Channel Us Not into Temptation

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Some people don’t understand how funny they are. Consider Harvey Weinstein, motion picture producer and marketer.

Backward as I am, before October 5 I had never dreamed of his existence. Then, like all other good Americans, I was astonished and deeply saddened to learn that this Hollywood mover and shaker had, for many years, been one of the worst sexual predators, harassers, and, to use the technical term, pigs in Tinseltown. When first assailed by these charges, Weinstein conceded that he might have a few tiny faults, including an anger problem (otherwise known as issues with anger), but indicated that he knew how to remedy it: “I am going to need a place to channel that anger so I've decided that I'm going to give the NRA my full attention."

Picture a big, fat, ugly loudmouth who spends his life pushing other people around, and who now attempts to solve his public relations problem by aiming all of his destructive emotions at one target.

I suppose it all started with Freud — this picture of human beings as bottles full of lethal liquids that are constantly seeking channels through which to vent their nasty stuff. Or maybe it was some other quack who originally suggested that civilization, which has unfortunately been built on the dismal swamp of primitive aggressions, can be kept from returning to the primordial ooze if it is equipped with little pipes and ducts and hoses — art, science, religion, model railroading, writing for the New York Times, and so forth — to draw off the ugly fluid. But no matter who thought up the idea that mental health comes from plumbing, not thinking, it remained for Harvey Weinstein to make the final, irresistibly funny, application.

Picture a big, fat, ugly loudmouth who spends his life pushing other people around, and who now attempts to solve his public relations problem by aiming all of his destructive emotions at one target, so that instead of 50 little hoses spewing filth at 50 different targets we’ll see one giant firehose channeling it all at one of them. Yes, that will fix things, won’t it — especially when you realize that this man’s victims won’t be people in the public spotlight: pretty actresses and rich celebrities. They’ll be old ladies in Detroit who are trying to defend themselves against people who want to hurt them. The fate of elderly black women won’t cause a national crisis of conscience, will it? Apparently not. It never has.

Maybe it was some other quack who originally suggested that civilization can be kept from returning to the primordial ooze if it is equipped with little pipes and ducts and hoses.

Weinstein’s brother and business associate Bob brought up an interesting question about the link between language and conscience. He charged that the politically therapeutic language appropriated by his brother from any of a million sources merely indicated a lack of emotional or moral referent:

I don't feel an ounce of remorse coming from him, and that kills me too. When I heard his written, lame excuse . . . Not an excuse. When I heard his admission of feeling remorse for the victims and then him cavalierly, almost crazily saying he was going to go out and take on the NRA, it was so disturbing to me. It was utter insanity. My daughters all felt sick hearing this because we understood he felt nothing. I don't feel he feels anything to this day. I don't. . . .

He lived for this business and he lived for the outside. There were no insides to this, as far as I can see. So unless there becomes an inner person inside there, I have no idea what he'll do.

This is close to Ayn Rand’s insight: people who live for the approval of others — even if they don’t try to bully or trick them into giving it — are empty vessels. It’s not that the plumbing doesn’t work; it’s that the plumbing doesn’t exist. Maybe it did at some time, but it can’t be located now.

You may think it’s strange to mention conscience and then bring up Hillary Clinton, but her life has taught us a lot about the subject. She has demonstrated that lack of conscience doesn’t keep you from public office. It doesn’t even keep you from being funny. On an entertaining page of his letters, Lord Chesterfield describes the kind of person who is incapable of understanding how to behave. When he goes to a party, he inevitably chooses the wrong clothes, unerringly finds the worst places to sit or stand, and makes certain to state with emphasis the very things that will make him seem most ridiculous. Mrs. Clinton is one of those people.

She it was who defended her husband from charges of immorality by saying to, among other people, millions of country music fans, “You know, I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” She it was who said that she’d solved the mystery of why some people didn’t like her husband: it was all a “vast, rightwing conspiracy.” She it was who thought she’d made a hit when she responded to congressional questions about what caused the attack in Benghazi by shouting, “What difference does it make?” She it was who gave a campaign speech in which she asserted that 25% of the American electorate is morally “deplorable,” presenting this analysis with a thoughtfulness and solemnity that made it impossible for anyone to dismiss it as just one of those things you say by accident.

This is close to Ayn Rand’s insight: people who live for the approval of others — even if they don’t try to bully or trick them into giving it — are empty vessels.

All of these blunders were carefully staged; all of them were intended as climaxes of rhetorical art. And there was no reason to stumble into any of them. No one asked her to comment on Tammy Wynette or to theorize about conspiracies or to assess the significance of cause and effect. And although many politicians have hated the voters, none but Hillary Clinton ever made a point of saying it to them.

Of course the voters struck back; they crippled and then killed her political career. But she never learned. She has never learned. She’s like one of those animals that seems constantly, solemnly, and innocently discovering its tail; and, not being able to conceptualize such things, remains at a loss about what that object could possibly be.

I’m sorry to take so much time with Hillary Clinton. If she were just a blatherer, like President Trump, the comic interest would soon have faded. But what was said of Cleopatra can be said of her: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.” Like the perpetually inappropriate man in Chesterfield, she is always finding new ways of making herself ridiculous. Having chronicled her antics on innumerable occasions, I still had to cling to my seat when I heard her recent remarks about Mr. Weinstein: I was laughing so hard I almost fell off.

All of these blunders were carefully staged; all of them were intended as climaxes of rhetorical art. And there was no reason to stumble into any of them.

Harvey Weinstein is an old friend and strong financial supporter of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton therefore waited several days before yielding to the mob’s demand (I’m sorry; I don’t like mobs, no matter whom they intend to lynch) that everyone who had ever laid eyes on Weinstein should immediately denounce him. I thought that for once she might commit an act of courage, even in a questionable cause. But no. She finally denounced him, like all the rest of them.

Yet she couldn’t stop with that. Finding herself in a bad position, politically, since she’d taken all those contributions from the man she was denouncing, she insisted that attention be turned to the most compromising subject for her — politics. She compared Weinstein to her bête noir, Donald Trump, who in Hillary’s mythic incantations has acquired the stature of Trotsky, as viewed by Stalin; Lucifer, as viewed by Yahweh; and Phineas Quimby, as viewed by Mary Baker Eddy. Unable to understand that comments of this kind would simply prolong the nearly universal chants of “sore loser!”, she attacked Trump for supposedly admitting that he had “assaulted” women — a reference, perhaps, to his vulgar remarks to Billy Bush. “This kind of behavior,” she decreed,

cannot be tolerated anywhere, whether it’s in entertainment [or] politics. After all, we have someone admitting to being a sexual assaulter in the Oval Office. There has to be a recognition that we must stand against the kind of action that is so sexist and misogynistic.

Clinton’s syntax was particularly unfortunate — suggesting, as it did, that Trump had illicit affairs in the Oval Office, which is exactly where people picture her husband having them. And who tolerated that?

This was funny enough. Still funnier was her shock when her interviewer from the BBC pressed the political point that she herself had introduced. He brought up women who had complained about Bill, women with whom Hillary had not precisely taken a stand:

In your book, three women brought on stage [during the 2016 campaign] by Trump attacking your husband, you kind of dismiss them. Was that the right thing to do? Are you sure about that?

She did the best she could with the question, and her best was hilarious:

Well, yes, because that had all been litigated. That had been the subjectof a huge investigation in the late ’90s and there were conclusions drawn. That was clearly in the past, but it is something that has to be taken seriously and not just in entertainment.

How’s that for a cunning use of the passive voice? Litigated by whom? What conclusions were drawn? And how’s that for a climactic use of truism, cliché, and unconscious irony? Yes, her husband’s conduct was in the past (and still is), but I’m not sure that “it,” the only referent for which is “that,” i.e., her husband’s conduct, or the charges bearing on the same, is what she really wants to be taken seriously.

I have trouble taking anything about Mrs. Clinton seriously, and to me it’s doubly amusing that she never notices how many people have that trouble about her. After all these years, she still assumes that whatever she says will be copied down in everybody’s book of instructive sayings. How childlike! How adorable. And it’s so cute that she’s surprised by even the most obvious questions.

Still funnier was Clinton's shock when her interviewer from the BBC pressed the political point that she herself had introduced.

One of them was posed by Fareed Zakaria of CNN, often called the Clinton News Network. He had the gall to ask whether she was going to follow other leading Democrats and return the money she’d gotten from the now-odious Weinstein. She gave the answer that you would give to a moralistic child who’s been pestering you to return the quarter you found on the street. “Well,” she said, “there’s no one to give it back to.”

Really? Have you lost Weinstein’s address?

Zakaria kept looking at her, so she continued:

What other people are saying, what my former colleagues are saying, is they’re going to donate it to charity, and of course I will do that. I give 10% of my income to charity every year. This will be part of that. There’s no — there’s no doubt about it.

This is as close, I believe, as Hillary Clinton has ever come to acknowledging that normal, nondeplorable people might ever doubt any of the absurd things she habitually says. Realizing that there could be doubt, she immediately decreed that there is no doubt.

One thing she did not realize is that other people know arithmetic. Supposing that she does give the biblical tenth every year, I assume that her charity of choice is the Clinton Foundation, which has indicated in no uncertain terms that it isn’t giving any of Weinstein’s money back. But let’s suppose otherwise, and picture her contributing a tenth of her money to the Salvation Army. Now she can keep that money and substitute Weinstein’s money. And, of course, take the tax deduction. Neat, isn’t it? But normal people are unlikely to be impressed by this act of moral courage.

Realizing that there could be doubt, she immediately decreed that there is no doubt.

The Daily Beast, a leftwing journal, says that “the donations will be ‘part of’ the 10 percent of her income that she donates to charity each year, but it was unclear whether she meant that the money from Weinstein would be in addition to that 10 percent.” I wonder what the Daily Beast finds unclear about “part of.”

While the Beast is scratching its head, ordinary people are howling with laughter. Clinton has no means of knowing this. She thinks that other people are just like her. She’s hollow and impercipient; they must be too.

There are a lot of “leaders” like that now. Weinstein is one. An unconsciously ironic portrait of him has been communicated by a psychologist who worked on him in some “recovery” clinic in Arizona. This healthcare professional reported to TMZ on a week of treatment:

The psychologist says he helped Weinstein focus on "dealing with his anger, his attitude toward others, boundary work and the beginnings of work on empathy." He says Weinstein was "invested in the program."

I don’t know what “boundary work” may be, but in these cases “work on empathy” is certainly indicated. The problem is that empathy is the hardest thing to work on, because people who don’t have it don’t realize that they don’t. Little things like losing their jobs as heads of billion-dollar businesses, or losing a national election, never suggest to them that something might be wrong about the language with which they communicate with the world.

Under these circumstances, I’m not sure that psychologists will be much good at fixing all the pipes and ducts that channel stuff from one person to another. Some good might be accomplished, however, if other people just laughed in the faces of our cultural and political leaders. A few days of that might make some impression, and no one would need to be paid for it.




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Not Me Too

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We probably needn’t worry about missing a gaudy bandwagon when it comes around. Another one will be by in a couple of days. Now in the news and social media, it’s #MeToo. As I write this, America is already tired of “the narrative,” and the bandwagon is lumbering on, but before it fades too far into the distance I want to put in my two cents. The Left won’t listen, but perhaps reasonable people will.

Feminism is now in reverse gear. It’s going backwards, because instead of earning women more respect and trust from men, it’s causing even many who previously held us in high esteem to distrust us and view us with contempt. But contrary to what women are so often told, it isn’t the political Right or the Republican Party that is moving us back. It is the very people who have so loudly taken up our cause.

Those of us who live in the real world, where there are not 50 “genders” but two sexes, understand that because the human race is divided about evenly between them, our fortunes are inextricably tied together. There is really no such thing as a “women’s issue” or a “men’s issue.” There are only human issues, and in one way or another each of them affects us all.

There is a world of difference between having your feelings hurt and fearing for your life.

I have experienced both sexual harassment and sexual assault. They are nowhere near the same. It is an insult to women everywhere that the #MeToo movement conflates them. To mush these two related-yet-separate issues together is to do a disservice to both. And it makes women not more safe, but less.

It also leaves men understandably confused. How on earth are they expected to make sense of such a jumble? It very much appears that they are now under suspicion no matter how innocent their intentions may be. Will even a dinner invitation lead to an accusation of rape?

There is a world of difference between having your feelings hurt and fearing for your life. Nearly as large a gulf exists between finding an eligible woman attractive and stalking her with the intention of committing a savage assault. “Oh,” friends have sobbed to me, “but when you hear their stories, you’ll understand what a horrible problem this is!”

My own Inner Child wants to run as far away from this crusade as she can get.

But precisely what is “this?” And who is telling the stories of the people (mostly men, but not always) whose shared experience is, evidently, not welcome? Men are tepidly and belatedly being invited to “share their stories,” but I see little indication that their recollections are taken as seriously as those of women. Those brave enough to come forward are even being ridiculed.

This is touchy-feely, “Womyn’s Retreat in Sedona” stuff. It calls to mind hippie-dippy singalongs and flannel shirts, and isn’t too far removed from getting in touch with our Inner Child. Most men don’t gravitate to this sort of thing, and I don’t blame them. My own Inner Child wants to run as far away from this crusade as she can get. I refuse to see half of the human race as The Enemy, and consider far more dangerous those who would poison my mind into accepting such a view.

This is how both of the big-league statist political teams operate. Each takes a stand in which there can be found a grain of truth, and that’s how it takes its minions in. But coated in gunky layers around that kernel is a syrupy glaze of emotion. Often it’s slathered on so thick that it’s nearly impossible to get down to what’s essential. Sexual harassment and rape are bad — m’kay — and every civilized person agrees on that, but extreme Harvey Weinstein types aside, harassers and rapists are usually very different individuals.

Male chauvinist abusers and man-hating witch-hunters alike flourish in an atmosphere of chaos.

The rules need to be clearly defined and reasonably easy to grasp. The game can’t be booby-trapped against anyone who’s required to play it. If the net is cast too widely, and enough innocent people are caught up in it, all that will do is discredit any further movement for women’s rights and make enemies it can’t afford to have. Alienating large swaths of the populace, and making ourselves look like loonies, is not going to make anyone safer. Such irresponsibility and incoherence are exactly what hasthrown the women’s movement into reverse.

The only people helped by a self-indulgent sobfest like #MeToo are those who are genuinely bad. Male chauvinist abusers and man-hating witch-hunters alike flourish in an atmosphere of chaos. When the lines are so blurry that any tasteless joke can be construed as tantamount to rape, then confusion can be used as an excuse to push the boundaries even farther. And every busybody, regardless of the circumstances, finds license to make accusations and ruin lives.

Oppressive government thrives on confusion. If it’s all too complicated for us to sort out, the authoritarian state will gladly do it for us. But because it cites, as its justification, the existence of the problem itself, in order to hold onto its power it can never permit the problem to be solved. If we can’t find a way to solve the problem ourselves, one way or another we will all end up being victims.




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Making It Official

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My remarks this month are about official abuse of language — a phenomenon so protean that it’s hard to decide where to start grabbing it. I’ll start at random, with the news about an employee of Google who wrote an essay claiming that there was no room for conservative attitudes in that outfit, and immediately discovered that there was no room for his attitudes:

Google has fired an employee who wrote an internal memo blasting the web company’s diversity policies . . .

“We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company,” [said] Danielle Brown, Google’s new vice president for diversity, integrity and governance.

Emphasizing the fact that corporate officials are sensitive to race, gender, and so forth, but not to irony, the news article continues with a note about Google’s holding company,Alphabet Inc.:

The subject of Google’s ideological bent came up at the most recent shareholder meeting, in June. A shareholder asked executives whether conservatives would feel welcome at the company. Executives disagreed with the idea that anyone wouldn’t.

“The company was founded under the principles of freedom of expression, diversity, inclusiveness and science-based thinking,” Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt said at the time. “You’ll also find that all of the other companies in our industry agree with us.”

Well, that’s diversity for you — universal agreement. It’s science, too. Science means that everybody agrees, and that’s that.

I, for one, do not agree that it’s a good idea to use principles as a kind of camouflage tent and found a company under them. That makes me wonder whether the principles are, in fact, just something to hide beneath. But maybe I’m not thinking scientifically. We know that if science says something, it must be true. That’s that, no matter how preposterous it sounds.

"Science" means that everybody agrees, and that’s that.

Speaking of that’s-that verbiage, let’s turn, without attempt at transition, to President Trump. On August 7, he tweeted this about Senator Richard Blumenthal (D, CT), one of many politicians who have been braying about Trump’s alleged intercourse with Russians (and, oddly, his alleged acceptance of foreign “emoluments”): “Never in U.S. history has anyone lied or defrauded voters like Senator Richard Blumenthal. He told stories about his Vietnam battles and conquests, how brave he was, and it was all a lie. He cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness like a child.”

Cried like a baby isn’t exactly fresh, but it’s fun to see it used about a man so swathed in the dignity of the Senate as Mr. Blumenthal. But I can think of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of anyones who have lied or defrauded worse than Blumenthal, several of them to be found in the Senate today. Maybe Trump can think of some himself, but he also thinks that everyone will understand his untruth as hyperbole.

One may ask, however: what is the use of hyperbole when you’re discussing historical events? If somebody said, “Of all the no-good, lying, dirty dogs, Hillary Clinton is by far the worst,” everyone would understand this as hyperbole; everyone knows she’s not a dog, and everyone can immediately picture all the no-good, lying, dirty “dogs” he has ever encountered, and identify some of them as even worse than Mrs. Clinton. This would not lessen the humorous effect of the trite, though picturesque, characterization of our former almost-president. But when Trump refers to specific, literal, historical facts (about lying, defrauding), he invites people to check them, not just to appreciate his hyperbole. The response is likely to be a pallid, “Sure, Blumenthal’s bad, but he’s not that bad. He isn’t Lyndon Johnson, after all.”

I can think of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of anyones who have lied or defrauded worse than Blumenthal, several of them to be found in the Senate today.

Trump has always trafficked in hyperbole, often to good effect, but historical hyperbole is becoming a habit with him, and a bad habit. On August 3, he tweeted, “Our relationship with Russia is at an all time & very dangerous low.” Since I want to believe, literally and completely, in everything a president of this country says, I immediately went out and bought emergency supplies. If we are at a lower point with Russia than we were during the Berlin blockade, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the breakup of the conference at Reykjavik, I’m preparing for war.

Yes, that’s sarcasm; sorry about that — which is what you say, nowadays, when you aren’t sorry about anything. Let’s pursue this topic of official discourse a little further.

In olden times there was a novel, and then a play, called Ten Nights in a Barroom. It was “temperance” propaganda, endeavoring to shame people out of their favorite saloons. I don’t know whether it accomplished that purpose, but it did show how unpleasant saloons could be, and it turned out to be very popular entertainment. But lately we’ve all spent many more than ten nights in a barroom. Ever since that evil day, now lost to memory, when the 2016 presidential campaign began, we’ve been locked in an old saloon filled with barflies yelling abuse at one another. The barflies are politicians and their journalistic surrogates. They scream, they taunt, they bluster, they try to make life miserable for everyone else. There’s just one good thing about them: they’re acting like human beings — angry, outrageous, extravagantly daft, but overtly, and sometimes interestingly, themselves.

If we are at a lower point with Russia than we were during the Berlin blockade, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the breakup of the conference at Reykjavik, I’m preparing for war.

Contrast the robotic calm that all the best people believe should characterize official discourse — the placid self-righteousness that camouflaged, with equal diligence,the foreign-policy hysteria of the Bush regime, the Neronian corruption of the Clintons, the ignorant Ameriphobia of the Obama class. The absence of this camouflaging discourse is one of the major reasons the shadow state detests Donald Trump. It detests him because it measures value by the degree to which erring human nature is repressed and the drama of life is replaced by professional training, best practices, settled science, authorized procedures, mission statements, job descriptions, educational credentials, and community principles.

But to replace messy human discourse with a comfort zone of politically correct official discourse is not to banish savagery. Oh no. It is only to weaponize it with inhuman words. There are few things more dangerous than official persons armed with official discourse.

You may recall that in last month’s Word Watch, I alluded to the hysterical behavior of Minneapolis police, and their panic shootings of innocent beings, human and canine. Soon after I wrote that column, wry signs were posted in the region: “Warning: Twin Cities Police Easily Startled,” with a silhouette of a cop with a gun in each hand, banging away.The AP distinguished these signs from “legitimate” ones, thus advertising its own political assumptions, but the signs showed an apt use of language. Less apt, indeed chillingly stupid, have been revelations about the ways in which Law Enforcement in Minneapolis talks.

To replace messy human discourse with a comfort zone of politically correct official discourse is not to banish savagery.

The policeman who wantonly shot two friendly dogs in the backyard of a woman whose burglar alarm had accidentally gone off claimed that the pooches made him fear for his safety. Apparently he needed a trigger warning. But the first words out of his mouth after he shot the household pets were a robotic, “Yeah, I dispatched both of ’em.”

Is that the way you talk when you’re rattled? But you’re not a trained professional, for whom the automatic term for shooting to kill is dispatched.

Worse is the way in which the state’s investigative agency described what happened when a policeman who was allegedly frightened by a noise fired his gun over the driver of the car in which he was riding and killed the woman who had called these cops to her neighborhood to investigate a possible rape. She seems to have made the absurd mistake of approaching the car. . . . but let the investigating agency, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, narrate the action as it understood it on July 25:

On July 15, 2017 at approximately 11:30 p.m., Minneapolis PD received a 911 call from a (woman) requesting police respond to 5024 Washburn Ave S, Minneapolis for a female screaming at this location. Approximately 10 minutes later, a female called 911 again to check the status of police arrival at this address. Moments later, Minneapolis PD arrived on scene. Upon police arrival, a female “slaps” the back of the patrol squad.

After that, it is unknown to BCA agents what exactly happened, but the female became deceased in the alley, approximately 10 to 20 ft. north of 51st St. with trauma to her torso that could be a gunshot wound. Minneapolis PD has not elaborated on the circumstances, but requested the BCA to investigate an officer-involved shooting regarding this incident.

Note that the woman had to call twice. Be it also noted that, according to court records, the scene wasn’t searched until seven hours after the killing — I mean the decease — took place. But let’s think about the mentality that created this report.

No, I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t need to be. I’m not looking for individual motivation, biases, or intellectual deficiencies. I’m looking at the organizational mentality that is clearly responsible for this atrocious use of language. It’s practically illiterate, for one thing. “An officer-involved shooting regarding this incident” — what? The shooting was the incident. But much of this is the kind of illiteracy that has to be learned. People don’t normally call women females. They don’t normally say that a woman who obviously was shot dead had trauma to her torso that could be a gunshot wound. Even a sociopath wouldn’t spontaneously employ the language of radical skepticism in a case like this. And it’s interesting that the investigating agency has received a revelation that the cop car was the victim of a “female” slap. They aren’t sure what killed her, but they do know that she — or some other suspicious member of her gender — made the mistake of slapping a car.

For brutal coldness, this one can hardly be surpassed.

But who in the hell has ever said that a person became deceased? We’ve heard a lot of substitutions for died or dead: passed away (eventually followed by that weird nonentity, passed), perished, departed this life, and yes, deceased. Innumerable jocular substitutions (kicked the bucket) have been added, humor being one of mankind’s best means of transcending the fear of death. Each of these terms, euphemistic, religious, or jocular, is appropriate to some human attitude or context, but none of them pictures men and women as mere objects undergoing chemical change.

But now we have became deceased, and it’s not meant to be funny. For brutal coldness, this one can hardly be surpassed. A cake became stale in the fridge. A drain became clogged under the sink. A female became deceased in the alley.

Notice the seemingly inevitable progression of bureaucratic thought. You start with a euphemism (deceased for died), then prevent even that from being an occasion for sentiment.

For some reason, I’m thinking of a scene in Citizen Kane:

THOMPSON
I see. And that's what you know about Rosebud?

RAYMOND
Yeah. I heard him say it that other time, too. He just said, uh,
"Rosebud," then he dropped the glass ball and it broke on the
floor. He didn't say anything after that, and I knew he was dead.
He said all kinds of things that didn't mean anything.

THOMPSON
Sentimental fellow, aren't you?

RAYMOND
Mmm . . . Yes and no.




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What Matters — Choice and Opportunity

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I Am Not Your Negro is one of the most important films of 2016, but it has received scant attention, beyond being nominated for an Oscar. It expresses the African-American experience by transcending political philosophy and social theory to engage the emotion and empathy of the viewer. Using movie clips, newsreels, television interviews, and the poignant and elegant words of James Baldwin, it guides the viewer to enter the celluloid world and experience, with the protagonist, what it has meant to be black in America.

The documentary relies heavily on film artifacts from 1940–1980, yet it feels as fresh and current as if the speeches had been written last week. As much as we like to think we have made progress in race relations (and certainly we have enacted numerous laws that eliminate segregation, favor diversity, and punish racism), the individual experience for many African-Americans continues to be problematic.

With his crisp Oxfordian erudition, Baldwin explains to Dick Cavett in one series of clips and in a debate with William F. Buckley at the Cambridge Union hall in another what it was like for a black man growing up surrounded by popular culture to which he could never belong. As children he and his friends put on cowboy hats to mimic John Wayne as they shot at imaginary Indians, never realizing until much later that the enemy they were shooting “was me.” He notes bitterly, “They needed us to pick their cotton, and now they don’t need us at all. So they’re killing us off, like they killed off the Indians [in movies].”

As much as we like to think we have made progress in race relations, the individual experience for many African-Americans continues to be problematic.

Instead of presenting the black experience through a didactic, lecturing, and angry harangue, director Raoul Peck immerses us in the experience through carefully selected film clips, some showing the “Stepin Fetchit” stereotype of the grinning, scraping, terrified Negro servant; others showing the pathos of the black child trying to pass for white, as in Imitation of Life, or black characters sacrificing their own security or happiness to save a white companion, as in The Defiant Ones; or, more often, entirely obliterating the black race from typical Hollywood films that required the black viewer either to identify with the white protagonist or step entirely out of the story. (Doris Day films, with her platinum blond hair and characteristically white costumes, are noted in particular.)

I believe this documentary, and the Doris Day musical clip in particular, influenced the sudden surge of racial criticism against La La Land during the final runup to the Oscars: viewers suddenly realized that La La Land is as white as a Doris Day musical, with the few black characters marginalized as an appendage of the white jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) — or so the argument went. Ironically (and significant to Peck’s thesis) Academy members didn’t even notice this whiteness at first, as they lavished LLL with fourteen nominations. I suspect they became abashedly aware of it only after watching I Am Not Your Negro (which they were required to do in order to vote for the Best Documentary category) and atoned for their oversight by voting Moonlight as Best Picture (read my review of the Awards fiasco here).

And that’s the point: as whites, we don’t even see the problem until it is pointed out to us. And then we go overboard in the other direction, as the Academy did in selecting Moonlight at the last minute. Peck’s argument — and the argument of many black activists — is that white Americans simply take for granted that what they see on the Hollywood screen, the television screen, the Facebook screen, and the textbook page looks just like them. Because whiteness is presented as ubiquitous and universal, white Americans learned to feel entitled to that sensation. So when we hear an impassioned “Black Lives Matter!” we often respond reflexively, “All lives matter!” We completely miss the point that “all lives” has seldom included “black lives.” Not culturally, at least. And saying, “I’m not racist,” or “Many of my friends are black,” even if it’s true, misses the point as well. We may very well not be racist. Most of us probably aren’t, in fact. But when we defensively change the subject to ourselves, we unintentionally silence the voice that is straining to be heard.

Viewers suddenly realized that La La Land is as white as a Doris Day musical, with the few black characters marginalized.

Toni Morrison makes this point in her novella The Bluest Eye, in which a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, wants desperately to look like Shirley Temple, whom she watches at the movie matinees every Saturday. Even Pecola’s own mother shoves her aside and prefers the pretty little white children whom she cares for as a domestic servant. I Am Not Your Negro demonstrates powerfully what it’s like to grow up knowing that you are inherently unlovable and the antithesis of cultural beauty or heroism.

As a young man, Baldwin moved to Paris, where he could move freely in public without the sensation of being watched, feared, and suspected. Nevertheless, he returned to the US frequently to lend his voice to the Civil Rights movement. In 1979 he was commissioned by McGraw-Hill to write a book, Remember This House, about his personal remembrances of three assassinated black leaders: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin never completed the book, but the 30 or 40 pages he did write are powerful and eloquent, and they form the central storyline of I Am Not Your Negro, narrated in voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson. The sections that focus on these three men, told with intimate home movies as well as official news footage, are some of the most impassioned of the film.

As a result of this documentary I came to a better understanding of the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” and why the response “All Lives Matter” is irrelevant and trivializing. But I didn’t come to any sense of a solution. Half a century later, despite desegregation, affirmative action, welfare, fair housing laws, reversed cultural appropriation, a black president, and a white population fairly begging to be inclusive and non-racist, we’re still dealing with some of the same problems. Where do we go from here? Baldwin suggests that whites “invented the nigger,” by which he means created the trope of the black who is defined as rapist, violent, lazy, foolish, incapable, and immoral, and that “it can’t be fixed until whites can figure out why.” He also had harsh words for the NAACP, believing that it created class distinctions of its own by privileging light-skinned blacks over dark-skinned blacks. Is class distinction innate in the human psyche? Can it be overcome?

We may very well not be racist. But when we defensively change the subject to ourselves, we unintentionally silence the voice that is straining to be heard.

After watching the film I began to contemplate the black experience through the lens of the women’s movement. Women, too, suffered from the way they were portrayed culturally, through art. Women, too, had to watch “their kind” stand in the shadows or the sidelines of the movies while male protagonists saved the day. Like Baldwin, I can remember playing cowboys and Indians with the neighborhood children in the 1950s; I don’t remember any of us wanting to be “Miss Kitty.” Also like blacks in the movies, girls were taught through the movies (especially in the 1950s) that a woman needs to be slapped around a little bit to calm her down and make her more compliant, and that she needs to give in to a man’s passionate, if unwanted, embrace because “no” really means “yes.” We also learned that bad boys were good, and we set our eyes on marrying one of them as the ultimate goal.

What made the difference for women? It wasn’t saying, “Women’s Lives Matter.” Everyone already knew that. Women mattered in the kitchen, in the laundry room, in the nursery, in the bedroom. Men were wont to say with a patronizing chuckle, “Without women the human race couldn’t even continue, God love ’em.” But it was belittling praise. Women were also told how they mattered in lyrics like these:

Hey! Little girl
Comb your hair, fix your makeup
Soon he will open the door
Don't think because there's a ring on your finger
You needn't try anymore.

For wives should always be lovers too
Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you
I'm warning you — (Burt Bacharach, “Wives and Lovers”)

My friends and I used to sing along to those subversive lyrics with their catchy tune while teasing our bouffant hair and painting on our eye makeup, never realizing how songs like these were holding us back from the truth that “Girls can be anything.”

Is class distinction innate in the human psyche? Can it be overcome?

Where women did not matter was in the workforce and in the marketplace of ideas. Here’s an example: in the 1970s and ’80s my husband and I wrote several books together, almost a book a year. He would do the research and write the outline; I would write the actual book. We published the books under his name, and they sold like hotcakes. Our biggest seller was High Finance on a Low Budget, selling over 300,000 copies in a dozen years. When it came time to write the 6th edition, he didn’t have time to update it, and I balked at being the ghostwriter again, so we published it with both our names. It was 1992, after all, and I had a financial résumé of my own by then — I was the editor of a monthly financial newsletter called “Money Letter for Women,” and I spoke frequently at investment conferences. Sadly, that 6th edition sold fewer than 4,000 copies. The next edition was published without my name, and it sold like hotcakes again. It wasn’t my husband’s fault, and it wasn’t the publisher’s fault. The market had spoken resoundingly. It would accept a woman writing a financial letter for women, but it did not want my name on the cover of that investment book.

Twenty-five years later, that wouldn’t be the case. Now women practically dominate the nightly news as political pundits and expert guests. If I were writing an investment book today, no one would ask me to use my initials instead of my name. This is what I think made the difference: a generation of parents and teachers began telling little girls, “You can do anything. You can be anything.” It was said in school, in homes, in books, in movies. And everyone began to believe it.

The market had spoken resoundingly. It would accept a woman writing a financial letter for women, but it did not want that woman's name on the cover of an investment book.

Black Lives do matter, but it’s not enough to matter. Mattering leads to victimhood and paternalism. In Africa, blacks built civilizations, led tribes, cultivated lands, created art, and fought wars to protect their turf and their way of life. In the antebellum South, blacks worked in the blazing sun while the master provided their housing, their clothes, their food, and their healthcare (meager though it was). Post-Civil War, they continued to receive food, shelter, and healthcare from the “government plantation.” James Baldwin complained about government paternalism in the Cambridge debate, declaring calmly and forcefully that the black man should be seen “not as a ward, and not as an object of charity, but as one who built America.” He added, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

Now, nearly 40 years later, his words seem as timely as if he had spoken them yesterday. And yet I think Baldwin would be pleased by some of the changes in media. Films like Hidden Figures do offer the message that blacks — and black women at that — can do anything. Moreover, black actors are now being cast in parts where being black doesn’t matter, and that’s a good thing. Think of Denzel Washington in Flight, for example. The role of the alcoholic pilot who successfully lands a damaged plane could just as easily have been played by Tom Cruise — or by Meryl Streep, for that matter. We have come a longer way than Peck’s documentary might suggest.

Black Lives don’t just matter. Black lives can do anything. Maya Angelou wrote about the humiliation she felt at her high school graduation when the white (of course), male (also of course) school superintendent proudly told everyone about the progress his administration was making in the school district. He told them about the new science labs at the white high school, and the wonderful new athletic fields they would be installing at the black high school. Maya was stunned. The black students mattered, yes, but they wouldn’t be scientists or mathematicians. They would be athletes. August Wilson (a black playwright) does the same thing with his black characters in Fences, when young Corey has only two options available to him, a football scholarship or the Marines, and his brother Lyons is a jazz player. By contrast, Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is determined to start a business because he knows that in the absence of an education, business is his only path to success. On the night when he invests his father’s insurance money in a liquor store with two of his friends, he says to his ten-year-old son Travis, “Son, what do you want to be? Because you just choose it and you can be it. Anything at all.” That his son could have such opportunity — the infinity of choice — matters to Walter.

Hansberry knew that Travis could be anything, because that’s what her parents had told her. Her parents counterbalanced the white cultural bias she saw in the movies and on the streets with a constant parade of black poets, writers, and activists who visited their home. She knew such heroes as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin personally. And armed with that knowledge — I can be anything! — she became an educated, talented, successful playwright.

Could it be as simple as that? Or am I being naïve? As a white woman do I even have the right to suggest it? All I know for sure is that all the government programs of the past 50 years have made little progress, and the demands made by the official “Black Lives Matters” organization are focused on more government programs with more government subsidies. More paternalism from the government plantation. Could the solution be as simple as mothers and fathers and teachers telling black children everywhere, “You can do anything. You can be anything”? Maybe not. But maybe it’s worth a try.


Editor's Note: Review of "I Am Not Your Negro," directed by Raoul Peck. Magnolia Pictures, 2016, 93 minutes.



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Poor Little Me

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According to Madeleine Albright, I’m going to hell. As is every woman who isn’t voting for Hillary Clinton. All I can say is that heaven won’t be much of a paradise if it’s populated with the fools who are.

But if a lot of other self-proclaimed leftist smarties are right, I can’t go to hell, because I don’t even exist. After all, I’m a female libertarian. Further complicating matters is that now the progressive Left has decreed that gender does not exist. So not only am I going to hell (though I don’t exist because I’m a libertarian woman, and hell doesn’t exist because these people don’t believe in it), but I can’t be a woman because gender is nonexistent. Color me confused.

I don’t think I can even call myself a left-libertarian anymore. I want nothing whatsoever more to do with the Left. I’m glad that in 2016, a woman can run for president and be taken seriously, but the possibility that Hillary Clinton is not only running, but just might win, makes my blood run cold. I guess progressives still want me to be a woman so I can be a good little victim and vote for her. These people are so crazy, they make me want to run for my life.

If one out of every two people on the planet was helpless against the other, our species would have died out hundreds of thousands of years ago.

As a woman, I am expected, by the so-called progressives who have taken out a copyright on feminism, to sit around crying, “Poor little me!” I refuse to do that, not because I hate every woman in the world, or fail to care about our rights, but because I’m not an idiot. If I am not very much mistaken, we have been half of the human race since the Garden of Eden. Which means that over the millennia, we’ve had every bit as much to do with how things have turned out as men have. If we haven’t, then we’ve all been idiots.

According to the sort of history I’ve been taught since I was a girl, men have always been awful brutes — while women have been just sitting there and taking it. That doesn’t correspond to the history of my life, or the lives of most of the women I’ve ever known. I don’t even think that most of us could possibly believe it. If we were such ineffectual feathers in the wind, we’d never muster the will to get up in the morning.

My philosophy of politics and history is one in which every individual will has an influence on the whole. Events unfold as they do because of the interaction of multitudes. This was one of the aspects of libertarianism that attracted me from the start: everybody counts. The human drama is far too unruly to be centrally planned or collectively organized. If one out of every two people on the planet was helpless against the other, our species would have died out hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Certainly the rules by which we’ve played haven’t always been fair. It’s appalling to me that my grandmothers — each of whom had as much sense as any man I’ve ever met — couldn’t vote until 1920. But that arrangement was OK with most of the women in this country until it wasn’t anymore, after which it was changed. Women do as much to keep each other down (if not more) than men have ever done to oppress them.

What we dearly need is not an amendment to the Constitution, but an adjustment of attitude.

A crucial reason why women have lacked the power wielded by men is that men tend to be loyal to one another, and women do not. We compete with one another so fiercely and viciously that men shudder to think of it. They may kill each other in wars, but the rest of the time they manage to cooperate pretty nicely. We undermine and sabotage each other nearly every day of our lives from nursery school to nursing home.

Although I’m gay, I never liked playing with little girls when I was a kid. They made me nervous. One day they’d be friendly, the next they’d get mad — for no apparent reason — and the day after that, they’d be sugar and spice once again. I rarely trusted them. Most of my friends were boys, because they were temperamentally pretty much the same, day in and day out. I usually knew what to expect.

In my adult life, most of the really treacherous things ever done to me have been done by women. A lot of women have been kind and supportive, too, and it would be unfair for me to overlook them. But all along the way, I’ve benefitted from the support, encouragement, and mentorship of a variety of men. As has every other woman who has ever succeeded at much of anything in life — whether she’ll admit it or not.

I regard it as highly offensive when I’m informed that I should vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman. It’s utter nonsense to suggest that this is any less sexist than the notion that a guy ought to vote for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Bernie Sanders because they’re men. It will be “our turn” to be president when the majority of men and women determine that a female candidate is worthy of the office.

Women finally got the vote because enough women thought that every other woman deserved the franchise. When we get over the inferiority complex that tells us that men’s opinions of us carry more weight than our own of ourselves and one another, that’s when we’ll finally “achieve equality.” As long as we allow the political left to convince us that we’re helpless and victimized little nitwits, that’s exactly how we’ll behave. What we dearly need is not an amendment to the Constitution, but an adjustment of attitude. We’ve got vastly more power than we think.




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Sad-Eyed Waifs, Sad-Eyed Wife

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The ’60s were a time of turbulent transition not only in attitudes about war, poverty, and race relations, but also in attitudes about art. If Andy Warhol could paint a reproduction of a soup can or Jackson Pollock could dribble paint on a canvas or Mark Rothko could lavish shades of red on the walls of the Four Seasons and all of them could call it art (and charge lavish prices, I might add), what else might be considered the next great breakthrough in art?

Within this changing atmosphere an artist named Keane became famous for paintings of big-eyed waifs in somber settings. Celebrities scrambled to own the works; museums gladly accepted them; even the United Nations has a Keane in its permanent art collection. In a craze that would be repeated in the 1990s by the wildly popular “cottage art” of Thomas Kinkade, Keane’s waifs began showing up everywhere — in high class galleries, celebrities’ homes (Natalie Wood, Joan Crawford, and Red Skelton are some of the actors who owned original portraits of themselves with the trademark big eyes) as well as on greeting cards, posters, and the bedroom walls of middle class America. I remember copying the big-eyed style when I was in grade school and longing to have a framed waif for my room, just as all my friends did.

But who was this artist named Keane? And what was the real reason for the big-eyed success of this relatively one-dimensional art? These two questions are addressed in the new biopic Big Eyes, which has already received several Golden Globe nominations. The film is based on Margaret Keane’s assertion, upheld in court, that she painted the waifs, while her husband Walter claimed the credit for them. This fine film examines mid-century gender roles while providing insights into issues related to plagiarism, marketing, and art appreciation.

If Joan Crawford has one hanging in her living room and respected museums have them in their collections, then they must be good, and I must have one.

Margaret (Amy Adams) is portrayed as a victim of 1950s biases and cultural restrictions. When she leaves her husbands (two marriages end in divorce) she does so furtively, sneaking away instead of confronting them and facing their problems. “I’ve never acted freely,” she complains at one point. “First I was a daughter, then a wife, then a mother,” thusechoing Nora Helmer’s epiphany at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). When she applies for a job, the potential employer asks, “Does your husband approve of your working?” Later, when she complains to Walter (Christoph Waltz) about how it makes her feel to see him being praised for the work she has created, he explains with a shrug and a smile, “Sadly, people don’t buy lady art.”

This is Walter’s justification for letting the public assume that he, not his wife, is the “Keane” whose name appears at the bottom of the canvas. If the Keanes want to make a living selling Margaret’s paintings, Walter willhave to be the frontman. The value of art, more than that ofany other commodity or product, lies in the eye of the beholder. Its price is determined not by the cost of the materials or the time and labor that go into its production (indeed, Margaret knocks out one painting in 53 minutes) but purely by supply and demand, or perceived scarcity and perceived desirability. If Joan Crawford has one hanging in her living room and respected museums have them in their collections, then they must be good, and I must have one. In fact, Andy Warhol is quoted (perhaps ironically), “It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”

Were these paintings any good? Not really. They might have seemed haunting and evocative at first glance, but they were kitschy and uninspiring, even eerie, especially as they became mass produced. The real genius behind their popularity and sales was Walter Keane and his marketing strategy. Charming, gregarious, and mendacious, he knew how to stir up interest and create media sensations. In the film he presents celebrity portraits as publicgifts, sends unsolicited paintings to museums, and even convinces the World’s Fair committee to accept a painting of the world’s children (“Tomorrow Forever”) as the official mural of the Fair without even going through a selection committee. Christoph Waltz portrays Walter with gleeful joy and unmitigated enthusiasm. He sees nothing wrong in what he is doing. Art critic John Canaday (Terrence Stamp) is outraged by Keane’s popularity and rabid in his determination to bring down the waifs.

Plagiarism and intellectual property are central issues in this film, but so is the value of marketing. Would Margaret have made any money from her paintings without Walter’s marketing? Can Walter be accused of stealing Margaret’s work if he does it with Margaret’s full knowledge, consent and collaboration? Are they committing fraud against their customers simply because the work was done by Mrs. instead of Mr.? Have the paintings lost their value because they were painted by a woman, or might a new scandal increase their value by giving thema renewed notoriety (just as this film is likely to increase their value again)? Did Jane Eyre become a less significant work when it was discovered that Charlotte Brontë, not Currer Bell, wrote it?

Big Eyes offers a rich but disturbing look at the culture of the 1950s and 1960s — not just the formal culture of art, but the chauvinistic culture of accepted mores and gender roles. The film is a reminder of the many women who have stood silently in the shadows doing a husband’s work, or doing their own work with a masculine pseudonym, in a time when “people didn’t buy lady art” or “lady books” or “lady science.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Big Eyes," directed by Tim Burton. The Weinstein Company, 2014, 104 minutes.



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