes that permeate his works, but also for the decline of his storytelling technique. He is best known for his stellar freshman work, The Sixth Sense, which is possibly the best ghost story ever made, and Bruce Willis' best and most serious acting job. Shyamalan was a shining star back then, but his star his dimmed to a nightlight now. In fact, the trailers for this film didn’t even include his name. Nor did it appear in the opening credits. The name that used to fill theaters is now considered box-office poison, I guess.

Allegory or not, the film remains heavily antihuman. Even after 1,000 years without people, the earth has not managed to stabilize. In fact, climate change has deepened. Temperatures drop well below freezing at night but soar into the tropical zone during the day. Oddly, broadleafed trees and warmblooded bison have no trouble thriving in these extreme temperatures.

The original screenplay for this film was not set in the future, or even in space. Father and son were driving a lonely road when their car crashed and the father's legs were broken. The young son had to hike through the forest on his own to find help and save his father's life. Will Smith decided that the film would be much more exciting if it were a sci-fi story set in space, with scary aliens and cool equipment. But I'm not so sure they made the right decision.

Father trapped in a car? Sending young son out into the woods alone? In this day and age? Now there's a scary story.

Danger is real. Fear is a choice. And even though movie danger isn't real at all, I think I would choose to be very fearful watching that scenario.


Editor's Note: "After Earth," directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Columbia Pictures, 2013, 89 minutes. (But it seems like two hours, at least.)



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Astonish Us!

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With its cool jazzy music, its glamorous Las Vegas setting, and its wisecracking camaraderie among slightly shady characters, Now You See Me is a high-spirited and stylish homage to (some might say “knock-off” of) the successful Ocean’s Eleven franchise.

The film begins as the Ocean’s movies do, with a quick introduction to the characters who will be gathered for a heist. Each is a highly-skilled street magician with moderately suspect morals; each uses magic tricks not only to entertain, but in some cases to shake down or rip off the audience. Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is a mentalist who blackmails his targets with information he gleans while they are hypnotized. Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is a magician who picks his audience’s pockets. Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) uses his mystique as a magician to woo women. And Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) is Danny’s former assistant who wants to headline her own act.

When each of these magicians receives a Tarot card with an address and a date written on the back, they team up under the direction of a mysterious, unidentified leader. Billing themselves as The Four Horsemen, they perform magic tricks that test the boundaries of what we know about magic (that it’s all illusion) and what we hope about magic (that it’s real). For example, they select an unsuspecting dupe from the audience, slap a helmet camera onto his head, and whisk him magically to a bank vault in Paris, where he deposits the obligatory (for magic tricks) playing card with his signature on it in exchange for all the money. Moments later, 3 million euros are seen swirling up out of the vault and raining down into the Las Vegas audience. It isn’t possible. It has to be an illusion. And yet — the bank vault in Paris is empty. And the dupe’s signature is on the card.

A skillful director is like a skillful magician, packing the film with charming assistants, smoke and mirrors, exploding devices, and entertaining patter that may or may not be significant to the story.

Showy tricks like this drive the film as the crew moves from venue to venue all over the country, with audiences massing for the money they expect to receive. We don’t know what the ultimate heist is, and neither do the magicians, because The Horsemen are guided by the unidentified stranger who has brought them together. They also have to stay one step ahead of the law, as FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) pursue them for the bank job, leading us to enjoy many entertaining cons, chases, and escape tricks.

Also following The Four Horsemen is Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who makes his living by secretly videotaping magic shows from his seat in the audience and then selling DVDs debunking the tricks. Citing a character in the film who is supposed to be the world’s highest-paid magician, Thaddeus cynically explains, “He makes $1.6 million a year performing magic. I earn $5 million a year telling people how he does it.” But Thaddeus is in it for more than the money; his resentment toward magicians runs deep, so he helps Rhodes and Dray chase the magical thieves by enabling them to anticipate the Horsemen’s next move.

This is all entertaining and interesting. The reflections it kindles may be even more interesting. Magic is an apt metaphor for moviemaking. A skillful director is like a skillful magician. He or she packs the film with charming assistants, smoke and mirrors, exploding devices, and entertaining patter that may or may not be significant to the story. With a magic show, we want to be astonished. We want to believe that anything is possible. We know that our attention is being diverted in order for a trick to be performed, but we go along with it because the sensation of being amazed is so satisfying. With movies, we also enter a world in which seeing is believing. We suspend our disbelief and accept whatever the director wants us to believe is possible. We know that our attention is being diverted, and we try to catch the trick — to figure out who the bad guy really is, or in this case who the mastermind is — but what we really want is not to figure it out until the very end. Amazement trumps knowing it all, every time. And that’s one thing we mean when we discuss the art of cinema.


Editor's Note: Review of "Now You See Me," directed by Louis Leterrier. K/O Paper Products, 2013, 115 minutes.



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The Two Americas

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I don’t want to poach on Stephen Cox’s territory in his monthly Word Watch column, but I have an observation to make about rhetoric. The observation is this: The function of rhetoric isn’t just to appeal to an audience; it is also to identify an audience. Lately this has been happening a lot, and with instructive results.

Three examples:

1. President Obama’s response to the question about whether he knew about the scandalous behavior of the IRS. He said that he didn’t know about the report on the scandalous behavior. This was a shockingly obvious dodge. It starkly revealed the president’s stupidity. But it was a carefully prepared response. It was a calculated dodge. It was calculated to appeal to partisan insiders, who knew (wink, nod) that the rhetoric was grossly misleading but hoped it would save some part of the president’s bacon. So it identified that audience. And it identified another audience — the general American population, which was expected to receive Obama’s claims with passive credulity, thus proving itself even stupider than the president himself.

2. Hillary Clinton’s screaming fit before a congressional committee, some months ago, about the causes of the Benghazi attack. Arms waving, she shrieked, “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”Never a good actress, Clinton wasn’t up to the role of Lady Macbeth, despite the fact that she is Lady Macbeth, and she had obviously been practicing her outburst. Now, who can take seriously a secretary of state whose head blows off at the suggestion that it might be of some interest to discover why people attacked an American diplomatic outpost and murdered an American ambassador — and on her watch, too? The answer is . . . the mainstream media! They took it seriously. Their commentators almost unanimously lauded her powerful and unanswerable performance. Of course, her act was precisely the opposite of strong and convincing; looking back on it, Washington insiders wince about the expectation that it would delude the rubes. But here are the two audiences that her rhetoric identified — the insiders and the rubes. The rubes, it turns out, were not fooled, but the insiders were.

3. The IRS folk and their government investigator, testifying before Congress late in May. The investigator seemed stupefied that his nothing-but-the-facts rhetoric didn’t cover all the bases: when asked why his interrogators had included IRS supervisors in their interviews with IRS employees, he was shocked, amazed. He hadn’t expected such a question — coming, as it did, from outside the charmed circle of Washington bureaucrats. The IRS directors were a hundred times worse. Asked the most obvious questions — obvious, that is, to anyone not in that circle — they used the rhetoric of word and gesture to convey the impression that they were the victims of lèse majesté. They didn’t know what happened. They didn’t know whom they had asked about what happened. They didn’t know who, if anyone, was “disciplined” because of what happened. Of one thing they were certain: they shouldn’t have been asked about any of it. To communicate this idea, they sighed; they sneered; they made faces; they made unfunny jokes about Easter egg hunts; they tried every form of rhetoric available to them to communicate the idea that the questions — again, the perfectly obvious questions — were grossly inappropriate and outré. They assumed that the only audience that mattered was people like themselves, people who are entitled to power and justifiably resent all attempts to wrest it from them. The rest of us couldn’t possibly be significant.

Well. What does this mean? It means one of two things:

1. These people are right: There are two Americas, two audiences for American political discourse. One consists of people like themselves — wise leaders and their intelligent, well-educated, politically correct students and disciples, the modern-liberal establishment and power structure. This is the only audience that counts, either culturally or politically. The other America consists of people who, being perpetual fools and dupes, are out of power and always will be.

2. These people are right: There are two Americas, two audiences for American political discourse. One consists of people like themselves — simpletons who are prepared to swallow almost anything, from the idea that prosperity results from giving the government all your money to the idea that Barack Obama is an honest man. The other America consists of people who know better, and are sometimes willing to do something about it.

I think I know which view is right. But I thank Obama, Clinton, and the minions of the IRS for revealing the issues so clearly, though so unconsciously, in their inimitable displays of rhetoric.




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