Noah Sails Where No Rock Ever Sailed Before

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Myth has been defined as “a story, often employing superhuman figures and supernatural events, that attempts to explain something about the world and that expresses some important value or belief of a culture or society” (Howard Canaan, Tales of Magic from around the World). Myths have simple plots with few specific details; their meaning can evolve over time to represent changing cultural values. This is what director Darren Aronofsky has done with his epic new film, Noah — he has created a myth like that.

Audiences who want to see the biblical story of Noah will be disappointed. Judeo-Christian believers, indeed, will be offended and outraged by the laughable inaccuracies in this movie, from the biblical point of view. (Believers will know they’re in trouble when they see the film begin with the words, “In the beginning there was nothing.”) Darren Aronofsky has rewritten a new myth, for modern times. It is no longer the story of a prophet who was chosen by God to build an ark and repopulate the earth after everyone else drowns. The conflict is no longer between God and Satan but between humans and Rock People (representing Earth — but more below). Rock People communicate with a Creator, but humans do not communicate with God. The purpose of religion is not to forge a relationship between God and people but to protect the earth and the animals. “If anything happens to one of these creatures, it will be lost forever,” Noah warns his sons, but he has no similar concern for humanity. As Noah walks among the wicked community that is about to be destroyed by the flood, he observes many gruesome acts, but the pinnacle of their depravity is presented as they cleave animal carcasses for cooking. Methuselah explains, “Men will be punished for what they have done to this world,” not for what they have done to one another. Noah is a modern myth that represents the hegemonic values of today.

Aronofsky fractures the Bible, combining snippets from several biblical stories and pretending that they all happened to Noah.

Maybe it was because I had just seen the new Mr. Peabody and Sherman movie, but Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales kept coming to mind while I was watching Noah. Aronofsky fractures the Bible, combining snippets from several biblical stories and pretending that they all happened to Noah, including Eve’s attraction to the serpent, Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, Elisha’s army of angels, and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. It’s the most bizarre concoction, yet I’m sure that many gullible filmgoers went home saying, “Wow! I didn’t know Noah almost killed his granddaughters!” You see, in order to understand Rocky’s Fractured Fairy Tales, you had to know that Sleeping Beauty did not eat a poisoned apple.

And here’s another thing you probably wouldn’t know was in the Bible if you didn’t see this movie: God did not create humans — some crazy giant Rock People did. These Rock People look like piles of boulders until they pull themselves together, Transformer-like, and start stomping around the earth. They have multiple arms and glowing eyes and thundering voices à la Optimus Prime and are a whole lot more exciting than the voice of God. They create an eerie static hum whenever they’re close by, and they strike fear into the hearts of men. Except the hearts of the ones they like.

According to the Book of Aronofsky, these Rock People came from outer space as meteors of light and got stuck in the muck of primordial creation. They made humans out of the dust of the earth, and as the film opens they’re really mad at themselves for doing it because humans really suck. But you already know that, if you’ve been reading the newspapers lately.

See, it turns out that animals are “the innocents” and “man broke the world.” Eve’s real treachery wasn’t curiosity or disobedience or a desire for wisdom; it was that she brought children to the earth and allowed her descendants to wreak havoc there. Now Noah’s wife wants to do the same! But Father Noah Knows Best. He is determined to put all the animal pairs onto the ark and save only his three sons, his post-menopausal wife (Jennifer Connelly), and one barren girl (Emma Watson) so that humans cannot repopulate the earth and ruin it again. His job is simply to keep the animals safe until the flood subsides, and then quietly let humans become extinct.

It probably doesn’t surprise you that in this movie, Noah never communicates with God, or vice versa. So where does he get the idea of building the ark? From the dregs of a psychotropic tea given to him by Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Methuselah, by the way, has supernatural powers, but when he uses them to cause a wonderful and necessary miracle, Noah gets pretty ticked off and starts grabbing for daggers. Actually, there is very little to set Noah apart from the wickedness around him. He wields an ax and a bludgeon with the best of them, and he can be pretty heartless.

Despite the assertion that “in the beginning there was nothing,” there are deists in the movie. They just aren’t the prophets. The Rock People talk directly to a Creator, and so does Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), the leader of the wicked nomads and a descendant of Cain, who killed his brother Abel and was forced to bear a mark on his forehead as the first murderer. Tubal-cain doesn’t actually appear in the biblical story of Noah, but Aronofsky throws him in, probably because he became a blacksmith (Genesis 4:22) and is credited by many scriptorians with inventing weapons of war. While Noah is drinking the psychedelic Kool-Aid, Tubal-cain is calling out to God, “Speak to me! I am a man, made in your image. I am like you — I give life and I take it away. Why will you not converse with me?” Meanwhile, the priesthood that has been passed from Adam to Methuselah to Noah is embodied in the skin of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden. This is no mere fracture of the tale; Aronofsky delights in making the godly evil and evil godly.

The Rock People have multiple arms and glowing eyes and thundering voices à la Optimus Prime and are a whole lot more exciting than the voice of God.

Sure, I get it: Hollywood doesn’t like references to God (approving ones, anyway). And yes, I know the difference between Sunday School and the Cineplex; I wasn’t expecting a sermon. But why make a movie about Noah if you are going to leave out the driving force behind the story? It’s like making Clash of the Titans without Zeus or Poseidon. Why not just make a movie about Rock Giants that duke it out with brutal nomads while one family escapes in a boat with a bunch of animals? Let those of us who know how to read leave the theater saying, “Wow, did you catch those references to Noah?” instead of “Man, did he ever get that wrong!”

What drew Aronofsky to the story of Noah in the first place? I suspect it was the same characteristics that have kept myths alive for centuries. Archetypal characters, iconic conflicts, and simple truths about human nature resonate with us. One does not have to be religious to experience the resonance of biblical stories, nor should religious people be offended that I categorize biblical stories as myth. Contrary to popular opinion, “myth” does not mean “a lie,” or “a story that is not true.” Myths express “not historical or factual truth, but inner or spiritual truth. They are the shared stories that express insights about human nature, human society, or the natural world” (Canaan). Myths are so profound that they transcend the need to be factual. In fact, they can even transcend Hollywood’s need to be cynical.

Despite my criticism of the first two hours of this film, I found the conclusion profoundly satisfying. After all the fracturing and twisting and pushing away from humanity, Aronofsky ends with a cathartic moment of transformation and hope. It probably isn’t worth the two-hour journey to get there, and it’s totally out of whack with the source material. But Aronofsky creates a lovely scene of redemption at last.


Editor's Note: Review of "Noah," directed by Darren Aronofsky. Paramount Pictures, 2014, 138 minutes.



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Suffering from PODADS (Post-Downton Abbey Depression Syndrome)?

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Downton Abbey is one of the most widely watched and highly acclaimed television series ever broadcast, anywhere in the world. It is set in north Yorkshire, and the story concerns the Crawley family, led by the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their servants, who are seen against a backdrop of the economic, political, and social changes from 1912 through the 1920s.

Since the series was written for independent TV by staunch Thatcherite (and Oscar winner) Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), it is no coincidence that Lord Grantham bears the name of Lady T’s birthplace to the south in Lincolnshire. I recall Julian striding down the aisle, west to east, in St Paul’s Cathedral, on the day of Lady T’s funeral. He certainly looked the part!

In real life Downton Abbey is Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, southwest of London, where all the exterior and most of the interior scenes are filmed. It is the home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, friends of Fellowes, and there are many parallels between the estate management issues faced by today’s Carnarvons and yesterday’s Granthams. There are also strong parallels on the marriage front, with a propensity for people in both families to marry loaded American women to keep the estate going. (Also of note is the role of the Carnarvon family in the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, led by the fourth earl, the great-great-grandfather of the present, eighth earl.)

Fans of the series have been descending on Highclere Castle in large numbers. It is open to the public on certain days, at advertised times. These arrangements are not prompted mainly by a desire to make money, much as that is welcome to fix leaky roofs. Rather, as the seventh earl told me on a visit in 1993, it was advisable for people such as him to open their estates to the public for inheritance tax purposes. Under UK law all these vast places have a huge incentive to open for a minimum of days — 90 comes to mind — because on the death of the owner the act of opening to the public for at least this minimum removes the property from the inheritance tax calculation. Tax avoidance, not tax evasion.

The number one reason why women were imprisoned in the UK was non-payment of the TV license fee.

Such is the popularity of Downton Abbey that as an Englishman resident in Florida I cannot open my mouth in front of strangers without being greeted with questions about the program or comments such as “you sound just like you stepped off the set of Downton Abbey!” With the ending of the latest (and reputedly penultimate) series, a new question has arisen: “Oh John, what can we watch now, to get over Post-Downton Abbey Depression Syndrome?”

Here are six other series that should hold you over until Downton Abbey returns. After listing them, I will return with a discussion of private versus public funding of such UK programs as come to PBS.

  1. Upstairs, Downstairs

    Made for independent TV (not the taxpayer funded BBC), its 68 episodes were broadcast from 1971 through 1975 and cover the years 1903 through 1930. The setting is a grand London townhouse — 165 Eaton Place in Belgravia, close to Lady T’s home in her final two decades. “Downstairs” work the servants, while the family lives, dines, and entertains “Upstairs,” much as in Downton Abbey. And again as in Downton Abbey, current events, from the grand to the less grand, permeate the plot.

    Such is the closeness of the respective story lines that at Wikipedia the first entry for “See Also” under Downton Abbey is Upstairs, Downstairs, and vice versa.

    Most of Upstairs, Downstairs was filmed in color, but be aware that the early episodes are in black and white, because of a strike by cameramen operating the then new technology — a reminder of labor relations pre-Thatcher.
     
  2. The Forsyte Saga

    Based on novels by Nobel Prizewinner John Galsworthy, the Saga covers 1906 through 1921. It was first made in black and white by the BBC (26 episodes, 1967) and then remade by the independent sector in color (13 episodes, 2002–2003). The plot is strong, but there is less of political economy and more of social change, as the Forsytes, unlike the Crawleys, are new to wealth.
     
  3. Cranford

    Made by the BBC, Cranford is based on the eponymous 1851 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, and related works. The original five episodes were broadcast in 2007, with two more episodes in 2009 that were marketed as Return to Cranford. Judi Dench stars throughout as Miss Matty, one of a group, mostly composed of spinsters and widows, who observe life in a small Cheshire town some 12 miles from the big city of Manchester. Weak on plot, it is really a series of vignettes, albeit quite well done. In later episodes, however, the effects of the expansion of the railroad system and the struggles of the local landowning family resonate in an interesting way.
     
  4. Lark Rise to Candleford

    Again made by the taxpayer-funded BBC, four series of this intelligent soap were broadcast between 2008 and 2011. Here the social contrasts lie between the poor hamlet of Lark Rise and the wealthier small town of Candleford. Set in the late 1890s, the 40 episodes are a bit light on the news and issues of the day but do examine the liberal tendencies of the hamlet versus the more Tory proclivities of the townies. One later episode includes extensive discussion of Self Help by Samuel Smiles, while another deals with the spread of the railroad. Those of you who so admired Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey have a treat in store as he appears as the stonemason Mr. Timmins, de facto leader of Lark Rise.
     
  5. Foyle’s War

    This independent production leaps us forward to World War II and the southern coastal town of Hastings, where Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle is faced with crimes generated by wartime rules, restrictions, and regulations. The twenty-plus episodes approach 100 minutes each. While they can be viewed out of order, there are connecting story lines.

    The research behind each episode is awesome, and the series does move noticeably from one focused on crimes against a backdrop of wartime order to a wartime order with crime. The setting in Hastings helps hugely, as the first few miles inland from the coast were subject to even more draconian state intervention than truly inland areas. You may recognize Michael Kitchen who plays Foyle as Bill Tanner from Bond movies.
     
  6. Doc Martin

    Made by independent TV, some six series of over 40 episodes have been broadcast to date, with a seventh and final series promised.

    In a series set in present-day West Country, UK, Doc Martin is a top London surgeon who opts for the life of a small coastal port’s only family doctor. Tensions emerge along with a strong love line. Little is made of the fact that all his patients come through socialized medicine, and the portrayal of the NHS is extremely gentle. The horrendous backlogs and delays of the NHS are simply ignored. However, the overall effect is addictive.

I have been careful to note who funded, made, or broadcast each of the seven series. You will have noticed the mix of private and the taxpayer funded BBC. So what? I hear you ask. (Also I am vague at times on exact episode numbers, as they vary from country to country. A Christmas special in the UK for example often becomes two episodes in the US.)

Well, the BBC is not funded out of general tax revenues; it is funded by a license fee. If you buy a TV you have to buy a license (say $200-$250 per annum), and you have to renew it every year or eventually face prison time. The state even employs a special police force equipped with license evasion radar detection vans to hunt down folk who have not paid. Parliament fixes the level of the fee every few years, and the total revenue raised goes in a block grant to fund the Beeb, as it is called, or the Big Bunch of Communists chez moi. I promise I am not joking here at all.

To keep the MPs and Lords in Parliament happy, the BBC maintains a huge lobbying effort within a 3-iron of the Palace of Westminster. Its office is on the very same block as the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs, where I served as CEO for 17 years, as in 1993–2009.

The private sector strives for ever higher standards while the subsidized public sector sinks, as we know, lower by the year.

Soon after moving to the IEA I discovered the following astonishing fact: the number one reason why women were imprisoned in the UK was non-payment of the TV license fee. Of course it was not billed as nonpayment of the BBC fee. Rather a household would not have the money to pay; they would evade and they’d be caught and ordered to pay; they’d fail and the lady of the household would do the time for something dressed up as failure to obey a court order. It just happened that by far the greatest number of such orders were BBC-related.

I was just appalled by this. The then-boss of the BBC was called Greg Dyke, and his Parliamentary henchman was my friend Michael Hastings.

For several years I would look for them on the street or at receptions and the like. I used to get right in their faces: “Hi Greg. Hi Michael. How many decent working-class ladies got imprisoned today because of you?” I was relentless. And the numbers dropped from the hundreds to something like ten — still disgusting but an improvement.

So how does this story of the funding of the BBC link back to my list of Post-Downton Abbey Depression Syndrome Antidotes?

A key argument for taxpayer funding of the BBC is that the private sector is bound to sink to the lowest common denominator, while a release from commercial considerations is vital to produce the great period dramas with their fantastic wardrobes and glorious settings for which the BBC is supposedly world famous.

Downton Abbey clearly blows this argument to Mars and back.

And when you look at my antidotes, my list of six picked (I promise) with no reference to funding source, the private sector clearly trumps the public.

The evidence is clear, the jury is in, and the foreman is addressing the judge: Your Honor, we the jury find the private sector innocent of dumbing down. Indeed we find that the private sector strives for ever higher standards while the subsidized public sector sinks, as we know, lower by the year.

Note: Immediately following my submission of this article, The Daily Telegraph of London published a report by Christopher Hope (March 21, 2014) under the headline “Not paying TV licence set to be decriminalised.” A group of 140 British MPs has won the support of the government for this change. It will, however, entail a year-long review and will form part of the negotiations that will take place ahead of the BBC Charter renewal due in 2017.


Editor's Note: Mr. Blundell thanks Mrs. Rashmi Ferris of Tampa, FL for prompting this article.



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My Hero

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It’s good to have heroes. One of mine is John Kerry.

My love is a selfish one: a column like this depends on buffoons like him. I was devastated when Al Gore retired from politics to maximize his “climate” business. Gore could always be depended on to say something delightfully absurd. Of course, he couldn’t give up the habit, any more than he could give up eating to excess, but after exiting politics, stage left, he no longer had such a range of opportunities to show how hard it is to make sense when you never reflect on anything you’re saying.

Fortunately for me, Barack Obama came along, towing Kerry behind him. When Kerry was just a rich guy squatting in the Senate (for 28 years!), nobody paid much attention to what he said. Nobody paid much attention when he was running for president, either, but some people assumed they had a duty to report on him. That stopped, until Obama anointed him as secretary of state. Since then, his life has been an unbroken sequence of crises and assumed crises. Syria. “Warming.” Crimea. And Kerry is not one to nurse a crisis in silence. Oh no. On any given day, one can google “Kerry” and find a display of verbal paraplegia. It’s only a nagging sense of fairness that keeps me from filling every column with Kerry-isms; I want to give other people their chance in the Special Olympics. But whether I use his material or not, Kerry gives me a sense of confidence. I know that even if everyone else reforms, even if Harry Reid finally seeks a connection between words and things and President Obama finally opens the books he was supposed to read in college, John Kerry will always be words in the bank for me, an inexhaustible supply of malaprop.

Lately we’ve been hearing so much from him that I can’t resist displaying a few of his gems. Take, for instance, this one. A news source recently informed us that “Secretary of State John Kerry said he has consulted with other world leaders, and ‘every single one of them are prepared to go to the hilt in order to isolate Russia with respect to this invasion’ of Crimea."

On any given day, one can google “Kerry” and find a display of verbal paraplegia.

One of the many bad things about Kerry’s statements is their petulance. He is always the little boy who’s miffed that the other little boys aren’t listening respectfully to him. He anticipates (rightly enough) that they don’t believe what he says. So he raises his voice. “Oh yeah? Well, I’ve been talking to world leaders! I have so!” Observe that according to him, he hasn’t just been hobnobbing with officials from here and there; he’s been consulting with other world leaders, as if he were a world leader, too, and all of them liked him and agreed with him. To the hilt. Every single one of them are prepared to go to the hilt. Note the grammatical error (“one of them are”), the kind of error people make when they haven’t the faintest idea of how to analyze a sentence. Note the grandiose cliché (“go to the hilt”). Note the obvious lie: no “world leader,” not even Kerry, was ever prepared to “go to the hilt” over Crimea. Note the secondhandedness: I’ve been talking with them, and they are all agreed. Lastly, note the vagueness, so characteristic of Kerry’s bombast. “Isolate Russia” — meaning what? Even that wiggly little “with respect to” — a vaguer, yet more pompous, way of saying “about.”

Gosh, what a mess. Now try this, which is fully characteristic of our secretary of state and can certainly be attributed to him: “’(The Ukraine incursion) is a show of weakness,’ a senior administration official said. ‘They have lost the government they backed in Kiev, now they're resorting to the type of intervention that will severely distance them from the international community.’" Pretend you’re Russia. You’re annoyed by the overthrow of a friendly government in Ukraine, which you had been heavily subsidizing. But you realize how weak you are. So out of your weakness you seize the best part of Ukraine, the part you had always wanted, and there’s nothing that “world leaders” can do about it, because you’re so weak. Makes perfect sense, right? It seemed so sensible to President Obama that he was soon making the same diagnosis of Russia’s weakness; he reasserted it vigorously in his press conference at The Hague on March 25. Weakness, I assume, is the reason Putin controls the situation in Crimea, and Obama does not (the Obama who is down to 40% approval by voters in his own country). Putin is weak. But never fear. Russia will be horribly punished by its distance from the international community.

Pompous? Vague? Petulant? Empty? Yes. That’s the Kerry style.

Back to weakness. Kerry and his fellow perpetuators of the 1960s have long resorted to pseudo-psychological, deep-insight explanations of phenomena that other people explain quite directly, in accordance with the “surface” (i.e., obvious) evidence. Liberals of the ’60s generation apparently find it inconceivable that some people should lash out at homosexuals because they simply don’t like homosexuality. They know, these friends of aged pop psychology, that such people are actually afraid of homosexuals, or of their own homosexual tendencies, known only to far distant observers. They are, in fact, homophobes. In the same way, conservatives explain Putin and Putin’s Russia by evoking the specter of the playground bully, who will back down if you just stand up to him, because bullies are afraid of you. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a bully who was afraid of me; I’ve looked largely in vain for bullies who would consent to back down when people stood up to them. I’ll bet that’s your experience, too.

But what do you think of adults who treat other adults as children, coddling them, placating them, condescending to them, lecturing them about their psychological issues, and otherwise infantilizing them? Do you think these adults may be relating to others out of their own childish fears? Maybe that’s what Kerry was doing on March 18, when he intoned (he always intones): “Russia has an enormous historical connection to Ukraine. We know this, but that doesn’t legitimize just taking what you want because you want it or because you’re angry about the end of the Cold War or the end of the Soviet Union.”

That “enormous” sticks in my craw. An enormous connection? Is it a railroad coupling? A 20-ton anchor? I’m familiar with connections that are strong, intimate, lasting, firm . . . but enormous? That’s absurd — but Kerry has a way of emphasizing the absurd parts of his statements. The overwhelmingly absurd thing, though, is the parental attitude: “Listen, little boy, you can’t just take what you want because you want it.” Does he actually expect anyone to listen to stuff like this? Does he expect Putin to hang his head and shuffle his feet and say, “Ah, you’re right, Uncle John. I guess I’ll hafta give it back”? Does he expect Putin to be stunned by his grand psychological insight that he, Putin, didn’t take the Crimea because it’s a valuable piece of real estate and any adult could see that there wasn’t a chance in the world that anyone would successfully oppose the action; no, he took the Crimea because he was angry?

Kerry doesn’t like shy little dewdrop clichés; he likes big, manly clichés, the kind that every serious student must take, well, seriously.

The anger that’s most visible is Kerry’s anger. When has he made a speech in which he wasn’t angry — angry with some foreign power, angry with global-warming skeptics, angry with anyone he suspected of not listening to him. And if you want to see weakness, look to the same source.

Oh, but there are still so many jewels to exhibit. One more example. This is a big one, because Kerry is always saying big, long, deep, important things — such as his remarks at the World Economic Forum (what is that, anyway?) on January 18. From this mass of vital importance I will select two paragraphs about whether, heaven forbid, the United States has become less of a buttinsky than it was before Kerry arrived on the scene:

I must say I am perplexed by claims that I occasionally hear that somehow America is disengaging from the world, this myth that we are pulling back or giving up or standing down. In fact, I want to make it clear today that nothing could be further from the truth. This misperception, and in some case, a driven narrative, appears to be based on the simplistic assumption that our only tool of influence is our military, and that if we don’t have a huge troop presence somewhere or we aren’t brandishing an immediate threat of force, we are somehow absent from the arena. I think the only person more surprised than I am by the myth of this disengagement is the Air Force pilot who flies the Secretary of State’s plane.

Obviously, our engagement isn’t measured in frequent flier miles — though it would be pretty nice if I got a few, as a matter of fact — but it is really measured — and I think serious students of foreign policy understand this — it is measured by the breadth of our global commitments, their depth, especially our commitments to our allies in every corner of the world. It is measured by the degree of difficulty of the crises and the conflicts that we choose to confront, and it is measured ultimately by the results that we are able to achieve.

Here’s a guy who’s a phony even when he’s “joking.” Frequent flier miles indeed — Kerry is married to the widow of an heir to one of the nation’s great fortunes. The funny thing is that he doesn’t expect us to know how rich he is, even after it became an important issue in his presidential campaign. Another mark of phoniness is that word “somehow,” appearing twice in one paragraph. This is the dismissive somehow that people — usually leftists — employ when they have the following problem rumbling around in their heads: “The idea I am rebutting is obviously true, and the only way I have of rebutting it is to express bafflement that anyone could harbor such a silly idea.”

Why did I say that it’s usually leftists who talk this way? Just the empirical evidence: listen, and you’ll hear. But why would it be leftists, any more than rightists? I’m not sure, but I think it’s because articulate leftists were often educated in pricey schools, schools where they weren’t taught how to listen to those strange little people who disagree with them, but they were taught how to sneer at them. Anyway, the dismissive or sneering somehow wasn’t invented by John Kerry. Distinguished preceding uses include

  • The idea that somehow most people will be better off if we allow a few people to make all the money they can . . .
  • The idea that somehow there are new oil resources, just waiting to be discovered . . .
  • The idea that somehow guns can reduce crime . . .
  • The idea that somehow there is mass starvation in the Soviet Union . . .

Let us return to what Kerry is trying to argue. He’s insisting that America is just as “engaged” with “the world” as it used to be, before he stumbled into office. The difficulty is that he wouldn’t be making this speech if he weren’t aware of the evidence that leads people to believe that America is not as “engaged,” and that the evidence is persuasive. I happen to believe that America is still far too “engaged,” but never mind: Kerry thinks the opposite, because he would like it to be more “engaged”: that’s why he’s talking. So he sneers at the very reason he’s giving his speech. You see what a double dealer he is. And notice: he thinks that nobody will detect his double dealing — or, again, he wouldn’t be giving this speech. You see how dumb he is.

One sign of a dumb person is the use of words like engaged, which practically everyone knows mean practically nothing. If you don’t know that, you’re either 17 years old, or you’re dumb. Kerry is considerably older than 17. Another sign of dumbness is childish metaphors such as “the arena,” an image popularized by Theodore Roosevelt (1910):

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is no effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Someone who sees international relations as an “arena” of this kind should not be involved with international relations.

A third infallible sign that a speaker is just plain dumb is a reliance on the stuff that eighth-grade English teachers once called “flowery language,” and put red X’s through. (Good teachers still do that; the others are just too dumb.) By “flowery language” they mean “nothing but language.” What do you learn from the second paragraph I quoted from Kerry’s speech? You’re supposed to learn that the United States is stuck to the world like Krazy Glue. But Kerry can’t manage to say that, or anything like that. He can’t even manage to say, “The United States is still very interested in the world outside its borders; it will honor its promises to other nations, and it will get results.” Oh no. He needs “flowers,” otherwise known as clichés, which he plucks by the handful: serious students, global commitments, every corner of the world, choose to confront. Kerry doesn’t like shy little dewdrop clichés; he likes big, manly clichés, the kind that every serious student must take, well, seriously.

And the whole thing is meaningless. Obviously, our commitments aren’t literally global; they don’t extend to every corner of the world. At least, I hope we have no commitment to Eritrea, Uruguay, or Wrangel Island. The measure of Kerry’s phoniness is the fact that the words he emphasizes are precisely the ones that are not true, that are obviously untrue, that if taken seriously would lead any sensible listener to scorn and reject his speech.

I just used measure intentionally, so you could see what you had to do to figure it out. You had to stop and try to picture what it meant. You wondered whether it made sense to measure “phoniness” by a “fact.” Maybe you thought, ultimately, that it did make sense; maybe you didn’t. But consider Kerry’s use of measure. He wants you to believe that engagement must be measured by breadth and depth of commitments. That’s a puzzler. Picture that, will ya? Engagement must be measured by our commitments to our allies in every corner of the world. Write that out in a simple sentence: “Our engagement must be measured by our commitments.” Is that saying the same thing twice, or is it saying nothing at all? Kerry’s sentences often provoke this question.

The measure of Kerry’s phoniness is the fact that the words he emphasizes are precisely the ones that are obviously untrue.

Despite all that, Kerry somehow keeps coming out with astonishing assertions. There’s one at the end of the passage we’re examining. There he claims that “engagement” grows better, or realer, or something like that, as it grows more difficult — in Kerryese, “It is measured by the degree of difficulty of the crises and the conflicts that we choose to confront.” So, the more difficult something is, the more you’re engaged with it? Physicists aren’t really engaged with their work unless they’re trying to invent a perpetual motion machine? Women aren’t really engaged with romance unless they’re seeking the most repulsive and abusive boyfriends? Well, they may be engaged, but not in any healthy way. Yet Kerry also claims that the ultimate measure of “engagement” is the “results” it achieves. This seems reasonable, until you take maybe a second to reflect on it. Then you see that the crook who succeeds in getting you to purchase a stolen car is much more engaged with you than the friend who fails to sell you on giving up smoking. Not only are Kerry’s ideas expressed in the least attractive and least accessible way, but they aren’t even true. Any of them.

All right, here’s the scary thing: you can spot a Kerry sentence a mile off. You can’t mistake it for anybody else’s sentence. He’s like Shakespeare, in that way. And the sentences he speaks spontaneously are very close to the sentences he reads from a script. You see the horrifying truth: this guy actually writes his own speeches. I can’t say worse.

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The Latest Victory for the Second Amendment

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In theory, the bold, frequent use of civil liberties tends to protect them. But it’s no guarantee. Both of these statements find support in the recent history of gun-related legislation in California.

It was 2010. I was on the phone with a journalist. He was looking for comments on some proposed legislation that had been in the news. An assemblywoman from San Diego, Lori Saldaña, wanted to do away with Californians’ little-known right to carry unloaded guns openly. “She says it’s dangerous, because a cop might shoot one of those guys with guns on their hips; what do you think about that?” He was asking me for a counter-argument.

At that time, the California legislature was considering Saldaña’s bill to ban the open carry of unloaded firearms. The attempted legislation had been prompted by outraged reactions in California to the nationwide open-carry movement.[1] In the two years or so before the proposed ban, advocates of gun rights in California had been organizing small marches and meetings where they would very carefully and very openly exercise a right that few people in California knew they had — the right to openly carry unloaded firearms. Picture a half dozen men and women at a Starbucks with holstered, empty semi-automatic pistols on one hip and holstered, full clips of ammunition on the other. California law (with exceptions that aren’t important here) went like this: concealed carry of any gun, loaded or not, is illegal without a permit, and open carry of loaded guns is illegal without a permit. In most counties of California, permits were very hard to get. You had to show “cause,” and cause seemed to be whatever the issuing authority thought it should be. That left only the rarely used right to carry unloaded guns in public openly, without a permit.

The argument was, in fact, as stupid as it sounded.

“That argument is ridiculous and illogical,” I said to the journalist. “Cops are supposed to know the law and enforce it, not shoot people who are doing nothing wrong or illegal. The solution is to change the cops, not to change the law. You don’t take away rights just because the police are surprised to see somebody exercising them.”

This was in response to arguments advanced to support Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña’s bill to prohibit open carry. That bill didn’t pass, but soon a similar bill, AB 144, was introduced. The author of that bill, Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, made similarly bad arguments in its favor. For example, in an interview with Reason.tv, he said, “Just because one person is comfortable with their weapon, doesn’t mean that that gives that person the right to infringe on the rights of other people who aren’t comfortable.”[2] Was that some kind of sophisticated argument about competing civil rights: the right to bear arms and the right to be comfortable? No. There is no constitutional right to be comfortable. The argument was, in fact, as stupid as it sounded. Portantino also made and, finding it very clever, frequently repeated, a classic straw-man argument, saying “you don’t need a handgun to order a cheeseburger,” as though gun-rights activists were complaining that they could only get fast-food service at gunpoint.

AB 144 passed and was signed into law. The right to open carry (unloaded) was gone.

Something similar happened in California in the 20th century. By the 1960s, in urban areas of California it was rare to see people carrying loaded firearms in public. At the time, they had a legal right to. The law didn’t change, but the culture did. The Black Panthers knew this when, in 1967, they marched on the California state capitol toting loaded rifles and shotguns. They were not committing a crime. Public reaction to that scene made it easy for the legislature to pass a law banning open carrying of loaded guns.

Some civil libertarians thought that what the Black Panthers did in the 1960s and what the open-carry advocates did just a few years ago were counterproductive, because they provoked anti-liberal legislation. I disagree, for a couple of reasons. First, a civil right is of little value if nobody uses it. Second, Edward Peruta v. County of San Diego.[3]

Edward Peruta applied to the San Diego sheriff for a permit to carry a concealed firearm. The sheriff denied his application. Peruta then (2009) filed a lawsuit against the County of San Diego. He lost at trial and appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. A panel of the Ninth Circuit found that San Diego’s process for granting and denying gun permits infringed the Second Amendment. The court’s summary of its opinion begins in this way: “The panel reversed the district court’s summary judgment and held that a responsible, law-abiding citizen has a right under the Second Amendment to carry a firearm in public for self-defense.” Wow. If anything, the body of the opinion went further.

When the Black Panthers marched on the California state capitol toting loaded rifles and shotguns, they were not committing a crime.

My first reaction was astonishment. In California of all places. In the Ninth Circuit of all jurisdictions. Wow, again. Reading the case, I soon saw the connection between AB 144 and Peruta. The legislative history of AB 144 shows that the NRA and the California Rifle and Pistol Association were prescient. They registered this argument against the bill:

In most areas of California, CCW [concealed-carry weapon]permits are rarely issued, and are usually reserved for those with political clout and the wealthy elite. Because of this reality, "open carrying" is the only method available to the overwhelming majority of law-abiding individuals who wish to carry a firearm for self-defense. Accordingly, by banning the open carrying of even unloaded firearms, SB 144 effectively shuts the door on the ability of law-abiding Californians to carry a firearm for self-defense at all.[4]

The California legislature heard that argument and replied, “so what?” The bill was law when Peruta reached the appeals court.

I believe that if open carry were not banned, the Ninth Circuit would not have overturned San Diego’s permitting rules and procedures for concealed carry. The court’s reasoning is almost mathematical. It relies heavily on Heller,[5] a 2008 Supreme Court decision that, according to the Ninth Circuit, implies that “a law-abiding citizen’s ability to carry a gun outside the home for self-defense fell within the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense.” Then the Peruta court repeatedly points out that California bans open carry and severely restricts concealed carry.

The math goes like this:

(A) Heller = the Supreme Court says that the Second Amendment means individuals (versus “militia”) have a right to carry firearms in public for self defense.

(B) San Diego’s implementation of California’s concealed-carry laws + California’s ban on open carry = a general prohibition on carrying firearms in public for self defense.

(A) + (B) = unconstitutional.

It’s an amazingly simple and far-reaching opinion. It will be reheard by the Ninth Circuit sitting en banc. It will reach the Supreme Court. But right now, it’s the law in California. The state must permit law-abiding citizens to carry firearms in public for self defense, either openly or concealed or both.




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The Decline and Fall of the American Empire

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It is with a great deal of sadness that I report that recently Bangladesh, a small nation in southeast Asia which is the country of origin of my father and his side of the family, collapsed from a 40-year-old democracy into a dictatorship. How this happened is interesting, both in absolute terms and also relative to politics in America.

You see, Bangladesh did not collapse by means of military coup or dictatorial takeover. Instead, it became a dictatorship by means of a democratic election. For the past 40 years, ever since Bangladesh won its War of Independence against Pakistan, every time the government called for an election, the heads of the two major Bangladeshi political parties, which are (1) the Awami League and (2) the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), handed over the election process to a “caretaker government,” a neutral group of aged respected lawmakers and leaders, who administered a fair and neutral election. Corruption and bribery have always been widespread in Bangladesh, but, in spite of this, the national elections were always kept clean and honest by the caretaker government.

But in the last election, the Awami League, which had been in power for several years and was widely hated and destined to lose at the polls, simply called an election, refused to let the caretaker government in, and held rigged, phony elections. The BNP boycotted the elections and called for general strikes and opposition rallies, but ultimately the BNP’s efforts were for nothing, as the Awami League put down the opposition movement by means of the police, and maintained control.

Sheik Hasina, the leader of the Awami League, is now the de facto dictator of Bangladesh. Interestingly, Hasina is a woman, and she is one of the world’s first and few female dictators. As a case study in the psychology of a tyrant, it is worth noting that Bangladeshi people generally believe that Hasina was enraged when Bangladesh’s microcredit banking pioneer Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Prize, which she felt should have gone to her instead, for brokering a minor peace treaty with the northern tribes. This may have inflamed her anger and her ambitions. The Awami dictatorship is real, despite the fact that Awami propaganda says that the League was democratically elected and that Bangladesh remains a democracy. Something similar exists in Russia with Putin, who is essentially a democratically-elected dictator. A number of other countries also put forward a face of democracy to seek support from the West, while actually being run by a ruling class.

History may classify every president from Wilson forward as an “emperor,” and it is mere semantics to ask whether the term is correct.

The decline and fall of the Bangladeshi democracy reads like a dire prophecy of what is going to happen in America if libertarians do not start winning big at the polls, and soon, in many different elections across states and nationally too. I will return to that idea later in this article, but here, having discussed Bangladesh, I would also like to mention Rome. In Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it is shown that Rome deteriorated slowly, insidiously, with the very greatness and majesty of the Empire ultimately leading to the bloated corruption that consumed Rome and became Rome’s undoing. The book argues that Rome outsourced its military to the barbarians, and eventually those same barbarians turned on Rome and destroyed it. It is worth noting that, at the time when history regards Rome as having transformed itself from a Republic into an Empire, in the era of Julius Caesar and Augustus, the Romans themselves had no such idea. As shown by the writings of that era, the early Roman Empire was regarded as the continuation of the Roman Republic, and the early emperors were considered leaders of the Republic, not dictators.

What does all this mean for us here in the United States? I want to make two points. First, I think that if America ever descends into dictatorship, it will probably happen through the Bangladesh method of rigged elections followed by a strict police control of the opposition, instead of an armed revolt or military coup. The Republicans essentially rigged the vote in Florida for Bush in 2000 (or, at the very least, they refused to do a recount to establish what the accurate result of the vote really was), and once the Supreme Court gave the stamp of approval, they got away with it. If the same thing happened but on a bigger scale, if the Democrats rigged the votes in Michigan and Illinois and Missouri and won the White House, or if the Republicans rigged the votes in New Jersey and Wisconsin, and such things started to happen frequently, then what could be done about it? Nothing. And so, slowly and as by means of a spreading illness, American democracy could collapse into a sham democracy, a dictatorship.

If democracy in the US collapses, then the libertarians and the Tea Party may rebel (unless it is the GOP that becomes the ruling party), but the American military and police forces could probably put down any armed rebellion. The only thing that prevents this from happening is that elections in the US tend to be run at the local level by ordinary patriotic Americans who are too naive to understand the dangerous power that they possess as the stewards of our democracy.

Second: people see this era as the time of the Great Recession. But history may look back upon our time as that of the decline and fall of the American Empire. In the post-World War II era, and especially in the post-Cold War era and the War on Terror era, the United States of America has been the one and only true world power. We flex our military muscle around the globe, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and military bases in Europe and Japan, and drone strike assassinations in Pakistan and Yemen. This by itself is enough to justify calling us an empire. History may classify every president from Wilson forward as an “emperor,” and it is mere semantics to ask whether the term is correct. Certainly, if we are an empire, then our leader is an emperor, and Bush acted like one, and Obama sure acts like one too.

If we are an empire, it may also be appropriate to say that the Great Recession is our decline, and will end with our fall. If the Great Recession never ends, then America is destined for widespread poverty, which could end in discontent, riots, and crime that will provoke a government crackdown and the rise of a police state. Many economists project that the recession won’t end until 2020, for another six long years. Millions of people remain unemployed, and if the jobs aren’t there to support them, and these people need food to eat, then chaos is coming.

People like to think that the Great Recession will end and good times are just around the corner. I certainly hope they are. Nothing would make me happier. But the structural defects in the US economy act to prevent growth and maintain stagnation, and only liberty could fix this. So unless libertarians start getting elected all over the place, America may be doomed. The structural defects are the various details of the manner in which the statist government’s taxes and regulations are stopping a growth-fueled economic recovery. Welfare motivates people not to work, and millions of poor people invest their thought in figuring out how to milk the welfare system, instead of figuring out how to become productive assets to the economy. These people vote for statists and against libertarians. This is not to say that we should let the poor die, but it does explain a lot about why the system is broken and can’t be fixed.

The minimum wage prevents employers from hiring Americans for low-skilled, low-paying manufacturing jobs, and these jobs are sent to China or Mexico. Meanwhile, regulations make doing business very difficult in the United States, and taxes make it expensive to live and work here. So higher-skilled, middle class jobs get outsourced to India. Just as with outsourcing the army to barbarians by the Roman Empire — something that destroyed Rome when the barbarians turned against the Empire — outsourcing of jobs may be the final source of the economic decline of the American Empire. The fact that government policy motivates employers to send American jobs overseas, with millions of jobs sent out already and more to come, explains a lot about why the American economy suffers while China’s economy and India’s economy grow.

I once heard someone say that America “outsources its labor standards,” meaning that our workers are paid and treated much better than the workers in third-world countries who produce much of what we consume. That is true, and it leads naturally to the outsourcing of our entire low-skill low-wage manufacturing industry, which, if those jobs had been kept in the USA, could have provided a foundation of growth with which to revive the sluggish economy.

President Obama, in the 2014 State of the Union speech, advocated raising the minimum wage. The general public met this proposal with indifference or support, not with the shock and outrage it deserved.

The minimum wage for American workers stands at over $7 an hour, plus legally mandated employer-provided health insurance, membership benefits from labor unions, Social Security for retiring workers, Medicare and Medicaid for poor workers, a social safety net of food stamps and SSI disability and unemployment benefits, and the tax-funded services given ”free” to workers but really paid for by the taxpayers — such benefits as public transportation and public education. The real cost to society of paying an American manufacturing worker may be $35 an hour. Factory workers in China are getting paid under $2 an hour, with negligible benefits, to make our computers, and our smartphones, and our tablets, and our other electronic devices, and our washing machines, and our televisions, and our children’s toys, and our flashlights, and our furniture, and our clothes.

It is basic economics, which most Americans seem not to understand, that a business must include the cost of making a product, including the salary and benefits paid to workers, in the retail price at which the product is sold, otherwise the product will be sold at a loss. Unless we want to pay $300 for a simple low-quality white cotton shirt, or $10,000 for a new cellphone, these things must be made in China, and businesses could not profitably employ Americans to make them. Do you wonder why the US economy has not recovered yet?

The liberals want us to solve the problem by imposing our artificially high labor standards on foreign workers. The AFL-CIO, for instance, has been active recently in organizing labor unions in Bangladesh. The libertarian solution, in contrast, is to deregulate working conditions here in the US so that we can bring manufacturing jobs back here. And boy, do we ever need those jobs! If the outsourcing trend is not stopped, then soon we won’t have enough jobs left in the USA for our income to support our first-world lifestyle. As libertarians, we know that lunches aren’t free, and we must pay for our standard of living by working for it. But President Obama, in the 2014 State of the Union speech, actually advocated raising the minimum wage. The general public met this proposal with indifference or support, not with the shock and outrage it deserved. It is political suicide to suggest that we should abolish the minimum wage and end welfare for workers and let the free market set wages and working conditions. But this political suicide may result in economic suicide and national suicide and real suicides, when people can’t find jobs and they and their families are literally starving, with no escape in sight.

Every libertarian knows that freedom leads to prosperity and government control leads to poverty, as well as to dictatorship. We all know that when the baby boom people clamor to protect their Social Security, when politically connected businesses cry for bailouts, when Wall Street asks the Federal Reserve to spend more money, when the lower middle class seeks to tax the rich for money to spend on mushy, wasteful programs that claim to help the poor while merely destroying the nation’s wealth, what we see is the destruction of free market capitalism — the system that safeguarded our freedom. We know that we are seeing the march down the road to serfdom. But the American people refuse to learn that lesson, and we libertarians don’t appear to be winning either the war of ideas, or of political campaigns. Pessimism, which I have always opposed, now seems more and more justified. Apparently it is a question of when, not if, we will witness the decline and fall of the American Empire; and our sole consolation must be that later historians will find our behavior as fascinating as Edward Gibbon found the Romans’.

Please, hope that I am wrong, but do what you can to make this an inaccurate prophecy.




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Apple Pie, Puppy Dogs, and Sunshine

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Those promoting a political idea usually sell it to the public by portraying it as pure wonderfulness. “We want apple pie, puppy dogs, and sunshine for everybody!” And really, who wouldn’t want that?

I thought that by now I would have finished with the recently-failed Arizona SB 1062 “religious freedom” bill — the subject of my previous essay in Liberty. But the reaction my opinion has received, from several people I know, makes me realize I’ve only scratched the surface of a deeper problem, one that is, in the long run, far more interesting. To those of us who love to watch political theater for the sheer entertainment of it all, the phenomenon is fascinating indeed.

As the state held its breath to see if the governor would sign or veto SB 1062, I sat in an ice cream parlor with some friends. Inevitably, the subject came up, and I gave my take on it. Across the table from me, my friend John underwent an amazing transformation. For a moment, I thought he was going to turn into the Incredible Hulk.

Leaning into his whipped cream, his eyes bulging and forehead arteries popping, he said, “It’s about religious freedom, okay?!”

Apple pie, puppy dogs, sunshine, and religious freedom for everybody. Okay? But where does this leave people who know there’s a poison pill inside that candy shell?

Issues are framed this way, by those who promote them, so that anyone who opposes them looks like the baseborn child of Snidely Whiplash and Tokyo Rose. I like John very much, so I didn’t want to leave him with that impression. “I don’t think the bill would really do what it’s claimed to be trying to do,” I said. And then I told him why.

We are not an unfeeling nation. We do a powerful lot of feeling. But that we do precious little thinking has become painfully obvious.

Three or four people — out of all the millions in this country — filed silly lawsuits against merchants who refused, “for religious reasons,” not to serve them. We would never accept the notion that because of what three or four heterosexuals did, all of them should be judged guilty. But that is exactly what was done here. And it is done to gays and other minorities all the time, and for no other reason, apparently, than because it can be.

How does that serve liberty? How is it possible, on such a basis, even to make an intelligent or responsible decision about legislation — which is itself government intrusion, no matter how attractively it’s packaged — that affects the lives of millions? Appeals to wield the club of government this way are nearly always made on the basis of raw emotion. A free people who would remain free would be wise to pause, breathe, and think about the issue in the light of fact.

John responded to my opinion not with reason but emotion. He may have thought he was giving me a reason — “religious freedom” — but I was not questioning whether that is a good thing. I was challenging whether religious freedom would best be served by the bill proposed. I thought the measure taken was too extreme to be warranted by the incidents that provoked it, which might better be addressed in other ways. And I thought that its passage would bring consequences not only unintended but undesirable.

As I suggested in my previous piece on the subject, we could reform the civil court system to discourage frivolous lawsuits. If we absolutely could not resist passing yet another law protecting religious freedom, we could include a clause requiring merchants who would refuse to serve certain patrons to post their policy publicly. Far better, we could sidestep government coercion altogether and encourage those who proudly serve all customers without bias to participate in a plan to publicize this. In Arizona, for example, businesses can take the Unity Pledge. As those wishing to refuse same-sex couples’ business for religious reasons have no justification for hiding their light under a bushel, it’s difficult to see why they would want to keep their convictions a secret.

Other people with whom I have discussed this legislation have responded the same way John did. Motivated by passion, they want to act on passion. On cue, everybody — feel, feel, feel!

I might suggest that we are not an unfeeling nation. We do a powerful lot of feeling. But that we do precious little thinking has become painfully obvious.

Majorities tend, all too often, to resort to brute force. They do it simply because they are the majority, so they can get away with it. This is behavior conducive not to liberty but to license. Those who worship the power of the state seem unable to distinguish between the two. Those who believe in liberty — if we would keep that liberty — would be wise to make the distinction.




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A Mysterious Death

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A week or two ago, a man was sent to repair a hole in a roof in a nice ranch house on a nice street in Pontiac, Michigan. He had been sent by the bank that had foreclosed on the house for nonpayment of its mortgage. In the process of repairs he discovered a car in the garage, containing the mummified body of a woman. It was mummified because it had been enclosed in the car for six years.

The woman was thought to have spent a lot of time traveling, so she wasn’t expected to be around at any particular time. Anyway, nobody cared. As long as her bank account had money in it, her mortgage payments continued to be made by her computer. Utilities were paid in the same way. Her next-door neighbor continued to mow her lawn whenever he mowed his own lawn. Nothing appeared to be out of order. It was 2,000 normal days in Pontiac, Michigan, where $54,000 in a bank account can go a long way. As it should.

At this point, you may be shaking your head and muttering, “Look at the way things are in this modern, heartless, automated society.” But I, for one, am not muttering.

One reason is that I myself am from Michigan. The Pontiac story is a picture of what Michiganians are like. At least outstate Michiganians, meaning people who don’t live in Detroit. Michigan is full of odd expressions like “outstate.” It’s also full of people for whom it’s perfectly normal not to care about their neighbors. No, there’s nothing wrong with mowing the neighbor’s yard for her — why not? You’ve got a lawnmower. Might as well help her out. But why should you insist on talking to her? I can’t think of a reason.

As to dying in your garage: to this the Michiganian responds, “Where would you rather die?”

I remember how surprised I was when I got acquainted with my relatives in downstate Illinois (that’s Illinoisans’ dully predictable expression for people who don’t live in Chicago) and found that they actually knew what was up with their next-door neighbors. Sometimes the neighbors came strolling into the house with barely a yoo-hoo, on the mere pretext that their families had lived on the same block for a hundred years. The nerve!

Now, as to dying in your garage: to this the Michiganian responds, “Where would you rather die?” Would you rather freeze to death on your way from the house to the garage, like the old lady from the Upper Peninsula who was found frozen in her back yard (after which it was discovered that she had never been outside the Upper Peninsula of Michigan even once in her life)? No, you’d rather die in the garage, and better yet, in your car, where you’re comfortable and looking forward to a good trip. The lady in the Pontiac had her key in the ignition. She was ready to go.

But the second reason I am not muttering in protest is that I don’t find this vision of America in all its lack-of-community, bowling-alone, atomized-and-uncaring individualism (if that’s what it is) the least bit disturbing. The dead woman had planned her life and was leading it in the way she wanted. Presumably she had friends somewhere, and spent time with them. If she didn’t, she didn’t want to. I can’t see that getting together with her neighbors to scrub the curbs or neuter stray cats or attend weekly meetings of the zoning board would have enhanced her spiritual life. If there was a chance that it might have, she could have taken that chance. She didn’t. Probably she considered herself blessed enough already — blessed to live in a capitalist country where people can pay their bills on their own, without consulting anyone; a country where they can go away for months at a time without anybody “worrying” about them — anybody whom they themselves wouldn’t worry about; a country where neighbors can lend a hand without exacting the tribute of a feigned “community.”

This woman had a happy life — and if it wasn’t happy, she had only herself to blame. Contrast the millions, yea billions, of other people, people who have lived in other times and places, people who have been starved, butchered, tortured, or, as my ancestors used to say, “bothered half to death” in the circle of a close community. This woman was not a martyr; this woman was the symbol of a calm and tolerant society.




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Democracy in Action

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TSA Training Film

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Liberty’s readers know that I’m a fan of Liam Neeson’s middle-aged reincarnation as an action hero. His romps through thrillers with such single-word titles as Taken and Unknown, beating up bad guys half his age as he struggles to rescue his family (a common theme in his action films). This is cinematic escapism at its best.

At first this classically trained Shakespearean actor, who earned an Oscar nomination in 1993 for his powerfully moving performance as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, was embarrassed by the success of Taken. He admits that he agreed to take on the role simply for the opportunity to spend three months in Paris (and, I suppose, for the $5,000,000 fee he was reportedly paid), but he expected the film to go straight to video, he says, where no one would see it. Nevertheless, he has embraced his new role as an action hero, and enjoys resurrecting the skills he learned as a professional boxer in Dublin, many years ago, for these beat-’em-up films.

In Non-Stop Neeson again gets to growl menacing lines and land knock-out punches as he chases the bad guys, this time while flying on a jet between New York and London. But this time it was a lot harder for me to enjoy the ride.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, an air marshal who springs into action when he receives a text message from someone on the plane threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes until $150 million is transferred to a numbered bank account. Who is the culprit? And how can he be stopped?

Marks doesn’t know who the bad guy is, so he treats every single passenger as the hijacker and murderer. This is the TSA run amok with self-righteous determination.

Marks storms through the plane, grabbing anyone who looks suspicious and slinging the suspects around the plane. He stops at nothing (get it? non-stop?) in his determination to stop the killer. He snatches cell phones from breast pockets, rummages through carry-on bags, breaks one passenger’s nose and another passenger’s arm and another passenger’s neck. He shoots guns and thrusts knives and shoves food carts.

This is classic Neeson action-hero schtick, and I usually love it. But I have a problem with it in Non-Stop: these passengers aren’t bad guys. Well, one of them is. But Marks doesn’t know who, so he treats every single passenger as the hijacker and murderer. This is the TSA run amok with self-righteous determination. It doesn’t matter who might be hurt or even killed, so long as the air marshal gets his man. I actually cheered when the passengers finally mustered enough gumption to smack Marks in the head with a fire extinguisher, even though he was just “doing his duty” and “protecting” them.

Also uncomfortably along for the ride are Julianne Moore as the air marshal’s seatmate and Lupita Nyong’o as a flight attendant. Both are downright silly in their hand-wringing. I’m sure that if director Jaume Collet-Serra had known Nyong’o was going to be awarded an Oscar for her role in in Twelve Years a Slave and conducting a media blitz the very week his film was released, he would have given her a few more lines. Instead she is virtually hidden in the background. I rather imagine she is relieved that this film didn’t open in January, while the Academy members were still voting . . .

Even the denouement of Non-Stop is disappointing. I won’t tell you who did it, but it really doesn’t matter. The reaction is more of an “oh . . .” than an “Aha!” That’s because the story is set up like an Agatha Christie mystery in which every last suspect could plausibly be guilty. Whoops — I guess that’s exactly what the TSA wants us to think, isn’t it?

Non-Stop is a disappointment in every way. If this had been Neeson’s first foray into the action thriller genre, it would indeed have ended up going directly to video. I don’t even recommend it on Netflix.


Editor's Note: Review of "Non-Stop," directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. StudioCanal, 2014, 106 minutes.



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Earps vs. Clantons at the Tolerance Corral

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Arizona has a reputation as a politically nutty state. I’ve lived here all my life, and I prefer to think of it as Goldwater country: a feisty outpost of individual independence. I don’t like the idea that millions of other Americans think I live in loony-land, but given our occasional, highly publicized spasms of hysteria, I can see where they get the notion.

We’re seen as the Wild West. Land of the O.K. Corral. Still, at heart, an untamed territory, crawling with cowboys and yokels. But I don’t think our problem is really that different from problems anywhere else in America. We’re degenerating into an entire nation of spoiled and very bratty children.

We all remember the bullies from elementary school. Most of us had some classmates we liked, and others we didn’t. If we didn’t like somebody, we probably hung around with somebody else. But bullies aren’t content simply to dislike people. When they dislike us, they want to make it our problem.

There are bullies on both sides of the “tolerance” issue. I view the conflict with the detachment born of distaste. I don’t see why spoiled children, on either side, should carry the day. In this instance, thanks to Gov. Jan Brewer, they haven’t.

The other evening after Mass, some of my very left-of-center friends summed up our latest brush with lunacy by saying, “Well, the governor did the right thing by vetoing that stupid bill . . . but after all, it was just business.” Our Republican governor, in other words, pandered to those evil business interests. What a neat and tidy way to make sense of it all.

I know why the opinion-shapers to whom they listen are telling them that. Because the statist left is getting ready to punish the “religious freedom” crowd by pushing for statewide public accommodations laws, forcing every merchant to serve everybody. Now that they’ve won one showdown, their blood is up and they’re spoiling for another. It’s the Earps versus the Clantons all over again.

Hurting people’s feelings is not a crime, and it never should be. If peace is to reign in any society, those who simply want peace must be permitted to have it.

Many social conservatives will see this as all the gays in the state conspiring to violate their precious religious freedom. Though many gay people I know express opinions similar to mine, I can speak for no one but myself. I simply want to be left the hell alone. I want to live in peace.

I think it’s high time the Wild West was tamed, but I don’t think the Man with the Badge is the one to tame it. We, the ordinary citizens, need to tame it ourselves. I’ve seen enough of those old westerns to know that when the marshal rides into town, that’s when the real shooting starts.

Let’s begin with some clarification of what “public accommodation” means. Police, fire protection, and other basic, life-and-death services — for which we are all taxed to pay, regardless of our sexual orientation — are the true public accommodations, and as such, they must remain available to everybody. It is the marshal’s job to protect us all, whether he likes us or not. 

Those of us who respect liberty are interested in a solution that lets you be you and me be me. One that doesn’t force anybody to do anything. Bullies aren’t interested in peaceful compromise. They want a shootout every day. There are plenty of bullies on both the right and left, and those of us who want to clean up the town need to stop letting them goad us into needless conflicts.

When Arizona’s SB 1062 was being slopped together into a bill, it was suggested that a clause be added mandating that merchants who wanted to take advantage of the religious exemption publicly post that they were doing so. They didn’t like this. Not only did they want to be able to deny service to those of whose “lifestyles” they disapproved (meaning gays), but they wanted to be cowards about it. Though I agree that they should be free to discriminate against me, I do, however, think it’s only fair that they should warn me. According to my own religious convictions, bigotry is a sin. I believe that the Religious Right is as close to an Antichrist as any entity has ever been, and I don’t want one dime of my money supporting it. I don’t like these people, and I want no more to do with them than they do with me. But if they leave me alone, I’m perfectly content to leave them alone.

Along with reforming our civil court system to discourage frivolous lawsuits (like gay couples suing photographers for refusing to take their wedding pictures), we should exempt from litigation merchants who loudly and proudly post warnings that — because they’re such good Christians — they refuse to serve gays. That would bring an end to the clamor for heavy-handed legislation to protect the religious freedom of everybody who decides, willy-nilly, to discriminate against everybody else. It would also take the state out of the business of determining whose religious beliefs are really “sincere” and whose are not. Hurting people’s feelings is not a crime, and it never should be. If peace is to reign in any society, those who simply want peace must be permitted to have it.

I’m very glad we’ve gotten rid of lynching, and I’d like to see the gunfights come to an end. But there’s one Old West tradition I’d very much like to see revived. Some people ought to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. Those who persist in disturbing the peace by making their dislikes everybody else’s problem richly deserve to be dispatched in this way. When the mob forms to clear the country of them, I’ll be the first in line.




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