The Paranoia of the Lambs

 | 

“This is a book about education and wisdom. If we can educate the next generation more wisely, they will be stronger, richer, more virtuous, and even safer.”

This is the goal and the conclusion of The Coddling of the America Mind by Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist. The authors present a compelling, honest, apolitical, and well-researched explanation of what is happening on campuses today and how this goal can be achieved for the next generation. It’s probably the most important book published in 2018.

No one seems willing to listen to the “enemy” or find common ground in order to restore harmony. What has gone wrong on our college campuses, and in America in general?

We’ve all seen videos of the growing viciousness experienced on some college campuses in the past five years — professors mobbed for making seemingly trivial statements; controversial figures shouted down and physically attacked when they’re invited to speak on campus; trigger warnings, speech codes, and safe spaces featuring cookies, blankets and coloring books cropping up at universities across the land. We’re also seeing an increase in “callout culture,” in which students and social media warriors gain status by identifying small offenses committed by a member of a community and then publicly “calling out” or shaming the perceived offender. This public cruelty has been given the ironic moniker of “virtue signaling.” No one seems willing to listen to the “enemy” or find common ground in order to restore harmony. What has gone wrong on our college campuses, and in America in general? And can it be reversed?

Lukianoff and Haidt say yes. In their book they identify three major “untruths” contributing to the problem: the rising, erroneous belief that humans are fragile and need to be protected from all risk; the belief that feelings are more powerful than reason and should always be trusted; and the belief that all people are either good or evil, leading to a dichotomous “us vs. them” tribalism. Related to these “untruths” is the idea that words are literally dangerous, which in turn justifies physical violence as a form of self-defense. The bulk of their book addresses these three themes as they describe specific examples of violence, present surprising evidence of possible causes, and offer convincing solutions to reverse the trend.

As the president of FIRE, Lukianoff has been at the forefront of campus unrest as both an observer of the violence and a defender of free speech. In a section called “Bad Ideas in Action,” the authors describe several high-profile cases in which professors have been forced to resign for minor slights, or speakers have been shouted down and physically threatened. But they also include examples of police brutality and the neo-Nazi attack in Charlottesville last year. The book is apolitical in that it does not take sides or suggest that one particular party or viewpoint is primarily to blame. In fact, they sympathize with many of the noble concerns of what they call the iGen generation (those born after 1995), who sincerely care about racism, sexism, justice, and environmental issues. And they acknowledge that “right-wing provocateurs” often deliberately fuel the flames with their own vicious protests and threatening language. The book’s purpose is not to cast blame or fan the fires but to discover genuine causes and promote change.

This year Utah became the first state to pass a “free-range parenting” bill, making it less likely that parents who allow their children to play outside will be charged with neglect.

The most useful and important part of the book is the section called “How Did We Get Here?” It notes a significant change on campuses beginning in 2013, when students began reporting high levels of anxiety and demanding trigger warnings to avoid uncomfortable experiences and safe spaces to recover from them. Lukianoff and Haidt connect this rise in anxiety not to the college experience but to the childhood experiences leading up to their entrance to college. These catalysts include anxiety and depression, “paranoid parenting,” a decline in unsupervised free play, increased political polarization, a hyper quest for social justice inspired by news reports and videos of violence or bullying against minorities, and college consumerism that gives students what they want instead of what they need in order to attract more students. In fact, they observe, college administrators did not cause the rise in “safetyism” on campus through some nefarious desire to end free speech; they simply responded to the alarming and genuine fearfulness and fragility expressed by the entering class of iGen students.

However well-intentioned the institutional protections might be, the continuation of coddling is exactly the opposite of what students need. Colleges should be teaching them to cope, not to hide. I’m reminded of a student who used to spend every afternoon in the tutoring center where I worked, seeking help for every assignment. He was a likeable young man with a learning disability, and we were instructed to make sure he graduated, even if it meant feeding him every answer. After earning his bachelors degree, he entered the MBA program. Again his instructors and tutors coddled him. Instead of requiring him, for example, to do legitimate research to learn how businesses operate, they allowed him to make up his case studies and imagine businesses that simply would not exist or survive in the real world. Nor would he himself survive, in a real job.

Frustrated, I told him one day that he needed to research a real business for his case study, and not just make up a company and its product, sales, marketing, etc. I offered to help him find the research and analyze the data, so that he could learn how a real business operates. I was concerned that he was racking up thousands of dollars in student debt with no real skills or understanding and no hope of landing a job. The result? I was reprimanded. I had hurt his feelings, and that was considered more harmful than the reprimanders’ giving him years of false hope and poor education.

Lukianoff and Haidt acknowledge that “right-wing provocateurs” often deliberately fuel the flames with their own vicious protests and threatening language.

It is simply not true that humans are fragile and need to be protected from all risk. Actually, humans are “antifragile,” as Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains in his 2007 bestseller The Black Swan. We need resistance to grow strong. Bones and muscles atrophy when they aren’t used, and so do emotional muscles. Students need to be taught how to cope with difficulties and traumas in order to grow mentally and emotionally strong. Lukianoff uses his own experience with CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) as an example of how confronting one’s fears and anxieties can make one stronger and able to cope. Sadly, many parents and college administrators are taking the opposite approach.

Can the trend on campus be reversed? Lukianoff and Haidt believe it can: “The more serious a problem gets, the more inducements there are for people, companies, and governments to find innovative solutions, whether driven by personal commitment, market forces, or political pressures” (265). Parents are becoming smarter about teaching children to become confident, independent problem-solvers. Many schools are restoring recess and reducing homework to encourage free play, where they learn to socialize, calculate risk, negotiate differences, and adjudicate fairness. This year Utah became the first state to pass a “free-range parenting” bill, making it less likely that parents who allow their children to play outside will be charged with neglect. Many universities, recognizing that “safetyism” leads to fragility, are beginning to introduce coping skills instead of overprotection. The University of Chicago has created a new Statement on Principles of Free Expression that reaffirms its commitment to free and open inquiry, and other colleges are following its example, reducing the rising tendency of professors to watch what they say and not challenge students intellectually for fear of retaliation.

FIRE has produced a modified version of the statement to serve as a template for other schools. The book provides a list of questions that parents and prospective students should ask while selecting a college (261–62). In sum, this is not the end of civility on campus, nor is it the end of civility in the United States.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure is a reasoned, logical, unbiased, and well-researched assessment of the rise in verbal and physical violence on campuses across America. It offers sound advice that begins in the home and moves beyond the campus to embrace self-governance. I’ve already sent it to several friends. You probably will too.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure," by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Penguin Press, 2018, 338 pages.



Share This


Hits and Misses

 | 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Share This


They Did What to Those Kids?

 | 

The first day of college can be daunting. Will people like me? Will I fit in? That didn’t seem to be a problem when one young man began his first day at New York’s Sullivan College back in 1980. Everyone seemed to know him. “Hey, Eddy!” one guy said, clapping him on the back. “Welcome back, Eddy!” said several others. One girl even greeted him with a big smooch. But there was one problem: his name was Bobby, not Eddy.

Meeting one of Eddy’s best friends, Bobby soon realized that he had a twin brother who, like himself, was adopted as a baby. When a New York paper published an article with the two of them smiling from the front page, a third brother, David, recognized himself in the photograph and soon there were three brothers playfully roughhousing, hugging, “rolling around on the ground” (as one observer described their reunion), and mugging for the cameras. “They looked alike, they walked alike, at times they even talked alike,” to quote the theme song from the old “Patty Duke Show,” as they traveled the talk-show circuit, cut the line at the famous Studio 54, hung out in each other’s homes, and eventually started a restaurant together in Manhattan. The photographs from those early years show three smiling, happy-go-lucky young men frolicking like puppies in their joyful rediscovery of each other.

All three adoptive families wanted to know: how could this happen?

Three Identical Strangers, a documentary about these men, is a fairytale story with the makings of Shakespearean comedy. Three brothers, separated at birth, reunite when two of them enroll at the same college. Madcap misidentification ensues, right? Hayley Mills began her acting career with such a concept in The Parent Trap, and Hollywood has offered various riffs on it since then, from the Olsen twins’ It Takes Two to Schwarzenegger and DeVito in Twins to The Parent Trap reboot with Lindsay Lohan and more. Except that in this story, the protagonists, likeable though they are, do not live happily ever after. This is Shakespearean tragedy, not comedy. And its subject is something that actually happened, in the mid-20th century.

All three adoptive families wanted to know: how could this happen? Who would deliberately separate siblings — identical triplet siblings — at birth? When they confronted the adoption agency, the answer seemed innocuous enough: “Twins are hard to place. Few people want to take more than one.” That was bull, of course; most people dream of the magic of having twins, and many adoptive parents, already concerned about infertility, would jump at the chance for a “two-fer.”

The real story was downright sinister: the boys were part of an experiment to discover whether nature or nurture plays a stronger role in determining personality, intelligence, aptitude, career choices, financial success, and so forth. The boys had been carefully placed, one in a working-class family, one in a middle-class family, and one in an upper-class family, to test how they were affected by their environments. And as an example of how carefully the study was planned, each had an adoptive sister a year older than he who had been placed in the family by the same agency.

Each mother reported that her son would bang his head against the bars of his crib at night, as though he were terribly angry or terribly unhappy.

Several times a year the boys had been visited by researchers from the adoption agency who purported to be studying adoptees in general, but were actually studying identical siblings. These boys weren’t the only siblings in the study who had been separated at birth; there had been several sets of twins, and perhaps other sets of triplets, separated for the purpose of studying them throughout their lives. The study was cut short when it came to light in 1980, and at that point no one really knew how many families were involved, or the results of the study, because the study was — and remains — sealed until 2066.

How were the children affected by the separation? Each mother reported that her son would bang his head against the bars of his crib at night, as though he were terribly angry or terribly unhappy. Director Tim Wardle muses, “What would it be like to share a womb and then a crib, and then suddenly — emptiness?” as old black-and-white film of triplets being cared for in a single crib plays in the background.

What makes this story even more draconian is that the study was devised and conducted by noted child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Peter Neubauer, a Freudian who worked closely with Freud’s daughter Anna at the Hampstead Clinic in London. And he was an Austrian refugee from the Holocaust! The triplets were born in 1961, just 16 years after Allied forces liberated the concentration camps from the Nazis and discovered the atrocities that had happened there. Americans were horrified to discover the human experiments that had been conducted by Josef Mengele, including studies he conducted on twins. And come to find out, a similar study was happening in our own backyard, by a Jewish adoption agency and a Jewish psychiatrist. Unbelievable.

From the beginning, the study was laughably flawed.

So which is more important, nature or nurture? At first glance the documentary appears to support nature. Although the three were placed in different socioeconomic conditions, they had uncanny similarities. All three wrestled in high school. All three liked Chinese food. All three were smokers. All three smoked Marlboros. All three had cheerful, devil-may-care personalities. “We sit the same way; we have the same gestures and mannerisms; we finish each other’s sentences,” one explained to Phil Donahue. One pair of twins discovered that they were both editors of their high school newspapers and had both gone to film school. “We have the same mannerisms,” they pointed out during a television interview. Ooh. Spooky. Wrestling and mannerisms must be genetic.

But the documentary comes to the opposite conclusion. David, raised by a jovial working class family, clearly had the happiest childhood and seems to have been the most stable. Eddy, raised by a distant, authoritarian father, became clinically depressed. Bobby, raised by a medical doctor, fits in the middle, not as carefree as David, but not as uptight as Eddy. Obviously, environment plays a greater role than genetics in determining personality and happiness, right? (And evidently, the poorer the environment, the better.)

From the beginning, however, the study was laughably flawed, providing convincing support for neither conclusion. The study was small and far from random. Although no one knows for sure how many twins and triplets were studied, logic tells us that it can’t have been more than a dozen or two, and probably fewer. After all, how many Jewish mothers in New York had twins in the decade following World War II and gave them up for adoption? One journalist was told “six or eight.”

The children’s participation in cognitive testing would have influenced and fundamentally changed the very environment being studied.

Another flaw was in the setup of the experiment. All the children were placed in homes within the New York area, so how diverse could those environments be? Wouldn’t placing one in New York, one in the Midwest, and one in, say, the South of France have provided a better test of environmental factors? Other flaws were introduced by the experimental process itself. The children’s participation in cognitive testing, as the researchers came around every few months, would have influenced and fundamentally changed the very environment being studied. By setting the subjects apart from their school peers, who weren’t receiving this kind of intellectual challenge and focus on mental development, the researchers established a strong common ground among the siblings. Moreover, the similarities in the separated siblings weren’t that unexpected. Young men of a certain build often gravitate toward wrestling; the majority of teenage boys in the ’60s smoked, and Marlboro was one of the most popular brands. And their mannerisms can be described as typical of New Yorkers.

In the end the documentary does as much damage as the original study. The focus on Freudian issues, especially parental influence, comes dangerously close to the argument that overbearing mothers and weak fathers “cause homosexuality,” for example. And suggesting that a father’s parenting style contributed to his son’s suicide is just plain cruel.

The diabolical experiment that separated children from their siblings had no possibility of becoming the landmark study Neubauer had hoped to produce. It was a narcissistic curiosity at best and a tragic example of child abuse at worst. The film, too, is a disappointment. It’s fascinating as a human-interest story, and director Tim Wardle masterfully creates suspense and conspiracy in his storytelling. But, like the study, it’s inadequate as an historical or scientific document. Interesting and voyeuristic, but not a study to be quoted.


Editor's Note: Review of "Three Identical Strangers," directed by Tim Wardle. CNN Films, 2018, 96 minutes.



Share This


The Boss Finally Discovers the Real Enemies!

 | 

President Trump — The Boss, the man of steel — has an improbable target for his incandescent ire: the Koch brothers, billionaires famous (or infamous, depending upon your political predilections) for funding free-market-oriented Republicans.

What triggered The Boss was the fact that the Koch brothers have refused to support a Trump puppet Republican — one Kevin Cramer — in his fight to defeat Democrat Heidi Heitkamp for the North Dakota Senate seat. The Kochs use a PAC they help fund — Americans for Prosperity, or AFP — to support free-market Republicans. You know traditional liberal free-market thinking: free movement of goods, capital, and labor. That sort of view is antipathetic not just to high taxes and regulation but to protectionism, nativism, and unbounded government spending as well. It once was the defining ideology of the Republican Party (full disclosure here: I have in the past donated to the AFP). Cramer supports “fair trade” (which typically means “trade under tariffs and non-tariff barriers until we have equal trade balances”), and fully backs The Boss’s plan to provide $12 billion in subsidies to American farmers who are casualties in this administration’s worldwide trade war.

Trump played the nativist card by accusing the Kochs of being against “strong borders,” and bragged that he has never needed their money.

The Kochs have launched radio ads opposing this policy of subsidizing farmers to make up for the business they have lost from the tariff war. This lost business is the unseen economic downside of tariffs that protectionists can never quite grasp: tariffs may save some jobs, but they cost other jobs, elsewhere in the economy. When those jobs are lost, you then have to subsidize the people who were screwed over to save the original jobs — hell, you could have just subsidized the original companies that lost jobs!

Besides refusing to back Cramer, the Kochs have indicated that they are looking at several other close Senate races to see whom to support (if anyone).

The Boss is not amused at all this. In one of his signature blitzkrieg tweet attacks, he railed against the Kochs, calling them “globalists” — which is the current epithet that has replaced the old rightest term “cosmopolitans,” meaning people who have no patriotic loyalty to their own country, but only to the world — or their ethnic group spread out around the world, or their secret clan (the Illuminati!). He also called them a “joke in real Republican circles.” He played the nativist card by accusing them of being against “strong borders,” and bragged that he has never needed their money. The boss also crowed that the Koch brothers’ network is “overrated” and claimed, “I have beaten them at every turn.” Naturally, he suggested that the Kochs oppose tariffs because of selfishness: they don’t want their foreign operations taxed.

Oh, those rootless cosmopolitans! Such traitors, and all for money!

All this is insufferably rich. Trump — who has himself made a fair amount of money in business done abroad — is attacking a group of pro-business, pro-free-market Republicans who believe in free trade and balanced budgets. A group, please note, that has been supporting Republican candidates far longer than The Boss — who, until a few years ago, almost always gave his political donations to Democrats, including to “Crooked” Hillary Clinton. And The Boss had no problem with the Kochs’ spending millions to help get his tax bill passed.

This lost business is the unseen economic downside of tariffs that protectionists can never quite grasp: tariffs may save some jobs, but they cost other jobs, elsewhere in the economy.

The Kochs and their AFP organization should be commended for standing on principle and opposing the trade war, increasing government deficits, and nativism that The Boss represents. They were consistent when they supported his drive to cut regulations and taxes, and they are consistent now in opposing his protectionism, nativism, and indifference to deficit spending.

But The Boss, who cannot bring himself to view Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping as enemies, now views these decent Americans as precisely that. This is puzzling, until one recalls Proverbs 29:27, which tells us that “an unjust man is an abomination to the righteous, but one whose way is straight is an abomination to the wicked.” This explains what we see here with perfect clarity.




Share This


The Great Panic

 | 

I have long been a fan of the Panic of 1893, which is the usual name for the great depression of the 1890s. When I say “great” I mean it is comparable by all available measures (business losses, unemployment, political turmoil) to the Great Depression of the 1930s — with two exceptions. First, the depression of the 1930s lasted for more than ten years, ending only with the start of the Second World War in Europe; the depression of the 1890s lasted less than half as long. Second, in the 1930s the federal government intervened massively to try to end the depression, whereas the government of the 1890s did as little as it could.

These two exceptions are closely related. In 1893 and after, President Grover Cleveland had the political and above all the intellectual courage to allow prices to sink until recovery could begin. He devoted his best efforts to stabilizing the dollar, so that sound money and real prices could beget confidence, and confidence could beget reinvestment. This happened. But in 1929 and after, Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt were guided by the economic ignorance and sheer quackery of their times (and ours); they intervened to keep prices up and bail out bad investments — using money, of course, extorted from the people who had made good investments. Roosevelt’s subsidies extended to the destructive political ideas of his time; he encouraged political action to fulfill the borderline-crazy terms of his first inaugural address, in which he announced:

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

The result was not only chronic political turmoil but a failure of reinvestment caused by a chronic absence of confidence in the nation’s economic and political prospects. Money, as R.W. Bradford used to say, wants to be invested, but it didn’t during the 1930s, when for a series of years there was actually “negative investment” in the economy.

In 1929 and after, Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt were guided by the economic ignorance and sheer quackery of their times (and ours).

So you see one reason why I am a fan of the depression of the 1890s — it provides clear and persuasive economic, political, and, if you will, spiritual lessons. But another reason is that the economic and political controversies of the 1890s are a lot of fun. Communism is dull stuff, no matter where it appears, and in the 1930s it manifested itself in remarkably dull, stupid, pompous, and oppressive forms. Compared with that, the nostrums of the 1890s are bright, delusive rays of sunshine. You just have to smile at Jacob Coxey’s plan to save the country by a complicated scheme for the federal government to print tons of paper money and use it to give free loans to local governments so they could create jobs in public building programs — a plan he implemented in the first of the great marches on Washington, the march of Coxey’s Army. The march culminated in Coxey’s arrest at the Capitol, for walking on the grass.

And who wouldn’t have fun trying to follow the logical permutations of the Free Silver idea, the notion that the American economy would be perfected if the federal government would simply produce unlimited quantities of silver dollars (and paper instruments representing them), priced at 16 silver dollars for one gold dollar, when the market price of a gold dollar was much higher than 16 silver dollars? This was a recipe for outrageous inflation, yet in 1896 it captured the Democratic Party and could have led to the election of the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, he of the stirring Cross of Gold speech:

You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

It’s a good speech, and some of the books and pamphlets written in favor of Free Silver are immensely clever complications of an argument that is clearly wrong but has a way of starting to look right if you don’t take a step backward and remind yourself of what it’s really about.

Compared with the remarkably dull, stupid, pompous, and oppressive forms of communism that manifested in the 1930s, the nostrums of the 1890s are bright, delusive rays of sunshine.

Now comes Bruce Ramsey, author of the book I am reviewing and — all cards on the table — senior editor of Liberty and a good friend of mine. Bruce is a tireless researcher of the events, theories, and movements of the 1890s. He knows their importance. He knows they reveal important truths about the ways in which economies function, and in which people function within them. And he knows they’re fun. The only problem is that the vast majority of Americans have simply forgotten about the depression of the 1890s. They forgot about it almost as soon as it was over. (I have an essay about this in Edward Younkins’ Capitalism and Commerce in Imaginative Literature [Lexington Books, 2015].) In the popular imagination, the decade of desperation was soon transformed into the Gay Nineties.

There aren’t a lot of good treatments of national politics and economics in the 1890s. Allan Nevins’ biography of Cleveland (1932) remains the best. And there are few decent treatments of the effects of the depression on individual men and women, in their local communities. That’s the vital part of the story that practically nobody knows. And that’s what Ramsey gives us in his brilliant new book about the state of Washington during the Panic.

In writing such a book, Ramsey faced one of the hardest challenges a writer of history can encounter. A straight-line narrative of national political and economic events would capture only part of the picture. So would an exclusive concern with one particular locality, such as Bruce’s home state, Washington. So would concentration on certain personalities, as in the cheap, tangential approach to history that one sees in the Ken Burns films. What Bruce needed to present was the full tapestry of local people and local events, rippling in the strong winds of national affairs; he needed to capture not only the big patterns but the individual figures in the tapestry, and he needed to show those ripples of history too. But he was equal to the challenge.

The vast majority of Americans have simply forgotten about the depression of the 1890s. They forgot about it almost as soon as it was over.

Bruce Ramsey is a quick but colorful narrator. He provides the pungent detail and the suggestive episode and then moves briskly onward to the next significant picture, whether it’s the portrait of an interesting man or woman, an array of statistics, a sketch of political developments nationwide, or a tale of something that’s too ridiculous to be true, but is. Did you know that in 1893 the Populist governor of Kansas tried to use the state militia to oust the Republicans (who happened to be in a majority) from the House of Representatives in Topeka? (If Dorothy wanted adventure, she could have stayed right in Kansas.) This absurd drama — one of many in Ramsey’s book — offers some perspective on the absurd politics of the present era. To say that Ramsey’s political narrative is entertaining is itself absurd; it’s an absurd understatement.

Here are thousands of stories, small in the number of words that Ramsey, a thrifty narrator, allots to each, but large in drama and implication. We see people who are found talking gibberish in darkened hotel rooms because their bank deposits of $256 had been lost to the panic. We see government officials who steal money, and lose it, and then escape to Argentina, or to a place off the coast of Washington called Tatoosh Island, thence to change identities and be discovered working as mowers in Idaho. We learn of a government official who is acquitted by a jury that doesn’t believe that bribery is against the law. We listen to a contractor for the Northern Pacific railway who says he “had put white men at work at $2 and gradually raised their wages to $2.50, although there was no time when [he] could not have employed Chinamen at 80 cents” (p. 51). We meet mayors who work in shingle mills because their cities can’t pay them a salary, and unionists who resort to riot and terror to keep their salaries from being cut.

The sheer number of stories that Ramsey tells is remarkable; still more remarkable is his unfailing ability to integrate them into larger contexts of meaning. Here’s one of the general patterns he sees. Businesses and banks that made it through this great depression often did so because they backed each other up. Seattle, where the spirit of cooperation was strong, suffered many fewer losses than such competing communities as Tacoma and Spokane. Seattle’s bankers went so far as to refuse deposits from people who had withdrawn them in panic from other banks. This was individual action, but it was mutually supportive. It was a kind of spontaneous order, and it often saved the day.

We see people who are found talking gibberish in darkened hotel rooms because their bank deposits of $256 had been lost to the panic.

Here’s another pattern. Led by President Cleveland, the federal government disclaimed responsibility for helping individuals — whether bankers or street sweepers — get out of their financial jam. Most public opinion seems to have backed him up. Newspapers in the Pacific Northwest counseled their readers to take responsibility for themselves — and above all not to hurt business by fleeing to some place with a marginally better economy. Their message was “stay here and keep pitching.” A Baptist potentate cautioned against giving money to the poor indiscriminately; this was “a selfish act, done to make the giver feel good” (83). Some local governments acted in what they regarded as the spirit of community and provided employment on public works projects, and some of them went broke doing it. But charity ordinarily began at home. As Ramsey observes, very perceptively, “In a world with little free public food, people tend to be generous with their private food” (93).

A darker side of community spirit was the almost universal feeling that if anyone was going to be without a job, it shouldn’t be someone white. Everywhere Asians were fired from jobs or prevented from getting any, and mobs formed to destroy Chinatowns throughout the region. It was only a temporary rescue when the wife of a local missionary faced down a mob that came for the Chinese people of La Grande, Oregon: “She appeared with a Winchester and announced that the first man to enter the house would be shot” (79). Most of the Chinese left town anyway; and although 14 rioters were arrested, none was convicted. Oregon’s Progressive governor haughtily rejected President Cleveland’s request that he protect the rights of the Chinese.

A darker side of community spirit was the almost universal feeling that if anyone was going to be without a job, it shouldn’t be someone white.

Much of Ramsey’s book is devoted to racism and progressivism during the depression. It’s quite a story, and again, it’s a gift of perspective: then as now, the predominant individualism of America was too much of a burden for many Americans to bear.

Obviously, the implications of Ramsey’s stories go far beyond the Pacific Northwest. The stories of that region cannot be explained without reference to the bigger stories of the nation’s money policy, its “reform” and “progressive” movements, and its national elections. Ramsey devotes lively chapters to all these things. If you don’t know the 1890s, this is the book for you, wherever you live. If you do know the 1890s, you know a lot about America, and this book will help you learn even more.

The Panic of 1893 is beautifully illustrated, with fine contemporary pictures, and backed by years of patient research. It is a distinguished and compelling book.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s First Depression," by Bruce Ramsey. Caxton, 2018, 324 pages.



Share This


A Society without a Civilization

 | 

Newton is a heart-wrenching story of the exploitation and abuse of tribal people by the Indian government and its armed forces. The story is set in a mineral-rich area influenced by the Naxals, a radical communist group, follower of Maoist ideology and considered a terrorist group by the Indian government.

The protagonist, Newton, is a good-hearted, honorable bureaucrat sent for election duty inside the Naxal-infested forest. It wasn’t he who was originally selected to go, although it was clear that others did not want the possibility of facing Naxals. The officer whose immediate replacement Newton was had claimed that he had heart problems and that the doctor had advised him against traveling by helicopter.

Villagers are required to provide food and whatever other services are desired of them. So much for India’s democracy.

By law, no officer can refuse to go on election duty, except that — at least to an Indian audience — it was obvious that anyone who wanted to could readily provide a doctor’s certificate to avoid going. In India, it is so easy for a doctor to give you a certificate of sickness that many Indians living in the West extend their vacations in India and turn them into sick leaves. An Indian I once met when he was working for an airline in Sweden was challenged by his boss, who had seen a pattern. He sued the company for bigotry and got paid for “emotional damages” on top of his habitual paid vacations.

At any rate, once Newton arrives in the forest, he quickly realizes that the army, whose job is to provide him security, does not want to be distracted and risk its lives by venturing into the polling area. But Newton is insistent. The movie shows you a tribal woman chasing a chicken for slaughter. A bit later, a pot of chicken appears in front of the army. Most of the non-Indian audience will miss the connection, so here it is. Customarily, when armed forces arrive — even if late in the night — villagers are required to provide food and whatever other services are desired of them. So much for India’s democracy. Feudalism has merely moved into the hands of the new rulers, who are less classy.

There are many nuances in this movie. Watch the events and the characters and you may start to understand several of the entrenched problems of India, and most such poor societies.

Having been to the Naxal-affected area many times, including once to look for mining opportunities, I find the portrayal of characters very authentic, and actually much underplayed. The audience will likely side with the tribal people. I do too, knowing full well that any such sympathy carries with it the serious risk of being branded a Naxal or a Maoist by the Indian government. And unfortunately, sympathy for tribal people has no value, because they have no clue what democracy means, cannot understand it, and will always be exploited and abused by someone, certainly in a democratic system.

The movie does a good job of showing that the voters of the largest democracy in the world have, themselves, no clue what their vote is for and what it means. They have no clue about the programs of those standing for elections, or any knowledge about the individual politicians. As for the tribal people, they think that somehow their vote is connected with the money they get for the forest produce they sell. Almost instinctively, the army sergeant in charge suggests that the largely illiterate citizens vote for whatever political symbol they fancy. If one watches the characters closely, one realizes that it is impractical to expect these people to understand political problems. Their lot might have been a little better had they no right to vote.

The audience will likely side with the tribal people. I do too, knowing full well that any such sympathy carries with it the serious risk of being branded a Maoist by the Indian government.

In the movie, as in moment to moment life in India, everyone — except for the protagonist — is trying to run the lives of whomever he can, and everyone humiliates whomever he can. The sergeant humiliates his subordinates, beats up children, and treats tribal people with extreme disrespect. He gets away with everything. Within the ecology he inhabits, I thank him for not killing and raping, despite the fact that he could easily get away with it. Such crimes are extremely common.

But tribal people are no innocents here. One of them comments that they follow what they have for thousands of years. They have their own leader, who decides the future of others — might is right in the running of a tribe. And although the sergeant may look like a tyrannical manipulator, if you put yourself in his place you may realize that he has limited options. He knows that voting has no value. His job is to protect lives, so he makes up stories that allow him to do what he thinks is best. Nothing that he does is ethical, but in a dystopia your choices are always between a wrong and a less-wrong. Mostly you cannot foresee the long-term consequences of your actions and must operate through expediency.

For urban Indian and foreign audiences it pays to know a bit of the background of Naxalism. Naxals are assumed to be fighting against entrenched, feudal institutions and the expropriation of tribal property by the Indian government. From that perspective Naxals are certainly correct. But a deeper truth is that tribal people are superstitious people, and can hardly differentiate between right and wrong. They have no concept of property rights, and they themselves exist on the basis of expediency, where “tomorrow” is always too far in the future. They might be labeled Marxists, but even the simplistic concept of Marxism is too complex for them. During my own interactions with these people I have often wondered how conscious they actually are.

The sergeant humiliates his subordinates, beats up children, and treats tribal people with extreme disrespect. He gets away with everything.

Naxals are the politically active tribal people, who are believed to be supported by some leftist middle-class intellectuals. Naxals lack principled foundations and are no saints. They have merely exploited the situation that the unethical and irresponsible middle class and the populist and marauding government have spawned. Naxals exploit, rob, extort, and kill innocents, including tribal people who refuse to join. As can be expected, they have come to exist for their own sake.

One might ask why urban Indians do not seem to care about tribal people. South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa are special societies in the sense that their middle classes and their elites provide no moral or intellectual backbone to the general society. To a so-called educated Indian, if armed forces rape and kill tribal people, whether they are Naxals or not, it is perfectly fine. In the minds of urban Indian the suffering of tribal people is at worst collateral damage. One might even hear from an urban Indian how good his life is. Prodding him tells you something very interesting: he does not count his fleet of servants, maids, and chauffeurs as human beings who benefit his life.

Tribal people themselves exist on the principle of might makes right and hardly feel revulsion when they are violated. They merely seek to exploit others, a pattern that consistently emerges when they are elevated to positions of power under the affirmative policies.

The responsibility for the predicament of India lies primarily in the hands of its middle class, who adamantly refuse to provide any moral structure to the society. In this respect, the Naxals are right: the bourgeoisie is the exploiting class. Its only moral credit is that the Naxals would have been much more vicious and tyrannical.

To a so-called educated Indian, if armed forces rape and kill tribal people, whether they are Naxals or not, it is perfectly fine.

You cannot even start to understand India, if your Western mind tells you to side with the good and against the evil. Such a dichotomy does not exist in dystopian India. Once you start to understand the complexity of the situation you start to realize that were you in the government you would easily use the gun and tyranny to keep the irrational, superstitious, tribal people within sane social behavior. You would also understand that implementing property rights is virtually impossible in a society in which people do not understand the concept. Creating laws is not enough, a point that Hernando de Soto misses in his many books.

But to return. Newton will horrify, sadden, and anger you, but the reality of the abuses that tribal people endure is much worse. I can only guess why the sexual abuse of tribal girls or killings by the armed forces are not a part of the film. Why were these issues underplayed? Anyone who is seen to be sympathetic to the Naxals faces the heavy hand of the government. Did the movie show just enough to get approved for screening?

Both assiduously do what their duties require them to do, and in the end provide food, claws, and spine to their distant, unknown, amorphous, evil masters.

The movie ends with mining activity taking place in the forest. Ironically, the army sergeant whom the audience might have seen as a villain visits a store with his family, and his wife struggles to decide whether they could buy a few small things. Within the scheme of dystopia he was honest enough, but had ended up being marginalized. My own visit to that forest ended in our decision not to invest, for there was no way we could do so without being complicit in the abuse of tribal people.

Those who have read Les Misérables might be left with an uneasy feeling that there is no countervailing force, no Jean Valjean, in this film. Both Newton and the army sergeant are versions of Javert, agent of unjustified authority. Both assiduously do what their duties require them to do, and in the end provide food, claws, and spine to their distant, unknown, amorphous, evil masters.

For a society to become a civilization, it must have a moral, rational spine, a spine of critical thinkers who are prepared to challenge and nudge the system to a mooring in principles. The movie suggests no hope that this kind of spine will emerge — and that is why a contemplative audience will maintain its gloom to the end, and after the end.


Editor's Note: Review of "Newton," directed by Amit Masurkar. Drishyam Films, 2017, 104 minutes.



Share This


When Stalinists Collide

 | 

There is a newly released movie called The Death of Stalin. It’s not really about Stalin or his death, but you should see it anyway. One reason is that it’s been banned in Russia; the other, much more important reason, is that it’s really good and really entertaining (in a really grim way).

Stalin does appear for a few minutes at the start of the film, where we see him as a drunken clod with a low sense of humor and a proclivity for intimidating and boring his colleagues. Like Hitler, he forces people to stay up all night watching B movies from Hollywood. Then he dies, and the real story begins, as the second and third bananas battle one another to capture his authority. The movie is about the difficult process of redistributing power in an ideological regime that has become a personal regime and is now becoming a regime of bureaucrats. First came the Idea (communism); then came the Man (Stalin); now we have the Men, the party hacks and the heads of this or that, who survived long enough to start asserting their own personalities. We get to see what those personalities are, once asserted, and to study their grisly and comic clashes.

First came the Idea (communism); then came the Man (Stalin); now we have the Men, the party hacks and the heads of this or that, who survived long enough to start asserting their own personalities.

The lead actors are remarkably skillful at entering their roles and projecting them. Simon Russell Beale, playing Lavrentiy Beria, head of the secret police, succeeds in making Beria seem what he was, one of the most repulsive figures of history. Jeffrey Tambor, playing Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s presumed successor, presents Malenkov as a man who, if you don’t like Woodrow Wilson, looks and acts exactly the way you imagine Woodrow Wilson looked and acted. Jason Isaacs, playing Marshal Zhukov, conqueror of Berlin, demonstrates that absurdly over-the-top masculinity still has its dramatic interest. Steve Buscemi, the star of the show, plays Nikita Khrushchev as the smartest and most complicated and most interesting of them all.

This is stage-play politics, but it might actually have been politics in the stagy totalitarianism that was the Soviet Union. Some of the characterizations do seem questionable to me. Stalin was not the overt fool that we see in Adrian McLoughlin’s performance (which no doubt responded to Armando Iannucci’s direction). Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), doesn’t seem rigid and doctrinaire enough, nor as constantly devoted to his insanely doctrinaire wife as Molotov actually was. (Stalin sent Madame Molotov to the gulag, but this did nothing to reduce her devotion to him.) I don’t know whether Svetlana Stalin was the way Andrea Riseborough (and the script) portrays her — a goofy, spoiled, adult brat — but I would have enjoyed watching her performance for much longer than the movie’s run time.

Simon Russell Beale succeeds in making Beria seem what he was, one of the most repulsive figures of history.

And here’s something strange. If you deplore, as I do, the creepy foreign accents that non-English speakers are given in Anglophone movies, there’s none of that in this film — everyone speaks with some kind of British accent. Yet hearing Stalin speak like a working-class Brit was startling to me, and the other people’s speech was only slightly less startling. That’s probably because I’m an American, so it all seemed foreign to me — but in a strangely displaced way. Yet that’s what’s supposed to happen on stage, isn’t it — some kind of strange displacement? The strangeness makes you conscious that you are watching someone else’s conscious performance, a re-creation of human life in which your own imagination needs to be involved.

So, for many reasons: if this film has already left your theater, make a note to see it when it comes out on DVD and other means of presentation.

Finally, here’s a SPOILER. Look away if you’re not ready for it.

Khrushchev wins in the end.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Death of Stalin," directed by Armando Iannucci. Main Journey-Quad Productions, 2017, 107 minutes.



Share This


Big Book, Big Insights

 | 

Gary Jason is continuing his Thoughts books: Dangerous Thoughts: Provocative Writings on Contemporary Issues; Philosophic Thoughts: Essays on Logic and Philosophy; Disturbing Thoughts: Unorthodox Writings on Timely Issues. Now we have Devious Thoughts: Unconventional Thoughts on Contemporary Issues. It is an excellent complement to the others in the series.

Jason is Liberty’s esteemed senior editor, and some of the essays in Devious Thoughts have appeared in Liberty. So my regard for this book may not be free from all possible or conceivable bias — but then again, Jason is senior editor because he is an exceptional writer and an exceptional reasoner, so it is natural to find that he writes exceptional books. Such as this one.

At more than 400 pages, it is also a big book, willing to take up a wide range of issues. There are essays on education, immigration, energy policy, labor unions, and politics and economics more generally. An especially interesting section highlights one of Jason’s major developing interests, the history of propaganda.

I have long considered Jason one of this country’s leading experts on that most familiar and most misguided of America’s obsessions, energy and the environment. In a world in which public assertions about the environment are seldom supported by relevant or even existent facts, Jason always has facts to spare. For such nonspecialists as I, the 22 essays in the Energy and Environmentalism section of Devious Thoughts are a thorough education in the crucial events of the past five years, the age of fracking. Summarizing this section of his book, Jason refers to “the good news of the fracking revolution and America’s resurrection as an energy superpower.” He also mentions “the continuing follies of the environmentalist movement, a movement as rich in emotion as it is impoverished in rationality.”

Clearly, Jason’s thoughts are not “devious” in the sense of being tricky or slyly suggestive or cunningly insinuated. They are clear and straightforward, devious only in the ironic sense that to people who view them from a conventional perspective they will look like Mephistophelian underminings of Right Thinking. Of course, Right Thinking includes unconditional support for government schools, uncritical sympathy for monopolistic labor unions, abject worship at the shrines of the environmentalist cult, and other strange mental exercises now required of all who wish to be regarded as good citizens.

One of my favorite essays in this volume is Jason’s hilarious account of the migration of Toyota’s national headquarters from California to Texas, and the stunned or hubristic reactions of local politicians to the fact that companies prefer to operate where governments don’t make business too hard to carry on. Too numerous to mention are Jason’s droll commentaries on the afflictions of the big labor unions, which are losing all but their chutzpah. Near the top of my list is his series of essays on the means by which a totalitarian state (Nazi Germany) manipulated its population. Jason’s knowledge of fact, always impressive, is especially so in these works, in which one continually finds facts one didn’t know — facts about so many things: Nazi financial schemes, Nazi children’s books, the Nazi Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (what a name!), with its staff of 2,000 and its budget of almost 200 million Reichsmarks. . . . So many things.

Jason has an unusual ability to provide a dense array of facts and data while preserving liveliness and accessibility. In this book there is no unexplained jargon, no haughtily opaque references. The relatively short length of most essays allows them to be conveniently devoured and digested. And it’s a fine meal.


Editor's Note: Review of "Devious Thoughts: Unconventional Thoughts on Contemporary Issues," by Gary James Jason. CreateSpace, 2018, 406 pages.



Share This


Horror — and More

 | 

In the opening minutes of A Quiet Place, a small group of people tiptoes silently through an apparently abandoned grocery store, loading supplies into a backpack. Are they stealing? Hiding? Both? A small figure darts down a shadowy aisle, running so fast that we can’t see who, or even what, it is. Is it after them? With them? A woman reaches for a prescription bottle with the intense concentration of a person playing pick-up-sticks; her fingers tremble as she lifts the bottle without touching the bottles around it. Perhaps these are druggies looking for a fix? No — a young boy lies on the ground beside the woman, bundled in a blanket and leaning lethargically against the wall. This is a family, we realize, utterly silent, and utterly afraid. Within minutes we understand why: an alien species is terrorizing the neighborhood, and it hunts by sound rather than sight or smell. The people must remain silent in order to survive.

This is a family, we realize, utterly silent, and utterly afraid.

A Quiet Place is the best kind of horror film, relying on tension, foreshadowing, and misdirection rather than blood and gore to create panic in the audience. The family members communicate through sign language, walk barefoot, identify creaky floorboards with paint, cover hard surfaces with cloth to muffle their noise, and widen their eyes in terror with every misplaced movement that might elicit a sound. Shadowy lighting, a suspenseful musical score by Michael Beltrami, sudden noises, incomplete information, and brief sightings of the monsters are enough to make us curl our toes and grab the hand beside us.

But this is more than a horror movie. It’s a movie about how to exist as a family when everything around you has turned upside down, when silence is essential to survival, and when each family member has the potential to put all the others at risk through something as simple as a sneeze, a cough, or a slip of the fingers. A newspaper headline about the invasion warns inhabitants, “They Can Hear You.” Another advises, “Stay Silent, Stay Alive.” I couldn’t help but compare these monsters that hunt their victims through sounds made in the privacy of their own homes to an Orwellian government that spies on its citizens, devours them, and turns children against their parents.

But this is more than a horror movie. It’s a movie about how to exist as a family when everything around you has turned upside down.

How do you create a sense of normalcy for your children in the face of such unrelenting surveillance? Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt) provides schooling for her children, even though they can’t speak out loud. Children Regan (Millicent Simonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and Beau (Cade Woodward) learn self-reliance and accountability as they work, play, and tussle together. Father Lee (John Krasinski) feels a particular burden to provide for his family, protect them from this danger, and teach them how to survive it. He’s a true libertarian hero, relying on wit, courage, and innovation to take care of his own. There are many tender acts of love in this film that raise it above the level of a merely scary movie, as well as poignant moments of misunderstanding that need to be resolved, before the thrilling climax.

When Krasinski was offered the role of the father, he liked it so much that he revised the script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, signed on as director, hired his wife Emily Blunt to play the mother, and insisted on hiring deaf actress Millicent Simmonds (who was so good in last year’s Wonderstruck) to play the deaf daughter. He ended up with an executive producer credit as well. The result is one of those perfect labors of love that unite terrific storytelling with terrific character development and a terrific ending that keeps you thinking about it long after the credits roll. I will probably see this one a second time.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Quiet Place," directed by John Krasinski. Platinum Dunes, 2018, 90 minutes.



Share This


The Movie of the Multipliers

 | 

The multipliers. These are some of the most dangerous elements of political life.

Intelligence, knowledge, persuasiveness, experience in political affairs — all these good things may add much to a politician’s ability to succeed. The lack of such qualities may subtract from it. But you can be possessed of all of them and still be only half as likely to win public office as a person who lacks them completely, but has real money, or one-quarter as likely as a person whose father happened to be a noted politician, or one-tenth as likely as a person who happens to possess the right age, color, or creed. Wealth, unearned prestige, the accidents of demographics — these are multipliers, and there are many others.

The first President Bush, a man of normal abilities, achieved high political office by means of multipliers unrelated to political ideas or performance. He was rich, his father had been socially and politically important, and his contrast with Ronald Reagan endeared him to journalists who, for their own reasons, valued that contrast. The second President Bush, a man of no ability at all, was a nice guy, which added something to his political appeal. But the multiplier was the fact that his father had been president and had been surrounded by a gang of hacks who wanted to get back in power.

Wealth, unearned prestige, the accidents of demographics — these are multipliers, and there are many others.

Political multipliers can be mildly amusing, innocently useful, morally disgusting, or existentially disturbing. In the case of the Kennedy family, they are terrifying. One of the Kennedys — John — had intelligence, courage, and a personality that was attractive in many ways. On its own, this ensemble of good attributes would probably have gotten him nowhere important in the political life of his time. His success depended on multipliers — a large fortune; an ambitious, politically manipulative father, good at surrounding young John with media toadies; a family ethic that sanctioned and demanded constant, conscienceless lying; a support base of fanatical Irish Catholics prepared to vote for anyone who shared their ethnic and religious identification, no matter what that person did; and an unbroken phalanx of media writers and performers for whom “Jack” embodied fantasies of male potency and sophisticated “culture.” His assassination provided another mighty multiplier, so mighty that sane people should thank God every morning that his brother, Edward (“Teddy,” then “Ted”) Kennedy, the inheritor of John’s manufactured charisma, never realized his life’s purpose of attaining the presidency.

Few readers of this journal need to be reminded of the fact that Edward Kennedy had no good qualities whatever, political or otherwise. Yet he might have become president; and after he died, he continued to be celebrated by crazed or cynical followers who would have hounded any person without his multipliers out of politics, if not out of the country.

Finally, a mere five decades after the event, a serious film has been made about the great divider of Kennedy’s political prospects, the incident of July 18, 1969, in which a drunken Kennedy drove a car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, drowning the young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, who was with him. Kennedy left her to die, trapped in the car. Then he tried, in various ridiculous ways, to conceal his involvement. This proving impossible, he admitted some vague form of responsibility, retreated to his Irish Catholic base, which, I repeat, would swallow any kind of explanation from a Kennedy, and, with the aid of friendly media and the accustomed throng of social and intellectual gofers, rebuilt his political career.

Political multipliers can be mildly amusing, innocently useful, morally disgusting, or existentially disturbing. In the case of the Kennedy family, they are terrifying.

Jason Clarke, who plays Kennedy in this film, and director John Curran, both apparently modern liberals, seem to think that Kennedy rebuilt not only a career but a self; they seem to believe that he became a genuinely great political figure. The idea is absurd, and the film does nothing to support it. It shows Kennedy deciding to recover from the incident at Chappaquiddick by founding his life on ever more aggressive lies — which is exactly what he did.

The film is, indeed, closer to fact than any historical movie I have ever seen. By the time it’s done, you have encountered all the relevant evidence, evidence that gains power by being introduced slowly, by frequent revisits to the scene of the crime. The scenes, both indoor and outdoor, are impeccably authentic and meaningful as further evidence. To select a small detail: the camera notices that when Kennedy is to make a particularly “authentic” television broadcast, he is seated at a serious looking desk behind a case full of important looking books, but the legs of the desk are propped by haphazard piles of the same kind of books — a good indication of the importance of knowledge in the life of Ted Kennedy.

As for acting — at the start of the movie, Clarke doesn’t look or talk much like the Kennedy we saw all too frequently, but as he develops the character’s psychology he actually convinces you that the two are exactly the same, right down to the shape of the face. The other well-known people who are impersonated do the same (a sign of great direction). One of them is Bruce Dern, playing Kennedy’s father. Dern is the most recognizable of actors, but I didn’t discover who he was until I read the credits. Kate Mara has a hard job playing Mary Jo Kopechne, and her performance is not memorable, but she had a difficult task, given the fact that Kopechne was not allowed to achieve distinctness in real life. Clancy Brown does a magnificent Robert McNamara; Taylor Nichols presents an interesting view of the psychology of Ted Sorensen (perhaps the most respected of the Kennedy hacks), though without aspiring to the height of Sorensen’s towering arrogance; and Ed Helms does an excellent job in the difficult role of the one good guy, Kennedy sidekick Joe Gargan.

Ted Kennedy left Mary Jo Kopechne to die, trapped in the car. Then he tried, in various ridiculous ways, to conceal his involvement.

Real artists often exceed their conscious ideological programs simply by taking seriously their jobs as artists, so that in their hands a representation of human life takes on a life of its own, which is simultaneously our own real life, seen more deeply and rendered more self-explanatory. Artistic insight becomes analysis, and fact becomes a more suggestive truth. This is what Chappaquiddick does. Particularly revealing are the serious but irresistibly comic scenes in which all the hacks that money can buy are assembled to advise Teddy Kennedy about how to get out of the mess he has made. Here, viewed without overt explanation, analysis, or moralization, are a horde of important men, operating on the assumption that (A) the politician they serve is a destructive fool; (B) this politician must be elected president; and (C) his supporters must create all the lies and corruption necessary to make him so. The childishness is funny; the absolute lack of conscience is, in these true images of the powerful, terrifying. Add to that the movie’s evocation of the stolen prestige of John Kennedy’s presidency, and the Mafia-like adulation of “family” that has always characterized the Kennedys and their followers, and you have all the multipliers you need. The picture is complete.

I consider Chappaquiddick the third-best film about American politics, after Advise & Consent and The Manchurian Candidate. That’s quite an achievement.


Editor's Note: Review of "Chappaquiddick," directed by John Curran. Apex Entertainment, 2017, 101 minutes.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2018 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.