Astonishing Life, Astonishing Performance

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Stephen Hawking is the most celebrated and renowned physicist of our time, not only because of his astounding theory about time, but also because of his personal struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He has spent his career searching for that “once simple, elegant equation that would prove everything.”

If you, too, are looking for clues to Hawking’s elusive equation, The Theory of Everything isn’t the place to look. Although it does contain a few brief and basic conversations about Hawking’s research along the lines of “quantum theory governs subatomic particles; relativity governs the planets,” the film decidedly is not about physics.

Instead, it is an intensely personal film about how a family copes with the day-to-day emotional and physical trauma caused by a debilitating disease. And yet, it’s not about that either. Stephen Hawking has managed to survive for half a century with a disease that kills most people in less than two years. It is a horrifying disease that gradually destroys the body from the outside in. Known variously as “motor neuron disease,” “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” and more recently “ALS,” it prevents the brain from communicating with the muscles, first in the extremities (hands and feet) and finally in the torso, face, and organs. The brain continues to think, but it can’t direct the muscles to move. It is simply devastating, and most people succumb soon after diagnosis.

But not Stephen Hawking. And I want to know why. Fifty years! I want to know something about the medical treatment and the personal regimen that have made the difference for him. Is it because he has such a strong sense of purpose and satisfaction derived from his research? Is it because he doesn’t believe in the “better place” that makes it easier for believers to “shuffle off this mortal coil”? Or is it because he can afford the reported millions it costs each year for round-the-clock healthcare and personal assistance? The film completely ignores these issues, so if you’re looking for a theory, either of astrophysics or of medical physics, you won’t find it.

Stephen Hawking has managed to survive for half a century with a disease that kills most people in less than two years.

The Theory of Everything is a love story. It includes the giddiness of first love, the devastation of being rejected, the warm settling in of married life, the trauma of dealing with chronic illness, the addition of children, and even the conflicts of infidelity. Stephen’s wry boyish smile belies the crippling devastation of his body and lights his face with charm and desirability. The emotional connection between Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) is so raw and so tender that it sometimes feels like an intrusion to watch. The stunning musical score by Johann Johannsson contributes to the emotion of the film and will keep you in your seat through the final credits.

In short, The Theory of Everything is more Jane’s story than Stephen’s. According to the tag line of the film, “His mind changed our world. Her love changed his.” This should not be surprising, since the screenplay is based on Jane Hawking’s memoirs, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen (2007) and Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen (1999). But it also very well may be true that her influence helped him continue his research and live, not as an invalid but as a scholar. Hawking himself has said that the film is “broadly true” and said of Eddie Tremayne’s performance, “At times, I thought he was me.”

Indeed, Eddie Redmayne is the reason this film works so well. He studied with therapists and dance instructors to learn how to isolate his muscles and contort them in just the right way so that he never becomes a caricature of Hawking but remains an embodiment of him. He expresses devastating frustration, unending optimism, witty charm, emotional pain, and tender love, all within the confines of a deteriorating body. Despite the pain, his eyes, his mind, and his smile remain bright. Both Hawking and Redmayne are remarkable.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Theory of Everything," directed by James Marsh. Working Title Films, 2014, 123 minutes.



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Religious Bric-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad

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In the two days following and during the events I heard much nonsense about the context of the mass murders of 12 newspapermen and police officers, of a policewoman the next day, and of four Jewish hostages in Paris. The nonsense included the assertion by Rush Limbaugh that French cops are unarmed (90% false) and another, by a local conservative radio host, a good friend, that the French had imported North Africans to compensate for their demographic decline (false and absurd). Of course, NPR joined CNN in consistently misreporting the ongoing action without bothering to glance at Google Maps. Christiane Amanpour breathlessly contributed mistranslations of simple French words. Several media affirmed that there are "hundreds" of areas, including in Paris itself, where the French police won't venture, areas that are already under Sharia law. It's pure alarmist invention. (Fox News apologized about a week later; the Socialist Mayor of Paris is suing nonetheless.)

An American scholar reared in France, I have to add my voice, because I may in fact be better informed than most of those who commented in English. I will give you a short description of French society today (with few accordions), and I will try to address features relevant to its tolerance of the foundations of violent jihad. I will speculate on the nature of French Islam and then I will draw from my narrative a few implications for action.

The massacre of 12 people, including two police officers, at the satirical Charlie Hebdo was followed within hours by the cold blooded murder of a black female traffic officer somewhere else and then by a murderous attack on a kosher store right near Paris. The attackers were two brothers of North African origin, in one case, and a West African and perhaps his girlfriend, in the other. (There are reports that the girlfriend fled to Syria. It's not obvious as I write whether she was present at the murders or not.) All the terrorists had Muslim names, as does the girlfriend. The brothers who murdered at Charlie Hebdo were caught on film. According to survivors of the first massacre, they shouted "Allahu Akbar" and "We revenged the Prophet Muhammad." The terrorist of West African origin attacked and took control of an obviously Jewish establishment where housewives were likely to be shopping in large numbers before the Sabbath. Four shoppers were gunned down there. The three male terrorists were killed by the police. They will never be interrogated.

The French political class, for all its vices, is not especially supine, not much infected by the virus of political correctness.

It's useful to keep in mind that these events did not take place in a failed state or a place where the population lives in dire poverty. France is not Pakistan, or even Greece; it's not even close to the latter. A friend who travels a lot by road on business declares the French freeways the best in the world. Fifty years of observation suggest to me that all streets in France are cleaner than all streets in America. The French security forces are well trained. They put an end to the hot phase of the crisis with exemplary precision. No police officers were killed and no members of the general public, aside from the hostages in the grocery store. In general, French intelligence services are held in high regard by their counterparts elsewhere.[i] The French political class — for all its vices — is not especially supine, not much infected by the virus of political correctness. It held firm, Left to Right, on the issue of head veils for minor girls. (The hijab is prohibited in all public schools, along with visible crosses and stars of David.) It banned even more forcefully in public places the full facial covering that was becoming the fashion among French Muslim women, including converts. (The French government probably bought back hostages held by Islamists on several occasions though.)

There may be more Muslims in France than in most or in all other Western countries, but, as I will discuss below, they are on the whole better integrated there than elsewhere. What happened in France could happen in several other countries. The attacks were not due to some French idiosyncrasy. Rather, I will argue that they took place there in part because of the kind of society that is France. But there are many others like it. Below are some insider's images of relevant features of French society.

A Liberal Society

On Jan. 1, 2015 — a week before the mass murders — the French police authorities were in a celebratory mood. The reason for their glee was that the night before, New Year's Eve, only 930 cars had been burnt in all of France. That was a decline from previous years. I am referring here to the casual torching of strangers' cars parked in the street as an act of New Years celebration, but also when a favorite soccer team is victorious. These acts of mass vandalism are largely limited to what the American press improperly calls "suburbs." (See below.) Of course, many of the arsonists are probably young men with Muslim names. Why wouldn't they be? The burnings take place where they live. The celebrated center of Paris is too far away; so are the centers of many other French cities. The arsonists are said to be "marginalized" young people. They are seldom arrested; they are seldom convicted; they rarely spend time in jail. These facts alone don't make the habit of mass arson an Islamist act.

The areas right outside French cities are made up mostly of rings of low-density, fairly comfortable, largely unintended, and non-racial ghettos. They are geographically located where suburbs would be found around American cities. Yet, they are not "suburbs" with all the implied connotations of petty-bourgeois bliss. In a concerted effort — in which I participated (see my book of memoirs[ii]) in the ’60s and ’70s — most of the poor and even of the lower-middle class were moved out of the substandard, often slummy housing in the cities proper. They were offered brand new, decent high rises right outside the cities. Yet inside the cities there remain government-subsidized projects that were the forerunners of those of the massive urban reform of the sixties and seventies. I grew up in one such, the same area (the 19th Arrondissement) from which, by the way, the dead assassins of the Charlie Hebdo massacre came. Their extremist cell used to meet in the same park where I played as a child. It's not prosperous but it's not a slum.

The new housing or projects around the main French cities, including Paris, were and still are significantly subsidized by the government. People became used to paying low rents there for shelter that was not even close to their dream house, although it was salubrious. The relevant urban reform was all done hastily. The new projects made insufficient allowances for ordinary services. Going to the dry cleaner, for example, is a chore in some of the airy, low-density, originally park-like developments. In most projects, the number of cafés was kept deliberately down in an effort to improve public health. But the café is, has always been, where French people of different origins meet peacefully in all weathers. (Cafés serve many kinds of nonalcoholic beverages including coffee, hot chocolate, Coke, etc.) The transportation needs related to the new exurban projects were underestimated by government macroplanners. They were proud, nevertheless, because what was done — the Réseau Express Régional, around and into Paris, for example — seemed to have been done well: attractive, fast trains with a reasonably high frequency (but only during work hours, more or less). No one was trying to short-change the lower classes. On the contrary, a progressive social vision of both socialist and Catholic inspiration presided over this effort. “Urban planners" were all working with a pure zeal for the improvement of the condition of the masses. And yes, parking in Paris proper improved as well as parking inside other major cities. That was probably inadvertent. From a planner's standpoint, everyone should have been more contented than before.

The rural Algerian mother of eight arrived in France is not a conventional deliberate welfare parasite. She may want nothing better than to work, or for her husband to work. There is not enough work.

As I write (in January 2015), tens of thousands of French schoolchildren are happily preparing for their annual stay in the mountains. Those "snow classes" (classes de neige) are largely financed by local governments. In practice, no kid is held back because his family is not rich enough to send him (egalité). This institutionalized practice makes me envious, of course. When I was rearing my children in California, they never went skiing, although my family was solidly middle-class. For 20 years of her life, my sister-in-law received two monthly checks directly from the government, one for having four children, one for staying home to take care of them. And, no, my brother had not deserted her or the children. The payments were part of being French (fraternité). Her children's school lunch was free throughout. It was because the family had no visible income although it was near-rich. Any day, the school lunch would have honored the average restaurant in Santa Cruz, California. It's France we are talking about, after all. And yes, kosher food and halal food were always available (liberté).

In the past few months, there was a debate in the French parliament about whether emigrants should be allowed to arrive in France on a Monday and begin eating at the common trough and receiving social services on Tuesday, or whether a short waiting period should be imposed. I don't know whether any legislation was passed; the fact that the debate took place at all is instructive. And, yes, of course, many of the immigrants who partake of the French state's munificence are Muslims. Most immigrants to France today are Muslims, the product of colonial, and especially of postcolonial vicissitudes, much aided by the success of French efforts to spread the French language. (Few Moroccans schooled in French from first grade will learn Dutch or German in order to emigrate to any place in Europe other than France. Some do, obviously.) A rural Algerian mother of eight who manages to move to France sees her family's standard of living multiplied by ten shortly after they arrive, with or without a husband. She is not a conventional deliberate welfare parasite. She may want nothing better than to work, or for her husband to work. There is not enough work. (See below.)

Why would this situation not be irresistible, for poor Muslims as well as for poor anyone? Yet if there is something you abhor in French society, for whatever reason, including religious, it will be difficult to leave, because you will soon be addicted. (Technical note: immigration into France from outside the European Union is restricted, but there are ways, legal and other.)

This stereotypical imagery describes the truth, but only a small part of it. The complete truth is that people with Muslim names are present at all levels of French society, from street sweeping to cabinet posts, through university faculties. I am sure that most have jobs. Most give the impression of being thoroughly French. A young female lawyer with a Muslim name appears on French TV before the massacre. She defends two Islamists of Algerian nationality accused of terrorist acts. She wears long earrings pointing to a plunging neckline. She is not concerned that her attire would earn her 20 lashes under ISIS or even in Saudi Arabia; she is French, after all. The most beautiful recent tall building in Paris is the Institute of the Arab World. It's headed by an old theater man, a Jew. The police officer executed in the street by a Charlie Hebdo assassin had a Muslim name. He was buried in a Muslim cemetery. Many French nominal Muslims are highly visible and beloved in show business and in sports. The French national soccer hero is named "Zinedine Zidane," not "Pierre Dubois." In my necessarily subjective judgment, the only good popular music in France in the past 30 years is Rai, composed and sung by children of North African immigrants. (It's sung mostly in French.) The first French soldier killed during the NATO action in Bosnia in the nineties was named "El Hadji." Large numbers of people from predominantly or totally Muslim countries have lived in France (France narrowly defined) for more than 100 years. They are deeply rooted there. Tens of thousands of them lie in French military cemeteries. Muslims have not yet derailed French democracy. French non-Muslims with names like mine did, several times.

Religion as Culture

You will notice that I said above, "people with Muslim names," and "nominal Muslims." I am not eager to guess who among such people is a real Muslim and who is not, or not really, or only sometimes. If I had to bet I would bet that most French nominal Muslims are similar to their non-Muslim French contemporaries: religious in name, not devout, not practicing, not even minimally. Nothing is easier than spotting a North African-looking man in Paris lifting a theoretically forbidden beer in a café with his blue-eyed workmates. Like other French people, they probably receive little formal religious instruction except from Grandma and Grandpa. The fact is that there are few mosques in France outside the two monumental ones in Paris and Marseille, out of reach for most. Halal meat is widely available in France, which means that it's being consumed. It's likely that many French Muslims observe the annual Ramadan, which consists in going without water and fasting during the day and gorging and visiting at night.

I would guess that many French Muslims are Muslims in culture only, in the way I, an atheist, am a cultural Catholic. It's not much, but it's not nothing either. It's a vague tendency to see the world a certain way. I, for example, put off the tedious task of straightening out my desk because, I am fairly sure, the Virgin Mary, or one of her delegate saints, will give me a hand soon, at some point, in the undefined future. Naturally, that's a residue from the Catholic doctrine of grace with which I grew up: God wants you to help yourself but there is a good chance He will help you even if you don't deserve it.

A religious culture is often a fallback position in hard times. For many people, it's the built-in default option. That's the option that is activated when one faces difficult circumstances for which one is ill prepared. Thus, when my equally atheistic, free-thinking but Hindu-reared wife becomes frustrated, she often devolves, and strikingly, to transparently caste-contaminated vituperation. This, although she detests caste.

Hard Times in the Welfare State

There are many hard times in the French welfare paradise, and many causes for frustration. They are mostly smallish hard times, hard times that might pass below the radar, and mostly evanescent occasions for frustration. With a couple of important exceptions about which I don't know enough, welfare states rarely generate even moderate sustained economic growth and, therefore, employment. (The exceptions of which I am thinking are Denmark and Sweden.) It's a little difficult — perhaps also confusing — even for the neutral observer to spot the hardships in French society. Everyone there is decently fed (or well fed — see above.) Nearly everyone is reasonably well dressed, or adequately dressed. Healthcare is practically free. French men's life expectancy is actually two years longer than American men's. (I am not asserting that there is a connection — I don't know yet — but the socialized French health system works pretty well, I hate to admit.) All French public schooling is free, including at the university level. The meals of properly enrolled students, even in their thirties, are subsidized by the government. Many students even receive a stipend. In my judgment, French education at all levels is quite bad, with the exception of maybe 20 schools, but so? Why not keep going to school? The official workweek is still 35 hours; after that, overtime pay kicks in. Retirement age is 62. There are many more vacation days and holidays each year than in the US. Either you have a job and you don't work all that much (unless you are in business for yourself), or you don't have a job and you work even less, or not at all, and then still, life is tolerable. What's not to like about the ease of the current French lifestyle?

Muslims have not yet derailed French democracy. French non-Muslims with names like mine did, several times.

It's hard to put your finger on the answer. My shortcut is that it's a good way of life for mediocre people but it's the worst way of life for the best people. As I write, the bumbling and militantly secular Socialist government of François Hollande is secretly on its knees, praying that GDP growth will reach 0.8% in 2015. They are not confident it will happen; 0.5% is more realistic. It's an order of magnitude below the growth achieved by our own ailing economy. For about 20 years the French GDP growth rate has more or less matched the country's population growth rate: around 0.5%. It's a stagnant economy. Formal unemployment is 10%. It has rarely dipped below 9% since 1985. That's against a background of extensive long-term unemployment, a background decades older than the current American counterpart.

Although it's not formally illegal, it's difficult in practice, and costly, to lay off anyone in France. (Doing it is like asking for legal action.) Employers mostly don't try, and consequently they also avoid hiring. As a result of both facts, the middle-aged keep their jobs and fail to make room for the young in an economy where stagnation makes making room essential. This succinct description of the French economy has been valid since about 1985. Today, much of the work force carries around obsolete skills while the young don't have reason or occasion to acquire new skills or any skills at all.

This stark description has concrete if diffuse social consequences. Of my four nephews in their thirties, two have never had what I would consider a real job. They don't know what a real job looks like from the inside. They have not learned the basic disciplines that young people ought to learn in entry positions with a future. It's doubtful they will learn now. There is not much reason for them to try, given the unemployment numbers, numbers that are validated by what they see informally all around them. I suspect they are permanently semi-employable. It's not a tragedy for those two because one is a happy ski bum and the other pretty much enjoys the status of the everlastingly-in-training. One wonders, though, about the state of mind of those who possess ambition, a sense of initiative, a desire to be independent, or simple energy.

My nephews are middle class by upbringing; they have a pretty good education; they live in economically sound areas. Both have a French first name and a French last name, and they look the part. In their age group, the unemployment rate is around 20%. If your first name is "Ahmed," however, the relevant unemployment rate is probably 30%, unless you have a respected degree. There is discrimination against people with Muslim names, although it's not bad enough to stem the inflow of thousands of foreign Muslims into France, often putting themselves at major physical risk. To my knowledge, no European jihadist has ever mentioned bitterness against this discrimination as a source of his actions. France is full of possessors of worthless Masters degrees. These things become known. (Personally, I think that even some respected French degrees are not respectable — another story.) If, in addition, you live in one of the exurban projects with poor transport connections to employment centers, the unemployment rate relevant to you is probably close to 50%.

Now, look at it from Ahmed's viewpoint: If he works hard, if he perseveres, if he manages to find the $15 round-trip fare, if he has had no brush with the law, he stands an even chance of landing a temporary job with mediocre pay, and a long wait for any promotion. I am tempted to think that those in Ahmed's situation who even try are simply underinformed.

Thus France offers a fairly comfortable but a hopeless and enervated future to millions of its young, with no relief in sight. (Most of those do not have Muslim names, of course.) Many younger people don't even know what relief would look like. They have no vision of a prosperous society where those who want to work, do — except in a mythical sense, through American movies (half of all tickets sold in France in an average year). It does not look like there can be a Steve Jobs in France. If one arises nevertheless, he will probably try to move to California, where entrepreneurship is still tolerated.

The Dull and the Spunky

If you are a young French person lucky enough to be dull, you may just enjoy the existence the country offers. You know that you will never go hungry or sick, that you will be clothed, that hot showers will be available. You won't have much to fear because you don't have a car, and your clothes don't excite envy. You will be OK so long as you remember to carry your cellphone in your underwear. You will never have to get up early in the morning. If you are bored, even the astonishingly mediocre French television will give you a steady fare of soccer games, of so-so movies, and even of increasingly decent series. Used computers are cheap, and they provide 24/7 access to the internet. If you are dull but endowed with physical energy, you will easily locate pickup soccer games during about half the year.

If you are bright, if you have some spunk, a wish to exercise your initiative, some energy, your options are few and as if well concealed. You can always try to qualify for one of the few good schools of higher education. Your chances of admission to those will be small because they are (fairly) ultra-competitive. No matter, there is an abundance of bad schools. After your second worthless Master's degree you may decide to give up this path. (Many young Muslims actually follow this very path.) The smarter you are, the faster you will abandon formal education, I think. Many young Frenchmen with a curious turn of mind, including some with Muslim names, devote their attention to the scientific study of drugs, mostly cannabis, with themselves as principal experimental subjects. Their research often leads to participation in the petty drug trade (both Charlie Hebdo assassins had such a past).[iii] The petty drug trade brings both spending money and, perhaps more importantly, adventure. Sometimes, participation in the trade leads to various degrees of delinquency or serious crime. (That was the case for two of the three terrorists. The kosher restaurant killer had moved on and garnered seven felony convictions.)

For about 20 years the French GDP growth rate has more or less matched the country's population growth rate: around 0.5%. It's a stagnant economy.

If you happen to come from a Catholic family, you might chose instead to dedicate your stamina to the surprisingly dense and lively Catholic action network. If you descend from two or three generations of unionized people, there is a fair chance you may become a minor labor activist or a political activist. These options are obviously not readily available to the offspring of Muslim recent immigrants. But a Muslim background, being an ethnic Muslim, and having spunk, so to speak, opens its own avenues to self-expression and even to success. Specifically a Muslim background makes a certain kind of imagery available that feeds the imagination, that provides scenarios. Such a background also has consequences for one's affiliations, of course.

French Islam as a Culture

Remember my mention of religion as a cultural fallback position. It works well for Christians and also for ex-Christians, and for others as well. Jesus walked around and talked to those who would listen, and he occasionally cured the sick. Buddha seems to have spent a lot of time meditating under a tree. Muhammad was not only a prophet but a successful war leader. He spent most of his later years, after the revelations, fighting those who would suppress him — in jihad, in other words. This is strong, brave, attractive imagery for any young male.

Moreover, if you come from a Muslim background, as an immigrant, you will often live mostly with others from a Muslim background. That's true irrespective of discrimination. For several generations, immigrants tend to follow each other geographically. Immigrants from the same country, from the small town, even from the same tiny village end up together. (It's as true in France today with people who happen to be nominal Muslims as it was formerly for Italian immigrants to the US, for example.) In a stagnant society with little economic mobility, there will also be little geographic mobility. Your children will likely also stay put, and theirs. Then, some of your neighbors, unavoidably, will be Muslims; some of those will be pious; some Muslims — your own grandfather, for example — will take you, or drag you, to the mosque. With this ongoing process, the probability that you will never meet a jihadist is quite low. Your name will act like a greeting card to moderate Muslims, to Muslim agnostics, and to jihadists alike. Others will talk in front of you the way they would not talk before someone named "Marius."

Given the basic warlike Muslim imagery and given these probabilistic affiliations, it would also be surprising if no young male nominal Muslims living a comfortable but boring life without a future were tempted by jihad. Going on jihad is like joining the Foreign Legion, but with a higher moral purpose. It's so attractive that even some young Frenchmen with no Muslim background at all are drawn to it. The question is not why some Muslims do it but why they are not stopped more often by those most in a position to stop them. I believe there is a cultural predisposition in the large nominally Muslim segment of French society that commits it to passivity toward violent jihadism. It's true among other Muslims, living elsewhere in the democratic West. It's before us for all to see, but we feel a delicateness about acknowledging what we see.

Outsiders' Tolerance of Criminal Behavior

Every time someone commits atrocities while shouting slogans with obvious Muslim content, the liberal or mostly liberal American media, but also the French media, and most media in the Western world, I expect, trot up credentialed Muslim spokesmen. (The masculine gender is intentional here; it's a low blow.) Every time, the spokesmen affirm solemnly that the terrorist perpetrators are not "real Muslims." They seldom fail to add that the "majority" of Muslims are moderate and peaceful. Prominent elected politicians such as President Hollande of France and President Obama hasten to repeat these empty formulas. This is now a nearly automatic, institutionalized manner of avoiding a big problem we are collectively not brave enough to face.

There is an abundance of bad schools. The smarter you are, the faster you will abandon formal education.

Of course, the majority of Muslims are peaceful. In fact, I think the real number is upwards of 95%, or 99%, or more. Ordinary nominal Muslims in France, elsewhere in Europe, and in the US, are first of all ordinary people. They want to work. They do their job when they have work. They quarrel with their spouses. They cherish their children. Most are too busy to care. Many would not be brave enough to become terrorists if they wanted to be (like most of us, like myself). The issue is also not daily behavior. People with Muslim names are often likable. I have myself always known both nominal and practicing Muslims. I have always preferred them to others, in France and in the US. They tend to be sweeter, more courteous than the average. There are Muslims in my extended family now. Long ago, I almost married an Arab girl. (She rejected me because of my frivolousness.) Today, my favorite young woman is a practicing Muslim (I wrote about her in Liberty, December 2010.)

My favorite foreign countries are Turkey and Morocco. All this colors my judgment, of course: I am prejudiced, prejudiced in favor of Muslims. If you call me an "Islamophobe," please take note that I am a loving Islamophobe.

Passive Complicity

But culturally induced kindness is only a part of the reality of cultural Islam, of Islam as a culture, in France, elsewhere in the West, and elsewhere in the world. Take the two murderous Charlie Hebdo brothers. Each of them had traveled abroad, one to Yemen, one apparently to Tunisia. They possessed fairly expensive weapons and even more expensive bulletproof vests, all the more expensive because they are outlawed in France. Yet neither of them had held even a modest job for a while. The Jewish store killer had a girlfriend who escaped. The French media say she fled to Syria. The plane fare from Paris to Istanbul, the jumping-off point for Syria, is at least $600. Before the murders, she and her late boyfriend had traveled extensively, including to the Dominican Republic and even to Malaysia.[iv] Neither had a steady job. Someone in the Muslim community, broadly defined, must have helped them financially. Surely, it was not Lutherans or Jews who lent them a hand. I think it was not Al Qaeda either in spite of media reports to the contrary, although one killer may have trained in Yemen instead of going to language school there. Al Qaeda in Yemen claimed the Charlie Hebdo massacre while the perpetrator of the grocery store massacre claimed he belonged to ISIS. The two terrorists knew each other. The two groups wage war on each other on the ground.[v]

We know that the killers were part of a network because one of the brothers was convicted earlier of helping others to go fight jihad in Iraq. Members of their networks may all have been fanatics like them, and thus capable of secrecy. But some of the fanatics at least had brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, uninvolved friends, jilted girlfriends, some of whom must have got a whiff of the forthcoming actions. Some of those probably chatted idly or shared their concerns. There were 500 calls between the cellphones belonging to the wife of one of the Charlie Hebdo killers and the cellphone of the girlfriend of the grocery store killer. Either the men used their phones and the women did not notice, or they knew, or they were themselves talking. In all cases there must have been leaks. The brothers' drift must have been visible to their neighbors. French security forces have thousands of members whose first or second language is Moghrebi Arabic, the principal language of French Muslims after French. They should have picked up anything untoward. Apparently, no one from the "Muslim community" stepped forward to say, or even to whisper, "Those are bad men; they want to destroy the Republic." Someone must have known and decided not to act, probably several.

The information gathering of French police failed miserably on this occasion. The police declared itself overwhelmed by the numbers requiring surveillance. Of course; good police work does not result from having five cops following each suspect over 24 hours. It comes from people close to the criminals approaching the police voluntarily to provide useful information.

The question is not why some Muslims go on jihad but why they are not stopped more often by those most in a position to stop them.

The propensity to ignore forthcoming evil is a sickness that may well be distributed across all religiously defined groups. However, the consequences of in-group solidarity are graver where Muslims are concerned, because theirs is currently the only group whose religion glorifies religious violence, or appears to glorify religious violence, or lends itself to the misunderstanding that it glorifies religious violence. (See below for an assertion that it's not all in the mind of the viewer.)

A heavy complicity of silence reigns over French Muslims, nominal and devout alike. It's abetted by embarrassed, secular silence maintained by elite intellectual voices and by most politicians in the country. The same seems to be true everywhere else in Europe. The politicians who break ranks with this conspiracy are mostly disreputable for other reasons. (I mean the Front National in France and similar nationalist groups in other countries.)

Jews as the Canary in the Mine (As Usual)

Complicity is not always discrete. Take the stereotypical Muslim responses to the habitual targeting of Jewish businesses — such as the kosher grocery store in this event — of Jewish institutions, of Jewish cemeteries, for a while, even, and of Jewish neighbors, including, horribly, schoolchildren. (The latter crime condemned by large French Muslim organizations.) Or focus simply on the myriads of anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of all French cities. Everyone in France knows that the old style French anti-Semitism is dead or moribund. The Dreyfus affair was more than a century ago; many actually know that Dreyfus was innocent and framed. The Catholic Church has desisted. Most Gentiles of Christian background are somewhat aware of the ignominious French role in the genocide of Jews in WWII. Many don' t care about Jews, one way or the other, and are thus not hostile.

Everyone suspects strongly that young people with Muslim names committed nearly all the anti-Semitic acts and probably all the anti-Semitic graffiti in France in the past twenty years. Yet Muslims who speak about this at all — and rarely, because there is seldom formal proof — blame a fairly natural confusion among the young between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, as if the persecutors did not know that their targets speak French like themselves, not Hebrew.

There is also a strong official reluctance to admit the obvious. The secular French Republic does not collect ethnic or religious data. No way exists to express related facts in official reports. Perhaps if the graffiti vandals (and also the terrorists) conveniently wore a fez or a hijab. . . . Whenever an ugly anti-Semitic event takes place in France, imams in full regalia go on the media to denounce all forms of racism and anti-Semitism, not to mention Islamophobia. The message implies: "We are all equal before prejudice." It's as if Jews did their own share of anti-Muslim graffiti!

Sometimes, occasionally, the Muslims of France inadvertently display another side of their collective thinking. Several years ago, someone sued the same Charlie Hebdo, already about insulting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The plaintiffs failed, of course, in their attempt to have a French court declare that freedom of speech somehow doesn’t apply to insults to religious figures. The memorable fact is that the full array of representative French Muslim associations and institutions joined or commented favorably on the suit. It looked on television as if they did not realize what they were doing. One indignant hijab-wearing woman asked a journalist in the lobby of the courthouse, "What would you say if a Muslim periodical insulted Jesus?' The man had the presence of mind to declare calmly: "F... Jesus!" ("J'emmerde Jésus"). The woman walked away angrier than before. It's doubtful she learned anything about French democratic political culture. She spoke without an accent, so she was probably French-born.

Several times, I have myself asserted to Muslim friends or friendly acquaintances with Muslim names that I have the legal right to insult any being I want, including Jesus Christ, including God Himself. I have done so in both English and French. Each time my interlocutor turned away in embarrassment, as if I were obviously spouting nonsense, as if I had taken leave of my senses. Public declarations by moderate Muslims trying to calm things down often suggest that rights must entail responsibility. A Muslim professor I know in an American university, a very intelligent man, also a nice guy, expressed this very thought on his Facebook three days after the events in Paris. (He recanted the next day.) This view is not completely surprising, because it's common even among American-born, American-reared, second-grade teachers of Christian background. Nonetheless, it betrays a reluctance to admit this essential foundation of democracy, as if there were a brick wall before them.

A heavy complicity of silence reigns over French Muslims, nominal and devout alike. It's abetted by embarrassed, secular silence maintained by elite intellectual voices.

In the mass protests in Paris in the aftermath of the massacres, Muslims were present in large numbers, the reporters say. Nominal Muslims interviewed on French TV cried out: "No amalgam!" It means: "Don't confuse 'Muslim' and 'terrorist'; we are not all terrorists." It's a strange claim. Nobody thinks that all Muslims are terrorists. Nearly everyone knows that violent jihadists are a tiny fraction of the population with Muslim names. The talk stops there. There is no collective self-examination, at least, not in public.

Incidentally, the Charlie Hebdo jihadists did not strike against a military target, although the small French Army is extensively engaged in the killing of their brother jihadists in Africa. Instead, with good intuition, with acumen, they struck where they somehow knew it matters, at the linchpin of democracy, the legally guaranteed freedom to offend. Some ignorance is often not just ignorance.

Intolerable Intolerance in Islam, Self-Delusion

It's not absurd to argue that the current acts of violent jihad do not really have an Islamic inspiration, even that they are heretical because the essence of Islam is tolerance. Nevertheless, the law of explicitly Muslim countries gives abundant examples of intolerable intolerance. I mean examples that seem to me related to terrorism, of practices that enlightened opinion has no reason to tolerate where it can avoid doing so. In several such countries, the death penalty is prescribed both for apostasy and for blasphemy. This kind of law is rarely just imposed from above, although many of those countries lack democratic representation. I remember riots in Bangladesh because the legislature would not toughen anti-blasphemy laws with capital punishment. I don't think there has ever been a demonstration in any Muslim country — except perhaps Turkey — against the existence of blasphemy laws.

The public performance of Muslim spokespeople in Western countries is often revealing of ambiguity toward freedom of speech. A tiny number of the Muslim official intellectuals summoned to appear on the US media cynically but politely describe their program of universal domination. (There was one on Fox News in early January 2014; he had been set up.) Many more go publicly into hiding in front of the camera. They ignore direct questions; they change the subject. They dissemble openly as if there were no chance that a single one of millions of viewers would unmask them — a sure sign of self-delusion. A Muslim intellectual interviewed on one of the American cable channels the night following the Paris mass murder wants to show that freedom of expression has natural limits. He declares that no periodical in the "whole" Western world would dare publish an anti-Semitic cartoon. Seconds before, the very same news channel had displayed a cover from Charlie Hebdo of a clear, grossly anti-Semitic nature. Facts are scarce in their discourse. Muslim spokesmen who are intellectually dignified carry other problems. There is an openly Islamist philosopher who appears frequently on French TV. His name is Tarik Ramadan; he is a sophisticated, cultured man. He addresses directly the most difficult questions. It would be difficult for the French intellectual class to reject or ignore this man. The very elegance of his French (by any standards), however, guarantees that young Muslims in the banlieues would barely understand him. At any rate, I think he never tries to talk to them.

The actions and the words of moderate Muslims themselves, and the aloofness of others, cry out to us a truth we are loath to admit: the problem is not a few more or less heretical, often sociopathic, "extremist" Muslims who have gone rogue from true Islam, but Islam itself. I don't mean Islam the true religion; I don't really know what it is, any more than I can hold a discussion about dogma with a Jesuit theologian. I mean Islam, the religiously delineated culture. I don't mean the jihadists themselves; I have already argued that, of course, in enervated welfare societies such as France, there will be some who want to become terrorists (the Foreign Legion argument). I mean the Islam-inspired culture that is the pond in which the jihadist tadpoles actually morph into toads.

Resistance to what's wrong is its own reward; resistance makes you stubborn.

Ordinary Muslims and enlightened carriers of public opinion in the West are in constant denial. The latter — including people like me — shudder at the thought of admitting the unsophisticated obvious: no Lutheran has deliberately gunned down a Catholic since 1648 (the Peace of Westphalia). The well-illustrated Catholic proclivities toward fanaticism were tamed by the anti-clerical Renaissance, by the Protestant Reformation, and by the sometimes frankly atheistic Enlightenment. It's true that the United Kingdom restricted the civil liberties of its religious minorities well into the 19th century, but it did not execute any. Buddhists have their own reasons for conducting little persecution on religious grounds. Both the Japanese and the Chinese — who may or may not be Buddhists, on the whole — found their own rather mysterious paths toward religious indifference. Hindus don't become offended at what others say about them, because they often don't know what they believe themselves.

The only noticeable group, large enough to be observed, that generates (or wrongly seems to generate) deadly religious intolerance is Islam. The explicitly Islamist, anti-learning Boko Haram alone slaughtered 2,000 civilians in Nigeria in the single week following the small Charlie Hebdo massacre. Not only do the facts seem obvious; there is a comprehensible reason for the passive complicity of ordinary Muslims toward violent jihad.

Real Religious Participation

I refer to the passive complicity of both those real and those nominal Muslims who only want to live in peace. I mean people with whom I would enjoy having coffee any day. They are paralyzed, not only by a justified, understandable fear of violent repercussions but by the unexamined contradictions in their own hearts. Muslims, including merely nominal Muslims, are permanently caught in a cultural trap. They, like almost everyone else in the world, are mostly not theologians. As is true for members of several other religions, their religious identification rests on a handful of practices — precisely, on a naive understanding of religious doctrine, and on a small number of simple myths. For many or most Christians, for example, this reduces to occasional or even regular attendance at church services, to the habit of praying, to an unexamined belief in the virgin birth and in the divinity of Christ.

Several religions mandate, even if by default, the imitation of historical founding figures as a respectable and attainable form of religious participation. Often, it's actually the preferred shortcut for the intellectually unsophisticated. It's highly visible in Catholicism, with a notable slide from a too-distant God to the more accessible Virgin Mary and other saints. The Imitation of Christ was a Catholic bestseller for about four hundred years. It seems to me that Buddhists do little but dream of imitating the Buddha. Islam abroad belongs squarely among these religions. Imitation of the Prophet Muhammad is also a simplified but nevertheless sturdy prescription for proper religious behavior. Although the Prophet Muhammad himself was always careful to insist that he was not divine, that he was merely a passive messenger of God, nevertheless the imitation began in his own lifetime. His birthday is even a major feast day in Muslim nations, although this would seem to go straightforwardly against his wish to eschew idolatry. It's a result of a process of simplification shared by other religions.

Understanding the Koran is hard work. It's especially difficult if your main exposure is its memorization in a language you don't understand (most Muslims worldwide). The Prophet's hagiography, by contrast, is accessible. It even exists in illustrated form, although that is supposedly forbidden. (It's forbidden in order to discourage idolatry, again. There are wonderful Persian miniatures depicting Muhammad.) The Prophet's feats are well known among those reared in or near Islam; they are widely disseminated. They are imprinted from childhood through storytelling among the faithful — and among the formerly faithful as well, naturally. For many, not much else remains.

We know well how this works in other religions. I, for example, a good atheist, as I said earlier, do not think the Virgin Mary was one. But I have a special fondness for Saint Christopher. He carried the baby Jesus across a river on his shoulder. I would have done the same. He hiked his robe up to do it. You can tell he had good legs, like me. He had a beard, also like me. Of course, I cannot possibly think that Jesus was divine but frankly, I don't mind him. He walked around with his best buddies telling people to shape up and to stop talking s... He changed water into wine. He cured the sick occasionally. Once, he fed many people with just a little bit of food. That one stuck to my mind.

Every week, someone feeds the homeless in Santa Cruz, where I live. It's a messy nuisance. Many of the homeless are not well bred at all; they leave greasy used paper plates everywhere. Some are just not in control of their behavior; they are loudly obscene; they disturb the peace, my peace. (The event happens across the street from my favorite coffee shop; see “The View from Lulu’s,” Liberty, May 2010.) I don't like it at all. Yet if the city decided to outlaw this event, I would become hostile. I would surely keep my mouth shut if I heard of a group doing something positive to counter the city. I would keep my mouth shut if I heard of active resistance against the ordinance. I don't know how far I would go. One thing leads to another; resistance to what's wrong is its own reward; resistance makes you stubborn. I might end up going quite far. It would not be because of my religious faith, since I don't have any. It would be because of the residual imagery of my Catholic childhood.

If I wanted to appear sophisticated myself, I would reply that the now old death fatwa against the novelist Salman Rushdie was simplistic and stereotypical.

The Moroccan novelist Fouad Laroui , a winner of the Goncourt literary prize, said recently on a French blog: "People call themselves Catholic or Muslim but they hardly know what they are talking about." (My translation from the French.) Laroui added that he often playfully tests Catholics on a salient point of dogma (the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception) and receives wrong answers nine times out of ten. Curiously, I have done exactly the same for 20 years with approximately the same results. I even had a Jesuit priest flunk!

The point here is that even when you have removed all the religious furniture from your house, there remains in your attic religious bric-à-brac that affects what you do and, even more, what you won't do. Muslims have mental attics too, including Muslim atheists. The fact that the Muslim attic includes a lot of war imagery is not indifferent. Other things being equal, it would promote passivity toward those who engage in jihad, even among nominal Muslims who would never consider violent behavior for themselves. As I pointed out, the Prophet Muhammad was a successful war leader. He spent years of his life engaged in jihad. (I think it was imposed on him by his enemies.) There are consequences for democratic societies in the West. The jihadists of the Middle East cannot be engaged verbally, obviously. The whole Muslim world has its own dynamics that may or may not be of a religious nature and is not available for our questioning. Muslims, and people with Muslim names who live in Western democracies and who enjoy the associated freedoms, are within reach if one only tries. The time to try came some time ago. They must be confronted openly, individually and collectively, by enlightened citizens and by the media — about their beliefs especially, the beliefs inside their mental attics. This will make many nominal Muslims and real Muslims angrier. It will help others move toward a deep reform movement that has already begun from within the Islamic world (see below).

Constructive Confrontation

A confrontation would look like this:

The Prophet Mohamed was a great and successful military leader.

Is this true?

Sometimes he was merciful to his vanquished enemies and he let them go. Sometimes, he did not. He had several hundred Jews beheaded after they had surrendered. ("Beheaded," "Jews"?)

Do you think it's fine to kill prisoners of war?

Or is it only acceptable if they are Jews?

The Prophet's own code of war forbade the killing of children and women. Often, he showed mercy by marrying the widows, the sisters, the daughters of his dead enemies. ("Marrying"?)

This sounds to me like rape. Or did he make sure they were willing, after he had killed their husbands, their fathers, their brothers?

Are you in favor of rape?

This also sounds to me like slavery.

Are you in favor of slavery?

I have also heard that the Prophet kindly waited until his favorite wife was nine before he consummated his marriage with her. (Nine.)

Is the story true?Feel free to tell me that it's a mistake of transliteration, that she was actually 19 and willing. If it’s true, it sounds to me like pedophilia.

Are you in favor of pedophilia?

Do you have children?

Please, answer aloud so that others nearby may hear you.

Feel free also to tell me that I am mistaken that those are just internet rumors. I am surely no expert.

You may, in addition, state that those were other times and that the Prophet's pagan enemies did much worse. It's plausible. However, this latter argument suggests that uncritical imitation of the Prophet is not a morally valid posture. And if imitation is not valid in the treatment of prisoner of wars, or as concerns the freedom of individuals, or in sexual matters, is it valid in matters of jihad? I only ask you to think about and to answer, at least in your own mind.

If you answered "Yes" to any one of the italicized questions above and if you have not stated that the Prophet's example is not wholly relevant today, what right do you have to enjoy the protection of a society in which all these practices are illegal because they are morally repugnant? And then, why don't you look into emigrating to a country where they are not, or not obviously, illegal? Yes, I ask you the same question whether you arrived on the last plane or whether your antecedents have been here since 1910. And, yes, thank you for asking, I would make the same request of any Lutheran, agnostic, Catholic, or Buddhist who shares your views on the execution of prisoners, on Jews, on rape, on slavery, on pedophilia. It's not about your spiritual beliefs; it's about barbarism.

The idea is not to vilify Muslims but to push those who live in Western countries such as France to come to their senses. If it causes some to choose the other side, so be it. As Ben Franklin wrote, “if you make yourself a sheep, the wolves will eat you” (letter to Jane Mecom, Nov. 1, 1773). It's also not a denial of the presumption of innocence as I often hear said. That is a strictly judicial principle. It's intended to shield private parties from abuse by agents of the state wielding overwhelming power. It does not exist to protect private parties from rude questions by other private parties, questions that can be ignored anyway. When my wife asks, Did you really spend seven hours in the library or do you have a mistress in town?, she is not violating the principle of presumption of innocence, just being unreasonably nosy. Asking difficult questions is a constructive exercise in virtuous influence.

A Deplorable Lack of Sophistication?

The sophisticated will attack the simplistic and stereotypical nature of this plan. I have no need for an excuse. The relation of most people to their religion is simplistic and stereotypical. This is especially true of vestigial relationships to religion, of the kind I think French secular Muslims harbor, as do I. I don't see how Muslims in other Western democracies — except for recent immigrants — would depart much from my description. If I wanted to appear sophisticated myself, I would reply that the now old death fatwa against the novelist Salman Rushdie was simplistic and stereotypical. It had great power nevertheless. It has continued power 25 years later, power much beyond the affliction of Rushdie himself.

Tough love toward Muslims, both citizens and immigrants, should have become long ago the prescription for all rationalists and all lovers of freedom in democratic countries.

The first point is to interfere with the self-destructive reflex of politeness that has already set in. Quickly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, The Economist urged us to not "vilify" Islam. In an upsurge of courtesy conveniently interlaced with cowardice, the New York Times and CNN announced right away that they would not publish the offensive cartoons despite their incontestable newsworthiness. There are many other examples of such politeness.

Giving a hand to the courageous people who call for reform from within Islam is the honorable thing to do. It's more honorable than politeness.

The second step is to nudge Muslims to reform their religion, or their former religion. Why assume it's not possible? My own ancestors used to burn people alive over small differences of opinion. They eventually got over the habit. Politeness played no role. Criticism did; think of Voltaire. Granted, it took a long time; but people of the past did not have the internet or television, and many barely knew how to read. They did not have any precedent to go by. Muslim reformists, by contrast, have a good road map in front of them.

In any case, Westerners don't have to carry the burden alone, because brave people from the Muslim world have recently been doing more or less the same thing. The most credible calls for a re-examination of Islam itself — rather than of "radical Islam" — come from people with Muslim names, including the President of Egypt. On December 31, 2014, he went to the most prestigious school of theology in Islam and advised the professors there to do something constructive about their religion's bad reputation. (Yes, President Sisi is not a freedom of the press-loving democrat. The sign to Boston does not have to go to Boston, as they say.) There is also the great Algerian novelist Boualam Sansal who wrote straightforwardly, "Islam's vocation is to convert and to govern." The Tunisian philosopher Mezri Haddad has published several essays in French on reforming Islam. There are many others whose names seldom appear in the English language media for reasons that are difficult to fathom, beyond provincialism. (In a rather timid review, Eric Ormsby recently gave us a glimpse at how difficult it is to criticize the Prophet of Islam.) Giving a hand to the courageous people who call for reform from within Islam is the honorable thing to do. It's more honorable than politeness.

And here is an aside not directly connected to the analysis and proposals above. It has to do with acceptance of that which is ordinarily repugnant. Besides pressing all Muslims to own up, including the moderates and the lukewarm and also the indifferent, there are active steps Western democratic countries can take to limit the effects of violent jihad on their tranquility. The main measure is to place in indefinite detention all those convicted by proper courts of committing or aiding terrorism. It's not obvious that long-term detention would act as a deterrent. Being kept in jail (or in an abandoned Club Med site), however, would certainly have reduced the destructive capacities of one of the two Charlie Hebdo terrorists who already had a serious conviction of aiding terrorism. My own love of civil liberties would not be affronted by such a normal wartime measure. The democracies could promise to free all such detainees shortly after their side unconditionally surrenders. I can already hear the clamors of protests, but is there a single libertarian who would have promoted the liberation of Waffen-SS prisoners of war in 1943?

Conclusions

Of course, the attitudes and the policies described above might well strengthen the hold of statism where they were adopted. They would not strengthen it as fast as would the destruction, or even the mere rapid erosion, of those conventional democratic arrangements that are most likely to lead to the shrinking of statism. Many libertarians need to have a heart-to-heart with their inner liberal pacifist.



[i] French intelligence services held in high regard by their counterparts elsewhere: R.M. Gerecht, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 8, 2015.

[ii] Jacques Delacroix, I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography (2014). iusedtobefrench@gmail.com.

[iii] I received confirmation of this perception from a good book by an Algerian immigrant to the US who spent time in France: Djaffar Chetouane, Donkey Heart, Monkey Mind (2011).

[iv] Meichtry, Bisserbe, and Faucon, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 14, 2015; and, same authors, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 16, 2015 The conviction information comes from an email to Le Figaro online; I believe it because it's easy to verify.

[v] The author of a book on Yemen-based terrorism disputed on leftist Pacific Radio on Jan. 12, 2015, that the killers were really sponsored by Al Qaeda in Yemen. He considered unconvincing the alleged Al Qaeda announcement to the contrary. He did so on technical grounds. I failed to garner the reference.

quot;We are all equal before prejudice./a




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The Age of Redefinition

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On the evening of January 20, when President Obama started the delivery of his state of the union address, Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg rapidly, and very appropriately, fell asleep. Some of the other justices looked as if they were ready to drop off too. I’m sure that most of the television audience, unburdened by protocol, went all the way to dreamland.

The irritating thing was that stories about Ginsburg’s snooze— which was the only important event of the evening — were headlined and teased with words like these: “81-Year-Old Justice Caught Nodding Off.” If you still need to be convinced about liberal bias in journalism, ask yourself how many stories on Ginsburg’s far-left opinions have been headlined with a reference to her age. “81-Year-Old Justice Opines Again”? No, no chance of that. Write a bizarre legal document? An act of courage. Fall asleep during a boring, pointless speech? Senility.

We are living in a time when even common news stories make it virtually impossible to pin down the simplest facts, such as where, exactly, something happened.

But since we’re talking about journalists who hit the wrong target, consider an article published by FoxBusiness on January 15. It’s not important in itself, but it presents a fair sample of the things that make American journalism so horrible to read, or even to think about.

The article, written by Larry Shover, is ostensibly a news story about a decision made somewhere in the constipated bowels of Swiss banking. In reality, it’s an advertisement for the author’s skills in Writing. In an earlier life, Mr. Shover must have been a sports reporter. He shows the typical sports guy’s zest for in-group chatter, incomprehensible to everyone outside the dugout. This is part of a larger problem, characteristic of journalists in every field. They want to do something with their material, something glitzy and clever, no matter what the effects on communication.

According to Shover, Jan. 15 (or maybe it was Jan. 14, or Jan. 13; he never says) was no common day:

It was shaping up to be a sleepy morning until the Swiss National Bank — in a surprise move — decided to lift its minimum exchange rate, put in place in 2011, of 1.20 euro for every Swiss franc.

One point twenty euro[s], eh? But if the rate was “lifted,” what was it before? Like all those “journalists” who report on schoolteachers striking for “higher” wages, this author doesn’t specify the point at which the lift began. But wait! Perhaps, just perhaps, he means that the limit was removed entirely!

Unless you’re inside the dugout, it’s hard to tell what he means. We are living in a time when even common news stories make it virtually impossible to pin down the simplest facts, such as where, exactly, something happened.

To continue with the words (and punctuation) of Mr. Shover’s article:

We are not yet far enough removed from the rear-view mirror to see clearly however this SNB surprise action can today, be likened to a steam locomotive’s piston valve or blood pressure medication.

The only thing that’s clear about Shover’s story is his assumption that every reader he is laboring to inform knows as much about the subject as he does. Like the guys who write the sports headlines — “M’ville Nine to Mr. C: Drop Dead” — he’s not going to let anybody else in on the secret.

Do I need to mention that this is also the pattern in political reporting? Am I the only one who had to check 20 news reports about the Republicans “increasing” their majority in the House (or “maintaining” their majority, as Democrat journalists expressed it) before I discovered an article that told me how many seats they’d won?

And, of course, metaphors. Shover’s article goes on:

This “Swiss-central bank Shocker” . . .

But wait. . . . That’s in quotes, but who said it? Anybody? Well, who cares? No one wants to report on a non-shocker.

I resume:

This “Swiss-central bank Shocker” quickly unsettled a fragile layer in the economic mountainside causing plates of snow to tumble from the Matterhorn — traders and citizens alike have filled the morning selling Swiss stocks — causing one of the largest one-day drops in 30 years.

Notice that the fall of a metaphorical “layer” caused actual “snow” to “tumble” from an actual “Matterhorn.” Odd.

Mere amateurs in meteorology would expect the author to say, in plain terms, what he’s talking about. But a jazzy, hip, contemporary writer wouldn’t get any fun from doing that, compared with the fun of writing jargon and metaphor:

In addition, the SNB, weary of its precarious position of being everyone’s chaperone, cut its deposit rates (now -0.75%) along with its target range for three-month Libor (now between -1.25% and -0.25%).

Before you can ask, “What’s a Libor?”, Shover moves on to the ethics and the personal meaning of the whole thing:

Central bank “snap decisions” ought to be reserved for econometric case studies or faraway countries with delicate balance sheets. Many a trader rebooted a computer, phoned a colleague when the Swiss Franc jumped 30% in the wee hours of this morning.

Pity the poor trader, having to reboot like that. Were transfusions necessary? And what a fresh phrase, wee hours of this morning!

Shover provides other fresh phrases and cute metaphors (besides chaperone, snap decisions, and rear-view mirror): immediate fall-out, surprise divorce, standard fare, stave off, claws its way back, seen the elephant, its ultimate entrails are indiscernible (huh?), panties in a bunch . . . Whose panties? Those of “corporations and countries,” of course! But I’ll bet you didn’t even know they had underwear.

I can’t resist mentioning that when I first saw it, the page that offered Shover’s article had a teaser to another piece, which concerned the release of Yemenis from the prison at Guantanamo. The teaser was illustrated with a photo of a chain gang at an Arizona jail.

Hence the word "reign," and hence the appropriate and formerly general impression that government is the master and wizard of terror.

Well, peace to the Swiss and whatever they did with, to, under, over, or around the euro. The big news in January was the terrorism in France. It’s interesting that when you slay a handful of journalists in a Western country, you attract the kind of attention you don’t attract when you rape, torture, and kill large populations elsewhere. Yes, the Charlie Hebdo events were news and deserved to be. But I wouldn’t plaster them with the kind of metaphors the media uses for nearly every violent event. Particularly notable was the glee with which Megyn Kelly, pundit-reporter for Fox News, discussed the events on her Jan. 9 TV show. “A three-day reign of terror,” she said, was “coming to a head."

A general protest needs to be lodged against coming to a head. Its literal reference is to a pimple getting ready to pop — and if that’s not the image it conjures up, what exactly is that image? But however that might be, you’d think that anyone would have sense enough not to combine coming to a head with reign of terror. It’s dumb. It’s also wrong: there was no reign of terror in Paris in January 2015; there was a gang of murderous fanatics. And it’s misleading: reigns of terror (the first of which occurred in France in the 1790s, when a regime of radical democrats set out to exterminate all possible opposition) are the effects of government, not of volunteer terrorists. Hence the word reign, and hence the appropriate and formerly general impression that government is the master and wizard of terror.

The common phrase war on terror amplifies the misunderstanding. How do you declare war on an international gang of bigots and morons? One might, of course, try the smaller expedient of keeping them out of the country and removing any who managed to get in. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make snappy headlines, and it might offend the sensibilities of people who think that if you stop anybody at a border, you’re a racist.

No, I didn’t consider the Charlie Hebdo attack an insignificant event. Not at all. I just didn’t consider it a reign of terror. But this is an age of arguing by redefinition, of saying that X is Y and then believing it. Such beliefs are, disappointingly, sincere. As Swift wrote, “When a man's fancy gets astride on his reason, when imagination is at cuffs with the senses, and common understanding as well as common sense is kicked out of doors, the first proselyte he makes is himself.” Anyone who makes the experiment of calling a tweak in Swiss banking an avalanche, or a terror attack a reign of terror, will soon believe that idea himself.

You saw redefinition in action, and on a broad front, in the aftermath of the big, self-congratulatory anti-terrorist march in Paris. It was supposed to be a demonstration in support of free speech. Within a week, however, European governments had resumed arresting people for saying bad things;and presidents, prime ministers, and the Pope o’ Rome had resumed their habitual redefinition of free speech as appropriate speech and responsible speech and legal speech — in short, as anything other than free speech. There was a large-scale reinstitution of that favorite word of communist and other dictators, provocation.

It’s interesting that when you slay a handful of journalists in a Western country, you attract the kind of attention you don’t attract when you rape, torture, and kill large populations elsewhere.

The Pope was especially lively on this topic. His asinine comments about free speech can be found at this place. Sure, he allowed, everyone has free speech. It’s a “right.” But curiously, it’s a right with limits. Free speech must be distinguished from speech that provokes those who don’t like your free speech. The Pope’s example was saying bad things about somebody’s mother. All right, shall we stipulate that free speech means “every kind of speech that does not say bad things about somebody’s mother”? No. The Pope intended some larger stipulation and restriction, some grand but vague set of responsibilities that he had the power to define but did not fully communicate at the moment. Otherwise, perhaps, he would have been licensing every atheist, Muslim, evangelical Christian, and devout Catholic to attack him for so provokingly lecturing them about their duties. We know this: “You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” That is completely out.

Am I being provocative? Will the Pope have me arrested?

The Pope is in the religion business. If he were in the business of selling antiques, I assume he would be threatening people who laughed about used furniture. But that’s what he is: a salesman for old, trite, useless intellectual objects. I don’t mean Christian ideas; I myself am a Christian. I mean the old, trite, useless, egregiously false, totally baseless and debasing, grotesquely unwarranted notion that you have a right to control what I say, especially if you’re insecure and stupid enough to believe that what I say threatens your own beliefs.

To leave one sad subject for another: there is fresh evidence that the practice of defining things to suit yourself has become far too popular in American universities — fresh evidence that the head offices at these institutions are havens for people who have never progressed beyond the stage of childhood at which saying makes it so. During the past few months, the University of Virginia has made itself a case study in arrested development. A popular magazine said that an anonymous woman had been gang-raped at a UVA frat. The published words made the story true. Administrators and faculty members immediately concluded, and announced, that rape was a desperately serious problem at Virginia and, very likely, every other institution of higher education. This also was accepted as true, because they said it. Greek activities were forbidden on campus; the frat house was vandalized; important Eastern newspapers made mighty utterances. When the story proved (to put it delicately) incapable of corroboration, university administrators welcomed the frat to resume its activities, as if making that statement would restore amends. All very simple: reality is what you say it is.

The Pope is in the religion business. If he were in the business of selling antiques, I assume he would be threatening people who laughed about used furniture.

A more recent example is the attempt by Duke University to convert the tower of its chapel — which is, pace all media reports that I have read, a Christian church — into a minaret for the use of Muslim students. No one — at least no one who gets his words in print — appears to have asked why the Muslim students needed a minaret, or if they did, why they couldn’t pay for one themselves. Paying for things oneself seems never to be considered. I doubt, however, that the minaret idea was cooked up by Muslims. It appears to have been the inspiration of people deeply cubicled in the administrative complex. One of them, it seems, was a certain Christy Lohr Sapp, associate dean for religious life, who triumphantly (triumphalistically?) announced, “The use of it [the church] as a minaret allows for the interreligious reimagining of a university icon.”

How many begged questions do you discern in that comment? It assumes (A) that “reimagining” is always good; (B) that “interreligious” is always good; (C) that “interreligious” has a meaning; (D) that if some action is “allowed,” one must do it . . . Four is enough for me; you may find others. Lohr Sapp must have assumed that saying these things would make them true. Alas for her, within 48 hours of her statement, reality intervened. Donors (for once!) protested, and the “interreligious” activity was canceled — for the time being. Despite all that, I think it’s remarkable that Lohr Sapp, who as associate dean of religious life is presumably acquainted with basic religious terminology, reimagined the chapel as a “cathedral” and then as a “minaret,” and reimagined an icon as something like a tall building that is supposed to attract the eyes of donors but is currently being underused by a politically correct administration that can therefore convert it to any purpose it wants.

When he wrote The New Class, Milovan Djilas had no idea how large the class of ideological managers could be, or how many philistines it would contain. Christianity? Islam? Judaism? Hinduism? All the same — from the bureaucratic and interreligious point of view. Yet there are some things in life — most of them, in fact — that cannot achieve any value apart from their individuality. Christianity is not deism. Judaism is not Eleanor Roosevelt. And Islam is not an ersatz form of do-goodism. None of the cultural and intellectual contributions of these faiths could have been made on the basis of interreligion. And none of their salient defects — about which devout people, at their best, are scrupulously self-critical — could ever have been identified from an “I’m OK-you’re OK-but especially I’m OK” perspective, the perspective that makes it appear that every religion is at all times and in all ways a religion of niceness, togetherness, and especially peace.

This is the kind of reimagination that Islam is now suffering. America, the first nation in the world to separate church from state, now abounds in state-authorized definitions of religion. Not since Pontius Pilate have so many theological decisions been attempted by politicians. And not just American politicians. On Jan. 9, French President Hollande, that great religious authority, declared that the Charlie Hebdo “terrorists and fanatics have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.” The next day, French Prime Minister Valls declared that France was at war “against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity." That takes in a lot of territory. The prime minister will have to do a good deal of fighting if he wants to win that war. Looks like jihad to me. Maybe he could begin by trying to convert his president to his ideas about Islam.

Our own president may be harder to convince. Last year, he convulsed Americans with laughter by asserting that ISIL is “not Islamic.” “ISIL” stands for “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” I found that out; why hasn’t he?

And he is not alone in his odd claim to religious expertise. Great Islamic scholars have concerned themselves for more than a millennium with the question of what is Islamic, but they didn’t have the benefit of Howard Dean’s profound investigations:

Former Democratic Party head Howard Dean objected to calling the shooters in the Paris attack "Muslim terrorists," though the attackers were witnessed shouting "Allahu akbar" as they fired.

Dean, speaking Wednesday on MSNBC, argued that they should be treated as "mass murderers" instead.

"I stopped calling these people Muslim terrorists. They're about as Muslim as I am," he said. "I mean, they have no respect for anybody else's life, that's not what the Koran says. And, you know Europe has an enormous radical problem. . . . I think ISIS is a cult. Not an Islamic cult. I think it's a cult."

Back to the practice of journalism: does anyone, on such occasions, ever ask the speaker which part of the Koran he’s talking about? I mean, really. If he stood up and said that “Christianity is a religion of peace,” which is what they all say about Islam, shouldn’t some canny reporter bring up the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition or some of the juicier parts of the Old Testament? Shouldn’t someone recite

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword—
His truth is marching on.

Someone should, but probably no one would. It would cost the journalists too much brain power just to figure out what the song meant.

As for me, I’m beginning to think that Justice Ginsburg’s method of dealing with presidential speeches may have a much wider application. Suppose we all grew too sleepy to find the News pages on our computers, or the Opinion pages (which are often, as we know, the same thing). Suppose we all discovered that we were old enough to take a snooze. What would happen then? What would happen to the pundits and the prophets? What — more to the point — would happen to the ad revenues?

/emp




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Brilliant and Troubling

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Unless you’ve had your head under a rock for the past month, you have heard the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Known as the deadliest sniper in American history, he served four tours of duty in Iraq, during which time he was credited with killing over 160 people (some say the actual number is twice that), was shot three times, endured multiple surgeries, and was awarded two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, and numerous other honors. After retiring from active duty, Kyle spent the rest of his short life working with disabled veterans to help them overcome their physical and psychological injuries.

American Sniper tells the Chris Kyle story. It has been nominated for six Academy Awards and has entered superhero territory at the box office, raking in over $100 million in its first wide-release weekend, more than the total combined earnings of the other nominees for Best Picture and likely enough to break director Clint Eastwood’s personal box office records. And with good reason: American Sniper is tight, intense, and emotionally disturbing, the way a war movie ought to be. It takes us into the fray with the soldiers, while also keeping us at home with the families who fear for their lives. In one memorable scene, Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller) listens in anguish to the battle exploding around her husband when his squad is caught in a street fight and he drops his phone without disconnecting it. In that same scene, an Iraqi family friendly to the Americans is caught in a terrifying standoff with a man known as “The Butcher.” The juxtaposition of two families on opposite sides of the globe vying for one man’s protection is emotionally overwhelming. I cried.

When Bradley Cooper bought the movie rights to Chris Kyle’s memoir, he intended to serve as producer with Chris Pratt in the title role. Pratt is the right build and look, and could have been a good choice. But Cooper is brilliant. I have often commented in these reviews on the intensity and clarity of Cooper’s eyes. He can communicate the thoughts, emotions, and complexity of a character without moving a muscle or uttering a word. Those eyes serve him superbly well in this role, in which, as a sniper, he often waits motionless, searching the distance, ready to squeeze the trigger. Through his eyes we see at various times cold determination, impassioned anguish, psychological uncertainty, and bitter defeat. Through those eyes we see a man who, like so many soldiers, returns home safe, but not sound.

When Iraqis see this film, will they want to send their best snipers to our rooftops to pick off our children and mothers and grandfathers?

Several cinematic nuances contribute to the brilliance of the film. At one point, the camera focuses in through the lens of Kyle’s rifle’s sights, magnifying his deadly eye. I was reminded of a scene from Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” when Farquhar, a condemned Confederate saboteur, looks up from the river toward the Union soldier who is trying to shoot him: “The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle.” An impossible feat, of course — just as impossible as Kyle’s ability to see a sniper 2,000 yards away. And yet, he does. In another scene, we see an homage to Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express as a dust storm swirls relentlessly around the soldiers. These subtle allusions magnify the emotion and intensity of the storytelling.

So what about the controversy swirling around this film? Much of it stems from the fact that Chris Kyle’s kills did not occur randomly in the heat of battle, but with deadly calm and careful aim taken from neighborhood rooftops. Somehow it is considered honorable and acceptable to kill hundreds of enemies on the battlefield with bombs and machine guns, but pick them off one by one — and admit that you love doing it — and you become a sadistic, calculating murderer.

Kyle is portrayed as a red-white-and-blue patriot who fights, as he often says, to protect Americans. But the film is far from jingoistic. It presents a balanced picture of the aftermath of war — honorable soldiers with doubts about America’s mission, other soldiers mangled and maimed from injuries, still others suffering from PTSD; children growing up without their fathers, and wives suffering from loneliness, fear, and anxiety. It even presents the fearful experience of the enemy, with scenes of Americans bursting into homes while screaming vulgarities and waving rifles in the faces of terrified women and children — hardly an image of patriotism or moral rectitude in the free world.

Watching these events, even from the perspective of a highly decorated Navy SEAL, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the Iraqis. Who do we think we are, rolling through their towns with tanks and jeeps, smashing up their roads, blowing up their buildings, and bursting into their homes with guns drawn and trigger-fingers itchy? And when Iraqis (and other Middle Easterners) see this film, how will they feel? Will they want to send their best snipers to our rooftops to pick off our children and mothers and grandfathers?

Through Cooper's eyes we see at various times cold determination, impassioned anguish, psychological uncertainty, and bitter defeat.

Traditionally, wars have been fought on battlefields, away from home and civilians. Soldiers die and resources are used up until, finally, one side surrenders, and the conflict ends. By contrast, this is a war fought not only on the home front, but also in it. Middle East soldiers live at home with their families, and they attack in packs. Kyle observed the worst of those “pack attacks” on September 11, 2001, when 19 warriors turned four passenger jets into weapons, killing 3,000 civilians (and some military personnel) as they were starting their work day. This, he says, was his motivation for enduring the grueling training required to become a SEAL and go to war. America had been attacked. But it’s hard to justify a war that goes on and on, where soldiers continue to die and resources continue to be used up, but no one seems ready to surrender.

Historically there have been four excuses for going to war: 1) to expand one’s borders; 2) to plunder resources; 3) to change a culture and belief system perceived as immoral; and 4) to defend oneself from aggressors. Only the final two are remotely justifiable, but in this war, none of these reasons is being observed. We aren’t enriching ourselves; we aren’t changing anything; and we wouldn’t need to defend ourselves if we weren’t there. And there are only two smart ways to deal with a hornet’s nest: either smash it entirely, or leave it alone. Unless we are willing to do the former, we ought to do the latter. The most dangerous approach is to poke at it but leave it intact.

American Sniper is stirring the conversation, and that’s a good thing. It’s also a brilliantly made film, better in many ways than Saving Private Ryan, and deserves the accolades it is receiving. No matter how you feel about war, this is a film worth seeing and discussing.


Editor's Note: Review of "American Sniper," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2014, 137 minutes.



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Executive's Orders

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Wrestling with Reality

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I’m well aware of the old adage, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” so I approach films that proclaim themselves to be “based on a true story” with a healthy dose of skepticism. In the case of Foxcatcher, nominated this week for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor, a phrase used tongue-in-cheek by last year’s American Hustle is more a propros: “A part of this actually happened.”

Some of what we see in Foxcatcher is true: brothers Mark and David Schultz (played in the film by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) actually did both win gold medals for wrestling in the 1984 Olympics (in different weight divisions). David did find success as a coach and trainer post-Olympics, while Mark struggled financially (wrestlers aren’t the most marketable athletes for selling toothpaste and breakfast cereal, even when they have gold medals; as one character sniffs in the film, “Wrestling is so low”). Wealthy chemical heir John du Pont (played by Steve Carell) did fancy himself a wrestling coach and did build a state-of-the art wrestling facility on his farm called Foxcatcher. Both Schultz brothers did work as coaches and trainers for du Pont’s team, although never at the same time. From what I can discern, eyewitnesses say that the shocking ending of the film is quite accurate in terms of what happened, but not necessarily in terms of why it happened. New motives have been manufactured for this tale.

However, the middle of the film “doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” and the story is admittedly much more interesting with the two brothers working at Foxcatcher together, where they display a family dynamic — two brothers abandoned as toddlers by their father (also not true) — that resonates almost voyeuristically with viewers, especially as it is juxtaposed against the bizarre and painful filial dynamic between du Pont and his cold and haughty mother (Vanessa Redgrave) as portrayed — that is, fictionalized — in the film.

When Carell's du Pont smiles he reveals teeth and gums, reminiscent of a shark unhinging its jaw for a kill.

This story focuses on loneliness: the loneliness of gold medalist Mark Schultz as he gives talks to middle schoolers for 20 bucks a pop and eats ramen noodles for dinner because they are filling and can be purchased 10 for a dollar; the loneliness of John du Pont, who has everything money can buy — even friends and medals — but relates to his own mother from a distance; and the loneliness of a mother who cannot accept or appreciate her son and his choices. Mark is looking for a father figure, and du Pont is looking for someone to parent. They fall into these roles through a pathetic sense of desperation.

Only David seems to have a grasp on reality. Married to a smart and sassy wife (Sienna Miller) with two adorable children, he doesn’t need the money or the glory du Pont dangles in front of him. But he does need to protect his brother, and that’s what (in the film) lures him to Foxcatcher. The relationship between these two brothers is deep, intimate, and exclusive, and the two actors fall into their roles with a vulnerability seldom seen on screen between men. In an early scene they prepare for a training session in an elegant, graceful warmup dance. They nuzzle each other like animals testing each other’s strength. Neck-to-neck they press into each other’s shoulders, and then roll across to face each other from the other direction, hands on the other’s back or ribcage, becoming increasingly aggressive as they warm for the match.

Into this relationship comes John du Pont, trying to buy a team, a medal, and a sense of importance. Steve Carell, known for his bumbling comedic roles in TV’s The Office and such movies asGet Smart and Date Night, is about as unlikely a casting decision as one could imagine for the crazed, withdrawn du Pont. But director Bennett Miller could see beyond the comedic roles that have marked Carell’s career. “I think all comedians are dark,” Miller said after casting Carell, and indeed Carell plays du Pont with a reserved aggression that never breaks character. He peers down his large (prosthetic) nose with eyes that are distant and unreadable. When he smiles he reveals teeth and gums, reminiscent of a shark unhinging its jaw for a kill. The real Mark Schultz has said of the real du Pont, “Everything about him was weird, from the dyed red Ronald McDonald hair with layers of dandruff in the roots to his dark yellow teeth, caked with food.” Carell captures this benign yet dangerous person perfectly.

How could someone so disgusting, unlikeable, and antisocial secure a corner for himself as a trainer and a sponsor for USA Wrestling? If the film is to be believed (and remember, it’s “based on a true story”), you can buy just about anything in this world with money. Nonprofit organizations purport to put their cause first, but in reality, the buyer is always right — and in the nonprofit world, the buyer is the one donating the money. It’s not a happy system, but until wrestlers and artists and others who enjoy esoteric pursuits can find a way to sell their efforts directly to the consumers, it’s the only one we have.


Editor's Note: Review of "Foxcatcher," directed by Bennett Miller. Annapurna Pictures, 2014, 129 minutes.



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Socialist Science

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In his famous 1945 report to President Truman, Science: The Endless Frontier, Vannevar Bush attributed scientific progress to "the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.” Bush argued that government need only support basic research, and that "freedom of inquiry must be preserved," leaving "internal control of policy, personnel, and the method and scope of research to the institutions in which it is carried on."

How did such an abstemious, unfettered funding scheme work out? According to MIT scientist Richard Lindzen, "The next 20 years witnessed truly impressive scientific productivity which firmly established the United States as the creative center of the scientific world. The Bush paradigm seemed amply justified."

But trouble was brewing. By 1961, President Eisenhower, in his farewell address, observed that "a steadily increasing share [of scientific research] is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government" and warned of the day when "a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity." More than by the influence of the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower was troubled by the possibility that "public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite." His worry was justified. Leftist intellectuals and social activists were already infiltrating the social and behavioral sciences and had, by the early 1970s, crept into influential positions of government, to bring science into a social contract for the common good.

It was no doubt this movement that American physicist Richard Feynman had in mind in 1968, when he observed "a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science." In particular, liberal theories, as embodied in the programs of the Great Society, would fail the hypothesis testing of real science — their predicted performance has never been confirmed by observable evidence. The ambitious nostrums about poverty, welfare, education, healthcare, racial injustice, and other forms of socioeconomic worriment were based on what Feynman called Cargo Cult Science. These programs are not supported by scientific integrity; they are propped up by the statistical mumbo-jumbo of scientific wild-ass guesses (SWAG).

Leftist intellectuals and social activists were already infiltrating the social and behavioral sciences and had, by the early 1970s, crept into influential positions of government.

The centralized control of research that began in the early 1970s laid the groundwork for the liberal idea of science as a social contract. Under such a contract, the "common good" could not be entrusted to the intuition of unfettered scientists; enlightened bureaucrats would be better suited to the task of managing society's scientific needs. Similarly, normal scientific principles of evidence and proof became subordinate to the vagaries of social concepts such as the precautionary principle, whereby anecdotal and correlative evidence (aka, SWAG) is perfectly adequate for establishing risk to society — the slightest of which (including imaginary risk) is intolerable — and justification for government remedies. Mere suspicion of risk would replace scientific evidence as the basis for regulatory authority. New York state, for example, recently banned fracking, not because of any scientific determination of harm to public health, but because of the uncertainty of such harm.

As the autonomy envisioned by Bush and the integrity demanded by Feynman faded, hypothesis testing became lackadaisical, often not considered necessary at all. And, with the need for sharp "intellectual curiosity" in decline, egalitarian funding of scientific research was put in place. According to a recent New York Times article, agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes for Health (NIH) award grant money based on criteria other than scientific merit. Preferring "diversity of opportunity" over consequential scientific discovery, administrators now "strive to ensure that their money does not flow just to established stars at elite institutions. They consider gender and race, income and geography." Apparently, enriching our brightest scientists is a vile capitalist concept that diminishes the social value of the funding scheme.

So must it also be with the discovery process, where, as Lindzen observes, "the solution of a scientific problem is rewarded by ending support. This hardly encourages the solution of problems or the search for actual answers. Nor does it encourage meaningfully testing hypotheses." In Lindzen's view, such developments have produced a "new paradigm where simulation and programs have replaced theory and observation, where government largely determines the nature of scientific activity . . ." And now, with the pursuit of scientific truth trumped by the political passions of activist scientists and their funding agencies, "the politically desired position becomes a goal rather than a consequence of scientific research." In this paradigm, science is more easily manipulated by politicians, who cynically scare the public, as H.L. Mencken put it, "by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

Nowhere did this become more prominent than in the environmental sciences. During the 1980s, as socialism began its collapse, distraught western Marxists joined the environmental movement. If the workers of the world would not unite to overthrow capitalism because of its economic harmfulness, then regulators would destroy it because of its environmental damage. Government agencies, most notably the EPA and DOE, became coddling, Lysenkoist homes for activist scientists. By the end of the decade they had penetrated climate science, striking it rich in the gold mine of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). By the early 1990s, the hypothesis that humans had caused unprecedented recent warming, and would cause catastrophic future warming, became self-evident to a consensus of elite activist scientists. The establishment of fossil fuels as the sole culprit behind AGW — and progenitor of an endless series of climate hobgoblins — became the goal of government-funded climate science research.

Apparently, enriching our brightest scientists is a vile capitalist concept that diminishes the social value of the funding scheme.

Science, however, was not up to the task. It could not verify the AGW hypothesis. The existence of the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was ground for rejection, as was the nonexistence of the so-called tropical hotspot (the "fingerprint of manmade global warming”) predicted by AGW computer models. Then there is the ongoing warming pause, a stark climatological irony that began in 1998, the very year following the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol to curb the expected accelerated warming. Even when confronted with such nullifying evidence, activist scientists refused to reject the AGW hypothesis. Nor did they modify it, the better to conform with observational evidence. Some simply rejected the science — science that they had come to view as "normal science," no longer suitable for their cause — and switched to Post-normal Science (PNS).

PNS replaces normal science when "facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent." Invented by social activists, it is a mode of inquiry designed to advance the political agenda behind such large-scale social issues as pollution, AIDS, nutrition, tobacco, and climate change. PNS provides "new problem-solving strategies in which the role of science is appreciated in its full context of the complexity and uncertainty of natural systems and the relevance of human commitments and values."

In other words, in the face of uncertainty, researchers can use their "values" to shape scientific truth. As the late activist scientist Stephen Schneider counseled, "we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts one might have . . . Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest."

Climate science luminary, Mike Hume, believes that scientists (and politicians) are compelled to make tradeoffs between truth and influence. In the struggle between rational truth and emotional value, Hulme advises (in Why We Disagree about Climate Change, sections 10.1 and 10.5), "we need to see how we can use the idea of climate change — the matrix of ecological functions, power relationships, cultural discourses and materials flows that climate change reveals — to rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic and personal projects over the decades to come." Expanding on Schneider's advice: "We will continue to create and tell new stories about climate change and mobilise them in support of our projects.”

One way or another the "projects" (renewable energy, income equality, sustainability, social justice, green economics, etc.) fall under the umbrella of global governance. There is no solution to global warming that does not require global cooperation, in the execution of a global central plan. The "scary stories" of climate catastrophe (storms, floods, droughts, famines, species extinctions, etc.) are the hobgoblins used to coerce acceptance of the socialist remedy, while obscuring its principal side-effect: the elimination of capitalism, democracy, and individual liberty, none of which can coexist with global governance.

Even when confronted with such nullifying evidence, activist scientists refused to reject the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis.

Under the old paradigm — the free play of free intellects, guided by skepticism and empirical truth — discoveries were prolific, albeit unpredictable with respect to their nature, significance, and timing. The centralized planning that began in the early 1970s attempted to control such fickleness, by selecting the research areas, the grant money, and, in many cases, the desired research result — all to harness science for the common good, of course.

How has the new paradigm — the circumscribed play of biased ideologues, guided by compliance and consensus — performed relative to the old paradigm? Abysmally. The methods of teaching mathematics and reading cited by Feynman have failed; US public education, the envy of the world in the early 1970s, is, at best, mediocre today. The "War on Cancer" that began in 1971 has failed to find a cure. Similarly, government research grants (substituting diversity and a paycheck for intellectual curiosity) have failed to produce cures for many other diseases (AIDS, Alzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's, MS, ALS, to name a few). The NSF website lists 899 discoveries — but these are not discoveries; they are discussions of scientific activity, coupled with self-congratulation and wishful thinking.

Activist scientists would shriek that such evidence of failure is anecdotal and correlative, and therefore illegitimate — and who are better qualified than activists to recognize SWAG when they see it? They would also vehemently assert that it is too difficult to establish a causal relationship between government-planned science and paltry discovery — perhaps as difficult as naming a single invention, technological advance, medical breakthrough, engineering development, or innovative product in use today that is not the result of scientific discoveries made prior to the early 1970s.

This evidence for a causal relationship between increasing government control and declining scientific achievement is no flimsier than the evidence for a causal relationship between increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 and increasing global temperature. Indeed, it is the very lack of such evidence that, to activist science, justifies PNS.

But PNS is a charade. It is hobgoblinology, masquerading as science and used to thwart skepticism about the unverified claims of socialist scientists masquerading as enlightened experts, pushing a political agenda masquerading as the common good. AGW is supported by nothing more than cargo cult science foisted on a fearful, science-illiterate people.

The scary stories, incessantly pronounced as scientific facts, are speculation. They are themselves hypotheses — additional, distinct hypotheses that would have to be verified, even if the parent AGW hypothesis could be established. But false syllogisms are permissible under PNS. The PNS scientist is free to infer scary stories from the unverified AGW hypothesis, provided there is uncertainty in the normal science and virtue in his political values. The scientific method of normal science is replaced by a post-normal scientific method, in which an hypothesis is tested not by empiricism but by scariness — that, and the frequency and shrillness with which it is stated. One could call this socialist science process Scary Hypothesis Inference Testing (SHIT). And one would find a strong causal relationship between SHIT and the aroma of SWAG.




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Sad-Eyed Waifs, Sad-Eyed Wife

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The ’60s were a time of turbulent transition not only in attitudes about war, poverty, and race relations, but also in attitudes about art. If Andy Warhol could paint a reproduction of a soup can or Jackson Pollock could dribble paint on a canvas or Mark Rothko could lavish shades of red on the walls of the Four Seasons and all of them could call it art (and charge lavish prices, I might add), what else might be considered the next great breakthrough in art?

Within this changing atmosphere an artist named Keane became famous for paintings of big-eyed waifs in somber settings. Celebrities scrambled to own the works; museums gladly accepted them; even the United Nations has a Keane in its permanent art collection. In a craze that would be repeated in the 1990s by the wildly popular “cottage art” of Thomas Kinkade, Keane’s waifs began showing up everywhere — in high class galleries, celebrities’ homes (Natalie Wood, Joan Crawford, and Red Skelton are some of the actors who owned original portraits of themselves with the trademark big eyes) as well as on greeting cards, posters, and the bedroom walls of middle class America. I remember copying the big-eyed style when I was in grade school and longing to have a framed waif for my room, just as all my friends did.

But who was this artist named Keane? And what was the real reason for the big-eyed success of this relatively one-dimensional art? These two questions are addressed in the new biopic Big Eyes, which has already received several Golden Globe nominations. The film is based on Margaret Keane’s assertion, upheld in court, that she painted the waifs, while her husband Walter claimed the credit for them. This fine film examines mid-century gender roles while providing insights into issues related to plagiarism, marketing, and art appreciation.

If Joan Crawford has one hanging in her living room and respected museums have them in their collections, then they must be good, and I must have one.

Margaret (Amy Adams) is portrayed as a victim of 1950s biases and cultural restrictions. When she leaves her husbands (two marriages end in divorce) she does so furtively, sneaking away instead of confronting them and facing their problems. “I’ve never acted freely,” she complains at one point. “First I was a daughter, then a wife, then a mother,” thusechoing Nora Helmer’s epiphany at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). When she applies for a job, the potential employer asks, “Does your husband approve of your working?” Later, when she complains to Walter (Christoph Waltz) about how it makes her feel to see him being praised for the work she has created, he explains with a shrug and a smile, “Sadly, people don’t buy lady art.”

This is Walter’s justification for letting the public assume that he, not his wife, is the “Keane” whose name appears at the bottom of the canvas. If the Keanes want to make a living selling Margaret’s paintings, Walter willhave to be the frontman. The value of art, more than that ofany other commodity or product, lies in the eye of the beholder. Its price is determined not by the cost of the materials or the time and labor that go into its production (indeed, Margaret knocks out one painting in 53 minutes) but purely by supply and demand, or perceived scarcity and perceived desirability. If Joan Crawford has one hanging in her living room and respected museums have them in their collections, then they must be good, and I must have one. In fact, Andy Warhol is quoted (perhaps ironically), “It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”

Were these paintings any good? Not really. They might have seemed haunting and evocative at first glance, but they were kitschy and uninspiring, even eerie, especially as they became mass produced. The real genius behind their popularity and sales was Walter Keane and his marketing strategy. Charming, gregarious, and mendacious, he knew how to stir up interest and create media sensations. In the film he presents celebrity portraits as publicgifts, sends unsolicited paintings to museums, and even convinces the World’s Fair committee to accept a painting of the world’s children (“Tomorrow Forever”) as the official mural of the Fair without even going through a selection committee. Christoph Waltz portrays Walter with gleeful joy and unmitigated enthusiasm. He sees nothing wrong in what he is doing. Art critic John Canaday (Terrence Stamp) is outraged by Keane’s popularity and rabid in his determination to bring down the waifs.

Plagiarism and intellectual property are central issues in this film, but so is the value of marketing. Would Margaret have made any money from her paintings without Walter’s marketing? Can Walter be accused of stealing Margaret’s work if he does it with Margaret’s full knowledge, consent and collaboration? Are they committing fraud against their customers simply because the work was done by Mrs. instead of Mr.? Have the paintings lost their value because they were painted by a woman, or might a new scandal increase their value by giving thema renewed notoriety (just as this film is likely to increase their value again)? Did Jane Eyre become a less significant work when it was discovered that Charlotte Brontë, not Currer Bell, wrote it?

Big Eyes offers a rich but disturbing look at the culture of the 1950s and 1960s — not just the formal culture of art, but the chauvinistic culture of accepted mores and gender roles. The film is a reminder of the many women who have stood silently in the shadows doing a husband’s work, or doing their own work with a masculine pseudonym, in a time when “people didn’t buy lady art” or “lady books” or “lady science.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Big Eyes," directed by Tim Burton. The Weinstein Company, 2014, 104 minutes.



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Swearing In

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They Shoot Cartoonists, Don’t They?

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On the morning of January 7, following the terrorist attack on the Paris office of the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, CNN was continuously occupied with discussions of the event by various purported experts. On the screen below the talking heads appeared these words: “Is Paris shooting an attack on free speech?”

I believe the answer to that question may just possibly be Yes.

Invading a newspaper office and slaughtering the people who work there, in response to its satires of your religious heroes, does appear, at least on the surface, to be an attack on free speech. Even President Obama, who has been reluctant to say anything that could possibly be considered critical of Islamists, and whose administration tried mightily to blame the Benghazi disaster on an idiot whose so-called movie had supposedly hurt Islamic feelings, immediately stood up and said that what happened in Paris was “an attack on free speech.”

Now, what are the greatest dangers to free speech in the world today?

One is political Islam, in most of its forms. A prominent CNN commentator, a twit named Bobby Ghosh, took care to emphasize the idea that “everyone across the Muslim world agrees that this [the terrorist attack] is not an appropriate response” to critiques of Muhammed and his faith. This idiotic remark went unchallenged by the network’s other twits. But while some Muslim governments have criticized the Paris terrorists, their objection boils down to an attempt to exclude interlopers from their own campaign against freedom. What would have happened to the staff of Charlie Hebdo if they had performed even one satire of Islam within the territory of an Islamic state? They would have been lucky, very lucky, to escape with their lives. There is one successful secular state in the Islamic world, and that is Turkey; and the Turkish government just granted its first permission since 1923 for a Christian church to be built in its domain.

But don’t just blame the Muslims. Western European cultures have never quite gotten the point about the right to free speech. For centuries England has been noted for government pre-censorship of the press and for weird libel laws that allow anyone with hurt feelings to take the nearest free speaker to court. England is the place where the star of an American TV crime show (Telly Savalas) successfully sued a paper for saying that his singing was no good. The other Western European countries have a panoply of hate-speech laws that allow people to be sent to jail simply for what they say or write.

And don’t just blame the Europeans. How long, O Lord, has political correctness been surging in America? It probably started in the 1960s, when leftists sold the idea that it was vicious persecution to call someone a Communist simply because he was a Communist. Senator McCarthy is dead, but anti-McCarthyism still has long teeth. Then came the idea that no one’s feelings should be hurt, and that anyone represented by a pressure group got to decide what is meant by “hurt.” Almost everyone knows, regrets, and laughs at political correctness — but it grows upon us daily. Even the New York cops, a tough bunch if ever there was one, now complain that Mayor De Blasio (admittedly a complete jackass) didn’t simply endanger their lives but went so far as to hurt their feelings.

Don’t just blame the Muslims. Western European cultures have never quite gotten the point about the right to free speech.

We can’t do much about religious fanatics in other lands, but we can do something to clarify our own attitudes. The next time somebody talks about how he’s in favor of “responsible free speech” or “protected free speech” or “speech that is free in the political arena” — all of which means that free speech is not a right but just something you may be allowed if you have a good purpose and don’t “hurt” other people — repeat what Isabel Paterson said: “When we say free speech, we mean free speech, even if you don't know what we mean.”




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The Grubers in the Audience

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For a long time I’ve been thinking about Stephen Cox’s account (Liberty, November 22) of Jonathan Gruber’s now-famous remarks about how easy and necessary it is to fool the American people. Did you notice: Cox analyzed Gruber, but failed to analyze the audience that not only acquiesced in Gruber’s disgraceful performance but also, in some of the recordings, laughed along with him.

Cox isn’t the only one who failed to explore the subject. No one seems willing to do it, despite the fact that you can tell a lot about a culture by the willingness of an audience to tolerate what somebody says to it. On the one occasion on which I have heard this topic broached in the media — a discussion on a radio talk show — the two commentators agreed that because we don’t know who, individually, was listening while Gruber blabbed and smirked, we can’t say much about these people, except to label them elitists. The evidence of elitism was the fact that they were academics, or would-be academics, at academic, or para-academic, conferences; and academics, especially those at “elite institutions” such as Gruber’s headquarters, MIT, are elitists. End of discussion. But I’m not willing to end it there.

Yes, academics who work at elite institutions tend to be elitists. I know this by personal experience: I teach at an elite institution. But elitism can take many forms. A person who went to East Overshoe College, or no college at all, can be an elitist in the corporate boardroom, or the media deck of the football stadium, or the town council, or the self-appointed neighborhood watch. And a person who has taught at Harvard for 30 years can be an elitist in ways that are virtually harmless. He can be snotty about his colleagues’ grading standards, or their habit of pronouncing “err” as if it were “heir” (something tells me that Cox falls in that category of elitist), or their inability to decline Latin nouns.

None of the great intellectuals who exert political influence at Virginia appears to have had the slightest fear of reenacting this sorry story.

I don’t mind those forms of elitism. I hope that somebody at Harvard still has them. (Harvard is a ruthless inflater of its own reputation.) The kinds of academic elitism that I do mind are (A) the elitism of people who consider themselves entitled to push other people around, and (B) the elitism that maintains its self-confidence even after it has destroyed its legitimacy.

Gruber’s audiences appear to have been defined by those kinds of elitism. If the academics who sat and listened to Gruber objected to his boasts about pushing people into a healthcare system they didn’t want — a serious matter, much more serious than Latin case endings — some of them would have said so. But there is no record or hint of objection — only the appreciative laughter we hear on some of the recordings. If you show up for a dog fight, and you stay and don’t object, and instead you whistle and laugh and cheer, we can assume that you are morally indistinguishable from the men who trained the dogs to kill each other.

That reflection doesn’t speak well for Gruber’s audience. But here’s a worse reflection, one that has occupied me ever since the appearance of Cox’s article. Critics of elitism didn’t notice this, but Gruber’s elitist audience was forfeiting its very title to elitism. Academics’ legitimate title to respect and deference, to the exercise of any role of leadership in society, comes from their ability to identify facts and deal with them honestly. Yet this is the title Gruber and his audience forfeited, but were too elitist to care if they did.

Suppose that some academic is liberally paid and respectfully heard because he is an expert on civil engineering. This person wants to reform the laws about highway bridge safety. He wants this so badly that he misrepresents facts. If his misrepresentations are discovered, he will forfeit his title to respect and may forfeit his income too. Some colleges still fire people like that.

Or suppose some literary scholar believes that Jane Austen is a great writer and that everyone should read her. Inspired by this ideal, he goes to book clubs and academic conferences claiming that Austen is significant because she was the first woman novelist. But she wasn’t, and anyone qualified to pronounce on her merits would know that she wasn’t, because (for instance), one of her literary merits is her ability to satirize earlier woman novelists. In any audience, even a “lay” one, somebody will rise and ask a question about Aphra Behn or Fanny Burney or Madame Lafayette, and the Austen idealist will be discredited as an expert. If he put on a Gruberlike grin and said that what he meant by “novelist” is a great novelist, and what he meant by “woman” is a woman who never married, so he was right after all, the audience will make for the doors, and probably complain to his department chair. The offender won’t be fired, but his colleagues will give him funny looks in the hallway, and he won’t be invited to serve on many more academic panels.

But if he went further, and informed an academic audience that he didn’t believe any of those things, but merely went around saying them because he wanted to fool all the non-experts, who are stupid anyway, and he smiled and chortled and laughed aloud at the success he had, what would be his fate? The academics in his audience would be outraged, and they wouldn’t keep their outrage quiet. They would take his conduct as a slur on themselves — in general, as members of the human race, and in particular, as people falsely enlisted as his co-conspirators. The real elite would triumph with his ejection from the room, and likely from his career.

Academics do not qualify themselves for public respect because they are “honest” enough to vent their resentments, hysterias, and wish-fulfillment fantasies.

That, at least, is supposed to be the response to such things, and it would have been the response to Gruber if he had operated in the field of civil engineering or Jane Austen studies. But he is a public policy expert, and public policy experts have, apparently, become exempt from professional discipline. I haven’t heard any reports of Gruber’s rejection by the mass of academics in his field. Nor have I heard any vigorous censures from the professional organizations that are usually so quick to make pronouncements about what academics think, want, or demand.

And there is evidence of even more startling abdications of academics’ most basic professional duty, the duty to be honest. Rolling Stone published an article detailing the allegations of an anonymous woman who claimed that she had been gang-raped at a University of Virginia frat house. The details were so implausible as to render the story unbelievable on its face. Subsequent inquiries by reputable news sources, such as the Washington Post, demonstrated that it was largely, if not wholly, untrue. Nevertheless, on Nov. 22 the academic hierarchs at the University of Virginia arbitrarily canceled all campus fraternity activities until Jan. 9 and have never, thereafter, admitted that their quickly formed and extreme reaction was wrong. Even now, faculty members are trying to ban all fraternity activities from campus, and the administration is trying to extend its power past normal boundaries — in response to a crime that was never objectively verified.

Is this a university that claims to operate with some kind of intellectual integrity, some willingness to exercise critical thought, some fairness in the search for truth — in short, with some kind of intellectual honesty?

No reader needs to be reminded that similar events have happened repeatedly in recent years, most notably in the famous Duke lacrosse scandal. Unfounded reports of sexual and racial abuses have been eagerly swallowed by esteemed academics, who did not hesitate to blame their own communities for crimes that were never committed; and their folly has been subjected to national ridicule. Yet none of the great intellectuals who exert political influence at Virginia appears to have had the slightest fear of reenacting this sorry story.

Another sorry tale is the intellectually dishonest reactions of several elite Eastern universities to the protests attending the failure of a grand jury to return an indictment against the cop who shot a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, and to the much more justified agitation over the killing of a black man by cops on Staten Island. Not only were students at prestigious law schools invited to delay their examinations if they were upset by these events, but special help was offered in dealing with the “trauma” they suffered because the criminal justice system failed to agree with their views. Officialdom at Columbia University even opined that “focusing on routine matters such as exam schedules . . . diverts attention away from the real issue that should be examined now: how to ensure a criminal justice system that protects fairness, due process, and equality."

Common sense has never been in oversupply about academics, but this takes the cake. It is a radical refusal to comprehend the simplest facts of academic life — the necessity of tests and the ability of students to take them. It is, in a word, dishonesty.

But suppose, you say, these people actually believe these preposterous things? Suppose they actually believe that law students are such delicate flowers as to be unable to tolerate an imperfect world? Suppose they actually believe that demonstrating one’s knowledge of the criminal justice system diverts attention from “examining” how to reform it? Or, to return to UVA, suppose they actually believe that fraternities are — in a modern version of original sin — so evil by nature that they are certain to do evil, and do it continually, simply because they are fraternities, thus obviating the need to locate evidence of the specific evils they do? If people actually believe these things, then aren’t they acting with honesty, no matter how stupid and illiberal their actions may be?

Isn’t it a good thing that such people are increasingly distrusted by the populace in general? Yes, but that’s not good enough.

Indeed they are. But that doesn’t mean they are acting with intellectual honesty. Academics do not qualify themselves for public respect because they are “honest” enough to vent their resentments, hysterias, and wish-fulfillment fantasies. Respected professions are not based on primitive feelings. They are based on their practitioners’ respect for objective, critically tested truth. A plumber who “honestly” believed that water can run uphill would no longer deserve, honestly speaking, to be called a plumber. A physicist who reacted to some unexpected astronomical phenomenon by consulting a horoscope would no longer deserve, honestly speaking, to be called a physicist. It would make no difference that he “honestly” believed in astrology; he still could not honestly collect his paycheck from the physics department.

You see the point, which the politically engaged academics “honestly” do not see. As a result, they are squandering their influence along with their respect.

Well, what of it? Isn’t it a good thing that such people are increasingly distrusted by the populace in general? Yes, but that’s not good enough — for several reasons. For one thing, the offenders don’t care. They care only for their self-esteem and the esteem of like-minded colleagues. For every person who, like Gruber, suffers some material loss from exposure as a dope or fool, hundreds more are advanced in their professions, and corresponding hundreds of intellectually honest young people who merited academic jobs languish in unemployment or underemployment.

Bad money drives out good; institutionalized dishonesty always attempts to drive honesty as far away as possible, and it generally succeeds. Until the American people decide that the result of a college education should not be a credential to middle-class respectability but an exposure to honest thought, the disgraceful trend will continue.




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An Exceptional Economist

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When I first saw the list of “Seven Bad Ideas” by Jeff Madrick, I thought of the biblical refrain, “Woe unto them who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). How can he consider the Invisible Hand, Say’s law, limited government, low inflation, efficient markets, free trade, and economics as an objective science to be “bad ideas”?

Then I read the book, and came to the conclusion that Jeff Madrick is an exceptional economist. By that I mean that Madrick considers all the above ideas to be good except when they are misused by economists and government officials who engage in “dirty economics.” He is one of those economists who constantly says, “I’m all in favor of the free market, but . . .” and then lets out a litany of exceptions to the rule.

The greater the level of economic freedom, the higher the standard of living.

His first chapter sets the tone. He labels the Invisible Hand a “beautiful idea,” and waxes eloquent about Adam Smith’s “brilliant” metaphor of the market. Then he goes on the attack, criticizing laissez-faire advocates such as Milton Friedman (his favorite bête noire) for ignoring the importance of “monopolies, business power, lack of access to information, the likelihood of financial bubbles, economies of scale.” When that happens, he concludes, “The efficient Invisible Hand gets very dirty.”

Madrick protesteth too much. Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty” consists of three elements: maximum freedom, competition, and a system of justice. If the invisible hand gets dirty, it’s only because one or more of these elements are proscribed. If all three are in place, the result is “universal opulence which extends to the lowest ranks of the people,” as Smith predicted in the early pages of The Wealth of Nations. Indeed, the Economic Freedom Indexes, produced by the Fraser Institute and the Heritage Foundation, confirm Adam Smith. They list five critical factors: size of government, legal structure, sound money, trade, and regulations. They demonstrate that the greater the level of economic freedom, the higher the standard of living.

In chapter 5, Madrick attacks the notion that “There Are No Speculative Bubbles.” Here again he begins with a positive idea, the efficient market theory (EMT), which originated from the work of Eugene Fama at the University of Chicago. Fama, who won the Nobel Prize last year, found that it’s almost impossible to beat the market and difficult to identify asset bubbles. But then Madrick spends most of the chapter highlighting the exceptions, citing Robert Shiller and other critics of EMT. “The development of the EMT is another example of how faith in the rationality of free markets was pushed too far,” Madrick says. Yet the fact remains, when the financial markets are transparent sans government interference and mismanagement, they work pretty well.

In chapter 6, Madrick attacks globalization. He begins by saying, “Opening markets to world trade can and should be beneficial.” Then comes the “but . . .”, as he cites cases of people in Asia, Europe, and Latin America who are damaged by free trade and market liberalization. He also cites Paul Krugman, for the idea that “broad swaths of the population [are] hurt by trade.” But no one says that trade doesn’t hurt some groups in the short run, and requires them to retool and change jobs. A recent study of the NAFTA free-trade agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the United States concluded that on net balance more jobs and more income were created than destroyed.

When financial markets are transparent sans government interference and mismanagement, they work pretty well.

Madrick derides the whole idea of Say’s law and the self-adjusting economy. However, he never cites directly the great French economist J.B. Say. In fact, I have the impression that he may have never read Say’s Treatise on Political Economy, published in English in 1821. Nor does he seem familiar with the work of Steve Kates, the foremost authority on Say’s law. If he had, Madrick would know that Say’s whole focus is the benefits of the supply side of the economy — technology, productive savings and investment, and entrepreneurship — which is the key to long-term growth and higher standards of living. Who could be against that?

Like Krugman, Robert Kuttner, and other Keynesians, Madrick berates “austerity” economics and the obsession with government deficits in Europe and the US. Yet he conveniently ignores examples in which austerity worked, such as Canada in the mid-1990s, when it cut government spending and laid off federal workers but managed to balance the budget in two years and then went on an 11-year supply-side run that proved a success. Today Canada is ranked no. 7 in the Economic Freedom Index, ahead of the US (no. 12).

Seven Bad Ideasshould be renamed The Anti-Friedman Book. It attacks the late Milton Friedman in virtually every chapter, blaming him and his "laissez-faire" policies for everything bad in the world. Madrick says that the establishment economics profession has bought into all things Friedman, and that Friedman has had his way in practically all policies, including those of the Clinton era. According to Madrick, Friedman is "the most influential American economist of the last quarter of the twentieth century.” If so, why hasn’t the US adopted a flat tax, a negative income tax, school choice, decriminalization of drugs, or privatization of Social Security or even the national parks, as Friedman advocated? Why hasn’t the US eliminated the Fed and replaced it with a computer that increases the money supply at a steady rate? If only Madrick were right and Friedman truly ruled!

Madrick conveniently ignores examples in which austerity worked, such as Canada in the mid-1990s, which balanced its budget in two years.

In his final chapter, one of Madrick’s chief complaints about the economics profession is its lack or misuse of empirical evidence to support its assertions. But sometimes he is guilty of the same error. One of the most egregious examples is this extreme statement: “By every measure, the economic improvement in the 1950s and 1960s was superior to the improvement from 1980 onwards when Friedman type-economics began to prevail.” Say again? He may have a point with some statistics, such as per capita GDP growth, or real wages in the United States. But there are plenty of countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa that have adopted Friedman free-market policies and have blossomed. And in the US, there are plenty of contrary data, such as life expectancy, leisure time, and especially new technology (personal computers, smartphones, the internet, etc.). When you include worker benefits, total compensation is still rising for the average employee. According to Michael Cox, an expert on consumption patterns at Southern Methodist University, ownership of cars, color televisions, and household appliances has risen dramatically at all income levels, and even in poor households, since 1980. The standard of living has advanced so far and has risen so rapidly for most Americans since 1980 that there is no comparison. Is there anyone who would prefer to live in the 1950s and 1960s rather than today, as Madrick’s statement implies?

Most of the time, Madrick loses his sense of balance. He devotes 90% of the book to the exceptions, making it a work full of tedious arguments and complaints that would interest only professional economists (what John Stossel calls “getting caught in the weeds”). He even takes on his Keynesian friends, such as Lawrence Summers, and lambastes them for falling into “Friedman’s folly.” Madrick still thinks Friedman is the Devil.


Editor's Note: Review of "Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World," by Jeff Madrick. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, 254 pages.



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