The Quest for the Perfect Slogan

 | 

Sex seems to bring out the worst in us, even when it doesn’t happen.

I refer, of course, to the Brett Kavanaugh episode. I don’t want to argue about the sex accusations themselves, partly because I just can’t get interested in either Kavanaugh or his accusers — all self-evidently tedious, boring people — and partly because I’m sure you’ve reached your own view, and if we differ, why should we go over it all again?

Merely to be honest, however, I need to say that I never believed any of the accusers. Christine Blasey Ford was the only one I might have believed, but she made untrue statements about so many things — her paralyzing fear of flying, the time and reason for installing an extra door on her house, her lack of memory of crucial episodes that happened only weeks before, let alone three decades before — that there was, for me, every reason not to believe her. I was not impressed by the supposedly corroborating evidence, which consisted only of assertions made by Ford herself (in psychological counseling sessions!) about 30 years after the alleged event. Are we now corroborating our statements by making them more than once?

I just can’t get interested in either Kavanaugh or his accusers — all self-evidently tedious, boring people.

But so much for that. What I want to talk about is the verbal and rhetorical horrors of the affair. I’ll start with the “protestors” who on September 24 assailed Senator Cruz in a Washington restaurant and drove him forth with loud cries, citing his support for the Kavanaugh nomination as a reason for restricting his culinary choices. Cruz has no problems of self-esteem, so I’m sure he’ll survive; I’m not so sure about the survival of some vital distinctions in our language. There is a difference between protestors and harassers, and between individual harassers and a mob. CNN anchor persons now fly into a tizzy if someone uses the word mob, but the word remains useful. A mob does more than bother you or protest against you; a mob wants to have its own way with you.

Protestors can be witty and humorous; mobs never are — although a member of the anti-Cruz mob did say something funny, one of the few funny sayings among the millions spilled over the Brett Kavanaugh dam. Referring to Cruz’s opponent in the current senatorial election, Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke, the young protestor said, “Beto is way hotter than you are.” No one will argue that this isn’t true. Some may argue that it isn’t all that funny, either, but I’ll take funniness where I can find it, especially when it cuts through the shroud of deep moral seriousness with which contestants on both sides of the Kavanaugh affair tried to suffocate us.

The rest of the keep-Cruz-from-eating discourse was not amusing. Its central feature was the high-decibel chant, “We believe survivors!” For weeks that slogan served as the argument of choice for Kavanaugh’s antagonists. Their method was backed by historical precedent, a precedent that illustrates the way in which even good causes can be hurt by bad rhetoric.

There is a difference between protestors and harassers, and between individual harassers and a mob.

Let me put it to you this way. In early life I often participated in anti-Vietnam War protests. Occasionally I organized them. To paraphrase Whitman: I was the man; I shouted slogans; I was there. I still think that the war was wrong — but I no longer think that angrily screaming a few catchphrases is a decent way of carrying on debate. If you believe it is, your tendency will be to make your slogans substitute for thought. Soon, freed from thought, the slogans will stop appealing to anyone except people who view them as the moral equivalent of war, and enjoy waging war. I’m pretty sure that slogans and demos didn’t end the actual war in Vietnam; they enraged more people than they inspired.

Since then, however, Americans of all persuasions have acted as if progress is to be made by shouting inane phrases, suspiciously resembling high school football chants, and imagining oneself as a Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegate marching on the Winter Palace. They have so much fun dramatizing themselves that they stop caring about the effect. Does anyone hear people screaming “We believe survivors!” and say, “Hmmm. Maybe I was wrong. Now I see that Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination should be rejected.” Only an insane person would meditate thus, and when I watched adult persons being dragged from Senate chambers shouting the single word “Shame!” until the word dissolved into an animal howl, I wondered why anyone not seriously unbalanced would want to argue in this way.

The noise they were making was the type my grandmother had in mind when she said she hadn’t heard anything like it since the old cow died. It drowned out any attempts at serious discussion of Kavanaugh’s qualifications for high office — discussions from which his adversaries might have emerged victorious. Yet these officially distressed people all seemed remarkably smug, as smug as teachers who’ve caught some students cheating and can now indulge the pleasure of bawling them out. After all, the cry of “Shame!” implies that those on the receiving end understand the rules and know that they violated them; all the culprits need is to be publicly disgraced. But despite its high moral purpose, the protestors’ rhetoric was literally repulsive — repellant, repugnant, noxious to anyone exposed to it for significant periods of time.

To paraphrase Whitman: I was the man; I shouted slogans; I was there.

Its logic was repulsive too. The howl of “We believe survivors!” was not only an attempt at winning by intimidation; it was also an attempt at winning by definition. The question for debate was whether someone (e.g., Christine Blasey Ford) was in fact a survivor of something, and if so, what that something was; the demand for belief was just an impudent way of eliding the debate. So was the adjuration to believe the victims, as in Michael Avenatti’s denunciation of the press for not caving in to accusations made by his client. “I am disgusted by the fact that the press is attacking a sexual assault victim,” Avenatti said. He could have saved himself from disgust by simply showing that his client was indeed a victim.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) took the same tack as the “We believe survivors!” sloganeers, although with her even a slogan has to be dressed up with a sofa, a coffee table, and some heavy drapes. “We are now in a place,” she intoned, “where it’s not about whether or not Judge Kavanaugh is qualified. It is about whether or not a woman who has been a victim at some point in her life is to be believed.” No, it’s not about that. Everyone agrees that if someone is a victim, she should be believed. The question is, Were these people victims or not? Did they survive anything that endangered their survival? Murkowski assumes that if you define them as victims and survivors, and shout loudly enough — or orate heavily enough — about it, then you have won the argument. But what if I shout in reply, “I don’t believe a LIAR!” Where are we then? Who will decide between these two sets of powerful arguments?

I’m going to say this as solemnly as I can: a world in which people just are what they say they are, and you are required to believe them, because that’s what they are, is a world incompatible with liberty. It’s a world in which anyone can be accused of anything, and lose everything, because he or she is guilty by definition. If protection from this violation of liberty isn’t specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights, it’s because the authors never thought that anyone would be stupid enough to use such logic in constitutional discourse, or smug enough to insist on it.

The noise they were making was the type my grandmother had in mind when she said she hadn’t heard anything like it since the old cow died.

Less repulsive, I suppose, than argument by definition, but similar in logical status, is argument by emotion — your emotion or somebody else’s. Kavanaugh was believed or not believed because he showed certain emotions. Ford was pronounced credible because her hearers felt that her emotions were appropriate to the occasion. Others, admittedly, found her credible because, as they said, “She had nothing to gain by making these charges.” Excuse me — is there no gain in attracting a national spotlight, advancing the political causes you espouse, or even expressing your turbulent emotions in a public context? Both true and false witnesses can have these motives, and to deny that people have them suggests a disqualifying ignorance of human nature. This may be a good place to cite Ayn Rand’s idea that emotions are not tools of cognition. And they aren’t.

Here’s evidence. There is in this world a person named Anna Ayers. Until recently she was a prominent member of the student “senate” at Ohio University. She is no longer a member of that august body, because she was arrested for sounding a “false alarm” — accusing an unnamed fellow senator of writing abusive and threatening messages to her because of her sexual orientation. The cops say that she wrote the messages herself, and I assume she did, because, despite her plea of not guilty, no defense has been forthcoming. Making her accusations in a speech before the senate, Ayers ranted, declaimed, choked up, and shared her deepest feelings:

“Senate will never be the same for me,” Ayers said in front of her Student Senate peers. “The friendships will continue to grow, and our successes will always evoke pride, but the memory of my time in senate and at OU will be marred by this experience. We will all have a memory of a time when this body failed one of its own.”

Ayers went on to call the threat sender cowardly, weak, and worthless. . . .

“You may find me revolting and worthy of a threat on my life, but in reality, it is your beliefs that are repulsive,” Ayers said during her speech in the senate. “You need to get this through your head, you f***ing a**hole: I am proud to be who I am, and nothing you could say or do will ever change that.”

Emotionally credible? Certainly. But emotional credibility (surprise!) had nothing to do with truth, despite the assumptions of Ayers’ student council colleagues, who instead of reacting with disgust to the evidently false accusations that Ayers leveled at themselves still believe in believing anyone who accuses anyone. Maddie Sloat, Student Senate President, said:

It’s important for you to know that I do not, for one second, regret any of the actions we took in the past week to support Anna on the information [query: what information?] that we had at the time. . . . Know that if you report something to (Vice President) Hannah (Burke), (Treasurer) Lydia (Ramlo) or anyone else on our leadership, we will listen. We will believe you. We care about you.

“You” being . . . everyone in Salem with a tale to tell?

Note that we are still in the to-our-contemporaries-terrifically-confusing realm of sex and sexuality. In a nation that gives — and rightly gives — unprecedented freedom to sexual expression, freedom is never enough; enemies both of sexuality and of chastity must be assiduously hunted, and if not found, invented. In a nation oozing sexuality from every pore, a nation in which sexual aggression is a staple of popular entertainment and in which stars of stage and screen struggle daily to free their bodies of all skin cover, one of the nation’s leading lawyers can refer to Judge Kavanaugh, as having been “accused of the most heinous crime imaginable.”

With Murkowski even a slogan has to be dressed up with a sofa, a coffee table, and some heavy drapes.

The author of that statement is the irrepressible Alan Dershowitz, sharing his feelings on Tucker Carson’s show. Dershowitz was actually defending Kavanaugh against accusations he did not find credible, but he followed fashion when it came to the crime itself. In America one can never mention sex without superlatives. Either it is the most sacred, most necessary, and most liberating of all human enterprises, or it is the most heinous crime imaginable.

Why is such language used? One reason is simply a desire to win at any conceptual price. It sounds so feeble, doesn’t it, to say, “I disagree with you about Judge Kavanaugh. I don’t think he has the right qualifications, and I’m inclined to believe Christine Ford. Her testimony isn’t conclusive, but it may be true, and I don’t think that a person under a cloud of serious suspicion should be elevated to the Supreme Court.” It feels stronger to say, “Anyone who doesn’t believe Christine Ford is against the rights of all survivors of heinous assaults.” Then, if you still haven’t convinced everybody, you can seek people out and scream “Shame!” in their faces, thereby winning the argument.

Another reason is fear. Even Dershowitz, who is no little snowflake, apparently fears that if you say something like, “Kavanaugh is accused of forcing himself on a young woman and trying to take off her clothes,” people will accuse you of trivializing sexual assault. So you’re afraid, and you call whatever it was that he’s suspected of doing “the most heinous crime imaginable.” Now no one will attack you, and you will win the argument! Maybe, but at what a price?

And that’s what you can ask about all of the above: at what a price?

Freedom is never enough; enemies both of sexuality and of chastity must be assiduously hunted, and if not found, invented.

Turning now to the lighter side of the news . . .

Here’s a headline from the Boston Herald, September 30: “Howie Carr: Treat Brett Kavanaugh as good as illegal alien criminals.” Hmmm . . . How good are they treated? Real good? The error is not in Carr’s article; he knows grammar — although it doesn’t take much knowledge to avoid the good-well mistake. Now, what part of an article is most important to get right? The headline, that’s what.

In case you think that sex scandals are confined to America, here’s something from an article (October 1) about problems in Sweden: “The scandal started with 18 women publicly accusing well-known photographer Jean-Claude Arnault of sexual misconduct last November.” I don’t want to trivialize anything, but I do think it’s remarkable that he committed sexual misconduct with 18 women in the same month.

Speaking of mass activities, consider a video aired on Fox News on October 6. It showed demonstrators being prepped for their performance at the office of Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) to protest the Kavanaugh nomination. The group is learning, by recitation, how they’re going to protest. The (male) group leader chants, “We are going to Heidi Heitkamp’s office”; the group repeats, “We are going to Heidi Heitkamp’s office!” Etc. Finally one woman interrupts: “But she’s on our side.” All repeat: “She’s on our side!”

I don’t want to trivialize anything, but I do think it’s remarkable that he committed sexual misconduct with 18 women in the same month.

One more item to close it off. It isn’t directly related to the rhetoric of sex, but it’s about Hillary Clinton, so you know it’s gonna be good. I feel sad to make this confession, but Mrs. Clinton is my joy and comfort. Not even Donald Trump can provide such a steady stream of comedy, if only because he himself has a sense of humor. It’s not my sense of humor, but he’s got it, and as the old expression goes, you can’t kid a kidder.

Clinton has no such sense. She has no sense of any kind. When she blamed her husband’s sex scandals on “a vast, rightwing conspiracy,” when she angrily demanded what difference it made about why our embassy in Benghazi was looted and our ambassador murdered, when she, campaigning for the presidency, labeled a large portion of the voting population “deplorables,” her remarks were carefully prepared and conscientiously rehearsed. She wasn’t blurting anything out. She thought her statements were the right things to say. She undoubtedly still thinks they were the right things to say. The more carefully, thoughtfully, and self-righteously she speaks, the funnier you know she’ll be.

Looking for a conclusion to this month’s column, I knew that Clinton would have something for me, and of course she did. It’s the interview (October 9) in which she maintained that it’s impossible to be civil to the opposing party, because "you cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about." Again, it’s the argument from emotion: what you care about. But her assertion of a subjective standard didn’t keep her from adopting the objective tone of an ethics professor, revealing the results of her research.

Clinton wasn’t blurting anything out. She thought her statements were the right things to say. She undoubtedly still thinks they were the right things to say.

Programmatic incivility isn’t especially good politics, but never mind; you can always promise to be civil later on. The logic here is exceptionally challenging, but let’s keep with her. She followed her defense of incivility by saying, “That’s why [why?] I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and/or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again.”

Here we have a whole new approach to rhetoric. I will rail at you, condemn you, call you names, accuse you of crimes, do my best to intimidate you. This is perfectly ethical; indeed, it is an ethical requirement. But if it succeeds, I will consider it ethical to treat you civilly — again, or for the first time.

To think this is remarkable. To announce it is bizarre.




Share This


Beauty’s in the Eye of the State

 | 

For propaganda scholars, Nazi propaganda is especially fascinating. This is because of its intensity, its virulence (i.e., its emotional manipulative power), and its coordinated use of all the media of persuasion. That is, while most regimes use propaganda, and many regimes build formidable propaganda machines — the Soviet Union, England and America in the world wars, and contemporary communist cum fascist China come to mind — few have created the concentrated, coordinated machine that the Nazis did. Only the Soviet Union and Communist China approached this level. All German media — radio, books, newspapers and magazines, movies, painting and sculpture, theater, and so on — were controlled by the regime, and employed to spread its ideology and create support for its power and its policies.

The films I want to briefly review here are two recent documentaries about an interesting Nazi propaganda film. The original propaganda film — at about 30 minutes, really a “short” — introduced the German public to a new youth organization meant to inculcate Nazi values in young women. It was made in 1938 and intended for release in 1939. This original propaganda short was about the Belief (in the sense of “Faith”) and Beauty Society. It is the subject of these two recent documentaries, both conveniently available on one disk, and both with English voiceovers. (The original 1938 film is not on the disk in its entirety, perhaps because no good prints of it remain).

While most regimes use propaganda, and many regimes build formidable propaganda machines, few have created the concentrated, coordinated machine that the Nazis did.

The first (shorter) recent documentary, is entitled The BDM Movement — Belief and Beauty: The Education of 17 to 21 Year Old Girls in the Third Reich. It runs 50 minutes, and appears to have been made in 2006. The second — included in the disk’s “Bonus Materials” — is entitled Zest for Life and Physical Joy. It runs 30 minutes, and is labeled as having been produced in 2008. Both are brought to us by the filmmaking company ZeitReisen Verlag, credited to Marc Meyer zu Hartum, and edited by Ralf Oltersdorf. They were translated into English by Chris Crawford, with an English narration by Elisa Moolecherry.

I want, first, to give a short historical introduction to the general background of this realm of Nazi propaganda. I will then present a brief review of the shorter documentary (Zest for Life and Physical Joy), and explain how it differs from the longer one. I will finish by raising two questions about these documentaries.

Let’s start with the regime’s use of youth groups as a powerful mechanism of propaganda.

Hitler’s propaganda machine was mindful of the crucial role of society’s “mediating structures” — family, schools, churches, sports clubs, unions, and so on — in molding people’s minds. But the regime put a special focus on youth organizations. It realized that by intervening early and heavily, it could make young people true believers, who would be the fodder of the regime itself. This was nothing new in world history; recall the Jesuit propagandist and missionary St. Francis Xavier, who allegedly said: "Give me the child until he is seven and I'll give you the man."

The regime realized that by intervening early and heavily, it could make young people true believers, who would be the fodder of the regime itself.

In particular, the Nazi Party from its founding understood the importance of youth organizations. The Boy Scouts were established in Britain in 1909 and spread rapidly around the world — including Germany. As early as 1922 the nascent National Socialists had an ancillary youth arm, which grew as the party grew. By early 1933, the main regime youth organization, the Hitler Youth, had 100,000 members. And by the end of the year it had two million members.

Besides building their own enormous youth groups, the Party worked to eliminate other such groups. It first banned youth organizations allied with other political parties, such as the Communists. By the end of 1936, the regime banned the International Boy Scouts and all other youth organizations, and made joining the Hitler Youth mandatory (except for Jewish children, who were of course banned). That year it grew to four million members. By 1939, over 90% of all German youth belonged to regime youth groups, and attendance was mandatory.

The Hitler Youth enrolled children from 10 to 18 years and had separate divisions for boys and girls. For boys aged 6 to 10, there was the Little Fellows organization. They mainly just hiked and camped. For boys aged 10 to 12, there was the German Young People (Deutsches Jungvolk). Here the boys moved from just camping to marching in unison and map reading. Finally, boys aged 13 to 18 went into the Hitler Youth (Hitler-Jugend) proper. Here the emphasis was on military preparedness.

By 1939, over 90% of all German youth belonged to regime youth groups, and attendance was mandatory.

Girls at age 10 joined the League of Young Girls (Jungmädelbund), and at age 14 transferred to the League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel, or BDM). Its focus was on physical fitness and personal hygiene. Specific goals included being able to run 60 meters in 14 seconds, march for two hours, swim 100 meters, and be able to make a bed. From ages 17 to 21, the girls could volunteer to join the BDM Belief and Beauty Society (BDM-Werk ‘Glaube und Schönheit’). As adults, the women could then join the National Socialist Women’s League.

The youth organizations shared several general goals. Their first general goal — indeed, the main one — was of instilling support for the regime. This included developing a cultish adoration for the Fuehrer. This was the Fuehrer-Prinzip, or Leader Principle, under which Hitler was seen not just as the leader but as the nation incarnate and the paragon of all Aryan virtue. Moreover, the Hitler Youth children had explicit lessons in German racial theory. For example, as I have noted elsewhere (“Selling Genocide II: The Later Films,” Reason Papers 39.1 (2017) 97-123)., Hitler Youth had to watch the vicious anti-Semitic screed The Eternal Jew at their meetings.

It was not uncommon for Hitler Youth to turn in their own parents to the Gestapo for exhibiting dissent.

But another general purpose was to create a kind of para-familial mechanism to counterbalance and police the family itself. Just as the Waffen SS was a paramilitary organization that fought alongside the regular Wehrmacht (traditional military) and also monitored and balanced it, so the Hitler Youth organization worked alongside the family to raise the children, while also monitoring it. It was not uncommon for Hitler Youth to turn in their own parents to the Gestapo for exhibiting dissent.

The third general purpose was to push physical fitness, preparing the children physically for being proper Nazi citizens. For the boys, this started out as rigorous physical play and exercise, military drill. But with the outbreak of war in 1939, the amount of military training the older boys underwent increased dramatically. It included grenade-throwing, digging trenches and foxholes, gas defense, handling barbed wire, and gaining proficiency in small arms. By 1943, all boys 17 and older were conscripted into the military. By 1945, even younger boys were drafted. Boys who refused or hid from the draft were executed if caught. Boys were moving directly from the Hitler Youth to the battlefield, and were in essence suicide squadrons. Ill-prepared for actual combat, they were often easy kills. (An excellent film exploring the use of Hitler Youth as cannon-fodder is Die Brucke [The Bridge], a 1959 West German movie based upon a real event, in which a group of conscripted 16-year-old schoolboys dies defending an unimportant bridge.)

For the girls, the focus was on physical health (fitness and hygiene), to prepare them not for combat but for their ideologically ideal role as Aryan wives and mothers. Truth be told, the ideal roles were in reverse order: mothers, preferably married, but in any case mothers . . . mothers of more Aryans, which is to say, more fighters to advance the great Aryan will to power. As Dr. Jutta Ruediger, leader of the League of German Girls (starting in 1937) put it, “The task of our girl’s league is to raise our girls as torch bearers of the nationalist socialist world. We need girls who are at harmony between their bodies, souls and spirits. And we need girls who, through healthy bodies and balanced minds, embody the beauty of divine creation. We want to raise girls who believe in Germany and our leader, and who will pass these beliefs on to their future children.”

By 1945, even younger boys were drafted. Boys who refused or hid from the draft were executed if caught.

It was to propagandize this ideal that the Belief and Beauty Society was created. It was set up in 1938 by the National Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach. The society’s education was built around a school of gymnastics, created by Hinrich Medau — the Medau Gymnastics School. The Medau school — to put it in simplistic terms — more or less melded gymnastic workout with organized dance moves. For those of you old enough to know about two legendary gentlemen, the first an early advocate of gym workouts and the latter an early movie choreographer: imagine Jack LaLanne combined with Busby Berkeley. The Belief and Beauty Society focused on women’s obligations, fashion, and motherhood. It developed feminine sports and dancing, home economics, and education in the arts, music, and of course politics.

Let’s now briefly summarize A Zest for Life and Physical Joy. The introduction explains the history of the Belief and Beauty Society. The narrator notes that the society originally had eleven “work groups,” each designed to appeal to the interests of girls, with the idea that each girl joining the society could pick one that interested her particularly.

The narrator notes that the 1938 film was produced to show young women the various things the society had to offer. She also tells us that the head of the society, Clementine zu Castell, got Leni Riefenstahl’s main cameraman Hans Ertl to make the movie, which was filmed around in and around Munich, in areas familiar to Ertl from his earlier work filming Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1936 Olympics.

We see the young women making dresses, while the narrator tells us they are learning how to design and make “functional, healthy, and lovely clothing” and “develop good taste.”

We then see footage from the original film. It opens with the symbol of the society, and we listen of the score by Hans-Joachim Sobanski. Then appears a group of girls running down steps dressed in shorts and T-shirts. Carrying large gym balls, they quickly form a line and dance in a circle, where they work out in unison, tossing the balls. We see some of them doing Olympic-style events: such as javelin and discus throwing, sprinting, and so on.

The original film cuts to footage of a young woman preparing food, while a narrator notes that the BDM helps girls acquire such skills through home economics courses. We watch them practice setting tables and weaving. We see them making dresses, while the narrator tells us they are learning how to design and make “functional, healthy, and lovely clothing” and “develop good taste.” We watch as some of the girls model what they made, to the applause of the other BDM members (in their uniforms).

Next up are girls sculpting figures, as the narrator tells us that the society advances the girls’ knowledge of culture and the arts. We move to interior design, where the announcer tells us, “The modern girl should be educated about tidy living early on. She will have to know this prior to getting married.”

We cut to girls in their uniforms marching and singing along a lakeshore. As chickens scatter, the girls march into a farming village. The narrator tells us that girls from the city work closely with the country girls and celebrate the end of the day with a nice swim.

The narrator discusses the main elements of this type of gymnastics: “Charm, grace, and rhythm combine to form a joyful affirmation of life.”

Then there are girls who are into equestrian activities. The announcer tells us that no longer is riding just for the privileged; girls of all backgrounds can now “enjoy this wonderful sport.” We watch the young women engaged in competitive rowing, after which the film turns to the “health service group,” wherein young women are taught how to help those who are sick or injured. The instructors are doctors, we are told. Olympic swimming is another group the girls can join, along with diving and fencing. Also there are synchronized gymnastics for “happy girls of our great time.” We watch as young women twirl hoops, work with Indian clubs, and march in unison wearing white dresses.

There the original film seems to end, but the documentary continues, showing footage of the Medau School of rhythm gymnastics, which we learn was made popular by Hinrich Medau in Germany in the 1920s. The narrator discusses the main elements of this type of gymnastics: “Charm, grace, and rhythm combine to form a joyful affirmation of life.” While we watch girls in very short white frocks with bikini briefs dance in unison, we are told about Medau’s life.

The narrator adds that while putting together this documentary, footage was discovered that was not in the original propaganda film. We see the women “moving organically” — hopping, skipping and prancing in unison, and then using the gym balls. The film notes that performances of the Medau routines were given during the 1936 Olympics. We discover also that National Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach saw an exhibition while visiting England in 1937. When he returned to Germany, he was able to enlist Medau’s support for the BDM society. But then the war expanded to become a world war. The Medau School continued in Berlin despite the bombings, but had to move to Breslau in 1945 when its headquarters were bombed. Shortly thereafter it closed. In 1948, however, it reappeared, and in 1952, moved to its permanent new home in Coburg, where it continues to this day. The film ends with footage of various dance routines.

The women discuss the movement and the girls’ exhibitions with evident pride, and Ruediger recounts with sadness that the original Nazi film was cancelled by Goebbels shortly before release.

The longer recent documentary about the original 1938 film includes most or all of the footage of the shorter one just discussed, with the same score. The longer version discusses more of the whole youth movement. It also includes extended 20th-century interviews with key players. We hear from Dr. Jutta Ruediger and Clementine zu Castell, about how they were recruited to run this movement, and from Hanna Lincke and Hannelou Canzler (Koenigsberg leaders of the BDM). Ruediger describes how Medau worked to stage the girls for Ertl, and the narrator gives us more information about the groups within the society. These women discuss the movement and the girls’ exhibitions with evident pride, and Ruediger recounts with sadness that the original Nazi film was cancelled by Goebbels shortly before release as scheduled in October 1939. But this film too ends abruptly, with a note that the society was disbanded at the end of the war in 1945.

Despite their abrupt and somewhat inconsequential endings, these documentaries about an obscure but interesting propaganda short raise two important issues.

First, in neither of them are any of the architects of the young women’s society asked about the role their work played in what was undoubtedly one of the most evil regimes that ever existed. Why? We are told how wonderful the Medau school of synchronized gymnastics was, and how wonderfully poised and attractive the girls in it became. But what about the wider role their work played in instilling Nazi ideology in the girls, i.e., as enablers and supporters of it?

Second, why was the polished and visually interesting short documentary, filmed by Riefenstahl’s cinematographer and in her style, never released in October 1939 — never in fact released at all?

It’s an interesting puzzle. This was a film which presented “Aryan” young women are poised, fit, slim, and sexy — in a somewhat distantly anatomical way — and the presentation seems reasonably successful. It conveys what seems to have been the regime’s paragon of German womanhood. Yet the regime refused to release it. Warum?

At no point are any of the architects of the young women’s society asked about the role their work played in what was undoubtedly one of the most evil regimes that ever existed. Why?

Every reader is invited to speculate. For what it’s worth, my speculation is this. The movie was made in 1938, for release in 1939. But in 1939, war broke out — actual war, not warlike but costless conquests (of Alsace-Lorraine, Austria, and the 1938 capitulation by Britain and France of Czechoslovakia) that Hitler enjoyed from 1933 to 1938. It apparently surprised Hitler that England and France, who had been so compliant with his prior demands, declared war upon his invasion of Poland.

At this point, Hitler’s nation had about 87 million inhabitants, counting those of its possessions, and was facing Poland, France, Britain, and Britain’s English-speaking colonies, with a total of about 160 million inhabitants. My suspicion is that the regime realized in 1939 it would be dramatically undermanned. It probably drew the reasonable conclusion that German women would have to assume more active roles (as doctors, nurses, construction workers, industrial workers, and so on) than those of subservient mothers. Goebbels canceled the movie.

But you can see it analyzed now, and enjoy (if that is the right word) the insight it offers into an all-encompassing propaganda state. Ultimately, it shows how a police state such as the Nazi regime put great effort into controlling reproduction itself for state goals. In the case of the Nazis, the clear aim was to get girls prepared to reproduce rapidly, so that the “non-Aryans” — especially in the East — could be rapidly replaced by Aryans.


Editor's Note: Review of "Belief & Beauty — The History of the Nazi BDM Movement (Glaube & Schonheit)." 50 mins + 30 Mins, 2006, International Historic Films.



Share This


Paul Allen, R.I.P.

 | 

According to Forbes of March 5, 2016, the billionaires in my home state, Washington, had a combined wealth greater than that of the billionaires of Texas and one-third that of the billionaires of California. One of our signature tycoons, Paul Allen, reportedly worth $20.3 billion, has just died.

Allen was partly an accidental billionaire. At Lakeside, Seattle’s old private high school, Allen had a pal named Bill Gates. Together in 1975 they dropped out of college and founded Microsoft. Gates stayed on and built Microsoft into a global company. Allen left in 1982, four years before the company went public. He became rich because of what Gates and others did afterward.

Did he deserve his wealth? Unlike Gates, Allen appears to have worked for only a small part of it. He performed the initial role in a system that creates great wealth for people who start great things, and a bunch of that wealth fell in his lap. Seattle is full of people who made money on Microsoft stock, and I can’t argue that their capital gains are directly proportional to their value added. Still, it was his money.

Allen was partly an accidental billionaire. He became rich because of what Bill Gates and others did at Microsoft after he left.

Paul Allen had a fabulous life. He bought the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team and the Seattle Seahawks football team. He funded a museum that collected the memorabilia of Jimi Hendrix and another that collected the aircraft of World War II. He spent money on rockets into space and on a telescope array to look for life on other planets.

He spent — I hesitate to say invested — in all manner of wonderful projects.

And some of them right where I live. Seattle Times business columnist Jon Talton wrote that Allen “may be the last of the great moneyed stewards who invested deeply and with abiding person affection for the city of Seattle.”

I was fine with Allen wanting a stadium for his football team, but I thought he should pay for it himself. For this, I was denounced by football fans.

One of his hometown projects was buying, restoring, and preserving Seattle’s curved-screen Cinerama Theater, which is where I watched the Lord of the Rings movies. Another was funding the Seattle Public Library’s purchase of thousands of DVDs, many of which I watch. Another was funding the Allen Library at the University of Washington, where I do historical research.

I have benefitted from this guy. I am sad to see him go.

Allen has had a respectable send-off, but not from the Seattle Left. Kshama Sawant, our city councilwoman, posted on Facebook:

He spent $250 million on the biggest yacht in the world in 2003; he also owned two more yachts and a fleet of private jets, several sports teams. He paid to put the Qwest Field on the ballot so that working people picked up most of the $425M tab. He spent half a million dollars to defeat the I-1098 Tax the Rich statewide initiative in 2010.

This is posted above an image that says, “Remember the Greediest.”

Sawant is right about Allen paying to put a measure on the statewide ballot to subsidize a football stadium. I was a newspaper columnist at that time, and denounced the ballot measure vehemently, and the state lawmakers who voted for it. For this, I was denounced by football fans. I was fine with Allen wanting a stadium for his football team, but I thought he should pay for it himself.

Sawant derided her colleagues as chickens, which they were.

But I never denounced Allen for what he was, which is what Sawant does. She doesn’t believe people like Paul Allen should exist. (He would be replaced by what? Workers’ committees?) I find her attitude distasteful — and I note that on my neighborhood blog, nextdoor.com, in this left-progressive town I am not the only one down on Sawant.

Some examples:

  • “She is repulsive and needs to be removed ASAP.”
  • “I am very eager to see her out of a $123k a year job.”
  • “I’m one of the misguided people who voted for her . . . She seemed so grounded, solid when I heard her speak in person. Boy, oh boy, was I wrong!”
  • “If it wasn’t for Paul Allen, she wouldn’t even be here. She came to the US after marrying a Microsoft engineer. Show a little gratitude, Kshama.”

Much of the annoyance is for disregarding the taboo against abusing the freshly dead. I hope that’s not all it is.

Sawant, who may be the only hard-socialist councilwoman of a major American city, was at the losing end of the big political battle of 2018 — the Seattle City Council’s “head tax” on large private employers. Her target was Amazon, the company founded and headed by Jeff Bezos, a man even richer than Paul Allen. After the tax passed with the support of Sawant and the council’s progressive Democrats, Amazon, the city’s #1 employer, donated money to an effort to put the ordinance up for a public vote. (We have the initiative and referendum in Washington, and you can do that.) When pollsters discovered that the people of Seattle didn’t support the head tax, the council reluctantly repealed it.

Sawant voted not to repeal it. She derided her colleagues as chickens, which they were.

Sawant demonized Bezos as the greedy rich, particularly when his company said that if the head tax passed, it would not build a planned office tower. When Sawant led a demonstration of her left-wing supporters in front of Amazon’s new headquarters, she faced a counter-demonstration from union ironworkers who wanted to build Amazon’s new tower.

Sawant is up for reelection in 2019. Maybe voters will remember her nastiness at the death of Paul Allen.

Recalled one of the nextdoor.com bloggers:

“I do still get a kick out of seeing the footage of construction workers shouting ‘No Head Tax!’ when she was trying to speak in front of the Amazon spheres. Funny watching her getting completely drowned out by their chants.”

Sawant is up for reelection in 2019. It’s a year from now, but I think people will remember the head tax. Maybe they will also remember her nastiness at the death of Paul Allen.

I think of it every time I get a DVD from the library.




Share This


Mueller Time

 | 




Share This


Still Amazing After All These Years

 | 

Nearly 50 years ago I was a high school student working my first summer job as a maid-waitress-cook at a rustic lodge in the Trinity Alps of northern California. The lodge was owned and still under construction by one of my high school teachers. My sister had worked there for a week and gone home, saying it was too much for too little. I stuck it out for another three weeks, until one evening when a coworker badly mistreated me. I fled the lodge and walked three miles to the nearest phone to call my parents and ask them to come get me. I then trudged the three miles back to where I had been working so they would be able to find me (life before cellphones!). It was July 20, 1969. I looked up through the trees at the starry sky, totally unaware that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were about to touch down on the moon. Because of my call, my father missed the moon landing on TV. He never let me forget it.

Watching First Man, Damien Chazelle’s new film with Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong making his way to that historic step onto the moon, I finally understood why my father was so upset. What a glorious, terrifying, awe-inspiring moment that was, and we sense it with more caution than elation as Armstrong hesitates on the final rung of the ladder before finally stepping down onto the dusty landscape. I don’t know whether Chazelle got it right, but he certainly got it impressively — the absolute quiet of space, the broad expanse and rugged terrain of the moon’s surface, the suspenseful risk of training, the view from the cockpit. And the musical score by Justin Hurwitz, who has worked with Chazelle on four award-winning films, works perfectly throughout the film.

So much could have gone wrong — and did, along the way.

For two hours the film builds to that moment when Armstrong steps onto the moon, demonstrating that it was more harrowing than glorious. So much could have gone wrong — and did, along the way. The film opens with Armstrong fighting to control his X-15 supersonic jet and land it without crashing. Training requires astronauts to practice precision tasks while spinning at such dizzying speeds that it’s a race against the inevitable moment when they will pass out. As the men are strapped into the Gemini module before taking off to practice docking in space, we expect to see the excitement and jubilation of astronauts finally realizing their little-boy dreams. Instead, their faces are subdued, focused, and even a bit apprehensive. And with good reason: despite all their earthbound preparations, there was no guarantee that they would return successfully. Indeed, numerous pilots had died during the testing phase. The space race was a grim undertaking, punctuated by moments of exhilaration, performed against a backdrop of angry protestors chanting against the enormous financial and personal cost.

Armstrong is calm, almost emotionless, as he contends with the rigors of space travel, the tragedy of a child’s death, and the stoicism of his wife Janet (Claire Foy). He can roughhouse with his young sons, but he can’t tell them he loves them. As he leaves for the moon, he hugs one son but shakes hands with the other. Such passionless focus is a strength, not a weakness, for someone in his position; Armstrong’s ability to think and react impassively in an emergency is a primary reason for his success, and Gosling portrays him masterfully.

But as an audience we want our heroes to be exciting and outgoing. My husband happened to meet Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins a few months later during their victory tour around the world. He was in Colombia at the time, and called out Armstrong’s name in his strong American English. As Mark describes it, Armstrong turned with a broad, winning smile and shook his hand vigorously before rejoining the parade. The weighty burden of weightless space had lifted for a while, and he could enjoy the gravitas of what he and the others had accomplished.

Raising the American flag and leaving it on the moon as a reminder of who got there first was a huge deal. It did not “transcend countries and borders.”

The quietness of Armstrong’s character makes the film less compelling and may explain the reason for poor turnout on opening weekend. It’s more likely that the poor turnout was owing to the controversy that preceded opening weekend. You’ve probably heard the disgruntled rumblings about the flag on the moon being left out of the movie, so let me address the controversy right here: yes, the American flag does appear on the moon in the film. It’s distant, and it’s small, but it’s there. Rumors about the flag’s absence began shortly after the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, when audiences waited expectantly for that iconic moment. It didn’t happen, and social media exploded with boycott-laden outrage. (I don’t know whether the film was re-edited after the festival, or if audiences were simply expecting more, but the flag is definitely in the scene now.) Gosling explained in an interview that the moon landing “transcended countries and borders [and]… was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement,” so that’s why they didn’t include the flag-raising moment.

This is pure 21st-century poppycock, of course. Competition with the Russians was the driving force behind the space program, and the reason JFK dedicated so many billions of dollars for it. The Russians were ahead of the Americans nearly every step of the way. Raising the American flag and leaving it on the moon as a reminder of who got there first was a huge deal. It did not “transcend countries and borders.” It was the reason we were there. Chazelle and company should not have minimized it into a kumbaya moment of one-world humanism. Moreover, in his zeal to turn American exceptionalism into ordinary human accomplishment, Chazelle missed a great opportunity to make his statement — with the flag. Armstrong’s biography recounts how the astronauts struggled to assemble the malfunctioning flagpole. That struggle could have been presented as a metaphor for 21st-century American politics and the difficulty of raising the flag today.

First Man is a good film with some great special effects and fine acting all around. Jason Clarke is especially good as Ed White, and Corey Stoll is feisty as Buzz Aldrin. Claire Foy, best known for her role as Queen Elizabeth II in the excellent Netflix series The Crown, is wonderful as the stoic yet passionate Janet Armstrong. And with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing just six months away, I’m happy that this film has been made.


Editor's Note: Review of "First Man," directed by Damien Chazelle. Universal Pictures, 2018, 141 minutes.



Share This


Elizabeth Warren’s Comedy Act

 | 

I thought that American politics couldn’t get any funnier, but of course I was wrong. And right now, the funniest politician is actually the sour, self-righteous Elizabeth Warren.

Long ridiculed by President Trump, and millions of other people, for claiming to be an American Indian, Warren has now triumphantly released a study of her DNA. According to the Stanford professor who analyzed the data, “the facts suggest that [she] absolutely [has] Native American ancestry in [her] pedigree.”

Warren could have as much as 1/64th Indian ancestry. So just make that cup 1/64th full.

“Pedigree”? Oh well. But the unwary reader may conclude, as Warren appears to have concluded, that her Native American “heritage” has now been authenticated. But that’s ridiculous — for two reasons.

One is that the purported percentage of her Indian ancestry is a whopping 1/1024th. That’s right — one part in a thousand.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“Yes, please!”

“Fill it up?”

“Not quite. Just make it 1/1024th full.”

All right, I distorted the hard, scientific “data.” Warren could have as much as 1/64th Indian ancestry. So just make that cup 1/64th full.

Even the TV actors who burble about “discovering their Swedish heritage” by taking a DNA test and learning that they’re 40% Swedish aren’t as absurd as this US Senator.

The second ridiculosity is the whole notion of “heritage” based on genes. Culture has nothing to do with your body. But suppose it did. If you need to have your DNA analyzed to find out whether you’ve inherited some cultural characteristic, then you haven’t.

Even the TV actors who burble about “discovering their Swedish heritage” by taking a DNA test and learning that they’re 40% Swedish aren’t as absurd as this US Senator. But given her total lack of self-awareness (which is nothing unusual, given her occupation), I suppose it won’t take her long to appear on television to inform the other hundred million Americans who are at least 1/1000th Indian that now, because of the wonders of science, they too can discover who they really are — and prove it, by ending their long night of discrimination and electing one of their own (guess who?) as president.

We are all Indians now.




Share This


Unite and Conquer

 | 

October 8. Gavin Newsom, “progressive” candidate for governor of California, in debate with his Republican opponent, said this about President Trump’s proposed border wall: “The wall is intended to divide this country.”

October 8. Tucker Carlson, conservative pundit, said this about the attitudes of “progressive” Democrats, who, he asserted, wished to divide the nation: “Only a nation divided between warring tribes can be ruled effectively.”

The root concept is “divide and conquer” — a phrase frequently heard on both sides of the recent Kavanaugh-Ford slugfest.

How exactly did it work? If you were a Republican, you divided the Democrats, and then you conquered them?

I first encountered that cliché when I was in high school. It appeared in discussions of political strategy, and it seemed to make sense. If you were the emperor of Russia, you would naturally be looking for ways to divide the Austrians from the Prussians, so you could, if you wished, conquer them one at a time, or let them try to conquer each other. Books told me that “divide and conquer” was what Napoleon set out to do, and sometimes did, to the powers of Europe. And the “divide and conquer” idea often came up in comments about American political affairs.

But I always had a bad feeling about it. How exactly did it work? If you were a Republican, you divided the Democrats, and then you conquered them? How did you do that? What happened to the various pieces of the Democrats? Did some of them vote for you? Maybe. But wasn’t that just another way of saying that some of them liked you better than their own party?

The best example appeared to be the election of 1860, when the Democratic Party came apart and nominated two rival candidates, producing a contest in which the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidency with less than 40% of the vote. Yet there was still a problem with the concept. Lincoln hadn’t divided the Democrats; they had divided and conquered one another, and he was happy to pick up whatever votes he could get out of the mess.

Another possible divide-and-conquer situation was the election of 1968, when disaffected Democrats allegedly elected Richard Nixon by not showing up to vote for Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee. But Nixon hadn’t concocted some scheme to fund Vietnam War protestors while encouraging Humphrey to maintain his fatal support of the war. Nixon simply continued to support the war himself, while promising that he had a secret plan to end it. He didn’t divide his opponents and conquer them; he just got more votes than they did.

Lincoln didn't divide the Democrats; they divided and conquered one another, and he was happy to pick up whatever votes he could get out of the mess.

Now, imagine that you are Abraham Lincoln or Richard Nixon or any current, down-at-the-heels partisan politician, the kind of person of whom Tucker Carlson spoke in his October 8 TV program, calling them “hacks and joiners and drones.” If that’s you, would you rather “divide and conquer” your opponents, or simply get them to join your side and vote for you? The latter, surely. Even a Russian emperor would have preferred his opponents to join him instead of opposing either him or one another. That’s why the European powers contracted holy alliances. They would rather be allies than competitors, so long as they could maintain their power. This is human nature.

Coming down to the present, and Newsom and Carlson’s comments: why would Trump want to divide the country, instead of getting most of it to support him? Why would the Democrats find it easier to rule a nation “divided between warring tribes”? Does this make sense?

Suppose that you’re a modern “intersectional” foe of Republicans, and you’re trying to arouse antagonism to them by asserting that because they are “opposed to women,” they are also opposed to “senior citizens,” “people of color,” “the LGBTQ community,” “undocumented immigrants,” “working people,” and, for all I know, Finnish-Americans. Your goal may be to conquer, but it certainly isn’t to set the Finnish-Americans against the African-Americans, and the African-Americans against the immigrants. It’s to get as many groups as possible onto your side. You may call your opponents racists and sexists and so on, but that’s not because you want to divide the racists from the sexists; it’s because you want to shame, scare, and neutralize people who, you think, will never vote for you anyway. But this is not “divide and conquer”; it’s just denouncing your opponents.

Even a Russian emperor would have preferred his opponents to join him instead of opposing either him or one another.

If you want to understand how things really work, picture the two great American political parties as a pair of vacuum cleaners, roaring back and forth across the continent, sweeping up every vote and dollar that’s not nailed down. There isn’t any vote that they don’t want. Republicans can and do actively court gay and black voters; Democrats court evangelicals and conservative Catholics by quoting fondly from the Bible. This is not divide and conquer. This is unite and conquer. Each party dotes on the idea of “uniting this great country.” And neither is kidding about that. They want the whole thing, if they can get it.

I can’t picture Hillary Clinton holding a meeting in which she said, “To defeat Trump, we have to set the women against the gays, and the blacks against the Hispanics. It’s divide and conquer!” But I can picture her holding a meeting in which she said, “How can we ensure that all gays, blacks, Hispanics, soccer moms, overpaid executives, mainline pastors, police unions, publishers of provincial newspapers, Medicare patients, millennials, techies, former prison inmates, police unions, farmers, professors of Harvard college, and did I mention soccer moms, will support me? How can we unite them all behind us?” Again, this is not divide and conquer.

Akin to “divide and conquer” is the idea that politicians willfully create enemies so that they can unify their followers in opposition to the hated foes whom they have conceptually divided from the rest of the populace. This also is a strange idea, when you think about it. Yes, politicians are always attacking “enemies”; they blame things on “enemies”; and “enemies” are sometimes politically useful. But I can hardly think of a case in which politicians have simply created enemies in order to oppose them. Hillary Clinton denounced the “deplorables,” doubtless intending to inspire the non-deplorables to more fervent efforts on her behalf. But she wasn’t trying to manufacture an enemy; she was identifying enemies that she thought she already had.

Picture the two great American political parties as a pair of vacuum cleaners, roaring back and forth across the continent, sweeping up every vote and dollar that’s not nailed down.

Perhaps — and this is a big perhaps — Hitler gained massive political support by attacking the Jews. But he didn’t attack the Jews just because he thought that by doing so he would unite the other Germans. He attacked the Jews because he had a maniacal hatred of them. (And no, I am not — I repeat, not — making a moral equation between Adolf Hitler and Hillary Clinton.)

The current American antifa orgs are not attacking speakers who disagree with them in college forums, or people who happen to drive down the streets of Portland while they are showing off, because they want to arouse support by creating common enemies. They attack people who disagree with them because they don’t like people who disagree with them. They attack random motorists because they are in the way, and because they themselves are angry. This is not the arbitrary creation of enemies. This is self-expression, of a peculiarly non-strategic kind.

I suppose — indeed, I know — that I should now try to account for the fact that many intelligent people think that “divide and conquer” and “make up enemies” are profound and potent concepts, crucial to the understanding of political processes. But I can’t.




Share This


By the Sword

 | 

We’re a society that worships brute force. We distrust peaceful and reasonable persuasion. The Brett Kavanaugh mess really brings that home.

The judicial nominating process overemphasizes abortion. Concentrating on Roe v. Wade — whether for or against it — only guarantees that we’ll continue to be a force-based society. That we’ll go right on obsessing over what the government will permit us to do, or force us not to do.

As a Christian, I believe that abortion is wrong — except when, to save the life of the mother, it becomes a sad necessity. But were I to decide against having an abortion, it would make a tremendous difference to me whether I was free to make my decision on conviction or under compulsion. By making the repeal of Roe v. Wade the holy grail of the pro-life movement, we who do oppose abortion are behaving not like those who trust in Ultimate Truth, but like those who depend on brute force.

Concentrating on Roe v. Wade — whether for or against it — only guarantees that we’ll continue to be a force-based society.

The idea of being bullied into sex is so abhorrent to most women that we flinch at the testimony of Dr. Ford — regardless of whether we’re certain we believe her or not. But we’re being manipulated, and not very artfully. I’m used to this game — as a woman, and as a gay woman especially. I see through it, and I’m tired of it. Americans need to grow up and stop permitting themselves to be jerked around by raw emotional appeals.

The Kavanaugh proceedings degeneratedinto a circus. We were inundated with high school hijinks — real or imagined — from the early ’80s. The spectacle was degrading to everyone who got dragged into it. And we’ve all been in it up to our eyeballs.

For the record, I believe Brett Kavanaugh. I don’t find Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony the least bit credible. I can believe that she may have been assaulted, but she’s done nothing to prove that Kavanaugh was the culprit. Her motivation in fingering him seems, to me, blatantly political.

We’re being manipulated, and not very artfully.

The proceedings have been violent because the minds driving them are violent. They’re dominated by a toddlerish desire to dominate. The political competition has been tit for tat for so long that each side feels justified in being aggrieved by the aggression of the other. It no longer matters who started it, because no one wants to finish it.

Each side’s aggression is actually necessary, and even welcome, to its opponents. It provides the excuse for continuing to aggress. Where the abortion issue is concerned, the unborn are aggressed against — so others must aggress to defend them.

As far from them as I am on many issues, I can easily enter into progressive women’s minds. Under those funny pink hats, when it comes to the abortion wars they have a real concern. They think that with Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, they’ll be pushed around.

The proceedings have been violent because the minds driving them are violent. They’re dominated by a toddlerish desire to dominate.

The sexual assault he is alleged to have attempted is a metaphor for what they believe he wants to do to them. If government force is brought to bear — no matter how justifiable its advocates think it will be — those against whom it would be used are going to see it as violence. And violence is exactly what it is.

I believe the abortion debate is winnable by the pro-life side. But its affinity for government brawn gives the distinct impression that it doesn’t trust its own argument. Yet until that argument is won, its dependence on force will only continue to work against it. If all nine Supreme Court justices were pro-life, that would not change.

Many people are surprised at the vehemence with which Kavanaugh’s nomination was opposed. Frankly, I’m surprised that they’re surprised. “Live by the sword, die by the sword” is an adage that used to be clearly understood. The political powers-that-be are forgetting it at everyone’s peril.




Share This


Courting Disaster

 | 

Even before the allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced, even before his prissy, petulant meltdown on live TV, even before he repeatedly perjured himself in response to fairly innocuous questions about juvenile sexual terms and the extent of his youthful drinking, Brett Kavanaugh was unfit to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court. The fact that he will shortly be confirmed to that post anyway says a great deal about the values of both parties at the present moment.

In a number of ways, Kavanaugh might look the part of a Supreme Court justice. He graduated from Yale Law, one of two, maybe three permissible schools for a justice to attend; he clerked for a Supreme Court justice (Anthony Kennedy, whose seat he is attempting to fill); and he did time in the US Circuit Court of Appeals in DC, widely regarded as the second-most powerful court in America. Yet compared to any of his peers with similar attainments, Kavanaugh does not stand out: both Merrick Garland and Neil Gorsuch, to name only the two most recent nominations, had more distinguished careers on the DC Circuit, and there are plenty of other appellate judges on other circuits who are both smarter and younger. So why was he appointed, and why did the GOP stand by him long after it became clear that his nomination was in danger?

The answer to both questions is that, as a party hack, Kavanaugh is without peer. His introduction to public life was as Ken Starr’s sidekick, chasing after feverish conspiracies like the supposed murder of Vince Foster, and writing much of the Starr Report urging impeachment of Bill Clinton as well as aggressive and explicit questioning of the president in the actual trial. (Note that Bill Clinton, like every other American president going back quite a ways, should have been impeached and imprisoned for war crimes, at the very least. But that’s another matter entirely.)

Why was Kavanaugh appointed, and why did the GOP stand by him long after it became clear that his nomination was in danger?

Kavanaugh then joined George W. Bush’s legal team in time to argue against the ballot recount in Florida; eventually he would be made White House Staff Secretary, responsible for all documents going to and returning from President Bush’s desk, as well as for coordinating policy makers and speechwriters. In this capacity, he would have had immense latitude to shape the legal doctrines that made the Bush presidency such a disaster: the prosecution of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the internment of prisoners without due process in Guantanamo Bay and their torture in Abu Ghraib and a variety of other black sites around the world, the invocation of “national security” to justify warrantless surveillance and a vast expansion of domestic spying operations, the use of signing statements to exempt the president and the Homeland Security apparatus from actually being bound by any laws, et very much cetera.

It is difficult to know exactly how influential he was in his three years on the job because the Republicans controlling the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to request or review more than a tiny fraction of the relevant records; it seems unavoidable though that he was one of the central figures in the development and prosecution of the War on Terror, not to mention such culture-war efforts as those to ban gay marriage and restrict abortion. His service to the party earned him many friends, as well as his appointment to the DC appellate circuit, where he would continue his work to expand the power of the imperial presidency.

However, it took three years for Kavanaugh to get confirmed, because Democrats worried that someone so near the heart of the Bush administration might not aspire to impartiality when it came to questions of executive power or national security. And he set about proving them right, in opinions supporting the government’s vast warrantless surveillance program, defending the use of military tribunals and the removal of what few legal protections were left for Gitmo detainees, and giving the FBI and military free rein to torture even American citizens swept up in terror operations.

As a party hack, Kavanaugh is without peer.

Worse, Kavanaugh established himself quickly as perhaps the most hardline circuit judge with respect to criminal justice. In a speech last year to the American Enterprise Institute, Kavanaugh said he admired William H. Rehnquist’s attempts to eliminate Fourth Amendment protections, in particular the exclusionary rule preventing unlawfully obtained evidence from being admitted in trial, and the established Miranda rights requiring police to inform arrestees of rights including representation. From the bench, Kavanaugh has made his own contributions to this cause, among them a denial that attaching a GPS to a suspect’s vehicle constituted a search, a refusal to consider the lack of probable cause as any barrier to a random search, and a rejection of any limit on the qualified immunity granted to police. Kavanaugh’s preferred world, like Rehnquist’s (and unlike Kennedy’s), is one in which the police would be even more empowered than they are today, where the painfully slow pushback of the last few years against police and prosecutor misconduct, as well as against the wider United States prison gulag system, would effectively be wiped out.

There’s plenty more, but I won’t labor the analysis here; you can read his record as well as I can. The point to be gathered is Kavanaugh’s devotion to Republican Party policy, and in particular to the validation of his work on the greatest blunder in contemporary geopolitical history, the US War on Terror. And that rehabilitation campaign is one in which the Democrats are fully complicit—not just in the reliable bipartisan support for treasury-wrecking outlays on defense, but also in more personally galling ways such as the media airbrushing of George W. Bush, making him a kindly grandfather figure who pals around with Michelle Obama, rather than a war criminal whose conscience obviously isn’t burdened by the hundreds of thousands of people who died and the millions more who continue to suffer because of his decisions.

This is a big part of why the Republicans are so desperate to have Kavanaugh rather than any other nominee: his confirmation will mark another stage in the normalization of our nightmare of endless war. But it’s also why the institutional Democrats, this time around, refused to go after him on policy issues: their future lobbying prospects depend on cozy relations with weapons manufacturers and the thinktanks authoring white papers in support of ever more, and ever more expensive, conflict.

Kavanaugh’s preferred world is one in which the police would be even more empowered than they are today.

(It’s likely also why they refused to inquire further into any sources of funding underlying Kavanaugh; it’d be hard to find a figure in Washington without some source of dark-money funds underwriting them. The mystery of how Kavanaugh had hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt mysteriously wiped out, or how he afforded his country club fees or bought a house beyond his means, is probably attributable to wealthy family members writing him checks. But there’s much larger-scale questions to be asked about the dark money pouring into groups like the Judicial Crisis Network, which banked $28.5 million from one undisclosed donor alone and backed Kavanaugh, like Gorsuch before him, to the hilt. Obviously Kavanaugh wasn’t going to betray any knowledge of the identity of his benefactors, but it would have been good to get him on the record, under oath, denying it.)

So the Dems were left with his boorish high school and college behavior, which isn’t disqualifying; the accusations of assault, which would be, but which would be near impossible to demonstrate to the point of changing anyone’s mind; and his lies under oath, which should rule him out entirely but clearly won’t. Not many people, certainly not those with congressional voting privileges, were really concerned about him growing up an entitled brat or being generally a dick in his early years; many of them are dicks themselves, and certainly all of them are familiar with the awful DC-suburb prep schools that incubate Kavanaugh’s ilk. If he owned to that, he could even spin it into a narrative that in Catholic circles dates back to Augustine at least: the dissolute youth made good. But he insisted on presenting himself as some kind of goody-two-shoes, too busy studying and playing wholesome team sports to do much partying, and too uncool to be invited to too many parties even if he wasn’t hitting the books. His bizarre insistence on declaring himself a longtime virgin—as if that had any bearing on the commission of sexual assault!—typified the overcorrection; plenty of other people regret who they were in high school, it’s relatable, but he refused to relate it.

The institutional Democrats refused to go after him on policy issues: their future lobbying prospects depend on cozy relations with weapons manufacturers and the support of ever more, and ever more expensive, conflict.

The odder outbursts of his testimony—the ones that lost him the support of former Justice John Paul Stevens, Lawfare blogger Benjamin Wittes, and a few thousand members of the America Bar Association, among others—seemed attached to questions about his drinking, especially his nasty retort to Amy Klobuchar when she asked about him about blacking out. It’s a relevant question: if you drink to blackout point, you might do something and truly believe you didn’t, because you would have no memory of that action. But Kavanaugh, who by the accounts of many had the reputation of a heavy drinker even at a heavy-drinking prep school and college, thought it better to turn around that question, a move recognizable to anyone who’s ever confronted a friend or family member on similar grounds.

Kavanaugh’s performance was so bad—and maybe worse, weird—that it suddenly looked like the 51-seat Republican majority might crack. In play now were Susan Collins (R-ME), who had previously agreed to support any candidate from a list provided by the Federalist Society; Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), whose support usually could be secured by federal monies heading to her state; and above all Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who exemplified the so-called “never Trump” Republican by loudly declaiming against the president’s bearing before voting for almost every one of his policies. Several of the conservative Democrats who crossed party lines for Gorsuch after the Republicans nuked the filibuster rule for the consideration of Supreme Court justices—Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN)—would declare themselves as “No” votes, leaving only Joe Manchin (D-WV) to keep it from the rarity of a purely party-line vote for a Supreme Court nominee.

Flake, for the merest of moments touched by something approaching a conscience (or perhaps just aware of how footage of him callously shutting an elevator door on sexual-assault survivors might play in the 2024 presidential primaries), called for an FBI investigation into the claims. What followed was a brilliant, extremely cynical tactical move by the GOP: after Flake in his original statement called for a week-long span, the White House placed additional restrictions on the investigation (even as the president tweeted lies about there being no restrictions).

What followed may be perhaps most cursory, slapdash FBI investigation ever—not the most unethical, Lord knows, but usually the feds have some sort of standards even when they set out to destroy someone’s life. After three days, the FBI announced they were wrapping up; they had interviewed only 11 people, including neither of the principals—Christine Blasey Ford being set to one side as seemingly irrelevant, and Kavanaugh himself being placed firmly off limits, as were any questions relating to his consumption of alcohol now or decades back. I’m pretty sure I interview more people, and ask harder hitting questions, on an average afternoon at a Libertarian National Convention.

His performance was so bad—and maybe worse, weird—that it suddenly looked like the 51-seat Republican majority might crack.

The resulting report will not be available for any of us to read, not for decades, at least unless some future president declassifies it. In a process demonstrating the weird, cultish protocols that accrue in a cursed place like Congress, any senator wishing to read the report had to descend to the Capitol basement and view it in a room on complete lockdown, no cellphones or recording devices allowed, not even so much as a notebook. The process is a holdover from Obama’s early days, and is yet another example of how that regime’s lack of transparency enables the unapologetic opacity of this one, such that everyone entering the room was enjoined against discussing the contents of the report in any but the most general sense. But since it was merely a theatrical gesture to begin with, it was never going to change any minds. Certainly Flake felt like he now had the cover to do what he had wanted to do all along: vote yet again to support the agenda and nominee of the president he has said is “ruining our country” through “tribalism.” Once Collins was aboard—the supposedly pro-choice, “pro-woman” senator basking in the spotlight, taking almost an hour to justify supporting a candidate who will snap at the chance to restrict abortion in any way that presents itself—the scam was complete.

Throughout all this, at precisely the time (well after it, actually) when he should have been shutting up, Kavanaugh wrote a jaw-droppingly self-serving op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he apologized vaguely for “a few things I should not have said.” He didn’t say exactly what those things were, presumably among them the idea that this whole ordeal was “revenge on behalf of the Clintons” or the threatening statement that in US politics “what goes around comes around”—i.e., the precise sort of partisan motivation that the institution of the Supreme Court was designed to avoid. He tried to present these statements as “very emotional” moments—despite the fact that they were part of a prepared statement he had drilled on for days. As genres of apologies go, his fell in the “I’m sorry you made me do that, I won’t do it again (unless I have to)” camp familiar to many unhappy homes across the nation.  But any apology, however vaporous, was beside the point: the column was ultimately a presentation of Brett Kavanaugh’s personal mythology, the way he clearly sees himself and wishes to be seen.

In this statement, you can see why the Republicans are bound to Kavanaugh, why they can’t just jettison him and tap someone like Amy Coney Barrett, who would comparatively breeze through hearings and rule almost exactly the same way on the bench. Kavanaugh, more fully than any other contemporary figure, represents all sides of the Republican Party as presently constituted. He’s the Fox News side that spouts whatever conspiracy theories align with his personal grievances, and he’s the Wall Street Journal side who clings to the shreds of intellectual respectability by publishing in the house organ of the neoconservative thinktank Right. But the thing is, those sides have never really been at odds; they might dislike how the other goes about its business, but that business is one and the same: the expansion of unaccountable executive power, the tacit encouragement for government agents to abuse that power, the removal of any consequences when that power is inevitably abused, and the personal enrichment of everyone making possible all of the above.

As genres of apologies go, his fell in the “I’m sorry you made me do that, I won’t do it again (unless I have to)” camp familiar to many unhappy homes across the nation.

The Democrats share much of this central goal, and what they don’t share they’re too ineffective to actually counter; Chuck Schumer will surely go down as one of the most laughably weak opposition leaders in the congressional annals. Some Dems seem content to vote a tepid “No” and just let Kavanaugh be confirmed, possibly out of a belief it will help their election prospects in the midterms. But the Supreme Court is a lifetime appointment, and we can expect Kavanaugh, at 53, to be bolstering the powerful and blocking reform for two, maybe three decades to come, far beyond any temporary and likely illusory electoral advantage.

Expect to see a lot of handwringing about process in the days and weeks to come, much of it from the Republican side. Ignore the bad-faith invocations of “sexual McCarthyism,” especially from those who have had to pay a lot of money to make accounts of their own abusive behavior disappear. Know that the process they followed was to take a bad candidate, hide most of the documentation of his past, bumble through a crisis that would have sunk almost any previous nominee, put him through (or allow him to put himself through) a series of increasingly embarrassing media moments—any of which could have demonstrated his unfitness for a job requiring gravity and personal reserve—stage the most transparently flimsy of investigations, then ram his nomination home regardless.

This is nothing more than a demonstration of pure power politics, a statement of intent from a group of people who intend to get theirs without any recourse to process, or norms, or any of the other words that politicians use when they’re trying to disguise what they’re actually doing. The Republicans apparently don’t think they have to hide behind that anymore. They are comfortable in showing that this—cruel, cynical, conspiracy-minded operators, united behind a party hack who will do immense and lasting harm to the cause of liberty—is who they are. And, as the saying goes, when people show you who they are, believe them.



Share This


The Kavanaugh Conflict

 | 

Many years ago I was attending a conference where I knew most of the speakers socially. One morning I arrived for breakfast — or perhaps it was lunch or dinner; I remember distinctly that it was a circular booth, and I was the last to arrive. One of my friends asked what I thought about the space station on the moon. I scoffed. “There’s no space station on the moon,” I said.

The others reacted with derision. “Of course there is.” “How do you not know about it? It was a cover story in Time magazine!” Even my husband laughed incredulously at my ignorance. “Don’t you read the news?”

I remember feeling very stressed and very humiliated. I wracked my brain, trying to remember the story. And then I did. It clicked. I said, “Oh yeah, the biosphere experiment. They’ve been there for six months, right?”

The two stories mingled, and the memory felt real. I was certain I had read about a space station on the moon.

And they all began to laugh. “See, everyone lies when they think they’re the only one who doesn’t know something,” one of my friends said to the group.

But I hadn’t lied. Not if a lie is defined as deliberate deception. I thought I was telling the truth. My brain had mixed two stories: the one my friends were telling me now about a space station on the moon, and the articles I had read about a similar event, the biosphere experiment in Arizona. The two stories mingled, and the memory felt real. I was certain I had read about a space station on the moon. I could have passed a polygraph at that moment; that’s how sure I was. Moreover, my “memory” was being confirmed by people I trusted — including my husband, the person I should be able to trust above all others. Yes, I was wrong. But I wasn’t lying.

To them it was just a practical joke in the form of a psychological experiment. And they laughed it off. Maybe, if you asked them today, they wouldn’t remember. But I’ve never forgotten it. How could I have been so certain of something I hadn’t experienced?

In the past week I have been reminded of this repeatedly, as friends, newscasters, and political pundits have used Christine Blasey-Ford’s polygraph as evidence that she is telling the truth.

It is very possible that CBF was pawed and assaulted in the way she described. It’s even possible that it happened more than once.

I recently read of a psychological study demonstrating that under stressful or traumatic circumstances, the brain will scan its memory banks trying to make sense of the unsensible. It might be a protective measure, searching for a way to account for the traumatic event, or find a solution to the problem. In the process, memories can become mixed and details altered.

It is very possible that CBF was pawed and assaulted in the way she described. Based on the culture of partying boasted about in her high school yearbooks (which have been conveniently scrubbed from the school’s website in recent weeks), and confirmed by the fact that two men have come forward to say it might have been them, it’s even possible that it happened more than once, which would intensify her traumatic reaction.

However, there is no corroborating evidence to confirm that Brett Kavanaugh had anything to do with it. Yes, he was a drinker in high school, and yes, he attended parties. But every witness CBF has named has denied seeing any such incident. In fact, more than a hundred women who knew him in high school and college and in their professional lives have said that such an action would be completely out of character for him. No one who has known him since he became an adult has accused him of improprieties, and no one except Senate Democrats has accused him of being an alcoholic — including FBI agents who have conducted extensive background checks.

Now I’m going to say something that can (and probably will) be misconstrued as the “boys will be boys defense.” But that is not what I am about to argue.

No one who has known him since he became an adult has accused him of improprieties, and no one except Senate Democrats has accused him of being an alcoholic.

Events that happened when a person was a minor should expire after the statute of limitations has been reached. (And the assault that CBF described would not have been charged as a felony, even if she had reported it at the time, so yes, the statute has indeed run out on this incident.) There is a reason that minors are not tried as adults. As minors, we’re still malleable, still learning right from wrong and what kind of person we want to be. We’re still heavily influenced by those around us, whether it be teachers, parents, friends, teammates, or siblings. We might be taught to accept and act on values and customs about religion, politics, or gender expectations that, in later years, we will find abhorrent. It’s only in adulthood that we begin to examine the various influences and decide for sure which path we want to follow, which character traits we want to emulate and which values we want to eschew.

No 52-year-old man should be judged by what made him laugh when he was a schoolboy. And that’s what’s happening now. Many people still insist on believing that Judge Kavanaugh did everything he’s been charged with, despite the lack of evidence, despite his vehement denials, despite the emergence of two men who say they did what CBF says Kavanaugh did. Many others who initially opposed him now grudgingly acknowledge the lack of evidence, but still refuse to vindicate him. Instead, I’m hearing and reading that they don’t think someone who could be so “immature” and “emotional” and even “unhinged” should serve on the Supreme Court.

Well of course he was immature. He was 17 years old when the yearbook photos and jokes about flatulence and vomiting were written. He was not yet the 52-year-old man who has been nominated for the court. He is no longer that immature boy against whom so many people are expressing indignation.

As minors, we might be taught to accept and act on values and customs about religion, politics, or gender expectations that, in later years, we will find abhorrent.

And “unhinged”? “Emotional”? Who wouldn’t be emotional in this situation?

Imagine being accused of something heinous — something you are certain you did not do. At least if you’re guilty you can experience remorse and regret, show contrition, and beg for forgiveness. You can be angry at yourself as you watch your world crumble, knowing it was your own fault. But when you’re innocent? How do you express remorse for something you did not do? And how do you find forgiveness and understanding for those who falsely accuse you, and continue to accuse you even when all the evidence is refuted?

Now imagine bringing this attack into your home as your wife and sweet daughters and the girls you coach in basketball and your church family all have to bear the effects of those accusations. Imagine the pain of watching them suffer. It would take a veritable saint not to exhibit some anger and emotion over this situation. Even Jesus lost his temper during his ministry, when his “home” (the temple) was defiled.

The hypocrisy is obvious: if he had not shown emotion, those same people would now accuse him of being cold and uncaring. Why is it that Dr. Ford is deemed “believable” because she cried during her testimony, but Judge Kavanaugh is considered unhinged because he choked up? Is it because he’s a man? Or is it because they’re so set on not having Brett Kavanaugh seated as a Supreme Court Justice that they will grab at any excuse to discredit him?

Assault does matter. And it’s possible that Ford did experience what she described, although I don’t think Judge Kavanaugh is the one who did it. But there are two kinds of assault in this story: the physical assault CBF described, and the accusation Kavanaugh has endured. Each has its own traumatic consequences. A person who has been physically assaulted bears no blame in the incident; she can hold her head up as a victim or survivor or whatever she wants to call herself and go forward. But a person who has been falsely accused receives no such sympathy or support. Judge Kavanaugh will bear the consequences of this accusation for the rest of his life. Even if he is exonerated, it will stay with him. So in that sense, bearing false witness is a more serious crime than groping a girl at a party. It has ruined his reputation, his family, and his career. It will forever taint him, even if it isn’t true, because so many people will continue to believe he did it.

There are two kinds of assault in this story: the physical assault Ford described, and the accusation Kavanaugh has endured.

It didn’t have to be this way. Senator Feinstein could have brought it up in the private questioning and the other senators could have asked their questions without the public circus. The accusation is so flimsy, the accuser’s memory so hazy, that it should never have become the main issue in Kavanaugh’s nomination. I’m convinced that the Democratic senators expected, once the first accusation was made, that several other women would say “Me too” with more recent stories and stronger evidence. Ford would not even have had to testify, because Kavanaugh would have been forced to withdraw in shame. That, I believe, was the game plan. And it might have worked if Judge Kavanaugh weren’t such an honorable gentleman regarding women.

Because CBF is the “aggrieved plaintiff” in this case, we can’t impugn her character. We can’t examine her own drinking and partying habits, or her high school yearbook’s glorification of drinking and sex, as they did with Kavanaugh. We can’t wonder about her “fear of flying,” which never seems to have kept her from flying, or the fortune she has accrued in her GoFundMe account as a result of her claim. } We can’t bring up her political activism or other possible motivations. We have to treat her with kid gloves, because she is considered the victim.

This is a very unusual case in that the accused is adamant that it never happened. He is one of the few men recently accused of sexual misconduct not to use the excuse that “I thought it was consensual” or “she misunderstood my actions” or “it was a long time ago.” He said it never happened. And then doubled down with “I was a virgin.” That took a lot of confidence, because it meant that even consensual sex with a willing girlfriend would have made him guilty of perjury. I believe him.

None of what I have said here has any bearing on whether Kavanaugh would be a good Supreme Court justice. I like some of what I’ve heard, and I have reservations about other things. But at this point, I don’t care about the reservations. If the minority party — or either party — can get away with this kind of smutty tactic, then no man of character who cares about his reputation will ever be willing to run for office or serve on the court. And that would be a great loss to the goal of freedom and honor in this nation.




Share This

© Copyright 2018 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.