How Less Becomes More

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Roma is perhaps the most unusual and unexpected Oscar contender for Best Picture of 2018. It’s filmed in black and white, spoken in Spanish with English subtitles, and told with very little storyline, no musical soundtrack, and no well-known actors. It’s set in the 1970s but feels more like the 1940s or ’50s. And it moves as slowly as a sloth. The Cannes Film Festival rejected it because it was made for Netflix instead of theatrical release. Netflix! It was available for free on the Internet before it went into a few art theaters. Nevertheless, like Italy’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), it has been nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture.

Unlike Life Is Beautiful, Roma does not have a strong, charismatic protagonist or a compelling conflict. It simply presents a dreary year in the dreary life of a young Mexican working girl. It is the most personal film Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, 2013) has ever made, told as a series of vignettes that come directly from Cuarón’s childhood memories and filmed by Cuarón himself. It is dedicated to Libo, a servant in his childhood home on whom the film is based. Cuarón said of the film, “It’s an intimate portrait of the women who raised me in recognition of love as a mystery that transcends space, memory and time.”

Cuarón uses this subtle method to tell his audience, “Don’t you dare say, ‘I know how she feels.’”

The story centers on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), one of two full-time domestic servants working in the home of a middle-class family in Roma, a neighborhood in Mexico City. Cleo and Sofia (Marina de Tavira) share a small room where they also do the ironing after the regular workday is done. They chatter together congenially throughout the day, and the children in the family seem to genuinely love Cleo; one of the boys (perhaps representing Cuarón himself) holds her hand affectionately when she kneels on the floor beside the couch to watch TV with the family after dinner (until the mother absently sends her away to fulfill another duty.)

But while Cleo is the subject of the movie, she is not our POV — we don’t see the story through her eyes. Instead, Cuarón uses wide angles so that we observe her only in her interactions with other people. This technique objectifies her to a large degree. Since we don’t see what she is seeing, we also don’t see any eye contact from others looking at her. Consequently, we can feel sympathy toward her, but it’s difficult to feel empathy. Cuarón uses this subtle method to tell his audience, “Don’t you dare say, ‘I know how she feels.’” We don’t. At best we can observe what she experiences, and think of how we might feel ourselves.

So why does this film merit ten Oscar nominations, and why does director Guillermo del Toro call it one of his top five favorite films of all time? The key is not in the two Best Picture nominations, but in the eight other categories. Most significant is the cinematography. Cuarón often uses award-winning Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot his films, but this time he chose to handle the camera himself in order to keep the film as personal and true to his intent as possible. The result is often dreamy and reflective. Indeed, reflection is a recurring theme throughout the film. It begins with water washing repeatedly over a brick sidewalk, almost like waves, reflecting the sky, the trees, a building, and even an airplane flying across its reflected surface. Reflections are often seen in windows, cabinets, the table Cleo is polishing, the car fender as the man of the house parks in the narrow garage.

Avaricio is brilliant in her outward restraint and inner passion; the devastatingly authentic hospital scene may have earned her an Oscar by itself.

Nominations for sound editing and sound mixing are equally impressive, especially considering the lack of music. Instead, the sounds are entirely natural — the wash of water against the bricks, the bickering of birds in the trees, the sounds of dogs barking and people conversing in the distance. And the acting! So natural, and so introspective. With very little dialogue, Avaricio and de Tavira, nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, portray the unspoken thoughts and desires of the two young servants. The hospital scene is devastatingly authentic; here Avaricio is brilliant in her outward restraint and inner passion. The moment was filmed in one take and may have earned her an Oscar by itself.

The lack of a traditional storyline and a traditional soundtrack makes the film seem slow, even plodding at first. We meet the servants, the family, the dog, but nothing much happens — until Cleo goes to the movies with a friend on her day off and ends up going off with a blind date instead — probably her first date ever. There we begin to see how her past, her class, and her future blend into a kind of inescapable destiny. The vignettes become compelling, and in the end, we can’t stop thinking about this young girl who has had so few choices in her life. We realize that she has had no control over the biggest factor determining her options — the circumstances of her birth — and thus no real control over any aspect of her life, beyond how dedicated she will be as a servant. It’s almost as though she were born dead — a metaphor that becomes significant at one point in the film.

Roma ends mostly as it begins, because Cleo’s life will end mostly as it began. Many important events have occurred during the year, politically and historically as well as within the family, but these events really haven’t affected Cleo personally. She is loved and appreciated by the family members, but she still lives in the small room above the garage that she shares with Sofia. She will never truly belong to this family she serves. But in making this film about his beloved nanny Libo, Cuarón gives her a place at last.


Editor's Note: Review of "Roma," directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Netflix, 2018, 135 minutes.



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Beauty’s in the Eye of the State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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Designer Reality

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Libertarians take great stock in the law of supply and demand. We understand that as long as something is in demand (as long as it isn’t a cure for cancer), there will generally be a supply of it. As it was with alcohol — the consumption of which only increased as a result of Prohibition — so, too, has it been with such drugs as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.

Less obvious, perhaps even to us, is the driving force behind the seemingly unstoppable popularity of alternative reality. Why do so many people, in this increasingly dystopian century, appear to be disconnected from objective truth? I don’t believe it can simply be explained as dissatisfaction with dystopia. There appears to be a general notion that people can believe whatever they want, and that reality is so subjective that it is mere clay, to be molded into whatever shape they choose.

In childhood, this is called imagination. If it persists into adulthood, it can become a form of mental illness. And instead of the remedy for dystopia, it appears to be the cause of it. Even a great many of those who never resort to alcohol or other drugs are addicted to designer reality.

Why do so many people, in this increasingly dystopian century, appear to be disconnected from objective truth?

Nor are libertarians immune to the addiction. I recently made the mistake of involving myself in one of those pointless Facebook flame wars I keep resolving to stay out of. It was on a libertarian page, and some cocky young gun posted yet another of those dreary challenges to feminine patience: “Why aren’t there more libertarian women?”

Of those who jumped into this discussion on the commentary thread, at least half were women. Real live, flesh-and-blood women were saying that we did exist, explaining how we had come to be libertarians, and suggesting how more of us could be encouraged to follow. Not that this appeared to teach the young gun, or his buddies, anything of value.

The answer to every one of our comments was some variation of the same: “Libertarianism is a logical philosophy, and men are logical, but women are not. Women are emotional and cannot be logical.” It was basically only a slightly more mature version of “Girls are stinky and have cooties” or of that old playground taunt: “Girls go to Jupiter to get more stupider. Boys go to Mars to get more candy bars.” I suppose the goal was to get us to be more emotional, so they could prove their point.

The word “logic” kept being repeated, as if it were a magical incantation. I saw zero evidence that these guys were using much of it, but they seemed to think if they kept asserting that they possessed superior logic, they needed to do no more. They had their designer reality, it gave them a terrific high, and they could imagine nothing better. The possibility that if they stopped telling us how illogical we were, and actually made the effort to explain the libertarian philosophy to us, they might meet with more widespread results, apparently never occurred to them.

It differs little from telling children that Santa Claus doesn’t really come down the chimney and eat those cookies.

Taking the chance that since they talked so much about logic, they might actually recognize it when they saw it, I attempted to reason with them. I pointed out that libertarians believe in the value of the individual. That one of their sages, Ayn Rand (herself — ahem — a woman), proclaimed that the individual was “the smallest minority” and stalwartly championed individual rights. And that they were speaking of women in a strictly collective sense — lumping us all together in a most unlibertarian way. They responded by casting Rand, and presumably any other woman who actually used logic, as a freak of nature who was at worst a horribly deformed woman, or at best some sort of an honorary man.

I have had this experience with nearly all the designer reality addicts I have ever engaged in conversation, no matter what pretty world they’ve chosen to inhabit. The cherished belief is doggedly repeated. Regardless of how good my argument happens to be, or how much evidence I present to support my position, it has no effect except to make them less logical and more — well — emotional. It differs little from telling children that Santa Claus doesn’t really come down the chimney and eat those cookies. They seem not so much indifferent to the truth as afraid of it.

The problem does not begin with the seemingly endless variety of designer reality available to us. Its origin can be traced to an insatiable demand. And the lure is powerful. This is not because all designer reality is utter bunk, but because in almost every version, there is at least a grain of truth.

Women can be emotional. I know that after that online conversation with those male libertarians, I wanted to scream my head off. But the political powers-that-be can take a grain of truth, add a little yeast, and expand it into a monstrous blob of dough. Many women turn their frustrations with men into protest-marching, silly-hat-wearing, man-hating lunacy. Today’s feminists have managed to make burning bras look, by comparison, charmingly quaint.

The big-government power structure functions as a duopoly, neither side of which is totally right or wrong. Most people choose the portions of truth they prefer and ignore the fact that the rest of what they’ve chosen is falsehood. The powers-that-be are basically telling us that we can have no more than part of the truth. That we are not entitled to the full truth. That we must be content with whichever lies we find the most pleasant — or at any rate, the least painful.

Today’s feminists have managed to make burning bras look, by comparison, charmingly quaint.

A temptation to accept partial truth is, it seems to me, the contemporary equivalent of taking the apple from the Serpent. It is the fruit the State dangles before us. And when we get cast out of the Garden, we waste our time arguing over trivialities — such as whether to blame Adam or Eve. Or maybe Adam and Steve.

Liberty enables us to pursue the full truth. We certainly don’t all agree on what that is, but each of us who values freedom should never settle for anything less. When we waste our time bickering over whose designer reality is prettier, we sell our freedom short. And, so divided, we invite the potentates of big government to conquer us.




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What Matters — Choice and Opportunity

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I Am Not Your Negro is one of the most important films of 2016, but it has received scant attention, beyond being nominated for an Oscar. It expresses the African-American experience by transcending political philosophy and social theory to engage the emotion and empathy of the viewer. Using movie clips, newsreels, television interviews, and the poignant and elegant words of James Baldwin, it guides the viewer to enter the celluloid world and experience, with the protagonist, what it has meant to be black in America.

The documentary relies heavily on film artifacts from 1940–1980, yet it feels as fresh and current as if the speeches had been written last week. As much as we like to think we have made progress in race relations (and certainly we have enacted numerous laws that eliminate segregation, favor diversity, and punish racism), the individual experience for many African-Americans continues to be problematic.

With his crisp Oxfordian erudition, Baldwin explains to Dick Cavett in one series of clips and in a debate with William F. Buckley at the Cambridge Union hall in another what it was like for a black man growing up surrounded by popular culture to which he could never belong. As children he and his friends put on cowboy hats to mimic John Wayne as they shot at imaginary Indians, never realizing until much later that the enemy they were shooting “was me.” He notes bitterly, “They needed us to pick their cotton, and now they don’t need us at all. So they’re killing us off, like they killed off the Indians [in movies].”

As much as we like to think we have made progress in race relations, the individual experience for many African-Americans continues to be problematic.

Instead of presenting the black experience through a didactic, lecturing, and angry harangue, director Raoul Peck immerses us in the experience through carefully selected film clips, some showing the “Stepin Fetchit” stereotype of the grinning, scraping, terrified Negro servant; others showing the pathos of the black child trying to pass for white, as in Imitation of Life, or black characters sacrificing their own security or happiness to save a white companion, as in The Defiant Ones; or, more often, entirely obliterating the black race from typical Hollywood films that required the black viewer either to identify with the white protagonist or step entirely out of the story. (Doris Day films, with her platinum blond hair and characteristically white costumes, are noted in particular.)

I believe this documentary, and the Doris Day musical clip in particular, influenced the sudden surge of racial criticism against La La Land during the final runup to the Oscars: viewers suddenly realized that La La Land is as white as a Doris Day musical, with the few black characters marginalized as an appendage of the white jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) — or so the argument went. Ironically (and significant to Peck’s thesis) Academy members didn’t even notice this whiteness at first, as they lavished LLL with fourteen nominations. I suspect they became abashedly aware of it only after watching I Am Not Your Negro (which they were required to do in order to vote for the Best Documentary category) and atoned for their oversight by voting Moonlight as Best Picture (read my review of the Awards fiasco here).

And that’s the point: as whites, we don’t even see the problem until it is pointed out to us. And then we go overboard in the other direction, as the Academy did in selecting Moonlight at the last minute. Peck’s argument — and the argument of many black activists — is that white Americans simply take for granted that what they see on the Hollywood screen, the television screen, the Facebook screen, and the textbook page looks just like them. Because whiteness is presented as ubiquitous and universal, white Americans learned to feel entitled to that sensation. So when we hear an impassioned “Black Lives Matter!” we often respond reflexively, “All lives matter!” We completely miss the point that “all lives” has seldom included “black lives.” Not culturally, at least. And saying, “I’m not racist,” or “Many of my friends are black,” even if it’s true, misses the point as well. We may very well not be racist. Most of us probably aren’t, in fact. But when we defensively change the subject to ourselves, we unintentionally silence the voice that is straining to be heard.

Viewers suddenly realized that La La Land is as white as a Doris Day musical, with the few black characters marginalized.

Toni Morrison makes this point in her novella The Bluest Eye, in which a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, wants desperately to look like Shirley Temple, whom she watches at the movie matinees every Saturday. Even Pecola’s own mother shoves her aside and prefers the pretty little white children whom she cares for as a domestic servant. I Am Not Your Negro demonstrates powerfully what it’s like to grow up knowing that you are inherently unlovable and the antithesis of cultural beauty or heroism.

As a young man, Baldwin moved to Paris, where he could move freely in public without the sensation of being watched, feared, and suspected. Nevertheless, he returned to the US frequently to lend his voice to the Civil Rights movement. In 1979 he was commissioned by McGraw-Hill to write a book, Remember This House, about his personal remembrances of three assassinated black leaders: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin never completed the book, but the 30 or 40 pages he did write are powerful and eloquent, and they form the central storyline of I Am Not Your Negro, narrated in voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson. The sections that focus on these three men, told with intimate home movies as well as official news footage, are some of the most impassioned of the film.

As a result of this documentary I came to a better understanding of the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” and why the response “All Lives Matter” is irrelevant and trivializing. But I didn’t come to any sense of a solution. Half a century later, despite desegregation, affirmative action, welfare, fair housing laws, reversed cultural appropriation, a black president, and a white population fairly begging to be inclusive and non-racist, we’re still dealing with some of the same problems. Where do we go from here? Baldwin suggests that whites “invented the nigger,” by which he means created the trope of the black who is defined as rapist, violent, lazy, foolish, incapable, and immoral, and that “it can’t be fixed until whites can figure out why.” He also had harsh words for the NAACP, believing that it created class distinctions of its own by privileging light-skinned blacks over dark-skinned blacks. Is class distinction innate in the human psyche? Can it be overcome?

We may very well not be racist. But when we defensively change the subject to ourselves, we unintentionally silence the voice that is straining to be heard.

After watching the film I began to contemplate the black experience through the lens of the women’s movement. Women, too, suffered from the way they were portrayed culturally, through art. Women, too, had to watch “their kind” stand in the shadows or the sidelines of the movies while male protagonists saved the day. Like Baldwin, I can remember playing cowboys and Indians with the neighborhood children in the 1950s; I don’t remember any of us wanting to be “Miss Kitty.” Also like blacks in the movies, girls were taught through the movies (especially in the 1950s) that a woman needs to be slapped around a little bit to calm her down and make her more compliant, and that she needs to give in to a man’s passionate, if unwanted, embrace because “no” really means “yes.” We also learned that bad boys were good, and we set our eyes on marrying one of them as the ultimate goal.

What made the difference for women? It wasn’t saying, “Women’s Lives Matter.” Everyone already knew that. Women mattered in the kitchen, in the laundry room, in the nursery, in the bedroom. Men were wont to say with a patronizing chuckle, “Without women the human race couldn’t even continue, God love ’em.” But it was belittling praise. Women were also told how they mattered in lyrics like these:

Hey! Little girl
Comb your hair, fix your makeup
Soon he will open the door
Don't think because there's a ring on your finger
You needn't try anymore.

For wives should always be lovers too
Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you
I'm warning you — (Burt Bacharach, “Wives and Lovers”)

My friends and I used to sing along to those subversive lyrics with their catchy tune while teasing our bouffant hair and painting on our eye makeup, never realizing how songs like these were holding us back from the truth that “Girls can be anything.”

Is class distinction innate in the human psyche? Can it be overcome?

Where women did not matter was in the workforce and in the marketplace of ideas. Here’s an example: in the 1970s and ’80s my husband and I wrote several books together, almost a book a year. He would do the research and write the outline; I would write the actual book. We published the books under his name, and they sold like hotcakes. Our biggest seller was High Finance on a Low Budget, selling over 300,000 copies in a dozen years. When it came time to write the 6th edition, he didn’t have time to update it, and I balked at being the ghostwriter again, so we published it with both our names. It was 1992, after all, and I had a financial résumé of my own by then — I was the editor of a monthly financial newsletter called “Money Letter for Women,” and I spoke frequently at investment conferences. Sadly, that 6th edition sold fewer than 4,000 copies. The next edition was published without my name, and it sold like hotcakes again. It wasn’t my husband’s fault, and it wasn’t the publisher’s fault. The market had spoken resoundingly. It would accept a woman writing a financial letter for women, but it did not want my name on the cover of that investment book.

Twenty-five years later, that wouldn’t be the case. Now women practically dominate the nightly news as political pundits and expert guests. If I were writing an investment book today, no one would ask me to use my initials instead of my name. This is what I think made the difference: a generation of parents and teachers began telling little girls, “You can do anything. You can be anything.” It was said in school, in homes, in books, in movies. And everyone began to believe it.

The market had spoken resoundingly. It would accept a woman writing a financial letter for women, but it did not want that woman's name on the cover of an investment book.

Black Lives do matter, but it’s not enough to matter. Mattering leads to victimhood and paternalism. In Africa, blacks built civilizations, led tribes, cultivated lands, created art, and fought wars to protect their turf and their way of life. In the antebellum South, blacks worked in the blazing sun while the master provided their housing, their clothes, their food, and their healthcare (meager though it was). Post-Civil War, they continued to receive food, shelter, and healthcare from the “government plantation.” James Baldwin complained about government paternalism in the Cambridge debate, declaring calmly and forcefully that the black man should be seen “not as a ward, and not as an object of charity, but as one who built America.” He added, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

Now, nearly 40 years later, his words seem as timely as if he had spoken them yesterday. And yet I think Baldwin would be pleased by some of the changes in media. Films like Hidden Figures do offer the message that blacks — and black women at that — can do anything. Moreover, black actors are now being cast in parts where being black doesn’t matter, and that’s a good thing. Think of Denzel Washington in Flight, for example. The role of the alcoholic pilot who successfully lands a damaged plane could just as easily have been played by Tom Cruise — or by Meryl Streep, for that matter. We have come a longer way than Peck’s documentary might suggest.

Black Lives don’t just matter. Black lives can do anything. Maya Angelou wrote about the humiliation she felt at her high school graduation when the white (of course), male (also of course) school superintendent proudly told everyone about the progress his administration was making in the school district. He told them about the new science labs at the white high school, and the wonderful new athletic fields they would be installing at the black high school. Maya was stunned. The black students mattered, yes, but they wouldn’t be scientists or mathematicians. They would be athletes. August Wilson (a black playwright) does the same thing with his black characters in Fences, when young Corey has only two options available to him, a football scholarship or the Marines, and his brother Lyons is a jazz player. By contrast, Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is determined to start a business because he knows that in the absence of an education, business is his only path to success. On the night when he invests his father’s insurance money in a liquor store with two of his friends, he says to his ten-year-old son Travis, “Son, what do you want to be? Because you just choose it and you can be it. Anything at all.” That his son could have such opportunity — the infinity of choice — matters to Walter.

Hansberry knew that Travis could be anything, because that’s what her parents had told her. Her parents counterbalanced the white cultural bias she saw in the movies and on the streets with a constant parade of black poets, writers, and activists who visited their home. She knew such heroes as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin personally. And armed with that knowledge — I can be anything! — she became an educated, talented, successful playwright.

Could it be as simple as that? Or am I being naïve? As a white woman do I even have the right to suggest it? All I know for sure is that all the government programs of the past 50 years have made little progress, and the demands made by the official “Black Lives Matters” organization are focused on more government programs with more government subsidies. More paternalism from the government plantation. Could the solution be as simple as mothers and fathers and teachers telling black children everywhere, “You can do anything. You can be anything”? Maybe not. But maybe it’s worth a try.


Editor's Note: Review of "I Am Not Your Negro," directed by Raoul Peck. Magnolia Pictures, 2016, 93 minutes.



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Poor Little Me

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According to Madeleine Albright, I’m going to hell. As is every woman who isn’t voting for Hillary Clinton. All I can say is that heaven won’t be much of a paradise if it’s populated with the fools who are.

But if a lot of other self-proclaimed leftist smarties are right, I can’t go to hell, because I don’t even exist. After all, I’m a female libertarian. Further complicating matters is that now the progressive Left has decreed that gender does not exist. So not only am I going to hell (though I don’t exist because I’m a libertarian woman, and hell doesn’t exist because these people don’t believe in it), but I can’t be a woman because gender is nonexistent. Color me confused.

I don’t think I can even call myself a left-libertarian anymore. I want nothing whatsoever more to do with the Left. I’m glad that in 2016, a woman can run for president and be taken seriously, but the possibility that Hillary Clinton is not only running, but just might win, makes my blood run cold. I guess progressives still want me to be a woman so I can be a good little victim and vote for her. These people are so crazy, they make me want to run for my life.

If one out of every two people on the planet was helpless against the other, our species would have died out hundreds of thousands of years ago.

As a woman, I am expected, by the so-called progressives who have taken out a copyright on feminism, to sit around crying, “Poor little me!” I refuse to do that, not because I hate every woman in the world, or fail to care about our rights, but because I’m not an idiot. If I am not very much mistaken, we have been half of the human race since the Garden of Eden. Which means that over the millennia, we’ve had every bit as much to do with how things have turned out as men have. If we haven’t, then we’ve all been idiots.

According to the sort of history I’ve been taught since I was a girl, men have always been awful brutes — while women have been just sitting there and taking it. That doesn’t correspond to the history of my life, or the lives of most of the women I’ve ever known. I don’t even think that most of us could possibly believe it. If we were such ineffectual feathers in the wind, we’d never muster the will to get up in the morning.

My philosophy of politics and history is one in which every individual will has an influence on the whole. Events unfold as they do because of the interaction of multitudes. This was one of the aspects of libertarianism that attracted me from the start: everybody counts. The human drama is far too unruly to be centrally planned or collectively organized. If one out of every two people on the planet was helpless against the other, our species would have died out hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Certainly the rules by which we’ve played haven’t always been fair. It’s appalling to me that my grandmothers — each of whom had as much sense as any man I’ve ever met — couldn’t vote until 1920. But that arrangement was OK with most of the women in this country until it wasn’t anymore, after which it was changed. Women do as much to keep each other down (if not more) than men have ever done to oppress them.

What we dearly need is not an amendment to the Constitution, but an adjustment of attitude.

A crucial reason why women have lacked the power wielded by men is that men tend to be loyal to one another, and women do not. We compete with one another so fiercely and viciously that men shudder to think of it. They may kill each other in wars, but the rest of the time they manage to cooperate pretty nicely. We undermine and sabotage each other nearly every day of our lives from nursery school to nursing home.

Although I’m gay, I never liked playing with little girls when I was a kid. They made me nervous. One day they’d be friendly, the next they’d get mad — for no apparent reason — and the day after that, they’d be sugar and spice once again. I rarely trusted them. Most of my friends were boys, because they were temperamentally pretty much the same, day in and day out. I usually knew what to expect.

In my adult life, most of the really treacherous things ever done to me have been done by women. A lot of women have been kind and supportive, too, and it would be unfair for me to overlook them. But all along the way, I’ve benefitted from the support, encouragement, and mentorship of a variety of men. As has every other woman who has ever succeeded at much of anything in life — whether she’ll admit it or not.

I regard it as highly offensive when I’m informed that I should vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman. It’s utter nonsense to suggest that this is any less sexist than the notion that a guy ought to vote for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Bernie Sanders because they’re men. It will be “our turn” to be president when the majority of men and women determine that a female candidate is worthy of the office.

Women finally got the vote because enough women thought that every other woman deserved the franchise. When we get over the inferiority complex that tells us that men’s opinions of us carry more weight than our own of ourselves and one another, that’s when we’ll finally “achieve equality.” As long as we allow the political left to convince us that we’re helpless and victimized little nitwits, that’s exactly how we’ll behave. What we dearly need is not an amendment to the Constitution, but an adjustment of attitude. We’ve got vastly more power than we think.




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Equal Pay for Equal Work

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Once again equal pay for men and women doing presumably equal work has become a live political issue. If Congress can achieve fair pay by passing still another law, why not?

But what is equal work? Is it the same numbers of hours spent? Is it work in the same industry or other category, broadly or narrowly defined?  Is it work typically done by people with similar levels of education as proxied by diplomas and degrees? Are what economists call “compensating differences” unfair — differences in pay for work considered particularly risky or boring and work found attractive in itself? More plausibly, does fair pay mean equal pay for work appearing to promise the same addition to the revenue or profit of a business firm? If so, as judged by whom? Without attention to availability, productiveness, and costs of materials, energy, and other things bought, including the many kinds of labor, a firm would go broke.

More equal-pay legislation will add to the burdens already borne by business firms, perhaps especially small businesses.

An economic system coordinated otherwise than by market transactions and the interplay of prices, profit, and loss would be very different from the system that has brought prosperity to the Western world. A market economy puts to good use vast amounts of knowledge both specific and widely dispersed. This knowledge, as well as informed conjectures, exists in the minds of millions and billions of consumers, employees, job candidates, entrepreneurs, and owners and managers of business firms and other organizations. Knowledge of how to conduct and mesh their activities simply could not be centralized for effective use by planners and regulators. The writings of Mises and Hayek (and, earlier, Henry George), reinforced by experience in Communist countries, have taught us this lesson. Even if, per impossibile, this knowledge could be centrally deployed, politicians would have incentives to disregard much of it.

Business owners and managers, sometimes aided by specialist consultants, can best judge how to structure their workplaces and employ the people most likely to contribute to profits. Supply and demand interacting on markets, including the labor market, contribute to these judgments. Business losses tend to weed out bad judgment of these kinds, while profits tend to reward good judgment.

Employers must judge how likely employees or job candidates are to fit in well with their businesses. How likely is a person to be available for working long or irregular hours on short notice or for shifting among assignments and geographical locations? How committed is the person to a career, or how likely to quit or interrupt work for family or other reasons or to request many hours or even months of paid or unpaid leave? How likely is the person to generate profitable new ideas? How likely to get along well with customers, colleagues, and supervisors? Or how likely to prove obnoxiously litigious? A good matching of jobs and employees benefits all concerned.

Realistically, of course, employers cannot have all the detailed and ineffable knowledge necessary for ideal decisions. They must make judgments based on categories, experience, probabilities, statistics, and hunches, and perhaps sometimes even on stereotypes. These regrettable gaps in knowledge are not blameworthy or avoidable, although detailed experience and practiced intuition may shrink them. The system of markets, profit, and loss tends, at least, to reward or punish good or bad business judgment; nothing similar weeds out bad legislation.

Government regulators drift into thinking that their own work is important.

More equal-pay legislation will add to the burdens already borne by business firms, perhaps especially small ones. These will include the burdens of keeping records of and reporting on job interviews held or not held, performance reviews, job categories and modifications, and innumerable other things. Risks compound the burdens, including risks of being second-guessed about honest judgments and of dubious statistics being manipulated to infer violations of rules even in the absence of evidence. Government regulators drift into thinking that their own work is important and into eagerly receiving and investigating complaints. Aggrieved employees have additional ways to browbeat their employers by threatening to file complaints or lawsuits. Opportunities for lawyers multiply.

The burdens placed on job creation are heavy already. They apparently help account for the disappointing growth in employment as recovery from the recession continues only sluggishly.

Yet far from being morally obliged to bear such burdens and risks, businesspeople are under no obligation to be in any business or hire any workers at all. Even employing job candidates willing to work for less pay than others appearing similarly qualified is a service to workers and the public (even if a less noble service than one might wish). Employing anybody increases the scarcity value and the job and pay prospects of the rest of the labor force. Employers practicing discrimination unrelated to the value of employees’ work suffer the penalty of reduced profit and lose ground to firms showing sounder business judgment.

Speaking of fairness, how fair is it to draft businesspeople more and more into unpaid and thankless service as social-welfare agencies and as scapegoats?

Making a political issue of “fair pay” expands opportunities for politicians and demagogy. It illustrates how superficial bright ideas can get casually inserted into laws, notably into laws running hundreds or thousands of pages. As Thomas Sowell has explained, being both economically literate and honest is a disadvantage for a politician. (An economically illiterate one can honestly advocate bad but popular legislation, while a dishonest politician may gain votes by concealing his economic understanding.)

My message, in summary, is dismay at ignorance or disregard of how essential using widely dispersed specific knowledge is to a prosperous economy.




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The Politics of Yes

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President Barack Obama’s victory was secured by a politics of yes. Telling voters yes is essential to victory since most voters do not like to be told no. The key to political victory is figuring out how to tell the most people yes and the fewest people no. The president secured a second term by successfully employing this strategy.

There are two groups of voters that gave him a second term: women and Latino voters. Women voters do not want to be told no when it comes to their bodies. What put women voters in the president’s camp was such social issues as abortion. As long as abortion is put in terms of women’s health and rights, Republicans will not be able to capture a large enough portion of independent women voters in swing states to win the White House. The Republicans have three options: (1) adopt a pro-choice stance, (2) let the issue fade into the background so that it no longer plays a pivotal role, (3) reframe the debate over abortion from a woman’s health issue to a fetal health issue.

The first option will not, and perhaps should not, happen. Option number three will be a difficult maneuver and may prove too nuanced to change anyone’s mind. This leaves option number two as the only good option for capturing the votes of women who voted for President Obama because of the Republican stance on abortion. At a minimum, though, Republicans need to do a better job of keeping people like Richard Mourdock of Indiana and Todd Akin of Missouri from making inane comments on the topic.

Latino voters, either in fact or in rhetoric, were told yes by Democrats and no by Republicans. Whether it was Arizona’s controversial immigration law SB 1070 or Mitt Romney’s policy of self-deportation, Latino voters saw the Republican Party telling them, “We don’t want you here.” Rick Perry was crushed by the Right during the primary season for his decision as Texas governor to support a bill that would offer in-state tuition to some undocumented students. In other words, when a Republican tried to say yes to the Latino community, the base of the Republican Party turned against him.

Latino voters understood the Republican Party to be telling them no, which is why they went with the president by a 75-23 margin nationally. In an up for grabs Colorado they went his way by a margin of 87 to 10; in Ohio by 82 to 17. Just as with women voters, the GOP needs to find a way to appeal to Latino voters by either changing its stance on controversial issues, emphasizing new issues that may appeal to Latino voters, or reframing the existing debate. The most effective and consistent strategy would be for Republicans to find issues about which their ideas align with the Latino-voting population and push those to the center of the debate.

The evidence is clear; voters want to be told yes. Colorado voters want to be told that, yes, they may smoke what they want, while Maine and Maryland voters want to be told that, yes, they may marry whomever they choose. Victory in 2012 went to the party that told more people yes and fewer people no. The point is not which party has policies that are better for the country, but it is about which party makes voters feel as if they were being told yes.

For those who care about the quality of the proposals this is problematic in that there is no assessment of what is good but only what is politically expedient. Some ideas that are good are not expedient. This is an inherent problem with popular government. James Madison, the author of The Federalist No. 10, knew this to be true, which is why he argued for a republican form of government rather than a democracy: only within a republic where power is divided horizontally and vertically can the capricious nature of the electorate be tempered. Perhaps the safeguards have eroded over time or they were insufficient to begin with, but it appears that Madison's “factions” have found a welcome home within the American political process.

Nobody wants to hear that it is in the nation's best interest, or in the best interest of liberty, to let an industry go bankrupt, to let housing prices fall, or to tell retired people that their financial stability is not the government's responsibility. What most voters want to hear, according to what happened on November 6, is that when we need help we should ask the government and the government should always pronounce a resounding yes!




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Like the Father or the Dog Just Died

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Leading up to Father’s Day, I count my victories in small bites. This month, it was a button.

While filling in my son’s information on ePACT, an online emergency preparedness resource for families, I noticed that on the mother’s page there was a button for "same address as child." For the father, there was no such button. I wrote a letter. Now fathers have a button too. A button-sized victory for dads everywhere. Well, for dads in British Columbia anyway.

There’s still a part of me that feels ridiculous writing complaint letters about these sorts of things. Two years ago, I would never have noticed the discrepancy. Who cares about a button? But after two years as a single dad — two years of dealing with gender-role stereotypes at nearly every level — there I was, not only noticing but writing letters.

Unfortunately, not every institution is as responsive as the nice folks at ePACT. There is, to pick on the local 800-pound gorilla as an example, Revenue Canada. Its policy for the Canada child tax credit explicitly and unabashedly discriminates based on gender: “If there is a female parent who lives with the child, we usually consider her to be [the primary caregiver]. However, if the male parent is primarily responsible, he must attach to Form RC66, Canada Child Benefits Application, a signed note from the female parent that states he is primarily responsible for all of the children in the household.” And if the female parent will not provide a signed note, then the burden of proof on the father is somewhere between that of a criminal trial and the Spanish Inquisition.

In my case, a sole-custody court order was deemed insufficient to prove that I have “primary responsibility” for my son. I was asked to provide letters from his school, from his afterschool activities, and from community leaders such as doctors and lawyers. For a mom, it’s automatic. For a dad, it’s a two-year treasure hunt.

But resistance is futile, so I tried to comply. In doing so, I noticed that my son’s elementary school had changed his student information from “Father has sole custody” to “Mother has sole custody” despite the fact that the school had a copy of the court order. Like ePACT, the school is full of good people. The teachers, the principal, everything about it is great, and it was apologetic about the error — a simple accident, not conscious discrimination. But even as an accident, it says volumes about social expectations. People assume that the mother is the caregiver to such a strong extent that it changes what they see on the page.

It’s somehow become socially acceptable (again) throughout North America to devalue a human being purely because of an identity-characteristic such as gender.

Dealing with this over and over has made me hypersensitive, a bit like a feminist in the 1980s. When my son’s teacher corrected his grade-one essay about his family from “My family is my dad, my mom, and . . .” to “My family is my mom, my dad, and . . .” I asked the teacher why. She told me I was “ridiculous” and “offensive” to bother her with such an issue. She was both right and wrong. It is ridiculous to complain about a simple swapping of the word order — though not that dissimilar from the campaign 20 years ago to change “businessman” to “businessperson” — yet when you correct a child you’re telling him he’s wrong, that he made a mistake. Why is it a mistake to put “dad” first?

When did it become such a bad thing to be male? Why has “testosterone” become a dirty word? Thinking about these things, I started to do something men don’t often do: I talked, communicated. First during poker games with friends who happened also to be single fathers. Then through a website I started for single dads, initially as a fitness site for dads with little spare time. And finally through systematic research for a book that grew out of this frustration.

What I’ve seen coming out of all this talking is that it’s somehow become socially acceptable (again) throughout North America to devalue a human being purely because of an identity-characteristic such as gender. In the US, President Obama's method of counting civilian casualties excludes all military-age males, within a strike zone, who have not been explicitly proven innocent. Meaning that it’s official government policy that in certain situations the simple fact of being male makes you guilty until proven innocent.

Here in Canada, we have a Ministry for the Status of Women — a cabinet-level government ministry — that publishes reports of journalists who write articles discussing the gender discrepancy that’s leaving boys behind in schools, and reframes this as a “hate” issue against women. A report from 2003 titled School Success by Gender: A Catalyst for the Masculinist Discourse, for example, argued for greater government monitoring of websites that seek to help boys in school or give fathers support in custody disputes. "Some masculinist groups use the Internet as a vehicle for hate-mongering against feminists. This accessible and virtually universal medium gives them the opportunity to say and post almost anything. It is no accident that this medium is being used by those on the extreme right, pedophiles and pornographers.”

This is not a fringe group writing. It’s a report for a government ministry associating men with pedophiles and pornographers simply because they are seeking each other’s support — something that women do far more naturally than men for reasons of culture and history. If men are forming support groups, if they’re seeking a greater role in caring for their sons and daughters, if fathers are engaged with their sons’ education and well being, then those are all good things. They should be encouraged. It means we’re slowly moving to a post-gender society. Ironically, however, all the institutions we’ve put in place to help enable that transition are precisely the ones that are now causing the greatest obstacles.

The philosopher Ivan Illich once pointed out that every institution gradually becomes counterproductive to its original intentions: the medical industry causes illness, educational institutions induce ignorance, the judicial system perpetuates injustice, and national defense makes a nation less secure. Similarly, the fight for gender equality has now made it almost politically incorrect to acknowledge equality among parents.

So let me put my cards on the table before I get added to the ministry’s list of “certain writers acting as the customary spokespersons for the masculinist discourse.” I’m not a misogynist. I’m not anti-feminist. I like feminists, and I have read more feminist literature than any man I know. I don’t agree with all of it. I tend to prefer French deconstructive feminists, such as Luce Irigaray, and literary ones such as Gayatri Spivak, over the more combative ones, such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon,who once wrote that "to be rapable, a position that is social not biological, defines what a woman is." Which inevitably implies that to be a rapist defines what a man is.But I’ve read them all, I appreciate them all, and I think it’s time for men to start learning from them all.

That's because it is time for a masculinist discourse to complement feminist discourse, especially in family matters where the unofficial policy often seems to be mirroring the official “guilty until proven innocent” approach to defining war casualties based on gender. We don’t need men shouting words like “feminazi,” which is the way masculinists are caricatured — but it's worth pointing out that to be a good feminist you also have to be a masculinist (and vice versa). I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to become as hypersensitive as I am now to missing buttons for the dad’s address or the constant bombardment of “man as idiot” commercials on radio and TV. But we do need to start some sort of conversation about gender that is rooted in today rather than in history. I have a son, and to me that trumps any notion of historical wrongs. I don’t want him to grow up voiceless, any more than a feminist 30 years ago wanted her daughter to grow up second class.

And if not for your sons who will one day become fathers, then do it for the girls. Because if you assume men cannot raise healthy, well-adjusted, and confident children just as well as women can, then you’re also implicitly re-opening the question of whether a female firefighter can perform certain rescues as proficiently as a stronger male counterpart.

In the song "Everybody Knows," Leonard Cohen sings the line, "You've got that broken feeling, like your father or your dog just died." Within family matters in North America it does sometimes seem that this is the status that fathers are assigned. So on this Father’s Day, let’s give the dads a promotion. Fathers are wonderful. They’re just as cool as mothers.




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Is the Arab Spring a Winter for Women?

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President Obama backed the rebels in Egypt, abandoning our longstanding (and admittedly loathsome) quasi-ally Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptians in the street were, after all, demanding their freedom . . . or so it was presented. When Mubarak fell, Obama of course congratulated himself warmly.

However, some people were nervous at this spectacle. Especially nervous were people who recalled Obama’s spiritual guru, Jimmy Carter, who decided to abandon support for the Shah of Iran to help usher in the new “forces of democracy” there. The result was not democracy, but an even more authoritarian regime — indeed, a totalitarian one, driven by an Islamist ideology and implacably hostile to the United States.

Recent events in Egypt have ominously suggested that we may be seeing a similar devolution there, with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood looking to take control.

A recent story is both a disgusting and worrisome harbinger. It tells the story of a Cairo businessman trying to decide whether or not to “circumcise” (i.e., mutilate the genitals of) his daughter, who is — 12 years old! This procedure is a happy custom endorsed by many conservative Egyptians, and Mubarak’s regime struggled to suppress it. But with the winds of the Arab Spring, it is resurgent again.

Female genital mutilation (given the euphemistic acronym “FGM”) involves removing most or even all of the clitoris, and even the labia minora, followed by stitching up the vaginal opening.

All this, to make sure that young women remain chaste and “pure.” It is already incredibly common in Egypt, and is now likely to become even more so.

The Mubarak regime had banned the practice after a young girl died from it, and Suzanne Mubarak (the dictator’s wife) had spoken out continuously against FGM and had gotten religious leaders to oppose it. But the Muslim Brotherhood opposes the Mubarak ban, and it now appears that prior progress will be rapidly reversed.

We can only wonder what other treats are in store for Miss Liberty as the New Egypt evolves.




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Liberty's Leading Ladies

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John Blundell has just released a book designed to acquaint Americans with a fascinating, though largely unknown, part of their history — the role of women in maintaining (indeed, helping very significantly to create) America's tradition of individual liberty. His book is a series of introductions to 22 women who did important things for liberty.

The women are, in chronological order: Mercy Otis Warren, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, the Grimké sisters, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bina West Miller, Madam C. J. Walker, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Lila Acheson Wallace, Vivien Kellems, Taylor Caldwell, Clare Boothe Luce, Ayn Rand, Rose Director Friedman, Jane Jacobs, and Dorian Fisher. Twenty-two women. How many of them do you know?

Most Americans will recognize Washington, Stanton, Stowe, and maybe Adams. Libertarians will recognize Paterson, Rand, Lane, and Friedman — maybe Jane Jacobs too. People interested in abolition and the progress of black people in America will add Sojourner Truth, Madam Walker, and others to their list. Conservatives will welcome Luce and others. But all of them deserve to be known to everyone who is interested in American achievement and American character, as well as American ideas about individual freedom.

Few of these women were libertarians in the contemporary American sense. The libertarian movement (first intellectual, then political) is best dated from the 1920s. But all of them had something important to do with ideas and practices of liberty with which libertarians will proudly acknowledge a connection.

Blundell is to be congratulated for presenting a broad spectrum of interests and occupations. The most obvious occupation for an advocate of liberty is that of writer, and there are many professional writers represented: Stowe, Paterson, Rand, Lane, Caldwell, Luce . . . But business people are also prominent in this book. Who can exceed the personal interest and allure of such businesswomen as Madam Walker, one of America's great black entrepreneurs, or Vivien Kellems, the great anti-tax crusader?

Who wouldn't want to know more about these dynamic individuals? Blundell's format limits him to about ten pages for each; but once you know these people exist, you can read more about them, and he offers suggestions for further reading.

I'm not an unskeptical audience, about anything. So I would quarrel with some of Blundell's judgments, one of which in particular I wish he would rethink: the high value he places on Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom (1943). Lane was a good writer, sometimes a writer of genius, but Discovery is a poor book — wandering, disorganized, self-contradictory, circular in logic, chronically wrong about historical fact.  If you want to see Lane to advantage, read Free Land (1938) or Give Me Liberty (1936). You'll find those books rewarding, and (something different) you'll like their author.

Such animadversions are, however, beside the point. Blundell’s project seems to me exactly right. The women he discusses are full of personality, full of vitality, full of fascination for any intelligent reader. It’s a disgrace that, as Blundell observes, so few people, so few libertarians, know much about them (with the exception of Ayn Rand). Blundell’s discussions are of exactly the right length and kind to stimulate interest. The book can be read at one sitting, as I read it, or at occasional moments in a busy week. In either case, it will entertain and inform. It’s a particularly good candidate for a Christmas gift to intelligent friends, libertarian or not. I would like to see it in the hands of young women, because young people right now are under great pressure to conform and become anything but vivid, eccentric, complex, vital, creative, or libertarian. And that’s no way to live.


Editor's Note: Review of "Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made a Difference in American History," by John Blundell. New York: Algora, 2011. 220 pages.



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