The Tower of Babble

 | 

I don’t look good in hats. Especially not when they’re made of tinfoil. It’s quite possible that some of you may picture me in one as you read this essay. But I hail the Brexit vote as a huge and very welcome step away from a one-world government.

Episcopalians generally don’t worry much about such a thing. No priest or theologian in my church, so far as I’ve ever heard, has warned us against it. I think we’re generally supposed to regard the stories in Genesis as having edifying spiritual lessons to teach us, but parallels are seldom drawn between them and our 21st-century world. Please excuse me for bringing religion into the discussion, but I see a definite parallel in the European Union.

Instead of constructing a more prosperous and harmonious world for everybody, the faceless bureaucrats appear to want to rule over us all.

In the story in Genesis 11, the peoples of the world have become one unified mass. They’re proud of their unity, which they take as a sign that they can do anything they set their minds to. And they begin to build a monument to themselves and their greatness: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves: otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” We are told that the Lord does not share their enthusiasm. “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”

God does a lot of really human stuff in the Old Testament; he even has to move around to keep track of us. If I were to adhere too closely to the story in Genesis, I’d need to believe not only that he has no idea what’s going on until he comes down to see it but alsothat he thinks people are able to succeed in doing whatever they attempt, which obviously they can’t. Nevertheless, the story seems to be true about certain people’s intentions. Consider those of the people who run the EU. Instead of constructing a more prosperous and harmonious world for everybody, as they claim, the faceless bureaucrats appear to want to rule over us all. Ruling the world is an ambition even older than the Bible. It shows no sign of dying out today.

Genesis reports that “the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel — because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.” In whose interest is it, really, for the world to speak the same language? And in the deeper sense, what would that mean?

It might not necessarily mean that everybody would understand the same words but that everybody would have the same ideas — that we could all be gathered together by one governing body and made to conform to one overriding plan. Tyrants have always loved that concept, because it would make it possible for them to keep everyone under their control. For the rest of us, however, it’s a much more dubious prospect.

The teeming mass of humanity on this planet was never meant to be governed by a single human entity.

In an earlier story in Genesis, the serpent tempts our first parents with the promise that if they eat the fruit God has forbidden them, they will be like gods. That’s the ambition of everyone who has ever desired to rule the world. It could very credibly be claimed that it’s what the lords and masters of the European Union aspire to do.

In reality, the teeming mass of humanity on this planet was never meant to be governed by a single human entity. It may be too big a job for anyone but God. At any rate, it’s an endeavor no person or organization on this earth has ever been able to accomplish. Whether we believe in God, in Natural Law or in the Unseen Hand of the Market, centuries of experience show that we are far more justified in trusting any of those entities than in trusting any aspiring leader, or set of leaders.

We possess technology that, until this century, would have been unimaginable outside of a dystopian sci-fi movie. Never before has the possibility of a one-world government loomed so menacingly. If the trend toward greater government centralization continues, tyrants will have the capability of monitoring our communications, our most intimate movements, our facial expressions, and our very thoughts. They will be able to stretch that tower all the way to the sky — perhaps even into space. If we don’t stand up and dismantle the project now, the time may be approaching when it will be unstoppable.

But it’s a long way from being unstoppable yet. What the Brits voted to abandon, on the 24th of June, could just as well be called the Tower of Babble. Constructed of empty promises and held together by political doublespeak and outright bribery, the latest thrust at one-world government stands on shaky ground. Now, other nations have apparently been inspired to consider exit referenda of their own. Perhaps Americans will be moved to reconsider the possibility of decentralizing our own political authority.

Will that tower fall? If it does, the crash will be heard around the world. To the devotees of the superstate, it will be the sound of catastrophe. But to those of us who hold freedom dear, it will be the music of heaven.




Share This


Remembering Margaret Thatcher

 | 

In May 1996 I attended the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Foundation for Economic Education at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. Lady Margaret Thatcher was the keynote speaker, and William F. Buckley had been enlisted to introduce her and moderate the questions from the audience after her formal remarks.

Buckley was a big cheese himself, of course; it was not his custom to perform the warmup act. But it was a testament to his respect for her, and to her stature, that he accepted the role. His mandate was to keep the questions coming in order to accommodate as many guests as possible. To that end, Lady Thatcher was also encouraged to keep her responses to no more than two or three minutes.

Buckley performed his duties admirably. When Thatcher reached the two-minute mark, he stepped forward to the podium. Graciously Thatcher wrapped up her response and stepped back to yield the microphone, while Buckley recognized the next questioner. This happened twice. The third time Buckley stepped toward the podium, Thatcher did not yield. Leaning slightly toward the guest whose question (about China) she was answering, as though his question were the most fascinating topic she could imagine, she proceeded to filibuster charmingly for nearly ten minutes. Standing at her elbow, Buckley looked like nothing so much as an errant actor entering the stage too soon, unsure whether he should tiptoe back into the wings or muscle forward to cover his folly.

Eventually he chose the former option and backed awkwardly away from the podium. Only then did Lady Thatcher wind up her treatise on China and look back at Buckley disarmingly to invite his return to the microphone. From that moment forward Buckley listened to her remarks instead of watching his second hand, and watched her body language to know when it was time for the next question. The length of her comments varied according to their content, and the two performers worked in tandem beautifully for the remainder of the presentation.

She was an Iron Lady indeed, with an emphasis on “lady,” as she gently reminded William F. Buckley that he was, above all, a gentleman.




Share This


Not Too Old to Romp

 | 

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.



Share This


Sad and Confused

 | 

In 1996 Margaret Thatcher was the keynote speaker at the Foundation for Economic Education's 50th anniversary banquet at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. It was such a big event, and Thatcher was such a gigantic speaker, that William F. Buckley, a formidable force in conservative circles, agreed to appear as a moderator rather than a speaker.

Buckley’s role was simply to introduce Lady Thatcher and handle questions during her presentation. He was told to keep things moving and not let the answers go on for more than a couple of minutes. Buckley took his job seriously, standing up after two minutes to gently let Mrs. Thatcher know it was time to stop talking and let him ask the next question.

But Lady Thatcher was having none of that. She had handled the members of Parliament for over 30 years; she could certainly handle William F. Buckley! A questioner asked about China; Lady Thatcher began speaking; and after two minutes, Buckley stood up. Thatcher continued speaking. Buckley edged toward the microphone. Body language shouted for Thatcher to yield.

She did not. The Iron Lady filibustered on China for several minutes. She talked about politics. She talked about industry. She talked about pandas! She spoke eloquently and intelligently, including specific names and details. She knew her stuff. Buckley stood beside her like an errant fool, until he finally backed away and sat down. Only then did Thatcher conclude her remarks on China and graciously ask, "Next question?"

She was a lady throughout. She never scowled, she never lost her temper, she never stopped speaking. But she had a spine of iron. The great William F. Buckley was put soundly in his place, with grace and good manners. And she gave the audience a jolly good show. I've never forgotten it.

We see none of that character and grace in The Iron Lady, now in theaters with more than a few whispers of another Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep. Streep is indeed wonderful in the role she is playing. She shuffles with the hesitant gait of a woman in her 90s. She mimics Thatcher’s voice and cadence. She carries her unnecessary handbag with the dignity of the Queen. But she projects none of the grit, power, and philosophy that made Margaret Thatcher one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. For most of the film, her Thatcher is pathetic and befuddled.

We do not go to a movie about Margaret Thatcher to see how sadly she has aged. We want to see her in her greatness, not her twilight.

The Iron Lady opens on an elderly nondescript woman shuffling through a grocery store, hesitating over whether to purchase a quart or a pint of milk. She selects the smaller container, pays the grocer her meager 49 pence, then shuffles out, bumping into other shoppers who refuse to yield for the seeming bag lady. After returning home to breakfast, she complains to her husband (Jim Broadbent) about the price of milk. This is not the prime minister who rescued England from bankruptcy; this is the grocer's daughter who seems to live now in the projects.

Worse, it turns out that Dennis Thatcher has been dead from cancer for several years. Nevertheless, he and Margaret talk to each other throughout the film. He is in her dressing room, her kitchen, her living room, her bed. She knows he is dead. She knows she is hallucinating. But she talks to him anyway. It's natural to speak to a deceased loved one and say "I miss you" out loud. Jimmy Stewart "talks" to Martha at her graveside in Shenandoah. Heath Ledger poignantly breathes the smell of Jake Gyllenhaal's shirt at the end of "Brokeback Mountain." Streep does something similar when she goes into Dennis's closet and breathes in the smells from his jacket. But she goes way beyond portraying grief. Streep’s Thatcher is bereft, bewildered, and befogged.

It is true that Mrs. Thatcher has suffered a couple of strokes in the past few years, and it may be that her mind has become befuddled. She's 87 years old. But we do not go to a movie about Margaret Thatcher to see how sadly she has aged. Or to see how well Meryl Streep can play an aged woman. We want to see evidence of Thatcher's iron will, her brilliant economic philosophy, her political wit and candor. We want to see her in her greatness, not her twilight.

As so often happens in Hollywood when filmmakers portray conservative heroes, the producers of this film are fascinated by their subject but unwilling to give her credit for her accomplishment. We see numerous scenes of IRA bombings and union riots. We hear voiceover about spending cuts, unemployment, and Britons' inability to pay their mortgages. Thatcher proclaims at one point that they will need to close inefficient mines.

All this makes the film very timely, reminding the audience of current events in America: high unemployment, falling wages, mortgages in default, out-of-control deficits, and Romney's ill-advised statement, "I love to fire people." What's missing is the mountain of good that was accomplished by Thatcher's privatization policies, under which government workers were given the opportunity to own shares in the privatized utilities for which they worked.

I lived in London during the ’80s. I saw the results of privatization. Allow me one personal example. When we bought our flat in 1985, we wanted to add a second phone line. We were told we would have to wait at least two years for a number to become available. We also needed some repair work done on the existing phone line, for which we were given an appointment six months in the future. Six months! We were stuck with the antiquated instrument itself. Brits could not even purchase their own equipment; everything belonged to the government utility, and the government utility was not about to update the phone.

As so often happens in Hollywood when filmmakers portray conservative heroes, the producers of this film are fascinated by their subject but unwilling to give her credit for her accomplishment.

A couple of years later, after the phone company had been privatized, I called again to have my phone repaired. A repairman was at my flat the following morning. In a few short years the company had become profitable, efficient, and prompt. Yes, some people lost their jobs, especially from the ranks of bloated, redundant management. Cutting costs does hurt in the short run. But they were offered severance packages and early retirement opportunities. In the long run, the entire citizenry profited from lower costs and better technology. The filmmakers deliberately overlook this point, and all points like it.

Instead, we see glimpses of Thatcher's life through the eyes of a sad, confused old woman. Occasionally she reaches back into her days as the daughter of a grocer (albeit a grocer who was active in local politics), determined to "make one's life matter," and to her decade as prime minister. But these scenes are brief and unsatisfying. They focus mostly on her ineptness as a mother, her shrillness as a speaker, her bouffant makeover, and her problems with being accepted by Parliament.

I ask you: would Dennis have been criticized for choosing to go into politics instead of staying home to raise the children? Yet Margaret is vilified for her decision — and by a triumvirate of females, no less: woman screenwriter, woman director, woman producer. Her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) flounces off in anger when Margaret announces that she is going to stand for the leadership of the Conservative party, and apparently the audience is supposed to be sympathetic — to Carol! When the elderly Mrs. Thatcher looks through a box of mementoes, it is filled with hand-drawn cards and crayoned pictures that say "I love you Daddy." None are written to "Mummy." This hardly seems fair, especially in today's climate of opinion. If a man isn’t criticized for leaving his family while he goes to work, why should a woman be?

Thatcher brought a unique sensibility to her role as prime minister. As she wrote in at least one letter to the parents of a soldier killed in the Falklands War: "I am the only prime minister in Britain's history to have been a mother." She had long-term vision, coupled with an understanding of short-term costs. She was exactly what Britain needed. She should be remembered as a woman who devoted 50 years of her life to public service. She should not be remembered as a pathetic old lady who barely knows her own name.

The young Margaret Thatcher is played winningly by Alexandra Roach. Perhaps if Roach had been prosthetically aged and allowed to play the entire role, The Iron Lady would have been an engaging and enlightening biopic similar to the very fine film The Queen (2006), in which Helen Mirren gives an intimate and insightful portrait of Queen Elizabeth. Instead, The Iron Lady is simply a vehicle for Ms. Streep to demonstrate her considerable skill at mimicry.

This is not necessarily Streep's fault. She did not write the script. But I doubt that she bears any of the admiration for her subject that Mirren bears for hers. I'm certain that she enjoyed portraying Thatcher as the shuffling, elderly, hallucinatory woman who was written for her to play. She will probably receive her umpteenth Oscar nomination for the role.

I just hope she never has the bad fortune to meet Lady Thatcher in public. I suspect Streep would receive a gracious, well-mannered cold shoulder that would make Buckley's treatment at the FEE banquet look like a warm embrace. And it would be much better deserved than the Oscar nomination she is likely to receive.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Iron Lady," directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Weinstein Productions, 2012, 105 minutes.



Share This


EVs: Not So Green After All

 | 

The Australian has reported the results of a fascinating British study. It turns out that electric cars (EVs), those holy icons of the Green religion, may actually produce more atmosphere-destroying emissions over their lifetimes than regular, gasoline fueled cars — when you do the commonsense thing and factor in the energy it takes to produce the necessary batteries.

To be precise, the study (which was funded by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, a group that is, in turn, supported by both the British government and the British car industry) showed that the average EV would have to be driven over 80,000 miles for it to produce a net savings in carbon dioxide over the standard internal combustion engine. Considering that EVs have limited ranges (they average about 90 miles per charge), it is not clear that many EVs will last that long.

This study was the first to look at the whole lifecycle emissions of EVs, including their manufacturing, driving, and — please note — the tricky matter of disposal of their used batteries. These batteries are the culprits. They contain metals that are expensive to produce, and they have to be replaced every few years.

The study found that a mid-size EV produces about 23.1 tons of carbon dioxide during its lifetime, scarcely less than the 24 tons produced by a regular, gasoline powered car. This is in part because the emissions from manufacturing EVs are about 50% higher than those from manufacturing regular cars.

What the British Department for Transport will make of the report it called for is anyone’s guess. The Department is currently lavishing $7,700 grants on people who buy the damn things.




Share This


Finding a Voice

 | 

Robert Frost defined poetry as “a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love-sickness . . . where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words.”

Just as a poem can express an emotion or describe a relationship through a single snapshot, sometimes a person’s character can be summed up in a single experience. For King George VI (“Bertie,” as he was called by his family) that experience occurred in his determined effort to overcome a pronounced lifelong stammer. The King’s Speech is a wonderfully witty, brilliantly acted, and emotionally satisfying film that tells of the singular moment when an unorthodox speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) helped the king (Colin Firth) to find his voice, at a time when England — and the free world — desperately needed it.

One of the unexpected pleasures of this film is the opportunity to see the royal family in their living rooms, so to speak, when they were young and not expecting to become king or queen. A rumble of recognition is heard in the theater, for example, as viewers realize with a start that Helena Bonham Carter’s character is the young Queen Mum, already demonstrating her twinkling smile and munching on the marshmallows that would eventually lead to her familiar round torso. “That’s Queen Elizabeth!” at least one viewer gasped as the young princess, Elizabeth (Freya Wilson) is seen romping in pink pajamas with her little sister Margaret (Ramona Marquez) as they listen eagerly to a bedtime story told by their father, the man who did not expect to be king.

It is also unexpectedly intimate to see the debonair playboy Prince of Wales cum King Edward VIII cum Duke of Windsor (Guy Pearce), bursting into tears and sobbing on the shoulder of his mother, Queen Mary (Claire Bloom), at the death of his father George V (Michael Gambon) — sobbing not because his father has died but because of what it will mean to his relationship with the twice (and still) married Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). He would remain king for less than a year, not even enough time for his official coronation, induced to abdicate because of the relationship with Mrs. Simpson and because of his general incompetence.

George VI was a great example of courage, confidence, and commitment during World War II, not only in his speeches but also in his actions.

As the film opens, Bertie, the timid younger son of a domineering father, attempts to stammer his way through a radio speech under the disapproving eye of King George V, whose Christmas radio speeches were as important to his people’s sense of good will as Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats became in America. The film suggests that George V’s raging disapproval and faultfinding may have contributed to Bertie’s stammer.

Sitting behind him and stoically willing him to succeed, his wife Elizabeth (Bonham Carter) exudes tender disappointment when he fails. She is not embarrassed by him; she hurts for him. Several royal doctors try to cure Bertie of his awkward and unregal stammer, but to no avail. In one particularly ironic scene, a doctor urges him to smoke cigarettes frequently because it will “relax” his vocal cords. (Sadly, George VI would die of lung cancer and arteriosclerosis at the age of 56.) Eventually Elizabeth finds an unconventional therapist, Lionel Logue (Rush), who changes Bertie’s life by restoring his voice, and by becoming his lifelong friend.

The film is a delightful mixture of royal protocol and unexpected earthiness. Logue refuses to treat the Duke of York any differently from the way in which he treats his other clients, even insisting that they use first names. Their banter is droll and often hilarious. When Myrtle Logue (Jennifer Ehle), who is unaware of her husband’s famous client, comes home a bit early to find the king and queen of England standing in her parlor, she asks querulously, “Will their Majesties be staying for dinner?” Elizabeth, knowing it would be inappropriate for them to stay, responds charmingly, “We would love to. Such a treat! But alas . . . a previous engagement. What a pity.” No wonder everyone loved the Queen Mum!

The King’s Speech is a tour de force for Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, two masters of the king’s English, who spar and vie for dominance in each scene. But despite the humor there is an underlying seriousness to Bertie’s effort to overcome his impediment, especially when his struggles are set against the backdrop of his older brother’s abdication and the run-up to World War II. One of the most brilliant scenes in the film is King George VI’s 1939 Christmas speech to the British people, on the eve of the war with Germany. The speech is familiar to anyone who has studied that period of history. It has always seemed emotionally charged and solemn because of its halting delivery. Learning that this delivery was the result of a speech impediment does not lessen its gravity. Instead, it increases it, as it demonstrates the king’s strength and courage at a time when the British people would be called upon to demonstrate strength and courage of their own. Logue literally conducts the king in his delivery of the speech in the way a maestro would conduct an orchestra, virtually transforming it into a lyric, set to the solemn strains of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which fills the theater throughout the scene.

George VI was a great example of courage, confidence, and commitment during World War II, not only in his speeches but also in his actions. When Buckingham Palace was bombed and his advisors urged him to move his family to the safety of Canada for the duration of the war, the king refused, joining Londoners in underground air raid shelters. While his people sent their children to the safety of the English countryside, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret stayed in town.

Meanwhile, the abdicated Edward VIII and his beloved Wallis Warfield Simpson led an unhappy life. Suspected of German sympathies, they met with Hitler before the war, and he was finally sent by Churchill to govern the Bahamas, mainly to keep him out of the way. Hitler himself was quoted as saying, "I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us." One has to wonder where England might have stood during World War II — and what Europe would be like today — if Wallis Simpson hadn’t stolen Edward’s heart and caused him to give up the throne.


Editor's Note: Review of "The King’s Speech," directed by Tom Hooper. See-Saw Films/The Weinstein Co., 2010, 118 minutes.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 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.