Generation Graft

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Hits and Misses

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A Simple Favor isn’t a libertarian film. It doesn’t make any political commentary, it doesn’t cover timely issues, and it has little to say about economics beyond an offhand remark about the relative value of stay-at-home moms and “working moms.” I suppose I could stretch it to consider what Ayn Rand might have said about the concept of doing simple favors, but I won’t.

So why am I reviewing this movie for Liberty? Because it’s surprisingly good, one of the most entertaining films in months, and worth seeing for the quality of the acting, the twists and turns of the plot, and the subtle, unaffected comedic delivery of Anna Kendrick.

These three form a twisted romantic triangle with a twisted plot that takes us on a twisted romp through a dark side of suburbia.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is a stay-at-home mom with a compulsive penchant for volunteerism, a chirpy vlog called “Hi Moms!” where she talks about cooking and crafts, and a dark secret that drives her compulsiveness. When Emily (Blake Lively), a glamorous, high-powered working mom whose son attends the same preschool as Stephanie’s, befriends her, Stephanie becomes as giddy and malleable as a middle-school wallflower who suddenly finds herself walking home with the head cheerleader. Sean (Henry Golding), an award-winning novelist who hasn’t written anything publishable since marrying Emily ten years earlier, is suave, sexy, and hot for his wife. These three form a twisted romantic triangle with a twisted plot that takes us on a twisted romp through a dark side of suburbia.

When Emily goes missing, Stephanie volunteers to help Sean take care of their son, Nicky, and begins playing house in Emily’s mansion. Soon she starts her own investigation into Emily’s disappearance, discovering secrets in Emily’s past. Sean has his share of secrets too, and the result is a satisfying mystery thriller that is not only scary and suspenseful but often laugh-out-loud funny, especially when Stephanie tries to remain cool and nonchalant during an interview with the police about Emily’s disappearance — while wearing one of Emily’s dresses. With its bright colors, upbeat music track, and delightfully awkward leading lady, A Simple Favor is not your typical mystery thriller, but it is a simple delight.

Henry Golding, the handsome British-Malaysian whose previous screen credit was hosting a travel show, is having quite a season on the big screen. He’s also starring this month in the hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, based on the book of the same name by Singaporean-American Kevin Kwan. Its greenlight follows the success of ABC’s TV series “Fresh off the Boat” and stars some of the same actors.

Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur inhabited this plot perfectly in 1938, and the formula has been working ever since.

CRA is trying very hard to be socially relevant by marketing itself as the supposedly first mainstream film that focuses entirely on Asian culture with an extensively Asian cast and crew. But it’s really just a light, fluffy romantic comedy that happens to be set in Singapore. Rich Singapore boy Nick Young (Golding) meets poor immigrant girl Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) while studying in the United States. Rich boy’s mother Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh, who was stunning in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) tries to break up rich boy’s romance when they come to Singapore for Nick’s best friend’s wedding. Poor girl’s family has more integrity than rich boy’s family, leading to rich boy losing poor girl. Care to guess where they end up? Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur inhabited this plot perfectly in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You in 1938, and the formula has been working ever since. CRA is cute and fun, but it isn’t groundbreaking, despite its marketing plan.

In fact, its IMDb page reveals just how muddled the claim to “first” is:

Excluding movies and animation extensively featuring Pacific Islanders and East Indians produced in America such as Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, and Moana, and excluding The Last Samurai (2003), which featured a majority East Asian cast but with a white lead, this is the first Western-produced major studio film with an extensive East Asian cast since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). Other movies with extensively East Asian casts include Revenge of the Green Dragons (2014), A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and Joy Luck Club (1993).

And that doesn’t even acknowledge the above-mentioned “Fresh Off the Boat,” now in its fourth season. With all those caveats, the idea that they would even attempt to call themselves “the first Western-produced major studio film with an extensive East Asian cast” is pretty laughable.

If an American crew instead of an Asian crew had made CRA, Asian audiences would likely be howling “foul play.” First, its leading actor, whose character is supposed to represent old-world Chinese family and customs, isn’t even fully Asian! Golding’s mother is Malaysian, but his father is British. And yes, those rounder eyes and British accent probably make him more attractive to western audiences. (In fact, some are recommending Golding as the next James Bond.) Moreover, stereotypes are stereotypes. The crazy rich Asian women in the movie care only about shopping for designer clothing and designer plastic surgeries in order to catch a rich husband. Those rich husbands care only about getting richer. And the unmarried rich boys are sex-crazed and pathetic. Not a pretty portrayal, even if the author, director, and cast are all Asian.

The crazy rich Asian women in the movie care only about shopping for designer clothing and designer plastic surgeries in order to catch a rich husband. Those rich husbands care only about getting richer.

The one exception to the designer hive in Singapore is Rachel’s quirky, yellow-haired friend from college, Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), who rejects the fashion stereotype and is true to her own sense of style and identity. But she is accepted in Singapore society largely because her daddy’s rich and her family is old. And she, too, wears designer clothes, just quirkier ones. To be fair, in A Simple Favor Emily also has a closet full of designer clothes, shoes and bags, but at least she paid for them herself with her high-powered job, and she is anything but a follower. If any message is clear in modern movie making, it’s this: where women are concerned, the devil does indeed wear Prada.

Crazy Rich Asians is a fun movie if you’re in the mood for a predictable romantic comedy set in an exotic locale. The sumptuous wedding scene at Singapore’s Raffles hotel (where Nick is serving as best man, not groom — this isn’t a spoiler) is breathtakingly gorgeous. But if you’re looking for a serious film about serious issues, or even a lighthearted comedy with a little depth, this isn’t it.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Simple Favor," directed by Paul Feig. BRON Studios/Feigco Entertainment, 2018, 117 minutes; and "Crazy Rich Asians," directed by Jon M. Chu. Warner Bros., 2018, 120 minutes.



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A Visit to Noah’s Ark

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The tourist season is almost over, but I’m making plans. I’m also thinking about last year’s acts of tourism. I’m remembering the sunny day in September when I visited Noah’s Ark.

The Ark is the central feature of a sort-of-theme-park called Ark Encounter, in Grant County, Kentucky. It’s a wooden structure — possibly the largest wooden structure on earth — built to the dimensions prescribed in the sixth chapter of Genesis. There aren’t any live animals inside (at least I can’t remember any); they’re in the zoo next door. But there are full-scale models of animals in various kinds of enclosures. There are also models of Noah and his family, going about their lives on the Ark: caring for the animals, fixing meals for themselves, relaxing in their comfortable onboard cabins. Ramps lead from level to level, where one finds “scientific” exhibits, restrooms, and two theaters with continuous showings of movies. In the first theater, Noah is interviewed by a skeptical antediluvian reporter and explains how and why you would build an ark. In the second theater, a 21st-century ark advocate is interviewed by a reporter who is (I think) played by the same actress who played the ancient one. She also is skeptical and needs to be converted to the idea that the biblical account is literally true. I assume the conversion happens, although I left before the movie was over. Her snarky postmodern attitude was less congenial to me than the religious credulity of the rest of the Ark.

But “credulity” isn’t exactly the right word. For me, a charming aspect of the place was the scores of exhibits providing ingenious answers both to obvious questions and to questions that, I’m embarrassed to say, had never occurred to me.

  • How did all those animals fit into the Ark? Well, they didn’t represent species; they represented “kinds,” which are fewer and are capable of developing (not evolving) into more than one species.
  • How did all those really big animals fit inside? Well, Noah probably took the young, small ones. I hadn’t thought of that.
  • How could you carry food to all those animals? You could use lots of pulleys and dumbwaiters.
  • How could you remove all the dung from those animals? You could use lots of pulleys and dumbwaiters.
  • How could a family of eight take care of thousands of animals? It’s not too hard, when you figure how much work a normal man or woman can do in X number of hours . . . .

The continuous display of cleverness delighted me. It went a long way toward illustrating Chesterton’s observation that the last thing a crazy person has left is his logic. But the builders of the Ark aren’t crazy; their ideas are just naïve and innocuous, and the Ark lets you see how far naiveté and innocuousness can get you in America, and how much charm you can gather along the way.

The reporter's snarky postmodern attitude was less congenial to me than the religious credulity of the rest of the Ark.

The Arkists optimistically predicted that they would be visited by 2.4 million people during their first full season, which was 2017. When I visited, they’d gotten only about 1.5 million, maybe, and it was late in the season. I was concerned that their great enterprise might have a short life, despite a (to me) very regrettable but somewhat shaky subsidy from a neighboring town. But there’s a wall inside the Ark that shows the names of people who have contributed various amounts for its construction, and it’s a very long wall. The Ark came to rest within easy driving distance of Louisville, Lexington, Dayton, and Cincinnati, and that’s a church belt. Visitors to the Ark whom I saw were very “diverse” — whites, blacks, Asians, beards, bikers, families of nine. The only solo visitor was me. So the audience is large, and just when I was thinking that a lot more people could be packed into the Ark, I went to the restaurant outside, and there were hundreds more of them in there. More than in the Ark itself. They may not be museumgoers, but they are sure as hell good eaters.

I hope they eat their way to heaven. Their idea of Christianity isn’t mine, but their spirit of voluntarism enchants me. You want to build a giant ark? You want to make it pay? I’m with you — see if you can. And this is an American thing; you can’t imagine it happening in France. Maybe I’ll visit again this year.

The visitors may not be museumgoers, but they are sure as hell good eaters.

My pilgrimage to the Ark last year began with a visit to my ancestral homeland, a county in Southern Illinois where my family has lived since 1816. I myself have never lived there; my parents left before I was born. But I’m related to all the old families, and I like to see what’s going on. In the early 1890s my father’s father built a house on the main street of one of the county’s little towns. That house passed out of the family a few years ago, after the death of my beloved aunt, the last of my grandparents’ eight children. Next to her house are (going south on Main Street) two other big old houses and then the Methodist church, where my grandparents taught Sunday school. The church seems to be doing all right, despite its fluctuating congregation, but much of the rest of Main Street has been torn down, hideously altered, or left derelict. The town’s population has been declining since 1910, and the working population has been declining still more disastrously. The old families, who were poor, by the world’s standards (my grandparents never owned a car), are being replaced by people on welfare, many of whom have no standards. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true. If you want to see used up sofas stashed in the yard, I can show you where to go.

Whenever I visit, I brace ourselves for some more sad social and architectural news, especially about those two houses next to my grandparents’ place. They’ve been empty for years, and before that they were subjected to destructive attempts to “modernize.” If you’re brave enough to step onto the sagging wooden porches and look in the windows, what you see is broken glass, naked lath, once-friendly rooms returning to a state of unfriendly nature.

Their idea of Christianity isn’t mine, but their spirit of voluntarism enchants me. You want to build a giant ark? You want to make it pay? I’m with you — see if you can.

But this time, I saw a truck out back, and a man walking toward me: “Can I help you?” I explained myself, we shook hands, and I learned that this man was there to help the houses. A 50ish gentleman from an even smaller town about ten miles up the road, he had purchased both properties from the bank (or some other entity on which possession had devolved), because he liked them and wanted to restore them. More important, he had the skills to restore them. He had learned those skills decades ago, when the local high school actually taught students how to do things. It offered courses — excellent courses — in all the construction trades. Every year, students built a house from scratch, and sold it. If anybody can do something for old family homes, a graduate of those courses can do it.

I don’t know whether this man will succeed. I don’t know whether the Ark Encounter will succeed. Both seem romantic and quixotic to me. Nothing could be more different from America’s Towers of Tech or its Mordor of urban “housing” than these vernacular architectural enterprises. They are the creations of individuals, not of the state or the lackeys of the state.

I live in coastal California, and I’m often surprised to discover that no one here ever goes to the Midwest, the real Midwest, or any portion of California that isn’t built of concrete and steel. I know I could say something similar about the travel habits of people from New York or Boston or Washington, or even Chicago. But the Midwest I’m thinking about has nothing to do with physical geography. It has to do with the geography of the mind. There are places in the mind where everything that is done has to be done by some enormous, statelike thing. And there are places in the mind where individual people still do things, because they want to. Those places I call America.




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Corporate “Compensation”

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On September 9, CBS announced that its CEO, Les Moonves was out the door. The cause was a second round of accusations of sexual misdeeds.

So what if he gets fired? But what struck me about the CBS report on his ouster was this:

A financial exit package for Moonves will be withheld pending the results of an ongoing investigation into the allegations against him. Moonves was eligible for as much as $180 million if fired without cause, according to an employment contract he signed in May 2017. Recent reports indicated a potential payout in the range of $100 million.

One hundred million dollars? One hundred eighty million dollars? This is something that libertarian theory should go to work on. How can a corporation possibly assume that anyone this side of Thomas Alva Edison is worth that amount of money? And remember, in this case the skill that is being rewarded in this egregious manner is simply that of throwing darts at demographics and guessing which TV shows will turn out to be popular. How many other people could do that just as well? To put it in another way: could you get somebody just as good with an exit package of $99 million? How about $99 thousand?

How can a corporation possibly assume that anyone this side of Thomas Alva Edison is worth that amount of money?

In every walk of elite life we see this ridiculous inflation of compensation. Even colleges and universities imagine that they can’t get anybody good if they don’t pay at least a million a year, and maybe ten million. And look at the outcome. In every walk of elite life we see seamless mediocrity, or worse

My own suspicion is that there’s a cartelization at work. These people stick together, raising their salaries by insisting that they won’t get paid less than the last one that got hired someplace. But that’s not enough to explain it. The corporate hiring committees — and the boards of directors, and the big investors — need to say what the hell is going on. Is this class solidarity gone wild? The class being the “made men” of the corporate world, whose pride demands that every goon in the mob gets as much grease as he possibly can.

And wait — that’s the amount of money he was going to get if he did a crummy job and they fired him. If they wanted to get rid of him.

But hey. Please don’t tell me that in a capitalist system, people are paid according to their financial value to the enterprise that employs them. Do you think that with anyone but Les Moonves at the helm, CBS would be $180 million poorer? And wait — that’s the amount of money he was going to get if he did a crummy job and they fired him. If they wanted to get rid of him. It wasn’t his ordinary compensation. I don’t know what that is. The article I cited says $70 million a year as “take home,” but what about the income that dropped into his portfolio?

No. Explanations that are economic in the narrow sense won’t work. There’s something more going on, something that can only be explained by a libertarian sociology — or maybe a libertarian pathology.




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Life is a Custard Pie

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"Life is a custard pie. Sometimes you get to eat it, and sometimes it smacks you right in the face." — Lori Heine

In my first eighteen months of life, I never took a step. I didn’t even crawl. Mom would set me down somewhere, and I would stay there, like a doll, until somebody picked me up again. My parents took me to the doctor to find out why I wasn’t walking yet. He told them to stop worrying over me, and to just let me do it when I got good and ready.

One afternoon, I sat out on our driveway, where I had been plunked. Beth Ann Kahn sat facing me, and we were playing. “Patty-cake, patty-cake . . . baker’s man,” I sang as she smacked each of my palms with hers — as if to compensate for not walking, since well before my first birthday I’d been an eloquent singer.

My patty-cake frozen in midair, I watched with fascination as the clown headed for the neighbors’ driveway.

“Bake me a cake as fast as you can,” Beth Ann murmured, casting a glance at the clown getting out of his car at the curb across the street. She scooted closer to me, watching the stranger in the polka-dotted jumpsuit.

“Hidy-ho, there, girlies!”

He waved a white-gloved hand.

The little girl who lived there was having a birthday party. My patty-cake frozen in midair, I watched with fascination as the clown headed for the neighbors’ driveway. Fwap-fwap . . . fwap-fwap went his gigantic, floppy shoes.

Animals! Balloons! Gigantic shoes and bright orange hair! Transported into wonderland, I rose to my feet.

Beth Ann began to whimper. “That’s Curt the Clown,” my mom explained from the folding chair on our lawn. “I’ll bet he’s going to make animals out of balloons!”

Animals! Balloons! Gigantic shoes and bright orange hair! Beth Ann burst into tears. Transported into wonderland, I rose to my feet.

“Oh, honey!” I heard Mom say.

“Where you goin’?” sniffled Beth Ann.

Curt the Clown was going to go inside, and I wouldn’t see him anymore. He was almost to the front door. Maybe I could catch him, if I ran!

The world flew past as I strained forward. Faster — faster! “Hey!” I called to the retreating clown. “Hey, there!”

I reached out for him. That was a mistake. Not just because he was still too far away, but because the driveway tilted. It rose up to meet me, and I landed smack on my chest.

I wasn’t sure what was so wonderful about it all. The clown was gone.

“Oh, my baby!” Mom swept me up into her arms. “You walked! You ran!”

Mrs. Kahn was out of the chair beside my mom’s and she had picked up Beth Ann. “Lori doesn’t do anything halfway,” she noted, holding her sobbing daughter close.

I scowled at Beth Ann. She was the baby. Mom hoisted me into the air and laughed. I wasn’t sure what was so wonderful about it all. The clown was gone.

For obvious reasons, I have loved clowns ever since. I’m well aware that many people think clowns are creepy. It’s become a sort of collectivist prejudice. We’re simply expected to find clowns creepy because “everybody” says so. But like everything collectivist, I think that anti-clown hysteria is creepy.

Curt the Clown has gone on to that great three-ring circus in the sky, so I can’t thank him personally for the role he played in getting me on my feet. But in his honor, I’m on a mission to redeem clowns’ reputation. I’ve written a young-adult novel, appropriately titled Good Clowns. It’s being published September 10.

The Brannigans live by the Code of the Clown, so they handle threats of violence with dignity, grace, and wit.

Is Good Clowns a “libertarian” novel? It’s libertarian in spirit, if not in letter. Riley Brannigan, its 9-year-old heroine, is the daughter of professional clowns. She’s bullied for this at school, because most of the kids agree that “clowns are creepy.” In the parlance of young-adult fiction, my book takes on the issue of bullying.

“We’re a clown family,” Riley’s mother reminds her. “Clowns don’t fight.” This appears to put our heroine at a disadvantage, because the chief bully is more than willing to fight. But the Brannigans live by the Code of the Clown, so they handle threats of violence with dignity, grace, and wit — which call for far more courage than violence.

The Brannigan family may not know they’re libertarians, but since I created them, they certainly are. I won’t give away too much of the plot, as I hope as many as possible will read through to the conclusion for themselves. In any case, may we all persevere in handling the political violence we face daily with dignity, grace, and wit. May we never take ourselves too seriously. And may we eat the custard pie more often than we take it in the face.




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Racism

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In 1979, undercover Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth noticed a phone number in a local newspaper in a small ad seeking members to begin a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He called the number and pretended to be a white supremacist, hoping to infiltrate the organization in order to thwart the rising violence against black residents in general and the black student union at the college in particular. Soon the KKK leader suggested that they meet in person. The only hitch? Ron Stallworth was black.

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman tells the tale, and it’s a gripping, suspenseful, often humorous, and often troubling one. As the film narrates the story, KKK leader Walter Breachway (played in the movie by Ryan Eggold) eventually asks for a face-to-face meeting with Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel’s son), Stallworth arranges for a white undercover narcotics cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to stand in for him. Yes, a black and a Jew both manage to infiltrate the hateful KKK by posing as the same white supremacist. Stallworth continues to talk with Walter by phone while Zimmerman continues to meet with Klan members in person, necessitating that their stories and even their voices match. Walter’s second in command, Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), grows suspicious, or perhaps jealous, and as his sadistic streak surfaces we worry for Zimmerman’s life.

Director Lee chooses caricature rather than character with some of his KKK subjects, but after watching decades of black caricature on film, I can forgive him this hamhandedness.

During the course of his investigation Stallworth contacts David Duke himself (Topher Grace), then the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and future Louisiana State Representative. The boyish Grace, best known for the TV series That ’70s Show, plays Duke with perfect oblivion to his bigotry. Lee is a bit heavyhanded, however, in his determination to connect Duke’s rhetoric with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric.

Adam Driver provides a nuanced performance as the lapsed, nonchalant Jew forced to confront his feelings about his heritage when he is threatened simply because of his genetic stew. Corey Hawkins is fiery as Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael), and Laura Harrier channels Angela Davis luminously with her big round glasses and bigger round afro as Patrice Dumas, president of the black student union. Harry Belafonte is a standout as Jerome Turner, carrying with him the weary weight of his own decades in the civil rights movement. Director Lee chooses caricature rather than character with some of his KKK subjects, particularly the slack-jawed near-imbecile Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) and Walter’s perky, overweight, frilly aproned wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). But after watching decades of black caricature on film, I can forgive him this hamhandedness.

While the plot of BlackKKlansman covers just nine months in the 1970s, the story spans more than a century. It opens with a scene from Gone with the Wind, presents upsetting clips from Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the KKK, and ends with footage from the deadly riot in Charlottesville last year. And Harry Belafonte as Jerome Turner provides a soft-spoken, emotional, and tender account of the horrifying 1916 lynching and burning of Jerome Washington in Waco, Texas.

If there is one underlying truth about racism, it is this: government is the Grand Wizard of bigotry.

I’m always a little uncomfortable and defensive when I see films like this; it’s important to be aware of black history, and I’m glad these stories are being recorded on film. But it feels as though I’m intruding somehow, as though all whites are being accused of the same ignorant, bigoted mindset that we see on the screen. In reality, of course, white supremacists represent a tiny minority of the population, while white voters, white activists, white teachers, and white politicians have worked vigorously in the cause of civil rights.

If there is one underlying truth about racism, it is this: government is the Grand Wizard of bigotry. Government legalized slavery and enforced the Fugitive Slave Law. Government institutionalized segregation through neighborhood-based public schools and “separate but equal” policies, and governments outlawed miscegenation. Government imposed poll taxes and voting questionnaires. Government grants and welfare in the 1960s were well-intentioned, but they incentivized single motherhood, established barriers to work through public assistance programs that were difficult to relinquish for an entry-level job, and created a dragnet rather than a safety net that virtually destroyed the black family in urban neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, activists — black and white, male and female — exercising their rights to free speech and open dialogue were the catalyst for change and inclusion. Freedom of speech is the most important right we have. It’s the foundation for all other rights. Yet too many activists today are turning to government to establish hate laws that limit free speech. These films seldom acknowledge the friendship and genuine concern felt by so many white Americans, or the fact that discovery of truth is a process. Lee gives a welcomed nod to this idea at the end of the film, but it takes a long time to get there. Still, BlacKkKlansman is well made and well worth seeing.


Editor's Note: Review of "BlacKkKlansman," directed by Spike Lee. Focus Features and Legendary World, 2018, 135 minutes.



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