What I Learned when My Panera Closed

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On July 10, I walked into my local Panera shop to take out a turkey and avocado sandwich and was told that the place would be closing five days later. I hadn’t been prepared for that.

As you probably know, Panera is a chain of sandwich shops. The menu is limited but tasty. You can take out or eat in, and if you choose the latter, the seating is pretty comfortable. Food is moderately priced. I visited Panera about twice a week, usually to take something out but sometimes to sit down and enjoy one of the small hot breakfast sandwiches — scrambled egg (or over easy) with bacon and cheese.

I have no moral objection to maximizing one’s profits. Yet I remembered what I’d seen in my Panera during its busy hours.

But now I’d have to find another place for such minor pleasures and conveniences, and that wouldn’t be easy. My Panera was only 1,000 steps from where I live. I didn’t want to get up early on Saturday morning and drive someplace for a breakfast sandwich. And if I wanted to get something on my way home, I didn’t feel like driving six miles out of my way, to the now-nearest Panera. My life would change — only a little, but not for better. I liked the people who worked at my Panera, and they liked me enough to give me advance notice of their closing. I was glad to hear that places had been found for them in other Paneras. But I would miss them.

Why was my Panera closing? “We do a good business in the morning and afternoon, but as you know, the place is sort of empty after 6 pm.” All right; I have no moral objection to maximizing one’s profits. Yet I remembered what I’d seen in my Panera during its busy hours.

The knitting club that occupied several tables once or maybe twice a week. The perpetual Scrabble people. Quite a few people meeting for cards. The basically-gay Meet Up every Saturday morning, where anyone could sit around and talk with anyone without fear of embarrassment. The low-income families who regarded Panera as a luxury restaurant. The old lady who infested the place, plumping her bag down at a table and then wandering around finding ways to talk to strangers — complimenting their hairstyles or their boyfriends or their reading matter and generally making herself a nuisance. But who can tell? Maybe the people who were nice to her — and everyone was, except me, who always hid in a book at her close approach — really valued her attentions.

What would happen to her, now that the place was closing? What would happen to the knitters and the Scrabblers and the chatters? Where would they go?

Change happens. Business decisions are made. But the loss of my Panera made me realize, though not for the first time, how precious what they call capitalist business is.

When you drive through the great heartland of America and stop to take a piss or buy a hamburger at McDonald’s, you often find that you’re in the place where the whole town hangs out. If it weren’t for McDonald’s, where would the farmers get together to gripe about their crops? Where would the teenagers woo and scream? Where would the church ladies plot their next fundraiser? Maybe in the church basement, if they were forced to do so. But they’d rather go to McDonald’s.

Before my Panera, there was another restaurant in that space, a very nice Italian restaurant. It moved to another place in town, and I could no longer walk there to eat. So that was a loss. Change happens. Business decisions are made. But the loss of my Panera made me realize, though not for the first time, how precious what they call capitalist business is.

How precious, and how fragile. I know of towns where nearly all the businesses have died. Try being an old person in a town like that, and wanting to go someplace to get some coffee. Or see people you know. To just get out of the house! A capitalist business gives you a way to do all that. In fact, capitalist businesses give you most of the pleasures in your life. Yes, they may go away, but the biggest problem is that when they do, you’re left with the things that won’t go away, which are the non-capitalist businesses. There are towns I know where the only things open are the police station, the DMV, and the welfare bureau.

So that’s what I learned when my Panera closed. Maybe it will be replaced by an even friendlier focus of the neighborhood. I hope so. I hope that the obnoxious old Panera lady will find someplace pleasant to spend her days. If she does, it will almost undoubtedly be because some capitalist wanted her business. And mine.




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What I Learned from My Paper Route

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“Where have all the paperboys gone?” asked a subhead in a must-read Reason magazine cover story by Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt published last December, provocatively entitled: “The Fragile Generation: Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed.”

I had a paper route, from age ten to almost my 16th birthday. It was a remarkably valuable experience. In fact, it probably taught me more about myself, money, people, and business than anything I learned in grade school, high school, and college combined.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that everything I needed to know I learned as a paperboy — to paraphrase the title of a popular mid-’80s self-help book by Robert Fulghum, in his case extolling life lessons supposedly learned in kindergarten.

My paper route probably taught me more about myself, money, people, and business than anything I learned in grade school, high school, and college combined.

I learned what I was — reliable, diligent, deadline-oriented. And what I wasn’t — a natural-born salesman, a driven entrepreneur.

I ran a small business (more of a micro-business, actually). Six days a week, rain or shine, in snow or 110-degree summer heat, I delivered between 50 and 70-odd copies of the Redding Record Searchlight to my customers in my hometown in far northern California.

For starters, the papers that arrived every afternoon in a bundle on my driveway gave me an interest in current events. I read the headlines on the front page as I rolled the papers, and my hands turned black from the ink.

I was an independent contractor. At the end of every month I went door to door trying to collect from my subscribers. When I started, I think the paper was $1.75 a month and maybe $2.50 by the time I gave up the route.

One of the biggest deadbeats on my route — a surprise to me — was a well-to-do doctor who had a house with a pool.

The first money — the easy money — that I collected went to pay the paper for my product. The harder money to collect — which often required multiple trips to the homes and apartments of my customers — was my profit.

Apartment-dwelling college students frequently skipped town without settling up with me first. One of the biggest deadbeats on my route — a surprise to me — was a well-to-do doctor who had a house with a pool. It would sometimes take four visits before he’d answer the door, and then he’d either tell me to come back or make a big deal about scrounging for change to pay me.

But I’m not complaining. I was the richest kid in the neighborhood. Other kids had allowances; I had real money.

And that made me sort of popular. Neighborhood kids would often ask me to go to the local burger joint, and I’d usually end up paying. Over time it made me a bit cynical about money and friendships.

I had a bank account with almost a thousand dollars in it when I finally quit the route. And that was after buying a bicycle or two, a .22 rifle, and a lot of fishing gear.

I learned early on that cold-calling and rejection weren’t my thing.

I always had enough as a kid, and I’ve always had enough since. Never felt greedy or driven to get a lot more.

The local TV station and the high school were part of my route, as well as an apartment building. But I soon learned that people who lived in apartments were risky customers. And I learned early on that cold-calling and rejection weren’t my thing.

I could’ve probably sold more papers to the TV station if I’d contacted the reporters, news director, and ad salesmen directly, but one copy, delivered every afternoon to the receptionist, seemed enough. Ditto the high school, where I might have sold copies to teachers or even a whole civics class. But I wasn’t a hustler.

Besides not being terribly ambitious I was lackadaisical about doing my books — meaning matching my inventory to my customer count. I often had extra papers, which of course I had to pay for. But even at that I made $50 or $75 a month. Who needed more?

So I wasn’t surprised when, as an adult, I never went into sales, never worked on commission, never went into business for myself. That was all right by me. I knew it wasn’t who I was inside.

Adults took over that job in most places years ago. Motor routes were a much more efficient way to deliver papers.

That said, I have huge admiration for entrepreneurs who risk everything on an idea, bet on themselves and work however long and hard it takes, fail more often than not, and then do it again.

And as it turned out, I was ambitious and strategically entrepreneurial in my career. All that newsprint must have gotten into my blood. I had a journalism career that included stints as a foreign correspondent in Tokyo and then as a reporter and bureau chief at Forbes magazine in Los Angeles, before I left to do public relations work for Hawaiian Electric Industries in Honolulu and the Nasdaq Stock Market in Washington D.C. I ended up in management, running a D.C.-based association of state securities regulators before retiring and returning to work, again, on my hometown newspaper.

I feel bad that kids today don’t have the opportunity that I had to have a paper route. But adults took over that job in most places years ago. Motor routes were a much more efficient way to deliver papers.

And now many newspapers — like the one in my hometown, where I got my start as a copyboy and cub reporter while still in high school — are facing extinction. Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” at work.

Looking back at it now, I’m grateful to have been a paperboy and for all the lessons it taught me. It was the highlight of my childhood.

And at least I didn’t have to get a government permit, like the kids these days with lemonade stands.




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Take Your Mitts Off Our Myths

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Bear with me here. I have some explaining to do with this review, so don’t start throwing tomatoes yet. Here it goes:

I loved watching the new Star Wars episode.

At the same time, I’m glad that fans almost unanimously hate the new story, even if they don’t completely understand their visceral reaction to it. The Last Jedi is indeed bad, but not because of its repetitive plot or unlikely character development. I rather enjoyed the humorous asides, reminiscent of the original Han Solo. Benicio del Toro as the codebreaker DJ is delectably suave and sinister. Daisy Ridley is fresh and courageous and conflicted as the female lead. And the Stephen Jay Gould-inspired moment when Rey (Daisy Ridley) snaps her fingers and sees herself as a continuum extending into her future in front of her and from her past behind her offers a sophisticated and subtle answer to the conflict between destiny and free will — if her past exists along with her future, does she have the power to change the past? Or is her future predetermined by her past?

Star Wars is mythology. Of course the stories are going to be similar.

My beef is with what the movie tries to say about our culture. But as a professor who teaches classes on mythology, I was engaged by the classic conflict between good and evil, inspired by the continuing offer of redemption, and fascinated by the evolution of the Star Wars myth.

The number one complaint about The Last Jedi that I’ve read on fan blogs and social media is that the recent stories are all retreads of the original Star Wars plot. Well, duh! Star Wars is mythology. Of course the stories are going to be similar. Greek plays tended to tell the same stories from multiple angles, just as the Star Wars episodes all surround the central characters of Luke and Leia. This should come as no surprise. Why have there been at least 59 movies made about Jesse James, more than a dozen about the shootout at the OK Corral, and annual movies about Santa? Don’t we already know how they’re going to end? We watch these movies again and again because we want to experience vicariously how heroes (and antiheroes) face conflict, interact with supporting characters, and find redemption even in tragedy. Aristotle called it catharsis. Each version of the story gives it a slightly different spin as each generation’s definition of heroism changes, but the change is cloaked in the familiarity of the characters and their stories.

Over the past century movies have been an effective creator and purveyor of modern American myth. We can trace the evolution of our beliefs, values, and culture simply by studying the films of succeeding decades. Just watch how women are portrayed in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and in current movies to see how American culture has changed. And has it ever changed in The Last Jedi!

Over the past century movies have been an effective creator and purveyor of modern American myth.

From the beginning, George Lucas embedded in Star Wars the characteristics of American myth. His original story relied heavily on the western genre of the lone, flawed maverick who rides into town, is transformed by friendship, and chooses to risk his life and possessions to help protect his new community from treacherous invaders. Han Solo was that maverick hero. The values of that first film were the values of America: rugged individualism, rebellion against tyranny, reliance on instinct, and reverence for freedom. We saw those same values in the many movies of the 20th century with heroes who defy orders, take risks, act instinctively, and save the day. I also love the offer of redemption that permeates the Star Wars mythology. In each episode a hero has been seduced by the dark side, but all is not lost. He can return to the light and a hero’s welcome if he simply chooses it. Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader; now his grandson, Ben Solo, has become Kylo Ren. But the potential for good is strong in this one. He, too, can be redeemed.

So what happens in The Last Jedi? All of our values are turned upside down. Once again we have a maverick hero, Poe (Oscar Isaac), who acts on his own, and is demoted for it by the interim leader, Resistance Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Of course we expect that his instincts will prove correct. We also have a trio of rebels (Finn, Rose and BB-8) who secretly boards the First Order’s ship to push a button that will save the Resistance ship. If the story is truly repetitive of earlier episodes, this brave and risky ploy will work. Celebrations to follow.

But not in this movie. Our would-be heroes are caught and their plan is thwarted. Because of this, Vice Admiral Holdo’s secret plan for protecting the ship and its crew is also thwarted, and many Resistance soldiers are killed. The new message is clear: authority figures have no obligation to tell underlings their plans; and those who defy authority and follow their instincts will cause misery to the entire group. So shut up and obey.

So what happens in The Last Jedi? All of our values are turned upside down.

Fans are also troubled by the fact that our hero of 40 years, Luke Skywalker, has virtually given up on the Jedi. Discouraged and faithless, he has no desire to help the Resistance and is content to live out the rest of his life on a secluded island. Director and scriptwriter Rian Johnson has destroyed our once incorruptible hero, and his religion as well. I guess the pen truly is mightier than the light saber.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of Hollywood controlling and creating the American myth. Hollywood people hardly represent my own values, beliefs, or culture, or the values and beliefs of most Americans. Apparently Star Wars fans don’t like the idea either. While they complain about esoteric details of plot and character, I think what they are instinctively resisting is the new message of the film.

Mythology resonates with us. That’s one reason such franchises as Star Wars, Star Trek, and the superhero movies endure. Cultural values can evolve over time, but when basic beliefs about free will and individualism change as outrageously as they have in The Last Jedi, we begin to feel “a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices cried out in terror.” It’s time to resist the First Order of Hollywood and stop letting it control the American myth.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Last Jedi," directed by Rian Johnson. Walt Disney Pictures, 2017, 152 minutes.



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July 4, 2015

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As we approached the Fourth of July weekend, I found myself in a pessimistic mood, and cursing myself for my pessimism. But I learned to enjoy it.

Of course, the mood itself isn’t hard to explain. Probably you feel it too. The presidential campaign has produced candidates ranging from the dismal to the palpably evil. The Supreme Court, in its Obamacare decisions, has reached new depths of sophistry. The current president is one of the worst in history, and would be still worse if not for his fecklessness. Virtually all members of Congress appear to have abandoned, or never to have entertained, the idea that there could be any just or even natural limits to their power to decide things for other people.

So are there grounds for pessimism? Yes, plenty. Yet pessimism per se is always suspect. Pure pessimism deters any form of action. Yeats was thinking in this way when he wrote his poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” a meditation on the violent end of a relatively sane, modern, and progressive world, in the catastrophe of the Great War. The poem embodies a critique of optimists and their complacency:

Come let us mock at the good
That fancied goodness might be gay,
And sick of solitude
Might proclaim a holiday:
Wind shrieked — and where are they?

Yet in the next stanza Yeats turns with greater disgust to the pessimists and cynics:

Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.

I thought of Yeats’ poem, and then I thought of the pessimism — the vigorous and mordant pessimism — of the tenth Federalist paper, where Madison discovers the foundation of constitutional government not in optimistic feelings about the people’s wisdom but in an awareness of their vanity and stupidity:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.. . .

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

As you know, Madison’s argument is that in a government with many organs continually checking one another, the contest between various kinds of wickedness and stupidity will prevent the ruin of the whole.

No one ever expected this to work perfectly, or to work all the time. It’s working pretty badly now, although it’s working well enough for me to write this reflection, and for you to read it — and that’s something. That’s a lot; and if you don’t think so, you can make the comparison with about 150 other countries. This business of distrusting human nature can produce a lot of limited government, and a lot of liberty, too.

Are there grounds for pessimism? Yes, plenty. Yet pessimism per se is always suspect.

I’m sorry to say that we libertarians often see just one side of the matter. Chronic pessimists forecast the imminent destruction of freedom and its pleasant companion, material well-being. Chronic optimists insist that if people were only free from the trammels of the state, all would be well, forgetting that the state results, in very large part, from people’s inherent desire “to vex and oppress each other.”

So this may be a time when optimism and pessimism can show due regard for one another, and for all to appreciate the clear-eyed pessimism about ourselves on which any polity dedicated to the optimistic idea of liberty depends. In this peculiar sense, I agree with old Stephen Decatur, and with the reviser of his famous statement, Carl Schurz, in saying: “My country, right or wrong.” I say this because my country, the United States, was founded on the right and true idea that its people will usually, jointly and severally, be in the wrong.




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Discovering the New American Dream

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Much has been written recently about the death of the American Dream. The collapse of the real estate market in 2008, followed by a worrisome three-year recession, a struggling job market, and the rising cost of college tuition have caused many to wonder: is the American Dream still alive? Can it be restored? Should it be laid to rest?

James Truslow Adams coined the phrase in 1931 when he wrote,

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone. . . . It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. (The Epic of America)

For over a century the American Dream was characterized as having a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, two cars in the garage, 2.5 children in the house, a faithful dog in the yard — and a chicken in every pot. The twin equalizers of democracy and laissez faire promised social mobility, financial security, judicial equality, and prosperity through hard work. Next door to that house in the suburbs lived the Joneses, and keeping up with them was part of the dream too. Bolstering the dream was “an underlying belief that hard work pays off and that the next generation will have a better life than the previous generation” (Ari Shapiro, NPR).

Today’s dreamer, however, keeps the dog on the bed, not in the yard, and children are likely to be delayed into the mid-30s, if they come at all. Bicycles stand next to the hybrid or electric car in the garage, and the house is controlled remotely by smart phones. The chicken in that pot must be free-range, antibiotic-free, and served with locally grown vegetables.

The average student leaves college saddled with more than $30,000 in student loans. Debt is a prison they dream of escaping.

Unlike the Joneses next door, the new dreamers are less materialistic and more likely to be getting rid of stuff than accumulating it. Bigger is no longer considered better, and tiny houses are the latest fad. The new dreamers eschew self-interest and care about connectedness and global awareness. Buzzwords like “sustainability,” “social responsibility,” and “green” drive their dream. They want to live in downtown urban areas and prefer apartments or multi-family dwellings where they can share amenities and reduce their carbon footprint. Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Tech, says, “this generation is more interested in the amenities of the city itself: great public spaces, walkability, diverse people and activities with which they can participate.”

But even this smaller, more earth-friendly dream seems remote to many. The new dreamer no longer believes that hard work: necessarily pays off and worries that, for the first time in our history, the next generation will not be better off than its parents. In fact, according to columnist Adam Levin, being debt-free is a key factor in the new American Dream. According to his study, only 18.2% of Americans today see homeownership as part of the American dream, while 27.9% cite having enough money to retire at 65 as their goal and 23% of young people today simply dream of being debt-free. This is not surprising, when the average student leaves college saddled with more than $30,000 in student loans. Debt is a prison they dream of escaping.

Contrary to media pundits and government analysts who push the idea that consumer spending drives the economy; any move toward saving and fiscal responsibility is good for the economy, and thus good for the American Dream. In fact, the Bureau of Economic Analysis recently acknowledged the distortion of focusing so much on consumer spending and recently began issuing GO (gross output) statistics that include the production sectors of the economy.

Meanwhile, welfare and unemployment are dragging down the American dream. Not only is welfare expensive in terms of how much transfer payments cost, but also in how much is lost from the lack of productivity from those who aren’t working and contributing to the economy. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 made progress toward ending lifelong welfare, but today, 35.4% of Americans are living on welfare of some sort, according to the Census Bureau. This nightmare has to be changed if the dream is to stay alive.

Throughout the 20th century, home ownership was encouraged as a way to stabilize and improve communities, because people who own their homes are more likely to stay put, take care of their property, get involved in local politics, and remain employed. Millennials, however, avoid home ownership for those very reasons. They don’t want to “stay put” but value spontaneity, mobility, and the freedom to accept unexpected opportunities without having to worry about selling a house. Home ownership has, in fact, been declining since 2004. In a survey conducted last year, only 61% said they would buy a house if they had to move (New York Times, Feb. 8, 2015). In the words of Thoreau, “our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them” (Walden).

Today’s dreamer keeps the dog on the bed, not in the yard, and children are likely to be delayed into the mid-30s, if they come at all.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that today’s generation is lazy, however. Most work hard, but they work, or want to work, at doing things they love. Many are turning from corporate America to entrepreneurial America and rely more on developing a horizontal social network than on climbing a vertical corporate ladder. And, while it is fashionable to hate capitalism, many are capitalists by default, creating businesses and often working from home. The new American sells advertising to support blogspots and engages in crowd-funding campaigns to raise capital for projects.

In short, the New American Dream is more about finding happiness and sustaining the planet than about achieving financial prosperity — although we are happy to accept prosperity if it finds its way to our door. Personal satisfaction is more important than keeping up with the Joneses, and making time for oneself — to work out at the gym, go to a concert, read a book, post a blog, or create a work of art — is more important than putting in overtime at the office.

Is the American Dream alive? It is, but it’s changed. And it isn’t just for Americans ant more. What’s your dream? And how are you making it come true?




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It’s Smart, It’s Exciting, It’s Fun

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The specific details of a superhero movie plot seldom really matter; all we usually need to know is that an evil superpower, sporting a foreign accent, is out to destroy the world as we know it, and it is up to the superhero not only to protect the community from destruction but also to preserve our way of life. Dozens of superheroes have been created in comic-book land, and all of them have been sharing time on the silver screen for the past decade or more, with half a dozen of their adventures released this year alone. So far audiences are flocking to theaters with the same enthusiasm that kept our grandfathers heading to the local cinema every Saturday afternoon to see the latest installment of Buck Rogers.

These films tend to reflect the fears and values of whatever may be the current culture, which is one of the reasons for their lasting popularity. We see our worst fears in the threats posed by the enemies, and our hopes and fears in the characters of the heroes. But lately those heroes have been somewhat reluctant and unsure of their roles as heroes, and the people they have sworn to protect have been less trusting and appreciative — they complain about collateral damage and even question the heroes’ loyalty. In an era of relativism and situational ethics, a full-on hero with overwhelming power seems hard to support.

The Avengers share conversations praising freedom and choice, and they reject blind obedience in favor of making their own decisions.

This month it’s Captain America’s turn to save the day. Created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in 1941, Captain America (alter ego: Steve Rogers) is a WWII fighter pilot who is transformed from a 5’4” wimp to a 6’2” muscle man through a scientific experiment intended to create an army of super warriors. He ends up being cryogenically frozen and is thawed out in modern times. Part of his appeal is his guileless naiveté, especially as he reacts to modern technology and mores. He uses his virtually indestructible shield to fight for truth, justice, and the American way (okay, that’s the other superhero, but their morals are virtually the same). I like Captain America’s shield — it signifies that his stance is defensive, not aggressive.

As The Winter Soldier opens, nothing is going right for the Avenger team led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Captain America (Chris Evans). Police, government agencies, and even agents of SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, the organization that oversees and deploys the superheroes) are attacking them and treating them as national enemies. The Captain and former Russian spy Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), aka the Black Widow, have become Public Enemies number 1 and 2, but they don’t know why. They spend the rest of the movie trying to clear their names and save the world, without any help from the government they have sworn to uphold.

While the specific plot isn’t particularly important in these movies, motivation usually is. Why do the characters do what they do? Meaningful dialogue inserted between the action scenes reveals the values of both good guys and bad guys, and away we go, rooting for the guy who is going to save us once again.

I’m happy to report that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, lives up to its potential. As a libertarian, I can agree with most of the values it projects. First, politicians, government agencies, and the military industrial complex are the untrustworthy bad guys in this film, and for once there isn’t an evil businessperson or industrialist in sight. Additionally, the Avengers share conversations praising freedom and choice, and they reject blind obedience in favor of making their own decisions. For example, The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) aka Sam Wilson, tells Steve about his buddy being shot down in the war, and then says, “I had a real hard time finding a reason for being over there after that.” Captain America admits, “I want to do what’s right, but I’m not sure what that is anymore.” Like Montag in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, he is ready to think for himself and determine his own morality. (Compare that philosophy to Peter Parker [Spider-Man] being told by his wise Uncle Ben that responsibility is more important than individual choice in Spider-Man 2, followed by Uncle Ben’s death when Peter chooses “selfishness” over responsibility.)

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State (Robert Redford — yes, Robert Redford! He said his grandchildren like the franchise, so he wanted to do the film for them) says cynically of a particular problem, “It’s nothing some earmarks can’t fix.”

The mastermind behind the assault on freedom (I won’t tell you who it is, except that it’s someone involved in government) justifies his destructive plan by saying, “To build a better world sometimes means tearing down the old one” and opining that “humanity cannot be trusted with its own freedom. If you take it from them, they will resist, so they have be given a reason to give it up willingly.” Another one adds, “Humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom for security,” echoing Ben Franklin’s warning. These power-hungry leaders boast of having manufactured crises to create conditions in which people willingly give up freedom. This isn’t new, of course. Such tactics are as old as Machiavelli. Yet nothing could feel more current. I’m happy to see young audiences eating this up.

Captain America first appeared on film in 1944, at the height of WWII. He has never been as popular as Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man. A made-for-TV movie aired in 1979, and a dismal version (with a 3.2 rating) was made in 1990. However, the latest incarnation, with Chris Evans as the wimp-turned-military powerhouse, has been highly successful, with three films released in the past four years: two self-titled films (Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, and this one) as well as one ensemble outing (The Avengers, 2012).

These power-hungry leaders boast of having manufactured crises to create conditions in which people willingly give up freedom. This isn’t new, of course.

One of the things I like about the Avengers is that they aren’t born with innate super powers à la Superman or X-Men; for the most part their powers come from innovation, technology, and physical training. They’re gritty and real, and they bruise and bleed. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo were determined to make this movie as real as possible too, so they returned to live action stunts whenever they could instead of relying on CGI and green screen projection. Yes, they use stunt doubles when necessary, but, as Anthony Mackie (the Falcon) reported in praise of the Russos, “if they could build it [a set piece], they built it. If we [the actors] could do it [a difficult maneuver], we did it. . . . That’s why the movie looks so great.” Many of the action scenes are beautifully choreographed and often look more like dancing than fighting, especially when Captain America’s shield is ricocheting between him and a gigantic fighter plane.

Of course, the film has its share of corniness too. When you’re a hero named Captain America, you’re expected to be a rah-rah, apple-pie American, and Captain America is. He even drives a Chevy, the all-American car. So does Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who brags about his SUV with a straight face as though it’s a high-end luxury vehicle. In fact, all the SHIELD operatives drive Chevys, as do many of the ordinary commuters on the street. That’s because another concept that’s as American as apple pie is advertising. Product placement permeates the film, but most of the time it’s subtly and artfully done. Captain America wears an Under Armour t-shirt (which is pretty ironic when you think about it — under armor beneath a super-hero uniform), and the Falcon, whose superpower is a set of mechanized wings that let him fly, sports a small and subtle Nike swoosh on his after-hours attire. (Nike — the winged goddess, get it?)

Captain America is a hit, and for all the right reasons. The dialogue is intelligent, the humor is ironic, the action sequences are exciting, and the heroes are fighting for individual freedom. It even contains a theme of redemption. And for once, the bad guys aren’t businessmen. Ya gotta love it.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Sony Pictures, 2014, 136 minutes.




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Apple Pie, Puppy Dogs, and Sunshine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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The Babble about “Gun Violence”

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When I was driving to work the other day, the only thing on the radio was a discussion of the latest crazy-high-school-student shooting. Two “newscasters” with, apparently, no news to cast were babbling about how terrified parents “across the nation” must feel about learning that someone, somewhere had used a gun in one of America’s 100,000 public schools. Of course, the babblers didn’t make the common-sense observation that such terrified parents need to calm down, the better to notice what their own kids are doing and think about whether some of them might need some mental help.

The thing that struck me most was the lead babbler’s constantly repeated query, “Why are Americans so violent?” If this query prompts you to ask, “So violent, compared with whom?”, he had an answer. Compared with the Europeans. “When you talk to Europeans, they all wonder why Americans are so violent, when in Europe, they don’t have this violence at all.” Presumably, murdering hundreds of millions of your fellow Europeans, until the Americans come in and teach you better manners, doesn’t count as “violence.” Presumably, soccer riots don’t count as violence. Presumably, the Europeans’ until-1989 addiction to the institutionalized violence of communism doesn’t count as violence.

But there was another example. “I’ve talked to Pakistanis who ask why America is such a violent country.” Oh you have, have you? Isn’t Pakistan one of those countries that has trouble turning terrorists away? And the Pakistanis think we’re violent.

In fact, the murder rate in the United States (4.7 per 100,000 population) is very far beneath the world murder rate (6.9), beneath the murder rate of a number of countries in Europe, beneath the murder rate of dear old Pakistan (7.8), and beneath the murder rate of scores of other countries and “countries” — virtually none of which, so far as I know, are habitually or even occasionally criticized for their violent dispositions. But as usual, America loses the game of cultural comparison, the function of which is never to make any society look bad except ours.

Here is Wikipedia on the recent execution of the uncle of the current dictator of North Korea:

On 12 December 2013 state media announced he had been executed, claiming that "despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him." The 2700 word statement detailing the accusations also included other charges such as placing a granite monument carved with the supreme leader's words "in a shaded corner," "let[ting] the decadent capitalist lifestyle find its way to our society by distributing all sorts of pornographic pictures among his confidants," and "half-heartedly clapping, touching off towering resentment of our service personnel and people" when one of Kim Jong-Un's promotions was announced.

Reading this kind of thing, almost everybody laughs and says something equivalent to “there they go again.” That’s just how the North Koreans are, isn’t it? The high-class babblers then take to their computers to consider whether such events increase or decrease the possibility that North Korea will attack its neighbors with nuclear bombs, or simply continue starving its own people. There is no analysis of why the North Koreans are so violent, any more than there is any analysis of why the Pakistanis, the Mexicans (23.7 murder rate), the Hondurans (91.6), or any other people are violent — not to mention the South Africans (31.8), among whom even a man accused of helping to burn two other men to death with a necklace of burning tires can rise to the exalted position of fake sign-language interpreter at the funeral of the national hero. But there is always plenty of analysis of what is psychologically, socially, and spiritually wrong with “American exceptionalism,” the idea that the United States is in some way better than other countries. America is allowed to be exceptional in only one way — its amazing level of “violence.”




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The Faith of Our Fathers

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Damsel in Distress

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