Is It the Cover-Up, or the Crime?

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On October 8 appeared a tape of Donald Trump’s indecent remarks about how to deal with attractive women — a tape justifying Democratic attacks on the crudeness of his character. At virtually the same hour emerged partial transcripts of Hillary Clinton’s secret remarks to Wall Street about her dream of “open borders” and her possession of two “positions,” one public and one private — transcripts justifying Republican assertions about her habit of lying to the public.

These revelations will be a test of the purported wisdom, repeated ad nauseam by political professionals, that what counts is “not the crime but the cover-up.” Trump would certainly have wanted to cover up the tape, but he may not have known it existed. Clinton labored mightily to cover up her private speeches, thereby creating a long-running campaign issue against herself, but the cover-up was palpably less important than what she actually said.

We’ll see whether real people, as opposed to pundits and spin artists (is there a difference?), see it this way. Simultaneously we can test the truth of an even more drearily repeated slogan, “All politics is local” — because in no way are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton “local.” They live on Mars, not in Springfield, USA.

There’s a third cliché that’s interesting. Will the American people continue to “suffer fools gladly”?




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We Are All Victims Now

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On April 30 a 19-year-old Arizona man was arrested on 70 criminal charges after it was discovered that, in a picture taken last August of his high-school football team, the tip of his penis was protruding from the top of his pants. Although the photo, joke included, appeared in his high school yearbook and in programs distributed at sports events, it took all this time for someone to notice the little flash of penis. Nevertheless, “Mesa [Arizona] police booked Osborn [that’s the kid] on one count of furnishing obscene material to minors, a felony, and 69 counts of indecent exposure. Ten faculty members and 59 students were present when Osborn exposed himself and are considered victims, according to police and court documents.”

This happened in a country in which Prince, a musician who appeared on stage and in videos with his naked butt protruding from his costume, while dancers mimicked sex acts, was mourned as a national hero after his death from an apparent drug overdose; a country in which the most profitable music lyrics are so obscene and violent that journals not labeled “adult” never quote them; a country in which, over two decades ago, the Surgeon General suggested that young people be taught to masturbate; a country in which hundreds of thousands of young women are exploited as “baby mamas” by irresponsible men; a country in which major corporations boycott a state because it does not stipulate that people can enter any restroom that matches their own idea of their gender; a country in which . . . Add your own examples. This is the country in which 70 people became sexual victims without even knowing that anything happened to them.

By the way, the charges against the young man have now been dropped. There was a public outcry, thank God. Now I hope we can all focus our attention on our national schizophrenia about sex.




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Boswell Gets His Due

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What is Enlightenment? The title of Immanuel Kant’s most famous essay asks that question. Kant suggests that the historical Enlightenment was mankind’s release from his self-incurred tutelage, an intellectual awakening that opened up new freedoms by challenging implanted prejudices and ingrained presuppositions. “Sapere aude!” Kant declared. “Dare to be wise!”

Tradition maintains that the Enlightenment was an 18th-century social and cultural phenomenon emanating from Paris salons, an Age of Reason that championed the primacy of the individual, the individual’s competence to pursue knowledge through rational and empirical methods, though skepticism and the scientific method. Discourse, debate, experimentation, and economic liberalism would liberate society from the shackles of superstition and dogma and enable unlimited progress and technological innovation, offering fresh insights into the universal laws that governed not only the natural world but also human relations. They would also enable individual people to attain fresh insights into themselves.

Boswell was a garrulous charmer with Bacchanalian tendencies, and a fussy hypochondriac raised Calvinist and forever anxious, perhaps obsessive, about the uncertain state of his eternal soul.

Robert Zaretsky, a history professor at the University of Houston and the author of Boswell’s Enlightenment, spares us tiresome critiques or defenses of the Enlightenment by Foucault and Habermas and their progeny. He begins his biography of James Boswell, the great 18th-century biographer, with a historiographical essay on the trends and trajectories of the pertinent scholarship. He points out that the Enlightenment may have begun earlier than people once believed, and in England rather than France. He mentions Jonathan Israel’s suggestion that we look to Spinoza and company, not Voltaire and company, to understand the Enlightenment, and that too much work has focused on the influence of affluent thinkers, excluding lower-class proselytizers who spread the message of liberty with a fearsome frankness and fervor. And he maintains that Scotland was the ideational epicenter of Enlightenment. Boswell was a Scot.

All of this is academic backdrop and illustrative posturing, a setting of the stage for Zaretsky’s subject, Boswell, a lawyer and man of letters with an impressive pedigree and a nervous disposition, a garrulous charmer with Bacchanalian tendencies, and a fussy hypochondriac raised Calvinist and forever anxious, perhaps obsessive, about the uncertain state of his eternal soul. He marveled at public executions, which he attended regularly. He also had daddy issues, always trying to please his unpleased father, Lord Auchinleck, who instructed his son to pursue the law rather than the theater and thespians. When word arrived that his son had been sharing his private journals with the public, Lord Auchinleck threatened to disown the young James.

Astounded by the beauty and splendor of Rome and entranced by Catholicism, Boswell was never able to untangle the disparate religious influences (all of them Christian) that he picked up during his travels. He was equally unable to suppress eros and consequently caught sexual diseases as a frog catches flies.

Although the Life of Johnson is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon.

Geography and culture shaped Boswell’s ideas and personality and frame Zaretsky’s narrative. “With the European continent to one side, Edinburgh to the other,” Zaretsky intones, “James Boswell stood above what seemed the one and the same phenomenon: the Enlightenment.” This remark is both figurative and literal, concluding Zaretsky’s account of Boswell’s climbing of Arthur’s Seat, a summit overlooking Edinburgh, and his triumphant shout, “Voltaire, Rousseau, immortal names!”

Immortal names indeed. But would Boswell himself achieve immortality? Boswell achieved fame for his biography of Samuel Johnson, the poet, critic, essayist, and wit — who except for one chapter is oddly ancillary to Zaretsky’s narrative. Although the Life of Johnson is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon and treated, poor chap, as a celebrity-seeking minor figure who specialized in the life of a major figure. If Dr. Johnson is Batman, Boswell is a hobnobbing, flattering Robin.

Boswell’s friends have fared better — countrymen and mentors such as Adam Smith and David Hume, for instance, and the continental luminaries Voltaire and Rousseau. But there are many interesting relationships here. To cite only one: Thérèse Levasseur, Rousseau’s wife or mistress (a topic of debate), became Boswell’s lover as he accompanied her from Paris to England. The unsuspecting Rousseau, exiled in England, waited eagerly for her arrival, while a more astute Hume, who was Rousseau’s host, recognized matters for what they were.

Zaretsky believes Boswell was an exceptional talent, notwithstanding his weaknesses, and certainly worthy of our attention. Glossing several periods of Boswell’s life but closely examining his grand tour of the Continent (1763–1765), Zaretsky elevates Boswell’s station, repairs Boswell’s literary reputation, and corrects a longstanding underestimation, calling attention to his complicated and curious relationship to the Enlightenment, a movement or milieu that engulfed him without necessarily defining him.

The title of the book assumes plural meaning: Boswell attained a self-enlightenment that reflected the ethos and ethic of his era.

Zaretsky’s large claims for his subject might seem belied by the author’s professedly modest goal: “to place Boswell’s tour of the Continent, and situate the churn of his mind, against the intellectual and political backdrop of the Enlightenment.” To this end, Zaretsky remarks, “James Boswell and the Enlightenment are as complex as the coils of wynds and streets forming the old town of Edinburgh.” And so they are, as Zaretsky makes manifest in ten digestible chapters bristling with the animated, ambulatory prose of the old style of literary and historical criticism, the kind that English professors disdain but educated readers enjoy and appreciate.

Zaretsky marshals his evidence from Boswell’s meticulously detailed missives and journals, piecing together a fluid tale of adventure (meetings with the exiled libertine John Wilkes, evenings with prostitutes, debauchery across Europe, and lots of drinking) and resultant misadventure (aimlessness, dishonor, bouts of gonorrhea and depression, and religious angst). Zaretsky portrays Boswell as a habitual performer, a genteel, polite, and proud socialite who judged himself as he imagined others to have judged him. He suffered from melancholy and the clap, among other things, but he also cultivated a gentlemanly air and pursued knowledge for its own sake. The title of the book, Boswell’s Enlightenment, assumes plural meaning: Boswell attained a self-enlightenment that reflected the ethos and ethic of his era.

Zaretsky’s book matters because Boswell matters, and, in Zaretsky’s words, “Boswell matters not because his mind was as original or creative as the men and women he pursued, but because his struggle to make sense of his life, to bend his person to certain philosophical ends, appeals to our own needs and sensibilities.” We see ourselves in Boswell, in his alternating states of faith and doubt, devotion and reason. He, like so many of us, sought to improve himself daily but could never live up to his own expectations. He’s likeable because he’s fallible, a pious sinner who did right in the name of wrong and wrong in the name of right, but without any ill intent. A neurotic, rotten mess, he couldn’t control his libido and didn’t learn from his mistakes. But he could write like the wind, and we’re better off because he did. He knew all of us, strangely, without having known us. God help us, we’re all like him in some way.

is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon and treated, poor chap, as a celebrity-seeking minor figure who specialized in the life of a major figure. If Dr. Johnson is Batman, Boswell is a hobnobbing, flattering Robin.


Editor's Note: Review of "Boswell’s Enlightenment," by Robert Zaretsky. The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2015, 269 pages.



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Of Love and Violence

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Two films opened during the Valentine’s weekend with hopes of becoming the box office blockbuster of choice, but neither is a traditional date-night romance. One feeds into typical male fantasies, while the other is based on a series of books that has had women swooning for three years. Which won at the box office opening weekend? And more importantly, which is the better film? We decided to switch things up and invite a man to review Fifty Shades of Grey while our entertainment editor, a woman, reviews Kingsman.

First up is the film that met with the most pre-release outrage. Reviews of Fifty have been published with titles such as “Fifty Shades of Smut,” “Fifty Shades of Shame,” and even “Fifty Shades of Dull.” In fact, Fifty Shades of Greyhas met with so much uproar that Kingsman: The Secret Service slipped right under the radar of the morality police. The authors of these reviews have good reason to be concerned about the long-term effects of pornography, especially pornography that focuses on violence. But does Fifty Shades of Grey, edited to receive an R rating rather than NC-17, really fit the definition? We asked film historian Steven DeRosa for his review.

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Fifty Shades of Grey

How does one review the cinematic qualities of a cultural phenomenon? A good rule of thumb is to forget the phenomenon and judge the film on its own merits. In that regard, Fifty Shades of Grey succeeds on a certain level, but suffers under the restraints — no pun intended — of Sam Taylor-Johnson's direction and Kelly Marcel's screenplay. As a movie, Fifty Shades is entertaining to a degree, titillating to an extent, but falls short of the mark in terms of its aspirations. No, Fifty Shades was not aiming to be serious art, but in the spirit of its Valentines' Day weekend opening, this should have been a fun, sexy romp.

At the outset, allow me to disclose that I have not read E.L. James's novel. I should also state that I teach cinema studies at a liberal arts college and include in my curriculum the Steven Shainberg film Secretary (2002). The reason I bring this up is that the character portrayed by James Spader in that film bears the name E. Edward Grey. I am often asked by students if there is a correlation between Spader's Grey and the Grey of Fifty Shades, to which there is no easy answer. Was E.L. James inspired by Secretary?

Grey is somehow so charmed by Anastasia's naiveté, awkwardness, and lip biting that he later stalks her and shows up at the small-town hardware store where she works.

Decades ago, Hollywood churned out weepy melodramas known as "women's pictures." While scarcer, they are still made, and are now referred to as chick flicks. Fifty Shades fits into this category in that it expects its predominantly female audience to identify with the protagonist, Anastasia Steele, whose aim is not so to much attain the unattainable as to tame the untamable. On its most basic level, Fifty Shades succeeds in doing that, yet the film has significantfailings, caused largely by several faults of dramatic structure and partly by a lack of chemistry between the two leading characters, as portrayed by Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan.

The film opens on clumsy, doe-eyed Anastasia Steele, an English major substituting for her friend, journalism major Kate, who was to interview 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey for their school newspaper. Anastasia literally stumbles into Grey's office, and for whatever reason he feels compelled to take pity on her and help her conduct the interview. Grey is somehow so charmed by Anastasia's naiveté, awkwardness, and lip biting that he later stalks her and shows up at the small-town hardware store where she works. Here she helps him with his shopping list of serial killer supplies — two sizes of duct tape, a package of zip ties, and rope. Rather than being alarmed by this, Ana is intrigued.

The odd stalker-like behavior continues when Christian sends Ana a rare edition of Tess of the D'Urbervilles and shows up to "rescue" her one night when she drunk-dials him from a club. All of this is leading to Christian's deflowering of Ana, which comes far too soon. Some of the most romantic movies ever made succeeded simply by keeping the lovers at a distance until it was almost excruciating — think of James Stewart kissing and then losing and losing again Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, or Daniel Day-Lewis unbuttoning Michelle Pfeiffer's glove to kiss her exposed wrist in Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence.

Even Secretary had the good sense to concentrate on small, intimate details of the characters. At the end of that film's first spanking scene, there is a closeup of the dominant's hand brushing against the submissive's, and she responds by interlocking her pinky with his. This attention to character detail is absent from Fifty Shades, in favor of scenes showing off Grey's toys, and not the ones in his "Red Room of Pain." The scenes involvea more conventionalhelicopter and glider, piloted by him. Grey beds Steele so early in Fifty Shades that, again, there is no tension — dramatic, sexual, or otherwise.

If Ana Steele's goal is to domesticate Christian Grey and turn him into boyfriend material — someone who will take her out to dinner and a movie, cuddle up with her on the couch, and spoon with her on a cold winter's night — he reveals to her too soon that all of this is a distinct possibility. "If you agree to be my submissive, I'll be devoted to you," says Grey. There simply is no tension built up to suggest otherwise. After all, he sleeps in the same bed with her that first night, in spite of protestations that he never does that. If Ana plays along, she'll be able to top from the bottom for the rest of her days with Grey.

Even after the relationship has already been consummated, this bizarre courtship continues with Grey presenting a contract to Ana so they can solidify terms such as safe words, sleeping arrangements, and which activities and toys she will allow Grey to subject her to or use on her. Oddly, the contract negotiation scene is both funny and sexy and one of the few memorable scenes in the movie. The sex and domination scenes do little to connect the audience with either character, so those scenes fall flat.

If Ana plays along, she'll be able to top from the bottom for the rest of her days with Grey.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in Fifty Shades is that it barely scratches the surface of its Christian Grey. At one point in the story, Grey confesses to Ana details about "the woman who gave birth to him." It is a moment in the movie that is quickly glossed over, but is supposed to begin to explain something of the character's backstory. "I had a rough start in life. That's all you need to know," hesays. And that's all we get to know. Thevulnerability caused by this void is an element not fully explored, at least not in this installment, which is obviously a setup for two sequels to come.

Was Fifty Shades of Grey going to be the movie that put BDSM in the mainstream? No. Were sales of wrist restraints and riding crops going to skyrocket overnight? Probably not. Fifty Shades of Grey misses the opportunity to be a very talked about movie for the simple reason that it is so antiseptic and watered down that it could never live up to the imaginations of readers who devoured E. L. James's books. — Steven DeRosa

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Kingsman: The Secret Service

Who needs Mr. Grey when you can have Mr. Darcy? Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the most romantic stories ever written, and Colin Firth, who played the dashing and noble Mr. Darcy in the 1995 made-for-TV miniseries, stars as Harry Hart in this homage to James Bond.

Hart is certainly dashing in his impeccable Saville Row suits, and he’s noble too — quite often he sets his umbrella gun to “stun” instead of “AK-47” mode when he’s engaged in battle.

Firth, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of King George VI (The King’s Speech, 2010) is usually cast in more dignified roles, but he is surprisingly perfect as Harry Hart: he is elegant and edgy, unintentionally funny, and sports a newly trimmed-down physique that makes his action sequences — 80% of which he did himself — believable. (Well, as believable as 200 corpses in a single fight can be.)

Hart is one of an elite group of British spies trained in spectacular martial arts whose purpose is to save the world from dastardly masterminds who would rather see it destroyed. In this story, their nemesis is Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). Hart? Valentine? Now you understand why the film opened this particular weekend.

The violence is so over the top that it’s cartoonish rather than gruesome, but still — I was looking for my “safe word.”

Kingsman contains all the ingredients of a James Bond film: the evil mastermind who has a physical deformity (Valentine speaks with a lisp); the sultry villainess who has a deadly physical specialty (Valentine’s sidekick, Gazelle [Sofia Boutella], has blades instead of feet and slices her opponents with the accuracy of a delicatessen chef); the spectacular opening scene that is actually the end to a previous episode; multiple exotic settings around the globe; cartoonish fights and chase scenes; and an evil plan that will destroy the world if the master villain isn’t stopped in time.

Writer-director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, Snatch) adds a twist to the James Bond homage by focusing this plot on the recruitment of a new crop of Kingsmen — sort of X-Men: First Class Goes to Spy School. Hart sponsors a smart but troubled teenager named Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as his protégé, and Eggsy is soon part of group of wise-ass teenagers competing against one another in deadly tasks for the honor of becoming a Kingsman.

Meanwhile, the official Kingsmen are engaged in trying to thwart Valentine’s evil plan to dominate the world, and soon the two groups (what’s left of them) join forces. I should probably give you a warning: V may be for Valentine, but it’s also for Violence. Vaughn is the director of Kick Ass, after all. He goes for edgy. The violence is so over the top that it’s cartoonish rather than gruesome, but still — I was looking for my “safe word.” In addition to sliced limbs and spurting blood, you’ll find 50 shades of grey matter exploding in this film, as well as a fireworks display you aren’t likely to forget. And that church scene? It’s all done in a single take. Now that’s impressive.

So who wins the Valentine’s Day contest? RottenTomatoes gives Kingsmen: The Secret Service a 71% critics’ rating, while Fifty Shades of Grey earned a mere 26%. Splat. But the box office tells a different story. Kingsmen earned $35 million during opening weekend, while Fifty Shades brought in more than twice that much, $81 million — and Kingsmen had an extra day, opening on Thursday instead of Friday. It will be interesting to see which film has more staying power in the theaters; I suspect that everyone who was panting to see Mr. Grey has already had enough. — Jo Ann Skousen


Editor's Note: Review of "Kingsmen: The Secret Service," directed by Matthew Vaughn. Twentieth Century Fox, 2015, 129 minutes; and "Fifty Shades of Grey," directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Focus Features, 2015, 125 minutes (14 minutes and 17 seconds of which are sex scenes).



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Recreating the Unique

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“Show business is two parts. There’s the show part, and there’s the business part.”
— James Brown

In Get on Up, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) demonstrates that he is the master of both. A showman so passionate about his music that he becomes known as the Godfather of Soul, he is also a businessman savvy enough to figure out that the profits in the music business goes to the people who control the gate, not to the ones playing the music onstage. Brown figures out how to be in charge of both.

Determined to play the Apollo and produce an album that can capture the electricity of the live performance, he tells his skeptical manager Ben Bart (Dan Ackroyd), “I’ll put up the money. I’ll take the risk.” He uses the power of radio to promote his concerts and records. Payola — the practice of paying deejays to play and promote a record — is illegal, but advertising a live concert is not. “They’ll play my records, and then they’ll tell people where they can hear me play,” he explains enthusiastically to Bart in the film. And the deejays do. Live at the Apollo becomes Brown’s first breakout album.

Music wasn’t about rules to the untrained ear of James Brown; it was about passion and about sounding right.

By all accounts, James Brown (1933–2006) did not have an easy life. Born during the Depression in a small South Carolina town, he was abandoned by both his parents and lived, at least for a while, in his aunt’s brothel. He spent time in prison during his youth and again as an adult. His official biography is somewhat sketchy, with different stories told by different biographers and people who knew him. Brown himself, with his little-boy perspective of the grown-up actions going on around him, probably didn’t understand what was really true. Consequently, the traditional biopic with a typical beginning (childhood), middle (the struggle to get started), and end (the ultimate successes and defeats) simply would not work for this film. Instead, director Tate Taylor presents the story almost as triggered memories. The film jumps around from scene to scene and decade to decade. It begins in 1988 with an almost psychotic Brown brandishing a rifle at room full of strangers, then quickly changes to a 1964 Brown preparing to share the stage with the Rolling Stones, and changes just as quickly to a little-boy Brown (Jamarion and Jordan Scott) playing tag with his mother in 1939. Then it’s back again to the ’60s and a USO show in Vietnam and then to the ’50s and back to his father brandishing a rifle at his mother. For a while it seems dizzyingly unfocused and uncontrolled.

Midway through the film, however, as the band is practicing for a performance in New Orleans, a saxophonist complains about how the drum section comes in during the song’s arrangement. Shouldn’t it start with the downbeat? he suggests. Brown asks him, “Does it sound right? Does it feel right?” The musician nods. “Well if it sounds right and it feels right, then it is right,” Brown declares. Music wasn’t about rules to the untrained ear of James Brown; it was about passion and about sounding right.

To reinforce his point, Brown taps on a snare and asks, “What’s that?” “A drum,” the musician responds. “And what’s that?” Brown asks, pointing to a bass. “A guitar,” the puzzled musician replies. “No, that’s a drum, “ Brown corrects him. “And what’s that?” he asks, pointing to a saxophone, “and that,” pointing to the piano. “A drum?” the musician replies. “That’s right. It’s all drums.”

Every sound anchors the music. Every sound provides a foundational beat. You could highlight them separately — first the guitar, then the brass, then thedrums — and you might be able to hear each part more clearly, but it wouldn’t have the same power as Brown’s arrangement does. It wouldn’t sound right. It wouldn’t feel right.

First he tells the cops to let them come on up, onto the stage. Then he slowly calms them down and convinces them to go back to their seats.

The scenes in the film are arranged with a similar foundation. They don’t necessarily make sense by themselves, and they may or may not be factually true. But they’re all story, just as the instruments are all drums. When experienced as a whole, the scenes sound right, and they feel right.

One of the more unsettling scenes of the film occurs in the week after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Bart encourages Brown to cancel their concert in Boston, but Brown insists on keeping the date. The tension between the mostly black audience, right on the edge of rioting, and the mostly white police officers, right on the edge of using their billy clubs, is eerily like the situation in Ferguson this week. As audience members climb onto the stage to dance next to Brown, chaos looms and the police ready themselves for action. Brown’s calm reaction made me think of the way George Banks (James Stewart) reacts to the bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life. First he tells the cops to let them come on up, onto the stage. He gives them what they think they want. Then he slowly calms them down and convinces them to go back to their seats, reminding them, “Everyone wants to see the show. Come on now, let’s represent. Let’s show them.” And they do.

Chadwick Boseman is making quite a career for himself by playing inspirational black men. His portrayal of Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42 was phenomenal (see my review in Liberty). He portrays Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Mack in Draft Day later this year. Boseman succeeds in such films because he pays attention to the nuances. In 42 it was the way his fingers danced as he prepared to steal a base. In Get on Up the magic is again in his hands as he captures the way Brown held his at an angle when he walked. His feet pivot and glide across the floor as he dances onstage in Brown’s signature mashed potato, and he bounces easily into Brown’s signature splits. His raspy voice and lazy diction sometimes make it difficult to understand what he’s saying, but that too was Brown’s style. I hope Boseman gets a chance to create an original character in a romantic comedy or an action film, next.

Get on Up is not as good as Ray (with Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, 2004) or Walk the Line (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, 2005). I don’t think it quite captures the influence Brown had on the music industry over six decades, and it leaves a lot of stories unfinished. But it is a good film that is worth the price of a theater ticket.


Editor's Note: Review of "Get on Up," directed by Tate Taylor, executive-produced by Mick Jagger. Imagine Entertainment / Jagged Films, 2014, 139 minutes.



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Two Films: One Right, One Not So Right

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The weakest of this season’s Oscar finalists is Philomena. This film about an Irish woman’s search for the baby she gave up for adoption, more than half a century earlier, has received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). It is a good film, with moments that are lighthearted and funny and other moments that are deeply emotional and full of anguish. The performances by Judi Dench as Philomena; Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the down-on-his-luck journalist who helps her; and Sophie Kennedy Clark as the young Philomena are top-rate. But the film is marred by the same characteristic that is probably driving the critics and the Academy to rave about it: it revels in unfair and bitter vitriol against the Catholic Church. Hollywood loves to hate religion.

Philomena is really the story of two souls — the title character and the journalist — who have had their lives pulled asunder by external forces. When the young and unmarried Philomena becomes pregnant, her parents send her to a convent house where unwed mothers are hidden away and cared for until their babies are born and put up for adoption. To earn their keep, the girls do domestic work inside the convent, and they are allowed to see their babies every day until homes are found for them. But the outcome is known from the beginning: the girls have come to the convent to hide their pregnancies, give up their babies, and return to normal life. The nuns are simply doing what they agreed to do.

Philomena’s parents are scarcely mentioned in this film. All the vitriol and venom are reserved for the Catholic Church.

The sad truth, however, is that no one knows until she has experienced it how hard the mothers’ role really is. How can she “return to normal life” once she has had a baby growing inside her? Whether she marries the father, raises the child by herself, gives the child to another family, or terminates the pregnancy, there is no forgetting the child and no going back to what life was like before. Parents of the pregnant girl might mean well in trying to go backward; “six months away and it will be as though it never happened,” they might think. But they don’t know. Certainly the nuns and priests don’t know; they’ve taken a vow never to become parents except indirectly, as Mother Superior or Father to the flock. Only the members of this exclusive club of special mothers can truly know what it’s like, so I won’t pretend to suggest that I know the answers. I only know that it’s hard.

The film turns the nuns and the church into the villains of the story, and it’s true (or seems to be true) that they were harsh in how they enforced their rules. But it should be remembered that no one in the church reached out and kidnapped these young unwed mothers; their parents sent them to the convents, and social custom embraced the plan. In a climate in which unwed mothers were treated as outcasts and their children were treated as bastards, these premature grandparents did what they thought was best for their daughters, the babies, and the childless couples who wanted them. And yes, for themselves. But Philomena’s parents are scarcely mentioned in this film. All the vitriol and venom are reserved for the Catholic Church, through several disparaging remarks made by Sixsmith toward the Church, and even more through the cruel, heartless way the nuns treat the mothers of the babies, and by the deliberate withholding of information by the convent’s head nun. I’m not Catholic, but I am offended by the anti-Catholic sentiment that permeates the film.

Martin Sixsmith has experienced a frustration of his own: as the film opens, he is a former journalist who has been sacked from his position with the Labour Party over an offense that he did not commit. He is outraged by the unfairness and tries to have his job restored, just as Philomena tries to reclaim her son, but to no avail. After reporting international news for so long, he feels demeaned by accepting this fluffy human-interest story for a magazine. But accept it he does, and the two set off for America to trace the snippets of information available to them about the child’s adoptive parents.

They are an unlikely pair, Martin with his international political interests and Philomena with her game shows and romance novels. She nearly drives him nuts with her never-ending summaries of the latest love story she is reading and her penchant for talking to strangers. These lighthearted scenes provide some of the most enjoyable moments in the movie, and balance the scenes of unbearable anguish portrayed by Young Philomena and the more controlled, but just as real, anguish felt by her older self. This is a lifelong pain that never goes away.

The film is certainly worth seeing, on its artistic and its social merits. But better than Inside Llewyn Davis? Or even Saving Mr. Banks? (Neither of them was nominated for Best Picture.) Not on your life. Philomena was nominated purely for its political correctness in hating on the Catholic church. And that’s just not a good enough reason in a season of such outstanding films.

No external considerations were necessary to produce admiration for the next film that I want to consider — another nominee for Best Picture: her.

her is a cautionary tale about the love affair with electronic devices and the disconnect it is causing in normal relationships, from simple inattention to internet dating and cybersex. Even the name, “her,” suggests objectification; the title is not She, and it is not even capitalized. “her” is just the objective case of what once was a woman.In this story of a near-future utopia, the voices that talk to us from our phones and GPS units and have names like “Siri” have developed emotions and personalities that aren’t almost human; in many ways they’re better than human. But this is not Westworld (1973) run amok, with sentient robots destroying their creators in order to take over the planet. No, “her” is a soft-spoken voice that comes in the night, whispering sweet nothings and taking over the creators’ emotions.

But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation.

Theodore Twolmy (Joaquin Phoenix) is an emotionally crippled introvert who writes “heartfelt personal letters” for other people. It’s sort of like being a cross between a Hallmark poet and Cyrano de Bergerac. Theodore is separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), whom he has known since childhood, and is very lonely. His days are filled with writing love letters, but he lacks any love in his own life. He turns to what amounts to porn calls in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t satisfy him. He spends his evenings playing holographic video games and becomes so immersed in the adventure that when he’s out on a blind date, he talks about the video character as though he were a friend. And the date gets it. Without thinking it’s weird or nerdy. Just as Ray Bradbury predicted in Fahrenheit 451, the people on the screen have become family.

This scene in which Theodore talks about his video friend reminded me of the time, years ago, when my son completed the final level of the first “Zelda” game. He had been working at it for a few weeks, and I thought he would feel exhilarated. Instead, he was morose and despondent. “You can start the game again,” I told him, thinking that would help him shake the blues. He responded with great sadness, “But she won’t remember me!” That was my first understanding of just how deeply someone can become involved in a cyber relationship, even one that doesn’t have a real person at the other end of the email.

Enter Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the witty, husky voice inside Theodore’s electronic devices. When Theodore purchases a new operating system to manage his electronic information and Outlook files, he is surprised to find how humanlike the artificial intelligence interface is. Because this software has complete access to all his files, “she” knows him inside out and can evolve into a personality that responds to his emotional as well as organizational needs. And he responds viscerally to this being who knows him so deeply. It is what he has been aching for.

The film’s delicate tone makes it both very special and very disturbing. The sets and costumes contribute a great deal to that tone. The colors are mostly soft oranges and greens, the fabrics natural and touchable. The clothing is only slightly futuristic — the shirts have a different kind of collar, for example, and they are tucked into pants that ride high above the waist, instead of riding low on the hips as they do today. Furniture is sleek and mildly mid-century, with wall hangings and table decorations made of wood or stone. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, yet so natural and comfortable that I expect to see it “in reality” next year. The overall effect is rather dreamy and inviting, not unlike Theodore’s relationship with Samantha.

Soon Theodore is spending all of his time talking with Samantha. He takes her on “dates” by putting his phone in his shirt pocket with the camera facing forward, and they have flirtatious conversations together. At a party he leaves the group of human friends to go into an empty side room and chat with Samantha. At night he feels especially close to her. He lies in bed in the dark, watching for his phone to light up with a message from her. There is something so magical and enticing about speaking to her in the dark. He tells others that Samantha is his girlfriend. He becomes goofy with happiness, giddy with the swivet of romance. It leads to a sick isolation from the real people in his life — an isolation many real people create for themselves as they engage in cyber relationships.

Of course, the nighttime conversations eventually lead to cybersex. Despite the giddiness of the growing “relationship,” he still feels morose and disconntected.

He tells her, “Sometimes I think I’ve already felt everything I’m ever going to feel, and from here on out I’m never going to feel anything new.” After a pause he adds, “But you feel real to me, Samantha.”

And then it starts. “I wish I could touch you,” he says. “How would you touch me?” she asks, genuinely curious, since she does not have a body or any experience with touch. “First I would . . .” and he tells her where he would touch her. And touch her.

His imagined touching is gentler and more romantic than his experience with phone porn earlier in the film, before he has “met” (that is, purchased) Samantha. It suggests that their deep intellectual conversations have led to a deeper, more meaningful sexual connection as well.

“Mmmmmm,” she responds. “That’s nice.” And he expresses more places he would touch her if he could.

And then . . . the fireworks. For both of them.

It seems utterly romantic. They’ve been talking for weeks. It feels like real communication. They seem to be connecting on a deep, intimate, personal level. There’s a reason sex is called “intercourse.” But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation. Or in this case, single masturbation, because Samantha exists only in his computer. She’s not real, and what they seem to have is not real, either. He loves the rush he feels when he is talking to her, but it keeps him from having any real relationships with real people. And that, of course, is the danger of cyber “relationships.” They are emotionally stimulating, but socially crippling.

“How do you share your life with someone?” Samantha asks when Theodore tries to tell her about his relationship with Catherine and his grief at their breakup.

“Through influence,” he suggests, thinking about how he and Catherine would talk to each other about their writing and their careers. “Try this, try that,” he explains about their creative influence on one another. “You grow and change together,” he continues, trying to understand the sharing of a life as he explains it to Samantha — who is, of course, his own creation. “But the danger is growing apart.”

Perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love — true love, with a real human — is insanity.

He believes that he cannot grow apart from Samantha, because they are so completely in sync and in love. “You’re mine,” he says simply. But there are no guarantees in cyber relationships; there is only what you believe you have created. And that, too, is a danger. It is far too easy in cyber relationships to invent personas that aren’t quite real, to create dialogs that are fresh and funny and exciting, but in the end are just scripts in an evolving melodrama.

Are human relationships any better? “Falling in love is socially acceptable insanity,” Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) opines at one point. And perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love — true love, with a real human — is insanity. Perhaps there isn’t any logic or sense or sanity about human relationships. They’re hard to develop and even harder to maintain, especially in this day when everyone’s head seems to be dipped toward an electronic device. “Falling in friendship” can be just as inexplicable. We seem drawn toward communicating with cyber friends, checking our email and updating our tweets, even while a real, live friend is right there beside us. It’s a serious and growing problem, this love affair with electronics, a problem that is beautifully, disturbingly displayed in this creative and powerful film.


Editor's Note: Review of "Philomena," directed by Stephen Frears. BBC Films, 2013, 98 minutes; and "her," directed by Spike Jonze. Annapurna Pictures, 2013, 126 minutes.



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Filner Found Felonious in Sizzling Sex Scandal

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I am a resident of San Diego who has disliked former Mayor Robert Filner from the moment he first reared his ugly head in electoral politics — and that was a long, long time ago. As far as I’m concerned, he is a man with no good qualities. So I was not unhappy when he (at last!) became the subject of national ridicule. I was disappointed, however, that he was ridiculed almost exclusively for being what the early 20th century called a masher, “a man who attempts to force his attentions on a woman.”

Filner did hundreds of things wrong, besides planting unwelcome kisses and giving hugs from which women had difficulty escaping. I thought that some of those other things deserved notice also. But it was the sex behavior that drove him from office a few weeks ago.

On Oct. 15, Filner paid a surprise visit to a local court, where he admitted his guilt for one felony and two misdemeanors. The Los Angeles Times has a convenient summary:

The felony count involves allegations of false imprisonment by "violence, fraud, menace and deceit." The count alleges that Filner used undue force to hold a woman against her will at a political fundraiser in March, apparently in a move known derisively as the "Filner headlock."

The battery counts involve accusations that he kissed one woman at a Meet the Mayor session at City Hall in April and grabbed another by the buttocks at an environmental cleanup . . .

State Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said Filner's conduct — touching women inappropriately, kissing them without permission, whispering lewd suggestions — "was not only criminal, it was also an extreme abuse of power."

For such crimes, Filner will be sentenced to three years’ probation and forced to agree not to run for public office again.

News of this event ignited a controversy between citizens who thought he had been punished appropriately and citizens who thought he should have been taken out and hanged. I am one of the few people who appear to have been disgusted by the whole procedure.

First, of course, I’m disgusted with Filner. But second, I’m disgusted with the politically correct pretense that being gross and offensive amounts to “false imprisonment by violence, fraud, menace and deceit,” and that such conduct is something for criminal courts to involve themselves with.

I say “pretense” because nobody really believes that Filner imprisoned anyone, and few people really believe that kissing someone at a Meet the Mayor session should, even theoretically, send you to jail. Run you out of office — fine. But make you liable for imprisonment? Why?

Watch a movie from the 1960s or before, and you will see men — the heroes! — behaving toward women in ways ten times worse than the ways in which Filner behaved.

We live in a time when the news is full of stories about people who have assaulted other people, stolen their property, swindled them out of their life’s savings, clobbered them in a drunken rage, stolen their personal information (are you listening, US government?), instigated riots, kept but did not control vicious and destructive animals, spent years camping, pissing, and shitting on other people’s doorsteps, abandoned infant children while appropriating the mother’s welfare checks, paralyzed cities with acts of political self-expression, and yes, actually held other people against their will, who are never seriously prosecuted for anything — until the day when, by some amazing chance, they end up committing and being apprehended for what is then called “a major crime.” Few other people get excited, even when that happens. But along comes Filner, and the sky falls. The city, we are told, could proceed with the healing process only when Filner was dragged into court and forced by some secret process of plea bargaining into confessing to charges worthy of a pirate with free admission to a nunnery.

Watch a movie from the 1960s or before, and you will see men — the heroes! — behaving toward women in ways ten times worse than the ways in which Filner behaved. Now, in the great B movie that is our public lives, we see the forces of law and light acting exactly like the Legions of Decency that, we are told, used to make such a ridiculous to-do about morals.

The main indecency, it seems to me, is the American people’s long-standing habit of abandoning reason and proportion whenever they hear the magic word SEX. Picture Filner in the dock, confessing to those high crimes and misdemeanors. Now picture the kings and queens of the “music” world, standing on spotlit stages, collecting awards for purveying attitudes toward sex and women so vile, so lewd, that they cannot be exemplified on a site like this.

There is something badly wrong about Robert Filner. There is something much worse about the atmosphere in which we live.




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Who, Me? Phony?

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“The president is focused on what we can do for the middle class in this country” — Jay Carney, White House spokesman, explaining why President Obama hadn’t commented on offenses against women when perpetrated by prominent members of the Democratic Party.

"Now is not the time to go backwards — back to the time middle-class jobs and neighborhood infrastructure were sacrificed to downtown special interests. We need to continue to move forward." — Robert Filner (Democrat), mayor of San Diego, explaining why he was going to resist a move to recall him, prompted by allegations of sexual and financial improprieties.

For many years “It’s for the Children!” was the card thrown on the table of rhetoric whenever America’s rulers and managers wanted more money to do something foolish. Now another trump has been designated: “It’s for the Middle Class.”

As a member of the middle class, I find this ironic. The intended beneficiaries are invariably people who want to tax and regulate the middle class. They are ordinarily rich people, or people who are about to become rich, in money or power, from the aforementioned taxes and regulations. Robert (“Bob”) Filner, who on August 23 resigned as mayor of my town, San Diego, is an example. He apparently doesn’t have a big bank account, although he is suspected of tapping the city treasury to provide himself with certain luxuries and accommodations. But he loves the power to tax and spend. I well remember the scene in Congress when Clinton’s tax raise squeaked through the House. Filner, then a member of that illustrious body, pushed his way to the front of the chamber and did a little dance, jumping up and down with joy because of this new squeeze on the middle class.

Phony? Oh yeah.

This summer, President Obama suddenly developed an aversion to phoniness, though not to the phoniness of his own supporters — only to the alleged phoniness of people who accuse his supporters of phoniness. Phoniness about Benghazi. Phoniness about “national security” spying. Phoniness about IRS corruption. Those are the three big current scandals of Obama’s administration, and he himself had previously treated at least one of them as a distressing scandal. In every case, however, his administration has done everything that coverups and lies could do to make itself even more scandalous.

Filner pushed his way to the front of the chamber and did a little dance, jumping up and down with joy because of this new squeeze on the middle class.

Things were getting so bad, and so obvious, that sometime in the midst of a long July, the gilded flunkies in the White House decided that the catchword of the season would be “phony scandals.” From the president on down, everyone would use that phrase on every possible occasion. And for a solid month they did so.

It was a dotty attempt to end the administration’s credibility problem, and it was conspicuously counterproductive. After three weeks, polls showed that something like 70% of respondents believed that the scandals weren’t phony at all, that the phoniness was entirely that of the deniers. The campaign continued, despite the fact that only people paid to be Democrats took the message seriously, and then only in public. Do you think that even professional supporters of all things Obama sat and brooded to themselves, “All these scandals . . . all this evidence about incompetence and lies and stonewalling. . . . It all seemed so real. But now . . . now that the president has examined everything so thoroughly, I can see that . . . hard as it may be to believe . . . all of it is just, well . . . phony”? Do you think they said that to themselves? Or do you think they said, “Well, maybe somebody will believe what we’re saying. Anyway, it’s a living.”

But the message, however stupid and self-defeating, caused real concern among reflective people. Had the administration, they wondered, lost its last ties with reality? These people were right, but they were over-reflective. They couldn’t see how funny the whole thing was.

I’m glad I saw it, because for me it stripped some of the last remnants of scariness from Obama’s demagoguery. I was behind the curve, of course; all the surveys showed that with most people he had lost his credibility within the first six months of his first term. That’s one reason why he barely beat Mitt Romney, who was nobody’s idea of a strong, compelling candidate. But now I could see exactly how phony the president’s mindless repetition and affected intonation — characteristic of his whole rhetorical career — can make him look. It was irresistibly comic to see him pause and marvel, in speech after speech, about how Washington had been so distracted by all its made-up causes of concern, its phony scandals, that it couldn’t do its work (i.e., do what he told it).

Like a lot of other politicians, the man still hadn’t adapted to the age of video. He actually appeared to believe that no one could access any more than one version of what he said, or that anyone who somehow figured out how to do so would naturally forget all the other versions as soon as the next mesmerizing performance appeared on the TV screen.

The president offered a virtuoso impersonation of a poor, deranged individual who is continually surprised by what he himself is saying. First the little hesitation, the fake attempt to discover the right phrase, the twisting of the countenance as if the whole face were saying, “This can’t be true! But it is! And it’s my duty to warn my fellow citizens!” — classic signs of bewilderment. Then, at last, he found the phrase! And it was . . . wait for it . . . “All these phony scandals”! Sometimes, reaching for the ultimate dramatic effect, he added, “and the Lord knows what.”

Well, you have to admire a president who at least pretends to believe in God. His real trust, however, was in his audience’s total ignorance — or something worse, its cynicism. Because, as I said, his performance was universally recognized as what it was, a performance. The fact that professional Democrats and party bigots were actually pleased by it, though they knew it was a lie, says a great deal about a large segment of our so-called political life.

The president offered a virtuoso impersonation of a poor, deranged individual who is continually surprised by what he himself is saying.

Now then. Speaking of phonies, I don’t need to remind you of former Congressmen Anthony Weiner and soon-to-be-former Mayor Robert Filner, who, like the patron demon of “progressive” politics, Teddy Kennedy, were completely correct — politically correct — about Women, except when they met an actual woman. Their responses to the revelation of their sexual idiocies were predictably phony: “I need help.” “I need more help.” “I need yet more help.” “And I’m getting it. But what the people really want me to talk about is what I can do for the middle class. Meanwhile, pity and sympathize. With me. And if you don’t, you’re a lousy rightwinger.”

I am happy to join with my fellow Americans in saying that I do not pity and sympathize. Like most of them, I’ve enjoyed the humiliation of Filner and Weiner (as I always enjoyed the humiliation of Kennedy). For three reasons.

First, I was happy that these mountebanks, whose political nostrums, once consumed, would give the government even more tyrannical power over our lives, had been interrupted in their sordid careers. Weiner’s sexual antics (and attempted coverups, evasions, and so on, delightful in themselves) denied him any possibility of being elected mayor of New York. Filner’s sexual antics, and his plucky refusal to resign his office, paralyzed the “progressive” forces that he claimed to represent in San Diego. The extent of “progressivism” was revealed by his crazed resignation speech. After repeatedly asserting that he was the victim of a “lynch mob” organized by the enemies of progress, bent on conducting a “coup” to throw a good man out of office, he provided a list of goals that, he suggested, were the priorities of his political faction: municipal planning by a crew of “world-class urban thinkers” already ensconced in City Hall, the bikification and solarization of the city, the placement of San Diego on the front lines of the war against “climate change,” an “efficient borders” meld of San Diego with Mexico. (Many of the people who spoke to the City Council in defense of Filner had relied on a translator when they threatened political action against anyone who voted to can him.) He gave lengthy tribute to “union leaders” who, he revealed to no one’s surprise, had been his most faithful and consistent guides. He ended with an inspirational quotation from (guess who?) Teddy Kennedy.

So, my second reason for wanting Filner and Weiner to hang in there was simply the educational value of their performance. I admit, however, that Filner’s leave-taking provided its own education in the way in which cities are run. He negotiated an agreement to resign (signed on August 23 but effective August 30, which gives him a few days to do as much damage as he can) in exchange for the city’s paying lots or all of his legal bills. Among the negotiators, be it noted, was the public official who will become interim mayor and at least one other public official who, like the first, may run for his office. Filner’s lawyers will be paid by the city, and he will be defended by the city against a lawsuit filed by Gloria Allred on behalf of a former city employee. The reason for this absurd bailout? According to the soon-to-be interim mayor, “This settlement is an end to our civic nightmare and allows this city to begin to heal."Why is it that the medical metaphor sounds phony? It’s because the city isn’t sick; its political leaders are. The Filner affair continued to dramatize and explain that sickness.

My third reason for relishing the humiliation of Filner and Weiner is that I have long regarded those two as virtually the most obnoxious people in politics (since the demise of Uncle Ted). I can’t forget watching Filner’s little dance in the chamber of the House. I can’t forget all the nasty things I’ve noticed about him — and here I’m not talking about sexual things or even illegal things but all those qualities that have made him loathed, as a person, by the people who encounter him. This was one of the most notorious facts about San Diego politics, and it is a measure of “progressive” integrity that the same set of people who initiated the campaign to remove him had, a few months before, pushed him vigorously as their candidate for mayor. They craved a leftwing Democrat and thought he was the only one with the organization to win. At the same time, they despised him. Weiner, when in Congress, was the “progressive” guy who was always leaping in front of the camera to rant against all criticism of his party. He specialized in low insults, and when asked to return to the question the interviewer had asked him, would hum little tunes to himself and smirk and walk in circles and say, “Are you ready? Are you ready now? Are you ready to let me speak now?”

Imagine a more libertarian society, in which virtually all current politicians would sink to the social level dictated by their intellectual competence.

It’s interesting to ask oneself what roles various people would occupy if our political system were different from what it is. The philosophical answer may be, It’s a meaningless question, because in a different system those people would have developed in different ways. Perhaps. I have my doubts about environmental theories of character formation. But the question is fun, at least.

I like to imagine a more libertarian society, in which virtually all current politicians would sink to the social level dictated by their intellectual competence. The two Presidents Bush would be CEOs of unimportant firms, prevented by abler people on their staffs from facing any realities requiring them to do more than decide what color of paint should be applied to the men’s restroom. Several members of the Supreme Court would be justices of the peace in small towns in the Florida panhandle. Many members of Congress would be good guys running small local businesses; many others would be the people who show up at PTA meetings determined to advance Their Own Agenda; a significant proportion of them would be in jail.

Then I think about a less libertarian society — a dictatorship. What role would our contemporaries play in that? It would take an extreme case of American exceptionalism to dream that they all, as good Americans, would be fighting the Power. They wouldn’t. The Bushes would be doing what I just suggested. So would most judges and legislators. A few would actually be fighting the Power, either because they had an ideology (I picture Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas) or because they knew that a dictatorship just isn’t right. I believe that a small but significant number of legislators, Democratic and Republican, would feel like that.

But can there be any question about where the Clintons would be? Or where Obama would be? They would be the Power. They would be fighting one another to remain the Power, but that’s where they would belong, because on the evidence of what they do right now, they have no compunctions about gathering and using power. To them, the exercise of power presents no moral issues, and they are convinced of their inherent right to wield it. This is the dictatorial personality, in its several versions.

True, they would wield dictatorial power in various ways. I can imagine Hillary Clinton staging a military putsch; I can only imagine Obama getting someone else to do it for him. But you see what I mean. And Filner and Weiner are psychologically fitted for the role of dictator as few other people are. Arrogant, domineering, with no sense of limits, utterly convinced of their right to rule, they would seize the throne or die trying. It’s not for nothing that Weiner and his insufferable wife — whose prepared statement in defense of him resembled the commencement address of a high school student commenting on her Best Friends Forever, and was read in a tone appropriate to its content — are slaves of the Clintons.

Speculation, mere speculation. And none of this has anything to do with sex. Let’s think now about the sex part — or, more sensibly, about the language in which it has been discussed.

I do not wish to be misunderstood. Weiner’s sexting was gross and stupid. Filner’s (alleged) custom of cornering women and demanding a date was reprehensible. But that’s as far as I’m willing to go. You can consider sexting immoral if you want; I don’t, so long as it’s among consenting adults. I see nothing morally wrong with pornography, and although Weiner is not my idea of a pornographic object, each to his own taste. And he wasn’t exactly committing adultery. Filner’s (alleged) conduct — grabbing women, kissing or trying to kiss them, touching their posteriors, pressing them for a date — was obviously wrong; it was a way of manipulating other people in an area of their life that should be sacred to their own choice. It implied that he had a right to rule any woman he met, and that is immoral by any principles of individualism. If it’s shown that he was trying to coerce women into having sex with him in order to keep their jobs or get some favor from the government, then we don’t have to rely on principles of individualism in order to convict him; he’s a creep by any standard.

Nevertheless, this is still pretty low-level stuff. It isn’t rape, much less the rape of the Sabines. In my younger, much younger, days, I, though male, encountered similar conduct, from both men and women. I didn’t like it; I resisted it; I continue to resent it. Yet in those days I was also the victim of an attempted mugging; an attempted physical attack by a gang of other college students who should not have been drunk on the streets at midnight; the theft and destruction of my car . . . . Quite a few things, none of them out of the ordinary, as this world goes. Today, like other ordinary, middle-class Americans, I am constantly robbed by the government of a large part of my income and freedom, and this has gotten worse as I have gotten older, thanks to people like Filner and Weiner.

Meanwhile, the mayor was accused of not showing up at a meeting at which, had he voted, he could have saved the city $25 million. Oops.

But the language that is used of Filner and Weiner is about a hundred times worse than the language commonly used about a mugging, a gang attack, the theft of a car from an impoverished young person, the theft of livelihood from tens of millions of ordinary people. You would think that Filner and Weiner had committed some Hitlerlike atrocity. But they didn’t.

In Filner’s case, we have heard much about the atrocious nature of his being 70 years old and allegedly “preying on” women as old as . . . 67! What a “dirty old man,” to pick on a “great grandma”! The leader of the anti-Filner forces, Donna Frye, a former member of the city council, former candidate for mayor, and perpetual “progressive” politico who insisted that Filner be elected last year, and got her way, now proclaimed, “Bob Filner is tragically unsafe for any woman to approach.” (I’m leaving out all the tears and self-applause about how hard it was for her to say these words, but duty impelled her, etc.) The salient image is the mayor as King Kong — but worse, because the mighty Kong was interested only in Fay Wray.

Here’s a story about a retired master sergeant in the Air Force, an accuser of Filner:

"He looks at my [business] card. He looks at me. He says, 'Fernandez. Are you married? Do you have a husband?' Very quick, very direct. I said, 'No, I'm divorced,'" she told CNN. "'Well, you're beautiful, and I can't take my eyes off you, and I want to take you to dinner.' I was really shocked and I was like, 'Uh, OK,'" Fernandez said. Then came a phone call and voice mail, which Fernandez never returned.

Oh the humanity! As one of the comedians on “Red Eye” said, the first few complaints seemed serious; the later ones made you think, “What next — ‘The jerk wanted to hold the door open for me’?”

Yes, Filner’s alleged sexual behavior was stupid, and wrong. Meanwhile, the mayor was accused of not showing up at a meeting at which, had he voted, he could have saved the city $25 million. Oops. Duly noted. But that’s not a reason to get upset. It’s the sex thing that really gets us.

Why is this, in a society that long ago assimilated the virtually incredible grossness of the Kennedys’ sexual regime? In a society that regards Bill Clinton as an elder statesman? In a society that honors with profits and sanctifies with awards the grossness of hip-hop “culture”? In a society in which no stand-up comedian can succeed without sex talk that would make a street girl blush? In a society in which the most popular kind of joke about unworthy businessmen or public servants involves their being raped in prison?

Phoniness? Yes, there is a phoniness even deeper than Obama’s.




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Impudence, Sir, Sheer Impudence

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In his history of England, the great classical liberal Thomas Macaulay continually used the word “impudent” to describe the proceedings of the English kings as they labored to find new ways of invading their subjects’ liberties. The word has ironic truth. We think of someone as “impudent” when he lodges obnoxious objections to the doings of people holding justified authority — but unjustified authority is impudence as well, and it is almost always worse.

This is the year of impudence.

President Obama impudently spends trillions he doesn’t have, and sends the bill to us, and future generations, as if only he and his friends mattered. His friends, in turn, spend virtually all their time telling us things that aren’t true, as if we weren’t smart enough to detect the fraud.

Government labor unions impudently insist that the nation, and the citizens of every state and city, must bankrupt themselves in order to provide luxurious retirements for people who, in many cases, impudently didn’t do a lick of work while they were “employed.”

Now justifiably-former Senator Santorum impudently lectures a nation of other adults about the evils of the “pandemic” of “pornography,” insisting that he knows it is “toxic” for marriages, “relationships,” and, I suppose, the birds and the bees, and promising that he will try to ban it.

Anyone who knows anything about what Santorum’s website calls “relationships” can think of some that may have been saved by the judicious use of “pornography.” (Yes, and some that may have been harmed. Is that the business of the law, or Sexologist in Chief Santorum?) And it would be funny, if it weren’t so cruel, to think about federal agents swooping down on some 90-year-old widower in North Dakota who, like the old bathtub-gin artists, whiled away his hours making his own dirty stories and pictures, and possibly purveying them to some other old degenerate.

But the major effect of Santorum’s remarks — nay, of his very being — is impudence, sheer impudence. Who does this man think he is? What item in the Republicans’ limited-government agenda does he suppose gives him, or any other politician, the right to act as Father Inquisitor to fellow adults?

Of all the year’s disgusting performances, this, to me, is the most disgusting, because it is the most impudent.

So far.




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Insurance — Against What?

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The brouhaha over whether Catholic institutions should be required to provide insurance coverage for contraception highlights everything that is wrong with medical insurance today. And Obama’s “compromise” of requiring insurance companies to provide contraception for free, thereby sidestepping the argument that Catholic institutions shouldn’t have to pay for it, is even worse.

No one should use insurance to pay for contraception. It is a regular, pre-planned expense of daily living. There is nothing to “insure.” There is no guesswork in whether a person will need it or not. It is the best example of the current problems with medical "insurance."

The purpose of insurance is to protect against unexpected catastrophic expenses — the kind of costs you wouldn’t be able to cover on your own. It is a way of hedging your bets against disaster. People pool their money, and whoever has a disaster gets to take money out of the pot. If too many disasters occur, the pool runs dry. The only remedy is to increase the amount each person pays into the pool, and decrease (through healthier, safer living) the number of disasters that individuals can’t pay for themselves.

Some people may never “get their money’s worth” out of their insurance premiums, because they remain healthy and accident-free. And that’s a good thing.

Insurance is the lottery you don’t want to win.

We have to stop thinking about insurance as some kind of unlimited prepaid plan in which everyone scrambles to “get their money’s worth.” For an insurance program to work, there need to be more healthy people than unhealthy people. Insurance premiums always have to outweigh medical payments. But when we start covering every little doctor’s appointment and medical expense, there isn’t enough money left for the true disasters without vastly increasing the premiums.

Contraception is a perfect example. There is nothing catastrophic or unexpected about its cost. If a person is having sex and doesn’t want to make a baby, the cost of contraception is as regular and predictable as clockwork. There is no unexpected event to insure against (unless the contraception doesn’t work — but that’s a different medical event). There is no reason to insure against the possibility that you will have sex.




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