Santa’s Not-so-Secret Spy Network

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Have you ever wondered exactly how Santa knows who is naughty, and who is nice? In 2005, a mother-daughter team wrote and self-published a book, ostensibly for kids, that set out to answer just that question. That book, The Elf on the Shelf, is both a smash-hit bestseller and a creepily straightforward symbol of our overreaching national security state.

Here’s how it works. Parents buy the Elf on the Shelf kit, which comes with a copy of the book, as well as their very own elf doll (available in both sexes and diverse shades, the better to maximize marketing potential). The parents read their children the book, which outlines how it is precisely this elf who informs Santa when they’ve been bad and when they’ve been good. Every night, in fact, when they’re sleeping, the elf flies from the kid’s home up to the North Pole and passes along the fruits of its surveillance, and then flies right back so as not to miss a minute of potential misbehavior.

The sign that the elf is making this trek is that every morning, it’s moved to a different location in the house. I leave it to the reader to divine what sophisticated method produces the elf’s locomotion — as far as the kids are concerned, though, the one hard and fast rule in the Elf on the Shelf state is “Don’t touch the elf.” You can talk to it — tell it your deepest desires — confess to it — reveal to it the misdeeds of siblings or parents — but don’t you dare lay a finger on it, or else, as it notes in plaintive verse, “My magic might go, and Santa won’t hear all I’ve seen or know.”

Yet this is precisely the demand the American surveillance state makes on us: to respect above all else its presence, its wisdom, its necessity. And this demand becomes ever more pressing; as the Wall Street Journal recently revealed, the National Counterterrorism Center [NCTC] now claims the right (backed by the signature of the attorney general) to “examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them.” Moreover, they can store this data for up to five years (with longer durations doubtlessly on the way, if not already de facto present) and share with any foreign government for joint investigations.

While Santa always represented unimpeachable extrajudicial authority, it wasn’t as if he had a uniformed agent present inside the house itself.

As the WSJ article shows, anyone speaking out against this new regime from within was purged from the ranks — their meddling potentially preventing Santa from hearing all that the elves had seen, and thus endangering the magic of the entire system. Those left to oversee the activities of the NCTC are the same ones who were gung-ho for it in the first place — those falling all over themselves to put an elf on every shelf, the better to have minutely detailed lists of the naughty and the nice (or, more accurately, the naughty and those who might yet prove naughty, if only we survey them long enough).

The Elf on the Shelf fad might seem innocuous — in most cases, is innocuous: a little bit of wonder added to the days leading up to Christmas. Still I can’t help but wonder myself about anything that encourages citizens, and especially children, to recognize the validity of an arbitrary authority; still more, to internalize that authority, by conducting themselves by thinking first and foremost about what that authority will report to its higher-ups.

Is this really such a big revision of the much older and still creepy idea that Santa (or some other omniscient white-bearded figure) is keeping tabs on you? I would argue yes; while Santa always represented unimpeachable extrajudicial authority, it wasn’t as if he had a uniformed agent present inside the house itself. And you could petition him directly, making the case for your goodness by letter. Now, a kid hoping to sway the balance to “nice” has to appeal to Santa’s intermediary, and hope nothing gets lost on the way through the North Pole bureaucracy.

I’m sure there’s no causal connection here. It’s not as if the DHS or CIA or anyone is funding Elf on the Shelf as part of some grand conspiracy to produce a more compliant citizenry. They don’t have to: as the Journal report and the deafening lack of protest shows, we’re already compliant enough. Rather, games like this — and often the sillier, the better — help prepare children for the age in which they will live; it’s a form of socialization that doesn’t have to evade resistance because it doesn’t seem like there’s anything to resist. It’s just natural that there’s a spy in your midst, the public face of a distant organization whose power you can’t imagine; it’s just natural that this power must go unquestioned and even unexamined. Because that’s the fundamental assumption of American and much other modern governance today — and any who dare resist will find themselves on the naughty list. And as a recent Christmas release, Zero Dark Thirty, taught us: we have ways of dealing with the naughty. If contemporary America excels at anything, it’s in its many and various ways of dealing with the naughty.



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Not Too Old to Romp

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James Bond turns 50 this year (not counting his seven-year gestation from book to film). The secret agent with a license to kill burst on the screen in 1962 to do battle with the eponymous Dr. No. The franchise has spawned 25 films, with seven actors playing the debonair agent and all of them highlighting Bond’s penchant for high-tech gadgets, droll humor, stylized bloodless fisticuffs, and trademark martinis (“shaken, not stirred”).

In Skyfall Bond is beginning to show his age. Daniel Craig entered the Bond brotherhood in 2006 as a Bond for the 21st century: darker, earthier, and more of a man’s man than a lady’s man. Now his eyes are bloodshot, his beard is grizzled, and his ears have grown to batlike proportions (more on that later). In Skyfall, acknowledging the franchise's aging becomes a running theme.

This is a Bond who has to work harder and sweat more. His hands slip as he hangs on tightly to the bottom of an elevator carrying an enemy assassin to his lair. His eyesight isn’t as sure as it used to be when he aims at a target. He feels his muscles aging — and he doesn’t like it, not one bit. But he faces it with his familiar witty one-liners, and his core fans don’t mind; after all, we’re aging too, and we’re hanging on just as tightly to our youth and our physical vitality.

As Bond walks through the halls of MI6 with head of Foreign Intelligence Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), Mallory says of the spy business, “It’s a younger man’s game.” As they pass a painting of ships in a harbor, he notes nostalgically: “It always makes me a bit melancholy: the grand old war ship being hauled away for scrap.” His point is clear: Bond’s days an agent might be numbered.

Among the cast of “young new gamers” is a new Q (Ben Whishaw), the quartermaster who provides Bond with his arsenal of tricky weapons in every new film. Serendipitously, each weapon turns out to be exactly what he needs to save the day in the ensuing scenes — kind of a deus ex machina in advance. When Bond looks quizzically at the two simple devices he is given this time, Q shrugs as much for the audience as for Bond. “What?” he asks. “Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that any more.”

This is one of the best Bond films ever, and not just because of the heart-pounding chase scenes (motorcycles on rooftops!), exotic settings (Shanghai's skyline at night; a futuristic abandoned city on an island in an Asian sea; the haunting moors of Scotland), and inventive deaths (by komodo dragon, for example). The plot of Skyfall is tight and easy to follow, taking the audience from one suspenseful scene to the next. An enemy agent has stolen a hard drive that contains the names of all the British agents and their operatives worldwide. If the list is not recovered before it is handed over to the mastermind, all of those agents will be killed.

That’s all you need to know. The rest is a romp among well choreographed martial arts, unexpected villains, and beautiful but disposable Bond girls. Of course, the mastermind (Javier Bardem) has a physical grotesquery and a personal vendetta against MI6, as all good Bond villains have. Bardem plays his character's eccentricity to the hilt, balancing just on the precipice of clownishness without falling over the edge.

Most of all, what makes this film stand out from the rest is that it gives us a rare glimpse into the background of this suave, sophisticated, sardonic, and secretive super agent. I won't give away too much, but I will say that Bond has a hint of the Batman in him, and “skyfall”is Bond's “rosebud.” Moreover, Bond fanatics will enjoy watching for the numerous Easter eggs hidden throughout the film, but I won't reveal them here. (Trivia sleuths will also enjoy noticing M's magically appearing and disappearing coat and scarf....)

In a moment of 21st century reflection, M (Judi Dench) observes, “Our enemies are no longer known to us. They aren’t nations. Our enemies are opaque — in the shadows.” So, apparently, are our heroes. This film shines a flashlight into those shadows, revealing secrets about Bond, M, Q, and other beloved staples of the series to create a rich and satisfying film.


Editor's Note: Review of "Skyfall," directed by Sam Mendes. MGM, 2012, 143 minutes.



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The Fog of Cover Your Ass

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The White House spent almost two weeks in clumsy and confusing attempts to blame an obscure, anti-Muslim video for the attack on the American Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi, Libya. By the time it finally admitted that terrorism was the cause, a much larger, immensely more damning, problem emerged: almost daily, reports from security officials and intelligence sources on the ground in Libya began to suggest deep incompetence and negligence in the loftiest offices of Washington DC. The new questions, which focused on security lapses leading up to the attack, were answered with equally delusive attempts at escaping responsibility, as the White House resorted to blame-shifting (we didn't know, we weren't told), stonewalling (wait until our investigation is complete, long after the election), and feigned indignation (that the tragedy could be politicized).

And there is also, of course, "the fog of war," invoked to absolve any national security malfeasance that may have occurred in the chaotic, terrorist hotbed of Benghazi. “Fog” was supposed to excuse the administration's clownish laxity during the attack and to explain the repeated denials of requests for enhanced security in the months leading up to it. But the repeated refusals (by the Department of Defense and the CIA) of military support during the attack are even more troublesome. Absolution for failing to help Americans under siege is obtainable, but absolution for failing even to try, despite the fog of war, should not come easy.

The attack, which lasted over seven hours, began around 3:40 pm ET. Contrary to White House claims of nebulous intelligence information, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's diplomatic security official Charlene Lamb was monitoring an audio feed of the attack (in real time, from its inception), and email alerts of the attack began arriving at 4:05 pm ET (at, among other places, the White House Situation Room). CIA Director David Petraeus was no doubt immediately alerted by the Benghazi CIA safe house. President Obama met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at 5 p.m. ET. The first of two unarmed Predator drones arrived in Benghazi at 5:11 ET.

President Obama's national security team was being inundated (again in real time), with phone calls, emails, radio transmissions, and video from Benghazi. In a recent CNN article, “What really happened in Benghazi?”, William Bennett posed the most gravely consequential question: "Why was no additional military aid sent to secure our personnel, like the president claimed he directed?" Significant military resources were located within one to two hours of Benghazi, some in the city itself. None was dispatched. Bennett's article was aptly subtitled, "The Obama administration fiddled while Benghazi burned and four Americans died.”

Woods frantically requested backup from the CIA and asked permission to assist the Americans under attack. The request for backup was denied.

The gunfire that rang out in the Situation Room was also heard by former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, who was stationed at the CIA safe house about a mile from the Mission. Woods frantically requested backup from the CIA and asked permission to assist the Americans under attack. The request for backup was denied. He was twice told to "stand down."

Disobeying the orders, Woods and his five-man team left for the Mission where they rescued several people and returned to the safe house with the body of Ambassador Stevens’ colleague, Sean Smith. Woods again requested military backup and was again denied. He was soon joined by Glen Doherty, also a former Navy SEAL, in a heroic defense of the safe house. Both were killed by a mortar shell four hours later, nearly seven hours after the attack on the Mission began.

As the truth about Benghazi security lapses leaked into public knowledge, Secretary of State Clinton was first to blame the fog of war. To her credit, she was also the first to show a little backbone. Amid the growing perception that both the White House and State Department lacked concern for the safety of diplomats, Mrs. Clinton bravely stepped forward to shift blame away from the White House, saying, "I'm in charge of the state department's 60,000-plus people . . . the president and the vice-president wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals . . ."

Describing an "intense, long ordeal" for State Department staffers as they struggled to find out what was happening, Clinton said the buck stopped with her and not the White House. Ironically, she expressed this concern in an October 15 CNN interview, her first since the attack over a month before, while she was attending a conference on women and entrepreneurship in Lima, Peru — at a time when Barack Obama was attending a fundraiser in San Francisco. The empathy didn't shine through the fog; the buck failed to stop at the State Department.

Initially, David Petraeus appeared to be toeing the Obama line of blaming video-incited demonstrators for the Benghazi attack. On September 13, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center stated that the attack was executed by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-affiliated militias. The very next day, incredibly, Petraeus described it as being tied to a demonstration — one he knew did not occur. However, in the case of the safe house attack, he would later state, through a CIA spokesperson, that the CIA had nothing to do with the decision to deny backup requests. Call it the fog of war, but this assertion sent the buck wafting back towards its rightful stop (the president). If Petraeus didn't refuse support, who else had the authority to do so?

On the day of the attack, numerous US military aircraft, including fighter jets and Specter AC-130 gunships, were stationed within an hour's flight of Benghazi. A Marine contingent and two separate Tier One Special Operations forces, including Delta Force operators, were less than two hours away. And there were other, much closer capabilities in the region: armed drones that monitor chemical weapon sites, F-18's, AC-130 aircraft, and helicopters. Indeed, there were British security forces stationed in Benghazi who were more than willing to assist. According to Fox News, the British were frustrated that they were not summoned. Said one, “We have more people on the ground here than the Americans and I just don't know why we didn't get the call."

Had these forces been dispatched at any time from immediately after the first shots at the Mission to as long as four or five hours later, it is likely that American lives would have been saved. Yet Leon Panetta had the forces all stand down. Within the fog of war, he said, “the basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place.”

But he did have "real-time information." As we now know, Obama's national security team was notified within minutes of the consulate attack — an attack that began in late afternoon, Washington time, when all team members were available. And he had a large window of opportunity in which to insert military forces highly trained in counterterrorism and rescue operations. Panetta also knew, early on, that the threat was not a mob of demonstrators that would soon tire and disperse; it was terrorists — very well organized, armed, and trained — who would execute their attack throughout the night until their objective was achieved.

Had forces been dispatched at any time from immediately after the first shots at the Mission to as long as four or five hours later, it is likely that American lives would have been saved.

We are left to wonder what really went on in the White House situation room that day, the ominous anniversary of 9/11. How did Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus assess the events of Benghazi? What rescue plans did they consider? Which of them concocted the anti-Muslim video narrative? What recommendations did they offer President Obama? And although such questions are important, the overriding question is Obama’s own role. As commander-in-chief, he, and only he, could have made the decision to withhold the military forces. But, as the story unfolds, it seems that nothing gutsy or courageous happened — only a fretful, indecisive, seven-hour wait for the window of opportunity to close. No military forces were sent to rescue the Americans stranded in Benghazi. Not early. Not late. Not a single aircraft. Not a single unit. Not even an attempt.

Alas, there will be no dramatic Situation Room pictures (such as those of the bin Laden raid, which saturated the media for weeks) of President Obama surrounded by his national security team, making the tough decisions. The following morning, in the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama decided not to explain his failure, in his own words, to "make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to." After a brief statement eulogizing the four Americans who died in Benghazi, he decided to fly to Las Vegas for a political fundraiser.

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus stood by, hapless and indecisive, as other Americans died. Ty Woods, unlike his superiors in Washington, did not hesitate. He risked, then sacrificed, his life to save others. Marine and Special Operations units nearby would have done the same. But what should be done when Americans are being killed by terrorists only hours away from American forces (minutes away from allied forces) that could possibly rescue them? There is no doubt that any decision to place military forces in harm’s way is fraught with risk. There is also the risk of failure and the fear of political fallout. Then, of course, there is morality and honor. Finally, however, there is the fog of war, which will cover the asses of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus, the people who didn't even try.




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Negligence of the Inept

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Most people, including many Obama supporters, were stunned when the Obama administration blamed the Innocence of Muslims video for the 9/11 attack on our Benghazi consulate. With his recent swagger ("bin Laden is dead" and "Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat"), Mr. Obama seemed to be telling us that his conciliatory diplomacy was winning the day. Surely no one could have predicted that an obscure internet video, based on an obscurer film, would cause the murders of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans. But that was the administration’s explanation for the shattering of its Middle Eastern policy.

As for the film: all of us should have been stunned by the administration's betrayal of our First Amendment. Instead of defending free speech, Hillary Clinton denounced the film as "disgusting and reprehensible." Many liberals, of all people, condemned the producer, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, for the violence he allegedly incited — the equivalent of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Nakoula is, by all accounts, a sleazy character. But if a third-rate, 14-minute trailer can thrust thousands of Muslims into a barbaric, murderous rage, then "Fire!" is precisely what should be shouted; the theater is already in flames.

Tiny Denmark defended the free speech of Jyllands-Posten, publisher of the Muhammad cartoons, doing so in the face of violent threats by Islamic extremists. America didn't have the spine to do; we apologized for the film, asked Google to remove it, and arrested the filmmaker.

A conflicted Google defended free speech in refusing to remove the video in the West, but caved to White House pressure in pulling it from several Arab-Muslim countries. A confused Nakoula was arrested in a disgraceful, groveling attempt to appease the Islamic world. When it comes to politically incorrect films, Muslims everywhere can now look to America for intolerence rivaling their own.

The foreign policy ineptitude of the Obama administration was exposed by its use of both the film and the arrest: the former as a pretense for causing the attack; the latter as a pretense for calming Muslims sympathetic to the attackers. White House and State Department officials were no doubt heartened by the spectacle of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department taking Nakoula from his home, perhaps hoping that it would quench post-Arab Spring hatred of Americans. But the true spectacle was ironic: the number of law enforcement officials hustling Nakoula off to jail in the US exceeded the number of security guards protecting the four Americans murdered in Libya.

If a third-rate, 14-minute film trailer can thrust thousands of Muslims into a barbaric, murderous rage, then "Fire!" is precisely what should be shouted; the theater is already in flames.

In America, where inflammatory artwork such as Andres Serrano’s "Piss Christ" is celebrated, the moral enlightenment of the politically correct usually comes back to bite them in the ass. So it was with Hillary Clinton, who once pasionately defended the free speech right of "The Holy Virgin Mary," a painting by Chris Ofili that depicts a black Madonna smeared with elephant dung and surrounded by collaged pornographic images of female genitalia. That passion is now a distant, hypocritical memory. In the Obama era of apology and appeasement, Mrs. Clinton is embarassed by free speech. On Pakistan's “Day of Love for the Prophet,” she ran an ad featuring President Obama blathering about our tradition of religious tolerance, and herself, pleading that our government had nothing to do with The Innocence of Muslims.

The day of Muslims loving their prophet ended with 23 people killed in Pakistan alone and revealed the deep folly of Obama's Middle East policies. Violent anti-American protests spread throughout the hyper-senstitve, irony-challenged Muslim world. People burned American flags, ransacked American businesses, attacked American embassies, etc. It's hard to imagine that a more "disgusting and reprehensible" display would have happened, if Mrs. Clinton had run a free speech ad instead.

To the consternation of Barack Obama, the sons of men who hated, but respected, George Bush, have become men who both hate and disrespect him. Subsequent to the Benghazi attack, "Obama, Obama, We Are All Osama" became the chant of the new liberal Arab youth. To many, perhaps millions, of them, Obama's achievement is an abomination. He murdered bin Laden, the spiritual champion who lives in their hearts — hearts that will be inconsolably inflamed upon the release of Zero Dark Thirty, a movie celebrating the killing of their hero. That will be the day when Obama's "bin Laden is dead" mantra will come back to bite him in the ass.

And it is Obama's movie. According to documents obtained by Judicial Watch http://www.judicialwatch.org/press-room/press-releases/judicial-watch-obtains-4-to-5-inch-stack-of-overlooked-cia-records-detailing-meetings-with-bin-laden-filmmakers/, the White House worked closely with director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal to incorporate administration talking points and play up the president's role as the gutsy decision maker. To the dismay of Mrs. Clinton, our government is not innocent in the case of Zero Dark Thirty.

What, then, will the Obama administration do to prevent the rampant violence that this film will certainly incite? Pressure Sony to stop its distribution? Perp-walk Bigelow and Boal to jail? These steps may be unnecessary, if the administration succeeds in shifting blame to the intelligence community. Finally admitting that the Benghazi massacre was a terrorist attack, administration officials now tell us that they were unaware of terrorist threats converging on the consulate with the anniversary of 9/11. Had they known, measures would have been taken to protect the Americans stranded in Benghazi.

But, dashing hopes for an Obama Oscar (to go with his Nobel Peace Prize), they did know. There were numerous intelligence and DoD reports warning of the intense al Qaeda buildup in Libya during the six months prior to the Benghazi attack. According to reports such as “Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile” (released in August), al Qaeda terrorists were probably bumping into each other in Benghazi. Ansar al Sharia held a June demonstration at Liberation Square; 15 militias showed up. Recent news reports reveal that, contrary to its repeated claims of ignorance, the administration was well aware of 13 threats or attacks on western diplomats and officials in Libya during the period. This is where president Obama's "Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat" mantra comes back to bite him, viciously.

Not only was the Obama administration cognizant of the emerging al Qaeda threat, it was aware of repeated requests from Benghazi for additional security — requests that were denied. Moreover, as al Qaeda forces were advancing, US forces were being withdrawn. According to CBS News, the State Department removed three Mobile Security Deployment teams and a 16-member Site Security Team between February and August. In the sobering aftermath of such blunders, a stern Obama warned of the consequences to countries that fail to protect Americans: we will send the FBI three weeks later, after reporters have left, examine the crime scene for an hour, and write a nasty report condemning the murders (after the election).

Not only was the Obama administration cognizant of the emerging al Qaeda threat, it was aware of repeated requests from Benghazi for additional security — requests that were denied.

Audaciously taking credit for the death of bin Laden, Obama purposefully evades responsibility for the deaths of Ambassador Stevens and his three colleagues. It is a shameless coverup for monumental ineptitude. He conceals his failed conciliatory policies, his misreading of the Arab Awakening, and his lack of interest in actionable intelligence information. Calls to seek justice and form yet another investigatory panel ("We're still doing an investigation," said President Obama, yukking it up on “The View” while FBI agents fretted in Tripoli) merely hide the negligence that left four Americans stranded in a pathetically unprotected facility to die valiantly and alone, murdered by a horde of terrorist cowards. Negligence, and ineptitude — the ineptitude that has transformed America's "Don't Tread on Me" into Obama’s "Grin and Bear It."

quot;bin Laden is dead




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Three Ways of Reacting to the Obvious

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At this writing, no one can say what happened in Benghazi on September 11, when Ambassador Chris Stevens was brutally murdered by a mob of Muslim fanatics, driven to frenzy by an obscure YouTube feature. Or was he murdered by a Muslim army, conducting a well-planned attack? Or was it an inside job, perpetrated by Libyan employees of the embassy? Or perhaps all three?

The administration’s account of the enemy has frequently changed. But what about America’s arrangements to defend its people and property? What about our own operations? What happened with them? Mrs. Clinton’s State Department clearly wants everyone to assume that adequate security was in place. But . . . but . . . what about the obvious? The ambassador is dead.

The badly named Buck McKeon (R-CA), who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, made that point. It’s an obvious point, but he made it, and he did a little something with it: “It’s pretty obvious he did not have adequate security. Otherwise he would probably be here today. . . . I’m really disappointed about that. I think when we put our people around the world at risk and don’t provide adequate security, shame on us.”

This is one kind of response to fact. It’s banal, it’s obvious, but at least it recognizes the obvious. It recognizes things as they are, and allows for some further investigation, and perhaps some redress of grievances.

A second kind of response is represented by President Obama’s bizarre remarks of Sept. 20, about what he had learned as president: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."

In making this comment, Obama assumed a general recognition of the obvious: he had not managed to fulfill his promises of hope and change. An obvious response would be, “Well, maybe somebody else can fix things.” But that’s not the tack Obama took. That’s not what he said he had learned. He said he’d learned that you can’t change Washington from the inside, that you have to be an outsider to do that.

There’s no way you can make sense out of that. Obama couldn’t be farther inside, and he’s campaigning to stay that way, despite the fact that insiders can’t change anything. But obviously, when he was on the outside, he didn’t manage to change anything, either — because otherwise why would he have campaigned to get on the inside?

This dilemma has no exit. It’s a radical form of conservatism: since no one, either inside or outside, can do anything about anything, we need to stay exactly where we are right now. Obama happens to be in the White House, so that’s a good deal for him. As for the rest of us . . . we’ll always have Social Security to fall back on.

Or will we? On September 20, Paul Ryan addressed the convention of the American Association of Retired Persons, otherwise known as the world’s greatest purveyor of direct mail, and said what is obviously true and admitted by all: Social Security is broke, and getting broker, and if something isn’t done about it, the system will fold. This non-news should, theoretically, be of the first importance to the AARP. The AARP should want to do something about it. But what it did was to boo and hiss Paul Ryan.

This is the third kind of reaction to the obvious — an impassioned resistance to knowing or doing anything. It’s a conservatism so militant that even Jerry Falwell, were he still on earth, might pause and admire it. It’s the kind of conservatism that one sees everywhere in the campaigns of incumbents (and this year, the Democratic Party is the chief incumbent). Every Obama sign and sticker is like a giant billboard reading SO WHAT? The failure is obvious; the intention to fix it, nonexistent. The program is, keep everything exactly the way it is. The fact that this program will probably win is an even ghastlier reflection on American politics than the Republicans’ tedious gyrations between truth, untruth, and sort of truth.

“Fact checks” almost always hurt the Republicans, because the Republican campaign is predicated on the idea that facts exist and must be faced. But they do nothing to hurt the Democrats — and that’s the really awful thing.

rsquo;s not the tack Obama took. That




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Batman and Business

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Business is bad in Hollywood, and I'm not talking about the box office receipts. Businesspeople have been portrayed as bad guys in movies for the past several decades. When an audience member asked about this trend during the "Liberty in Film" panel at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival last month, Hollywood biographer and insider Marc Eliot dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "It's just a shortcut," he explained. "When you see a businessman on the screen, you know it's the villain. It just streamlines the story."

As moderator of the panel, I agreed with him that these shortcuts are probably not intentionally sinister; in fact, the technique goes all the way back to Aesop, who used them in his fables. "If a character was a dog, you knew he would be loyal," I acknowledged. "A fox would be cunning. A crow would steal. In the old days," I went on, "a black hat meant 'bad guy' and a white hat meant 'good guy.' But shortcuts are dangerous and unfair when we're talking about whole groups of people." I specifically referenced the "shortcuts" of earlier generations of filmmakers: blacks were clowns; Indians were ferocious; women were weak. I suggested the danger of having a new generation automatically think "villain" when it sees a businessperson. The problem is that these characters often mirror and perpetuate basic prejudices within a culture. Onscreen stereotypes lead to real-life prejudices.

Panelist Gary Alexander added this biting criticism: "Using shortcuts is just plain lazy." It's true that filmmakers have always used stock characters as shortcuts to storytelling, and they probably always will. But that doesn't mean we have to accept them.

The silver lining to this clouded silver screen is that these shortcuts can be changed. The challenge for filmmakers is to break away from them and create independent characters who can surprise and satisfy. Just as filmmakers of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s deliberately challenged black and female stereotypes by casting against type and writing untraditional storylines, so libertarian filmmakers today need to write screenplays that challenge and overturn the stock business villain. These characters need to be portrayed in the rich, three-dimensional diversity that exists in the real world, where some business people are admittedly bad but others are surprisingly (to filmgoers) good.

What a reversal of stereotypical shortcuts! A businesswoman who expresses the proper role of business, and a burglar who reveals her petty jealousies.

This actually happens in The Dark Knight Rises, the latest entry in the Batman franchise. It's subtle, but it's clear: although there are some bad businesspeople in the film, there are just as many good ones, smashing the stereotype and insisting that viewers look past their stock expectations. For example, when Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) discovers that his homes for at-risk and orphaned boys have not been funded for two years, he confronts his trusted friend and protector, Alfred. "The homes were funded by profits from Wayne Industries," Alfred sadly explains. "There have to be some." That’s a reminder to Bruce, who has been in a deep funk since his girlfriend died, that his neglect of his company has had wide-ranging effects. Bruce — and the audience — are thus informed that "excess profits" are a good thing. They can be used for doing good works, if that is the business owner's goal.

Similarly, in another brief interchange the audience is told that everyone is affected by the stock market, whether they own stocks or not. I don't think I'm giving away too much to tell you that, early in the film, the bad guys break into the stock exchange. The chief of police is unconcerned about the consequences of a financial meltdown, arguing that the average person saves his money under a mattress and doesn't care about what happens to the stock market. The head of the exchange tells him, "If this money disappears, your mattress will be worth a lot less." A simple truth, simply stated.

Later, Bruce Wayne teams up with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), the head of another corporation, and she voices similar truths about the free market. "You have to invest to restore balance to the world," she tells him, acknowledging the importance of capital investment and private enterprise. And when he looks around at a lavish business party she is hosting, she tells him, "The proceeds will go wherever I want, because I paid for the spread myself." Even Ayn Rand would likely approve this self-interested heroine who understands the value of business.

Meanwhile, Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), one of Batman's archenemies, looks around at Bruce Wayne's huge estate and growls jealously, "You're going to wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." What a reversal of stereotypical shortcuts! A businesswoman who expresses the proper role of business, and a burglar who reveals her petty jealousies. Bravo, Christopher Nolan!

Cinematically The Dark Knight Rises delivers all that was promised in the weeks and months building up to its release. Christian Bale's troubled Bruce Wayne lifts the character far above the comic book hero created by Bob Kane and trivialized by the Adam West TV series in the ’60s. Gone, too, is the sardonic humor injected by George Clooney's portrayal in the ’80s. This Batman is a reluctant savior of a world that has largely misunderstood and rejected him. While he has a few ardent supporters, most consider him a traitor and want him destroyed. He is briefly tempted away from his mission by the love of a woman. He suffers indescribable agony in a dark prison at the hands of a monstrous villain named Bane (Tom Hardy) — the "bane" who wants to destroy the world. Despite his reluctance, Bruce accepts his arduous task. In short, he is a classic Christ figure, adding gravitas to the modern myth of Batman. He even says at one point, "My father's work is done."

I had to display the contents of my purse to a uniformed employee before entering the theater. I hope that a TSA-style Movie Safety Authority does not take over our malls and movie theaters.

But while the characters are rich and well acted, the story is interesting, Hans Zimmer's musical score is powerfully compelling, and the final hour is particularly thrilling, it was difficult to watch this film. Action movies have always provided an opportunity to enter another world, suspend one's disbelief, enjoy vicarious experience, then step back into the real world where "things like that" don't really happen. But in light of what did happen in Aurora, Colorado on opening night, I found it almost impossible to separate myself from the barrage of onscreen shooting in the first half hour of the film. It seemed devastatingly real because I knew it was during this scene of heartless shooting in a very public location that the actual shooting began. I was almost ashamed to be there, seeking a few hours' entertainment from a film that was the unwitting stage for such terror.

I also found myself looking around the aisles and corners of the theater, watching for suspicious characters and devising an escape plan. This was partly because I had to display the contents of my purse to a uniformed employee before entering the theater. I hope that fears like this dissipate for everyone. And I hope that a TSA-style MSA (Movie Safety Authority) does not take over our malls and movie theaters.

Spoiler alert — read the next paragraph only if you have already seen this movie, or if you have no intention of ever seeing it:

The film ends with an "aha" moment that is so thrillingly unexpected that, when I saw it, the entire audience gasped in disbelief. But I should have known from the beginning. Marc Eliot explained it to us in the “Liberty in Film” panel, and he was right: Hollywood uses shortcuts to tell us who the bad guy is. Even when a writer-director is planning the most delicious of twists for the end, he is helpless against his own Hollywood instincts. Nolan telegraphed it from the start: In modern movies, the business owner is always the bad guy. Even when you least expect it.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Dark Knight Rises," directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Brothers, 2012, 164 minutes.



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This Modern Life

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A Costly Epiphany

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A recent article struck my eye as worthy of some comment. It is a story completely ignored in the mainstream media, but fascinating nonetheless.

It reports that Rep. John Mica (R-FL), the very congressman who authored the bill that created the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, is now having second thoughts about his creation. In fact, he now favors dismantling and even privatizing it.

Mica, who heads the House Transportation Committee, is candid in acknowledging that the TSA is now a poster child for the Law of Unintended Consequences. He notes that the agency has metastasized (as government agencies are wont to do). It went from a $2 billion to a $9 billion “enterprise.” And Mica avers with apparent astonishment, “The whole program has been hijacked by bureaucrats.”

This, of course, makes one want to ask Mica whether he can name any government program not hijacked by bureaucrats. But I digress.

Mica rates the performance of the TSA collectively as a “D-,” and calls the agency a “fiasco.” It is purely reactive, he notes. It required all of us who fly to take off our shoes after only one man (Richard Reid) tried putting bombs in his shoes. He also notes that the agents who pat us down (or in some cases feel us up) because of the underwear bomber have failed to detect any threats in ten years.

It cost $1 billion to train the TSA’s 62,000 workers. Mica says he thinks that the agency should have only about 5,000 workers, and do what he originally intended it to do: gather intelligence in order to uncover terrorist threats and inform the airlines and airports.

The article rehearses some of the more egregious incidents in the agency’s history. In 2002, when it hired 30,000 screeners, the $104 million it gave a company to train these workers ballooned to $740 million. One executive for the company was paid $5.4 million for nine months’ work. Some recruiting sessions were held at tony resorts in Colorado, Florida, and the Virgin Islands. Hundreds of thousands of bucks were splurged on valet parking, beverages, and cash withdrawals, including $2,000 for Starbucks coffee and $8,000 for elevator operators. (At least the luxury-class people conducting these sessions were big tippers.)

Add to this the fact that for years the agency failed to track lost passes and uniforms, and the fact that screeners have been arrested for stealing the jewelry, computers, cameras, cash, and credit cards of travelers, and the fact that in 2006, screeners at two of the biggest airports were unable to find 60% of the simulated bombs planted on fake travelers.

So, having learned firsthand about the Law of Unintended Consequences, Mica now believes the TSA should be privatized and focus on intelligence, not screening. It is gratifying to witness the economic education of a public servant. The pity is that his tuition cost so much of our treasure and our liberty.




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Dr. Jekyll and President Hide

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In one of the scenes in Citizen Kane, the protagonist's former friend Jed Leland describes the character of the flamboyant politician and tycoon. "He had a generous mind," Leland says. "But he never gave himself away. He never gave anything away. He just . . . left you a tip."

He might have been describing President Obama.

Like Kane, Obama is a colossal self-advertiser. He first made his reputation, indeed, by writing a book of quasi-autobiography. Like Kane, he can hardly get through a sentence without using the word "I." He constantly refers to government entities as "my secretary of state," "my secretary of the treasury," "my department of defense," and so on. Yet when it comes to revealing himself . . . no. He'd rather be tortured than give up any pieces of the sacred substance, or anything even associated with it.

One assumes that Obama bogarted all specifics about his supposedly close and inspiring relationship with Reverend Wright because Wright had become a political embarrassment. And one assumes that Obama wants to keep his college records secret because he wasn't a very good student. These are assumptions, however, because Obama keeps his stuff to himself even when it would do him good to give it away.

The classic example of this compulsion is his logically pointless war against the people who wanted to see his birth certificate. He conceded the struggle only when he started to fear that it was costing him support for reelection, thus torturing him beyond the limits of even his endurance. For years he had made a public fool of himself by not releasing an innocuous scrap of paper.

Why, after that performance, I expected him to surrender the Osama death photos, I don't know. Maybe I thought he had reformed, and some nice, generous, "transparent" Dr. Jekyll had replaced the clutching, anal, emotionally threatened President Hide. But whatever I thought, I was wrong. The preposterous decision not to release the pictures, ostensibly to chasten radical Islamicists with the evidence of our moral superiority, will merely convince the world that Barry Obama, like Charlie Kane, has more than a small screw loose.

But what about the "tip" — "he just left you a tip"? In Citizen Kane, the protagonist paid other people for "services rendered." He demanded their love, but "he had no love to give." So he offered them money or power or other crass "tips." And that, in his way, is what Obama does. Of all the politicians I can think of, he is the greediest for love but the least interested in other people. His speech is without stories or anecdotes. He seldom alludes to any actual historical event, anything that people actually did in the past. He appears to retain no vivid memories of the people in his own past, or any real interest in the people he meets today. He speaks always as if he were reminding his audience of things they should already have been taught, never as if he wanted to learn from their responses what they themselves would like to know. In lieu of real human concern, he professes a vast interest in abstractions — progress, equality, fairness, proving to our enemies that we are better than they are in some vague, general way.

These are not the kind of tips you can take home and spend. The real stuff — he keeps that to himself. You're not getting any of that.

that




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Not Gittin' Outta Gitmo

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One has to think that the libertarian Obamanistas — libertarians who supported Obama, thinking that he couldn’t spend more money than the Republicans, and would at least end the war on terror and dramatically reduce the military posture of the country, must feel some uncertainty about their guy.

Certainly, in terms of spending and deficits, he makes Bush look like a fiscal hawk. In his two years in office, Obama’s yearly deficits have been over four times the size of Bush’s largest. And in terms of state control of the economy — the socialization of the medical system, the nationalization of the auto industries, the massive increase in regulations, the dramatic increase in the size of the federal bureaucracy, and the expansion of environmentalist hegemony over natural resources — he has explored a whole New Frontier of statist economics.

As to the war on terror, he hasn’t ended it, or even diminished it appreciably, much less brought in a new era of isolationism. We are still in Iraq — though scheduled to exit, but no earlier than Bush’s plans called for — and are fairly well stuck in Afghanistan. Virtually all of Bush’s executive orders on the war on terror remain essentially unchanged.

A recent Reuters report (Jan. 7) underscores this point. While Obama was in the Senate, then on the campaign trail, then during his first two years in office, he relentlessly bashed Bush for holding prisoners outside the regular court system, detained at the Guantanamo Bay prison. Obama promised to give the Gitmo detainees fair trials in our regular court system, though he also promised they would all be convicted and jailed — well, indefinitely!

But quietly, on a Friday when news coverage is guaranteed to be minimal, Obama signed a law that prohibits bringing the remaining 175 Gitmo prisoners here for court trials.

He said he had no choice but to sign the bill — the defense authorization act for fiscal 2011 — because the military funding was necessary, even though the bill contained that provision banning domestic civilian trials for the terrorist detainees. And he vowed to fight to get the provision repealed — although the ban was put in the bill by one of the most left-wing Congresses in American industry, so it is hard to see why he thinks he can get it through a more right-wing Congress.

Obama’s claim that he had to sign the bill is just a lie. He certainly could have vetoed it and made it clear to Congress that he would not sign any future bill that included the provision. But he didn’t, and this raises a dilemma about him.

Perhaps he still wants to give the Gitmo guys domestic civilian trials, and has merely decided that trying those prisoners here would be too politically costly. Certainly, the public opposes such trials by a large margin. But if that is the case, he is not much of a man of principle.

On the other hand, perhaps he has changed his mind on the matter, and no longer views such trials as worthwhile. After all, the showpiece of the Obama policy of domestic civil trials for terrorists was the trial of Ahmed Ghailani, the Gitmo guy who was involved in the 1998 bombings of US embassies. The trial ended late last year with the jury finding Ghailani not guilty on 279 of the 280 counts Obama’s Justice Department brought against him, finding him guilty on only one count: planning to destroy US property. He was not found guilty of even one of the 224 murder counts against him. Hardly bracing for the prospect of keeping the other Gitmo guys safely away from society.

However, if Obama has changed his mind, what does that say about his judgment — compared to, say, George Bush’s?




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