Raising the Mob

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I don’t know whether Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax committed rape, as he has been accused of doing, and I’m certainly in no position to decide. Yet the idea of involving the country at large in such decisions is the premise behind virtually all the publicity given to the matter, and to many other matters of recent note.

Before this era of what is laughingly known as our national discourse, it would have been inconceivable for official statements to be issued about something like this by such ephemeral citizens as bit players in Hollywood and (alleged) nightclub comedians. I don’t recall that even Cary Grant or Rosalind Russell considered it their business to render judicial determinations on the sex affairs of Virginia politicians. But in the case of Mr. Fairfax, and innumerable others, judgments, pro or con, now fly into the public air space within moments of an accusation.

How did this happen? It isn’t just because ignorant people think they’re important (they’ve always done so), or have Twitter accounts.

State officials are the leaders of this mob, as they have been the leaders of so many mobs during the past few years.

Until now, I’ve generally pictured mobs as composed of private individuals who have at least momentarily lost their minds. Individuals’ penchant for forming mobs is a matter of human psychology that libertarians need to think about much more than we ordinarily do (which is not at all). But now the libertarian view of the state as the ultimate foe is getting some renewed support — because who has been leading most of the recent mobs? Who was it that immediately, right off the bat, without taking a second to weigh the evidence, with no investigation or possibility of investigation, started yelling for the conviction of Mr. Fairfax (and countless others) in the court of public opinion?

It was state officials, legislators of this republic. They are the leaders of this mob, as they have been the leaders of so many mobs during the past few years.

The state has other powers besides legislation and the enforcement of legislation. It has the power to destroy the sense of fairness and self-restraint on which any decent society is based. It’s not enough for the modern state — bloated, ignorant, and indiscriminately cruel — to pass ridiculous and indecent laws. Now it is raising mobs to destroy the very idea of decency.




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Somebody’s Favorite

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In the wake of last year’s militant #MeToo movement, when actresses haughtily proclaimed, “We will no longer be pressured into trading sex for jobs” (and bullied other actresses into wearing black at the event to show their solidarity), the Academy this year has bizarrely honored The Favourite with ten Oscar nominations, tying Roma for first place in number and confirming once and for all (as if there were any doubt) that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has zero credibility and doesn’t know what the hell it is doing.

Loosely based on the reign of Queen Anne and her relationships with Sarah Churchill,Duchess of Marlborough, and a servant named Abigail (eventually Lady Masham), the film suggests that the silly and childlike Anne made all of her decisions based on which woman’s tongue pleased her best — and I don’t mean by talking. The film fairly drips with transactional sex, from stagecoach wanking to arranged marriages to child trafficking to extortionate sex to withholding of affection for political positioning to ordinary prostitution. We even see ducks mating.

A young social climber, formerly an aristocrat but working now as a servant, worms her way cunningly — or in this case, cunnilingually — into the favor of Queen Anne.

Despite its praise from a supposedly “woke” Hollywood culture, the film’s theme is simply appalling. Yet Rachel Weisz, who plays Sarah Marlborough, called the film “a funnier, sex-driven All About Eve.” In that film, an established star (Margo Channing) befriends an aspiring actress (Eve Harrington), only to see her try to usurp her position in the theater. Similarly, in The Favourite, a young social climber, Abigail (Emma Stone), formerly an aristocrat but working now as a servant, worms her way cunningly — or in this case, cunnilingually — into the favor of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) by befriending and then pushing aside the queen’s long-standing confidante and advisor, Lady Churchill (Weisz), simultaneously finagling a financially and socially beneficial marriage to regain her aristocratic status.

Don’t misunderstand my objection — I enjoy a good bedroom farce, with doors slamming, lovers hiding, comic timing, and double entendres galore. But this is different. The Favourite doesn’t just joke about sex; it celebrates the use of sex to gain political power, and hypocritically undermines everything these same preening, moralizing Hollywood hotshots stood up for just last year.

It also seems to justify rape, as long as it’s funny and as long as the women are in charge. When Lord Masham enters Abigail’s servant quarters without being invited, she asks him, “Are you here to seduce me or to rape me?” He responds, “I’m a gentleman.” “To rape me, then,” she deadpans, and the audience chuckles.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I thought rape had ceased to be funny, even in the movies. And nary a trigger warning in the trailers. Tsk, tsk.

All I’m asking is that the Academy pick a side and stick with it. Or admit that it really has no backbone or underlying moral principles whatsoever, and quit pretending to have the upper hand on social morality.

I enjoy a good bedroom farce, with doors slamming, lovers hiding, comic timing, and double entendres galore. But this is different.

So why the accolades for The Favourite? It’s all in the technique (to mimic Lady Abigail to Lord Masham on their wedding night as she turns her back and offers him her hand — you get the idea). First are the obvious awards: all three women have been nominated, and all three deliver stellar performances. Weisz and Stone are deliciously nasty to one another and grovel appropriately, if disgustingly, for Anne’s sexual attention. Colman’s Queen Anne is gouty, needy, dumpy, screechy, and even develops a convincing stroke midway through. She’s amazing. Nominations for the Big Three — Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay — bring the tally to six.

Of course, any time you make a “costume drama,” you can expect to see a nomination for Best Costume Design, and in this case, it is well deserved. The early 18th century is not a common era for filmmaking, so costume designer Sandy Powell couldn’t just rent the costumes from a local supplier; most of them had to be made specifically for this film. And they are spectacular. The opulent textures and colors, and especially the tailoring details of the pockets, lace, and scarves are stunning, although the fabrics — including recycled denim and a chenille blanket — are far from authentic. The massive 18th-century wigs are impressive too, and even more impressive because, due to budget restraints, Powell often took the wigs apart after they were used in one scene and remade them for another. Interestingly, Lady Sarah is often dressed in men’s fashions. It prompts the question: can a woman only be powerful if she’s manly?

The opulent costumes fit perfectly within the opulent production design, also nominated for an Oscar, as it demonstrates the aristocratic decadence of the time. England is at war with France, and Queen Anne keeps threatening to double the taxes, but her courtiers are fiddling while the figurative fires burn. We see duck races inside the castle. Live pigeons, used for skeet shooting overlooking the sumptuous lawns. Exotic pineapples, imported from who knows where. A naked courtier being pummeled with blood oranges in one of the palace salons, just for fun.

Weisz and Stone are deliciously nasty to one another and grovel appropriately, if disgustingly, for Anne’s sexual attention.

Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult) says, “A man’s dignity is the one thing that keeps him from running amok,” but we don’t see much that inspires dignity among these characters. In one scene, Queen Anne’s cheeks are painted with heart-shaped rouge, and in a later scene she murmurs distractedly, “Off with her head. Off with her head!” It does feel as though we have fallen through the looking-glass.

Adding to that looking-glass sensation is the bizarre use of fisheye lenses and dizzying panorama shots of interiors that create distorted scenes, almost as though we are looking through a giant peephole. And to a certain extent, we are. Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara based their characterization on letters between Queen Anne and Lady Churchill that indicate an intimately affectionate friendship and chose to play up the lesbian angle as the driving force in their characters and in their politics. All three important women in this filmwere married, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate heterosexual preference, especially in court marriages.

Still, the sexual relationship between Anne and Sarah — if indeed it existed — was intended to be private and, I hope, loving and intimate and true. The fisheye lenses and peephole angles reinforce that sense of peeking in on something we aren’t supposed to see — and that we might have a distorted impression of what really happened. Although Abigail did eventually take Sarah’s place as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes, there is no historicalindication that Abigail used sex to win the Queen’s affection. Sarah and Anne did indeed have a falling out, possibly over money for building Blenheim Palace, and the Marlboroughs were banished to the continent. Abigail then became the “queen’s favorite,” or personal lady-in-waiting. After Queen Anne’s death the Marlboroughs returned to England and finished building Blenheim. That’s what we know.

In a later scene the queen murmurs distractedly, “Off with her head. Off with her head!” It does feel as though we have fallen through the looking-glass.

The Favourite opened with a limited run in November to a dismal $442,000 box office its first weekend. Trailers had been somewhat misleading, suggesting that the story was a more audience-friendly knock-down, drag-out catfight between two ladies-in-waiting, not a fairly graphic lesbian love triangle. Either way, it didn’t do well at first. After its Oscar nominations, however, it returned to theaters and as of January 31 had grossed over $42 million worldwide, from an audience of mostly bewildered moviegoers. That’s the power of an Oscar nomination.

Liberty readers might well enjoy The Favourite, depending on where they stand on the situations I’ve described. It’s bizarre in many ways, but it’s also witty, opulent, and well-acted. It presents three powerful women controlling the throne and politics of England in their own womanly way, especially Lady Sarah, who evidently really did have the queen’s ear from their childhood and ruled from Anne’s shoulder until the war with France ended. All three women use their sex for trade, but they do it willingly and deliberately, from a position of power rather than victimhood. Is it possible —even probable — that women in Hollywood have been doing the same thing for over a century, and only cried “outrage!” (and somehow managed to blame Republicans) after they were caught?

The Favourite might even turn out to be your favorite, even though it isn’t mine.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Favourite," directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Element Pictures, 2018, 119 minutes.



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Knights in Dark Satin

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It’s awards season again, that glittery time when Hollywood elites gather to praise each other’s work, comment on each other’s clothing, and make political statements we mere mortals in suburbia couldn’t possibly understand without the help of their stunning insights.

The circuit began with the Golden Globes on January 8 and will culminate in the awarding of the Oscars on March 4. At the Globes, all the gals showed up in sexy black evening gowns to show their solidarity with women who have been mistreated, abused, harassed, or misunderstood. It made me think of junior high: “What are you going to wear?” “I don’t know, what are you going to wear?” “Muffy Sinclair is wearing plaid overalls and knee socks.” “Ooh! Me too! Me too!” Suddenly the elite of the elite were controlling what all the women would wear to the Globes. And scarcely anyone dared to be different.

I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear.

Regardless of how I feel about their particular issue, I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear. Any woman who had chosen to express her own voice by wearing red or blue or white, no matter what the reason, would have been castigated by the press and by her peers. Just as women knew they had to play the Weinstein game if they wanted a role in Hollywood, they knew they had to wear a black dress if they wanted to fit in. Nothing has changed in Hollywood. You either toe the party line or move into another career.

Let’s face it: many of these seasoned women in their glitzy black dresses had to have known all about the Hollywood casting couches long before Harvey Weinstein’s shame became public. They endured it to get ahead, and then kept quiet about it when other women had to endure it. Sorority hazing at its worst. Not until it became public and, might I say, fashionable, did they join in with their #MeToo stories. Until then, they dared not risk the careers — for which they had paid dearly — by speaking out against Weinstein and his ilk. In fact, they embraced him. They played the game. Even after they were rich enough and famous enough and awarded enough that they didn’t need to. Now, to assuage their guilt and cover their shame, they’re shouting the loudest and pointing the longest fingers. And pressuring other women to play along, like it or not. It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped them get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

Two years ago the hypocrites of the Academy self-righteously awarded the Oscar for Best Picture to Spotlight (2015), a good but hardly great film about the Boston Globe’s exposé of pedophilia within the Catholic church, as though pointing a finger at someone else’s institutionalization of systemic sexual predation would atone for the guilt in their own institution. Last year, after the Academy fielded complaints of racism for not nominating enough black actors and filmmakers in 2016 films, the award for Best Picture went to Moonlight, an obscure little film about a transgender black. Again, a good film, but not great and not memorable.

It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped the likes of Weinstein get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

This week, in another bid for both relevance and absolution, the Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor went, predictably, to Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film about a plucky woman who stands up against injustice (or seems to). After all, this is the year of the woman as victim, right?

So let’s review this film that’s bound to garner increasing acclaim as the award season drags on. Is it a good film? In terms of production values, yes. The story is quirky and unexpected, the plot taking one dark turn after another. The actors are all in, portraying their characters with the kind of free-for-all abandon that often leads to critical acclaim and award nominations. An upbeat musical score contributes to the quirky tone and provides a jarring contrast to the beatings and violence that turn up at the least expected moments. The dialog is sharp and punchy, and the small town setting is authentic and believable, even if the characters are not.

And that’s my main criticism of Three Billboards, a film that’s supposed to be about a heroic woman’s fight against Town Hall in the form of the police department. She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic. She’s vengeful and pathetic and, in many ways, wrong.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving and disgruntled mother whose daughter has been gruesomely raped and murdered. Seven months later, angered that the police haven’t arrested anyone for the crime, she turns on the chief of police (Woody Harrelson) and publicizes his failure by leasing the rights to three billboards, on which she posts: “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests?”, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” Understandably, the chief is not amused.

She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic.

But he isn’t unsympathetic, either. The thing is, we really can’t find fault with the chief. He’s kind. He’s understanding. And he’s trying. There simply aren’t any leads in the case. Mildred wants a conviction. Any conviction will do. But the only thing worse than not convicting the perpetrator of a crime is arresting the wrong man and convicting him instead, just to make the community feel safer.

I appreciate the chief’s methodical rigor in this case. At one point he says to Mildred, “I'd do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don't match no one who's ever been arrested, and when the DNA don't match any other crime nationwide, and there wasn't a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well . . . right now there ain't too much more we could do.” And I abhor Mildred’s mean, spiteful, crude, ugly vengeance. She responds to Chief Willoughby’s rational concerns about civil rights and due process with “If it was me, I'd start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ’em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.”

The story completely jumps the shark when Dixon, Chief Willoughby’s deputy (Sam Rockwell), a disgraced, racist, drunken cop, suddenly becomes the hero, in a way so bizarre and unbelievable that even if I told you how it ends, you would think I was kidding, in order to avoid revealing the true plot. So I won’t tell you. But it’s bad.

Three Billboards has an interesting premise about a vigilante citizen using public opinion to shame a police force into doing its job of bringing a criminal to justice. But it squanders the premise on vulgar, vengeful, violent characters created more for shock value instead of any enlightening or lasting message. You might want to see it just for the production values, but it would have to be an awfully rainy day or interminably long flight to induce me to see it again.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity.

The only reason Three Billboards won three Golden Globes is that it’s about a woman whose daughter was raped and who blames a man, because that’s the name of the game this awards season in Hollywood. Ironically, those short-sighted, dimwitted Hollywood voters didn’t even notice that their heroine agrees to go to dinner with a man and implies that she might “be dessert” in order to get something she wants. Sheesh. Have they learned nothing?

Well, they did learn to wear black dresses to the party when Oprah says so.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity. Libertarians won’t want to miss Molly’s Game, which tells the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who for a dozen years ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game. Her clients included celebrity athletes, Hollywood stars, Middle Eastern moguls, and underworld figures who came as much for the celebrity as for the game.

Molly is everything we want to see in an entrepreneur: she’s smart, she’s honest, she anticipates demand and creates supply, and she makes decisions based on long-term goals and expectations. She plays within the rules, provides a service that people want, and cares about her customers and her employees. She’s the model libertarian. No wonder the Black Dress Ladies ignored this film.

Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients.

The movie begins two years after Molly has closed her business, when 17 FBI agents bang on her door and arrest her at gunpoint. They know she’s clean, but they arrest her anyway because they need her to turn state’s evidence against some underworld types who had been regulars in her game. Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients. Virtually penniless now and living with her mother, she nevertheless convinces attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her by telling him her story, which we see in flashback and hear in voice-over narration. Based on the book Molly’s Game by the real Molly Bloom, this is a fascinating tale about an unlikely heroine dressed in Coco Chanel and Jimmy Choo’s without a single conservative (or conformative) black dress in the wardrobe closet. Libertarians won’t want to miss it.

Even more impressive in the female protagonist genre is The Shape of Water, a beauty and the beast tale with the added twist of the classic conflict between the individual and the state. Directed by the brilliant Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water has the magical quality of a painting brought to life. In this film he does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

The story is set in the 1950s, an era characterized by the Red Scare, nuclear experiments, conservative values, and the race for space. The Russians have launched a dog into orbit, fueling Americans’ fear of failure. Giant irradiated ants and spiders and creatures from the Black Lagoon terrorize communities on the silver screen. Against this backdrop, life imitates art as military scientist Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) discovers an amphibious man (Doug Jones) in a South American river and brings the creature to a secret laboratory in San Francisco where military leaders hope to learn something that can help them in the race against the Russians.

Del Toro does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning woman who works the night shift at the laboratory and lives a solitary life above a movie theater — another contribution to the film’s liquid mixing of art and life. Found as a baby near a river bank, she has a strange affinity for water, even before meeting the river creature. Her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a lonely, out-of-work artist with a dozen half-eaten slices of lime green pie in his refrigerator and a pride of cats on his couch. He and Elisa watch old musicals on television and share a close but fraternal relationship.

Prodded and studied by the self-righteous and sadistic Strickland, the creature attacks him and draws blood. Yet Elisa isn’t afraid of him. Assigned to clean the creature’s space, she shares her lunch with him, expressing a shy charm reminiscent of the ingénues in the romantic musicals she enjoys with Giles. She develops a tenderness toward the creature and vows to rescue him when she learns that he is going to be studied by vivisection and then autopsy.

Sally Hawkins delivers a luminous performance as Elisa, communicating eloquently through sign language, body language, and facial expressions that make us forget she cannot speak. She manages to be both meekly shy and fiercely powerful. Richard Jenkins portrays the quiet despair of a man too old to start over who senses that he will leave no footprint on this earth. Michael Shannon has settled nicely into the sadistic villain role that seems to have become his forte. And the creature is, as artist Giles describes him, “beautiful.” This film has been described as “beauty and the beast,” but the only beast in the film is Strickland.

In sum, The Shape of Water celebrates art, emotion, intuition, difference, choice, and individuality. It is everything the Black Dress conformists are not. No wonder they overlooked it in favor of the vulgar, violent, vengeful Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Don’t you make the same mistake.


Editor's Note: Review of "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri," directed by Martin McDonagh. Blueprint Pictures, Fox Searchlight, 2017. 115 minutes; "Molly’s Game," directed by Aaron Sorkin. STX Entertainment, 2017. 140 minutes; and "The Shape of Water," directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Fox Searchlight, 2017. 123 minutes.



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We Interrupt This Program

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Channel Us Not into Temptation

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Some people don’t understand how funny they are. Consider Harvey Weinstein, motion picture producer and marketer.

Backward as I am, before October 5 I had never dreamed of his existence. Then, like all other good Americans, I was astonished and deeply saddened to learn that this Hollywood mover and shaker had, for many years, been one of the worst sexual predators, harassers, and, to use the technical term, pigs in Tinseltown. When first assailed by these charges, Weinstein conceded that he might have a few tiny faults, including an anger problem (otherwise known as issues with anger), but indicated that he knew how to remedy it: “I am going to need a place to channel that anger so I've decided that I'm going to give the NRA my full attention."

Picture a big, fat, ugly loudmouth who spends his life pushing other people around, and who now attempts to solve his public relations problem by aiming all of his destructive emotions at one target.

I suppose it all started with Freud — this picture of human beings as bottles full of lethal liquids that are constantly seeking channels through which to vent their nasty stuff. Or maybe it was some other quack who originally suggested that civilization, which has unfortunately been built on the dismal swamp of primitive aggressions, can be kept from returning to the primordial ooze if it is equipped with little pipes and ducts and hoses — art, science, religion, model railroading, writing for the New York Times, and so forth — to draw off the ugly fluid. But no matter who thought up the idea that mental health comes from plumbing, not thinking, it remained for Harvey Weinstein to make the final, irresistibly funny, application.

Picture a big, fat, ugly loudmouth who spends his life pushing other people around, and who now attempts to solve his public relations problem by aiming all of his destructive emotions at one target, so that instead of 50 little hoses spewing filth at 50 different targets we’ll see one giant firehose channeling it all at one of them. Yes, that will fix things, won’t it — especially when you realize that this man’s victims won’t be people in the public spotlight: pretty actresses and rich celebrities. They’ll be old ladies in Detroit who are trying to defend themselves against people who want to hurt them. The fate of elderly black women won’t cause a national crisis of conscience, will it? Apparently not. It never has.

Maybe it was some other quack who originally suggested that civilization can be kept from returning to the primordial ooze if it is equipped with little pipes and ducts and hoses.

Weinstein’s brother and business associate Bob brought up an interesting question about the link between language and conscience. He charged that the politically therapeutic language appropriated by his brother from any of a million sources merely indicated a lack of emotional or moral referent:

I don't feel an ounce of remorse coming from him, and that kills me too. When I heard his written, lame excuse . . . Not an excuse. When I heard his admission of feeling remorse for the victims and then him cavalierly, almost crazily saying he was going to go out and take on the NRA, it was so disturbing to me. It was utter insanity. My daughters all felt sick hearing this because we understood he felt nothing. I don't feel he feels anything to this day. I don't. . . .

He lived for this business and he lived for the outside. There were no insides to this, as far as I can see. So unless there becomes an inner person inside there, I have no idea what he'll do.

This is close to Ayn Rand’s insight: people who live for the approval of others — even if they don’t try to bully or trick them into giving it — are empty vessels. It’s not that the plumbing doesn’t work; it’s that the plumbing doesn’t exist. Maybe it did at some time, but it can’t be located now.

You may think it’s strange to mention conscience and then bring up Hillary Clinton, but her life has taught us a lot about the subject. She has demonstrated that lack of conscience doesn’t keep you from public office. It doesn’t even keep you from being funny. On an entertaining page of his letters, Lord Chesterfield describes the kind of person who is incapable of understanding how to behave. When he goes to a party, he inevitably chooses the wrong clothes, unerringly finds the worst places to sit or stand, and makes certain to state with emphasis the very things that will make him seem most ridiculous. Mrs. Clinton is one of those people.

She it was who defended her husband from charges of immorality by saying to, among other people, millions of country music fans, “You know, I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” She it was who said that she’d solved the mystery of why some people didn’t like her husband: it was all a “vast, rightwing conspiracy.” She it was who thought she’d made a hit when she responded to congressional questions about what caused the attack in Benghazi by shouting, “What difference does it make?” She it was who gave a campaign speech in which she asserted that 25% of the American electorate is morally “deplorable,” presenting this analysis with a thoughtfulness and solemnity that made it impossible for anyone to dismiss it as just one of those things you say by accident.

This is close to Ayn Rand’s insight: people who live for the approval of others — even if they don’t try to bully or trick them into giving it — are empty vessels.

All of these blunders were carefully staged; all of them were intended as climaxes of rhetorical art. And there was no reason to stumble into any of them. No one asked her to comment on Tammy Wynette or to theorize about conspiracies or to assess the significance of cause and effect. And although many politicians have hated the voters, none but Hillary Clinton ever made a point of saying it to them.

Of course the voters struck back; they crippled and then killed her political career. But she never learned. She has never learned. She’s like one of those animals that seems constantly, solemnly, and innocently discovering its tail; and, not being able to conceptualize such things, remains at a loss about what that object could possibly be.

I’m sorry to take so much time with Hillary Clinton. If she were just a blatherer, like President Trump, the comic interest would soon have faded. But what was said of Cleopatra can be said of her: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.” Like the perpetually inappropriate man in Chesterfield, she is always finding new ways of making herself ridiculous. Having chronicled her antics on innumerable occasions, I still had to cling to my seat when I heard her recent remarks about Mr. Weinstein: I was laughing so hard I almost fell off.

All of these blunders were carefully staged; all of them were intended as climaxes of rhetorical art. And there was no reason to stumble into any of them.

Harvey Weinstein is an old friend and strong financial supporter of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton therefore waited several days before yielding to the mob’s demand (I’m sorry; I don’t like mobs, no matter whom they intend to lynch) that everyone who had ever laid eyes on Weinstein should immediately denounce him. I thought that for once she might commit an act of courage, even in a questionable cause. But no. She finally denounced him, like all the rest of them.

Yet she couldn’t stop with that. Finding herself in a bad position, politically, since she’d taken all those contributions from the man she was denouncing, she insisted that attention be turned to the most compromising subject for her — politics. She compared Weinstein to her bête noir, Donald Trump, who in Hillary’s mythic incantations has acquired the stature of Trotsky, as viewed by Stalin; Lucifer, as viewed by Yahweh; and Phineas Quimby, as viewed by Mary Baker Eddy. Unable to understand that comments of this kind would simply prolong the nearly universal chants of “sore loser!”, she attacked Trump for supposedly admitting that he had “assaulted” women — a reference, perhaps, to his vulgar remarks to Billy Bush. “This kind of behavior,” she decreed,

cannot be tolerated anywhere, whether it’s in entertainment [or] politics. After all, we have someone admitting to being a sexual assaulter in the Oval Office. There has to be a recognition that we must stand against the kind of action that is so sexist and misogynistic.

Clinton’s syntax was particularly unfortunate — suggesting, as it did, that Trump had illicit affairs in the Oval Office, which is exactly where people picture her husband having them. And who tolerated that?

This was funny enough. Still funnier was her shock when her interviewer from the BBC pressed the political point that she herself had introduced. He brought up women who had complained about Bill, women with whom Hillary had not precisely taken a stand:

In your book, three women brought on stage [during the 2016 campaign] by Trump attacking your husband, you kind of dismiss them. Was that the right thing to do? Are you sure about that?

She did the best she could with the question, and her best was hilarious:

Well, yes, because that had all been litigated. That had been the subjectof a huge investigation in the late ’90s and there were conclusions drawn. That was clearly in the past, but it is something that has to be taken seriously and not just in entertainment.

How’s that for a cunning use of the passive voice? Litigated by whom? What conclusions were drawn? And how’s that for a climactic use of truism, cliché, and unconscious irony? Yes, her husband’s conduct was in the past (and still is), but I’m not sure that “it,” the only referent for which is “that,” i.e., her husband’s conduct, or the charges bearing on the same, is what she really wants to be taken seriously.

I have trouble taking anything about Mrs. Clinton seriously, and to me it’s doubly amusing that she never notices how many people have that trouble about her. After all these years, she still assumes that whatever she says will be copied down in everybody’s book of instructive sayings. How childlike! How adorable. And it’s so cute that she’s surprised by even the most obvious questions.

Still funnier was Clinton's shock when her interviewer from the BBC pressed the political point that she herself had introduced.

One of them was posed by Fareed Zakaria of CNN, often called the Clinton News Network. He had the gall to ask whether she was going to follow other leading Democrats and return the money she’d gotten from the now-odious Weinstein. She gave the answer that you would give to a moralistic child who’s been pestering you to return the quarter you found on the street. “Well,” she said, “there’s no one to give it back to.”

Really? Have you lost Weinstein’s address?

Zakaria kept looking at her, so she continued:

What other people are saying, what my former colleagues are saying, is they’re going to donate it to charity, and of course I will do that. I give 10% of my income to charity every year. This will be part of that. There’s no — there’s no doubt about it.

This is as close, I believe, as Hillary Clinton has ever come to acknowledging that normal, nondeplorable people might ever doubt any of the absurd things she habitually says. Realizing that there could be doubt, she immediately decreed that there is no doubt.

One thing she did not realize is that other people know arithmetic. Supposing that she does give the biblical tenth every year, I assume that her charity of choice is the Clinton Foundation, which has indicated in no uncertain terms that it isn’t giving any of Weinstein’s money back. But let’s suppose otherwise, and picture her contributing a tenth of her money to the Salvation Army. Now she can keep that money and substitute Weinstein’s money. And, of course, take the tax deduction. Neat, isn’t it? But normal people are unlikely to be impressed by this act of moral courage.

Realizing that there could be doubt, she immediately decreed that there is no doubt.

The Daily Beast, a leftwing journal, says that “the donations will be ‘part of’ the 10 percent of her income that she donates to charity each year, but it was unclear whether she meant that the money from Weinstein would be in addition to that 10 percent.” I wonder what the Daily Beast finds unclear about “part of.”

While the Beast is scratching its head, ordinary people are howling with laughter. Clinton has no means of knowing this. She thinks that other people are just like her. She’s hollow and impercipient; they must be too.

There are a lot of “leaders” like that now. Weinstein is one. An unconsciously ironic portrait of him has been communicated by a psychologist who worked on him in some “recovery” clinic in Arizona. This healthcare professional reported to TMZ on a week of treatment:

The psychologist says he helped Weinstein focus on "dealing with his anger, his attitude toward others, boundary work and the beginnings of work on empathy." He says Weinstein was "invested in the program."

I don’t know what “boundary work” may be, but in these cases “work on empathy” is certainly indicated. The problem is that empathy is the hardest thing to work on, because people who don’t have it don’t realize that they don’t. Little things like losing their jobs as heads of billion-dollar businesses, or losing a national election, never suggest to them that something might be wrong about the language with which they communicate with the world.

Under these circumstances, I’m not sure that psychologists will be much good at fixing all the pipes and ducts that channel stuff from one person to another. Some good might be accomplished, however, if other people just laughed in the faces of our cultural and political leaders. A few days of that might make some impression, and no one would need to be paid for it.




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Not Me Too

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We probably needn’t worry about missing a gaudy bandwagon when it comes around. Another one will be by in a couple of days. Now in the news and social media, it’s #MeToo. As I write this, America is already tired of “the narrative,” and the bandwagon is lumbering on, but before it fades too far into the distance I want to put in my two cents. The Left won’t listen, but perhaps reasonable people will.

Feminism is now in reverse gear. It’s going backwards, because instead of earning women more respect and trust from men, it’s causing even many who previously held us in high esteem to distrust us and view us with contempt. But contrary to what women are so often told, it isn’t the political Right or the Republican Party that is moving us back. It is the very people who have so loudly taken up our cause.

Those of us who live in the real world, where there are not 50 “genders” but two sexes, understand that because the human race is divided about evenly between them, our fortunes are inextricably tied together. There is really no such thing as a “women’s issue” or a “men’s issue.” There are only human issues, and in one way or another each of them affects us all.

There is a world of difference between having your feelings hurt and fearing for your life.

I have experienced both sexual harassment and sexual assault. They are nowhere near the same. It is an insult to women everywhere that the #MeToo movement conflates them. To mush these two related-yet-separate issues together is to do a disservice to both. And it makes women not more safe, but less.

It also leaves men understandably confused. How on earth are they expected to make sense of such a jumble? It very much appears that they are now under suspicion no matter how innocent their intentions may be. Will even a dinner invitation lead to an accusation of rape?

There is a world of difference between having your feelings hurt and fearing for your life. Nearly as large a gulf exists between finding an eligible woman attractive and stalking her with the intention of committing a savage assault. “Oh,” friends have sobbed to me, “but when you hear their stories, you’ll understand what a horrible problem this is!”

My own Inner Child wants to run as far away from this crusade as she can get.

But precisely what is “this?” And who is telling the stories of the people (mostly men, but not always) whose shared experience is, evidently, not welcome? Men are tepidly and belatedly being invited to “share their stories,” but I see little indication that their recollections are taken as seriously as those of women. Those brave enough to come forward are even being ridiculed.

This is touchy-feely, “Womyn’s Retreat in Sedona” stuff. It calls to mind hippie-dippy singalongs and flannel shirts, and isn’t too far removed from getting in touch with our Inner Child. Most men don’t gravitate to this sort of thing, and I don’t blame them. My own Inner Child wants to run as far away from this crusade as she can get. I refuse to see half of the human race as The Enemy, and consider far more dangerous those who would poison my mind into accepting such a view.

This is how both of the big-league statist political teams operate. Each takes a stand in which there can be found a grain of truth, and that’s how it takes its minions in. But coated in gunky layers around that kernel is a syrupy glaze of emotion. Often it’s slathered on so thick that it’s nearly impossible to get down to what’s essential. Sexual harassment and rape are bad — m’kay — and every civilized person agrees on that, but extreme Harvey Weinstein types aside, harassers and rapists are usually very different individuals.

Male chauvinist abusers and man-hating witch-hunters alike flourish in an atmosphere of chaos.

The rules need to be clearly defined and reasonably easy to grasp. The game can’t be booby-trapped against anyone who’s required to play it. If the net is cast too widely, and enough innocent people are caught up in it, all that will do is discredit any further movement for women’s rights and make enemies it can’t afford to have. Alienating large swaths of the populace, and making ourselves look like loonies, is not going to make anyone safer. Such irresponsibility and incoherence are exactly what hasthrown the women’s movement into reverse.

The only people helped by a self-indulgent sobfest like #MeToo are those who are genuinely bad. Male chauvinist abusers and man-hating witch-hunters alike flourish in an atmosphere of chaos. When the lines are so blurry that any tasteless joke can be construed as tantamount to rape, then confusion can be used as an excuse to push the boundaries even farther. And every busybody, regardless of the circumstances, finds license to make accusations and ruin lives.

Oppressive government thrives on confusion. If it’s all too complicated for us to sort out, the authoritarian state will gladly do it for us. But because it cites, as its justification, the existence of the problem itself, in order to hold onto its power it can never permit the problem to be solved. If we can’t find a way to solve the problem ourselves, one way or another we will all end up being victims.




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Is It the Cover-Up, or the Crime?

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On October 8 appeared a tape of Donald Trump’s indecent remarks about how to deal with attractive women — a tape justifying Democratic attacks on the crudeness of his character. At virtually the same hour emerged partial transcripts of Hillary Clinton’s secret remarks to Wall Street about her dream of “open borders” and her possession of two “positions,” one public and one private — transcripts justifying Republican assertions about her habit of lying to the public.

These revelations will be a test of the purported wisdom, repeated ad nauseam by political professionals, that what counts is “not the crime but the cover-up.” Trump would certainly have wanted to cover up the tape, but he may not have known it existed. Clinton labored mightily to cover up her private speeches, thereby creating a long-running campaign issue against herself, but the cover-up was palpably less important than what she actually said.

We’ll see whether real people, as opposed to pundits and spin artists (is there a difference?), see it this way. Simultaneously we can test the truth of an even more drearily repeated slogan, “All politics is local” — because in no way are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton “local.” They live on Mars, not in Springfield, USA.

There’s a third cliché that’s interesting. Will the American people continue to “suffer fools gladly”?




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Escape from Dannemora

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I’m going to say something that many libertarians don’t want to hear: prisons need discipline, and plenty of it.

I’m reflecting on the big news item of the past three weeks, the escape of two convicts from the maximum-security prison in Dannemora, New York, an institution that used to be feared as “Siberia.” They escaped because they were allowed to live in an “honor” block, work with and have sex with civilians, cook their own meals, wear civilian clothes, and enjoy a level of control and discipline that permitted them to acquire power tools and use them to cut holes in their cells and escape. Power tools. Used by men sent to prison for vicious murders, including, in one instance, the dismemberment of the murder victim. Tools freely used, and undetected.

What’s that noise? Is that a guy cutting his way out of prison, or is that just a guy cutting up some other prisoner? Whatever. Have a nice night.

It is one thing to debate about whom to send to prison. It is another thing to screw around with the lives of the people we decide to send there. Because, make no mistake about it, the first victims of convicts who are not controlled are other convicts. If you want the rapes, murders, tortures, and gang aggressions that happen routinely in American prisons to continue to happen, all you need to do is let the bad guys act in whatever way they want. If that’s your “libertarian” philosophy, it will have a big impact, because just one of those bad guys in a prison unit can be enough to ensure the victimization of everybody else.

When there’s a good reason to send somebody to prison — and sometimes there is — you don’t have to give him a life sentence, but you do have to keep him safely inside.

The late Nathan Kantrowitz made this point very powerfully in his exacting study of prison life, Close Control. I followed Nathan’s lead in my own book, The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison. I added that, in my judgment, the sorry state of American penology is the result of a vicious convergence of modern liberal and modern conservative ideas. The conservatives want to lock people up, and do it on the cheap. And it’s true, you can get a lot of non-discipline and non-control, very cheaply indeed. The liberals believe that convicts are somehow rehabilitated by being allowed to wear their own clothes, cook their own meals, and wander about the joint, victimizing anyone who’s weaker than they are. (Unnoticed by the conservatives, the liberals also ordained that those who run the prison system would get paid enough to give them 15 degrees at Harvard. They’re unionized, after all, and they’re the biggest sinkhole in many state budgets.)

Libertarians ought to be smarter. When there’s a good reason to send somebody to prison — and sometimes there is — you don’t have to give him a life sentence, but you do have to keep him safely inside, and safe from victimizing or being victimized by other prisoners.

In the short run, whoever is running the New York prison system needs to be fired, immediately. (I’m afraid that the fix is already in, and this will never happen.) In the middle run, real investigations of penology — not ideological declarations about penology, from any vantage point — need to be conducted, so that people can learn what the few good scholars, such as Nathan Kantrowitz, have already established. In the long run, Americans should stop making savage jokes about rape in prison and start considering the steps that are necessary to keep rape and murder, and by the same token, escape, from happening in their supposedly secure institutions.




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Going Vexed to the Sea

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One of this column’s persistent themes is President Obama’s unwillingness to read a book. If he read any books, he would mention them, but he almost never does. When he tries, he gets the citations wrong.

He did it again, on April 11, when he invoked Ralph Waldo Emerson during some self-defensive chatter about Iran. “Consistency,” he said, “is the hobgoblin of narrow minds.” What Emerson actually wrote was, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Well, who cares? At least the president quoted Emerson. Right — though he quoted without attribution, presumably because the staff kid who gave him the words didn’t know where they came from, either. Otherwise, vain spirit that Obama is, he would have displayed his professorial erudition by saying something like, “As the late Ralph Waldo Emerson so wisely advised us all . . .” But whether he knew the source or not, there’s a big difference between “consistency” and “a foolish consistency.” Reproving the latter makes sense; reproving the former does not.

More revealing, I think, although I cannot prove it, is the change from “little” — as in crass, unspiritual, incurious, imperceptive, conceptually limited — to “narrow.” Obama has spent his whole career battling “bigotry”: narrow-mindedness about race, particularly. He appears to think that everyone who criticizes him manifests this vice. But of the distinction between little minds and great ones, he has no awareness. No little-minded person does. And that’s exactly what he is: crass, unspiritual, incurious, imperceptive, just plain little.

Littleness itself can be neither limited nor confined. It is everywhere around us, even in the regions adjacent to Deep Creek Hot Springs, California. On April 9, in that locale, a mob of cops arrested a man who had stolen a horse. The man had been thrown from the horse and had cast himself on the ground in surrender, but the cops beat and kicked him. For a long time. Some cops who weren’t in the original group of beaters came over and joined the fun. Members of the law-enforcement mob have now been suspended from their jobs, pending an investigation. San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon commented on the posse’s use of force by saying, “It does not appear to be in line with our policies and procedures, at least a portion of it. . . .At the end of the day, it appears to be excessive.”

Of the distinction between little minds and great ones, he has no awareness. No little-minded person does.

Yes, it does. And from an aesthetic point of view, at the end of the day seems almost as bad. The prevalence of that pompous phrase is the measure of how greatly little minds prevail with us. At the end of the day is a small-minded attempt to seem large-minded, above the fray, calm and distanced in perspective, up in the midnight sky. . . . The phrase constantly appears in the pettiest acts of press agentry.

Small minds are, by definition, incapable of understanding how their words affect their listeners. They are also incapable of understanding that the issues of the day haven’t ended simply because they themselves have enunciated a pompous cliché. Obama, with his prattle of “hope and change,” has yet to see that the slogan was not, in itself, constitutive of hope and change.

Small minds typically try to make the surrounding world seem smaller; they fit better that way. One of their methods is the deployment of a severely limited stock of words to cover widely divergent situations. They assume that if their words don’t vary, the situations won’t either, and they will therefore be on top of them. Thus, segregation can be used to refer both to the legalized racism of the former South and to any population pattern in which one ethnic group happens to predominate. The same moral outrage can then be expressed toward both. A similar trick can be seen withincome disparity — a term that, unlike segregation, had no moral meaning to begin with. No moral lesson can be deduced merely from the fact that some people make more money than others.Yet the notion of an income gap has been used — first by outright demagogues, then by small-minded and incurious folk — as if it were prima facie evidence of a shocking wrong. The result is a morally agreeable simplification of a world that is often difficult for primitive moralists to feel at home in. They are relieved of any need to consider the obvious truth that some people with large incomes got them by crony capitalism or plain crookedness but others achieved them by benefiting large numbers of willing customers. Climate change is an even clearer example of a slogan employed to deceive, yet it evokes genuine hysteria among people whose view of science is so limited as to accept such a term as meaningful.

The present period of our political history might be called the Age of Small Minds. Its character is established by the tendency of small minds to turn, not to the cultivation of their own gardens, but to the ruin of others’. A startling example of small-mindedness appeared in the “fraternity rape” scandal at the University of Virginia. The episode, as you recall, began with Rolling Stone’s ready acceptance of allegations made by a woman pseudonymously known as “Jackie.” The story was full of holes, holes that could easily be discovered by anyone who had any perspective on human experience; but many people publicly known as intellectuals welcomed it as proof that universities need to reassert their parental powers and exterminate all forms of social life repugnant to those who think about nothing but sex and gender. That, of course, is one of the most nauseating things about both fraternities and gender fanatics, but few people noticed the parallel.

Obama, with his prattle of “hope and change,” has yet to see that the slogan was not, in itself, constitutive of hope and change.

Jackie’s story, and Rolling Stone’s way of handling it, aroused so much controversy that the affair was investigated by a distinguished team of journalism teachers. Their conclusions about Rolling Stone and the credibility of Jackie’s story were headlined as scathing. They weren’t; the report was as mild as lambs. And at a press conference afterward, one of its authors refused — as did almost all media reporting on the case — to blame Jackie for anything that had happened. She remained the “victim.”

The facts suggested that the real victims were those who had accepted the Rolling Stone story. Well — to revise an old expression — you can’t cheat a large-minded man. But even after the nature of the story was fully exposed, only a few brave souls challenged the bizarrely unjustified extension of victim to anyone who claims, however, preposterously, to be a victim. To the small-minded, we are all victims — we, as opposed to they, the people we don’t like. Those people are the victimizers. So much for the complexity of this world.

The language of small minds is reductive. It is also inflationary. That isn’t a paradox. If you have nothing much to say, no clear conceptions to communicate, you can always make a big noise to cover the nothing in your mind. You can use big words, stilted words, official words. And official words (such as victim) multiply with the multiplication of official jobs, official “duties,” official powers. They grow with the growth of government and the pressure groups that use government as their weapon of choice. Indeed, they precede it. Before any expansion of the nanny state, empty phrases (sustainability, an epidemic of rape on college campuses, the obesity crisis) rain down to confuse the weak and paralyze the skeptical, while clouds of nerve-destroying gas (we are outraged!) are emitted to make a safe zone for the next enlargement of official jurisdiction. The argot of climate change, with its loud but simple-minded equation of change with evil, scientists with grant recipients, doubters with deniers, green with good, has proven especially effective as a weapon of war on independent thinking. Small minds can accommodate only a few big “ideas”; as soon as those are in place, no antagonistic notions can get in. Almost any kind of hooey will be accepted as settled science; any petty nonsense will become a moral compass.

An amusing example appears in an email created by Cylvia Hayes and recovered, with some difficulty, by a nosey newspaper. Who, you may ask, is Cylvia Hayes? You know the answer if you live in Oregon. Hayes is the romantic partner of (former) Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was forced to resign his office because of scandals attendant on their relationship. Not sexual scandals — nobody, emphatically including me, appears to care who is in bed with either of them — but scandals about the influence on state government of an un-official of the state (Cylvia Hayes). This is no place to give details about the collusion of tiny minds that enabled Hayes, a promoter of Green causes, to dominate the politics of Oregon; you can enjoy the story elsewhere. It’s enough to mention that “Kitz” pompously decreed that his girlfriend was the “First Lady” of Oregon, with the unstated but fully intended corollary that she was entitled to be obeyed in all matters, foreign and domestic. A similar pomposity emerged in my town, San Diego, when our now deposed mayor, Robert (“Bob”) Filner, decided that his girlfriend was a “First Lady,” thus adapting to new and very local uses an old piece of silly presidential jargon.

To the small-minded, we are all victims — we, as opposed to they, the people we don’t like. Those people are the victimizers. So much for the complexity of this world.

Anyway, even without the title, Hayes was pompous enough to fill almost any political role, especially when there were issues about her favorite topic, the environment. If you say that phrase in a normal tone of voice, all it means is “whatever happens to be around us.” If you say it with superstitious awe, it means God. Hayes said it with superstitious awe. Any offense to the environment was clearly sacrilege. So we come to the email I promised to discuss.

It’s a snarky missive from Hayes to someone in the government of Oregon. In it she demands, with sarcasm worthy of the confessional, “Is there a reason we have regressed to single-sided copies?” Anyone who was so unconcerned with sustainability as to use only one side of a piece of paper had obviously regressed on the evolutionary scale.

Was Hayes making a mountain out of a molehill, a Hindenburg out of a toy balloon? Oh yes. And aren’t trees the most sustainable of our natural resources? Don’t they grow again? And isn’t Oregon, of all places, the land of trees? But that’s the thing about little minds: they see neither the forests nor the trees. More important: they are outraged when other people fail to share their view.

I am not arguing that to be large-minded, you have to possess the right ideas about politics, or economics, or the environment, or photocopying, or the state of Oregon. Or that you have to read books and continually cite them. Probably Cylvia Hayes has read some books, maybe more than President Obama. But there are other considerations. I doubt that John Bunyan read a lot of books, besides the Bible. I suppose he read a lot of bad sermons too. But he had an enormous vision of the world, and of the human soul, and he had the literary integrity that comes from large-mindedness. There isn’t an expression in Pilgrim’s Progress that is cheap or tawdry or inflated or pompously self-defensive. The same can be said of those works of art that are still technically known as Negro spirituals. No book learning there — but no petty concerns or petty expressions, either.

I am no political partisan of either Abraham Lincoln or my namesake, Stephen Douglas. In their works you see a great deal of logic-chopping, prevarication, false charges, faulty extrapolation, and other tricks of the professional political wrestler. It’s the same with Webster, Clay, Calhoun, and the other famous orators of that age — and also, I am sorry to say, with Jefferson, Madison, and other great men of an earlier generation. I am not an admirer of William Jennings Bryan, the late-19th-century purveyor of crackpot Progressivism. But you would need a heart of stone to say that the public utterances of these men, even of Bryan, consisted of big words composed by little minds. No; all the world, the world of great America, is in their words, together with that large and vital and often crazy thing, a notion of how it fits together. Like them or not, their thoughts were big, and their bigness wasn’t the bigness of grandiosity and condescension (“I want to be a champion of the middle class”). It was the bigness of real people, people with intellectual curiosity, with an actual interest in ideas and in the crown of ideas, which is language.

There isn’t an expression in Pilgrim’s Progress that is cheap or tawdry or inflated or pompously self-defensive.

In July 1863, President Lincoln greeted the conquest of Confederate fortresses on the Mississippi by writing, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” It’s a magnificent saying, a saying like the voice of a distant planet, yet the voice of someone who knows what the Father of Waters looks and feels and sounds like, who knows his laziness and his dislike of vexation and yet his need to reach the encircling sea. It’s the saying of a person who knows and cares what a river is, and what its history and its associations have been (“Father of Waters”); a person who thinks it worthy of his job as politician to try to express such things.

What would President Obama have said on that occasion? What would John Boehner’s response have been? What words would Hillary Clinton have found? I could never have invented Lincoln’s words, but I can easily invent the words of his successors on the political stage: “First, I want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the brave men and women who have been engaged in this conflict with which all of us as Americans have been struggling. We are committed, as a nation, to providing all Americans with the means to live rich, full lives in this great country of ours. The opening of the Mississippi River makes us think and reflect about everything that is truly great about America, which is family and freedom and the hope of a better life for all. I welcome this new opportunity to sit down with the folks in Alabama, and in Georgia, and in South Carolina, and in all the other places where events have happened, recently, that have caused pain to so many of us, and restart our long national dialogue about the values that we share. Together, I think we can work on the root causes of violence, and hunger, and sickness, and disease, and bigotry, and prejudice, and find ways to provide meaningful work, at a living wage, for all Americans. God bless the United States of America.”

Isn’t that right? Isn’t it? And do you ever expect to hear anything better from these people?

/emem




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Stevie, Dictator of Togo

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I was a student at the Université du Bénin in Togo in 1983. With typical and, I think, admirable American disrespect for authority, my fellow exchange students and I enjoyed calling the president of Togo “Stevie,” because he had changed his name from Etienne (French for “Steven”) to Gnassingbé, to sound more African. Our Togolese friends did not find it funny. It wasn’t that they were offended. They were afraid when they heard us talking like that and told us of ditches where the tortured corpses of the president’s critics appeared overnight.

According to my sources, the legends about Eyadéma Gnassingbé were officially encouraged. One, the story of the plane crash, was the subject of an entire comic book that I read when I was in Togo. In the comic, the president of Togo figured as a superhero with metaphysical powers. It was meant to be taken literally.

It’s true that Eyadéma survived a plane crash in 1974. It’s also true that he credited his survival to his own mystical powers. In the comic book, the plane was sabotaged, and his survival was definitely the miraculous result of his personal magic. In a national monument built to commemorate the incident, Eyadéma’s statue towers over images of the heroic officials who apparently didn’t have enough magic of their own and died in the crash.

A vast black Mercedes limousine trolled the market streets of Lomé scooping up pretty teenaged girls for the president’s use, and they usually ended up dead.

It’s also true that Eyadéma was a leader of the coup that unseated Sylvanus Olympio, the first president of Togo. At the time of the coup, Eyadéma was called Etienne Eyadéma, and the legend is that he personally machine-gunned Olympio at the gates of the American embassy in Lomé, where the then-president was seeking asylum. By the way, that coup followed a common pattern in sub-Saharan, post-colonial Africa: colonial powers establish trading relations with coastal tribe (in Togo’s case, the Ewe). Colonial powers assert administrative control over a large inland area, making the coastal elite a minority within the colonial borders. At the time of independence, the coastal elite takes over. (Sylvanus Olympio was Ewe.) The army is dominated, numerically, by inland tribes. (In Togo’s case, they included the Kabye.) The soldiers get fed up and stage a coup. (Eyadéma was Kabye.)

One day, I was walking through the market with a Togolese friend when he told me another story about Stevie. I had pointed out to him a very pretty girl selling chocolate bars. The girl was about 13. She balanced an enameled tin platter on her head. The platter bore a perfect pyramid of scores of identical chocolate bars in white and red paper wrappers. And the grace note was the girl’s matching white and red dress. She had made herself into a lovely advertisement for dark chocolate. Clever and pretty. But it only reminded my friend of the legends about Eyadéma’s sexual powers. He said that a vast black Mercedes limousine trolled the market streets of Lomé scooping up pretty teenaged girls for the president’s use, and that they usually ended up dead, not because of any abuse beyond presidential rape, but as a mere side effect of the great girth of his manhood.

Stevie died in office. At the time of his death in 2005, he was the longest serving head of state in all of Africa. His son, Faure Gnassingbé, took over and is still president.




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