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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Ron Paul: The Books

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Two prominent libertarian authors, Walter Block and Brian Doherty, have just published books about the same important subject: Ron Paul.

Liberty thought it would be a good idea to ask each author to review the other. No one knew how this would turn out — but here are the results. Stephen Cox

* * *

Ron Paul’s Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired, by Brian Doherty. HarperCollins, 2012, 294 pages.

Reviewed by Walter E. Block

This is a magnificent book. It is riveting, hard to put down, informative. I experienced much of the Ron Paul phenomenon myself, up close and personal, yet I learned a great deal from Doherty’s explication. In another life, he must have been a safari guide to the deepest jungles, or an inspired travel guide to foreign lands, or a gifted sociologist. He takes us on a trip through the libertarian movement as brought to us by Dr. Paul as no one else has been able to do.

If you are a Ron Paul fan, or are interested in his foray into Republican and Libertarian politics, or even hate the man and want to be informed about him, this is the book to get. Its main drawback is that it was released on May 15, which means that Doherty must have finished writing it early in the year (he covers the Iowa caucus in its last few pages); but so much has happened since then, and without this author to put all these recent occurrences together for us, it just isn’t the same. This means that if Ron Paul becomes the next president of the US and appoints me czar of anything, I shall order Doherty to write a sequel to this important book of his.

Our author takes us on a historical tour of Ron Pauliana from his early days, to his medical career, to his beginnings in politics, his struggles as the Dr. No congressman, and his three campaigns for the presidency — one for the Libertarian Party, and two for the Republicans. But this book is far more than a biography. One of its many strengths is Doherty’s incisive knowledge of the libertarian movement in all its esoterica.

Others are his numerous vignettes of the people who have given of themselves, lost jobs and alienated friends and family members, in their support of Paul. Doherty also offers candid assessments of Ron Paul himself; we get not only the palpable love that Doherty feels for Paul, but also some of Paul's warts; e.g., he refuses to take lessons from professional speakers, he keeps his religious faith to himself, and he almost absolutely refuses to tailor his message to his audience (of course without violating his principles — what kind of a politician is that?) — things I didn’t fully appreciate even though I, too, am something of an intimate of Paul.

Doherty had me at the edge of my seat, practically panting with glee, as he described the dramatic Giuliani-Paul dustup about 9/11.

Doherty is not a professional economist. Yet his insights into the gold standard, budgets, the deficit, the debt, the fallacies of Keynesianism, the Austrian business cycle theory, the Fed, inflation, the Ponzi scheme of Social Security, the difficulties with socialized medicine, and much more — are clear and true. He is a journalist, not a libertarian theorist, and he is also insightful in his treatment of the niceties of legalizing drugs, the distinction between crony and real capitalism, the strengths and weaknesses of various “movement” organizations and leaders, "voluntaryism," anarcho-capitalism, and a host of other often complicated issues.

The dramatic highlight for me in this book was our author’s depiction of the Giuliani-Paul dustup about 9/11. I witnessed this myself, firsthand. And I read what was said about it, in the aftermath. Yet Doherty had me at the edge of my seat, practically panting with glee, as he once again described this dramatic event. Doherty is nothing if not a magnificent storyteller, and this gift of his pervades the book.

This is a strange review for me to write, for at roughly the same time that his book about Paul was released, so was mine. Doherty and I agreed to review each others’ books, and this is my contribution to the agreement. Although Doherty and I share a love for Ron Paul, our books are very different. I don’t interview anyone; Doherty's book is chock-full of interviews. In contrast to Doherty's, mine shares no personal experiences with Paul and Paulians. Mine is not at all historical. I do not give any tour of the libertarian movement, as he does. Instead, my book is in part an attempt to garner publicity for Paul. I wrote articles that later became chapters in the book about whom he might pick for Vice President and whom for Supreme Court, not so much because I thought there was a clear and present need for such speculations, but more as an attempt to promote his quest for the presidency. In the book, I feature groups such as Jews for Ron Paul, to combat charges that he was anti-Semitic, anti-Israel. I offer a few “Open Letters to Ron Paul,” where I have the temerity to offer him advice on, among other things, how best to deal with interviewers who simply will not allow him to speak.

Another part of my book features my sometimes, I admit it, pretty vicious attacks on people who “done wrong” to Ron Paul. These chapters are not so much aimed at liberals or conservatives, although I do take on a few of them. I can (sort of) forgive them their trespasses. What do they know about anything important after all? No, my ire was aroused to the boiling point by unwarranted criticisms emanating from libertarians, several with impeccable credentials in this philosophy. They, it seems to me, should have known better.

Let me close this review with two very minor criticisms of the Doherty book. For one thing, he (along with practically everyone else) characterizes the war of 1861 in the US as a “Civil War.” But ’twas not a civil war. That term pertains to the case in which one party wishes to take over the entire country at the expense of its opponent. The wars in Spain in 1936 and in Russia in 1917 were true civil wars. While the North in 1861 did indeed wish to rule the entire nation, the South did not. It only wished to secede. So a more accurate characterization would be, the War to Prevent Southern Secession, or the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression.

Second, Doherty (p. 254) claims that what enraged Ayn Rand about the publication in the Freeman of Milton Friedman and George Stigler’s article, “Roofs or Ceilings” was that Friedman “was willing to grant the good intentions of his intellectual adversaries.” No, she was angry at Friedman and Stigler because of “a paragraph on page 10, which seems to suggest the authors agree with the goal of equalizing income.” Rand (very properly in my own view) called them “the two reds” (Snow, 2012). In the view of Skousen, 1998: “Ayn Rand labeled the pamphlet ‘collectivist propaganda’ and ‘the most pernicious thing ever issued by an avowedly conservative organization’ because the economists favored lifting rent controls on practical, humanitarian grounds, not in defense of ‘the inalienable right of landlords and property owners.’” Miss Rand objected to Friedman-Stigler on both of the grounds just stated, and I concur with her on each.

But these are minor blemishes in an otherwise magnificent book. I loved reading it, and so will you, if you have even the slightest interest in Ron Paul and liberty.

References:
Skousen, Mark. 1998. “Vienna and Chicago: A Tale of Two Schools.”
http://www.thefreemanonline.org/features/vienna-and-chicago-a-tale-of-two-schools/
Snow, Nicholas. 2011. “Making Sense of the Controversy.” February 22;
http://www.fee.org/from-the-archives/making-sense-of-the-controversy/

* * *

Ron Paul for President in 2012: Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty, by Walter Block. Ishi Press International, 2012, 392 pages)

Reviewed by Brian Doherty

Libertarian economist Walter Block really, really likes Ron Paul, and thinks Paul ought to be (and thought when he wrote this book that he would be) the next president of the United States. As the title indicates, Ron Paul for President in 2012: Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty is a book of express, and strongly worded, advocacy. Block grants at one point that, well, libertarians can maintain their cred as true friends of liberty merely by not stabbing Paul in the back. But his general tone sells the message that anything other than pure adoration and belief in Paul’s eventual victory qualifies as such stabbing, and he writes that he sees support for Paul as “a sort of litmus test for libertarianism.” Anyone who does not share and express Block’s own thoughts and feelings regarding Ron Paul with precisely the same, or nearly the same, strength and commitment seems to be, in Block’s view, an objective enemy of libertarianism, and generally “despicable” (a favorite Block word for people or articles he thinks are anti-Paul).

Block’s new book is a collection of his articles and blog posts, most of which appeared at the website LewRockwell.com, and were written mostly over the course of Paul’s 2011–12 campaign. As Block writes in the book’s introduction, “Each and every last one of these chapters is an attempt . . . to expand and expound upon his [Paul's] views, to publicize them, to promote his candidacy, to defend it against attacks from within and without the libertarian movement.”

Block is a professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans by vocation, and by avocation the “Jewish mother” of what he sometimes calls the Austro-libertarian movement, the hardcore pushers of a Rothbardian plumbline of Austrian economics and anarchistic libertarianism. Here, this Jewish mother’s mission is to tell libertarians, and the world, that they need to push for Paul. Although Paul is not 100% by Block’s own standards — even Block admits the non-anarchist Congressman Paul is only a 97, and further admits to disagreeing with Paul on immigration and abortion — Block finds Paul’s rise in public prominence in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns the greatest thing that’s happened to the libertarian cause in, well, ever. Block believes that “the Texas congressman has acquainted more people with libertarianism, and converted them to this philosophy, then all of the other [libertarian thought leaders] put together.”

Block is well placed to judge these matters regarding the libertarian movement. He’s a grandmaster of modern libertarianism himself, fighting in the trenches of academic and popular writings on Austrian and libertarian issues for over four decades, since he was converted to Austrian economics at Murray Rothbard’s feet. He’s the author of the libertarian classic Defending the Undefendable, which rigorously argues for the legitimacy of such professions as the blackmailer, ticket scalper, slumlord, scab, and employer of child labor, professions which disgust many but which Block points out aggress against no one and provide real economic value and should not be interfered with by the state. That book’s purpose is not to be shocking, per se, but to be rigorously intelligent in identifying the legal and moral meanings of the modern libertarian project, and Block performs the purpose brilliantly. As F.A. Hayek, not nearly as hardcore as Block himself, said of the book: “Some may find it too strong a medicine, but it will still do them good even if they hate it. A real understanding of economics demands that one disabuses oneself of many dear prejudices and illusions. Popular fallacies in economics frequently express themselves in unfounded prejudices against other occupations, and in showing the falsity of these stereotypes Block is doing a real service, although he will not make himself more popular with the majority."

Block finds Paul’s rise in public prominence in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns the greatest thing that’s happened to the libertarian cause in, well, ever.

Block tries to write, here as in all his popular writings, with a light hand. His version of lightness, though, often manifests itself as a very New Yorker-ish (not the magazine — a stereotypical New Yorker) heavy sarcasm, with bursts of manic silliness. But his point is serious, even when made with bludgeoning irony. The book contains defenses and explanation of Paul’s stances on discrimination law, environmental protection, the dangers of the Federal Reserve, and ending the drug war, among other issues. Block advises Paul, from afar, about how to conduct himself during debates, while wisely allowing that, given Paul’s tremendous success, he’s obviously already doing most things right: “It is unlikely that [his success] is in spite of his presentation style.” Block also indulges in some Paul fannish fun, such as skylarking about possible Supreme Court nominees or vice presidential picks for the congressman.

Since this book collects pretty much everything Block has written in the past four years that mentions Paul at all, it is a bit repetitive, and it sometimes drifts a bit into more general libertarian controversies, such as Block’s daring defense of accepting money and jobs from the government. Block believes that as long as you stand against statist policies, “the more money you take from the coffers of the state, the better libertarian you are.”

The book also contains Block debating or attacking other libertarians for falling short of Paulist standards; instances, he believes, are Randy Barnett’s pro-Iraq War stance, and Wendy McElroy’s disdain for any major-party political leader for the libertarian cause. Block often provides line-by-line eviscerations of other people’s writings that he found mistaken or insufficiently respectful to Paul, whether from libertarian or nonlibertarian sources. (Block regards one of my Reason colleagues expressing on TV the opinion that there was no way Paul would win the presidency — and with a look on her face that he found objectionable, to boot — as a firable offence. He regards an organization that would not do such firing as unworthy of the libertarian label or libertarian support. Reason, of course,did not fire her.)

Block may be read by some as too hero-worshipping of Paul, and unrealistically optimistic about his chances. (Block, for example, seems to think the probability of Paul’s victory can be calculated merely by assuming that every single GOP candidate has the exact same odds of winning.) But Block is objective enough to admit that despite his admittedly great success as a proselytizer for the cause, Paul is “not a leading theoretician, not a leading economist . . . not a leading intellectual” of the movement. So what is he? I think Block would agree with my assessment, as author of my own book about Paul and someone who has followed his career with interest and support since 1988, that Paul is a staunch student and fan of Mises and Rothbard who has learned and can transmit their lessons well, who found himself in the position — ironically through a major-party run for president — of selling radically anti-political libertarian ideas with greater efficiency and success than anyone else has managed for a very long while. Block is correct in thinking that Paul has been uniquely successful at his task, and most interestingly by finding a huge mass of normal Americans who never thought of themselves as libertarians before, or as anything specifically political at all.

Understanding what Paul did and said since 2007 ought to be of great interest to libertarians or students of libertarianism, or just students of American politics, and Block gathers a useful collection of information and arguments about the Paul movement as it happened, touching on many of the controversies that surrounded Paul, both within and without libertarianism. If one is a Paul fan seeking a grab-bag of commentary and explanations that is unabashedly pro-Paul — something difficult to find in the modern media environment — then he or she will at least have fun with this book, and likely learn a lot about some of the more complicated issues Block addresses, such as strict property-right libertarian environmentalism, and how to figure out, amid the maddening empirical complications of modern foreign policy issues, who is and who is not an initial aggressor, as opposed to simply a retaliator.

Readers not already 100% sold on Paul are likely to feel Block’s suspicion and even contempt radiating at them. But 10, 20, or 30 years from now, when people look back on what the Paul movement may have meant for American libertarianism, this book will be a valuable document of the excitement and manic energy that Paul’s presence inspired in many a libertarian, old and new.




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The Most Decisive Battle of World War II?

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World War II was a messy affair. In spite of its perception as “the good war,” for some prospective combatants picking a side before all hell broke loose required intense political calculation. Alliances just before, during, and immediately after the war were fluidly tenuous.

The decade before the war’s outbreak presaged the muddle. The Spanish Civil War pitted — by proxy — the recently established Italo-German coalition against Russia in a classic ideological struggle. Italy’s incursions into Africa, on the other hand, were purely hegemonic grabs for colonial territory. In the Far East the situation was more complicated. In 1931, Japan grabbed Manchuria for its natural resources. In 1937, when Japan invaded the rest of China, both Germany and Russia squared off against it by supplying arms and essentials to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government. The United States, which supplied 80% of Japan’s oil imports and most of its steel, continued to do so.

Hitler considered Britain a natural ally, while Britain despised the Bolsheviks. Stalin despised the western democracies and the fascists equally, negotiating for an alliance with both camps right up to the day of the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Non-Aggression Pact on August 23, 1939 — which was only three days before Hitler’s planned invasion of Poland (delayed for six days by the signing of the Anglo-Polish mutual defense pact).

The muddle continued even after Hitler invaded Poland. Two weeks later, when Russia invaded Poland,Edward Raczyński, Polish ambassador to Britain — citing their mutual defense pact — appealed to Britain to declare war on the Soviet Union. Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax responded with hostility, stating that it was Britain's decision whether to declare war (a moot point, as a secret protocol of the pact identified only Germany as a prospective aggressor). Six weeks later, when Russia invaded Finland and the latter — out of necessity — allied itself with Germany, being unable to muster aid from the western democracies, Britain debated declaring war on Finland. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

As to Japan and Germany, their alliance was more a marriage of convenience than a pairing of soulmates. For one, Germany resented having to cede its New Guinea colony to Japan after World War I and besides Berlin’s aid to China, the Japanese rejected Hitler’s racial policies, going so far as to declare publicly that Jews were not a problem. The Führer, in an uncharacteristic backtrack, announced, “I have never regarded the Chinese or the Japanese as being inferior to ourselves. They belong to ancient civilizations, and I admit freely that their past history is superior to our own. They have the right to be proud of their past, just as we have the right to be proud of the civilization to which we belong. Indeed, I believe the more steadfast the Chinese and the Japanese remain in their pride of race, the easier I shall find it to get on with them.”It wasn’t until November of 1939 — three months after Hitler’s invasion of Poland — that the two signed a cooperation pact, and nearly a year later before Japan joined the Italo-German Axis in the Tripartite Pact.

Britain debated declaring war on Finland. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

Russo-Japanese relations were awful and getting worse. Immediately following the Russian Revolution, Japan had unsuccessfully contributed 70,000 troops to the Anglo-American effort to overthrow the Bolsheviks. Then, in 1905, the Japanese decisively defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. By 1937, Japan was eyeing Siberia as a natural extension of its Manchurian and Chinese incursions. Stalin treated the island kingdom gingerly.

With Europe on the brink of war, his worst nightmare was the prospect of a two-front conflict. Japan did not reciprocate: it hated the Bolsheviks. Much of its contempt was caused by Stalin’s purges, which had castrated the Red Army. On June 12, 1937, Marshal Mikhail Tukachevsky, the guiding spirit behind the modernized Soviet army, together with seven other high-ranking generals, was shot. Stuart Goldman, author of Nomonhan, 1939, elaborates,

Of the five marshals of the Red Army, three were shot, as were all eleven deputy commissars for defense. Seventy-eight of the eighty members of the Military Collegium perished. Every military district commander was liquidated, as were the heads of the Army Political Administration and the Frunze Military Academy. Of the fifteen army commanders, only two survived. Fifty-seven out of eighty-five corps commanders were shot, as were 110 of the 195 division commanders. At the brigade level, only 220 of the 406 colonels survived. In the Soviet Far Eastern forces the attrition rate was even higher, with 80% of the staff being removed in one way or another. According to some sources, between one-fourth and one-third of the entire officer corps was executed, or discharged within a period of eighteen months.

To the Japanese government, by now controlled by the military, the annihilation of the Soviet professional officer corps was heretical — and an open invitation to invade Siberia.

* * *

While the regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin are well known and understood, Japan’s descent into military dictatorship and war was an enigma wrapped in a snowball set rolling by circumstance, without any one charismatic character leading the way.

During the last half of the 19th century, Japan had developed a parliamentary democracy under an emperor — revered to the point of veneration — as head of state. The Great Depression, which hit Japan early, in 1927, strained operations of government, already in disrepute because of widespread corruption, nearly to the breaking point. Frustrated by the Diet’s ineffectiveness, the military’s officer class dove into politics and pushed for decisive action — despite both an imperial prohibition and traditional samuraicustom. They held a trump card. As Goldman recounts, “An Imperial Ordinance dating back to 1900 stipulated that the army and navy ministers must be active-duty generals and admirals. Either service could thus cause the government to fall simply by withdrawing its service minister and refusing to put forward a replacement. By the late 1930’s, this expedient effectively brought civilian government under military control. Before long, generals and admirals themselves headed the government.”

For Japan, many factors, including both gekokujo — literally, “rule from below” — and bushido — “the way of the warrior” — produced a perfect storm. The government’s inability to deal effectively with the deteriorating economic situation was aggravated by Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi’s ratification of the London Naval Treaty of 1930. By this treaty, Japan accepted a ratio of 10:10:6 for American, British and Japanese heavy cruisers respectively — in spite of vehement opposition by the Navy General Staff, the Supreme War Council, the major opposition party, the Privy Council, countless nationalist societies, and much of the popular press. Six weeks afterward, Hamaguchi was assassinated. This was the first of a series of murderous assaults and coup attempts that prompted an American journalist to characterize the situation as “government by assassination.”

The Führer, in an uncharacteristic backtrack, announced, “I have never regarded the Chinese or the Japanese as being inferior to ourselves.”

Gekokujo is a Japanese concept that encourages action, initiative, and even principled disobedience in the application of moral ideals — especially if those ideals derive from bushido, Shinto, or Buddhism. It became the driving motivation for the political upheavals of 1930’s Japan. Coupled with another Japanese custom, that of considering direct orders an impropriety — a practice to which even commanding officers adhered — it became a justification for subordinates to ignore superiors’ “orders” (which, grammatically, were structured as “suggestions”), and act as they saw fit. While the top brass controlled the government, gekokujo controlled the lower ranks in a negative feedback loop that aggravated every contingency beyond anyone’s control.

* * *

The battle of Khalkhin Gol (Khalkhin River) — known in Japanese as the Nomonhan Incident — was a direct consequence of gekokujo. It wasone of the largest battles of World War II, and perhaps the most decisive one — except that it technically did not take place during World War II, or between declared combatants. It is the subject of Stuart D. Goldman’s Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory that Shaped World War II. Though based on a PhD. dissertation, it is a splendid book, gripping and well researched. It anticipates every question a reader might have, and answers it with context — a quality not uniformly present in historical narration.

Goldman sets the stage with an analysis of the global geopolitical calculus before the war, explores each country’s constantly adjusting foreign policy, then zeroes in on why Soviet-Japanese relations led to the conflict at Khalkhin River. The undeclared war — a series of confrontations spread over two years, involving nearly 150,000 personnel, and culminating in a massive battle near the village of Nomonhan — is brilliantly laid out, from the diplomatic to-and-fros, to battlefield minutiae, to individual soldier’s anecdotes, to follow-ups of the principal and minor characters during WWII and afterward (with Georgy Zhukov, later to become Marshal of the Soviet Union, Chief of the General Staff and Supreme Commander of Soviet forces, to the fore).

By 1937, Japan’s Kwantung Army, which in 1932 had conquered and occupied Manchuria (renamed Manchukuo), was bored and feeling its oats. In the interim, Japan’s Army General Staff (AGS) had been contemplating whether to extend the Manchukuo salient into Siberia, conquer the rest of China, or move south into Indochina. In June 1937, Kwantung took the initiative. Without notifying the AGS, it undertook a series of provocations along the Soviet-Manchukuoan border in an attempt to settle by force previously unsettled minor border alignment issues, with an eye to testing Soviet military resolve and gaining honor. The AGS had decided on a full-scale invasion of China proper, which it duly launched the following month. Faced with Kwantung’s provocation, the AGS was of two minds, and temporized. The result was a two-front war. Japan didn’t want that war, but still thought it could contain it if it played its diplomatic cards with the USSR adroitly.

Japan’s descent into military dictatorship and war was an enigma wrapped in a snowball set rolling by circumstance.

But Kwantung Army thought it knew better. Instead of heeding the AGS’s orders for restraint — phrased as suggestions — it escalated its thrusts into Soviet-dominated Mongolia. The deck was stacked against Stalin. Though the Soviet Far Eastern forces numbered half a million men, they were spread over a remote area two-thirds the size of the continental US, and hobbled by poor support and transport, including more than 400 miles of trackless terrain between Nomonhan and the nearest railhead (at Borzya in Siberia). Worst of all, the purges had demoralized the Soviet army. Kwantung Army, on the other hand, though numbering only 220,000 men, was bursting with pride and martial spirit from its recent victories, and was concentrated nearby, well-supplied by the South Manchurian Railway’s salient, which reached almost all the way to Nomonhan, yet was close enough to Japan to be reinforced quickly.

On June 1, 1939, Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, a young deputy commander in Minsk, received an urgent phone call summoning him to a meeting with Kliment Voroshilov, Commissar for Defense. Zhukov betrayed no sign of apprehension at the possibility of joining the ranks of the disappeared. He was a bull: stout, blunt, crude, and short-tempered; given to drink, accordion playing, and convivial singing; overbearing but exceptionally brave. He was one of the few to survive multiple disagreements with Stalin, and he had a reputation as a man who could get things done. He was also — before the German blitzkrieg — an early proponent of tank warfare, a technique first used during the Spanish Civil War but discontinued because of its ineffectiveness in that conflict’s urban and guerrilla theaters. Khalkin Gol, on the open plains of Mongolia, was a better laboratory. Voroshilov ordered Zhukov to take command of the First Soviet Mongolian Army Group and contain the Japanese incursions.

Zhukov amassed a fleet of 4,200 vehicles to ferry troops and materiel from the railhead at Borzya to Tamsag Bulak, a small village within striking distance of the battlefield. The trucks moved only at night, with their lights blacked out. Meanwhile, to ensure tactical surprise for the Soviet attack, Zhukov concocted an elaborate ruse, setting up a sophisticated sound system between Tamsag Bulak and the battlefield to simulate the noises of tank and aircraft engines and of heavy construction. This long, loud nightly performance was meant to give credence to the false messages (in easily decipherable code, and meant to be intercepted) referring to the construction of defensive positions in preparation for a prolonged autumn and winter ground-holding campaign.

At first, the Japanese were fooled, and fired in the general direction of the loudspeakers. After a few nights, however, they realized it was only sound effects, became accustomed to the nightly “serenade,” and tried to ignore it. On the eve of the Soviet offensive, the sounds of actual pre-attack staging — which included bridges across the Halha River (Khalkhin Gol), deceptively built about 10 inches underwater, so they couldn’t be seen — went largely unnoticed by the Japanese.

Zhukov’s attack was preceded by an artillery and bombing barrage that no one, anywhere, at any time, had ever experienced. At one point — for three solid hours — an average of two heavy artillery rounds per second rained continuously on the Japanese positions. By the third day of this saturating fire, Japanese soldiers, who already had a reputation for superhuman endurance and never surrendering, were going insane. On August 20, Zhukov’s cavalry — tanks and infantry — charged. By August 31, Zhukov had declared the disputed territory cleared of enemy troops.

Zhukov was one of the few to survive multiple disagreements with Stalin, and he had a reputation as a man who could get things done.

The Soviet victory was absolute. Japanese casualties totaled 48,000; Soviet casualties, 26,000 — a very reasonable ratio. Nevertheless, the Red Army was gaining a reputation for troop attrition. Zhukov did not flinch from incurring heavy casualties to achieve his objectives. After the war, he told General Eisenhower, “If we come to a minefield, our infantry attack exactly as if it were not there. The losses we get from personnel mines we consider only equal to those we would have gotten . . . if the (enemy) had chosen to defend the area with strong bodies of troops instead of mine fields.” In the Winter War against Finland — a scant three months later — Russian techniques for crossing mined territory had been refined. Lacking, or eschewing, conventional sappers, Soviet commanders would deploy a single line of infantrymen, elbows interlocked, backed by NKVD snipers, across the mined field — singing patriotic songs to steel their courage.

* * *

Goldman argues that the consequences of the Soviet victory at Nomonhan reached far beyond Mongolia: from Tokyo to the Battle of Moscow and to Pearl Harbor. The timing of the Khalkhin Gol defeat coincided with the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The Japanese felt betrayed and diplomatically isolated. Defeated by the Red Army and deserted by Hitler, the government of Premier Hiranuma Kiichiro abruptly resigned.

In spite of Zhukov’s decisive victory, Stalin didn’t trust the Japanese — and with good reason. Like the Black Night in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, Kwantung Army was dismembered but foamingly rabid, raring to mount a full invasion of Siberia to regain lost face and honor. It went so far as to notify AGS to “kindly be prepared to mobilize the entire Japanese Army to engage in the decisive struggle against the USSR in the spring.” So Stalin reinforced Soviet Far Eastern Forces with 1.6 million men.

But the top brass at AGS had learned their lesson. They not only decapitated Kwantung’s command; they decided to phrase orders as “orders,” instructing Kwantung to assume a strictly defensive posture. And they reassessed imperial objectives. The thrust north into Siberia was shelved; instead, they set their sights on Indochina as a possible venue for breaking the increasingly stalemated China war by opening up a southern front against Chiang Kai-shek. This decision, logical in the short term, proved the Axis’ ultimate undoing.

It took nearly a year for all the contributing factors to fall into place. For one, Japan hadn’t yet joined the Axis (and wouldn’t for another year). Additionally, it took some time to convince Stalin that Japan was no longer a threat — in spite of his having a spy, Richard Sorge, in the highest levels of the Japanese government. How a Caucasian infiltrated the extremely ethnocentric Japanese high command is another story; but he did, and his intelligence was of the highest caliber. Very slowly, Stalin came to realize that Japan would not be a threat to his eastern flank.

His first move came two weeks after Zhukov’s victory, with the signing of the Molotov-Togo truce, terminating hostilities at Nomonhan. The reason Stalin didn’t invade Poland in conjunction with German forces was that he was waiting for a resolution at Khalkhin Gol. It wasn’t until the day after the cease-fire went into effect at that location that he gave the Red Army the go-ahead to grab eastern Poland. Finally, a year and eight months later, in April of 1941, Japan and the Soviet Union signed a neutrality pact.

Two months later, in June 1941, Hitler invaded the USSR, a move that took Stalin completely by surprise — but which Zhukov had predicted. By late summer, the German army was threatening Moscow. Stalin took a do-or-die stance: he entrenched himself in the capital, declaring that he was “going to hold Moscow at all costs”. As Averell Harriman, US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, later stated, recalling a conversation with Stalin, if Moscow — the nerve center of the USSR — fell, the Soviet Union would likely have capitulated.

“By early autumn, some Western military experts were predicting the collapse of Soviet military resistance within a matter of weeks,” Goldman states. Then, in September, Sorge reported that Japan would “absolutely” not attack Siberia. Only then did the Soviet High Command transfer the bulk of the 1.6 million men stationed in Siberia from east to west for the defense of Moscow. By December 1, German forces were only 12 miles away. It was then that “the Siberians” came to the rescue.

On December 5, Zhukov, who had been put in charge of the Odessa Military District after Khalkhin Gol and was now in charge of the defense of Moscow, launched a massive counteroffensive, spearheaded by the Far Eastern reinforcements. He threw the Germans back about 100 miles and held them there through the winter. It was the first Soviet success since the German invasion.

One day later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

For Goldman, these two events — direct consequences of the Battle of Khalkhin Gol — were the turning point of the war, rather than the Battle of Stalingrad (February 1943). He connects the dots between Khalkhin Gol and Pearl Harbor in this way: in July 1941, while the Germans were blitzing toward Moscow, Japan invaded Indochina — as per the AGS’s post-Khalkhin Gol plan. In response, the US and Britain cut all oil sales to Japan, over 80% of which came from the Anglo-Americans and their allies. The embargo was meant to stop the Japanese war machine; and it would have gone further, throttling the entire Japanese economy. To the Japanese, this was intolerable. The closest oil source was in the Dutch East Indies, modern day Indonesia. But they believed that if they attacked Indonesia, the US would enter the war. So, against the judgment of many of their senior commanders — based on the estimate that US industrial strength dwarfed Japan’s by a factor of 10:1 — AGS decided on a preemptive strike against the US fleet. It was a decision that one Japanese general presciently termed suicidal. The rest, as they say, is history.

* * *

Josef Stalin was the only major WWII combatant to avoid a two-front war. Throughout the first years of the war he’d badgered his allies to invade Europe, and at the February 1945 Yalta conference he, in turn, was pressured to declare war on Japan. He agreed to do so, but only three months after Germany's capitulation. This would allow him several months to transfer sufficient Red Army forces from Europe to the Far East.

At midnight August 8, exactly three months after VE day, and two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Stalin delivered: the Red Army launched a massive invasion of Manchukuo — against Kwantung Army.

Many perceived Stalin’s move as a cynical grab for spoils. But at Yalta, Stalin had been unaware of the Los Alamos efforts; the war against Japan was nowhere near concluded; and his commitment to open up a Siberian front was a substantial undertaking, made in good faith. After Hiroshima, however, he did take advantage of the situation, trying to reclaim territory lost to Japan in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War — principally, Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands. Though Emperor Hirohito, on August 15, “ordered” (again, phrased in an oblique manner) Japan’s surrender, the Soviet advance continued down Manchuria, into Korea, and across to the off-lying islands. Some 600,000 Japanese troops surrendered and were marched north into the Gulag.

On September 2 Japan formally surrendered. Japan later concluded separate peace treaties with all the victors except the Soviet Union. There has been no formal peace treaty between Japan and the USSR or its successor, the Russian Federation. Russia’s occupation of the Southern Kuriles continues to poison relations between the two countries.

* * *

The Japanese Army General Staff’s decapitation of Kwantung Army did not dampen gekokujo or bushido. These qualities merely spread and entrenched themselves further. Kwantung’s high command had been punished with only slaps on the wrist: transfers and early retirement — no court martials. Mid-level commanders stayed put or were transferred.

Throughout the war Japanese soldiers gained a reputation for fanaticism, for never surrendering, and for suicide attacks. Even after Hirohito’s “order” of capitulation, a radio announcer tried to clarify: the emperor’s message actually meant that Japan was surrendering. But Imperial General Headquarters did not immediately transmit a cease-fire order. When it did, some thought it was a call for further sacrifice; others did not understand it or ignored it.

Japan concluded separate peace treaties with all the victors except the Soviet Union. There has been no formal peace treaty between Japan and the USSR or its successor, the Russian Federation.

Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda exemplified Japanese moral values. (On Onoda, see his No Surrender: My Thirty-year War, Kodansha International Ltd, 1974 — another good book.) He was stationed on Lubang Island in the Philippines in 1944. Onoda's orders stated that under no circumstances was he to surrender or take his own life. So he held out, and held out, and held out. Thirty years later, on February of 1974, Norio Suzuki, a Japanese adventurer on a quest for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order, discovered him, befriended him, and urged him to come home. Onoda refused, citing his orders.

When Suzuki returned to Japan, he contacted Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, Onoda's commanding officer — by then a bookseller. When Taniguchi finally found Onoda, he couldn’t convince him to give up his position until he phrased his mission as an order following strict military protocol. Onoda came in from the heat on March 9, 1974. As of 2012, Hiroo Onoda is still alive and living in Brazil.


Editor's Note: Review of "Nomonhan, 1939," by Stuart D. Goldman. Naval Institute Press, 2012, 226 pages.



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Batman and Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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Still Entertaining, After All These Years

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What is with all these superhero movies? Iron Man. The Hulk. Captain America. Thor. Do we really need yet another version of Spider-Man? Okay. We get it. Peter Parker gets bitten by an enhanced spider while visiting a science lab. His uncle is killed by a criminal whom Spidey could have stopped if he hadn’t been self-absorbed. He's misunderstood and mistreated. He gets the idea for his costume from a wrestling match. And he can't have a girlfriend because he has to save the world. The story has become so familiar, it isn't even Amazing anymore. So why do we have a new Spider-Man every other year?

The cynical answer is that superheroes are box-office gold. But I think there is more to the superhero craze than simple economics. Every culture has its myths — larger-than-life stories that reveal the community's values, hopes, and fears. Superheroes are the American equivalent of the Olympian gods. Like the Olympians, they have human desires and human foibles. They can be lusty, angry, vengeful, and capricious. But today's superheroes are quite different from the gods of old. They no longer want to be worshipped. In many respects, they just want to be left alone.

Much can be revealed about our evolving culture by examining the evolving superhero. The latest version of The Amazing Spider-Man is quite good. The special effects of Spidey flying through the sky, somersaulting onto ceilings, and hanging from buildings are — OK, you knew it was coming — amazing. His arch nemesis, a lizard-man mutant, is well-developed and complex. The story is satisfying, amusing, and tense, especially in 3D. The casting is superb, especially Andrew Garfield as the new Peter Parker. His gangly youthfulness and spindly physique evoke the angular appendages and lightning speed of a spider. He’s cute, but somehow creepy and unpredictable too.

Even more interesting, however, are the metaphoric and mythic underpinnings of the new story. In many ways the superhero is a metaphor for adolescence. It's no coincidence that Peter is experiencing his first romance at the same time that his body is developing new powers and abilities. He is literally growing new organs, with goo that shoots out of his hands unexpectedly when he gets excited. Like many teens, he doesn't know his own strength, slamming doors and breaking handles with his new muscles. Moreover, he is self-absorbed and self-interested, experiencing pure joy in his own new powers. Superheroes of the previous century had an innate, almost Christlike sense of mission and nobility, but today's young superheroes revel in their newfound abilities. Like the teen mutants in February's Chronicle, Peter reacts joyously as he combines strength, speed, and gymnastic agility to fly from the rafters and swing from the buildings.

Myths always include a conflict between good and evil. A close look at mythic heroes and villains will therefore reveal much about the cultural fears and character values of a generation. In the original comic, Peter is bitten by a spider that has been exposed to radioactive particles. Like other mid-century science fictions, Spider-Man embodied a generation’s fear of the atomic bomb and radiation. In the 2012 version, the laboratory is studying interspecies genetic engineering, revealing a new generation’s fears and concerns about unintentional consequences to genetic meddling.

Another mythological mainstay is the quest for self-discovery. A moment of such discovery occurs directly as Peter enters his English class. His teacher tells her students, “A professor once told that there are only ten stories in all of fiction. I contend that there is only one: ‘Who am I?’” She may be wrong about the number of storylines, but she is certainly right about the importance of self-discovery in literature. It reaches all the way back to 500 BC, and Sophocles’ foundational play, Oedipus Rex. Oedipus discovers who he is by discovering who his parents were. The current story also starts as a quest for self-discovery, as Peter sets out to uncover secrets about his father.

When Peter settles down to thwarting criminals, his motives are far from altruistic. He is no Superman, fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way.” He just wants to find the man who killed Uncle Ben, and if he ties up a few other criminals along the way and leaves them for the cops to arrest, so much the better. Eventually, however, he accepts his mission to fight crime and protect his community. Could we really expect to see a superhero who is not expected to “give back”? As a voice from the dead, Uncle Ben tells Peter that when you are given a great talent, you have to share it with the world.

But this time he doesn’t have to do things all alone. Most revealing is director Marc Webb's treatment of the community at large — the people of New York whom Spider-man is trying to protect. Unlike the inhabitants of Superman's Metropolis or Batman's Gotham or the Avengers' Manhattan, they don't stand around looking up and pointing while the superhero does all the work. They get involved, helping Spidey help them. I love this newfound push toward self-reliance, even if it is a self-reliance that “takes a village.” (How I hate that metaphor!)

Over all, Webb has created a satisfying new version of this cinematic mainstay. I still don’t know why we needed a new one, but it held my attention, even though I know the story inside and out. Myth has a way of doing that.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Amazing Spider-Man," directed by Marc Webb. Columbia Studios, 2012, 136 minutes.



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