Bolt from the Blue

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Better in the Original

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Like the dog at the center of the movie, The Call of the Wild has a hard time knowing where it belongs. Based on the Jack London story about Buck, a domesticated dog kidnapped by traders and sold into service in the gold rush to the Yukon, its foundational work is a dark story of involuntary servitude and oppression. But its PG rating and its playful, animated dogs with their big brown eyes give it the tone and ambience of a Disney movie — which, despite its 20th Century Fox distribution label, it is, since the two studios recently merged. This is but one difference between book and movie, most of them injurious to the heart of the story, despite the filmmakers’ faithfulness to the storyline.

When we first meet Buck in the movie, he is a privileged but unruly pet, joyfully wreaking havoc in the home of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford), racing through the house, knocking into furniture, and destroying the company feast. Like Helen Keller’s family in The Miracle Worker, no one seems disciplined enough to discipline him, and their nonchalant tolerance of his lumbering ways is comical. By contrast, London’s Buck is a “regal aristocrat” who “was neither house dog nor kennel dog; he had command of the whole realm . . . [and] was king . . . even over the humans.”

This is but one difference between book and movie, most of them injurious to the heart of the story.

In the movie, Buck is ordered to stay outside after ruining the family party and is then kidnapped by an opportunistic stranger and shipped to the Yukon, where sled dogs are in high demand. He changes owners several times, eventually ending up with John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who narrates the story in voiceover.

Buck’s first owner, “the man in the red sweater,” teaches him “the rule of law”: when escape proves impossible, he learns to work and obey in order to avoid a beating with the club. Next, Perrault (Omar Sy), a postal employee, purchases him to help carry the mail 500 miles between Skagway and Dawson. Perrault treats Buck well, and Thornton tells us in voiceover that “Buck grew in confidence and began to enjoy the work.” His next owner is Hal (Dan Stevens), a young dandy from the East who has traveled to the Yukon with an inexperienced partner, a fashionably dressed wife, Mercedes (Karen Gillan), and all the comforts of home, including a Victrola. He also has a map that he believes will take him to a river of gold. He is determined to get there before anyone else does.

Stevens is usually a fine actor with emotional depth, one who chooses his parts carefully and seldom disappoints. But in this movie he is the mustachioed villain from Saturday morning melodramas, complete with menacing snarls, bullying threats and catastrophic ignorance of his surroundings. It was disappointing to see such a fine actor in such a two-dimensional role. Ford, grizzled and aging, is a bit of a disappointment too, but he’s never been a particularly deep actor emotionally.

There is much to like about this movie, yet just as much that bothers me.

Eventually Buck and John Thornton find each other and they forge a strong friendship. Significantly, Thornton does not purchase Buck but rescues him from Hal and invites him to share his cabin. Thornton becomes Buck’s friend, not his master; in the book, Thornton is almost godlike in his care for Buck and Buck’s devotion to him. Thornton understands Buck and “the call of the wild” that will eventually cause them to part. As Buck chooses a mate from among the wolves (or she chooses him) Thornton tells us, “Buck [through cross-breeding] will make the wolves smarter and more confident.”

There is much to like about this movie, yet just as much that bothers me. I love the way most of the women are portrayed; they are trackers, postal workers, vendors, prospectors, household managers. and yes, a foppish Eastern wife. Women are an integral, valued part of the community, working, contributing, and pulling their weight. Perrault’s gruff and austere partner in the book, François, becomes Françoise (Cara Gee), a likeable and lighthearted woman, in the film, and it works just fine. It is such a refreshing contrast to the impression my students have of 19th-century women as mere chattel with no rights or opportunities beyond marriage and motherhood. If movies like this one begin to change that misconception, I will be happy.

The scenery, filmed mostly in British Columbia, is also gorgeous, and the aurora borealis colors the sky, as it does throughout the book. The CGI is impressive too; if it weren’t for those big, brown, overly expressive eyes, I might have thought the animals were real. The use of animation also allowed the artists to recreate the dogs the way London imagined them, with the dog Solex missing an eye, for example. Perrault, who happens to be black, and Françoise, who appears to be Native American, provide the strongest and most exciting chapter in the film. And Harrison Ford is fine as the mountain man who understands Buck’s need for belonging because he, too, has a sad backstory of loss and heartbreak.

Did it have to be a selfish and insensitive rich dandy? Couldn’t it have been the dumb, inexperienced lummox Hal actually represents?

But I have a problem with the way the film sidesteps what I see as the main theme of London’s story. The Call of the Wild is not only a study of brutal naturalism and evolutionary survival of the fittest, but also an allegory of slavery. In the book, he is sold into servitude by a treacherous gardener’s helper — someone from his own household whom he had learned to trust. The story gives Buck human emotions, and London makes the point that captivity and starvation cause Buck to abandon the moral principles he learned in society and to steal food from his teammates in order to survive — a point Viktor Frankl also makes in his concentration camp memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning. The other dogs on his team are also given human names like Joe, Dave, Billy, and Curly, and human personalities as well. In sum, London deliberately personified the animals to create a fable about the dehumanizing effects of slavery, or at least of captivity.

Thornton’s opinion that Buck “grew in confidence and enjoyed the work” and the movie’s transformation of Perrault into a kindhearted owner troubles me, as it suggests that slavery was somehow “good for them.” Eventually Buck is freed and “returns to his ancestors,” the wolves, where Thornton tells us that the wolf pack will become smarter, more confident and more courageous, presumably because of the DNA they receive from Buck’s domesticated European genes. (Of course, they should be called cousins rather than ancestors, but I won’t quibble about that.) To me, the praise sounds a little too much like those who opined that Frederick Douglass was smart because his father was white. Even the suggestion that Buck (and thus the slave population) should go back to the land of his ancestors is woefully out of date. On the other hand, I think it was wise to make the villain a white man instead of the Indians who attack Thornton in London’s book. But did it have to be a selfish and insensitive rich dandy? Couldn’t it have been the dumb, inexperienced lummox Hal actually represents?

The movie follows the storyline of the book fairly faithfully, but the lighter tone and flatter characters possibly imposed by the PG rating removes the harsh, physical reality of the story. The race against a falling avalanche and the plunge down a waterfall, for example, feel more like a Disney ride than a life-threatening danger. Much is lost, also, of Buck’s conflict for supremacy with lead dog Spitz. The “ecstasy” (as London describes it) of their bloody battle, which is foreshadowed throughout his chapter with Perrault and comes to a head when both dogs are chasing a white rabbit for food, is as essential to Buck’s self-discovery of his “dominant primordial beast” as Frederick Douglass’ battle with the hated overseer Mr. Covey was to Douglass’ discovery of inherent freedom. Buck’s battle is not only against the jealous Spitz and the oppressive restraints of civilization, but against the brutal elements of nature that would starve and freeze him if it could. “Mercy,” Buck realizes, “is for southern climes.” Through London’s gripping prose, we can see, hear and feel every slash of muscle, every crunch of bone, every visceral cry of the primordial wildness coming out in Buck. Yet in the movie, Buck lets the rabbit go, and Spitz merely slinks away; the battle would be too frightening for children’s eyes.

No matter how hard they try, no filmmakers can do justice to this book. The prose is just too good, the characters and emotion and philosophy too rich and deep.

The Call of the Wild is an OK movie, but it isn’t going to make back the millions the studio had to spend in CGI, now that PETA makes it nearly impossible to use live animals in films any more. Its theme is too heavy for the children its PG rating was intended to attract, and it isn’t what I would call a family film, despite those first laugh-inducing scenes of Buck bounding joyfully through the house. But in order to win that PG rating the filmmakers had to soften certain scenes and themes, as when Hal’s headstrong willfulness seems to lead to his sled dogs’ death, and perhaps Mercedes’ death, too — or so we assume; we don’t actually see their fall through the ice. That scene could have been tense, thrilling, and heartbreaking. But because it might have been too scary for children (I suppose), it doesn’t appear. Apparently a scene involving snakes was also cut, since the credits list a snake wrangler, although no snakes appeared in the film.

I don’t entirely blame the filmmakers, however. They did the best they could, as have others who have attempted to adapt this book for film, to capture a story that is essentially told through the perspective of a dog. I would recommend this Call of the Wild for a lazy Saturday afternoon at home with the kids when there’s nothing else to do. But better still, I recommend that you pull out your old, worn copy of The Call of the Wild, or download an audio version, and experience it again. That’s what I did after watching the movie. And I came to this conclusion: no matter how hard they try, no filmmakers can do justice to this book. The prose is just too good, the characters and emotion and philosophy too rich and deep, Buck’s gradual discovery of freedom too thrilling. It’s a story to be imagined, not watched.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Call of the Wild," directed by Chris Sanders. Twentieth Century Fox, 2020, 100 minutes.



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Fifteen Rounds, No Decision

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The Democratic debate of February 19, 2020, in Las Vegas was a festival of cheap shots and irrelevancies. It made me glad I’m not a Democrat.

It was also the first chance for the other contestants to pile on former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg — and they did.

Senator Elizabeth Warren went after Bloomberg’s legal settlements with women who had complained over the years — most of them in the ’90s — about his lewd and goatish remarks. He’d paid them off and they had agreed never to make their complaints public. On Thursday night, Warren dared Bloomberg to release the women from their promise of confidentiality — right then and there, on national TV.

Well, he wasn’t going to do that. “They signed the agreements and that’s what we’re going to live with,” he said. Of course she knew he wouldn’t dismiss the protection he’d paid for. Everybody knew it.

Senator Elizabeth Warren went after Bloomberg’s legal settlements with women who had complained over the years about his lewd and goatish remarks.

Bloomberg’s response was to talk about all the women he’d promoted to important jobs at his company and in his administration in New York. Warren paraphrased Bloomberg’s answer as, “I’ve been nice to some women.” It was a nasty way to put it. It did wound him, and she needed to do that.

Warren also tried to bring down Joe Biden, but with a rhetorical shot of less velocity. At some White House confab, Biden had said he hoped Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican, would be reelected so Biden could work with him. Biden complained that Warren had taken his comment out of context, which she clearly had. As Vice President, Biden had presided over the Senate when McConnell was Majority Leader. The two were in opposite parties but learned to work together. They became friends. That happens in the Senate. It doesn’t mean Biden was a bad Democrat. Warren knew that.

One of the moderators asked Amy Klobuchar why, as Hennepin County Attorney, 1999–2006, she hadn’t filed charges in two dozen shootings by police. The implication was that she didn’t care about citizens being gunned down by the cops. But how long would it take Klobuchar to explain two dozen police shootings of two decades ago? She had one minute, maximum. Her answer was that all the cases had gone to grand juries. Well, it was a question designed to elicit a lame answer.

Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg are rival moderates (in Democratic terms), each with a reason to knock the other out. Buttigieg, the smarty-pants who’d worked at McKinsey & Co., tried to embarrass Klobuchar for being unable to name the president of Mexico. This reminded me of the 2016 Libertarian nominee, Governor Gary Johnson, who famously said, “What’s an Aleppo?” Back then, I thought that far too much was being made of the former governor of New Mexico’s failure to recognize the name of a city in Syria. Now I was inclined to excuse Klobuchar for not knowing the name of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

How long would it take Klobuchar to explain two dozen police shootings of two decades ago? She had one minute, maximum.

Buttigieg wasn’t cutting any slack. “This is a race to be president,” he said. She stared him down. “Are you trying to say I’m dumb?” she demanded. (Yup. That’s exactly what he was trying to say.)

Buttigieg, who had attacked Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren from the right, repeatedly attacked Klobuchar from the left. She had voted to confirm Donald Trump’s appointee to head the US Customs. She had voted for some of Donald Trump’s judges. She had once voted to make English the official language. (Terrible!) Klobuchar replied by talking about all the work she’d done on comprehensive immigration reform, and accused Buttigieg of having “memorized a bunch of talking points.”

It did seem so. Buttigieg comes off as the quintessential focus-group candidate. When I first heard him talk, last year, I was inclined to appreciate his moderation. Now he seems merely calculating. His repeated statements that Sanders is unacceptably radical are, if you listen closely, mostly about strategy. “You can’t afford to alienate half the country,” Buttigieg said. He was arguing that Sanders can’t win, not that his ideas are wrong. Buttigieg also said of his fellow candidates, “I think at least in broad terms we’re largely pulling in the same direction on policy.”

Buttigieg was also a red-diaper baby, the son of an English professor who translated the books of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci. Does that matter? The man is not his father, but I don’t recall him denouncing his father’s beliefs in the way that, for example, writer Theodore Dalrymple has.

Buttigieg comes off as the quintessential focus-group candidate.

Biden, in contrast with the others, seemed pathetic on Thursday night. In the midst of the Mexican president foofaraw, Biden jumped in to remind everyone that he had been there, done that. “I’m the only one who’s spent hundreds of hours in Latin America. I’ve met with this president. . . . I’ve spent hours and hours and hours.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. I suppose it’s true and also important, but we’re getting really tired of Joe Biden telling us about it.

And tired of him.

The debaters generated acres of blather on the subject of energy. Biden touted a solar power station near Las Vegas that he said could be expanded to serve a city of 60,000 people. I assume he meant the five-square-mile mirrors-and-turbines Ivanpah plant built with federal loan guarantees when Biden was vice president. Ivanpah is the largest solar installation in the United States. It is a fairly reasonable use of the Mojave Desert, which isn’t good for much else, but it’s not something that can be duplicated across the country. Biden also likes trains, which he sees as 21st-century technology. “Invest in rail!” he said. “Rail can take hundreds of thousands, millions of cars off the road.” (Millions? Really? Google “Randal O’Toole.”) Biden was big, very big, on spending boxcars of government money. He said, “I have a trillion-dollar program for infrastructure that will provide for thousands and thousands of new jobs, not $15 an hour but $50 an hour plus benefits, unions, unions being able to do that.”

OK, Joe. You want the union vote.

Sanders has a neat way of shrinking a scientific, engineering, and economic problem into a matter of moral certainty.

Then there was Elizabeth Warren. The “I-have-a-plan” senator from Massachusetts announced that there is a global market of $27 trillion for Green. (“Green” is now a noun. Get used to it.) Under Warren, Green that doesn’t now exist will be brought into existence in America — “I believe in science,” she said — and, in a Warren presidency, will be manufactured in America. (With $50 labor?) To juice up the global market for Green, Warren would stop all US offshore drilling and all drilling and mining on public land.

Bernie Sanders would end all fracking. “We are fighting for the future of the planet,” he declared. “That is more important than the profits of the fossil fuel industry.” Sanders has a neat way of shrinking a scientific, engineering, and economic problem into a matter of moral certainty.

Michael Bloomberg brought it down to earth. “We’re not going to get rid of fracking for a while,” he said, and nobody argued he was wrong.

Sanders did not like Mike Bloomberg. The man is a billionaire, and Sanders had said that America should have no billionaires. “Real change never takes place from an oligarchy controlled by billionaires,” Sanders said in his closing statement. He also affirmed that he is a socialist.

Biden keeps sounding like he is pitching for the votes of life’s losers.

“It's ridiculous,” Bloomberg replied. “We're not going to throw out capitalism. We tried. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn't work.”

The audience booed Bloomberg’s red-baiting. Sanders said he was for a Denmark-style socialism. And anyway, he said, America is “in many ways a socialist country” now. “We have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor.” (This argument was used by the Old Left in the 1930s, as was the derogatory term, “rugged individualism.”)

Several of the others weighed in. Amy Klobuchar said, “I believe in capitalism,” but added that government needed to be a “check” on it, with, for example, universal childcare. When asked whether she is still a supporter of capitalism, Warren said, “I am.” She added that American capitalism has an “entrepreneurship gap” for black and Latino entrepreneurs, and that she has a $7 billion program to fix that.

When asked about capitalism, Joe Biden said, “For 36 years and as vice president, I was listed as the poorest man in Congress. I made money when I wrote a book about my son and it surprised me how much it sold. First time I've ever made any money.”

The presidency, Bloomberg said, “is a management job. And Donald Trump is not a manager.” Just so.

Biden keeps sounding like he is pitching for the votes of life’s losers. He keeps saying that the middle class is being crushed. In his closing statement he said, “I’m running because so many people are being left behind.” He said, “I know what it’s like to be knocked down.”

It’s happening again, Joe. You’re being knocked down.

The man of the evening, I thought, was Mike Bloomberg. Libertarians have damned Bloomberg for his stop-and-frisk policy in New York, and maybe they are right about that, but I live in a city where the police follow the opposite policy — let bums camp on the sidewalk — and the result is not good. (The policy is not the cops’ fault.) Years ago, I ridiculed New York City’s ban on restaurant soda drinks greater than 16 ounces — a Bloomberg policy. Mike Bloomberg is not my guy, but in this debate, I rather liked the man. The presidency, he said, “is a management job. And Donald Trump is not a manager.” Just so.

One thing I noted in Bloomberg’s favor was Bernie Sanders scoring him for opposing an increase in the minimum wage. It was hard to believe that any Democrat would say a bad thing about the minimum wage, so I checked it out. It was true. In 2015, Bloomberg argued that an increase in the earned income tax credit would help low-income people more than an increase in the minimum wage, which was likely to wipe out entry-level jobs. Of course Bloomberg is for a $15 minimum now, because he has to be. In the debate, he didn’t dare answer Sanders’ accusation. But at least Bloomberg understands what the policy does.

Is this a low hurdle bar? Sure. But these are Democrats.




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A Free-Market Path to Corporate Reform

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On economic issues, libertarians have historically played a supporting role to conservatives, at least in the eyes of the general public. The upcoming election season provides us with an opportunity to throw off this image and craft a public identity of our own.

One of the more contentious disputes in the ongoing political wars is what to do about the substantial power wielded by large corporations in our political, social, and economic lives. On this issue, liberals and conservatives have staked out positions that appear at first glance to be diametrically opposed. Many liberals and far-left “progressives” portray large corporations — especially those in the social media, fossil fuel, and pharmaceutical industries — as rampaging beasts, whose predatory behavior must be curbed by strict government oversight and control. Many conservatives, on the other hand, paint a benign picture of large corporations as consumer-friendly instruments of free markets and prosperity, which must be protected at all costs from further government interference.

By any rational standard, large corporations have acquired too much economic and political power, and most of them are not shy about using this power to undermine the free market when that serves their interests.

To the extent that libertarians deal with this issue at all, we tend to side with conservatives. Although a vocal minority of libertarians oppose specific corporate perks such as limited liability and corporate personhood, most of us view corporations in a favorable light, as essential providers of the multitude of goods and services we use every day. Our lack of political influence, however, makes us marginal players in this debate, and we are perceived as little more than cheerleaders for the mainstream conservative viewpoint.

This need no longer be the case. Our fundamental principle, the nonaggression principle, provides us with a chance to speak in our own voice and introduce a totally new perspective to this debate. Using the nonaggression principle, we can identify specific government policies that enable and encourage corporate dominance, and we can actively promote explicitly libertarian reforms aimed at creating a more level playing field between people and corporations.

Such reforms are way overdue. By any rational standard, large corporations have acquired too much economic and political power, and most of them are not shy about using this power to undermine the free market when that serves their interests. A current example is an all-out effort by many corporate healthcare providers, through lobbying and lawsuits, to block price transparency for consumers, a key feature of the free market that is essential to its functioning.

Unfortunately, all modern economies have specific sets of rules for corporations — rules that are distinct from and often opposite to those for individuals and other types of organizations. These rules violate free-market norms in two major ways: as all libertarians know, they require corporations to submit to intrusive government oversight and regulation of their activities; and as not all libertarians fully realize, they give corporations special privileges that are not granted to unincorporated firms or individuals.

Chief among these special privileges is “limited liability,” designed to shield owners of corporations from financial risk relating to corporate negligence or misbehavior. Although libertarians disagree about the extent to which individual stockholders should be held responsible for corporate misconduct, that is not the issue here. The issue instead is that, by granting limited liability to owners of corporations and denying it to unincorporated firms, the government is creating a double standard in the marketplace, one that favors corporations over individuals.

Unfortunately, all modern economies have specific sets of rules for corporations — rules that are distinct from and often opposite to those for individuals and other types of organizations.

Corporations have additional ways of avoiding the consequences of their wrongful actions. Suing a corporation is a difficult, expensive and time-consuming process — much more so than suing another person. A corporation can easily dissolve or go bankrupt, even as its owners continue to prosper. A judge’s approval is usually needed to “pierce the corporate veil” and sue the owners directly. Such approval can be difficult or impossible to obtain, especially in jurisdictions that advertise themselves as friendly to corporations.

Since corporations can own, buy, and sell one another, a privilege rightly denied to individuals, it is easy to establish a chain of corporate ownership to conceal the identity of the true owners, by setting up the controlling corporations in different domestic jurisdictions or in other countries.

These state-granted corporate privileges come at a steep price — to our economic freedom as well as to corporations themselves. Corporations are brought into existence by legislative permission. They can be snuffed out of existence just as easily through government revocation of their charters. This gives governments tremendous power to regulate corporations as they see fit, and encourages corporate decision makers to seek the “friendship” of powerful government agencies and do their bidding. The result is a toxic blend of crony capitalism and a “mixed” economy, within which the marketplace is anything but free.

The competitive advantages conferred by government permit corporations to grow larger than they would in a free market, “crowding out” other types of business organizations in the process. Eventually we arrive at an economic landscape dominated by corporate executives and their regulators, at the expense of everyone else’s freedom.

These state-granted corporate privileges come at a steep price — to our economic freedom as well as to corporations themselves.

Should libertarians regard this state of affairs as incompatible with the proper functioning of a free economy? If so, what should be done to fix it?

The answer to both these questions can be found by applying the basic principle that guides our political philosophy. The nonaggression principle declares that governments should not interfere with anyone’s peaceful activities, provided those activities do not violate the rights of others. For libertarians, this principle applies not only to individuals, but also to groups of individuals — and a corporation, at its root, is simply a group of individuals who share an interlocking set of contractual relationships.

The nonaggression principle logically leads to this conclusion: any activities that are legally and morally legitimate for corporations should be equally legitimate for all other private, voluntary groups of people. Conversely, activities that violate the rights of others should be prohibited to all such groups. When it comes to legal rights and responsibilities, a free society should not treat corporations any differently from the way it treats any other privately organized groups, such as labor unions, religious and charitable organizations, foundations, and political parties.

This leads to a further conclusion that some will consider radical: there is no need or justification for “corporation” as a legal concept at all. An unincorporated business should have exactly the same standing under the law as an incorporated business in matters such as taxation, liability, reporting requirements, and recognition of contracts. Aside from protecting the rights of third parties, governments should have no say regarding any firm’s form of organization, purpose, or method of operation. Legal protections extended to corporations should be equally available to all other groups.

Any activities that are legally and morally legitimate for corporations should be equally legitimate for all other private, voluntary groups of people.

Such a set of reforms, if applied consistently, would have far-reaching effects. It would do away with any reason to treat corporations as privileged legal entities.It would remove the need for a body of corporate law, separate from individual and contract law. It would render irrelevant the legal fiction of corporate personhood, along with the torturous logic needed to justify such a concept. It would create a more level playing field between people and corporations. It would bring more consistency and fairness to government policies regarding liability and secrecy. It would ensure that any legal protections given to corporate owners and agents would also extend to unincorporated individuals and groups. Taken together, these reforms would constitute a major step toward a freer economy.

As a means of generating favorable publicity for libertarianism, promoting such reforms has much to recommend it. These proposals derive directly from our fundamental principles. They are straightforward and easy to explain. They stand in stark contrast to the spurious “reforms” dished out by the mainstream Left and Right. They appeal to people’s sense of fairness. And by promoting both economic liberty and equality before the law, they have the potential to gain support from people on both sides of the mainstream political divide.

But advocating such reforms should be more than just a strategy to improve our public relations, burnish our image, and promote our brand. A more important consideration is at stake here. As principled champions of the free market, we libertarians should actually be defending the free market, not the flawed simulation that we see around us. As principled champions of individual rights, we should be defending these rights not only against the government but also against any corporations that violate them with the government’s blessing.

As the 2020 political season heats up, the issue of corporate power will increasingly command the public’s attention. This presents us with a clear choice. We can continue playing second fiddle to the conservative-led campaign to further deregulate large corporations, while doing little or nothing to take away their unfair advantages in the marketplace. Or we can strike out on our own, and boost our credibility as champions of individual rights, by leading the charge to put an end to corporate privileges and make the marketplace more free.




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Fantasies of the Filmerati

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So Parasite has won Best Picture at the Oscars. Certainly it is well-made (as discussed in these pages by Jo Ann Skousen). Director Bong Joon Ho knows how to make movies. But I can’t help thinking that what won it for him is its leftward political message. A similar message is what struck me about the other movie of Bong’s I saw, Snowpiercer, which I wrote about in Liberty back in January last year.

Unlike the post-apocalyptic science-fiction Snowpiercer, Parasite is set in today’s Seoul, Korea (Bong’s homeland). The story concerns two families. The Parks are rich and the Kims are poor. The “parasites” are — at least, on the surface — the Kims, who worm their way into the household staff of the Parks, displacing the other servants. In the course of a story that begins as social realism and ends as a surrealistic horror movie, the Kims become the parasites that consume their host.

Bong Joon Ho knows how to make movies. But I can’t help thinking that what won the Oscar for him is Parasite's leftward political message.

The movie is a story of how the class structure drives ordinary people to weird violence. This is supposed to be a deep criticism of modern capitalism — what the Left calls late capitalism. (Why “late”? Is this the capitalist End Times? Is there also a “late socialism”?) I’ve heard several viewers say Parasite is really not a dig at capitalism, because Bong has imagined the poor family, the Kims, as the parasites. They are dishonest, dissolute, and ultimately destructive. The Parks, thanks to their money, are “nice,” and nothing like the evil exploiters imagined by the Old Left.

That interpretation is overly generous, I think. Google “Parasite” and “capitalism” and see what you get. There is Bong Joon Ho saying at the Golden Globes ceremonies, “This film is about the rich and poor and about capitalism.” And Richard Brody saying in The New Yorker that Parasite is about “the injustice of inequality” and a system in which “the warped, the undeserving, and the incompetent . . . lord over a new generation of embittered and marginalized strugglers.” And Gabriella Paiella in GQ asserting that Parasite is “a taut thriller that vividly evokes the acute desperation of late capitalism, all wrapped in a layer of dark comedy.” And Nathaniel Bell of LA Weekly summing up the film as“Alfred Hitchcock by way of Karl Marx.”

And that’s the mainstream press. If you want the hardcore, try the Marxist LeftVoice.org, where Julia Wallace writes, “Parasite captures the inherently parasitic relationship between capitalists and the working class and imagines the headlong plunge that is coming when the working class will get fed up with creating things for the ruling class to take.”

Why “late”? Is this the capitalist End Times? Is there also a “late socialism”?

Are arts writers politically biased? Well, of 398 reviews of Parasite on RottenTomatoes five are unfavorable, and two of those argue that the movie’s anticapitalist message isn’t militant enough. One is Paddy Kehoe of RTE, Ireland’s version of NPR, who says, “It doesn’t point up a route . . . towards radical change.” The other is Rick Krisonak of Seven Days, a publication in Bernie Sanders’ hometown of Burlington, Vermont, who writes that Parasite “offers zero thoughtful comment on capitalism or inequality. It simply gives us poor characters gaming rich characters and assumes we'll side with the poor.”

I think that is Bong’s intention.

His main characters are the members of two families of four: husband, wife, boy, girl. The poor family, the Kims, are thoroughly Asian, working intelligently (if connivingly) as a family unit. The rich family, the Parks, are Westernized to the point of parody. Each soul is on its individual path, mostly lost, with the sheltered, smiling wife praising her son’s childish crayon drawings and wondering why he doesn’t obey his parents. The boy imagines himself an American Indian, prancing around the big, modernistic house, shooting toy arrows at the household staff. The mother’s idea for taming her boy is “art therapy.” The only overt bit of “class oppression” — which many of the critics noted — is the husband’s complaint that everyone in the poor family has a smell. George Orwell said the same in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).

Some of the details of Bong’s story make no sense at all. Kyle Smith of National Review, who may be the only right-winger in Rotten Tomatoes’ fawning herd, notes that the rich people in Parasite are never shown doing any work. The husband doesn’t drive the Mercedes-Benz and the wife doesn’t boil the water for noodles. They don’t really do anything. How did they become so rich? Bong doesn’t think we need to know. In Parasite, work is mostly bullshit, and only the poor do it.

The only overt bit of “class oppression” — which many of the critics noted — is the husband’s complaint that everyone in the poor family has a "smell."

At the outset, the Kims are making a bare living in their roach-ridden, urinated-on basement apartment by folding boxes for takeout pizza — and the employee from the pizza store berates them for messing up that simple task. But these are not the Joads. They are intelligent — school-smart and street-smart. They don’t have a full measure of morality, at least regarding the rich, but they have discipline. And when they try, they are successful. The poor-family daughter does a bangup job as an “art therapist,” instantly transforming the little wild Indian into an obedient boy. The National Review’s man asks how such a smart, disciplined, enterprising family came to be stuck at the bottom of the totem pole, folding pizza boxes: “In order to cock a snoot at supposed class injustice, artists like Bong have to fundamentally misrepresent what’s going on.”

That was my bellyache about Bong’s 2013 movie, Snowpiercer. If you’re going to criticize a system, show us what’s real. Others have done this with the world of household servants — most recently Alfonso Cuaron in Roma (2018), which recreates the home in Mexico City where he lived as a boy. That was real. Parasite is not.

The critics like that it’s not real. They praise it. A.O. Scott of the New York Times calls it “intensely metaphorical and devastatingly concrete.” (Got that?) Scott concludes, “Whether we know it or not, it’s Bong’s world we’re living in. Literally.”

Does the New York Times know what “literally” means?




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Les Misérables, But Not That One

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Les Misérables — not to be confused with the musical of the same name — is France’s entry in the Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards. The story is set in the impoverished Parisian district of Montfermeil, where Victor Hugo lived while writing his famous novel. But it could actually be set in any location where cultures collide and tensions are high.

Issa (Issa Perica) is the vivacious and charismatic leader of a passel of young boys who roam the neighborhood looking for entertainment and often getting into trouble. Some of them are orphans, some of them have parents, and some, like Issa, are outcasts, kicked out of their homes for getting into trouble too many times. This is a community that believes in the “village” approach to raising children, and parents care about their reputations — often more than they care about their children.

Three distinct groups maintain a loose sort of authority in this neighborhood as they all try to mold the boys into men: the Islamic Brotherhood, represented by Salah (Almamy Kanouté); the streetwise mayor (Steve Tientcheu) and his cronies; and the anti-crime unit of the police, whose job is to patrol and prevent crime rather than arrest and punish. All three groups have the same goal: to keep the peace by establishing good values among the youth in the neighborhood. All have good intentions, it seems. But who should define “good values”? And how should their values be enforced? As is often the case with authoritarian groups, each believes he knows best. They get along, but uneasily.

This is a community that believes in the “village” approach to raising children, and parents care about their reputations — often more than they care about their children.

The story begins on the day when three things happen: the circus comes to town, the local soccer team enjoys an important victory, and the recently divorced Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) transfers from his police job in the suburbs to the anti-crime unit in Paris in order to be closer to his young son and his ex-wife. Ruiz immediately becomes disillusioned by what he sees on the job. They’re supposed to calm things down before violence erupts, but after ten years of working in Montfermeil his new partners, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), have become jaded by the mission and often “calm things down” with in-your-face shouting and physical threats that just stir things up. Perhaps because of his estrangement from his own son, Ruiz takes a liking to Issa, which annoys his partners.

The neighborhood’s fragile détente is disturbed with the arrival of a traveling circus, run by gypsies. Issa, feeling lonely and rejected by his family, steals a lion cub to keep as a pet. All three neighborhood groups –the mayor, the Islamic Brotherhood, and the anti-crime unit — want to find the cub and return it before the circus owner, (who represents the foreign invader, I think), returns violence for theft. Metaphors abound in this slow-paced film that erupts in a shocking and explosive third act — which, in my opinion, earned its Academy Award nomination, despite its weak production values.

Who should define “good values”? And how should their values be enforced? As is often the case with authoritarian groups, each believes he knows best.

It has been suggested by some that this movie represents Hugo’s story from the dogged police officer Javert’s perspective, but I don’t buy that interpretation. Javert’s fault is that he believes too completely in the law, and that he is too just to be merciful. In the book, his virtue is ultimately his vice and his downfall. No one in this movie, and certainly none of the police officers, treats the law with that much respect. When things go wrong, they do whatever it takes not to be held accountable.

Victor Hugo wrote in Les Misérables: “Remember my friends, there is no such thing as bad plants or bad men; there are only bad cultivators.” With his powerful third act, director Ladj Ly gives us an idea of the kind of harvest we might expect if we entrust the wrong cultivators with raising our youth. You will continue to think about these characters and how quickly everything changes for them — and why — long after the fade to black. It is a cautionary tale with implications that reach far beyond “the wretched ones” of Montfermeil.


Editor's Note: Review of "Les Misérables," directed by Ladj Ly. Srab Films, 2019, 104 minutes.



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Who’s the Parasite?

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In last year’s Roma, director Alfonso Cuarón provided an intimate portrait of a domestic servant working for a middle-class family in the Roma district of Mexico City. The film was heartbreakingly real and intensely personal. It won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematographer.

Parasite also provides a glimpse into the “upstairs-downstairs” world of a working class family and the upper middle class family they serve, and it is likely to win this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It’s that good. Like Cuaron’s domestic masterpiece, it is full of truth. But unlike Cuaron’s Roma, it is distinctly not real. Very little is revealed about the story in its trailers or its Fandango description beyond its genre listings (mystery * thriller * comedy), synopsis (“Greed and class discrimination threaten the newly formed symbiotic relationship between the wealthy Park family and the destitute Kim clan”), and approval ratings (99% critics, 93% audience). And it was made in Korea. Who could resist?

Parasite causes one to think about self-interest, mutual exchange, and the nature of human relationships — despite the mayhem that inevitably ensues during the thriller's final act.

Liberty readers will recall the day I stumbled into a Korean film in a Manhattan theater, a few years back, and found myself watching a zombie flick (see my review of A Train to Busan) that turned out to be astoundingly good. I was a little worried about what I might have stumbled into this time, when virtually all the trailers preceding the movie were horror films — albeit horror films involving children and literary themes: Hansel and Gretel, The Turning, The Lodge, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Antlers, to be specific. What fine mess had I gotten myself into this time?

A good one, as it turns out. Parasite offers spectacular production design, vivid cinematography, perfectly timed acting, and a satisfying story that causes one to think about self-interest, mutual exchange, and the nature of human relationships — despite the mayhem that inevitably (because it’s a thriller) ensues during the final act.

To say that the Kim family is struggling financially is an understatement. As the film opens, son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) is holding his cellphone aloft in the family’s small apartment, looking for a signal. It seems their upstairs neighbor has placed a password on her network, preventing them from using her wifi. When he finds a free signal in the bathroom, the family can go back to watching their video, which provides tips on how to fold pizza boxes faster. That’s what they’re doing to earn some cash since mom Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) and dad Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) lost their jobs. There’s no self-pity in this family, and no lying about — they’re hustlers determined to make some bread so they can eat some bread. When a truck comes by spewing bug spray, Chung-sook’s immediate reaction is to close the windows, but Ki-Taek stops her. “Free fumigation!” he exults. Outside their window a homeless man pisses against the wall. They might be poor, but they aren’t without hope or humanity. They’ve had a number of failed businesses, but they haven’t given up. I like their “Little Red Hen” attitude.

This kind of optimistic fatalism, or fatalistic optimism, permeates the film and creates many opportunities for broad, physical comedy as well as sympathy for the two families.

When Ki-woo’s friend Min (Seo-joon Park) stops by to recommend him for a job tutoring wealthy teenager Da-hye Park (Ji-so Jung) in English, Ki-woo jumps at the opportunity. Never mind that he doesn’t have a college credential or even a high-school diploma; his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park), a budding artist, is able to create one for him.

Min also brings along a “landscape stone” as a gift for the family, a river rock with beautiful graining that will bring them luck and prosperity. Ki-taek displays it proudly on a metal easel. Soon the Kim family becomes involved with the wealthy and beautiful but naïve and ineffective Park family, which also consists of mother Yeon-kyo (Yoe-jong Jo), father Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee), daughter Da-hye, and son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung). This mirroring of characters is no accident; director Joon-ho Bong wants us to consider their similarities as well as their differences, and the role of fate as well as the role of choice.

Whether because of the landscape stone or because of the Kims’ own hard working initiative, things start to look up for them. Until things start to look down. (Don’t worry — you’ll know when to close your eyes.) Parasite is surprising, outrageous, delightful, unexpected, hopeful, and in some ways hopeless, though not in a depressing way. At one point Ki-taek tells Ki-woo, who is trying to think of a plan that will fix a particular problem, “If you make a plan, it never works out. The best kind of plan is no plan. Then nothing can go wrong.” This kind of optimistic fatalism, or fatalistic optimism, permeates the film and creates many opportunities for broad, physical comedy as well as sympathy for the two families.

Director Bong subtly asks us to consider who is the parasite in this symbiotic neighborhood.

The word “symbiosis” comes from the Greek and means “together (sym), life (bio).” Symbiotic relationships can be commensalist (beneficial to one, harmless to the other), parasitic (beneficial to one and harmful to the other), or mutualist (beneficial to both). Cattle egrets are commensalist; they eat the insects stirred up by grazing cattle without harming or benefiting the cows. A tick is obviously parasitic to the mammal that has the misfortune of having one suck its veins. The oxpecker bird demonstrates the ideal mutualist relationship in which both the “buyer” and the “seller” gain; as it sits on the back or head of rhinos, zebras, and even crocodiles, eating ticks and other parasitic insects that would harm the larger animal, the oxpecker gets a meal, and the animal gets a good cleaning. Both benefit, and neither is harmed.

Parasites, however, do harm as they take advantage of the host, eating their fill while leaving behind infectious bacteria or damaging toxins. Director Bong subtly asks us to consider who is the parasite in this symbiotic neighborhood — the one who eats and cleans, or the one who provides the paycheck — while providing us with a film that is simultaneously a mystery, a thriller, a comedy, and pure genius.


Editor's Note: Review of "Parasite," directed by Joon Ho Bong. Barunson E&A, 2019, 132 minutes.



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To Iowa and Beyond

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The Iowa caucus is worth celebrating, if only for the reminder that we have once again managed to survive the year-plus of primary-season buildup. It is, of course, ridiculous that one state should always get this much attention; it is more ridiculous still that it is Iowa, where an interest in corn vastly disproportionate to the electorate as a whole ensures that presidential candidates’ ethanol pandering will never die.

Positioned a week or more ahead of the other early primaries in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, and a full month ahead of the Super Tuesday slate, Iowa is a chance for candidates to lay down a marker. Whether they’re in the position of needing to win or not, those who underperform there often tip the weaknesses that will later end their campaigns. Campaigns who outperform expectations, meanwhile, often gain a boost that can propel them into the White House. Look no further back than 2016 for an instructive example: in a Republican field much more crowded even than the Democrats’ 2020 slate, Ted Cruz won the state for the GOP, but by a thin margin over an unexpectedly strong Donald Trump, while a third-place finish for Marco Rubio essentially began the winding-down of his prospects. Hillary Clinton meanwhile came in with overwhelming advantages but nearly lost the state to Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign; Sanders could not finish the job that year, but Clinton had already revealed the soft Midwestern underbelly that Trump would eviscerate in the general.

It is, of course, ridiculous that one state should get this much attention every election cycle; it is more ridiculous still that it is Iowa that gets it.

This year, of course, Trump comes in with all the advantages of an incumbent, with several states cancelling primaries outright rather than give Bill Weld or any others even the slim chance of stealing a delegate here or there. But the Democratic field seemed finely poised until the past week or so, when the polling shifted suddenly (or, perhaps, accelerated along the direction it was already headed). Let’s go through each of the candidates in turn and see where things stand for them, what hope they have, if any, and how libertarians should feel about the prospects.

For those who hate suspense, I’ll spoil it here: I believe libertarians have a lot to gain from Bernie Sanders gaining the nomination, and relatively little to lose, given how hemmed in he would be by a GOP Senate and the Supreme Court in its present composition. This is not an endorsement of Sanders’ candidacy or any particular policy of his, apart from driving the Democratic establishment bananas, which I think we can all agree is a noble pursuit. On with the candidates:

Joe Biden

Biden was supposed to be the Hillary Clinton of this race: the inside-baseball candidate with all the establishment bona fides, the moderate who can “work across the aisle” to “get things done,” the person above all who would “normalize” America, restoring all the unspoken rules and conventions that Trump broke and that only DC political junkies actually care about. But his campaign has been erratic at best: he can be engaging with voters one moment and then exaggeratedly confrontational the next. His foot is constantly in his mouth, especially when he’s asked to address any aspect of his lamentable political past. A slate of Trump-Biden debates would be something, no doubt — at the very least, an embarrassment of riches for Stephen Cox’s Word Watch columns — but the conviction has grown among Dem voters that whatever that “something” may be, it would not be salutary for the Biden side. Some of his support has gone to Warren, some to Buttigieg; he may yet lose some to Bloomberg. It’s beginning to look like Joe Biden may have botched yet another presidential primary.

Biden's foot is constantly in his mouth, especially when he’s asked to address any aspect of his lamentable political past.

Biden is still the default option for many voters, at least those who still seem to think of him as a sort of dopey uncle they remember from less fraught times. If he wins Iowa outright, especially if there’s daylight between him and Sanders, then a lot of the party’s worries about him will be hushed up and he will go on to get beaten fairly soundly in the general by Trump. But anything other than a strong second would be tough to overcome, especially ahead of New Hampshire and Nevada primaries he currently is on track to lose. Finishing third or even fourth is not out of the question.

Bernie Sanders

If (and that’s a proverbially big If) Bernie Sanders goes on to win the nomination, his primary campaign will have to go down as one of the most effective ever run. At least, despite a party system determined to keep him out, and despite personal issues such as his advance age and his suffering an actual heart attack, he is surging now at exactly the right time. It would take an almost overwhelming run through Super Tuesday to secure him the nomination, and there is still the potential for a coup at the convention, but for now Sanders is by polling and general consensus at least the co-frontrunner.

If he takes Iowa, and then as expected New Hampshire and Nevada, a respectable second in South Carolina would make him hard to stop, especially with California likely to go for him. Anything besides a win in Iowa, though, would significantly slow down that momentum and allow doubt to creep back in about whether he could actually bring out enough voters to win the general.

Elizabeth Warren

Warren seemed at one point to have everything going for her, to be the rational compromise candidate between Biden and Sanders. But somewhere — possibly when she started waffling on issues that mattered to more progressive voters, possibly when she failed to pull any voters off even a weakening Biden — her campaign lost its way. Certainly she was hampered by the sheer number of candidates; had she been the only female candidate in a less crowded field, she could have stood out more. But that wouldn’t have helped with the impression that she is ultimately, as I’ve heard her described, “Hillary Clinton, but weak.” A last-ditch effort to paint the Sanders campaign as irredeemably misogynist — after he had encouraged her to run in 2016, and only put himself forward when she declined to — fell as flat as Clinton’s attempt to do the same thing to Obama in 2008; Warren’s campaign seems destined now for a similar fate.

Warren was hampered by the sheer number of candidates; had she been the only female candidate in a less crowded field, she could have stood out more.

Iowa could accomplish that job outright, if Warren doesn’t finish at least third. But with her likely to lose her own state of Massachusetts on Super Tuesday, it seems more likely that Warren will stay in the race only so long as it takes to secure something in exchange for her endorsement; if she waits too long then she’ll end up with nothing at all.

Pete Buttigieg

In an odd election cycle, Mayor Pete’s campaign has been possibly the oddest. Although he’s tried to depict himself as tried-and-true Midwestern stock, his main base of support (certainly his entire donor class) is incredibly wealthy liberals in Manhattan and the DC suburbs. His past prior to mayorhood is shadowy at best, all consulting firms and tentative connections to the intelligence community. He’s never won so much as a statewide race, not even for the nonpartisan post of state treasurer; any national appeal he can claim is on the basis of general inoffensiveness rather than any personal charisma or other positive characteristic. The only way really to understand his polling numbers, I think, is as a backstop for Biden: he’s the one who would carry on as if 2016 never happened.

At times, Buttigieg has topped the polls in Iowa, but a second or third place finish in a tightly packed field wouldn’t be too bad for him. It’s tough to see where he picks up support beyond that, though — his utter lack of support among black voters will see him wiped out in the South, and it’s hard to imagine him pulling much in the West, the Northeast, or the Rust Belt either.

Amy Klobuchar

In another year, might have had a real chance. This time around, a non-entity, despite the desperate efforts of the media to make Klobuchar happen. The New York Times’ cack-handed dual endorsement of the two remaining female candidates — to the extent that anybody cares about what they think, by no means a certain thing — had the effect of weakening both, by pointing out that whatever appeal they still maintained rested largely on their anatomy rather than their appeal with a sizable enough chunk of voters to matter.

Losing next-door Iowa, and losing it badly, would be a clear sign that Klobuchar doesn’t have a base.

Klobuchar’s stronghold, if she had one, would be the Midwest. Losing next-door Iowa, and losing it badly, would be a clear sign that she doesn’t.

Andrew Yang

Sanders’ only real competition for college-age voters, and also the beneficiary of some scattered celebrity endorsements, but unlikely to cross the 15% threshold required to get any delegates, especially not under Iowa’s weird caucus rules. What will be interesting is how his backers break on the second ballot — in some jurisdictions even a handful could be enough to give Sanders a runaway victory, or to rescue Warren, or to enforce a three or four-way tie.

Whatever Yang hoped to accomplish through his run, he must have accomplished. The early states are a sort of victory lap for him before he drops out; he’s gained enough of a national profile that it would be a surprise not to see him involved in some way at the Democratic National Convention and beyond.

Tom Steyer

Another odd one, in that his campaign has been run entirely as a vanity affair, like a billionaire’s version of going to a fantasy spring-training baseball camp and mingling with the real athletes. He has spent an enormous amount of money to get blanket coverage in early primary states but it’s hard to imagine what constituency he could plausibly claim to represent. Has enough money to prolong this indefinitely; the only strategy that can be derived here is the hope to win via attrition, to be the one standing on the side to take on a frontrunner weakened by fending off the rest of the field. Alas for Steyer, he has been eclipsed in this role by an even wealthier interloper.

Michael Bloomberg

A campaign predicated on an entirely untested gamble: what if someone ignored the early states entirely and focused instead on buying every moment of everyone’s attention in all the Super Tuesday states? It’s almost impossible to imagine a candidate less well suited to appeal to the voters the Democrats will need to win in November: Bloomberg is the very image of the out-of-touch, unsympathetic coastal elite who knows better than you how your life should be lived, and is all too eager to put the force of law behind those prescriptions. And yet based on money alone, Bloomberg could steal the nomination — not through outright delegate count, but through chicanery at the convention.

It’s almost impossible to imagine a candidate less well suited than Michael Bloomberg to appeal to the voters the Democrats will need to win in November.

Bloomberg cannot win Iowa. But he will be waiting for whoever does. And that brings us to the overall arc of this campaign.

What Happens Next

While Biden was the clear frontrunner, all the other candidates could score points off him without worrying about losing too much ground. The Biden folks (and I include here almost the entire Democrat leadership) meanwhile tried to stay above the fray, acting as if he were the only viable candidate and trusting that Buttigieg would fade with time and Sanders and Warren would keep each other in check. What they didn’t expect was that Sanders would surge like this, and it is because they don’t understand how hated they are, or what people could possibly see in a candidate like Sanders (or, for that matter, Trump).

For as often as they’re compared, Bernie and The Donald don’t have much in common — a few bad economic policies, New York upbringings, age of course. But one thing they both can do is convince large numbers of people that they are talking to them instead of past them to other party leaders. And that, along with a few other factors, is why libertarians should welcome (however cautiously) a Sanders nomination.

For all their bleating about how Donald Trump represents some sort of unique danger to the American public and the world, the Democrats were all too glad to hand him control of the largest killing force the planet has ever seen.

Although libertarians generally distrust Democrats, it makes strategic sense to support them in the interest of dividing up power — as R.W. Bradford showed back in Liberty’s November 2004 issue (p. 19), government growth is checked most with a Democrat in the White House and the Republicans controlling at least one side of Congress. When the Republicans control everything, they tend to spend wildly, and have done so again this time. Only when they are frustrating a Democratic president do they suddenly remember principles like fiscal restraint, balanced budgets, so on. It would take a dramatic shift for the GOP to take the House (though see below) but they appear unlikely to have three Senate seats flip on them — four, if you count their likely recapture of Alabama. Any Democrat will have to go through them to get a budget passed, to get judges confirmed, to do much of anything. And thus not much of anything will get done.

So why Sanders then, and not one of the others? Because he is the only one who might actually cut away at our most bipartisanly bloated and expensive sector: our military and its utterly unnecessary foreign wars. For all the bleating of Pelosi et al. about how Donald Trump represents some sort of unique danger to the American public and the world, the Democrats were all too glad to sign off on military expenditures too vast to even properly imagine. If you truly believe he’s a dictator in the making, why would you hand him everything he needs to accomplish his takeover? And that money is just what’s on the books; the military has repeatedly failed audits for writing off billions upon billions of dollars they cannot account for, in the pursuit of goals that they knew were impossible to accomplish, all while lying to the American public to claim that victory was perpetually just around the corner.

If you need another reason, then Sanders is also the one most likely to legalize pot and to clear past convictions, a huge and humane first step toward ending the decades-long War on Drugs and beginning to check our out-of-control police and prison systems. But, back to the more strategic angle, here’s why the Sanders nomination is a win-win:

If Sanders wins the nomination and loses the presidency, then even the softened form of Euro-socialism he touts will be a non-factor for another generation.

If he wins the nomination and the presidency, then there is balance back between the parties, but a better balance than under any of the immediate predecessors. And between his age and the looming recession, he’d likely be a one-term president, so even if you’re a lesser-evil GOP stalwart, you can start practicing the coordination required to hold your nose while pulling the lever for Nikki Haley or whoever else gets the 2020 nod.

If he wins the nomination and loses the presidency, then even the softened form of Euro-socialism he touts will be a non-factor for another generation, and the Democrats might lurch toward a Yang-type figure for 2020. (Ocasio-Cortez will likely run eventually, but isn’t eligible till 2024, and it’s impossible to predict that far down the line).

If Sanders wins a plurality of delegates, but not an outright majority, then it’s possible that the nomination will be taken away from him and given to Bloomberg or whoever else comes in second place. Thanks to a rule change after the 2016 debacle, the DNC “superdelegates” don’t come into play until a potential second round of voting. But they all hate Bernie, so if they are called into action, they could carry out a coup that would irrevocably split the Democratic Party. This could very well lead to a Red Wave election, a disaster in the short term given that Trump no longer has any checks on his power, but a benefit in the long term in that something else — perhaps even a libertarian-friendly something else — will have to emerge from the ashes.

Again, I’m aware that this will seem counterintuitive or contrarian to many of our readers. And I’m open to considering other points of view for how we return to some sort of balance of power. But as is, we’re careening towards something unworkable and downright dangerous, and — glad as I’d be to be proven wrong — I don’t think anyone presently in the leadership of either party would be able or willing to change that course.



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Reluctant Hero

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The Oscar-nominated World War I movie 1917 combines the challenges and strengths of film, live stage, choreography, and music into one sublime work of art. The movie focuses on two soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), with a single goal: they must deliver a “stand-down” order to the front lines before dawn, when1,600 British troops are preparing to attack a German encampment. British intelligence has learned that it is a massive trap, and all 1,600 are likely to die or be captured in the onslaught. Making the mission even more compelling is the fact that Blake’s brother is among the soldiers at the front line who will be slaughtered if he doesn’t arrive with the new orders in time to stop the assault. Blake and Schofield must succeed. The allusion to Elbert Hubbard’s essay “A Message to Garcia” is unavoidable: there are times when “I’ll try” or “I’ll do my best” are simply unacceptable responses.

The film opens on a sunny day in a flowery meadow. Soldiers are hanging their laundry and taking naps during a lull in the action. It reminded me of the tone and setting of Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary They Will Not Grow Old, with its pastel colorized tints and boyish faces. Schofield even looks like one of the soldiers from Jackson’s 100-year-old footage. Blake is jarred awake from this peaceful nap with an order to choose one other soldier and come to the commanding officer’s bunker. He taps the soldier resting nearest him, and that’s how randomly Schofield becomes part of this mission.

There are times when “I’ll try” or “I’ll do my best” are simply unacceptable responses.

While it’s Blake’s brother who needs rescuing and Blake who refuses to consider delays or abandonment of the mission, this is Schofield’s story. He is the reluctant hero, the one who has joined the army “to get some decent food,” the one selected randomly to accompany the mission, the one who wants to wait until the safety of darkness to begin the mission and then urges that they turn back early, when the going gets treacherous. Yet he is the one we see leaping over bodies, dodging bullets, and throwing himself down waterfalls in his zeal to accomplish the goal. His journey is not just from General Erinmore’s bunker to Colonel McKenzie’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) command post; it is an interior journey to discover what he’s made of when “I’ll do my best” would be tantamount to “I’m ready to fail.”

The other star of this film is never seen on camera, although he fills every frame: it’s cinematographer Roger Deakins. Writer and director Sam Mendes had an idea: to put the personal war remembrances of his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred Mendes, into a single story spanning a single night in the footsteps of a single soldier with a singular mission. Cinematographer Deakins brought that idea to life within the immediacy of a single-take presentation. His camera follows our heroes relentlessly to the front line, tracking them through trenches, across battle fronts, up slick muddy hills and over rotting corpses. Deakins never loses sight of his mission, just as Schofield never loses sight of his task of bringing the message to Colonel McKenzie in time to stop the assault.

Other films have begun with long tracking shots, including The Player (1992), There Will Be Blood (2007), Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), and the avant-garde Russian Ark (2002), set in the Hermitage. But this is the first one I know that required the camera person to climb steep hills and dodge charging soldiers while carrying a heavy camera and keeping a sprinting actor in the center of the camera’s lens. Thinking about the filming sometimes pulled me out of the story, yet it can’t be ignored or forgotten. Many times I gasped in awe at the immediacy of what I was seeing on screen. Deakins’ use of light and shadow to recreate Schofield’s disorientation after experiencing the concussion of an explosion is also brilliant. We aren’t really sure whether Schofield is alive or dead at that point, or if his indomitable spirit might somehow be muscling through to complete the mission.

Deakins' camera follows our heroes relentlessly to the front line, tracking them through trenches, across battle fronts, up slick muddy hills and over rotting corpses.

Music is another unseen character in this film. Thomas Newman creates several motifs to accompany our heroes on their quest, and these motifs impose their personalities in each scene. A single, sustained bass chord joins people in the tension of tight spaces; a powerful, driving percussion takes over when our heroes are in danger. The music is critical to the overpowering success of this film.

Libertarians will appreciate the few scenes containing dialogue. There they will find bitterly memorable observations:

When you deliver the message, make sure you have witnesses. Some [commanding officers] just want the fight.

Take a look at what we’ve fought over for three years. Better if we’d never come.

They don’t even want us here.

Most of all, 1917 is a powerful story honoring the indefatigable will of an accidental hero. It begins in the peaceful innocence of a flowering meadow and ends beneath the towering reality of a dead and solitary tree.


Editor's Note: Review of "1917," directed by Sam Mendes. Dreamworks, 2019, 117 minutes.



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