Argo F*** Yourself

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One part compelling documentary, two parts zany Hollywood comedy, and three parts suspenseful spy thriller, Argo is one hundred percent excellence in filmmaking.

Although the events depicted in Argo occurred 33 years ago, they could not be more timely. In 1979 we had a likable but inept president whose policies could not avert double-digit interest rates, double-digit inflation, and the doubling of gas and oil prices; today we have a likable but inept president whose policies have led to stagnant growth, high unemployment, doubling of the national debt, and another doubling of gas prices. Both presidents dealt with turmoil and crisis in the Middle East as they campaigned for reelection.

When Ben Affleck set out to dramatize a recently declassified covert operation that took place within the context of the Iranian hostage crisis over 30 years ago, he could not have known that a similar crisis would erupt in the same part of the world exactly one month before his film was released. Watching hostages in Argo quake with fear as they are blindfolded by their tormentors and dragged before a firing squad, viewers cannot help but think of Ambassador Chris Stevens being dragged through the streets of Benghazi on his way to a horrifying death just last month. This unintended melding of the two stories adds to the suspense created in this well-made film.

Argo begins with a brisk montage of historic photos, film footage, and newspaper headlines taken from the days and weeks of the Iranian hostage crisis that began November 4, 1979. A young Walter Cronkite and an even younger Ted Koppel report the news from old-fashioned television screens. Many people have forgotten that ABC's “Nightline” began as a temporary nightly update about the hostage crisis; 444 days later, when the hostages were released (on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration), the news show had become so entrenched that it stayed on as a serious alternative to NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and the CBS “Late Movie,” which eventually gave way to Letterman's “Late Show.” Ted Koppel earned his stripes reporting the Iranian hostage crisis and paved the way for all-news cable shows.

As the crisis begins, embassy personnel are busy doing other things: processing visas, filing reports, and interviewing local Iranians who wait patiently in the outer rooms. When angry mobs threaten to storm the building, embassy workers rush to shred documents, burn files, break metal plates used for counterfeiting documents, and destroy computers. Ignoring threats to their own lives, they focus intensely on eliminating all sensitive material that could lead to the torture and death of Americans and local residents who are friendly to Americans. This is absolutely essential for national security and for the safety of regional operatives (local spies) in Iran.

The film deftly portrays the rising panic among security personnel inside the building while angry young men climb the walls and breach the compound. “We need some security, and you’re responsible!” one man screams into a phone, presumably to someone in the State Department. During a security briefing another man warns, “Don’t shoot anyone. Don’t be the one to start a war. If you shoot one person, they will kill everyone in here.” As a result, security personnel seem afraid to act. They hold their guns, but they don’t use them. One goes outside to try reasoning with the mob, but of course that just feeds the frenzy. In short, the fear of being responsible for diplomatic consequences is crippling.

During this confusion, six Americans slip out a back door and run for safety. But in a country overpowered by anti-American sentiment and energized for a fight, where might safety be found? Several embassies turn them away before the Canadian ambassador and his wife (Victor Garber and Page Leong) agree to take them in. But they are still far from being free, or even safe. Forced to hide in a room beneath the floorboards, they cannot leave the ambassador’s residence. They live in constant fear that local domestic workers will reveal their presence to Iranian insurgents, putting Canadian embassy personnel in danger as well. The scene is reminiscent of Jews hidden in attics and basements by friendly neighbors during the Holocaust. Spiriting these six unexpected hostages out of Iran becomes an even stickier problem for the US State Department than negotiating for the 52 publicized hostages.

Evidently saving face is more important than saving victims, at least to these State Department officials.

This is where the zany Hollywood comedy comes in. State Department officials come up with such solutions as providing the six Americans with bicycles so they can ride to the border (300 miles away) or pretending that they are part of an agricultural team investigating crops (even though it is winter) or that they are volunteer teachers (even though all Western teachers have been withdrawn from the country). After dismissing these ideas, seasoned CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) suggests pretending they are members of a film crew doing a site inspection for a science fiction flick called Argo.

Mendez turns to makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to act as director and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to act as producer on this bogus film, and together they select a script from among genuine screenwriter submissions. Goodman and Arkin ham up their scenes with insider jokes about Hollywood while also demonstrating that they understand the gravity of the situation. Human lives are at stake, and they know it. They also impishly create a tagline with more zing than "Who is John Galt," a phrase that is reflected in the title of this review.

But the real story of this film takes place in Iran, where Mendez must first convince the six hostages that the plan will work, and then teach them how to play their roles as set designer, director, cinematographer, etc., all in a matter of two days. Tension mounts as time draws near. They must act their parts convincingly and be prepared to answer any question that might come up as they go through airport security. If one person blows it, they all go down. Audience members have to be thinking, “Could I do this? Could I make it through this intense scrutiny?” and this adds to the tension of the film.

Mendez must also convince the State Department not to give up on the plan. At one point a State official says pragmatically, “Six Americans executed at the Canadian embassy is an international incident; six Americans caught playing filmmakers with a CIA spy is an embarrassment.” Evidently saving face is more important than saving victims, at least to these State Department officials. I'd like to think they were concerned that CIA involvement would lead to retaliation against the remaining hostages. Mendez, however, refuses to leave without the people he has come to rescue.

To avert retaliation against the American hostages still held in Iran, Canada received all the credit for masterminding the rescue. Now that the case has been declassified, the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez's daring plan for spiriting the six hostages from the Canadian embassy and onto a plane leaving Iran can be revealed. But this should not detract from the gratitude afforded the Canadian ambassador and his wife. They risked their own lives and gave up their residence to help these American strangers.


Editor's Note: Review of "Argo," directed by Ben Affleck. Warner Brothers, 2012, 120 minutes.



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The Second Reel of Atlas

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The two questions I have been hearing from my libertarian friends all week are these: Have you seen the new Atlas Shrugged? Is it any good?

My answers are Yes! And Ye-es.

I was invited to attend a posh private screening with the producers in Manhattan two days before the official opening. David Kelley, founder of the Atlas Society (neé the Institute for Objectivist Studies) and script consultant on the film, introduced the screening to a friendly audience of Rand enthusiasts. Esai Morales, who plays Francisco d’Anconia to perfection, also attended. It was a festive event honoring the Herculean efforts of producer John Aglialoro to bring this book to the screen.

As the lights dimmed and the film began, my biggest concern was whether the film could stand on its own merits, despite its being the middle chapter of a three-part story. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the entire cast and director were changed from Part I, making it virtually impossible to use flashbacks for exposition.

I am happy to report that it does indeed work as a standalone film. Three main subplots drive this episode: Dagny Taggart’s quest to uncover the secret of a mysterious engine that could solve the world’s energy crisis; the government’s enactment of “Directive 10-289,” which freezes all employment, wages, and even personal spending at the previous year’s rate, thus making it illegal for anyone to quit, retire, be fired, be promoted, earn less, earn more, or even spend less or more than in the previous year; and the inexplicable, almost spiritual, disappearance of the world’s brightest and most creative thinkers at the hands of a mysterious stranger.

I would love to see a film inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but not wedded to it.

Rand purists will be relieved to hear that the plot remains faithful to the original (almost to a fault). Some lines of dialogue have been inserted intact from the novel, and even the changes made in the name of streamlining remain true to Rand’s intent. Hank Rearden’s speech in front of Congress, in which he defends (or, rather, refuses to defend) his right to determine who will buy the metal he produces, is powerful and thrilling. It should resonate even with viewers who have never heard of Ayn Rand.

A few welcome adjustments have been made in the casting to acknowledge 21st-century racial integration, without drawing special attention to race. Dagny’s assistant, Eddie Willers (Richard T. Jones), for example, is black, but the film places no greater significance on the fact than if he were blonde or brunette. He just is.

Similar updating of the story itself would make this film more accessible to non-Randians. Yes, Ayn Rand loved trains. Without trains, Atlas Shrugged would not be Atlas Shrugged. And yet, for audiences who don’t care one whit about the author of the foundational work, a 21st-century setting in which trains are the primary mode of transportation simply doesn’t make sense. The film’s producers attempt to explain this with a note in the opening credits saying that in the future, trains have become the most economical form of travel, but come on. No one is going to buy that. Train travel is luxurious and impractical, especially in a country as vast as the United States. Cars and planes can go almost anywhere; trains are limited to where the tracks can take them. It’s especially laughable when Dagny travels by herself to Colorado in her private rail car. How could it possibly be more economical for one person to take a train than a car?

Modern audiences will also have a hard time believing that a single man — such as Rearden (Jason Beghe), Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel), Ken Danagger (Arye Gross), and Francisco d’Anconia, could control the entire markets in metal, shale oil, coal, and copper respectively. I think my friends and colleagues, the ones I would like to convince by inviting them to see a film like this, would be able to relate to the story more if the heroes were adapted so as to represent smaller, more sympathetic businesses. I would love to see a film inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but not wedded to it. Such a film would be true to the purpose of the book, but would not be held back by the setting and technology of 60 years ago. Rand set her novel in a dystopian near future; it is disconcerting to find it mired in the technology of the past.

Coincidentally, I happened to see Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People on Broadway the day after I saw Atlas Shrugged II. Several critics have complained about how the language of this classic play has been updated to modern vernacular for this production. I disagreed. Ibsen was a realist. He rejected the larger-than-life heroes and cosmic issues of classic drama to write about everyday people experiencing everyday conflicts. His protagonists spoke in current language about current issues. If he were writing today, he would be using today’s idioms and swear words. So while director Doug Hughes’ version is not true to the language of Ibsen’s play, it is true to the spirit and intent of Ibsen’s play. The result is fast-paced, tense, and very modern.

So YES! I have seen the new film, and I had a great time. And ye-es, it is good, but with some caveats. The story stands on its own. The main points about the sovereignty of the individual are strong and intact. It injects some delicious ironic humor, such as the placard held by a picketer that says, “We are the 99.98 percent!” John Galt is both mysterious and inspiriting — I can’t wait to see what D.B. Sweeney does with the role in the final installment. Exposition is handled deftly, using dialogue to bridge the gaps between Part I and Part II.

But I’m still not pleased with the casting. Diedrich Bader, best known for portraying intellectually challenged characters like Oswald on “The Drew Carey Show,” Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), and Rex Kwon Do in Napoleon Dynamite (2004), draws laughter when he first appears as Quentin Daniels, the scientist working to unlock the secret of the engine. Similarly, Teller (the silent half of Penn and Teller) creates a stir with his small speaking role as Laughlin. Both acquit themselves well as dramatic actors, but they create a distraction when they appear onscreen, pulling audiences out of the scene.

Rand set her novel in a dystopian near future; it is disconcerting to find it mired in the technology of the past.

Far from being cool and sophisticated, the new Dagny (Samantha Mathis) is frumpy, and she lacks chemistry with Rearden. Nor is there any chemistry between Dagny’s brother James (Patrick Fabian) and his new wife Cheryl (Larisa Oleynik), the shopgirl with whom he falls in love, despite their social differences. In fact, none of the characters is particularly passionate, with the exception of Francisco, who moves and speaks with a natural intimacy, and Galt, who manages to inject more charisma and personality with his unseen, offstage voice than Dagny is able to create with all her screen time. Not surprisingly, Francisco and Galt are brought to life by the most seasoned actors of the crew, and it shows.

Despite these shortcomings, Atlas Shrugged II is an admirable work, made more difficult by the rigorous expectations of Rand’s hard-to-please fans. The original score by Chris Bacon is strong, and the special effects are impressive. I applaud the efforts of the producers and all those responsible for the script.


Editor's Note: Review of "Atlas Shrugged: Part II," directed by John Putch. Atlas Distribution Company, 2012, 112 minutes.



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Neither Real nor Right

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Won’t Back Down is a feel-good film about the power of a single individual, armed with a vision and a voice, to move a bureaucracy.

Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a working class mother of a dyslexic second grader, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind). Malia has been assigned to the classroom of the weakest teacher in the school, and Jamie wants desperately to find a solution for her failing child. She asks the teacher to help Malia after school; she tries to have Malia transferred to the classroom of a better teacher; she signs up for the lottery of a successful charter school, where Malia must compete with 100 applicants for just three open slots. She even begs the administrator of her former school to take Malia back.

Eventually Jamie hears about a “parent-trigger law,” which provides a way for parents to take over a failing school. (“Parent-trigger law” is perhaps a poor choice of name, considering the level of frustration many parents experience, and the number of shootings that have occurred in schools recently!)

Parent-trigger laws are a fairly new concept in US public education. They were first introduced in California a few years ago, and six other states have followed so far. They apply only to failing schools, and require a majority of the parents to sign a petition and support the change. A successful bid can result in replacing the administration or faculty, creating a charter school, or closing the school and reassigning the students to better schools. Of course, teachers and their unions oppose these takeover bids, sometimes with threats and repercussions against the children of the most vocal parents.

Tenured teachers can’t be fired for being poor teachers, so they are moved from school to school. Woe to the children who are stuck in their classrooms for an entire year!

In the film, Jamie says “Let’s take over the school” with the same spritely optimism as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland saying “Let’s put on a show.” Through sheer force of personality and salesmanship, Jamie convinces a tired and frustrated teacher, Nona (Viola Davis), to join her, and together they work to gain the support of teachers and parents. But it isn’t that easy. They must first recruit 400 parents and 18 teachers, and file a 400-page document describing their new school — while fighting union leaders and school administrators with six-figure salaries to protect and an arsenal of dirty tricks to employ.

Along the way she cheerfully tramples the property rights of her two employers by giving away free booze to potential supporters at her bartending job and working on the school project during her receptionist duties at a car dealership. Her boss is portrayed as a sharp-nosed busybody, but she has a right to expect an employee’s full attention at work, doesn’t she? And what about Jamie’s responsibility as a mother? She complains about her daughter not getting extra help from the teacher, but shouldn’t she be helping her own child learn to read? How hard is it to read with a child at a second grade level?

The film addresses most of the right problems, with union bylaws and tenure protection at the top of the list. A teacher refuses to stay after school to help a dyslexic student with her reading; it turns out that teachers are actually prevented from staying after school by their union contract. An administrator responds to each complaint with the same tired phrase, “We are addressing that,” as a way to placate the parent while promising nothing. He acknowledges that tenured teachers can’t be fired for being poor teachers, so they are moved from school to school. Woe to the children who are stuck in their classrooms for an entire year!

(Years ago I complained about a teacher who showed movies almost every day, while she played games on the computer. When I told the administrator that she showed The Lion King that day, his face darkened. “Lion King??” he raged. “I told them they couldn’t show Lion King!” Then he shrugged and added, “I know she’s a lousy teacher. There’s nothing I can do. She has tenure.” And she was the department chair to boot. I moved my daughter to a private school. But many parents can’t afford that option.)

So why don’t more parents and teachers take over their failing schools? Time is the biggest deterrent. It usually takes three to five years to get through the process of gathering support, filing papers, writing a charter, hiring teachers, and selecting curriculum. By that time, most children will have moved on to middle school. It requires a person with genuine dedication to the neighborhood to be willing to go through this effort for someone else’s kids. In the film, one teachers’ union administrator complains cynically, “When students start paying union dues, I will start protecting the interests of children,” and he’s right about that. One of the biggest problems with the public school system is that the payer is not the recipient of the service.

Moreover, it takes skill and experience to teach a class or manage a school. That same union administrator suggests that having parents take over a school is “like handing over the plane to the passengers,” and to a certain extent, he is right about that, too. Consider the kinds of neighborhoods that harbor failing schools. Parents with good educations, good jobs, and good incomes will simply move to another neighborhood, or deposit their children in private schools, as I did. They are too busy earning a living to have time to run a school.

Nevertheless, this film ends with cheering crowds and a crescendo of violins. (But is it any surprise that they manage to succeed? In a matter of months? Does Secretariat win the Triple Crown?) But there is no true victory in this film. A charter school may be better than a failing public school, but it is still based on a failing premise: although they are run by parents and teachers, these are still government schools. Salaries are still funded by local property taxes, and students are still tested according to federal standardized guidelines. The film even ends with a rap version of Kennedy’s famous message: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The first is socialism, the second is feudalism. Neither bodes well for creativity and individual success. Whatever happened to “Do what you can to take care of yourself”?

The biggest deterrent to good education — standardized testing — isn’t even addressed in this film. I could write a whole treatise on the unintended consequences of “No Child Left Behind.” We now have an entire generation of young people who have been taught that there is only one correct answer to any question: the one they have been spoonfed by the teacher. Creativity and innovation are rewarded with an F.

A charter school may be better than a failing public school, but it is still based on a failing premise.

As for the teachers? They’re getting burned out too. I attended an early evening screening. Just before the film began, several groups of women walked into the theater. All of them talked to each other throughout the screening, looked at their cell phones, and went out to buy treats or visit the bathroom. I would have been more distracted, had I not been used to this kind of behavior; I’m a teacher. I interviewed these ladies after the show. You guessed it: most were teachers. They probably didn’t even realize that they were acting like their students.

Won’t Back Down is an earnest little film, one that is well intentioned but overlong and overacted. Viola Davis looks too tired to be a fighter; and Holly Hunter, normally such a fine actress, is particularly posed and affected in her delivery, her trademark speech impediment, and her gigantic hairstyle. Maggie Gyllenhaal does her best to ignite the enthusiasm of the cast in the same way her character tries to ignite the enthusiasm of the community, brightening her eyes and smiling until her face nearly explodes with goodwill. But it doesn’t work. At just over two hours, the film is 30 minutes too long for a story with no action and little suspense.

Moreover, although Won’t Back Down claims to be “inspired by true events,” it is neither true nor realistic. I couldn’t find a single actual case in which parents have successfully taken over a school under a parent-trigger law. Some have tried, but my research did not turn up any that have succeeded.

If you are genuinely interested in films about failing school systems and want to know how to fix them, I recommend two recent documentaries: Waiting for Superman (2010, directed by Davis Guggenheim) and The Cartel (2009, directed by Bob Bowdon).


Editor's Note: Review of "Won’t Back Down," directed by Daniel Barnz. Walden Media, 2012, 121 minutes.



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Reverse Order

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Grace, a new play by Craig Wright, opens to a minimalist set of simple bamboo furniture, the kind you might find in a Florida beach rental. A front door and a sliding glass door stand alone, but there are no actual walls. Dominating the set is a halo of blue sky and puffy white clouds projected on the back wall and suggesting a hint of heaven. This is appropriate, because the idea of heaven dominates the theme of this play. In fact, for the first ten minutes, the audience sees nothing else. People fidget, waiting for the show to start, wondering why it is delayed. But in fact, like a Pirandello play, it has already begun.

Suddenly the halo of light turns ghastly green. Three characters, two men and a woman, enter the stage and immediately collapse to the floor. After a few moments one of them, Steve (Paul Rudd), rolls up onto the couch in a slumped position and then sits upright. His body shudders, a shot rings out, and he points a gun to his head. The scene is about to rewind. Dialogue is spoken in reverse order. The words are cosmic in timbre but out of context and confusing. More shots ring out and then everyone is standing. It is one of the most stunning opening scenes I have ever witnessed.

And then the sky is bright blue again. Sara (Kate Arrington) is cheerfully folding laundry as Steve enters their apartment with happy news. They have come to Florida to start a chain of “gospel-themed” hotels, and an investor has just committed to sending them $9 million. They are perky and happy and in love. And they believe. Oh, do they believe!

As they praise God and pray their gratitude for being guided to this place at this time for this purpose, Tim (Michael Shannon) limps onto the set shouting “Thank you Jesus F-ing Christ!” It is a primal scream of ineffable pain. His arm is secured in a sling and his face is covered in a mask to heal what appear to be hideous wounds. The set, we learn, functions simultaneously as Steve and Sara's apartment and as Tim’s apartment next door. It isn't a staging shortcut but a metaphor for how lives intertwine. It also suggests that life is far from fair or equal, despite Declarations to the contrary.

Graceis billed as a comedy, probably to attract the fans of Paul Rudd, who is best known for his comic rolls in Judd Apatow's popular and often raunchy movies (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman). Grace does have moments of biting irony. Moreover, with Ed Asner cast as Karl, the crotchety old pest control man, one would expect a play filled with offensive anti-Christian jokes and rants. Indeed, when Karl calls Steve "Jesus Freak" — and he does so frequently — the audience roars its approval. "Gospel-themed hotels"? This is, after all, what they came for.

But it isn't what they get. Grace has more in common with Greek tragedy than with light comedy. As the characters come to know one another, the play asks the audience to consider the cosmic questions: What is the purpose of earth life? Does God exist? If so, why do people suffer? If God is going to interfere in the affairs of men, why would he use a miracle to make Steve and Sara rich, but not intervene to prevent Tim’s tragedy? As Robert Frost asks in his poem “Design,” “What but design of darkness to appall? — / If design govern in a thing so small.”

Another question the playwright asks us to consider is whether the world is governed by fate or choice. Several times characters plead, "Can't we just start over?" The opening scene itself is a rewind, suggesting that a do-over would be the greatest miracle of all. Would we change things if given a second chance? Or are our actions predestined?

Although Grace poses the questions, it wisely does not try toprovide the answers. Instead, what we have is a riveting story presented through deftly acted characters who seem as though they could indeed live next door. Tim, a rocket scientist, represents the atheistic view. His earthbound job of filtering out the data noise that interferes with “pure communication” from space is a perfect foil for the worldly noise that believers filter in order to hear the “pure communication” of the spirit. Karl provides not only comic relief but a poignant back story. Asner fans will be sorry to see that he is onstage only briefly, but his part is the subtle heart of the story.

Graceis a brilliant show with brilliant staging and a brilliant cast. Paul Rudd is particularly natural as the earnest and affable young Jesus Freak — er, Christian — who feels compelled to invite everyone he knows to accept the reality of Jesus Christ. He has his standard arguments that seem to prove the existence of God — at least to him. His open smile and eager enthusiasm reveal a surface-bound testimony. Sara is the one who presents the deeper meaning of what it is to be spiritually converted. Perhaps the real gift of miracle lies not in being protected from suffering, but in being helped to endure it.


Editor's Note: "Grace," written by Craig Wright, directed by Dexter Bullard. At the Cort Theatre on Broadway, New York City, until January 6.



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Good Film, Bad Economic Theory

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As Arbitrage begins, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), the respected head of a billion-dollar capital investment firm, is being interviewed on a cable news show. “Competition for our limited amount of money causes asset bubbles, and then they burst,” he explains in terms simple enough for even the most casual moviegoer to understand. I rolled my eyes. This common fallacy of limited wealth was debunked in 1776 by Adam Smith in his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations. But the notion simply will not die. It has been the source of envy, greed, and empire building for centuries.

The mercantilists believed that there was only so much wealth in the world, only one “pie,” so to speak. Thus the only way to increase one’s wealth was to steal someone else’s piece of the pie. Nations did just that, invading other nations to plunder their wealth. President Obama uses this same misguided argument to fuel the flame of class warfare, claiming that the wealthy have somehow stolen goods and services from the poor. It is the foundation of his redistributionist policies.

However, Smith rightly pointed out that wealth is not finite. We are not competing for a “limited amount of money.” Wealth can be created; the pie can be expanded. By adding time, labor, and innovation, value can be added to raw materials, and new products can be created. A pound of copper can be transformed into pennies, electric wire, or computer processors, for example. Wealth expands. It’s simple economics.

But filmmaker Nicholas Jarecki set out to make a movie, not to teach an economics lesson, so let’s cut him some slack and get back to the film. It’s a good one. Arbitrage is an absorbing, fast-paced financial and crime thriller whose intertwining stories and well-conceived characters create growing tension throughout the film.

In the world of high finance, arbitrage is “the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets: striking a combination of matching deals that capitalize upon the imbalance, the profit being the difference between the market prices.” In Arbitrage, the protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), is in a race against time to execute deals that he hopes will restore balance in both his financial and his personal life.

The mercantilists believed that there was only so much wealth in the world, only one “pie,” so to speak. President Obama uses this same misguided argument to fuel the flame of class warfare.

In his financial world the imbalance could lead to prison time. Like the majority of white-collar embezzlers, Robert has not intended to defraud his investors. He made a bad investment decision, and instead of cutting his losses, he threw more company money at the investment, hoping to buy enough time to turn the bad deal around. Down by over $400 million, he is now trying to sell the company, but that means cooking the books. In order to cover up the gaping hole in his asset ledger, he has borrowed over $400 million and plunked it into the company account for the auditors to see. His intentions are honorable; he plans to repay the short-term debt (with interest) as soon as the deal is signed, and then refill the gaping hole with cash from the sale of the company. He will be left with just a few million for his own retirement, but his shareholders will be protected, and that’s what matters to him.

All of this is illegal, of course, despite his good intentions. When wealthy investors borrow money from one source and lend it to another to earn money on the float it’s called “arbitrage”; when ordinary people do it it’s called “check kiting”; and when CEOs do it to cover up a bad investment it’s called “fraud.”

Looming at the end of the week are two major functions: the sale of his company and a hospital charity event over which his lovely and supportive wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), is presiding. Ellen needs a check to honor their commitment to the hospital; Robert can’t spare a dime until the company audit clears. “It’s only two million,” she reminds him, and the audience chuckles. They are the perfect family — elegant, rich, charitable, and close-knit. Robert’s son and daughter, Peter (Austin Lysy) and Brooke (Brit Marling), are on the company payroll, Peter as an attorney at large, and Brooke as Chief Investment Officer. Brooke can’t understand why her father wants to sell the company when they seem to be so successful. “We make a great living. We give to the causes we believe in. We have a great life. Why sell?” she asks, perplexed. Brooke is a pretty smart cookie, but Peter is only there because of the family connection. One can’t help but think of pipsqueak Don and sharp-nosed Ivanka “playing office” in the Donald’s empire.

And then there is Robert’s girlfriend, Julie (Laetitia Casta). Of course. When high-powered investment types are in the picture, there is always a mistress. Julie’s art gallery opening is another event converging on Robert’s perfect storm. Julie’s petulant texts insisting that Robert attend her event distract Miller during negotiations for the sale of the company.

Robert is on the verge of success when he is involved in a car accident that could sidetrack his buyers and derail the sale if the news of his involvement gets out. Rather than report the accident, he engages a young acquaintance, Jimmy (Nate Parker), to help him cover it up. Robert still hasn’t figured out that coverups never stay covered up (unless, of course, you are Teddy Kennedy). What follows is a tightly written, superbly acted game of cat and mouse as Robert rushes to stay one step ahead of the police, the negotiators, his injuries, his wife, and his own daughter, who has begun to suspect that someone in the company is defrauding her father.

Arbitrage has opened to limited release, and that’s a shame, because it is a well-made film with a great story and well-developed characters. If it isn’t showing at a theater near you, watch for it on Netflix.


Editor's Note: Review of "Arbitrage," directed by Nicholas Jarecki. Green Room Films, 2012, 107 minutes.



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Americana, Boom and Bust

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Making a documentary is a lot like planting a seed you find in the yard; you don't know what you're going to get until after you start filming. When director Lauren Greenfield began filming The Queen of Versailles, real estate was at its height as an investment, and timeshare mogul David Siegel was a billionaire. He and his engineer turned model turned beauty queen turned trophy wife Jackie were building the largest private home in America: 90,000 square feet, 30 bathrooms, two sweeping formal staircases leading to the pillared ballroom, and more bedrooms than Jackie could count.

What could anyone possibly need with 90,000 square feet of house, you might well ask. Well, you have to put the kids' ice skating rink somewhere, right? And maybe someday they'll even take up skating . . . That was the story Greenfield expected to tell. It isn’t quite the story that she ended up with.

At the start, the Siegels were on top of the world as they posed for photographs and preened for their interviews. Siegel’s Westgate Resorts was the largest timeshare company in the world, and its showcase resort in Las Vegas was eclipsing all the hotels on the Strip. Donald Trump complained that he couldn't sleep at night because the Westgate logo shone into his penthouse at the Trump Hotel. David and Jackie both came from humble beginnings, and both were proud of the lifestyle they had come to enjoy: a world full of chauffeured limousines, private jets, celebrity parties, and an overabundance of stuff.

But having "stuff" is not the same as having class. The Siegels’ dream home was patterned (sort of) after Louis XIV's palace at Versailles, but there is nothing regal or even noble about the Siegels themselves. Let's face it: anyone who lives with dog poop on the carpets or takes the limousine to McDonald's is trashy, not classy. Jackie's painfully gigantic breast implants are symbolic of their lifestyle as a whole: overdone and in your face.

The Siegels seem like nice enough people, but I have friends who live in a trailer park who have more class than they do. The film provides a revealing look at this family of ordinary people living in an extraordinary home with unseemly amounts of money to blow on themselves. It's funny, it's shocking, it's sad — and it's fascinating.

A timeshare provides a way of selling the same property 52 times. The purchasers buy one week at a resort and can use that week every year for the rest of their lives, and their children's lives for that matter, as long as the timeshare resort is still operating (which can become a bit iffy). If you get tired of vacationing in that spot, you can trade your week for a timeshare at a resort in another location. On the surface it seems attractive: timeshare resorts are generally nicer and more personal than motels, and it seems like it will save money to own a vacation place rather than rent a room at a hotel. But the purchasers still have to pay "maintenance fees" when they use the timeshares, as well as monthly mortgage payments, since most people just put 10% down when they buy. These "free" vacations get pretty expensive.

Jackie's painfully gigantic breast implants are symbolic of their lifestyle as a whole: overdone and in your face.

So how did the Siegels sell all those timeshares? You can't cheat an honest man, but you can sucker a greedy one. Timeshare operators bait their hooks with the promise of free stuff: free Disney tickets, free Vegas shows, free dinners, free hotel rooms. Like the little fish who thinks he can nibble around the bait and avoid the hook, these potential clients arrive at the timeshare table thinking — knowing! — that they will just spend three hours listening to a spiel in exchange for hundreds of dollars worth of goods. No way are they going to buy anything. But the timeshare sharks know exactly what kind of bait to use for the fish they have in the tank: the ones who feed on “good deals.” So that's how they position their sales marketing — as a very good deal. Taking advantage of the sellers, almost. Very few couples emerge from a timeshare office without a contract — and a mortgage — for a lifetime of vacations.

Of course, the sales reps don't want to think of themselves as predatory sharks. So Siegel gives them a different spiel. He baits them with statistics showing how going on family vacations regularly saves lives and marriages. He conveniently ignores statistics showing that consumer debt strangles families and destroys the same lives and marriages. The thing is, Siegel seems to believe his own statistics, citing the thousands of people who earn a living because of his empire. One would expect him to have contempt for the people he suckers, but he seems genuinely to believe himself when he insists, "I save lives." If he's a shark, he has convinced himself that he is a nurse shark, dosing his patients with the healing balm of a week in Las Vegas or Orlando every year.

Then — with unforeseen effects on the documentary — came the fall of 2008, and with it the fall of the economy in general and of real estate in particular. Suddenly the easy money that Siegel's company had relied on dried up. Without mortgages, new clients could not purchase the timeshares. His existing clients could not keep up with their own mortgage payments. His employees went from the sales table to the collections department. It was not a happy time for anyone at the company, and it shows on their faces as they call clients to ask for payments.

The Siegels got caught in the same overextended net, and found themselves unable to keep up with their own mortgage payments. At the height of his success, David employed 6,000 people (19 of whom were maintaining his house and nannying his children). He needed a constant stream of sales to service all those salaries. But when mortgage money dried up, so did sales. In the post-2008 interviews, he is pensive and withdrawn, no longer the gregarious host. "I never took anything off the table," he recalls. "I put it all into the business."

Even more damning is his admission about the lake property that he and his wife once owned free and clear in pricey Isleworth, an exclusive community in Orlando with the likes of Tiger Woods and Shaquille O'Neal as neighbors. "I paid cash to build our house," he laments, referring to the 26,000-square-foot house where they lived while Versailles was being built. "Then I borrowed against it to expand the business." Siegel did not erect a legal wall between his company and his personal holdings, as wise business owners do. He foolishly did not realize that the house you live in is not an investment. It is a consumer item. A home.

Soon Siegel needs $400 million to save his Las Vegas resort and $100 million to save the unfinished dream home, Versailles. Jackie starts cutting corners by doing her Christmas shopping at Walmart and letting all but two of the domestic staff go. "If I'd known I was going to have to raise them myself, I wouldn't have had seven children," she says, only half in jest, while cooking a dinner of chicken and corn on the cob. She continues to be a compulsive collector of stuff, but it's mostly cheap stuff. She buys three separate "Operation" games for her kids and gives David "Monopoly" and "Risk" for Christmas. (Odd gifts, when you think about it.)

Meanwhile David blows a gasket and refuses to come to dinner when the front door is left open and the lights are left on; "Don't you people care how much electricity costs?" he complains. But the truth is, Jackie's overspending hasn't caused their financial mess; David's overborrowing has. She might have wasted a million, but he has lost half a billion. Jackie repeatedly says that stress is bringing them closer as a couple, but when David is asked point blank if his marriage is a source of strength to him, he responds bluntly and firmly, "No."

Eventually the bank offers the Siegels a way out: let the Las Vegas resort go, so the company will have enough money to keep operating the rest of its holdings, including the house. But David isn’t willing to give up his $400 million in sunk costs, and he is determined not to let the creditors have the crown jewel of his empire. He's stubborn. Or maybe he just believes in fairy dust. At any rate, he seems a broken man. "Aren't we finished with this yet?" he asks the filmmaker. "We're done. I'm done," he declares softly. It's hard to tell whether he means the film, his business, his family, or himself.

When David is asked point blank if his marriage is a source of strength to him, he responds bluntly and firmly, "No."

The Siegels do not appear in what is probably the most revealing and poignant scene of the film. The Filipina nanny invites the camera into "her" house. It is the children's elegant abandoned playhouse, and she has been given permission to use it as her own hideaway. Furnished with a bed, a dresser, and her personal trinkets, it is the place she goes to be alone and enjoy the quiet. In this film about building the largest single-family home in America, she talks about her simple goal: to provide a house for her father. "Owning a concrete house is so important to people in the Philippines," she explains. She has left her own children behind in the Philippines to raise someone else's children and earn money to send back home to her family. "I tried to give that to my father, but he never got his house. Now he's dead. He is in a tomb. I guess that is his concrete house now," she says with a sigh and a tear of resignation.

The juxtaposition of this nanny's simple dream and the dream house of the self-proclaimed queen of Versailles is simple and powerful. The rise and fall of the Westgate timeshare empire is fascinating. The entire film is funny, sad, and revealing. It's an outstanding documentary, one that Greenfield could scarcely have dreamed of when she started making it. Her creation turned out to be the real “Versailles.”


Editor's Note: Review of "The Queen of Versailles," directed by Lauren Greenfield. Evergreen Pictures, 2012, 100 minutes.



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Backwoods Wars, Front Page Problems

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Responding to the September 11 attacks on US embassies in Libya and Egypt, Fox News correspondent Ralph Peters made this controversial statement: “Obama’s appeasement policy . . . won’t work against these radical Islamists. With people like these, when they kill four of yours, you have to kill 400 of theirs.”

Peters’ outrageous, counterintuitive “defense plan” is more a cynical observation than a suggestion. It reminds me of a scene of hillbilly justice portrayed in Lawless, a movie set in 1930s Virginia, during the Prohibition era. As thugs from one group prepare to kill two bootleggers from another, one young victim cries out his name and where he is from. The leader of the attackers immediately releases the boys and punishes his own men for what they were about to do, explaining in disgust, “The last thing I need is a blood feud coming after me.” We kill two of theirs, they’ll kill 200 of ours. So we don’t kill their two.

The title Lawless obviously refers to the renegade behavior of the film’s moonshining protagonists, but it also refers to the corrupt police officers who look the other way while they get their share of both the hooch and the profits. More importantly, the title refers to the kind of violent thuggery that often erupts in the absence of sensible laws — laws that protect property rights, the freedom to choose, and the freedom to be left alone. Without a legal framework of basic rights enforced by judges, tyrants generally rise up to fill the void and enforce their own “laws.”

Lawlessis based on the true story of the Boudrant brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Jack (Shia LeBeouf), who operate a moonshine business in the hills of Virginia. Forrest is something of a legend in the area because he has survived so many life-threatening events: for example, injuries sustained during World War I, the Spanish flu that killed both Boudrant parents, and violent attacks by would-be robbers. In the film he is a complex character, fiercely protective of family and friends but with an indifference to pain and just a hint of sadism that makes him unpredictable and dangerous. He is a sympathetic foil for the antagonist in the story, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a fancy-dressed germaphobe with more than that hint of sadism; he’s cold, he’s mean, and he likes it. A big-city lawman from Chicago, Rakes is sent to Virginia to clean out the stills, but instead he demands a cut of the action from all the moonshiners in the area, using the local law officials to enforce his new regime. When the Boudrant brothers refuse to pay, a backwoods war breaks out.

Narrating the story is the youngest Boudrant brother, Jack, a gentle soul who eschews violence and would rather spend his time hanging out with his best friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan) and wooing his Mennonite girlfriend Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). But when his brothers are attacked, Jack defends the family’s honor. He takes over the business, despite the added risks involved in transporting the hooch past Rakes’ mob of outlaw lawmen. Because fewer moonshiners are willing to take that risk, Jack can demand higher prices. Like drug dealers today, he takes advantage of the profits created by the government ban and spends his newfound cash on fancy clothes and fancier cars. Predictably, his gentle character begins to harden.

Rakes is sent to Virginia to clean out the stills, but instead he demands a cut of the action from all the moonshiners in the area, using the local law officials to enforce his new regime.

The film has moments of bloody violence, including a scene reminiscent of the groundbreaking shootout that occurred midway through Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and pushed the limits of acceptability. But Lawless also has moments of sublime beauty, especially in the musical score, which is filled with folk music of the Virginia hills. Tom Hardy continues to stretch his acting muscles with another knockout performance as Forrest. Hardy first caught my attention in Inception (2010), then as the conflicted Ricki Tarr in last year’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. He even stood out as the lovestruck political assassin in the lightweight This Means War. I can’t wait to see what he does with the title role in the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road.

My favorite part of this film occurs during the epilogue. We all know that Prohibition finally ended, so I’m not giving away too much to let you know that life changes in Virginia when the law is repealed. Mason jars filled with colorless “white lightning” fade into Mason jars filled with colorful fruits and vegetables. It is reported that one character finds work in a cotton mill, while another turns the family property into a farm — a tobacco farm, ironically. “Choose your poison” indeed. Yes, they could have engaged in legal employment all along, but let’s face it: labor follows the profits. Who is going to work in a factory or a fast-food joint for minimum wage when black market profits are so much more lucrative? Governments can ban access to certain products and activities, but they can’t ban the demand for those products and activities. And when supply is artificially limited through government intrusion, prices and profits go up. It’s simple arithmetic.

Lawless is a timely reminder of the unintended consequences that inevitably arise when governments try to mandate social behavior. Do-gooders in the early 20th century deemed drunkenness socially unacceptable, and outlawed the sale of booze. Crime syndicates, corrupt police, and shooting sprees were the unintended results. Missing the point, do-gooders followed in the footsteps of Prohibition with the War on Drugs, and untold misery has resulted: violent drug cartels, corrupt police, countless men and women languishing in prisons, and more shooting sprees. This week, Mayor Bloomberg brought the war against individual choice to new lows when he banned the sale of large sodas in New York City. Large sodas! Doesn’t he have more important things to worry about in the face of burgeoning welfare rolls, massive unemployment, and the skyrocketing price of public transportation? What new market distortions and legal corruption will result from this ridiculous ban on large soft drinks?

As a film, Lawless may not prove to be a timeless classic. But its themes are certainly timeless and, unfortunately, timely.


Editor's Note: Review of "Lawless," directed by John Hillcoat. The Weinstein Company, 2012, 115 minutes.



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The Obama Movie

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2016: Obama's America has been filling theaters and surpassing box office expectations across the country — no mean feat for a documentary. The film is based on the book The Roots of Obama's Rage by Dinesh D’Souza, an Indian immigrant and popular conservative spokesperson who also co-wrote, co-directed, narrated, and executive-produced the film. It provides a well-reasoned, well-researched exploration of the philosophical underpinnings that motivate Barack Obama.

D'Souza begins with a simple premise, which is emblazoned across his posters and promotional material: "Love him. Hate him. You don't know him." He then takes viewers on an investigative journey across four continents to discover what makes Obama tick, concluding that the ticking we hear could very well be a time bomb set to explode the minute he is reelected. As Obama told Premier Medvedev in an infamous open-mic incident, "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility." Well, flexibility to do what? That is the question D'Souza tries to answer. What is Obama's ultimate goal for America?

According to D'Souza, Obama is motivated first and foremost by intense anticolonialism inherited from his parents, grandparents, and academic mentors. D'Souza understands this anticolonialism. He grew up with it in India, where his grandfather's mistrust of British colonialists included mistrust of whites in general. He could not understand why young Dinesh wanted to go to college in America, where there were "so many whites."

In some respects this film is the biography of an intellectual immigrant, written by an actual immigrant. D'Souza begins the film by telling his own story: raised in relative poverty in Mumbai, he came to the United States as a teenager to attend Dartmouth College. When he was barely 20 he was offered a job in the Reagan White House, not unlike the young Obama being elected to the Senate. Both Obama and D’Souza are passionate speakers. Both ended up as presidents — Obama as the president of the United States, D'Souza as the president of The King's College in Manhattan. D'Souza and Obama were born in the same year, graduated from Ivy League colleges in the same year, and married in the same year. Both spent their childhoods in third-world Asian countries. Yet ideologically they are polar opposites.

This background is important because it shows that D'Souza is specially, perhaps uniquely qualified to understand Obama's history. It also demonstrates that one is not controlled by one's environment; we all have choices. Obama himself said, "My destiny wasn’t given to me; it was constructed by me."

Obama, of course, was born and schooled in Hawaii, the 50th state in the union. (D'Souza dismisses the birther argument without even addressing it, noting simply that Obama's birth was reported in two local newspapers.) But Obama’s Hawaii is an island state, far from the mainland, where anticolonialist sentiment is strong among ideologists, such as the people who brought him up. He has the background of an immigrant, having lived in Jakarta as a child and among Hawaiian anticolonialists as a teenager. He arrived on the mainland at the same age as D’Souza, with the mindset of a non-American, and perhaps something more.

D'Souza takes viewers on an investigative journey across four continents to discover what makes Obama tick, concluding that the ticking we hear could very well be a time bomb set to explode the minute he is reelected.

Obama spent his childhood in Jakarta, not America, and was nurtured by a mother who was decidedly anti-American. It was almost laughable to hear Kathleen Sebelius claim Obama as a Kansan during her speech at the Democratic National Convention. His mother may have been born there, but she was certainly not in Kansas anymore when Barry was being brought up. Obama titled his biography Dreams from My Father, but it was his mother who taught him those dreams; Obama met his father only once, when he was 10 years old. Most people don’t realize that.

Of course, in many ways an absent father is more powerful than a father who comes home from work every day. The absent father is never seen making a mistake, losing his temper, drinking too much, or disciplining his child. He can be whatever the child dreams him to be. D’Souza asks, “What is Obama’s dream? Is it the American Dream? Martin Luther King’s Dream? Or another dream?" To answer that question, he focuses on the preposition in the title of Obama's book: dreams from, not of, the father. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Obama seems to have adopted the dreams and aspirations that were his father’s. These include an African anticolonialism that led to a rabid anticapitalist, anti-American mentality. Although, by his own admission, he hides it well behind a carefully crafted, winning smile, Obama embraces his father’s third-world collectivism, a collectivism he learned at his mother's knee.

In addition, Obama had a series of philosophical fathers. In his education years he met a stream of radical mentors. These included Frank Marshall Davis in Hawaii, Edward Said at Columbia, Roberto Unger at Harvard, and Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright in Chicago — all self-proclaimed radical leftists. Unger recently complained that Obama has not been progressive enough! It was Obama’s campaign strategy to distance himself from these mentors (although the distance from Wright had to be forced on him by publicity). Yet their influence, D’Souza suggests, is already deeply embedded in his philosophy. And Obama’s obscured friends and influences are likely to come out of obscurity during a second term, when he no longer has to worry about reelection.

One of Obama's goals is to "level the playing field" by disarming the United States and other Western nations. Yes, it would be great if all the countries in the world agreed to destroy their weapons. Weapons have a way of being used eventually. But America seems to be the only country that is actually following through with Obama's idea of reducing defense (!) missiles from 5,000 to 1,500 to an eventual goal of hundreds.

Meanwhile, right under our noses, Obama has been cagily stockpiling his own "weapon of mass destruction." This weapon is the burgeoning mountain of debt that has accrued during his presidency and about which he seems to care absolutely nothing at all. D'Souza suggests that the unprecedented increase in the national debt has been a deliberate tactic, designed to destroy America's position as a leader of the world. "We will collapse into bankruptcy, and our creditors will have the upper hand," he concludes, adding prophetically, "Nothing shapes the future like the debts of the past."

The tone of this film is neither shrill nor bombastic nor even particularly emotional. It doesn't make wild accusations or offer unfounded rumors. In fact, it uses Obama’s own words in his own voice to tell Obama’s own story. (To make money, Obama produced a self-narrated audio version of Dreams from My Father.) This gives the film an unexpected voice of authenticity, a voice that cannot be denied, even by those who love and admire Obama, because it is his voice. The film is all the more frightening and convincing because of its calm and reasoned approach.

It is, simply, one of the most powerful and important films of the year. It may not win any Oscars, but it may just win an election. Congratulations are due to Dinesh D'Souza for this courageous documentary — as well as my own thanks for letting us premier it at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival this July.


Editor's Note: Review of "2016: Obama's America," directed by Dinesh D'Souza and John Sullivan. Obama's America Foundation, 2012, 89 minutes.



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Independence Forever

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I like independently published books. Some of the best books I’ve ever read have been published in that way. No, I haven’t abandoned HarperCollins or Oxford University Press, despite their manifold and great errors of taste, judgment, and simple common sense. But there are lots of books that have fascinated me that could never have appealed to the trendy recent college graduates who function as “editors” in the normal publishing firm — young people who know what they like, and it isn’t very much.

Could Jane Austen get Pride and Prejudice published today? Not by one of them. Not with that weird opening of her book. Imagine, she actually starts out by saying:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not. “But it is,” returned she, “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Nope, that would be a nonstarter at HarperColliins. But I would read a book like that, any time I found one.

With these thoughts in mind, I was delighted to discover a new novel by Liberty author Russell Hasan, Rob Seablue and the Eye of Tantalus. A creepy Eye, spells that can turn light into knives, people with special skills that put them in danger from "normal people," technology that might, in the wrong hands, substitute for humanity, the drama of growing up, the contest of the self-described "have-nots" against the "haves," the intransigence of individual choice — what more could a libertarian novel reader want?

Well, he or she might also want wit, humor, a warm grasp on the mundane world (in this case, the world of adolescents), and, in a fantasy novel, a plausible but dramatic relationship between the mundane and the fantastic. All these Rob Seablue has. The obvious influence of Ayn Rand has not prevented Hasan from doing things his own way. I can't tell you more about that way without spoiling the plot for you, but the book is ingenious throughout and most ingenious at its end — ingenious, I might add, without losing plausibility. Actually, the story continually becomes more plausible, as well as more exciting.

This first novel belongs, to an unusual degree, to its author, who is his own publisher. You can say the same thing about William Blake, you know.

Rob Seablue is available, like almost all other books in the wide, wide world, from Amazon — in ebook format readable on Kindle or any PC, Mac, or smartphone using the Kindle app.

Another recent independently published book that I believe will interest Liberty readers is Philip Schuyler’s The Five Rights of the Individual. I’m not sure that I agree with Schuyler about all elements of his theory of rights. For one thing, I think that all rights are ultimately one, and behold, he has five! But that’s close enough, and I don’t think that many libertarian readers will quibble about the point.

What I especially like about Schuyler’s book is the rich context — historical, social, moral, and psychological — in which he places his rights theory. He informs us, for instance, that we live in an historical era in which the US government “makes 350 pages of new laws each day” — and if you don’t think that entails a gross violation of rights, then you’re a bloodless political “scientist” who cares about theories, not about where they lead. I found Schuyler’s commentary on the psychological and cultural formations that support or destroy individual rights especially interesting. And thank God, his book is clearly and engagingly written — something you can’t say about 99% of university press publications on this subject and its conceptual neighbors.

I would be very remiss if I didn’t remind readers of Liberty that another of our authors, Gary Jason, recently published a fine collection of essays, many of which first appeared in these pages. His book is an encyclopedic account of political, economic, and cultural issues that confront libertarians and classical liberals (but it’s much more fun than an encyclopedia). Gary’s beat is everything from the environment to the movies, and you can never predict what will interest him. I don’t always agree with Gary, and strangely, he doesn’t always agree with me. But I always learn something from what he writes, and as I turn the pages, I always look forward to seeing what he’ll do with his material. That’s the effect of a real author.

When I was a student, eons ago, if I ever laid eyes on a libertarian book I clutched it to my bosom, fearing it would be the last one I found. Times have changed. Today, libertarian ideas are actually discussed on TV! But good books are still . . . well, they’re still not exactly common. The three books I’ve mentioned are very good books, and as independent in thought as in their means of publication. Take a look at them.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Rob Seablue and the Eye of Tantalus," by Russell Hasan (Amazon Digital Services, 2012, 230 pages); "Dangerous Thoughts," by Gary Jason (XLibris, 2011, 632 pages); and "The Five Rights of the Individual," by Philip Schuyler (iUniverse, 2012. 287 pages).



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Cambodia: Not to Be Forgotten

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The Nazis killed Jews, Gypsies, gays, Polish cavalry, retarded people, and assorted other specific groups, intending to annihilate them. The Khmer Rouge killed anyone and everyone, indiscriminately, to make “ecologically sound” fertilizer.

First, the raw materials for the fertilizer — human beings — were made to dig a giant trench. Second, they were made to kneel along the edge. Third, Khmer Rouge soldiers went from one to another ”useless mouth” delivering a sharp blow with an axe to the nape of the neck — to save ammunition.

Over the first layer of bodies, rice husks would be spread, followed by a sprinkling of gasoline. This procedure would be repeated, layer upon layer, until the pit was full. It was then set ablaze. After the pit cooled, the bones were separated from the ashes, ground on giant mortars and pestles, then recombined with the ashes and packaged in jute sacks to fertilize paddy fields.

Denise Affonco, an ethnic Eurasian French citizen, was convinced by her husband, a Vietnamese Communist, to stay in Phnom Penh and welcome the liberators. She lost everything, including her entire extended family, except one son. Hers is a story of a miraculous four-year survival under the Khmer Rouge’s countryside resettlement policy.

What makes this book special is that there aren’t many Cambodian genocide survival stories in English. It is a miracle that the story has been written and published. Days after they arrived to liberate her, the Vietnamese insisted — and paid her — to record an account of her four years in hell, to be used in a subsequent trial-in-absentia of Pol Pot and Ieng Sery. She did; and as an afterthought squirreled away a carbon copy of what she had written. Twenty-five years later, in Paris, she heard an academic opine that the Khmer Rouge did “nothing but good” for Cambodia. She then realized it was time to publish her account.

The book has the immediacy of something written on the fly. There are quite a few translation and run-of-the-mill typos, but they do not detract — you’ll not easily lay it down. Reportage Press is a small UK outfit. A portion of the proceeds are contributed to a scholarship fund, set up in memory of Affonco’s daughter, who died of starvation. The book is available from Amazon and Amazon.uk.


Editor's Note: Review of "To the End of Hell: One Woman’s Struggle to Survive Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge," by Denise Affonco. Reportage Press, 2005, 165 pages.



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