The Age of Plaster

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Last month’s Word Watch characterized the current era as the Age of Small Minds. A comment was made about that column, an interesting comment too. It was a critique of efforts to distinguish one “age” from another. I responded as best I could, but the truth is, it’s hard to resist naming Ages — as hard as it was for H.L. Mencken to resist naming Belts: you know, the Bible Belt, the Infant Damnation Belt, and so on.

My current idea about the current age is that it should be called, at least in its literary dimension, the Age of Plaster. By “plaster” I mean the kind of stuff that people slather onto a sentence, just any old way, so that the sentence will sort of warm the heart, convey an impression, avert criticism, earn a paycheck, earn a doctorate, or, as the plasterers say, whatever.

The idea is to cover the sentence with the stickiest, gooeyist phrases you’ve heard in the past 24 hours, preferably phrases you’ve heard 24 times during that time. This shows that the plaster will wear well. A good plasterer can get through a whole day — seven days, 365 days, 10,000 days — without having to think about what he’s doing. It’s all routine, and it’s all the same.

A search of Google News returns 16,900,000 citations for legendary. Now there’s a hunk of plaster that will stick to anything.

Instead of stating, simply and clearly, that you called Helen to ask for her advice, you can dredge your wet bucket of words and say that you reached out to Helen to get her input. You don’t need to worry about the fact that getting input is a generic term for what happens with computers, a term not applicable to human beings and not capable of distinguishing between begging for advice, asking for an opinion, drumming your fingers while you pretend to listen, and demanding a complete report by Monday. But why bother to figure out the difference, when input will get you through the sentence?

And why worry about that jarring noise one hears when a banal computer term is coupled with an expression that, until 2014, suggested intense emotional need? Until then, people who were crossed in love reached out to their friends for solace. Communities devastated by natural disasters reached out in desperation for the assistance of others. People who had lost their jobs reached out to their families and friends. You can almost see those hands reaching out. So is that how you reached out for Helen’s input?

A few years ago, I toured the Michigan state capitol. The guide pointed to the beautiful copper chandeliers, elaborate constructions with their lights hanging from effigies of the state’s heraldic animals, the elk and moose. “See those things?” she said. “When they restored the building, they discovered that basically, the chandeliers were hanging from nothing. It was all just lathe and plaster.”

Many a rhetorical elk and moose depends from the plaster ceilings of 2015. Probably there isn’t a day in the Michigan capitol when bureaucrats fail to inform the public that their newly invented infringements on liberty are motivated by an abundance of caution; that without the latest rules and regulations, who knows how many families in this state might have been put in harm’s way?And if these coats of plaster aren’t enough to cover the lathe and support the copper fauna, the bureaucrats will undoubtedly add, If we can save just one life . . . ?

Are there military weapons that are not lethal? No, there are not.

Or we can save just one job — the speechwriter’s. Or the news writer’s. It sounds impossible, but people are actually paid to write newspaper stories about the legacy of Michael Brown. Or about that closely related subject, the many legendary aspects of our world. A search of Google News returns 16,900,000 citations for legendary. Now there’s a hunk of plaster that will stick to anything. High school volleyball seasons are legendary; local sheriffs are legendary, with legendary careers; a retiring chemistry prof is legendary; an obscure 18th-century doctor is legendary. I like Joan Rivers as well as the next person, maybe better; but tell me, what legends are actually told about that legendary performer?

Here’s another kind of news story (AFP, May 14): “Kiev — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has appointed John McCain, a hawkish US senator who has pressed Washington to send lethal weapons to war-torn Ukraine, as his advisor, his administration said.” As Han Solo once exclaimed, “You said a mouthful, Chewie.” Senator McCain is a hawk, and Ukraine has something like a war going on, and I don’t like either of those things; in fact, I detest Senator McCain. But that’s not a promising way for a news story to begin. The key is “lethal weapons.” Are there military weapons that are not lethal? No, there are not. Lethal weapons is verbal plaster, a way of tarting up a news story until it can double as a partisan attack.

To accomplish the purpose, the words don’t have to make sense. War-torn: what does it mean? Was America “war-torn” from 1861 to 1865? Certainly, if you lived in Virginia. If you lived in Maine, maybe not. But war-torn sounds so definite, doesn’t it? So much like settled science. Being torn is bad; being war-torn must be twice as bad, indeed evil. And imagine the evil of sending lethal weapons to a place that is already war-torn! Horrible to contemplate.

Well, there are plaster saints — of the which McCain is one — and there are plaster arguments. I hope I’m not required to choose between the two.

Most of the verbal plaster that’s now being slung comes out of the political bucket. It’s politics that creates presidential speeches that contain not a single memorable line, just lumps of flattery flung at every demographic group and lobby the speechwriter can think of. It’s politics that creates press conferences so clogged with plaster that nobody cares what was said; everybody just discusses the means that were used not to say anything. This doesn’t mean that words were finally dispensed with. One wishes that they were, and that the press agents resorted to mere gestures. That would be more than enough. Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s film director, was asked how she cut the Nazis’ long-winded speeches down to only a few seconds. “Oh,“ she said, “there’s nothing hard about that. With a political speech, all you need is the beginning and the end, and just something in between.”

But politics isn’t the only source of verbal plaster. The ultimate source is the social assumption, no doubt inspired by our non-educational system, that words — their meanings, their histories, their emotional associations, their logical implications — are of no importance when compared to something, almost anything, else.

You can tell when people think that words are important: it’s when they try to use them accurately, even when accuracy isn’t required.

What does it mean to say that your thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the latest victim of senseless violence? Are the people who say this actually praying? Are they actually thinking? And according to what definition is a murder or riot actually senseless? There wasn’t any motive? There was, but no one can understand it? What? What do these people mean? Do they even know whether the victim had a family? Or cared about it? If they themselves really cared about any of this, they wouldn’t be using these hackneyed phrases.

To cite another example: what does it mean to say that the outcome was negative, or I had a positive reaction to her proposal, or he had a really negative attitude? If the people who use such words cared about conveying a specific meaning, wouldn’t they think for a tenth of a second about the words available to express it? A positive reaction: is thata good reaction, or a favorable one, or a pleasant one, or an enthusiastic one, or a mildly approving one, or what, exactly? If they cared about words and their meanings, why would they let negative take the place of bad, unfavorable, damaging, disastrous, fatal, slightly unfortunate . . . again, every word that’s available to convey a thought? Such people are not trying to cover up their true feelings (as opposed, I guess, to false feelings). They don’t regard their feelings as important enough to define. They want to talk, but without disrupting their intellectual snooze.

You can tell when people think that words are important: it’s when they try to use them accurately, even when accuracy isn’t required. Chelsea Clinton is unlikely to lose her job at the Clinton Foundation, no matter what she says. So, on purely financial principles, why shouldn’t she tell the world, as she did on April 23, that the Foundation is hard at work on many issues, “whether that’s around women and girls”? Huh? What is that, and how is it around? And Andy Levy isn’t likely to lose his job on Red Eye because he, like most other people in the media, said squash when he should have said quash. The difference is that Levy immediately corrected himself, thus demonstrating that he cares more about the meaning of words than about the sound of his own voice, even though it’s the voice that earns the paycheck. Let this event, Levy’s Self-Correction, be recorded, together with its date: April 24, 2015. It was a victory of mind over plaster.

Not all of Levy’s friends at Fox deserve to be seen in this positive light. Jenna Lee, one of the many blonde young ladies who give the network its distinctive tang, was burbling on May 8 about the Kennedy family when she strove for a supreme verbal effect and emitted, “These figures are so icon.” She got her effect, but it seems kind of negative to me. How much do you care about words if you use icon as an adjective?

It was another Foxite, Andrea Tantaros, who fell to discussing a female sports referee (April 9) and observed, “She’s knows how to ref, which she does know how to ref.” It has long been common, among people who are not paid for the words they use — in fact, among illiterate people — to employ which as a universal substitute for and, but, although, because, and any other connective you can think of. But Tantaros is paid — apparently to apply such verbal plaster. Rand Paul, noted for his large quantity of words, is also a pretty good plasterer. On April 7, he told Sean Hannity — he who introduces every other sentence with the word now, with no interest in discovering any other way of plastering over his own lapses of continuity — “If you raise defense spending, which I think we do need defense spending . . . .” Bill Clinton was puzzled by the meaning of is; Rand Paul is unclear about the meaning of which. I prefer Paul, but hell, he’s making it hard.

Political blather . . . how about religious blather? Yes, the clergy have been master plasterers for a long time. But now the Bible is filling up with the gray sticky stuff.

The New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press) is the Bible translation mercilessly pushed by modernist clergy. The damned thing is everywhere — in the liturgy, in Bible studies, in college courses, and I assume (gruesome thought) in deathbed devotions. The NRSV is a terrible translation, flat, pretentious, and sometimes remarkably inaccurate. I was recently reminded of that while I was looking up the Bible episode in which a man is consumed by worms because he took God’s glory to himself.

These are as nothing, compared with a political correctness so asinine that even a male cannot be called a man, even when the Bible calls him that.

He’s Herod Agrippa, and it happens in the twelfth chapter of Acts. Herod says something in public and the admiring crowd exclaims, as at some utterance of a US president, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” That’s how Acts 12:22 has been translated in the past, and the meaning is perfectly clear in the original. If you’re wondering about the original of “man,” it’s “anthropou,” the genitive of “anthropos.” The word means “man,” plainly and simply. It’s impossible to find a passage in the Bible that is easier to translate.

Unluckily, the translation I seized from the bookcase was the NRSV. And how does this much lauded work of scholarship translate the passage? It manages to render it as, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!”

To repeat: “Anthropos” means “man.” It does not mean “male.” It does not mean anything about mortality, one way or another. But let’s get to the most important question: what crowd would say a thing like that? What person would say a thing like that?

Not Thomas Jefferson, who did not hold it self-evident that all mortals are created equal. Not Abraham Lincoln, who did not say that the field of Gettysburg had been consecrated by the blood of brave mortals. Not Edna St. Vincent Millay, who did not write a sequence of poems called Epitaph for the Race of Mortals. They didn’t say it that way, and they wouldn’t have said it that way, because saying it that way would have made them look as if they didn’t give a damn about the words they used.

But to the august Bible translators, the meanings of words, their emotional associations, their dramatic proprieties and plausibilities — these are as nothing, compared with a political correctness so asinine that even a male cannot be called a man, even when the Bible calls him that. The assumption is that once political correctness is secured, any kind of verbal plaster will be good enough to cover the gap between Acts 12:21 and Acts 12:23.

This the kind of thing that makes real liberals shudder. And what can be next? Mortal and Supermortal? “A mortal’s reach should exceed his/her grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” “Ecce homo: behold the mortal”? Very probably. They’re all just words. Just something you spread on a wall.




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What’s So Selfish About Capitalism?

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It is a mischaracterization of the free-market society that is as old as capitalism itself. One recent recycle comes from self-designated “libertarian socialist” and “anarchist” Noam Chomsky: “It’s just, I’m out for myself, nobody else — and that’s the way it ought to be” (Power Systems, p. 157).

Now it is absolutely true that laissez-faire capitalism allows someone to be “selfish” (in the most shallow sense), basically because such capitalism allows an individual to be any number of things. A man can spend every penny he has on trinkets (from which expanding circles of merchants and others will actually benefit), or he can donate all he owns to charity — or select among all the types of intermediate options. Freedom of property gives people these choices, in the same way as freedom of religion provides them with a smorgasbord of theisms, atheisms, and agnosticisms. The separation of state and religion doesn’t mean that everyone will embrace, say, Seventh-day Adventism, nor does it follow that the separation of state and economics means that everyone will embrace “selfishness” — or any one exclusive behavior.

The fear that freedom of charity — ending redistributive taxation, thereby completing the separation of state and charity — will mean not a diversification, but the utter death of charity, proceeds from the premise that the one thing everyone will do under capitalism is nothing — for or with anyone else. But this contention that individual liberty entails an abject disregard for others corresponds to no social reality. Does freedom of assembly mean that people will never assemble — in any way? Does freedom of trade mean that everybody will in fact stop trading? Does freedom of speech and of the press — an unregulated market in ideas — mean not that we will have a rich and engaging culture, but that nobody will exchange any ideas about anything?

Laissez-faire capitalism allows someone to be “selfish” because such capitalism allows an individual to be any number of things.

Consider freedom of sexuality. Now it is also absolutely true that capitalism allows someone to indulge in what was formerly euphemized as “self-abuse.” Does that mean that without government control of sex — without a nationalization of the means of reproduction — individuals will do nothing but lock themselves away in their rooms? That there will be no dating, no courting, no marriages? No births, no propagation of the species — is that how “rugged individualism” will “atomize” society? Will all of capitalism’s “sham-liberty” (Engels) degenerate us into an anti-civilization of hermits, morons, and masturbators? Is that the fate from which only coercion — by a hereditary monarch, a Putsch oligarchy, or the Election Day majority-plurality — can save us?

Forebodings of societal necrosis notwithstanding, there is no conflict between liberty and community — the former is each tree, the latter the forest. By allowing each adult to act on his own choices, liberty empowers consenting adults to interact in various ways within a multiplicity of modes: religious-philosophical, professional-economic, sexual-romantic, cultural-artistic, fraternal-humanitarian, and many more. Hence the profound error of thinking that capitalism — voluntarily funded government limited to the defense of person and property — has any one “way it ought to be” concerning socioeconomic matters (such as Chomsky’s “I’m out for myself, nobody else” burlesque). Its only commandment is political: the prohibition of the initiation of force or fraud — by either state or criminal agents. We may therefore confidently retire verso Engels’ and recto Thomas Carlyle’s “cash nexus” caricature of the open society. Whatever the skirmish, the conflict of freedom vs. control is that of diversity vs. conformity — the multifaceted, multihued consent nexus of capitalism vs. the flat, sanguineous coercion nexus of statisms left and right. When some lobbyist hands us the line “If government doesn’t do it, it doesn’t get done,” what he’s really telling us is: it doesn’t get done his way only.

Many of the giants of classical liberalism recognized the affinity of compulsion and conformity. Jefferson wondered: why subject opinion to coercion? His answer: “To produce uniformity.” And Ludwig von Mises, in a survey of paradoxical charges against the free market, observed: “The atheists make capitalism responsible for the survival of Christianity. But the papal encyclicals blame capitalism for the spread of irreligion. . . .” Irreligionists identify capitalism with religion because capitalism (unlike leftism) doesn’t suppress religion, while religionists identify capitalism with irreligion because capitalism (unlike rightism) doesn’t suppress that. Let us put aside the question of whether such behavior — the refusal to extend to others the protection of law that one demands for oneself — constitutes “selfishness” in the most destructive sense. What this example illustrates perfectly is the statist projection inherent in linking laissez faire, which neither suppresses nor subsidizes, to any homogenized culture. A “capitalist society” is no more synonymous with “selfish materialism” than with “selfless spirituality.” The only thing everyone in a libertarian political order does — with no one’s mind, body, and property but his own — is act, not for his exclusive “gratification” against any consideration for others, but on his own judgment protected against any violence from others.

With regard to the nature of civil liberties, the freedom to withhold one’s wealth from the state — apparently the gravamen of the charge of capitalist “selfishness” — is wholly like any other human right. The state has no more claim to the individual’s private property than to his private body or his private mind. (Indeed, what a person does with his own property or body is what he does with his own mind — all coercion is “thought control.”) If we do not grant government the ability to more wisely or morally use a citizen’s mind or body, we do not grant it the ability to more wisely or morally use his property. Yet that is exactly what the accusation of “selfishness” wants to guilt us into conceding: that the state (essentially a handful of guys with guns) will manage each and every person’s money “better” than these people (essentially the entirety of the population) will do themselves. Just who is manning this administration — mortals or gods?

Will all of capitalism’s “sham-liberty” degenerate us into an anti-civilization of hermits, morons, and masturbators?

The importance of private property to political dissent was memorably demonstrated by an unexpected but significant source. In response to President George W. Bush’s launching of the Iraq War, the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee issued a public statement entitled “An Appeal to Conscience: In Support of Those Refusing to Pay for War on Iraq,” which upheld a citizen’s right not to pay “all or a portion of one’s federal taxes as a form of conscientious objection.” Among the signatories were many who proudly wore the label “socialist,” including . . . Noam Chomsky. Now here were outright collectivists defending the right of every individual to keep his money from the taxmen, for no reason other than to reflect his private conscience — that is, his personal disagreement with government policy, even when the government was enthroned by the Election Day majority-plurality. (And certainly Bush 2000 won a much greater percentage of the popular vote than Chile’s Allende, whose “democratically elected” credential is repeated by the Left as calculatingly as Castro’s dictator status is not.) The “Appeal to Conscience” didn’t even contain a little pledge that each tax resister would spend his withheld wealth on good things (e.g., children’s charities) and not on bad ones (hookers and heroin).

Since war is a government undertaking, we must note the converse in America today: almost every government project is conceived as some kind of “war” — hence a War on Poverty and a War on Drugs no less than a War in Iraq and a War on Terror. If, as a matter of principle, a citizen may stop giving money to the state as a practical expression of his “conscientious objection” to any particular war — if he can in that manner legitimately protest national security and other policies — we thereby recognize that private property is essential to freedom of conscience. What then is left of any variant of wealth seizure? What are we left with but capitalism in its purest form?

Yet that is the very politics denounced by the Left, including even its antiwar tax resisters, as “selfishness.” One cannot help recalling the scene in A Man for All Seasons where Sir Thomas More, accused of high treason, explains that his believing a “loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing” is a matter of necessity “for respect of my own soul.” Thomas Cromwell, the state’s advocate and More’s antipode in this “debate” — a rigged trial in which the defendant’s life is in peril — tries to undermine this statement of conviction in a common manner, sneering, “Your own self, you mean!” More doesn’t deny it: “Yes, a man’s soul is his self!”

Possibly the “egalitarian” supporters of the “Appeal to Conscience” believed that its broad principles should apply to only specific people — namely, themselves and those sufficiently parallel. That returns to the fore the refusal to extend to others the protection of law that one demands for oneself. Said refusal is a good working definition of what many actually champion as the corrective to capitalist “selfishness”: the social-democratic “welfare” state — the mixed economy:

To be capitalist or to be socialist?— that is the question. Precisely what is the mix of the mixed economy? When is it capitalist and when is it socialist? When does it protect property and when does it confiscate it? When does it leave people alone and when does it coerce them? When does it adhere to the ethics of individualism and when does it obey the code of collectivism? And just which is the metaphysical primary — the individual or the collective (e.g., the nation, the race, the class)? The fundamental truth about the mixed economy is that mixed practices imply mixed principles, which in turn imply mixed premises — i.e., an incoherent grasp of reality. With socialism, the chaos was economic; with “social democracy,” it’s epistemological. Ultimately, the latter can no more generate rational policies than the former could generate rational prices. The mixed economy doesn’t present us with a mosaic portrait of the just society, but with a jigsaw of pieces taken from different puzzles.

Unable to provide any philosophically consistent answers, the mixed economy demonstrates that the question of which rights will be protected degenerates into a struggle over whose rights will be protected. One example that virtually suggests itself: while a myriad of voices clamor for censorship, who ever says, “There have to be some limits on free speech, and we should start with mine”? Concerning “economic” issues, do we ever hear, “Y’know what? Give the competition the subsidies. Me, I’ll bear the rigors of the market”? As for intellectual and moral integrity: do we see the National Organization for Women (NOW) and fellow “progressives” bring to other issues the laissez faire they demand for the abortion industry — a heresy that elicited a charge of “possessive individualism” from Christopher Hitchens when in office as socialist inquisitor — except, that is, when these “progressives” demand tax dollars for abortions (and deny reproductive rights, the putative sine qua non for gender equality, to males)? Do we see the National Rifle Association (NRA) and fellow “conservatives” bring to other issues the laissez faire they demand for the gun culture — a deviation that roused Robert Bork, majoritarian mongoose to any perceived libertarian snake, to attack the NRA via a comparison with the ACLU — except, that is, when these “conservatives” demand that private property owners be prohibited by law from refusing entry to persons carrying firearms?

Whatever the skirmish, the conflict of freedom vs. control is that of diversity vs. conformity.

No matter what combination of contradictory positions any particular avatar of the mixed economy advocates on any given day, he is always a libertarian with his own liberty and a capitalist with his own capital, but an authoritarian with the freedoms of others and a socialist with their property. Such is the “idealism” that distinguishes modern liberalism and its special-interest lobbies from the “selfishness” of classical liberalism and its establishment of the same rights for oneself and one’s neighbors.

With social diversity now multiplying the types of special interests in many social democracies, the resulting political conflicts cannot be dismissed, let alone defused — least of all by the bromide that “we all accept that our tax dollars go to things we disapprove of.” No one in fact accepts that. Even though taxation exists to separate people from control of their money, selective tax protests span the spectrum of otherwise pro-taxation pressure groups. We’ve seen collectivists — reputed foes of all private property — endorse antiwar protesters who demand as a matter of individual conscience their right not to pay taxes. Years ago in The Nation, an ad told readers that “your tax dollars” funded what it alleged was Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. Public school supporters, who never voice concern over how many “Americans really want to give tax dollars” to that monopoly, suddenly claimed great concern with what “Americans really want” at the prospect of those dollars going to “school vouchers.” And among traditionalists, tax protests involve everything from abortion to art (if it offends them) to foreign aid (for the countries they don’t like) to free condoms and free needles. Under a system that denigrates the concept of equal rights for all, everyone wants to be exempt from paying taxes for the things he disapproves of, but no one wants — any guesses why? — his neighbors to be exempt from paying taxes for the things they disapprove of.

There’s not a mote of doubt as to what — with the double standard as its only standard — exposes itself as the inherent politics of “selfishness”: the hypocrisy of social democracy. All the warring camps of social democrats brazenly acknowledge that hypocrisy — in the other camps. A snowy day stuck indoors will pass much more tolerably with a back-and-forth Googling of “liberal hypocrisy” and “conservative hypocrisy.” (Each camp also detects tyranny — “fascism” — in only the others; compare Jonah Goldberg vs. Naomi Wolf.)

And what of social democracy’s central claim to “social justice”: its redistribution of wealth from the “most greedy” (richest? most materialistic? least philanthropic?) to the “most needy”? Consider one form of redistribution that no North American or European “welfare” state allows — or ever would allow. Let us stipulate that I have no problems with (a) the government’s taking a portion of my money for the purpose of tempering my “greed,” (b) the idea of those tax dollars going to the “most needy,” and (c) the percentage the state takes. But there is one thing: I don’t consider the current recipients to be anywhere near the “most needy.” My definition does not include my fellow Americans, who even at their poorest are richer than most people on the planet. To get right to it: I believe that the “most needy” — the “least of these” — are undeniably the starving children of the Third World, and I insist that my tax dollars all be sent to them.

The mixed economy demonstrates that the question of which rights will be protected degenerates into a struggle over whose rights will be protected.

Now why is that a problem? I am not declaring a right to withhold my taxes from the government, with no assurance about what I will do with the money — unlike the antiwar leftists who signed the “Appeal to Conscience.” Nor am I trying to control what others’ taxes pay for. All I’m asking is that my money go to those who my independent judgment and individual conscience tell me are the “most needy.” Why should I pay for full medical coverage for all Americans, when the Third World children don’t have any food? Why should I pay for textbooks for American children, when the Third World children don’t have any food? So, why can’tmy tax dollars go to them? Because the Election Day majority-plurality decides that “charity begins at home” (i.e., nationalism trumps humanitarianism)? If the neediest-recipient principle justifies my money’s transfer to my fellow Americans, why doesn’t it justify the money’s transfer from these Americans to the starving Third World children? Isn’t the principle violated by the dictionary “selfishness” of voting other people’s money into one’s own coffer (“tax booty for me, tax burden for thee”)?

The redistribution of wealth in a “welfare” state is not directed by a neediest-recipient or any other principle. It is purely a matter of power. With its rejection of consistent property rights, social democracy forces all people to throw all money onto the table (which some resist more successfully than others) and then allows them to take what they can (with some better able to take than others). That’s right: The money goes from those who are politically unable to hold on to their wealth, to those who are politically capable of grabbing on to that wealth. The former are no more guaranteed to be the “most greedy” than the latter are to be the “most needy.” It would be criminal not to cite Lord Bauer’s denuding of foreign aid: the “transferring [of] money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.” And it would be downright felonious to omit business subsidies. Any redistribution of wealth operates in only one way: from each according to his ability to contract via civil society, to each according to his ability to coerce via the state — a feature applicable (by degree) to both socialist dictatorship and social democracy.

The confusion of limited government with “selfishness” is reflected in the socialistic thesis that such government comprises nothing but the “class self-interest” of the business (“capitalist”) class. This thesis implodes almost immediately when we begin to ask precisely what concrete policies manifest that specific “class self-interest.” If respect for everyone’s property rights actually favors “capitalists,” why do corporations seek subsidies and “eminent domain” confiscations? If unregulated commerce leads to monopolization by these “capitalists,” why do real-world businessmen look to state regulation to gift them with monopoly entitlements? And if free trade gives an advantage to this class, why do each country’s business — and union — leaders lobby for protectionism?

The classical liberals formulated their principles of private property, laissez faire, and free trade — rejected by “socialists of all parties” and big business alike — not against the yearning of the have-nots for a better life, but in opposition to policies that favored the few over the common good, that is, the routine of “merchants and industrialists . . . demanding and receiving special privileges for themselves” (in the words of Robert B. Downs). Free-market economics (The Wealth of Nations) and American nationhood both arose as part of the revolt against such mercantilism — corporatism, in today’s parlance. The American “welfare” state, in contrast, began as a neomercantilist reaction against that revolt. “The essential purpose and goal of any measure of importance in the Progressive Era was not merely endorsed by key representatives of businesses involved,” observed Gabriel Kolko; “rather such bills were first proposed by them.” Big business has never stopped being a major driver of big government. Would President Bush’s 2003 prescription drug bill (the “largest expansion of entitlements in nearly forty years,” according to Jonathan Chait) have gone anywhere without its hundreds of billions in industry subsidies? Would Obamacare even exist without the “advice” and approval of the health insurance cartel?

If respect for everyone’s property rights actually favors “capitalists,” why do corporations seek subsidies and “eminent domain” confiscations?

Corporate privilege is a raison d’être — not a corruption — of the “welfare” state (aka “corporate liberalism”). Charity is not the purpose of the “welfare” state, much less its innovation. Concern for “the poor and stranger” long preceded its birth and will long survive its death. Like family life or the division of labor, charity is (to quote Paine’s view of society vs. state) “part of that order which reigns among mankind [that] is not the effect of government. It had its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man.” What had its origin in government is the swarm of anticompetitive measures benefitting “connected” entities — the fixed economy of the mixed economy. Without tariffs, for instance, how many people would always prefer to buy domestic goods? And how many would ever write out checks to a multinational conglomerate for nothing in return? Those are the “market failures” that the opponents of a free market fear.

Any state initiation of force exists not for a noble end (which, as Jefferson said of truth, requires no such coercion), but for a sordid one. Regarding military conscription, Ayn Rand pointed out that a “free (or even semi-free) country has never lacked volunteers in the face of foreign aggression.” However: “Not many men would volunteer for such wars as Korea or Vietnam.” Likewise, people will allocate money for the education of their children, sound retirement funds, the less fortunate, and especially the services of a limited government. What they won’t do is give it to “teachers” who can’t teach, Ponzi schemes, Boeing, or Chrysler — or the Taliban, which just a few months before 9/11 received from Uncle Sam a total of $43 million for its “help” in the victory-elusive War on Drugs (a sum that too obviously pales next to the multiple billions handed over to Vice President Cheney’s compadres for the purpose of building infrastructure — in Iraq). Only pursuits of folly and injustice seek the means of force or fraud.

Portraying laissez-faire capitalism as the tailored benefactor of big business is transparently a projection on the part of the mixed economy’s corporate liberals. The consistent socialists, on the other hand, care no more whether commerce is privileged or left alone by government than whether religion is privileged or left alone by government. They want the abolition of commerce, of religion, of a free market in anything, of any independent institution of civil society: the replication of totalitarian theory and history.

Will only the unfettered state stop the virulence of “selfishness”? Ideally yes, asserted Plato, for whom the “highest form of the state” was one “in whichthe private and individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions. . . .” Reductio ad fundamentum: There will be no more “selfishness” when there are no more selves.

Capitalism is being condemned for not assenting to the proposition that money grows on trees.

The unfettered market boasts no ability to effect a change in “human nature” — in social reality. There will always be situations in which people compete to get or to keep one position, one prize. But while the market can do nothing about this conflicting “selfishness” (and will do nothing about different parties’ demands for a guarantee of monopoly), it commands the common self-interest that people have in all competition being governed by an equitable rule: a ban on the use of force or fraud by any rival, the only possible such rule. The analogue of the market is not the jungle, but the stadium — more broadly, a network of stadiums and other venues.

Capitalism’s multiplicity of open competitions enables each individual to find the field where he can succeed. The free market’s profit-and-loss dynamic (to quote Adam Smith) “encourages every man to apply himself to [the] particular occupation” most sought after by others. These interactions synthesize the most prosperous social order as defined by the participants themselves — all of them, as opposed to any one party’s wish for the “way it ought to be.” It is an ideal that has been realized to the degree thata market mechanism has been implemented. In contrast, socialism’s “equality” has meant nothing but poverty for all. And in a jarring echo of the Great Depression, the mixed economy’s regulatory sector in recent years orchestrated a general downturn in the US (where the crisis was Orwellianly blamed on “deregulation”) and in Europe (the “PIIGS”). State intervention in production (i.e., one party’s wish for the “way it ought to be”), once heralded as the alternative to the market’s alleged class conflicts, evidently produces only the “common ruin of the contending classes” — to redirect a phrase from The Communist Manifesto. When the prescribed cure for “selfishness” actually afflicts the common good, we must reexamine the diagnosis of the condition.

Preponderant among the essential criticisms of limited government has been the charge that it fails to recognize as natural rights such things as food, clothing, and shelter, to say nothing of education (“from pre-K to Ph.D.”), advanced medicine, and whatever else might be tacked on. The sober reply: these items are not natural rights because they are not natural produce. It costs a man nothing not to coerce his fellow citizens, thereby respecting their rights to worship, speak, etc. But how can he provide everyone’s “right” to all those scarce materials and services? And why should he, when he himself is promised a “right” to those things whether he does any work or not? Realistically speaking, capitalism is being condemned for not assenting to the proposition that money grows on trees. And the condemners are quite serious in that belief: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Wealth simply exists, and only capitalist “selfishness” prevents its equal distribution to every soul on earth.

Ultimately, the free-market society is guilty only of affirming each individual’s right to control his own mind, body, and property, a conviction that calls for a single sentence: if that is “selfishness,” let us make the most of it.

Recommended Reading

  • Yaron Brook and Don Watkins, Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, 2012.
  • Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America, 2012.
  • David Kelley, Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence, 2003.
  • Robert P. Murphy, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, 2007.
  • Andrew P. Napolitano, It Is Dangerous to Be Right When the Government Is Wrong: The Case for Personal Freedom, 2011.
  • John Stossel, No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails — But Individuals Succeed, 2012.



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Decorating the Dead

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My grandmother and her friends used to call Memorial Day by its old name, Decoration Day. People went out to the cemeteries to “decorate” the graves. As a young man, I thought, “What hypocrisy! Millions of people are slaughtered in wars, and they are ‘remembered’ by people who ‘decorate’ their graves!”

The thought still seems unavoidable, especially when you see the Memorial Day ceremonies at a military cemetery. Here are thousands of identical white tombstones, “memorializing” individual men and women who are, for the most part, remembered by no one. And these are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of people slaughtered by wars and revolutions during the past two centuries — shot, drowned, blown apart, starved to death.

Nor is mass slaughter merely a feature of the modern world. The Iroquois wiped out the civilization of the Hurons, and tried to wipe out the Hurons themselves. They almost succeeded. Where are the tribes of the ancient European world? In many cases, only their names remain to be “memorialized,” by the rare scholar who knows their names.

Yet I believe that the idea of “decoration” or “remembrance” can be more than hypocrisy, if we — like, perhaps, my grandmother and her friends — actually use it as a way of asserting the significance of individual human lives. Though lost to specific memory, the lives of those people whose graves we see beyond the cemetery fence were real and important. If in decorating a tomb we actually do remember that, and at the same time remember the horrors that inevitably occur when the significance of the individual is forgotten, we may do well.




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A Collaboration With History

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Alec Mouhibian and Garin Hovannisian are both familiar to readers of Liberty. Their most recent contribution, memories of Nathaniel Branden, appeared in these pages in February.

On April 17, their film, 1915 — co-written and co-directed by Alec and Garin — opened in theaters throughout the country. It concerns a mysterious director who, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, stages a play in Los Angeles to bring the ghosts of a forgotten tragedy back to life. Liberty interviewed Alec about this very independent film.

Liberty: Alec, will you give us a little perspective on recent events around this film?

Alec: On April 24, 2015, 160,000 people marched six miles on the streets of Los Angeles (and many hundreds of thousands more across the world). They were marching to commemorate and demand justice for an event that took place 100 years ago, on the other side of the world. You may be wondering whether such a thing has ever happened before, but something like it had just happened in 1915, which is set in 2015, on a day very much like the one this April. A few years ago, we saw this scene coming, even if few people thought we were sane when describing it. In our movie, you hear and see glimpses of approximately 160,000 people marching on the streets of Los Angeles, while inside the walls of one haunted, historic theater one man named Simon tries to recreate the reason for their marching, and contrive a destination for them.

Liberty: Why did you set the story in a Los Angeles theater?

Alec: In a theater, history is repeated night after night, with the same actors, each time with different results. So while it might seem on the surface like a fantastic, abstract setting for such a weighty subject, it is for our story an entirely genuine and even “realistic” one. The theater itself is a character in 1915, the very first character.

What makes an actor good or bad, a performance true or false or in between? We thought these were important mysteries, especially for a story about how the past carries on in the present, how memory and denial can affect a life in so many ways. The professional challenges of an actor seem very much aligned to the historical burdens of contemporary Armenians. Both inherit a script, a story, which they are impelled to enliven, to honor, to serve . . . or if they can’t handle it, to rather ostentatiously ignore.

The theater itself is a character in 1915, the very first character.

Certainly the sense that theater is dead, or dying, or is constantly said to be dead or dying, is not at all beside the point. Simon, the mastermind of the film, is a true believer in the magic of theater, and he is convinced that one great performance can actually change the course of history.

Liberty: Where did you find your actors?

Alec: All over the world. We knew of Simon Abkarian (Casino Royale, Gett, et al.) and Angela Sarafyan (Twilight, Paranoia), the two leads, and wrote and named their parts for them from the beginning. They were the first two to read the script and expressed an instant desire to assume their roles. There are only two things no actor can just pretend to have: intelligence and face. In Simon and Angela we found two faces no one is likely to forget.

Angela lives in Los Angeles. Simon, one of the top stage and screen actors in France, had to fly in from Paris. The vastly talented Nikolai Kinski, whose last name will be familiar to film buffs, cancelled all his gigs and flew in from his home in Berlin. We had admired Sam Page in Mad Men and House of Cards. Jim Piddock is a prolific and beloved comic actor who comes from England. The rest of our cast we discovered through auditions, set up by our sharp casting director. That is how we found eight-year old Sunny Suljic, who delivers a stunning performance in his feature film debut.

Liberty: How long did you work on this film?

Alec: We began to write the script in May of 2012. We began to raise financing in May of 2013. Our first day of shooting was April 27, 2014. We shot for 20 days. The film was released theatrically last month. On opening weekend it was the #2 debut film in the country, in terms of per-screen box office.

Liberty: What was your greatest difficulty?

Alec: That is like asking someone to choose his greatest ex-wife. All of our difficulties were great, great difficulties. Creatively, the biggest frustration in moviemaking is when you can’t afford to fix your mistakes. The author of a book can go back and rewrite a poor paragraph. He does not need $20,000 to buy a vowel — nor does he have to work around the fact that the letter F is stuck in a Belgian cop show until September.

Liberty: What was your greatest pleasure?

Alec: Those moments on set when our imagination was brought to life in surprising and superior ways — by the actors, the production designer, the cinematographer, the makeup artist, the costume designer, the composer. We had masters in each field and together they did a masterly job. They worked tirelessly, sleeplessly, and with an absolute passion and dedication, not to display their own virtuosity, but to make 1915. Thank God, too, because this was a fragile project that could not withstand any too-major outbreaks of idiocy. Knowing that various talented pros are working as hard as you are and thinking as deeply as you are about how best to realize your vision makes you feel good.

By the end of it we were two mouths with one voice and four eyes with one vision. That sounds like some kind of wretched mutant, but we’ve been assured there are worse things in Vancouver.

A note here for future filmmakers. The most important thing is not to experience glories on set, but for the audience to experience them on the screen. Too often the one does not lead to the other. You will realize this in the editing room and thus meet your greatest pain. But we were speaking here of pleasures, and I suppose the collaborative vitality and professional excellence I mentioned is the reason most directors never want to retire.

Liberty: How long have you and Garin been working together? What skills does each of you bring to the project? That is — who is better at camera work, editing, writing, directing, or whatever? Have you collaborated previously?

Alec: We have collaborated on a number of things since middle school: newspapers, screenplays, foreign presidential campaigns, revolutions, poker. We are both writers by origin and Garin is the author of an acclaimed memoir, Family of Shadows. This was our first fictional film. Our only prior experience in filmmaking was a series of TV ads we produced for a presidential campaign designed to overthrow a monstrous post-Soviet regime. Overthrowing a paying audience is an entirely different task.

Some directing duos specialize; we do not. We were equally involved in, and equally ignorant about, all technical matters. The writing process began by forming an outline and splitting scenes but by the end of it we were two mouths with one voice and four eyes with one vision. That sounds like some kind of wretched mutant, but we’ve been assured there are worse things in Vancouver.

Our vision was for a certain kind of film that had never been made before, to tell a certain kind of story that had never been told — that is, indeed, impossible to tell. So the only valuable skill we brought to the enterprise was that of how to bluff.

Liberty: How many times did you get into a fight?

Alec: Never in public. At this stage, even in private, our fights are mostly fought in silence. By the time one of us opens his mouth, the winner has already been decided, the loser wrapping tape, and what’s left is to clean up the mess.

Liberty: Why should libertarians be interested in 1915?

Alec: Because it is a unique, mysterious psychological thriller that ought to provoke them intellectually and possibly lead them to some deep surprises. It has a lot of layers and secrets and even humor. You might hate it, but you won’t be bored. You will want to find out what happens in the end. In short, it should be a rewarding dramatic ride that might awaken some new feelings and questions about the personal meaning of history.

And it is a controversial movie for almost anyone who watches it — not politically controversial, but spiritually. It poses a different challenge for almost every kind of viewer. One of the dramatic themes in the film is the quest for freedom in the face of trauma, and I’m sure that many libertarians have contended with this in their own lives, this case of reality assaulting an idea.

Liberty: If people aren’t near a theater where 1915 is shown, how can they see it?

Alec: Well, the HD digital version can be downloaded from www.1915themovie.com and also from iTunes and Amazon, to be watched at home. I invite them to do so. Oh, and skeptics can even see a trailer. My policy is to only listen to unqualified praise, but Liberty readers who watch the film and run into me at the dog-track can cite the voucher code MENCKENISMYFATHER to tell me exactly what they think.




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Should Tsarnaev Be Put to Death?

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The verdict in Boston — death to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — may cause some libertarians to reaffirm or reconsider their position on the death penalty.

To me, the arguments against the death penalty seem obvious.

  1. The state always has too much power — why give it the ultimate power?
  2. While some crimes of passion can be excused as, well, crimes of passion, cold-blooded killing is always ugly and sickening.
  3. There is always the possibility that an executed person will later be found innocent. There is a somewhat larger possibility that even a person so worthless as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could change and become, in effect, another person.

But I confess: these arguments, though obvious, do not seem conclusive to me. They might seem conclusive if it weren’t for the weakness of the arguments that are often added to them by anti-death-penalty people:

  1. The Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s just as wrong to kill a killer as for the killer to have killed someone else.
  2. In proportion to the population, more black people than white people are executed.
  3. The incidence of murder in states that lack the death penalty is sometimes lower than the incidence of murder in states that have it.
  4. It costs a fortune to execute someone.

When I listen to these latter anti-death-penalty arguments, a strange thing happens to me. I get the feeling that the full ensemble of arguments is not as good as I thought it was — or why would the arguers (many of them professionally devoted to the cause) fill out their case with such weak and (I can’t help thinking) disingenuous pleas.

The Bible condones plenty of killings. The same biblical book that commands “Thou shalt not kill” also commands executions for various crimes. In the very next chapter, we find: “He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.” So “kill” in the first instance must mean “murder.” Even on non-biblical grounds, it seems very counterintuitive to suggest that it is as wrong for me to kill a man who casually murdered two teenagers and then happily ate the hamburgers they were carrying, as it is for the man to have killed the teenagers. Think of your own, doubtless even more horrible examples of crimes thought to merit the death penalty. Examples abound.

The state always has too much power — why give it the ultimate power?

The question to be asked about “racially disproportionate use of the death penalty” is whether particular black people or white people received a fair trial — not whether those people were black or white. If you want an assurance of fairness, nothing will satisfy you if the elaborate provisions of the death penalty codes fail to do so.

Does it make sense to compare murder rates in Massachusetts (2.0 per 100,000), which has the death penalty but hasn’t executed anyone since 1947, with murder rates in Texas (4.3 per 100,000), which executes people all the time, or Vermont (1.6) and Maryland (6.4), which have no death penalty? A deterrent that is rarely used can hardly deter; but would the death penalty, even if frequently used, explain the difference in murder rates between, say, Utah (1.7 per 100,000), which has the death penalty but also has a lot of Mormons, and Michigan (6.4 per 100,000), which abolished the death penalty soon after statehood, but which also has Detroit? The argument on each side seems impossible to make, on such evidence. Yet is there any possibility that the lack of a death penalty would actually lower the murder rate? How could that be?

It is childishly easy to answer the fourth objection, “It costs a fortune to execute someone.” It costs a fortune because of the legal ploys of the same people who are making the objection — ploys that are, in most cases, as intellectually dishonest as the objection itself.

It appears much less likely that an innocent person will be executed in today’s America than that I will kill an innocent person on my next drive downtown.

Where does this leave us? It leaves me acknowledging that there is something right, and something wrong, about the legitimate arguments on both sides. It leaves me with roughly the same questions that I think even anarchists would ask themselves about crime and punishment, if they succeeded in creating a society in which justice services were privatized.

Despite all attempted legal guarantees, is the death penalty sometimes wrongly carried out? Yes, probably it is, though it appears much less likely that an innocent person will be executed in today’s America than that I will kill an innocent person on my next drive downtown. Yes, it’s possible that I will suddenly confuse the accelerator with the brake, but that’s not a reason for me to give up driving.

It seems certain that the real prospect of a death penalty would deter certain crimes, but not others. As libertarians, we must pay enough respect to individual psychology to admit that. We must also specify that killing is ugly, no matter who carries it out. Also, I think, we must specify that the world would be better off without some of its inhabitants, especially those who wantonly murder other people.

I’ve noticed that when there is about to be an execution, intense emotions are evoked by the idea that John Smith is about to suffer “the ultimate penalty.” John is said to be a changed person, or a brutally misjudged person, or a sad, wayward, confused person, and people cry out for him on the internet. School children are told to write letters supporting him. Meanwhile, would-be enforcers of the death penalty dwell with badly hidden glee on his awful deeds. But immediately after he is executed or has his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, he is forgotten. The issue wasn’t John Smith; nobody really thought he was worth talking about, as a real person who had done real things; the issue was an identity-making cause called the Death Penalty. That doesn’t mean that John was, in the end, truly worthless. It does suggest that the contestants may harbor motives that have little to do with truth or justice.

My suggestion is that I, and other people interested in this controversy, put aside our eager concern with our identity as judges or sympathizers, warriors or reconcilers, and marvel, for a moment, at the complexity of the issue. In other words, I think it would behoove all the ideological contestants to become a little more reflective and a little less self-righteous.




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Divining the Truth about War

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The scene opens on a man, Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe), traversing the hot arid plain of Australia’s Outback. The camera looks down from above, almost as if it were the face of God. He carries two small metal rods in front of him, holding them gently and respectfully, as he might hold the reins of a pair of fine horses, giving them their head. Suddenly the rods cross. X marks the spot. He throws down his tools and begins to dig.

It is backbreaking work. We know from the change in his clothing that it takes many days. But he never gives up. He knows the water is down there; the rods told him so. He just has to keep digging. And sure enough, the water finally begins to gush. He exults at the sky as the water reaches his face, almost as a baptism. He has found water in the midst of a vast desert, just by trusting his gift for divination.

Arriving home, he finds his wife Lizzie (Jacqueline McKenzie) busy cleaning the boots of one of their sons. “They’re waiting for their story,” she tells him, nodding toward the bedroom of their three boys. “Not tonight,” he pleads. “I’m bone tired.” But she insists. “It’s their favorite part of the day.” The camera stays on her as we hear him read a magical tale from the Arabian Nights. The camera peers over his shoulder at the story’s illustration, then pans out.

How could you send all your sons off to fight a war half a world away? For what? For honor? For nothing.

But the beds are empty. There are no blankets on the striped ticking of the mattresses. These boys have been gone for a long time. They fought at Gallipoli. “May you outlive your children” may sound like a blessing, but it is the greatest curse any parent can know.

Moments like this abound in Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner, his first film as a director and a stunning piece of work. It is a film so filled with passion and pathos, elegant cinematography and quotable lines, that you just know — this is the film Crowe has held in his heart through all the years of making other people’s films. It is his paean to the Aussies and Kiwis who joined the ANZAC forces to fight the Turks during World War I while simultaneously offering a heartbreaking protest against war. As we watch him send his fine sons off to war in a flashback scene, calling out to the oldest, “Keep your brothers safe!”, we can’t help of Wilfred Owen’s ironic and contemptuous poem about the sufferings of soldiers in WWI: “Dulce et Decorum Est” — “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.” No, it is neither sweet nor fitting. It is horrifying. How could you send all your sons off to fight a war half a world away? For what? For honor? For nothing.

“You can find water, but you can’t find your own sons,” Lizzie accuses Connor wretchedly, and so he heads off to Gallipoli to find his sons’ bodies and bring them home. Along the way he stays at the inn of a woman (Olga Kurylenko) whose Turkish husband was killed in the war and meets the Turkish commander (Yilmaz Erdogan) who oversaw the ANZAC defeat at Gallipoli — his sons’ defeat — and has now returned to help the victors find and bury their dead. One Turk says to a British soldier, when asked what he did before the war, “I was an architect.” The Brit replies, “I was a civil engineer.” Enmity turns to respect as they come to know each other, and aThomas Hardy poem comes to mind — “The Man He Killed”:

Had he and I but met
     By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
     Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
     And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
     And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because —
     Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
     That's clear enough; although

He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
     Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
     No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
     You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
     Or help to half-a-crown.

Despite the excruciating sadness of its subject, The Water Diviner is one of the most beautiful films I have seen in recent years. The powerful love of a father for his sons is demonstrated in the flashbacks and mingles with the terrible guilt he feels as he realizes what he has unwittingly done to them by proudly sending them off to war. The cinematography is lush and creative, the music poignant, and the script is so carefully crafted that it reminds me of an Oscar Wilde play, full of pithy, quotable truths. This a film you will be glad you saw.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Water Diviner," directed by Russell Crowe. Hopscotch Features, Fear of God Films, 2015, 111 minutes.



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Mister Huggins Goes to Washington

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I am the mother of a black cat. Though it may be a little silly, I suppose it’s still politically correct for me to call myself Mister Huggins’ mother. I’ve been informed, by animal rights activist friends, that considering myself his owner is now frowned upon. Though anybody who’s ever lived with a cat would tell you that Mister Huggins actually owns me.

Ten years ago I started feeding a little stray tuxedo female, and was overjoyed that in my care she went from being skinny and woebegone to happily chubby. I thought she was too young to bear a litter, as she was still practically a kitten herself. But I came home from work one sizzling September afternoon to find her sitting on my patio, looking totally astonished and surrounded by four tiny furballs.

Kittens having kittens! Sounds like a social problem. It is undoubtedly yet another progressive cause waiting to be born.

I took the lot of them in from the heat. Relieved of her maternal burden, as soon as the litter was weaned, the mother ran away. Believe it or not, my leftist pals bemoaned the capitalist callousness that had caused this tragedy and commended me on my sense of social responsibility. Actually, I’m pretty sure you can believe it.

Black cats, pit bulls, and dolphins can’t vote, although some dolphins are undoubtedly smart enough to do a better job of it than many humans.

The boy kitten who looked like his mother was immediately adopted by one of my MoveOn friends. She warned me that I’d better keep the other boy, because — being solid black — in the cruel world he would face a lifetime of discrimination. I’m not making that up either.

Hoping to spare him stigma, I gave him his very un-sinister name. Mister Huggins has grown up, like his sisters, to be a very civilized and affectionate cat. Altogether I have four cats and a dog, and we are a very happy blended family.

Another friend, battling on the front lines of the animal rights crusade, regularly sends me sad stories about the plight of dolphins, wild burros, pit bulls, bowl-confined goldfish and — of course — black cats. Nearly all the organizations from which these dirges originate want donations. And, of course, legislation is always urgently needed.

Must we fear that this craze will reach the manic proportions of many other progressive causes? I think we can rest assured that it won’t. Black cats, pit bulls, and dolphins can’t vote, although some dolphins are undoubtedly smart enough to do a better job of it than many humans.

Actually, perusing the pitiful offerings of the last nationwide election, I was tempted to run Mister Huggins as a candidate for Congress. Hollywood would surely immortalize him: Mister Huggins Goes to Washington!

I think he’d actually bring in some fresh ideas. But, alas, that’s only a pipe dream. Not only because he isn’t human, but because he’d surely buck all those big-government hucksters and become a libertarian. Nobody owns a cat. Mister Huggins has a mind of his own.




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Clash of the Superheroes

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Two films opened this week with similar topics and settings but with vastly different stories and film styles. Both deal with AI (artificial intelligence). Both employ the Internet to give their AIs omniscience. Both are set in Norway, of all places. Both create metaphors for the “peacekeeping” NSA. But one is yet another mindnumbing blockbuster installment in the neverending Avengers series, while the other, Ex Machina, is a thoughtful, intelligent, well-acted suspense thriller.

I don’t know whether I’m the one getting old or the Avengers franchise is, but I’ve had enough of computer-generated hammers, shields, swords, tanks, and building parts barreling toward my face in an attempt to wow the 3D audiences in the theater next door. Give me a story — a story that I care about — please! In Avengers: Age of Ultron, once again an evil superpower is set on destroying and/or enslaving the human race, and once again our band of heroic mutants, endowed with special powers, must save the day. Between battles, the crew gives us some clever patter and barroom shenanigans, but even the charm of their personal squabbles is starting to wear thin.

So of course, Hollywood had to turn Tony Stark's entrepreneurship into greed and demonstrate what happens when heroes look out for themselves instead of sharing with the group.

Others have been raving on Facebook and fan pages about the new Avengers, and I confess that I took a little nap part way through my viewing (okay, I was asleep for about an hour), so I went back two days later in order to see what I missed and write this review. Sadly, I hadn’t missed much — just another slew of building parts (and a whole city!) barreling toward my head. I think those who are raving about the movie on Facebook might be trying to convince themselves that their continued hero-worship is deserved. Or maybe they’re just Stark raving mad. (Stark. Tony. Iron Man? Oh, never mind.)

In this installment Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the unwitting bad guy who, through his greed and desire for personal advantage, unleashes Ultron, an AI of enormous size and strength who has managed to download all the information from the internet into his memory. (Ultron was originally designed as a peacekeeping program, so there it is — the NSA!) Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) is my favorite Avenger because his superpower is not a mutation or a weapon; it’s his brain. He uses it to solve problems, such as building a prosthetic body suit when his heart fails. He’s a successful entrepreneur, too, and a lot of fans are starting to admire that about him. So of course, Hollywood had to turn his entrepreneurship into greed and demonstrate what happens when heroes look out for themselves instead of sharing with the group.

You really don’t need to know anything else about the story. Heroes get beat up. Humans fall off bridges. Robots get shot. Robots get up again. Humans change sides. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) fall in love. (Say what?) Tony’s sidekick Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is wisely away on business throughout this episode. I give this film a 2 for entertainment and an 8 for snoozability. But it’s going to make a mint in box office sales.

Ex Machina is another story entirely. First, it has a story. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a brilliant-but-nerdy computer programmer (aren’t they all?) who works at the world’s largest internet company. As the film opens, the company’s reclusive founder and president, Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), has sponsored a competition for one lucky team member to participate with him in a secret project. That lucky team member is Caleb. Soon he is whisked away to Nathan’s mountain retreat somewhere in the Pacific Northwest (but filmed in Norway; the Norwegians must be offering some attractive benefits to filmmakers right now).

Nathan is nothing like the stereotypical bespectacled computer geek. He is ruggedly handsome and hip, lifts weights, boogies down with the cook, and likes to throw back a few brews while hanging out with Caleb in his in-home bar. He’s friendly and cool, yet his eyes betray an air of sinister cynicism as he jokes about his projects. Caleb’s task is to perform a Turing test on a breakthrough robot imbued with humanlike intelligence and emotions. Named for computer inventor Alan Turing (see my review of The Imitation Game, based on Turing’s work to break the Nazi code), a Turing test decides whether a computer is interacting in ways that are indistinguishable from a human. Can it recognize idiomatic expressions, body language, and other nuances, for example? Can it create jokes, express sincere compassion, know fear or love?

He has uploaded to Ava’s memory all the data on the internet. In a sense she has become the Cloud, the god, the NSA.

Soon Caleb is introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful robotic creature with whom he has conversations each day. He grows more and more convinced that she passes the Turing test — she not only recognizes sophisticated nuances in language, but she demonstrates human emotions. A game of cat-and-mouse develops among those residing in the house — but who is the cat, and who are the mice?

The title is a reference to a dramatic technique employed by the Greek playwrights called deus ex machina:“the god descends in a machine.” Ancient audiences learned the moral of a story when a god swooped down from Mt. Olympus (literally inside a machine operated by stage hands) to rescue the poor mortal protagonist who was incapable of rescuing himself. (Remember that plays in ancient times were sponsored and paid for by church and state.) Nathan tells Caleb, “It used to be God watching us. Now it’s the Cloud.” He has uploaded to Ava’s memory all the data on the internet — all the conversations, photos, texts, emails, websites, documents, Wikipedia entries, everything. In a sense she has become the Cloud, the god, the NSA. And yet she acts and feels and reacts as a young woman would, because that’s all stored in her memory.

First-time director Alex Garland imbues his film with rich allusions to poetry, art, mythology, and film. For example, in the Bible, Eve (Ava) is the first woman, Nathan is the prophet who chastises David for seducing Bathsheba, and Caleb is an Israelite spy who scouts the Promised Land for Moses. References to Prometheus abound, as do references to Star Trek, a series that was also richly grounded in mythology. Nathan has several priceless works of art casually displayed in his secret hideaway, including a Jackson Pollock and Gustav Klimt’s painting of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, sister of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose work on thinking and consciousness is central to AI development and whose “Blue Book” is referenced in Nathan’s company name, Blue Book. Very subtle, and very cool when you get it. Describing Pollock’s creative process, Nathan tells Caleb, “It was ‘engaged’ art. It wasn’t deliberate, and it wasn’t random.” In a way he is describing God: not random, and not controlling, but engaged.

Recognizing these allusions is not necessary to enjoying the film. In fact, it would probably reduce one’s enjoyment of the film if you spent your time looking for them. But allusion is part of our shared consciousness, and when used subtly, as Garland does, it enriches our experience without our being fully aware of it. Joss Whedon and the other directors of superhero blockbusters would do well to get their heads out of the comic books and read something that has lasted for centuries.

rsquo;s the Cloud.


Editor's Note: Review of "Avengers: Age of Ultron," directed by Joss Whedon. Marvel Studios/ Walt Disney, 2015. 141 minutes; and "Ex Machina," directed by Alex Garland. Universal, 108 minutes, 2015.



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Now and Ever Shall Be

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Embodying Injustice

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In our media-saturated culture, we tend to see the people in the news as embodiments of grand sociopolitical realities.Thus, for example, have the Baltimore police and Freddie Gray, Michael Slager and Walter Scott, and Darren Wilson and Michael Brown become figureheads for our pet causes. The big-government left tells us that the cops involved must be convicted and harshly punished, because otherwise there can be no recognition of police brutality or racism. The authoritarian right maintains that if, as in Wilson’s case, the officers are cleared of all charges, there is no problem with police brutality or racism. Then it is not the police themselves who are tried, in the minds of statists, but police brutality and racism.

But these men cannot be reduced to mere symbols. They don’t simply embody anything. They are (or were) individual human beings.

To turn police officers involved in suspects’ deaths into scapegoats — before they’ve been convicted of any crime — is barbaric. Such thinking predates civilization. It belongs to the Stone Age. As a society, we are not evolving, but devolving. We are taking a gigantic leap backwards.

What will become of our criminal justice system if people are no longer recognized as themselves? The mob may be content to do that to others, but would any of us want to be reduced to such a state ourselves? To be robbed of one’s individual identity is, indeed, to be dehumanized.

In the Michael Brown shooting, all available evidence suggests that Officer Wilson killed Brown in self-defense. That by no means negates the disturbing data that have come to light about the Ferguson police department. Far less does Wilson’s exoneration discount the problem of police brutality. The case in question says nothing about any fact except for the case in question. Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar.

The anger of the demonstrators has ample justification. In many parts of the country, the police do behave, increasingly, as if they are an occupying army and the people they are sworn to protect a conquered enemy. Nor do racial minorities always receive anything approaching fair treatment by law enforcement officers.

But a mob is inspired, not byreason, but by raw emotion. It demands a sacrificial animal.To appease its feelings, it wants the offending cops convicted — regardless of whether they are guilty or not. That the mob would almost certainly be satisfied with such an outcome demonstrates its inhumanity. In their willingness to dehumanize other individuals, those who take part in it dehumanize themselves.

A guilty verdict against the apprehendingofficers would not bring Michael Brown, Walter Scott, or Freddie Gray back to life. Nor would a single incident of police brutality likely be prevented. Far from being converted from their folly, actual racists would find legitimate cover for their rage. As it is, police departments nationwide are now declaring themselves effectively at war with the civilian population. Not only has further harm not been averted but more has been inflicted by mob action and its response.

If any lesson emerges from this unholy mess, it’s this: if we are unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, our decisions, actions, and very lives can be snatched away from us. They can be twisted, like wet clay, into whatever shape suits the ambitions of a political faction. They become mere tokens in a contest for power. Under such a system, the concept of justice becomes a joke.

Justice is a strictly individual matter. It must be taken into account case by case. No nameless, faceless mass can be given “social” justice against any other. If Michael Brown was murdered, Walter Scott cold-bloodedly executed, or Freddie Gray brutalized off-camera inside that police vehicle, each act — however heinous — was a separate crime. None of them “embodied” anything, except a mother’s son or, for believers in the divine, a child of God.

Far from magnifying these men into anything larger than themselves, we have diminished them. In the process, we’ve diminished ourselves. And instead of making our country safer, we are turning it into an ever more frightening and treacherous place.




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