The Political Philosophy of the Crimean Crisis

 | 

I tried to resist, but I can’t. At the risk of being accused of pro-Soviet tendencies, I have to comment on a bizarre but real report in The Telegraph (March 6):

As European leaders [who else?] met in Brussels [where else?], President Barack Obama denounced plans for a referendum on whether the occupied Crimea region should join Russia as a “violation” of international law.

A violation of Ukrainian law, doubtless; but how does international law get into it? And just who is it that deliberates on international law, passes it, and provides for its amendment? Doubtless “European leaders.” So can they decide that Crimea should be part of Ukraine, despite all evidence that the majority of its population doesn’t want things that way? But to continue:

“We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” he [President Obama] said.

I can’t make sense of that. Can you? Apparently, borders can be redrawn; that, in fact, is what he’s objecting to.

Now, there are strong arguments that borders should not be redrawn, no matter what. No matter what nationalisms are involved, no matter what petty religious or historical or linguistic disputes are available, the peace of Europe demands, or at least requests, that changes not take place in the continent’s frequently arbitrary borders. (I note, as I have before, that the Crimea became part of Ukraine by fiat of the Soviet dictatorship. So much for “law.”) Any people that wants to institute the kind of political changes that will bring it the blessings of prosperity would do well to drop its more exuberant forms of nationalism, accept whatever borders have been dealt to it, and think in terms of freedom for the individual, not vengeance for the ethnos.

None of this is a rational political philosophy. It’s just a dumber form of the old statist shell game.

But that’s not what Obama is saying. He’s saying, or seems to be saying, that “leaders,” who are also supposedly “democratic,” get to decide. Does that mean Putin? Apparently it must — though that’s not what Obama wants his words to mean. And how about the Ukrainian president, the one whom Ukrainian revolutionaries just kicked out? Also a democratic leader. Should he decide the fate of the Crimea? But what about the people who are being led? Do they get to say anything? No, they don’t. Not according to Obama. He wants no referendum. Does he suspect that it would be about as democratic as an election in Chicago? Or is he offended that he, the biggest of all democratic leaders, would have no say in its results?

None of this fits. None of it holds together. None of it is a rational political philosophy. It’s just a dumber form of the old statist shell game, in which the principle of legitimacy passes from “the people” to “the leaders” and back again, over and over, and where it lights is simply the place on the sidewalk where the politicians squat in a circle and play their games according to the rules they make up.

And what rules can we expect from a president who suggests, according to the same news report, that the Crimean crisis can be “resolved diplomatically in a way which would satisfy Ukraine, Russia and the international community.”

Satisfy them? Satisfy them all?




Share This


The UAW Smackdown

 | 

A spectre is haunting the American labor movement movement — the spectre of Detroitism.

Last month, the UAW in particular and Big Labor in general suffered a devastating defeat when the workers at the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted to reject the UAW.

Big Labor has had and continues to have a lot of influence on the American political system, because of its ability to seize workers’ dues and use them to elect progressive and other leftist candidates for office. But it has seen a massive melting of its membership over the last few decades. In 1983, around 20% of all American workers were members of unions; now, only 11.3% are. And while the percentage of public sector workers currently in unions is 35.3%, in the private sector it is a meager 6.7%.

And in the UAW — the venal organization of a minority of American autoworkers — the figures are even worse: in the last three decades, it has lost 75% of its membership. (The UAW claims it has 382,500 members, but that is out of about 820,000 total American autoworkers).

The Obama administration used every trick possible to help the UAW win in Tennessee.

So for several years, the UAW has set its eyes on the South, where — thanks to the prevalence of right-to-work laws — automakers, mainly foreign ones, have opened plants. The unprincipled union has had the help of the Obama administration, which it helped elect by lavish logistical and financial support, and which in turn ripped off both taxpayers and secured investors in a cynical crony bankruptcy deal to enrich the UAW.

The Obama administration used every trick possible to help the UAW win in Tennessee. First, the president stacked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) with union tools by means of “recess appointments” that are probably illegal. The NLRB then allowed unions to use “card check” to win representation; that is, instead of holding a secret ballot election, the NLRB lets a union to be certified if the majority of workers sign authorization cards.

Of course, this opens the door for union coercion of workers, intimidating them into signing under the threat that if they don’t and the union gets voted in anyway, it will retaliate against them.

Some brave workers (represented by the estimable National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation) filed allegations that they had signed under UAW deception and coercion. The Obama-controlled NLRB dismissed the charges, but the worker outrage was so great that it forced VW — which, as explained below, needed to be forced — to ask that a secret ballot election be held.

Also helping the UAW was IG Metall, the union that represents autoworkers in Germany (and in fact has members on the boards of directors of not just VW, but BMW and Daimler as well). IG Metall is deeply afraid that more and more German auto plants will move to the Southern US, where right-to-work laws prohibit unions from forcing workers to support them, and lower energy costs prevail (thanks to our embrace of fracking — and Germany’s embrace of inefficient so-called “renewable” energy sources).

The NLRB was gaming the system, but VW (under pressure from its German union) tried to give away the game itself. VW pushed for a quick election (within nine days, far less than the average 40 days) and agreed not to speak against unionization. Moreover, VW agreed to allow the UAW to campaign inside the plant itself, and did not allow workers opposed to unionizing the same freedom.

But in spite of the blatant deck-stacking by Obama, his bogus NLRB, the company, the UAW, and the German union, the Big Labor gang was defeated by a 53% to 47% margin. Considering that the opponents of unionization were banned from stating their case in the plant, and considering the hardball tactics of the UAW, this was a decisive defeat for the union. As Art Schwartz (a former General Motors labor negotiator) put it, “If they can’t win this one, what can they win?

There seem to have been several specific factors that led to the workers giving the UAW the bum’s rush. First, the very unfairness of the scheme — letting the UAW speak, silencing its critics, and rushing the election — had to have been infuriating to the honest autoworkers.

Second, Obama made this a personal issue. He attacked Tennessee Republicans in his characteristically snide, mendacious way as caring more for “German shareholders than American workers.” His involvement brought the suffocating stench of his administration to the issue. Workers, in a state that voted for Obama’s opponent Romney by a margin of 20%, were reminded of the extensive corruption, abuse of power, and radical politics regnant in the White House. Grover Norquist, head of the invaluable group Americans for Tax Reform, pointed out the connection between Obama and the UAW on a billboard near the plant. The billboard message was that the “United Obama Workers” had spent millions in union dues to elect the man.

Third, workers were scared off by the miserable history of the UAW’s destructive and selfish war of confrontational tactics against the American automakers. The UAW drove GM and Chrysler off a cliff. VW and the other foreign carmakers pay and treat their employees in the southern US very well. Thus the workers were rightly afraid of losing their good jobs.

Fourth, workers obviously resented the UAW’s massive financial support of progressive and other leftist politicians, who vote for policies the workers generally hate, such as unlimited abortion and the elimination of gun rights. As one worker, Travis Finnell, put it forcefully, “We’re in the South. We have a lot of religion. I don’t want my money going to those causes.” This brings up what is doubtless another reason workers refused to enslave themselves to the UAW: the dues it takes from workers are quite steep — 2.5 hours of pay a month, and 1.15% of all the worker’s bonuses.

As a former General Motors labor negotiator put it, “If they can’t win this one, what can they win?”

Finally, it was well known in Tennessee that VW will soon decide where to locate a major new SUV factory — in Tennessee or Mexico. Please note: Mexico is a country that, unlike the US, has a free-trade agreement with the EU. The workers don’t want to give the company another reason to locate there.

But I suspect that the overarching reason for the UAW’s ignominious rout was the specter of Detroit. The Democrat-Big Labor complex has utterly destroyed one of America’s iconic cities. Between them, the UAW, the iniquitous city employee unions, and a mob of unscrupulous Democratic politicians drove two of the domestic automakers and the city itself into bankruptcy. As one worker said in a TV interview, the “common denominator” of the city’s collapse into a cesspool of decay was — the unions.

The reaction of the union was as predictable as it was despicable. Despite assurances that it would honor the workers’ decision, the UAW has just asked the Obama jury-rigged NLRB to call for a revote. The union is whining about “a coordinated and widely publicized coercive campaign” by outside interests (namely, Tennessee Republicans) to deprive the VW employees of their voices. The UAW naturally never mentions the coercive campaign by Obama, his stooge-packed NLRB, IG Metall, and the UAW itself to shove a ruinous union down the workers’ throats.

We will see if these miscreants can carry this off.




Share This


The Crimean Crisis

 | 

As readers of this journal may remember, I am not an isolationist, if “isolationist” be defined as “one who deems it immoral for the United States to use force across its borders”; but I am an isolationist if the word be defined as “one who thinks the United States should mind its own business.” To my mind, the Crimean crisis is a classic instance of a conflict about which the United States should do just that.

I am at least a mild supporter of the Ukrainian revolution, as I understand it. And I have little or no use for Vladimir Putin, as I understand him. I can understand why Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians would like to hang on to the Crimea. But I can also understand why Putin would like to get it away from them (as he virtually has, right now). It’s the location of a Russian fleet. The majority of its population speaks Russian, is Russian, and resents attempts of Ukrainian nationalists to make them speak and be Ukrainian. The Russians presumably know what can happen to dissenting nationalities when even the most “liberal” revolution heats up. And after all, the Crimea is part of Ukraine only because the old Soviet dictatorship, in an idle moment, gave it to Ukraine.

There are some reasons why the United States should not want Russia to annex the Crimea. It’s generally best for us when the Russians have an unstable base, such as Ukraine, for their military power. Even the least legitimate borders are often better than no borders at all, so it would generally be better if nationalists of every kind thought it was futile to try rearranging them. And it would be unfortunate to see a guy like Putin win.

This does not add up to a reason for us to “get tough” with Putin. It would be almost impossible to do so anyway, and expect any degree of success. President Obama may draw “lines in the sand,” but no one in the world believes what he says, even if it’s accidentally true.

So this is a good time for us to enjoy our isolationist traditions to the full. Bad things may happen; bad things undoubtedly are happening. This is to be expected wherever 19th-century European nationalism rears its head again. But that is, and must be, their problem.




Share This


Will Wins, Won’t Wins, Should Wins

 | 

Hollywood produced some stellar films this year, and the Academy’s new policy of nominating up to ten films for Best Picture allows more of them to be recognized. Oddly, they decided to nominate only nine this time, leaving out such excellent films as Blue Jasmine, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Prisoners, but I’m impressed with all the films that were selected (even Philomena, for the acting, if not for the political stance). Two thirds of the Best Picture nominees are based on true stories this year, including Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, Twelve Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, andPhilomena. All but one of the Best Picture nominees have already been reviewed in this magazine. Below I give you my top picks in the major categories for who ought to win, as well as my expectation for who is likely to win.

Best Picture

American Hustle. For ensemble work, this film is the best. The actors revel in their parts, embracing the ’70s oeuvre both in the film and offscreen in their interviews as though it were this year’s best-themed costume party. The story, loosely based on the government’s inept sting operation called ABSCAM, is great fun. Probably too much fun, in fact; this isn’t the kind of film that wins the Oscar.

The Wolf of Wall Street is another ensemble piece with a better chance of winning, because of its portrayal of a businessman completely devoid of any scruples. Scorsese had to edit out several scenes to avoid a deadly NC-17 rating, but he still pushed the envelope further than it has ever been pushed before. It is self-indulgent in every way, from its actors to its source material to its profanity (nearly 600 F-bombs) to its length (just under three hours). Some call it amazing; others call it boring. Great art often finds critics at both extremes.

Twelve Years a Slave is the film that Academy voters will feel obligated to vote for, even if they liked other films better.

The Academy usually votes for “important” films, which gives The Dallas Buyers Club a better chance of winning than either Wolf or Hustle. The film has a great libertarian theme and remarkable acting by Matthew McConaughey as the man who provided a life-sustaining cocktail of supplements to AIDS patients during the beginning of the crisis, and by Jared Leto, who portrays a transvestite patient. Both of them are nominated for their roles.

Gravity is my top choice for best picture. This film, about a scientist-cum-astronaut who becomes lost in space and has to find her way back to earth, is one of the best survival films ever made. It is taut and gripping throughout, with a protagonist who relies on her wits and her courage to survive. It is also a technological and cinematic masterpiece, the kind of film that will be talked about in film classes for decades.

Nevertheless, I think Gravity will lose to Twelve Years a Slave, another visual masterpiece whose subject matter, slavery, is considered more powerful and more important than a science-fiction adventure. It’s a good film, but a hard film to watch and unnecessarily divisive. But it’s the film that Academy voters feel obligated to vote for, even though they liked other films better — or so I’ve heard.

Best Director

Martin Scorsese was barely out of film school at NYU when he agreed to drive up to the Catskills to help film a music gig for a friend. The gig turned out to be Woodstock, and the documentary won the Oscar for Best Documentary in1970. Scorsese brings that same unbridled decadence and passion to The Wolf of Wall Street, virtually wallowing in sex, drugs and profanity throughout the film. Returning to his documentary roots, he encouraged his actors to delve into their characters and then set them loose to create their own scenes. The result is an outrageous montage of the characters’ voracious, insatiable appetites and a metaphor for capitalist greed — always a popular target in Hollywood. If he hadn’t recently won for The Departed (2006) he would be considered a sympathetic front runner this year, simply for his body of work. But he doesn’t have a chance this year against Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuarón.

Alfonso Cuarón’s vision for Gravity required unparalleled patience and determination, not only in the way he directed his protagonist (Sandra Bullock) but also in the way he figured out how to bring his vision to the screen. Once he knew what was needed, he waited over a year for the technology to be created and built. Cuarón put the magic into imagination and simply wowed his audiences with the beauty and terror of outer space. It’s brilliant.

Nevertheless, the gravity of Twelve Years a Slave is likely to outweigh Gravity in both of the top categories. Steve McQueen is also a visionary director who imagines the shot before he creates it rather than giving his actors their head and letting them lead the way. But some of his camera work in TYS is exquisitely framed and executed, from his lighting to his camera angles to the timing of his shots. One particularly long shot in which a character who has been lynched struggles to stay on tiptoe in order to avoid strangulation is utterly silent and agonizingly long. It is more powerful than other scenes of brutal, bloody whipping. Cuarón ought to win, but McQueen probably will.

Best Actor

My pick for best actor wasn’t nominated this year, but I have to give him a shout-out anyway. Jake Gyllenhaal’s nuanced performance as the detective in Prisoners was simply superb. He created a backstory for his character through unspoken gestures and reactions entirely of his own design, from his character’s nervous blink to his unexplained tattoo to the enigmatic look on his face at the end of the film that leaves us wondering whether he is going to rescue the man in the underground box — or not. We know that he is the prisoner of his own undescribed background, simply through his body language and what is left unsaid. But Oscar seldom rewards the nuanced performance. (I happen to think Johnny Depp’s most outstanding performance is John Dillinger in Public Enemy, but he will be most remembered for his outlandish performances as Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, and the unfortunate Tonto.)

Cuarón put the magic into imagination and simply wowed his audiences with the beauty and terror of outer space.

All five nominees this year gave outstanding performances. Christian Bale (American Hustle) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) lost all sense of themselves as they fell headlong into their roles as raunchy, despicable rascals. Matt McConaughey’s character (Dallas Buyers Club) is raunchy too, but he’s not despicable, he’s a hero, and a hero who has an emotional epiphany. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the man kidnapped into slavery also plays a hero in a community that trumps even the AIDS population for sympathy. That leaves Bruce Dern out in the cold in Nebraska, and that’s a shame, because Dern’s portrayal of a man losing his sense of reality, even though he is more grounded and determined than the “sane” people who surround him, is remarkable. Dern spent a lifetime portraying supporting roles, mostly as sinister villains, and he did it well. This was the part he has waited to play, and he does it subly and brilliantly. But Oscar doesn’t reward subtle, nuanced performances (see Gyllenhaal, above). Dern will have to be satisfied that it’s an honor just to be nominated.

Ejiofor’s character will win for Best Actor. I say his character will win, because his performance isn’t anything special, but how can you vote against a man who spent twelve years as a slave? But McConaghey just might pull this one out. He deserves it not only for DBC, but for his body of work this year, including his short but memorable chest-thumping role in the beginning of American Hustle, and his remarkable performance as the title character in the indie film Mud. McConaughey has come a long way from his Dirk Brink adventure roles and rom-com roots. Expect to see a lot of chest-thumping from anyone who wins an Oscar for AH. Nevertheless, I’m expecting a clean sweep for TYS.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett! She is my hands-down favorite for her refined befuddlement in a Chanel jacket. Say what you want about Woody Allen’s personal life; the man knows how to assemble a cast and elicit exactly the right performance from it. Blanchett should win for Best Actress, and Sally Hawkins should win Best Supporting Actress for her role as the unrefined, practical, down-to-earth sister. Yes, Sandra Bullock is astounding in her virtually solo performance in Gravity. She creates and maintains a believable tension throughout the film. To see just how difficult that is, take a look at Robert Redford’s failed attempt to pull off the same feat as a castaway in this year’s All Is Lost, or even Tom Hanks in Cast Away; Hanks had to invent a secondary character, Wilson the Volleyball, to allow the audience inside his character’s thoughts, and his isolation on the island is bookended by Acts One and Three, on land with other people. Still, I think Blanchett’s performance outdistances Bullock’s.

Meryl Streep is probably the best film actress of her lifetime, and her role as a matriarch suffering from mouth cancer in August: Osage County is a tour de force. But the film itself is flawed. The dialogue is sharp and witty and biting, as one would expect from a film that is adapted from an award-winning stage play. But its strength is also its weaknesses. Stage and film are two different genres. The former requires broad movements and loud delivery to reach the back of the theater; metaphors like “stomping the boards,” “hamming it up,” and “chewing the scenery” all arose from stage acting — and for good reasons. By contrast, film actors must rein in their performances, because they are seen on screens 80 feet wide and 40 feet tall. A glance to the left, a lifted eyebrow, a shudder or a twitch can communicate information that would be lost in live theater. Osage is a story that needs to be shouted as family members gather around the table and air a lifetime of gripes. It works on stage but not on film. Streep’s performance is top notch; she stops at nothing as the ugly, angry matriarch. But it’s just too much for the screen.

The Academy seldom rewards subtle, nuanced performances.

Dame Judi Dench, Britain’s version of Meryl Streep, also puts in a remarkably witty, funny, and sympathetic performance, as the title character searching for the baby she gave up for adoption in Philomena. But it’s what we’ve come to expect from Dench. Next to such a strong set of contenders this year, she should reserve a table next to Bruce Dern for the after party. It truly is an honor to be nominated.

Amy Adams is another outstanding actress who, like Streep and Dench, can perform just about any role. I love her body of work. And she loved showing off her literal body with the plunging necklines her character wears in American Hustle (and she gleefully continued to wear in interviews promoting the film). But AH is an ensemble film in which each individual performance is less than the sum of its parts. It’s another argument for adding Best Ensemble as an Academy category.

Blanchett’s strongest competitor comes, again, from the cast of TYS. But the producers decided to list Lupita Nyong’o as a supporting actress, despite the fact that she has the longest and most important female role in the film. Blanchett is in the clear. I hope she breaks out that Chanel jacket to wear to the awards.

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi is stunning as the leader of a gang of pirates who board a cargo ship and kidnap the captain for ransom. His performance is so believable that I had to keep reminding myself that he was not really a Somali pirate. What makes this all the more remarkable is that this is his cinematic debut. He’s my pick for Best Supporting Actor.

But Jared Leto is going to win, for his tough and touching portrayal of a transgender prostitute in DBC. And he deserves it. This is one year when we just need extra trophies.

Michael Fassbender as the despicable slave owner in TYS; Jonah Hill as the despicable penny-stockbroker in TWWS; and Bradley Cooper as the despicable FBI agent in AH will just have to join that table with the un-despicable Dench and Dern. None of them has a prayer of a chance.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman has to be mentioned here as well. I suspect that if he had died two weeks earlier, he would have been nominated for his supporting role in The Master. This talented, versatile actor will be missed, and he will be highlighted in a tribute Sunday night.

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins is my top pick for her role as the practical, forgiving, down-to-earth single mom who has every reason to feel bitterness toward her sister Jasmine, whose husband swindled them out of their life savings. She is lively and funny and wonderful in this role. But she doesn’t have a chance.

Neither has Jennifer Lawrence, despite her sleazy, slinky, shady performance as the wife of the Christian Bale’s two-bit con man in AH. She has two strikes against her: first, she won an Oscar last year for playing a similar role; and second, no one has a chance this year against Lupita Nyong’o.

Julia Roberts is the weakest of the group. Expressing anger does not make an Oscar-worthy performance.

Like Javier Bardem, who stole the 2008 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor from Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild) by entering the supporting actor category instead of the leading actor category, Lupita Nyong’o belongs in the leading actress category. She is the central female character in the story. I have another criticism of her nomination, and that is, quite simply and directly, her acting. She seems very uncomfortable with the words she is asked to say. She recites her lines as though from memory, not from her heart; they don’t flow naturally from her mouth. Nevertheless, she will be lifted by the gravitas of the film, and is sure to win the Oscar.

Julia Roberts should not even have been nominated. Yes, she gets to yell and swear and pull Meryl Streep’s hair. But expressing anger does not make an Oscar-worthy performance. Hers is the weakest of the group. Jennifer Squibb as the insensitive, vulgar-mouthed wife of Bruce Dern in Nebraska is nominated largely for the novelty of hearing an old woman swear and lift up her skirts and talk about sex in public. It’s not an Oscar-worthy performance either. These two actresses should studiously avoid the Dench-Dern table.

So there you have it: my picks, and my expectations. The real winner this year will probably be host Ellen Degeneres whose flippant humor and kind demeanor will set everyone at ease during what is usually a tense, exciting, and ultimately disappointing evening for most of the attendees. It is an honor to be nominated, but everyone wants to win, and 80% of the hopefuls will be going home as losers. Ellen might help them go out with a smile.




Share This

© Copyright 2013 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.