Belshazzar’s Feast: The Retrospect

 | 

On February 27, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have finally succumbed to its long, slow, self-inflicted descent into irrelevance. The fiasco of the final award provided the only talking point of the evening, and it was a disaster.

Let’s talk about the fiasco first, as though it hasn’t been talked about enough: the final award of the night, Best Picture, was to be presented by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in honor of the 50th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde. (Really? Sixty years? Sigh.) Emma Stone had just been awarded the Oscar for Leading Actress. Warren Beatty opened the envelope, but instead of holding the result for Best Picture, it held the duplicate Leading Actress card. Evidently they provide a set of cards on both sides of the stage, in case the presenters enter from the wrong side, and Beatty had been given the unused envelope from the previous award. Confused, he didn’t know what to do, so he showed the card to Dunaway, who blurted out the name of the movie without realizing that it was the wrong award. (Who can blame them? They’re both so over the hill, I’m surprised they could read the cards at all.)

What a disaster for everyone concerned — except, perhaps, for ABC and the producers of the show. Clips of the mixup have been shown all day. Sadly for the actual winners, the story has focused entirely on Jordan Horowitz ("What a good sport he is!"), Warren Beatty ("Not my fault!"), and Jimmy Kimmel ("Not mine either!"), who all grabbed the microphone while the hapless producers of Moonlight stood behind the thunderstruck celebrants of La La Land, waiting for their opportunity to make their speeches. And repeatedly, the news clips about the fiasco end before the actual winners come on stage. What a mess.

Confused, Beatty didn’t know what to do, so he showed the card to Dunaway, who blurted out the name of the movie.

If I were more cynical, I might think that the producers borrowed a page from the free advertising the Miss Universe pageant received after Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner in 2015. Certainly the fiasco kept the drab awards show, whose Nielsen ratings have steadily declined for the past nine years, in the news all day. Let’s just look at how irrelevant, arrogant, and condescending Hollywood has become. Moonlight might be a wonderful movie (I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t been able to see it), but best picture of the year? Why would they choose a film whose global box office was a mere $22 million? Compare that to $184 million for the wonderful Hidden Figures and $340 million for La La Land! Not that box office receipts should be the major consideration in determining best picture, lest superhero movies take over the awards, but come on — at least choose a film that people outside of the Academy voters have seen!

And it isn’t just the Best Picture honor that was out of touch. Let’s look at all of the top awards. Best actor went to Casey Affleck for the taut, understated performance of a man traumatized by a family tragedy in Manchester by the Sea. The film’s pacing is so slow, and the traumatizing moment so far into the film, that I actually walked out in boredom the first time I saw it. (See my review.) Yes, Affleck’s performance is a fine study in character control, and the reveal is deeply emotional. But better than Andrew Garfield’s Herculean effort in Hacksaw Ridge? Or Ryan Gosling’s two years of preparation to play a jazz pianist in La La Land? I don’t think so.

Best Actress went to the perky, effervescent Emma Stone, who essentially played herself in La La Land, and didn’t even bother to learn how to dance convincingly — for a tribute to dance musicals! (See my review.) This award belonged to Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins. A lesser talent would have turned Jenkins into a pathetic clown, but Streep imbued the character with such convincing joie de vivre that we fully believe that she could be so beloved by her friends and her husband. (My review.) To be perfectly honest, I think the award belonged to Amy Adams, who wasn’t even nominated. As the linguistics professor who had to communicate with alien life forms through eye contact and body language alone in Arrival, she was superb. How does the Academy justify awarding Casey Affleck for his understated performance in Manchester, and not even recognizing Adams with a nomination?

Let’s just look at how irrelevant, arrogant, and condescending Hollywood has become.

And then there’s the Supporting Actress Award. Viola Davis has been getting heat for saying in her acceptance speech, “I became an artist, and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” Really, Viola? Those E.R. doctors who make end-of-life decisions with grieving families in the Oscar-nominated short documentary Extremis don’t consider every day what it means to live a life? Teachers in underserved school districts don’t know what it means to live a life?

I could go on, but I have another bone to pick with Ms. Davis: what was she doing in the Supporting Actress category? Rose is the only female character in Fences. (The other woman, Alberta, remains offstage throughout the play.) She is strong, confident, and self-assured. Troy (Denzel Washington) is the main character, but Rose stands beside him in their marriage, not behind him and certainly not in a subordinate role. She dominates Act 2. To present her in the Supporting Actress category is not only unfair to the genuine supporting actresses of the season, it is an affront to the character herself.

The producers of Fences aren’t the first to play this category con-game; several films have downgraded their leading actors or actresses in order to strengthen their chance of winning. The most egregious, in my opinion, was the decision to submit Javier Bardem in the Best Supporting Actor for his powerful, dominating, leading role in No Country for Old Men (2007). The ploy worked for him too, and he won his Oscar. But it came at the expense of Hal Holbrook’s tender, heart wrenching role as Ron Franz, the lonely man who befriends Chris McCandless in Into the Wild (see pp. 47–49). It was a small scene, but I’ve never forgotten it. That’s what the supporting category was designed for — an opportunity to reward actors who turn small parts into deeply memorable experiences.

Really, Viola? Those E.R. doctors who make end-of-life decisions with grieving families don’t consider every day what it means to live a life?

I have no opinion about Mahershala Ali’s Supporting Actor as Juan in Moonlight. That’s because, as I mentioned, I was never able to see it. The film was released briefly in a few select theaters in late 2016, long enough to qualify for Oscar consideration. Then it came back to a few theaters in February, after it had been nominated for Best Picture. I went to my local theater that Wednesday to see it, but it had already been knocked off the marquee by multiple screenings of 50 Shades Darker — it was Valentines week, after all. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges gave the performance of a lifetime as Sheriff Marcus Hamilton in Hell or High Water. Here’s what I wrote about him in my review:

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.

Damien Chazelle’s award for Best Director (La La Land) was a deserving choice, although I was rooting for Mel Gibson to win Best Director for the brilliant Hacksaw Ridge. But considering how Hollywood has ostracized him, it was truly an honor for him just to be nominated. Hacksaw’s award for sound editing was well deserved.

In sum, the 89-year-old Oscars have become whiny, pedantic, self-important, and out of touch with their audience. The Golden Globes have nudged them nearly off the stage. I think it’s about time.

A concluding note:

The Oscar Shorts (Animated, Narrative, and Documentary) are the most overlooked category in film, since few people have the chance to see them. But I must comment on this year’s short narrative winner, Sing, because I think it says a lot about what’s wrong in Hollywood, and what’s wrong in America. A little girl joins her school’s choir because she loves music and loves to sing. The principal is proud of his choir, and has a policy that anyone who wants to participate is allowed to join. It’s a competitive choir, however, and the teacher wants to win. She takes the girl aside after class and tells her that she can be part of the choir, but she cannot sing out until her voice is stronger. The girl is, of course, devastated. She loves to sing. It turns out that several of the children are only miming, and when the stronger singers find out, they stand up for their friends and refuse to sing at all unless all of them are allowed to sing out. We’re supposed to applaud this show of unity, and in the theater where I saw the shorts, many in the audience did.

The Golden Globes have nudged The Oscars nearly off the stage. I think it’s about time.

But let’s think about this. Would members of the varsity basketball team have the same attitude about letting everyone play? Or do they expect players to earn their way onto the varsity team? Would the school’s choir continue to win the state awards of which they are so proud of mediocre singers are allowed to be part of the competition choir? More to the point — would the singers enjoy singing if half their group was off-key? As a choir singer myself, I can tell you that it is painful to sing next to someone who is off-key. And it’s painful to be in the audience as well. The teacher made the best of a difficult situation: required by the principal to accept all applicants, she gently told the weaker students to hold their voices back until their skills had improved.




Share This


Peaceful Riots and Inorganic Cows

 | 

This is the great age of absurdity, of self-evidently ridiculous words that are meant to be taken seriously. The evidence is seemingly infinite, but let’s begin with cows.

The Oakland, California school district, seeking fresh challenges after its wonderful success in teaching students how to read, write, and understand mathematics, has decided to take on the threat of global warming. It has reduced the cheese and meat component of school lunches (please go elsewhere to learn what this has to do with “climate”), and it promises that whatever bovine products are ingested by its students will be derived from “organic dairy cows.”

The Oakland school district is willing to eat not only a peach but a fully organic cow.

The reader’s challenge is to picture an inorganic cow. What does she look like — a thousand-pound vacuum cleaner, slurping up grass? And how do you get the meat out?

Visualization is the key to writing. Remember the command of the New Critics: “Show, don’t tell.” You could say that Prufrock is a nice but feckless gentleman, but it’s more effective to show him wondering, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Well, the Oakland school district is willing to eat not only a peach but a fully organic cow.

Senator Charles Schumer, a master of malaprop who is also the minority leader of the United States Senate, is constantly instigating Memorable Phrases. He has a childish glee about pushing such slogans as “Make America Sick Again,” which is what he claims Republicans want to do by repealing Obamacare. The slogan flopped; Americans failed to visualize that terrible ante-Obama time when the nation was sick. Yet Schumer joyously pursues his art. A recent attempt at immortal phrasing was his allegation (January 4) that a Republican plan to replace Obamacare “would blow a trillion dollar hole in the deficit.”

For some reason, the senator is always smiling, but he smiled with particular self-satisfaction when he said that. He thought he’d hit a home run. He hadn’t. Picture a deficit. Now picture a hole in the deficit. That’s not easy, but if you can, you’ll discover that it’s a good thing: a hole in the deficit means less of the deficit. So here was another absurd image, although no one seems to have questioned it.

This may be the place to bring up another visualization puzzle, one that I’ve been saving, like a good bottle of wine. It’s a delicious pre-election “news” story that appeared on October 22, on the PBS site. The story is entitled, “Clinton campaign ponders: What if Trump doesn’t concede?” It encourages the thought that Clinton would carry such Republican states as Georgia and Utah.

For some reason, the senator is always smiling, but he smiled with particular self-satisfaction when he said that.

Here’s what actually happened: Georgia — 51% Trump, 46% Clinton; Utah — 46% Trump, 27% Clinton, 22% McMullin (a Mormon spoiler candidate). The “red state strategy” was a tactic invented by Clintonworld to pump news venues such as PBS full of silly ideas (not hard to do) and cause panic among Republicans, who would then divert scarce resources to supposedly threatened states. But even PBS needs to cite some reason for its silly ideas. So, if anyone asked, For what reason could Democrats dream of taking Georgia with a candidate like Hillary Clinton? the answer was: Georgia “has had an influx of diverse voters in the Atlanta area” and is therefore “considered a future battleground state, with many Democrats comparing it to North Carolina.” The comparison was just; Trump won North Carolina by 4%, which was only a little less than the amount by which he won Georgia, and represented a sizable victory.

But what does “diverse voters” mean? Literally, it means nothing: diverse from what? All right-thinking Americans, however, should be able to interpret the code. Diverse means “good,” of course, but it also means “non-white”; and “non-white” means Democrat. Because diverse voters are all alike — right? In other words, they are the opposite of diverse. That’s the idea.

I’ll talk about blatant self-contradiction a little later. First I must entertain some other comments that make no sense but are supposed to be solemnly accepted. Here’s an example that centers around (please note my use of another common expression that is immune to visualization) the phrase on me, as in it’s on me. The it in this phrase is generally supposed to mean something like “the responsibility” or “the mistake,” although it invites earthier images. Anyway, please consider Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly’s declaration that the problems involving President Trump’s famous executive order — the one about entrance to the country by people from certain nations — were on him. In his testimony before Congress on January 7 Kelly showed a sad, indeed a revolting, affection foron me; it appeared to have become his go to phrase:

In retrospect, I should have, and this is all on me by the way, I should have delayed it just a bit in order to talk to members of Congress, particularly leadership of committees like this to prepare them. . . .

Lesson learned on me.

Lesson learned on me. Where is the lesson? It’s on him. No doubt pasted on him, somehow, somewhere — the lesson that has been learned. That’s what he literally said.

What does “diverse voters” mean? Literally, it means nothing: "diverse" from what?

Let’s move along to America’s sweetheart, Bill Gates. Patrick Quealy, one of this column’s most valued friends, writes in with sad news: Gates has issued another public statement. I can’t do better than to quote what Patrick said:

I have long believed that Bill Gates should not be listened to about technology, and I understand that many people disagree with me about this, but one would think we could all unite behind the idea that such a hapless twit is not an ideal person to lecture us about AIDS in Africa or education policy or whatever else his handlers have whispered in his ear that we ought to be concerned about.

To that end, I share this actual thing, reported on CNBC and elsewhere, that Gates said after meeting with Trump:

"I think that whether it's education or stopping epidemics, other health breakthroughs, finishing polio, and in this energy space, there can be a very upbeat message that his administration is going to organize things, get rid of regulatory barriers, and have American leadership through innovation be one of the things that he gets behind."

As Patrick understands, this kind of “exquisite noise” defies analysis and eludes visualization:

Is Gates cooking polio one more minute before it's ready to serve, and doing it in a particularly energetic kitchen? Or has he nearly completed a painting, a study of a viral particle, in a brightly lit studio? I don't know. But so far, from my admittedly privileged point of view, the worst thing about Trump's election is not any policy that has been proposed or implemented. It's that I had to read that f—ing sentence as a result of it.

I can’t improve on that. I can only add that Gates’ comments help me understand why the Help functions on Microsoft products are worse than the problems they’re supposed to solve.

Speaking of New Age benefactors: I’m sure we are all impressed by their ability to enjoy every word that comes out of their mouths. We have all noted the bovine (sorry — I’m still thinking about cows) acceptance of their words by the crackpot (I mean mainstream) media. For the next New Age item I am indebted to John and Ken, Southern Californians’ favorite talk show hosts. They are based in Los Angeles and pay special attention to the decline of that city, where ordinary living becomes less sustainable in direct proportion to the government’s concern with sustainability.

John and Ken recently uncovered a news story solemnly proclaiming the absurd fact that Los Angeles possesses a “chief sustainability officer for the office of the mayor” (yes, the office includes an officer), and that this man has

convened a group of about 20 civil servants and university scientists to determine how to bring the city’s temperature more in line with what it would have been if Los Angeles had never been developed.

The commune of experts reminds me of the passage in Ayn Rand’s Anthem about “the twenty illustrious men who had invented the candle.”But “what we are trying to do,” says the drone in charge of sustainability, “is create a research collective to help us reach our target. It’s a huge challenge.” An even huger challenge would be to explain (A) how we know what the temperature would have been if the city had never been developed and (B) how to convince anyone not on the city payroll or otherwise daft that a community clogged with traffic, bankrupted by welfare, terrorized by crime, and scammed by a vast, almost wholly ineffective school system can put up with perky little officials being paid to theorize about reducing the temperature. The Los Angeles Times pronounces the temperature idea “a noble goal.” That’s tough, skeptical news reporting for you.

The result was a press that remains the perfect image of the snobby, intellectually self-sufficient modern liberal reader, the only person who still cares what editorial boards and noted correspondents have to say.

Contrary to self-serving notions constantly floated by the mainstream media, America never did have a judicious, disinterested, Olympian press. During most of its history it had a press that was unapologetically partisan. Abuse and gross distortion were taken for granted. In the mid-20th century, the press tried to dignify itself by pretending that it was a profession like medicine or physics. The hallmark of professionalism was the science of moderating one’s language so that one could always say, “Who, me?” when confronted by examples of gross though covert partisanship. Its model was the man satirized by Pope, who “without sneering, taught the rest to sneer.” The result was a press that remains the perfect image of the snobby, intellectually self-sufficient modern liberal reader, the only person who still cares what editorial boards and noted correspondents have to say. This is a press that both sermonizes and believes its own sermons, never recognizing how radically they diverge, not just from fair play and a decent regard for truth, but from common sense and logic.

One example, of millions available, is an item in California Magazine; the subject of which is the mob violence that prevented gay libertarian — or is he a gay conservative or a gay rightwinger? — Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at a duly authorized and paid-for event at the University of California, Berkeley. Summarizing this event, the magazine says:

Before Yiannopoulos could utter a single inflammatory syllable, the event was disrupted, by peaceful protestors at first, then by “black bloc” property-destroying saboteurs.

You’ve noticed how the author stacks the deck against the victim, whose remarks (which he never got to deliver) are assumed to have been inflammatory. It’s an interesting word, much in use right now. It suggests a quaint idea of innocence. It pictures normal listeners or readers as the kind of bottles that, as their labels warn, should not be shaken roughly or brought close to an open flame. Look out — these people may blow at any second! But it’s not their fault; their contents are just inflammable. Following this logic to its quick and sorry end, one finds the moral of the journalistic sermon: anyone who, like Milo, plays around with inflammable human material deserves whatever he gets.

It’s an interesting concept of individual responsibility, yet it does have a logic. There is something else in that sentence, however — something that has no logic at all. It’s the words “disrupted by peaceful protestors.” One doesn’t expect violent self-contradiction from self-righteous smugness, but here it is. And it has become so common that most of the people to whom I showed those words reacted at first without any sense that something odd was happening. It took them a while to recall that, hey, there is no way that someone who disrupts a peaceful event is a peaceful protestor.

This is a flat contradiction in terms, so flat that you never see it outside the context of leftwing agitprop — or mainstream reporting. In normal life, no one imagines that a gang of people who walk into a busy intersection and force traffic to stop, in order to accomplish some purpose of their own, are doing something peaceful. Yet when this happened in downtown Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day, as part of a protest aimed (ridiculously) against the building of a pipeline 1,500 miles away, the demonstrators were reported to be peaceful. The same adjective is used for everyone who stops subways, occupies public squares, blocks freeways, enters other people’s offices and has to be carried out — the list is long and constantly growing. This is not peace, any more than it is peace when somebody blocks your driveway, enters your house, sits on your furniture, tries to prevent you from entering, and refuses to leave. Few of the demonstrators appear to believe their actions are peaceful — but the mainstream media do, even when the demonstrations are plainly directed against the freedom of speech that the media pride themselves on exemplifying.

One doesn’t expect violent self-contradiction from self-righteous smugness, but here it is.

On February 16, President Trump gave a press conference in which he excoriated the media for their unfairness to him. The unfairness is real, and deserved to be noticed, but I was struck by two other features of the event. One was my difficulty in locating any of the president’s comments that amounted to a complete statement. There might be a subject — but where was the verb? There might be a transitive verb, but where was the direct object? There were allusions, but what were they alluding to? You can get tired of this kind of thing, and I rapidly did.

But the second thing that impressed me was the fact that I kept on listening to the diatribe. It may have been a cheap pleasure, but it was pleasure nonetheless, just to listen to the crude and obvious smugness of the press get its due reward in the crudeness of its rejection. I think that most listeners felt that way. I can’t imagine that many of them, even if they happened to be modern liberals, were overwhelmed with sympathy for the press. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer wrathful, unformed sentences to the imbecile completeness of disrupted by peaceful protestors?




Share This


Alma Mater

 | 




Share This


The Base vs. the Most

 | 

The idea is abroad on conservative blogs and talk shows that President Trump’s opposition is staging much of its agitation against him simply as a means of “pandering to the base.” I refer to senatorial walkouts from confirmation votes, the constant barrage of inflammatory remarks from Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and other official leaders, the constant demands for investigation of this or that normal process of government (e.g., Trump’s firing of political appointees from the losing party), the accusation that Trump is anti-Semitic and homophobic, etc.

If the “pandering” idea is true, then the Democrats believe they are in serious trouble. You don’t keep pandering to your base unless you’re, first, unsure of its loyalty and second, unable to reach out to a broader array of potential voters. Perhaps Democrats have been traumatized by the fact that many people in their core communities failed or refused to vote in 2016.

You don’t keep pandering to your base unless you’re, first, unsure of its loyalty and second, unable to reach out to a broader array of potential voters.

But much the same thing can be said of Trump’s speeches, tweets, and continuing rallies in his own support. Anyone can tell that his remarks on these occasions, and many of the occasions themselves, are meant to keep his base energized, not to attract people outside the base. Like the Democrats, he wouldn’t mind attracting such people, but the first priority is to keep the base alive. Trump is, perhaps, just as worried as the Democrats, and if so, with good reason, because so far, it doesn’t seem that the majority of the American people is any more than superficially supportive of or even listening to either side in the great controversy.

Victory will go to whoever can win those voters, and while it seems certain that Trump is way ahead — he has a larger base of passionate supporters — he has every reason to feel insecure.

Having said these things, I need to notice the fact that politicians are often members of their own base, virtually indistinguishable from it, and unable to look beyond it. In national politics, however, these people are almost always failures — and politicians who want to be nationally influential often try not to be that way. Many Washington honchos are embarrassed by the rhetoric that now issues from the commanding heights of their parties, seeing it as mere rhetoric; they just go along with it, hoping that after the base is secure they can start counting votes outside the base. But such people as Elizabeth Warren are at one with their core supporters. She isn’t fooling anybody; she actually believes the strange things she says, and she is very unlikely to see the value of saying anything else. The more important question is the degree to which Trump is a member of his own base.




Share This


Slam Dunk Me, Karma, Through the Basketball Hoop of Life

 | 

Is it just me? Surely not. I can’t be the only person in America who has noticed that since the election of President Trump, huge numbers of both Democrats and Republicans have turned into raving twits. There must be something in the water that makes people forget everything that happened politically in this country longer ago than, say, six weeks.

George W. Bush was absolutely godawful for freedom. Then Barack Obama actually made the situation worse. Now along comes Donald Trump, going authoritarian like gangbusters, and many of the same conservatives who only a couple of months ago were complaining about the Stalinist direction of the federal government are euphoric about how masterfully he is steering the ship of state. And the “progressives” (sorry, I cannot bring myself to write that word without scare quotes), who so recently worshiped at the altar of the previous president’s might, have actually begun to lament the authoritarianism of the presidency.

Since the election of President Trump, huge numbers of both Democrats and Republicans have turned into raving twits.

If Rip Van Winkle were to awaken today, having fallen asleep just before November of 2016, he’d be so confused that he’d go right back to sleep again. Libertarians could explain it all to him, since we’re the only ones who understand what’s going on. I can only speak for one libertarian, but the whole mess makes me want to take a nap and not wake up ’til at least a few among my countrymen who’ve lost their minds come to their senses again. I’m being exceedingly optimistic, of course, in assuming that this will happen.

From the long perspective of history, that pendulum of power we always talk about is swinging to and fro like the bell-pull in the tower at Notre Dame. Poor Quasimodo is hanging on for dear life. And those of us who’ve managed to retain our sanity are hanging on with him.

What the Democrats are experiencing at the moment is karma. Not the good kind, which results from doing unto others as you would like to be done unto you. To paraphrase an old country song, they’re getting slam-dunked by karma through the basketball hoop of life. They care about nothing but winning the political game. But they’re getting trounced, and their Republican opponents are gleefully running up the score.

Democrats' hypocrisy has all but destroyed what little remained of their credibility.

It never occurs to the Democratic leaders that they’re losing precisely because they’ve turned politics into a game. Or that they’re being beaten so savagely because they’ve been playing so dirty. They’ve been doing dirt unto others, so now dirt is being done unto them.

They are currently beclowning themselves with artificially manufactured outrage over President Trump’s temporary ban on travel to the US from seven predominantly-Muslim countries. They uttered not a peep while President Obama dropped thousands of bombs on Muslim countries and instituted his own immigration ban on Iraqi refugees (see paragraph 5 here). Their hypocrisy has all but completely destroyed what little remained of their credibility.

And they keep coming at us with fresh outrages: Trump’s plan to deport known criminals who are here illegally was morphed into a pogrom against all brown people, his pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, was accused of plotting the end of all education everywhere in America, and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was thrust into the media hot seat because a “Make America Great Again” cap was spotted in his locker. I could go on with the examples, but why? Our nation reels from them, like a punch-drunk boxer on the ropes. Because we can absorb only so much outrage, the cumulative effect is that many of us are merely numb. The Democrats hunger for relevance, but the cruelest blow that karma is inflicting is that they have made themselves irrelevant.

The Democratic Party may have entered a death spiral. Its moment of defeat may, this time, prove to be permanent. It very possibly may not be able to rescue itself, because it can’t stop being itself. What is perhaps most gruesome about the whole spectacle is that America’s oldest political party has locked itself into its follies. It can’t admit them, and to desist from them would be to tacitly admit that they are foolish. So it sees no choice except to double down on them,even though these tactics may reduce the Democrats’ vote beyond the point of national electability.

The Democrats hunger for relevance, but the cruelest blow that karma is inflicting is that they have made themselves irrelevant.

Libertarians have been wondering if our own party might possibly move into such prominence that a three-party system might be established. What just might happen, instead, is that the Dems will go the way of their ancient enemies, the Whigs. In that case, Libertarians might be the ones squaring up against the GOP in the two-party head-to-head conflict that has almost always characterized US politics.

I don’t know if this will happen, but I believe that such a development would be good for our country. It would certainly be better than the likely alternative, which is a continuous Republican ascendancy. Liberty loses when one party always wins.




Share This


A Futile Controversy

 | 

Everything that exists or happens results from earlier conditions or events. Only chance loosens causality. Everything that a person is or does or thinks is determined by his biology, experiences, and good or bad luck. This is the determinist doctrine. It denies that people have any scope to make decisions that are genuinely their own.

Controversialists on both sides agree that chance operates on both subatomic and human levels. One cannot say that everything since the Big Bang was fated to happen. Frederick III, briefly German emperor in 1888, was married to a daughter of Queen Victoria and imbued with classical liberalism. He met an early death and was succeeded by his authoritarian and militaristic son William II. In 1931 both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill were struck by cars, one in Munich and the other in New York. In February 1933 an assassin’s bullet narrowly missed President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. How might the course of history have turned out if chance had altered some detail of any of these events? Anyway, chance no more establishes a person’s free will than freedom from causation would.

James B. Miles (The Free Will Delusion, 2015) finds the free-will doctrine false but appealing, not only because it seems to describe what people themselves feel but also because it lets fortunate people congratulate themselves on their own characters and accomplishments while blaming others’ poverty or criminality or even handicaps on avoidable weakness of their wills. The doctrine excuses indifference to the fate of the less fortunate. It encourages archconservatives, anyway, to rejoice in blaming the poor for their plight. Thus, Miles continues, it is a profoundly immoral doctrine. It also appeals to many because it absolves God of responsibility for human nastiness. (But what about earthquakes and hurricanes and disease?) God himself, if he exists, cannot have free will (Miles, p. 223).

In 1931 both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill were struck by cars, one in Munich and the other in New York.

But determinists hold no monopoly on morality. Free-will adherents also recognize that biological inheritance, physical and human environments, events, reading, preachments, earlier thoughts — all profoundly influence major and minor choices. But not totally. They and determinists alike can sympathize with offenders whose unfortunate biological inheritance and early upbringing have led to a life of crime. Despite this sympathy, determinists and free-will adherents alike can agree that protecting the public may require locking the most dangerous criminals up, even for life (and, arguably, deterring others by even crueler punishment for the worst crimes).

Could a man who shoots his uncle to inherit his money have refrained from this act? No, says a consistent determinist, because the murderer was driven by biology and circumstances and so forth, over none of which he had control. Agreed, history cannot be undone; but future wickedness can be made rarer by greater attention to morality in private and public life and by dependably imposed legal penalties.

The concept of responsibility goes along with the concept of freedom. The question of holding someone responsible for something concerns reward or punishment. We do not hold an insane person responsible, for he offers no point for applying a motive (Moritz Schlick, Problems of Ethics, trans. 1930, chapter VII).

How might the course of history have turned out if chance had altered some detail of any of these events?

Someone who denies free choice risks contradicting himself when urging others to accept his position. Argument presupposes that listeners or readers, although free to accept or reject it, ought to accept it without being fated or compelled to do so. In academic controversy, is every book and article, every reply, and every rejoinder predetermined in detail, except as loosened by chance? Why take part in such a charade?

In reply each controversialist might think that he is contributing to a sound intellectual environment for his fellows. Or he might recognize that he is helplessly predetermined to think and write as he does. Similarly, if Clarence Darrow argues against convicting a criminal because he could not help what he did, the jurors might respond that they had no freedom to acquit him.

James Miles emphatically condemns blaming unfortunate people for their plight. Yet he repeatedly and with gusto heaps blame on philosophers unfortunate enough to propagate erroneous doctrines. He comes close, at least, to denigrating the personal characters and morality of philosophers whom he names, especially Daniel Dennett. Is there some inconsistency here?

The determinist doctrine is irrefutable in the bad sense explained by Karl Popper: it carries built-in immunity to any adverse evidence. Whatever anyone says or does, however astonishing, is explained as the consequence of biology, experiences, and chance. The free-will position is better, though not much, regarding built-in immunity to contrary evidence. If a large random sample of persons who had thought that they had freely willed some action could be shown in convincing detail just how their action had been totally predetermined, the free-will doctrine would indeed be shaken. Conceivably, also, free will might have “emerged” from other conditions, rather as human consciousness evolved from the more primitive brain or even as life itself emerged from inanimate matter. This possibility supports the free-will doctrine, but not much without evidence.

Someone who denies free choice risks contradicting himself when urging others to accept his position.

The rival doctrines do not contradict each other on moral principles, on how anyone should live his life, or on public policy. Any difference between them is not operational. Sometimes I think that my choice is mine, free from total compulsion. My will is mine, just as my tastes in food, music, clothing, cars, or houses are mine and just as I can choose accordingly, regardless of how my will and tastes themselves may have been shaped by external causes. (On consumers’ tastes, see F.A. Hayek, “The Non Sequitur of the ‘Dependence Effect,’” Southern Economic Journal, April 1961.) Anyway, my decisions still take place, along with their moral and practical justification, if any.

The history of philosophy has left us stuck with the two terms “free will” and “determinism.” People drift into thinking that if a term is in use, it must have a referent, some thing, event, arrangement, attitude, argument, or whatever that it refers to. (This confusion of labels with things is called “hypostatization” or “conceptual realism.”) Sometimes, further, we drift into seeking knowledge of the essence of the referent by brooding over its label: what is Virtue, Honor, Democracy, Truth—whatever? Karl Popper condemned such a style of investigation or argument as “essentialism.” Joseph Schumpeter (History of Economic Analysis, 1954, p. 898) also identified “the deplorable ‘method’ of trying to solve problems by means of hunting for the meaning of words.” The terms “free will” and “determinism” exemplify these errors, and in contexts suggesting that they label opposite states of affairs.

Over the centuries philosophers have failed to specify what observations could distinguish between the states of affairs labeled “free will” and “determinism.” Both doctrines have built-in immunity to counterevidence, which, as Karl Popper might say, deprives them of scientific status. We therefore should not let their labels cloud how we perceive or describe reality. We perceive that biological and environmental conditions, along with luck, strongly affect our choices and behavior. No one denies that. Still, we have a strong sense of weighing some decisions and making choices. Even the determinist philosophers among us, to judge from their polemical writings, also have such a sense. The prevalence of two contradictory terms does not indicate that one or the other of two distinct states of affairs exists.

We might better discard those terms and describe what we actually observe. This conclusion is not some compromise (called “compatibilism”) between distinct doctrines. If we can invent a new word that aptly labels perceived reality, fine. If not, we will have to continue using a string of words. But let us not persist in empty controversies.




Share This


Hungary 1956

 | 

Some years ago, at a used-book store, I found a book that got my immediate attention. It was Cry Hungary! Uprising 1956, a pictorial history of the Hungarian Revolution, and included a day-by-day summary of events. The pictures showed the death and detritus of battle along with closeups of the Freedom Fighters, often young men and women shouldering weapons, some grim, some smiling. There were pictures showing clusters of citizens riding the streets of Budapest on captured tanks they had decorated with fall flowers or painted with the Arms of Kossuth. And yes, there were pictures of AVO men, the hated Hungarian secret police, being shot down in the street, or hanging from trees.

The book’s author was British writer Reg Gadney. Its publication date in 1986 was the 30th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. This past October 23 was the 60th anniversary of the first shooting and killing. I was a junior in college when it all began. While I was absorbing chemistry and English letters, Hungarians my age were setting Soviet tanks afire and shooting their escaping crews. And while thus engaged, many of the rebels died.

The image of one young girl, Erika Szelez, became a symbol of the Revolution. Her picture has often accompanied articles and books on the uprising: a 15-year-old girl carrying a submachine gun with its straps across her shoulders. Alas, her story is a sad one. The picture was first published on the cover of a Danish magazine, Billet Bladet, on November 13, 1956. By that time Erika was already dead, shot five days earlier on a Budapest street by a Russian soldier.

While I was absorbing chemistry and English letters, Hungarians my age were setting Soviet tanks afire and shooting their escaping crews.

The events leading up to the Revolution, and the characters involved, all read like Tolstoy inventions. The key event was the Soviet “liberation” of Hungary in 1945. Russian soldiers raped and looted their way across the country, making enemies instead of friends. Under the Horthy Regency, Hungary had allied itself with Germany. It did so not so much from shared convictions as from a desire to recover territories lost in the previous world war. Stalin’s chosen leader for Hungary was Matayas Rakosi, who proceeded to move Hungary step by step toward a Stalinist dictatorship, a regime of murder and exceptional cruelty. Under Rakosi, collectivization of agriculture and attempts at industrialization impoverished the broad citizenry. Hungarian uranium went exclusively to the Soviet Union. Added to this, the Soviets had taken Hungary’s industrial machinery and part of its precious-metal reserves as spoils of war.

Rakosi, “Stalin’s best pupil,” hardened by 15 years in Horthy jails, mimicked his master’s purges. Party members were tortured to gain bogus confessions and then put on trial, where the confessions were repeated for the edification of the masses. Then the offenders were punished with imprisonment or hanging. One of the victims of the purges was Laszlo Rajk, whose elegance, perhaps, Rakosi found annoying. Rajk himself was a devoted Stalinist, who claimed the Soviet Union as his cynosure. He was, in fact, hoist with his own petard, having set up the very agency that accomplished his arrest and torture. On October 15, 1949, he was hanged for his imagined sins — being a “Titoist spy” and an “agent of Western imperialism.” Another victim of the Rakosi terror was man-of-destiny Janos Kadar, who, ironically, had cosigned Rajk’s execution order. Kadar spent two years in prison, where he endured torture, reportedly involving his genitals.

But in February 1953, Joseph Stalin died. Nikita Khrushchev came to power, and with him came the first hints of de-Stalinization. Rakosi was summoned to Moscow and informed that Imre Nagy was to serve as Prime Minister. Rakosi was to remain as First Secretary of the Communist Party. Nagy had experienced battle in the Hungarian armies, a conversion to Communism, further military service with the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, and imprisonment in the Horthy era. Victor Sebestyen’s useful book, Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, describes Nagy as a loyal Communist and Party man, having survived for 15 years in the Soviet Union. And yet, avuncular, food-and-football-loving Nagy hadn’t reached the level of cruelty shown by fellow “Muscovite” Rakosi. Perhaps this was why he fell out of favor in Moscow and why, in 1955, Rakosi seized power once again, installing his own man, Andras Hegedus, as Prime Minister. But the Stalinist Rakosi couldn’t throttle Hungary or Hungarians as he had once done — especially after a famous Khrushchev speech.

By that time Erika was already dead, shot five days earlier on a Budapest street by a Russian soldier.

On February 26, 1956, Nikita Khruschev gave a six-hour speech before the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. In it, he denounced Stalin and his “Cult of Personality” and detailed his enormities. The speech was given in secret, but its contents became widely known and sent an unintended signal to the Soviet-satellite nations. Rakosi was suddenly given to speeches denouncing the “Cult of Personality” — one more irony in the Communist world of kaleidoscopic truth.

Students and intellectuals were showing greater freedom in expressing their discontents. Soviet Ambassador Yuri Andropov informed the Kremlin of “destabilizing influences” among the Hungarian populace. One such influence was the Petofi Circle, a group of students and intellectuals who discussed and debated such issues as “Socialist Realism” (a state-sponsored art style) and the theft of Hungary’s uranium deposits. Particularly significant was the speech given before the group by Julia Rajk, the widow of Lazlo Rajk.

October 6 is an important date in Hungarian history. On that day in 1849, the 13 generals who had led the Revolution of 1848 were hanged by the Austrian Empire. And on that day in 1956, the remains of Laszlo Rajk were reinterred in Budapest. Julia Rajk, Imre Nagy, and perhaps 100,000 other Hungarian citizens witnessed the ceremony. The late Rajk, a dogmatic Stalinist, had become a symbolic victim of Stalinist lies and brutality.

Nagy hadn’t reached the level of cruelty shown by fellow “Muscovite” Rakosi. Perhaps this was why he fell out of favor in Moscow.

At last, Budapest’s militant students met and agreed on a list of 16 demands. They hoped to get radio time to publicize them, but chose instead to publish them as pamphlets and post them all over town. The list included demands for the removal of Soviet troops, foreign insignias, and Stalin’s statue, and for free elections, free speech, a better run economy, and international marketing of Hungarian uranium. And there was one truly fateful demand — the restoration to power of Imre Nagy.

Thus, on the morning of October 23, 1956, the student demands were everywhere and easily read by the public. That afternoon, crowds gathered for demonstrations preplanned by those same dissident students. Perhaps 200,000 people eventually joined in a procession that marched to the statue of poet Sandor Petofi. There, they heard a reading of his famous call to arms, written in 1848. The Gadney book provides this translation:

Magyars, rise, your country calls you!
Meet this hour, whate’er befalls you!
Shall we free men be, or slaves?
Choose the lot your spirit craves!

Then the crowds marched to the statue of Josef Bem, a Polish general who fought for Hungary in the Revolution of 1848. Someone placed a Hungarian flag — the tricolor, without any Communist emblem — in the arms of the statue.

Pictures of the demonstration show participants smiling, apparently in a festive mood. The march across the Margaret Bridge involved a huge procession, though ahead of it was a small advance guard carrying rifles. Later, at the Parliament Building, Imre Nagy was brought in to address the demonstrators. On his way, Nagy reportedly noticed a Hungarian flag with a donut-like hole in the center — the superimposed Soviet red star had been cut out. By that time, many Hungarian flags bore a similar vacuity. Nagy’s words to the crowd have escaped preservation, but it’s known that he asked them to sing the national anthem.

Someone placed a Hungarian flag — the tricolor, without any Communist emblem — in the arms of the statue.

Erno Gero, the reptilian Stalinist who replaced Rakosi as Party First Secretary, had made an earlier radio broadcast that merely compounded the hatred people felt for him. Part of the crowd ended up at the radio station. They demanded a microphone, and when it was refused, some of them tried to break into the building. The AVO members defending the building threw tear gas and finally opened fire, wounding and killing some among the crowd. The unarmed demonstrators quickly acquired weapons, perhaps from local policemen or Hungarian soldiers, many of whom were in sympathy with the protesting crowd. More weapons arrived, brought by workers from Csepel, the industrial district. The armed demonstrators, now blooded Freedom Fighters, occupied the Radio Building, hunted down the sequestered AVO men, and shot them.

That same evening, another group arrived at the huge bronze statue of Joseph Stalin, intent on removing it. Obtaining metal-cutting equipment, they brought the statue down and carved it up for souvenirs. Only the boots remained, affixed to the marble plinth. Someone stood a Hungarian flag in one of them.

At midnight or soon thereafter, Imre Nagy learned that he was, once again, the Hungarian Prime Minister. By that time there was fighting in the streets. Soviet armor arrived in the very early morning of October 24. In his memoirs, A.I. Malashenko, then a colonel and acting Soviet Special Corps Chief of Staff, wrote that his formations were greeted with “stones and bullets.” Although Nagy eventually became a hero of the Revolution, his early statements urging a ceasefire weren’t in keeping with the mood of many Hungarians. Indeed, pictures show Freedom Fighters pulling a red star off one building, removing a portrait of Lenin from another, and, most startling of all, summarily shooting members of the AVO or jeering at their hanging corpses or those of their paid informants. Peter Fryer, a reporter for the British Daily Worker and himself a Communist, described “scores of Secret Police hung by their feet from trees” in Budapest. He tells of people spitting or stubbing their cigarettes on the bodies.

The unarmed demonstrators quickly acquired weapons, perhaps from local policemen or Hungarian soldiers, many of whom were in sympathy with the protesting crowd.

Other pictures show streets torn up and trolley cars capsized, their tracks pulled from the ground, to impede Soviet armor. Seen more than once is Pal Maleter’s tank, a T-34 stuck in the door of the Kilian Barracks. Maleter was a tragic hero of the Revolution. A colonel in the Hungarian Army, once decorated by the Soviets, he was in command at the barracks when, encountering the Freedom Fighters, he decided to join them rather than fight them. He later became a general and the Defense Minister in the Nagy government. On the night of November 3, while attending sham negotiations with the Soviets, he was arrested by the KGB head, General Ivan Serov, accompanied by the Soviet police. Maleter was later tried and, like Imre Nagy, executed by the new, Soviet-endorsed government.

There were two more mass shootings of unarmed demonstrators. One occurred at the Parliament Building on October 25. It began with the AVO opening fire, apparently responding to insults from the crowd. Soviet armor joined in with its firepower. The other shooting happened in Magyarovar, a small town in northwestern Hungary, close to both the Austrian and the Czech borders. A demonstrating crowd — men, women, and children — arrived at the AVO headquarters. The AVO was ready with grenades and machine guns and used both on the crowd, killing a reported 82 people and wounding and maiming many more. Peter Fryer described the aftermath at the town’s cemetery: the bodies in rows, including women, a young boy, and an infant. The surviving demonstrators obtained weapons, found some of the AVO men, and killed them.

Considering the eight-year ordeal of the Hungarian people, it’s tempting for a Westerner to ask why they endured tyranny for so long. One reason is that during those years Hungary was an efficient police state. A secret army of paid AVO informants lived and worked as ordinary citizens. Any attempt to communicate dissatisfactions or to plan a rebellious act or organize a dissident group could easily come to the attention of the secret police. Even those marginally associated with suspicious words or deeds could face arrest, exile, jail without trial, or even torture and execution. As Lenin maintained, individual rights are incompatible with equality, and equality was his ultimate value.

Added to the police-state terror was the authoritarian tradition of Hungary and Eastern Europe. Before the Soviets seized Hungary, the country was ruled by the Horthy Regency, and Admiral Miklos Horthy maintained his own oppressive system — referred to as the White Terror. Perhaps a tradition of overbearing government blinded Hungarians to the importance of individual freedom, and its logical companion, free-market capitalism. Indeed, the Freedom Fighters maintained their loyalty to socialism. The heroic Pal Maleter could be arrogant in its defense.

Even those marginally associated with suspicious words or deeds could face arrest, exile, jail without trial, or even torture and execution.

Still, from October 29 to November 4 the Freedom Fighters believed they had won their battle, they had achieved their immediate ends. An agreed-upon Soviet withdrawal had begun on the 29th. Tanks and trucks were leaving Budapest with dead Soviet soldiers upon them. In a radio broadcast Imre Nagy proclaimed, “Long live free, democratic, and independent Hungary.” There were more shootings and lynchings of AVO men.

But then, the Soviet withdrawal began to slow. As early as the night of October 30, Nagy realized that the Soviet forces were returning. It’s likely that Pal Maleter was the first to so inform him.

Khrushchev had changed his mind — a free, democratic, and independent Hungary meant its possible Westernization and a capitalist country on the doorstep of the Soviet Union. The Revolution had to be crushed. Nagy and his associates faced a crisis reborn, though the smooth-talking Ambassador Yuri Andropov, later General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, continued to reassure them that the withdrawal would proceed. And yet, on the night of November 1, 1956, Janos Kadar, a member of the ruling Committee, fled the scene, after pledging to fight Russian armor with his bare hands and broadcasting his support for the Nagy government. His statements were a smokescreen, behind which he vanished, ending up in the Soviet Union with two fellow defectors. One of them was Ferenc Munnich, who would eventually join Kadar as his deputy in the new Soviet-approved government. Victor Sebestyen described Kadar’s reluctant climb into that final Soviet automobile, goaded by Munnich — and perhaps by the thought that if he stayed, he was a dead man.

Malashenko described meeting Kadar at the Tokol Airport and providing him with quarters there. When Kadar finally enplaned and flew away, it was with KGB head General Serov. Once installed as leader, Kadar, like the good Communist he was, set about eliminating his rivals. He was impatient to see Nagy hang, along with others. He ruled Hungary for the next 32 years, eventually creating a mixed economy and a measure of prosperity. Khrushchev referred to the Kadar system as “goulash Communism.”

Peter Fryer wrote of the final moments of the Hungarian Revolution:

In public buildings and private homes, in hotels and ruined shops, the people fought the invaders street by street, step by step, inch by inch. The blazing energy of those eight days of freedom burned itself out in one glorious flame. Hungry, sleepless, hopeless, the freedom fighters battled with pitifully feeble equipment against a crushingly superior weight of Soviet arms. From windows and from open streets, they fought with rifles, home-made grenades, and Molotov cocktails against T-54 tanks.

Much has been made of the West’s, and especially America’s, reluctance to intervene in Hungary, despite pleas for help broadcast over Hungary’s Radio Kossuth. Often blamed is our preoccupation with the Suez crisis, precipitated by Egyptian President Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal. Forgotten is the prevailing 1950s fear of nuclear war. The Eisenhower administration kept bombers in the air, prepared to administer a “second strike,” should the Soviets or Red China drop The Bomb first. A direct confrontation with the Soviets was to be avoided, and “containment” became the chosen policy toward the Evil Empire. Thus, we maintained troops and missiles in Western Europe, and fought limited wars in the world’s backwaters. Our government’s preoccupation was with America’s interests and security — as it should have been.

Khrushchev had changed his mind. The Revolution had to be crushed.

Did Radio Free Europe, by advocating the Western version of freedom, actually encourage the crushing of the Revolution? Perhaps it did, at that moment in history. But as James Q. Wilson wrote in The Moral Sense, westerners consider their version of freedom an ultimate good. He quoted a superb passage composed by Professor Orlando Patterson, which begins with these words: “At its best, the valorization of personal liberty is the noblest achievement of Western civilization.” A greater problem for the Hungarian dissidents was their own faith in socialism. They remained willing to submit to a system that Hilaire Belloc warned must lead to the Servile State — that is, to slavery. As he said, “The control of the production of wealth is the control of human life itself.”

And as Ludwig von Mises pointed out, under socialism there is no organic pricing system, no marvelous supercomputer that, under capitalism, signals production and distribution. Socialism can only exist by making plans and enforcing them with punitive regulations. Of course, its inevitable failures must lead to stiffer regulations and punishments and new theories that predict but never achieve abundance.

Still, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 hangs heavy on the mind — with its images of men, women, and even children battling the Soviet tanks and, implicitly, the worst enemies of human freedom. Perhaps they were seeking a kind of freedom they couldn’t quite define. Finding it nowhere else, neither in the everyday world nor as a promise in their political tradition, they found it, at last, in mortal combat.

* * *

SOURCES

Belloc, Hilaire. The Servile State. London: T.N. Foulis, 1912. www.archive.org/stream/servilestate00belluoft/servilestate00belluoft_djvu.txt
“Cry Hungary! By Reg Gadney.” Kirkus Reviews. http://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/reg-gadney-3/cry-hungary/
Douglass, Brian. “On the Road to the Servile State.” Mises Institute: Mises Daily Articles. 3 Dec. 2009.
“Erika Szeles.” The Female Soldier, 21 April 2015. www.thefemalesoldier.com/blog/erika-szeles
Flynn, John T. The Road Ahead: America’s Creeping Revolution. New York: Devon- Adair, 1949.
Fryer, Peter. Hungarian Tragedy. London: New Park Publications Ltd., 1986.
Gadney, Reg. Cry Hungary! Uprising 1956. Introd. Georges Mikes. New York: Athenum, 1986.
Garrett, Garet. “Belloc’s Puzzling Manifesto.” Mises Institute: Mises Daily Articles, 13 Jan. 2003.
Gessmer, Peter K. “General Josef Bem: Polish and Hungarian Leader.” Info Poland: Poland in the Classroom, 8 June 1958. www.info-poland.buffalo.edu/classroom/bem.html
Gyorki, Jeno, and Miklos Horvath, eds. Soviet Military Intervention in Hungary 1956. Budapest: Central European Univ. Press, 1999.
Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents. Ed. Bruce Caldwell. London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007.
Lenin, V.I. State and Revolution. New York: International Publishers, 1943.
Mises, Ludwig von. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Third Revised Ed. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1966.
“Sandor Petofi.” Encyclopedia.com. www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/russian-and-eastern-european-literature-biographies/sandor-petofi
Saxon, Wolfgang. “Janos Kadar of Hungary Is Dead at 77.” Obituaries. The New York Times, 7 July 1989. www.nytimes.com/1989/07/07/obituaries/janos-kadar-of-hungary-is-dead-at-77.html
Sebestyen, Victor. Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.
“This Hungarian Woman Was Already Dead When her Photo Became Symbol of the Revolution.” Hungary Today, 12 Oct. 2016. www.hungarytoday.hu/young-hungarian-woman-already-dead-photo-became-symbol-revolution
Wilson, James Q. The Moral Sense. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997.




Share This


Out of the Silence

 | 

Jesuit missionaries arrived in Japan during the mid-16th century, and Christianity initially flourished, with over 100,000 converts. But as the church’s influence over the people grew, the civil government resisted, banning Jesuit missionaries in 1587 and outlawing Christianity completely in 1620 (ironically the same year when oppressed Christian pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock). Many Japanese converts abandoned the church, while others went underground and practiced their religion secretly. Many of those were tortured and killed.

Silence is set against this backdrop of silent, secret worship. When church leaders hear that a beloved priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has recanted his testimony and converted to Buddhism, two of his protégés, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) refuse to believe the rumor of his apostasy and resolve to travel to Japan in search of their mentor.

In Japan Rodrigues and Garupe discover a community of secret Christians who greet them with joy and beg them to stay. The priests hide in a mountain hut during the day and perform furtive ordinances of baptism, communion, and confession at night. The literal darkness of these scenes contributes to the spiritual darkness of the film. Despite being about sacrifices made on behalf of faith, it is utterly without light or hope.

Many Japanese converts abandoned the church, while others went underground and practiced their religion secretly. Many of those were tortured and killed.

We see people anxious to make confession and priests willing to absolve them, but we see no actual change in their moral character resulting from their Christian experience; in fact, the only consistency about one person is his continual backsliding and serial confession for the same treacherous sin. We see villagers eager to receive Father Rodrigues’ humbly crafted crosses and the beads he shares by disassembling his own rosary, but no visible improvement in their lives. We see torture and brutality, but we see no evidence of what motivates faith. We hear no homilies or scripture stories to promote conversion or stave off apostasy. We see people willing to die for their religion, but no apparent reason to live for it. Even Father Rodrigues, who has sacrificed everything for his faith, begins to question the Silence he hears from God. When Father Ferreira turns to teaching medicine and astronomy instead of Christianity, he sighs, “It’s fulfilling to finally be of use in this country.”

In short, what we don’t see in this film about religion is any real experience of religion. Despite the serenity of the gorgeous landscapes and the sincerity of the acting, there is a vast spiritual emptiness in this film that purports to be about unwavering faith. The torture feels gratuitous and the sacrifice of these souls unnecessary. No good comes from their torture and deaths. No one lives because they die. Their resistance to the ban against Christianity begins to feel more like arrogance than submission to God. When Rodrigues devoutly refuses to step on a tile image of Christ, even though his parishioners will be tortured until he does, the Japanese Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) scoffs, “The price for your glory is their suffering!”

Rodrigues’ anguish for the people is palpable, but is his stand truly noble? Christ died so that others could live. He endured immeasurable suffering at Gethsemane, and withstood mockery and humiliation from his tormentors, with patience and forgiveness. Would he really be so terribly offended if a priest stepped on his picture in order to save a community of faithful Christians? Or would he be glad that Rodrigues gave up his pride in his own spiritual strength, in order to protect them? Making a false statement with fingers crossed was designed exactly for this kind of moment. The Inquisitor doesn’t even care whether the recantation is sincere. He urges, “You don’t have to believe it. Just do it.” So do it, I thought, and let these poor Christian villagers go free.

We see torture and brutality, but we see no evidence of what motivates faith.

Rodrigues’ resistance demonstrates, ironically, a lack of faith in the mercy and love of Christ. Peter himself denied knowing Jesus in the hours before the crucifixion (an event alluded to in the movie with the crowing of a rooster at a significant moment), but Jesus did not condemn Peter for it. In fact, the false denial might have been the reason that Peter remained alive and free. Days later, Jesus met him on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and called him with the words, “Feed my sheep.” Peter then served as the leader of the church until his death. Sometimes the expedient choice is the correct one, especially in the face of tyrants.

In Silence, Andrew Garfield is fully committed to his character. He imbues Father Rodrigues with pitiable angst and heartache. I have no criticism to bring against his acting skills, or those of Adam Driver (who lost 50 pounds for his role) or the others in the fine cast. I also admire the cinematography skills of Rodrigo Prieto, whose work on this film has been nominated for an Oscar. But they couldn’t rise above the misguided script.

Let’s compare the spiritual emptiness ofSilence with the noble richness of Hacksaw Ridge, another film in which Andrew Garfield portrays a Christian driven by spiritual commitment, in this case to perform herculean deeds. In Hacksaw Ridge, his character risks his life for something grand and important, something well worth the sacrifice.

Desmond Doss was the first conscientious objector to serve as a medic at the battlefront. He didn’t carry a gun, but he saved the lives of at least 50 Marines at the battle for Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa. Witnesses put the number at closer to 100; in awarding him the Congressional Medal of Honor, officials set it at 75. The movie about that terrible battle is inspiring, brutalizing, and sometimes overwhelming in its alternating beauty and horror.

Sometimes the expedient choice is the correct one, especially in the face of tyrants.

Act I offers a slice of Blue Ridge Americana, filmed in bright airy daylight that contrasts with the dark, smoky scenes of Act II, during the battle. That first act opens on young Desmond (Darcy Bryce) and his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero) racing through the sunny woods and up the face of a cliff. We meet Desmond’s parents and his rural community, and we see his sweetly innocent courtship with the angelic Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), a courtship that includes a romantic climb to the top of the mountain. We get it — despite his slight build, Desmond has spent a lifetime building endurance and strength.

Two events lead to Desmond’s decision never to take up arms. First, he nearly kills his brother with a brick in a boyhood tussle. Second, his drunken, abusive father nearly kills his mother with a gun, and Desmond nearly uses that gun to protect her from him. Shaken by the strength of his own anger, he vows never to touch a gun again. Nevertheless, he is determined to serve in the military. And with good reason — he sees how “survivor guilt” has affected his father.

Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving), Desmond’s father, is a veteran of World War I. He fought bravely and was decorated twice. But he was overcome by the guilt of returning alive, while most of his buddies returned in a box. He returned from the war safe, but not sound. His sullenness, his drinking, and his wife-beating are a direct result of his guilt and the senseless deaths of his friends. Tom argues eloquently about the futility of war, and for a libertarian viewer, his lines are some of the best in the film. Nevertheless, Desmond joins up. “I had to enlist,” he tells Dorothy on the day he proposes to her. “I can’t stay here while all of them go fight for me.”

At boot camp Desmond encounters a different argument, this one favoring war. “We fight to defend our rights, and to protect our women and children,” Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) tells him, and Desmond agrees. One could argue the relative merits of leaving those women and children at home while traveling thousands of miles across the sea to defend them, but at least Howell argues for defense rather than expansion and plunder. When Desmond adamantly refuses to pick up a gun, even for target practice, Howell tries to have him sent home. Again, his reasoning is sound. “A unit is no stronger than its weakest member,” Howell says, and a member who can’t or won’t defend himself seems as weak as they come. Protecting a conscientious objector in the fray of battle could become a deadly distraction. In a situation that recalls the central conflict in A Few Good Men, Howell and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) do their best to get rid of Doss. The derision, the beatings, and even a court martial serve only to strengthen him for what lies ahead.

Tom argues eloquently about the futility of war, and for a libertarian viewer, his lines are some of the best in the film.

Knowing director Mel Gibson’s penchant for gruesome realism, I braced myself for the battle scenes. In the first few moments of the climactic battle, as the soldiers scale the ridge and move forward toward the enemy, the remains of the previous day’s battle reminded me of the set dressing at Universal Horror Nights: dismembered guts and body parts strew the ground, but they seem rubbery and painted. I relax. I can handle this. Then the actual battle explodes, and holy moly, does it become gruesome! One soldier picks up the torso of a dead man, blood dripping from where the legs used to be, and uses it as a shield while he runs forward, shooting into the oncoming lines. I learned what eyelids are made for and used them judiciously for the next half hour. But the screaming and explosions of war are inescapable (and their realism led to Oscar nominations for both sound and sound editing).

The brutality of these scenes is graphic but not gratuitous, as it prepares us to understand more fully what Desmond Doss experienced that night. Surrounded by gunfire, grenades, and flamethrowers, he scrambles through the carnage to find the wounded, administer field dressings and morphine, and drag people to safety. Even when the rest of the regiment is ordered to withdraw to safety while it regroups, Doss remains behind until at least 75 wounded men have been rescued. At one point he looks to the sky and cries out, “What do you want of me? I can’t hear you!” I thought of Father Rodrigues’ discouraged prayer in Silence. But on Hacksaw Ridge, there is no such silence. The answer screams from the field: “Help me!” Doss gets to work. Throughout the night, as he searches and hauls, and dodges the enemy whom he refuses to kill, this mantra carries him through the exhausting night: “Please, Lord, help me get one more! Help me get one more . . . one more . . . just one more.”

Seeing Hacksaw Ridge the first time, I was moved to tears by the humble courage and determination of the heroic protagonist. Seeing it the second time, I was impressed even more by the subtle ways Gibson used Act I to foreshadow Act II, especially the scenes in which Doss is running and climbing cliffs with his brother and later with Dorothy. The sunlit grandeur of his childhood climbs belies the dark forbidding face of Hacksaw Ridge. His closing scenes are equally artistic and evocative. Gibson is not well liked in Hollywood because of his drunken rant during a traffic stop a decade ago and because of his conservative political views, so I was shocked — pleasantly — when the Academy voters recognized the quality of the filmmaking and the heroism of the story and nominated Hacksaw Ridge for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. For me, in a year when the competition is tight and every single Best Picture nominee is, in my opinion, worthy of the grand prize, Hacksaw Ridge is the best film of the year.


Editor's Note: Review of "Silence," directed by Martin Scorsese. EFO Films, 2016, 161 minutes; and "Hacksaw Ridge," directed by Mel Gibson. Cross Creek Pictures, 2016, 139 minutes.



Share This


Hidden in Plain Sight

 | 

One of Donald Trump’s first acts as president was to order federal agencies to repeal two regulations every time they propose one.

This is an action that requires some followthrough. It can easily be twisted or ignored by unwilling bureaucrats — and what Washington bureaucrat wants to obey President Trump? If the boss doesn’t watch out, somebody in Ring 3, Floor 9, Office G, Cube 2B will fulfill the departmental quota by rounding up ten nasty little regs, withdrawing them, and issuing one big, ten-part, much nastier reg.

We’ll see whether the followthrough happens. But the idea itself seems exactly what libertarians and conservatives have been waiting for. As someone who is more or less actively engaged in sorting through old books and files, so I can get some space to live in, I’ve made a personal commitment to throw out two boxes of junk for every new box of junk I acquire. This makes sense to me, and if I ever follow through on the scheme, it may work.

If the boss doesn’t watch out, somebody will fulfill the departmental quota by rounding up ten nasty little regs, withdrawing them, and issuing one big, ten-part, much nastier reg.

Trump’s idea should be crucially interesting to modern liberals, though in a different way. Their power and often their jobs depend on the proliferation of rules, of people who make rules, of people who interpret and enforce rules. That’s them, the modern liberals, so I would think their eyes would be firmly focused on Trump’s attempt at a de-rulement.

Yet neither liberals nor libertarians nor conservatives are paying much attention to Trump’s apparently fundamental change in the way the government works. Even when they notice it, they don’t seem to care very much. On February 2, the famous (for what, I’m not exactly sure) Fareed Zakaria wrote a column in the Washington Post in which he approved of Trump’s action — but only as a public foil for his dislike of Trump. Zakaria’s point was that although he liked the reduction of regs idea, he objected to the president otherwise, especially detesting his administration’s attempt to “delegitimize” “any institution or group that might stand in its way.”

To me, this approach seems a little one-sided. We have lately been exposed to seemingly endless videos of people — often Senators, attorneys, professors, and other elderly rioters — noisily insisting that Trump is not the president and that all his acts are unlawful, vicious, racist, misogynist, and fascist. It seems clear to me that there’s a whole lot of delegitimizing going on, besides Trump’s desacralizing of, for instance, the media in which Zakaria swims.

So much for Zakaria, and so much for Trump. What is not clear to me is why no one is making a big deal, one way or the other, out of this thing — reducing regulations — that Trump actually did. To me, the lack of reaction is a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in something I can’t figure out. Do you understand it?




Share This


Rothbard’s Mistake

 | 

Being interested in the history of the 1930s, I recently picked up a copy of America’s Great Depression by the influential libertarian Murray Rothbard (1926–1995). I choked on the introduction, where Rothbard lays out his theory about theory, which makes no sense to me.

“This book rests squarely on the Misesian interpretation of the business cycle,” he writes, referring to the theories of the older libertarian economist, Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973). “Note that I make no pretense of using the historical facts to ‘test’ the truth of the theory. On the contrary, I contend that economic theories cannot be ‘tested’ by historical or statistical fact. These historical facts are complex and cannot, like the controlled and isolable physical facts of the scientific laboratory, be used to test theory . . . The only test of a theory is the correctness of the premises and of the logical chain of reasoning.”

You have to keep in mind that the map sometimes lies, or maybe tells you a truth different from the one you need to know.

Philosophers make a distinction between statements that are valid and statements that are true. Validity is like math. It’s about logic. If P then Q. It’s theory. Truth is about what’s real, which is not the same thing. Logic is useful, but ultimately what we care about is what’s real.

I am reminded of the accounting classes I took many years ago. I gave up on accounting, but one thing has stuck in my mind: the professor described accounting as a map of the “territory” of a firm, and warned us not to confuse the map with the territory. The “map” might say the company is making money, but the truth might be that it runs out of cash before the owners are paid. (As a business journalist I wrote about some companies like that.) The map is useful; to steer the company you need the map. But you have to keep in mind that it sometimes lies, or maybe tells you a truth different from the one you need to know.

Back to Rothbard. He says that an economic theory is “a priori to all other historical facts.” It can be used to explain the historical record, but it cannot be tested. Here is his argument:

Suppose a theory asserts that a certain policy will cure a depression. The government, obedient to the theory, puts the policy into effect. The depression is not cured. The critics and advocates of the theory now leap to the fore with interpretations. The critics say that failure proves the theory incorrect. The advocates say that the government erred in not pursuing the theory boldly enough, and that what is needed is stronger measures in the same direction. Now the point is that empirically there is no possible way of deciding between them. Where is the empirical “test” to resolve the debate? How can the government rationally decide upon its next step? Clearly, the only possible way of resolving the issue is in the realm of pure theory — by examining the conflicting premises and chains of reasoning.

This strikes me as piffle. There are several ways of deciding between the two claimants. You can compare what happened at times when the policy was imposed with what happened at times when it wasn’t. You might compare the depression of the 1930s with the depressions of 1920–21 or 1893–97 or 1873–79, etc., and see that the one in the 1930s featured the slowest recovery in US history. That is evidence (not proof) that whatever policies were tried didn’t work too well. You can dig deeper. How did investors, entrepreneurs, company managers, workers, and other people in the 1930s respond to the National Recovery Administration? To mass unionization? To the retained-earnings tax? To the abandonment of gold? What did supporters and opponents predict the players would do, and what did they do?

Robert Higgs asks these kinds of questions in Depression, War and Cold War. You can reject what he does — none of his arguments amount to a drop-dead test such as you find in a chemistry lab — but they are ingenious. They are instructive. They make a case.

The social life of humans is more complicated than a test tube.

Rothbard argues, in essence, that such questions are too messy to answer. A theory cannot be “tested” in the way a question in chemistry can be “tested” by heating compounds in a test tube. He’s right in thinking that you can’t test that way with economic policies, but it doesn’t mean that “empirically there is no possible way of deciding between them.” You can look at what lawyers call “the preponderance of the evidence.” “Test” is a high-hurdle word, the wrong word. You can evaluate. You won’t get to 100% certainty, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be stuck at 50-50, either. You can decide, but you have to look at the territory as well as your map — and you may find yourself correcting your map to make it fit the territory better.

Essentially Rothbard denies this.

“Clearly,” he asserts, “the only possible way of resolving the issue [of choosing the best economic policy] is in the realm of pure theory — by examining the conflicting premises and chains of reasoning.” In other words, the only way to decide what to do “in the territory” is to pick the best-looking map without looking at the territory.

No, no, no! Because the social life of humans is more complicated than a test tube, and because cause and effect are mixed up and piled on each other, you have to check your “map” against the territory all the time. Because your theory is only an approximation. A simplification. It is not life.

Praxeology is not primary. Supply and demand curves are not reality.

To quote the philosopher Robert Heinlein: “What are the facts? Again and again — what are the facts?”

If you say, “I don’t care about what facts you have. What experiences, or what statistics, or anything. I have my theory, I’m sure it’s right, and I don’t need to ‘test’ it,” you become irrelevant. You become ignorable. You become the frog at the bottom of the well.




Share This

© Copyright 2016 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.