The Kiddies Get Played Again

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The Duck Dynasty brouhaha is over, and for that we can be thankful. Many of those who got excited over it are somewhat embarrassed now. At least they should be. The way it ended — with the show’s resumption just as A&E was almost out of reruns — reveals it to have been a PR stunt and largely a sham. As a commenter on one of my favorite blogs put it, “Merry Christmas! We’ve been played!”

I wasn’t as entertained, or as exercised, as a lot of people. I was watching not the media-manufactured drama, but America’s reaction to it. Those on both the political Left and the political Right who usually get taken in by such nonsense were sucked in yet again. What I found reassuring was that so many others weren’t.

Americans may be waking up from their long, hypnotic daze. They now hear the show’s star, Phil Robertson, pontificating about the virtues of menmarrying 15-year-old girls, and even those who rah-rahed his anatomically-explicit anti-gay tirade in GQ magazine are revolted. This may be another Terri Schiavo moment, when the social right overplays its hand so grossly that its fraudulence is exposed for all to see. That people who’ve expended so much effort trying to get the government to censor others are now rushing to the barricades to defend their “religious freedom,” and that they’re so confused about what censorship is or isn’t that they think a business has no right to suspend an employee, is rich indeed.

It is high time we woke up. Those who blur the line between free speech and censorship most likely do so because they intend to cross it themselves. This is a sorry crowd to be lecturing anybody about the freedom of anything. Not that their political adversaries conducted themselves any more nobly. To their credit, many in the public recognized this, too.

Those who fancy they’ve “taught A&E a lesson” are apparently too dull-witted to realize that they did exactly what the network wanted them to do.

All the predictable people did all the predictable things, and a good portion of the audience is getting bored with the act. GLAAD, which fancies itself something of a gay Anti-Defamation League, leapt in immediately after the GQ article came out, demanding that Robertson be punished. If they could have called in the troopers to kick in the door to the family mansion and drag the entire clan off to jail, they probably would have. I got emails from several gay rights groups, telling me how outraged I should be — and shilling for donations.

Though I’m reassured that many people were sensible enough to see the mummery for what it was, I’m worried that so many others weren’t. Activist organizations on both sides of the controversy raked in piles of money. Several politicians — some of whom I would have expected to behave with more restraint — seized the chance to grandstand. There is no one I would vote for now that I wouldn’t have before, but there are about a handful I might have supported, but now, as a matter of principle, would vote against.

What is wrong with those who permitted themselves to be so cynically played? Are they really so hollow inside, and do they truly have so little sense of themselves, that they can be trained to salivate, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, at the ding-ding of a bell? Those who fancy they’ve “taught A&E a lesson” are apparently too dull-witted to realize that they did exactly what the network wanted them to do.

I would feel sorry for them, if I weren’t rather frightened. I don’t think that Jefferson, or Adams, or Franklin ever envisioned the possibility that 230-odd years into the future, so many Americans would be so childish, shallow, gullible, and grasping. They probably wouldn’t fall for the charms of a bellowing little man with a funny mustache and a swastika armband, but anybody who makes them feel like godly patriots, or evolved progressives — depending on their illusion of choice — could seduce them into following him (or her) anywhere.

Are there enough grownups left in this country to run it? Liberty presupposes that citizens who have reached the age of majority are capable of functioning as adults. A media-manufactured controversy like the Duck Dynasty blowup demonstrates, with stark clarity, who belongs at the big table and who should be sitting with the kiddies.

Perhaps Duck Dynasty should become a watchword — a shorthand warning — for every time the bell again goes ding-ding-ding. It may be enough to jerk some people into adulthood, or at the very least to jerk them awake.




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Irresistible Force, Meet Unmovable Object

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Mary Poppins (1964) was one of the happiest films to emerge from Disney Studios, combining live action with Disney’s trademark animation and music. It was Disney’s first big hit in over three years, and what a hit it was, garnering 13 Oscar nominations and five wins.

But at least two of the principal participants were less than happy to be associated with the project when it was filmed 50 years ago. Julie Andrews was reeling from the disappointment of seeing Audrey Hepburn cast in the role of Eliza Dolittle in Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady — a role Andrews had originated on Broadway and again in London’s West End. Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady were in production at the same time, and Andrews wanted to be on the other set. She had wowed audiences on both sides of the pond with her glorious voice, but her horsey jaw and plain features were not considered pretty enough for the screen, although the official word was that Jack Warner was not willing to risk millions of dollars on an unknown stage actress. The role of Eliza would be immortalized onscreen not by Andrews but by the elfin Hepburn, with veteran dubber Marni Nixon providing Eliza’s singing voice. Frankly, I think it was the right decision; Hepburn was simply perfect in the role.

Andrews went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress that year as Mary Poppins, while Hepburn was not even nominated for her outstanding performance as Eliza. But it was a bitter experience for Andrews, made even more bitter by the rumors that she won on sympathy votes rather than merit. None of this disappointment is seen onscreen, of course; Andrews was as professional and stoic as Mary Poppins in keeping a stiff upper lip. The resulting film was a blockbuster success, full of charm, whimsy, and technical magic.

P.L. Travers, who wrote the series of books about the magical governess who flies in on an umbrella, was also reluctant to participate in the project. She was not a fan of charm and whimsy, and did not want to see her Mary Poppins trivialized through animation, dance, or music. Walt Disney wooed her for nearly a quarter of a century before she finally relented and agreed to let him create a film version — but she maintained script approval rights. Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of that wooing, and it is one of the best films of the year.

The film’s success is due largely to the enormous chemistry between its two stars, Emma Thompson as the firm and determined P. L. Travers, and Tom Hanks as the equally firm and determined Walt Disney. Travers is feisty, abrasive, and arrogant; Disney is charming, warm, and personable. Both are unrelenting in their points of view. The result is romantic comedy without the romance, set in giddy, colorful, nostalgic ’60s costumes and memorabilia.

Equally important to the film’s success is the background revealed through a parallel story told in flashbacks between a young girl (Annie Rose Buckley) and her beloved but weak-willed father (Colin Farrell), a mid-level banker stationed in the outback of Australia circa 1900. This is the real story behind Mary Poppins, and the reason that the family in the Travers books is called “Banks.” The scenes in Australia are powerful and poignant, while the scenes in Disney’s office are funny and enlightening. Together these intertwining narratives reveal the cathartic nature of storytelling and filmmaking. Only when Disney finally understands that the father is not the villain in the story but the hero, does Travers finally trust him to film the book.

Saving Mr. Banks is charming, funny, poignant, nostalgic, sad, and triumphant. It will “send you soaring up to the highest heights” and bring you to tears. One of my friends said after seeing the film, “I could have gone right back inside and watched it again.” Isn’t that the essence of Disney — to ride the Matterhorn, heart in your throat, and then jump off and say, “Let’s go do it again”? This is that kind of film.


Editor's Note: Review of "Saving Mr. Banks," directed by John Lee Hancock. Walt Disney Pictures, 2013, 125 supercalifragilistic minutes.



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Why I Worry about Global Warming

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When I was in college, Margaret Mead came by and told me I wasn’t getting enough sex. Not that I needed an important scientist to point out anything so obvious, but it was nice to have official validation. And in the how-much-sex-I-should-be-having department, nobody could validate like Margaret Mead.

Margaret Mead had been in Samoa, watching from behind bushes as the improving hands of unfettered sex turned would-be hoodlums into loving, productive members of society. In Samoa, there was almost no interpersonal violence, very little crime, and no juvenile delinquency. The only reason juvenile delinquency happened in America was because juvenile Americans weren’t getting enough sex. Who could argue with Margaret Mead about something like that?

Mead had credentials. She was curator of Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, chair of the Division of Social Sciences at Fordham, fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, chair and also president of the executive committee of the board of directors of the American Anthropological Association.

Chuck’s jailbirds didn’t sound like the peaceful, sexually contented bonobos Ms. Mead had made them out to be.

With that one speech, Margaret Mead transmogrified a whole auditorium-load of us randy college guys into future productive members of society, every one of us on the prowl to spread peace and love all over whichever girl we ran into next. And when we ran into girls who clung to patriarchal values linking sex to marriage or, for that matter, to guys who turned them on, we had Margaret Mead and those fine-sounding credentials to corral her into the sack with.

The first glimmer that there might be more to the laid-back life in Samoa than Margaret Mead had led us to believe came years later when I occupied the office next to Chuck Habbernigg’s. Chuck had been attorney general for American Samoa, which meant he was on a first-name basis with just about everybody in the Pago Pago prison. And the people he was on a first-name basis with . . . well, not to put too fine a point on it, but Chuck’s jailbirds didn’t sound like the peaceful, sexually contented bonobos Ms. Mead had made them out to be.

The second inkling that something might be wrong came when a New Zealand anthropologist named Derek Freeman did what none of my classmates had ever done, or anybody else, apparently. He went to Samoa, checked out la Mead’s research, and discovered that she hadn’t been as rigorous as she let on. Hard as it was to imagine how such a thing could even be possible, it turned out that young Samoans got even less sex than young Americans, because Samoan parents made a bigger deal out of virginity than our parents had. And as for things like crime and social discontent . . . murder, juvenile delinquency, sexual violence, and suicide were higher over there than here. In the case of murder, much higher. The rate in Samoa was twice that of some of our inner cities.

For decades people had swallowed what Margaret Mead ladled out because nobody had the chops to call bullshit. It would have been worth the career of any anthropologist to claim that somebody as powerful as Margaret Mead, with all her chairs and important committees, was spectacularly, laughably wrong, especially an anthropologist who hadn’t gone to Samoa and done the fieldwork himself. And who’d want to do that? She had already done that fieldwork. If you wanted to go study a tribe, you’d go somewhere that hadn’t already been studied. So Freeman did the obvious thing, he waited until Mead had shuffled off to that great steering-committee in the sky, before he published.

Mead wasn’t the only famous scientist to hitch herself to a cartload of half-baked science, sink her teeth into the bit, and take off running. And to get millions of otherwise sensible people galloping along behind. The year after I graduated from college Paul Ehrlich came out with a book called The Population Bomb. It was a scary book that explained in a scary, scientific way how there were so many people in the world that entire societies were on the brink of being torn apart by food riots, hundreds of millions of us were going to die, and it was too late to do anything about it.

For decades people had swallowed what Margaret Mead ladled out because nobody had the chops to call bullshit.

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” announced Mr. Ehrlich in his most scientific way. “In the 1970’s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash program embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate . . .”

Ehrlich wrote this in 1968, and his credentials were positively Meadian, they are so impressive. During his long, destructive career, he’s been president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the United States Naval Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Credentialwise, there’s no doing better than Paul Ehrlich.

By way of illustrating how serious the population thing had become, he included a hockey-stick graph proving just how far down the broad highway to destruction we already were. Hockey-stick graphs have become de rigueur lately with the scare-you community, and they’re pretty much all the same: a horizontal line running from the Pleistocene to the Industrial Revolution indicating not much going on until, along about your great-grandparents’ day, the line shoots upward and, voilà, the planet is pucked, Armageddon is upon us, we’re all going to die and it’s your fault.

If what you actually remember from the ’70s has less to do with food riots in the Imperial Valley and more to do with the Green Revolution and hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians and Africans lifted out of starvation, bear in mind that the Green Revolution wasn’t something that got talked about a lot at the time. At the time, socially aware people who considered themselves scientifically literate . . . along with 58 academies of science that considered themselves socially-aware . . . became so alarmed over the fact that the rest of us weren’t willing to strangle our own children in order to save the planet that they began to think it was their duty to do something about us. Paul Ehrlich said so himself:

We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail. We must use our political power to push other countries . . .

I don’t know whether Deng Xiaoping read The Population Bomb, but the Paramount Leader wasn’t some wimpy university professor who could only rant about saving people from themselves. Deng Xiaoping was Paul Ehrlich with an army, and he had the power to see that pretty much anything he came up with happened. What he came up with was China’s one-child policy . . . and all the forced abortions, sorrow, and murder of girl babies that haunt the Chinese to this day.

In the ’30s, the issue du jour wasn’t that we had too many people in the world. In the ’30s, the issue was that we had too many of the wrong sort of people. Eugenics is the scientific name for doing something about too many of the wrong sort of people; and millions of the right sort, millions of concerned, socially-aware people, people with only the purest of motives, people who considered themselves scientifically-literate, jumped on the eugenics bandwagon. In our country, this led to anti-miscegenation laws and forced castration. In more socially-committed places, politicians used their political power in ways that sound positively Ehrlichian . . . and ensured healthy genes with gas chambers and murder squads.

All of those people who kept telling us Something Has To Be Done thought of themselves as scientifically literate, but none of them were.

In the ’70s, scientifically literate people discovered that if the rest of us — meaning me and you — didn’t clean up our industrial ways, and soon, glaciers were going to come down and scrape Manhattan off the map. Before we even had the chance to decide whether this was something we might want, famous scientist Carl Sagan — who’d spent part of his career on television and part of his career figuring out the way things are on other planets — jumped in on the side of the glaciers. Sagan was a lot smarter than you and me put together, and the debate about the glaciers was over: they were on the march, and the time had come to head down to the community college and sign up for adult-education classes in blubber chewing and igloo making.

All of those people who kept telling us Something Has To Be Done thought of themselves as scientifically literate, but none of them were. Not even Carl Sagan. Sagan was scientifically literate about television shows and atmospheric chemistry and dust storms on Mars, and the physics of particles bumping together in the rings of Saturn, but he didn’t know squat about glaciers. There aren’t any glaciers on other planets, at least not any of which the news has reached our planet. Or large, metropolitan areas waiting to be scraped away, for that matter. On most scientific matters, only three or four people in the world have enough actual knowledge to be scientifically literate.

Or not.

For the 40 years between the time young Margaret Mead returned to New York and started gathering up all those chairs, and the time Derek Freeman set out for Samoa, Margaret Mead was the only scientist in the world qualified to have an opinion about sex in Samoa. And her science was so botched, she wasn’t qualified either.

Whatever Paul Ehrlich may actually be qualified to talk about, telling people that the world is going to starve to death just as the Green Revolution was kicking into high gear wasn’t it.

No geneticist in the ’30s, a quarter century before DNA was discovered, could possibly have been qualified to say that entire groups of people should be flushed out of the gene pool. And those guys, and Paul Ehrlich, and Margaret Mead weren’t alone. They were just noisier than most. Here are some other things that socially aware, scientifically literate people have told us:

  • Tomatoes aren’t really tomatoes, they’re love apples and they will kill you.
  • Poinsettias will kill you, too, so keep poinsettias away from kids.
  • If you swim after a meal you’ll catch stomach cramps and drown.
  • If you hide under your fourth-grade desk, atom bombs can’t hurt you.
     
  • Go easy on the spaghetti because spaghetti is the kind of trash food that makes poor people fat. This advice was replaced by:
  • Eat lots of spaghetti because spaghetti contains complex carbohydrates, which was replaced by:
  • Don’t eat spaghetti because spaghetti is nothing more than empty calories, which was replaced by:
  • Eat lots of spaghetti because spaghetti is part of a Mediterranean diet, and Mediterranean people live to very old ages.
     
  • A glass of wine with dinner is good for the nerves, which was replaced by:
  • A single sip of alcohol leaves whole mountainsides of clear-cut brain cells in its wake, so never drink anything alcoholic, which was replaced by:
  • In spite of scarfing down unplucked songbirds, and sheep pancreases, and things even the Chinese won’t eat, French people drink lots of red wine, and they live longer than you do, so drink red wine, but not because you enjoy it, which was replaced by:
  • It’s not the alcohol that makes the French live a long time, it’s the grapes their wine is made out of. So drink grape juice, instead, which was replaced by:
  • It’s not the grapes, it’s the alcohol. Alcohol clears your arteries. Skip the red wine, chug down the hard stuff, and you can live as long as a Frenchman without the sulfites.
     
  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away, which was replaced by:
  • Modern-day factory farmed apples come coated with Alar. Alar is the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply, so don’t even think about touching an apple unless you are wearing a hazmat suit, which was replaced by:
  • Alar is nothing more than an apple growth-regulating hormone and doesn’t have anything to do with people, so go on, eat apples.
     
  • Bumblebees can’t fly. But that one was based on a faulty mathematical model, which brings us to mathematical models in general. In general, researchers fall back on mathematical models when whatever they’re trying to figure out is too complicated for them to understand.

Nowadays scientists run their mathematical models through computers when they want to figure out something that’s too complicated to understand. Sometimes the computer models are so complicated, nobody understands them, either . . . especially where weather and supercomputers are involved. Which, now that global warming is à la mode, leads to questions nobody has answers to.

When people mention that we just had the hottest summer in half a century, they never say what happened 51 years ago to make things even hotter, because the computer wasn’t programmed to tell them.

When you ask why, if the oceans are beginning to boil away, is there so much more sea ice around Antarctica than there used to be, all they can answer is that the science is complicated, and they’re right. The science is complicated. It’s too complicated for the scientists who do that kind of science to understand. It’s way too complicated for scientists who do other kinds of science to understand. And as for the people who don’t do any science at all, such as the ones trying to persuade you that the whole thing is too complicated for you to understand, they don’t understand it any better than you do.

When people mention that we just had the hottest summer in half a century, they never say what happened 51 years ago to make things even hotter.

The very best that anybody can do with questions like these is to compare what the computer spits out with what seems to be going on in the real world. That’s easy with bumblebees. When your model tells you bumblebees can’t fly, you know something’s wrong with the model. When the model tells you summers should have been heating up for the past 15 years, and they haven’t been, maybe the computer hit a patch of short-term bad luck involving natural variations in weather patterns, and things really will heat up when the computer’s luck changes and the weather gets back on track.

Or, maybe, the sun ran out of spots for a while, the way it did in the Little Ice Age. And global warming is the only thing between us and freezing to death.

Or an increase in forest litter in the tropics is soaking up the carbon dioxide.

Or, maybe, all the sulfur compounds that Chinese coal-burning plants have been dumping into the air are shielding us from the solar gain we’d be getting if the Chinese were running their factories on natural gas.

Or the sudden, rapid growth of trees in the Siberian and Canadian sub-Arctics is swallowing up carbon dioxide as fast as the Chinese can generate it.

Or calcium in the ocean is turning carbon dioxide into limestone.

Or it’s all part of some long-term cycle having to do with Ice Ages. Carl Sagan was right, and the glaciers are coming for New York after all.

Or . . .

Or . . .

Or, could be, something is wrong with the model.

My money says we’re having a Margaret Mead moment: the science isn’t good enough, and nobody knows what’s going on. Not the computer programs. Not the people who write the computer programs. Not the scientists who study global warming. Certainly not the scientists who don’t study global warming. Or the hordes of socially aware laymen who consider themselves scientifically literate. And, most of all, not the politicians, pundits, and public intellectuals who built their careers on global warming.

The difference between me and these folks is, I know I’m scientifically illiterate. I am to science what a student at a madrassa is to the imam. All I can do is rely upon him to repeat the sacred texts to me. But with all the nonsense that’s been spoon-fed to us in the past, I’m going to ask questions before I get stampeded into doing something that doesn’t agree with the way the world looks to me. So, when someone who fancies himself scientifically literate tells me bumblebees can’t fly . . . and I look out my window at a whole gardenful of bumblebees buzzing around, I’ll need an explanation I can understand before I start claiming those bees aren’t flying.

When your model tells you bumblebees can’t fly, you know something’s wrong with the model.

Could be the global warm-mongers are right. Could be that God really does have an emerald palace all fitted out with rivers of non-alcoholic wine and six dozen amnesiac maidens waiting to be deflowered just by me so they can forget about it the next morning and start over again as virgins . . . if I’m righteous about not running the air conditioner. But I’d need more than the word of somebody who hasn’t been any closer to Paradise than I have before I turn off the AC on a summer’s day.

When the kid sitting cross-legged on the mat next to mine stops bobbing his head as he memorizes yet one more sura, and tells me that if I don’t quit driving my car the ocean will swell up and wash away Denver, I’m going to want to know what happened in Colorado a thousand years ago when the weather was so warm that Vikings were homesteading in Greenland.

Could be there’s an explanation for that, but I’d need to hear it before I start passing laws to force people to raise their children in squalor because the things they need to do in order to lead decent lives are too wasteful and antisocial for the rest of us to countenance.

I’d need better proof than Margaret-Mead-knows-best before I recommit to the silly personal values of the ’60s. And I’d need a lot better proof before I start castrating people I don’t think are as smart as I am, or forcing young mothers to have abortions, or condemning entire populations to gas chambers . . . or millions of people here, and billions in other places, to lifelong poverty because I don’t think they should burn coal or gasoline or nuclear energy.




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Crisis Communism

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No law has drawn more ire from libertarians and conservatives than Obamacare. The idea of the government using its power to punish people for making a free and informed decision not to purchase health insurance, justified by the noblest-sounding idealism of "lowering costs" and "increasing access," is obvious pavement for the road to socialism. If the government has the right to impose economic decisions on us, then capitalism is finished.

My own view is that, contrary to conventional libertarian wisdom, Obamacare gets some things right. I have a history of health problems and the end of exclusions for preexisting conditions benefits me greatly; without it I probably would not have health insurance. I also like the Obamacare health insurance exchanges, because they enable plans to compete for buyers, and competition is the engine that lowers cost and improves quality. In terms of preexisting conditions, and the lack of competition among plans, I think the old system was broken and the new system is better.

But my point is that these good things would have happened from deregulation. The flaws in the old system were caused by government control, not by the free market or the greed of insurance companies. In fact, greed is a main motive of Obamacare's insurance-company backers, who love a law that forces people to buy their products and pay them more money.

Here I posit a theory that I call Crisis Communism: when the government interferes in the free market it causes a crisis, which the socialists then use as an excuse for greater government interference, justified by the need to end the crisis. Thus regulation achieves a downward spiral towards Marxism. One good example is the Great Depression. The Federal Reserve caused it; then the New Deal was offered as a solution — which made it worse.

In the field of health insurance, two regulations precipitated the crisis "solved" by Obamacare. First, the complex of laws and codes known as ERISA (associated with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974) tended to force health insurance to come from a worker's employer, so that the employer chose the plan, which killed competition for plans among individual consumers. Second, the state insurance commissioners issued detailed regulations about what a health insurance plan was allowed to cover and what benefits it could have. The advocates of Obamacare might blame the free market for a bad system, when really it was state socialism that was to blame.

I want Obamacare repealed. But if we are to repeal Obamacare, then we must also repeal ERISA and all state health insurance regulations, so that free market competition can force health insurers to make plans available at prices that people want to pay for the benefits they want and freely choose to purchase.




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Service Industry

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