Remove Trump from Office

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About this time in the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump announced that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

In the years since, his popularity among Republican voters has only risen, to the point that there is no room in the GOP for constitutionalists such as Justin Amash, who left the party and now appears likely to lose his House seat in Michigan under a blizzard of primary challengers funded by formerly friendly groups such as the Club for Growth.

The question of whether Trump should be removed from office for any one specific offense — Ukraine quid pro quo or otherwise — is a moot one.

I say “such as” Amash, but really he’s the only one. All the rest are more or less, and usually more, in the bag for Trump, and thus he will not be removed from office, not even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. For better or worse, and almost certainly worse, the party’s fate is tied to a prissy oaf whose very notions of truth and falsehood shift wildly according to whatever is foremost in his mind at any particular moment. As a man who has never been told “No” in his entire life — at least not in any way he’s felt bound to respect, and certainly not in any way backed by the force of law — his defining feature as president has been his shrill frustration, given incessant voice through his Twitter account, that he can’t just do completely as he wishes at all times in the manner to which he’s accustomed.

The question of whether he should be removed from office for any one specific offense — Ukraine quid pro quo or otherwise — is a moot one. He is monstrously corrupt, a vast sewer mouth that in no way strains at the gnat while in the midst of swallowing the camel. He is at once rapacious and remarkably petty; famously, he once dipped into his own Trump Foundation charity for $7 to pay Donald Jr.’s Boy Scout registration fee. As president, he has not hesitated to profit in ways either little or large: on the one end, he attempted to keep his failing golf resort in Scotland in the black by requiring military stopovers there. On the other end, he cozens the Saudis, likely not because our poisonous foreign-policy institutions favor them, but because they drop enormous sums at his hotels.

The corruption in the Trump White House outstrips any other, including the oft-cited example of Warren G. Harding, who at least had the excuse that those goings-on were carried out behind his back while he was kept busy playing cards, drinking illegal liquor, and cavorting with his mistress. Commentators may differ on whether l’affaire Ukraine is sufficient for Trump to be ousted — Judge Andrew Napolitano certainly thinks so — but it’s of a piece with his conduct in every other area of public life. When Trump runs into an obstacle he can’t remove through money or sheer will alone, he surrounds himself with people who advise him to plow ahead anyway. Such problems are of his own making, because he’s the one who chooses to bring on board the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Alan Dershowitz, John Bolton, and the rest of his deeply embarrassing cast of once and former surrogates. But he experiences them only as further frustrations, and thus digs himself even deeper when a lighter touch would have extricated him long ago. It’s not a temperament you would want in a chief executive, or really an authority figure of any sort, much less someone inhabiting the most powerful office in human history.

Which president of recent vintage would survive a genuinely independent inquiry into the misdeeds done in his name?

But the error is to rank Trump’s open corruption and, let’s say, criminal adjacency, as somehow worse than the more veiled corruption and crimes carried out by nearly every former occupant of the White House, and the squandering of cash on a magnitude that even a Trump can’t comprehend.

Take a look back. Which president of recent vintage would survive a genuinely independent inquiry into the misdeeds done in his name? Obama should have been impeached over Libya as well as his continuation, even acceleration of the George W. Bush-era projects of drone bombing, extraordinary rendition, and massive governmental bailouts. Bush should’ve been impeached for all of the above, though he wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to do most of it if, as should have happened, he’d already been impeached for lying the country into multiple disastrous wars. Clinton should’ve been impeached, not for lying about affairs or provincial land deals, but for his many stupid bombings of places such as Sudan and Serbia, his administration’s responses to Waco and Ruby Ridge, his own seedy corruption, and so on. George H.W. Bush should have been impeached for his role in Iran-Contra and his war in Nicaragua and, between those and whatever CIA undertakings he was involved with, he should never have been president to begin with — and wouldn’t have been, if Reagan had been justifiably impeached.

You can extend this line back as far as you wish, back even to our vaunted Founders. Perhaps the only president immune to the approach would be William Henry Harrison, and that’s because he spent his entire time in office dying. But even if you consider one or another of these cases to be a stretch, consider the benefits of a blanket impeachment policy. Each president would have to spend much of his ideally brief time in office preparing for his inevitable trial, and though not all of them would be removed from office, enough would that the personality cult of the job would be weakened. Both parties would be tied up in proceedings, which would pull their attention away from whatever blinkered ideological projects or rentseeking they were going to carry out, and also channel those whose egos demand constant time in the spotlight toward confrontations with each other rather than with the American public (or indeed, publics around the globe). Contrary to those such as the hilariously hypocritical Kenneth Starr, who lamented before Congress our “age of impeachment,” and asked “How did we get here?”, we need not fewer impeachments, but many, many more.

Perhaps the only president immune to the approach would be William Henry Harrison, and that’s because he spent his entire time in office dying.

Despite the attempt at separation of powers, the Constitution — as the Anti-Federalists foresaw — doesn’t actually allow for a lot of checks on a unitary executive determined to test every barrier and dare the system to stop him. Impeachment is just about it. And while the process itself is almost unbearably tedious, even that has its good side: those whose brains don’t fixate constantly on what’s happening in Washington DC can just tune out and get on with living their various lives.

So impeach and remove Trump. Then impeach and remove Mike Pence, preferably within seconds of his swearing-in. Then impeach and remove Nancy Pelosi, and so on down the line. It’ll take quite a while before you find anyone who can actually do the job. But along the way you’ll have gotten rid of a whole lot of people who can’t, and shouldn’t.



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Un-Gifted Storytellers

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I have some liking for mysteries that will probably never be solved. What, if anything, is buried on Oak Island? What happened to the glorious Amber Room? What happened to Judge Crater? What happened to Peking Man? I have less liking for them when they’re verbal mysteries, particularly the type that Dr. Johnson had in mind when he mentioned words of which “the true meaning is so uncertain and remote, that it is never sought, because it cannot be known when it is found.”

I should have taken that passage from Johnson’s Life of Milton as a warning, before I tried to figure out what Hunter Biden did in the Navy (until he got kicked out). The Washington Times reported on this. It quoted documents saying, apparently as plainly as the Navy can say things, what his job was.

Under a heading “Primary/Collateral/Watchstanding Duties,” the file states Mr. Biden is a “deployable public affairs officer” who “provides public affairs/strategic communications support” to, among other officers, the chief of information at the Pentagon, the Navy’s public affairs headquarters at the Pentagon.

Mr. Biden’s duties included providing support to 6th and 5th Fleets and “regional commanders.”

So he was, maybe, probably, a PR hack? But just when you think you’ve got the answer, and that’s it, the Navy hits you with a slash. “Public affairs/strategic communications support” — is that two things or one? And what, I hesitate to ask, is strategic about public affairs? Is there a strategy to fool the public? If so, then it’s been successfully exerted on me, because you could give me almost any interpretation of those words, and I would entertain it.

There isn’t a single phrase in the sentence just quoted whose meaning or connection with the adjacent phrases can be identified and understood.

Heedless of Johnson’s hint not to bother seeking meanings in words like these, I turned to the Navy’s first “periodic fitness report” on the heir to the House of Biden, and found a statement of his “command achievements,” which were as follows:

Provides expeditionary public affairs forces supporting the fleet and component commanders with scalable and immediately deployable force packages trained and equipped to support current and emerging public affairs and visual information requirements.

Steering around a wreck on the edge of the highway, you’ve probably been astonished by the fact that the vehicle was so badly damaged that you couldn’t tell what was the trunk and what was the hood, and whatever could have happened to the roof. That’s what we’re seeing here. There isn’t a single phrase in the sentence just quoted whose meaning or connection with the adjacent phrases can be identified and understood. If you’re a fool like me, you keep asking, “What are expeditionary public affairs forces?”; “What’s a force package, and how are such things trained?”; “What’s scalable about these force packages?”; “How do you support a requirement?” You’re welcome to keep asking. You’re not going to find out.

Perhaps there’s a Navy Department dictionary that reduces the infinite range of possible meanings to only a few, no matter how dopey: “Visual information requirement: (1) a rule for the use of gestures; (2) a rule for stenciling words on windows; (3) a stop light.” Perhaps there’s a Navy style sheet that tells Deployable Public Affairs Officers how to navigate this vocabulary and syntax. But if there is, the mystery remains: how on earth can human beings come up with this stuff? Is it something you learn, or is it the spontaneous expression of a mental disorder, like coprolalia?

Trump meant nothing in particular, and he could be very certain that Ingraham wouldn’t ask him what he meant.

I’m talking about true mysteries, which I need to distinguish from such phenomena as President Trump’s curious form of discourse, which consists largely of disconnected sentences, parts of which he repeats several times, as if obsessed. There’s nothing amazing about this: he just isn’t interested in organizing his thoughts or considering other ways of emphasizing them. Any child can, and many children do, talk like the president, and any child can understand what’s going on with that.

Nor is there any mystery about why politicians say amazingly childish things about history. On January 10, President Trump told Laura Ingraham that “Nancy Pelosi will probably go down in history as the least effective speaker of the House of Representatives.” Oh, what did he mean? Less effective than James Lawrence Orr? Less effective than Galusha A. Grow? Less effective even than Theodore Medad Pomeroy? No, that’s not what he meant; he never heard of any of them. He just wanted to say something bad. He meant nothing in particular, and he could be very certain that Ingraham wouldn’t ask him what he meant.

Neither is there any deep mystery about Hillary Clinton criticizing Bernie Sanders for being “a career politician,” as if anybody thought that she was anything other than that. She isn’t interested in what other people think. If she had any interest, she would have won the election.

How on earth can human beings come up with this stuff? Is it something you learn, or is it the spontaneous expression of a mental disorder, like coprolalia?

There isn’t much mystery behind the New York Times’ endorsement of Elizabeth Warren for president — along with the hapless Amy Klobuchar. There were oddities, of course, including the spectacle of the Times’ complimenting Warren, who is best known for retailing absurd lies about herself, as “a gifted storyteller.” Who would even think of saying such a thing, knowing that everyone else would laugh it to scorn? The answer is that the NYT cannot conceive of being laughed to scorn. It endorsed Warren because it has always loved her to death; it endorsed Klobuchar as a nod to the millions of heartland voters that it imagines are out there, clamoring for the election of this favorite daughter. The Times doesn’t want to be out of touch! But who’s on the staff of the NYT?The Times wouldn’t have a staff if it weren’t for (A) descendants of Eastern wealth and (B) people who couldn’t wait to leave the Midwest because they hated it and saw that it ignored their hatred. For generations, this has been The New York Times. So, from its point of view, Amy Klobuchar is a preeminent statesman and Elizabeth Warren is a gifted storyteller.

There is also very little true mystery about the announcement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex that they are bugging out of the royal responsibilities that have given their sorry lives whatever dignity they possess:

We intend to step back as “senior” members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen. It is with your encouragement, particularly over the last few years, that we feel prepared to make this adjustment.

We now plan to balance our time between the United Kingdom and North America, continuing to honour our duty to The Queen, the Commonwealth, and our patronages.

This geographic balance will enable us to raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born, while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity.

Queen Elizabeth certainly isn’t wrinkling her brow, trying to figure just how much “support” she’s going to get from the likes of them, and I doubt that anyone they may be addressing as “you” is thinking, “Hmmm . . . That’s strange. I can’t recall ever encouraging them to do anything. But if they say so, then I guess I did.” I also doubt that anyone will miss the unconscious joke in the first and last sentences of that passage from the royal missive: these people are going to work to become financially independent, and the work they have in mind is paying themselves out of the proceeds of some cockamamie charity they’re cooking up.

It's true, there are some mysteries around the edges, such as what the Duke of Sussex could possibly have meant when he gave a speech in which said that he and his wife hoped “to continue serving the queen . . . without public funding” but found it “wasn’t possible.” I’m sure that doesn’t mean they’d always wanted to give the poor old dear a few quid but just didn’t have it, y’know. But if it doesn’t mean that, I can’t guess what it means. Neither do I know why, after having been given the best education that money and social origin could buy, the Duke never learned his pronoun cases: “The decision that I have made for my wife and I to step back . . .” But . . . well, after all . . . who cares what he says?

These people are going to work to become financially independent, and the "work" they have in mind is paying themselves out of the proceeds of some cockamamie charity they’re cooking up.

Yet fascinatingly repellent mysteries still abound — and I’m glad the aforesaid Nancy Pelosi is here to provide them, because lately, I’ve lost some of my most important sources of mystery: Beto O’Rourke (what made him think he should be president?), Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker (maybe it was “racism” that kept them from getting enough money to stay in the presidential tournament, but who would give them any money to start with?). True, there remains the mystery of Tom Steyer: what could he mean when he says in his omnipresent ads that Congress will never authorize action against climate change, so he, President Steyer, will have to do it on his own? Well, how? Could he be proclaiming a coup? Could he be inspired by Oliver Cromwell: “I say you are no Parliament”? Probably not, and there aren’t enough Cromwellians to get out the vote, anyway. A man of mystery . . . but face it, he’s not much fun. (If you want picturesque details about the Cromwell episode, a wiki page does a good job; see and look for the account of Thomas Salmon.)

So right now, Pelosi is my favorite weaver of mysteries. Here’s what she said in one of her constant press conferences about why she delayed sending the impeachment documents to the Senate. It’s her attempt to explain the unexplainable. I’m sorry, you need to see it in extenso:

This is a very important day for us. As you know I referenced temporal markers that our founders and our poets and others have used over time to place us in time, to emphasize the importance of time, because everything is about time.

Because everything is about time — how we use it, how we mark it. And today is an important day because today is the day that we name the managers, we go to the floor to pass the resolution to transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate, and later in the day, when we have our engrossment, that we march those articles of impeachment to the United States Senate.

As I've said, it's always been our founders, when they started, “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary” — when.

Abraham Lincoln – “Four score and seven years ago.”

Thomas Paine, “These are the times that try men's souls.”

Again and again, even our poets, Longfellow — "Listen, my children and you will hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. / On the 18th of April 1775 / Hardly a man is now alive /That remembers that famous day and year."

It's always about marking history, using time. On December 18th, the House of Representatives impeached the president of the United States. An impeachment that will last forever.

Since December 18th, there have been comments about when are we going to send the articles over. Well, we had hoped that the courtesy would be extended that we would have seen what the process would be in the Senate.

Short of that, the time has revealed many things since then. Time has been our friend in all of this because it has yielded incriminating evidence, more truth into the public domain.

There’s something wrong about the transcription of Pelosi’s remarks. She didn’t say “1775”; she said, “’75,” which is what the Longfellow poem says. Otherwise it wouldn’t scan. So she got that right. The rest — did you ever see such a mess?

It would be useless to be a smartass. It would be useless to ask Pelosi, “If time is your friend, why don’t you wait till next New Years to start the ceremonies? Then maybe you’ll have even more ‘incriminating evidence.’” It would be useless to ask, “Did you mean it when you said that everything is about time? And if you meant that, what does it mean? Does it mean that I should or shouldn’t get my air conditioner fixed this week?” “You’re always bragging about your Catholic education. Weren’t you taught that there’s a difference between things that exist in time and things that exist forever? They’re actually opposed, and impeachment is on the ‘time’ rather than the ‘forever’ side.” “Do you really grasp the fact that the dispute you are supposedly addressing is not about whether time exists or whether time is important or whether time should be used; it’s about how the hell you’ve been using it?”

Could he be inspired by Oliver Cromwell: “I say you are no Parliament”? Probably not, and there aren’t enough Cromwellians to get out the vote, anyway.

There are many additional smartass, I mean obvious, questions with which one could probe the mystery of what she thinks she’s talking about. But suppose she tried to answer them, or even one of them. Do you imagine that anything she said would make more sense than anything she said the first time? And that was supposed to be an explanation!

Earlier, I used the image of a car wreck. Now another image comes to mind. You’re waiting in an airport, and an elderly person sits down next to you and starts talking about the word “when.” She says things like, “As I've said, it's always been our founders, when they started, ‘When in the course of human events it becomes necessary’ — when.” She goes on and on. At first you struggle to appear respectful. Then you start gathering your things and looking for another chair. As you make your escape, she’s still babbling uncontrollably.

That’s her all right — with just one difference. There’s no escape from Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in the United States.




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Love and Marriage

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Marriage Story is a surprisingly good movie for being a fairly common story. It has received six well-deserved Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (Noah Baumbach), Best Actor (Adam Driver), Best Actress (Scarlett Johansson), and Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern). And it’s available in your living room, on Netflix, after a limited theater run that garnered less than half a million in box office sales. Go figure.

The film begins with Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johannsson) reciting the charming reasons they love each other. Their words are heard in voiceover as we watch endearing scenes of them doing the things that are described, set to delightful, lighthearted music. Charlie says, “What I love about Nicole: She makes people feel comfortable even about embarrassing things . . . She really listens when someone is talking . . . She cuts all our hair . . . She’s always brewing a cup of tea that she never drinks . . . It’s not easy for her to put away a sock or close a cabinet or do a dish, but she tries, for me . . . She is a mother who plays, joyfully.” Nicole says, “What I love about Charlie: He’s undaunted. He never lets other people’s opinions or any setbacks keep him from doing what he wants to do . . . He’s incredibly neat and I rely on him to keep things in order . . . He cries easily in movies . . . He’s very self-sufficient . . . He rarely gets defeated, which I feel like I always do . . . He takes all of my moods steadily . . . He’s a great dresser.” As I was reviewing my notes I noticed that Charlie’s reasons for loving Nicole were all about Nicole, and Nicole’s reasons for loving Charlie were all about Nicole too.

Divorce, it seems, is a continuation of marriage. It’s part of the package.

These tender but superficial affirmations of love appear to be some kind of modern marriage vows. But they’re not. They are assignments from their “separation mediator” (Robert Smigel). “In a divorce, things can get quite contentious,” he warns them. “I like to begin with a note of positivity . . . It helps to remember that this is a person you had great feeling for — and maybe still do in many ways.” That “still do” permeates the film. “Still do” is inherent in the “I do.” Divorce, it seems, is a continuation of marriage. It’s part of the package. Marriage never really ends.

Charlie and Nicole clearly do love each other. We can see it in the intimate way Nicole continues to cut Charlie’s hair after their separation and the way she strives to protect his feelings, even as she serves him with divorce papers. We see it in the tender way Charlie looks at Nicole and in the stumbling way he tries to navigate this unexpected and unwanted end to their marriage.

So why the divorce? Nicole feels that her film career in Hollywood has been stymied by their focus on Charlie’s career as an avant-garde director in New York (even though she has starred in all his plays). She wants to reassert her individuality and her voice by accepting a role in a TV series that will take her back to California, where her family lives. Meanwhile, Charlie’s Medea is being transferred to Broadway — and Nicole has been playing Medea in previews, until now. The timing couldn’t be worse — for him, or for her. I appreciate the two-sidedness of this movie. Marriage requires commitment and compromise by both partners. So does a career. Sometimes it’s just too much.

For the attorneys, the divorce has nothing to do with Charlie and Nicole; it’s all about winning, all about money.

Charlie and Nicole want to do this separation amicably, especially for the sake of Henry (Azhy Robertson), their adorable, playful, assertive young son. But once Nicole is persuaded to hire attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), all amicability is lost. So is all civility, as the attorneys compete to portray their client’s spouse as philandering, neglectful, and alcoholic. For the attorneys, the divorce has nothing to do with Charlie and Nicole; it’s all about winning, all about money.

For Charlie and Nicole, however, it’s not about stuff; it’s about the quality and direction of their lives. Where will they live — in California, where Nicole has a film career, or in New York, where Charlie is trying to hang onto his career as a director? Both of their careers have suffered from the marriage, and now both are suffering from the strain of a bicoastal divorce. And by the time custody of Henry is settled, he’ll be grown. “We’re draining his education fund on this divorce,” Charlie reminds Nicole, as he pleads with her to eliminate the attorneys and go back to self-filing.

Anyone who has had to go to court, especially family court, will appreciate what Charlie experiences as he negotiates the intricacies and unfairness of California law. Nora is glamorously warm and sympathetic as she slips off her red-soled stilettoes to curl up beside Nicole and offer a comforting shoulder during their first meeting, and she’s even more glamorously vicious as she pulls off her jacket and tears into Charlie’s reputation in the courtroom. Dern is powerful in this role. She strides through each scene with confidence and charm and cutthroat shrewdness. So are Alan Alda and Ray Liotta, Alda as the laidback attorney Charlie first hires, one so detached that he simply shrugs when the advice he gives turns out to be completely wrong, and Liotta as the $950-an-hour shark Charlie hires when he realizes, after meeting Nora, “I’m going to need my own asshole.”

We’ve all had those moments where the words come gushing out that are partially true yet patently false, when hate and love intermingle in a passion that spews venom and lost hope and despair.

Nicole believes she has lost ten years of her career in supporting Charlie, but Charlie feels loss too. “There’s so much I could have done! I was a director — in my twenties — who was suddenly on the cover of Time Out in New York! I was on my way! And I didn’t even want to get married. There’s so much I didn’t do!” In his anguish, Charlie is appalled to hear himself screaming, “I hate you!” into Nicole’s stricken face. “There are times that I dream you will die!” He dissolves into tears at this, and Nicole leans over him and caresses his shoulder. She understands. But she can’t give in. It’s an overpowering scene, full of hatred and love and white-hot passion, and acted with a rawness born of 50 exhausting, aching, emotional takes before Baumbach was finally ready to move on. The scene is so painful and so real it hits you in the gut. We’ve all had those moments where the words come gushing out that are partially true yet patently false, when hate and love intermingle in a passion that spews venom and lost hope and despair. In Marriage Story it is one of those perfect cinematic moments. If you have ever fought with someone you love, it will tear you apart.

Is marriage bad for one’s career? Perhaps a better question would be, is a career bad for one’s marriage? In the end, which is more important? I don’t think it’s possible for a marriage to support two high-powered careers. Not successfully. Not for the long haul. Something has to give, and nowadays it’s usually the marriage. But divorce does not provide simple solutions, especially when children are involved.

But speaking of career competition: Baumbach’s partner is Greta Gerwig, an actress and director. She and her supporters have complained loudly about Hollywood’s snubbing of her in the director category for Little Women, blaming it on misogyny. But there is good reason Baumbach has been nominated for director and Gerwig has not, and it has nothing to do with her gender. To understand, we need look no further than Laura Dern’s performances in the two movies. Both directors used her as their supporting actress, but Dern’s Marmee in Little Women is a mere caricature of the strong, gentle matriarch Alcott created in her book (see my review), while Dern’s Nina Fanshaw in Baumbach’s Marriage Story commands every scene. And Dern is winning award after award this season, for her performance in Baumbach’s movie, while Gerwig’s Florence Pugh, nominated for her supporting role as Amy in Little Women, is not.

There is good reason Baumbach has been Oscar-nominated for best director and Gerwig has not, and it has nothing to do with her gender.

Moreover, the climactic scene in Little Women, where Jo proclaims “Women, they have minds and they have souls as well as just hearts. And they've got ambition and they've got talent as well as just beauty, and I'm so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I'm so sick of it! But . . . I am so lonely!” feels like a polished speech, not a personal epiphany. As for her sister Amy’s much-lauded scene with Meryl Streep, where she proclaims, “I'm not a poet, I'm just a woman. And as a woman I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family. Even if I had my own money, which I don't, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married” — this is just silly. Her sister Jo is already supporting the family as a writer of fiction! Moreover, Amy’s feminist complaint falls a bit flat in light of the fact that she is at that moment choosing between two wealthy suitors. I stand by my review of Little Women, despite its critical accolades.

Marriage Story is real, and raw, and tender, and devastating. It is helped along by Randy Newman’s superbly evocative soundtrack, and it contains not one but two perfectly selected and perfectly delivered songs from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. It’s the finest piece of acting by Adam Driver to date — and that’s saying a lot for an actor who delivers emotionally in every piece he does (see my reviews of BlackKklansman and Silence for an example of his range). I don’t know which of the nine nominated films will win the Oscar for Best Picture this year, but Marriage Story certainly deserves to be in the running.


Editor's Note: Review of "Marriage Story," directed by Noah Baumbach. Netflix Studios, 2019, 137 minutes.



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Two Small Steps in the Right Direction

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In this journal I have repeatedly expressed my intense disapproval of President Trump, so it seems to me that intellectual honesty requires me to compliment his governance when it does something I consider right. Recently, the Boss’ administration took a couple of steps toward what I consider excellent policies, so let me so record the facts.

The first pertains to something I have written about in the past.[1] Movie studios had for decades both produced and distributed their films — often playing them in theaters they themselves owned. This meant that the producers of the films made money on everything from ticket sales to snack bar concessions. This in turn allowed producers enough of a profit to take chances with new actors and directors, new genres, and smaller audience “art” movies.

Once deprived of its lucrative distribution side, the filmmaking industry settled into producing predictable movies in predictable genres, with predictable scripts, and with a relatively few established stars.

However, in 1948 (in US v. Paramount Pictures), the US Supreme Court ruled that studios could no longer control distribution. That meant they could no longer profit from concessions or control what theaters could show. The 1948 ruling widely prohibited practices such as studios owning their own theaters, limiting how their films could be shown, and “block booking” (i.e., requiring theaters to play a group of their movies or else be forbidden to any of them).

If you look at independent film critics’ lists of the best films of all time, the lion’s share were produced before the ruling was fully implemented by the Justice Department (in the mid-1950s or so). Nevertheless, once deprived of its lucrative distribution side, the filmmaking industry settled into producing predictable movies — including remakes — in predictable genres, with predictable scripts, and with a relatively few established stars. In recent years, this tendency has taken the form of endless sequels and prequels — Spiderman 78, Saw 89, Star Wars 95. For actors we see few amazing talents, discovered by wide-ranging talent scouts, but just more and more children or nieces or nephews of existing Hollywood insiders.

The original ruling was dubious to begin with. When the Federal Leviathan came up with this “anti-monopoly” action, there were five major and several smaller studios producing hundreds of movies a year. Some monopoly! However, the independent theater owners’ desire for access to other companies’ property carried the day — perhaps to the benefit of the small theater owners, but surely to the detriment of the lawful owners of the content (i.e., the studios) and the consumers as well. This was classic rentseeking in action.

The 1948 ruling led to a decline in the number and quality of films, giving people more reason to stay home rather than visit the theater.

Well, the revolution in the entertainment industry wrought by the internet has resulted in the rise of major companies — Netflix, Amazon, and recently Disney — producing and distributing their own product directly to the consumers’ homes. As a recent article in the WSJ notes, the Department of Justice has now announced that it will remove the regulations restricting distribution by producers directly to theaters. As Makin Delrahim, Justice’s top antitrust attorney, put it, “As the movie industry goes through more changes with technological innovation, with new businesses and new business models, it is our hope that the termination of the Paramount decrees clears the way for consumer-friendly innovation.”

The article claims that the DOJ’s move is a blow to the nation’s diminishing number of independent theaters and small independent studios, because it will force them into a release calendar that is dominated by expensive productions of the major studios. Half the 40,000 screens in America are controlled by three chains (AMC, Cinemark, and Regal), so smaller theater operators are already nervous about being put out of business. They complain about not being able to afford the heavy distribution prices that big studios demand for major hits. Using this past year as an example, 27% of all North American ticket sales have been for just five movies — four produced by Disney, naturally. So the small theater owners (represented by the National Association of Theater Owners, aka “NATO”) not unnaturally fear the DOJ’s letting these regulations lapse. But I would suggest to NATO and the theater owners it represents that they are not seeing the whole picture, and that if they did, they wouldn’t fear the change.

First, let’s make the obvious point that despite the onerous and longstanding restrictions put on the content providers (i.e., the studios), movie houses have been closing anyway. From 1995 to 2018, the number of theaters dropped from 7,744 to 5,803 — a loss of 25%. And the reason is clear: it is the same reason that individual retail stores and whole shopping malls have been closing — the Amazon effect. In retail sales, the internet has made many trips to the local store or mall unnecessary; the consumer can get what he wants online and have it delivered to his house, saving all the time, expense, and hassle of driving around. Similarly, the rise of cable and internet streaming has allowed TV, which started its rise as a competitor to the movies in the 1950s, to explode in audience size.

If more theaters are lost in the near future, this will probably not be because the 1948 regulations are going to be removed.

Adding to this “Amazon effect” that TV has had since its inception (the effect of allowing entertainment content to be delivered to the consumer at home) is the amazing technological development of the medium itself. The development of cable, and then internet streaming — along with the creation of big screen panel TVs and home surround sound systems — has enabled a home theater experience to come closer to a real theater experience than was ever before imaginable. I suspect that not long from now, we will have walls in our homes that are TV screens, just as in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451.

So to a large extent, the trend of theaters closing is an outgrowth of TV expansion. The 1948 ruling did not stop this; it just led to a decline in the number and quality of films, again giving people more reason to stay home rather than visit the theater. If more theaters are lost in the near future, this will probably not be because the 1948 regulations are going to be removed.

But this is just a negative defense of removing the restrictions. I think a positive case can also be made, that allowing producers to own theaters will likely increase the number and variety of them.

The experience of watching a film alone or with your family and friends is quite different from that of viewing it in the company of a large number of strangers.

Start with the idea that single producers — say, Netflix — could own their own theater chains to first present their own content. Recently, Netflix premiered a major production (The Irishman) on TV first, and only then to theaters — presumably because it was the way to maximize receipts upon release. With its own theaters, it could debut films in them for maximum revenue, and later make them available on TV. More revenue would mean more original films it could then produce. It could build a chain of new theaters to do this, or it could buy out a large number of independent ones, or even join them in a franchise arrangement. You can imagine Netflix, Disney, HBO, and so on having large chains running only their own productions, allowing for the showing of shorts, cartoons, and serials as well, along with the sales of large amounts of accompanying merchandise. Again, this would lead to even more revenue, which would support even more production.

Next consider the possibility of “mixed use” theaters. Amazon — already producing some of its own content — could put together a chain of theaters where people could pick up or return their on-line orders, and also see a flick. Other retail players — such as Walmart, which has a large internet presence of its own — might be tempted to start producing and distributing its own movies, perhaps by buying an already existing movie producer (HBO, Hallmark/Crown Media, or such) and expanding its operations.

The reason I am so optimistic about the future of movie theaters is simple. The experience of watching a film alone or with your family and friends is quite different from that of viewing it in the company of a large number of strangers. It’s called “social proof” — look it up.

Much of the data is dispiriting, but there is some comfort in it.

The second area where this administration deserves a compliment is in education policy. The WSJ reports that the Department of Education has released a large amount of new data showing what students are earning on average after graduation, and what their average student debt load is. What is novel about this mass of data is the granularity, the nice specificity of the information, which is provided by major and college.

We learn that one of the best returns on an education investment comes from getting a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from MIT. People with that degree averaged $120,300 in first year’s income, with an average student debt load of $8,200. That is perhaps no surprise, but the fact that bachelor’s degrees in business administration from Bismarck State College average $100,500 in initial salaries perhaps is.

Alas, many other programs are not so lucrative. Dentists graduating from NYU averaged $69,000 right after graduation, but had an average student loan debt load of $387,600. Bachelor’s grads in computer science from DeVry University-Illinois earned $37,800 on average while owing an average $53,400. (The same degree from Wichita State University led to $61,800 in average starting salary and only $31,000 in debt.) Graduates in rhetoric and composition from Columbia University earned a meager $19,700 upon graduation, but had a debt load of $28,500. Undergrad degrees in theater from the University of Alabama averaged $14,000 in first-year income with an average debt load of $25,000. And those who got their Master’s in Theater from USC averaged only $30,800 initially, but had a debt of $100,800.

Ironically, though, business ethicists are all college professors, and colleges have seldom if ever provided accurate data about how much their products really benefit their consumers.

This data set is gathered from a website first set up by the Obama administration called the “College Scorecard,” and covers over 36,000 programs at 4,400 colleges, using input from millions of recent college grads. It is limited in one respect: it covers only students who received financial aid, and it excludes debt that parents assume. Much of the data is dispiriting, but there is some comfort in it. Despite the recent inflation in college tuition (driven in great measure by the federal student loan program, which has allowed American students to rack up a collective $1.5 trillion in debt), in 85% of the programs for which data are available, grads earned more in their first year than their total debt — although this means that in 15% of programs, students had total debt greater than their first-year incomes. In 2% of the programs, the students’ debt load was double the initial incomes.

I agree with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that “the best way to attack the ever-rising costs of college is to drive real transparency.” Yet releasing data about schools, majors, incomes, and student debt levels isn’t merely good public policy. It seems to me a moral imperative. It is a truism of business ethics that for any purchase to be ethical, it must be possible for the consumer to obtain all materially relevant information about the product. Ironically, though, business ethicists are all college professors, and colleges have seldom if ever provided accurate data about how much their products really benefit their consumers.

My only concern is whether Trump will follow through on these policies. With the Boss, this is always an issue.


[1]See “The Rise of the Comic Book Movie” in Liberty, October 2008. For an extended defense of my claims in that piece, see “The History of Cinema and America’s Role in It” in Reason Papers (July 2014).




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Shrinking Audience, Shrinking Stage

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Americans are getting tired of the debates. Back in June, when so many Democrats itched to be president that the talkfests were spread over two days, 27.1 million people tuned in by live TV and streaming. Voters didn’t know some of these Democrats, and wanted to get a sense of them — who Pete Buttigieg was, for example, and how to pronounce his name. By the July debates, viewership dropped by half, and by November, half again; and in December to 6.2 million on live television.

That’s one of every 25 of the 153 million registered voters in the United States. So if you missed it, don’t upbraid yourself. This time I was going to miss it and go to a movie, but it snowed and I stayed home and watched the debate after all. So here goes . . .

Six candidates made the cut, which was based on polls and number of donors. Some of the excluded candidates and their supporters bellyached that all six who made the cut were white — which meant what? Those excluded were Michael Bennet, Michael Bloomberg, John Delaney, Deval Patrick, Tulsi Gabbard, and Andrew Yang. The thing they have in common is not race, but failure to connect with voters. Then, during the debate, Bernie Sanders was confronted about a remark he supposedly made in a private conversation two years ago that Elizabeth Warren would have difficulty being elected because she is a woman. He denied it and she, by her response, essentially confirmed it. Which means — what? For once I felt sorry for the guy.

Some of the excluded candidates and their supporters bellyached that all six who made the cut were white — which meant what?

They piled on Sanders for another matter — all the taxpayer money he planned to unleash in his Medicare for All plan. The moderator asked whether his single-payer system would “bankrupt the country.” Sanders’ answer was that yeah, it would cost trillions, but Americans would be done with premiums, deductibles, and copays, and that those added up to more. Therefore, his Medicare for All would cost less. Perhaps this was another political lie, but the Vermont socialist clearly believes it. And I think he could be right about it. If Sanders designed a European-type system, and Congress accepted his version of it, it might well save money. The Canadian system is cheaper than ours, the British system is cheaper than the Canadian, the Cuban system is cheaper than the British, and probably the North Korean system is cheaper than the Cuban. Sanders even said that he might have pharmaceuticals manufactured by the government. Under such rules, it is completely possible for a single-payer system to cost less than the system we have now. The new system would feel Spartan, and Americans would hate it, and probably it would kill off innovation from the biopharmaceutical and medical device companies. But it is possible.

Warren, who had played the role of Sanders’ ideological sidekick, moved to differentiate herself. The federal government contracts out a lot of things, she said. Maybe it could contract out the manufacture of generic drugs. “This is a way to make markets work,” she said. “You don’t even have to use price controls.”

She believes in capitalism, remember?

One of the interviewers asked Sanders about his socialism, and mentioned a poll that said two-thirds of Democrats didn’t agree with it. He didn’t back down. Yes, he said. He was for healthcare as a human right, a takeover of the pharmaceutical and health-insurance industries, public college for all, a green New Deal, and a $15 minimum wage.

The new system would feel Spartan, and Americans would hate it, and probably it would kill off innovation from the biopharmaceutical and medical device companies. But it is possible.

No boos from the audience. A couple of other candidates made veiled comments — Amy Klobuchar talked about “grand ideological sketches” and Buttigieg talked of ideas deemed bold “based on how many Americans they would alienate” — but nobody followed up with an attack on Sanders’ socialism. Not the candidates, not the moderators, not the audience.

For the Democratic Party that is notable.

Mostly the performances followed worn paths, but occasionally there was a glimmer of the new. Buttigieg opined that Democrats really ought to talk about the federal deficits and the public debt — a topic they’d been ignoring in all the debates — and then he didn’t talk about it. Klobuchar, who opposes free college for rich kids, said the real problem will be to train more home healthcare workers and nurses. “We’re not going to have a shortage of MBAs, we’re going to have a shortage of plumbers,” she said. Which means — what?

Warren was for prioritizing climate change, but she would also ban fracking. Klobuchar disagreed. “I see natural gas as a transition fuel,” she said. But the Minnesota senator dared not say anything critical of wind or solar — nor did any of the others. Biden briefly mentioned his proposal to set up 500,000 charging stations for electric cars. No one asked him where he expected the electricity to come from — or the money, for that matter.

Buttigieg opined that Democrats really ought to talk about the federal deficits and the public debt — a topic they’d been ignoring in all the debates — and then he didn’t talk about it.

Biden’s point, which he inserted when he could, was his experience. Others talked; he had done it. He made this sound petulant, but really it was an important point. Ideas are not everything. The presidency is a job in which experience matters, particularly previous time in a high-level executive job. Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush had been governors of large states, Jimmy Carter had been governor of a medium-sized state, and Bill Clinton had been governor of a small state. Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and George H.W. Bush were former vice presidents, and each had other political positions before that. Herbert Hoover was a famous Secretary of Commerce who had led the US effort for to relieve the Russian famine of 1920–21. Dwight Eisenhower had been supreme commander of Allied armies in Western Europe. John Kennedy, probably the least qualified of the group, had been in the House of Representatives for six years and the Senate for eight years.

Standards have slipped since the 20th century. A couple of election cycles back, I raised the question of the experience of Ron Paul, who was carrying the libertarian banner among the Republicans. Paul was a backbencher in the House of Representatives. The most recent president I could find who had been elected out of the House was James Garfield in 1880 — and Garfield was a frontbencher who would have taken a seat in the Senate (courtesy of the Massachusetts legislature) had he not been elected president. Garfield had also been a major general in the Civil War.

Many libertarians supported Ron Paul because they agreed with him. Few of his supporters asked whether he was qualified to be president, which he really wasn’t.

People forget that in 2008 Barack Obama had been a US senator for only two years. His lack of qualifications would have been a big Republican talking point had John McCain not run with Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. McCain’s decision gave the experience issue to the Democrats. Obama also defused it by choosing longtime Senator Joe Biden as his running mate.

Few of Ron Paul's supporters asked whether he was qualified to be president, which he really wasn’t.

In 2016 Donald Trump ran for president as a real estate tycoon, but that was a generous characterization. Trump’s name was plastered on high-rise towers, but he didn’t own the properties. He’d been bankrupt. Really he was a promoter, a showman, a high-level bullshitter. Trump was intelligent enough to have earned an MBA from the Wharton School and to outwit his Republican rivals in 2016, but nonetheless he was unqualified to be president.

And he was not the only such candidate. Ben Carson, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2016, was a neurosurgeon, and in this cycle Democrat Marianne Williamson was a writer of self-help books who offered to beat Trump with a campaign of “love.” Democrat Andrew Yang is an entrepreneur of modest success, and Tom Steyer is an entrepreneur of larger success, but the government is not a business.

Consider the other five Democrats who made it into the January 14 debates. Joe Biden, with a long career in the Senate and eight years as vice-president, is obviously qualified. (Comments about qualifications are not endorsements.) Amy Klobuchar has been in the Senate for 13 years and Bernie Sanders 12 years. Elizabeth Warren has been in the Senate for 7 years and before that was a professor at Harvard Law. Not bad. Pete Buttigieg, who was mayor of South Bend, Indiana, for eight years — he just stepped down — is the least qualified of the five.

Donald Trump ran for president as a real estate tycoon, but that was a generous characterization. Really he was a promoter, a showman, a high-level bullshitter.

Now to age. In today’s America we are constrained not to say anyone is too old to do anything, even to be president of the United States. It’s “ageist.” Well, to hell with that. I’m 68 years old, and I freely admit that I’m too old to do a whole bunch of things. President of the United States is a taxing job. Twelve years of it killed Franklin Roosevelt, and eight years of it visibly aged Bill Clinton.

Until the election of Donald Trump, America’s oldest president was Ronald Reagan, who in 1981 was inaugurated a couple of weeks before turning 70. I saw Reagan up close in 1984, when he was 73, and he looked terrible. He served for almost five more years, but was visibly in decline by the time he left office.

Are Sanders and Biden too old? I believe so. Trump is not exactly a marathon runner, either.

Trump would be 74 on January 20, 2021. Joe Biden would be 78 and Bernie Sanders would be 79. The red-faced Sanders recently had a heart attack. Biden mumbles his lines. Are Sanders and Biden too old? I believe so. Trump is not exactly a marathon runner, either. Elizabeth Warren would be 71, but she seems younger, and women live on average five years longer than men. Amy Klobuchar would be 60 — what in this group would qualify as early middle age.

The youngest presidents we’ve had were John Kennedy, who was 42 when he took office in 1961, and Theodore Roosevelt, also 42 when he took office in 1901, after the death of William McKinley. Bill Clinton was 46 and Barack Obama was 47. Pete Buttigieg would be 38, which is just three years past the minimum age set in the constitution. You might select a 38-year-old of striking accomplishments to be president of the United States, but the former mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana? Vice president, perhaps. He is a smart guy.

Finally, I look at the political tea leaves. As I write, it is less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Bernie Sanders is ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire. He has the highest poll numbers — barely — and the most committed base of support. I don’t think Sanders will win the nomination, because as his rivals drop out their support will move to candidates less radical than he. But this could be wishful thinking. In 2016 I thought there was no way the Republican Party would nominate Donald Trump. And it did.




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Tyler Cowen’s “State Capacity Libertarianism”

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Tyler Cowen recently posted an argument on his web page, Marginal Revolution, called, “What Libertarianism Has Become and Will Become: State Capacity Libertarianism.”

Terrible name, I thought. But I kept reading.

Cowen, who is professor of economics at George Mason University and director of its Mercatus Center, is probably the most prominent mainstream libertarian intellectual today. (In essence, “mainstream” means that nonlibertarians will listen to him.) His webpage shows a mind ranging from the history of the Marshall Plan to the economics of art to how globalization affects the way the world eats.

The essence of Cowen’s view is that civilization has always needed a functioning state to underpin property rights and markets, and that in the 21st-century it needs one to solve a range of problems.

He begins his piece as follows:

“Having tracked the libertarian ‘movement’ for much of my life, I believe it is now pretty much hollowed out, at least in terms of flow. One branch split off into Ron Paul-ism and less savory alt-right directions, and another, more establishment branch remains out there in force but not really commanding new adherents.”

The problem, he says, is that plumb-line libertarianism doesn’t address some 21st-century problems, starting with the effects of carbon combustion on the Earth’s climate. Smart libertarians and classical liberals, he says (with a nod to Adam Smith), “have, as if guided by an invisible hand, evolved into a view that I dub with the entirely non-sticky name of State Capacity Libertarianism.”

(Entirely non-sticky: correct.)

We need the state. And let’s admit that state power has achieved some vital things that were not going to be done by markets alone.

The essence of Cowen’s view is that civilization has always needed a functioning state to underpin property rights and markets, and that in the 21st-century it needs one to solve a range of problems from global warming and traffic congestion. “State Capacity Libertarians,” Cowen writes, “are more likely to have positive views of infrastructure, science subsidies, nuclear power (requires state support!), and space programs than are mainstream libertarians or modern Democrats.”

That’s right. We need the state. And let’s admit that state power has achieved some vital things that were not going to be done by markets alone. One is the creation of public-health institutions that can protect the public from such scourges as smallpox, polio, AIDS, SARS, and Ebola. Another is to make markets work better by requiring the disclosure of information such as the contents of processed food or the legal properties of stocks and bonds.

“Plumb-line” libertarians — the purists — will, of course, object that Cowen has opened the door to the state, which nonlibertarians will attempt to kick open all the way. And it is so. In the world of opinion journalism Cowen’s opened door was wrenched off its hinges by Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen in a piece entitled, “Libertarianism Is Losing Its Grip on Conservative Thought. Good.”

To Olsen, libertarians are zealots who declare “government always bad, private action always good.” And there are people like that. Olsen argues that this means libertarians “are congenitally unable to present plausible answers to challenges that people want addressed.” As an example, he cites the economic gap in Britain between the prosperous South and depressed North, an ailment to which the U.K.’s prime minister, the “one-nation conservative” Boris Johnson, now promises to minister. Olsen also cites the push by Sen. Mario Rubio (R-FL), for federal intervention to shore up “hollowed-out” manufacturing industries. Olsen applauds these proposals. He favors a politics in which “democratic governments can legitimately define a problem and then use tax, spending and regulatory policy to try to accomplish a specific, publicly defined goal.”

The purists will, of course, object that Cowen has opened the door to the state, which nonlibertarians will attempt to kick open all the way. And it is so.

Olsen goes on to argue that too many Republicans in Congress have been cowed by libertarians with their “government bad, private action good” mantra, so that the Republicans offer no solutions to such problems as health insurance coverage, climate change and “the modern economy’s impulse to value formal education and devalue common labor.” Olsen concludes, “Cowen’s essay is thus aptly timed, bringing a ray of sunshine into a long-darkened movement . . . The hard core will try to keep the rest of us in the shadows, but the days will lengthen as more and more conservatives break free from their frozen slumber.”

Shadows and dark forces aside, there is some truth in what Olsen says. Several of the Democratic presidential wannabees are pushing for the entire U.S. health insurance industry to be scrapped and replaced by federal officials. The Republicans oppose this, of course, but mainly by dragging their feet, which is not a strategy that ultimately wins. For years now, the Republicans in Congress have promised to repeal Obamacare, but when they had the votes to do it, they didn’t. They had nothing politically acceptable to replace it with. Now they are maneuvered into the position of effectively defending the program they promised to kill.

So Olsen has a point. If you are too doctrinaire you remove yourself from the discussion and you get nothing. But in defining his position, Olsen opens the door to state action much too wide. He wants government to take up “the challenges that people want addressed.” And that could be anything.

Libertarians seek to limit state action. Cowen is arguing, as am I, not to imagine limits too strict. To defend against an imminent threat to the health and safety of the people, state power may be used against foreign army or an infectious microbe, or to defend against a long-term threat like a warming planet. But the problem Olsen defines as “the modern economy’s impulse to value formal education and devalue common labor” is not such an imminent threat. Nor is the relative decline of manufacturing. These are social trends, not imminent dangers. The percentage of Americans employed in manufacturing has been declining since 1953 — and with the advance of robotics, employment in that sector, if not production, will continue to decline. Get used to it.

Now Republicans are maneuvered into the position of effectively defending the program they promised to kill.

To a libertarian, the market value of different kinds of labor is a background fact that you take into account in your private decisions. If you grow up in a low-wage area with few opportunities, you can move away. You can stay and start a company and thereby provide work. If you can’t make it in manufacturing, you can do something else. Go into the service industry. Become a university professor. Sell hot dogs. Whatever. To a libertarian, these are not government problems.

In today’s America, they are. Politicians and journalists proclaim a manufacturing crisis, an opioid crisis, a homeless crisis, a student-loan crisis, a teen pregnancy crisis, a food-desert crisis, an obesity crisis, on and on. The thing is endless. Government is enlisted to eradicate poverty, inequality, racism, sexism and homophobia. Reacting to the crisis of plastic bits in the Pacific Ocean, the city where I live has banned plastic straws, and to address the obesity crisis (supposedly) it taxes the sugar content of canned and bottled drinks.

No libertarian can accept Olsen’s idea of a government unleashed in this way. You can, however, consider Olsen’s criticism. Some of the time, out of political necessity, it makes sense to accept compromise solutions. Charter schools are better than uniform public schools. A mandate to buy private health insurance is better than “Medicare for All.” A carbon tax is better than green socialism. As George Orwell once wrote, the sure sign of a zealot is an argument that half a loaf is the same as no bread.

Politicians and journalists proclaim a manufacturing crisis, an opioid crisis, a homeless crisis, a student-loan crisis, a teen pregnancy crisis, a food-desert crisis, an obesity crisis, on and on. The thing is endless.

Consider some of the replies to Cowen from libertarians.

Jeff Deist of the Mises Institute was against him. “There is no political will or constituency for skillful technocratic state management of society . . . There is no third way between state and market.” Come on, Deist, don’t try to win by asserting theoretical categories. A society can have some state and some market — which is what we do have, here and in almost every jurisdiction on the planet, in various proportions. That’s what we’re talking about, and you know it. “Western states won't give up their sclerotic regulatory, tax, central banking, and entitlement systems no matter how many flying cars or hyperloops we want.” Yep, they probably won’t, just as Cowen says. “Climate change is not a problem or issue for anyone to solve.” Well, maybe not for anyone to solve, but perhaps for all of humanity to ameliorate — and intelligent amelioration might be good enough. “The environmental movement will quash nuclear (especially after Fukushima).” Maybe, but arguing in favor of nuclear power as part of the solution makes more sense than the environmentalist position, which is to pin all our hopes on solar and wind.

Deist also has his definition. “Libertarianism simply means ‘private.’ It is a non-state approach to organizing human society. It is not narrow or confining; in fact everything Cowen desires in an improved society can be advanced through private mechanisms.” Everything, eh? This reminds me of when I was a teenager and I wrote to Nathaniel Branden asking him how we would build highways without eminent domain. He replied that in a free society this would not be a problem, “nor has it ever been.”

Bryan Caplan offers a piece titled, “Worst Advice to Libertarians Ever?” He quotes Cowen’s lines, “We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.” Okay; Cowen didn’t say he liked growing government, but that he was willing to accept much of it. I don’t think this means, as responder Gabriel M. says, that Cowen “wants the next generation of libertarians to be social democrats.”

Arguing in favor of nuclear power as part of the solution makes more sense than the environmentalist position, which is to pin all our hopes on solar and wind.

Cowen replies to Caplan: “Bryan’s extreme rhetoric is a sign my points have hit home. I regularly debate these topics with him over lunch, I think Bryan is tired of being beat up upon in person. Note that in my essay I mention pandemics, global warming, and intellectual property as problem areas. There are plenty of facts on each topic. Bryan doesn’t mention one of these in response, instead shifting ground to the war on terror and resource pessimism, which he then punctures.”

When you argue against someone, rhetorical fairness requires that you take on their strongest points, not just their weakest ones.

At the Hoover Institution, economist David Henderson argues that “libertarianism, properly conceived, can handle almost all the modern problems that Cowen throws at it, whereas state capacity is fraught with danger.” Henderson argues that hardcore libertarians are right about recreational drugs, which maybe they are (meth, too?), and about the public schools. (Totally privatized schooling in one jump, or vouchers, or charters first?) He allows that on global warming, “if it is indeed a problem,” Cowen makes a good point. Maybe a carbon tax is needed, though how to get China pay its share? And do we really trust the government to get the details right? (What’s the alternative?) Henderson is right that there is some danger in Cowen’s position, but he also makes a crucial concession about global warming.

Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason, argues that Cowen’s “spirit is on target” but that his “specifics are fundamentally mistaken.” He goes on to concede, however, that Cowen is mostly right about the movement not commanding new adherents. And concerning the necessity of compromise, Gillespie writes that a better, non plumb-line definition of libertarianism is “an outlook that privileges things such as autonomy, open-mindedness, pluralism, tolerance, innovation, and voluntary cooperation over forced participation in as many parts of life as possible." I like that definition a lot, and I think Cowen would like it. It seems to me that Gillespie accepts much of what Cowen says.

Maybe a carbon tax is needed, though how to get China pay its share? And do we really trust the government to get the details right? (What’s the alternative?)

Dan Hugger of the Acton Institute argues that Cowen’s “state capacity libertarianism” “is actually a case for a politically pragmatic libertarianism tailor-made to a hostile audience.” Okay.

Several commenters describe Cowen’s position as left-liberal or social democrat — in other words, “liberaltarian.” These are sort-of libertarians who want to ally with Left in the hope of converting them. Read some of the comments from leftists on Olsen’s piece in the Washington Post.

  • “Libertarians are cruel,” writes Jetmechanic1. “Probably more so than republicans. They are overwhelmingly people who have money and status and don’t answer to anyone.”
  • “Libertarianism will never go away because Conservatives will always need a rationalization for ripping people off,” writes Blochead1.
  • “These people will eat you if they make a dime from it,” writes CountryMouse2.
  • “I’ve yet to hear of even ONE Libertarian of any stripe refusing to accept their Social Security checks,” writes CubbyMichael. (Isabel Paterson was one.)
  • From Domiba: “Tell a so-called libertarian to pave his own road.”
  • Then there is Kumit, who asserts that conservatism and libertarianism both are “just dog-whistle fascism.” (The “dog whistle” trope is a way of dismissing your opponents’ arguments without having to consider them.)

We are not allies of the Left. They don’t want anything to do with us. Cowen’s version of a compromised libertarianism is not “liberaltarianism” in any case.

Cowen’s positions are not plumb-line, but they are broadly libertarian. To me, the central statement of libertarianism is that your life belongs to you. This doesn’t mean that you don’t love your family or your country or the green Earth, or that you accept no obligations to them. It means that you decide which ones to accept, and that others respect your decision. You accept the world as you find it and make your own way. You can ask others for help, and if you treat them kindly you have a good chance of getting it, but you can’t demand it of them. “Society” does not owe you food, shelter, housing, medical care and a free bus pass.

Our opponents accuse us of saying, “You are on your own,” as if we were cutting people off from humanity. And I think: No way. You are free to make all kinds of affiliations, and most people do. But you decide — what you believe, whom you love, whom you live with, where you live, what work you do and how you spend your money.

You accept the world as you find it and make your own way. You can ask others for help, and if you treat them kindly you have a good chance of getting it, but you can’t demand it of them.

In many of these things, we are essentially a libertarian society right now. Our politics is not libertarian, but even in our economic life, we are broadly more libertarian than not.

The case for liberty is also about the quality of the society. A society of private decisions is fluid. Freewheeling. Organic. Its direction is set by the sum of people’s choices, of which only a small part is how they vote. More important is what they do. It is the same in industry. The future of the medical industry, for example, requires that innovators constantly develop new drugs, new devices, new treatments and new ideas. A single payer will tend to roll a moldy carpet over all that. Regarding research and development spending, Terence Kealey wrote in The Economic Laws of Scientific Research (1996), “Nationalization always lowers budgets, whatever the enterprise.” (p. 247). Especially when there is no competition — and that is what “single payer” means — government services tend to be not too good.

The political world of 2020 doesn’t want to hear this. The candidates vie with one another to offer free stuff and secular salvation. One is an avowed socialist, and none is a libertarian. Still we have a good case, and we can make it stronger if we are not so dogmatic about it. Life is complicated, and an entire political philosophy built on the nonaggression principle will not work and will not sell. But we can still promote a world of strong (if not absolute) self-ownership, self-reliance and individual rights. We can say what H.L. Mencken said of the freedom of the press, when asked how much of it he was for. His answer was, simply, “As much as people can stand.”




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The Just and the Unjust

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“Mob justice” isn’t justice at all.

If you remember the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, you remember Richard Jewell, the security guard who discovered a backpack with a pipe bomb hidden inside it under a bench in Centennial Park. First lauded as a hero, Jewell was then accused in the press of having planted the bomb himself in order to garner public attention. He was never charged, and Eric Robert Rudolph later pled guilty to the crime. But Jewell’s reputation was destroyed and his life forever changed by the overzealous reporting of journalists eager to get a jump on the story. It happened nearly 25 years ago, yet it’s as timely today as the most recent Internet shaming.

In Clint Eastwood’s excellent film about the case, Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is not a likeable guy. Pushy, fat, and a little slow, he’s too “law-and-order,” toso much in other people’s business, for most people to want to befriend. He has gone through a series of second-rate jobs, from supply clerk to police department washout to campus security guard. Each time he goes too far in his zeal to do his job, and each time he gets fired. He still lives with his mother (Kathy Bates) in a small Tupperware-filled apartment, where a large photograph of him in his now-defunct police uniform is prominently displayed on the living room wall.

Yes, Jewell is socially awkward. That doesn’t make him guilty.

Jewell’s reputation was destroyed and his life forever changed by the overzealous reporting of journalists eager to get a jump on the story.

But he “fits the profile,” and that’s all the press needs to skewer him. Newspaper journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is just as eager as Jewell to do her job well and garner the respect of her peers. Shortly after the bombing she prays in mock appeal, “Dear God, Please let us find this guy first. And please let him be fucking interesting!” Soon she is fucking lead FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) in exchange for the name of a suspect. Scruggs accuses Jewell of destroying people's lives just for the publicity, and ironically, that’s exactly what she does to Jewell. Once her story hits the wires, Jewell’s life explodes like the bomb he is suspected of setting. Wilde plays Scruggs brilliantly, from self-assured seductress using her sex to get a story to elated reporter celebrating her front-page scoop to contrite whistleblower realizing that she has blown the wrong whistle.

A great deal stands out in this fine movie, from the acting to the pacing to the injustice of the story. Particularly appalling are the dirty tricks Shaw uses to sidestep Jewell’s Miranda rights and his decision to remain silent. Hamm, known for his role as advertising executive Don Draper in AMC’s Mad Men, could not be better as a pleasantly manipulative bastard of an FBI agent. The interrogation reminds me of a former student I knew at Sing Sing — let’s call him JD — who was just 16 when he was nabbed by the police on his way to school and interrogated for more than ten hours about the murder of a classmate, without his mother’s knowledge or an attorney present. Why did they suspect him of the murder? Because some classmates, eager to share what they “knew” with the police, noted that JD was “socially awkward” and had been “really broken up” at the girl’s funeral. He was “the type” to do it, just as Jewell was “the type” to set a bomb just so he could enjoy the notoriety of discovering it.

In JD’s case, the cops lied to him, confused him, terrified him. They convinced him he was “not allowed” to see his mother or an attorney until he signed a confession. Then everything will be OK, they promised, shoving the confession toward him just as Shaw shoves the Miranda waiver toward Jewell. And on the strength of that signed confession, our JD was sentenced to life in prison. Sixteen years later, using DNA evidence that proved he did not commit the crime, the Innocence Project helped JD secure a release. But his life, like Richard Jewell’s, would never be the same. No one had believed in him when he was on the inside, not even his mother. He felt utterly alone.

Shortly after the bombing she prays in mock appeal, “Dear God, Please let us find this guy first. And please let him be fucking interesting!”

One person who does believe in Jewell is his attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). Bryant is a loose cannon who wears cargo shorts and short-sleeved shirts and doesn’t necessarily play well with others. A poster behind the desk in his office says, “I fear government more than I fear terrorism.” While his client is a superpatriot who believes in law and order, Bryant is a cautious American with a wise distrust of government. His girlfriend Nadya is a Soviet immigrant who wisecracks, “Where I come from, when the government says someone is guilty, that’s how you know they’re innocent.” Rockwell is completely comfortable in Bryant’s skin. You’ll like him.

The other person who believes completely in Jewell is his mother. In the early days after the bombing, Bobi Jewell glows with bashful pride as she watches her son being interviewed on “the TV.” Her son — a hero! Bates is known for playing strong, quirky, independent women, but the timid, unassuming Bobi Jewell is perhaps her strongest role of all. She is wearing yellow dishwashing gloves when the FBI arrive at their door. An eager smile adorns her face as she anticipates why they are here — a smile that fades into confused despair when she realizes that they have come to interrogate their suspect, not to interview her hero.

This is an important film, not only because it tells Jewell’s story, but also because it reveals the shenanigans of both law enforcement and the media as they stop at nothing — even the evidence — to get their man and their story.

I was surprised and pleased to see listed as producers of this film Leonardo diCaprio and Jonah Hill, who usually align with the radically liberal side of Hollywood rather than conservative directors such as Clint Eastwood. Perhaps some in Hollywood are finally getting it: there’s a reason many of us fear government — and the media — more than terrorism.

"Richard Jewell" reveals the shenanigans of both law enforcement and the media as they stop at nothing — even the evidence — to get their man and their story.

I couldn’t help but compare this storyline to the one playing in the theater across the hall, Bombshell, another biopic about scandal in the newsroom. In Richard Jewell, when we first meet reporter Kathy Scruggs at the Atlanta Journal Constitution she is contemplating a boob job. “Another year and we’ll all be competing for TV,” she announces to her colleagues in the newsroom. “What do you think — D cups?” She then offers to trade sex for information from FBI agent Tom Shaw, and runs the story without corroborating it.

In Bombshell the gender roles are reversed, with the man propositioning the women in exchange for jobs and promotions. It deals with the accusations of sexual harassment brought first by Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and then by Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) against Fox CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), charging that he had required sexual favors in exchange for promises of promotions within the company.

In the film version of this story, Kelly, who has been harassed ten years earlier, quietly seeks the corroboration of other women in order to demonstrate a pattern of misbehavior that would strengthen the case. Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), Ailes’ current victim, chastises Kelly for not reporting it ten years earlier, telling her, “This wouldn’t have happened to me if you had said something then.” This is plausible. But Kayla, too, has been keeping quiet about the liaisons. She really wants the job. Such is the nature of workplace harassment — a woman is victimized if she acquiesces, and often loses her job if she doesn’t.

When the news about Carlson’s accusation breaks, Jeanine Pirro shifts into coverup mode, shouting, “We need everyone on Team Roger!”

As shocked and appalled as Hollywood actors and insiders pretended to be when Harvey Weinstein was arrested on sexual harassment charges, the stories that launched the “MeToo” movement did not occur all of a sudden, nor did they occur entirely in secret. The “casting couch” stretches back to the earliest days of Hollywood. Agents and even stage mothers often trained their starry-eyed starlets to “do whatever the director tells you to do” and then walked out the door to pretend they didn’t know what “whatever” might entail. Similarly, when Kayla tries to tell her friend Jess (Kate McKinnon) what Ailes has done, Jess tells her, “It’s better if you don’t tell me.” She knows, but she doesn’t want to know. Like the acting agent, she closes the door, and her eyes, on her way out.

So it isn’t too surprising that the female Fox News journalists, with the exception of dowdy Greta Van Susteren (Anne Ramsey), accept the role of glamour girl that “director” Roger Ailes imposes on them, donning their short formfitting dresses, their inch-long eyelashes, and their wavy hair extensions to deliver the news. And if protecting their jobs requires protecting their boss, they’ll do that too. When the news about Carlson’s accusation breaks, Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach) shifts into coverup mode, shouting, “We need everyone on Team Roger!” The ensuing scene juxtaposes newscasters fielding telephone calls from other journalists, frantically denying that they’re told what to wear on camera, with these same women pulling on body-smoothing Spanx, leg-lengthening high heels, and breast-plumping falsies. But no, “I’ve never been told I can’t wear pants,” says Kimberly Guilfoyle (Bree Condon) as she smooths her tight skirt.

The biggest problem with Bombshell is that it’s hard to tell the blondes apart.

Bombshell is interesting in a prurient, voyeuristic way, but hardly as compelling or well made as Eastwood’s Richard Jewell. For one thing, the story is more recent and familiar; I didn’t feel that I learned anything new about the case. For another, the acting in Bombshell is more two-dimensional and cookie-cutter: Theron’s Megyn Kelly is hard and steely; Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson is feminine and perky; Robbie’s Kayla is wide-eyed and frightened. There isn’t much depth or range to their characters.

The biggest problem with Bombshell, though, is that it’s hard to tell the blondes apart. They all have the same hairstyles, the same makeup styles, the same body styles, and the same stiletto heels. Carlson addresses this sameness indirectly when she says bitterly, “You know why they dress soldiers alike? To remind them that they’re replaceable.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Richard Jewell," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 131 minutes; and "Bombshell," directed by Jay Roach. Denver & Delilah Productions, 2019, 109 minutes.



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Qelling Qassem

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As libertarians, you would assume I am not writing this to defend the president, but, in the unlikely event this reflection escapes into the wild, I want to go on record that I did not vote for him last time around. I will not vote for him next time, I do not believe we should have troops in Iraq, and I do not think he should have killed Qassem Soleimani last week.

I think we should have done it years ago . . . the moment we first had him in our sights. I can speak with some authority on this because, half a century ago, the moral cowardice of doing nothing cost me five months in a series of army hospitals and the lives of something like 19 of my buddies.

Back when I drove a patrol boat in Vietnam I was assigned, along with a lot of others, Americans and soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam, to guard a bridge across the Saigon River. The North Vietnamese, naturally, wanted to blow up that bridge. They only had one group of sappers capable of doing that, and only four bridges in South Vietnam worth their effort. Three were on the coast. Ours was inland near the Cambodian border.

The moral cowardice of doing nothing cost me five months in a series of army hospitals and the lives of something like 19 of my buddies.

The odd thing is, we knew where the sappers were. We knew it at the squad level because, every now and then, our sergeant would update us.

“They’re in Hanoi, resting and refitting,” was the first thing we heard.

A few weeks later they’d disappeared from Hanoi. “If they show up on the coast, we’re off the hook. If they’re coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail, they’re heading for us.”

Then, “They’re in Laos. On the Trail.”

In a week or two they were in Cambodia.

We knew America had firepower unparalleled in the history of the world. What we did not have was the political will to use it.

Not long after, they were just across the Cambodian border: 32 river miles upstream. We knew where they were.

We knew why they were there, too. Officers. Men. Sergeants. We all knew.

And we knew something else: we knew America had firepower unparalleled in the history of the world. We had B-52’s. We had carrier-based bombers. We had AC-47 gunships that could put a 7.62 mm NATO slug into every square foot of an acre within seconds. We had attack helicopters with rockets and door gunners. We had artillery and mobile assault teams. What we did not have was the political will to use them and so, we sat on our hands

When sampans started drifting beneath our bridge, the men inside waved as they went by. Three nights later, the bridge went up in a huge explosion. My buddies died. Others were wounded. A bridge that had cost our nation taxes and thought and sweat and skill was gone and I was in the hospital knowing in my bones how serious wars are for the people we send to fight them. And how, if we’re not willing to fight, we shouldn’t be there.

But when we do have people there, we undertake an absolute moral obligation to treat the war as seriously as they have to, which means doing everything in our power to cover their backs. This means not shillyshallying around while the enemy gets into position to kill our people. And it definitely means not giving the likes of Qassem Soleimani a free pass to roam the Middle East murdering Americans.

A bridge that had cost our nation taxes and thought and sweat and skill was gone and I was in the hospital knowing in my bones how serious wars are for the people we send to fight them.

That man wasn’t sitting in his living room watching Netflix when we took him out. He was a uniformed soldier conducting military operations against our country. Specifically, he was an Iranian who, three days earlier, had dispatched a militia to attack the American embassy in Baghdad. He was as legitimate a target as a target could get, as legitimate as Isoroku Yamamoto when we sent our airmen to shoot him down over Bougainville.

I have no opinion as to whether taking out Soleimani disrupted specific future attacks on our troops. What I do have an opinion on is that Soleimani was a soldier, in uniform, on the battlefield, hip deep in killing Americans. And that Iranians have overrun and looted our embassies in the past, and taken our diplomats hostage. And that putting a stop to him was our only possible ethical response. Anything less would have been a betrayal of the people we send to fight people like Soleimani.




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A Mess of a Movie

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Could there be a happier Christmas movie than Little Women, with its story of generosity, kindness, familial love, and individuality? And yet — do we really need another version of Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece? It has been committed to film at least seven times, including versions starring Katharine Hepburn; June Allyson and Peter Lawford; Christian Bale and a slew of A-list women; and a sadly modernized mishmash just last year that grossed barely a million dollars. Nevertheless, here we are again, with yet another LW, this one purporting to bring Jo out of the shadows as a true feminist (as though Alcott hadn’t shone that light on Jo in her original telling, 150 years ago).

There is much for a libertarian to love about Alcott’s Little Women, including (some might say “despite”) its theme of voluntary sacrifice and charitable service. I happen to appreciate that Marmee teaches her girls to care for the poor from their own meager goods rather than expecting a government agency to do it (or worse, suggesting that the poor “got what they deserved”). Moreover, the wealthy landowner Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper) is kind and generous toward the March clan, rewarding their generosity toward others with generosity of his own. He may be rich, but he is not evil.

This Little Women purports to bring Jo out of the shadows as a true feminist, as though Alcott hadn’t shone that light on Jo in her original telling, 150 years ago.

In addition, Marmee (Laura Dern) demonstrates prudence, resourcefulness, and self-reliance as the head of the household while her husband (Bob Odenkirk) is serving in the Union army during the Civil War.

A side note: director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig couldn’t resist a few digs at modern white privilege, so she inserts an exchange between two schoolchildren about the war. It goes like this:

School girl 1: “Father says we should let them keep their labor. It’s none of our business.”

School girl 2: “Everyone benefits from their economic system. Why should only the South be punished?”

In another exchange, borrowing liberally from Michelle Obama, Gerwig has Marmee say to a black woman caring for wounded soldiers alongside her: “I spent my whole life ashamed of my country.”

Black woman: “You should still be ashamed.”Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

Me: Ugh! Such anachronisms. No one talked like this back then, least of all schoolchildren or black women chastising white women.

But back to the reasons a libertarian should like this story: Marmee teaches her girls at home, another aspect of the story that should appeal to libertarians. She allows them the freedom to develop their own interests and talents — no public schools deprive them of their time or assign them inane homework that saps their creativity. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is an accomplished musician, Amy (Florence Pugh) a budding artist, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) a skilled writer, and Meg (Emma Watson) an aspiring actress who loves to wear pretty dresses, and attend pretty parties. She also wants to get married and have babies, and in my opinion that’s perfectly all right (though not in this film, where marriage equals misery). Aunt March (Meryl Streep) tells Jo, “No one makes their own way in this world, especially a woman — unless you marry well.” Yet Marmee and Jo are making their way quite nicely. Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

There is also much to love about this movie, despite its storytelling flaws, especially its light and airy musical score by Alexandre Desplat, its sumptuous outdoor settings, its period costumes, and its artistic cinematography. Gerwig often places her actors as though for a painting or a portrait, almost like a Mary Cassatt or Jack Vettriano painting. At times it can seem a bit schmaltzy, as when she frames a proposal scene with overhanging trees that resemble a Valentine heart. But I rather appreciate the effect, which echoes Alcott’s sometimes-schmaltzy Victorian language, whether that was Gerwig’s intent or not.

But is this a satisfying interpretation of Alcott’s work? Notwithstanding its rave reviews, I think not.

Worst of all, Gerwig presents the shocking climaxes first and then tells us the relationships among the characters later, defusing our emotional response.

Most unsatisfactory is the disjointed telling of the story, with its self-inflicted spoilers, clunky flashbacks, and complicated scene changes. The film begins at the end, with Amy in Europe as Aunt March’s companion — so the audience will not experience the unexpected heartbreak when Jo learns that Amy has been chosen to take her place on the wonderful journey. Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is also in Europe, where Amy calls him a “vain, lazy, drunken sot.” And he is indeed a falling-down drunk at that point in this movie. This is the feminist version of LW, after all; I guess we can’t have our first impression of our leading man as the kind, generous, noble friend he has been to the March girls throughout their childhoods.

I happened to bring a visitor from Argentina to see the film with me. He had heard of the novel but had never read it or seen a film adaptation. He confessed that he could not follow the story — he knew there were flashbacks, but it was hard to tell which scenes were in which era, because Gerwig did not bother to provide visual markers — the hairstyles, settings and clothing were virtually the same in both the future and the past. Worst of all, Gerwig presents the shocking climaxes first and then tells us the relationships among the characters later, defusing our emotional response. We learn of Beth’s illness before we even know that she is a sister. We learn that Jo has rejected Laurie’s proposal before we have ever seen them together. We see Amy’s treachery in burning Jo’s manuscript before we see the tender love Jo has for her youngest sister, etc. Gerwig then quickly cuts to the past, where she provides brief glimpses of the relationships leading up to those moments.

My Argentinian friend was utterly lost. All he saw was a bunch of women bickering with one another. He didn’t even realize they were supposed to be teenagers because the actresses were all in their mid-20s. The only reason it worked for me at all is that I could tap into my remembered emotions from having read the book. Many young girls were in the audience with their mothers, presumably experiencing the story for the first time. I felt sorry for them. All they got out of it is that marriage is bad.

Uncontrolled laughter seems to be Hollywood’s go-to action nowadays for portraying joy; the more you laugh, the happier you must be.

Gerwig’s direction is clunky too. She chose to cast older actresses for the four sisters; then, to portray them in the flashbacks, she resorted to whiny petulance and temper tantrums to make them seem young. This does not work, especially for 12-year-old Amy, who is portrayed by the voluptuous Florence Pugh. Meanwhile, Timothee Chalamat as Laurie has a very boyish face and physique, and his head is so much smaller than Saoirse Ronan’s that they look almost freakish together.

The kind and noble Marmee is laughably portrayed as well. To demonstrate the joy and fun of the March household, Gerwig directed Dern to laugh uncontrollably much of the time, even at the simplest moments. (Uncontrolled laughter seems to be Hollywood’s go-to action nowadays for portraying joy; the more you laugh, the happier you must be.) Dern’s giggles create a caricature that feels more like a 1930s Mammy than the strong and gentle Marmee, which is unfortunate, because Dern is capable of so much more with so much less — a comforting touch, a beaming countenance, a disapproving glance could have been much more effective, as seen in her portrayal of the teacher in October Sky. She is allowed to display her full range only once — at the death of her beloved Beth. In most scenes she is a giggling goon.

Gerwig even failed with Meryl Streep, whose wooden performance as Aunt March made me long for the acerbic wit of Maggie Smith as the deliciously officious dowager in Downton Abbey. She delivers her lines with all the enthusiasm of a driver delivering a pizza. And if, as she and Jo claim, women had no rights to property in 19th-century America unless they acquired it themselves as single women, how is it that Aunt March inherited the family estate rather than her brother, the father of those little women? Now there’s a backstory I would love to explore!

My biggest disappointment is with Jo’s character. Not with Ronan’s portrayal — she’s fine. More than fine. But Gerwig, like Alcott, only skirted what I think is Jo’s true nature. Alcott hinted at Jo’s sexual orientation; Jo has a masculine name, while her love interest, Laurie, has a girl’s name. Jo usually plays the pirate and other masculine roles in the girls’ attic theatricals. And of course, Jo becomes the family breadwinner. I have long thought that Alcott planted these clues to hint that Jo is gay, in an era when hints were as far as a writer could go.

Gerwig claims to have created “a Little Women for the 21st century,” but in my opinion, she failed on all counts.

Gerwig almost gets there. In the movie, Laurie joins “a club for girls” when he is admitted to the March girls’ thespian society. Jo and Laurie often wear the same clothes, though not at the same time. When Jo rejects his proposal, she tells him, “I can’t love you as you want me to. I don’t know why. I can’t. I’ve tried it and I’ve failed.” And when Meg decides to marry, Jo pleads with her, “Don’t do it! Stay with me! You will be bored of him in two years — and we will be interesting forever!” She adds, “I would rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.” Yes, I thought. This time they will have the courage to get it right. Jo will come out of the closet at last.

And yet, for all the preening about the oppression of marriage — despite Amy arguing with Laurie, “Don’t tell me marriage isn’t an economic proposition because it is! . . . If I marry, my money would belong to my husband and my children would be his property,” and Aunt March sighing, “Until [Amy] marries someone obscenely wealthy it is up to me to keep the family afloat” — the conflict and climax of the movie resides in Jo discovering that she loves Laurie after all. “Women have minds and they have souls as well as hearts and they have ambition,” she admits, “but I’m so lonely!” And so she writes Laurie the love letter telling him she wants to accept his proposal of marriage. (Of course, we’ve known since the first scene of the movie that Laurie and Amy are already loving it up over in Europe, so we don’t experience Jo’s devastation when she learns the truth.)

Gerwig gives in to marketing pressure, and ends her film with a traditional love story, just as Jo gives in to the same marketing pressure from her publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), to marry off the protagonist of her novel, and Alcott succumbed to the same pressure to provide a husband for her alter ego, Jo. Alcott’s Mr. Bhaer is old enough to be Jo’s father. It’s a marriage of convenience, rather than romance, that was not unusual for women who wanted to hide their sexual orientation within a socially acceptable marriage. Gerwig betrayed Alcott, however, by making Jo gigglingly schoolgirlish as she runs after her Friedrich Bhaer, played by the devilishly handsome — and young! — Louis Garrel, to proclaim her love, while her sisters giggle joyfully in the carriage.

Gerwig claims to have created “a Little Women for the 21st century,” but in my opinion, she failed on all counts. She adds little that we don’t already know about women’s economic rights and capabilities; she utterly rejects marriage as a viable choice for rational and talented women; she then marries off her lesbian protagonist to the sexiest man in the movie. Good grief.

There was a smattering of applause at the screening I attended, probably led by die-hard ’70s-era feminists who cheer anything made for, by, and about women. But do the young girls in your life a favor: give them a copy of the book, and keep them away from this movie.

Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig. Columbia Pictures, 2019, 135 minutes.




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The Year That Was

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As the calendar turns over once more, there’s just enough time to peruse the year gone past, before turning to face the year yet to come. Here’s a few of our best and most timely articles from 2019:

It was a particularly fine year for overseas and travel reporting, between

Meanwhile, our editor Stephen Cox continued documenting the follies and fripperies of language, as well as a long-running Liberty tradition of shooting down an “endangered” species. Furthermore, he made the case against intervention in Venezuela, chuckled at an Ayn Rand “Giving Tuesday,” and penned a poem  to intellectual inquiry.

The year was not without its sadness, as we said a sudden and far-too-soon goodbye to the inimitable Lori Heine. Over her years of writing for Liberty, Lori won many fans for her warm-hearted, hope-filled looks at life, culture, and the political scene. You can get some sense of her from her writings this year on the fraud of politically progressive Christianity, for instance, or on the prospects of libertarians in nationwide elections, or on the politics of sheer volume. their volume. But it’s still just a reflection of the person who brightened many of our days. You can read Stephen Cox’s obituary here.

However, like Lori, we will turn our gaze forward, fully aware of the great need for both skepticism and lightheartedness in a world that increasingly lacks both. 2020 promises to be a strong year for Liberty, including full election coverage and on-the-ground reporting from the Libertarian Party convention in Austin, Texas. We look forward to seeing you all along the way.



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