Critics Rave — Audience Stays Home

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“Thrilling!” “Magnificent!” “Dazzling!” “Spectacular!” “Off the Scale Brilliant!” “Epic!” “Landmark!” “A Tour de Force Performance!”

Advance critics are falling all over themselves in praise of All Is Lost, Robert Redford’s new film about a man lost at sea who must battle the elements in a lifeboat for a few days after his 39-foot sailing yacht collides with a shipping container (just the container, not the ship) in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

“Our Man,” as Redford is called in the credits, assesses the situation, repairs the hole with some fiberglass and epoxy, and then settles in for a meal of pasta and scotch. (That Redford — he chews better than anyone I know, whether he’s munching a hot dog on his way to a speech in The Candidate, dining al fresco with Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park, or scraping beans out of a can in Jeremiah Johnson, Butch Cassidy, or All Is Lost. In fact, scraping the beans seems to be what he does best — such a fine contrast between what his character does and who his character is. His chewing manners have always been impeccable.) And that smile — the face has become craggy and lined, but those teeth are still gorgeous. His character wants to maintain what’s left of those good looks too: when Our Man is facing a thunderous storm, he lathers up and shaves! And when his boat is sinking and he’s up to his armpits in water, he takes the time to tidy up a gash on his forehead with some well placed butterfly bandages.

Yes, the boat does eventually sink. After the hole is patched, Our Man encounters a storm described by critics as “Scarier than anything in A Perfect Storm!” And Our Man does indeed get tossed around as his ship rolls completely upside down and rights itself again. And again. (Kudos to Fred Astaire for coming up with the rolling room trick for his “Dancing on the Ceiling” routine in — when was that? 1951? Not exactly “landmark” cinematography.) It is rather thrilling when he is swept overboard and has to fight has way back to the boat (good thing he remembered to tie a rope around himself), but the underwater scenes of Naomi Watts nearly drowning during a tsunami in The Impossible were more stunning and realistic. Landmark? Hardly.

He’s probably smart, since he reads and drinks scotch and eats with impeccable chewing. But the movie doesn’t give the audience much to chew on.

Eventually Redford abandons ship and enters a lifeboat, where he battles the elements and discouragements for a few more days. Don’t get me wrong — being adrift in a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean for even one day would be enough to make me panic. But the film is entirely too Zen for me. The problem is that Our Man never panics. He just methodically faces whatever comes. He’s resourceful and hardworking, and he has forearms the size of Popeye’s. He never gives up. Yet we know none of his backstory. He’s probably wealthy (who else could afford to sail around the world in a 39-foot yacht?) and he probably has a family, since he is writing a farewell note to someone as the film begins. He’s probably smart, since he reads and drinks scotch and eats with impeccable chewing. But the movie doesn’t give the audience much to chew on — because the hero never says anything.

It’s almost as though he took a vow of silence along with that Zen-like patience. He doesn’t shout as he is flung overboard; he doesn’t curse when he sees that his boat has been rammed; he doesn’t talk to himself the way most people do when they are trying not to panic while they are figuring out what to do. The only apprehension we ever feel occurs when he is inside the hull of his boat, gathering supplies just before it goes down. The boat creaks and shudders, and the music strikes a spooky tone. Our Man glances forebodingly over his shoulder. But even that seems out of place. He looks as though he were expecting to see a bogeyman jump out of the closet.

With a moniker like “Our Man” for the film’s only character, we have to assume that the director was going for a deep philosophical connection of some sort. We are supposed to understand that Our Man represents our culture, awash in a sea of — what? Storms that wipe out our savings? Sharks that eat the food right out of our hands? Blatant consumerism (the shipping container contained athletic shoes) that rams our peaceful dreams? Corporations (two gigantic ships glide past Our Man without seeing him) that ignore the needs of the little guy? OK. I always appreciate a good metaphor, and the sea is a good place to find one. But Our Man Stephen Cox says it much more succinctly and clearly in a recent article for Liberty: “The realm of intelligent discourse is an island of sanity, washed by hot seas of nonsense.”

If anything in this film is “landmark,” it is the idea of filming an entire movie without dialogue. It’s almost like watching the old Name That Tune television show: “I can name that tune in one note!” All Is Lost gets away with the laconic approach because it stars Robert Redford, but Redford isn’t the kind of actor who can pull off a stunt like this. Moreover, All Is Lost is awash in a sea of “spectacular” survival films, and it just doesn’t measure up to such truly “magnificent” films as The Life of Pi, with its “dazzling” cinematography and storytelling; Gravity, with its “landmark” special effects; and Captain Phillips, with Tom Hanks’s “tour de force performance.” All Is Lost is “off the scale,” all right, but it’s sliding in the wrong direction. And with an opening-weekend box office of just $93,000, “all is lost” could be an oh-too-appropriate metaphor for this film after all.


Editor's Note: Review of "All Is Lost," directed by J.C. Chandor. Lionsgate, 2013; 106 dopey minutes.



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Shutdown Finishes; Wreckage Remains

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Count Stadion, an Austrian diplomat who participated in the Conference of Chatillon (1814), said of those proceedings: “We are playing a comedy which is interesting only because of its platitudes.”

In 1814, even the platitudes of such people as Castlereagh and Caulaincourt (or better, Metternich and Talleyrand) might be interesting. But I hate to think what Stadion would have said about the discourse inspired by our recent governmental “shutdown.” He would have discerned the comedy, but he could hardly have been interested in the platitudes. And he could hardly have been satisfied just to call them that. A platitude is a trite, banal, or insipid expression. (It comes from a French word, “plat,” appropriately meaning “flat.”) Probably he would have added references to language that is obnoxious, ridiculous, and grossly insulting to the thinking mind.

The realm of intelligent discourse is an island of sanity, washed by hot seas of nonsense. During the 20th century, much of this tiny paradise was lost beneath the watery waste. What was once firm ground became swamps of brackish words and sentences, then delusive verbal quicksand, then eerie depths of linguistic degradation. Remaining is a place like a South Pacific atoll, continually endangered not only by the big storms that arise at sea but also by the smallest, silliest gusts of air — such teapot tempests as the “shutdown.” As a geopolitical event, the affair didn’t amount to much, but when the weather calmed, one saw many parts of the territory where common sense and effective communication had been swept away. In their place, the waves had left the kind of refuse that cannot destroy the mind but can certainly make it wish it were not attached to a sense of smell.

Much of the refuse consisted of mean words and cruel. How many times did Harry Reid proclaim, in his undertaker’s voice, that anything the Republicans passed in the House would be dead on arrival in the Senate? How many times did Republicans point to the military veterans who were prevented by a vengeful National Parks establishment from treading the sacred ground of the World War II memorial and refer to them as people who didn’t have a minute to lose — who were, not to put too fine a point on it, just about to die? Their last journey, their final chance, these soldiers we hold in remembrance, the passing of the greatest generation . . .

(By the way, aren’t you tired of hearing that generation stuff? As if senior citizen — with its implication that just because you’re old you’re “senior” in some moral sense — weren’t bad enough, we’re now told that you’re great, indeed the greatest, just because you got to vote for Roosevelt and be drafted into the army. No, I am not expressing ageism: I don’t think that I deserve any respect or recognition, any plaudits for being hip and pioneering, just because I was part of the baby boom.)

Suddenly the faintest of all virtues, the willingness to give up when you’re forced to do so, became the hallmark of leadership.

Many of the hard words were emitted, curiously, by advocates of compromise. Suddenly the faintest of all virtues, the willingness to give up when you’re forced to do so, became the hallmark of leadership. Often, just as curiously, leadership was said to consist of rigorous obedience, mystic devotion, to something called the law of the land. What this appeared to mean was that once some law, such as the Obamacare enactment, gets passed and signed, no one should try to get rid of it, or even delay its implementation. As in the book of Esther, "If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered." The desire to alter a law was pronounced extremism.

That was a big leap. To get there, one needed not only Law and Order but also the New Math. During the shutdown, it pleased the king to ridicule his opponents for acting at the behest of one faction of extreme partisans, in one party, in one part of one branch of government — meaning the Tea Party faction in the House. Immediately, all the king’s servants (otherwise known as partisans) took up the cry. Soon, thanks to a creative use of fractions, the case was made: the vast majority of Americans, all those people who dislike Obamacare, are actually an extreme minority, extreme both in the mathematical and in the ideological sense.

Another interesting use of fractions, or something like them, was the attempt to divide all Americans into extremists and moderates — an easy task, logically, because anything that is not extreme must be not-extreme, or moderate. The fact that “moderate” has no particular meaning, in isolation from such words as “extreme,” might make a thinking person wonder whether the word was particularly useful, even when juxtaposed with other relative terms (e.g., extreme). The fact that people who are paid to talk kept using moderate and extremist day and night, as if they were essential terms of analysis, was further confirmation that talking doesn’t require much thinking.

Americans’ fashionable respect for moderation reminded me of a cartoon that circulated during the Vietnam War. It was a satire of moderate opposition to the war, and it depicted a group of people carrying signs that read “A Little Less Bombing.” In 2013, moderates are people who want, perhaps, a little less government, at some time in the future, but not now, never now. If there’s such a thing as an extremist platitude, it’s the current use of moderate.

And also of extremist. In 2013, extremists, already extreme, became even more so. They (that is, all non-moderates) became domestic enemies or terrorists, people who were pointing a gun at the president’s head.

The meaning of terrorist had obviously wandered pretty far from its origins. It used to be a word for people sneaking around planting bombs, or rushing out of the shadows to throw one at an archduke. This is not a role, I believe, that John Boehner was born to play. I can’t see Mitch McConnell running through a shopping mall hunting for Christians to slaughter. Even Ted Cruz, chief target of the administration’s talk about terrorism, isn’t plotting to destroy all ranks and hierarchies; what he wants is to achieve the highest rank in the current political hierarchy. Yet according to the new definition, terrorist means simply “someone who stands in our way.”

Imagine, if you can, George Washington, considering a crossing of the Delaware. “Man up, general!” some soldier shouts; and Washington mans up, and all is well.

To me, that is a sobering thought. It means that I spend virtually all my waking life among terrorists. Someone is always standing in my way. When I want to use the elevator, someone else is using it. When I want to turn into the exit lane, someone else is already driving there. When I’m on a committee, other members are always advocating different proposals from mine, and they get people to vote for them! From my students’ point of view, I myself must be a terrorist; I am always standing in their way of having fun. And that’s exactly what the extremist Republicans tried to do; they tried to stand in the way of the president’s fun. He wanted them to give him money to do as he pleased with it, and those terrorists just weren’t prepared to do so. Until he got his way with accusations of terrorism.

Well, maybe we should all just man up. Now, there’s an expression one didn’t expect to see as a major part of political discourse, but there it was, taking its place with caucuses and continuing resolutions to sway the destiny of the nation. Tea Party types advised the moderate Republicans to man up. Pundits told the president that he needed to man up and restore his leadership profile by imposing a solution to the budget problem. Why man up is not perceived as a piece of gross sexism is beyond my understanding. What is not beyond my understanding is its gross reductionism, its summary of leadership as nothing more than an intense commitment to some football game of the emotions. Imagine, if you can, George Washington, considering a crossing of the Delaware. “Man up, general!” some soldier shouts; and Washington mans up, and all is well. You can’t imagine that? Maybe that’s because it’s unimaginable. You can’t imagine even Millard Fillmore being told to man up.

One might possibly need to man up if one had already been taken hostage by a gang of terrorist Republicans; one might need to man up if one were actually standing with a gun at one’s head. I may be out of step with the rest of America, but I’m not sure that’s what the shutdown amounted to. Even the most obnoxious metaphor ought to bear some relationship to something that’s real; otherwise, I can’t form the obnoxious picture in my mind. So in this case, what is the gun? A threat not to vote for the president’s schemes? Is that a deadly weapon? If so, why did he consistently refuse to negotiate while someone washolding a gun to his head? And is that what terrorists do — threaten to blow your head off, unless you negotiate with them? Can you then simply refuse to negotiate? Evidently you can, because that’s what the president did. Memo to self: next time someone points a gun at you, just refuse to negotiate. That’ll fix ’em.

Ditto the next time someone takes you hostage. All you need to do is just refuse to pay the ransom. We were constantly told that America or the political process or something like that was being held for ransom — but what was the ransom supposed to be? Ordinarily, a ransom is a sack of money delivered to the kidnapers. In this case, however, what the kidnapers wanted was merely their own right not to pay more money to the kidnaped persons, the hostages — the Obama Party and the government it represents.

It’s all very confusing. This thing called government, this thing that was shut down, held hostage, held for ransom — what was it? It wasn’t the people who pass laws and sign them, some of whom were acting as the terrorists or hostage takers, others as the people at whom the terrorists were aiming their guns. All those people kept working on their separate projects. It wasn’t the vast number of essential government employees, who also continued to work, or “work.” And it certainly wasn’t America, as in the Democrats’ interchangeable use of holding the government hostage and holding America hostage. What was shut down, apparently, was the complacent idea that some people, somewhere in this country, were doing humble but appropriate work for the republic, work that, though nonessential, was still important enough to worry about. Probably no one believes that now. The cliché turned out to be true: all these workers were nonessential. The only essential thing about them was the perceived necessity of paying them even when they didn’t even pretend to work — as Congress unanimously agreed to do, when it decided to reimburse them for their nonwork during the shutdown. Asked whom among them might be dispensed with by a grateful but bankrupt nation, both Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner failed to identify a single cuttable employee.

So the government will keep “working,” and you and I will have to keep paying it to work as it does, forever. I, for one, regard that as an extreme situation. I, for one, feel that we have been taken hostage — with not just one but two bands of pirates engaged in looting us. But here the kidnaping analogy breaks down. It’s becoming obvious that no ransom will free us from these brigands. We tried paying them to go away, and they didn’t.




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Yet Another New Record

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Well, the autocrat occupying the White House got his way. President Obama, with the able assistance of his worshipers in the mainstream media — i.e., the mainstream media in totality — forced the Republicans to give in on both funding the government and raising the debt limit, with no cuts of any kind, especially to ObamaCare. Obama promptly celebrated with a gloating, moon-in-your-face news conference, in which he bragged about his achievement.

And he promptly set a new record. The first day the limit was raised, he added an eye-popping $328 billion to the national debt — yes, in one day. This was the greatest addition to the US debt in history, eclipsing the earlier record of $238 billion added in one day. That one was set in 2011, by none other than Obama himself.

Actually, the neosocialist nabob set two new records. The second was, for the first time, a thrust of the national debt to over $17 trillion — to be exact, $17.075 trillion. This is hugely ironic, considering the fact that the fiscally incontinent Obama accused his predecessor of being “unpatriotic” for incurring far less debt.

The lapdogs in the mainstream media have not touched this story, although they were willing to run phony stories about how the poor citizens were suffering under the government shutdown and the “threat” of default (the only threat, of course, came from Obama).

Unfortunately, however, the debt story is even worse than indicated above. According to the deal Obama pushed for and won, he can add as much debt as he wants until February 7 of next year. That gives him four months to keep adding hundreds of billions a day, if he chooses.




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Going for Broke

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Filner Found Felonious in Sizzling Sex Scandal

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I am a resident of San Diego who has disliked former Mayor Robert Filner from the moment he first reared his ugly head in electoral politics — and that was a long, long time ago. As far as I’m concerned, he is a man with no good qualities. So I was not unhappy when he (at last!) became the subject of national ridicule. I was disappointed, however, that he was ridiculed almost exclusively for being what the early 20th century called a masher, “a man who attempts to force his attentions on a woman.”

Filner did hundreds of things wrong, besides planting unwelcome kisses and giving hugs from which women had difficulty escaping. I thought that some of those other things deserved notice also. But it was the sex behavior that drove him from office a few weeks ago.

On Oct. 15, Filner paid a surprise visit to a local court, where he admitted his guilt for one felony and two misdemeanors. The Los Angeles Times has a convenient summary:

The felony count involves allegations of false imprisonment by "violence, fraud, menace and deceit." The count alleges that Filner used undue force to hold a woman against her will at a political fundraiser in March, apparently in a move known derisively as the "Filner headlock."

The battery counts involve accusations that he kissed one woman at a Meet the Mayor session at City Hall in April and grabbed another by the buttocks at an environmental cleanup . . .

State Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said Filner's conduct — touching women inappropriately, kissing them without permission, whispering lewd suggestions — "was not only criminal, it was also an extreme abuse of power."

For such crimes, Filner will be sentenced to three years’ probation and forced to agree not to run for public office again.

News of this event ignited a controversy between citizens who thought he had been punished appropriately and citizens who thought he should have been taken out and hanged. I am one of the few people who appear to have been disgusted by the whole procedure.

First, of course, I’m disgusted with Filner. But second, I’m disgusted with the politically correct pretense that being gross and offensive amounts to “false imprisonment by violence, fraud, menace and deceit,” and that such conduct is something for criminal courts to involve themselves with.

I say “pretense” because nobody really believes that Filner imprisoned anyone, and few people really believe that kissing someone at a Meet the Mayor session should, even theoretically, send you to jail. Run you out of office — fine. But make you liable for imprisonment? Why?

Watch a movie from the 1960s or before, and you will see men — the heroes! — behaving toward women in ways ten times worse than the ways in which Filner behaved.

We live in a time when the news is full of stories about people who have assaulted other people, stolen their property, swindled them out of their life’s savings, clobbered them in a drunken rage, stolen their personal information (are you listening, US government?), instigated riots, kept but did not control vicious and destructive animals, spent years camping, pissing, and shitting on other people’s doorsteps, abandoned infant children while appropriating the mother’s welfare checks, paralyzed cities with acts of political self-expression, and yes, actually held other people against their will, who are never seriously prosecuted for anything — until the day when, by some amazing chance, they end up committing and being apprehended for what is then called “a major crime.” Few other people get excited, even when that happens. But along comes Filner, and the sky falls. The city, we are told, could proceed with the healing process only when Filner was dragged into court and forced by some secret process of plea bargaining into confessing to charges worthy of a pirate with free admission to a nunnery.

Watch a movie from the 1960s or before, and you will see men — the heroes! — behaving toward women in ways ten times worse than the ways in which Filner behaved. Now, in the great B movie that is our public lives, we see the forces of law and light acting exactly like the Legions of Decency that, we are told, used to make such a ridiculous to-do about morals.

The main indecency, it seems to me, is the American people’s long-standing habit of abandoning reason and proportion whenever they hear the magic word SEX. Picture Filner in the dock, confessing to those high crimes and misdemeanors. Now picture the kings and queens of the “music” world, standing on spotlit stages, collecting awards for purveying attitudes toward sex and women so vile, so lewd, that they cannot be exemplified on a site like this.

There is something badly wrong about Robert Filner. There is something much worse about the atmosphere in which we live.




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Sand Shortage

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Milton Friedman's notion that "If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there'd be a shortage of sand," has been borne out for decades in US energy policy. Sitting on top of the world's most prolific supply of oil, coal, and gas, every president since Richard Nixon has promised energy independence. The result: an energy dependence that led to the September 11 attack by Osama bin Laden.

With terrorism financed by oil revenues (Saudi Arabian, for the Sunni variety, and Iranian, for the Shiite variety), fretting terrorists evidently anticipated an oil shortage. Who could blame them? When the oil ran out, they would be left with sand. Disconcerted, therefore, by America's voracious energy appetite, bin Laden complained, "Muslims are starving to death and the United States is stealing their oil." That, and our military presence in the Arabian peninsula, provoked his famous 1998 fatwa, exhorting God-fearing Muslims "to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."

But Muslims were not starving because of US oil theft. We paid a fair market price of untold trillions (plus an annual premium of $30–60 billion in taxes to protect the Persian Gulf, even before 9/11). Hunger — along with poverty, ignorance, disease, violence, and despair, to name a few other maladies common to the region — was the result of Muslim governments put in charge of the oil fields.

In the early 1900s, when oil was first discovered in the Middle East, the Muslim world had been in decline from its former greatness for over 100 years. Defying the principles of free market capitalism, and at least a few laws of probability, Muslim political leaders managing Muslim oil — the greatest single source of naturally conferred, easily accessible wealth in the 20th century — extended the decline for another 100 years.

Who would have thought that decades of brutal, totalitarian police states, run by secular tyrants, would fail to restore the tremendous successes Muslims had achieved in the glory days of AD 600–1500?

The descent of Muslim military power, economic strength, and scientific leadership began, ironically, around the time the American republic was born and Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. The subsequent adoption of democracy and capitalism by the US and European nations produced immense prosperity and an ever-widening gap between the West and the Muslim world. Today, by any meaningful measure of achievement, Muslim countries lag dramatically behind the West. During a 2010 interview on Al-Arabiya Television, Saudi scholar, Ahmad bin Baz (the son of the former Saudi grand mufti, Abdul Aziz bin Baz), explained,

We Muslims have found ourselves at the tail end of the world's progress. The Muslims are always on the receiving end, and their only role in life is to receive from others. Western society has become the society of innovations. It is Western society that produces and adapts itself to the changes of life, whereas we Muslims have become passive recipients of all these innovations, and all we do is sit down and ponder whether these innovations are permitted or forbidden by Islam.

Muslim leaders are no doubt perplexed by their abysmal failure to rejuvenate Islamic civilization. Who would have thought that decades of brutal, totalitarian police states, run by secular tyrants, would fail to restore the tremendous successes Muslims had achieved in the glory days of AD 600–1500? Why has the terrorism of Islamists (i.e., religious tyrants from organizations such as al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the nation of Iran) been so slow to advance the Muslim cause? What other strategy might invigorate Muslim innovation, should corruption, cronyism, intolerance, bigotry, homophobia, and misogyny fail?

Give up? Here's a clue: it involves neither democracy nor capitalism. Instead, some Islamist intellectuals have decided that the future of Islam lies in a global Caliphate. They even have annual conferences for indulging in the fantasy. A promotional video for "Caliphate Conference 2012" proclaimed that "the Islamic Caliphate is the only social and political system that has the right solutions to the political, social and economic problems of humanity" and asserted that "the relentless decline of Capitalism has begun. The time has come to fight against poverty. Time to obliterate the injustices. Time for the correct system."

While the precise architecture of the "correct system" is a little sketchy, many of its core concepts — common bonding tenets, mandatory for all self-respecting Islamist intellectuals — are well known. These include (a) totalitarianism, masquerading as religion, (b) absolute rule by Sharia law, the legal codification of the Quran, (c) hatred of Jews, (d) blame to Jews (for caliphate failures), and, of course, (e) death to Israel.

When (or if) the Caliphate begins its transition from a pan-Islamic state to a global empire, the failures produced by the spreading dystopia and cultural havoc will be too numerous and varied to indict Jews alone. Thus, Islamists can be expected to add Christians and other infidels to (d) above.

As a surprise to Israel (not to mention the residents of cities such as Mecca, Damascus, and Cairo), Jerusalem will be the capital of the Caliphate. And as a surprise to capitalism (not to mention the billions of people it has lifted from poverty, more people than any other economic system in the history of mankind), it will be blamed for the world's poverty. Add “Capitalism” to (c) and (d).

A Sunni (al Qaeda) version of the Caliphate is scheduled to be victorious by 2020, right after four years of the "final battles against nonbelievers." However, given the pace at which Iran is developing its nuclear weapons, a Shiite version may be established sooner — unless, of course, al Qaeda steals its nuclear capability from a crumbling and sympathetic Pakistan. Picking a winner is troublesome, as is the idea of a Shiite theocracy having a nuclear bomb among its weapons and a “Death to America Day” among its holidays. Foreign policy experts tell us that Iran seeks its nuclear capability to gain a seat at the table of power. On the other hand, says former CIA director James Woolsey, al Qaeda simply wants to "blow the table up." It's a safe bet that “America” can be added to (c), (d), and (e).

Osama bin Laden was correct to worry about the conservation of oil in a desert region.

America's hedonistic culture mocks the "purity" of Mohammed-era ideals. The conspicuous progress of American capitalism undermines Islamist efforts to reconcile Islam with modernity. To the more eager Caliphate builders, the salve for this incessant irritation might be an EMP attack. A small (1 KT) nuclear weapon or two, detonated at an altitude of as low as 40 km, would destroy our infrastructure (power, communications, transportation, etc.) and, as a bonus, instantaneously fry our blasphemy-spewing smartphones, TVs, radios, and other electronic devices. According to the 2008 “Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack,” its effect would be “something you might imagine life to be like around the late 1800s" — not the 7th century, but a start.

If the Islamists prevail, their caliphate will be the first since the previous Islamic Caliphate was dissolved by Kemal Atatürk in 1924, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Islamists are nothing if not ambitious, and patient.

That patience is about to be tested. Thanks to capitalism, America is now in the early stages of an oil and gas boom, despite all efforts by our federal energy intellectuals to stifle fossil fuel production. As Gary Jason pointed out in A Totally Fracked Planet, "We will reach energy independence in the not too distant future, thanks not to any corrupt crony green energy industry (solar, wind, ethanol, or biodiesel) but to the vast resources of shale oil and gas made available by advanced fracking technology." Privately owned US companies, employing innovative drilling techniques and private capital, on mostly private land, have made the US the fastest growing oil and natural gas producer in the world. The US is expected to be independent of all foreign oil, except for oil imported from Canada, by 2018.

During the last ten years, capitalism has been turning our long dependence on Middle East oil into little more than a bad memory of the 40 years of feckless policies concocted by our federal energy stewards. And it will turn the dream of Islamists into a nightmare. Try running a totalitarian state on oil revenues, when Brent crude drops from today's price of $110 per barrel to $70 by the end of the decade. What will Caliphate Conference 2020 have to say about world domination when dwindling Saudi Arabian and Iranian terrorism contributions squeeze prospective caliphate budgets to nothing?

Osama bin Laden was correct to worry about the conservation of oil in a desert region. He may have pondered over the use of sand when the oil beneath it ran out. Perhaps he recognized that excessive reliance on oil was the real source of the Middle East plight — that all the while, Muslims were more dependent on their oil than Americans. If Muslim leaders meted out freedom and opportunity, instead of crumbs from the table of oil revenue, economic diversity would result. Industries such as manufacturing, banking, tourism, and agriculture would expand and thrive. Who knows? As America becomes the new Middle East, the Middle East could become the next Silicon Valley, creating thousands of companies, millions of jobs, billions in tax revenues, and trillions in profits to shareholders— as it did here, in capitalist America. Why not? Unless you are an Islamist, there is no reason to believe that Middle Eastern Muslims are not as intelligent, industrious, and ambitious as American Muslims.

Meanwhile, according to an NBC News series on the economic and political ramifications of the American oil and gas bonanza, things will be looking up in America. Lower energy costs are making American businesses more profitable and competitive. New and better jobs are being created. With lower product prices and rising incomes, our standard of living will increase. And we will buy unprecedented quantities of any blasphemy-spewing, Islamist-mocking semiconductor devices Silicon Valley can invent. Semiconductors, by the way, are made from silicon, which is, in turn, fabricated from silicon dioxide — aka, sand.




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Is the GOP Terminally Stupid?

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On October 8 I received an email from Representative Luke Messer, a Republican representing the 6th District of Indiana. Attached was a “constituent survey” that Rep. Messer wanted me to fill out and email back to his office. As the reader can perhaps guess, the survey sought my views on the government shutdown.

To the best of my recollection I have never been in the state of Indiana, much less the 6th Congressional district. I did fly over the state once, I think. In any case I can’t conceive why Rep. Messer would want the opinion of this New Englander on the government shutdown. The survey itself was framed in classic push-polling style, an attempt to draw from me the answers that Rep. Messer and his allies so want to receive from the public.

The Tea Partiers just don’t seem to understand that the country as a whole is not to the right of Rick Perry.

For the fun of it I did fill out and send back the survey. But the whole business only reinforced the impression that has been growing in my mind — that the GOP is incredibly and perhaps terminally stupid.

This impression was further reinforced by an AP dispatch from Washington dated October 12 and titled “During Shutdown, Congressional Pay Strikes a Nerve.” Quite a few Republican friends of the shutdown saw no problem about collecting their pay while it was going on. They gave no thought to donating their salaries or setting them aside for the duration. I quote from the dispatch:

When Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., was asked whether he’d continue to collect his paycheck during the government shutdown, he offered a defiant response: “Dang straight.”

Days later, a penitent Terry changed course, telling his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, that he was “ashamed” of his comments and would have his salary withheld until furloughed government workers got paid again.

And Rep. Terry was hardly alone. The AP went on to quote several other Republican members moaning, “I need my paycheck,” until constituent anger forced them to backtrack. “[I put my] needs above others in crisis. I’m ashamed of my comments” said one.

These are the people who craft our laws. So devoid of common sense are they that they could not see the political incorrectness and moral turpitude of their words and actions. This is the GOP the Tea Party has given us. Apparently, the complete proletarianization of our politics is being realized — not, as one might have expected, by the Democrat Party, but by the GOP. The party of Wall Street and the country clubs has been taken over (or almost so) by petit bourgeois Babbitts.

Consider the Tea Party-driven strategy behind the government shutdown. It began as an attempt to defund Obamacare. When this provoked indifference or hostility among the majority of the electorate, the GOP sought to extract concessions in other areas of spending and entitlements. This looked like extortion to many observers, and polling showed that the public agreed. Rather than fold a losing hand, the Republicans upped the ante by threatening not to raise the debt ceiling, a much more chilling prospect for business leaders as well as average voters. The Republicans gave the Democrats one opening after another to demagogue the situation, and Obama and his minions proceeded to do so. As a result the Republican Party, both in Congress and out, has dropped to new lows in public approval. Over 40% of the Tea Party currently disapproves of the GOP, according to the latest Gallup poll.

The actual dangers threatened by the Republicans’ stand have been overstated by the media as well as the Democrats. The government shutdown has done very little harm to the nation as a whole, although depriving federal workers of pay is hardly fair and will, economists say, lead to a slowing of economic growth if the shutdown is prolonged. But one way or another, the government is eventually going to reopen, and the effects of the shutdown will pass.

The GOP threat not to increase the debt ceiling is a more serious matter, though not for the reasons Obama and Co. have put forward. Republicans in Congress have pointed out quite correctly that money coming into the Treasury every month exceeds the amount needed to pay the interest on the national debt. Despite Secretary of the Treasury Lew’s prediction that October 17 would bring financial Armageddon, there is no prospect of serious trouble before about November 1. Moreover, the US has actually defaulted on its debt at least twice in the past (once in 1814 when the British came close to making us a colony again, and then in 1979 when a fight over a balanced budget amendment led to a brief delay in the Treasury’s ability to redeem about $120 million in maturing T-bills) without the world coming to an end.

Yet the environment today is quite different from that of 1814, when we were not the linchpin of the world economy, or even 1979, before the era of globalization. As so often in economic affairs, it’s the psychology that matters. Loss of confidence in the US as the world’s rock of financial stability would almost certainly lead to panic in world markets. A prolonged crisis would likely cause the dollar to fall from its perch as the world’s reserve currency, and the effects of that would be felt in every American business and household. A global 2008 for which no bailout could be organized might follow. The result could be a years- or decades-long depression in the US and much of the world.

The scenario outlined above may or may not reflect the exact conditions a default would produce. But do we really want to find out? Certainly the vast majority of Americans are not willing to gamble their livelihoods on Republican assurances that a default would be no big deal.

And therein lies the absurdity of the GOP position. Senator Cruz’s crusade against Obamacare, which touched off the crisis, has morphed into a game of chicken threatening the stability of the world economy. This is a path few Americans want to tread. Recall that over 40% of Tea Party members currently disapprove of the GOP.

Within the last few days the Republicans have tried to say that they provoked the shutdown and debt ceiling fight in order to force the Obama administration to negotiate over spending cuts and entitlement reform. Had they actually started out with that line, they might have attained the moral and political high ground. But too late did they realize that this was the only possible way to justify shutting down the government and threatening to default on the national debt. Everyone knows how and why this contretemps actually began, and few are buying the new Republican line. Obama and the Democrats are winning the argument despite the weakness of their case.

Quite a few Republican friends of the shutdown saw no problem about collecting their pay while it was going on.

This Republican performance represents the quintessence of political stupidity. The Republicans have bungled a potentially winning hand into a losing one. They have inflicted enormous political damage on themselves for 2014. Whereas six months ago it seemed certain they would reclaim a majority in the Senate, that prospect now seems very dim. While they will almost certainly not lose control of the House, their majority may well shrink, with districts gerrymandered to provide small Republican majorities tipping Democratic. 2014 is beginning to look like 1998 all over again — but worse.

Ideologically the party has been split asunder, with the establishment wing further alienated from the far right faction. This makes its presidential prospects even more tenuous. If Ted Cruz is the nominee in 2016, establishment Republicans will stay home or vote for Hillary. If the candidate of the establishment, that is, Jeb Bush, runs and wins the nomination, many Tea Partiers will go rogue by not voting or perhaps even taking the third party route. The Tea Party mantra, on the morrow of Hillary’s landslide, will be that the GOP candidate was another Romney, i.e., not conservative enough. The Tea Partiers just don’t seem to understand that the country as a whole is not to the right of Rick Perry. Maybe they will get a nominee to their liking in 2020. Then, after he or she is crushed in that election, perhaps reason will prevail, and stupidity recede. Perhaps.

More than any other single person, Ted Cruz is responsible for the present fix the Republicans are in. He won his Senate seat by taking on the Republican establishment in Texas. But that establishment is too far right for most of the rest of the country. Cruz, who definitely wants to be president, has gained new prominence, not by reaching out to the center but by pandering to his Tea Party supporters. This may or may not be a good idea for someone seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2016 or 2020, but from a national perspective it amounts to political suicide.

The GOP, whose symbol is the elephant, faces, like the real animal, the danger of extinction. California, once a purple state, is now definitely blue. Florida, once a red state, is purple trending toward blue. Texas is still a red state, but demographic trends indicate that its future is purple and perhaps even blue. If and when Texas goes, the Republican Party will be finished nationally. Cruz, the Cuban-Canadian-American who was last seen hobnobbing with Sarah Palin on the National Mall, is doing nothing to prevent the GOP’s decline — indeed, he is accelerating it. By choosing the path of political stupidity he is leading the Republican Party to destruction.

The elephant, reputedly a highly intelligent animal, does not have the ability to save itself from extinction. The GOP is headed that way purely because it has become too stupid to recognize political realities.




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Pirates, Dead Ahead

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After the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, a reign of piracy ensued that terrorized the shipping lanes along the east coast of Africa for nearly two decades. Anyone who idealizes anarchy should take note: in the absence of leadership, leaders emerged — and these virtual warlords were at least as tyrannical as their predecessors, and certainly more volatile. (I didn't see any of my anarchist friends moving to Somalia during the 20 years between governments.)

Captain Phillips tells the harrowing story of Richard Phillips and the crew of the Maersk Alabama, an American cargo ship that was hijacked by a band of young Somalis in the spring of 2011. Incredibly, the Maersk Alabama was unescorted and her crew was armed with nothing but firehoses, despite ample knowledge that Somali pirates roamed the waters.

In the early days of American westward expansion, wagon trains and stagecoaches were similarly threatened by local bands as they transported people and commodities through unsafe territories. But their drivers and passengers carried rifles (leading later generations to call out "Shotgun!" when requesting the front passenger seat). They could also count on the protection of federal troops, who set up forts and patrolled the emigration areas. (I know — some might call this trespassing. And they might be right. But here we are.)

The Alabama had no such protection, and it carried no weapons. And it was alone in the water, away from the other cargo ships. Using radar to hunt their prey, the Somalis selected the Alabama in the way that a pride of lions might select a zebra. It was a single blip on the outskirts of the shipping lanes, away from the safety of the herd; it was the proverbial sitting duck.

These young pirates are no different from the street dealers in America, who take the risks of the Drug War and receive very little of the profits.

Despite its tense theme, the film begins slowly, almost boringly, with Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) getting ready to go to work. He and his wife (Catherine Keener) make small talk about family and safety as she drives him to work. Then we watch Captain Phillips go through his usual routine on the ship. If this had been a film festival submission with unrecognized actors and no advance publicity, the screener probably would have popped it out of the DVD player ten minutes into the viewing and dropped it into the discard pile.

And that would have been a shame, because Captain Phillips is a nonstop suspense thriller, on a par with the original Die Hard movie. After that first tedious ten minutes, the tension doesn’t let up until the last frame of the film — despite a moment of unintended comic relief when the government agency that is called for help doesn’t pick up the phone. "Government shutdown!" someone called out in the audience.

Captain Phillips controls the rising panic he naturally feels and uses a calm, soothing voice as he tries to reason with the overwrought hijackers.The tension between what he feels and what he does is visible throughout the film. His men's lives are in his hands, but he is not a trained military man or intelligence agent. He couldn’t land a punch or aim a kick any better than you or I could; he's just a boat driver who probably wouldn't know what to do with an automatic rifle even if he managed to get one. Instead he uses his wits, planning diversions on the fly, weighing risks against potential outcomes, all the time trying to placate and calm his attackers. This heightens the emotional tension more than a physical fight would do, and it gives the film a strong tone of realism, more in the manner of United 93 (2006) than of the Bourne movies (2004, 2007), which were also directed by Paul Greengrass.

Captain Phillips gets additional depth from the backstory it provides for the hijackers. While never excusing them, it allows us to see the despair of poverty that leads young men like these to turn to piracy for their livelihood. At one point Phillips says to the ringleader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), "You have $30,000. That's enough. Take it and go."Muse scoffs at the amount. "I got six million last year," he says of an earlier kidnapping. Phillips is incredulous, and so are we. Six million? He had six million American dollars, and he is still living in ragged, barefoot poverty? Muse shrugs in response. "You got bosses. I got bosses," he says.

These young pirates do all the work and take all the risks for a pittance, while a boss somewhere is living fat, collecting the ransoms and booty and doling out a tiny commission to the workers. They are no different from the street dealers in America, who take the risks of the Drug War and receive very little of the profits. In his research for Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt discovered that most drug dealers experience this same tyranny of the warlord. Street dealers earn little more than minimum wage, and they live in poverty. As with the Somali pirates, or the lioness who goes in for the kill, the "lion's share" goes to the ones sitting safely under a tree.

Despite his two Oscars and his stellar reputation, Tom Hanks' work has been a bit uneven of late, with such forgettable films as The Terminal (2004), The Ladykillers (2004), Elvis Has Left the Building (also 2004) and a slew of others leading up to Larry Crowne (2011). (Don't look for my reviews because I didn't even bother.) Captain Phillips is his best work in over a decade. The constant tension between the panic his character feels and the calm he must present to his captors is always present. And when that tension breaks — well, it's simply an unforgettable moment, which makes up for ten years of forgettable films.

But as good as Hanks is in this film, it isn't as good as the amazing work performed by the four Somalis (Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali) who will convince you that they were discovered on the deck of a pirate ship, not in a casting studio. They are beyond scary. They are seething with rage, as volatile as a sprung grenade, overwrought and underfed and starving for vengeance against anyone. Anyone. But of course, they aren't really pirates. All four are immigrants living in the growing Somali community of Minneapolis, and all four are remarkable in their debut roles. Director Greengrass has to be given tremendous credit, first for deciding to use untrained Somalis instead of Hollywood actors, and second for being able to elicit such realistic work from these first-time actors.

The only disappointment in terms of acting is Catherine Keener as Captain Phillips' wife. She disappears after those first dull ten minutes, and she never returns. What a waste of a fine, skilled actress. I suspect, however, that she had a larger role, possibly as her character waited at home worrying about her husband's fate, but that it ended up on the cutting room floor in the interest of time or emotional arc. This would have been a wise decision, I might add, since any interruption to the gripping, fast-paced suspense would have been a mistake. In fact, as much as I admire her work, I would have cut her part entirely and started the film after Phillips is onboard the ship. But this is a minor quibble about a superbly acted film.

September-October is usually considered the dumping ground between the summer blockbusters and the end-of-year Oscar contenders; we usually wallow through fall with movies that were considered good enough to pick up for distribution but not good enough to give them holiday box office slots. But we are three-for-three in this month with Prisoners, Gravity, and Captain Phillips. Go easy on the popcorn!


Editor's Note: Review of "Captain Phillips," directed by Paul Greengrass. Columbia Pictures, 2013; 134 white-knuckle minutes.



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Have You Tried Turning It Off and On Again?

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The following is a printout that fell from a garbage truck on Pennsylvania Avenue in DC when it ran over a protesting veteran.

[Welcome to the USA online support help chat. A representative will assist you shortly.]

[User BarryH is requesting support.]

[Agent PublicSupport is now online.]

PublicSupport: Hi, how can I help you?

BarryH: My government doesn't work.

PublicSupport: Can you describe the error?

BarryH: It has stopped running. Well, 85% of it still runs, but the rest is frozen.

PublicSupport: What did you do last?

BarryH: Nothing! Well, almost. I loaded the application ObamaCare while I had no more free space in my deficit, and the legislative branch went berserk. I should have gotten rid of it.

PublicSupport: One moment while I investigate . . .

BarryH: Well?

PublicSupport: It appears that the system is working as designed. This happened many times already, and users were not complaining. Have you checked the original specifications?

BarryH: Your specifications? You mean that old, musty, handwritten thing that starts with "We the people"? Couldn't read it, I threw it out.

PublicSupport: That's the source of your problems right there.

BarryH: So what? I won. Make it work.

PublicSupport: A new legislative branch is on its way. Estimate time of arrival is 2014. You might not like it. [End of transmission]

[User PublicSupport left the conversation in utter disgust.]

BarryH: What? Hello? Are you there? . . . Hello? . . .




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My Excellent TSA Adventure

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In late September, I paid a visit to my sister in Santa Barbara. Having heard the horror stories about the ultra-vigilant guardians of our skies, I was leery about going through security. I hadn’t flown for two years, and thought the process might have gotten scarier. As I prepared to depart from Phoenix, however, things went without a hitch. Shoes off, all the contents of my pockets in a plastic container, arms over my head for a nudie shot (the only new, unpleasant feature) — all routine.

Sky Harbor is a huge airport. Tens of thousands of people pass through it daily, and everybody is too busy to hassle a vaguely Nordic-looking middle-aged lady. Nobody in his right mind would mistake me for a terrorist, but in any facility of such size, I would expect to encounter big government at its most oppressive. Santa Barbara’s airport, on the other hand, is small and rather quaint. Its sole terminal looks something like a high school building. I anticipated that my pass through security, on the way home, would be equally uneventful.

I could not have been more wrong. Evidently the TSA agents at tiny airports demand to be taken seriously. They aren’t going to let anybody think she’s dealing with Andy Taylor or Barney Fife.

As my sister stood and watched behind the barricade, a reassuring maternal presence seeing me off, I presented my boarding pass and picture I.D. I don’t drive, so the state of Arizona has issued me an all-purpose identification card. The agent squinted at it as if it were written in Chinese. He turned it over several times, perused it front, back, and upside down, and called over another agent. They both behaved as if it were the most extraordinary thing they’d ever seen.

They informed me that the card displayed no expiration date. I informed them that this was a general identification card, not a driver’s license, and that my identity wouldn’t expire. I wasn’t aware the TSA had made it a rule that only drivers could fly. I didn’t come right out and say this, of course. Barney Fifes never tolerate so much as a peep of impertinence.

My sister stepped around to the side of the barricade. For a moment, I wondered if she was going to step over it. She had plenty to say. “It was good enough to get her here,” I specifically remember her telling the agents. “I don’t know why it shouldn’t be good enough to get her home.”

They looked peeved. They couldn’t keep her from flying, because she wasn’t going anywhere. Nor did they offer any reason to reject her argument. But they kept on brooding over the card.

He turned it over several times, perused it front, back, and upside down, and called over another agent. They both behaved as if it were the most extraordinary thing they’d ever seen.

Agent Number Two took it over to a different station and called someone on the phone. He came back, gave me my card, made some officious little squiggles on my boarding pass and waved me through. My sister and I were relieved. I would not be relegated to non-personhood.

I assume the agent called Arizona and verified that this was indeed a state-issued ID. I was not aware, before this incident, that non-drivers presented any greater threat to airline security than, say, terrorists who drive themselves to airports. Evidently, however, the very fact that we don’t drive means we are shady characters. Perhaps it is petty for me to raise this question, but is every adult who doesn’t drive now potentially subject to such a hassle before being permitted to board a flight?

What is it, specifically, that casts a shadow over us? Is it that, in this small way, we don’t conform to the norm? Is it that our form of identification requires TSA personnel to think? I’ve put these questions to a number of my friends. Their response has been that I, like a typical libertarian, enjoy nitpicking about government oppression. That I find it under every rock.

I suppose I do get testier about authoritarian silliness than a lot of people might. But surely there’s no harm in asking the questions. In retrospect, it bothers me less that the incident happened than that I felt I didn’t dare ask these questions to the agents at the airport. At one time I would have, but now — as if by animal instinct — I’d be afraid to.

What is happening to us, as a country? As a people raised to presume ourselves free from such cringe-inducing intimidation? This is the question that haunts me. Though what happened to me amounted to no more than a minor irritant, I must admit that I was genuinely afraid. My guts knotted up within me in a way to which I’m unaccustomed.

Would a terrorist feel that sort of fear in that sort of a situation? Or is the procedure designed primarily to intimidate law-abiding citizens like me? I don’t want to become accustomed to that feeling. I wonder if eventually it will, for all of us, become routine.




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