Highway to Nowhere


In the annals of human weirdness Turkmenistan is top of the line.

Its capital is called Ashgabat, which in Modern Persian means City of Love. Ashgabat’s claim to fame is that it contains the world’s largest conglomeration — 5,000, according to our guide/minder — of white marble buildings. She asked us if we could guess why that would be the case. “Because Turkmenistan has a big marble quarry?” I posited. No, Silly, she seemed to think. “Because our president likes white marble.” The marble is imported from China and India and, in special cases such as the mausoleum of the first president, it’s genuine Carrera from Italy.

Along with the marble buildings, Ashgabat is also in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the tallest flagpole and the largest indoor Ferris wheel. The wheel is not set up in the oversized atrium of some hypermodern hotel, as I’d supposed, but is enclosed in a sheath that must make riding it feel very claustrophobic and, from a distance, gives the appearance of an outsized alarm clock, which our guide/monitor seemed unaccountably pleased about. The flagpole has been supplanted by a taller flagpole in Arabia but not to worry, she consoled us, it’s still the world’s tallest jet-powered flag pole. Because desert winds can’t be trusted to make a flag flutter, and nobody likes a limp flag, the government has installed a jet engine to keep the air moving 153 meters above the ground.

The president also likes white cars. You can tell this because all the cars in Ashgabat are white. He also closed the rural clinics so if you live in a rural area and get sick you have to hunt around for a white car to drive to Ashgabat. This could be quite a trip in a country that’s big enough to support an airline flying 737s between cities.

Because desert winds can’t be trusted to make a flag flutter, and nobody likes a limp flag, the government has installed a jet engine to keep the air moving.

The president disappeared this spring and everybody, at least everybody who knew enough to know, was hoping he’d died, but no such luck. A few days later he showed up doing doughnuts at the Darvaza Gas Crater. Or, maybe, he was doing donuts at the Darvaza Gas Crater. It was hard to tell. The video of the donuts was taken from a drone at something like three-hundred feet and showed somebody in an ATV doing donuts.

Could be it was him. Where else would the president of Turkmenistan go to take a few days off from brutally ravaging an entire nation? The Darvaza Gas Crater is the major . . . maybe the only . . . tourist attraction in the country. And what an attraction it is.

It’s a sinkhole in the Karakum Desert gushing huge amounts of natural gas into the atmosphere. Back in the Sixties or Seventies or, maybe, Fifties, nobody seems to know exactly when, geologists tossed in a match and it’s been burning ever since. Nobody seems to know . . . or want to say . . . why, exactly, geologists would do such a thing. The excuse is that they didn’t want natural gas wafting around what was then the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic and killing goats. But if they wanted to protect their goats from gas, why didn’t they just gather it up and pipe it to some goat-free place that needed natural gas? Our guide/minder said the crater burns a million dollars’ worth of natural gas every day. She seemed proud of the fact.

Something else nobody talks about is why there’s a sinkhole in the center of the Karakum Desert in the first place. Apparently it just sort of opened up while geologists were innocently doing geology nearby. Given Soviet history with environmental stewardship, one suspects there is more to the gas-crater story than we’ve been told.

The president closed the rural clinics so if you live in a rural area and get sick you have to hunt around for a white car to drive to Ashgabat.

For whatever reason it’s there, the government is taking full advantage of the moneymaking possibilities. To accommodate the hordes of foreigners they intend to lure into the country they’ve erected six yurts so tourists can spend the night basking in the warm glow of what they seductively advertise as The Gates of Hell. To help with this project they have photos of the president sitting on a traditional rug in front of one of the yurts. He is attended by a smiling Turkmen woman in a traditional gown, a long black braid down her back. Long, black braids are de rigueur among ladies in Turkmenistan on the ground that “men like them,” meaning, of course, that the president likes long braids on pretty, dark-haired women. On the rug next to him is a platter mounded with fruit.

The night we stayed at the gas crater we didn’t find any mounds of fruit, or gorgeous women with long braids. Or ATV’s to do donuts in. But the yurts were there and the crater . . . well, the crater was really something. You’re not going to see anything like that anywhere else in the world. As ecological disasters go, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage class disaster although, as far as I know, UNESCO has yet to lend its name to this particular bit of heritage.

Another thing nobody seems to know is who, exactly, the president is. It’s not like they don’t know his name. Everybody knows his name. It’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (Birdie-Muhammed-off) and, according to the official bio, he was Deputy Director of the Ministry of Health when the old president kicked off. Deputy Director of Ministry of Health seems like an unlikely platform from which to catapult yourself to the presidency so, perhaps, he was the old president’s nephew. Or, maybe, his son-in-law. Or a dentist, or somebody else. Everybody has an opinion. Nobody seems sure.

When the Soviet Union fell apart the old president turned the country into his private fiefdom and set about de-Sovietizing the place. Among the changes he made were the street names, which he replaced with serial numbers; the days of the week, which he renamed after whatever seemed to have popped into his head (First Day, Justice Day, Spirit Day); and the days of the month, three of which he renamed after himself, his mother, and the book he wrote. The book is the Ruhnama (the Book of the Soul) and is always referred to as THE Ruhnama, the way the Qur’an is THE Qur’an.

As ecological disasters go, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage class disaster although, as far as I know, UNESCO has yet to lend its name to this particular bit of heritage.

He wrote his book as a spiritual guide for the Turkmen people, and it has become a bestseller in certain circles. Those circles include everybody who owns a car, because the ability to recite passages from the book verbatim is required to pass the driver’s exam. The book’s being spiritual and all, he had its title carved into the side of the largest mosque in Turkmenistan, along with the words “Holy Book.” Then, in a kind of author-to-author comity, he had “Qur’an” inscribed on the opposing wall along with the words, “Allah’s Book.”

To bring the benefits of his spiritual teachings to the community at large, he placed an enormous statue of the Ruhnama, its cover a tasteful chartreuse and violet, in the center of a fountain in a park in downtown Ashgabat. At 8:00 every evening, the cover opens, a video starts to play, and a passage from the book is read aloud. By good fortune, I was never anywhere near that park at 8:00 in the evening.

In a separate park he built a 39-foot tall statue of himself, perched on top of a 230-foot tower. The statue had its arms outstretched, and it rotated so that the old president always faced the sun.

As part of his liberalization program, President Birdie changed the names of the streets back to street names, renamed the days and months back to days and months, and tore down the 230-foot tower with the statue of the old president . . . then thought better about what he’d done and had the statue replaced, this time atop a 290-foot triple arch thingy that looks like a rocket ship from a 1930’s pulp sci-fi magazine. He never had the rotator connected back up, though, so now his predecessor just faces north. Also, and I say this from personal experience, he placed a very grumpy guard to keep watch over the thing.

The ability to recite passages from the old president's book verbatim is required to pass the driver’s exam.

As becomes a second president, he had a more modest, egalitarian sort of golden statue made of himself, arm raised, looking heroic astride a horse on top of a 69-foot high cliff of white marble that was dragged in from somewhere and plunked down in yet another park in Ashgabat. The statue of the book remains in its fountain, still being squirted at with water.

The 5,000 marble-clad buildings derive from some kind of manic building program. Many are architectural fancies that would have made Disney drool: spirals and curves, gold and white, arches and domes and swirls and eight-pointed stars gleaming against the night sky because every building in Ashgabat gleams against the night sky. They are all lit up with spotlights. All five thousand of them. All night. According to our guide/monitor, folks in the know call the city Ash Vegas. From space, it must show up as a bright as Singapore.

Some of the domes are perched on top of skyscrapers and some aren’t domes at all, but spheres. One, set into the top of a white, soft-edged vertical structure, makes the place look like a stick of roll-on deodorant. And these are just the commercial buildings. At least they would be commercial if there were any actual commerce in Ashgabat. And if anybody used them. From the street they look as sterile and empty of people as every other major building in Ashgabat.

There are big, sprawling public buildings, too, all fitted out with gold and marble and tilework and pointed arches in garish, movie-set Muslim, some of which we were allowed to photograph, some not. “That one,” our guide/minder would say in tobacco-auctioneer English as we motored past, “not that one. No. No. Yes. No yes. Yesno. YesNoNonono. Yes.” She must have had to pass a very strict set of qualifying exams to get the job.

Every building in Ashgabat gleams against the night sky. They are all lit up with spotlights. All five thousand of them. All night.

Nobody seemed to be using these, either, which makes sense where Parliament is concerned, but not so much for the ministries and other government offices. The two-story and three-story high, gold-encrusted ceremonial doors were shut as tight as the doors painted on the backdrop of a DeMille Bible extravaganza. The side doors were closed, too. “Everybody uses the back doors,” our guide/monitor informed us.

The only people on the street, besides police, were occasional women sweeping the gutters with the kind of brooms that witches use in medieval fairy tales. Outside of town people were using donkey carts and picking cotton by hand. According to Human Rights Watch the people picking cotton did not volunteer for that job.

Along with the public buildings are enormous apartment buildings in duplicate and quadruplicate facing one another from opposite sides of intersections, or running to the vanishing point like medieval armies in a computer-generated sword-and-nipples epic. They’re fifteen or sixteen stories high with manicured lawns and welcoming colonnaded entrances, each at least as big as the Plaza in New York. And empty. No signs of life anywhere. No lights, no laundry draped on balconies, no shades half pulled, no plants in windows. Just vacant and lifeless, each with a huge, neon corporate logo on top flashing NOKIA . . . HUA WEI . . . TOYOTA into the desert night. The government had apparently sold the naming rights. Our guide/minder told us it was for the convenience of the residents, “so they can tell each other what building they live in.”

“But they’re empty,” I objected. “Nobody lives in those buildings.”

“You just don’t see anybody because they never have to come out. They have everything they need inside.”

“Like what?”

“Like swimming pools. They have swimming pools inside.”

Just vacant and lifeless, each with a huge, neon corporate logo on top flashing NOKIA . . . HUA WEI . . . TOYOTA into the desert night.

The odd part is, the swimming pool thing may be true. It was certainly true of the hotel we stopped at to use the bathroom. There it was, a beautiful, indoor pool fed by a gushing waterfall. A lovely, five-star swimming pool with the heat cranked up to Fiji, the waterfall gushing, the lights off, no lifeguard and not a single person swimming. The corridors were empty and darkened. There was a fully equipped gym, unused and unlit; a hotel shop, fitted out with local knickknacks, dark inside with doors locked; and a beautiful, sun-drenched dining room . . . tables set, wine and water glasses at the ready, napkins folded in complicated folds . . . all devoid of people.

A dimly lit clerk sat at the front desk but nobody was checking in or out. There was no concierge and no bellhops and nobody was lounging in the lobby. Off to the side through a gold-filigreed door I finally heard voices, many voices, and, peeking through the filigree, saw people. Scores of people in a darkened hallway on the wrong side of a locked door. Not hotel guests, just ordinary Turkmen in an unadorned, unlit corridor. What they were doing there and why they were locked out of the hotel part of the hotel remains unexplained. The street outside was lined with dozens of similar hotels, gorgeously clad in white marble, none showing any sign of life. It spooked me out.

The street itself was an eight-lane divided highway. President Birdie calls it an autobahn, and he’s not exaggerating. Paralleling it was a two-lane road. On each side. Twelve lanes of pristine motorway WITH NO CARS. No cars at all, not even white cars, at 8:30 on a Thursday morning in the middle of the capital city. Our guide/monitor said there really were cars, “Just not here.”

She was right about the cars. Later in the day we encountered some genuine traffic. Not much by the standards of small-town America, but there was a bit in the district where people actually live . . . old, shabby, overcrowded, cracking, stained, tumbledown Soviet apartment blocks with laundry hanging on balconies and lights in the windows and grass eroded away by foot traffic.

A lovely, five-star swimming pool with the heat cranked up to Fiji, the waterfall gushing, the lights off, no lifeguard and not a single person swimming.

Right now, you’re probably asking yourself, “How does one even get an indoor Ferris wheel into the Guinness Book of World Records?” Or the world’s tallest jet-powered flagpole, for that matter? It turns out there are records, and then there are records, and not to put too fine a point on it, some records . . . deepest dive underwater while holding your breath, highest number of apples held in your mouth while being cut in half with a chainsaw in one minute . . . are more highly sought after than others. I, for instance, hold a few of my own. Most people to ride in the backseat of my car (4, 19 Apr 2017) jumps to mind. It was crowded in there but worth it to become a world record holder. But proud as I am of this title, you won’t see it in the Guinness Book because I didn’t pay Guinness to certify it.

That’s the key. To get your name in the Guinness book, you pay Guinness . . . sometimes up to a quarter of a million dollars . . . to send somebody out and certify your record.

At the price, I decided to forego the honor and, next time, will just pay Uber to haul people wherever they need to go. But President Birdie is made out of sterner stuff. That is to say, he’s made out of money. In a country of almost 6 million people, he’s got most of it. Any time he’s willing to dip into his pocket for a new world’s record, Guinness is more than happy to send somebody out to certify it.

Here’s a record you won’t find in the Guinness Book because President Birdie didn’t pay to have it certified even though he had to beat out North Korea for the honor: most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Here’s another: world’s most repressive state.

President Birdie is made out of money. In a country of almost 6 million people, he’s got most of it.

Despite the fact that he has brought Turkmenistan to the edge of economic catastrophe, President Birdie recently announced plans to extend the autobahn into the desert, past the Darvaza Gas Crater, past all six yurts, all the way to the northern border where it will come to a dead stop in the Uzbeki part of the Karakum. If anybody actually lived in the Karakum, this might make it easier to get into Ashgabat for medical care. But nobody much does.

So if President Birdie wants to brighten the image of his country with another record, Guinness will be pleased to sell Turkmenistan the honor of having the World’s Longest Highway to Nowhere.

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News from Washington State


A political milestone has been passed in the state of Washington: affirmative action has gone down. Voters have rejected Referendum 88, a measure to relegalize racial preferences in state employment, education, and contracting.

This is an issue that speaks directly to libertarians. We think in terms of individuals. In our view, justice requires that government treat individuals of different races by the same rules. To us, “affirmative action” is an Orwellian term for a policy of preferential treatment, which amounts to institutional racism.

Libertarians may disagree on a number of things, but I think we all agree on this.

In Washington, racial preferences in state and local government had been banned by law since November 1998. This is the way it happened. The state legislature, Republicans included, never would have passed the original law. They didn’t have the courage. But a couple of policy entrepreneurs, inspired in 1996 by California’s Proposition 209, started a signature drive to put the issue on the ballot. Their measure was called Initiative 200; it was opposed by all right-thinkers in government and the media, and in November 1998 it swept the state with 58% of the vote. Only King County, which contains Seattle, voted in favor of preferences.

To libertarians, “affirmative action” is an Orwellian term for a policy of preferential treatment, which amounts to institutional racism.

This time around, the defeat of racial preferences has been a much closer thing. The public vote was on Referendum 88, a measure to bring back affirmative action. As I write (November 12), 98% of the votes are in, and Referendum 88 is being rejected by 50.41% of voters. In only four of the state’s 39 counties are voters approving it. The highest percentages for approval are in King and San Juan counties — metro Seattle and the San Juan Islands — which are Washington’s two counties with the highest median personal income and the strongest propensity to vote left. (The third most leftwing county is Jefferson, which contains Port Townsend, the former home of Liberty. The magazine’s founder, Bill Bradford, would not be surprised that Jefferson County, 91% white, also supported racial preferences.)

Washington is a Democratic state. Our Democratic politicians believe deeply in the moral necessity of treating people of different races differently in the pursuit of equal results. They have wanted to bring back the practice for 20 years. For a long time they dared not do it, but in 2019 they slipped it through.

Apart from referendums (explained below), Washington has two kinds of voter-initiated ballot measures: initiatives to the people and initiatives to the legislature. Under the first kind, the people collect signatures to put a measure on the ballot, and if they pass it, it becomes law. Under the second kind, the people petition the legislature to adopt a law they propose. If they collect enough signatures, the legislature has three options. It can pass the measure into law, refuse to pass it and let it go to the ballot, or pass an alternative measure and let both of them go to the ballot.

The signature drive to bring back racial preferences, which was called Initiative 1000, was an initiative to the legislature. As a result of the “blue wave” of 2018, the Democrats hold both houses in Olympia. On the last day of the spring 2019 session legislators passed Initiative 1000 straight into law. All the Democrats except for one in each house voted for it, and all the Republicans voted against it. Initiative 1000 became law without a vote of the people.

Our Democratic politicians have wanted to bring back the practice for 20 years. For a long time they dared not do it, but in 2019 they slipped it through.

Washington also has the right of referendum, which allows the people to petition to put a brand new law on the ballot. Another political entrepreneur did just that, by collecting signatures for Referendum 88, which offered the voters the chance to vote “Accepted” or “Rejected” on the words of Initiative 1000.

That particular troublemaker was Kan Qiu, an immigrant from China. There was a reason the fight against preferences was being led by an Asian. In the state universities, Asians, whether immigrants or native-born, are the group most obviously threatened by racial quotas. Asians make up 7.8% of the resident population of Washington but 24% of undergraduates at the University of Washington. And that’s not counting foreign students. If racial preferences were allowed, the student body would probably not mirror the population exactly, but it’s a sure bet that “overrepresented” Asians would have to jump a higher hurdle.

Kan Qiu and his supporters wanted the people to vote “Rejected” on Referendum 88. Their argument in the Voter’s Pamphlet is clear: “Referendum 88 allows the government to use different rules for different races . . . That’s wrong. And it divides us further apart.”

But the description of Referendum 88 in the Voter’s Pamphlet, which is supposed to be non-biased, painted a different picture. It called Referendum 88 a measure to “allow the state to remedy discrimination for certain groups and to implement affirmative action, without the use of quotas or preferential treatment (as defined), in public education, employment and contracting.”

If racial preferences were allowed, it’s a sure bet that “overrepresented” Asians would have to jump a higher hurdle.

The red-flag words are “as defined.” The original Initiative 1000, and Referendum 88, which restated it for the voters, defined preferential treatment as using race or group identity “as the sole qualifying factor to select a lesser qualified candidate over a more qualified candidate.” Race could be a factor, but not the sole qualifying factor. In other words, as long as the state could point to one other factor, it could discriminate by race.

This is defining “preferences” as a box so small that nothing will fit in it.

The opponents of preferences pointed out this tendentious definition every chance they could, but it was in the Voter’s Pamphlet, approved by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Democrat. The supporters of preferences made the most of the official words, claiming over and over that Referendum 88 would not allow preferences. Those supporters included Washington’s leading newspapers and three former governors, including Gary Locke, who is Chinese American — and also a Democrat.

In Washington we have never had to register as Democrats or Republicans, so I can’t say how many of each there are, but the people do mostly vote Democrat.

Most of the rest of the candidates blew through the $150,000 donation limit. So Democracy Vouchers didn’t actually limit anything.

Not this time. This was a Democratic measure, and it failed — barely.

And barely counts.

Unfortunately, the same applies to municipal elections.

I had hoped to report to Liberty readers that the voters of Seattle had finally tossed out their Trotskyite councilwoman, Kshama Sawant. But Sawant, first elected in 2013, has been reelected again, along with most of the progressive-left candidates to the Seattle City Council.

Money was a big issue. Seattle has won praise (from Andrew Yang, for example) for its Democracy Vouchers program, which was supposed to “take money out of politics.” The program gives each voter $100 in vouchers to give to candidates that stayed within donation limits. But Sawant never signed up for Democracy Vouchers, arguing that she was going to be targeted by the corporations and would have to raise all the money she could. And most of the rest of the candidates blew through the $150,000 donation limit. So Democracy Vouchers didn’t actually limit anything.

I threw my vouchers away.

Sawant was right in her predictions about money from business. In mid-October, Amazon, which is based in Seattle, dumped $1 million into the city council campaigns. The Left had its union money and Sawant had her socialist money from around the country, but it was Amazon’s money on the other side that became the talk of the town. Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders tweeted from afar:

Jeff Bezos and Amazon think they can buy elections. They spent $1 million to stop City Council candidates @d1forLisa, @TammyMoralesSEA, @VoteSawant and @ElectScott2019. Show Amazon that they can't buy our democracy and that their corporate greed won't stand. Get out and vote!

They did, and the Left took every seat it wanted except one. In that one, the Left’s candidate was another avowed socialist, but without the name, the panache, or the district Kshama Sawant had. And he got 47.6% of the vote.

“Our movement has won,” Sawant crowed, “and defended our socialist council seat for working people against the richest man in the world.” Her next goal will be citywide rent control (which would require a change in state law) and another tax on business. The Seattle Times’ photo of her victory rally shows her supporters raising clenched fists behind a huge banner that reads, “TAX AMAZON.”

In mid-October, Amazon dumped $1 million into the city council campaigns.

The fight had started with a tax on Amazon. In 2018 the Seattle City Council voted to impose a “head tax” — a flat tax per employee — on large for-profit employers, with the money to be spent on the homeless. The Left made a point of saying that the tax would hit only the top 3% of employers, which was supposed to show how reasonable it was. The tax would have cost the city’s largest private employer, Amazon, tens of millions of dollars a year. When Amazon and other companies began bankrolling a voter petition to put the tax on the ballot as a referendum, and a poll showed that the voters would kill it, all but one of the Democrats on the council quickly voted for repeal. Sawant, the lone Marxist, condemned them as cowardly, which they were. She also led a public demonstration in front of Amazon’s headquarters and condemned CEO Jeff Bezos as “the enemy.”

In 2018 it did seem that the voters of Seattle were ready to sweep Sawant and her allies off the council. And this year, when seven of the nine council members were up for reelection, several of them declined to run. The council member in my district was one of them — but, alas, he has been replaced by another much like him.

The candidate chosen to run in Kshama Sawant’s district was a political novice named Egan Orion, a man best known for organizing PrideFest, a gay celebration. By any national standard he was pretty far left himself, but this is Seattle and Sawant’s district is the leftiest part of it.

Sawant, the lone Marxist, condemned them as cowardly, which they were.

There were things a nonleftist might like about Orion. Being known for a celebration made him less of an irritant than someone known for screaming at Jeff Bezos, or for the $15 minimum wage. Sawant was for rent control — and on Orion’s web page was an article about how rent control would hurt small landlords. In the county’s Voter’s Pamphlet, which has statements from all the candidates, Orion said he wanted to “expand all types of housing,” which was a politically correct way of saying he was not against builders of market-rate housing, which the Left blames for displacing the poor. Orion also said he wanted the city government to help women, gays, and people of color to start businesses. Passing over the intersectionality stuff, I perceived that he was in favor of people starting businesses. He also promised to “focus on outcomes, not ideology,” which seemed to be a nice way of saying he was not a fan of Leon Trotsky.

The state of Washington runs elections by mail, so that election day is really start-counting-the-ballots day. On the first count, Orion was ahead, with Sawant polling only 45.6%. Though she had come from behind and won in an earlier election, her supporters were worried. Socialist Alternative, the national newspaper of Sawant’s party, wrote,

Seattle is experiencing its own local variant of the right-populist wave which elevated Trump to power. Middle-class anxiety in the face of growing economic insecurity and social decay is exploited by big business and the rich, who are waging a ferocious struggle against the rise of socialist ideas and movements demanding limits to their wealth and power.

The chief evidence of a “right-populist” wave in Seattle was a local TV documentary about homeless encampments called “Seattle Is Dying.” (It’s on YouTube.) There are some right-wingers in Seattle, but you’d have to hire a detective to find them. In 2016 Trump got 8% of the vote here. Bernie Sanders could take this city easily. If he does, he will have a comrade on the city council who has just been reelected.

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A Modern Moses


“Very few men have ever known that men are free.” I thought of these simple words from Rose Wilder Lane’s Discovery of Freedom while watching Harriet, a terrific new film about the remarkable Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery and then returned to the South at least a dozen times to help friends, family, and others escape too. Later, as a scout for the Union Army, she guided troops in their assault on plantations along the Combahee River, where hundreds of slaves ran to the Union steamships and freedom. She is reportedly the first woman to have led an armed assault during the Civil War.

Not every enslaved person wanted to be rescued, however. In this film, after Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) risks being captured in order to bring her own sister, Rachel (Deborah Ayorinde) to safety in Philadelphia, Rachel refuses to go, saying, “I ain’t leaving my babies . . . can’t everybody run!” Tubman can’t understand such an attitude. Isn’t freedom worth everything? Tubman has been quoted as saying, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Tubman and Lane both knew that great truth — it isn’t enough to be free; you have to know you are free.

This film is different from such recent films about slavery as Twelve Years a Slave (2013) and Birth of a Nation (2016), in that the physical horrors of slavery are alluded to but not dwelled upon here. We don’t see the whippings, the rapes, the sadistic torture. While those films are important in telling that part of the story of slavery, Harriet is about the inalienable right to freedom itself, regardless of how one is treated. A well-treated slave is still a slave. As a result, the characters are richer and more complex than they are in the more traditional “blacks are good, whites are bad” movies.

Tubman has been quoted as saying, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

We see the economic panic of plantation owners facing bankruptcy from the loss of their escaped slaves, the quiet aid and personal risk of white abolitionists on the Underground Railroad, treacherous black trackers who earn money by helping to bring runaways back to the south, and the contrast in education and experience between blacks in the city and blacks on the plantation. When a freeborn black woman named Marie (Janelle Monae) tells Harriet she needs a bath after she arrives in Philadelphia (and offers her own tub for the purpose), Harriet responds with dignity, “You’re freeborn. You’ve never known the stink of fear.”

As Tubman returns repeatedly to lead slaves to freedom, angry plantation owners offer a reward for the “thief” they call “Moses,” ironically equating themselves with the Egyptian taskmasters in the Old Testament to whom God demanded, through Moses, “Let me people go.” The allusion is developed in numerous ways, and in one particular scene Harriet motivates her skeptical followers by walking directly into the waters of the river she feels compelled to cross while men pursue them on horseback (though not with chariots.)

One reason for Tubman’s ability to avoid capture was that everyone assumed this “Moses” was a black man or a white abolitionist in blackface. It never occurred to them that their nemesis was an illiterate woman standing just five feet tall who suffered from seizures due to a head injury: she was hit with a metal weight when she was a young teen. These seizures lead her to have “visions” that guide her away from danger and toward safer paths as she conducts her little groups to freedom. She is described by one grateful character as “a woman touched by God.” This suggestion that Tubman was a visionary guided by God has caused many reviewers to pan the movie — not because they disagree with the accuracy of the scenes (Tubman often described the experiences she had during her seizures as “visions from God”) but because these reviewers simply don’t like the idea of God having anything to do with her success.

Angry plantation owners offer a reward for the “thief” they call “Moses,” ironically equating themselves with the Egyptian taskmasters in the Old Testament.

Nevertheless, Tubman believed it, and the scenes are handled well. We see her premonitions as fuzzy, monochromatic scenes that come into sharpness gradually over the course of the movie. God doesn’t speak to her directly, but she sees images that eventually make sense to her. For that reason, it could just as easily be interpreted as her own mind making logical sense of multiple details she has observed. Harriet might have been illiterate, but she was not unintelligent. She could read the sky and was a skilled tracker. To communicate with other slaves without attracting the attention of white overseers, she often sings, her rich contralto hiding her overt message in the covert melody of a folk spiritual. These melodies are haunting and sad, especially when she sings a farewell to her mother in the fields as she prepares to run away for the first time. The moment is heartbreaking yet empowering, and the music is exactly right. Her rendition of “Wade in the Water” is even better.

Tubman interacts with many important abolitionists as she travels in the North; there are cameo appearances by Frederick Douglass (Tory Kittles) in his trademark lopsided Afro, and John Brown (Nigel Reed). Senator William Seward (uncredited) invites Tubman into his home and praises her work. And black journalist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), who carefully records the details of every passenger on the Underground Railroad in order to help family members reunite in the north, becomes a close friend and supporter. It is largely because of Still’s meticulous recordkeeping that we have a reasonably accurate and uninflated account of Tubman’s work. Without him, the numbers she is thought to have rescued might lie in the hundreds rather than a “mere” 70.

Harriet is well worth seeing, as a piece of history and as a piece of filmmaking. It is a fair story, even if it isn’t an entirely factual story, (as no biographical film ever is) and will probably be shown in schoolrooms for many years to come. The story is suspenseful without being gruesome, and the acting is strong without being overbearing. The side story involving the fictionalized black tracker Walter (Henry Hunter Hall) is especially good in that it fits both the biblical allusion and the film’s theme of choice and accountability. The cinematography provides a rich setting for both the escape scenes and the town scenes, and the music contributes evocatively to the tension and the message. Most of all, it is a film that celebrates the inalienable right — no, responsibility   to “live free or die.” As Rose Wilder Lane might say, “Don’t ever forget that you are free.”

Editor's Note: Review of "Harriet," directed by Kasi Lemmons. Martin Chase Productions, 2019, 125 minutes.

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Did He Say 21 Trillion Dollars?


I notice that the federal deficit for fiscal 2019, ended September 30, hit nearly one trillion dollars. The deficit has doubled since its post-recession low in fiscal 2015, though the economy is running flat-out.

None of the would-be Democratic nominees is making an issue of this. Clearly Donald Trump is vulnerable. He cares nothing for fiscal prudence. As a businessman, he was a bankrupt; as the standard-bearer of the Republican Party he aims to “Make America Great,” and do it with borrowed funds. The Republicans once cared about deficits and the national debt, but really it was a long time ago. For years afterward, they talked as if they cared, but it was talk only. Now they don’t even talk. That would be disloyal.

Democrats occasionally would remind Republicans that the last budget surpluses were under Bill Clinton. This was true, but it was not important, and clearly it was never going to happen again.

Clearly Donald Trump is vulnerable. He cares nothing for fiscal prudence.

For a moment it sounded as if there might be one voice in 2020 for fiscal rectitude. Billionaire Howard Schultz, the former chairman of Starbucks, longtime Democrat and contributor to Hillary Clinton, created a stir back in January by floating the idea of running for president as an independent. His signature issue was the deficit, the debt, and the public credit — businessmen’s issues, to be sure, but important ones. That the federal debt had risen to $21 trillion, he said, represented “a reckless and immoral abandonment of leadership” by both parties. He was absolutely right. He was also for reform of the immigration law and the federal tax code, which he said had been held up by the hyper-partisanship in Congress. He was right about that, too.

Speaking January 30 on MSNBC, Schultz said he was no longer a Democrat, because, he said, “I do not believe what the Democratic Party stands for” — namely, a federal takeover of health insurance, free college for all, and a job for everyone, guaranteed by the government. All these things, he said, would cost trillions the federal government didn’t have, but if you didn’t swallow these proposals anyway, you could not be a Democrat.

“I don’t believe what Elizabeth Warren stands for,” he said. “I don’t believe the country should be heading toward socialism.”

“You think Elizabeth Warren is a socialist?” a panelist asked.

ll these things would cost trillions the federal government didn’t have, but if you didn’t swallow these proposals anyway, you could not be a Democrat.

“I think she believes in programs that will lead to a level of socialism in America,” Schultz replied.

The TV people got on Schultz’s case for being a rich guy. Schultz did not apologize.

“I’m self-made,” he said. “I grew up in the projects in New York. Elizabeth Warren wants to criticize me for being successful. No. It’s wrong.”

The Democrats in Shultz’s hometown, Seattle, told each other that Schultz was a “corporate candidate” who didn’t believe in anything. It was not true; he just didn’t believe what they did. In any case Schultz was persuaded not to run, and by now he is entirely forgotten. So, apparently, is his central issue, the federal government’s uncontrolled spending and borrowing.

I’m sad about that. Probably I would have voted for him.

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