An Open Letter to the Libertarian Party

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There are some topics that every libertarian loves to argue about — Austrian economics, minarchy vs. anarchy, Rand vs. Rothbard, why that libertarian person is right and every other libertarian is wrong. A similar topic is why the Libertarian Party can't win elections. I will address that topic here.

Why can't the Libertarian Party win elections? The answer is, obviously, that the two major parties get all the power, incumbents, media coverage, and donor money, as well as activists from among the liberals and conservatives, who make up the vast majority of all political activists. It really is a simple answer that is not hard to understand and is a necessary and sufficient explanation. The real question is: what can we do about it?

These are some answers to that second, tougher question.

1. Learn some lessons from the software industry.

It is textbook best practices in Silicon Valley to sell software using the "freemium" model: give the software away for free, then charge users a (hefty) fee to unlock the best features. Membership in the LP should be free (right now it costs $25). You would then get more people — especially poor young college students who are the voters of tomorrow — into the LP, and the ones who love it can then be charged $200 to join the Pantheon of Libertarian Heroes (call it whatever you want, the premium level of membership).

Why can't the Libertarian Party win elections? The answer is, obviously, that the two major parties get all the power, incumbents, media coverage, and donor money.

Why can't the Libertarian Party win elections? The answer is, obviously, that the two major parties get all the money, power, incumbents, media coverage, and dono

In this way, the LP would get more members and more money, net. If this strategy didn't maximize profits, then Google and Facebook would sure as hell not be using it. The last time I checked, Facebook was free, and made a ton of money.

Also, get rid of that obnoxious loyalty oath you have to swear to join the LP. Every real libertarian already agrees with it, and the young people who are just discovering liberty for the first time find it really weird.

2. Make the platform conform to the candidates; let each candidate tailor it to maximize his or her chances of winning.

I know LP members who point to the platform as if it were Gospel when it supports their own positions, then scream bloody murder on issues where the platform differs from their ideas. Why even have a platform, if it does more harm than good?

As I see it, there are two types of candidates who could win elections — the ones who will poach Republican votes, and the ones who will poach moderate and center votes. The former should run to the right of the Republicans on every issue from gun control to immigration to tax cuts, and steal GOP votes by embracing those GOP values more effectively than the GOP candidates do themselves. The latter should run to the right of the GOP on the economy and to the left of the Democrats on social issues such as drug legalization and (if candidates feel this way) on immigration and sex and gender issues. The former should say they will kick all illegal immigrants out and deny government funding for abortions and pass laws denying any special treatment to LGBTs under the laws. The latter should say they will give all illegal immigrants amnesty and legalize all recreational drugs and pass laws giving women the right to abortions (so long as they aren’t paid for by the state) and enforce laws to protect LGBT people from violence. They should both be saying they will end the Fed and eliminate the income tax.

If this strategy didn't maximize profits, then Google and Facebook would sure as hell not be using it.

I am not talking about a GOP candidate and an LP candidate. I am talking about two LP candidates, each of whom could win in the right electorate, for example, if the former runs against a moderate in Montana, or if the latter runs against a really creepy corrupt idiot in New Jersey.

Each LP candidate should have the freedom to choose the issues he or she cares strongly about and then run on those to the max. Having one party platform is like a straitjacket that traps candidates and prevents them from being who they really are.

To extend my example, there are many ways to interpret core libertarian beliefs. Of course, an LGBT person should be treated with equality, hence no worse (or better) than a hetero citizen. The police should protect LGBT people from violence, just as they should protect everyone else from violence. A woman should be free to decide how she feels about abortion, but the taxpayers should not be the ones funding abortions. Thus, the former and latter candidate in my example above are both principled libertarians, but they could appeal to voters in a way that could poach either red or blue votes. To win, of course, a candidate must get all core LP votes, the "real libertarian" voters, while at the same time poaching a big chunk of red or blue or center-moderate votes. That is the only way the electoral math enables an LP candidate to win.

3. Choose candidates with charisma and a strong social media presence.

I extremely dislike Donald Trump as a person, but, say what you will about him, he was the GOP's most electable candidate, and I think it boils down to his having (A) the gift of gab, an incredible ability to speak clearly and strongly, (B) a strong social media presence online, and (C) an eccentric, larger-than-life personality. It has been said that Ron Paul was America's "crazy uncle," but if we could find a candidate who was in the LP and who had real charisma, as he did, and was good on Facebook and Twitter, I think that person would be electable against a weak incumbent opponent. And many Republicans and Democrats are weak, watery, timid, corrupt, unsympathetic cowards. Hillary was not the only one, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Many Republicans and Democrats are weak, watery, timid, corrupt, unsympathetic cowards.

There are objective ways to measure charisma, such as one’s number of online followers, the number of shares of one’s social media posts, public speaking experience, and awards won for it. Such indications of charisma should be a factor in LP primaries. Instead, the LP seems to have gone in the opposite direction, nominating weak, watery, timid candidates who try to seem like "serious, legitimate" politicians. We will never be better than the establishment at being the establishment. We are the outsider, and we can be the best outsider.

4. Generate PR.

The great thing about media coverage is that it's free. But the media cover news stories that generate eyeballs, because, for them, eyeballs mean more advertisers, and more advertisers mean more profit for them. There's nothing wrong with this, but we must understand and exploit it. Shock value attracts attention.

Say that you will legalize heroin and prostitution. Say that you will end the Fed. Say that you will cut property taxes down to zero, then privatize the schools that then have no tax base to pay for them. You can go door to door campaigning and post a video of a particularly saucy back and forth with someone about freedom vs. regulation and what it means for real people and their kids. You can notify the local media, then dress up like Uncle Sam and start throwing wads of real, actual dollar bills in the air for people to grab, with a huge sign as a backdrop pointing out the national debt and the dollar amounts of government waste in various programs.

We must understand and exploit media coverage. Shock value attracts attention.

Anything to get on TV. That is how successful candidates beat an incumbent.

This is my advice to the Libertarian Party and its members. Dear LP, please take this advice and use it as you see fit.

Thanks,
Russ




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The Grief of the Aggrieved

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Diversity, more precisely, the ideology of diversity, has become the most dominant force in America’s institutions of higher learning. It is a massive project, developed over several decades, designed to provide America’s marginalized minorities with educational opportunities previously denied to them by an oppressive white America. Applying diversity principles such as social justice, fairness, and inclusion, as well as disparate admission standards and curricula, pedagogical elites assert, will enrich the education of all students (including the white majority) by preparing them to be better global citizens in an increasingly multicultural world. During four years of embracing one another’s “race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, language, ability/disability, class or age,” marginalized minority students will achieve academic success; white majority students will reject bigotry; all will learn that what people have in common is more important than their differences. Diversity, therefore, will produce both educational and social benefits.

And grief. Mostly grief, and vast quantities of it. On America’s campuses, the most notable products of diversity doctrine are the diversity czars, who preside over what historian Arthur Schlesinger, in his 1992 book The Disuniting of America, prophetically called “a quarrelsome spatter of enclaves, ghettos and tribes.”

Marginalized minority students will achieve academic success; white majority students will reject bigotry; all will learn that what people have in common is more important than their differences.

Princeton student groups recently issued a statement condemning “racism, white supremacy, Nazism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, ableism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, transmisogyny, transmisogynoir, xenophobia, and any oppression of historically marginalized communities” that plagues America and their “white-serving and male-serving institution.” Such behavior, they say, exposes its underserved “students of color, LGBT and non-binary students, women, undocumented students, students with disabilities, and low-income students” to horrific grief.

Princeton is not the only campus to witness such expressions of universal grief. The promotion of diversity has achieved no harmony. Instead, it has perpetuated what Mr. Schlesinger found — in 1992! Aggrieved factions huddle in safe zones and cringe behind Orwellian speech codes, trigger warnings, and behavior intervention teams that protect them from offensive language or the grief of microaggression.

The University of Michigan’s Inclusive Language Campaign includes “insane,” “retarded,” “gay,” “ghetto” and “illegal alien” as offensive terms, since they “offend the mentally ill, the disabled, gays, poor minorities and illegal immigrants, respectively.” “Kinky” is an example of a term that only offends black students. “America is the land of opportunity” is an example of a phrase that offends all students. The phrase “I want to die” is proposed for banning. It offends a new campus identity group (one whose rapid growth in recent years has perhaps been propelled by Diversity’s milieu of depression and anxiety): Suicidal-American students.

On America’s campuses, the most notable products of diversity doctrine are the diversity czars.

But no aspect of American education has experienced more grief than intellectual diversity. Diversity proponents reject intellectual diversity, especially the conservative and libertarian variety. Conservatives and libertarians are virtually absent from administrations and faculties, ensuring that students are not exposed to ideas that might challenge the dogma of social justice. Protests, often violent protests, are reflexively launched against speakers from outside diversity’s intellectual bubble.

Alas, grief has even spread to the bowels of Diversity. According to a recently published study, diversity educators are victims of burnout, compassion fatigue, and racial battle fatigue, inflicted by “the emotional weight” of their jobs. Their “consistent exposure to various microaggressions,” no doubt “from unruly students” aggrieved by juvenile, overbearing diversity policies, is considered to be a form “of assault and torture” — ironically, and deservedly, so.

Imagine a beleaguered diversity educator taking shelter in a campus safe house from a heavy rainstorm. He takes off his jacket as he passes the coloring book and Play-Doh area, and lies down on a nearby couch to relax. He thinks about his officious day of soothing the aggrieved, censoring speech, sniffing out bias, and, in general, carrying out the morass of rules designed to ensure intellectual and social conformity at his institution. “Compassion fatigue” brings sleep, and dreams of his pompous job, of what Tocqueville would have called “soft despotism” — the effort, as he said, to enforce “a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd.” He wakes abruptly, snapping upright, quivering in a cold sweat, having mistaken a bolt of thunder for the clash of ideas, and the rush of rain for his dignity swirling around the drain.




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Día de los Vivos

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Looking for a new holiday film and you’ve had it with watching scripted Hollywood families bicker around the dining table? Pixar’s Coco is one of the best films of the season. Never mind that it’s animated. Grab yourself a niece or a nephew (or just rustle up the courage to go to a “kid movie” without a kid) and enjoy. This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.

The story centers on 12-year-old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) who lives with his parents, his overbearing Abuelita (Renee Victor), and his sweet doddering great-grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia). Miguel is a typical Mexican boy in a not-so-typical Mexican family where music has been banned from the home and the mere sight of a guitar engenders shrieks of anger. But Miguel loves music. He has been surreptitiously learning to play the guitar by watching videos of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), “the greatest musician of all time,” whose statue stands in the town plaza. Miguel wants to enter the town talent contest, but Abuelita forbids it. When Miguel shouts that he hates his family and wishes he weren’t part of them, it sets off a chain of events that will teach him the importance of family, tradition, and remembering the dead.

This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.

Coco is set on Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — when Mexicans honor their departed ancestors with a three-day fiesta of reminiscing, singing, feasting, and decorating graves. Families build small altars with photographs of their ancestors and offer incense, fruits, nuts, and candies, plus toys for relatives who died as children and tequila for the adults. Traditions include eating muertos (the bread of the dead) and sugar-candy skulls, hanging cardboard skeletons and colorful tissue paper decorations, and planting yellow marigolds. It is thought that the pungent fragrance of marigolds will attract the souls of the dead.

These Mexican traditions are presented in a surfeit of rich colors and sounds as Miguel is mystically transported across the marigold bridge between the land of the living and the land of the dead. On the other side he discovers a land not unlike his own — the same town plaza, the same town heroes, the same kinds of holiday preparations being made by families who just happen to be dead. There’s even a very funny scene with TSA agents deciding who can and can’t cross the bridge, and a skeletonized Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge. Miguel is befriended by Hector (Gael García Bernal), a delightfully comical skeleton, who helps Miguel in his search for his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, who seems to hold the key to Miguel’s return home.

All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for the young children who accompanied me. In fact, it makes death somehow comforting and even joyful when one considers the family reunions that await on the other side of the bridge. “Coco,” in fact, is the diminutive form of the common name “Socorro,” which means “to succor, aid, or comfort,” and this film offers much comfort about dying. It even suggests what happens to our pets when they die.

There’s even a skeletonized Frida Kahlo, who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge.

Moreover, many of the characters in Coco need comfort and aid. Miguel is far from home and at odds with his family on both sides of the bridge. Abuelita needs to face the true source of her pain and let go of her bitterness toward music. Her grandmother, Miguel’s departed Mama Imelda (Alana Ubach), must also overcome her bitterness toward her late husband — a bitterness that has followed her into the next life. Miguel’s new friend Hector is in danger of “fading away” because almost no one remembers him. Miguel learns to succor them all.

The marigold bridge becomes a powerful symbol of family connection, as Miguel learns to bridge the gap not only with his dead ancestors, but with his living family members as well.

It might be a little risky amid today’s rampant accusations of cultural appropriation for a company directed mostly by white males to release a movie set in Mexico focusing on intimate Mexican traditions and beliefs. The humor, accents, costumes, and traditions could have gone awry, veering into the realm of stereotype. But there is an authenticity in Coco that transcends political correctness and simply feels right. The characters are voiced almost entirely by Chicano actors, and background conversations and idiomatic phrases are presented in Spanish without subtitles, contributing to the cultural authenticity. The musical score is presented as a natural part of the story when Miguel, Ernesto, Frida and others sing and perform in public, so the story isn’t superimposed on a European or American musical genre. The vivid colors and family dynamic are simply the flavor of Mexico, without caricature or disrespect. It’s just about perfect.

All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for young children.

One thing that is definitely not perfect is the 21-minute animated short that accompanies most screenings of Coco. Based on the characters in Disney’s 2013 megahit, Frozen, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” tells the story of the orphaned Princesses Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) searching for Christmas traditions they can adopt, now that they are living together again in the castle. The characters are flat, the situations are corny, and the premise — that you can somehow create instant traditions by copying others — completely misses the point of what a tradition is. At 21 minutes it’s three times too long, and its production values are so weak that you might be tempted to go home before the feature film actually begins. I recommend a trip to the snack bar after you find your seats.

Families are the oldest and simplest of social communities, yet they can often be the most complex to navigate. They are a topic that Disney has explored in numerous animated classics, from the competitive and vengeful stepmothers in Snow White, Cinderella, and Tangled to the trauma of maternal separation in Dumbo and Bambi to the teenage rebellion in The Little Mermaid and The Lion King to the complete redefinition of family in Jungle Book and Tarzan. The ability to address serious issues within the framework of kid-friendly animated films has been Disney’s forte for nearly a century, and it’s the reason Disney films continue to attract generation after generation of viewers, especially through its new partnership with Pixar.

Coco is among the best of these films, for so many reasons. I expect that many families will pull it out to view again when a beloved great-grandmother crosses over the marigold bridge — or even when a pet passes on, no matter what their literal beliefs about the afterlife. As Howard Canaan writes in Tales of Magic from Around the World: “Myths express not historical or factual truth, but inner or spiritual truth.” And the truth is, we will be happier if we give up our grudges, embrace the beauty in our lives, remember those who came before us, and recognize the individuality in each human being. Coco makes this point magically.


Editor's Note: Review of "Coco," directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. Pixar, 2017, 109 minutes.



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The Visualization Test

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When I was a kid, a few million years ago, my parents subscribed to the Sunday edition of the Detroit Times (now defunct). The part of the paper that interested me was the eight pages of color cartoons, gathered in a section called “Puck: The Comic Weekly.” It was headed by a tiny figure of Puck and a quotation from one of his remarks in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “What fools these mortals be!”

The message appealed to me almost as much as the beautifully drawn, intricately plotted, glacially moving episodes of Prince Valiant. I was too young to read Shakespeare, but I was starting to get the point: mortal life is one hell of a crazy thing.

You know you live in a crazy world when its reputedly big people do things for no reason at all — or, to put this in a more pedantically accurate way, do things that no one asked them to do, things that no one wants them to do, things that can accomplish nothing except to get them into trouble. I need only mention Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

It’s crazy for someone who wants to go down in history as an ultra-discreet manager of America’s super-sleuths to go around blurting things out with no show of evidence.

A crazy world, however, is not just a world of elephantine insanity. It’s a world in which every little opportunity for craziness is promptly identified and eagerly exploited. It’s a world of micro-craziness.

On November 12, John Brennan, who thank God is a former head of the CIA, opined to CNN that President Trump “for whatever reason is either intimidated by Mr. Putin, afraid of what he could do or what might come out as a result of these investigations.” He said that Trump sends “a very disturbing signal to our allies and partners who are concerned about Russian interference in their democratic processes as well.”

There was a reason for Brennan to say such things: he wants to continue to be seen on TV. But it’s crazy for someone who wants to go down in history as an ultra-discreet manager of America’s super-sleuths to go around blurting things out with no show of evidence. This man wants to be known as a deep thinker (something that, by the way, his CIA X-ray vision should have told him was not what deep thinkers ever want, or reveal that they want). So he pontificated about disturbing signals and democratic processes — which, for no reason except pomposity, he pronounces “processEEs.” Try as I may, I can’t visualize what he’s talking about. What processEEs?

I tried picturing Angela Merkel (a person whom I do not delight to picture, but I’ll rise to the call of duty) phoning Emmanuel Macron (ditto) to say:

“Whaddup, Manny. Listen, I’m very disturbed this afternoon.”

“Oh, why?”

“I’ve received a disturbing signal from President Trump.”

“Oh, he’s an idiot. So what?”

“No, I am very disturbed. I am concerned about Russian interference in the democratic processes of our countries. I fear that Trump is either intimidated by Mr. Putin or afraid of what he could do or what might come out as a result of these investigations.”

“What investigations?”

Investigations into the influence of Russia on the November 2016 election in the United States.”

“Well, if you put it that way, I am concerned as well.”

Try as I may, however, I can’t visualize any real person saying anything to the announcement of such concerns except, “What the hell are you talking about?” And try as I may, I can’t keep myself from believing that the attempt to visualize what a statement means, to get a clear and sensible image out of it, is a test of its validity as an act of communication.

If you want another example of words that fail the test, I have one ready, this time from the Right side of the political spectrum. It’s in an article in PJ Media excoriating Senator Tim (Smilin’ Jack) Kaine for his refusal to return money donated to him by disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. I confess that I’m amused by Kaine’s idea that he can’t give the money back, because (dramatic pause) he’s already spent it! Yeah, and so what? But I also confess that I am skeptical about the idea that money derived from immoral sources has to be returned to the sources themselves, thus rewarding them for their immorality, or else handed off to some charity, so that its holiness will miraculously remove the moral contagion.

America’s tendency, throughout its history, has been to designate certain offenders as people about whom one can say anything, anything at all, and expect one’s listeners to nod in agreement.

Yet passing beyond all that, it’s hard to make sense of PJM’s critique of Senator Kaine: “He's not prepared to give Weinstein's blood-money back or try to donate it. He just got to profit off of a sexual assaulter.” Again the question: “What are you talking about?” I know some of the things that Weinstein is supposed to have done, and they are all bad things, but sexual assault has now been given so many meanings, from bothering people to raping them, that the phrase, seen by itself, no longer has meaning. It evokes no picture. We are also, it is true, offered the more pungent image of blood-money, but this image, though clear, is false. Weinstein didn’t make money from assaulting people; he lost it that way, by the bushel. Also, the man is an ape, but he is not a murderous ape — and what else could “blood-money” mean?

America’s tendency, throughout its history, has been to designate certain offenders as people about whom one can say anything, anything at all, and expect one’s listeners to nod in agreement. This is a bad tendency, and it makes no difference whether the offenses are real or whether they are such old-time, say-anything-you-want-against-it offenses as witchcraft, homosexuality, and questioning whether the Great War was a good idea. Mobspeak is mobspeak, no matter what the subject is; and that’s what we’re hearing with regard to Weinstein and his ilk.

Morally excited people often make their point so emphatically that all one can see in their statements is a preposterous image of themselves. Here’s something along that line. It’s a statement by Mika Brzezinski, reputed star of cable TV, about the Weinstein affair. (Cries of “Enough already! Find another topic!” But to proceed . . . ) Brzezinski tweeted: “I have a three-book deal with Weinstein Books. . . . I can’t go forward with those books unless Harvey resigns.” She can’t? Picture a woman so stunned by the revelation of Weinstein’s flaws that she can no longer make her mouse run about her screen. You can’t picture that; you start laughing too hard. But the really difficult thing to visualize is someone, even Harvey Weinstein, patron of the arts, thinking hard and long and then declaring, “What this world needs is not one book by Mika Brzezinski, but three!” Evidently Ms. B has no trouble visualizing that; she is certain that not going forward with those books is a threat that will make the world tremble. The world, however, may not have such a daring imagination.

Mobspeak is mobspeak, no matter what the subject is.

The rule is: If you can’t visualize it, don’t write it; and even if you can visualize it, ask yourself what, if anything, your readers will see. It isn’t enough to gesture toward some possible meaning.

For an exhibit of such a gesture, I turn to the venerable British Broadcasting Corporation. There used to be an idea that the BBC was a standard of good, though precious, English. If you still have that idea, forget it. Consider a current sample of high-class British lingo: subject, Africa; date, November 18. Reporting on the political liquidation of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe and his spouse, the BBC referred to “Grace Mugabe, who is four decades younger than him.” Oh, that much younger than him is?

I’m not mentioning this report just to be unkind about its grammar (although that’s fun). My real concern is a passage that illustrates how easy it is to destroy your meaning if you don’t try to visualize it. According to the BBC,

Our correspondent says the situation may appear to be getting out of [the Zimbabwean ruling party’s] control and there could be a broad push to introduce a transitional government that includes the opposition.

OK, I’m picturing a person who says something. So far, so good. He or she says that there is a situation. All right; “situation” is pretty abstract, but I know it means political events in Zimbabwe — mobs in the streets, that sort of thing. I have some kind of picture in my mind. Now, this situation appears to be out of control. . . . But no, that’s not quite right. It may appear to be getting out of control. . . . Picture that. Go ahead. Try.

Sometimes we can’t blame writers and speakers. Sometimes the audience is at fault.

The depressing thing is that people are actually getting paid to write stuff like this. I suppose someone also got paid to write a news item for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the appointment of a new president at Morehouse College. He is David A. Thomas, and he

said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution his goals include increasing enrollment from its current 2,200 students to 2,500 students, providing more scholarships, finding opportunities for every student to study abroad, supporting faculty research and engaging in issues that improve outcomes for African-American men, noting Morehouse “is a place where we can offer solutions to those issues.”

I’m not sure what Mr. Thomas provided as a referent for “those issues,” so I’m not sure whether he thinks that finding opportunities for students, supporting research, and increasing enrollments are things that need to be solved. But by the time his interview was written up by the AJC, he was proposing to offer solutions even to issues that improve outcomes. And if you think this is hard to visualize, first try to visualize engaging in issues. If “issues” means “problems,” as it usually does these days, I hope that the new college president doesn’t engage himself too deeply. But even if it just means “matters,” how do you picture that? And how do matters “improve outcomes”? And if they do that, why, again, should Mr. Thomas solve them?

In statements of this kind, a resistance to being visualized is considered an asset.

No one can visualize any of this; it’s all just words, with no pictures attached. But sometimes we can’t blame writers and speakers for engaging in issues that don’t improve outcomes. Sometimes the audience is at fault.

Denise Young Smith, Apple’s (former) Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity, found this out when she told a conference of diversity mavens that

there can be 12 white blue-eyed blonde men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.

The words are clear and self-evidently true. Yet they were understood as meaning, among many other things, “that there really is no need to look beyond any sort of seeming homogeneity within Silicon Valley’s tech workforce (which is mostly white and overwhelmingly male).” Smith, who is African American, was forced to apologize for her “choice of words” and then to step down from her job — a position she had held for only six months, in a company at which she had worked for 20 years. Apple has proclaimed that 50% of its “new hires are from historically underrepresented groups in tech.” I’m trying to visualize what that means, and unfortunately I can’t, except that it does not include Ms. Smith. I assume that in statements of this kind a resistance to being visualized is considered an asset.




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Japan: A Love Song

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For the past few decades, Japan has been known for its stagnant economy, falling stock market, and most importantly its terrible demographics.

For almost three decades, Japan’s GDP growth has mostly been less than 2%, has been negative for several of these years, and has often hovered close to zero. The net result is that its GDP is almost the same that it was 25 years ago.

The stock market index (Nikkei 225), which at the beginning of 1990 stood at 40,960, is now less than half that, despite a 27-year gap. Malinvestments in infrastructure and cross-holding of shares among companies, and the resulting crony capitalism, get a lot of the blame for draining away Japan’s competitiveness. Confucian culture is blamed for a lack of creativity and an environment in which wrongs done by senior officials go unchallenged.

You can pay money to lie on a bed with a girl who does no more than hold your hand. There are vending machines that dispense used panties.

But the real problem of Japan is supposed to be its demographic meltdown. The population is falling and the proportion of old people is increasing. The median age is 46.9 years and increasing, and the elderly dependency ratio is 42.7%. By 2050, Japan’s population is expected to fall to 109 million from the current 127 million, while the dependency ratio will continue to increase.

Major media publish regular reports about the Japanese refusing to have sex, and the large number of people in their forties who are still virgins. The “vagaries” of Japanese sexual life amuse outsiders. Manga (comics) and anime (animation) cater to fantasy by creating virtual worlds. People play pachinko (an arcade game like pinball, also used for gambling) for 18 hours a day. Girls in cute uniforms entice customers into maid-cafes, or perhaps to date joshi kosei (high school) girls. You can pay money to lie on a bed with a girl who does no more than hold your hand. There are vending machines that dispense used panties.

The unemployment rate is a mere 3%, and during my recent visit to Japan most companies told me how extremely difficult it has become for them to find recruits. Japan refuses to admit refugees or migrants, which in today’s world is seen as extremely close-minded, perhaps even bigoted.

In the early 1990s, people looked up to Japan. In retrospect we can see that the country’s economic growth and stock index were peaking.

All the above appear in the international media as something very unfavorable about Japan. International organizations beg Japan to listen to tearjerking stories about Syria and Libya, and to show compassion. The Japanese are constantly reminded that if they want their old and infirm people to be looked after, they must allow immigration. While the population of Canada is 21% first-generation immigrant, and Australia 26%, Japan is still 98.5% ethnically Japanese. The two largest ethnic minorities — Korean and Chinese — make up less than 1%. Japan simply does not want outsiders.

When I was doing my MBA in the early 1990s, people looked up to Japan. In retrospect we can see that the country’s economic growth and stock index were peaking. Opinion pieces on the outrageous price of real estate were common. At one point, the assessed value Tokyo’s Imperial Palace grounds was higher than that of the entire state of California.

In my MBA classes we heard lectures on Kaizen and other Japanese practices, terms that hardly find mention in the media these days. We were constantly reminded of how well the Japanese work in groups, and how this should be implemented in the West.

So which is true? The romanticized portrayal of the ’90s, when Japan was seen as the solution to the world’s problems, or today’s dismal caricature, in which Japan is part laughingstock and part rapidly declining society headed toward self-destruction?

From factory floors to homes, robots have made huge inroads into the Japanese society. They might even nullify the risk that the country may lack workers.

In both cases, in my view, the world has looked for mere rationalizations, rather than dissecting the underlying issues.

I am a huge fan of Japan. In Japan I see the future of humanity. Perhaps Korea and China should be included in that vision of the future. South Koreans and Chinese — who might superficially dislike Japan — have eagerly copied Japanese ways. Japanese products are sold in abundance in East and Southeast Asia. All the way to Malaysia and Singapore, people look for models to Japan and now increasingly to South Korea, which copied its economic miracle from Japan.

Blaming the Japanese for not being innovative is a distortion of reality. An American geologist with whom I recently spent a couple of days in Japan called the young Japanese “young Einsteins,” while showing me an innovative product that a large Japanese company has developed. From factory floors to homes, robots have made huge inroads into the Japanese society. They might even nullify the risk that the country may lack workers.

Japan has produced a mind-boggling array of international brands: Toyota, Sony, Citizen, Canon, Hitachi, Komatsu, Nikon, Panasonic, Toshiba, Honda, Seiko . . . the quality, perfection, passion, devotion, and mindfulness that these brands embody are hard to beat. And it’s not just the brands. Quality, cleanliness, and attention to detail is everywhere in Japan. Only a very few countries in Europe enjoy similar levels of devotion to excellence.

Politeness is one of the major pillars of any civilization. It shows respect for the other individuals, and it reflects how people live, work, and engage with others. And Japan is among the politest societies in the world. There are seven possible conjugations for most verbs, depending on how polite the speaker wants to be. I have traveled a lot on Japanese trains, and not once did the person sitting in front of me fail to ask my permission before reclining his seat. They ask, despite the ample leg space provided in these trains. When they arrive at their destinations, they always set their seats straight and organize the magazines as they were when they arrived.

Quality, cleanliness, and attention to detail is everywhere in Japan. Only a very few countries in Europe enjoy similar levels of devotion to excellence.

I cannot remember when my train was ever late, even by a minute. In Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and increasingly in China, even in crowded subways, people mostly do not use the seats at the entrance of the compartments, so that they are always available for pregnant women and the elderly. The seats remain empty because travelers don’t want to embarrass any pregnant women or old people who may arrive later, by vacating the seat in their presence. No one talks on his phone or plays music using a speakerphone. Mostly people don’t even talk. They are at peace even on the subways, their ears unviolated by the noise of others.

I try my best to be polite, but Japanese beat me every single time. One must try to understand the mind and heart that they put into their work, and how they respect their clients. By presenting this kind of model, Japan has exported for free its civilizing culture to any society that is prepared to learn it.

Japan was almost completely destroyed in World War II, and rose from the ashes through sheer willpower. It is a country whose heartfelt honesty, respect, and integrity I am in love with.

A few months after the Tsunami of 2011, I visited the area around the town of Sendai, which had been devastated. There had been no — zero — rioting or robbery. People hadn’t begged the government for help; within months they had fixed up the place themselves. Piles and piles of crushed cars stood in neat heaps. Where the houses once stood had been cleaned up. Roads had been constructed so that a new city could grow up around them. Only someone without a heart could have kept from crying to see what a group of proud people can achieve.

By presenting this kind of model, Japan has exported for free its civilizing culture to any society that is prepared to learn it.

Throughout the world, many groups complain about the historical injustices that “they” (actually their ancestors) faced. In 1945, Japan stood extremely humiliated and virtually destroyed. But ask Japanese about their sufferings of those days, and you will very likely get a blank stare. Proud people do not blame their past for their present.

Japan is still 98.5% Japanese. Is that inward-looking and racist? Maybe that is the wrong question. Multi-ethnic societies have worked virtually nowhere in the world. People who arrived in Europe as long as 1,400 years ago — Romani gypsies — are still a separate community. As a group, they are not only unassimilated; they haven’t integrated with the mainstream ways of life. People tend to get ghettoized on racial, religious, or linguistic lines. That has been the history of North America, Europe, and other parts of the world. Japan has avoided all of the associated social problems — including that of crime and terrorism — that today afflict the developed world.

Crime is virtually unknown in Japan. No one locks his bicycle, and people often leave their belongings — including purses — unattended. Late at night, young women can walk the streets alone, unaccosted, even in the areas controlled by Yakuza (Japanese mafia). Six-year-old kids can be seen crossing the road all alone.

Japanese bureaucracy is believed to be slow and an impediment to innovation. It is hard to measure how much more bureaucratic Japan is compared to other developed nations, but the Economist’s crony-capitalism index puts Japan — again quite contrary to popular beliefs — better than the USA and the UK.

Is it at all possible that a counterfactual narrative was constructed by the leftist social justice warriors who control the media, to pressure Japan into doing the bidding of pro-multicultural, pro-diversity international organizations?

Crime is virtually unknown in Japan. No one locks his bicycle, and people often leave their belongings — including purses — unattended.

An outsider does react with shock to some of the images of anime and manga, and the idea of buying used schoolgirls' panties in vending machines. But the reality is that sexual perversion is not unique to Japan. In the West the law is so strict that a lot of perversion remains hidden. But one does get a glimpse of what so many western men look for when they go to Thailand and surrounding countries, and to Latin America.

What I find impressive is that what Japan does is right in your face — Japan is like the Amsterdam of Asia.

Forty-two percent of men and 44.2% of women between the age of 18 and 34 years are said to be virgins, a statistic one often reads in the international media. But this statistic pools together a broad band of ages. There is nothing unusual — or even wrong — about 18-year-olds being virgins.

Another often quoted number is that one out of four Japanese over the age of 30 years is still a virgin. This is wrong, for the data applies only to unmarried people, yet the word “unmarried” is often left out. Eighty-six percent of men and 89% of women eventually marry. So the correct estimate of virgin Japanese over the age of 30 years is less than 4%, far less than the media would have you believe.

There is really not much about Japan’s demographics that is abnormal. The country's native birth rate compares well with that of other wealthy economies.

Are single mothers and promiscuity really the metric of a better society? Western media seem to suggest this is so. There is indeed a correlation between being conscientious and shyness in sexual matters. Only 2% of Japanese children are born outside marriage, compared with 40% in the UK and the US. This is to be celebrated, not ridiculed.

There is really not much about Japan’s demographics that is abnormal. The country's native birth rate compares well with that of other wealthy economies. There is indeed a problem in that Japanese live longer, surviving into their unproductive years farther than people elsewhere — hence the high and growing dependency ratio. This is a problem, but it is a problem of success, not of failure.

I cannot but wonder if Japan is demonized for refusing to promote immigration or promiscuity. In my view it is perhaps the best large country in the developed world — for exactly the reasons it is, ironically, demonized for. My Japanese friends tell me about the inhibitions that kids develop under a very strict social structure, but for me as an outsider — a gaijin, literally “not one of us” — it is hard to understand Japan’s social dynamics completely. Japan indeed has its problems, but they are far outweighed by the great goodness of the place. It is one of humanity’s finest accomplishments, which should be celebrated not just by Japanese but by everyone.




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Christie Redux

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In 1931, renowned mystery writer Agatha Christie was traveling on the Orient Express when a flash flood suddenly washed some of the track away. The passengers were stranded while repairs were made. This was not the first time the Orient Express had been stranded; two years earlier a blizzard had halted the train for six days. While other passengers fumed, Christie began to muse: “What a delicious location for a murder!” The setting for Murder on the Orient Express was established. Now she just needed a plot.

Christie wrote 66 murder mysteries and 14 short story collections, as well as a handful of romance novels and the longest continuously running play in London (The Mousetrap). Most of her mysteries are solved by the eccentric Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot or the no-nonsense matron-next-door, Miss Jane Marple. Her novels have sold an estimated two billion copies, and have been translated into a record 103 languages. She remains one of the world’s best-loved novelists.

While other passengers fumed, Christie began to muse: “What a delicious location for a murder!”

Murder on the Orient Express can work especially well for film because of its closed set (it takes place almost entirely on a train car) and its large cast of suspects. You may have seen the 1974 film version, for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar; you might wonder: do we really need another? Perhaps “need” is the wrong word for any entertainment. Is it worth seeing this version? Yes, indeed.

Even if you’ve already read the story or seen it on screen, you haven’t seen this one, directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also plays the detective Poirot. The enjoyment of an Agatha Christie doesn’t come so much from figuring out who done it or how it was done as from understanding what might drive someone to commit murder — and for a short time, finding ourselves in sympathy with a killer. From that standpoint, Murder on the Orient Express could as easily have been called “A Jury of One’s Peers.”

The story is simple: a group of seemingly unconnected people is traveling together from Istanbul to Paris. Each has a reason for needing to arrive on time. Each is harboring a private grief. Each grief will be uncovered by Poirot. And one of them will be killed. But who is the murderer?

You might wonder: do we really need another version of this story? But perhaps “need” is the wrong word for any entertainment.

Filmed in New Zealand and Switzerland, the movie is beautifully rendered, especially the long, wide views of snow-covered mountains and cloudy, luminescent skies. It almost feels as though the train is barreling through a Thomas Kincaid painting. Early scenes in Jerusalem, where Poirot is winding up a previous case before boarding the train, are filmed at odd angles, emphasizing Poirot’s odd way of seeing the world. Poirot’s unconscious and unintended talent for comedy is well served by Branagh, whose Poirot is a bit more physical and more emotional than we normally see him.

The cast of suspects includes such notable actors as Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Willem Defoe, and Dame Judi Dench. Gad, usually cast in silly comedic roles, is surprisingly good in his first truly dramatic turn. Even Emma Thompson, Branagh’s former wife, who has appeared in many of his films, makes a cameo appearance in this one. That’s a very young photo of her in the picture frame Poirot keeps by his bedside.

Poirot’s denouement is especially provocative, as the characters are blocked and staged in a way that emphasizes the ultimate theme of the story. I won’t say more here, but watch for it. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.

Poirot’s unconscious and unintended talent for comedy is well served by Branagh, whose Poirot is a bit more physical and more emotional than we normally see him.

Murder on the Orient Express evokes the glamour days of drawing room murders populated by characters with impeccable manners camouflaging their sharp claws. Its Alpine landscapes and exterior scenes in Jerusalem are breathtaking. Don’t wait for Netflix — this is one you’ll want to see in a theater. And see it on IMAX if you can.


Editor's Note: Review of "Murder on the Orient Express," directed by Kenneth Branagh. Twentieth Century Fox, 2017. 114 minutes.



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Frackin’ . . . Like the Doo-Dah Man

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Recent stories in the wonderful Wall Street Journal give us the happy news that (while receiving no coverage from the mainstream media, of course) the fracking revolution rolls on.

The first story reports that American crude oil exports are accelerating to new highs, rapidly approaching as much as Kuwait currently exports. Amazing. As of last month, we were exporting 1,984,000 barrels per day (BPD), an increase of nearly 500,000 BPD from the week before, and up an astounding 684,000 BPD in May. Considering that Kuwait ships about two million BPD, this is great news.

Admittedly, the US is still a net oil importer. But we import almost all the decreasing amount of foreign oil we need from our great ally Canada — our great ally, unless President Trump pulls out of NAFTA.

This exporting craze will only continue to build — if we don’t try to destroy our fracking industry, and allow it to flourish.

The reason for this surge in US crude oil exportation is that American crude is relatively cheap. In the week in which the record in exports was set, the US crude price was nearly $7 per barrel cheaper than the world standard. This is a new record low during the period since the 50-year-old ban on oil exports was lifted a couple of years ago, thanks to the much-maligned Congressman Paul Ryan.

In the irony that is the mother and father of all ironies, the second biggest buyer of America’s crude oil is our devoted enemy, China, which now takes about 180,000 BPD from us, up almost 900% from last year.

This exporting craze will only continue to build — if we don’t try to destroy our fracking industry, and allow it to flourish. All it needs is to be left alone in the free market. If so, it will guarantee that we never see $100 a barrel oil again ever. Here I must give Trump his props — he has allowed fracking to go unmolested.

What the frackers have shown is a profound and continuing ability to innovate and lower costs, in the face of an attempt by OPEC, that rent-seeking cesspool of corruption, to drive them out of business by lowering prices. But it was the OPEC companies that were driven to the wall.

This is just more of the daffy Malthusian “peak oil” thinking we’ve heard before.

The Wall Street Journal reports that one of the biggest natural gas fields from a decade ago, the Haynesville Shale field in Louisiana, has been reborn. Ten years ago it was productive, but five years ago it was nearly played out. Yet this field has come roaring back to life. The number of drilling rigs has tripled in the past year, and the current amount of natural gas is up by 17% in the same period.

What has allowed this resurrection of gas fields is “refracking” — the process of using more sand and extending the wells further. In fact, the US Geological Survey now estimates that the Haynesville, Louisiana and adjacent fields hold 300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That is a 430% increase over its 2010 estimate.

Helping the process is investor recognition that natural gas has a bright future. The US Department of Energy projects that over the next quarter of a century or so, use of natural gas will outstrip that of all other fossil fuels, especially coal. Cheniere Energy has a large liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant and export facility in Louisiana. Additional LNG plants are being built in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and even Maryland.

Natural gas is the “feedstock” in many industries — petrochemicals, plastics, and fertilizers, to name the biggest. Nearly 80 petrochemical plants are being built in the Gulf Coast region alone, where they will result in jobs, and the continued resurrection of Dixieland.

The major hurdles are an apparent fall in innovation in the fracking industry, wariness among investors, and rising labor costs.

The WSJ notes that some “experts” are worried that the export market will siphon off so much natural gas that prices will rise, hurting manufacturers that are now ramping up. This is just more of the daffy Malthusian “peak oil” thinking we’ve heard before. We can simply increase production of natural gas from all over the US — from the Dakotas to Pennsylvania to Texas — to meet the demand. All the while good paying jobs will be created, and our adversaries (such as Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Venezuela) will be kicked in their teeth.

When will the “experts” finally wake up and realize that in a free market there is no “peak” anything — least of all oil and natural gas?

In fact, during the past year, Castleton Commodities International spent more than a billion bucks to buy 160,000 acres of Anadarko’s Haynesville land. For that it got an infusion of capital from Tokyo Gas America, the largest utility in Japan. This shows the true expert assessment of fracking’s value.

A third WSJ article amplifies the idea that the glut of US production is spooking producers. In other words, it’s such a bitch that prices are set by supply and demand! The piece notes that the growth in the number of rigs — typically used as a measure of future activity &‐ dropped from 20% for the preceding four quarters to “only” 6% in the third quarter of this year.

Many of the OPEC states (especially Saudi Arabia) need oil to be around $100 per barrel to keep their economies stable and their citizens quiet.

This shouldn’t cause any pain. With the buildout of American industry and the roaring appetite of East Asian consumers, demand will just keep increasing. The Journal notes that US oil production may surpass the supposed “peak oil” production of 9.6 million BPD set in 1970. The major hurdles are an apparent fall in innovation in the fracking industry, wariness among investors, and rising labor costs. But despite the slowdown in the increase of production, there is no decrease in production, and the Energy Information Agency expects American oil production to hit 9.69 million BPD at the end of the year. This, despite oil prices stuck at about $50 per barrel.

The last WSJ story that I want to mention points to the continuing geopolitical fallout from the growth of US oil production. It reports that continued low prices on world oil markets have led Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and other OPEC members to push Russia — which, while not technically an OPEC member, is surely a fellow traveler — to continue to agree to the current limits on production.

The narrative here is as simple as it is delicious. In the face of the American fracking revolution — which dropped world oil prices from over $100 per barrel a few years ago to $50 and below — OPEC has tried to figure out what to do. Many of the OPEC states (especially Saudi Arabia) need oil to be around $100 per barrel to keep their economies stable and their citizens quiet. But Putin’s regime has used Russia’s oil wealth for a huge military buildup, and kept Russian citizens happy by using military power to conquer the Crimea and threaten the rest of the former Soviet empire. To keep this up, Putin is prepared to sell as much oil as possible, even at lower prices, to fund his mechanisms of corruption.

In 2017 Russia agreed with the OPEC strategy to cut back production by 2% to keep prices from plummeting further. While this production cut helped raise the world price of oil by about 13%, American fracking has kept the world price well below $60 per barrel. But Russia’s participation in continuing the cuts is unclear, to say the least. The current agreement ends in March 2018, and OPEC is pushing the wily Putin to agree to extend it. The Saudis are offering to set up a billion-dollar fund to invest in energy projects.

The US should open all the spigots and end net importation of foreign oil once and for all.

Putin so far remains noncommittal. He can see what is obvious, which the WSJ article notes: if OPEC succeeds in raising prices, American shale companies can immediately crank up their output, rapidly driving the price back down.

Now, whether the Russians are bluffing OPEC to get more concessions, or simply intend to cover their drop in revenue by increasing their own production, we will have to wait to see. But I think the US should open all the spigots and end net importation of foreign oil once and for all. The US should make our own oil a major export. This means: opening up more federal land for fracking and offshore drilling, opening up ANWR in Alaska, opening the East Coast for offshore drilling, and pushing to open up the Arctic for the rapid exploitation of the region’s resources.

I would suggest to Trump that he get over his fears about free trade agreements and cut a deal that would allow him to sign the TPP agreement, but with one new provision: the TPP members should agree that if the US can sell them oil and LNG at world market prices, they will buy from us. That would eliminate the trade imbalances that so anger Trump (though not economists, of course). It is, alas, very doubtful that Trump can grow that much in strategic thinking.

that the export market will siphon off so much natural gas that prices will rise, hurting manufacturers that are now ramping up. This is just more of the daffy Malthusian ‐




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All About Eve

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In America, the political Left is like a once-beautiful woman who, over the years, has lost her looks in bitter and wasteful living. Nothing remains but her essence, which is evil. She was rotten to the core even when she was young, but then her beauty concealed that, bewitching and bedazzling a great many who couldn’t see past the surface. Now that her looks are gone, only the evil remains: desperately grasping to hold onto the only thing she ever really cared about, which is power.

Hillary Clinton never was a feminist in any true sense of the word. She was, and is, a servant to power. Over the years, she has lost any charm — however slight and shallow — she ever had. Most of what existed in the first place was not her own, but that of her husband. Slick Willie mastered the art of wooing to get what he wanted.

What matters is not women’s equality, racial equality, gay equality, or the equality of any other possible variation of humankind. All that really matters is power.

Third-wave feminism, the name for its present, grotesque incarnation, is actually nothing more than a graphic illustration of how all too many women still don’t get it. Despite their endless prattle about “equality,” they simply can’t understand why, for such a long stretch of human history, women were stuck in second place.

The so-called feminism of today totally subordinates itself to the Left. What matters is not women’s equality, racial equality, gay equality, or the equality of any other possible variation of humankind. All that really matters is power. The Left never takes its eyes off of the prize. And it won’t share that prize with anyone.

What has kept women for so long in second place is our disloyalty to one another. In a strictly superficial sense, leftist feminism pays lip service to an understanding of that. But in its savage treatment of any woman who thinks for herself and refuses to play by its rules, it shows its true colors.

Today’s feminists stand before an audience that is, if not yet invisible, rapidly losing interest and drifting away.

We were never admonished, by our leftist betters, to vote for a candidate who demonstrated any genuine concern for our wellbeing. We were expected, as a matter of course and in a pathetic facsimile of loyalty, to vote blindly for power. And not for women’s empowerment, whatever that actually means anymore, but for the juggernaut of tyranny that is the insatiably power-hungry Left.

A couple of years ago, I got to hold a real Academy Award. Oscar was heavy, coated with gold, and bigger than he seemed in pictures. As I stood there, feeling its heft in my humble hands, all I could think was, “Holy crap, Batman! I’m holding an Oscar!

I was almost instantly reminded of the ambitious ingénue who appears at the end of the classic movie All About Eve. I don’t remember the character’s name — it could have been any of a hundred forgettable names — but she hungered to take her place in the spotlight. As she stood in Eve Harrington’s dressing room, holding the stage star’s Sarah Siddons Award, she fantasized that it was her own, and bowed to her adoring, invisible audience.

Today’s feminists stand before an audience that is, if not yet invisible, rapidly losing interest and drifting away. They cling to a prize that is not their own — and which they can never keep. It will be passed on to “sisters” who do not appreciate what they have done, want the bauble only for the hollow and fleeting satisfaction of holding it for a while, and then will reluctantly pass it on to successors who neither understand them nor appreciate any genuine good theymight have done. Leftist feminism is an endless succession of incarnations, each uglier and wearier than the one before. It may eventually lead to annihilation, but never to Nirvana.




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We Interrupt This Program

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Trial by Fire

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It is the capricious nature of wildfire that can make it a lethal adversary. My own too-close-for-comfort brush with the beast occurred back on August 11, 1972 at a place called Harris Ridge, near the little town of Kooskia, Idaho.

It was the summer after my freshman year away at the university, and I'd found work as a chainsaw jockey thinning timber for the Idaho Department of Public Lands office in Orofino. The thinning crew — which could be pulled away from its thinning duties to fight wildfires if needed — was a young bunch: Greg had just graduated from high school; Ned, like me, had graduated from high school the previous year and had just finished his freshman year away at the university; and our two senior members, Russell and Rex, the foreman, were still in their twenties.

Of particular importance is a drill the firefighters have to perform in the event that things go to hell in a handbasket and their position is about to be overrun by fire.

Our assignment, when we had been dispatched to the Harris Ridge fire, was to climb a steep, brushy hillside, spread out, and start digging fire line to keep the fire on top from creeping down the hillside. At one point during our ascent, Ned and I ended up hugging either side of a brush-choked gully. We heard a faint cry of warning from somewhere below us, turned, and saw a huge, crackling fireball racing up the gully, right at us. I peeled away from the right side of the gully, took a quick look over my left shoulder, and saw through a wall of flame Ned's hardhat bobbing as he scrambled up and away to the left. I continued my lateral retreat, linked up with Rex, and made it back down to the bottom. Rex and I later linked back up with Ned, who had managed to get to the safety of a burned-out area on top.

But where were Greg and Russell? They had been well to the east of the rest of us, away from where the stealthy, encircling fire had ignited the tinder in the gully. They would have had plenty of time to get to higher ground as the fire burned across the hillside below them. In fact, I had even visualized them perched safely atop a bluff, taking a breather, and anxiously watching as Ned and I scrambled for our lives. Their bodies were found the next morning. According to the ensuing investigation, they had apparently found refuge atop a bluff — only to be knocked from their perch and into the inferno by a snag that had rolled down on them from the burned-out area above.

Those memories couldn't help but come to mind as I took my seat in the theater to watch Only the Brave. Based on Sean Flynn's excellent GQ article “No Exit,” the film deals with the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department's wildfire crew, headed by Eric Marsh. Knowing it was only a matter of time before Prescott itself would be menaced by wildfire, Marsh lobbies for the certification of his crew as “hotshots,” elite firefighters who can directly engage the fire, as opposed to being relegated to “mopping up” operations behind the hotshots. The film shows the crew honing its skills on a series of wildfires, one of which demands an evaluation of the skills that led to the crew’s certification. Of particular importance is a drill the firefighters have to perform in the event that things go to hell in a handbasket and their position is about to be overrun by fire: they hurriedly have to clear combustibles from a patch of ground, break out a thin protective covering that stretches from head to toe, and hunker down prone until the fire passes over them.

Snafus — such as air tankers dumping payloads of water on deliberately set backfires instead of on the actual burn — are also dutifully chronicled.

The film also tracks the character arcs of certain of the 20-man crew. A couple of young men who can't stand each other end up bonding like brothers. A young man dealing with substance abuse relapse and an unplanned pregnancy becomes a responsible father and provider. A crass womanizer finds true love. Marsh — in his forties the “old man” of the crew — has to deal with marital tensions at home. Josh Brolin, who plays Marsh, and Jennifer Connelly, who plays his wife Amanda, turn in particularly strong performances. In a masterly piece of dramatization,the film captures the anxiety of the crew's loved ones as they await news of the identity of the lone survivor of the Yarnell Hill fire, the visceral grief that follows that revelation, and the effect this has on the survivor himself.

The direction and cinematography are superb, capturing the essence of what it's like to be on a wildfire crew: charred, smoking ground where a burned-out tree trunk can topple over on a man, the black-faced griminess of a mop-up detail, the skies busy with helicopters and planes carrying loads of water and retardant to be dumped on critical areas, and the speed with which a wildfire can spread. Snafus — such as air tankers dumping payloads of water on deliberately set backfires instead of on the actual burn — are also dutifully chronicled. The film ends with a touching tribute to each of the firefighters.

As someone who has been there and done that, this reviewer gives Only the Brave a big thumbs up.


Editor's Note: Review of "Only the Brave," directed by Joseph Kosinski. Di Bonaventura Pictures, 2017. 133 minutes.



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