Grim, Gripping, and Curiously Refreshing

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In the 14th century, bubonic plague killed an estimated 75 million people, including, perhaps half the population of Europe. Historians calculate that roughly the same number were killed by the Spanish influenza in 1918 — 5 to 6% of the world's population at that time. Several films have speculated on what would happen worldwide if another supervirus broke out; they range from 1971's The Andromeda Strain andOmega Man to 1995's 12 Monkeys and Outbreak — and this summer's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Contagion. That last movie opened this weekend.

Surprisingly, given the familiarity of the theme,Contagion is a compelling film. Its calm, subdued tone, almost documentary in style, creates a growing sense of tension and authenticity that is somehow more riveting than the hysteria evoked by other films. Here, a character reacts in an unflustered, uncomprehending way to the news that his wife has died; his lack of emotion shows his unwillingness to process the horrifying information. The scene is profoundly moving — more poignant than if he had broken down in tears.

Contagion follows several plot lines, as health workers from the CDC (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet), WHO (Marion Cotillard), and private industry (Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle) try to trace the disease back to its original human host, contain its spread, and devise a vaccine. Director Steven Soderbergh deftly demonstrates how quickly we can be exposed to disease as we go about our daily lives, touching objects that others have touched. If you weren't a germaphobe before, you are likely to become one after seeing this film.

The film's title refers, of course, to the contagion of disease, but it offers multiple layers of additional meaning. We see how fear, rumor, and warnings can also be contagious, passing quickly from one person to another in an exponentially widening circle.

Meanwhile, we see the breakdown of normal distribution chains as people stop going to work, either from sickness or fear of sickness, and others are unable to purchase necessary supplies, such as food and medicine. Interesting moral problems arise as well.Situation ethicists often use the survival scenario to justify stealing. Ordinary people do also: when pondering whether a person should die in a snowstorm rather than break into a privately owned but unoccupied cabin, most would argue that it is all right to break the law in order to save one's life. But what if thousands of people are faced with starvation at the same time?

In this film, looting erupts as people become desperate — but that is not presented as an acceptable solution. Nor is the government's welfare solution — distributing food and medicine "fairly" — presented as working well, especially when there isn’t enough for everyone. In fact, if the film suggests anything, it is that people should prepare for disaster relief themselves, by stocking up in advance on food, medicines, bottled water, and yes, guns, for a self-imposed quarantine. I found this call for self-reliance refreshing in a Hollywood film.

It was also refreshing to see the pharmaceutical companies portrayed as good guys for once, as people working around the clock and taking personal risks to discover a vaccine. Yes, there are the usual barbs about profiteering, but the film acknowledges that everyone, not just the corporate bigwig, is strongly motivated to earn money, and that this is not such a bad way to control the distribution of goods. The alternatives — looting, or lining up for insufficient handouts from the government — are shown as leading to chaos.

Contagion is a fascinating, gripping thriller. The story is believable, and the acting is superb. But let me warn you: you will probably feel compelled to stop on the way home for a few gallons of bottled water and several cases of canned tuna and ramen noodles. And don't forget the plastic gloves — you won't want to be touching anything for a while . . .


Editor's Note: Review of "Contagion," directed by Steven Soderbergh. Warner Brothers, 2011, 105 minutes.



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Investment Opportunities

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Walking in the downtown area of the small city where I live, I came upon a raggedy man engaged in a heated conversation with a man and woman sitting in a slightly less raggedy sedan. The man alternated between leaning into the car to hear what the man or woman was saying and then standing up to yell what he had to say — so that everyone in the vicinity (which meant just me, at that moment) could hear his end of it.

“This is fuckin’ ridiculous. It’s such an easy thing. Such a fuckin’ little thing.”

He was thin, in a sickly way. His face was flushed and deeply lined; his teeth, few and gray. He moved and sounded like a junkie. The downtown area is full of them: men, mostly, who in previous generations would have worked in the timber business, displaced by the Endangered Species Act and warped by years of unemployment and welfare into Gollums of entitlement. Crystal meth is usually their drug of choice . . . but marijuana or cheap booze will do.

“I can’t believe you’re doin’ this to me. Settin’ me up like this. Settin’ me up to fail. Fuck.”

The sedan and the junkie were idling in front of a bank. It was pretty clear that the “this” the people in the car were doing — or not doing — involved money.

I tried to get a clear look at the people in the car. They were older than the junkie but it was hard to tell how much. Junkies age badly; and, even when they aren’t junkies, working-class people in the Pacific Northwest don’t age well. The people in the car might have been his parents. Or a sibling and spouse. Something about the junkie’s sense of indignation suggested a family connection.

“I mean, look. It’s a fuckin’ investment. Investment. That’s what it is.”

And so language is ground into oblivion.

In our state, people on the dole usually have to sit through various educational meetings or sessions as a part of getting benefits. My guess: on his stumble down the socioeconomic ladder, the junkie had waited impatiently while many, many government employees repeated threadbare lines about their agencies’ “investment” in job training or cheap housing or troubled people. He’d retained it as a powerful word, a money word.

But he had no sense of what “investment” actually means. No sense of the return that investors expect on their money. No sense of the responsibility that comes with accepting investment. To him, “investment” was just a fancy word for handout — and he used it in the same way that a deadbeat asks for “loans” that he doesn’t intend to repay.

Many observers, from George Orwell to Liberty’s own Stephen Cox, have noted that collectivists use euphemisms in an effort to strip actions of meaning. And, particularly, to strip bad actions of their badness. It’s a pernicious process that robs people of moral agency.

Many of the same goodie-giving government agencies that talk about welfare as “investment” describe welfare recipients as “clients.” The misuse of each word has similar effect. The word “client” usually refers to the paying customer of some kind of professional service. Someone receiving a good or service for free is not a client; but, if he hears himself called a “client” often enough, he may lose the ability to make that distinction. And expect to be treated like a client wherever he goes.

I went into the bank to do some business and, when I came out a few minutes later, the junkie was leaning near the window of the raggedy sedan. He wasn’t saying anything. Neither of the people in the car was saying anything, either. They were all just staring at each other. Unmoored from meaning, frozen in their indignation.




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I Can’t Get a Job—I’d Lose My Benefits!

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What are we learning from the recent census?

A headline in this Thursday’s Westchester County Journal News proclaims "Census: Density in Pockets." Well, duh. Just look around New York and you'll see high-rises and low-rises that house low-income families whose housing is subsidized by "Section 8" of the welfare code, which ties rents to a percentage of income. The more you earn, the more you pay. Conversely, if you don't earn anything, you'll pay almost nothing. I have a friend who pays $117 for a one-bedroom apartment on a tree-lined street in North Yonkers.

She's one of the lucky ones. I have other friends who live in a building in South Yonkers where a different drug king controls each floor. (That's how lucrative the drug trade is in these areas. After all, it's money off the books. It won't affect the rent.) Buildings are subdivided and subdivided again to provide housing for the burgeoning population of welfare recipients in these dense "pockets."

Another friend of mine teaches junior high in the Bronx. Recently she gave her students a typical assignment: what do you want to be when you grow up? One bright young seventh-grader wrote glowingly about his desire to go to college and become a lawyer. "I'll carry a briefcase to work and wear a charcoal gray suit," he wrote. "I'll drive a BMW and I'll help people with their problems." My friend cheered his enthusiasm as she read his dream. Then she reached his final paragraph: "But if I make too much money, I'll lose my benefits," he concluded. "Maybe I shouldn't go to college after all."

What a chilling message these children are learning from their parents. I hear it too, all the time. "I can't get a job. I'll lose my Medicaid." "I can't get a job. My rent will go up." So parents teach their children how to use the system — how to get on the Section 8 rolls, how to get more food stamps, how to get more welfare. Often for a girl, that means having babies outside of marriage. Children learn how to find jobs that are off the books, income that can go unreported. Their parents don't have the courage to say, "Get out of here! Go to college and fly far away!"

This is a Reflection full of storytelling, so I'm going to tell you one more story. My friend Kelly was a single welfare mom rearing two children, with another one on the way. She was living in a tiny, grungy apartment on one of the worst streets in Yonkers. When the father of the new baby left instead of marrying her, she knew she had to change her life. So she reached out for a different safety net from Section 8 or WIC (aid to Women, Infants, and Children) or Medicaid: she called her parents. Then she moved across the country to Sacramento, where her two older boys are now enrolled in better schools with better classmates. Her mother joyfully volunteered to take care of the baby while Kelly attended school herself. This month Kelly will graduate and become a dental hygienist. By the end of the summer she will be moving into her own apartment. I am so proud of her!

Government welfare always begins with good intentions. No one wants to see young mothers abandoned on the streets. No one wants to see children go hungry or uneducated. But these "pockets" of dense population are not what anyone intended. They are sad places, full of broken dreams and lost courage.

The War on Poverty was supposed to end this mess. It has only gotten worse, as any free marketeer could have predicted. Government needs to get out of the way and stop competing with free market housing, so that more people like Kelly can find the courage to leave the grungy pockets of Section 8 and move into wider, roomier pockets somewhere else — anywhere else! —  with better schools, better opportunities, and a better way of life.




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More Than Just a Pretty Film

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The Illusionist is a lovely animated movie by French filmmaker Sylvain Chomet — a movie that, despite its beauty, has a disturbing message.

Its leading characters are a kindly vaudeville magician and the young working girl whom he befriends. The story is sweet and full of pathos, as the older gentleman sacrifices his own comfort and well being to please the girl. Appropriately, the film is drawn in the soft-edged, old-school style that predates Pixar. Its French pedigree is obvious, from its watercolor backgrounds and exaggerated, non-realistic faces to its impressionistic musical score. The characters communicate with each other through a combination of mime and an odd pseudo-language reminiscent of the way adults speak in the old "Peanuts" TV specials. This adds to the dreamlike quality of the story, although it can be off-putting to those who aren't fans of French animation.

Based on a story by Jacques Tati (1907–1982), the famous French filmmaker, The Illusionist is intended to show the deep father-daughter connection between a lonely old man and an equally lonely young girl. Metaphorically, however, the film offers a powerful, though certainly unintentional, warning look at the relationship between the working class and the welfare class. The magician's relationship with the young cleaning girl begins innocently and sweetly. When her bar of soap slips away from her while she is cleaning the floors, he picks it up and "magically" turns it into a fancy box of perfumed hand soap, offering it to her with a flourish. She is thrilled. The next day she washes his shirt to show her appreciation, and he "magically" produces a coin from her ear to thank her — the way kindly uncles do when they visit little nieces and nephews. Noticing that the sole of her shabby shoe is flapping wildly as she walks, he buys her a pair of bright red shoes.

Before long the magician's gig at the local vaudeville theater ends, and he must move on to the next town. Without being invited, the girl follows him. When the conductor asks for her ticket, she points to the old man, miming her expectation that he will produce a ticket for her out of thin air. Not wanting to disappoint her, the poor man complies, again with a magical flourish. Throughout the rest of the film the girl stays with the man, pointing to new goodies that she wants — a new coat, high-heeled shoes, a new dress, and a coin from her ear every time they part. The man takes on extra jobs to pay for her increasing demands. He sleeps on the couch so she can have the single bedroom in his tiny apartment. Sadly, the girl never catches on to what is happening to the man. You can probably guess where this leads. Small- time magicians, like golden geese, eventually give out.

The film offers a powerful demonstration of what has happened to a whole generation of people who have grown up under the welfare state. They have no idea where money comes from, or how to earn it. They turn to the government for housing, food stamps, education, medical care, and even entertainment in the form of parks and recreation. They seem to think that money can appear out of thin air, and that people who work owe them all the goodies they want. Like the man in the film, tax-paying Americans are becoming threadbare and exhausted. The demands on them are too many, and they're tired of not being appreciated for meeting those demands. At some point they are going to stop working — also like the man in the film. What then?

A friend who teaches middle school in the Bronx asked her students to write an essay about what they want to be when they grow up — pretty standard fare for a middle-school essay. One young man wrote about going to college, becoming a lawyer, and representing clients in court. "I'll make a lot of money, and I'll wear nice suits and carry a briefcase," he dreamed. But he ended his essay with this chilling observation: "If I do that, I'll probably earn too much money and I'll lose my housing and food stamps. So maybe that's not such a good idea." What a self-defeating decision! Yet I see that idea in practice every day as I work with people from Yonkers and the Bronx. They are so afraid of losing their tiny apartments in crumbling buildings on potholed streets in seedy neighborhoods that they won't even consider moving to a different state with a lower cost of living, where they could get a job and provide for their families themselves.

How surprising, that the demise of the American dream would be so skillfully and artistically presented in the form of a French animated film. It is well worth sharing with friends as a cautionary tale of pending disaster.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Illusionist," directed by Sylvain Chomet. Pathé-Django, 2010, 90 minutes.



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