The Mystics of Magic and the Mystics of Science

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In John Galt’s climactic speech in Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand describes two foes of capitalism, the “mystics of the spirit” (or, as Rand also put it, “witch doctors”), who promote religion, and the “mystics of muscle” or “Attilas,” that is, especially, the communists, who are atheists and promote Marxist materialism as the antidote for religion. What gets lost in a lot of libertarian theory is the fact that, to take Rand’s idea and expand on it, people who believe in rationality, science, and technology are not necessarily friends of liberty. Indeed, precisely the opposite is often true. Some of capitalism’s most vicious enemies have come from the ranks of scientists and technologists.

Two types of mystics do exist — whom I prefer to call the mystics of magic and the mystics of science. The latter are my main subjects here.

I am an atheist. Not only do I not believe in God, but I am also of the rather abnormal (but increasingly popular) sentiment that the proposition “I know that God does not exist” can be rationally justified, i.e., atheism is knowledge and not mere belief. However, many of the people who share my view go in the opposite direction and elevate science into a new religion. Here I refer not to the cult of Scientology but to the scientific atheism of, for example, famous philosophy professor Daniel Dennett.

Let me offer two examples.

First, in a Facebook group that discusses philosophy I recently saw someone say something like this: “bitterness and sweetness do not exist, what exists is atoms and void, and sweetness is an illusion.” This assertion was provided as a scientific approach to philosophy, but it manifests a desire to transform science into a new religion, a mysticism of science. Such a religion would depict the world you and I perceive as an illusion. Instead of saying that access to the hidden truth of reality is revealed by God and the Bible, the mystics of science say that revelation comes from reading science textbooks and scientific journals and knowing the results of experiments and research studies.

Some of capitalism’s most vicious enemies have come from the ranks of scientists and technologists.

Mystics of science love to talk about how neurobiology has figured out all the ways that the human brain is flawed and perceives illusions. Yet, as I explain in my book The Apple of Knowledge, the truly scientific attitude is that the sweetness of an apple does exist objectively in reality, in that the apple’s sweetness, and the apple itself, which physically exists in objective reality, are one and the same thing. The apple’s sweetness is what that collection of atoms tastes like when it acts as a whole upon the tongue’s taste buds. In other words, qualia exist, but they are not subjective; instead the experience of something that physically exists is identical with that thing in itself, because the brain’s means of perception do not alter or create the objects that are perceived. (This is the tip of iceberg, and I needed 400 pages in my book to explain what I mean; the theory is fully developed there.)

The mystics of science would reply that I am ignorant of the fact that taste comes from smell and not from taste buds, so the taste in the mouth must be an illusion. To this I reply that these hate the idea that human beings have direct access to knowledge of objective reality. I say that we can know what an apple tastes like by eating it; the idea that we cannot know, that sweetness is an illusion — this is sheer mysticism. In my opinion, these mystics of science are far worse than the mystics of magic, because at least the religious mystics are open and honest in their commitments.

Second, Daniel Dennett, a popular advocate of the movement called “New Atheism,” has expressed a position that I call “biological relativism.” This, basically, is the idea that reality looks the way it does because the human body and human sensory organs evolved in such a way that we humans experience this world of our experience. He has actually said that apples look red because the human brain evolved to sort edible objects by color, so that redness comes not from the apple but from the evolution of the human digestive system as expressed in the human brain’s hunger regions. This means, ultimately, that the sky is blue because blueberries are blue. (See Dennett, Consciousness Explained [1992].) If that is true, then the world we experience is entirely relative to perception, is completely subjective, and is a creation of the human brain. This, to me, means that access to objective existence is impossible, since we could never get outside our brains to see reality as it exists objectively.

The only thing about Dennett’s idea that is scientific is the allusion to evolution and the brain. In every other respect it is mysticism, because it denies the possibility that human beings have direct access to objective reality by means of perceiving the external world. Taking my cue from Rand, I dispute any position which defends that idea, considering it not only false but unscientific. The experience of an apple’s redness and the physical reality of the apple are identical, not such that the apple itself is subjective, but such that the experienced apple is objective. Redness exists in physical objects and is not a subjective creation of the eyes, despite all objections from the mystics of science, who would lecture me about the workings of the retina, the optic nerve, and the occipital lobe. Mystics of science might say that the depth and length we perceive are illusions because our brains and eyes process the data subjectively — despite the fact that measurements of space and time recorded by scientific instruments are accurate and objective, e.g. a building could be 100 feet long but our eyes cannot see this clearly.

The mystics of science hate the idea that human beings have direct access to knowledge of objective reality.

Kant once helped to save religion from science by persuading people that the experience of reality is subjective and knowledge comes from intuition. Dennett, in the name of science, simply buys into this Kantian error. To me, if reality is subjective, then wishes and thoughts can control it, which is a religious worldview that tells people to seek to change their lives through the power of prayer. In contrast, if reality is objective, then it exists outside the mind, in which case science and technology are the correct approach to improving human existence, and Francis Bacon’s maxim “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” is justified because the mind must obey reality in order to succeed. A true philosophical science says that we must learn about reality by observing the external world, instead of trying to use our minds to impose subjective phenomena onto reality. (Again, these are complicated ideas that cannot be presented in one short essay, but I try to explain it fully in The Apple of Knowledge.)

Now let me explain why atheism has very little to do with libertarianism and, contrary to Rand’s assertions, why there is no direct correlation between rationality and freedom. This is obviously true because, historically, the Marxists were (mostly) atheists, and the conservatives who have fought against socialism in America are (mostly) Christians. For one poignant case study, note that the famous science fiction author H.G. Wells was a notorious socialist, as were many men of science of his era. The trend continues to this day, as antisocialists tend to be religious, and socialists and modern liberals tend to be secular.

In The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek tried to explain why men of science tend to be socialists. He argued that scientists seek order and patterns in reality, and this leads them to try using government to impose their ordered plans and schemes onto society; this is a recipe for socialism, especially in the context of the Hayekian belief that freedom is consistent with an order spontaneously emerging from chaos. Just as a scientist might want to design a new plan for a car engine to improve fuel efficiency, a scientist might also want to design a new plan for an economy to improve allocations of wealth. The problem is that a car engine is a mindless tool, whereas an economy is a collection of thinking human beings, each with his or her own plans, standards of “improvement,” and rights to life, liberty, and property. Many of the bosses at the American government’s regulatory agencies are scientists or technologists with advanced degrees, and many of the nonscientists have degrees in economics and mathematics. The EPA’s regulators are often experts in the science of the environment and pollution, and therefore knowledgeable in chemistry, metallurgy, engineering, physics, etc. But their science does not dispose them to become libertarians.

Being a scientist, or being rational, or being an atheist, has very little to do with political support for freedom. If any group has been more responsible than others for saving America from a descent into total communism, it is the conservative movement, which is fueled by a belief, one which I think on its face is irrational and crazy, that God supports capitalism and the Bible demands that the American patriotic tradition of free market economics be defended. As Hayek has noted in his essay “Why I am Not a Conservative,” the conservatives love capitalism not chiefly because of any of its virtues but only because it is the old, established, traditional system in America. This attitude is not particularly intelligent or rational, but it achieves a practical result — the defense of liberty by a vast portion of the American voters. To cite only one example, the Tea Party in the House of Representatives, backed by the Tea Party conservatives, has done much to stop Obama’s socialist agenda, although there was little it could do to repeal laws that were already passed, such as Obamacare.

Without much exaggeration it can be said that, absent the conservatives, you would not be able just to go to a coffee shop and buy a cup of coffee. Instead, the atheist Marxist central planners, chosen by Obama and his cronies, would assign your beverages to you, just as they want to assign your healthcare to you, and you would drink carrot juice instead of coffee whether you wanted to or not, and see the end of a soldier’s gun if you tried to escape from the socialist plan drinking. You owe your freedom to the Bible, at least to some extent, whether you like it or not.

Being a scientist, or being rational, or being an atheist, has very little to do with political support for freedom.

The best defense of liberty, which most libertarians ignore or are ignorant of, is a Biblical idea, the Golden Rule. This principle of ethics asserts that you should do unto others as you would have others do unto you. In Golden Rule Libertarianism (Hasan [2014]), I argue that the Golden Rule’s implementation in politics is, and can only be, libertarianism: if you desire the freedom to do what you want, you must let me have the freedom to do what I want; but if you force me to obey you, I will be justified in forcing you to obey me, which you cannot possibly want.

In short, the hatred of religion that is felt by some libertarians, especially those who entered the movement through Ayn Rand (but also, to some degree, through Murray Rothbard) is misplaced. If Rand’s “mystics of muscle” idea is taken seriously, then there is a basis in her texts for opposing the mystics of science as fiercely and ardently as we oppose the mystics of magic.

Works Cited

Hasan, Russell. The Apple of Knowledge. Norwalk, Connecticut, Russell Hasan Books, 2014.
Hasan, Russell. Golden Rule Libertarianism. Norwalk, Connecticut. Russell Hasan Books, 2014.
Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom. Routledge, London. The University of Chicago Press, 1944
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York, New York. Random House, 1957.




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Noah Sails Where No Rock Ever Sailed Before

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Myth has been defined as “a story, often employing superhuman figures and supernatural events, that attempts to explain something about the world and that expresses some important value or belief of a culture or society” (Howard Canaan, Tales of Magic from around the World). Myths have simple plots with few specific details; their meaning can evolve over time to represent changing cultural values. This is what director Darren Aronofsky has done with his epic new film, Noah — he has created a myth like that.

Audiences who want to see the biblical story of Noah will be disappointed. Judeo-Christian believers, indeed, will be offended and outraged by the laughable inaccuracies in this movie, from the biblical point of view. (Believers will know they’re in trouble when they see the film begin with the words, “In the beginning there was nothing.”) Darren Aronofsky has rewritten a new myth, for modern times. It is no longer the story of a prophet who was chosen by God to build an ark and repopulate the earth after everyone else drowns. The conflict is no longer between God and Satan but between humans and Rock People (representing Earth — but more below). Rock People communicate with a Creator, but humans do not communicate with God. The purpose of religion is not to forge a relationship between God and people but to protect the earth and the animals. “If anything happens to one of these creatures, it will be lost forever,” Noah warns his sons, but he has no similar concern for humanity. As Noah walks among the wicked community that is about to be destroyed by the flood, he observes many gruesome acts, but the pinnacle of their depravity is presented as they cleave animal carcasses for cooking. Methuselah explains, “Men will be punished for what they have done to this world,” not for what they have done to one another. Noah is a modern myth that represents the hegemonic values of today.

Aronofsky fractures the Bible, combining snippets from several biblical stories and pretending that they all happened to Noah.

Maybe it was because I had just seen the new Mr. Peabody and Sherman movie, but Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales kept coming to mind while I was watching Noah. Aronofsky fractures the Bible, combining snippets from several biblical stories and pretending that they all happened to Noah, including Eve’s attraction to the serpent, Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, Elisha’s army of angels, and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. It’s the most bizarre concoction, yet I’m sure that many gullible filmgoers went home saying, “Wow! I didn’t know Noah almost killed his granddaughters!” You see, in order to understand Rocky’s Fractured Fairy Tales, you had to know that Sleeping Beauty did not eat a poisoned apple.

And here’s another thing you probably wouldn’t know was in the Bible if you didn’t see this movie: God did not create humans — some crazy giant Rock People did. These Rock People look like piles of boulders until they pull themselves together, Transformer-like, and start stomping around the earth. They have multiple arms and glowing eyes and thundering voices à la Optimus Prime and are a whole lot more exciting than the voice of God. They create an eerie static hum whenever they’re close by, and they strike fear into the hearts of men. Except the hearts of the ones they like.

According to the Book of Aronofsky, these Rock People came from outer space as meteors of light and got stuck in the muck of primordial creation. They made humans out of the dust of the earth, and as the film opens they’re really mad at themselves for doing it because humans really suck. But you already know that, if you’ve been reading the newspapers lately.

See, it turns out that animals are “the innocents” and “man broke the world.” Eve’s real treachery wasn’t curiosity or disobedience or a desire for wisdom; it was that she brought children to the earth and allowed her descendants to wreak havoc there. Now Noah’s wife wants to do the same! But Father Noah Knows Best. He is determined to put all the animal pairs onto the ark and save only his three sons, his post-menopausal wife (Jennifer Connelly), and one barren girl (Emma Watson) so that humans cannot repopulate the earth and ruin it again. His job is simply to keep the animals safe until the flood subsides, and then quietly let humans become extinct.

It probably doesn’t surprise you that in this movie, Noah never communicates with God, or vice versa. So where does he get the idea of building the ark? From the dregs of a psychotropic tea given to him by Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Methuselah, by the way, has supernatural powers, but when he uses them to cause a wonderful and necessary miracle, Noah gets pretty ticked off and starts grabbing for daggers. Actually, there is very little to set Noah apart from the wickedness around him. He wields an ax and a bludgeon with the best of them, and he can be pretty heartless.

Despite the assertion that “in the beginning there was nothing,” there are deists in the movie. They just aren’t the prophets. The Rock People talk directly to a Creator, and so does Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), the leader of the wicked nomads and a descendant of Cain, who killed his brother Abel and was forced to bear a mark on his forehead as the first murderer. Tubal-cain doesn’t actually appear in the biblical story of Noah, but Aronofsky throws him in, probably because he became a blacksmith (Genesis 4:22) and is credited by many scriptorians with inventing weapons of war. While Noah is drinking the psychedelic Kool-Aid, Tubal-cain is calling out to God, “Speak to me! I am a man, made in your image. I am like you — I give life and I take it away. Why will you not converse with me?” Meanwhile, the priesthood that has been passed from Adam to Methuselah to Noah is embodied in the skin of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden. This is no mere fracture of the tale; Aronofsky delights in making the godly evil and evil godly.

The Rock People have multiple arms and glowing eyes and thundering voices à la Optimus Prime and are a whole lot more exciting than the voice of God.

Sure, I get it: Hollywood doesn’t like references to God (approving ones, anyway). And yes, I know the difference between Sunday School and the Cineplex; I wasn’t expecting a sermon. But why make a movie about Noah if you are going to leave out the driving force behind the story? It’s like making Clash of the Titans without Zeus or Poseidon. Why not just make a movie about Rock Giants that duke it out with brutal nomads while one family escapes in a boat with a bunch of animals? Let those of us who know how to read leave the theater saying, “Wow, did you catch those references to Noah?” instead of “Man, did he ever get that wrong!”

What drew Aronofsky to the story of Noah in the first place? I suspect it was the same characteristics that have kept myths alive for centuries. Archetypal characters, iconic conflicts, and simple truths about human nature resonate with us. One does not have to be religious to experience the resonance of biblical stories, nor should religious people be offended that I categorize biblical stories as myth. Contrary to popular opinion, “myth” does not mean “a lie,” or “a story that is not true.” Myths express “not historical or factual truth, but inner or spiritual truth. They are the shared stories that express insights about human nature, human society, or the natural world” (Canaan). Myths are so profound that they transcend the need to be factual. In fact, they can even transcend Hollywood’s need to be cynical.

Despite my criticism of the first two hours of this film, I found the conclusion profoundly satisfying. After all the fracturing and twisting and pushing away from humanity, Aronofsky ends with a cathartic moment of transformation and hope. It probably isn’t worth the two-hour journey to get there, and it’s totally out of whack with the source material. But Aronofsky creates a lovely scene of redemption at last.


Editor's Note: Review of "Noah," directed by Darren Aronofsky. Paramount Pictures, 2014, 138 minutes.



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Apple Pie, Puppy Dogs, and Sunshine

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Those promoting a political idea usually sell it to the public by portraying it as pure wonderfulness. “We want apple pie, puppy dogs, and sunshine for everybody!” And really, who wouldn’t want that?

I thought that by now I would have finished with the recently-failed Arizona SB 1062 “religious freedom” bill — the subject of my previous essay in Liberty. But the reaction my opinion has received, from several people I know, makes me realize I’ve only scratched the surface of a deeper problem, one that is, in the long run, far more interesting. To those of us who love to watch political theater for the sheer entertainment of it all, the phenomenon is fascinating indeed.

As the state held its breath to see if the governor would sign or veto SB 1062, I sat in an ice cream parlor with some friends. Inevitably, the subject came up, and I gave my take on it. Across the table from me, my friend John underwent an amazing transformation. For a moment, I thought he was going to turn into the Incredible Hulk.

Leaning into his whipped cream, his eyes bulging and forehead arteries popping, he said, “It’s about religious freedom, okay?!”

Apple pie, puppy dogs, sunshine, and religious freedom for everybody. Okay? But where does this leave people who know there’s a poison pill inside that candy shell?

Issues are framed this way, by those who promote them, so that anyone who opposes them looks like the baseborn child of Snidely Whiplash and Tokyo Rose. I like John very much, so I didn’t want to leave him with that impression. “I don’t think the bill would really do what it’s claimed to be trying to do,” I said. And then I told him why.

We are not an unfeeling nation. We do a powerful lot of feeling. But that we do precious little thinking has become painfully obvious.

Three or four people — out of all the millions in this country — filed silly lawsuits against merchants who refused, “for religious reasons,” not to serve them. We would never accept the notion that because of what three or four heterosexuals did, all of them should be judged guilty. But that is exactly what was done here. And it is done to gays and other minorities all the time, and for no other reason, apparently, than because it can be.

How does that serve liberty? How is it possible, on such a basis, even to make an intelligent or responsible decision about legislation — which is itself government intrusion, no matter how attractively it’s packaged — that affects the lives of millions? Appeals to wield the club of government this way are nearly always made on the basis of raw emotion. A free people who would remain free would be wise to pause, breathe, and think about the issue in the light of fact.

John responded to my opinion not with reason but emotion. He may have thought he was giving me a reason — “religious freedom” — but I was not questioning whether that is a good thing. I was challenging whether religious freedom would best be served by the bill proposed. I thought the measure taken was too extreme to be warranted by the incidents that provoked it, which might better be addressed in other ways. And I thought that its passage would bring consequences not only unintended but undesirable.

As I suggested in my previous piece on the subject, we could reform the civil court system to discourage frivolous lawsuits. If we absolutely could not resist passing yet another law protecting religious freedom, we could include a clause requiring merchants who would refuse to serve certain patrons to post their policy publicly. Far better, we could sidestep government coercion altogether and encourage those who proudly serve all customers without bias to participate in a plan to publicize this. In Arizona, for example, businesses can take the Unity Pledge. As those wishing to refuse same-sex couples’ business for religious reasons have no justification for hiding their light under a bushel, it’s difficult to see why they would want to keep their convictions a secret.

Other people with whom I have discussed this legislation have responded the same way John did. Motivated by passion, they want to act on passion. On cue, everybody — feel, feel, feel!

I might suggest that we are not an unfeeling nation. We do a powerful lot of feeling. But that we do precious little thinking has become painfully obvious.

Majorities tend, all too often, to resort to brute force. They do it simply because they are the majority, so they can get away with it. This is behavior conducive not to liberty but to license. Those who worship the power of the state seem unable to distinguish between the two. Those who believe in liberty — if we would keep that liberty — would be wise to make the distinction.




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The High and the Mighty

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Two thousand thirteen was a hard year for this column. As soon as things seemed to be settling down, another threat or evil tendency always intruded itself. You know what happens when you finally get the floor washed and waxed: along comes your neighbor, or the guy who’s replacing the sink, or your friend who just happened to be driving past, and suddenly the place is filthy again. Word Watch is still trying to clean up the mess of 2013, and now 2014 is making its own kinds of mess.

The verbal polluters hail from the strangest places. In December, Word Watch was informed, through the majesty of CNN, that someone absurdly styling himself William, Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn, Baron Carrickfergus, Royal Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, and heir to the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not to mention the British Dominions beyond the Seas, had made himself the centerpiece of a video documentary — a work so repulsive that it has to be noticed, and warned against, despite the strangeness of its apparition.

The thing is called “Prince William’s Passion,” but don’t get the wrong idea. What he’s passionate about is animal conservation in Zimbabwe. Oh fine. But the offspring of his passion — a documentary of unbearable length, whatever time it literally consumes — can be viewed for only a few minutes before one’s sanity is endangered. I stopped watching as soon as I suspected I was going crazy, so I didn’t get to see it all. It seems improbable, however, that the epos includes any reference to the fact that Zimbabwe harbors not only animals but one of the most rapacious tyrannies on earth. Prince William’s passion is conservation of wild life, not of human life.

Well, we all have our passions. Job candidates are tortured to reveal what they are passionate about. The people one meets at parties disconcertingly confess their lifelong passion for rubber baby buggy bumpers. Dead people are praised for having consistently succumbed to — I mean followed — theirpassions (note to file: check the Hitler obits). Angry people call radio advice shows to complain that their spouses are frustrating their passions — and again, sex is not the problem. The passion always turns out to be something like writing children’s books or running a home for ferrets.

Zimbabwe harbors not only animals but one of the most rapacious tyrannies on earth. Prince William’s passion is conservation of wild life, not of human life.

So the prince has passions; so what? What most alarmed this viewer was the documentary’s sad evidence of the deficient education that royal persons now receive. As the grand summary of his weltanschauung — or is it only his gestalt? — His Highness uttered these memorable words:

Conservation is so key.

For years we have observed the ugly progress of key from a normal, though uninteresting, modifier (“That was a key consideration”) to an ungainly predicate adjective (“That consideration is key”). So what’s wrong with that? Two things.

1. Key naturally evokes images of a physical object, an object that exists not for itself but as a means of opening or entering something else. The original setting of key was in sentences such as, “That consideration is the key to our success.”Thrusting key onto the stage alone is contrary to established and useful idiom and associations; it needs, at least, a noun immediately following it (“key consideration”).

2. Used in the new, naked way, key usurps the place of more useful and exact modifiers. There’s a big difference between an important consideration and a crucial consideration,a helpful consideration, and so on. Key obliterates the alternatives and ends the possibility of precision.

Maybe that’s why it has become a cliché — that is, an easy substitute for thought. Much worse, however, is the elevation of key to the status of a metaphysical quality that cannot be qualified but can only be intensified. How key is conservation, Your Highness? Is it really key? Sort of key? Very key? He can’t say. All he can say — with passion — is that it is so key. Dude.

Another dude is Christopher James (“Chris”) Christie, governor of New Jersey. Unlike Prince William, Christie is a dude but not a twit. He earned a lot of praise when, on January 9, he held a long, colloquial, and seemingly frank press conference to deny that he had anything to do with the artificial bottleneck that his aides created at the entrance to the George Washington Bridge, in order to wreak vengeance on political foes. What has been forgotten was Christie’s first response to the bridge news (Jan. 8). Here is the entirety of his statement:

What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.

Notice that second sentence. It declares that the governor is outraged that wrong conduct happened without his knowledge — literally meaning that he wouldn’t have been outraged, had he known about it. He came close to a similar blunder in the first sentence, which damns whatever it was that he saw “today for the first time” but leaves open the possibility that he wouldn’t regret any bad behavior he’d seen for the second or third time.

Almost everything about the statement is odd. When have you ever heard of conduct being made? And when, in normal life, have you heard an apology that says nothing whatever about what is being apologized for? Unfortunately, however, such abnormalities have become normal in our political life. Politicians and their highly specialized, highly paid, highly communicative aides are constantly losing control of basic English, and apologies are constantly being wrenched into things like pretzels — all twist and no center.

Obama’s popularity is now at an all-time low, and according to all available polling, a major cause is people’s growing conviction that he is a phony, pure and simple.

Following the practice of his friend, President Obama, Christie originally reacted to criticism by sneering at it. He spent a long time denying that the bridge episode had happened. He ridiculed the very idea. He found nothing exceptional or exceptionable in the long, gross imposition of force that someone perpetrated on the public by restricting rush-hour access to a bridge in order to conduct a “traffic study.” If Christie had any interest in what words mean, he would have said, “What the hell kind of study!” and brought the matter — whether it was a traffic study or an intentional persecution of innocent drivers — to an immediate end. Of course he didn’t. Then, like Obama on the IRS scandal, he became outraged. Aren’t you tired of that word? Aren’t you saddened by it?

One thing that everyone continues to be tired of and saddened by is the president’s folksy fakery. There are millions of examples, but here’s one from an interview he gave on Nov. 14:

I’m just gonna keep workin’ as hard as I can around [he emphasized that word] the priorities the American people have set for me.

If you want proof of how out of touch Obama is, try that remark. Nobody thinksthat by dropping his g’s he’s bein’ anythin’ other than phony, yet he jus’ keeps on doin’ it. As for workin’, it didn’t take very long for people to find out that Obama doesn’t work very hard at anything but golf. After seein’ his popularity fall from very high to very low during the first few months of his presidency, he started playin’ these verbal tricks. Result? Nothin’. His popularity is now at an all-time low, and according to all available polling, a major cause is people’s growing conviction that he is a phony, pure and simple. But he jus’ keeps on pretendin’ that he’s nothin’ but a workin’ man, sweatin’ away on the job site jus’ like ever’body else.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the president’s curious conviction that he lives in the 1970s. I doubt that there’s a political program he’s offered that wasn’t one of the American people’s priorities, as identified by Jimmy Carter — with the sole exception of amnesty for illegal aliens, whom ’70s Democrats generally perceived as inimical to the cause of high union wages. (They still are inimical to union wages, but the unions of today are down so low that their only hope is to assemble enough naïve voters to help them retain their political power and subsidies.)

The tipoff is that word around. Nobody but leftists, embedded in the ideas of the ’70s like rocks in a glacier, uses around in that (frankly) idiotic way. Asked what they’re doing with their lives, kids who have been coopted into what are now old-leftist pressure groups can be depended upon to say, “I’m working around issues of income inequality”; “We’re working around questions of peace”; “I’m interested in working around issues like, uh, climate change.” In the same way, Obama keeps working around priorities.

Just try to picture this working around. Imagine an issue, or a question, or, for God’s sake, a priority. Never mind whether you think that the American people set thatpriority. Just try to picture the thing itself. Now picture somebody working around it. What’s he doing? Is he fencing it off? Laying tile to keep the ground water out? Or is he evading it, as people do when they try to get around an obstacle?

However you picture it, around in ’70s speak has the same rhetorical function that it has in such sentences as, “I think there are around a hundred fallacies in the president’s argument.” Its only use is to impart vagueness. Yet in the stale old “radical” tradition from which Obama has not escaped, people assume that around imparts some kind of solemnity. It doesn’t, and the fact that they think it does is sad evidence of their inability to reflect on what they’re saying.

It wasn’t the grace of God that kept Barack Obama from poverty. It was a banker grandmother, elite private schools, an indulgent Harvard Law School, adoption by a political machine, and fat contributions from wealthy people.

The president’s addiction to folksiness is closely linked to his passion for clichés. Almost anything he says is a cliché, but I was especially impressed by the phoniness of the double cliché he emitted when speaking on January 7 of people’s supposed entitlement to be paid despite the fact that they don’t have a job. He was speaking in favor of the dozenth extension of unemployment benefits since mid-2008. How could anyone be in favor of that? Because it helps people survive until they get back to work? But economic studies, with which Obama is presumably familiar, indicate that people tend strongly to get back to work when their unemployment payments are about to cease.

Obama stated his reasons, and they had more to do with metaphysics than they did with economics: “We’re all in this together,” he opined. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

May I suggest that it wasn’t the grace of God that kept Barack Obama from poverty? It was a banker grandmother, elite private schools, an indulgent Harvard Law School, adoption by a political machine, and fat contributions from wealthy people. In return for these favors, he now spends his days ladling out clichés like we’re all in this together. And he talks of God.

And speaking of God: the deity’s friends and purported friends — holy men and hirelings, true shepherds and false — have performed more service for the English language than anyone but that skeptic, Shakespeare. Consider the King James Version of the Bible. Consider the Book of Common Prayer. Consider the Anglican manner of the KJV and BCP, as echoed by Jefferson and Lincoln — or, if you want libertarians, Paterson and Rand. But that was then; this is now. A news item of January 4 reports that “the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the leader of the world's 80 million Anglicans,” is supporting yet another revision of the Book of Common Prayer, which his cohorts have already revised within an inch of its life. This revision eliminates all mention of sin from the baptismal service, thereby eliminating a good deal of its seriousness and almost all of its purpose. If you’re not a sinner, why do you need to be baptized? Why do you need a church, and a baptismal rite to let you into it?

Well, not to panic. Welby is far from the real leader of the world’s fourth-largest group of Christians. Outside of Britain, which is the only place affected by this latest theological-linguistic plague, he is generally regarded as a fifth wheel. And the anti-intellectual, or at least the anti-theological, tendency of the current mania for revision is sharply opposed by other religious potentates. According to AFP and the Mail:

Former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali said the move, which is being trialed until Easter in around 1,000 parishes, was part of a "constant dumbing down of Christian teaching".

"Instead of explaining what baptism means and what the various parts of the service signify, its solution is to do away with key elements of the service altogether."

Amen. But look at what Britons call this process of dumbing down. The “move,” they say, “is being trialed.” Lord save us — this locution may invade America. Beware the first symptoms:

“Are Jim and Susan living together?” “Yes, they’re trialing their relationship.”

“The administration continues trialing its newest version of what happened at Benghazi.”

“I was once a conservative, but I was only trialing.”

“I trialed writing English, but it was just too tough for me.”




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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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The Big One

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Gravity, the new sci-fi space thriller, is a stunning piece of filmmaking that gives new meaning to the phrase "cutting edge." The technology used to create the sensation of astronauts floating weightlessly in space is so new that director Alfonso Cuarón had to wait over a year for the marionette-like equipment to be designed and manufactured that would allow him to simulate weightlessness without the aid of the "Vomit Comet" airplane used in such movies as Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995). The result is uncanny. Star Sandra Bullock pushes off from walls and slithers through air as though she were swimming under water. James Cameron, known for his own cutting-edge animation in such films as Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) said of Gravity, "I think it's the best space photography ever done, I think it's the best space film ever done, and it's the movie I've been hungry to see for an awful long time."

According to interviews, Cuarón spent a year creating the initial computer animation for the film, a year filming the live actors, and another year coordinating the live footage with the computer animation, in addition to the year and a half wait for the puppetry equipment. Gravity was worth the wait. The lighting, the graphics, the cinematography, and the physical movement of the actors work seamlessly together to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Visual effects supervisor Tim Webber realized that the filmmakers could not use traditional green-screen technology if they wanted to create the sensation of astronauts tumbling through space and banging into space stations or dodging debris. Instead, they shot the actors' faces and did everything else digitally.

This introduced a whole new challenge for the lighting team, who would have to match the lighting of the faces with the lighting of the all-digital setting. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki explained the difficulty they faced when he discussed the fact that the believability of the lighting “can break if the light is not moving at the speed that it has to move, if the position of the light is not right, if the contrast or density on the faces is wrong, et cetera." To prevent that from happening, the film crew built a box in which they could move the light around the actors instead of moving the actors around the set. The actors had to be precise in the position of their bodies and in moving to their marks in order to match the animation. In essence, Cuarón became as much a choreographer as a director of his actors. The result is a stunning, seamless collaboration of live action and computer generated animation.

Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up.

Whatever they did, it works. There is never a break in believability, never a sense of "this is live and this is animated." Cuarón and his team have created a work that will be held up for decades as a turning point in cinematic science. You must see it the way it was intended, in 3D, in order to experience the full effect. I don't typically like 3D movies, but this is one film that deserves and requires the technology, especially when space debris is hurtling straight at you or papers are floating around in the cockpit, or when a tear floats away from a cheek.

But enough about the technology; what about the story? Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer making repairs to the Hubble Telescope while seasoned astronaut Max Kowalski (George Clooney) provides technical support. Max, acting more like Buzz Lightyear than Buzz Aldrin, plays with his power thrusters, listens to country music, and tells shaggy dog stories while Ryan struggles with air sickness and wrestles an errant motherboard out of its casing in the telescope. Warned that debris from an exploded Russian anti-satellite test is hurtling toward them, Max and Ryan can't get into the space station fast enough. Then Ryan panics and can't disconnect her tether. Debris knocks her loose and she tumbles end-over-end away from the shuttle. Max uses his jet pack to go after her, risking his own chance at survival to rescue the young maiden.

Here I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation, contrasted with Clooney's calm, soothing reassurance. Sure, I would probably be panicking in such a situation. (Well, maybe not. I'm known for my problem-solving skills in an emergency.) But I'm not an astronaut. I have met a few astronauts, however (OK, two), and they both talked about the psychological testing that precedes an astronaut’s physical training. Anyone who does not demonstrate the ability to remain calm and focused in an emergency would not be selected for the program, no matter how skilled a medical engineer she or he might be.

Still, for carrying the story forward and creating fearful empathy with the audience, Bullock's panicky hyperventilating certainly does the trick. It also creates a tremendous contrast as we watch her character grow in courage, innovation, and determination throughout the film. And isn't that what disaster films are all about? They allow us to walk around in the hero's moon boots and test our own mettle. What would you or I do if we found ourselves in the darkness and utter isolation of outer space? Or swirling around in an ocean or marooned on a mountainside or trapped in a building that had been hit by a jet airplane? Would we accept the inevitable, turn off the oxygen, and make the end quick and sweet, or would we sally forth with indefatigable determination until our last ounce of courage had been expended?

The rest of the film is a tense and exciting race against time and improbability as the survivors of the crash struggle to find a way back to safety. One interesting metaphor that appears throughout the film is the connection between hope and survival. If the astronauts somehow manage to get back to the space station and into a landing pod, they will still need help from someone on the earth in order to return safely. But they hear nothing from Houston; communication with ground control was severed when the space debris damaged the satellites. What's the point, then, of trying? The astronauts have no reason to believe (or have faith) that Houston can hear them, but they proceed with the hope that their transmitters will work, even if their receivers do not.

I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation.

Hope is the power that allows us to overcome fear. It leads to action. Without hope, without faith, the astronauts would simply give up. "Houston in the blind" they begin every transmission as they report their location, their movements, and their plans. “Houston in the blind" is a technical phrase that nevertheless suggests something more — a reference to blind faith.

It has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that may be true; three of my most Objectivist atheist friends admitted to praying as their prop plane took a nosedive toward an African jungle many years ago. (Their survival when the plane leveled out at the last minute did not lead to any lasting conversions; when they told the story, they all laughed at themselves for their weakness.) While no one actually prays in this film, they do discuss the existence of God and the power of prayer. Ryan laments that no one ever taught her how to pray. But she does learn the power of hope, and the faith required to call out to "Houston in the blind" when Houston is the only means of arriving safely home. She also learns that the simplest and grandest of prayers consists of just two words: "Thank You."

Of course, those readers of this review who are not currently cowering in foxholes may prefer a more Randian interpretation of the hero, and that is just as legitimate a message to draw from the film. Gravity celebrates the human mind's ability to draw on its inventory of knowledge and make connections to solve problems. As the seasoned astronaut, Max is able to use his experience, training, and reason to figure out what to do, even though he has not been in this exact situation before. As a rookie, Ryan has no experience and very little training. Nevertheless, she, too, has the ability to tap into her experience when she lets her intuition guide her (in this context, see my review of Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide, http://libertyunbound.com/node/815). Despite her weak and cowering beginning, she develops into a strong, self-reliant hero.

The greatest hero of this film, however, is its maker. Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up. Gravity grossed over $55 million in its first weekend alone, and is likely to become the biggest film of the year.


Editor's Note: "Gravity," directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Warner Brothers, 2013; 90 weighty, weightless minutes.



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Think Twice

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Prisoners is an aptly named film filled with characters who are all imprisoned in one way or another. The central story involves the search for two little girls, Anna (Erin Gerisamovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), who have gone missing on Thanksgiving Day as their families celebrate together. The prime suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally deficient young man whose camper was seen parked in the girls' neighborhood earlier that day. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the lone-wolf police detective who is determined to find the girls.

Subtle hints suggest that Loki is a prisoner of some childhood trauma. He blinks a little too deeply and a little too long, especially when he is stressed. He works alone and is normally calm, determined, and controlled, but he bristles at his captain's authoritarian attitude and is prone to sudden violent outbursts when he is frustrated. Loki has numerous small tattoos on his fingers and hands, the kind that appear to be self-applied. While investigating the disappearance of the girls, he interviews known sex offenders and hints that he knows the pain of their victims. And he wears on his pinky a small silver ring with the Freemason symbol on it, suggesting metaphorically that he has built a wall around himself. Even his name, Loki, suggests that he is a flawed god.

Even more determined to find the girls is Anna's father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman). Dover is drawn initially as a stereotypical right-wing Bible-thumping survivalist. He "prays for the best but prepares for the worst." He has a basement full of survival supplies, sings the Star Spangled Banner in the shower, and recites the Lord's Prayer as he is teaching his son to shoot his first deer. His truck radio is set to a Christian station and a cross hangs from his rear view mirror. But he swears a blue streak and he has a sadistic side that comes from somewhere deep inside his past. He is so certain of Alex's guilt that when the police let Alex go for lack of evidence, he grabs the young man and holds him hostage in an abandoned building where he resolves to beat the truth out of him. For days.

Well, what would you do? the film seems to ask. Wouldn't you break every law, risk every punishment, to rescue your sweet little child? Echoing last year's Zero Dark Thirty, in which torture was used to uncover terror plots, he tells Joy's parents, "We hurt him until he talks. Or they're gonna die."

The scenes of torture are not easy to watch. The rest of the film is. Full of suspense but not of gore, the plot is superbly written and tensely developed. The film is as much about the many prisoners of their past as it is about finding the missing young girls. It exists in the closed universe that is essential for this kind of thriller, and also essential for the central metaphor of prisoners; the characters can hide behind their emotional walls, but they can't escape their setting. There are no good guys or bad guys in this film, just prisoners who do good things and bad things as they try to escape their own private hells.

Prisoners is the kind of film that keeps the viewer engaged long after the credits have rolled and the lights have come up. So much is left unsaid and unexplained about the characters and what makes them tick, yet the clues are all there. Director Denis Villeneuve trusts his audience to figure it out, even if it takes a day or two to exit the maze. It's not the kind of film for lone-wolf reviewers like me, so take someone with you so you can talk about it later. The complexity of the characters will keep you guessing what has happened and what will happen next, even after you learn who done it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Prisoners," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Alcon Entertainment, 2013, 153 minutes. (Use the bathroom before you go in — you won't want to miss a minute!)



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The Faith of Our Fathers

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The Land where the Statues Walked

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Early on Easter morning, 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen spied land in the distance and set his sails for the tiny island. His men grew puzzled and anxious as they neared the coast, for they could see giants lining the shore. But as they drew nearer they realized that these sentries were not moving; the giants were stone statues. Roggeveen and his men were probably the first Europeans ever to see the stunning monoliths. They called the place Easter Island. The residents call it Rapa Nui. It is a tiny dot in the ocean, barely fourteen miles long and seven miles wide, over 2,000 miles from the coast of Chile and 1,300 miles from Pitcairn Island, its nearest neighbor. Pitcairn Island is sometimes regarded as the remotest place on earth.

Since that day nearly 300 years ago, the mystique of Easter Island has increased. Why were the statues with the elongated heads and comical expressions carved? How were they transported as many as six miles from a volcanic quarry to their seaside platforms? Who toppled them during the 19th century, and why?

In 1956 Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl sailed to the island on the raft “Kon-Tiki” and encouraged the island’s governor to raise one of the 80-ton statues back to its standing position. Heyerdahl’s book and lectures created a new awareness of the mysterious stone heads, and they began appearing in works as diverse as National Geographic and Bugs Bunny cartoons. It was in this atmosphere that my own lifelong fascination with ancient artifacts began.

Love among the ruins

All my life I have longed to see the mysterious statues on Easter Island. When I was 8 years old, my father was going to college and majoring in history. One day I stayed home from school with a stomach ache, and he couldn’t miss class, so he took me with him. The course was about ancient civilizations. The professor showed pictures of Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, and the giant statues, called moai, of Easter Island. I was hooked for life. I asked more questions than anyone else in the class that day, and afterward the professor told my father that I was a prodigy. I didn’t know what that meant, but I could tell it was something good.

Since then I have had the opportunity to visit the ruins of ancient temples in Greece, Rome, and Central America. I have stood in the theaters where Paul taught the Ephesians and Corinthians and where Oedipus Rex was first performed. I visited Stonehenge when people were still allowed to touch the stones. I’ve been to Machu Picchu and Tikal and Chichén Itzá and the Great Pyramids of Egypt. But Easter Island eluded me. Three times I came as close as Santiago, Chile, but flights to the island were so infrequent that I was never able to travel the final 2,300 miles and make it to the island.

Until now. When my daughter Hayley’s tour with Disney on Ice ended up in Chile with a week off between shows, she decided to visit Easter Island. No way was she going to get there before I did! So thanks to my adventuresome daughter, I finally visited the moai of Rapa Nui.

What an indescribable thrill! It was, as Hayley said several times, the best vacation ever. We knew we would see statues; we had no idea that we would explore caves, swim in tide pools, watch gigantic ice-blue waves crash against the rocks, climb mountains of lava, or ride four-wheelers around the entire island. It was magical. Simply magical. Even sacred in a way. Every hour we said, “If this was all we did, it would be enough.” And then we did more.

It was drizzling rain when we landed at Rapa Nui. The season was winter, after all, so I had prepared for the Antarctic winds that, as the guide books said, often flow through. But our weather app was predicting temps in the high 60s or even low 70s. Could we be so fortunate?

We found our lodgings through airbnb.com, an organization that matches travelers with local residents who are willing to sublet their homes to short-term visitors. My family has used this site to rent houses and apartments all over the world, always with satisfactory results. We have stayed in a rustic log cabin in North Carolina, a sleek modern apartment in Madrid, and a modest but quaint home in Dublin, to name a few.

Alvaro, our host, gave us a quick tour around the town before taking us to our hotel, a small bungalow-style facility right in the middle of Main Street. The center courtyard was surrounded by palm trees and hibiscus bushes, and Alvaro spread his map on the table there to show us where he would be taking us. We shared a kitchenette with other residents and met in the courtyard for breakfast. It was a very relaxed, cozy place to stay.

The town is beyond rustic — the road in front of the tiny government house isn't even paved! We never saw a large shopping center, or even a grocery store that was larger than a 7-11. They don't have a movie theater on the island. But the restaurants were outstanding. After a quick lunch of freshly made empanadas at a restaurant half a block away from Alvaro's place (it was hard to call it a "hotel"), we joined a small tour of seven people, including four Disney on Ice skaters. Alvaro recognized our venturesome spirit and took us to many of his favorite family beaches and caves, off the beaten path (not that there are many beaten paths on Rapa Nui). He also arranged our schedule so that we avoided the early-morning bus tours.

Alvaro grew up on Rapa Nui and is a direct descendant of King Jean I, who invaded the island in the 19th century and made himself king. His grandfather was the mayor of Rapa Nui when Heyerdahl arrived in the mid-1950s; he oversaw the raising of the first moai in modern times. Alvaro knows his history and loves the island. We loved his enthusiastic hospitality.

Off the beaten path

Since it was drizzling that day, Alvaro first took us to visit some caves. The island was created by a volcanic eruption, and it is a veritable Swiss cheese of lava tubes, many of them extending more than a mile. It was not unusual for people to live in these caves. Alvaro told us that his grandmother hid in a cave for two months when she was young because she didn’t want to consummate her arranged marriage. Eventually she went back to her husband, but he understood that she did not love him. Later she fell in love with Alvaro’s grandfather and lived with him the rest of her life (Catholics don’t divorce, so they lived in sin . . .)

We knew we would see statues; we had no idea that we would explore caves, swim in tide pools, watch gigantic ice-blue waves crash against the rocks, climb mountains of lava, or ride four-wheelers around the entire island.

Alvaro had discovered one such cave just a week or so earlier, when he noticed the top of a tree at ground level and realized that the trunk had to be growing out of a cave. He was anxious to explore it further, and we were just the group to accompany him. We climbed down to the entrance and ducked inside. There we followed the tunnel as far as we could, grateful for the helmets and flashlights Alvaro provided. We explored a side tunnel as far as it led us, crouching down as it became more and more shallow. It dropped off at the end, so several of us shinnied down to see what was there, using a thick tree root as a rope to ease ourselves down and pull ourselves back up. Then we went back to a larger cave near the road, where a few other tourists were milling around at the entrance, getting ready to leave. Once again we explored to the very end of the tunnel, and had to climb out through a hole in the ceiling! What an adventure — and we hadn’t even visited the moai yet.

The moai average 40 feet in height and 80 tons in weight. Earth and sand have built up over the years, making it appear that they are merely heads. But most of them have torsos that extend to the thighs, and a few of them are full bodied. Their arms hang at their sides, with their hands held neatly over their abdomens. The bodies are carved from the yellowish stone of Rana Raraku, located at the bulbous northern tip of the island.

Most of the statues wear cylindrical topknots of contrasting red lava. These hats, called "pukau," weigh as much as 12 tons each, so it was quite a feat to move them to the statues and lift them to the top of the heads. Alvaro told us that they represent the bun that many Rapa Nui men still wear high on their heads (although I had to wonder which came first, the stone hat or the men's hair bun). These pukau were made at Puna Pau, a red-lava quarry in the center of the island, 12 kilometers from the sulphur-rich quarry where the bodies of the statues were made. Several top knots dot the hillside at Puna Pau, and dozens of statues are found lying in transit across the island, indicating that something dramatic happened to end the statue-making suddenly. No one knows exactly what it was.

Near Puna Pau is Ahu Akivi, the site of the seven moai that face the sea. All others face inward, standing on burial platforms called ahu. The statues represented the deceased leaders of tribal families — so much for my theory that they were supposed to scare away intruders by appearing to be giant soldiers. Alvaro told us that these sea-facing statues at Ahu Akivi, known as the Seven Explorers, represent the seven original men to arrive on Rapa Nui from Polynesia. Another feature that sets this group apart from the rest of the moai is the absence of skeletons found under the ahu, indicating that this is a memorial, not a mausoleum. The third and most remarkable feature of this ahu is that it marks the summer solstice, December 21, when the statues face the sunset straight on instead of at an angle.

Back in town we watched the sun set, and then had dinner at Te Moana, where the meals were so beautifully presented that we took pictures. Banana leaves lined the plates, and exotic flowers decorated them. The food was delicious and elegant, the best teriyaki chicken and grilled pineapple we’ve ever eaten. This quality of food was an unexpected delight on a rustic island, where we didn’t even have hot water for our showers.

We were in bed and asleep by 10 pm, so thrilled to be on this enchanting island and so delighted by the day’s surprises. It was sort of like camping out, as there was no heat in the room, and no hot water, despite the fact that it was probably 40 degrees outside. We shivered under our single blankets. I got up during the night to put on a long sleeved shirt and spread my ski jacket over my bed. Roosters woke us at 5:30 am, but it was so dark that I didn’t get up until almost 9. Then I hurried to shower. The tepid water made me shiver, but the air was so much colder that I didn’t want to leave the shower once I got wet. As I put on my watch I realized that I was two hours early — my phone hadn’t adjusted to the new time zone. We all laughed about it. It was part of the adventure. And it gave us more time for exploring the shoreline before going on the tour.

High winds had blown away the clouds, giving us clear blue skies for our visit to Rapa Nui National Park, the site of the main quarry and the largest number of extant moai. Alvaro recommended that we start our full day tour at 10:30, so we would avoid the tour-bus crowds. Bus tours normally begin at 9, so by the time we reached each spot, they were already gone. The later start gave us time Saturday morning to walk down to the shore, climb around on the rocks, and watch the waves spew foam into the tide pools. We could see surfers in the distance preparing to ride the waves. As we headed back to the hotel for the tour we all agreed: Even if we didn’t have the statues to see, this would still be the best vacation ever.

But we did have statues to see — and I had waited 50 years to see them. Yet this was such a last-minute trip that I was virtually unprepared. I was kicking myself for not at least buying a travel guide. Fifty years to get here, and I had no idea what I wanted or needed to see.

As it turned out, however, that was the perfect way to visit this island. Every moment was unexpected. Every hour brought another surprising discovery. I didn’t have a clear picture in my mind of what I would be seeing, so it was all brand new. And Alvaro was the perfect host. He fed off our enthusiasm and shared aspects of his island as though we were friends, even taking us to his family’s favorite camping and picnicking sites. When he took us to a small cave where his family used to camp out when he was a kid, I asked whether they still go here. He shrugged his shoulders and said they don’t because the privacy is gone. “You never know when a tourist might show up.” He said it matter-of-factly, without any tinge of animosity. This was the attitude we encountered throughout our stay. It was welcoming and refreshing.

The statues represented the deceased leaders of tribal families — so much for my theory that they were supposed to scare away intruders by appearing to be giant soldiers.

As we caught sight of the ocean in the distance, with its deep blue water and massive ice blue waves, one of the Disney skaters asked, “Can we stop and take a picture?” Alvaro was pleased to comply, but I’m sure he was thinking, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Our first real stop was the Blow Hole, where powerful waves spew a geyser of steam-like water through a fissure in the rocks. Of course, Hayley and her friend Taylor climbed down to the blow hole so I could take pictures as water roiled around them. We could see the remains of broken moai nearby. These remnants cover this island. You see them everywhere, once you know how to spot them.

Further up the coast we visited an ahu where the toppled moai have not been re-erected. Most of the moai were knocked down during tribal wars several centuries ago, and it is very expensive to repair and lift them. It costs about $10 million to restore an ahu, so most of the restorations have been conducted by organizations from other countries, especially universities and archeological teams. The most photographed set of moai was restored by a Japanese crane company in the mid-1990s. What a great advertising gimmick, to show their cranes lifting these 80-ton monoliths! And what a boon for the island to see the moai watching over the islanders again.

But still, I had not yet seen a standing statue from the classical period — not with my own eyes. Alvaro pointed out a large moai face down on the dune several yards from the ahu platform near the beach. He showed us that the eye sockets were incomplete, indicating that this statue had been interrupted in transit. It wasn’t knocked down during the tribal wars; it was never erected. How sad to think that the ancient craftsmen had spent a year carefully carving the statue from the mountainside, and then weeks more, painstakingly moving it from the quarry to the sea, only to have it topple over, a few yards from its ahu. A parade of other unerected moai with unfinished eye sockets told the same tale.

Alvaro took us to another favorite family spot and suggested that we have our lunch there. It was a delightful tide pool with a shallow waterfall created by the waves. Taylor immediately took off climbing, and soon he and Hayley were in the water. Fortunately two of the other skaters told us to bring a lunch, because there was no place to buy food outside the town, and Alvaro failed to mention it to us. We lunched on delicious turkey and cheese sandwiches on rolls baked fresh that morning. Sandwiches always taste better at a picnic, especially after a day of exploring!

Meeting the moai

But finally it was time to see the real thing: we were about to visit the quarry where hundreds of moai still dot the mountain.

As we came around a curve, there it all was, breathtaking — the blue sky, the green grass, and the dark stone faces emerging from the ground. Alvaro pointed out the unfinished statues still in the side of the quarry, waiting all these years to be released. One is the largest known statue on the island, 70 feet tall, like an Egyptian soldier guarding the entrance to a royal pyramid. I was trembling with excitement as we drove up to the national park, where we would finally walk among the statues.

But yes — we were roped off. We had to stay on the path. This was a development I had anticipated. If I had come here 15 years ago, when I first visited Santiago, I would have been able to touch the statues and stand right next to them. Or stand right on them, as many people did back then. But I don’t mind. They need to be protected, and the paths have been strategically placed for effective photo opportunities, with the added benefit that no else is going to be in the pictures. Nice!

We enjoyed a leisurely hike around the statues, pausing to take photos and imagine the history. Alvaro knew that I had the most intense interest in the island, so he loved telling me about every “surprise” around the corner. He never rushed us. His theory is that the statues in the quarry were used as samples. Various craftsmen displayed their work, and local people would then select the style and size they wanted to use as the memorial for a family burial platform, rather like selecting a grave marker today. In fact, an archeologist recently discovered three statues with an artist’s signature, suggesting that each craftsman had a specific part of the quarry from which to work.

This is also the only place where full-bodied statues are found, although the bodies are buried waist deep in the earth (probably to keep them standing up straight). Archeologists have unearthed them to study them, but then they cover them back up to maintain their historic integrity. Consequently, the bodies are in pristine shape and their markings are clear, because they have never been exposed to the wind, sand, and rain erosion that punishes the rest of the statues.

As we left the park I took one last look at the enigmatic heads, so alike and yet with personalities all their own. Hayley and I especially liked the guy whose head was tilted at a rakish angle. I never felt rushed, yet I couldn’t get enough. I want more pictures! I want to go back.

We experienced a few gnarly moments in the mud from the previous days’ rains, but we finally made it to drier ground. And then we were driving right toward those 15 moai raised by the Japanese crane company, all different heights and personalities, with the bright blue sea behind them as a perfect contrast to their dark stone and the green field in front of them. Simply gorgeous. “I’m in heaven!” I blurted to everyone in the van. Alvaro let us out to explore and take pictures on our own. Behind the platform we found a collection of smaller statues, some with bodies and some just heads, almost like babies gathered in a circle. Why were they there? Like so much else on the island, that is a mystery.

Our final stop of the day was a beautiful sandy beach, the only one we saw on the island. Every other shore was protected by foreboding lava rock. This is where Thor Heyerdahl arrived in 1955, and where Alvaro’s grandfather supervised the raising of the first statue in modern times in 1956. Alvaro told us the sad story of the day the statue’s unveiling was celebrated. A group of school children came to the celebration, and the teacher asked Heyerdahl if he could take the students out on the boat. The boat capsized, trapping one girl underneath it, and trapping the teacher under a pile of panicked students, all clinging to him to keep from drowning. The girl and the teacher drowned. She was Alvaro’s 14-year-old aunt, his grandfather’s own daughter. The grandfather was so distraught that he left the island and did not return for over 20 years. Alvaro’s grandmother went with him, leaving Alvaro’s 16-year-old father to take care of his younger siblings. So sad! His grandfather felt responsible for the tragedy. He regretted restoring the statue.

On a happier note, five additional moai were discovered under the sand and are now restored to their platform. The sand protected them from erosion, and they are beautiful, with most of their markings (ears, belts, hands, back decorations) still intact and clearly visible. I took off my shoes and rolled up my pants to walk in the sand. Nearby stands that first statue Alvaro’s grandfather raised, looking like a giant eroded blob compared to these well-preserved statues that had been entombed in the sand for centuries.

Exploring the island off-road

Greatest idea Hayley had all weekend: let's rent scooters. Greatest contribution from Taylor: let's make it four-wheelers instead. What a perfect way to experience Rapa Nui! We could strap our backpacks to the front of the motorbikes, and the sturdy machines could bounce over the potholes with ease. We didn't have to lean to turn, which made it so much safer. And we could stop wherever and whenever we wanted. It was still a little drizzly and gray as we began the morning, but that was the end of our sketchy weather. The clouds blew away, the sun came out, and we had a glorious day of off-road exploring as we retraced our steps from the tour, but took our time to hike, swim, and simply soak in the gorgeous scenery

Most of Easter Island is uninhabited wilderness. In the mid-19th century, Peruvian slave traders kidnapped many of the islanders to work in the mines on the mainland, leaving their European diseases behind as an unfair exchange. As a result, by 1872 only 111 native Rapa Nuians remained. The island was controlled by European sheep ranchers, and led by self-proclaimed King Jean I, who married a local princess (Alvaro’s great-grandmother) to strengthen his authority. The native population was forced to live behind barbed-wire fences on the southeast corner of the island. The government policy of moving all the people to one end of the island, terrible though it was at the time, inadvertently protected the island’s pristine features.

Today, everyone lives in four little towns, located side by side near the airport. There are a few isolated farmhouses and one rustic but high-priced hotel — The Explorer, $1300 a night; David Letterman and his children were there the week before us. Outside of that, it is completely barren and primordial. Horses, cows, dogs, and chickens roam wild across the fields. Broken moai dot the coastline as they have for centuries. Even after the Rapa Nuians gained independence from the Europeans and became Chilean citizens, they remained congregated in the same area; the rest of the island is virtually undeveloped. Fearful of outsiders, they have limited land ownership to native Rapa Nuians, which has prevented commercial development and chain hotels.

The native population was forced to live behind barbed-wire fences on the southeast corner of the island. The government policy of moving all the people to one end of the island, terrible though it was at the time, inadvertently protected the island’s pristine features.

This makes Easter Island an ideal place for off-road exploring, and we took full advantage. Before long we were climbing lava formations and discovering new tide pools, watching the waves, and having a great time. At our first stop I suddenly remembered that we left our helmets and Taylor's backpack on the four-wheelers. But it was fine — unlike the other South American countries we've visited, where crime is rampant, Rapa Nui is safe and virtually crime-free.

We ate our lunch on a lava outcropping above a wild and windy coastline. The waves were so tall that a couple of times we had that rollercoaster sensation of impending disaster. We thought about what it would be like to see a tsunami coming, and almost ran to higher ground a couple of times, even though we were probably 25 feet above the water and at least 100 yards away from it. But it was such a beautiful sight, with the light aqua water in the waves, the white roiling foam, the deep blue ocean against the dark lava. It was so nice to relax and enjoy the view without worrying about time and tour guides.

We stopped near the blow hole to watch surfers in the distance being dropped into the waves by a jet ski. It would be deadly to surf all the way to the shore and get smashed against the rocks, but in the distance they can surf the waves and then drop into the water again behind the next wave. We rode past the ahu with the fallen statues near Alvaro's family cave, and the large abandoned moai, until we finally reached the tide pool. No one was there, so we stripped into our skivvies and swam in the pool until a huge wave flooded it and nearly dashed us against the rocks. Then we continued our ride. If there was a path, we followed it, and found gorgeous views as a result. At one point we ended up high in the hills near cows, cliffs, and a pile of bones that was once a horse. We could see the hoofs and even the hair on its legs — it must have been a fairly recent kill. We don't know how it died, but all the bones were piled in a circle. Some kind of ritualistic sacrifice? Or maybe it simply broke its leg and couldn't go on. We saw so many piles of animal bones on the island that "there's another bag of bones" became a running joke.

We were completely alone for most of the day, except when we stopped again at the 15 moai restored by the Japanese, where we took some fun photos of ourselves jumping in front of the statues and pretending to hold them up. I was happy to get another view of them, and I kept looking back as we left, thinking, "One last look. One last look."

Not a single person joined us. We explored on our own. Everything we saw was a delight.

Storytelling under the stars

After a late dinner we hopped back on our ATVs and headed for Puna Pau in the interior of the island, the place where the red topknots had been quarried. There would be no light pollution so far away from town, and we would be able to see the stars. I was at the back of our little caravan. Every once in a while I would look behind me, and it was pitch dark. I wasn't scared, but I was a little nervous, and I knew that I could work myself up into real fear if I let myself start imagining things. Taylor was also spooked, so when we stopped the bikes we both ended up turning them around, to be ready for a quick getaway . . .

Nevertheless, we put our blankets out on the grass and lay down to gaze at the stars. They were brilliantly bright, of many different sizes — you don’t see that in the places where most people live. And so densely packed! The Milky Way was fully visible, but of course the constellations were completely different from any we see in the northern hemisphere. I told some stories about constellations — the myths of Deer Hunter and White Corn Maiden, Orpheus and Eurydice, and others. We saw shooting stars, including one that was huge — like a dove flying across the sky. We were shivering with the cold, but we warmed up under our blankets. It was peaceful and beautiful, and we all had the sense of seeing something we would never see again.

It was late when we returned to the hotel, but we decided to get up early and explore just a little more before turning the bikes in at 9. So we settled our bill with Alvaro and told him it was worth the cold showers to be able to stay at his B and B. Chagrined by our report, he walked to the back of our cottage and changed the propane tank. Then we enjoyed our first hot showers of the week.

At 7:30 we were up, showered, and on our ATVs, heading north on the east side of town, to see what we had missed. Just outside of town we spied a spectacular set of moai, along with petroglyphs, "mana vai" where the early islanders created rock enclosures to protect their crops from the wind, and the remains of Rapa Nui’s ancient boat-shaped houses. I knew that thousands of people had seen these moai before me, but there was still something extra special about them. I had found them for myself, and no one was there but just we three. Horses came thundering across the field, chased by wild dogs, and one of the horses nearly lost its footing and almost fell into the sea. There was a playfulness in their chase, however; the dogs weren't really trying to catch the horses, and the animals seemed to be enjoying the morning as much as we were.

It was magical. I loved it, loved it, loved it. Although we could see another moai far in the distance, up the coast, we didn't know how to get there, and we were running out of time. So with one last backward look we headed back to town to turn in our mechanical steeds. Then we grabbed some towels and headed back to the cliffs, walking this time. The sun was warm; the wind had died down. Our last experience on the island was relaxing in the ocean’s crystal pool. Then three quick showers, three quick empanadas, and 3,000 pesos (for the taxi), and we were back at the airport, saying goodbye to this enticing island and its enigmatic folklore.

They walked

Why did ancient Polynesian craftsmen create these monolithic statues on this tiny dot in the ocean, but nowhere else? How did they transport the 80-ton sculptures from the quarries to the coastlines? What caused them to stop erecting them so suddenly that many of the statues lie along the paths, abandoned in their tracks? What virtually destroyed the island population?

Many archeologists, environmentalists, and social scientists have used Easter Island as an example of how human folly leads to self-destruction. They suggest that the islanders cut down the forests to transport giant statues to appease their gods. When the resulting deforestation destroyed the natural plant and animal life, they were unable to feed themselves. Hunger led to tribal warfare, and the natives basically killed themselves off, all because of their religion. Nasty humans. We ruin everything.

It was peaceful and beautiful, and we all had the sense of seeing something we would never see again.

But more recent archeologists have discovered a different story. As our friend Alvaro tells us, "It was the rats!" European ships brought rats along with their cargo, and those rats loved the taste of the palm seeds on the island. A close examination of ancient seed shells reveals the scratching of rats' teeth as they gnawed through the shells to get at the sweet pulp of the seeds. No seeds, no trees. Between the rats and germs the Europeans brought to the island, and their enslavement of the native population, which they took away from the island to work in the mines of Peru, it was the European outsiders, not the native people, who destroyed the ecosystem.

Moreover, a recent experiment by a team of archeologists (Terry Hunt, Carl Lipo, Sergio Rapu Haoa, and Patrick Kirch) has pretty much debunked the theory that the statues were moved on their backs along rolling platforms made from the trunks of trees. Local folklore always maintained that the statues "walked" from the quarry to the ahus, and local folklore usually contains a kernel of truth. (That's how Heinrich Schliemann discovered the city of Troy.) Noting that the fallen moai were fatter and had a different center of gravity from the completed moai standing on their final platforms, they came up with a theory that the islanders slung ropes around the eye sockets and shoulders and then used gravity and the statues’ own sloping shape to rock the objects forward, in much the same way that I have tipped a heavy bureau from side to side in order to rock it gently from one part of a room to another. PBS recently aired a documentary of their experiment using a life-sized, 80-ton replica. Watching it finally "walk" down the path was a magical moment for me. (The documentary, "Nova: Mystery of Easter Island," is available at Amazon.com.)

In essence, through modern technology, the statues had come to life. They could speak to us again, and in so doing, they could defend the islanders who had been maligned for centuries. Japanese crane companies and university archeologists lifted them out of the sand. Modern airliners and cruise ships bring a new kind of visitor today — not visitors who want to pillage and plunder, but people with a reverence for things ancient and a willingness to travel thousands of miles on a pilgrimage to consider the past.

Cultures everywhere create monuments and memorials to their dead. Often they turn to these memorials in times of trouble, seeking the help of their departed ancestors. This almost universal tendency indicates a profound belief, or at least a hope, that there is another existence after this one — that the spirits of the ancestors live on. Easter, with its focus on resurrection and new life, is a perfect time to reflect on the mysteries of Easter Island, and to resurrect the wonder and magic of youthful curiosity. I like to think of those Seven Explorers, facing the sea for century after century and patiently waiting for the sun to set at each year’s summer solstice, even as I wait for the sun to rise on Easter morning as a symbol of the Son who also rises.

History. Mythology. Culture. They reveal the dimensions of our humanity. We are drawn to explore what is different, but end up learning what we have in common with other civilizations.




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Samantha Stevens Meets Mad Max

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At the end of yet another election year, one that saw high hopes largely unfulfilled, we pause, again, to take stock of libertarian prospects. Big-governmentdevotees, Left and Right, have collaborated on a horror movie to scare mainstream voters away from libertarian ideas. They’ve given us a hockey mask and a chainsaw, and every time we manage to resurrect ourselves from the bloody doom to which they would send us, they try to make us even scareder.

It’s time we turned off the projector, turned on the lights, and introduced the public to reality. Here are some ideas it might benefit us to get across to undecided voters in future election years. It is by no means an exhaustive list. I welcome any more items that readers may think of.

People are always being warned about the mighty power libertarians would wield if voted into office, but no libertarian elected to office comes equipped with a magic wand. We can’t really cast a spell or wiggle our noses like Samantha Stevens on Bewitched and automatically implement our will. We bring certain ideas to the table that might not be considered otherwise. Those ideas would still need to be approved and tested. Those who oppose us are at least as likely to fear that our ideas would work as to fear they wouldn’t.

Many of the predictions we hear about what libertarians want to do are merely bad science fiction. The apocalyptic, Mad Max world we’d supposedly make is the product of fevered imaginations. Our concepts could scarcely make the world more apocalyptic than the one statists have made.

Libertarian principles are very basic. It is perfectly all right for one libertarian not to agree with every other about every issue faced by humankind. What we all share is the conviction that violence should not be used to settle political disagreements. That government uses violence to get its way is certainly not just science fiction. It is evident from the news of every day. So why are we the ones who are called crazy? And after all, why must violence be used to implement citizens’ desires?

People habitually treat their fellow citizens in ways they hate being treated themselves. This is what has torn our populace asunder. What we have now is two predominant sides that can’t trust each other because each is determined to use government-backed violence against the other in an insane buildup of power — the political equivalent of a nuclear Cold War. This is mutually assured destruction, and it’s given us a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

What libertarians share is the conviction that violence should not be used to settle political disagreements. So why are we the ones who are called crazy?

Most people fear drugs worse than they do delusions. Hallucinogenic substances are not generally good for us, but popular delusions have done immeasurably greater harm. And drug legalization is not the same as drug use. I’m a recovering alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in years. I need no reinstatement of the Volstead Act to keep me dry; I stay sober for the same reason I don’t use recreational drugs: because, not caring a damn what the government says about it one way or another, I simply choose not to.

Decriminalizing recreational drug use, and making drugs legal for sale, would put dealers, gangs, and cartels out of business. Instead of having to defend the fact that somebody, somewhere, might want to use drugs, what we ought to ask is, Why do those who make war on drugs want to keep making criminal scumballs rich?

The reason statists make war on recreational drugs is that they want a corner on the market. The most popular hallucinogenic today — that which induces the delusion of omnipotence via the power of government — can withstand no competition.

Violence actually discredits people’s beliefs. It prevents persuasion because it shuts down debate. Suppressing things — whether behaviors, substances, or ideas — does not make them go away. The good ones will survive because they’re worthy of survival, however embattled and driven underground they may be. But the bad ones are given a lease on life they do not deserve and, if left to their own devices, could never sustain.

Why are so many avowedly fervent Christians, in particular, so dead set against libertarianism? Our philosophy is based on the Golden Rule. If the zealots on the social Right ever tire of combing through the Old Testament Holiness Code for rules to force on those they dislike, they might try reading the Gospels for a change. That those who follow Christ are supposed to do unto others as they would have them do unto them was enjoined by none other than the Man Himself. If this were truly a Christian nation, one would think this would be the political philosophy by which it would operate.

In truth, statists don’t dare do unto others as they would have done unto them. Their ideas do not stand up under scrutiny, and much less in practice. They need to implement and maintain their notions by force, because such schemes would not survive in any other way. There’s a reason why they tend to see life as a horror movie. By their policies, they’ve managed to turn a cheesy and utterly unbelievable script into an everyday reality.




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