Do You Believe in Magic?

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If you wonder whether something bad always has something good about it, consider the remarks that a Santa Barbara (California) City Councilman made this summer, regarding the council’s banning of plastic straws.

The attack on straws is the environmentalist fad of 2018, and virtually everyone regards it as an affront to common sense. The councilman, Jesse Dominguez, apparently realized that they do. He remarked, in anticipation of protests from citizens, "Unfortunately, common sense is just not common. We have to regulate every aspect of people's lives."

So that’s a bad thing — two bad things, in fact. First there was petty tyrant Dominguez’s atrocious assertion of his power to regulate everyone else’s life. Second was his atrocious cliché: “common sense is not common.” Come now, Mr. Dominguez, what makes you think that you have the common sense to regulate anyone’s life, when you’re silly enough to think that anyone will fall for the old uncommon common sense routine?

Like the fruit of the deranged trees in The Wizard of Oz, this utterance wasn’t what it ought to be.

But then a good thing happened. There was indeed a public outcry, against both the enactment and Dominguez’s asinine remark, and he acknowledged it at the next meeting of the City Council. "I just wanted to apologize," he said. "A few weeks ago I made a string of words in a rhetorical fashion about regulation and they were not taken as rhetorical and that's my fault so I want to apologize."

What do you know — an apology! But in this world, neither good nor bad comes pure and single. Like the fruit of the deranged trees in The Wizard of Oz, and like virtually all apologies of Important Public Figures, this utterance wasn’t what it ought to be. It labeled itself an apology but justified the action for which it apologized, suggesting that the real problem was a misunderstanding on the part of the people to whom it was addressed, people who “took” a “rhetorical” statement and childishly misinterpreted it. And that business about “rhetoric” — that’s just a gnostic way for a speaker to justify anything that falls from his lips. One can always say of anything: “That wasn’t my real statement; that’s just rhetoric. My real statement is all those deeply spiritual things I actually meant.”

Dominguez isn’t the first to claim he was merely emitting a “string of words,” and it’s your fault that you got his meaning wrong. Other public figures do the same thing all the time. But what is “rhetoric” — what does it mean?

Rhetoric is a way of organizing words to express a meaning. When people analyze the words of a preacher or a politician or a salesman and conclude that “it’s all just rhetoric,” they mean that something has gone wrong with his string of words, that the mechanisms of meaning have been substituted for meaning itself. If someone says, “Every enterprise associate of Acme Widgets is committed to the highest level of personal respect and productive interfacing with the public,” you know that he or she is being rhetorical in the bad sense. None of those words except “Acme Widgets” has a discernible reference to anything; they are simply good wordsenterprise, associate (not employee, never employee), committed, highest, personal, respect, productive, public, interfacing (you’re right; that doesn’t sound like a good word to me, either, but it is thought to be one).

One can always say of anything: “That wasn’t my real statement; that’s just rhetoric. My real statement is all those deeply spiritual things I actually meant.”

Nevertheless, every writer uses rhetoric. If you write a love note, you may say to the target of your endearments, “Who wouldn’t love you?”, thus employing a rhetorical question, a means of breaking up the normal flow of declarative sentences and creating a slight surprise and intensification. You might add some such expression as, “You are the wind beneath my wings,” although I hope the metaphor you choose is not that trite.

Still, trite or not, the expression has a clear meaning. But what did Mr. Dominguez’s rhetoric mean? Was it just a string of words, with no meaning at all? Then why did he say it? If it did have a meaning, what was that meaning? Was he trying to say, “The voters who elected me have common sense and know what they want to do; therefore, I oppose all attempts to second-guess them by means of regulation”?

I doubt that this was what he had in mind. In fact, I can’t think of any meaning concealed beneath his rhetoric. What would that meaning be? The only one I can imagine is the hidden-in-plain-sight idea that “we have to regulate every aspect of people’s lives.” But seeing Dominguez assert that the real meaning is not the plain meaning is irresistibly funny; it’s like watching a magician claim that there’s an invisible rabbit in his hat. So that’s another good thing about his otherwise absurd and threatening statement.

Less funny rabbit-hat routines were on stage last month in the obsequies of John McCain. The ceremonies attending his death were so protracted as to suggest an irrational number, a house of mirrors, a sermon in an evangelical church, or anything else that makes one scream, “Where will all this end?” It was bad with Barbara Bush; it was worse with McCain — and who has not thought with horror about the coming funeral of Jimmy Carter? At some point, mourners had said all they could say about honor, patriotism, Abraham Lincoln, and this great country of ours. At some point, even the most self-centered person had said all he could say about himself. But what remained to be said, day after day, about John McCain? And what could one say that was true?

You might add some such expression as, “You are the wind beneath my wings,” although I hope the metaphor you choose is not that trite.

One could remind the audience that McCain had been a war hero, a genuine war hero. Captured by enemies in Vietnam, he was imprisoned for more than five years and tortured, horribly, for many months. At one point, fairly early, he could have been released, but he refused to cooperate unless comrades who had been captured before him were also released. His record is as admirable as attempts to question his military courage are despicable.

One could also say, with equal relation to the truth, that McCain spent the rest of his life as a politician — 35 years in Congress were required to perform his great public service — and in that role he revealed himself as a pompous, pigheaded, vindictive man. He was the only Republican politician whom I ever heard being thrown off a Republican talk show for being rude and overbearing. And despite his headstrong character, he switched policies and “convictions” so frequently that nobody knew how he was going to vote on any issue on which his vote was courted. Was he tricky, or was he incapable of coherent reasoning? No one could tell, but neither alternative was attractive. His own political party had no reason to trust him. According to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, McCain flirted with becoming his running mate. According to many people, McCain spent a lot of time peddling the scandalous “dossier” about Trump-in-Russia. I never met anyone who liked John McCain — did you?

When McCain died, his memory was claimed by people who had despised him (liberal Democrats) and people who had made the best of him, to further their own ends (establishment Republicans). These people, with hearty cooperation from McCain in his final illness, saw in his death an opportunity to create an anti-Trump, a politician who was a true American, as opposed to the president, who is un-American. (Have you noticed that this adjective, so long denounced by the Left as a vile slander — which it ordinarily is — now routinely features in Democratic diatribes against Republicans? Odd, isn’t it, that the transference should take place with so little self-consciousness.) Anti-Trump sentiment was mobilized in an attempt to create a panic of grief like that staged when dictators of North Korea die.

McCain was the only Republican politician whom I ever heard being thrown off a Republican talk show for being rude and overbearing.

But what, after all, could be said, day after day, about John McCain? What exactly were his sturdy American principles? What lives had he inspired? What thoughts had he brought to rare expression? What exactly had he accomplished? What had he said that anyone else remembered? How, precisely, could he be eulogized, hour after hour, day after day, week after week? At last the cliché was true: there just weren’t enough words to say about him. Words that meant anything, that is.

By August 31, the alleged mourning had used up so many other words that on-air commentators were clearly puzzled. Yet the show must go on, even at Fox News, which had never liked John McCain (or he, it). It was at Fox that I witnessed one of the most amazing magic acts I have ever seen — magical in the sense of claiming that the invisible rabbit actually was in the hat, that nonsense words were actually conveying some deep meaning. The people at Fox began referring to the marvelous coincidence of two mournings for American “icons”: one was the funeral of John McCain, and the other was the funeral of Aretha Franklin.

Now there’s a desperate string of words.

If there is such a thing as an icon, outside of the religious and artistic circles in which the term has definite meaning, Aretha Franklin was an icon. Icon means “symbol,” and Aretha Franklin was directly and intensely symbolic of a type of music and a type of style and attitude that was irresistibly attractive to millions of Americans. I don’t think that anyone who ever saw her perform “Freeway of Love” will ever forget it. But if John McCain was an icon, what was he an icon of, and by whom was he regarded as such? The answer is plain: He was an icon of John McCain, and recognition of his iconicity was confined to himself. Aretha Franklin and John McCain — each of them an icon? That must be a joke.

The people at Fox began referring to the marvelous coincidence of two mournings for American “icons.”

Worse, in respect to iconicity, is the behavior of our linguistic cousins, the British, whose language appears to be growing even more childish than our own. In Britain, soccer is “footie,” people who work with their hands are “workies” or “tradies,” even snobby writers search out chav words for use on serious topics, and the existence of meaningless Americanisms inspires a quest for equally meaningless anglicisms. So it’s no surprise that an icon in America has now become a totem in Great Britain. On September 3 the Express quoted a member of Parliament as saying, of a meeting the prime minister was scheduled to have ten days later (don’t ask me whether she had the meeting; it’s none of my business): “I think it’s going to be totemic, the crucial meeting on the 13th September.”

Totem, originally an Ojibway term, means a symbolic representation of one’s tribe or family, often specifying its descent. Totem poles do that. In an extended meaning, a totem is a symbol of one’s social group, whatever that may be. Neither of these meanings has anything to do with the MP’s topic. He is making a random seizure of a word he doesn’t understand. I hate to think what an Ojibway chief, sculptor, or storyteller would say about the application of totem to a meeting. He would probably have the same reaction as a Christian would have, if informed that the PM’s next political meeting would be eucharistic.

A good rule is not to use a word if you can’t picture what it means and have no idea where it comes from. I realize that this principle — which Mr. Dominguez might regard as a mere figment of common sense — imposes a tremendous burden on people who want to pull invisible rabbits out of verbal hats, and think they have a foolproof method of doing it. I hate to spoil the fun by revealing how the purported magic is accomplished, but the method is actually simple. First, divide words into two groups — those that sound big, and those that sound small. Then, whenever you want to make an impression, just choose a word, any old word, from the Big list, and throw it in anywhere; applause will follow. You want to compliment a dead politician? Call him iconic, beloved, inspiring, legendary, path-breaking, humble, proud, cautious, bold, whatever.

I hate to think what an Ojibway chief, sculptor, or storyteller would say about the application of "totem" to a meeting.

The same method can be used on some wretched political meeting, or some second-rate storm, such as the recently deceased Florence, which was historic, unique, unprecedented, incredible — until it wasn’t. That’s when people realized there was no rabbit in the hat, despite the Washington Post’s pre-hurricane editorial about President Trump being “complicit” with the rabbit — or wabbit, if you’re a fan of Elmer Fudd, who seems to have written that editorial. Complicit is a big word; it must mean something. Right?

For the Post it all had something to do with the idea that “if the Category 4 hurricane does, indeed, hit the Carolinas this week, it will be the strongest storm on record to land so far north.” Well (to cite a cliché that needs to be revived), if wishes were horses, beggars could ride, and so could the Post, begging for a disaster that proved to be invisible.

Here’s a question. Can you find the supposed rabbit in the following report from the New York Post (July 21)?

“In March, a Tesla driver was killed while test-driving an auto-piloted Model X, the impact fully decimating half the car.” Fairness obliges me to note that at some time after July 21, “fully” was deleted from the story. But that was not the root problem, which was decimating. Liberty editor Jo Ann Skousen was on the case. “’Fully decimated half the car’?” she asked. “Does that mean it was diminished by 20%? 5%? Was half of it untouched and the other half untouched except the front bumper? I’m confused.” But of course she was not confused; she is never confused. She immediately recognized that decimating was simply a word grabbed from the Big list and intended to be accepted as a bunny the size of Harvey. The only difficulty is that words aren’t impressive when they’re ridiculous.

"Complicit" is a big word; it must mean something. Right?

Or when they’re plausible, but false. Tucker Carlson appears to agree with me about the idiocy of McCain worship. He certainly agrees with me about the bad effects of McCain’s constant demands for military intervention in foreign countries. Unfortunately, on his September 4 broadcast Tucker decided to weaponize his criticism by claiming that “he [McCain] was probably the most warlike senator in American history.” What?

True, McCain never saw a military scheme he didn’t like. But for God’s sake, Tucker! What are you talking about? If you add up the senators who wanted to annex Canada in 1812, and the senators who wanted to annex Mexico in 1846, and the senators who wanted to massacre the South in 1861, and the senators who wanted a war with Spain in 1898, and the senators who screamed for war against Germany in 1914, 1915, 1916, and 1917, and . . . should I continue? McCain has some stiff competition in the contest for “most warlike senator in American history.” There is no rabbit in that hat.

Neither is there a rabbit in the hat of Paul Gigot, who runs Fox’s “Wall Street Journal Editorial Report” on weekends (an unjust fate, because the show is usually pretty good). On July 14, Gigot decided to discuss the activities of Peter Strzok. To give decisive emphasis to his feelings, Gigot called him the author of “now infamous” texts. Infamous means “full of infamy,” and in my opinion it’s an appropriate word for the activities of Strzok, the secret policeman who took it upon himself to decide who should be president and left evidence of this high intent and calling among the thousands of stupid texts he sent to his girlfriend. But either something is infamous or it isn’t. It doesn’t become infamous; it isn’t infamous now and not infamous yesterday or tomorrow. What Gigot presumably meant was famous, but he couldn’t stop with that. There’s no magic in saying that something is well known. So, needing a word of greater potency, he reached into his magic hat and pulled out the absurd now infamous.

McCain has some stiff competition in the contest for “most warlike senator in American history.”

When I was studying Latin, I learned from Horace’s Art of Poetry an interesting expression: parturient montes nascetur ridiculus mus: the mountain labors and gives birth to a ridiculous mouse. What’s striking is the labor that some of these people put in, just to get something wrong. You don’t have to talk about infamous texts; just say they’re familiar to everyone. You don’t have to say that McCain was the most warlike senator in history; just say he was mighty warlike. You don’t have to say that even Aretha Franklin was iconic; just call her a good singer, a popular singer, a singer whom millions loved. You don’t have to provide a string of words in a rhetorical fashion — unless, of course, that’s all you’ve got to attract an audience.

It’s remarkable, how many words are wasted in this world. Lives, too.




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Casualties of the Drug War

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White Boy Rick is a rough and complex biopic based on the story of Richard Wershe, Jr., the youngest (at 14) undercover drug informant ever to be recruited by the feds to help them go after the kingpins in the drug trade. At times touching, as when Rick (Richie Merritt) scavenges a stuffed animal from a neighbor’s trash to take home for his sister Dawn (Bel Powley), and at times enraging, the film shows the dark underside of the war on drugs in all its ugly glory: corrupt cops, heartless investigators, violent turf wars, strung-out druggies, and the poverty and despair that often lead people into the trade.

The story is set in mid-’80s Detroit, against a backdrop of empty factories, rat-infested playgrounds, and worn-out homes in worn-out neighborhoods. Richard Wershe Senior (Matthew McConaughey) is a hustler with a gun dealer’s license, and the film opens in the carnival-like atmosphere of families enjoying a gun show, popcorn and all. (I remember attending “hard money” investment conferences in the ’70s and early ’80s where guns were legally sold alongside exhibit booths offering survival gold and freeze-dried foods. How times have changed!)

The film shows the dark underside of the war on drugs in all its ugly glory: corrupt cops, heartless investigators, violent turf wars, strung-out druggies, and the poverty and despair that often lead people into the trade.

Wershe Sr. has a dream: VCRs have recently arrived on the scene, and he wants to open a video store. “All we need is a stake!” he tells Rick. That video store is his rabbit farm (Of Mice and Men), the dream that sustains him through all the disappointments of his life: a jobless economy, a daughter strung out on crack, a son who has dropped out of school, and a source of income that’s sketchy at best. He loves his family, but he can’t provide a good life for them. He has a license to sell registered guns at a meager profit, but the real money is in the “upsell” — the illegal homemade silencers he offers along with them. “The gun is the burger — but these are the fries,” he tells Rick, explaining how fast food servers are trained to make you think you want something you don’t really need. “Now go out and sell you some fries.”

Ironically, FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane) and Detective Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry) ply Rick with a burger and fries as they enlist his services as an undercover narc, threatening to arrest his father for illegal firearms sales if the boy doesn’t comply. This scene was particularly poignant to me, because several of my students at Sing Sing have told me that McDonald’s is the drug of choice for recruiting young drug runners in the streets. “You got no one at home watching out for you, and then some big kid on the block buys you McDonald’s and wants to be your friend. He gives you a cheeseburger and you hold his gun for him. And you end up in here.” Oh, so subtly, with a burger and fries, the film equates the Feds, the dealers, and Rick’s father. The kid never had a chance.

It makes no sense to save for the future when there isn’t a future in sight.

The scenes that follow show Rick immersing himself in the drug culture, with its fast money, easy women, and useless luxuries. These scenes also reminded me of stories my Sing Sing students have told me. “You spent it all as soon as you got it, because you knew this wasn’t going to last. We all knew we’d end up in here. So enjoy it while you can. I had a Mercedes, a big apartment, big parties, I was livin’ the life. Now I’m here.” Rick says something similar to Dawn: “It was good when we were kids. For a while.”

Hopelessness in impoverished neighborhoods often leads people to seek instant gratification and engage in risky behaviors. It makes no sense to save for the future when there isn’t a future in sight. There aren’t any rabbits, and there isn’t any video store. It’s all a pipe dream, mostly found at the bottom of a crack pipe. So grab a few laughs and some ass while you can. There isn’t going to be any more where you’re going.

The feds are no better than the drug lords, and probably worse, because they claim to be the good guys. Driven by moral relativism, they see no problem with getting kids high, sending them into dangerous situations in order to catch drug dealers, and then leaving them to deal with their addictions — and their incarcerations — when they’re no longer useful. Dawn gets strung out on coke provided by her boyfriend, but Rick gets strung out on money provided by the coke the feds give him for his undercover stake. When the feds drop him and that money source dries up, Rick is already hooked. “We gotta do something!” he says to his father in desperation. “We gotta make some money!”

This is a world Liberty readers seldom see and few legislators, journalists, and do-gooders of any sort understand. In one bitterly ironic scene of the movie, the film Footloose is playing on a television moments before automatic weapons riddle the room with bullets. (Footloose, you may recall, is set in a white middle-class community where the biggest threats to happiness are curfew violations, joyriding, and uncontrolled dancing.) “Get out of Yonkers!” is the advice I fairly scream at the families I know there, where poverty, drug use, crime, and hopelessness form a dragnet on their children. But they can’t let go of the safety net — their Section 8 housing — and they stay.

The feds see no problem with sending kids into dangerous situations in order to catch drug dealers, and then leaving them to deal with their addictions — and their incarcerations — when they’re no longer useful.

Rick Wershe may have been the youngest teen to be recruited as an undercover informant to avoid arrest, but he certainly isn’t the only one. According to an article by Tony Newman of Drug Policy Alliance, it has become all too common to bust people for minor possession and then threaten them with decades in prison unless they provide evidence on someone else -– and for those frightened, untrained informants to end up dead. Rick didn’t end up dead, but he might as well have, when his handlers stood idly by as he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole — for selling cocaine. It was the longest sentence for a nonviolent crime ever imposed, until Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for running the Silk Road website.

I watched the tears quietly trickle down 17-year-old Rick’s cheeks in the closing scenes of the film as he spoke through prison glass to his equally distraught father, and the tears quietly streamed down my cheeks too. I know too many of these young men — now middle-aged — who have beenincarcerated since they were teens because they were enticed into a drug trade that is only lucrative and deadly because it is illegal. There are no good guys in the war on drugs. There is only bad law. And bad schools. And bad neighborhoods without hope.

When Footloose ends, the local authorities acknowledge that they only made things worse when they banned dancing. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the same thing about banning drugs.


Editor's Note: Review of "White Boy Rick," directed by Yann Demange. Columbia Pictures, 2018, 111 minutes.



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Locked with a Hundred Keys

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Nothing makes me laugh harder than the falling out between Andrew McCabe, former acting director of the FBI, and Rod Rosenstein, deputy head of the Justice Department. McCabe apparently released government-owned memos to the press, indicating that Rosenstein wanted to tape President Trump’s conversations and oust him from office by means of the 25th Amendment, which provides for the removal of insane potentates. Who would have thought that such grimly determined stereotypes of justice would make such public fools of themselves?

The funniest thing is the public nature of this conflict. Big men in Washington dwell in a castle surrounded by a mile-thick dead zone of official secrecy. Where there’s a secrecy rule, they use it; where there isn’t one, they make it up; where they want to violate it, they do. Now, however, it seems that every second member of the Party of Management and Control is spilling data for his own advantage.

It’s maddening, neverending, Kafkaesque — a sickening emblem of life within the modern state.

It’s happened before, of course. Peter Strzok and Lisa Page happily discussed leaks to the press. James Comey bragged about using a friend to leak classified material. The IRS leaked information about groups it didn’t like. Et cetera. Meanwhile, the nation at large awaits the “release,” as if from penal servitude, of material legally supposed to be free to the public — about Benghazi, about the FBI attack on conservative and libertarian groups, about the aforementioned conversations of Strzok, Page, and the other members of their coven, and about the FISA procedures used to spy on Trump and his campaign (as well as other persons and entities). Freedom of Information Act suits are won, court orders are issued, even the president orders the release of documents, but official after official still manages to sequester, slow-walk, and block for “review” and “clearance” thousands of documents that the people have a right to see. The excuse is that allowing this information to escape would reveal the methods of the government employees involved. Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?

It’s maddening, neverending, Kafkaesque — a sickening emblem of life within the modern state. It reminds me of the horrifying conditions of slavery, as portrayed by Abraham Lincoln. In a speech delivered on June 12, 1857 (I am not a worshiper of Lincoln, but this is one of his best speeches), he discussed the eagerness of Southerners to prevent the slave from ever, on any account, becoming free:

They have him in his prison-house; they have searched his person and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him; and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key — the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they have scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more difficult than it is.

Substitute truth for slave and the description fits the present case.

Even Trump is imprisoned. What he should do is take the FISA file, and any other file he wants to liberate, xerox it with his own hands, and throw it out to whoever wants it. But he doesn’t. Even he appears to be frightened of the torrent of truth he might unleash against our secret masters.




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The Paranoia of the Lambs

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“This is a book about education and wisdom. If we can educate the next generation more wisely, they will be stronger, richer, more virtuous, and even safer.”

This is the goal and the conclusion of The Coddling of the America Mind by Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist. The authors present a compelling, honest, apolitical, and well-researched explanation of what is happening on campuses today and how this goal can be achieved for the next generation. It’s probably the most important book published in 2018.

No one seems willing to listen to the “enemy” or find common ground in order to restore harmony. What has gone wrong on our college campuses, and in America in general?

We’ve all seen videos of the growing viciousness experienced on some college campuses in the past five years — professors mobbed for making seemingly trivial statements; controversial figures shouted down and physically attacked when they’re invited to speak on campus; trigger warnings, speech codes, and safe spaces featuring cookies, blankets and coloring books cropping up at universities across the land. We’re also seeing an increase in “callout culture,” in which students and social media warriors gain status by identifying small offenses committed by a member of a community and then publicly “calling out” or shaming the perceived offender. This public cruelty has been given the ironic moniker of “virtue signaling.” No one seems willing to listen to the “enemy” or find common ground in order to restore harmony. What has gone wrong on our college campuses, and in America in general? And can it be reversed?

Lukianoff and Haidt say yes. In their book they identify three major “untruths” contributing to the problem: the rising, erroneous belief that humans are fragile and need to be protected from all risk; the belief that feelings are more powerful than reason and should always be trusted; and the belief that all people are either good or evil, leading to a dichotomous “us vs. them” tribalism. Related to these “untruths” is the idea that words are literally dangerous, which in turn justifies physical violence as a form of self-defense. The bulk of their book addresses these three themes as they describe specific examples of violence, present surprising evidence of possible causes, and offer convincing solutions to reverse the trend.

As the president of FIRE, Lukianoff has been at the forefront of campus unrest as both an observer of the violence and a defender of free speech. In a section called “Bad Ideas in Action,” the authors describe several high-profile cases in which professors have been forced to resign for minor slights, or speakers have been shouted down and physically threatened. But they also include examples of police brutality and the neo-Nazi attack in Charlottesville last year. The book is apolitical in that it does not take sides or suggest that one particular party or viewpoint is primarily to blame. In fact, they sympathize with many of the noble concerns of what they call the iGen generation (those born after 1995), who sincerely care about racism, sexism, justice, and environmental issues. And they acknowledge that “right-wing provocateurs” often deliberately fuel the flames with their own vicious protests and threatening language. The book’s purpose is not to cast blame or fan the fires but to discover genuine causes and promote change.

This year Utah became the first state to pass a “free-range parenting” bill, making it less likely that parents who allow their children to play outside will be charged with neglect.

The most useful and important part of the book is the section called “How Did We Get Here?” It notes a significant change on campuses beginning in 2013, when students began reporting high levels of anxiety and demanding trigger warnings to avoid uncomfortable experiences and safe spaces to recover from them. Lukianoff and Haidt connect this rise in anxiety not to the college experience but to the childhood experiences leading up to their entrance to college. These catalysts include anxiety and depression, “paranoid parenting,” a decline in unsupervised free play, increased political polarization, a hyper quest for social justice inspired by news reports and videos of violence or bullying against minorities, and college consumerism that gives students what they want instead of what they need in order to attract more students. In fact, they observe, college administrators did not cause the rise in “safetyism” on campus through some nefarious desire to end free speech; they simply responded to the alarming and genuine fearfulness and fragility expressed by the entering class of iGen students.

However well-intentioned the institutional protections might be, the continuation of coddling is exactly the opposite of what students need. Colleges should be teaching them to cope, not to hide. I’m reminded of a student who used to spend every afternoon in the tutoring center where I worked, seeking help for every assignment. He was a likeable young man with a learning disability, and we were instructed to make sure he graduated, even if it meant feeding him every answer. After earning his bachelors degree, he entered the MBA program. Again his instructors and tutors coddled him. Instead of requiring him, for example, to do legitimate research to learn how businesses operate, they allowed him to make up his case studies and imagine businesses that simply would not exist or survive in the real world. Nor would he himself survive, in a real job.

Frustrated, I told him one day that he needed to research a real business for his case study, and not just make up a company and its product, sales, marketing, etc. I offered to help him find the research and analyze the data, so that he could learn how a real business operates. I was concerned that he was racking up thousands of dollars in student debt with no real skills or understanding and no hope of landing a job. The result? I was reprimanded. I had hurt his feelings, and that was considered more harmful than the reprimanders’ giving him years of false hope and poor education.

Lukianoff and Haidt acknowledge that “right-wing provocateurs” often deliberately fuel the flames with their own vicious protests and threatening language.

It is simply not true that humans are fragile and need to be protected from all risk. Actually, humans are “antifragile,” as Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains in his 2007 bestseller The Black Swan. We need resistance to grow strong. Bones and muscles atrophy when they aren’t used, and so do emotional muscles. Students need to be taught how to cope with difficulties and traumas in order to grow mentally and emotionally strong. Lukianoff uses his own experience with CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) as an example of how confronting one’s fears and anxieties can make one stronger and able to cope. Sadly, many parents and college administrators are taking the opposite approach.

Can the trend on campus be reversed? Lukianoff and Haidt believe it can: “The more serious a problem gets, the more inducements there are for people, companies, and governments to find innovative solutions, whether driven by personal commitment, market forces, or political pressures” (265). Parents are becoming smarter about teaching children to become confident, independent problem-solvers. Many schools are restoring recess and reducing homework to encourage free play, where they learn to socialize, calculate risk, negotiate differences, and adjudicate fairness. This year Utah became the first state to pass a “free-range parenting” bill, making it less likely that parents who allow their children to play outside will be charged with neglect. Many universities, recognizing that “safetyism” leads to fragility, are beginning to introduce coping skills instead of overprotection. The University of Chicago has created a new Statement on Principles of Free Expression that reaffirms its commitment to free and open inquiry, and other colleges are following its example, reducing the rising tendency of professors to watch what they say and not challenge students intellectually for fear of retaliation.

FIRE has produced a modified version of the statement to serve as a template for other schools. The book provides a list of questions that parents and prospective students should ask while selecting a college (261–62). In sum, this is not the end of civility on campus, nor is it the end of civility in the United States.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure is a reasoned, logical, unbiased, and well-researched assessment of the rise in verbal and physical violence on campuses across America. It offers sound advice that begins in the home and moves beyond the campus to embrace self-governance. I’ve already sent it to several friends. You probably will too.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure," by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Penguin Press, 2018, 338 pages.



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Generation Graft

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Hits and Misses

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A Simple Favor isn’t a libertarian film. It doesn’t make any political commentary, it doesn’t cover timely issues, and it has little to say about economics beyond an offhand remark about the relative value of stay-at-home moms and “working moms.” I suppose I could stretch it to consider what Ayn Rand might have said about the concept of doing simple favors, but I won’t.

So why am I reviewing this movie for Liberty? Because it’s surprisingly good, one of the most entertaining films in months, and worth seeing for the quality of the acting, the twists and turns of the plot, and the subtle, unaffected comedic delivery of Anna Kendrick.

These three form a twisted romantic triangle with a twisted plot that takes us on a twisted romp through a dark side of suburbia.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is a stay-at-home mom with a compulsive penchant for volunteerism, a chirpy vlog called “Hi Moms!” where she talks about cooking and crafts, and a dark secret that drives her compulsiveness. When Emily (Blake Lively), a glamorous, high-powered working mom whose son attends the same preschool as Stephanie’s, befriends her, Stephanie becomes as giddy and malleable as a middle-school wallflower who suddenly finds herself walking home with the head cheerleader. Sean (Henry Golding), an award-winning novelist who hasn’t written anything publishable since marrying Emily ten years earlier, is suave, sexy, and hot for his wife. These three form a twisted romantic triangle with a twisted plot that takes us on a twisted romp through a dark side of suburbia.

When Emily goes missing, Stephanie volunteers to help Sean take care of their son, Nicky, and begins playing house in Emily’s mansion. Soon she starts her own investigation into Emily’s disappearance, discovering secrets in Emily’s past. Sean has his share of secrets too, and the result is a satisfying mystery thriller that is not only scary and suspenseful but often laugh-out-loud funny, especially when Stephanie tries to remain cool and nonchalant during an interview with the police about Emily’s disappearance — while wearing one of Emily’s dresses. With its bright colors, upbeat music track, and delightfully awkward leading lady, A Simple Favor is not your typical mystery thriller, but it is a simple delight.

Henry Golding, the handsome British-Malaysian whose previous screen credit was hosting a travel show, is having quite a season on the big screen. He’s also starring this month in the hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, based on the book of the same name by Singaporean-American Kevin Kwan. Its greenlight follows the success of ABC’s TV series “Fresh off the Boat” and stars some of the same actors.

Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur inhabited this plot perfectly in 1938, and the formula has been working ever since.

CRA is trying very hard to be socially relevant by marketing itself as the supposedly first mainstream film that focuses entirely on Asian culture with an extensively Asian cast and crew. But it’s really just a light, fluffy romantic comedy that happens to be set in Singapore. Rich Singapore boy Nick Young (Golding) meets poor immigrant girl Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) while studying in the United States. Rich boy’s mother Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh, who was stunning in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) tries to break up rich boy’s romance when they come to Singapore for Nick’s best friend’s wedding. Poor girl’s family has more integrity than rich boy’s family, leading to rich boy losing poor girl. Care to guess where they end up? Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur inhabited this plot perfectly in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You in 1938, and the formula has been working ever since. CRA is cute and fun, but it isn’t groundbreaking, despite its marketing plan.

In fact, its IMDb page reveals just how muddled the claim to “first” is:

Excluding movies and animation extensively featuring Pacific Islanders and East Indians produced in America such as Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, and Moana, and excluding The Last Samurai (2003), which featured a majority East Asian cast but with a white lead, this is the first Western-produced major studio film with an extensive East Asian cast since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). Other movies with extensively East Asian casts include Revenge of the Green Dragons (2014), A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and Joy Luck Club (1993).

And that doesn’t even acknowledge the above-mentioned “Fresh Off the Boat,” now in its fourth season. With all those caveats, the idea that they would even attempt to call themselves “the first Western-produced major studio film with an extensive East Asian cast” is pretty laughable.

If an American crew instead of an Asian crew had made CRA, Asian audiences would likely be howling “foul play.” First, its leading actor, whose character is supposed to represent old-world Chinese family and customs, isn’t even fully Asian! Golding’s mother is Malaysian, but his father is British. And yes, those rounder eyes and British accent probably make him more attractive to western audiences. (In fact, some are recommending Golding as the next James Bond.) Moreover, stereotypes are stereotypes. The crazy rich Asian women in the movie care only about shopping for designer clothing and designer plastic surgeries in order to catch a rich husband. Those rich husbands care only about getting richer. And the unmarried rich boys are sex-crazed and pathetic. Not a pretty portrayal, even if the author, director, and cast are all Asian.

The crazy rich Asian women in the movie care only about shopping for designer clothing and designer plastic surgeries in order to catch a rich husband. Those rich husbands care only about getting richer.

The one exception to the designer hive in Singapore is Rachel’s quirky, yellow-haired friend from college, Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), who rejects the fashion stereotype and is true to her own sense of style and identity. But she is accepted in Singapore society largely because her daddy’s rich and her family is old. And she, too, wears designer clothes, just quirkier ones. To be fair, in A Simple Favor Emily also has a closet full of designer clothes, shoes and bags, but at least she paid for them herself with her high-powered job, and she is anything but a follower. If any message is clear in modern movie making, it’s this: where women are concerned, the devil does indeed wear Prada.

Crazy Rich Asians is a fun movie if you’re in the mood for a predictable romantic comedy set in an exotic locale. The sumptuous wedding scene at Singapore’s Raffles hotel (where Nick is serving as best man, not groom — this isn’t a spoiler) is breathtakingly gorgeous. But if you’re looking for a serious film about serious issues, or even a lighthearted comedy with a little depth, this isn’t it.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Simple Favor," directed by Paul Feig. BRON Studios/Feigco Entertainment, 2018, 117 minutes; and "Crazy Rich Asians," directed by Jon M. Chu. Warner Bros., 2018, 120 minutes.



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A Visit to Noah’s Ark

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The tourist season is almost over, but I’m making plans. I’m also thinking about last year’s acts of tourism. I’m remembering the sunny day in September when I visited Noah’s Ark.

The Ark is the central feature of a sort-of-theme-park called Ark Encounter, in Grant County, Kentucky. It’s a wooden structure — possibly the largest wooden structure on earth — built to the dimensions prescribed in the sixth chapter of Genesis. There aren’t any live animals inside (at least I can’t remember any); they’re in the zoo next door. But there are full-scale models of animals in various kinds of enclosures. There are also models of Noah and his family, going about their lives on the Ark: caring for the animals, fixing meals for themselves, relaxing in their comfortable onboard cabins. Ramps lead from level to level, where one finds “scientific” exhibits, restrooms, and two theaters with continuous showings of movies. In the first theater, Noah is interviewed by a skeptical antediluvian reporter and explains how and why you would build an ark. In the second theater, a 21st-century ark advocate is interviewed by a reporter who is (I think) played by the same actress who played the ancient one. She also is skeptical and needs to be converted to the idea that the biblical account is literally true. I assume the conversion happens, although I left before the movie was over. Her snarky postmodern attitude was less congenial to me than the religious credulity of the rest of the Ark.

But “credulity” isn’t exactly the right word. For me, a charming aspect of the place was the scores of exhibits providing ingenious answers both to obvious questions and to questions that, I’m embarrassed to say, had never occurred to me.

  • How did all those animals fit into the Ark? Well, they didn’t represent species; they represented “kinds,” which are fewer and are capable of developing (not evolving) into more than one species.
  • How did all those really big animals fit inside? Well, Noah probably took the young, small ones. I hadn’t thought of that.
  • How could you carry food to all those animals? You could use lots of pulleys and dumbwaiters.
  • How could you remove all the dung from those animals? You could use lots of pulleys and dumbwaiters.
  • How could a family of eight take care of thousands of animals? It’s not too hard, when you figure how much work a normal man or woman can do in X number of hours . . . .

The continuous display of cleverness delighted me. It went a long way toward illustrating Chesterton’s observation that the last thing a crazy person has left is his logic. But the builders of the Ark aren’t crazy; their ideas are just naïve and innocuous, and the Ark lets you see how far naiveté and innocuousness can get you in America, and how much charm you can gather along the way.

The reporter's snarky postmodern attitude was less congenial to me than the religious credulity of the rest of the Ark.

The Arkists optimistically predicted that they would be visited by 2.4 million people during their first full season, which was 2017. When I visited, they’d gotten only about 1.5 million, maybe, and it was late in the season. I was concerned that their great enterprise might have a short life, despite a (to me) very regrettable but somewhat shaky subsidy from a neighboring town. But there’s a wall inside the Ark that shows the names of people who have contributed various amounts for its construction, and it’s a very long wall. The Ark came to rest within easy driving distance of Louisville, Lexington, Dayton, and Cincinnati, and that’s a church belt. Visitors to the Ark whom I saw were very “diverse” — whites, blacks, Asians, beards, bikers, families of nine. The only solo visitor was me. So the audience is large, and just when I was thinking that a lot more people could be packed into the Ark, I went to the restaurant outside, and there were hundreds more of them in there. More than in the Ark itself. They may not be museumgoers, but they are sure as hell good eaters.

I hope they eat their way to heaven. Their idea of Christianity isn’t mine, but their spirit of voluntarism enchants me. You want to build a giant ark? You want to make it pay? I’m with you — see if you can. And this is an American thing; you can’t imagine it happening in France. Maybe I’ll visit again this year.

The visitors may not be museumgoers, but they are sure as hell good eaters.

My pilgrimage to the Ark last year began with a visit to my ancestral homeland, a county in Southern Illinois where my family has lived since 1816. I myself have never lived there; my parents left before I was born. But I’m related to all the old families, and I like to see what’s going on. In the early 1890s my father’s father built a house on the main street of one of the county’s little towns. That house passed out of the family a few years ago, after the death of my beloved aunt, the last of my grandparents’ eight children. Next to her house are (going south on Main Street) two other big old houses and then the Methodist church, where my grandparents taught Sunday school. The church seems to be doing all right, despite its fluctuating congregation, but much of the rest of Main Street has been torn down, hideously altered, or left derelict. The town’s population has been declining since 1910, and the working population has been declining still more disastrously. The old families, who were poor, by the world’s standards (my grandparents never owned a car), are being replaced by people on welfare, many of whom have no standards. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true. If you want to see used up sofas stashed in the yard, I can show you where to go.

Whenever I visit, I brace ourselves for some more sad social and architectural news, especially about those two houses next to my grandparents’ place. They’ve been empty for years, and before that they were subjected to destructive attempts to “modernize.” If you’re brave enough to step onto the sagging wooden porches and look in the windows, what you see is broken glass, naked lath, once-friendly rooms returning to a state of unfriendly nature.

Their idea of Christianity isn’t mine, but their spirit of voluntarism enchants me. You want to build a giant ark? You want to make it pay? I’m with you — see if you can.

But this time, I saw a truck out back, and a man walking toward me: “Can I help you?” I explained myself, we shook hands, and I learned that this man was there to help the houses. A 50ish gentleman from an even smaller town about ten miles up the road, he had purchased both properties from the bank (or some other entity on which possession had devolved), because he liked them and wanted to restore them. More important, he had the skills to restore them. He had learned those skills decades ago, when the local high school actually taught students how to do things. It offered courses — excellent courses — in all the construction trades. Every year, students built a house from scratch, and sold it. If anybody can do something for old family homes, a graduate of those courses can do it.

I don’t know whether this man will succeed. I don’t know whether the Ark Encounter will succeed. Both seem romantic and quixotic to me. Nothing could be more different from America’s Towers of Tech or its Mordor of urban “housing” than these vernacular architectural enterprises. They are the creations of individuals, not of the state or the lackeys of the state.

I live in coastal California, and I’m often surprised to discover that no one here ever goes to the Midwest, the real Midwest, or any portion of California that isn’t built of concrete and steel. I know I could say something similar about the travel habits of people from New York or Boston or Washington, or even Chicago. But the Midwest I’m thinking about has nothing to do with physical geography. It has to do with the geography of the mind. There are places in the mind where everything that is done has to be done by some enormous, statelike thing. And there are places in the mind where individual people still do things, because they want to. Those places I call America.




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Corporate “Compensation”

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On September 9, CBS announced that its CEO, Les Moonves was out the door. The cause was a second round of accusations of sexual misdeeds.

So what if he gets fired? But what struck me about the CBS report on his ouster was this:

A financial exit package for Moonves will be withheld pending the results of an ongoing investigation into the allegations against him. Moonves was eligible for as much as $180 million if fired without cause, according to an employment contract he signed in May 2017. Recent reports indicated a potential payout in the range of $100 million.

One hundred million dollars? One hundred eighty million dollars? This is something that libertarian theory should go to work on. How can a corporation possibly assume that anyone this side of Thomas Alva Edison is worth that amount of money? And remember, in this case the skill that is being rewarded in this egregious manner is simply that of throwing darts at demographics and guessing which TV shows will turn out to be popular. How many other people could do that just as well? To put it in another way: could you get somebody just as good with an exit package of $99 million? How about $99 thousand?

How can a corporation possibly assume that anyone this side of Thomas Alva Edison is worth that amount of money?

In every walk of elite life we see this ridiculous inflation of compensation. Even colleges and universities imagine that they can’t get anybody good if they don’t pay at least a million a year, and maybe ten million. And look at the outcome. In every walk of elite life we see seamless mediocrity, or worse

My own suspicion is that there’s a cartelization at work. These people stick together, raising their salaries by insisting that they won’t get paid less than the last one that got hired someplace. But that’s not enough to explain it. The corporate hiring committees — and the boards of directors, and the big investors — need to say what the hell is going on. Is this class solidarity gone wild? The class being the “made men” of the corporate world, whose pride demands that every goon in the mob gets as much grease as he possibly can.

And wait — that’s the amount of money he was going to get if he did a crummy job and they fired him. If they wanted to get rid of him.

But hey. Please don’t tell me that in a capitalist system, people are paid according to their financial value to the enterprise that employs them. Do you think that with anyone but Les Moonves at the helm, CBS would be $180 million poorer? And wait — that’s the amount of money he was going to get if he did a crummy job and they fired him. If they wanted to get rid of him. It wasn’t his ordinary compensation. I don’t know what that is. The article I cited says $70 million a year as “take home,” but what about the income that dropped into his portfolio?

No. Explanations that are economic in the narrow sense won’t work. There’s something more going on, something that can only be explained by a libertarian sociology — or maybe a libertarian pathology.




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Life is a Custard Pie

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"Life is a custard pie. Sometimes you get to eat it, and sometimes it smacks you right in the face." — Lori Heine

In my first eighteen months of life, I never took a step. I didn’t even crawl. Mom would set me down somewhere, and I would stay there, like a doll, until somebody picked me up again. My parents took me to the doctor to find out why I wasn’t walking yet. He told them to stop worrying over me, and to just let me do it when I got good and ready.

One afternoon, I sat out on our driveway, where I had been plunked. Beth Ann Kahn sat facing me, and we were playing. “Patty-cake, patty-cake . . . baker’s man,” I sang as she smacked each of my palms with hers — as if to compensate for not walking, since well before my first birthday I’d been an eloquent singer.

My patty-cake frozen in midair, I watched with fascination as the clown headed for the neighbors’ driveway.

“Bake me a cake as fast as you can,” Beth Ann murmured, casting a glance at the clown getting out of his car at the curb across the street. She scooted closer to me, watching the stranger in the polka-dotted jumpsuit.

“Hidy-ho, there, girlies!”

He waved a white-gloved hand.

The little girl who lived there was having a birthday party. My patty-cake frozen in midair, I watched with fascination as the clown headed for the neighbors’ driveway. Fwap-fwap . . . fwap-fwap went his gigantic, floppy shoes.

Animals! Balloons! Gigantic shoes and bright orange hair! Transported into wonderland, I rose to my feet.

Beth Ann began to whimper. “That’s Curt the Clown,” my mom explained from the folding chair on our lawn. “I’ll bet he’s going to make animals out of balloons!”

Animals! Balloons! Gigantic shoes and bright orange hair! Beth Ann burst into tears. Transported into wonderland, I rose to my feet.

“Oh, honey!” I heard Mom say.

“Where you goin’?” sniffled Beth Ann.

Curt the Clown was going to go inside, and I wouldn’t see him anymore. He was almost to the front door. Maybe I could catch him, if I ran!

The world flew past as I strained forward. Faster — faster! “Hey!” I called to the retreating clown. “Hey, there!”

I reached out for him. That was a mistake. Not just because he was still too far away, but because the driveway tilted. It rose up to meet me, and I landed smack on my chest.

I wasn’t sure what was so wonderful about it all. The clown was gone.

“Oh, my baby!” Mom swept me up into her arms. “You walked! You ran!”

Mrs. Kahn was out of the chair beside my mom’s and she had picked up Beth Ann. “Lori doesn’t do anything halfway,” she noted, holding her sobbing daughter close.

I scowled at Beth Ann. She was the baby. Mom hoisted me into the air and laughed. I wasn’t sure what was so wonderful about it all. The clown was gone.

For obvious reasons, I have loved clowns ever since. I’m well aware that many people think clowns are creepy. It’s become a sort of collectivist prejudice. We’re simply expected to find clowns creepy because “everybody” says so. But like everything collectivist, I think that anti-clown hysteria is creepy.

Curt the Clown has gone on to that great three-ring circus in the sky, so I can’t thank him personally for the role he played in getting me on my feet. But in his honor, I’m on a mission to redeem clowns’ reputation. I’ve written a young-adult novel, appropriately titled Good Clowns. It’s being published September 10.

The Brannigans live by the Code of the Clown, so they handle threats of violence with dignity, grace, and wit.

Is Good Clowns a “libertarian” novel? It’s libertarian in spirit, if not in letter. Riley Brannigan, its 9-year-old heroine, is the daughter of professional clowns. She’s bullied for this at school, because most of the kids agree that “clowns are creepy.” In the parlance of young-adult fiction, my book takes on the issue of bullying.

“We’re a clown family,” Riley’s mother reminds her. “Clowns don’t fight.” This appears to put our heroine at a disadvantage, because the chief bully is more than willing to fight. But the Brannigans live by the Code of the Clown, so they handle threats of violence with dignity, grace, and wit — which call for far more courage than violence.

The Brannigan family may not know they’re libertarians, but since I created them, they certainly are. I won’t give away too much of the plot, as I hope as many as possible will read through to the conclusion for themselves. In any case, may we all persevere in handling the political violence we face daily with dignity, grace, and wit. May we never take ourselves too seriously. And may we eat the custard pie more often than we take it in the face.




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Racism

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In 1979, undercover Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth noticed a phone number in a local newspaper in a small ad seeking members to begin a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He called the number and pretended to be a white supremacist, hoping to infiltrate the organization in order to thwart the rising violence against black residents in general and the black student union at the college in particular. Soon the KKK leader suggested that they meet in person. The only hitch? Ron Stallworth was black.

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman tells the tale, and it’s a gripping, suspenseful, often humorous, and often troubling one. As the film narrates the story, KKK leader Walter Breachway (played in the movie by Ryan Eggold) eventually asks for a face-to-face meeting with Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel’s son), Stallworth arranges for a white undercover narcotics cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to stand in for him. Yes, a black and a Jew both manage to infiltrate the hateful KKK by posing as the same white supremacist. Stallworth continues to talk with Walter by phone while Zimmerman continues to meet with Klan members in person, necessitating that their stories and even their voices match. Walter’s second in command, Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), grows suspicious, or perhaps jealous, and as his sadistic streak surfaces we worry for Zimmerman’s life.

Director Lee chooses caricature rather than character with some of his KKK subjects, but after watching decades of black caricature on film, I can forgive him this hamhandedness.

During the course of his investigation Stallworth contacts David Duke himself (Topher Grace), then the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and future Louisiana State Representative. The boyish Grace, best known for the TV series That ’70s Show, plays Duke with perfect oblivion to his bigotry. Lee is a bit heavyhanded, however, in his determination to connect Duke’s rhetoric with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric.

Adam Driver provides a nuanced performance as the lapsed, nonchalant Jew forced to confront his feelings about his heritage when he is threatened simply because of his genetic stew. Corey Hawkins is fiery as Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael), and Laura Harrier channels Angela Davis luminously with her big round glasses and bigger round afro as Patrice Dumas, president of the black student union. Harry Belafonte is a standout as Jerome Turner, carrying with him the weary weight of his own decades in the civil rights movement. Director Lee chooses caricature rather than character with some of his KKK subjects, particularly the slack-jawed near-imbecile Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) and Walter’s perky, overweight, frilly aproned wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). But after watching decades of black caricature on film, I can forgive him this hamhandedness.

While the plot of BlackKKlansman covers just nine months in the 1970s, the story spans more than a century. It opens with a scene from Gone with the Wind, presents upsetting clips from Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the KKK, and ends with footage from the deadly riot in Charlottesville last year. And Harry Belafonte as Jerome Turner provides a soft-spoken, emotional, and tender account of the horrifying 1916 lynching and burning of Jerome Washington in Waco, Texas.

If there is one underlying truth about racism, it is this: government is the Grand Wizard of bigotry.

I’m always a little uncomfortable and defensive when I see films like this; it’s important to be aware of black history, and I’m glad these stories are being recorded on film. But it feels as though I’m intruding somehow, as though all whites are being accused of the same ignorant, bigoted mindset that we see on the screen. In reality, of course, white supremacists represent a tiny minority of the population, while white voters, white activists, white teachers, and white politicians have worked vigorously in the cause of civil rights.

If there is one underlying truth about racism, it is this: government is the Grand Wizard of bigotry. Government legalized slavery and enforced the Fugitive Slave Law. Government institutionalized segregation through neighborhood-based public schools and “separate but equal” policies, and governments outlawed miscegenation. Government imposed poll taxes and voting questionnaires. Government grants and welfare in the 1960s were well-intentioned, but they incentivized single motherhood, established barriers to work through public assistance programs that were difficult to relinquish for an entry-level job, and created a dragnet rather than a safety net that virtually destroyed the black family in urban neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, activists — black and white, male and female — exercising their rights to free speech and open dialogue were the catalyst for change and inclusion. Freedom of speech is the most important right we have. It’s the foundation for all other rights. Yet too many activists today are turning to government to establish hate laws that limit free speech. These films seldom acknowledge the friendship and genuine concern felt by so many white Americans, or the fact that discovery of truth is a process. Lee gives a welcomed nod to this idea at the end of the film, but it takes a long time to get there. Still, BlacKkKlansman is well made and well worth seeing.


Editor's Note: Review of "BlacKkKlansman," directed by Spike Lee. Focus Features and Legendary World, 2018, 135 minutes.



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