The Problem of Perspective

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When libertarians (and others) get into debates, we often bewail our opponents’ lack of facts. But I suppose you’ve noticed that even when everybody has the facts, the debate continues — a situation that has become very frequent in this age of quick and plentiful access to information. Often the problem is simply the perfectly accurate perception of people on one side or the other that if the force of the facts were recognized, they would have to alter their political identity.

I recently found myself in a dispute with a person whose writing I admire. (This is not uncommon.) She said that because a certain politician had said X, therefore we must conclude that he was preaching the gospel of Y. I quoted what the man had said, which was literally and vigorously anti-Y. My friend replied, “I know that. But that’s just the cover-up. What he obviously meant was Y.” To my friend, it was so important that X meant Y that she would never be betrayed by mere facts.

People with the most facts sometimes have the least perspective.

Even this, however, is not the major barrier to healthy political discourse. The deeper problem is a lack of perspective on facts. People with the most facts sometimes have the least perspective. We all know people who can quote every foolish thing that President Obama or President Trump ever said (and that’s a lot), and on that basis are prepared to prove that one of them is a mere pawn of certain Interests or is the master player in a plot to destroy the republic and institute rule by force. What’s missing is common sense, and the perspective it provides. Lots of people say foolish things. In fact, we all do. Anyone can quote some remark by me, or some other libertarian you know, and say, triumphantly, “How can a person who said that pretend to be a libertarian?” Well, it’s quite possible, and it might not be a pretense. Extend the logic to people you don’t know, and it works just as well. To admit this is not to give your sanction to Obama, Trump, or anyone else. It’s to have a little bit of common sense.

A lack of commonsense perspective lies at the root of conspiracy theories generally — the false ones, of course, because people do sometimes conspire to produce certain ends, and why should we be shocked by that? The dedicated researchers who believe that Oswald was a fall guy know many more facts about Oswald than I ever will, but the overwhelming truth that 54 years have passed since Oswald and Kennedy were killed, and no one has emerged to confess that he had any kind of involvement, however peripheral, in any kind of conspiracy to make Oswald a fall guy suggests that facts can easily betray you, absent the perspective of common sense.

The normal condition of human life, in most times and most places, has been this: you live in a community that is perennially at war with other communities.

But there’s another lack of perspective that is especially characteristic of the present moment, and that is sheer ignorance of historical,as opposed to immediate, facts. In 1988, virtually all the public-policy writers in the United States, from the New York Times on down (or up), preached, with the Leninists, that communism in Eastern Europe was an irreversible phenomenon. In 1989, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe crashed. “Oh, who woulda thunk it?” was the experts’ cry. The answer was: anybody who knew some history. Regimes have a way of ending, and regimes that depend on hegemonic control tend to be more vulnerable to changes in their environment than regimes that do not. Historical examples: France in 1789. France in 1814. Germany in 1918. The Stuarts in 1688. The Commonwealth of England in 1660. I could go on.

Between 1950 and 1990, Americans were told — and in my experience of some of those decades, Americans believed — that they were living in a unique time in human history: never before had “a civilization and a way of life been threatened with total destruction.” The reference was to the atomic bomb, which was, indeed, new; but the notion about its unique effects was so false to the facts of history as to be laughable. The normal condition of human life, in most times and most places, has been this: you live in a community that is perennially at war with other communities. If your enemies conquer you, they will rape all the women, enslave all the woman and children, and kill all the men. That will be the end of your “way of life.” If one recognized that modern America was not unique in this respect, one couldn’t just go out and deduce some great truth about what should be done regarding, say, Soviet missiles in Cuba, but one might be more rational, and less hysterical, about one’s pacifism or militarism. It’s a matter of perspective.

So much for the myths of the last generation. There were lots more of them, but you get the point. My sense is that the “educated” people of 2017 know a hell of a lot less about history than the “educated” people of 1988 — and not just the history of the world but the history of their own country. I am not a fan of the Southern secessionists, or of Woodrow Wilson. I positively dislike most of what I know about them. But to assume that the only fact about their lives that could possibly be worth knowing is that they were racists is an astonishing intellectual performance. To teach this to children is to warn them against all historical curiosity, to turn history into an endless, and endlessly disgusting, game of hunting the Great Satan. Some people, thus educated, will pretend to join the hunt, out of the cynicism that ideologues are good at inspiring; others will adopt it as their own fanatical crusade; most will get the sense that nothing about history is very interesting, after all — let alone inspiring.

Regimes have a way of ending, and regimes that depend on hegemonic control tend to be more vulnerable to changes in their environment than regimes that do not.

Let’s look at another example in which perspective has been completely lost, by the denial of simple curiosity. Unlike many other vocal libertarians, I believe that the current struggle against Islamic terrorism is real and important and must be won. Nevertheless, terrorism results not just from religious or political ideas but from certain, very imperfectly understood, psychological and social factors. Might it not be helpful to know something about the history of terrorism in the modern world?

Well, it didn’t start with 9/11. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “socialist,” “populist,” and “anarchist” (actually communist) terrorists swarmed over Europe and North America, killing, among many others, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria; Umberto, King of Italy; Alexander, Emperor of Russia; William McKinley, President of the United States; and Anton Cermak, Mayor of Chicago (in an attempt to assassinate President-elect Franklin Roosevelt). They also killed or attempted to kill such private citizens as the industrialist Henry Clay Frick (see Liberty, September 2005, pp. 40–45). Then there was labor union terrorism, which peaked in 1910, with the bomb that blew apart the pressroom at the Los Angeles Times, killing 21 people. This is the case in which the unjustifiably iconic Clarence Darrow, the socialist lawyer, attempted to bribe a juror on the streets of Los Angeles. But the biggest event in “domestic terrorism” was the Bath (Michigan) School Disaster, in which a local farmer, dissatisfied for some reason with his admittedly humdrum life, killed his beloved wife, destroyed his homestead, and blew apart a wing of the schoolhouse down the road, destroying, all told, 44 people, 38 of them children.

These incidents might conceivably shed some light on why depraved men or women (usually men) suddenly decide to kill large numbers of innocent people, but since almost nobody realizes that the events even happened, almost nobody looks for that light.

Then as now, journalism was 10% news and 90% tribal war-whoops; but it was that way openly and honestly.

Let’s proceed to another type of violence, the violence of words, and other symbolic deeds, that is making it virtually impossible for sane men and women to read the news without symptoms of convulsion. I, for one, do not wish to rise in the morning only to be assaulted by a vast array of establishment-media venues ravaging the current president as if he were the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Nor is it a pleasure to visit my favorite non-establishment sites and find them wholly given over to defenses of the president. Nor — to give you a third and final nor — is it gratifying to me to read the president’s own abusive messages about the media, which are sometimes amusing, but you can’t bank on that. Strange to say, the chief complaint of all these splenetic keyboard artists is that never before in history has political discourse been so hostile and abusive.

Well, that isn’t true, and I’m glad it’s not true, if only because hostility produced the following delightful letter from Former President John Adams to Former President Thomas Jefferson (April 19, 1817).

Dear Sir

My loving and beloved Friend, [Adams’ Secretary of State Timothy] Pickering, has been pleased to inform the World that I have “few Friends.” I wanted to whip the rogue, and I had it in my power, if it had been in my Will to do it, till the blood come. But all my real Friends as I thought them, with Dexter and Grey at their Head insisted “that I should not say a Word.” “That nothing that such a Person could write would do me the least Injury. That it would betray the Constitution and the Government, if a President out or in should enter a Newspaper controversy, with one of his Ministers whom he had removed from his Office, in Justification of himself for that removal or any thing else.” And they talked a great deal about “The Dignity” of the Office of President, which I do not find that any other Persons, public or private regard very much.

Nevertheless, I fear that Mr. Pickerings Information is too true. It is impossible that any Man should run such a Gauntlet as I have been driven through, and have many Friends at last. This “all who know me know” though I cannot say “who love me tell.”

I’m reminded of the words of Addison DeWitt: “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent.” Adams’ superb wit, proud and knowing, and so characteristic of his letters, would distinguish him in any context, just as the lack of any literary quality whatever would be sufficient to identify virtually all political writing of the present age.

I’ve talked about this in Word Watch, and I’ll talk about it again in that place. What I want to emphasize here is the historical perspective offered by the presidential letter of two centuries ago. It suggests that there is nothing off-the-charts about the “abusive rhetoric” of contemporary politics.

To be fair, of course, we need to consider what exalted condition of politesse American political discourse is supposed to have declined from. That high standard, I believe, is the manner of handling news and opinion that prevailed in the days when the senior members of our current news establishment were growing up, the days of Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Edward R. Murrow. The declension from those glory days is sad, sad. Never before in American history . . .

If you think there’s no precedent for the “violence” of today’s politics, you’re a snowflake, and a pathetically ignorant one.

Well, did you ever try to read anything that Edward R. Murrow wrote? David Brinkley, who was one of the tribe, but an eccentric one, could actually write, but he was virtually the only one, and none of the present handwringers ever mentions him. His perspective on history, which was a pretty wide one, has been forgotten, and would certainly not be sought, by the preachers of auld lang syne. What they pine for is the slick modern-liberal sentiments and the passive-aggressive style of that former age, a style inveterately contemptuous of the host of people, places, ideas, and emotions whose existence it refused to recognize. What they miss is its lying veneer of “objectivity,” so-called.

That veneer wasn’t much in evidence in the first great age of American journalism, when innovations in printing, transportation, and data transmission (the telegraph) enabled everyone to read two or three papers — Democrat, Republican, and Just Plain Mean — and to spend all day, if they wanted, soaking themselves in political bile. Then as now, journalism was 10% news and 90% tribal war-whoops; but it was that way openly and honestly.

Other senators separated the antagonists and locked Foote’s pistol in a drawer — which sounds like a pretty good way of ending a conflict.

Reporting on the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, which Lincoln lost, though not decisively, one paper reported that “the triumph of Senator Douglas was complete”; Lincoln was “exceedingly lame throughout . . . The Illinois Giant [Douglas] at the first onset pushed his adversary to the wall, and never ceased for a moment his blows, until Abraham was taken by his friends, dispirited and overcome.” Another kind of partisan paper thought that Lincoln had “chewed [Douglas] up . . . Douglas is doomed . . . [the] contest is already practically ended.” From yet another journalistic standpoint, the campaign proved that the two candidates were nothing but “a pair of depraved, blustering, mischievous, lowdown demagogues.”

All these characterizations were false, and most people knew they were. But verbal abuse wasn’t the only oily sheen on the surface of political life. If you think there’s no precedent for the “violence” of today’s politics, you’re a snowflake, and a pathetically ignorant one. Here’s Senator Thomas Hart Benton, in his Thirty Years’ View; Or, A History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years, from 1820 to 1850 (1856), discussing the Anti-Duelling Act of 1839:

The death of Mr. Jonathan Cilley, a representative in Congress from the State of Maine, killed in a duel with rifles, with Mr. Graves of Kentucky, led to the passage of an act with severe penalties against dueling, in the District of Columbia, or out of it upon agreement within the District.. . . Like all acts passed under a sudden excitement [there were sudden excitements in the 1830s, too], this act was defective, and more the result of good intentions than of knowledge of human nature. Passions of the mind, like diseases of the body, are liable to break out in a different form when suppressed in the one they had assumed.

Following that libertarian critique of mere good intentions, Benton notes, as if everyone in his audience already knew it, that the Act

did not suppress the homicidal intent — but gave it a new form: and now many members of Congress go into their seats with deadly weapons under their garments — ready to insult with foul language, and prepared to kill if the language is resented. (Vol. 2, pp. 148-49)

Benton, who had once shot Andrew Jackson in a fight that was something worse than a duel, later became Jackson’s friend and political ally; but in 1850, in the Senate chamber, a fellow member, Henry Foote, attempted to shoot him over a political disagreement. "I have no pistols!”, Benton shouted. “Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!" Other senators separated the antagonists and locked Foote’s pistol in a drawer — which sounds like a pretty good way of ending a conflict that in our law-obsessed era would immobilize the capital and the courts in perpetuity.

Less pacific were many of the things that national leaders said. William Seward had cause to regret his “irrepressible conflict” speech, just as Abraham Lincoln had cause to regret his “house divided” speech; both were interpreted by the South, and not unreasonably, as an indication that if either of those gentlemen were elected president, the South must secede. John C. Calhoun had cause to regret the many speeches in which he incited the South to dissolve the union — but Calhoun, like our current politicians, never regretted anything he said, during a lifetime of self-contradiction.

Curiously, however, our contemporaries never put themselves in perspective with the targets of their emotions, never sense the deficiencies of their own rhetoric.

Now, if you look at the public utterances of the people I’ve mentioned (except for Foote), you will find that in both style and intellectual substance they are infinitely above those of anyone now in politics. To say this isn’t to fall into the trap of assuming that everything that happens in one’s own time is happening for the first time in history. If one has any historical perspective, one can distinguish things that actually are new or special from things that actually aren’t.

It is the intellectual and verbal illiteracy of American public culture that has that “never before in history” aspect — and it has that aspect because of the lack of perspective that makes contemporary Americans feel as if they can do without any knowledge of or respect for people who lived in the past. Thus, if you’re a “progressive” leftist, Thomas Jefferson was a racist who considered blacks inferior to whites, as if that were his only historical significance; and Andrew Jackson was a slaveholder who behaved with great barbarity toward Indians, as if those evil characteristics, common to hundreds of thousands of Americans of his time, including Indians who enslaved other Indians, were all we needed to know about one of the most complexly influential people in our or any history. And thus, if you’re a rightist, Ronald Reagan was the world’s greatest inspirational speaker; George Patton embodied all the strengths that make real men and women want to get up in the morning; and Theodore Roosevelt, a little man who kept exclaiming “bully!”, made life worth living for soldiers, workers, and the American bison. Meanwhile, all people worship Lincoln as the incarnation of Christ.

Curiously, however, our contemporaries seem incapable of taking any good to themselves from their acts of ferocious love and cherished hatred. They never put themselves in perspective with the targets of their emotions, never sense the deficiencies of their own rhetoric when compared with that of Lincoln, or their own courage when compared with that of Jackson. They may idolize “Teddy” or spit on the memory of Jefferson or rerun Reagan’s speeches or get off on Patton, the movie, but that’s what they’re seeing, a movie playing on their own TVs, just a few feet from their self-infatuated heads. The rest of the house is empty.




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The Trash Pile

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I know it’s my duty to conduct a thorough review of language used in the 2016 presidential campaign, to assess the major features of this language, and to make appropriate recommendations for improvement. If I accepted that duty, I could answer all requests for information by saying, “I can’t comment; the review is ongoing” — until everybody forgot the whole thing. But I’m sorry: I can’t do it; I can’t conduct that review. The subject is too disgusting. Besides, it would take a book the size of Ulysses, and even more tedious, to sort this trash out.

As with most collections of garbage, however, one sees a few particularly large and unpleasant objects jutting out of the pile, and one feels one ought to notice them. A prominent feature of the current collection is that typical Donald Trump locution: “I gotta tell ya, it was definitely a catastrophe — definitely. Definitely a catastrophe, folks, one hundred percent — an unbelievable catastrophe. And we’re gonna fix it. Definitely. It will be fixed. This incredible catastrophe.” And who could fail to notice and abhor Hillary Clinton’s habitual tone (a grating noise, followed by shrieks) and facial language (the apotheosis of smug)? I was often sickened by Trump’s unbelievable ability to ignore the obvious arguments on his behalf, and Clinton’s chronic use of concept creep; e.g.: Trump makes fun of an idiot female TV personality; Clinton therefore denounces Trump as anti-woman; Trump responds to gross abuse directed at him by a Muslim father whose son was killed in the American armed services; Clinton therefore denounces Trump as opposed to all Muslims and gold-star families. It must have taken an army of Googlers just to resurrect that phrase.

Without such revelations, the Clinton machine would still be gliding across the landscape, covered both with filthy lucre and with the aura of progressive saintliness.

As with all reeking piles of trash, one tries to pass these things with averted gaze. But one knows that either Clinton or Trump will be everywhere during the next four years, emitting even more noxious fumes.

One also knows that, occasionally, something useful gets thrown in the trash. I hope that certain ways-with-words can be rescued from the catastrophe of this year’s campaign. One is Ben Carson’s warm but precise mode of speech, which is always that of a real person talking to other real persons. Another is Carly Fiorina’s way of getting rapidly to the point, and to the actual evidence, with a minimum amount of rhetorical nonsense. Yet another is Donald Trump’s (yes, Donald Trump’s) willingness to say openly what almost everybody understands privately.

My other hope is that detailed revelations of what has really been said or written in the caverns of power will continue to be made, as the result either of lawsuits or of direct action, as the communists used to call it. (By direct action I mean Wikileaks.) People now see this modern version of Laputa more or less for what it is, even if they plan to vote for it. That’s a big improvement, despite the votes. Almost no one thinks that any power Mrs. Clinton gets will be legitimate.

But shouldn’t I regret the thefts of information by which the secrets of this machine have been made known? Shouldn’t I discuss the great moral issue of prying into other people’s secrets?

I don’t think so. I suspect that few people come to this column expecting advice about morality. If they do, they had better go someplace else. I simply want to suggest that there is a difference between (A) publishing secret information that may, when exposed, subvert legitimate government or get innocent people killed, (B) publishing private information that is nobody’s business to learn, and (C) publishing the dark and immoral sayings that pass within such things as National Committees, Departments of State, Federal Bureaus of Investigation, and the armies of hacks that such grotesque entities as those employ to bamboozle the public. Revealing the dirty communications of Mrs. Clinton’s toadies (C) is very different from publishing the codes to atomic missiles (A), or hacking into the life of somebody who works the counter at the DMV (B). I don’t like the DMV. In fact, whenever I think of Hillary Clinton I think of the DMV, because that is her ideal of government. But I believe I can see a moral difference.

I grew up when the Most Respected dispenser of news was Walter Cronkite, a bubblehead with a good voice and presence.

I’m talking about the struggle for information between the people and the Establishment. The term “Establishment” became prominent in America during the agitation of the 1960s. It was in that agitation that the modern Democratic Party and its current standard-bearer acquired their remarkable hunger for power. The self-righteous, rich-kid, elitist “liberalism” of the 1960s and 1970s eventually solidified into the stone-faced statism of the 2010s. It solidified in the form not only of the Democratic Party leadership but of the immense crowd of government employees, crony capitalists, know-nothing academics, politicized “faith leaders,” do-gooders on the take, officials of teachers’ unions, college activists, professional ethnics, gender mongers, grand old men of journalism, persons interviewed on NPR, and all the other tools who get money and prestige from the modern liberal state and in return surrender their identity to its rulers. A prominent feature of our political era is the paucity of public dissent, the rarity of defection from the vast Establishment. Nobody gets fired, and nobody departs in protest. This is something very unusual, and very ominous in American history. And no one who still has a brain will deny that 90% of the media, the people whose careers are supposedly dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of truth, are violent advocates of the Establishment.

I grew up in the days of three government-licensed television networks and a full constellation of newspapers whose major moral purpose was to keep the populace anesthetized. I grew up when the Most Respected dispenser of news was Walter Cronkite, a bubblehead with a good voice and presence. Despite the credit he took (much later) for having somehow, in some subtle way, criticized the Vietnam War, I remember my childish revulsion when I turned on the family TV and heard the perfectly bloodless way in which Cronkite reported every move of the Johnson administration to “beef up our forces in Vietnam.”

Beef up. Even as a kid, I sensed there was something vile about that kind of language, and the inhumanly elitist state of mind it represented. Even I was bright enough to notice that the Establishment media, which were the media of the time, were interested in absolutely no criticism of, or even discussion about, the rightness of such minor matters as conscription, the confiscatory income tax, government schools, labor unions, Social Security, “urban renewal” (i.e., tearing the heart from cities in order to “improve” them), the war on recreational drugs, the imprisonment of gays . . . Need I go on?

President Kennedy womanized on a vast scale, and invited members of the press to participate (which they did), and no word leaked out. Quite the contrary; the media fawned on him as the greatest living embodiment of family values. His family was continuously presented as an Example to Us All. Only its absolutely inescapable sins were reported. When one of his brothers left a young woman to drown after a drunken auto accident, doing nothing except trying to cover up his own involvement, the matter was reported, but the approved assessment was that the poor kid (a member of the US Senate, aged 37) had already suffered enough.

Even as a kid, I sensed there was something vile about that kind of language, and the inhumanly elitist state of mind it represented.

I’m saying these things because I don’t want to lapse into the common illusion that there was once a golden age of American journalism. People who think there was are ordinarily so mired in the cultural Establishment that they confuse journalistic objectivity with journalists’ occasional crusades against an enemy of the Establishment (e.g., Senator Joseph McCarthy). But despite my firsthand knowledge of this history, I am still disgusted by the violent affection of the media for Hillary Clinton. I can see, very well, why people might not like Donald Trump, but it’s literally unimaginable to me that Mrs. Clinton should be liked by anyone, much less by journalists, whose ostensible mission is to discover truth and expose lies. Nothing is more obvious than the fact that when Hillary Clinton tells the truth, it’s an accident, and that she has surrounded herself with hundreds of people whose function is to mislead the public on every possible occasion. This has apparently escaped the attention of the classy media, but it has not escaped mine, and I know it has not escaped yours either.

What fascinates me is how anyone can distort the news with such singleminded absorption as we have seen in the current campaign — while still imagining that nobody can perceive what’s going on. I’m sure you’ve collected as many examples as I have. Perhaps you’ve found some of them in the media’s coverage of Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson. At the beginning of his campaign, the LP appeared in the modern-liberal media, if it ever did appear, as a sad collection of weirdos. Then magically, in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, it became a respected protest against the vileness of the Right. Or maybe you’ve been thinking about the complete lack of concern among the media, which are religiously anti-war, about Clinton’s long record of going on the warpath — against Iraq, against Syria, against Libya, against Egypt, and now against Russia — and the ecstasy she has found in killing her enemies.

Maybe you’re thinking about a lot, and so am I. But at this moment, I’m reflecting on something comparatively minor. On the morning of October 8, the day after embarrassing revelations were made about both Trump and Clinton (the revelation of Trump’s remarks about propositioning women, and the first verbatim reports of Clinton’s secret Wall Street speeches), I looked at the six Top Stories on Google News. Four of the six — Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 5 — were anti-Trump. Magically, as if there were some kind of conspiracy or coordinated action or obedience to Clinton’s daily talking points, they were all advertising the Establishment or Country Club Republicans who were trying to get Trump to leave the race. No. 4 was about Hurricane Matthew, then traveling up the East Coast — a matter of actual moment for ordinary people. No. 6 returned to Trump. That one was about the dog-bites-man topic of foreign financial bigwigs not liking restrictive trade policies, such as those advocated by him. Other anti-Trump stories appeared beneath the “Top” — plenty of them. You had to go down to No. 21 before finding a story about Clinton’s latest scandal.

Nothing is more obvious than the fact that when Hillary Clinton tells the truth, it’s an accident.

But here’s a pivot, as the media like to say. Let’s consider a campaign speech that President Obama made on October 14. Trying to make fun of anti-Establishment media, Obama said, “Look, if I watched Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me.”

This is one of the few really funny things that Obama, a man with a microscopic sense of humor, has ever said. But try it this way: “Look, if I read the New York Times, Iwould certainly vote for me.” It isn’t funny, is it? But why not?

Comedy requires surprise. It isn’t a surprise that people who read the NYT support Obama, and people who follow Fox do not. The surprise is the idea that Obama himself would be persuaded by Fox, if he ever deigned to watch it. He stipulated that he has “more diverse sources of information” (ranging, I believe, from Rolling Stone to Golf Digest), which prevent him from succumbing to the charms of Fox and similar media. But this is really a joke about Obama’s own gullibility, his willingness to be influenced — and the secondary surprise is that he appears to be too dumb to realize how his own joke works. What he thought he was joking about, as suggested by the rest of his speech, is the large proportion of the American people who are stupid enough to listen to Fox and other alternative media, instead of to himself. But if that’s his intended message, why does he think it’s funny?

As many people have noted, the Left, once rich in humor, often of an earthy kind, is now as dour and humorless as the pitchfork in “American Gothic.” Hence “political correctness” — the Left’s crusade for conformity, the crusade that everyone else has been laughing at for decades. The Establishment still can’t see the joke. That’s how stupid, how blankly stupid, it is. If you look at Google News or listen to “All Things Considered,” you know that alleged microaggressions, almost always committed against people with lawyers, will be the subject of constant and grave meditation, while the desperate condition of poor people’s lives and property in cities operated as monopolies of the modern-liberal party will rarely be mentioned — and when it is, responsibility will immediately be assigned to everyone except the modern-liberal party. For me, it’s hard to think of a contemporary rhetoric that is more inhuman — less motivated by actual human problems.

The surprise is the idea that Obama himself would be persuaded by Fox, if he ever deigned to watch it.

If the present campaign showed nothing else, it showed the true size and shape of the Establishment, from such geniuses of the GOP as John McCain, James Comey, and Mitt Romney to such guardians of one-speak as the NYT and the Washington Post. Even Geraldo Rivera, who blustered for a while about having tapes of Donald Trump saying worse things than he said to Billy Bush, finally showed that he can tell a hawk from a handsaw. On October 14, Geraldo commented: “I have never — and I’ve been around a long time — ever, ever seen the mainstream media, particularly the New York Times or the Washington Post — be so partisan in terms of their involvement.”

Ainsley Earhardt, Rivera’s collocutor on that morning’s Fox News conversation, added that “on Thursday night, ABC, NBC, and CBS all devoted a significant amount of time to the allegations [of Trump’s sexual misconduct] — up to nine minutes on ABC and NBC and five minutes on CBS, while only devoting seconds — 30 on ABC, 26 on CBS and none on NBC — to Wikileaks’ leaked Clinton emails.” Rivera continued: “Did you see the New York Times this morning? There was no mention of Wikileaks that I could find in the whole first, in the whole A section.”

When it comes to words, this is the big news: no mention. But I have a feeling that, no matter which bizarre presidential candidate wins this election, no mention will not be a permanently viable option during the next four years.




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And the Winner Is . . .

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Who would ever have thought that a Mad Max film would earn a nomination for Best Picture from the staid and serious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? “Oh what a day — what a lovely day!” was my reaction when I heard the news (quoting a character from the film).

I wrote in my review last spring: “The characters aren’t nuanced, the storyline is one unending chase scene, and the dialogue is almost nonexistent. Still, it’s the craziest, wildest, most badass thrill ride to come to a theater since — well, since Mad Max: Road Warrior premiered in 1981.” Do I think it will win? Not a chance. But as I wrote in that review, “for pure, nonstop thrills with an undercurrent of resonant mythology and a libertarian hero just looking out for himself, Fury Road can’t be beat.”

I’ve already reviewed half of the nominees for Best Picture, including The Martian ; The Revenant; The Big Short; and Bridge of Spies, in which Tom Hanks once again heads a Best Picture cast without being nominated for Best Actor. Go figure. Here I round out the category by reviewing Spotlight, Room, andBrooklyn.

In 2002 the Boston Globe presented a story that was shocking not only in its subject but in its scope: over the course of several decades, Catholic priests had molested hundreds of children in the Boston area, and the church’s response had been to cover it up by quietly paying settlements and transferring the priests to other areas, where many of them molested other children. “Spotlight” was the name of the investigative team that uncovered the scandal, and it is the name of the film that has been nominated for Best Picture.

"Spotlight" adopts a didactic tone more appropriate to a documentary than a fictional narrative and just as dry.

There’s a risk inherent in focusing on the reporters who told the story rather than on the story itself. While we admire the reporters’ diligence, tenacity, and determination to get it right, writing — even when it entails researching and interviewing — is mostly a static pursuit. The actors do their best to make their scenes dynamic and interesting, and the writers did their best to introduce some action for the reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) jogs to work and attends a baseball game, William Robinson (Michael Keaton) plays golf, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) does a walk-and-chat through a park with a molestation survivor (Michael Cyril Creighton), and Matt Carol (Brian D’Arcy James) runs up the street to look at a neighboring house. But that’s about it in the action department.

To me, the movie is mostly a script for talking heads. To be sure, it is a well-written script filled with the kind of loaded, eloquent dialogue that writers tend to write, and the subject is clearly important. The actors have been praised for mimicking the real reporters so well, and indeed they gesture skillfully, squint concernedly, touch their faces absently, and adopt careful postures and stances that they have observed by studying the actual reporters. But it looks staged, more artifice than art.

Spotlight also adopts a didactic tone more appropriate to a documentary than a fictional narrative and strangely (for a film with this topic) just as dry. We learn statistics about the “recognizable psychiatric phenomenon” of abusive priests and the cult of secrecy caused by forced celibacy that isn’t really enforced. We hear important opinions about how such heinous crimes could be committed against so many children without anyone stopping it, thoughts such as “if it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one,” and “lawyers turned child abuse into a cottage industry” by quietly brokering secret settlements. We also hear moments of bitter irony, as when one survivor says, “the priests preyed on us instead of praying for us,” and when Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), who represented the church in covering up the crimes, says after the attacks on the World Trade Center, “Pray for the victims, pray for the injured, pray for those who survived.” The same could be said, of course, for the children who were molested. But this didacticism is hardly original; it was all in the articles we read when the stories broke.

Even worse, the men who had been molested as children — all of them — are portrayed as broken, stunted, and socially inept, not survivors at all, but victims. Sadly, I know many people who were molested as children, most of them by family members or neighbors. They have scars and sorrows, but they are neither broken nor socially inept. Most of them are strong, active, and successful. You simply would not know what they have endured. It isn’t right to portray all of these survivors in this way.

If nothing exists on the other side of the door, then there is no reason to grieve or long for release.

Spotlight tells an important story, but despite the protagonists’ success, it isn’t one of those films that makes you cheer their success. Yes, the reporters broke the story and forced the church to do something about the abusive priests. Yes, the film demonstrates journalism at its best in terms of the diligent digging, insistence on accuracy, and compassion toward the survivors interviewed. Yes, it allows hundreds of victims to tell their stories. But despite all this, it is a tedious film, and all I could feel was relief when it was over.

Room addresses a similarly horrifying topic. It’s every parent’s greatest fear: a child goes off to school and doesn’t return. Simply vanishes. Hours go by, then days. Then weeks. Has she been kidnapped? Murdered? Did she run away? Then years. Life is never the same, because you can’t even grieve — you have to keep hope alive, and that means telling yourself that your child isn’t dead, that someday she will walk back through that door, and everything will be the same again. Anything less is betrayal. To “move on” would be like killing her yourself. So you wait. Or maybe you do move on. Either one is agony.

Room tells the story of such a young woman. Joy (Brie Larson) has been kidnapped at the age of 17 and held hostage for seven years in a small shed, where she is abused by her captor every night and has no hope of escape. But if you are looking for (or have been avoiding) a lurid, prurient tale of sexual abuse, you won’t find it here. Instead, the story is told through the innocent eyes of Joy’s five-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who, because he has never known any other world than “Room,” is content with his life and the characters who populate it: Sink, Bed, Wardrobe, Chair, Bathtub. The world he sees on the screen of a small television set is just a nice fantasy.

Like the whimsical father (Roberto Benigni) in Life is Beautiful (1997), who shields his little boy from the truth of their captivity in a concentration camp by making a game of it, Joy has determined to create the semblance of a normal life in an abnormal world by acting as though Room is the entire world. If nothing exists on the other side of the door, then there is no reason to grieve or long for release. Jack is content, and his presence makes her life endurable.

Nevertheless, when Joy thinks of a way for Jack to escape, she forces him to take it, no matter what the consequences might be for her. Jack’s terror as he tries to get away from a world that seemed normal to him creates the most harrowing scenes in the film. My heart was racing the whole time.

That’s about it: just a simple love triangle, the kind you might find in a Harlequin romance.

One would expect that escape from the shed would mark the climax, but it’s really just the middle. Room is told in two solid acts, and in the second we learn that there is more than one way to be imprisoned. Joy’s parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) have also been held hostage by Joy’s kidnapping, unable to move forward, unable even to change the room where Joy grew up. They are trapped by their expectations, trapped by their imaginations, trapped by their blaming and their guilt. Jack becomes trapped as well, in a world so gigantic he doesn’t know how to process it. Even more poignantly, Joy has to escape the confining expectations she has nurtured about what it would be like to leave Room and go home. The film asks us to consider what makes a woman a mother, what makes a man a father, and what makes a place a home.

Brooklyn is another Best Picture nominee that asks us to consider what “home” means. Beautifully filmed in Ireland and Brooklyn, as they were in 1951, the sweeping landscapes and nostalgic cityscapes are full of soft blues and greens that highlight the blue-green eyes of the movie’s protagonist, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan). Eilis loves Ireland and her family, but like so many Irish citizens of the period, she is a bright young woman with a drab future as a part-time shopkeeper. When a family friend arranges for an invitation and a job in America, she takes it.

There she lives in a modest boardinghouse run by a motherly woman who watches over the morals of the girls who live with her, even as she pushes them into social situations where they can find a nice Irish immigrant to marry. Eilis finds Tony (Emery Cohen), a nice Italian immigrant, instead. Tony eases Eilis’ homesickness, and they fall sweetly in love. However, when Eilis returns to Ireland for a visit, the familiarity of home wraps itself comfortingly around her. Eventually she must choose between two men who love her: the comfortable Irishman (Domhnall Gleeson) and the New World Italian.

Her choice is not so much about the man who will be her husband as it is about the style of life that goes with the man.

That’s about it: just a simple love triangle, the kind you might find in a Harlequin romance. Not your usual Best Picture fare. But the production values lift it to award-winning possibilities. The cinematography is lovely, as are the costumes and set pieces. The music is evocative, and the acting is superb, especially Eilis’ controlled, reserved passion and Tony’s Brandoesque tender exuberance.

Moreover, Brooklyn is more than a romance; it’s a classic journey tale. Eilis journeys not just from Ireland to Brooklyn but from childhood to adulthood. Her choice is not so much about the man who will be her husband as it is about the style of life that goes with the man. At one point Eilis says, “I’m not sure I have a home anymore.” She learns in the end that “Home is where your life is.” And when she chooses the life, she embraces the man.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spotlight," directed by Tom McCarthy. Open Road Films, 2015, 128 minutes; "Room," directed by Lenny Abrahamson. A24, 2015, 118 minutes; and "Brooklyn," directed by John Crowley. Wildgaze Films, 2015, 111 minutes.



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The Worm that Walked

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A nightcrawler is the news media’s version of an ambulance chaser. Armed with a video camera and a police scanner, these freelance pseudo-photojournalists rush to the scene of horrific crimes or accidents with the hope of being the first to film the most sensational stories and send them off to the highest bidding newsroom. On a good night they can make a few hundred bucks. On a great night, they can make a few thousand.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is down on his luck and looking for a job when he happens on an accident scene where he watches a nightcrawler (Bill Paxton) film a story and then negotiate a deal. Soon he has a camera and a police scanner of his own. He hires Rick, a homeless young man (Riz Ahmed), to ride shotgun, call out directions from the GPS and then stay with the car so Bloom doesn’t have to waste time parking it when he gets to the scene. He develops a knack not only for getting to the scene first, but for framing the shots and even, occasionally, staging the scene for more dramatic effect. The line between news and art soon becomes blurred as Bloom becomes more and more driven to “get the shot.”

With the blank detachment and enigmatic smile of a true sociopath, Bloom is uber polite, uber calm, and uber creepy.

Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is the late night news director for the early morning show on the lowest-rated news show in town. She is desperate for crime exclusives that will bring more viewers to her network. When Bloom brings her some particularly salacious footage and negotiates for a price, she reacts to the breaking story in the way an addict reacts when she’s in need of a hit. She will do anything to get Bloom’s footage on her show. Anything.

While this inside look at the seedy underworld of freelance videography is fascinating, the real draw of this film is Bloom himself. With the blank detachment and enigmatic smile of a true sociopath, Bloom is uber polite, uber calm, and uber creepy. He’s a nightcrawler of a baser sort — the kind that might be lurking under a rock. He has a strong sense of right and wrong, but it’s his own sense of what is right — and you’d better not wrong him. At one point Rick observes, “You don’t understand people.” Bloom responds with his polite smile, “It isn’t that I don’t understand people. I don’t like them.” This detachment prevents Bloom from feeling the squeamishness normal people feel at the sight of blood, gore, and tragedy, and drives him to get better and better shots — the kind of shots normal people feel repelled by and drawn to at the same time.

In last year’s Prisoners, when he played Detective Loki, a policeman helping a father (Hugh Jackman) find two kidnapped girls,Gyllenhaal gave us a hint of the kind of work he is capable of producing. Through subtle means — excessive blinking, unexplained tattoos, sideways glances — he suggested that his character might have a past that made him unbalanced. With Lou Bloom Gyllenhaal has created a character devoid of compassion yet oh-so-polite and driven by his own sense of correctness. Gyllenhaal lost 30 pounds for the role, not just because he thought his character should look gaunt, but because he wanted his character to look hungry. It worked.

This is writer-director Dan Gilroy’s first film, and it’s a winner. His car chases are some of the best I’ve ever seen, especially one thrilling shot that begins on the back license plate, pans around the side of the car, and ends up on the front license plate, all at race-car speeds. Gilroy’s brother Tony is known for his own spectacular car chases in the Bourne films, but Dan brings something so much stronger to the screen than just action and thrill rides. His characters are deep, dark, and dangerous in ways that have nothing to do with weapons or fists. Lou Bloom is a character you will remember for a long time. He might even remind you of someone you know — uber calm, uber polite, and uber creepy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Nightcrawler," directed by Dan Gilroy. Open Road Films, 2014, 117 minutes.



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Why Is Arms Control for Civilians Only?

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In the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2009, Oscar Grant III was killed by an overzealous transit cop in Oakland’s Fruitvale BART Station. He was 22 years old, the father of a four-year-old daughter. Grant and his friends were returning from watching the New Year's Eve fireworks when an altercation started among the revelers on the train. The fight had already ended before the cops arrived, but they still wanted to assert their thuggish authority. Grant was lying face down on the platform when he was shot. Several bystanders caught the arrest and shooting on their cellphones, and these grainy images of the actual event are seen at the beginning of "Fruitvale Station," which tells the story of Oscar Grant's final day of life.

The film is a lot like Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold in that we know from the beginning that Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is going to be shot, just as we know from the first sentence of Chronicle that this is the day when Santiago Nasar is going to be killed. Nevertheless, both stories are taut and suspenseful because they focus on the "who" and the "why" of the stories rather than the end result. Fruitvale Station is a moving character study of the young man, and of the socioeconomic conditions that influenced his life and death. It is an important film for today, when stories appear of a 95-year-old man who refused medical attention being killed by cops with a beanbag round propelled from a shotgun, and an 18-year-old skateboarder being killed by another taser-happy cop after spraypainting an abandoned building. What ever happened to due process?

Oscar is presented as a generous-hearted young man, the kind who notices others and goes out of his way to help them in simple ways — he's that guy who will reach something from the top shelf of the grocery store for a stranger, or pick up something you need on the way home from work and not let you pay him back. He likes being a nice guy.

But we see a darker side to Oscar, too. He wears a mask of easygoing generosity, but behind that mask he is worried, and he is lying. He has lost his job at the grocery store, and he doesn't want anyone in his family to know it because he doesn't want to disappoint them. He has already disappointed them enough; we soon discover that he has done time in prison for various offenses, including drug dealing. The sad fact is that 40% of black males aged 18–26 are unemployed today, and a large proportion will spend time in prison. When they get out, their chance of finding employment drops even more. Dealing drugs is the fastest and surest way to make some quick cash. But it's also the fastest and surest way of ending up back in prison. Oscar doesn't want to go back.

Without the cellphone record, Oscar's death would likely have been reported as just one more former felon "shot while resisting arrest."

The conflict between the good man Oscar seems innately to be and the outlaw he is struggling to leave behind makes this film much more than a diatribe against police brutality. One of the most powerful moments in the film occurs when Oscar suddenly dons his "prison mask" during a visit with his mother (Octavia Spencer). Another inmate challenges him in the visiting room, and Oscar immediately becomes vicious and challenging in return. In the next moment he is a little boy again, desperate for his mother's understanding and affection. He is like the small dog who bares his teeth and growls menacingly when a larger dog enters his territory. It is a defensive stance, intentionally aggressive and defiant in order to avoid an escalation to physical violence. We see that mask once more during the film, and both times it is a stunning piece of acting.

There are many heroes in this film, but Oscar is not one of them. The film honors his memory, but he is a victim — a victim of poor education, of cultural poverty, and ultimately of random circumstances that put him on that train car in that station at that moment with a scared young cop who didn't know his taser from his service revolver. The true heroes are the ordinary citizens who pulled out their cellphones and began filming the event, even as cops yelled at them to put the phones down. Without that record, Oscar's death would likely have been reported as just one more former felon "shot while resisting arrest." Good riddance. And his friends who were on the platform with him would likely have ended up in jail instead of being released hastily when the police realized they were in deep trouble.

As the late Andrew Breitbart maintained, we have become a militia of journalists, armed with our cellphone cameras and ready at a moment's notice to protect the strangers around us by documenting many kinds of abuse.

Recently when I was picking my son up at the airport, I dutifully circled the terminal at least half a dozen times while waiting for him to arrive. Finally he called to say that he had his luggage and was ready to be picked up. As I pulled to the curb, however, the airport cop yelled at me, "Move along! This area is only for active loading!" I pointed toward my son and opened my door to get out. "Stay in your car and move along!" he yelled again. I pointed again at my son. "I could have you arrested,” he threatened.

"For what?" I demanded. "For picking up my son who is standing right there?"

The cop's arm twitched backward toward his holster. Seriously. For an alleged parking offense. (Maybe that's where he kept his citation pad . . .) At that point the officer noticed that my daughter was filming the whole event on her cellphone. And suddenly his whole demeanor changed. "I'm sorry Ma'am," he said. "It's been a long day. I'm at the end of a double shift." Smile, copper. You're on candid camera.

The film is NR (not rated) because of pervasive ethnic street language that would have garnered an X (filmmakers will opt for NR to avoid the deadly X rating) but for the fact that the language is realistic and appropriate to the cultural environment. Frankly, I'm amazed that the word "nigger" blaring from the hip-hop songs on Oscar's radio would be considered worse than the gore and nudity that earns an R rating, but hey — I don't let the Hollywood police tell me what to watch anyway.

Fruitvale Station won both the Drama Grand Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance this year. It is a powerful film, well worth seeing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Fruitvale Station," directed by Ryan Coogler. The Weinstein Company, 2013, 85 minutes.



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The Forgotten Gibbs

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Wolcott Gibbs contributed more words to The New Yorker than any of his better-remembered contemporaries — Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, E.B. White, to name a few. And unlike them, he contributed pieces of every kind. His boss, founding editor Harold Ross, called him “the best goddam editor in the world.” Yet, as Thomas Vinciguerra reminds us, Gibbs is hardly thought of today. To remedy this unfortunate oversight, editor Vinciguerra has brought forth a new collection of Gibbs’ writing, which he entitles Backward Ran Sentences. With a useful introduction by the editor and a foreword by P.J. O’Rourke, the book is a literary bargain.

Gibbs wrote fact and fiction pieces — “Talk of the Town” items, so-called casuals, profiles, short stories, reviews of plays and motion pictures. His writing had an elegant bounce, when he was just trying to be funny, or when he was taking apart an unsatisfactory play or a bothersome personality. And yet, as editor Vinciguerra tells us, Gibbs was a sad man, full of self-doubt, caught up in cycles of alcoholism, and all the while a chain smoker. Like Harold Ross, A.J. Liebling, and Alexander Woollcott, Gibbs died in his fifties. His wife suspected suicide, but smoking on top of pleurisy and too many martinis may have been enough to kill him.

Backward Ran Sentences contains some fascinating cultural history. The names associated with the Gibbs era roll off the pages like gumdrops — Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Mrs. Fiske, Marlon Brando, Joan McCracken, Ethel Merman, Alfred Drake, Eva Le Gallienne, and on and on. Among his shorter pieces, Gibbs addresses the joys of getting the measles — a disease with little suffering, but still requiring a quarantine — and the sadness of leaving his beloved refuge, Fire Island, and returning to Manhattan. There is the tale of a man who leaves his car, typewriter, and golf clubs in a creek because he was “tired of fooling with it.” (I am in complete sympathy.) And consider the following lines from an item dated December 13, 1941: “War came to us with the ball in Brooklyn’s possession on the Giants’ forty-five yard line. ‘Japanese bombs have fallen on Hawaii and the Philippine Islands,’ a hurried voice broke in to announce.”

Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.”

Gibbs’ profiles describe the rise to prominence of some New York lights and contain perhaps the best writing in the book — witty, detached, and not overly personal.

One unique offering describes a lady who collects stray cats and hauls them to the SPCA.

While not an icon, “Our Lady of the Cats” — Miss Rita Ross — will live on in this footnote to New York’s history. The three-part profile of Alexander Woollcott isn’t all that insulting, though it led to a final break between Woollcott and Harold Ross. Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.” Other profiles in the present collection include those of Lucius Beebe, epicure, journalist, chronicler of “Cafe Society”; Ethel Merman, who could carry a Broadway musical “on her shoulders”; and William Sylvester Maney, famously irreverent press agent and inventor of an ersatz profanity. The not-quite-flattering description of Thomas E. Dewey led him to impound Gibbs’ bank account. According to editor Vinciguerra, Dewey thought Gibbs was employed by the Democrats. When the Gibbs article appeared, Dewey wasn’t yet Governor (here the editor errs), but still District Attorney for New York County. Thus he could sequester Gibbs’ reserves as evidence in a criminal investigation — though the necessary legal cause has eluded me. At the time (1940), Dewey was beginning his first run for the presidency after a famous tour as prosecutor of mobsters. He became the prototypical Republican losing candidate.

The Ralph Ingersoll profile contains some interesting history. Ingersoll worked at The New Yorker and then for Henry Luce at Time. While there, he split with Luce over the traditional Time cover showing the Man of the Year. The chosen man in this case was Adolf Hitler. Luce wanted to display an ordinary photograph, but Ingersoll preferred an illustration carrying an anti-Hitler message. Later, in the course of building the left-leaning PM magazine, Ingersoll scooped everyone on the burning of the French ocean liner Normandie. The US government had seized the liner and was converting it into a troop ship when it caught fire in its berth in New York Harbor. Before the fire, a PM reporter had sneaked aboard the Normandie and discovered that it was, as Gibbs put it, “a fire-bug’s dream.” And so, when the liner finally burned, the PM story was ready to run.

Placed among a cluster of Gibbs’ parodies — those of Hemingway and Noel Coward are themselves funny — is his famous portrait of Henry Luce, written in the compressed, turned-around style invented by Luce’s late partner, Briton Hadden. In it we find the words, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” which provide the title for editor Vinciguerra’s collection. The parody of Time’s style later became a tit-for-tat justification for Tom Wolfe’s satirical treatment of The New Yorker as it was under William Shawn. Wolfe’s effort was rather more barbed than Gibbs’ parody, its author perhaps having failed to see the sadness of a man trying to preserve an age forever gone. Still, as the legend goes, when Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window. Were passages like the following all that provocative? “Very unlike novels of Pearl Buck were his early days. Under brows too beetling for a baby, Luce grew up inside compound, played with two sisters, lisped first Chinese, dreamed much of the Occident.” Or this one: “Typical perhaps of Luce methods is Fortune system of getting material. Writers in first draft put down wild gossip, any figures that occur to them. This is sent to victim who indignantly corrects errors, inadvertently supplies facts he might otherwise have withheld.” Well — perhaps.

The New Yorker “casuals” were very short stories, short fact pieces, anecdotes, and even brief parodies. In these and in his short stories, Gibbs could be unfunny when he wrote about the drinking class and its special problems. “Wit’s End” is a depressing story about a man who awakens to find his bed on fire — a situation in which Gibbs found himself more than once. On the other hand, “Ring Out, Wild Bells” is an amusing tale of his own youthful performance as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His mother had sewn little bells on his costume, and as he maneuvered on stage their ringing drowned out the other players’ lines. “The Curious Incident of Dogs in the Night-Time,” a story set in a restaurant, tells of two men, learned in Sherlock Holmes lore, who ingest an unbelievable number of martinis. Finding their way to an upstairs dining room, they think they’ve discovered a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars. Actually, it’s a convention of roofers from Denver. The story ends with the two inebriates singing at the piano and the conventioneers filing out of the room.

As the legend goes, when Henry Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window.

For 18 of his New Yorker years, Gibbs was its drama critic — for some of that time, he also reviewed motion pictures, a task he disliked. As P.J. O’Rourke writes, “He was not fooled by talent.” His standards applied equally to everyone who wrote, acted in, or directed Broadway productions. Taken together, his reviews represent a theatrical history of Broadway’s great age. They address plays by, among others, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, and musicals with words or music by Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner, and Lowe. The productions had names such as Ah, Wilderness! (a mixed review from Gibbs, with praise for George M. Cohan, playing the father), The Time of Your Life (slightly favorable), Romeo and Juliet (poor, but Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh will attract an audience), Blithe Spirit (good), Oklahoma! (great, of course), South Pacific (excellent, with special praise for the players), Guys and Dolls (great, with praise for Pat Rooney, Sr.), Me and Juliet (mixed, but with praise for the fated Joan McCracken), The Glass Menagerie (excellent, with exceptional praise for Laurette Taylor), My Fair Lady (excellent), Waiting for Godot (“meager moonshine”), Long Day’s Journey into Night” (good, with reservations about the play’s “epic scale of calamity,” but with praise for director Jose Quintero), West Side Story (fair, with praise for choreographer Jerome Robbins), The Music Man (good, but “not as good as all that”).

There are bits and pieces of other reviews under the heading “Curtain Calls,” including a very good one for Kiss Me Kate and a dismantling of Shaw’s The Millionairess and Katharine Hepburn’s performance in the title role. There follow some movie reviews, including an amusing one of National Velvet, and some personal essays. Among these last is a tribute to his friend Robert Benchley, who preceded Gibbs as The New Yorker’s drama critic. Benchley was famous for such humorous essays as “The Menace of Buttered Toast” and “Carnival Week in Sunny Las Los,” as well as his appearances in movies. Like Gibbs, he was a serious drinker, and like Gibbs, he died at the age of 56.

As I emphasized, Wolcott Gibbs drank to excess and was a chain smoker. Neither of those habits met with the same disapprobation that meets them today. Writers drank — perhaps Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis set the style — and some drank too much. (The trick was to drink without being tiresome.) The quality of Gibbs’ writing doesn’t appear to have suffered from the constant bombardment of martinis. But why did he saturate himself so often? Perhaps because what he had wasn’t what he wanted, and what he wanted, he couldn’t have. When Gibbs said he should be writing novels, I think he was telling the awful truth. That was what he perceived as unattainable. But was it really? — no, not if he had been less of a defeatist. He certainly had the talent required to write novels. Perhaps he should have gotten away from New York — with all its personal and professional entanglements — found some odd corner, and started pecking away on his Royal typewriter. But that would have put at risk the only comfort and security he had ever known. So, instead, he maintained his self-deprecating attitude, and took to minimizing the importance of the writing profession and the magazine that employed him. He remained a resident outsider, which probably made him a more effective editor and critic. And he kept on drinking to ease his pain.

The final Gibbs piece in the current collection is an intra-office memo that found its way into print. It’s entitled “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles,” and contains some worthwhile advice for writers. For example — “Writers use too damn many adverbs. On one page recently, I found eleven modifying the verb ‘said.’” The office copy of the Gibbs memo carried a note by his contemporary, the fiction editor Katharine White. It describes Gibbs as “one of the most talented and witty magazine editors of all time.” He was that good.


Editor's Note: Review of "Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker," edited by Thomas Vinciguerra. Bloomsbury, 2011, xix + 646 pp.



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H.L. Mencken, Where Have You Gone?

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At least in the most obvious sense, my title poses a dumb question. Where has H.L. Mencken gone? He’s been dead for more than 50 years. But though he’s long gone, and we won’t see his like again, many of those who cherish liberty wish they could call him back. America could use another like him, perhaps now as never before.

My introduction to the Sage of Baltimore came in my sophomore year of high school. Sharon Morrow, a teacher I wish I could personally thank today, extolled his virtues to our journalism class. To us, he was just an old dead guy. If a teacher liked anybody famous, the poor soul was automatically consigned to the purgatory of the uncool. But to suck up, this aspiring journalist read A Mencken Chrestomathy — a huge anthology of his essays and columns. Read it, and wrote a report.

I expected the project to be a chore, but I’ve seldom enjoyed a book so much before or since. Some of the pieces were dated, lampooning or lambasting people and notions nobody has heard of since the Roaring Twenties. But many could apply as sharply to today’s events as to those of times long past. What wicked and delicious fun Mencken would have had in 2012!

Henry Louis Mencken hated sham. He made mincemeat of hypocrites. He had a curmudgeonly love for this country, and he often spoke harshly to his American audience. But always with a twinkle in his eye. He could bring a reader to vein-popping outrage in one paragraph and pants-wetting laughter in the next.

He was a staunch libertarian before anybody knew what the word meant. “The government I live under has been my enemy all my active life,” he once wrote. “When it has not been engaged in silencing me it has been engaged in robbing me. So far as I can recall I have never had any contact with it that was not an outrage on my dignity and an attack on my security.”

Mencken certainly would not hesitate to call any chief executive who spent four years blaming his failures on a predecessor’s mistakes exactly what he is: incompetent.

The young Ayn Rand regarded Mencken as an inspiration, remarking in 1934 that he was “one whom I admire as the greatest representative of a philosophy to which I want to dedicate my whole life.” If anybody ever stood up against Leviathan and refused to blink, it was he. In the feverish days leading up to World War I, he sacrificed his job as a newspaper columnist to denounce President Woodrow Wilson’s manipulation of public opinion in favor of entering the conflict. As Franklin Roosevelt amassed unprecedented power and craftily angled the US into World War II, Mencken earned FDR’s ire by opposing him and, in the process, lost another job.

His bedevilment of Roosevelt started during the Great Depression. “The New Deal began,” he famously observed, “like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flophouses and disturbing the peace.”

What might he have to say about our apparently endless War on Terror? Or — given his merciless mockeries of Prohibition — about our even more interminable War on Drugs?

About the first national crusade for sobriety, he had this to say:

Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.

Mencken was my introduction to libertarian thought. Not only to its thought per se, but to its attitude. I sensed even then, in the Carter years, that if he were to be miraculously resurrected (a notion at which he, a lifelong unbeliever, would cackle), he would give our moribund nation a much-needed kick in the pants. He had no use for whining or victimhood, and the spectacle of a president lamenting our “malaise” would be met with appropriate scorn. He certainly would not hesitate to call any chief executive who spent four years blaming his failures on a predecessor’s mistakes exactly what he is: incompetent.

“On some great and glorious day,” predicted the Sage, “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

He knew a coverup when he saw one, and made sure it didn’t stay covered up for long. Campaign seasons were sources of neverending merriment to him. Never a partisan cheerleader, he treated his readership to what he saw as the unvarnished truth about both sides. And when a public servant displayed the integrity to do what was right, against overwhelming opposition, Mencken was likely to be the one voice in the press to point it out. Even though, about ambitious office-seekers in general, he remarked that “a good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”

What we lack today, in the mainstream media, is people who simply observe and comment without owing automatic allegiance to either side. Or observe and report with no preconceived agenda. Fox News, billing itself as “fair and balanced,” may see a different angle from its competitors, but it still sees only one angle. Like the blind men in a well-known Buddhist parable, some think the elephant is all trunk, while others reduce it to its giant posterior.

A people fit to govern itself needs to keep its baloney-detectors in keen working order. The people need to know when they’re being duped. They need to know how to recognize their own best interests. This requires sharp thinking on the important issues of the day. In our own day, journalists with the courage and wit to perform this service are in woefully short supply.

From 1899, as a cub reporter, until 1948, when he was felled by a stroke, Mencken did his utmost to help Americans understand the human drama and recognize the players for what they were. I owe him my rambunctious love for liberty, deep appreciation for the written word, and taste for fine cigars. I can’t personally thank him, any more than I can my high school journalism teacher. This essay will need to suffice.

“In every unbeliever’s heart there is an uneasy feeling that, after all, he may awake after death and find himself immortal.” Mr. Mencken, your great soul is immortal indeed. Too bad it can’t drag itself back here and knock some sense into us.




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Yahoo! Blimp Crash Lands in Ohio

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My home page is Yahoo! There are reasons for this, some of them good, but all of them dull. I won’t bother you with them. I simply want to notice that the recent college graduates, college dropouts, high school students, and GED pursuers who select and headline the featured articles that run on such digital substitutes for newspapers are even more grossly bigoted than the New York Times.

And that’s saying something.

Here is a selection of recent Yahoo! News headlines:

“Romney on ‘Apology Tour’”
“Did Romney Play It Too Safe?”
“Obama Rattles Romney”
“Romney Blimp Crash-Lands”

Reporting on the most hotly contested “battleground state,” at the moment when it had become still more hotly contested, Yahoo ran this as a headline: “Mitt Romney Still Hasn't Given Up on Ohio.” If you clicked on the headline, you would see this at the beginning of the article: “Seeking middle-class and women voters, Romney intones ‘change’ mantra in Ohio."Can anyone imagine such a site featuring an article in which Obama intoned a “change” mantra?

The old journalistic rule was “dog bites man — not news; man bites dog — news.” The digital clones have it the other way around. No one expected Romney to give up on Ohio, but that’s the headline: he didn’t give up. Meanwhile, Yahoo! found no room for headlines about the shockingly daft response of the Obama administration to the massacre in Libya, or to anything else that might bring the administration into question. There was space, however, for a headline about a Democratic senator in quest of reelection: “Mother of Mo. Sen. McCaskill Dies at Age 84.” Yes, that is the news the nation must know.

There’s no limit to this crap. On the day when tropical storm Sandy struck the east coast, a Yahoo! headline read, “People Named Sandy More Likely to Give to Obama.”




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"The Help" Deserves the Buzz

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The Help is the film everyone has been talking about this week. Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, it has been eagerly awaited by book club members and sensitive readers nationwide since it was published two years ago. The film provides an intimate look at the often-demeaning relationship between white women in Mississippi and the black maids who served them during the turbulent 1960s.

During this time, women up north were beginning to recognize the vast career options available to them. But in the Deep South, women were still staying at home with their children, joining the Junior League, hosting bridge clubs, and criticizing "the help" — and each other. In this story, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the "queen bee" whose opinion matters to everyone, black or white. She controls the social life of the town by voicing her opinions firmly and then leads the shunning of anyone who dares to disagree with her. Her kind of female has always existed, of course, and not just in the South. She has been immortalized in such films as The Women and Mean Girls, and can still be found controlling social groups, PTA meetings, cheerleading squads, and even board rooms, with a raised eyebrow and a withering look. No one likes her, but no one dares to cross her.

In the story, Hilly has been leading her group of friends since grade school. All of them are now married with children, except Skeeter (Emma Stone), who has chosen to finish college and wants to become a writer. She lands a job at the local newspaper as an advice columnist answering questions about house cleaning. Ironically, of course, Skeeter has never polished a spoon or scrubbed a bathtub ring in her life. So she turns to "the help" for help, in the person of Aibileen (Viola Davis), her friend Elizabeth's maid. Eventually she convinces Aibileen and a dozen other maids to share their stories, and a book is born.

As a nation we are proud of how far we have come in terms of civil rights. But we still notice racial differences and often act accordingly.

Aibileen is what Skeeter ought to be. Like many white college graduates, Skeeter simply "wants to be a writer." She doesn't have a burning topic just itching to come out. She wants the title of "writer" as much as she wants the occupation. When she applies for a job at Harper & Row, the editor (Mary Steenburgen) tells her, "Write about something that disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else." Skeeter looks for a topic that will allow her to become a writer, rather than using her writing to expose a problem she cares deeply about. Aibileen, by contrast, is simply a writer. She writes every night for an hour or two. She writes what is in her soul. She writes her prayers.

In many ways, Viola Davis as Aibileen carries the show and at the same time embodies the central conflict of the story. I say this because, although Davis is one of the finest actors in Hollywood, with an Oscar to her credit, you will seldom see that accolade in print without the modifier "black actress." As a nation we are proud of how far we have come in terms of civil rights: our schools and neighborhoods are fully integrated. We have a black president in the White House. But we still notice racial differences and often act accordingly. I would love to ask Davis how she feels about the roles she has been offered.

Equally impressive is Octavia Spencer as Aibileen's best friend, Minny Jackson, an outspoken maid who has lost so many jobs because of her sassy back talk that she now works for the last woman in town who will hire her — Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who is shunned by the ladies because of her "white trash" background. Celia doesn't know the rules of maid-employer relationships. Ironically, Minny teaches Celia the boundaries she and the other maids are trying to expose with Skeeter’s book. Spencer's large liquid eyes alternately shine with sharp-witted laughter and melt into pain-filled tears. If Aibileen is the soul of this black community, Minny is its heart.

Having read the book, I wasn't pleased to learn that the beautiful Emma Stone had been cast as the tall, skinny, unattractive Skeeter, since her gangly appearance is such an important part of her character. But somehow Stone manages to look like a plain Jane in this film — her eyes are too big, her lips are too thin, her hair is too curly, and her face is too pale. In short, she is perfect.

Despite having grown up in Jackson, Skeeter really doesn't fit in with her snooty friends. She is disturbed by Hilly's insistence that Elizabeth install a separate bathroom for Aibileen. In fact, Hilly wants a law mandating separate facilities in private homes, "for the prevention of disease." This prompts Skeeter to examine the way maids are treated by the women who employ them. "Colored women raise white children, and twenty years later these white children become the boss," she muses. "When do we change from loving them to hating them?" Aibileen observes the same dilemma: "I want to stop that moment coming — and it come in ever white child's life — when they start to think that colored folks ain't as good as whites."

Toilets, and the material that goes into them, become the strongest recurrent image in this film. From diapers and potty training to vomiting and pranks, toilets are a symbol for what was wrong with the "separate but equal" policy in the south. The facilities were separate, but they most assuredly were not equal. Aibileen's bathroom is a plywood closet located in a corner of the garage with a bare bulb hanging from a wire, and toilet paper resting on a bare 2x4. The symbol, which emphasizes how badly blacks could be treated by whites in those days, provides moments of both shame and laughter.

However, the film misses the richer, darker, and more sinister tone that underlies the book. For black women to write about their employers was no joke, and the book makes it clear that its women are risking real dangers when they decide to tell the truth. Permanent job loss, physical violence, and even jail are real threats in a society where the mere accusation of a crime can lead to vigilante justice with lifetime consequences. By showing this clearly, the book gains a tension and suspense that is missing from the film.

The most important question asked by The Help is this: how did these southern women go from loving the black maids who reared them as children to degrading them in adulthood?

Strangely, I found it more difficult to enter the minds and lives of the maids while watching the film than I did while reading the book. The story is told through the three voices of Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, who narrate alternating sections of the book. These voices are strong and rich, and I could enter their worlds, empathizing with their experiences vicariously. In the film, however, I was merely an observer. I often felt defensive, rather than empathetic, about what I was seeing, as though I were somehow responsible for the actions of those women long ago, simply because I am white. If we learn anything from our battle for civil rights, however, it is that each person should be judged individually, and not collectively as part of a race.

The most important question asked by The Help is this: how did these southern women go from loving the black maids who reared them as children to degrading them in adulthood? Stockett, who was reared in Mississippi by a black maid whom she says she loved, suggests that they learned it from their mothers, by example as well as by instruction. To quote Oscar Hammerstein in South Pacific, racism "has to be carefully taught." But books like this also suggest that children can be carefully taught not to be judgmental. Every day Aibileen tells Elizabeth's little girl, "You is smart. You is kind. You is important." She says nothing about little Mae Mobley's appearance, good or bad. Knowing that she will likely be fired or retired before Mae Mobley reaches her teen years, Aibileen hopes desperately that these words will be enough.

As is often the case, the film is good, but the book is so much better. Don't take a short cut this time. Read The Help first, and then see the movie. You will enjoy both so much more if you do it that way.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Help," directed by Tate Taylor. Dreamworks, 2011, 137 minutes.



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The News About the News

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When I was a child, we subscribed to two newspapers a day. The Los Angeles Times arrived early in the morning, and the Herald-Examiner plopped onto our doorstep in the late afternoon, usually thrown by my friend Dennis Miller, who had a paper route. (Back then, moms felt safe letting their young boys ride their bikes by themselves every day and knock on doors asking for money once a month.) I always liked the Examiner better, because the photos were a little larger, the stories a little racier, the features a little more entertaining. I didn't realize back then that it was intentional: morning papers contained cold gray news for people in a hurry; evening papers provided lighter fare and racier storytelling for readers who wanted to relax and unwind after a hard day.

With the advent of television news, then cable news, then electronic news, print news has become less and less profitable. Newspapers around the country are cutting back on stories, letting staffers go, and just plan folding up. When documentarian Andrew Rossi received permission to hang out with a video camera at the New York Times offices for a whole year, he didn't know that the demise of print journalism would become the focus of the story; no good documentarian ever knows exactly where the film will end up. But that's where Page One: Inside the New York Times went, and the result is a sometimes lively, sometimes somber, mostly interesting story about the past, present, and future of journalism.

Page One is a bit character heavy in the beginning as it introduces several side stories at once. The character who shines with the most luster is David Carr, the eccentric Monday columnist for the Business section of the Times who focuses primarily on media issues. One of the ironies pointed out in the film is the fact that the Times found it necessary to open a desk in 2008 to cover the demise of the media, and Carr does it in this film with a protective vengeance.

What's cool about Carr is that he lived first, and became a respected journalist second. A self-described cokehead in his youth, he spent some time in jail before becoming a respected writer. He wrote for a number of alternative publications before joining the Times when he was approaching 50. As a result, his voice, both written and spoken, is often unfiltered and unabashed, providing most of the humor in what is often a gray documentary.

But what is killing print journalism? First is the need for profits. Subscription rates will never be able to cover the costs of writing, printing, and delivering the news. Advertising revenue is the true source of support for newspapers, and ad revenue in print media is down everywhere. As a result, coverage is down, and serious coverage is down even more. Who's going to cover city hall when readers only want to know what Lindsay Lohan is up to? And since readership determines advertising rates, more fluff is passing for news these days.

Second is the need for speed. People used to be willing to wait for the scheduled newspapers, with an occasional "Extra" in which to "read all about it" when breaking news called for the editor to "Stop the presses!" Today's tech-savvy consumers, by contrast, are constantly in touch with breaking news, through texting, Twitter, Facebook, and other instant news feeds. They expect to know what's going on, moments after it happens.

On the other hand, the blogosphere's post-now, check-facts-later mentality gives print media the edge in accuracy and credibility. Carr wryly disparages the "caco-phony" of Twitter, even though he grudgingly admits that Twitter is a "wired collective voice" that gives him a sense of what people are talking about. One important scene in the documentary demonstrates a typical 10 a.m. meeting at the Times, where several editors and reporters sit around a table discussing stories currently in progress. There is an air of calm as they take the time to check facts, discuss context, consider reader interest, and check facts again.

Nevertheless, the documentary pulls no punches in reporting on the Times' gross mistakes, including the Jayson Blair scandal and Judith Miller's 2002 articles reporting weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that turned out not to exist. Miller defends herself by saying, "If your sources are wrong, you're going to be wrong." Blair was simply lying. I'm not sure which is worse — being naively hoodwinked or being deliberately devious.

One of the most shocking revelations in the film is the "end of the war" in Iraq that was neatly choreographed by NBC execs to coincide with the 6:30 news. The documentary claims that NBC simply wanted to give viewers a "mission accomplished" closure to the story. So they filmed their reporter accompanying "the final combat troops leaving Iraq" and broadcast it live on the evening news, even though the Pentagon had made no such announcement. It reminded me of the ending of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, when protagonist Guy Montag watches an innocent pedestrian being chased down, caught, and killed in his stead, just to give viewers the satisfaction of "closure" on the evening news.

The film touches on dozens of areas affecting journalism today. All of them are interesting and important, but the film's own cacophony of information prevents it from having a strong central storyline. In a way, this presentation is more real and honest than a neatly tied story with a beginning, middle, and end. Life doesn't always have a climax on page 72. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating film, well worth viewing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Page One: Inside the New York Times," directed by Andrew Rossi. Magnolia Pictures, 88 minutes.



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