Fantasies of the Filmerati

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So Parasite has won Best Picture at the Oscars. Certainly it is well-made (as discussed in these pages by Jo Ann Skousen). Director Bong Joon Ho knows how to make movies. But I can’t help thinking that what won it for him is its leftward political message. A similar message is what struck me about the other movie of Bong’s I saw, Snowpiercer, which I wrote about in Liberty back in January last year.

Unlike the post-apocalyptic science-fiction Snowpiercer, Parasite is set in today’s Seoul, Korea (Bong’s homeland). The story concerns two families. The Parks are rich and the Kims are poor. The “parasites” are — at least, on the surface — the Kims, who worm their way into the household staff of the Parks, displacing the other servants. In the course of a story that begins as social realism and ends as a surrealistic horror movie, the Kims become the parasites that consume their host.

Bong Joon Ho knows how to make movies. But I can’t help thinking that what won the Oscar for him is Parasite's leftward political message.

The movie is a story of how the class structure drives ordinary people to weird violence. This is supposed to be a deep criticism of modern capitalism — what the Left calls late capitalism. (Why “late”? Is this the capitalist End Times? Is there also a “late socialism”?) I’ve heard several viewers say Parasite is really not a dig at capitalism, because Bong has imagined the poor family, the Kims, as the parasites. They are dishonest, dissolute, and ultimately destructive. The Parks, thanks to their money, are “nice,” and nothing like the evil exploiters imagined by the Old Left.

That interpretation is overly generous, I think. Google “Parasite” and “capitalism” and see what you get. There is Bong Joon Ho saying at the Golden Globes ceremonies, “This film is about the rich and poor and about capitalism.” And Richard Brody saying in The New Yorker that Parasite is about “the injustice of inequality” and a system in which “the warped, the undeserving, and the incompetent . . . lord over a new generation of embittered and marginalized strugglers.” And Gabriella Paiella in GQ asserting that Parasite is “a taut thriller that vividly evokes the acute desperation of late capitalism, all wrapped in a layer of dark comedy.” And Nathaniel Bell of LA Weekly summing up the film as“Alfred Hitchcock by way of Karl Marx.”

And that’s the mainstream press. If you want the hardcore, try the Marxist LeftVoice.org, where Julia Wallace writes, “Parasite captures the inherently parasitic relationship between capitalists and the working class and imagines the headlong plunge that is coming when the working class will get fed up with creating things for the ruling class to take.”

Why “late”? Is this the capitalist End Times? Is there also a “late socialism”?

Are arts writers politically biased? Well, of 398 reviews of Parasite on RottenTomatoes five are unfavorable, and two of those argue that the movie’s anticapitalist message isn’t militant enough. One is Paddy Kehoe of RTE, Ireland’s version of NPR, who says, “It doesn’t point up a route . . . towards radical change.” The other is Rick Krisonak of Seven Days, a publication in Bernie Sanders’ hometown of Burlington, Vermont, who writes that Parasite “offers zero thoughtful comment on capitalism or inequality. It simply gives us poor characters gaming rich characters and assumes we'll side with the poor.”

I think that is Bong’s intention.

His main characters are the members of two families of four: husband, wife, boy, girl. The poor family, the Kims, are thoroughly Asian, working intelligently (if connivingly) as a family unit. The rich family, the Parks, are Westernized to the point of parody. Each soul is on its individual path, mostly lost, with the sheltered, smiling wife praising her son’s childish crayon drawings and wondering why he doesn’t obey his parents. The boy imagines himself an American Indian, prancing around the big, modernistic house, shooting toy arrows at the household staff. The mother’s idea for taming her boy is “art therapy.” The only overt bit of “class oppression” — which many of the critics noted — is the husband’s complaint that everyone in the poor family has a smell. George Orwell said the same in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).

Some of the details of Bong’s story make no sense at all. Kyle Smith of National Review, who may be the only right-winger in Rotten Tomatoes’ fawning herd, notes that the rich people in Parasite are never shown doing any work. The husband doesn’t drive the Mercedes-Benz and the wife doesn’t boil the water for noodles. They don’t really do anything. How did they become so rich? Bong doesn’t think we need to know. In Parasite, work is mostly bullshit, and only the poor do it.

The only overt bit of “class oppression” — which many of the critics noted — is the husband’s complaint that everyone in the poor family has a "smell."

At the outset, the Kims are making a bare living in their roach-ridden, urinated-on basement apartment by folding boxes for takeout pizza — and the employee from the pizza store berates them for messing up that simple task. But these are not the Joads. They are intelligent — school-smart and street-smart. They don’t have a full measure of morality, at least regarding the rich, but they have discipline. And when they try, they are successful. The poor-family daughter does a bangup job as an “art therapist,” instantly transforming the little wild Indian into an obedient boy. The National Review’s man asks how such a smart, disciplined, enterprising family came to be stuck at the bottom of the totem pole, folding pizza boxes: “In order to cock a snoot at supposed class injustice, artists like Bong have to fundamentally misrepresent what’s going on.”

That was my bellyache about Bong’s 2013 movie, Snowpiercer. If you’re going to criticize a system, show us what’s real. Others have done this with the world of household servants — most recently Alfonso Cuaron in Roma (2018), which recreates the home in Mexico City where he lived as a boy. That was real. Parasite is not.

The critics like that it’s not real. They praise it. A.O. Scott of the New York Times calls it “intensely metaphorical and devastatingly concrete.” (Got that?) Scott concludes, “Whether we know it or not, it’s Bong’s world we’re living in. Literally.”

Does the New York Times know what “literally” means?




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Les Misérables, But Not That One

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Les Misérables — not to be confused with the musical of the same name — is France’s entry in the Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards. The story is set in the impoverished Parisian district of Montfermeil, where Victor Hugo lived while writing his famous novel. But it could actually be set in any location where cultures collide and tensions are high.

Issa (Issa Perica) is the vivacious and charismatic leader of a passel of young boys who roam the neighborhood looking for entertainment and often getting into trouble. Some of them are orphans, some of them have parents, and some, like Issa, are outcasts, kicked out of their homes for getting into trouble too many times. This is a community that believes in the “village” approach to raising children, and parents care about their reputations — often more than they care about their children.

Three distinct groups maintain a loose sort of authority in this neighborhood as they all try to mold the boys into men: the Islamic Brotherhood, represented by Salah (Almamy Kanouté); the streetwise mayor (Steve Tientcheu) and his cronies; and the anti-crime unit of the police, whose job is to patrol and prevent crime rather than arrest and punish. All three groups have the same goal: to keep the peace by establishing good values among the youth in the neighborhood. All have good intentions, it seems. But who should define “good values”? And how should their values be enforced? As is often the case with authoritarian groups, each believes he knows best. They get along, but uneasily.

This is a community that believes in the “village” approach to raising children, and parents care about their reputations — often more than they care about their children.

The story begins on the day when three things happen: the circus comes to town, the local soccer team enjoys an important victory, and the recently divorced Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) transfers from his police job in the suburbs to the anti-crime unit in Paris in order to be closer to his young son and his ex-wife. Ruiz immediately becomes disillusioned by what he sees on the job. They’re supposed to calm things down before violence erupts, but after ten years of working in Montfermeil his new partners, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), have become jaded by the mission and often “calm things down” with in-your-face shouting and physical threats that just stir things up. Perhaps because of his estrangement from his own son, Ruiz takes a liking to Issa, which annoys his partners.

The neighborhood’s fragile détente is disturbed with the arrival of a traveling circus, run by gypsies. Issa, feeling lonely and rejected by his family, steals a lion cub to keep as a pet. All three neighborhood groups –the mayor, the Islamic Brotherhood, and the anti-crime unit — want to find the cub and return it before the circus owner, (who represents the foreign invader, I think), returns violence for theft. Metaphors abound in this slow-paced film that erupts in a shocking and explosive third act — which, in my opinion, earned its Academy Award nomination, despite its weak production values.

Who should define “good values”? And how should their values be enforced? As is often the case with authoritarian groups, each believes he knows best.

It has been suggested by some that this movie represents Hugo’s story from the dogged police officer Javert’s perspective, but I don’t buy that interpretation. Javert’s fault is that he believes too completely in the law, and that he is too just to be merciful. In the book, his virtue is ultimately his vice and his downfall. No one in this movie, and certainly none of the police officers, treats the law with that much respect. When things go wrong, they do whatever it takes not to be held accountable.

Victor Hugo wrote in Les Misérables: “Remember my friends, there is no such thing as bad plants or bad men; there are only bad cultivators.” With his powerful third act, director Ladj Ly gives us an idea of the kind of harvest we might expect if we entrust the wrong cultivators with raising our youth. You will continue to think about these characters and how quickly everything changes for them — and why — long after the fade to black. It is a cautionary tale with implications that reach far beyond “the wretched ones” of Montfermeil.


Editor's Note: Review of "Les Misérables," directed by Ladj Ly. Srab Films, 2019, 104 minutes.



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The Rich Have Not Been Idle

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On Thanksgiving Day I had an unhappy conversation with a libertarian friend. The conversation started with a report of a holiday dinner he had just attended with his extended family. Inevitably, during dinner, some of his family made political statements that were, to put it mildly, counterintuitive. They were credulous believers in and campaigners for the “progressive” program of the Democratic Party — tax increases, socialized health, regulation of everything, all the ideas and causes that were exploded by rational analysis generations ago.

These people are by no means dumb. They have advanced degrees, they make their living by analysis and application of facts, and they are financially very successful. Moreover, they made their own money. They are not the idle, coupon-clipping rich. Yet they are rich.

I reflected on my own friends. Many of them are progressive Democrats. Their ideas are, as far as I can tell, precisely the same as those of the people I just described, because they believe precisely everything the “progressive” media have to say. And these people are also rich.

They were credulous believers in and campaigners for the “progressive” program of the Democratic Party, all the ideas and causes that were exploded by rational analysis generations ago.

In our society, despite the ostensible wishes of the progressives, the wealthy matter very much. One of the ways they matter is that they are the ones who fund the programmatically anti-wealth progressive movement and are determined to force everyone else to fund it too.

This is a mystery that many detectives have tried to solve. Their conclusions vary:

  • The rich have all the material stuff they want, so all that’s left to buy is power, and progressivism makes the largest offer of power.
  • The rich feel guilty because they’re rich, and progressivism claims to help the poor.
  • The minds of the rich were corrupted by teachers who envy wealth and want to redistribute it, to themselves and others, progressivism being the best means of doing that.

These theories all have merit — a lot of it, in fact. I have one theory to add.

I’ll start by asking a question. What do you call a set of ideas and practices that, though impervious to fact, arouses such strong emotions that people will sacrifice to it their time, their energy, and (at least some of) their wealth, deriving from it their ethical validation and regarding everyone who takes another view as either ignorant or immoral? If you said, “That sounds like a fanatical religion,” you are right. There has never been a fanatical religion in the modern West that has not found wealthy people to support it, no matter how much it preached against wealth.

Fortunate people! They have a religion that never constrains, always gratifies the emotions.

A couple of generations ago, fanatical religions had more competition for the bucks and reputed brains of the “propertied classes.” The competition was the non-fanatical religions, which provided plenty of opportunities for rich people to make contributions in exchange for ego benefits. In our society, however, the wealthy appear to have become irreligious at a much faster rate than anybody else. Even those who have maintained a semblance of conventional religiosity manifest no compunction about sacrificing traditional religious ideas to the temptations of political ideology. The desire to be part of a religious movement, combined with the conviction that ordinary religion is impossibly uncool, is typified by the pious tone of the wealthy Hollywood personnel who, when not happily boycotting their favorite “moral” (i.e., political) offenders, are busy purveying sex and violence. Fortunate people! They have a religion that never constrains, always gratifies the emotions.

With the very rich getting very richer and pledging ever more funds to the Church of Virtue Signaling, libertarians have a harder row to hoe than they did back in the day, when their principal opponents were the supposed representatives of the working classes — grasping labor unions and warmongering nationalists. The answer is not to try serving up libertarianism as its own substitute religion, as too many activists do. It is to preach the open, optimistic promises of a non-cult, to offer the calm and common sense that are treasured by the majority of working people — people who truly “just want to be left alone” by politicians, particularly those who make a religion out of politics. I think it is that desire, more than anything else, that elected Donald Trump, and libertarian ideas present a refreshing alternative to the rest of his message. It’s the “working class” — not the academics, and certainly not the rich — who are now our natural audience. It’s time to let them know that we’re still here.




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Judicial Conscription

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"United States District Court" reads the return address on an envelope I received today.

It is a summons for jury duty.

My honest attitude is, "I'd love to be on a jury," but it is genuinely impossible for me to do so: I have absolutely no transportation, especially to go all the way to Tucson, 65 miles from this front door to the courthouse. Plus, my health is such that, truly, I have trouble walking across a room.

Plus, according to the rules . . . well, let me put it this way: it's easy to see that the government is run by the government.

If one must travel 60 or more miles to answer this summons, one will be allowed to check into certain approved hotels; but one must pay for the room, then present a receipt next day to the PIGs, the Persons In Government, and hope to be reimbursed. Theoretically, one does get reimbursed at a certain rate per mile, but nowhere is there provision for destitute people. And there’s no way that I could pay up to $90, or more, for a hotel room, even if I were able to get there.

It's easy to see that the government is run by the government.

One is "allowed" and in fact urged to respond to the summons via the internet; it's spelled out very pointedly that a mere letter-on-paper asking to be excused will go unheeded. Again no provision for destitute citizens.

So, I'm wondering if my best bet is to ignore the summons completely. To treat it as, 50 years ago, I treated notices from my draft board: chuck it into the barrel.

Then, if some federal PIG, Person In Government, comes to arrest me, I could perhaps expect medical care while in custody.

I'm wondering if my best bet is to treat it as, 50 years ago, I treated notices from my draft board: chuck it into the barrel.

Well, a friend who used to be a nurse in a hospital told me that when police brought a prisoner to the hospital for treatment, they often released him . . . so that the prisoner-patient became responsible for the treatment!

For now, I’m going to look at the "ejuror" site and see just what questions there are and what answers I will be able to give — if, that is, there’s a place for an explanation. Usually, in my experience, one must jump through a bunch of hoops, and over a bunch of hurdles, before getting to a place to explain.

But isn't it wonderful to live in a free country?




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Cut Taxes, Save the Poor

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Usually the debate between tax-and-spend liberals and cut-taxes conservatives is a fight about raising taxes on the rich or lowering taxes for the rich. Instead of wading into those troubled waters, I would like to propose a policy of cutting taxes on the poor and the lower middle class. As a byproduct, the system would fund charity to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and provide medical treatment for the poor and mentally ill.

State and local sales and property taxes hit the poor hard, while the tax laws ensure that only the prosperous benefit (though not very much) from donating to charity. I would change this, as follows:

1. Congress should pass a law providing a federal income tax credit equal to the amount of sales taxes and property taxes paid at the state and local level. Sales taxes hurt the poor: the rich don't notice them, but the poor and the middle class feel them painfully. The rich can afford to pay property taxes, but they bleed other homeowners dry, meanwhile driving up rents and home prices. States and localities are involved in providing essential public services, but the federal government can cut taxes on the poor by defunding nonessential federal programs. For people too poor to pay income taxes, a cash tax refund should be issued in the approximate amount of their sales and property taxes. This would effectively repeal those taxes. Technology exists to track how much sales tax a poor or middle-class person has paid. To assuage the fears of privacy advocates, tracking sales taxes could be an opt-in feature chosen by people who want the rebate for it. Or people could keep their own records of what sales tax they paid and report it to the IRS.

Sales taxes hurt the poor: the rich don't notice them, but the poor and the middle class feel them painfully.

2. Add the charitable deduction on top of the standard deduction, thus drawing in people who don’t itemize deductions and encouraging everyone to give more to charity and less to taxes.

3. Limit eligible charitable deductions to charities that feed the hungry, house the homeless, or provide medical treatment to the poor or the mentally ill. This will funnel charitable dollars to the vulnerable and needy, lessening the ability of liberal politicians to exploit government power in the name of need. Within the realm of such vital services, remove all red tape to make it easy for any charity to gain IRS status for the right kind of donations.

4. By statute, eliminate liability for a charitable donor's honest errors in estimating the cash value of goods and services he has donated. Create a safe harbor so that if any reasonable person could have purchased the donated goods or services for $X amount, then the IRS may not challenge or litigate when the donor claims a tax deduction of $X. This will set the middle and lower middle classes free from the fear of using charitable contributions to avoid paying taxes.

Funneling charitable dollars to the vulnerable and needy would lessen the ability of liberal politicians to exploit government power in the name of need.

5. Institute a charity multiplier of 2x or 3x. For example, if someone donates $300 to a charity, he avoid paying $900 of federal income taxes. This will encourage people to donate to vital charities while achieving a massive de facto tax cut.

This policy package, if passed in its entirety, would help the poor by cutting taxes on both rich and poor. Congress should do this, and we libertarians should advocate it.




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A Train to Nowhere

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The other day I watched Snowpiercer. I have a taste for post-apocalyptic science fiction, and also for stories that illustrate political ideas, and Snowpiercer is both of those. Co-written and directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, the 2013 movie also has a strong flavor of anti-capitalism. Wondering who had picked up on that, I googled “Snowpiercer, Socialism,” then “Snowpiercer, anti-capitalism.”

The socialists had picked up on it. On a web page called Socialist Action (“In Solidarity with Workers and the Oppressed Everywhere”) writer Gaetana Caldwell-Smith calls Snowpiercer “an original, inventive, futuristic work” that pictures “what might happen in the future if the outmoded and anarchistic capitalist system goes on unchecked for much longer.”

On another socialist web page, Jacobin writer Peter Frase calls Snowpiercer an “action-movie spectacle” with “a message of class struggle” that “evokes some of the thorniest dilemmas of socialism and revolution, in the twentieth century and today.”

In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet.

Your Film Professor, the highbrow lefty, praises Snowpiercer’s “incredible capacity to cuttingly capture — or ‘cognitively map’ — how our current and future dystopian milieu is informed by our (globalized) capitalism system. . . . The reason this film is just SO important is because it cuts through the fog of ideological distractions (e.g., consumerism, status quo/reformist [capitalistic] rhetoric, patriotism, nationalism, etc.) and didactically spells out the REAL of ruling class ideologies in a way that is to my mind almost miraculous.”

I don’t know about all that. It does tell you how some on the Left think (and write).

Snowpiercer is a science fiction story set on a frozen earth. In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet. But a capitalist named Wilford, who was fascinated with model trains as a kid, had put his corporate fortune into a high-speed train with an enclosed ecosystem: tanks of fish, hooches of chickens, an engine to propel the train and keep the contents warm. For 17 years, Wilford’s shinkansen has been rushing over the world’s continents, one full loop each year, pushing through the wasteland of snow and frozen machines around it. Every human alive is a passenger on this train.

After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense — but cut some slack for surrealism. The story of Snowpiercer is from a graphic novel, in other words, a comic book. A French socialist comic book. The film is quite well made, and on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) is rated 7.1. That’s not quite up to the 8.2 rating of V for Vendetta, another political tale based on a comic book, but well above the 6.2 for Waterworld (1995).

Snowpiercer’s train comes with a recognizably Marxist class structure. Wilford, the egoistic owner played by Ed Harris, is the deity at the train’s head. Next in line are train cars of sybarites with their club music, dancing, and drug-fueled orgies, then the genteel with their classical music and handmade sushi, then the obedient workers tending the orange groves, tanks of fish, and hooches of chickens, and the smiling teacher (Allison Pill) in the grade-school car of fresh-looking kids. After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end. In Marxist terms, you might think of them as “workers,” but they mostly just suffer. They live in rags and squalor and are terrorized by goons. For food they are issued “protein bars” made from pulverized cockroaches.

And they are the folks the movie is about.

Wilford’s mouthpiece to them is an unctuous woman played by Tilda Swinton, who was the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). Early in Snowpiercer she instructs the rabble in a style that parodies Margaret Thatcher. “Order is the barrier that holds back the frozen death,” she declares. “We must all of us, in this train of life, remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position.”

The society around us has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time.

She holds a man’s shoe and puts it on the head of one of the proles. “A hat belongs to your head,” she bellows. “A shoe belongs to your foot. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot.”

And again: “I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, a sacred line is crossed. Know your place.”

Here is the message of the movie. Society — capitalist society — is a hierarchy of assigned privilege.

Well, the society around us is surely a hierarchy, just as its Canadian defender, Jordan Peterson, allows, though he calls it a hierarchy of competence. And it is mostly that, else today’s world would not work. It has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time. Margaret Thatcher was part of the political one percent, but she famously started out as a shopkeeper’s daughter, in what the Marxists call the petit bourgeoisie.

Capitalism is an economic system of private workers and owners who buy and sell in a market, making their own decisions. In Snowpiercer there is no market. Wilfred’s chickens produce eggs, and one of his men wheels them in a cart and gives them away. He doesn’t sell them. There is no buying or selling in Snowpiercer and no money. There is no property other than Wilford’s. The supposed “Wilford Industries” cannot buy or sell anything, because there is no other entity to sell to or buy from.

As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist "Anthem" or "Animal Farm," "Snowpiercer" does seem to be part of something.

Watching Snowpiercer, you can’t help but identify with the lumpen heroes (especially the characters played by John Hurt and Octavia Spencer) who disobey the faux Margaret Thatcher and refuse to remain “shoes” on the godhead’s foot.

But why care about a five-year-old movie that had only a limited release in the United States? Worldwide it did better; in its first year, Snowpiercer brought in $87 million, more than half of what V for Vendetta did. As a business venture Snowpiercer did all right. As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist Anthem or Animal Farm, it does seem to be part of something.

There has been a small upsurge of socialism in the United States. So far it is a pale image of the leftist tide of the 1930s, when private investment had collapsed and millions were out of work. Then it looked to many as if capitalism was finished. In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

Now my hometown, Seattle, has a socialist on its city council. Her supporters are raucous and young, full of resentment of the billionaire rich. Maybe they believe because they read Karl Marx and Thomas Piketty, but more likely because they have imbibed their history and politics from left-wing teachers, or maybe from graphic novels and movies like Snowpiercer.

In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

But socialism — really? Like Peterson, I want to yell at them: Did you miss the 20th century? And a lot of them did. They are that young.

I lived through the last third of that century as an adult. I saw socialism collapse in Europe, abandoned in China, and decaying in Cuba. Now it is collapsing again in Venezuela. It’s time for the socialists to give up.

All the Left’s bellowing about hierarchies and social classes makes me think of the guys I grew up with. The son of a small-town optometrist became an airline pilot. The son of an aerospace engineer became a sheet-metal worker, then lost it all when he married a crackhead. We are all of retirement age now, though some of us are still working and one, a teacher, has been retired on a fat pension for more than ten years. I have a grade-school friend who lived for years in a ruined trailer and a former colleague who lived for seven years in his truck. Both have now been put in decent housing, courtesy of the welfare state.

The kids I grew up with did not achieve equality, at least not as the Left defines it. They weren’t promised it, didn’t aim at it, and didn’t get it. They went in all different directions. None was assigned his position in life, and most of them, over time, changed what that position was. No doubt some of their paths were shaped by “power relations” under capitalism, and I know some were touched by luck. But where each one ended up depended mostly on the decisions he made, the sort of work he did and how diligently it was done, how much present satisfaction was sacrificed for the future, and, crucially, on whom he married.

Why would anyone think his world is like Snowpiercer?

A software man of the new generation predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I think back to when I was 20, and a student at the university. I used to go on long walks through a city neighborhood with big houses, many of them brick, built in the early 20th century. I was bunking in a rental house shared with other students, eating meals of hot dogs and ramen and working a part-time job for $1.75 an hour. That neighborhood of big homes was a foreign country to me. It would have been easy to think I was looking at the brick walls of an impenetrable class, and that I was doomed to a life of instant noodles. But I wasn’t.

There is another thought, which I heard recently from a software man of the new generation. Noting the divide in his fellows between those with brain work and those living in parents’ basements, he predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I do see the loss of jobs. My health clinic, which used to have a row of clerks checking in patients, has replaced them with touchscreens. The local superstore (which would have been called a department store, years ago) has replaced half of its checkers with touch screens. Several downtown parking garages that used to employ Ethiopians to collect the money have replaced them with card scanners.

Then again, three blocks from my house is a shop that concocts such fluffy desserts as Mexican chocolate pie. A pie from that shop costs $36; a slice, $6. That sort of pie was not available here two decades ago. Nor was nitrogen-infused ale. Or black sesame ice cream. My neighborhood now has artisan bread, artisan ice cream, artisan chocolate, artisan beer and, more recently, artisan spirits. Within a few miles are stores offering artisan cannabis.

A young man I know, the son of a bank vice president, has chosen to be an organic farmer. He shares in an old house on a muddy farm and produces organic vegetables and free-range, grass-fed beef. He sells his artisan hamburger for $6 a pound.

Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

A century ago, a middle-class family here might have a Swedish girl to cook, clean, tend the children, and mend the holes in socks. Now we have au pairs, housecleaning services, gardening services, and (I can hardly believe this) dog-walking services. I even know of a poop-removal service for people who keep dogs in backyards. In my neighborhood the environmentally sensitive no longer put in concrete walkways. They hire Mexican immigrants to put in brick walkways, carefully laying each brick by hand, using no mortar, so that rainwater can soak sustainably into the earth.

Back in the 1970s, my university professor of marketing predicted that the future of consumer products was Miller and Bud, two brands distinguishable only by labels and the ads on network television. All consumer markets were going to go that way, he said. I suppose it would have been the most efficient outcome. But look at the beer shelf at your grocery today. And what has happened to television? Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

The young man selling $6-a-pound hamburger makes far less money than a programmer at Amazon. Probably he officially qualifies as poor. But he is no serf. To him, the programmers working 60-hour weeks are the serfs.

Snowpiercer is, as the socialists say, “an original, inventive, futuristic work,” totally unlike the black-and-white TV westerns and World War II shows I grew up with. I enjoyed it. I cheered for the rebels at the back of the train along with everybody else. I just hope that most of those who saw the film took it as an artisan product of an affluent culture and not as any sort of wisdom on the world around them.




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Casualties of the Drug War

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White Boy Rick is a rough and complex biopic based on the story of Richard Wershe, Jr., the youngest (at 14) undercover drug informant ever to be recruited by the feds to help them go after the kingpins in the drug trade. At times touching, as when Rick (Richie Merritt) scavenges a stuffed animal from a neighbor’s trash to take home for his sister Dawn (Bel Powley), and at times enraging, the film shows the dark underside of the war on drugs in all its ugly glory: corrupt cops, heartless investigators, violent turf wars, strung-out druggies, and the poverty and despair that often lead people into the trade.

The story is set in mid-’80s Detroit, against a backdrop of empty factories, rat-infested playgrounds, and worn-out homes in worn-out neighborhoods. Richard Wershe Senior (Matthew McConaughey) is a hustler with a gun dealer’s license, and the film opens in the carnival-like atmosphere of families enjoying a gun show, popcorn and all. (I remember attending “hard money” investment conferences in the ’70s and early ’80s where guns were legally sold alongside exhibit booths offering survival gold and freeze-dried foods. How times have changed!)

The film shows the dark underside of the war on drugs in all its ugly glory: corrupt cops, heartless investigators, violent turf wars, strung-out druggies, and the poverty and despair that often lead people into the trade.

Wershe Sr. has a dream: VCRs have recently arrived on the scene, and he wants to open a video store. “All we need is a stake!” he tells Rick. That video store is his rabbit farm (Of Mice and Men), the dream that sustains him through all the disappointments of his life: a jobless economy, a daughter strung out on crack, a son who has dropped out of school, and a source of income that’s sketchy at best. He loves his family, but he can’t provide a good life for them. He has a license to sell registered guns at a meager profit, but the real money is in the “upsell” — the illegal homemade silencers he offers along with them. “The gun is the burger — but these are the fries,” he tells Rick, explaining how fast food servers are trained to make you think you want something you don’t really need. “Now go out and sell you some fries.”

Ironically, FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane) and Detective Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry) ply Rick with a burger and fries as they enlist his services as an undercover narc, threatening to arrest his father for illegal firearms sales if the boy doesn’t comply. This scene was particularly poignant to me, because several of my students at Sing Sing have told me that McDonald’s is the drug of choice for recruiting young drug runners in the streets. “You got no one at home watching out for you, and then some big kid on the block buys you McDonald’s and wants to be your friend. He gives you a cheeseburger and you hold his gun for him. And you end up in here.” Oh, so subtly, with a burger and fries, the film equates the Feds, the dealers, and Rick’s father. The kid never had a chance.

It makes no sense to save for the future when there isn’t a future in sight.

The scenes that follow show Rick immersing himself in the drug culture, with its fast money, easy women, and useless luxuries. These scenes also reminded me of stories my Sing Sing students have told me. “You spent it all as soon as you got it, because you knew this wasn’t going to last. We all knew we’d end up in here. So enjoy it while you can. I had a Mercedes, a big apartment, big parties, I was livin’ the life. Now I’m here.” Rick says something similar to Dawn: “It was good when we were kids. For a while.”

Hopelessness in impoverished neighborhoods often leads people to seek instant gratification and engage in risky behaviors. It makes no sense to save for the future when there isn’t a future in sight. There aren’t any rabbits, and there isn’t any video store. It’s all a pipe dream, mostly found at the bottom of a crack pipe. So grab a few laughs and some ass while you can. There isn’t going to be any more where you’re going.

The feds are no better than the drug lords, and probably worse, because they claim to be the good guys. Driven by moral relativism, they see no problem with getting kids high, sending them into dangerous situations in order to catch drug dealers, and then leaving them to deal with their addictions — and their incarcerations — when they’re no longer useful. Dawn gets strung out on coke provided by her boyfriend, but Rick gets strung out on money provided by the coke the feds give him for his undercover stake. When the feds drop him and that money source dries up, Rick is already hooked. “We gotta do something!” he says to his father in desperation. “We gotta make some money!”

This is a world Liberty readers seldom see and few legislators, journalists, and do-gooders of any sort understand. In one bitterly ironic scene of the movie, the film Footloose is playing on a television moments before automatic weapons riddle the room with bullets. (Footloose, you may recall, is set in a white middle-class community where the biggest threats to happiness are curfew violations, joyriding, and uncontrolled dancing.) “Get out of Yonkers!” is the advice I fairly scream at the families I know there, where poverty, drug use, crime, and hopelessness form a dragnet on their children. But they can’t let go of the safety net — their Section 8 housing — and they stay.

The feds see no problem with sending kids into dangerous situations in order to catch drug dealers, and then leaving them to deal with their addictions — and their incarcerations — when they’re no longer useful.

Rick Wershe may have been the youngest teen to be recruited as an undercover informant to avoid arrest, but he certainly isn’t the only one. According to an article by Tony Newman of Drug Policy Alliance, it has become all too common to bust people for minor possession and then threaten them with decades in prison unless they provide evidence on someone else -– and for those frightened, untrained informants to end up dead. Rick didn’t end up dead, but he might as well have, when his handlers stood idly by as he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole — for selling cocaine. It was the longest sentence for a nonviolent crime ever imposed, until Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for running the Silk Road website.

I watched the tears quietly trickle down 17-year-old Rick’s cheeks in the closing scenes of the film as he spoke through prison glass to his equally distraught father, and the tears quietly streamed down my cheeks too. I know too many of these young men — now middle-aged — who have beenincarcerated since they were teens because they were enticed into a drug trade that is only lucrative and deadly because it is illegal. There are no good guys in the war on drugs. There is only bad law. And bad schools. And bad neighborhoods without hope.

When Footloose ends, the local authorities acknowledge that they only made things worse when they banned dancing. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the same thing about banning drugs.


Editor's Note: Review of "White Boy Rick," directed by Yann Demange. Columbia Pictures, 2018, 111 minutes.



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The Civic Sacred Cow

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Recently someone left a pile of human shit on the back steps of my building. A neighbor was assaulted by a homeless person in the alley. A clerk at the 7-Eleven tried to get a beggar off the property and was slammed against the wall and threatened; the police said, “Well, you weren’t hurt, were you?” The secretary of a neighborhood church told me she was getting afraid to go to work, since there was always at least one drugged-out man camping on the steps. The front yard of another church was filled with homeless every day and night, often blocking the sidewalks. Fires repeatedly swept through the city property next to the freeway, site of homeless encampments and cookouts. A friend who plays in a women’s softball league complained that the restroom they formerly used in the city park was always occupied by homeless men. At that point, finally, I resolved to do something. The park is in my city council district, not hers.

There began a series of calls and emails between me and numerous city and police officials, in which I mentioned to everyone on the other end of the conversation that cops patrol the neighborhood but do nothing about its obvious problems. The result, finally, was that the invaders were out of the women’s restroom and the church secretary got some temporary assistance in evicting permanent transients from the property. The other problems have not been touched.

If you call to report that your neighbor has parked his car in your driveway, blocking your egress, I doubt that the first thing you hear will be a frosty, “Parking is not a crime.”

My experience can stand for that of thousands of others who have tried to do something about the growing Problem of Homelessness, which in many cities of America is making life miserable for all classes except the rich. The interesting thing to me is that when people call public officials to complain, they are invariably admonished that “homelessness is not a crime.” I was told that too, right off the bat, in every conversation I had.

This seems increasingly peculiar to me. If you call to report that your neighbor has parked his car in your driveway, blocking your egress, I doubt that the first thing you hear will be a frosty, “Parking is not a crime.” Now let’s try it the other way. If you threaten your neighbor, assault him, shit on his steps, camp in his doorway, and occupy, in your nakedness, the restroom of the opposite sex, what will happen to you? You will be arrested, forthwith.

So what’s the difference? The difference is that you are a lowly taxpayer, bound by every rule that anyone can think of; whereas the people who are making your environment annoying, tough, dangerous, or merely sickening are “homeless” and therefore above the law. In fact, they are some of the largest beneficiaries of the law; every community I know of gives them tax-supported aid in innumerable forms. In San Francisco it is about $37,000 per year, per vagrant.

If we lived in a libertarian anarchy, something would still need to be done about this.

As a human being, I feel pity for most of these people, because they are crazy, or addicted to drugs and alcohol. True, many could kick their addictions and submit to treatment for their craziness; they could “take their meds.” But they won’t, and for that I also feel sorry for them, though not nearly as sorry as I feel for the people they happen to rob, kill, and infect with disease. My city has a very large and very good Catholic charity that is able and willing to shelter any homeless person who agrees, essentially, not to be disruptive; the charity’s beds are never fully occupied.

I don’t know how to solve this problem; I wish I could solve all of my own problems. As a libertarian, I would defend anyone’s right to wander on whatever streets he chooses, to drink and smoke and shoot up as much as he wants; all I insist is that he not impose himself on others, occupy their property, ruin their businesses, insult their houses of worship, rob them, threaten them, and appropriate for his own use the things that other people, many of them poor people, have paid for. If we lived in a libertarian anarchy, something would still need to be done about this.

It doesn’t seem too much to ask that city authorities sympathize with me in this dispute. The fact that their default position is that I’m wrong and the “homeless” are right and fully justified by the “law” can hardly be explained on rational grounds, even if we extend “rationality” to mean “honey up to the voters, or they may toss you out on the street.” To insult the voters with moral lectures or sham economic theories (“if housing weren’t so expensive, people wouldn’t need to live on the streets”) is an act of irrationality that can only be explained by the assumption that some mystical, religious value is at stake.

Of course, this isn’t any of the great religions; it’s the little religion of self-righteousness.

And so it is. Our officials now believe that they have a higher obligation to the homeless than to everyone else, the kind of obligation that leads some people to sacrifice their self-interest on behalf of God or the Bible. One of the two major political parties now proclaims, by its every word and action, and particularly in parts of the country where “the homeless” abound, that in any conflict between the voters and the homeless (who do not vote), it will side with the homeless.

Of course, this isn’t any of the great religions; it’s the little religion of self-righteousness. But it has the same effect as certain customs of the great religions. I believe that in some parts of India, cows are still permitted to wander at will through the people’s markets, eating what they will from the merchants’ produce, and, of course, shitting where they will. And why? Those cows are sacred.




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What Do You Make of This?

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Years since the war in Afghanistan began: 17

Percentage of Afghanistan currently controlled or contested by the Taliban (most favorable estimate to the US): 44

Years since the war on drugs began: 104

Percentage of Americans 12 years of age or older who use illegal drugs (2016 estimate): 10.6

Years since the war on poverty began: 54

Money so far expended on the war on poverty (2014 estimate): $22 trillion

Percentage of Americans living in poverty (2016 estimate): 13

Percentage of African Americans living in poverty (2016 estimate): 22

National debt, 1970, as percentage of GDP: 35

National debt, 2017, as percentage of GDP: 104

Years served in the House of Representatives (5 samples):

  • Don Young, (R-AK): 45
  • Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI): 39
  • Steny Hoyer (D-MD, minority whip of the House): 37
  • Nancy Pelosi (D-CA, minority leader of the House): 31
  • Maxine Waters (D-CA): 27

Years served in the Senate (5 samples):

  • Patrick Leahy (D-VT): 43
  • Orrin Hatch (R-UT): 41
  • Mitch McConnell (Addison Mitchell McConnell, Jr., R-KY, majority leader of the Senate): 33
  • Diane Feinstein (D-CA): 26
  • Patty Murray (D-WA): 25

Total years of service of politicians just mentioned: 347

Members of Congress proficient in practical mathematics: no known instances




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Seattle Solons Sideline Squatters

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Last month (Liberty, May 10), I reported on the Seattle City Council’s attempt to impose a per-employee tax on large businesses, the proceeds of which were supposed to be used to help the homeless.

The video of the meeting (June 12) at which the Council acted in response to public opposition and repealed the head tax is entertaining. The council chamber is full of people with signs — green ones saying “No Tax on Jobs” and red ones urging a tax on Amazon, the city’s largest private employer. The people holding the green signs are quiet and the people holding the red signs are noisy. When the council members come to a vote, the red-sign people set up a chant to drown them out: “We . . . are . . . ready to fight! Housing . . . is . . . a human right!”

The council members, who had voted unanimously for the head tax a month before, explain their votes (7 to 2 for repeal). First come the progressive Democrats who are voting for repeal. Not one of them admits that the head tax is bad policy. Referring to the success of the business-led petition drive to put the ordinance on the ballot, and polls showing that on this issue Seattle’s liberal electorate sides with business, Councilwoman Lisa Herbold says, “This is not a winnable battle. The opposition has unlimited resources.” By repealing the head tax, she says, the progressives are cutting their losses. “There is so much more to lose between today and November,” she says.

“We need more resources,” the councilman says, and votes to repeal the tax that would have raised tens of millions.

Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda, who opposes repeal, talks of the vote as if it were not a defeat. What makes it not a defeat? Because she still believes in the cause. Her belief is what’s important. And also that a month before, the council did vote for the tax. “I’m proud that this council stood up in the face of intimidation and fear,” she says, just before seven of her colleagues vote to reverse their action.

Councilman Mike O’Brien says the city spent $94 million on the homeless last year, and that it is not enough. “We need more resources,” he says, and votes to repeal the tax that would have raised tens of millions.

“We know what the solutions are,” says Councilwoman Lorena Gonzalez, who votes against the solution she is so sure of.

Finally comes our Socialist Alternative councilwoman, Kshama Sawant, speaking to her chanting groupies with the red signs. She calls this a defeat — and just the sort of defeat you get by putting your faith in Democrats. Her Democratic colleagues patting themselves on the back for caring about the homeless have nothing to be proud of. “This is a capitulation and a betrayal,” Sawant says.

Really Sawant cares about making the rich pay, about bringing them down in status, and about building a socialist America.

And not of the homeless, really. The Democrats talk about the homeless. Sawant talks about working people, at one point saying that the vote to repeal the tax is a betrayal of working people, as if the squatters in Seattle’s public parks were waking up every morning, putting on clean clothes, and going to work.

Really Sawant cares about making the rich pay, about bringing them down in status, and about building her movement for a socialist America.

Mostly Sawant was sore at her colleagues’ unwillingness to accept the business community’s challenge of a public vote. “There was a chance of winning,” she says.

A chance, yes. Not a good one.

Yes, Bezos is her enemy. And yes, her colleagues are spineless Democrats.

Sawant berates her colleagues for surrendering to the business community and its supporters, though she characterizes it as a surrender to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “Jeff Bezos IS our enemy,” she proclaims.

And I find myself agreeing with her. Not with her condemnation of Bezos or her advocacy of “social housing” and “taxing the rich,” but with her political clarity. Yes, Bezos is her enemy. Damn right. And yes, her colleagues are spineless Democrats. They did betray her cause, and her. It was disgusting to hear them praising themselves even as they backed down, as if they could weasel out with talk. They lost, and because they lost, she lost.

It’s a glorious day.




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