Innocents at Home

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Here’s an ad that runs on the radio. A child’s voice says:

Hey there, we need to talk. We have more food than we know what to do with in this country, but there are 17 million kids who are struggling with hunger.

The idea is that the audience should give money to an organization that will deal with those kids.

This ad has been running for quite a while on Rush Limbaugh’s show, which is a very expensive ad venue. If it can drag money out of the cobwebbed wallets of Rush’s audience, it must work — a disturbing thought for people who want to believe in the good judgment of the American people.

It’s hard to get to the counter, so thick is the place with fat families loading up on chocolate bars and Hot Cheesy 7-Flavor Sausages.

Who is a “kid”? Suppose we go all out and define “kid” as anybody under 18. That means there are something like 70 million “kids” in this country. The ad asserts that one out of four of these kids is struggling with hunger. If this is so, we might expect to find some evidence in our daily life. We might expect to hear that two or three kids on our block don’t get enough to eat. But we don’t.

We can’t all live in Beverly Hills; but even if we did, while driving through a poorer neighborhood in some adjacent city we might expect to see a lot of kids just sitting idly by, too weak to play. Walking along a city street, we might expect to encounter many young people who were thin and wasted, struggling with hunger. I’ll speak for myself: when I walk down the street, there’s barely enough room on the sidewalk; the space is filled by enormous fat people, many of them enormous fat kids. At the 7-11, the club for poor people in my neighborhood, it’s hard to get to the counter, so thick is the place with fat families loading up on chocolate bars and Hot Cheesy 7-Flavor Sausages. And I think you know what it’s like to shop at Walmart. I’m pretty sure that Chelsea Clinton never does that, but on June 20 she tweeted, “Our globe has an obesity crisis.” Being Chelsea Clinton, she must be right.

About 46 million people get food stamps from the government — about the same number as those considered to be “beneath the poverty line” — and $70 billion are spent on food stamps, enough to give $4,000 a year to every kid allegedly struggling with hunger, or $1,000 a year to every kid, period.

 Didn’t Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to give you glib moral lessons”?

Clearly, obviously, patently, transparently, there is something wiggly about that ad. Somebody is defining the operative terms in a way that does not appear to be the product of childlike innocence.

But consider the ad’s first sentence. It’s an authentic reproduction of the way in which some children talk, the way in which some children are brought up to talk. It’s the voice of a cute little smart-alecky kid who’s repeating Joan Rivers’ old routine (“Can we talk?”), without knowing who Joan Rivers was or even what a routine may be, but ready and willing, nonetheless, to tell the grownups a thing or two. It’s the kind of voice that’s supposed to put us to shame with its innocent candor, while impressing us with its tuned-in sophistication. Didn’t Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to give you glib moral lessons”?

Maybe not. In real life, that kind of voice makes you want to take a swat at the parents, and at every sentimentalist who regards children as oracles and “it’s for the children” as a conclusive argument. Oscar Wilde was right in thinking that “the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. . . . A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without having to pay for it” (De Profundis). The first payment that the sentimentalist refuses is the effort required for a moment’s thought.

Anyone can do the math on these for the children campaigns. Anyone who’s tempted to vote more money for education can easily go online and find out how much more money has been given to public education every year and how small the results have been. Similarly, anyone can investigate why UNESCO, the United Way, and all the church “nonprofits” perennially claim that more money must always be given to help the children. What was done with the last few billions they got? One would think that people who cared about the cause would invest a little of their time in seeing whether their funds will be spent productively or counterproductively. But of course they don’t. They just cynically write a check. They care a little bit about money, much more about restoring their sense of innocence, and nothing in particular about the children.

Last month’s Word Watch considered the childlike (or childish) innocence (or guile) of such entities as James Comey, Donald Trump, and the New York Times. But that column was premature. New evidence of sentimental “innocence” keeps rolling in.

UNESCO, the United Way, and all the church “nonprofits” perennially claim that more money must always be given to help the children. What was done with the last few billions they got?

A good little child may say, “I’ll bet my granddad is a thousand years old,” or “My bike can go faster’n an airplane,” or “My teacher’s the best teacher in school. She’s the best in town. She’s the best in the whole world.” A significantly older, but not necessarily more adult President Trump habitually practices the same rhetoric. Here he is, giving appropriate, then sort of appropriate, then ridiculously inappropriate sympathy to Congressman Steve Scalise, the hospitalized victim of an attempted assassination:

Steve, I want you to know, you have the prayers not only of the entire city but of an entire nation and, frankly, the entire world.

Frankly, the entire world.

Trump is ordinarily characterized as a tough talking man of action, a swamp drainer, or (by other accounts) gutter dweller. He is no such thing. While enemies denounce him as a traitor, demand his impeachment, and enact his prospective murder, Trump kisses babies, communes with wunnerful, wunnerful fokes, walks on the sunny side, brightens the corner where he is. He fears no evil, even from such a transparent enemy (not to mention hypocrite, Pharisee, and double dealer) as former FBI Director Comey. No normal adult would invite a person like Comey into his office for a little private chat, just the two of them. If a normal adult wanted to ask Comey the obvious question, “Since you’ve already told me I’m not under investigation, why don’t you go ahead and say that in public?”, he would call in lots of other people and ask the question in front of them, thus embarrassing his foe into telling the truth. Whether or not Trump said what Comey claims he did in their private conversation, only a president crippled by childish innocence would have talked behind closed doors. And that’s what Trump did.

As for Comey himself, here is an FBI director who uses “Lordy!” as his edgiest oath and who in his recent appearance before Senate investigators amazed the nation by depicting himself as a Babe in Toyland confronting the evil Mr. Barnaby. His testimony might be approved reading for any kindergarten, so loaded is it with moral conflicts that Anyone Can Understand. On one side, there’s the wicked monarch, enticing the boy-hero into his magic oval office, there to be killed and eaten if he fails to solve the tyrant’s riddles; on the other side, there’s the hero himself, little Jim Comey, all frail and scared and sick at his tummy (“queasy” is the word he likes), just as he was when that mean ol’ witch, Loretta Lynch, tried to make him do somethin’ wrong. (Which, by the way, he proceeded to do.) Of his discussion with Trump, Comey said, “Maybe if I were stronger. . . . I was so stunned by the conversation. . . . Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance but that — that was — that’s how I conducted myself. I — I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.” Well! Jimmy sure learnt somethin’ that day, didunt he?

Only a president crippled by childish innocence would have talked behind closed doors. And that’s what Trump did.

After escaping, somehow, from what might have been a fatal interview, the solitary, haunted child waked in the middle of the night to ask himself, “What more can I do for the cause of truth, justice, and the American way?” The answer came, quick as lightning: “I’ll take one of those memos I wrote to myself in case I wanted to tattle to somebody, and I’ll pass it along to the newspapers,through the able hands of my trusty friend, a noble professor of law. I’ll be just like the Little Dutch Boy, except that I’ll take my finger out of the dike!”

Comey’s own description of the episode is still more innocent:

It — to me, its major impact was — as I said, occurred to me in the middle of the night — holy cow, there might be tapes. And if there tapes, it’s not just my word against his on — on the direction to get rid of the Flynn investigation. . . .

I asked — the president tweeted on Friday, after I got fired, that I better hope there’s not tapes. I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night, because it didn’t dawn on me originally that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might be a tape.

And my judgment was, I needed to get that out into the public square. And so I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter.

Holy cow! How childish would Comey have to be, to think that made sense, or to think that other people would think it made sense? If there were tapes, he wouldn’t have to worry about corroboration of what he said; whatever he said could be checked. But kids do the darnedest things. Comey took the possibility of tapes as a signal to provide his own kind of corroboration, the kind that was secret and anonymous, so the evidence could not be checked. Only the undeveloped logic of a child could come up with that. I reject the possibility that Comey was clever enough to think he could get a fallacious narrative on record and then be able to claim that any taped evidence must have been doctored after the fact. No one who actually thinks by means of such expressions as the public square is bright enough to concoct such a scheme.

But it occurs to me that what we’re considering may be more than a children’s story. It may be something even more naïve. It may be the type of story you expect a modern existentialist to write, a story in which the protagonist (dare I say the hero?) transcends the socially imposed solipsism of writing merely to himself and for himself, and breaks free, makes contact, finds a wider world — the world of newspapers and congressional testimony. “Only connect,” wrote E.M. Forster, in a childishly vengeful novel. “There might be a tape,” said James Comey, in a childishly vengeful testimony. Both became heroes of themselves, and of a childish New York Times.

The Times will now spend less of its money on self-criticism, and also less on such minor functions as fact-checking, sense-checking, and proofreading.

Childish? How can something so old and gray be childish? Well, it can be. The Times is a venue that lectures its readers continually about the dangers of an armed society, while sponsoring a production of Julius Caesar in which the president is stabbed to death. Even Bank of America withdrew its sponsorship, but the Times sees no evil — in the assassins, at any rate. After all, these guys are using knives, not guns. Children often make such meaningless distinctions. And perhaps that helps to explain the Times’ reaction to Salman Abedi, the Muslim fanatic who killed 22 people in Manchester, England, by using a bomb. For as long as possible (according to a quotation provided by a faithful reader in Northern California), the paper insisted that “no one yet knows what motivated him to commit such a horrific deed.” Do newspapers, as well as people, experience a deaf, blind, cranky, crazy second childhood?

I was not surprised when the Times announced, on May 31, that it was reducing its editorial staff, including “Public Editor” Liz Spayd, whose position was reduced to nothing. Spayd is best known for reprimanding the paper about its hubristic ignorance of Americans who live more than 50 miles from an ocean (and of many Americans who don’t). The Times will now spend less of its money on self-criticism, and also less on such minor functions as fact-checking, sense-checking, and proofreading.

That won’t make much difference; the Times has never looked as if anybody was exercising those functions. But one thing is alarming about the Times’ new policy: the paper is allegedly going to use the money it saves by firing editors to hire more reporters — or as management put it, “more on-the-ground journalists developing original work.” Strange . . . I thought the Times’ reporting was already original enough.




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On the Good Ship Lollipop

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No one knew it, but this column offers an award — annually, semi-annually, monthly, or whenever it feels like it — called the Shirley Temple Prize for Saccharine Speech. Yeth, it doth; and today’s award goes to former FBI Director James Brien Comey. Ohhhhh goodee!

On May 3, Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Huma Abedin, cupbearer-in-chief to Hillary Clinton, had “forwarded hundreds and thousands of e-mails, some of which contain classified information,” to Huma’s unclassified and unclassifiable husband, Antony Weiner. Six days later, the assistant director of the Bureau notified Congress that Comey was (as usual) in error; there were only 12 email chains, presumably not hundreds and thousands of items long.

I’ve known many people who violated the law, and some who went to prison, and none of them carried a sign that said, “I know I’m violating the law.”

In itself, Comey’s misstatement wasn’t worthy of any award, except the one that President Trump presented on May 9, when he fired James Brien Comey. It’s worthy of notice that Comey’s investigation of Huma’s emails, an investigation that determined, some think, the presidential election of 2016, should have been so misleadingly characterized by him. But the really impressive, award-engendering feature of Comey’s remarks was his contribution to legal and moral philosophy. It’s this contribution that puts him in the Shirley Temple class of child stars, or at least childish ones.

Explaining why he didn’t think of prosecuting Huma Abedin Weiner, who was in manifest violation of the law, no matter how many classified messages she supplied to her husband’s computer, Comey said:

With respect to Ms. Abedin in particular, we — we didn't have any indication that she had a sense that what she was doing was in violation of the law. Couldn't prove any sort of criminal intent. Really, the central problem we have with the whole e-mail investigation was proving that people knew — the secretary and others knew that they were doing — that they were communicating about classified information in a way that they shouldn't be and proving that they had some sense of their doing something unlawful.

Here is a way of emptying the federal prisons: insist that people who commit banking fraud, for example, or write off their real estate investments as charitable contributions, or use their positions in Congress to operate phony charities, cannot be prosecuted unless it is proved that they have a sense that what they are doing is in violation of the law.

In Hemingway’s short story “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” a man has a nasty quarrel with someone who is trying to cheat him, and his wife, a reader of consoling religious books, says:

“Dear, I don’t think, I really don’t think that any one would really do a thing like that.”

“No?” the doctor said.

“No. I can’t really believe that any one would do a thing of that sort intentionally.”

I’ve known many people who violated the law, and some who went to prison, and none of them carried a sign that said, “I know I’m violating the law.” They just went ahead and did it. So I guess they’re innocent, though not as innocent as Former FBI Director James (“Jim”) Comey, who like those sweet little girls that Shirley used to play is unable to see anything consciously wrong in the strange doings of other people.

Comey’s sunny disposition is something that we may all wish we had. It would save us a lot of trouble with certain situations. I caught you cheating on a test. Maybe I should do something about it. But gosh, maybe you didn’t intend to cheat. Maybe there’s no indication that you had a sense that what you were doing was in violation of the rules. You took money from the company’s accounts and spent it on yourself? Maybe you were just trying to stimulate the economy. You took secret documents and gave them to your friends? It’s good that you have friends, honey. You operated a foundation to fleece people who want government influence? Well, nothing to be done about it. Maybe you didn’t know it was wrong. And after all, who’s to judge? I can’t see your heart. Here — have another lollipop.

In the Shirley Temple movies there was always someone whose crusty, judgmental attitude was reformed by contact with little Shirley’s beneficent naiveté. Crusty ol’ grampa, or whoever it was, soon started babbling endearing comments so fast that Shirley could hardly keep up with them. Comey, the former Tough Prosecutor, callin’ ’em as he sees ’em, has also experienced this Hollywood reform. The current angel of light is the former mean bastard who, in the words of the Cato Foundation’s Alan Reynolds, sent Martha Stewart to prison for “having misled people by denying having committed a crime with which she was not charged.”

You took money from the company’s accounts and spent it on yourself? Maybe you were just trying to stimulate the economy.

It’s true that Comey’s conversion from hanging judge to sweetiekins might have resulted not from spiritual impulses but from a desire to act as kingmaker on the national stage without incurring the hardship of running for office or saying what he means. It could also be that Comey is like Addison as portrayed by Pope: “Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike.” But Comey’s analysis of Huma & Co. is so astonishingly warm-hearted, so amazingly insipid, as to transcend all churlish skepticism. To use the vernacular of Shirley Temple’s time, Comey is a sap, pure and simple. He’s also a chump. And if he did have dreams of glory, he pursued them like a sap and a chump.

Join me, therefore, in congratulating James Comey on his selection as the May 2017 recipient of the Shirley Temple Prize. It’s the culminating award of his career; he won’t get any better ones. And as Shirley would say, he weally, weally desewves to get it.

But what’s a first prize without a second prize? The question answers itself. We proceed then to the Second Prize for Saccharine Speech. And the winner is . . . (drum roll) . . . the President of the United States, Donald John Trump!

Comey is a sap, pure and simple. He’s also a chump. And if he did have dreams of glory, he pursued them like a sap and a chump.

As in his race for the White House, Trump has achieved a come-from-behind victory in this contest. He is identified more with aggressive, accusatory, pseudo-masculine, look-on-the-worst side utterances than with girlish insipidity. But he is a man of many roles, a man who is just as productive of empty compliments as of empty bombast. “You’re doin’ great, just great, just absolutely great” comes as easily to his lips as “Send her to jail.” And while less perceptive columnists attend only to his performance in Ranting Man roles, Trump has many unrecognized achievements playing the Sweetly Bewildered Youth.

The one that is, to my mind, the conclusive example is an interview broadcast on May 12. Entertaining the question of whether James Comey would be “honest” in discussing their failed courtship, the president said:

I hope he will be. And I’m sure he will be. I hope.

Think about it: President Trump doesn’t just speak his lines; he writes his own material and directs his own performance. Now consider what a huge, incredibly unbelievable, really unbelievable accomplishment that you won’t believe is apparent in those 13 words. Everything comes together: the loose, wandering syntax, so like the prattle of a six-year-old; the invocation of hope at the beginning and the return to hope at the end, with an inspirational rise to surety in the middle; the subtle insistence on the idea that all relationships are personal, that they are all I and he, I’m OK, you’re OK, let’s shake on it. Again we see the child mind at work, perfectly reproduced both in the sentence and in the naïve spontaneity of the speaking voice, which constantly seemed to be crafting the very ideas it was speaking forth.

Trump is a man of many roles, a man who is just as productive of empty compliments as of empty bombast.

Was this childlike performance planned, or was it literally spontaneous? No matter; all the great masters of language have had the heart of a child — J.K. Rowling, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. So for this, and in the hope of still more remarkable achievements, I am proud to congratulate Donald J. Trump, winner of the Shirley Temple Prize for Saccharine Speech (second place). Mr. Trump can pick up his award at any time I’m in the office.

But what’s a second prize without a third prize? Nothing. And, to coin a phrase, three’s a charm. So, without further ado, I am pleased to announce that third prize in this competition goes to (you children will never, never guess, so I will have to tell you): The New York Times.

It’s an odd thing about the Times: from the paper’s own point of view, it would be a preposterous insult to common decency for it ever to be ranked as third in anything; while from the point of view of most attentive readers — indeed, most people with a brain — it would be distressing to think that anyone could rank it that high. We can agree that the Times is always thought-provoking, just as it claims; the difficulty is merely that it provokes various people in various ways.

Again we see the child mind at work, perfectly reproduced both in the sentence and in the naïve spontaneity of the speaking voice.

On May 13, the Times provoked even me to thought. It set me thinking about the special kind of childishness that actually does not see beyond its teddy bear, its little toy horse, and its doll named Pie. Isabel Paterson was concerned with this kind of naiveté when she described the childishness of government planners who go about ruining other people’s lives, never having a clue that those dolls are real:

We feel toward Planners as the heroine of the old-time melodrama felt toward the villain. After having pursued her through four acts with threats of a fate worse than death, which he emphasized by shooting at her, setting fire to her home, and tying her to the railroad track just before the down express was expected, he inquired reproachfully, "Nellie, why do you shrink from me?"

The innocence of Nellie’s antagonist is akin to that of the alcoholic who has no recollection of the bottle of whiskey he’s consumed every day for the past ten years, but who notices his wife cracking open a beer: “Honey, didn’t you have one of those just last week?” And it is akin to the innocence of the New York Times, which on May 13 ran this headline:

Election Is Over, but Trump Still Can’t Seem to Get Past It

No, he can’t. But the marvelous thing isn’t the president’s continual awareness of his victory; it’s the Times’ complete lack of awareness of itself. Every day, sometimes every hour, during the past six months, the New York Times has run headlines attacking Donald Trump. The Times doesn’t require any actual news; its assumption is that of Charles Foster Kane: “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.” Gleefully has the Times amassed a mountain of evidence that, far from getting past the election, it is becoming more and more obsessed with it. But now the same paper sits an’ thinks an’ scwatches its wittle head an’ says, “Golly! Ain’t it funny? Mistah Twump jus’ can’t get ovew what happund las’ Novembuh!”

You have to be sincere — sincerely blinkered — to come out with a headline like that. You have to be functioning with as little insight into yourself as the kid who smacks another kid and then is baffled when the kid smacks back.

Every day, sometimes every hour, during the past six months, the New York Times has run headlines attacking Donald Trump.

And so, for a truly classy exhibition of childlike simplicity, the Shirley Temple Prize (third place) is given to that paragon of papers, the New York Times. Let this award be exhibited next to the Pulitzer that Walter Duranty won when he was the Times’ star reporter.

This is the end of the awards ceremony. Good night to all, and to all a good night.

But before you go —  I just want to stipulate: despite my strained attempts to imitate Shirley Temple’s dialect, and my slighting remarks about her movies, she was a great talent, and at least one of her movies was very good. I refer, of course, to Little Miss Marker. Heidi wasn’t bad, either.




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Population Growth Made Simple-Minded

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The "Population Bomb" is back. Progressives, including the climate change crowd, have recently rediscovered the looming global population crisis. Burgeoning humanity is the root cause of famine, pollution, resource depletion, stagnating wages, increasing inequality, decreasing dignity, and many other affronts to the liberal intellect, not least global warming. Indeed, human fertility is the greenhouse gas (GHG) of population growth, absorbing the earth's resources as CO2 molecules absorb heat. We must now brace ourselves for a relentless torrent of drivel — articulated with the silliest alarmist buzzwords, teased from the pious liberal vernacular of condescension and hyperbole — to support the simple-minded liberal idea that the world would be a better place without so many of us. It is a goal that is achievable, we are told, only through the simple-minded liberal solution of empowering women to have fewer children.

To this end, it is said, a strong global family planning program is needed for the many tens of millions of women who would voluntarily limit their childbearing, if only they had access to free, or affordable, contraceptives. In a population debate held by The Economist, advocates of the "earth would be better off with fewer people" position won, 80% to 20%. To achieve a world "with better choices and better outcomes," declared the winning side, "family planning represents a relatively small and very wise investment." For Catholics — following the admonition of Pope Francis, that it is irresponsible to breed like rabbits — the cost is minute, as they are advised to employ natural family planning methods. So that people canlearn the precise family size, education, it is presumed, must be provided for everyone. The total cost to investors (i.e., taxpayers residing in Western industrialized countries) has yet to be determined.

The benign and altruistic image of the Progressive family planning scheme may become tarnished, in practice.

Such an investment is needed for both the developed and the developing world. After all, "rapid population growth is leading to the destruction of forests, the spread of deserts, and the pollution and overfishing of waterways and oceans. In addition, it is one of the leading drivers of climate change." Besides, unintended pregnancies plague even the industrialized world (e.g., more than a third of US births are said to be unintended).

At current fertility rates, world population could reach 11 billion by 2050, an increase of more than 4 billion. Essentially all of the added population (97%) would be born in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where economic depression, social unrest, and political instability are common. Most of this inordinate growth would occur in countries having a disproportionate percentage of young, so-called "youth bulges." Here are impoverished countries that are unable to meet the basic needs of their existing populations. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (The New Population Bomb),

most of the world's expected population growth will increasingly be concentrated in today's poorest, youngest, and most heavily Muslim countries, which have a dangerous lack of quality education, capital, and employment opportunities; and, for the first time in history, most of the world's population will become urbanized, with the largest urban centers being in the world's poorest countries, where policing, sanitation, and health care are often scarce.

In a five-part LA Times series (Beyond Seven Billion), Kenneth Weiss cites the "arc of instability" that spans Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, with special note on the "youth bulges [that] have emerged in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and the Palestinian territories." The hope is that free condoms and birth control pills, tossed into the grateful clutches of childbearing women, will reduce this growth by 2 billion, shrinking mid-century population to a meager 9 billion, "the equivalent of adding another India and China to the world."

But the benign and altruistic image of the Progressive family planning scheme may become tarnished, in practice. It won't be global; it can't help but be intended for the childbearing women of the youth bulges. Nor is it likely to be voluntary. Some experts (mainly from the eco-socialist faction of Progressivism) believe that any meaningful reduction will involve mandatory abortion and sterilization — what they call "green racism," aka, eugenics disguised as environmentalism.

Yet even if the concern — that voluntary global family planning is a euphemism for Third World population control — is not raised, the challenges are formidable. Family planners from the developed world (home of the most egregious climate polluters) must explain to ordinary people in the developing world (home of the most egregious population breeders) that their sexual behavior is bad for the planet. Alternatively, family planners from wealthy, white-majority countries must explain to impoverished people of color that the world would be a better place with fewer of them.

The trick to quickly reducing population growth is to provide education and modern contraceptives to those beginning their reproductive years — just in time to plan a small family. For developing countries, this means a one-billion-strong youth bulge of "adolescents" who can find themselves in the throes of marital bliss by age ten, and whose ideas as to appropriate family size are largely shaped by parents and grandparents, who want large families to take care of them as they age. There are also significant religious and cultural pressures behind the tradition of large families. Moreover, to the leaders of many developing countries, high birthrate is thought to engender such benefits as economic, military, and political power.

Family planners from wealthy, white-majority countries must explain to impoverished people of color that the world would be a better place with fewer of them.

Most developing countries have no plans to reduce fertility rate. India, for example, boasts of its "ample human resources," happy with its poor, rapidly growing, working-age population, whose cheap labor provides a competitive edge. Why not? The US, through its immigration policy, is frantically enlarging its supply of poor, uneducated, low-wage labor. In 1970, its immigrant population was 9.6 million (4.7% of 200 million). Today, that number has grown to 40.3 million (13.1% of 318 million). Recent statistics show that, compared with existing American residents, immigrants are significantly less educated, have a significantly higher poverty rate and duration, and are significantly more dependent on welfare. And this ample human resource is more fertile.

According to Pew Research, US population will leap to 438 million by 2050, with 82% of that growth from recent immigrants and their descendents. Environmental ethicist Philip Cafaro wonders "what climate change mitigation measures . . . could possibly equal the increased greenhouse gas emissions" produced by such an influx. The sentiment among enlightened liberals such as Cafaro is that America can no longer afford massive immigration; it contradicts progressive ideals.

If world population increases to 11 billion by 2050, it will be "akin to adding three Chinas," says Weiss. What renowned biologist E.O. Wilson called “the raging monster upon the Earth”has already pushed earth beyond its carrying capacity. The Global Footprint Network tells us that "humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste" and that at current population and consumption rates, two earths will be required as early as 2030. For uneducated youth bulge readers, the authors took care to explain, "And of course, we only have one."

By 2050, three earths will be required, unless we "begin to make ecological limits central to our decision-making and use human ingenuity to find new ways to live, within the Earth’s bounds." This is the kind of thinking that excites Progressive family planners, for it leads to the "Double Whammy" of population growth. First, there is what demographers call population momentum. Then there is what cynics might call the "prosperity bulge" paradox. Both, naturally, demand additional, much more advanced, family planning, available only through a large, highly paid bureaucracy.

Could cattle ranches the size of Texas be in the cards?

Even when youth bulge females choose smaller family sizes (smaller still, after impoverished and illiterate females factor ecological limits into their decisions), the monster will rage on, because of the huge number of people still in their reproductive years. In China, for example, despite the remarkable success of family planning (forced abortions, sterilizations, and infanticide) that has eliminated over a half billion children, a current population of 1.3 billion continues to heave forward. As Reiss explains, "Think of population growth as a speeding train. When the engineer applies the brakes, the train doesn't stop immediately."

To date, not even China's mountains of garbage have slowed the population train. Nor have India's rivers of sewage, a "ticking health bomb," impeded its travel. Nevertheless, Progressives are optimistic that the smaller family sizes engendered by their program of education and contraception will eventually stop the train – one hopes before Mount Everest's "fecal time bomb" explodes.

As Third World fertility declines, however, smaller families will consume more of earth's resources, not to mention the additional pollution, waste, and GHG emissions that they will produce. And they will do so with wealth accumulated through becoming, in accordance with the Progressive family plan, happier, healthier, and more productive members of the global economy. Empowering women to have fewer children will turn youth bulges into prosperity bulges. Family planning in China alone has already helped lift more than 300 million from poverty to the middle class.

The earth, says Scientific American's David Biello, which annually supplies humanity with "60 billion metric tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and plant materials, such as crop plants and trees for timber or paper," will then have "to find more than 140 billion metric tons of such materials." Imagine the land area needed for sprawling new industrial parks and shopping malls — possibly the equivalent of an extra Alaska. And, as Weiss points out, "hundreds of millions of newly affluent people, mostly in Asia, will want to add dairy products and grain-fed beef and pork to their diets." Could cattle ranches the size of Texas be in the cards?

Such a paradox has already been encountered by climate change experts, who thought that only industrialized countries needed to cut GHG emissions to thwart global warming — that developing countries would not increase their consumption of fossil fuels, in an effort to become, well, industrialized. Population experts will face the vastly greater problem of persuading middle-class arrivals from developing countries that they should not consume humanity's production (from food and energy to luxury items such as household appliances and indoor plumbing) at the same rates as do industrialized countries.

Progressive thinking may send everything back to where it all started: a world in which billions of people live in squalor, except that they will be members of smaller families.

If technological advance ensures an abundant supply of cheap resources (as it has done exceedingly well since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution), then consumption by prosperity bulge families will increase. Thanks to family planning, they will have more money; thanks to technological innovation, prices will be less; more will be consumed. This prospect — an ever increasing demand for resources, at an ever increasing disregard for the environment — horrifies Progressives, to the point where they simply rule out its possibility.

Current Progressive thinking is that since humanity is already consuming 1.5 earths worth of resources (recall that we only have one earth), scientists and engineers (even our brightest) will be unable to figure out ways of boosting production from the 60 billion metric tons of resources that we currently consume to the 140 billion metric tons that will be needed. In this case, there will be rampant resource scarcity, which will cause dramatic price increases, which in turn will steal away the income gains of prosperity bulge families, thrusting them back into poverty — back to where it all started: a world in which billions of people live in squalor, except that they will be members of smaller families. Oops! Deeper liberal thought may be required here.

In summary, youth bulges and population momentum in the world's poorest and most uneducated countries will exacerbate the already raging monster upon the earth, a speeding runaway train overloaded with desperately hungry passengers who breed like rabbits, especially in the arcs of instability and double whammy regions that, by 2050, will add to the world’s population the equivalent of an India and a China, possibly the equivalent of three Chinas, which, for the most part, will be crammed into wretched, filthy, crime-ridden cities, and require for its support resources that are equivalent to three planet earths, unless Third World adolescent females are either cajoled with free fertility education and modern contraceptives or coerced through green racism to have smaller families.

At 7 billion people, humanity has already pushed earth beyond its carrying capacity, currently consuming 1.5 earths worth of resources. So it's not clear why the goal of Progressive family planners is to slow world population growth to only 9 billion by mid-century. Shouldn't they be shooting for 4.7 billion (the one planet resource equivalent)? What is clear, however, is that liberal population experts now believe that rampant population growth urgently needs a strong, global family planning program. And to be consistent with Progressive ideals, immigration into industrialized countries should be drastically reduced, or eliminated. Says Cafaro, “Immigrants are not coming to the United States to remain poor. Those hundreds of millions of new citizens will want to live as well and consume energy at the same rates as other Americans."

Also consistent with Progressive ideals, liberal populationists will want a new government agency to implement their grand family planning policy. Let's call it the Department of Population Engineering (DOPE). DOPE professionals will begin by empowering youth bulge women to have smaller families, thereby slowing the growth of a population that is polluting the planet, raising its temperature, and exhausting its resources. Next, they will concoct policies to keep the prosperity bulge from polluting the planet, raising its temperature, and exhausting its resources.

By 2050, DOPE will grow to a size akin to three EPAs, and each DOPE family planner will require a brain three times the size of a climate scientist's.




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The Quest for Perpetual Motion

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In an apparent attempt to establish its identity as a boatload of busybodies, ExxonMobil has been running ads in which a series of adolescents tries to convince other adolescents to become engineers. The young’uns, most of whom come across as pushy and unpleasant, if not positively unbalanced by somebody’s good intentions, ask the mighty questions of our time:

Who’s gonna do it? . . .
Design cars that capture emissions?
Build bridges that fix themselves?
Get more clean water to everyone?

The answer, according to the scripted kids, is: “Engineers! That’s who! Be an engineer!

I wouldn’t mind if more kids became engineers, but I hope that someone will let them know that engineers don’t just think up a trendy “problem” and then fix it.

Consider the idea of “bridges that fix themselves.” Even I can imagine a bridge with some contraption attached to it that could make some kind of repairs on the rest of the bridge. But how much would that contraption cost? How much would it cost to construct? Who would pay for it? With what? Earned in what way? Who would maintain it? Who would supervise its operations? Who would fix it when it needed to be fixed? Who would pay all these people? Again, with what? What would the engineer who designed the “self-fixing” bridge — or the people who constructed it, or the people who are supposed to run it — have been doing if some do-gooder hadn’t commissioned him to work on such a structure? Would he have been designing something more useful, perhaps?

I have some other questions, too — larger, and almost as obvious. What kind of society makes possible the existence of engineers and the situations in which they are able to devise whatever they devise? On what assumptions, institutions, and practices is that society based? If, for example, everyone doesn’t have clean water, why is that? Is it because enough ambitious young people somehow failed to become engineers? Or is it because of some broader problem, some problem that may involve authoritarian government, superstitious resentment of “Western” science, a static, anticapitalist economy, “the tragedy of the commons” (i.e., communal ownership), a lack of respect for “women’s work” (washing, cooking, getting water) . . . Is it possible that these are problems, and that they won’t be solved by clean little TV kids who want to “fix” all the “issues” their teachers mention?

How do you find the answers to these questions? Who’s gonna do it — who’s going to study the economic history and political philosophy and social practices and moral concepts that may shed light on them? If society provides a good environment for our young engineers, how can that environment be maintained? If society goes bad, who will fix it? How? And at what price, financial and intellectual? Or will social conditions fix themselves, because some social engineer devised a political contraption to make that happen? And will it work &‐ or will it be the kind of thing that engineers used to call, derisively, a perpetual motion machine?

Because that is what the Exxon ad promotes: the idea, already far too prominent in our society, that there are self-fixing, frictionless, cost-free solutions for every problem — the idea that there is, in fact, such a thing as a perpetual motion machine.




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Irresistible Force, Meet Unmovable Object

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Mary Poppins (1964) was one of the happiest films to emerge from Disney Studios, combining live action with Disney’s trademark animation and music. It was Disney’s first big hit in over three years, and what a hit it was, garnering 13 Oscar nominations and five wins.

But at least two of the principal participants were less than happy to be associated with the project when it was filmed 50 years ago. Julie Andrews was reeling from the disappointment of seeing Audrey Hepburn cast in the role of Eliza Dolittle in Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady — a role Andrews had originated on Broadway and again in London’s West End. Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady were in production at the same time, and Andrews wanted to be on the other set. She had wowed audiences on both sides of the pond with her glorious voice, but her horsey jaw and plain features were not considered pretty enough for the screen, although the official word was that Jack Warner was not willing to risk millions of dollars on an unknown stage actress. The role of Eliza would be immortalized onscreen not by Andrews but by the elfin Hepburn, with veteran dubber Marni Nixon providing Eliza’s singing voice. Frankly, I think it was the right decision; Hepburn was simply perfect in the role.

Andrews went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress that year as Mary Poppins, while Hepburn was not even nominated for her outstanding performance as Eliza. But it was a bitter experience for Andrews, made even more bitter by the rumors that she won on sympathy votes rather than merit. None of this disappointment is seen onscreen, of course; Andrews was as professional and stoic as Mary Poppins in keeping a stiff upper lip. The resulting film was a blockbuster success, full of charm, whimsy, and technical magic.

P.L. Travers, who wrote the series of books about the magical governess who flies in on an umbrella, was also reluctant to participate in the project. She was not a fan of charm and whimsy, and did not want to see her Mary Poppins trivialized through animation, dance, or music. Walt Disney wooed her for nearly a quarter of a century before she finally relented and agreed to let him create a film version — but she maintained script approval rights. Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of that wooing, and it is one of the best films of the year.

The film’s success is due largely to the enormous chemistry between its two stars, Emma Thompson as the firm and determined P. L. Travers, and Tom Hanks as the equally firm and determined Walt Disney. Travers is feisty, abrasive, and arrogant; Disney is charming, warm, and personable. Both are unrelenting in their points of view. The result is romantic comedy without the romance, set in giddy, colorful, nostalgic ’60s costumes and memorabilia.

Equally important to the film’s success is the background revealed through a parallel story told in flashbacks between a young girl (Annie Rose Buckley) and her beloved but weak-willed father (Colin Farrell), a mid-level banker stationed in the outback of Australia circa 1900. This is the real story behind Mary Poppins, and the reason that the family in the Travers books is called “Banks.” The scenes in Australia are powerful and poignant, while the scenes in Disney’s office are funny and enlightening. Together these intertwining narratives reveal the cathartic nature of storytelling and filmmaking. Only when Disney finally understands that the father is not the villain in the story but the hero, does Travers finally trust him to film the book.

Saving Mr. Banks is charming, funny, poignant, nostalgic, sad, and triumphant. It will “send you soaring up to the highest heights” and bring you to tears. One of my friends said after seeing the film, “I could have gone right back inside and watched it again.” Isn’t that the essence of Disney — to ride the Matterhorn, heart in your throat, and then jump off and say, “Let’s go do it again”? This is that kind of film.


Editor's Note: Review of "Saving Mr. Banks," directed by John Lee Hancock. Walt Disney Pictures, 2013, 125 supercalifragilistic minutes.



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Think Twice

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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Film and the Fight for Freedom

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In many works of fiction, the protagonist is an "outsider," either one who literally comes from outside the community or one who resides within the community but nevertheless is an outsider in terms of personal values and behavior. This character allows the reader or the audience to identify with the community and at the same time view the beliefs and values of the community through fresh eyes — often, in so doing, reevaluating ideas and practices that we once took for granted as self-evident and unalienable.

In Wadjda the title character (Waad Mohammed) is this kind of protagonist. She is a 10-year-old girl living within the orthodox community of Saudi Arabia, but she has very unorthodox desires. She does not openly defy the values and practices of her community; indeed, she wears her scarves and abaya as though they were as natural as her hair, and she nods nonchalantly when her mother tells her she is old enough to start covering her face with her ayallah when she goes outside. She attends a religious girls' school and works hard to learn her lessons, which are replete with the acknowledgement that everything is controlled by the goodness of Allah. When one of her pre-pubescent classmates is married over the weekend, Wadjda giggles but is not concerned. These are givens in her community.

But Wadjda has her own values as well. She wears sneakers under her abaya, and inside those shoes her toenails are painted candy-apple blue. She listens to western music on an ancient cassette tape player in her room, and she often wears a t-shirt emblazoned with "I am a great catch" in English (although we never know for sure whether she understands what the words mean). She is attracted to the culture of the West, even though she is immersed in the culture of the Middle East.

Most of all, Wadjda wants to own a bike. She wants to know the freedom of riding faster than she can run, and the satisfaction of racing against her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who happens to be a boy. All the boys have bikes. But nice girls don't ride bicycles. A fall could be dangerous to their virginity — and we know how important that is in Middle Eastern culture. So no one encourages or helps Wadjda in her goal.

"Wadjda" does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film.

Nevertheless, Wadjda is determined to buy the shiny green bike on display at the local sundries store. She becomes an entrepreneur by making bracelets to sell to her friends. She charges acquaintances for running errands and with a determined voice and a winning smile convinces them to pay her extra. She forgoes instant gratification in order to save for her big purchase when she no longer buys treats and trinkets from the corner store when her friends go shopping. Eventually she realizes that she will never save enough money by doing menial tasks, especially when the local store begins selling Chinese-made bracelets at a fraction of the former price.

So she does what every good entrepreneur must do: she uses her savings as seed money to capitalize a larger business venture. Lured by the prize money of 1,000 riyals, she decides to enter the school's Quran recitation contest (sort of like a spelling bee or Geography Bowl). But since she has never been a good student of the Quran, she invests all her savings to purchase "capital goods": an expensive electronic study aid. It is a big risk, but it is the only way that she can turn her 80 riyals into the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike.

Wadja's mother (Reem Abdullah) is also an entrepreneur of sorts who understands that success requires taking risks. (Significantly, she has no name in the film except "Mother.") Her mother-in-law is shopping for a second wife for her husband, and she is determined to thwart that plan by showing everyone in the community that she is beautiful and desirable so that no other woman would be willing to become a second wife to her. To do this, she decides to invest her money in a stunning red dress to wear to a relative's upcoming wedding. This will remind everyone, including her husband, that she is not an old woman to be set aside and replaced. She is still beautiful, sexy, and valuable — not the kind of woman that another woman would want to compete with as second wife. She also makes it clear to her husband that she will no longer live with him connubially if he takes another wife. Like Wadjda, she risks everything to accomplish her goal.

As with the best of outsider fiction, Wadjda does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film. In fact, it is more about following one's dreams and making things happen than it is about the evils of a particular culture. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour presents the Saudi culture respectfully and matter-of-factly, without exaggeration or overt criticism. The film is subtly nuanced and carefully crafted not to offend; in fact, a true believer in the Saudi way of life could view this film as an example of what happens to women who rebel. No men ever step in to exert authority over the women. No overt abuse occurs. No legal authorities step in to limit these women's rights.

In fact, most of the rules are applied by other women. They simply accept the cultural mores regarding gender and enforce the rules themselves. The bike shop owner (a man) has no problem selling a bike to a girl; the men who see Wadjda and the other girls in public do not tell them to withdraw. In fact, it does not even seem to be against the law for girls to ride a bike; it simply isn't done, and it is the women, not the men, who enforce this cultural taboo. Moreover, Wadjda's father seems to be a very loving and affectionate man who is somewhat trapped by the culture himself.

Nevertheless, it took great courage to make this film in Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt that Al-Mansour expects her audience to open their eyes and see the hypocrisy and injustice that the characters themselves seem to overlook. Nineteenth-century writers and dramatists such as Jane Austen and Henrik Ibsen opened the eyes of their audiences in similar ways. They presented the current culture as it was, creating a setting in which the audience felt comfortable and at home. Then they skillfully allowed an outsider protagonist to lead the audience into discovering the hypocrisy and injustice of the culture in which they felt so comfortable. Why should Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), two of Jane Austen's most beloved characters, have fewer opportunities for happiness in marriage simply because their fathers did not inherit the family wealth? Why should Nora (Ibsen's proactive protagonist in A Doll's House), be forced to hide in the attic, earning money by copying documents, simply because she is a married woman and doesn't have her husband's consent to work?(Writers today take it another step and challenge the Victorian idea that marriage is the key to happiness.)

Works of fiction still have the power to influence their culture by shining subtle lights back upon itself. They have more power to change a cultural mindset than all the "pinprick" assaults and direct attacks of war will ever have. Film has the power to change minds and hearts, and Wadjda is an instance. It presents one of the spunkiest and most charming protagonists to come along in quite a while. Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through. Wadjda is a film that will warm your heart even as it breaks it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Wadjda," written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. Highlook Communications and Razor Film Produktion (2012), 98 minutes. (In Arabic with English subtitles. But don't let that hold you back.)



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Deist Dystopia

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Yet another film about earth's dystopian future hit the theaters this week, with at least two slated for later this summer. We humans seem to need some scolding about our profligate ways, and Hollywood, that bastion of restraint, is just the town to let us have it.

In After Earth, humans have again evacuated from earth to a distant location in space after destroying the home planet by pollution, overpopulation, and nuclear war. It is now a thousand years later, and "everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans." (Although one has to wonder how this evolution occurred, considering that no humans remained behind to contribute to the natural selection process . . .)

On the new planet, Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) is a young cadet who wants to become a brave and respected ranger like his father Cypher Raige (Will Smith). But mostly Kitai just wants to be accepted by his father, who seems distant, cold, and demanding, more like a commander than a father.

When Cypher is called up for a mission, he decides to bring Kitai along. The ship is damaged in a magnetic storm and crash lands on — you guessed it — earth, where all those animal predators have evolved to kill humans. Strapped in during the crash, Kitai is unhurt, but Cypher's legs are both badly broken, and the other crew members are dead. The only hope of survival is to retrieve the emergency beacon from the wreckage of the tail, 100 kilometers away. Kitai must make the journey by himself, through unfamiliar land where predators have evolved . . . well, you get the picture.

For a sci-fi film populated by savage beasts terrorizing a likeable young boy, After Earth is surprisingly bland and extremely slow moving.

The predators are attracted to humans through the pheromones released by fear. No fear, no predators. Cypher encourages his son with the film's philosophical tag line: "Danger is real. Fear is a choice." It's a powerful concept, and if there is only one takeaway from the film, it's a good one. "Fear is not real," Cypher explains. "Fear is a product of our thoughts of the future. We are all telling ourselves a story. Fear exists only in the imagination. Stay focused in the present, and there is nothing to fear." I kind of like this version that I found on Facebook today: "Surrender to what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be."

Unfortunately, "fear is a choice" is about the only takeaway. For a sci-fi film populated by savage beasts terrorizing a likeable young boy and an actor known for both his wisecracks and his ability to save planets, After Earth is surprisingly bland and extremely slow moving. Trapped by his broken legs, Cypher himself can't move. Instead of movement, we see his stoic reserve, his pain-induced wooziness, and his pensive flashbacks of family times at home.

Midway through, the film turns into a heavy-handed allegory. Before sending Kitai off into the lone and dreary wilderness, Cypher dresses him in a mechanized space suit equipped with a 360-degree camera and heat sensors. This gives Cypher a bird's eye view of Kitai's surroundings; Cypher can see everything in front of Kitai and behind him. Thus Cypher operates as an unseen, disembodied voice who guides Kitai from a position of omniscience. The boy must trust his father's voice and obey his commands in order to survive. At one point Kitai's receiver stops working. He can't hear his father's voice, but his father can still hear him. He thinks that his father is no longer watching him, but of course the father is there all along. The deist allegory is crystal clear, and rather satisfying if you like that sort of thing. I sort of do.

It makes even more sense when the credits roll and M. Night Shyamalan's name appears as director. Shyamalan is known for the spiritual themes that permeate his works, but also for the decline of his storytelling technique. He is best known for his stellar freshman work, The Sixth Sense, which is possibly the best ghost story ever made, and Bruce Willis' best and most serious acting job. Shyamalan was a shining star back then, but his star his dimmed to a nightlight now. In fact, the trailers for this film didn’t even include his name. Nor did it appear in the opening credits. The name that used to fill theaters is now considered box-office poison, I guess.

Allegory or not, the film remains heavily antihuman. Even after 1,000 years without people, the earth has not managed to stabilize. In fact, climate change has deepened. Temperatures drop well below freezing at night but soar into the tropical zone during the day. Oddly, broadleafed trees and warmblooded bison have no trouble thriving in these extreme temperatures.

The original screenplay for this film was not set in the future, or even in space. Father and son were driving a lonely road when their car crashed and the father's legs were broken. The young son had to hike through the forest on his own to find help and save his father's life. Will Smith decided that the film would be much more exciting if it were a sci-fi story set in space, with scary aliens and cool equipment. But I'm not so sure they made the right decision.

Father trapped in a car? Sending young son out into the woods alone? In this day and age? Now there's a scary story.

Danger is real. Fear is a choice. And even though movie danger isn't real at all, I think I would choose to be very fearful watching that scenario.


Editor's Note: "After Earth," directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Columbia Pictures, 2013, 89 minutes. (But it seems like two hours, at least.)



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Nanny Tries to Resurrect Pappy

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This recent story has gone virtually unnoticed. It is a report that the federal government — yes, our very own nanny-state — has funded anew one of its many websites: www.fatherhood.gov. The site is devoted to teaching American men and — let’s not be sexist! — American women how to be good fathers.

The site gives just tons of terrific tips about being a good dad, such as: it is the father’s job to provide healthy meals for his kids, and actually to eat meals with them. (This is a revelation: I thought that since the government is advertising to get people to apply for food stamps, the rolls for which have swollen to an all-time high of 47 million, it is in fact the government’s job to feed the kids.) And there is other vital information, available nowhere else. There is a video about how to wash your hands, with narration that instructs: “Wet hands under running water, add soap, and rub all parts of the hands and fingers for 15 seconds.”

The things you can learn from government! I never knew you had to use soap!

The site offers some even more desperately needed videos on reading, “constructive play,” and — most amazing — brushing your teeth.

There is a richly layered irony in this. Begin with the fact that the website was funded most recently by the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. The idea that deficit reduction is advanced by funding completely superfluous government websites is self-evidently ridiculous.

Now add the bigger point. Here we are, nearly 30 years after the publication of Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, the definitive analysis of the massive destruction brought to the American family (and society) by the benighted changes to the welfare programs in the early 1960s. The new form of welfare basically paid young girls to make horribly bad life choices, mainly to have children too young and out of wedlock. The illegitimacy rate in the inner city spiraled out of sight, hitting 25% by the mid-1960s (when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his famous report on the black family crisis). In the inner city, the first of the month was dubbed “Father’s Day,” in grimly humorous recognition of the fact that the only “father” in these broken welfare families was Uncle Sam.

Over the decades since, the welfare state’s iatrogenic pathology has spread from the inner city to mainstream America. Now over 70% of all black children, 50% of Hispanic children, and 25% of non-Hispanic white children are born out of wedlock. The rate of illegitimacy for all American births is currently 41%, and for American women under 30, it is a stunning 53%.

So the richest irony of all is that the nanny state that did so much to eliminate fatherhood is now trying to train men to be fathers.

In fine, now that nanny has choked pappy to death, she is trying to resurrect him.




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Problems of Perspective

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Perspective. Two people can look at the very same scene, or experience the very same event, yet come away with completely different ideas of what they have seen. That seems to be the point of Wes Anderson's latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, and he begins making that point, cleverly and creatively, with his opening scene.

We see a painting of a seaside house. As the camera comes closer, we enter the house. It is obviously a dollhouse, full of tiny dollhouse furniture. Then a boy walks into the scene, passes the tiny chair, and demonstrates that it is actually normal size. As the camera pans from room to room, similar anomalies appear. We see a giant set of binoculars at the far side of a room, until a young girl walks into the scene and comes toward the binoculars. Only then do we realize that they were normal sized binoculars sitting on the window sill in the foreground, not the background. Again, we see a full-sized lighthouse in the distance, until a car drives into the scene and we realize it is merely a mailbox in the foreground, decorated to look like a lighthouse.

These optical illusions are no accident, and they are not merely a filmmaker's cinematic game, although they are mighty fun. Anderson uses this technique to establish, early in the film, that what we see is not always what we get. Our perspective of anything we see is often skewed by our expectation of what it is. The girl carries her binoculars everywhere and sees almost everything through their lenses, suggesting that if we look at events more closely, and put people into the picture, we are more likely to gain a proper perspective.

Wes Anderson is known for his quirky story lines, dysfunctional families, vivid color palate, and deadpan direction. This film is no exception. Moonrise Kingdom is a story of young star-crossed lovers — a familiar story, here turned upside down. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) is the oldest child of a pair of lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) who speak in legal jargon and call their four children to dinner with a megaphone. At one point a shirtless Mr. Bishop walks through the living room, carrying an axe, and announces to no one in particular, "I'm going to find a tree to chop down." No wonder Suzy has anger-control issues.

Sam (Jared Gilman) is an orphaned "Khaki Scout" staying at a summer camp across the island from Suzy's house. Sam doesn't fit in with the other scouts. Authority figures in 1965, when this film is set, would probably have said he needs to "be a man"; certainly no one seems concerned about how the other boys treat him. Those same authorities today would probably say “he is being bullied.” It's all about perspective, isn't it?

Sam and Suzy meet by accident when the scouts attend a church production of Benjamin Britten's "Noye's Fludde," in which Suzy plays the raven. (Okay, it's not exactly by accident; Sam sneaks into the girls' dressing room to find out who she is.) Britten's music provides the score for much of the film, and "Noye's Fludde" foreshadows both the pairing up of the two young romantics and the tempest — figurative and literal — that is about to break forth.

After a year of clandestine correspondence and furtive binocular spying, Sam breaks out of his tent, Shawshank style, and runs off with Suzy into the woods. The shenanigans that follow, with scouts, family members, and a robotic matron (Tilda Swinton) known only as "Social Services" trying to find the runaways, is classic Anderson, with bizarre, illogical, unexpected happenings presented as perfectly natural events. The sweet budding romance between Sam and Suzy as they play house in the woods (also bizarre and illogical) is contrasted sharply with the mean-spirited antics of those who are sworn to protect them.

Under the direction of their gung-ho scoutmaster (Edward Norton) the rest of the scouts form a posse to track Sam down and bring him back to camp. "I resigned," Sam tells them simply, to explain why the boys have no jurisdiction over him. To this one of them asserts, "You don't have the authority to resign!" His perspective on group dynamics is funny and chilling, so obviously wrong and yet so socially accepted. Recalling the furniture in the film's opening scene, the boy appears to be a small GI Joe, but he is spouting grownup beliefs. Sam is correct when he says to the boys, "I don't like you and you don't like me, so why don't you just let me go?" But they won't let him go; they expect him to conform to the group.

All of this might be charming and delightful if only our star-crossed lovers were a little older. But to me there is something creepy and unnerving about 12-year-olds kissing in their underwear and talking about hard-ons and breasts. Yes, these children have faced some difficult obstacles, with Sam being sent to foster care after his parents died and Suzy spying on her mother's infidelity with the local cop (Bruce Willis) and being bathed by her mother at the age of 12. But I hardly think that running away to play house and have sexual experiences at that young age is the answer.

I also couldn't shake the realization that Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman were 12 themselves as they experienced their first "touching sessions" in front of cameras, boom operators, and director Anderson. As the film points out in its opening scene, a little perspective is wanted. Things that are large sometimes turn out to be small, and things that are small often turn out to be large. Children are small. They should not be placed in adult situations, no matter what the director — and their parents — tell them to do.


Editor's Note: Review of "Moonrise Kingdom," directed by Wes Anderson. Indian Paintbrush, 2012, 94 minutes.



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