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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More Equal than Others

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One spring, just before the end of the Cold War, my wife and I visited Riga. On a walk, we stumbled upon an informal street market. The goods set out on the pavement and the appearance of the vendors told us that times were tough in Latvia. A young man with very bad teeth standing behind a rickety folding tray with a row of rusty fishhooks on it told me in a mixture of German and English how the Russians had polluted the Gulf of Riga so badly that the fish caught there were not safe to eat.

Suddenly, an olive-colored truck with a tarp stretched over the back rumbled into the market and struck a pedestrian, knocking him to the pavement. The driver of the truck stopped, jumped out, walked over to the guy, who seemed tipsy, yelled at him, smacked him around a bit, then got back into the truck and drove off. The guy sat there for a moment, wiped some blood from his face, got up slowly, and limped off. I looked around. No one offered to help. No one wrote down the license number of the truck. No one looked the least bit surprised. The fishhook seller looked at me and shrugged.

* * *

The social contract can be understood as a deal. You are obligated to act within the law. As long as you do, society is obligated to protect your rights. Should you act outside the law, your rights are subject to forfeiture, which means society can take your property, your liberty, or, sometimes, your life. Even though you didn’t sign the social contract, that’s the way it is, like it or not. (In reality, it’s not so simple, of course, but this thumbnail description will do for now.)

A crucial clause of this unwritten contract is that everyone in society is bound by its terms. Everyone is obligated to act within the law. Whoever you are, should you act illegally, your rights are subject to proportionate forfeiture. On the flip side, society is obligated to protect the rights of everyone. Whoever you are, provided you act legally, society must protect your rights. This is sometimes called equality before the law. Without this clause, the social contract can be said to be void, which means it does not exist. Put another way, this equality clause is a sine qua non of the social contract. (Again, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s close enough.)

The driver of the truck stopped, jumped out, walked over to the guy, who seemed tipsy, yelled at him, smacked him around a bit, then got back into the truck and drove off.

In a way, then, there are two kinds of inequality before the law. The first occurs when society fails to protect the rights of someone who has acted within the law. This tends to happen to people who are socially and politically powerless. The second occurs when someone acts outside the law and society fails to impose any consequence, or a proportionate one. This usually happens to the powerful. Only when such a failure on the part of society to protect or to punish happens because of the status of the person in question is it a clear example of inequality before the law. Both kinds of failure result in what is sometimes called a miscarriage of justice.

"Thirty Years on Death Row," a 60 Minutes episode first aired on October 11, 2015, provides a good example of the first kind of miscarriage of justice. Glenn Ford was convicted of murder in 1983, then spent 30 years in solitary confinement on death row in Angola prison before the real killer was identified and Ford was released, only to die a few years later of cancer. Marty Stroud, the prosecutor who sent Ford to prison, confesses that he pressed his case at the trial to get a guilty verdict when he knew that some of the evidence was dubious. He admits that the prosecution was successful only because Ford was a poor black man facing an all white jury. He knew at the trial that the defense team had never tried a criminal case, much less a capital one, and that they were hopelessly overmatched, in both experience and resources.

In 1962, the young, drunk scion of a wealthy family in Maryland angrily struck a barmaid with his cane. She died. The killer was fined $625 and served a six-month prison sentence. This is an example of the second kind of miscarriage of justice, where society fails to punish proportionately. The inadequate sentence prompted Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan to write the song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." She was the black barmaid. Society failed in its obligation under the terms of the social contract to adequately punish William Zantzinger, the rich white guy who killed Ms. Carroll.

Everyone agrees that a Romanian hacker, who says he breached the server, revealed to the world that it existed and that the secretary tried to cover her tracks.

The distinction between these two kinds of miscarriages of justice can become blurred. Some consider the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray to be examples of society’s failure to protect the rights of the powerless, while others see them primarily as examples of society’s failure to punish their empowered killers. Still others see the deaths as tragedies or simple misfortunes, but not examples of injustice. Similarly, some think that the rights of Mary Jo Kopechne were not protected by society when Edward M. Kennedy was given a two-month suspended sentence for leaving her to suffocate in a submerged car, waiting nine hours even to report the accident. It has also been said that his real punishment was that he never got the keys to the Oval Office. Did O.J. Simpson escape the consequences of his illegal actions because he was a wealthy celebrity, or was he hounded by the system because of his race? Or is the fate of his wife the greater tragedy? Each purported miscarriage of justice is different and, as has been said, these matters are complicated.

That Secretary of State Hillary Clinton installed a private, unsecured email server in the basement of her house in Chappaqua to conduct both private and government business is not disputed. Neither is the fact that through this server she exchanged emails with people both inside and outside the government, including President Obama. That these emails contained a variety of classified information, including some at the very highest level, is a matter of record. Everyone agrees that a Romanian hacker, who says he breached the server, revealed to the world that it existed and that the secretary tried to cover her tracks. Testimony shows that laptops and Blackberries were destroyed, that the server itself was digitally wiped clean, and that tens of thousands of emails were permanently erased. A few of the emails that were recovered reveal parts of this clandestine effort. (It seems that Hillary Rodham learned a valuable lesson when she helped the House Judiciary Committee prepare the case against President Nixon in 1974: when they ask for the tapes, burn them, especially the 18-and-a-half minute bit about yoga lessons in Benghazi.) A few of her underlings negotiated immunity deals with the FBI, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination was invoked at least once, and the Secretary herself repeatedly said, “I can’t recall.”

I take it as a given that Secretary Clinton broke federal law. Tens of millions of Americans think so, even many of her strongest supporters. I’m pretty sure that FBI Director Comey thinks so, too. And Secretary Clinton certainly knows that she did, unless, of course, she forgot. If you don’t accept this premise, it is suggested that you read the statute in question (focus on Section [f]) and a chronology of the events surrounding the server. If, after reading these, you still think that Secretary Clinton did not act outside the law, well, bless your heart.

On July 5, 2016, Director Comey recommended that the Secretary not be indicted, saying,

“Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case. Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges. There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent. Responsible decisions also consider the context of a person’s actions, and how similar situations have been handled in the past.”

I take it as a given that Secretary Clinton broke federal law. And Secretary Clinton certainly knows that she did, unless, of course, she forgot.

Let us do a little thought experiment. Let us say that you sent and received top-secret documents to and from people both in and out of government over your very own unsecured basement server. Let us say that a guy in Romania tipped off the FBI and you tried to destroy the evidence. Where do you think you would be right now? If you answered, “I would be tightly lodged in the slowly grinding wheels of the vast criminal justice system,” you have a firm grasp on reality.

So why did Director Comey conclude that no reasonable prosecutor would indict Secretary Clinton? What factors was he weighing when he decided not to bring charges against her? The evidence of her wrongdoing is certainly strong, there are mountains of evidence, much of it relating to her use of classified documents. It couldn’t be that. The intent to communicate classified government information outside secure, authorized channels is clear. Couldn’t be that. The intent to destroy evidence and obstruct justice is clear. Not that, either. While she probably didn’t intend to share her emails with foreign governments, we know that her negligence makes it entirely likely that she inadvertently did. And since the intent to commit espionage is not required for the statute to be violated, what factors was the director, in fact, weighing?

Now, I don’t know James Comey and harbor no ill will toward him. I do, however, wish to explore the possible motives behind his surprising July 15 decision. In doing so, I may give the impression that I am bringing into question his character. I’m not. I’m simply trying to answer this question: why did he do it?

Could it be that Director Comey realized that Secretary Clinton is not some television cooking show host like Martha Stewart, whom he threw the book at for being less than candid with the FBI about a stock tip a friend had given her? He sent Martha to the big house for her fib, but this is different. After all, Hillary Clinton is the former first lady, the former senator from New York, the former secretary of state, and the current Democratic Party nominee for the presidency of the United States. It makes perfect sense. What reasonable prosecuting attorney would bring charges against someone with such power? That would be an obvious consideration. Why, the wrong choice could end careers: hers, her underlings’, or the prosecuting attorney’s, or, even worse, the career of the director of the FBI.

Is it possible that Director Comey was gazing at the organizational chart of the US government when he made his responsible decision to let her slide?

Or was he thinking back to his time as special deputy counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee, when he and his colleagues concluded, after thousands of hours of exhausting legal work, that despite the fact that Hillary Clinton had engaged in a “highly improper pattern of deliberate misconduct,” the evidence uncovered just wasn’t enough to ensure a conviction, and it was reluctantly decided not to indict? He probably knew she was guilty, but even then she managed to slip the net (“I can’t recall”). Who’d want to go through that again? Or could it be that he was thinking of how a similar situation was handled in the past, when the secretary’s husband was investigated and charged by Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who was lampooned on every late-night talk and comedy show, who was targeted by mocking books and bawdy stage productions, who was keelhauled by every major media outlet in the country? Could it be that the director glimpsed a Kim Philby-like future, living in exile in some god-forsaken red state, scribbling self-justifying memoirs that the New York Review of Books would never deign to crack?

Or could it be that he had to consider the hierarchical context of the actions in question? Let’s see. Comey’s boss is Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Lynch’s former boss was President Clinton. Her present boss is President Obama. The president appointed the former secretary of state. The former president is the husband of the former secretary of state. Is it possible that Director Comey was gazing at the organizational chart of the USG when he made his responsible decision to let her slide?

Or maybe Director Comey’s considerations were loftier. Perhaps he was looking at a wider context, his gaze fixed upon some greater good. Maybe he realized that if he were to recommend the indictment of the Democratic nominee, he would be increasing the probability that the successor to President Obama would be Donald J. Trump. And maybe, just maybe, he considered that outcome to be less than desirable. If so, consider his dilemma: his clear duty as the director of the FBI was to recommend indictment (ask any FBI agent), but he may have decided that his higher duty as a loyal American was quietly to induce a miscarriage of justice — to abort justice, so to speak, just this once, to prevent a much greater evil from being born. Many would sympathize with this dark impulse.

Could he really have thought that preventing this electoral end would justify these extralegal means? If it is unbelievable that Director Comey consciously considered this, is it just possible that these #nevertrump prejudices could have given his other rationalizations for letting the secretary skate that last little, but necessary, subconscious nudge? The NPR radio piece, “How the Concept of Implicit Bias Came Into Being,”broadcast on Morning Edition, October 17, 2016, lays out the latest science that explains how the director’s decision could have been guided by forces of which he was not even aware. Seriously. You can listen to it here.

When people feel that there is no longer equality before the law, and the social contract has been broken, the result might be a demonstration, a riot, or even a revolution.

But no, to assign these motives to Director Comey would put him on the ethical level of John Wilkes Booth, who was sure that Providence had sent him to smite the tyrant with his own hand. To suggest that the country’s top cop adopted the ethics of the assassin, putting himself above and outside the law, might be unfair. And if his sole motive was to stop Trump, it wouldn’t be a very good example of inequality before the law, would it? Sure, failure to punish would still make him a bit of a weasel, but it wouldn’t, strictly speaking, be because Secretary Clinton’s power was shielding her from the law so much as because Director Comey feared Donald J. Trump more than he feared her. In any case, motives are often mixed and hard to discern, as Director Comey can, and perhaps will, testify. But I rant.

What now? In a more perfect world, Secretary Clinton would call a presser, preferably before Election Day, and say, “I did it.” This would be the right and proper thing to do. But while Secretary Clinton may surprise us all and be a very late bloomer in the personal integrity department, it is unlikely. So it falls to Director Comey to man up and say, “She did it.” You are not advised to hold your breath.

Here is the way the cookie will crumble. Come January, Hillary Clinton will look the compliant Chief Justice Roberts squarely in the eye and swear to him, under oath, mind you, that she will defend the Constitution of the United States. At that moment, tens of millions of Americans gazing at their gigantic flat screens will blink. And in that instant, the world will change, for they will realize that, in this country at least, there is no longer equality before the law. There will be a loud crack, as the social contract is broken. And there will be a loud pop as that contract ceases to exist. The mutual obligations it stipulated will disappear like so many emails in a vat of BleachBit. And what will happen then?

Let us hit pause here and reflect that no one has to die for a miscarriage of justice to occur. In 1992, the policemen who had beaten Rodney King were acquitted. Many thought that this was a miscarriage of justice that violated the terms of the social contract, rendering it void. They believed that their obligation to act within the law had ceased to exist. The riots that followed resulted in 55 deaths. The 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement was fueled by the perceived injustice of banking executives, the people who were thought to have caused the financial crisis, successfully slipping the net. Tens of thousands demonstrated in various ways all around the country. Thousands were arrested. It was felt that the powerless had lost their homes and fortunes while the government busied itself bailing out the powerful who had caused those losses. We are the 99%.

When people feel that there is no longer equality before the law, and the social contract has been broken, the result might be a demonstration, a riot, or even a revolution. The March on Washington and the Los Angeles Riot of 1992 were about equality before the law. The American Revolution itself was in large part about the British subjects in North America being treated differently from those in England. The grievances in the Declaration of Independence are a litany of this unfair and unequal treatment. On a personal note, I was in Beijing in 1989, and in Tiananmen Square a few days before the massacre. It is underreported today that one of the key grievances of the students who started the demonstrations was that the children of powerful Communist Party leaders were afforded wealth, privileges, and opportunities that no one else could even dream of. As those children were also often lazy, overweight, and incompetent, they were mockingly called “rice bags,” as they were only good at consuming, not producing. The problem with these “princelings” continues to be a sore point in China today. There is one law for them and another law for the powerless masses. And where there is no justice, there often is no peace. Hit pause again.

What will happen when Hillary Clinton says, “so help me God”? I don’t think that there will be a revolution, do you? I mean, are you going to man the barricades? No riots, either. There may be a demonstration or two, but it won’t amount to much. No, what will happen is that tens of millions of people will see the law as less important than they did the day before. The small voice that says not to break the law will be harder to hear. The pang of guilt that is felt when the law is broken will be less sharp. On a scale of one to ten, that pain will fall from an 8 to a 2, give or take.

There is one law for the princely and another law for the powerless masses. And where there is no justice, there often is no peace.

Then, when the law comes between one of these millions of people and something he wants, whether it’s a little illegal protection against Freedom of Information Act requests or a charitable donation from a foreign potentate buying a favor, or even a simple fraudulent tax deduction, he will be more likely to follow the example of his leader and break that law. Taking his cues from his president, he will weigh not the legality of the act but the probability that charges will be brought. Then, if he is caught breaking the law, he will do everything he can to destroy and conceal the evidence, and, if questioned about the alleged violation, he will lie as necessary. And should this citizen be placed under oath, he will follow the example of the leader of the free world and say, “I can’t recall.” That is what will happen.

* * *

Looking out from the top floor restaurant of the Intourist Hotel in Riga, my wife and I spotted a church spire less than a mile east. It looked like it had been plucked out of Chicago. We set out on foot. It turned out to be a late 19th-century Lutheran brick church ringed by a cobblestone traffic oval, surrounded by six-story Germanic townhouses of about the same age that had fallen into disrepair. Across the street from the front of the church, occupying one of the old townhouses, was some sort of military headquarters, with olive-colored Russian jeeps in front. Disappointed to find the arched doors of the church boarded up, we decided to walk around it.

On the side of the church, under another arch protruding from the basement, was a small door that was ajar. Pushing the door open, we stepped into a dark, vaulted hallway that turned immediately to the right. There was a dim bare bulb 20 or so feet ahead, with a poster behind it in Latvian that showed a fist, if I remember it right. It might have shown manacles being broken. I’m not sure. Hearing muffled voices, we turned left and found ourselves at a counter, behind which were 20 or so people working at poorly lit tables under a low groin-vaulted brick ceiling. A young man with an emerging mustache approached us, asked something in Latvian, quickly gave up and left, only to return with a young woman who spoke some English.

Here, they are daring to bring back to life a country that has been smothered by decades of injustice.

She explained that they were preparing for the election of a shadow government that would be ready to step up if the Russians were to grant independence. I think she said that it would oversee the drafting of a new constitution and the creation of a new democratic government, as opposed to a democratic people’s republic. She gave us a roster of the candidates, with names, photos, nationalities, and other information. I remember that some were Russian. There were two collection boxes on the counter. One was to help pay for the election, the other to help restore and reopen the church. I asked if she really thought that the Soviet Union was going to leave and allow the Latvians to be free. Her eyes teared up as she said, “We have to believe this.”

I remember thinking: here, in the dimly-lit basement of a boarded-up church under the shadow of a foreign regime whose bizarre idea of a social contract is based on fear, power, and obedience, with no rights worth mentioning, a regime whose historical resume is long on serfdom and autocracy and short on democracy and freedom, these people are attempting to forge an authentic social contract. Here, they are daring to bring back to life a country that has been smothered by decades of injustice, and occupied by foreign powers for centuries before that. They want to create a country where the people make the laws and the people act within the laws, knowing that society will protect their rights and enforce those laws, knowing that when someone, anyone, no matter how powerful, acts outside the law, society, in the name of the people, will fulfill its obligation to punish that person proportionately. I thought: they are sick and tired of living in a country where miscarriages of justice are so commonplace that when they occur people simply shrug.

I had not been so moved since Old Yeller died. I broke my long-standing policy of not donating to religious or political causes and put some money in both boxes. Not much, but some.

* * *

Today, I had to go to Google Earth to find the church, because I couldn’t remember its name. It is St. Gertrude’s Old Church. Here are some photos. Have a look. Go ahead.




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Investigation of a Citizen Above Justice

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I’m not sure why Hillary Clinton does anything she does, but I know she has a way of reminding me of old movies. Gangster movies, of course — though not the Godfather kind, in which you’re supposed to sympathize with the profound psychological and metaphysical conflicts of the leading characters. No one actually sympathizes with Hillary Clinton. I’m reminded more of the primitive gangster films, which teach you that some guys just want to be king of the world and will do anything to reach the peak, or preserve the illusion.

Those aren’t the only movies I associate with her. She often makes me think of His Girl Friday, where Earl Williams, the goofy gunman, is involved in so many ridiculous and, as Donald Trump would say, unbelievable incidents that a newspaper reporter says, “I’m pretending there ain’t any Earl Williams.”It’s a relief to pretend that there ain’t any Hillary Clinton.

Clinton violated the law, grossly, repeatedly, and ridiculously. She then told a long string of gross and ridiculous lies.

But the strongest cinematic parallel I can find to the Clinton story is a once-famous Italian movie that is called in English Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). In it, a ranking police officer commits a crime and then gets the idea of establishing his superiority to normal people by submitting to an investigation that shows he is guilty — obviously guilty — yet does not lead to his arrest.

The parallel with Clinton is evident. In the emails episode alone, Clinton violated the law, grossly, repeatedly, and ridiculously. She then told a long string of gross and ridiculous lies, all of them conflicting preposterously with common sense, and with one another. The FBI, led by the vaunted Mr. Comey, spent thousands of hoursinvestigating her, located (without any difficulty) the incriminating facts, listened to many additional ridiculous lies, and discovered that Citizen Clinton could not be prosecuted because there was no evidence she intended to violate any of the laws she schemed to violate.

That’s basically how the Italian movie turns out. The power structure can never conceive of indicting one of its own. The bad guy wins — in two ways, one of them more important to him (and to me) than the other. He doesn’t get indicted; that’s the relatively unimportant win. The more important one is his demonstration that people like him are above the law. Members of the elite are never punished; they are immune. Their immunity is the proof of their status, the validation of their identity, and the source of their joy. That’s the vital thing. If you wonder what Mrs. Clinton does with the time she doesn’t spend on fundraising (and, of course, lying), I think I have an answer. She spends most of her time laughing at honest people who have a job.

/em




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Extremely Careless

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When you’re hired for your job, your employer tells you that under no circumstances are you to reveal the company’s secret information, or even handle it in such a way as to allow it, possibly, to leak out. If you do so, you will be liable to prosecution.

During the course of your employment, you take secret documents home and share them with whomever you want to share them with. You do this with hundreds of secret documents. As a result, it is very likely that competitors get a good inside look at the company’s affairs.

When rumors surface that this is what you’ve been doing, you repeatedly lie about it. You destroy as many of your own files as you can. You even claim that there wasn’t any secret information in the documents you were handling.

So outrageous does this seem that your company’s customers demand an investigation. A long investigation is conducted. And the result is:

“Although we did not find clear evidence that you intended to violate rules governing the handling of secret information, there is evidence that you were extremely careless in your handling of very sensitive, highly secret information.” No action will be taken.

In the real world, how likely does this seem?




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Based on a Part of What Actually Happened

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The film opens on a man dressed in a ’70s leisure suit primping in front of a mirror. He wears a heavy gold chain around his neck, and more than a hint of chest hair shows above his open collar. He pulls back what is left of his thinning hair and sprays adhesive on his bald pate. He carefully pats into place a wad of dark wool that looks more like a Brillo pad than hair. Then he sweeps his long thin hair forward from his crown, shapes it over the wool, and sprays it into place. Voilà! He looks like a million bucks. A million bucks with a combover.

Will Ferrell in Anchorman 2, you might guess. And it would make sense. This is the kind of character that he revels in portraying. But no. The actor is Christian Bale — Christian Bale, for heaven’s sake! — and the film is American Hustle. This is not a mindless, zany Will Ferrell-style comedy, but a pseudo-serious film about a sting operation that involves a fake Arab sheikh, underworld mobsters, and congressmen taking bribes. You might even remember it as Abscam. But don’t expect to learn any history in this film. It isn’t Argo. As the opening credits proclaim with refreshing honesty: “A part of this actually happened.” Ha! “A part.” They don’t even try to claim that it is “based on a true story.”

Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-potatoes con man running a small-potatoes Ponzi scheme based on accepting phony finder’s fees for phony loans from phony backers. This is the late 1970s, when inflation and interest rates were both in double digits, and loans were difficult to come by; I remember signing an interest-only, adjustable-rate mortgage at 14.25% in late 1979 and being relieved to qualify for it. When Bale is stung by an FBI operation, he is forced to help the Bureau create a larger sting operation to catch some dirty politicians and a big underworld mobster.

Everyone is conning someone in this film: not just the con men, but the FBI, the politicians, the husbands, and the wives. As one example, Irving is totally smitten by the vivacious, beautiful, and unpredictable Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), but he is equally smitten by his sexy, kittenish wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who has an affair with the mobster’s chauffeur out of revenge for Irving’s infidelity. Meanwhile, Sydney falls for the FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), who also falls for her, even though he is “sort of” engaged to be married. All of this is sleazy, but in the best sense of the word. The characters are deliciously amoral and completely unaware.

The film is a sexy, smart, kooky romp with some of the finest actors in Hollywood simply reveling in their over-the-top characters. The dialog is quick and witty, and the sting itself has satisfying twists with unexpected outcomes. Remember: only part of this actually happened. And because of that, none of it has to be true.


Editor's Note: Review of "American Hustle," directed by David O. Russell. Atlas Entertainment, 2013, 138 minutes.



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President Obama, Meet Alfred E. Neuman

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Isn’t it interesting that Barack Obama, whose presidency is intellectually and demographically a product of the antiwar, anti-imperialist, distrust-government movement of the 1960s and 1970s, has emerged as an automatic exponent of hidebound, don’t give an inch, interventionist, obscurantist, and warmaking government?

Obama couldn’t sit back and watch revolutions happen in Arab countries. He just had to intervene. Now he has to threaten and meddle in Syria, of all places. We will be fortunate if his militarism remains as feckless as it is right now.

As for domestic affairs . . . he couldn’t turn his crusading spirit against the entrenched forces of the Washington bureaucracy, as he appeared to have promised in 2008. Oh no. So far, he’s never seen a bureaucracy he didn’t want to defend. Not one of his significant officials has been invited to resign for his or her notorious failures. They’re all still there, telling transparent lies to Congress and the nation.

The latest example is Obama’s response to the gross failure of the FBI, which did nothing either to prevent the Boston bombers from doing their thing or to identify them afterward, despite the fact that the Bureau had, on its right hand, a passport picture of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and, on its left hand, videos of the same Tamerlan Tsarnaev planting bombs. In the face of this evidence, the president proclaimed that the FBI did a great job.

According to the Washington Post:

In his first news conference since the Boston attack, Obama said law enforcement agencies had performed in “exemplary fashion” in the hunt for the bombers and in investigating one of the suspects before the bombings. He accused critics of chasing headlines.

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, the FBI performed its duties,” Obama said. “Department of Homeland Security did what it was supposed to be doing. But this is hard stuff.”

Hard stuff? How hard is it to compare pictures? And how hard is it to devise ways of keeping creeps like the Tsarnaevs out of the country? Or their creepy friends, now arrested for covering up the Tsarnaevs’ crimes? But imagine that you’re a government bureaucrat. Then your default position will be: student visas — why check? And yes, suppose that the Tsarnaevs return to the country that is supposedly persecuting them, thereby giving them a reason to live on welfare in the United States — well, why hold that against them? They’re charged with crimes? So what? Who, me? Worry?

Ridiculous? Yes. And why should Obama defend it?

The sad explanation is that he is a part of the old “counterculture” at its silliest, and it turns out to be intellectually and emotionally indistinguishable from the political “culture” it warred against. War is wrong — except when good people (like us) are waging it. Imperialism is wrong — except when good people (like us) are pushing the foreigners around. Entrenched bureaucracies are wrong — except when they are entrenched bureaucracies run by good people (us again!).

So that’s what it all came down to. Authority is wrong whenever I’m not the authority. But whenever I am, it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Critics are just chasing headlines.

The ’60s died — not with a bang but a blowhard.




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They're Coming for Your Internet

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In a thinly-veiled message to Internet users throughout the US and beyond, the FBI today (Jan. 19) shut down the file-sharing service MegaUpload.com, seizing the company’s domain name along with its headquarters. With this raid, the feds clearly meant to show that they were the bosses of the online world, laws and legislation be damned. As usual, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

Back up a couple days. On the eve of January 17, Internet sites all over the world were preparing to “blackout” to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) then under consideration in the House of Representatives (in the Senate, as the Protect Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA). The bill would give the government power to seize any website that was reported to be hosting pirated material, or even providing links to such material.

Those doing the reporting, of course, would be the media companies themselves — thus giving them, essentially, a kill switch for sites they don’t like. So if you pan a big-budget movie — or break off a relationship with a studio exec — or really just in any way piss off anyone connected to a lawyer in the entertainment industry — your site could get shut down without due process and without recourse.

But the possibilities for petty revenge are far from the worst thing about the bill. That would be instead its potential to crush political dissent. Under SOPA, the presence of any link to “pirated” material would be sufficient to kill a site — even if the content is provided by anonymous commenters. Hence, the easiest way to silence dissidence online would be to spam the offending site with dubious links.

Even the biggest sites would be susceptible to such tactics; hence why even the behemoths of the Internet, such as Google and Wikipedia, signed onto the protest. With such sites as these “blacked-out” (usually redirecting to petitions or email-your-congressman forms), even casual Internet users found themselves confronted with the ramifications of the government’s latest lunatic notion. For once the people spoke, and many Congressmen reversed position.

The feds couldn’t let such a demonstration go unpunished, but lacking the power to shut down Google and Wikipedia (for now, anyway), they did the next best thing: publicly target and destroy a site like MegaUpload, as a way of announcing that they would shut down whomever they felt like. What they always forget, though, is how little they know about computing and networking, compared to the people who put together the kinds of sites they want to shut down. The response from the actually competent sector of the online world was swift and brutal: within two hours, the hacker collective Anonymous (previously best known for taking down the Church of Scientology site) had attacked and temporarily killed off the sites for the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, the US Copyright Office, and assorted major film studios and record labels.

These sites will all come back, obviously: only the government would claim the right to banish a site for good. But the mere fact that they could go down at all shows their vulnerability to attacks from very loosely affiliated networks of competent individuals. And that is a weakness that, try as they might, the DoJ, the FBI, the MPAA, et al., can never come to grips with: their very existence is predicated on massive, centralized, bureaucratic incompetence. To give that up would be to begin their own dismemberment.

It will be fascinating — and a bit worrying — to see how the government and major media companies will respond. Certainly SOPA and PIPA will come back in new, more insidious forms, probably as riders on unrelated bills. Though President Obama bucked his industry pals and came out against the bills this time (only, of course, once the online campaign against them was in full cry), there is no guarantee he would in a second term. Meanwhile, among the Republican candidates, only Ron Paul (natch) has denounced the bills; a President Romney, Gingrich, or Perry would probably sign them into law. [Edit: in the evening's Republican primary debate in South Carolina, candidates Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul all spoke out against SOPA — though Romney and especially Santorum still appeared to leave space for future censorship of the internet.]

Until then, what is required of us is vigilance — vigilance, and an unyielding determination not to let a few hundred computer illiterates in Washington DC legislate away our cultural future.



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Unsubstantiated: Without Substance

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In Katherine Mansfield’s one-act play Trifles, trifling evidence such as a reticent personality, a half-cleaned table, a broken birdcage, and a canary with a broken neck lead the audience to conclude that a woman has murdered her husband. Motive and opportunity. That’s all it takes to find her guilty in the eyes of her peers. The play is written with a delicious sense of irony and poetic justice. My students at Sing Sing don’t buy it, however. “That’s just circumstantial evidence!” they complain. “You can’t convict on that!”

They’re right, of course. Motive and opportunity — and sometimes opportunity alone — once led to a vigilante justice system that culminated in countless lynchings in our nation’s history. Compounded by a healthy dose of police-induced false witness, it continues to lead to wrongful incarcerations today.

Motive, opportunity, and false — or at least unsubstantiated — witness lie at the heart of Clint Eastwood’s new film, J. Edgar. Eastwood has created a kind of wrongful incarceration inside a film that will stand as an unending sentence. Instead of relying on what is known about J. Edgar Hoover’s public life, Eastwood chose to focus on the very private life that was always hinted at but never confirmed. Books have been written about Hoover, but the conclusive evidence is missing. Even Eastwood acknowledges in this film that Hoover’s official biography may have been full of inaccuracies. The people who might have known the facts are dead, and the famous confidential files that Hoover collected over the years no longer exist. Writers can speculate about their contents, and they have. In print. But no one actually knows.

Hoover’s greatest legacy was his insistence on using evidence-based science to investigate crime. He recognized, for example, the value of using fingerprints, ballistics, and marked money to identify criminals. If he were alive today, he would cheer the use of DNA evidence. His was a bureau of investigation first and foremost.

“J. Edgar” ought to be one of the most fascinating and powerful films of the year. Instead, it is overlong, underinteresting, and often just plain creepy.

His not-so-great legacy was his willingness to trample constitutional rights in his march to justice. He was determined to protect America from political subversives, kidnappers, and organized crime rings. To do this he needed to create a public outcry that would (to paraphrase Ben Franklin) make additional security seem worth the cost of essential liberty. Several early scenes in J. Edgar emphasize Hoover’s disregard for constitutional rights. Again, if he were alive today, he would probably be at the forefront of Homeland Security and the TSA.

With Eastwood as director, Leonardo DiCaprio as actor, and the most influential law enforcement leader of the 20th century as its subject, J. Edgar, which opened this weekend, ought to be one of the most fascinating and powerful films of the year. Instead, it is overlong, underinteresting, and often just plain creepy.

Much of the creepiness comes from the way Eastwood portrays Hoover's relationships with his mother (Judi Dench); his secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts); and his lifelong friend and right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Fighting crime gets short shrift in this film that focuses on speculations about Hoover's private life. Eastwood pays very little attention to Hoover’s work in the Bureau, except to show how Hoover manipulated public opinion about crime to federalize the FBI and expand his power.

Arrests of notorious criminals in the 1930s are presented as photo ops for Hoover. The Kennedy assassination is mentioned, but receives less than two minutes of screen time. The Lindbergh kidnapping weaves throughout the plot, mostly to demonstrate Hoover’s conflict with states’ rights, but the tone regarding the kidnapping is strangely detached and unemotional. Even the bombing of private homes by anti-American groups in 1919 is presented as an exercise of free speech.

But what of the private life on which this film dwells? Much of what is “known” about Hoover’s private life is based on hearsay and innuendo, motive and opportunity. The film is unable to settle on a clear point of view. Was Hoover a homosexual? Possibly. He never married. He had a close relationship with Tolson, who also never married. But Hoover’s lifelong secretary, Helen Gandy, never married either. Does that make her a homosexual as well? Or simply a woman dedicated to her job, as Hoover always claimed to be?

And why should his private relationships matter, anyway? My biggest concern about this film is that, after deciding to establish that Hoover and Tolson were lovers, Eastwood pulls back, suggesting that they weren’t lovers after all. He presents their relationship as awkward, creepy, and heartless. There are plenty of scenes to suggest homosexuality: Tolson significantly passes a white hanky to Hoover at their first meeting (an anachronistic reference to a code that seems to have developed in the early 1970s); they hold hands in the back seat of a car; Tolson tells Hoover, “I want us always to have lunch and dinner together,” almost like a fiancé setting down the rules. And yet, when Tolson kisses Hoover, at the culmination of a physical fight reminiscent of those awful 1950s movies when a man would often slap a woman into erotic submission, Hoover responds furiously, “Don’t ever do that again!” What gives? Either they are seeing each other romantically or they are not. I think Eastwood was trying to portray Hoover’s own conflict over his homosexuality, but it gives the film itself a decidedly homophobic tone.

Even creepier is Hoover’s relationship with his mother. Hoover's father is portrayed as suffering from psychotic paranoia. His mother is domineering and flirtatiously predatory. She parades her new gowns for him, dances with him, buys a diamond ring for him. He is controlled by her and obsessed with her. Judi Dench is at her best in this role, and if this were a fictional film about fictional characters, I would say bravo. Chances are that having a mother like that would indeed lead to psychosexual deviance. But the problem here is that Eastwood is portraying as fact scenes that can only be speculative. And he is suggesting that homosexuality is a psychosexual deviation.

Eastwood was trying to portray Hoover’s own conflict over his homosexuality, but it gives the film itself a decidedly homophobic tone.

An additional source of creepiness is in the prosthetic makeup used to age the characters as the plot moves back and forth between the 1970s and the 1930s. Armie Hammer, in particular, looks like he is dressed as an alien for Halloween, or for a skit on Saturday Night Live. The prosthetic material does not move like skin, and the liver spots that dot his forehead and face are hideous. Hammer is so handsome and debonair as the young Tolson that it comes as a shock each time his character moves into the 1970s.

Much has been written about Hoover’s secret life, and rumors have entered the realm of “everybody knows.” But secrets are just that: secrets. Hoover's confidential file is legendary, in the true sense of that word, but no one knows what was actually in them, because all the files were destroyed by Helen Gandy as soon as he died. But this lack of concrete evidence has not prevented authors, journalists, and filmmakers from speculating on their content.

It is an understatement to call J. Edgar Hoover a complex man. He was a fierce patriot who saw nothing wrong with deporting naturalized citizens exercising freedom of speech. He was a crime-fighter who broke laws to fight crime. He is quoted as saying, “Sometimes you have to bend the rules a little in order to protect your country.” He was a man with an enormous ego fed, perhaps, by private demons. He may have been a hypocrite who vilified homosexuals while engaging in homosexual acts himself. But to quote my Sing Sing students, that’s all circumstantial evidence. The only people who actually know the truth are dead. Eastwood’s film convicts J. Edgar by demonstrating a possible motive and a definite opportunity, fueled by probable false witness. In the process he has created a film that is homophobic itself.

At 137 minutes, J. Edgar is long. It isn’t suspenseful. It isn’t interesting. And it isn’t reliable. If you want to see a film that presents a more reasoned, though still critical, portrait of Hoover, I suggest you rent Public Enemies (2009) instead.


Editor's Note: Review of "J. Edgar," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2011, 137 minutes.



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