Total Recall

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The Great Debate

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Only my devotion to journalism made me watch the Clinton-Trump debate. It’s not my idea of fun to observe the collision of two giant gasbags somewhere above Long Island. And, as many people have pointed out, the meaning of such events, if any, ordinarily emerges not from what actually happened but from what was spun out of it, later.

So color me bored and irritated, before the thing even started.

The following is what your bored and irritated correspondent thought he observed. I’ll make it snappy, since you probably observed the damn debate yourself and have just as much right to an opinion as I have.

  1. In response to the introductory question about creation of jobs, Clinton revealed her conviction that you can do it by funding daycare, paying students’ way through college, and “making the rich pay their fair share.” Trump asserted that foreign countries are “stealing our jobs,” but Clinton returned to the idea of taxing the rich. She accused Trump of having “started [in business] with $14 million he received from his father.” She claimed that the economic collapse of 2008 had been created by a low-tax policy. She then began a long rant about government-sponsored “clean energy” creating millions of jobs.
     
  2. Responding to Trump’s verbal jabs about her failure to do anything good about the economy during her long career, Clinton smirked in a way I have often seen from schoolteachers who aren’t very bright. She then uncorked one of the most superior laughs I have ever seen, thus confirming one’s worst impressions of her character. She kept this up throughout the debate. She also continued her chronic habit of nodding her head while hearing things she disagrees with but cannot figure out how to respond to — for instance, Trump’s accusation that she had invented, or popularized, the term “’super-predator,” as applied to “black youths.”
     
  3. Trump frequently interrupted Clinton with little sarcastic remarks, to which the sworn-to-silence audience frequently made a favorable response. But I was wondering how, when Clinton brought up Trump’s failure to reveal his tax returns, he didn’t ask her why she hasn’t revealed the texts of the speeches she gave to Wall Street crony capitalists in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Didn’t he listen to Bernie Sanders’ successful attacks on her about that? Accused of initially supporting the Iraq war, Trump failed to mention the fact that Hillary voted for the war. He failed to mention, a propos the job-creation issue, that she bragged about her intention of putting coal miners out of their jobs. At other times, however, he provided facts (mainly about his own economic proposals) that were much more specific than hers.
     
  4. Clinton tried to popularize a catchphrase for Trump’s economic plan. The phrase seems to have been her idea of the one thing the audience should take home with them. The phrase was “Trumped-up trickle-down.” I rate that a failure.
     
  5. “Moderator” Lester Holt’s questions were filled with attempted zingers against Trump — such as a reiterated question about his birtherism — but none that I perceived against Clinton. In the second half of the event, Holt began to do “no, you’re wrong” “fact checking” against Trump, as advocated by the Clinton forces. I did not perceive him doing that against Clinton. To use a Trumpian word, Holt was a disaster. At many junctures, he seemed to be channeling Clinton.
     
  6. Trump made a clever transition from a question about internet security to a reminder that the hacking of the DNC revealed Clinton’s mistreatment of Sanders. Why, I wondered, didn’t he ask her why she, of all people, had been commenting with assurance about the security of electronic communications?
     
  7. Trump cleverly obscured his lack of thoughtfulness about nuclear war by discussing it in terms that no one could interpret.
     
  8. Hillary not so cleverly asserted — almost at the end, as if she thought that nothing else had worked — that Trump regards women as “pigs and dogs.”

The Summing Up:

Trump used the words disaster and unbelievable a lot, but most of his favorite verbal tics were absent, showing a degree of self-control that must have been heroic. He didn’t make a fool of himself, although he came close when he went off on a tangent about his “winning temperament,” as opposed to Clinton’s bad temperament, as witnessed in her remarkable “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” speech. He didn’t clearly identify the speech, so the uninformed were left to wonder, “What the hell is he talking about?” Hillary didn’t shriek like a maniac, which makes me wonder who on her staff had the unenviable job of telling her that she usually shrieks like a maniac.

I’ll agree with Charles Krauthammer’s instant analysis and call the thing a draw, although I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. Neither of them did demonstrably better than the other, although the media immediately started chattering about Clinton being on the offensive and Trump on the defensive. Each showed the ability to confirm the preexisting opinions of supporters. Since Trump was the underdog, he probably got a marginal advantage from his almost patient endurance of Clinton’s enormous sense of superiority. For me, the most memorable part of the debate was his comment, “She’s got experience, but it’s bad experience.” That doesn’t go far to compensate me for an hour and a half lost from what otherwise would have been a richer and fuller life.




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Hard Landings

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We tend to assign major significance to minor occurrences, especially where travel and potential accidents are concerned. “Thank goodness,” we think, “I stopped to check the mail, or I might have been involved in that crash I just passed.” We may even hesitate to change seats on a plane, or to change flights when an overbooking voucher is offered, for fear that, in the (very unlikely) event of an accident, we will have made a fatal mistake.

I thought of that tendency while watching an early scene in Sully. Three men (father and sons, as it turns out) rush to catch an alternative flight after their intended flight has been cancelled. They share high fives all around as the gate attendant relents and lets them board the plane, happy that their fishing vacation will not have to be delayed or postponed. Of course, we in the audience know that they just thwarted their guardian angels’ attempt to protect them; they’ve just boarded US Airways 1549, headed for the Hudson River and a whole new kind of fishing expedition. The dramatic foreshadowing continues as one son opts for the lone seat at the back of the plane so that his brother and father can have two seats together. Will this generous offer be his last?

The film opens with scenes of the low-flying plane, but something is wrong.

It’s risky to make a movie about an event so recent and fresh in the public’s memory as the miraculous water landing of a jet plane on the Hudson River in January 2009, after a flock of geese got sucked into the engines. And the entire event took just 208 seconds, plus another 20 minutes or so to rescue the passengers and crew. We all watched the news clips and interviews. What could a director — even one as skilled as Clint Eastwood — do to stretch the event into a full-length feature more interesting than what we’ve already seen on the news?

Despite my skepticism, I was fully engaged throughout this film. Eastwood chose to focus most of it not on the crash — er, I mean, water landing, as Sully (Tom Hanks) is quick to point out — or on Sully’s heroism, but on what he endured during the aftermath.

The film opens with scenes of the low-flying plane, but something is wrong. Instead of a river, we see buildings. This isn’t right. This isn’t the way it happened. Then Sully wakes up, and we realize that our hero, this man who managed to save 155 passengers and crew without a single casualty, is having recurrent nightmares about what happened, and what might have happened. Unable to sleep, he puts on jogging clothes and runs through the streets of New York, but he can’t run away from his fears.

This conflict drives the story and engages the audience’s ire at Big Government and Big Business.

Worse, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is having similar thoughts about what might have been, except that their thoughts aren’t nightmares. The NTSB actually sets out to prove, using computers and cockpit simulators, that the plane had enough thrust, altitude, and time to have returned to LaGuardia or landed at nearby Teeterboro Airport, thus sparing the plane and the trauma endured by the passengers. If they find against the captain, his career, his reputation, and his retirement pension will be gone. This conflict drives the story and engages the audience’s ire at Big Government and Big Business. We are outraged that they would sully Captain Sully’s reputation, and for a while I’m outraged at Eastwood too, for making this the focus of the film.

Eastwood knows best, of course, and the positioning of the NTSB simulators against the tense, calm, and quick-witted actions of Sully and his copilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) in the real cockpit make for a conclusion as exciting as the moment when we turned on our television screens and saw a plane sitting pretty as a duck on the Hudson, with 155 people huddling on her wings, surrounded by ferry boats. Watch for Vincent Lombardi playing himself as the ferry boat captain who was first on the scene, and stay for the credits to see the actual passengers and crew in a cathartic reunion with Sully and his wife (played by Laura Linney in the film).

Another eponymous biopic that opened this week also tells the story of a man whose reputation has been “sullied” by the government — or so we are led to believe. But we aren’t sure about Edward Snowden. Is he a hero who sacrificed essential freedoms in order to blow the whistle on government snooping and intrusion? Or is he a traitor who put patriots and foreign operatives at risk when he revealed sensitive, top-secret documents? Real people have real questions about this case, and those questions are not addressed in the film.

Both Snowden and the 2014 Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour present just one side of the issue: Edward Snowden’s side. I tend to be on that side, but as pointed out in my review of Citizenfour, Snowden controlled the famous interviews he provided to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewan MacAskill (played in this movie by Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, and Tom Wilkinson) at the Hotel Mira in Hong Kong. They never challenged him or did any additional investigation (that we know of) to see whether U.S. operatives were harmed by his revelations. So the story is undeniably one-sided.

Snowden's patriotism feels a little odd, since he names Ayn Rand as one of his early influences, and I don’t think she would have approved of passionate service or statism of any sort.

The movie’s interviews, which provide the running narrative of the film, are almost identical to what we saw in the documentary, prompting me to question the point of making this narrative feature. However, Snowden provides a satisfying backstory we didn’t see in the documentary’s interviews, and that makes this film worth seeing.

Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems to have been a patriotic young man with a fervent desire to serve his country. (This felt a little odd to me, since he names Ayn Rand as one of his early influences, and I don’t think she would have approved of passionate service or statism of any sort.) He serves first in the military, then as a computer coder for the CIA, and then as a private contractor providing services to both the NSA and the CIA. A brilliant mathematician and analyst, he was able to crack codes and create complex computer programs designed to thwart hackers and aid government surveillance. But soon he discovers that the NSA and CIA have been spying on virtually everyone’s private phone calls and emails; they even have a program that can remotely activate your computer’s built-in video camera and watch you inside your office or bedroom — whether your computer is turned on or off. (Yes, I have a post-it taped over the camera on my laptop as I write this, and it will remain there. You start to feel sort of paranoid after watching this film.)

As depicted in the film, Ed Snowden is a quiet, soft-spoken young man without the outgoing charisma we normally associate with courage and heroism. He doesn’t have enough personality to engage potential operatives at a cocktail party, although he does come alive when he’s with his girlfriend, amateur photographer, pole dancer, and left-leaning semi-activist Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Her glowing smile and natural charisma, and her unrestrained love for him, help us to care about him too. Their relationship also serves to convince us that his motives are pure: how could he leave this charming young girl behind, unless he truly believed in the rightness of what he was doing? On the other hand, could her left-leaning politics have influenced his actions more than his own patriotism did? She left the United States to join him in Russia. For love or politics? We don’t know, and nothing in the film suggests that she is anything but innocent.

They even have a program that can remotely activate your computer’s built-in video camera and watch you inside your office or bedroom — whether your computer is turned on or off.

At 134 minutes, Snowden is about 30 minutes too long. The scenes that show what the CIA and NSA were doing, and how, are heavy on technical jargon (although I suspect they worked hard to simplify it), and we spend a lot of time watching the characters watch screens. But the second half of the film, especially the part beginning when Snowden realizes that he has to blow the whistle in order to protect the public, is tense and exciting. The final scene, when Edward Snowden himself appears, is thrilling. I wanted to applaud him in the theater. (We are hoping to bring him to FreedomFest this year through Skype.)

Both these films present interesting character studies of unlikely heroes — men who never craved the limelight or set out to change the world but rose to greatness when presented with crises that only they could address. Sully is the better film, but Snowden is worth seeing as well.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Sully," directed by Clint Eastwood. FilmNation Entertainment, 2016, 96 minutes; and "Snowden," directed by Oliver Stone. Endgame Entertainment, 2016, 134 minutes.



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Low-Hanging Fruit

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This season abounds in low-hanging fruit, linguistic atrocities that are easy to spot, at least for people like us. Let’s grab a few.

On September 8, I gazed into the depths of my cellphone and discovered this headline from the New York Daily News: “Mont. Senator’s nephew found brutally slayed at home.” That’s a brutal dispatch of “slain,” anyway.

A week or so before, I’d discovered that Chris Brown, the singer, claimed he was being “unfairly demonized” because of a scrape with police. As bad a talker as Brown is — and that’s about as bad as you can get — this doesn’t appear to be what he himself said. It’s what the Los Angeles Times said (August 31). But maybe people are fairly demonized every day, and it just doesn’t get reported.

Two days before that, the other Times, the one in New York, reported the following about the fun couple, Anthony Weiner, former congressman and campaigner for the mayoralty of New York, and Huma Abedin, Chelsea Clinton’s shadow:

A documentary, “Weiner,” released in May, traced the disastrous campaign and the effects on Ms. Abedin, who is shown near tears after the revelations were publicly revealed. (August 29)

And no wonder — revelations are bad enough, but it’s terrible when they get revealed.

Hitting the Huma trail on the same day, CNN Politics supplied this information:

Abedin is Clinton’s most well known aide. While Clinton works the ropeline after events, Abedin is always close behind and Clinton supporters regularly ask the aide for selfies with her, much like they do with the candidate. (August 29)

Few of our otherwise omniscient news providers are aware of the fact that the superlative of “well” is “best”; hence, the phrase in the first sentence of the passage just quoted should be best known, and never most well known, which is exactly what a third-grader would come up with. Similarly, third-graders usually do not realize that “like” is a preposition, not a conjunction, and therefore cannot introduce a clause (“they do”). Adults, particularly adults in the word business, ought to know better, but we see that they don’t.

Maybe people are fairly demonized every day, and it just doesn’t get reported.

Many sad events, or sad reports, seem to have happened in late August. Here’s a report originally dated August 25 and attributed variously to the Associated Press and Reuters. It’s about a Bolivian politician, Rodolfo Illanes, who . . . well, see for yourself: the report says that Illanes went

to Panduro, 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of the La Paz, where the strikers [miners rebelling against the government’s refusal to allow them to work for private companies] have blockaded a highway since Monday, to open a dialogue.

When I was in the eighth grade, more or less, I desperately wanted to move to Bolivia. I’d been reading books about Incas and such. Somehow I discovered that you could write to the State Department for “advisories” about living conditions in other countries, and I acquired the advisory for Bolivia. My lazy heart leaped when I found that on the Altiplano one could hire a maid for $20 a month, but it sank at the news that the maid would need to hang the food from the ceiling, to keep non-human fauna from devouring it. That ended my dreams of Bolivia, but it did not end my knowledge that the seat of government (though not the constitutional capital) of Bolivia is La Paz, that “Paz” means “peace,” and that “la” means “the.” So my heart sank again when I saw the place being called, by someone more ignorant than I was in the eighth grade, “the La Paz.”

So, maybe it’s a typo. Maybe. Strangely, however, the typo remained when I checked the report four days later. By then it had been reproduced by the Las Vegas Review Journal, the Seattle Times, the Chicago Tribune, and, of course, the New York Times. All of their texts remained unchanged after four days. Either no one had reported the error, because no one actually reads these papers, or people had reported it, but the papers paid no heed. Obviously, they’ll print (and keep) any damned thing their wire services send them.

Adults, particularly adults in the word business, ought to know better, but we see that they don’t.

I take this as significant evidence of the intellectual nullity of the American press. Confirmation is provided by the inanity of the report itself. Sr. Illanes was seized by the protestors and beaten to death, perhaps also tortured before he died. That’s a hell of a reward for an attempt to “open a dialogue.” But can it be that as the agent of a crazed Castroite president, Illanes had actually shown up to deliver orders and threats? The report might, conceivably, have addressed that question. But certainly the guy wasn’t there to administer hugs and say, “I’m OK; you’re OK; let’s dialogue!” I seem to remember that when the nuts took over Bolivia, American journalists were very interested in this great new attempt to construct a socialist state. Now that the attempt has resulted in nothing but the further impoverishment of the country, journalistic curiosity has dissipated. What was the government agent doing? Oh, probably he was trying to open a dialogue.

Here’s news that’s closer to home. On September 10, and running all day, the following contribution to public knowledge was made by CNN. It’s one of the network’s many attempts to recontextualize Mrs. Clinton’s nauseating “basket of deplorables” statement, thereby rescuing her from the charge of lunacy. “Clinton’s comments,” said the CNN authors,

amounted to startlingly blunt talk for a candidate who is usually measured in her assessment of the Republican nominee.

Although Clinton has accused Trump of racism before, she has never explicitly called him a racist. Last month, she delivered a major speech in which she accused Trump of aligning himself with far-right extremists and saying he "built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia."

"He's taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party," Clinton said in Reno, Nevada. "His disregard for the values that make our country great is profoundly dangerous."

Thank God her assessments are usually measured. But I continue to wonder what language CNN thinks it’s using. In what dialect of English can you accuse someone of racism without calling him a racist? Oh, that’s not “explicit”? Try accusing someone of committing murder and then fending off a lawsuit by claiming that you didn’t explicitly call him a murderer.

Where would Hillary Clinton be if she hadn’t attracted (flies to ointment, fools to money) enormous swarms of sophists to protect her and harry her opponents? Living in a senior facility in Altoona, I suppose. But couldn’t she attract better forms of sophism?

On August 30, someone named Krystal Ball, a Democratic politician and sometime TV commentator, appeared on Fox News to claim that “there’s no evidence” Clinton lied about the emails, and that “there’s just no evidence” Clinton practiced pay-for-play when she was working for the State Department. But evidence is Clinton’s problem; that’s why we’re all talking about these things. There’s plentiful evidence of wrongdoing. Everybody heard her lie, repeatedly, about her emails. That’s not just evidence; it’s proof. As for pay-for-play, we can argue about proof, but evidence abounds. If it didn’t, Ms. Ball wouldn’t be discussing it on Fox. And there’s no difference between politicians with bizarre names and Clinton’s institutional propaganda machine, perpetually emitting statements that there’s “not a shred of evidence” that she ever did anything wrong.

Where would Hillary Clinton be if she hadn’t attracted enormous swarms of sophists to protect her and harry her opponents?

Kirsten Powers, an intelligent commentator who sometimes provides actual commentary, as opposed to propaganda, wrote an article for USA Today (September 12) with the engaging title, “What else is Clinton hiding?” But the answer turned out to be “nothing as far as I can see.” Powers noted the “feverish” claims of Donald Trump and his friends that there might be something wrong with Hillary Clinton’s health — claims that by September 12 didn’t sound feverish to anyone except feverish Clinton apologists. On September 10, Clinton had been videoed as she was dumped into a vehicle and carted away, after collapsing at a public event. Bizarrely, Powers continued to emphasize that “these accusations were made in the absence of any actual incident involving Clinton’s health.”

Isn’t it strange that people who comment on the news don’t seem to read it themselves? Clinton’s health problems had been no secret. There had been plenty of incidents, and despite the mainstream media’s attempts to ignore them, the evidence was well known. It had, indeed, been discussed not only “feverishly” but ad nauseam. Here’s a fair summary.

Even more bizarrely — or should I say feverishly? — Powers went for evidence for her own position to . . . can you imagine whom? She went to Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert. Ohhhh Kaaaayyyy . . . And what wisdom did she derive from him? The idea that evidence doesn’t count!

According to Adams,

You have to understand that people don’t use rational thought to make decisions. We rationalize after we make a decision. It’s all about making accusations and associating people with bad feelings.

Strangely, on this foundation of radical skepticism about the influence of fact and reason — a skepticism that, oddly enough, occasions no doubts regarding Adams’ own conclusions — he suggests that, factually, there is nothing wrong with Clinton. So she collapsed on the street? So she had a four-minute coughing fit? So all these other things happened to her?

“If you look at the health claims against Clinton one by one, they don’t mean anything,” Adams told me. “Clinton’s coughing wouldn’t mean anything if (her health) hadn’t already been raised.”

No, of course not. I lie to you once. I lie to you twice. I lie to you 25 times. By then, questions about my veracity are raised. Then I lie to you the 26th time, and you fly into a rage for no reason at all. Somehow, you are now convinced that I am a liar! As Adams says, “Forget about data, logic, facts. The visual [of Clinton’s small, very small, very rare total collapse on a New York street] is so strong” that people actually believe she’s sick.

A pretzel has better logic than this — but it’s only one example of the twists that Clinton’s apologists seem determined to put themselves through. If, to save Hillary Clinton, you need to abandon all pretense to disinterested reflection, that’s a small price to pay, isn’t it? The truly shocking thing is the arrogance with which the alleged intellectuals press their claims. They appear to believe that they are entitled to say anything, anything at all, no matter how silly it is, and still be accepted as authorities about life and truth.

Imagine! Being judged, not by your degree from Harvard, but by your degree of success!

I’m seldom impressed by the sagacity of political commentators, Left or Right. But I was impressed by a recent series of observations made by Pat Caddell, an ostensibly Democratic electoral expert. In an informal interview conducted on September 14, Caddell discussed the existence of

a political class which continues to think that they were the supreme and that they were self-perpetuating, picking and choosing only people who would be like them and think like them, and imposing on the American people what they wanted, which benefited them, but not the people, and never being held to any standards of success or failure.

This, as he said, is the Establishment, “the entire governing establishment of America.”

In the current social and rhetorical environment, the comment about “never being held to any standards of success or failure” is nothing short of shocking. Imagine! Being judged, not by your degree from Harvard, but by your degree of success! That standard is for guys working the line at Ford.

Pick your issue: when do you hear a member of the Establishment advocating some policy and stating the standard by which anyone could tell whether it was a success or failure? I’ll pick education. The Establishment, which consists in large part of professors and their clones, always advocates more (tax) money for “the schools.” Now it is advocating various schemes to make college education “free.” But when does anyone specify the measure by which we might judge the success of these schemes?

This is one of many ways in which the Establishment distances itself from normal people. Normal people allocate a few hundred dollars — of their own money — so they can take a plane to New York on Thursday. If the plane doesn’t get them to New York on Thursday, they reckon that as a failure. They have a standard of judgment. But how many trillions of dollars of other people’s money has the Establishment spent, with great self-congratulation, on ending poverty, ending drug abuse, abolishing racial antagonism, securing peace, etc., and what have we got to show for it? Only an Establishment that keeps getting bigger and fiercer as it hires and indoctrinates new cadres to fight these losing battles. Where are the organs of self-criticism that are supposed to ask the question, “Are you succeeding?”

Trump happens to be a maniacal big-government Planner like all the rest of them. But that is never the source of the criticism, or the hate.

You will not find them in the ordinary media. In Caddell’s view, the alleged critics are now the most vicious parts of the Establishment they are paid to monitor. The media “is [sic] no longer . . . devoted to fact, it is an outrider, it’s the assassination squad of the governing elite.”

When I open my computer, the first thing that comes up is Google News. I’m fascinated by Google’s single-minded devotion to the Establishment cause. On many days, four or five of the first ten stories are attacks, frequently weird and unbalanced attacks, on Donald Trump. Now, this Trump happens to be a maniacal big-government Planner like all the rest of them. But that is never the source of the criticism, or the hate. He is hated because he has made the mistake of revealing that the other emperors have no clothes. Thus the thousands of attempted “assassinations.”

But what about us? You and me. Libertarians.

Right now, both the Republicans and the Democrats think they can benefit from libertarian votes. So you may have forgotten that you — you personally, as a libertarian — are ordinarily a more inviting target for the Establishment’s verbal assassins than even Donald Trump. Just look at the things you believe, the positions you take, and you’ll see that you are.

Do you have an isolationist or an America-first foreign policy? Do you favor homeschooling? Are you opposed to the welfare state? Are you a devotee of the original Constitution, unamended by the sophistry of lawyers? Are you opposed to racial preferences? Do you assert your rights under the Second Amendment? Are you opposed to the mixture of religion with politics, by either Christians or Muslims? Are you opposed to political correctness? Do you believe that free speech means free speech, no matter whom it disturbs, offends, or outrages?

If so, then you are the person whom Donald Trump is accused of being. And you are in line for assassination whenever the media remembers who you are.

Sorry; this fruit is pretty sour.




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Investigation of a Citizen Above Justice

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I’m not sure why Hillary Clinton does anything she does, but I know she has a way of reminding me of old movies. Gangster movies, of course — though not the Godfather kind, in which you’re supposed to sympathize with the profound psychological and metaphysical conflicts of the leading characters. No one actually sympathizes with Hillary Clinton. I’m reminded more of the primitive gangster films, which teach you that some guys just want to be king of the world and will do anything to reach the peak, or preserve the illusion.

Those aren’t the only movies I associate with her. She often makes me think of His Girl Friday, where Earl Williams, the goofy gunman, is involved in so many ridiculous and, as Donald Trump would say, unbelievable incidents that a newspaper reporter says, “I’m pretending there ain’t any Earl Williams.”It’s a relief to pretend that there ain’t any Hillary Clinton.

Clinton violated the law, grossly, repeatedly, and ridiculously. She then told a long string of gross and ridiculous lies.

But the strongest cinematic parallel I can find to the Clinton story is a once-famous Italian movie that is called in English Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). In it, a ranking police officer commits a crime and then gets the idea of establishing his superiority to normal people by submitting to an investigation that shows he is guilty — obviously guilty — yet does not lead to his arrest.

The parallel with Clinton is evident. In the emails episode alone, Clinton violated the law, grossly, repeatedly, and ridiculously. She then told a long string of gross and ridiculous lies, all of them conflicting preposterously with common sense, and with one another. The FBI, led by the vaunted Mr. Comey, spent thousands of hoursinvestigating her, located (without any difficulty) the incriminating facts, listened to many additional ridiculous lies, and discovered that Citizen Clinton could not be prosecuted because there was no evidence she intended to violate any of the laws she schemed to violate.

That’s basically how the Italian movie turns out. The power structure can never conceive of indicting one of its own. The bad guy wins — in two ways, one of them more important to him (and to me) than the other. He doesn’t get indicted; that’s the relatively unimportant win. The more important one is his demonstration that people like him are above the law. Members of the elite are never punished; they are immune. Their immunity is the proof of their status, the validation of their identity, and the source of their joy. That’s the vital thing. If you wonder what Mrs. Clinton does with the time she doesn’t spend on fundraising (and, of course, lying), I think I have an answer. She spends most of her time laughing at honest people who have a job.




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Better than Advertised

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If you encountered the trailers for War Dogs, you would probably expect to see a typically raunchy Todd Phillips and Jonah Hill road trip, set untypically in the Middle East. But you would be wrong, and that’s a good thing. While there is indeed a wild ride from Jordan to Iraq as Mr. Hill’s character is being chased by Fallujahns wielding AK-47s, War Dogs is a surprisingly satisfying and informative film. It’s based on the true story of an unlikely pair of entrepreneurs who managed to live as fat as drug dealers in Miami by procuring supplies for the military.

David Packouz (Miles Teller) is working as a door-to-door massage therapist when middle-school chum Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) comes back into his life and invites him to help in his new business — providing materiel for the military. Partly as a reaction to the profits Dick Cheney made in the Middle East through his company Haliburton, Congress changed US policy in the ’90s so as to require multiple bids in procuring supplies. Efraim realized that big companies only wanted to bid on big contracts, and that created a niche for him. “Everyone’s fighting over the same pie and ignoring the crumbs,” he explains to David. “I live off the crumbs.”

What isn’t legal is the way Efraim and David create the required resumes and business history out of thin air and Photoshop.

Soon the two are in business together, living off more than crumbs in their newly purchased Miami beachfront condos and poring over contract listings to search for the buttons, belts, and bullets that other companies are likely to ignore. “It costs $17,500 to outfit one American soldier,” David, who narrates the story, tells the audience. You can make just as much money selling helmets and gloves as you can selling tanks and airplanes. Sometimes more, as Efraim and David discover. One deal is for more than $300 million. All of this is legal, and necessary. Competitive bids, after all, should keep the price down, and provide some relief to the taxpayer.

What isn’t legal is the way Efraim and David create the required resumes and business history out of thin air and Photoshop. Or how they work with shady characters around the world to fulfill the orders they’ve promised to supply. Or how they circumvent embargoes and other regulations to make sure their deliveries go through. They’re like FedEx on steroids. And cocaine.

Efraim is wild, unpredictable, greedy, and self-serving — a role tailor-made for Jonah Hill. By contrast, David is a family man with a new baby and a conscience. He wants a better life for his family than what he can provide as a massage therapist, but he doesn’t want to destroy his relationship with his partner Iz (Ana de Armas) in the process. The dynamic between these two character types, one virtually amoral and the other morally connected, drives the conflict of the film and creates a satisfying storyline.

They’re like FedEx on steroids. And cocaine.

As the film came to an end on the night I saw it, and the audience stood up to leave, I was struck by the number of young men who had come in packs. I don’t think they were Iraqi veterans looking to reminisce about their latest tour of duty. They had come for a mindless, raunchy Todd Phillips comedy, à la The Hangover Part IV: Iraqi Nights or something like that — the film the trailer promised to deliver. What they got was something else — something you could also say about the characters in the film. From the conversations I overheard, they didn’t seem disappointed. War Dogs is entertaining throughout, with well-developed characters and a healthy underlying cynicism about war.

Narrator David asks us, “What do you know about war? They’ll tell you it’s about patriotism, democracy. . . . But you wanna know what it’s really about? . . . War is an economy. Anybody who tells you otherwise is either in on it or stupid.” David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli were both — they were in on it, and ultimately they were stupid. Nevertheless, he continues, “War dogs [are] bottom feeders who make money off of war without ever stepping foot on the battlefield. It was supposed to be derogatory, but we kind of liked it.“

Whether they’re bottom feeders or not, I kind of liked this film.


Editor's Note: Review of "War Dogs," directed by Todd Phillips. Green Hat Films, 2016, 114 minutes.



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Just End It Already

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A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind — if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else — then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease. — C.S. Lewis, “Membership”

As Liberty’s unofficial correspondent on all things Facebook, I submit a report on two funny memes that are making the rounds. One shows a bumper sticker that says: “Giant Meteor 2016 — Just End it Already.” The other is a scary merging of the faces of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, combining the power rivals into “Clump.” We could easily conclude, from these and similar expressions of opinion we hear daily, that this election season has made America tired and disgusted. And we would be right.

It is also making America mean. We’ve been goaded to such a high pitch of tension, resentment, and fear that nefarious “activists” can stir up a riot almost anywhere. If Mayberry actually existed, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to hear that Andy, Barney, Goober, and Gomer were shooting it out with a mob protesting the beloved old TV program’s racism.

What is now erupting, all over this country, is nothing less than the violence we Americans have visited upon one another, to an ever-accelerating degree, for decades.

This whole mess was hatched in academia. Since the 1960s, pointy-headed know-it-alls have gloried in stirring up trouble. They used to rally students to throw off the chains of oppression and question everything — especially authority. Now they have become agents of authority. They agitate for free education, but their real aim is easy indoctrination.

The agitators and indoctrinators are not only on one side. For years the political Right has been warning about the dangers of the Left’s influence in these areas, but their outrage is strictly selective. When the Right gets its hands on the controls, it’s shown itself to be no less manipulative.

It is astonishing that right-wingers can decry race-baiting against white people, then cheer for politicians who trade on the fear of blacks. It is no less strange that leftists can condemn violence when it’s committed by the police, yet laud as heroes activists who incite violence — even when people in their own communities are hurt or killed because of it. And the loopy binary that either sees cops as always blameless and black men as responsible for every violent crime, or the other way around, makes no sense whatsoever. Rolling back the now-paramilitary powers of the police would actually save lives on both sides. If the police do the jobs taxpayers are paying them to do, and make our streets safer, police will benefit from the improvement as much as anyone else; but they can hardly keep the streets safer and make them even more dangerous at the same time.

While some posts on Facebook complain about these problems, a precious few others actually propose intelligent solutions. On the day I write this, Dr. Mary Ruwart, a fine contemporary libertarian thinker, notes the following: “The fewer things politicians control, the less it matters who controls the politicians.” I wonder if that simple sentence might actually hold the key.

It makes no sense to expect government to do everything that needs to be done, and not expect a rise in violence. The War on Drugs continues to visit an incalculable amount of aggression against us, all in the name of alleviating our misery, but has done little except make us more miserable than ever. It is a major reason black families are locked in inner-city poverty,while the families themselves are torn apart. Government is force, and nothing else. Americans keep saying that “Violence begets violence” but excusing it when it’s instigated by their ownside. Polls show that they’re increasingly distrustful of government’s ability to solve problems, yet they go on looking to government for every solution.

Know-it-all academics used to rally students to throw off the chains of oppression and question everything — especially authority. Now they have become agents of authority.

It’s obvious that our culture is obsessed with politics. It’s also becoming increasingly obvious that our culture is deathly sick. How can libertarians begin to help enough people make the connection between these two observations and take our country back from the power-brokers?

We are a nation of individual human beings. There are differences between us, and whenever enough of us share the same difference, we are gathered into a gripe-group. As tensions with rival groups increase, our groups become armies in a sort of civil war. Not that life ever gets much better for any of us. In fact, as we’ve become more disunited, our circumstances have grown steadily worse.

It shouldn’t matter so much who is elected president. Nor would it, if the office functioned as our founders designed it. We are so obsessed with politics today because the president has become an emperor. Now we face the decision of whether to have an emperor or an empress. History will be made!

We’ve undertaken violence against one another for the supposed sake of health, but it has turned against us. Government and the struggle for its control — politics — have become a deadly disease. The question we can ask those obsessed with government control is, “Who benefits from the use of force?” The answer is that emperors do. Empires are held together and expanded by violence, both internally and externally. It does nothing for the people except subjugate them. That is, when it doesn’t kill them.

It shouldn’t matter so much who is elected president. Nor would it, if the office functioned as our founders designed it.

Deep down in our unconscious minds — those dark cellars into which we shove the unpleasant truths we don’t want to face — we know that all violence is alike. There are no different sorts — one for “us” and another for “them.” No sort that is good, while only another is bad. When we resort to violence against one another by means of the state, in this high-stakes game we call politics, we are ingesting murder, larceny, and mayhem in our hearts. We have no reason to be astonished when that violence erupts fromus in more primitive and less sophisticated ways.

What is now erupting, all over this country, is nothing less than the violence we Americans have visited upon one another, to an ever-accelerating degree, for decades. We’ve voted ourselves each other’s money, seized each other’s land, forced our neighbors’ children to be taught things of which the neighbors heartily disapprove. Now we’re withholding healthcare from one another for the Orwellian purpose of “making healthcare affordable.” Next, we’ll render ourselves defenseless for the sake of keeping ourselves safe. We can’t say just where it all will end, but the destruction that’s ravaging our cities gives us a likely preview.

Our culture is indeed sick unto death, and it may not survive. The peace and harmony that come as the result of mutual respect are the only possible cure. We libertarians know this. Let’s spread the message far and wide, before it is too late.




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And Now For Something Completely Different

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What can one say about a book on infinity that hasn’t been said before? An infinite number of things, presumably, but I’ll make this brief.

The book, Approaching Infinity, is by philosopher Michael Huemer. Perhaps you’ve heard of him — but why? If you’re a libertarian, but not a philosopher or “into philosophy,” it’s likely because of his well-received book, The Problem of Political Authority (2013).

If you’re a libertarian and, though not a philosopher, are into philosophy, you may also be aware of Huemer’s excellent online-available essays on the right to own a gun and the right to immigrate. (I imagine readers on both the Left and Right are now gnashing their teeth.)

Huemer, like Robert Nozick before him, is clearly better described as a philosopher who is a libertarian than as a “libertarian philosopher.”

But Huemer is nothing if not prolific. Libertarians who are really into philosophy may even be aware of his criticism of Ayn Rand, his argument that we sometimes have a duty to disregard the law, his argument that attorneys have a moral obligation not to defend unjust causes, his criticism of the US government’s War on Drugs, and his essay on why people are irrational about politics (also a TED talk!).

But — and this is the point I want to stress — even though he’s published much of interest to libertarians, Huemer, like Robert Nozick before him, is clearly a person better described as a philosopher who is a libertarian than as a “libertarian philosopher.” His first book, Skepticism and the Veil of Perception (2001), dealt with epistemology (the field of study that led to his hiring at University of Colorado, Boulder); his second, Ethical Intuitionism (2005), focused on ethics. Now, having covered epistemology, ethics, and politics, Huemer, in Approaching Infinity, turns to the philosophy of mathematics (with an occasional nod to some issues in the philosophy of science). Clearly a well-rounded guy, philosophically speaking.

Also an iconoclast:

  • Although most philosophers since Descartes have opposed direct realism (the view that we are directly aware of real, physical objects), Huemer argues for just that point of view.
  • Although most modern philosophers oppose ethical intuitionism, the view that we can have direct knowledge of objective moral truths, Huemer again argues for exactly that.
  • Although most people readily accept political authority, and most philosophers are not anarchists, Huemer argues both against political authority and for a capitalist version of anarchy.

So it should surprise no one that Huemer, in analyzing some foundational issues in mathematics in order to solve various paradoxes of infinity, is willing to advance bold claims.

Almost everyone is familiar with at least some infinity paradoxes. We’ve all heard about Zeno and why that ball coming at you will never reach you, or why the hare can never catch the tortoise. Any you’re probably aware that strangeness results when even simple arithmetic is applied to infinity. E.g., ∞ = ∞ +1. Subtract ∞ from both sides: 0 = 1.

But I had no idea there were at least 17 different paradoxes associated with infinity. From Hilbert’s hotel to Gabriel’s horn . . . from Thomson’s lamp to Benardete’s paradox . . . from ancient Greek problems to dilemmas developed only in the past century . . . Huemer describes them all and then starts to evolve some background needed to solve the infinity paradoxes. There are discussions of actual and potential infinities, of Georg Cantor’s set theory, of the theory of numbers, of time and space, of both infinity and infinitesimals. Of the metaphysically impossible and the logically impossible. Of the principle of phenomenal conservatism (which Huemer introduced in his epistemology text), and even of the synthetic a priori.

Huemer, in analyzing some foundational issues in mathematics in order to solve various paradoxes of infinity, is willing to advance bold claims.

In building the background to handle the infinity paradoxes, Huemer argues that extensive infinities (including the cardinal numbers) can exist but not as specific magnitudes. Thus, the positive integers are infinite, in the sense that for any such number you can find higher positive integers, but not in the sense that there is a number “infinity” that is higher than all the positive integers. You cannot add and subtract “infinity” as I did in the previous paragraph. And he argues that while extensive magnitudes (time, space, volume) can sensibly approach infinity in this understanding, infinite intensive magnitudes (such as temperature, electrical resistance, attenuation coefficient, etc.) are metaphysically impossible. This distinction allows several paradoxes to be solved, or avoided.

A fascinating section of the text discusses various forms of impossibility. Sometimes philosophers note that X is physically impossible, given the laws of the universe as we now understand them, but nonetheless that it could be possible in a similar but slightly different possible world — say, with a slightly different Coulomb constant. But at other times X is deeply physically impossible. Consider these two alternatives described by Huemer:

Compare this pair of questions:

A. If I were to add a teaspoon of salt to this recipe, how would it taste?

B. If I were to add a teaspoon of salt to this recipe in an alternative possible world in which salt is a compound of plutonium and mercury and we are sea creatures who evolved living on kelp and plankton, how would it taste?

Huemer notes that it’s not merely that we have no idea about how to answer B but that, more importantly, even if we could answer B, answering it gives us no intuitions, is of no help in trying to figure out the answer to A. Though Huemer makes this point in the context of determining what counts as a solution to an infinity paradox, it also has direct application to various thought experiments in other areas of philosophy and to what counts as a helpful or unhelpful thought experiment. (On this see my own work, “Experiment THIS!: Libertarianism and Thought Experiments.”)

Related to the paradoxes of infinity are the problems of infinite regress. You may have heard of the problem of the regress of causes: asked what caused A, you explain that it was caused by B. But what caused B? C caused B. But … here is an infinite regress. Does this imply that we never really understand what caused A?

There are other interesting infinite regresses: of reasons, of truths, of resemblances, etc. Huemer offers helpful insights here as well, elaborating various factors that determine whether such infinite regresses are vicious or benign.

Did I mention that Huemer can be iconoclastic? Consider these passages from Approaching Infinity:

  • There are certain philosophical assumptions that tend to generate strong resistance to my views, and these assumptions are commonly accepted by those interested in issues connected with science and mathematics . . . I have in mind especially the assumptions of modern (twentieth-century) empiricism . . . the doctrine that it is impossible to attain any substantive knowledge of the world except on the basis of observation.”
  • “In the original, core sense of the term ‘number,’ zero is not a number. . . . Why is zero not a number in the original sense? Because a number, in the primary sense, is a property that objects can have, whereas zero is not a property that objects can have.” Huemer extends the concept of number to include zero but explains why such an “extension” does not work for “infinity” as a number.
  • There are reasons to doubt that sets exist. No one seems to be able to explain what they are, they do not correspond to the ordinary notion of a collection, and core intuitions about sets, particularly the naive comprehension axiom, lead to contradictions.”

In his final chapter, Huemer, taking to heart Nozick’s concerns about coercive philosophy, offers readers his own thoughts about problems that remain: which of his answers leave him concerned or unsatisfied, arguments that are incomplete, areas for further exploration.

As in his earlier books on ethics, epistemology, and politics, Huemer’s style is as easy and enjoyable as his logic is rigorous. Intelligent laypeople who are interested in philosophy can follow his thoughts without difficulty. No Hegel here.

Because I have little background in the philosophy of mathematics, I approached Huemer’s latest effort with trepidation, despite having very much enjoyed his three earlier books. But now that I’ve read it, I highly recommend it. The best news: before finishing Approaching Infinity, you’ll have to read halfway through it, and before that one-quarter of the way, and before that one-eighth, and before that. . . . Yet despite this you can read it through to the very end, and be enthralled on every page.


Editor's Note: Review of "Approaching Infinity," by Michael Huemer. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, 275 pages.



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There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Reverse Mortgage

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Hell or High Water is a classic film about down-on-their-luck bank robbers and the gruff-but-tenderhearted sheriff who doggedly chases them. The bank robbers are brothers Tanner (Ben Foster), an ex-con recently released from prison, and Toby (Chris Pine), a rancher trying to save the family home from foreclosure because the recently deceased mother had tied it up with a reverse mortgage. Come “hell or high water,” they are determined to pay off the debt before the bank gets the ranch.

There isn’t a bad guy in this film. The robbers are bumbling and likeable, with a noble if misguided motive. “We ain’t stealing from you, we’re stealing from the bank,” Tanner tells one bank manager as he points a gun at him. They’re smart enough to garner our admiration for their home-saving plan, dumb enough to make us laugh, and kind enough to tellers and waitresses to engage our sympathy. The bank managers and tellers are also just ordinary folks doing their jobs, and a little bit dumb as well. Their video cameras aren’t working, and they seem to have no security plan in place. If anyone could be considered a villain in this film, it would be faceless bank presidents and real-life folks such as Alex Trebek and Tom Selleck, the television hucksters who promote reverse mortgages as the financial saviors of old age — but they don’t actually appear in the movie.

It’s a brilliant piece of acting from a brilliant and underappreciated actor.

As inept as they seem, Toby and Tanner leave no clues behind — largely because the bankers are so inept themselves. Sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is determined to catch these thieves through cunning instead of force. He would rather figure out their next move and wait for them at the next bank than chase them down with forensics and SWAT teams. He’s an old codger of the proverbial “dying breed,” and the true thief in this film — Jeff Bridges steals the show. Bridges has long been one of my favorite actors, as skilled as Tom Hanks but without the pizazz and notoriety. He just gets the job done, quietly and without fanfare, much as his character, Marcus Hamilton, does in the script.

Underlying the bank heists and chase scenes and good-ol’-boy ribbing is a poignant story about how difficult it can be for men to express deep affection for one another. Tanner and Toby clearly love each other, yet they can’t put that love into words. Instead, they undertake a risky scheme to demonstrate their loyalty to each other. Similarly, Toby is estranged from his sons, who want nothing to do with him, yet he is willing to risk death or prison in order to give them a better life.

If anyone could be considered a villain in this film, it would be faceless bank presidents and real-life folks such as Alex Trebek and Tom Selleck, the television hucksters who promote reverse mortgages.

The relationship between the sheriff and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is even more striking. Marcus is an old-fashioned “man’s man” who can’t express his appreciation or affection in words. Instead, he peppers his Native American partner with an incessant barrage of racist jokes and stereotypes that cause the audience to cringe and laugh at the same time. But we catch a glimpse of his true emotion in a particular moment when Marcus first laughs in exultation over something he has just accomplished, then strangles that laugh into a sob, and then lifts his head with stoic calmness and moves on. It’s a brilliant piece of acting from a brilliant and underappreciated actor.

Hell or High Water is a character-driven film with an engaging story and topnotch acting. I’ve come to expect the best from Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges, who tend to abandon themselves in their acting and let the character take over with gestures and expressions that are simply and unexpectedly perfect. But Chris Pine, who is known mostly as an action figure with a pretty face (Star Trek, Jack Ryan), delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance as well. Come hell or high water, you should see this film while it’s in theaters this month.


Editor's Note: Review of "Hell or High Water," directed by David Mackenzie. Film 44 / Odd Lot Entertainment (that’s right — not a big studio; they’re all busy making superhero movies), 2016, 102 minutes.



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Brexit Blues

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