Hidden Messages

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Many years ago I was asked to be the scorekeeper at an international synchronized skating competition. I dressed in official black, sat at the judges’ table with my pencil in hand, and proudly wrote down each team’s scores. When the day ended I asked a judge where I should take my clipboard to have my scores recorded. The judge laughed. “Just throw them away. We only record them manually in case there’s a power failure and we lose the official scores.” So. I had just been an insignificant backup scribe. Yet I had enjoyed my experience sitting at the judges’ table, and if the power had failed, my recordkeeping would have saved the day.

I thought about my backup role at that competition while watching Hidden Figures, a terrific film about the little-known women — most of them “colored” — who provided the backup computations in the early days of the space program. They didn’t design the rockets or map the trajectories, but they double-checked the math for the engineers — all of them men — who did those things. It was a respectable job that required respectable dress and respectable manners. They also needed respectable math skills. But they were the proofreaders, not the creators. Even their title objectified them: they were called “computers,” because that’s what they did.

I know how that feels too. My first real job was proofreading for a university press. I had a natural ear for spelling and for grammar rules, and I was fast and accurate at my job. As an added benefit, I spent my days reading the galleys of fascinating books and articles. I felt a definite pride in my grammar skills, as I’m sure the NASA computers felt pride in their math skills. But what I really wanted was to become a writer, not a proofreader. I wanted to be on the other side of those galleys.

Even their title objectified them: they were called “computers,” because that’s what they did.

Three of the computers at NASA also had higher aspirations than backup math. Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer in the film) wanted to be a supervisor. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. And Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) wanted to be an astrophysicist. Hidden Figures tells the compelling story of how these three women influenced the space program in the early 1960s, while also influencing the civil rights movement regarding women and African-Americans.

You probably didn’t know that any women worked on the space program in the early days, let alone black women. Neither did I. They have been a well-kept secret, these “hidden figures” who did the figuring. The film has predictably outrageous moments as we watch Katherine running to use the “colored restroom” in the building half a mile from the one where she works, or Mary being told that she can’t attend extension classes at the all-white high school, or Dorothy being given the responsibilities of a supervisor without the title or the pay that would go with the official promotion. But what makes this film wonderful is the way these women address these culturally accepted slights with dignity, humor, and indomitable persistence. They are as delightful as they are strong, and they bring something new and fresh to the civil rights story that is usually dominated by the men who were marching, sitting-in, and orating for freedom.

Fans of Big Bang Theory will enjoy seeing Jim Parsons in “Sheldon’s” dream job as a NASA physicist. Kevin Costner is well cast as level-headed, open-minded Al Harrison, the director of the department where Katherine is sent to check the trajectory figures. It was also good to see a grown-up Kirsten Dunst on screen as the supervisor in charge of giving the women from the computing pool their daily assignments. She portrays the kind of woman who thinks she is modern, progressive, and active in advancing the colored women who work under her, until Dorothy responds with a scathing smile, “I’m sure you believe that’s true.”

What makes this film wonderful is the way these women address these culturally accepted slights with dignity, humor, and indomitable persistence.

Hollywood makes few films that a libertarian can cheer, but Hidden Figures is one of them. I suspect the makers of this film didn’t even realize the libertarian ideals hidden within their script about civil rights and racial prejudice. Here are a few gems to watch for:

Lead the Way. Often the argument against change is “This is the way we’ve always done it.” In a film whose backdrop is the race to be first in space, Mary Jackson’s eloquent argument for being allowed to attend the white high school is profound. “Someone has to be first,” she says to the judge who will either maintain the status quo or change the future. “Why not you?”

Recognize Individual Worth. As a child, young Katherine (Lidya Jewett) demonstrates math skills far beyond her years. Her teachers not only recommend a school for children who are gifted in science and mathematics, but they also take up a collection to help her get there. Compare that attitude to the one touted in the new movie Gifted, in which the grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) of a brilliant little girl (McKenna Grace) wants to send her to a special school for gifted children but her uncle and legal guardian (Chris Evans) wants to keep her in the neighborhood school where she will have a “normal” childhood. What kind of world do we live in when we champion mediocrity and vilify those who would nourish genius? Katherine Johnson was blessed to have had her genius recognized and nurtured.

Make Yourself Indispensable. Katherine is sent to Harrison’s department as a simple proofreader, checking the math. She patiently endures the segregationist policies and does her work well. But she goes beyond that, using her skills in analytical geometry to solve trajectory problems the professionals haven’t been able to solve. Eventually her reputation for accuracy becomes so strong that John Glenn (Glen Powell) refuses to launch until Katherine has confirmed the Go-No Go calculations (a story that appears to be founded in fact). Instead of focusing on changing unfair office conditions, she focuses on doing her job well and making herself indispensable.

The law seems to protect the lowest paid workers, but in fact it limits their ability to work extra hard, stand out, and prove themselves worthy of promotion.

Adapt to Changing Technology. When an IBM machine threatens to make the human computers obsolete, Dorothy heads for the library to learn Fortran. She encourages the other women in the computer pool to do the same. She realizes that the one sure way to keep a job is to stay ahead of change so the organization can’t get along without you.

Work Until the Job Is Done. As the pressure to beat the Russians to the moon increases, everyone has to step up. “You’re going to have to work harder and longer than ever before, ” Harrison tells them, “and your paychecks won’t reflect it.” Then he adds, “It starts with me.” They all feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment that transcends the word “job”; they’re part of a mission that will change the world. Compare this to the law enacted on December 1 that mandates workers earning less than $47K be paid time and a half if they work more than 40 hours in a week. It seems to protect the lowest paid workers, but in fact it limits their ability to work extra hard, stand out, and prove themselves worthy of promotion. Significantly, the boss doesn’t give orders and go home — he works long hours right alongside them.

Be Persistent and Patient. Dorothy, Mary, and Katherine never stop lobbying for the promotions and advancements they feel they deserve, but they continue to do the jobs they’ve been hired to do in the meantime. They don’t lead protests or threaten to strike. Instead, they increase their educations, adapt to changing technology, look for places where they can make a difference in the organization, and make themselves critical to the organization’s success. As a result, each of these brilliant women became, in real life, a quiet pioneer — Dorothy Vaughan became the first African-American woman supervisor at NASA, Mary Jackson became the first African-American woman aeronautical engineer, and Katherine G. Johnson was the first African-American woman to become a technical analyst for the space program. Their story is finally and finely told in a film that is entertaining, inspiring, outrage-inducing, and in the end, triumphant.

Often the argument against change is


Editor's Note: Review of " Hidden Figures," directed by Theodore Melfi. Fox 2000, 2016, 127 minutes.



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Seizing Reform?

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Well, you can knock me over with a spotted owl feather!

Eric Holder — yes, the same leftist hack who has turned the US Attorney General’s office into the Obama Enforcement Mob — has done something for which I commend him.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department will stop participating in asset seizures by local police. And it quotes Holder as saying that this move is only “the first step in a comprehensive review” of the feds’ asset-forfeiture program.

Local police have increasingly used the decades-old asset-seizure programs to grab cash and other assets from people in order to augment their own budgets. Asset-forfeiture laws are a powerful tool, allowing police and prosecutors to seize assets from presumed perps without a conviction, or without even a trial — indeed, without even a search warrant.

Police all over the country started to move from seizing the property of mobsters and dope dealers to seizing the property of anyone they suspected of criminality of any kind.

These laws were allegedly created with the good intention of combatting organized crime. The idea was to stop crooks from amassing huge stores of loot that would make it worthwhile for them to risk going to jail. However, seizing their property before any trial conveniently had the further advantage for police and prosecutors of making it hard for these evil criminals to prove their innocence in the courtroom, because they no longer had any money to hire good attorneys!

But, as the cliché rightly has it, the road to hell (or at least prosecutorial tyranny) is paved with good intentions.

Over the years, the feds have increasingly colluded with municipal police agencies to seize assets of presumed bad actors. These actions are called “federally adopted forfeitures.” By partnering with the feds, local cops can keep much more of what they seize than what many state laws allow. In effect, federal adoption allows local agencies to evade state laws. In these seizures, the local cops select a target, seize his assets (cash, cars, boats, jewelry, or whatever else the cops want) on suspicion of violating the law, and then invite the feds to join in. The feds will then liquidate the assets and hand over a major chunk of the money to the cops.

You could have predicted what subsequently happened. As quickly as you can utter the words “perversion of purpose by corrupt cops,” police all over the country started to move from seizing the property of mobsters and dope dealers to seizing the property of anyone they suspected of criminality of any kind — indeed, even if they had no idea what the criminality might be.

This led to an exponentially increasing explosion of seizures from the 1980s on. In the last seven years alone, there have been 55,000 such seizures, with a total booty of $3 billion — a bountiful boon to supposedly cash-strapped local police departments.

This obvious abuse of what was a dubious legal mechanism to begin with has led to a rare convergence of thought among what are normally political opponents — libertarians, modern liberal groups, and conservatives concerned about due process. The ACLU welcomed Holder’s move, as did conservative Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA). As Grassley put it, “The rule of law ought to be about protecting innocent people. Too often, we’ve seen just the opposite with civil forfeiture laws. The practice up to this point had perverse incentives.”

He added that he wanted to see exactly what Holder plans to do — not an injudicious stance to take, given Holder’s less than stellar performance in office.

The WSJ followed up its report with an editorial approving the Justice Department’s move. It notes that in those cases in which the feds “adopt” a local case, they keep 20% and give the local police the remaining 80%. That’s perverse incentive, indeed. And the Journal quotes data from the estimable Institute for Justice showing that 80% of citizens whose property is seized are never charged with any crime whatsoever.

Forget shows like the old Miami Vice; now the people targeted are mainly small-time operators, not major drug kingpins.

Of course, as the editorial rightly notes, Holder’s action just suspends federal adoptions (as opposed to ending them outright) and exempts the DEA from the suspension (as well as cases of accused child pornographers). Still, as the old saw puts it, when a pig flies, you don’t criticize it for not staying up very long.

Credit for the rising public awareness and disapproval of civil asset forfeiture must in part be given to the Washington Post, which late last year ran an extended expose of the abuses of the program. The piece obviously hit a public nerve — nearly 2,500 comments were posted online. It opens by reporting the existence of a nationwide network of cops who are in competition to see who can expropriate the greatest amounts of citizens’ assets. This private “intelligence network” even has a name: the “Black Asphalt Electronic Networking and Notification System.” It allows cops to post pictures of the loot they have confiscated and to share information about possible targets (names, addresses, social security numbers, and even distinguishing tattoos). One cop (Deputy Roy Hain) unwittingly admitted the true motives for the network when he gloated in a self-published book, “All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine.” This constitutional scholar boastfully added that we should be “turning our police forces into present-day Robin Hoods.”

Superb idea, deputy! Turn street cops into just another type of hood, liberated to shake down drivers for whatever cash they can grab. How cool!

The Post found that in the nearly 62,000 seizures made since 9/11 without either indictments or even search warrants — seizures that copped $2.5 billion for the cops! — more than half were less than $9,000. In other words, forget shows like the old Miami Vice; now the people targeted are mainly small-time operators, not major drug kingpins.

After rehearsing the evolution of the forfeiture laws in some detail, the Post recounts some of the more outrageous cases of abuse by police of this self-serving power. In one case, Ming Liu, a Chinese-born naturalized US citizen, was stopped on a freeway for doing 10 mph above the posted speed limit — hardly a major crime. Ah, but Liu was carrying $75,000 of his family’s money to buy a Chinese restaurant that they had seen advertised for sale. The deputy who stopped Liu to ticket him asked for permission to search his car. Liu, with a very limited grasp of English, allowed the cop to proceed. The cop then confiscated the cash, later claiming that Liu had given contradictory stories about his plans — which, even if true, probably just reflected Liu’s inability to speak English proficiently. The deputy then hauled the hapless gent into the department’s office and called in the US Customs and Border Protection to adopt the seizure. Hey, the cash prize here was just so sweet!

Mr. Liu hired a lawyer who fought tenaciously and successfully to get the family’s precious capital back, but it still took nearly a year for the cops to disgorge it.

In another case, two Hispanic Americans were driving a rented car on a Virginia freeway when a state trooper stopped them, allegedly for speeding and tailgating. The trooper, one C.L. Murphy, was a member of the Black Asphalt network and a “top trainer” on asset seizing. In other words, the cop was primed to seize. You might say Trooper Murphy pursues his own version of Murphy’s Law.

Over the years, many states have enacted their own forfeiture programs, often with even less oversight than the federal one.

As it happened, the two men he stopped were carrying about $28,000 in cash. Why? They were carrying money donated by their evangelical congregation — of which they were both lay ministers — for the nefarious purpose of buying land in El Salvador for a church. Just the sort of monstrous mobsters from whom the police are hired to protect us!

The men consented to a car search, and Murphy naturally grabbed the cash. He ignored their explanation of why they had the money, offering the usual rationale that he didn’t buy their outrageous story because it contained “inconsistencies.” The men deny his claim.

No matter. The cop called in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to adopt the theft — excuse me, the “seizure.” However, to the profound dismay of the cop, his department of “Murphy law enforcement,” and ICE, the men fought back. They forced the ICE-local police mob to forfeit back the whole amount. But it took hiring a lawyer and fighting for months to get it.

A more recent report by Daniel Payne in The Federalist concerns an especially egregious case that occurred in Virginia. A SWAT team — a SWAT tream — was used to break up an unauthorized poker game. Yes, learning that ten guys were playing a friendly game of high-stakes poker, the local (Fairfax VA) cops sent in eight SWAT officers brandishing assault rifles. There was absolutely no evidence that any of the poker players was armed, or that they were posing a threat to anybody. Nor is poker playing itself against Virginia law (it is instead government-controlled).

What reason did the cops give for this threatening intrusion? They said that sometimes poker players have illegal weapons, and sometimes “Asian gangs” will “target” such games. How dare they! Don’t these gangs understand that only the cops should be free to target gamblers?

The real reason the cops acted is that they were able to grab the $200,000 the poker players had, of which they wound up pocketing 40%. That is quite a fine for playing an unauthorized game of poker! As Payne puts it, “Governments control gambling not to legitimize and sanitize the practice, but to extract as much money from the citizenry as they possibly can. In the state’s eyes, the fault of the poker players in Fairfax lay not in betting money on a card game, but in not pouring money into the state’s bank account while they were doing so.”

The capstone of the Post series was an insightful piece by two clearly unbiased experts, John Yoder and Brad Cates, surveying the sorry evolution of the federal asset seizure program from its inception to the present day. And friend, they should know: Yoder headed the Justice Department’s “Asset Forfeiture Office” — yes, there is a whole division of the department devoted to depriving citizens they view as criminals of their property — from 1983 to 1985, and Cates headed it from 1985 to 1989.

Their view is damning. What started as a tool to fight drug lords (and later, mobsters in general), the authors aver, only wound up corrupting prosecutors and police departments. Forfeiture started by targeting the cash put aside by dope dealers, which enabled them to prosper even after completing their jail time. In 1986 the program was expanded to include all assets of the alleged criminals purchased by money that was presumably obtained illegally (money floridly called “the fruit of the tainted tree”). This was expanded by the legislative creation of whole new classes of crimes, such as various types of money-laundering. Over 200 crimes were quickly added to the forfeiture roster.

Yoder and Cates note that over the years, many states have enacted their own forfeiture programs, often with even less oversight than the federal one. And (as noted in the aforementioned WSJ editorial), state and local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors routinely came to use asset seizure to fund their departments. As the authors note, “this led to the most extreme abuses: law enforcement efforts based upon what cash and property they could seize to fund themselves, rather than an even-handed effort to enforce the law.” As they nicely conclude, forfeiture traps are the modern analogs of the old speed traps, since they are programs for selectively taxing individuals targeted on the sly — typically minorities.

Indeed, honest sirs. We have tried in the past to reform this Frankensteinian program that has not only failed to end drug-dealing and organized crime but has turned to attack the citizens it was supposedly designed to protect. The reforms were gutted by a concerted effort of lobbyists for the local police departments. I think it is time to simply end the thing, once and for all.

Forfeiture traps are the modern analogs of the old speed traps, since they are programs for selectively taxing individuals targeted on the sly — typically minorities.

A government surely should have the power to seize the assets of a citizen — but only after that citizen has been found guilty in a court of law, and only as part of appropriate punishment. A court should have the power, upon issuing a warrant or an indictment, to order the defendant not to dispose of, convey, or hide his assets, except to pay for his legal defense. But until some jury (be it criminal or civil) finds the defendant guilty, no government agency should be allowed to take those assets.

In fine, the real poisoned tree is the authoritarian idea that property is completely unrelated to its owner, so is exempt from the presumption of innocence built into our criminal (and civil) system of law. And the fruit of that poisoned tree is and always will be corruption and the abuse of power.

I would hope that such a rule would be made into not just a federal law but a constitutional amendment. Only then will this justice-subverting monster be put to the torch.




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Four Films

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Thomas Jefferson famously said of fiction that it is “a mass of trash” and avowed, “A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels” (letter to Nathaniel Burwell, March 14, 1818). He did allow, however, that some fiction “is not without some distinction; some few modeling their narratives . . . on the incidents of real life, have been able to make them interesting and useful vehicles of a sound morality.”

The older generation has long been suspicious of popular culture. I suspect that if Jefferson were alive today, he would abhor the film industry. Indeed, much of it is a “mass of trash.” (Don’t expect an account of Fifty Shades of Grey from this reviewer.) However, I disagree with the premise that fiction is “dangerous” or a waste of time. Fiction takes us to other worlds and other cultures. It challenges us to consider other value systems and allows us to encounter vicariously other trials, triumphs, and obstacles than our own.

This is particularly true of several of the films nominated for the major awards this year, including Best Picture and best leading and supporting actors and actresses. Most of the films nominated in these categories have already been reviewed for Liberty:

In this article I will review four more Oscar-nominated films that take us into worlds we might not have experienced for ourselves and ask us to consider how we might have reacted.

Three of these films focus on women who face profound loss, including the loss of a parent, the loss of a child, and the loss of a sense of self.

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Wild is based on the memoir of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who hiked 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from southern California to Oregon, after the death of her mother (Laura Dern). Strayed selected her surname after her divorce, and it fits her wandering personality. She has strayed far from the normal path to happiness, and she knows it. She is trying to get back on track.

She begins her journey in the way I probably would: she purchases the best supplies and equipment, carefully folds and organizes everything she will need for the journey, and arranges it all neatly and tightly in her backpack. Then she fills her cloth containers with water and straps herself in. But she can’t stand up. She doesn’t have the strength to lift the enormous weight. Undaunted, she rolls onto her knees, her backpack resembling the shell of a turtle, and slowly pulls herself upright. When I saw that,I laughed ruefully, knowing I would probably have done the same thing.

This girl might not be prepared physically, but she is determined not to give up. She tells herself, “You can quit,” with every arduous step she takes, but that freedom of choice seems to drive her forward. No one is making her do this, and because of that she keeps going.

Along the way she has plenty of time to think and grow strong. “I’m an experimentalist,” she says; “I’m the girl who says ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’” But “yes” often comes with unintended consequences, and the wanton consequences of her often reckless and destructive choices flash onto the screen unbidden and unwanted, the way painful memories often flash unexpectedly into our consciousness. We turn away from the images on the screen, as a person turns away from difficult or painful images in the mind. “Problems don’t stay problems — they turn into something else,” Cheryl tells another hiker whom she meets on the trail. Facing these experiences and turning them into something else is the purpose of her journey.

Mothering and housework aren’t chores to get through so you can get on with “real life”; mothering is something. It’s an important part of everything.

The editing of the flashbacks within the story of her trek is highly effective throughout the film, particularly the flashbacks to memories of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern, also nominated for an Oscar), who has recently died of cancer. Cheryl has conflicted memories of her mother. She is angry at her for choosing an abusive alcoholic as a husband and a father of her children. At the same time, she admires her mother’s courage in leaving that abusive marriage and returning to college to become a teacher. She chastises her mother for taking time away from her studies to fix dinner for her brother and his friend; “He’s 18! You don’t have to do everything for him. You have a paper to write.” Mostly she misses her mother’s radiant glow and love for life and everything in it. These memories are intertwined and nonlinear, as deeply conflicted emotions usually are. She doesn’t come to a chronological realization that she loved her mother. It’s always there, along with the anger.

Bobbi’s reaction to Cheryl’s “you don’t have to do everything” gets at the heart of this film and made me love her too. “But I want to do everything!” she exclaims, as though the thought should be apparent. And “everything” includes cooking for her family, playing with her children and telling them stories when they are young, loving them and nurturing them. Mothering and housework aren’t chores to get through so you can get on with “real life”; mothering is something. It’s an important part of everything.

In the end, through this 1,000-mile trek, Bobbi teaches Cheryl how to live without regret. “Is it possible to be sorry for something you’ve done, yet not want to change anything, because it brought you here?” Cheryl muses. Being able to answer that question with a joyful “Yes” makes a journey like hers worth every blistered, bloody step.

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Jennifer Aniston was not nominated for an Oscar for her role in Cake, but many critics thought she should have been, and she was nominated by the Screen Actors Guild for their top award, so we are including her performance in this review.

First you notice the scars. They feather in soft white lines across her cheek, under her chin, into her open neckline. Next you notice the way she moves — gingerly and cautiously, with deliberate care. Her head doesn’t turn on her neck; instead, she moves her whole body from the waist to address a person standing next to her. She doesn’t look up, but tips backward to see into the person’s face. In her eyes we see not only the pain of sorrow but also the pain of physical agony.

As Cake opens, Claire (Aniston) is attending a support group for people with chronic pain. The facilitator is encouraging members to express their feelings about the recent suicide of one of their group, Nina (Anna Kendrick). Claire becomes fascinated by Nina’s choice to end her life and begins to dream and hallucinate about Nina, eventually contacting Nina’s husband, Roy (Sam Worthington). Gradually we learn what has happened to Claire, and it is indeed horrific.

There are certain agonies no one can understand except a person who has experienced them firsthand. This is one of them, so I have no vantage point from which to judge the way Aniston plays this role. I haven’t the right to judge how a person facing her particular grief reacts. I can’t say, “This is how she should play the part.”

Having said that, I still want something different from this character. I want her to be more like me, or more like I think I would be if I experienced the same thing — though how can I know, since I never have (and hope I never will) had the experience myself? It has been said that adversity does not build character, it reveals it, and in this film adversity reveals a character bereft of strength or courage. I want to say to her, “Choose life, or choose death, but don’t choose this!” If one purpose of fiction is to allow us to consider how we would react if we were in the protagonist’s shoes, I want to believe that I would be stronger and more courageous than this.

I’m reminded of the husband in Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” who tries to empathize with his wife’s inconsolable sorrow after the death of their toddler: “Let me into your grief,” he begs. “Give me my chance.” But then he adds, rather insensitively, “I do think, though, you overdo it a little . . . in the face of love.” And there you have it. People grieve differently. Some need to be utterly alone in their grief, while others crave the company and support of others. Neither is wrong, because we are entitled to grieve in our own way. But it is painfully more difficult to survive tragedy when one personality type is married to the other.

It has been said that adversity does not build character, it reveals it, and in this film adversity reveals a character bereft of strength or courage.

Similar to the wife in this poem, Aniston’s character does “overdo it a little” — yet she underdoes it at the same time. Claire is consumed by pain, both physical and emotional. She is incapable of connecting with people, even those who love her and want to help. But while Claire overdoes it, Aniston underdoes it. To a certain extent she is still Rachel Green of Friends, mooning over her on-again, off-again romance with Ross and fretting over the petty concerns of her coffee-shop life. Claire has Rachel’s perfect hair, framing her perfect oval head and her perfect rosebud lips. Miraculously the scars have avoided marring her nose, her eyes, and her mouth — and she speaks almost the way Rachel does in the episode where she trips and bites her lip (please don’t ask why I know this).

Sometimes Aniston also forgets her character’s limitations. For example, while she does move cautiously from the waist to talk to a person next to her, she is unaccountably able to lower herself to poolside for a water therapy session in one smooth, agile gesture, without reaching out to balance herself or hold her weight up gingerly from her damaged legs. These jarring moments cause me to think that the Academy got it right in overlooking Aniston for the Oscar nomination. And it isn’t a very good movie, either.

* * *

The loss of a parent, a child, or a close friend (Wild, Cake, Foxcatcher, American Sniper, The Judge, etc.) is understandably devastating. The loss of physical ability caused by illness or injury can be just as traumatic (The Theory of Everything, Cake, etc.) The loss of mental capacity through the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease is explored in Still Alice, a filmabout Columbia professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), who suffers early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 50, at the height of her career as a teacher, writer, and lecturer in, ironically, linguistics — the study of language.

Any film about senility, Alzheimer’s, or mental decline runs the risk of becoming slow, maudlin, and depressing; witness Amour, the 2012 Oscar nominee about an octogenarian couple struggling with the wife’s mental and physical decline after she has a stroke — a movie that was, by all accounts, slow, maudlin, and depressing. (Even the film’s own IMDB page acknowledged that it leaves audiences in a “pensive, quiet, — even downcast — mood.”)

That Still Alice avoids this inherent problem is due entirely to its casting of Julianne Moore in the title role. Most films of this type tell the story through the eyes and experience of the family watching the slow disintegration, but writer-director Richard Glatzer had the courage to tell this story from the point of view of the person who has the disease herself. This format invites the audience to experience along with her the gradual loss of cognitive recognition and the determination to hold on to her sense of self for as long as possible.

It’s ironic that the new American Dream eschews the accumulation of material goods in favor of accumulating memories — yet in the end, all Alice will recognize will be material things.

Glatzer uses the camera’s focus to demonstrate both the fog of Alice’s forgetfulness and the sharpness of her intellect. In one moment we are running with her through Central Park on a perfect, crisp fall day; in the next moment we are surrounded by blurred buildings and the confusion of wondering where we are. The technique is used effectively throughout the film to demonstrate how her memory comes and goes as the disease progresses. The story focuses on the early stages of Alzheimer’s, when she knows what is happening and remains engaged in the fight against it, while preparing for the inevitability. She pores over photo albums, watches home movies, writes notes to herself, plans family trips and “one last times” as she struggles to stay connected to who she once was. It is sad, yes, but also heroic and admirable. She will neither give up nor give in.

Alice’s husband and children react in different ways. Her husband (Alec Baldwin) tries to be sympathetic, but he doesn’t know how. He doesn’t want to discuss it, as though discussion means acceptance. He grows impatient and often leans away from her when they sit side by side. I don’t fault him in this. It’s tough to watch the person you love and respect for her charm and intellect turn into someone entirely different. But it’s even tougher to see the person you love and rely on pull away from you in the hour of your greatest need.

Ironically, it is Alice’s youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), who gives her the most support. Ironically, because before the onset, Lydia was the rebel who fought against her mother. Ironically, because Lydia is an actress whose craft relies on memorizing lines. Ironically, because Lydia gains understanding for her roles and a deepening of her talent through observing the suffering — no, through the struggling, Alice would say — of her mother. And ironically, because Kristen Stewart has never been a particularly good actress, but in this role she is at her very best.

It’s ironic, too, that the new American Dream eschews the accumulation of material goods in favor of accumulating experiences — that is, memories — yet in the end, all Alice will recognize will be material things. As she describes what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s, Alice says, “All my life I've accumulated memories — they've become, in a way, my most precious possessions. The night I met my husband, the first time I held my textbook in my hands. Having children, making friends, traveling the world. Everything I accumulated in life, everything I've worked so hard for — now all that is being ripped away.” This realization, spoken with such eloquence and dignity, rips at our hearts. Still Alice is a film that brings many tears to the audience, but it is not maudlin or depressing. It is a celebration of the indomitable spirit that leads us to keep hanging on until the last light goes out.

* * *

Selma is an Oscar nominee that also takes us to another world and challenges us to consider how we might have reacted to the values of another time and culture. The film focuses on Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and the historic 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery to demand equal voting rights for African-Americans.

As most students of American history will recall, the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution had established the right for all American males over the age of 21 to vote, but enforcement of those amendments had often been left up to the individual counties in each state; and in the South, it was almost impossible for new voters to register. Among other requirements designed as barriers to registration, first-time registrants had to pass a literacy test made of difficult civics questions; pay a poll tax; and provide a voucher from a registered voter who would “vouch” for them as residents of the county — and few white voters were willing to risk the ire of their neighbors by vouching for a black voter. White voters could circumvent these barriers through “grandfather laws” stating that if their fathers or grandfathers had voted prior to 1867, they were allowed to vote without passing the tests — and no Southern blacks could vote prior to 1866 or 1867.

Although President Johnson eventually signed the Civil Rights Bill, it was not government that came to the rescue.

The film demonstrates the unwarranted violence and outright brutality that was perpetrated against African-Americans at this time: churches blown up, citizens chased down and beaten with billy clubs, unarmed activists shot and killed by police officers. FBI agents tapped Dr. King’s phones, watched his house, and recorded his movements. Yet King also had the ear of the White House and met frequently with President Johnson. It was an era of ambiguity as government scrambled to keep up with changing public opinion.

King knew that a change this significant could not be accomplished through black activism alone. “I want to raise white consciousness, and that requires drama,he says in the film.I want to be in their papers in the morning and on their TVs at night.” President Johnson might not have liked it, but he could not ignore it.

Although President Johnson eventually signed the Civil Rights Bill, it was not government that came to the rescue. Those are police officers wielding clubs and blocking the road; FBI agents tapping phones and spying on the activists’ movements; government officials creating onerous rules to hinder voting registration. Democratically elected government is by its very nature conservative, with a strong instinct for self-survival. Government tends to maintain the status quo until enough pressure is brought from the people to enact a change. By the same token, laws cannot change public opinion or personal beliefs. Persuasion, not force, is the key to lasting and peaceful change.

Despite its significance in dramatizing a turning point in history, Selma is strangely uncompelling. It has moments of intensity when these acts of violence occur, but Oyelowo simply does not possess the charisma to portray King convincingly. His oratory is not fiery and his ability to inspire is lacking. This might be partly because of the fact that King’s own words could not be used in the film due to copyright restrictions, so director Ada DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb had to paraphrase his speeches. Moreover, the film barely skims the surface of controversy surrounding his personal life. And then there’s Oprah Winfrey, inserting herself into the center of nearly every scene where violence occurs — even in the closing credits, there she is in the center of the photograph.Winfrey is far too well known as a TV personality to be convincing as an actor any longer, and her presence breaks the fictional barrier necessary for a film to be believable.

Laws cannot change public opinion or personal beliefs. Persuasion, not force, is the key to lasting and peaceful change.

The best part of this film occurs at the very end, when footage from the actual march is included.There are Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte, and Lena Horne. More importantly, there are hundreds of ordinary people who marched for a cause they believed was just — and a third of the marchers were white. King was right — they needed to raise white consciousness in order to effect a lasting change. The ending credits are powerful too, as we realize how many future leaders participated in the march — men such as future Alabama congressman John Lewis, future mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, and minister-activist Ralph Abernathy (King’s right-hand man, who has been all but exorcised from civil rights history for having had the audacity to write about King’s extramarital affair the night before his death).

Selma asks us to consider on which side of the bridge we would have stood that day, and by association, on which side of “justice for all” we stand today. It’s good, but with a better script and a better actor, it could have been great.


Editor's Note: Review of "Wild," directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. Fox Searchlight, 2014, 115 minutes; "Cake," directed by Daniel Barnz. Cinelou, 2014, 102 minutes; "Still Alice," directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Sony Pictures Classics, 2014, 101 minutes; and "Selma," directed by Ava DuVernay. Cloud Eight Productions, 2014, 128 minutes.



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Dangerous Mood Swings

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On June 27, appearing on the Hannity show, Karl Rove responded to a question about what would have happened if President Bush had set aside laws in the way in which President Obama set aside the immigration law. “All heck would have broken loose,” Rove replied.

Karl Rove is 61 years old. He was talking on the network that runs the “Red Eye” show (which, unlike the Hannity show, is pretty good once you get used to it). But he wouldn’t say the word “hell.” He said “heck” instead. And “hell” isn’t a coarse expletive. It isn’t even an expletive, really. It is rumored to be a place. Yet Rove was behaving like the clergyman whom Alexander Pope satirized 300 years ago — the “soft dean” who “never mentions hell to ears polite.”

Ordinarily, as you know, this column collects examples of verbal ineptitude, comments upon them, and weaves the commentary subtly into one thematic whole. This month, that can’t be done. There are just too many discrete (in the sense of separate) bits of wreckage flying past us. One can only gaze and marvel as they cross the eerie sky that we call modern discourse.

Look, there’s another one! Have you noticed that every single “public figure” you encounter now says “we” when he or she can’t possibly mean anything more than “I”? People of all parties do this. Ron Paul does it. Barack Obama does it. Mitt Romney does it all the time. Scott Walker, who relieved some of my worries about the future of the republic by winning his recall election in Wisconsin, does it so often and so confusedly that I can hardly stand to listen to the poor guy. It used to be that politicians were laughable because they said “I” all the time. Now they say “I” in a much more nauseating way. They use a “we” that means, simultaneously, “I am too humble to say ‘I,’” and “I am too mighty to say ‘I’ — observe the hosts that follow me.” Actually, of course, the person saying “we” is just that one strange-looking guy, standing at the bottom of the swimming pool, talking incessantly to himself.

On to the next disaster. San Francisco has just experienced a mass landing of verbal flying saucers. There exists in that city a man named Larry Brinkin. Thirty years ago, this man sued his employer, the Southern Pacific Railway, for allegedly refusing to give him three days off to mourn the death of his male lover, the same three days the company allegedly gave straight people to mourn the deaths of their spouses. Because Brinkin kept doing things like that, he was given a job as an enforcer for something called the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, which uses tax money to procure the votes of modern liberals by hunting down private individuals who allegedly treat gay people, “transgendered people,” foreign people, fat people, short people, and probably many other people in “discriminatory” ways. One of Brinkin’s accomplishments, I believe, was spending years worrying a gay bar for its alleged racial discrimination in admitting customers. A larger accomplishment is alleged to have been (sorry, I need to use “allegedly” a lot in a column like this) the invention of a phrase, “domestic partner.” Some accomplishment. Sounds more like a poodle to me.

Let me be clear. If the railway refused to give him three days off, it did an indecent thing. Discriminating against people because you look down on their race, religion, or sexuality is always indecent. But so, in my opinion, is devoting your life to demanding that other people give you stuff, or you’ll send the law after them.

Anyway. Two years ago, for the inestimable work he had done for human rights, and for retiring from his $135,000 a year city salary, Brinkin received a great public honor. The city declared a “Larry Brinkin Appreciation Week” (one day was just not enough), in recognition, it was said, of his “advocacy.” The retired civil servant, about whom you now know 100 times more than almost anyone who lived in San Francisco at the time, was pronounced by all available media a “gay icon,” a “beloved icon,” and every other kind of “icon” that can puff up a lazy text. But after June 22, San Franciscans learned, or thought they learned, a great deal more than they had known before, because on that day Brinkin was arrested for (once more allegedly — and this time the word really does deserve the emphasis), having had something to do with child pornography. He had also, allegedly, made racist remarks pertaining to the subject, although that is not illegal, even in San Francisco.

Discriminating against people because you look down on their race, religion, or sexuality is always indecent. But so is devoting your life to demanding that other people give you stuff, or you’ll send the law after them.

The charges, I am happy to say, are not the business of this column. I have no idea what really happened, or what he really did, if anything. Perhaps I will have a better idea, once the police department’s “forensic” experts complete what has turned out to be a very longterm “study” of Brinkin’s computers. And perhaps I won’t. But the verbal reactions to the matter — those are things within the interest and competence of us all. And they don’t reflect very well on the City by the Bay, which is allegedly so well supplied with intelligence and sophistication.

Icon was in every headline, as if Larry Brinkin’s picture, rendered in a Byzantine style, encrusted with jewels, and lit by votive candles, was a fixture of every church and civil-servant cubicle in Northern California. One of Brinkin’s organizational associates got media attention by saying that she was surprised by the charges, because . . . Guess why. Because he was a “consummate professional.” In the religion of the state, the corporations, and all those occupations in which people must conform to the rules of some “peer” association, professional is not the neutral term it was a mere 20 years ago. It is now a term of absolute value, a universal replacement for ”virtuous,” “admirable,” and all those other words for “morally swell.” Coupled with such terms as “consummate,” it offers prima facie grounds for sainthood, for membership in that exclusive order of men and women who have been selected by their peers for the highest forms of recognition they can imagine and bestow: a picture on the coffee room wall, a place in the Civil Servants’ Hall of Fame and Museum of Professionalism, and at last a funeral in the Executive Conference Room, where colleagues will be invited to step forward and voice their memories of how well Old So and So took care of the paperwork when SB 11-353 was working through committee.

Here’s a politician — one Bevan Duffy, a busy bee about San Francisco, and the caring soul who sponsored the Larry Brinkin Appreciation Week — responding to Brinkin’s arrest: "I have admired and respected his work for the LGBT community. . . . I respect and am confident that there will be due process." Grammar flees where professionalism reigns. Mr. Duffy respects that there will be due process.

Here’s another colleague — the “executive director” (how does that differ from “director”? — but I guess that’s a professional mystery) of the Human Rights Commission, as quoted in a report by Erin Sherbert of the SF Weekly:

We put in a call to Theresa Sparks, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, [who] told us this allegation is "beyond hard to believe."

"It's almost incredulous, there's no way I could believe such a thing," Sparks told us. "He's always been one of my heroes, and he's the epitome of human rights activist — this is [the] man who coined phrases we use in our daily language. I support Larry 100 percent, hopefully it will all come out in the investigation."

It’s not surprising that someone who can’t tell the difference between “incredulous” and “incredible” would regard Larry Brinkin as a hero of the English language. But to be a true professional, especially in a governmental or community context, one must have a grasp of all the inanities with which government workers are equipped. And what a parade of them we see here — beyond hard, one of my heroes (of whom there are, no doubt, countless thousands who are yet unsung), epitome, activist, I support, 100 percent, and that indispensable lapse from basic grammar, hopefully. Nothing more could possibly be required. But by the way, what do you think of this apostle of justice declaring that “there’s no way” she’ll believe what the evidence shows, if it doesn’t show what she already believes?

In the religion of the state, “professional” is not the neutral term it was a mere 20 years ago. It is now a term of absolute value, a universal replacement for ”virtuous,” “admirable,” and all those other words for “morally swell.”

There once was a time when a president of the United States, himself an uneducated and, some said, an illiterate man, could respond to legal opposition in a memorable and verbally accurate way. Referring to a decision written by Chief Justice Marshall, President Jackson said, “John Marshall has made his decision: now let him enforce it.”

Contrast our current Attorney General, Eric Holder (you see, now I’ve had to switch to another, unrelated track), responding to the vote by which the House of Representatives charged him with contempt of Congress. “Today’s vote,” he said, “may make good policy feeder in the eyes of some . . .” He then continued with the usual blather. But I had stopped listening. What stopped me was “feeder.” Clearly, the Attorney General has never been around a farm, or wasn’t listening when he was. And clearly, he’s not hip to ablaut, the means by which one type of word becomes another type of word by changing one of its vowels. Farm animals are sometimes fed in feeders, and the feed that some animals are fed is fodder — not feeder. But why worry about ablaut, or exposure to agricultural conditions? Like his boss, President Obama, who got through Harvard Law without discovering that there is any difference between “like” and “as,” Holder just doesn’t seem to read or listen.

But he’s nothing compared to Jerry Brown, California’s version of Joe Biden — except that he’s even worse in the words department. Brown’s utterances are commonly described as “babble,” despite the fact that their purpose is always clear: increase the power of government. His obsession right now is California High-Speed Rail, an attempt to “create jobs” for union employees by building the largest public-works project in American history, a rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Two years ago, he convinced a majority of voters to approve the project. Today, even its friends concede that it will cost three times more than mentioned in the bond referendum, that it will not and cannot be high-speed, and that it may not even enter San Francisco or Los Angeles. Nevertheless, on July 6, the California legislature authorized a set of bonds for what many now regard as the Browndoggle. Ignoring the language of the referendum, which stipulated that the money should go for a high-speed train and nothing else, the solons proudly allocated billions of dollars to such things as buying new subway cars for San Francisco.

That’s the background. Here, in the foreground, babbles Jerry Brown, who on one of the many occasions on which he “argued” for “high-speed” rail, intoned: “Don’t freak cuz you got a few little taxes. Suck it in.” Brown doesn’t even know the difference between “suck it up” (a vulgar term for “endure it”) and “suck it in” (a vulgar term for faking weight loss).

Jerry Brown’s utterances are commonly described as “babble,” despite the fact that their purpose is always clear: increase the power of government.

Let’s put this in perspective. President Obama, campaigning among morons, or people he regards as morons, drops hundreds of final “g’s” in every speech he gives, and regularly converts “because” to “cuz.” You’ve heard of the hoodlum priest? This is the hoodlum president. But there are people still more vulgar than he, people who speak on serious public occasions in the language of the drug-lost: “Don’t freak out.” Some of them go so far as to omit the “out,” thereby demonstrating that they’re at least as jivy as the jiviest 65-year-old. Other public figures innocently reveal that they’ve gone through their whole lives without a basic knowledge of English-language idioms. Thus the acclaimed Spike Lee, prattling on Turner Classics (July 5) about the last scenes in On the Waterfront, and describing what happens to the Marlon Brando character: “The thugs beat him an inch within his life.” And of course the rich are always with us, in the form of politicized tycoons who lecture us about being a low-taxed people, compared to the Europeans or the Russians or somebody else. Every day of our lives, we in California hear this kind of thing from professors and pundits, politicians and thinktank fishies, despite the fact that our savage sales tax and still more savage income tax put us in the front ranks of slave labor in the United States.

All right. Let me summarize. We’re used to hillbilly talk, and drug talk, and pressure-group talk, and impudent talk, and just plain ignorant talk. Then Jerry Brown comes along, and runs all the bases: “Don’t freak cuz you got a few little taxes. Suck it in.”

Is this what wins the ballgame? What happened to the people on the other team? (No, I’m not thinking about the Republican Party. I’m thinking about people with a normal command of the English language.)

Maybe they’re suffering from the demoralizing condition that afflicts Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. Some weeks ago, Jackson stopped showing up in Congress. For quite a while, it seems, the absence of the nine-term Congressman wasn’t noted. Then colleagues started theorizing that he was being treated for exhaustion, because of all the hard work that congressmen have to do. Others, including NBC Nightly News, entertained suspicions that Jackson was being treated for something much more serious. Finally, as reported by Rachel Hartman on Yahoo News (July 11), the nation learned the truth:

“The Congressman is receiving intensive medical treatment at a residential treatment facility for a mood disorder," Jackson's physician said in a statement provided to Yahoo News via the congressman's congressional office. "He is responding positively to treatment and is expected to make a full recovery." The statement indicated that Jackson's attending physician and treatment center "will not be disclosed in order to protect his continuing privacy."

Privacy? Jesse Jackson, Jr.? That’s funny. Continuing privacy? That’s beyond funny.

Speaker Boehner, always the man with le mot juste, may be right in taking a cautious and distant approach to Jackson’s illness: “This is an issue between he and his constituents.” And it’s good to know that President Obama isn’t the only one who has this curious way with pronouns that follow prepositions. But if you’re laughing about Jackson’s mood disorder, I’m here to tell you that the condition is real, and serious. By the time I’ve finished one of these columns, I too am ready for a residential treatment facility.




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Legacies

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Looking down the vista of time I see an epoch in our nation's history, not in my time or yours, but in the not distant future, when there shall be in the United States but one people, molded by the same culture, swayed by the same patriotic ideals, holding their citizenship in such high esteem that for another to share it is of itself to entitle him to fraternal regard; when men will be esteemed and honored for their character and talents.

The sentiment expressed in these words may sound familiar, especially considering that the monument to Martin Luther King was dedicated just last week. You might think that these words are from an early draft of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "I have a dream" speech. It would be a good guess, but it would be wrong. The words above were written by Charles Waddell Chesnutt in 1905, more than half a century before Dr. King uttered his poetic and powerful prose on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Born in 1858, Charles W. Chesnutt witnessed the Civil War and lived through the reconstruction and racism that followed it. Both his parents were considered black, although both had some white ancestors. Photographs of Chesnutt reveal that he could easily have passed for white, as many mixed-race people did in those days. Chesnutt chose not to pass into that easier world. Instead, he embraced his black roots and wrote short stories about the complex issues of racial relationships. He was well respected in the literary community, writing for the Atlantic Monthly and other mainstream publications. He was even invited to attend Mark Twain's posh 70th birthday party.

Nevertheless, Chesnutt's political sensibilities ran deep. He was an early civil rights activist and a founding member of the NAACP. The words quoted above are taken from an essay he wrote for the NAACP's literary magazine, The Crisis, entitled "Race Prejudice, Its Causes and Its Cure."

Like the man who would follow in his footsteps, Chesnutt did not believe in violent reprisals for the wrongs committed against African-Americans. He wanted fair treatment, but without retaliation or reverse bigotry. Chesnutt and King both longed for a day when color simply would not matter. In that 1905 essay, Chesnutt continued:

[I see an epoch] when hand in hand and heart with heart all the people of this nation will join to preserve to all and to each of them for all future time that ideal of human liberty which the fathers of the republic set out in the Declaration of Independence, which declared that “all men are created equal.”

Similarly, King's 1963 speech proclaimed: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'"

Interestingly, King's heirs sued CBS for copyright infringement after CBS aired a segment of the speech as part of a documentary on the civil rights movement. They claimed that the speech was a performance and thus was protected by “common law copyright,” even though King did not register the speech in advance with the Registrar of Copyrights. In 1999 the court ruled in the estate's favor, giving King's family the right to license the speech and receive royalties whenever it is copied, aired, published, or performed. Now if the speech is printed in a textbook or quoted on Martin Luther King’s birthday, for example, his heirs will earn a royalty. It’s a little like singing “Happy Birthday”… even though it seems to be in the public domain, it isn’t. This copyright will remain in force until 70 years after King's death (2038).

I am happy for King's heirs, especially in light of the monument that was recently unveiled near the steps where he delivered his famous speech. I applaud the distance we have come toward seeing his dream become a reality, as well as toward seeing Chesnutt's “vista” move into the foreground. Sadly, however, to my knowledge none of King’s heirs has ever acknowledged or credited the article that Charles Chesnutt published in The Crisis all those years ago, even though its influence on the "I have a dream" speech can hardly be disputed. Let’s acknowledge the contributions of both these great civil rights leaders.




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