Robert Osborne, R.I.P.

 | 

Robert Osborne (1932–2017), who died on March 6, started out as an aspiring young gay actor, whose talent was not equal to his aspiration. His acting career fizzled. But his enthusiasm for the art of film turned out to be a hundred times greater than his desire to act. Acting, after all, is only one aspect of the art. He didn’t repine; he kept involved. He became a writer about film, and eventually he became the founding and continuing host of that great American institution, Turner Classic Movies, which presents movies on cable TV, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and never edits or censors them.

Osborne’s genial, knowledgeable, and above all genuine presence made him a central figure in my life and the lives of many other people. I remember sharing happy hours watching TCM with the late Ronald Hamowy, when he was ill and had difficulty leaving his house. Ronald and I watched whatever movies Osborne presented, always appreciating the way he handled his role as host and (concise) commentator. Ronald knew more about movies than I did, and consequently knew better than I how to value Robert Osborne; but over the years I learned more about film, and a lot of it came from watching Osborne and TCM. There are few things in life that are both good and available at any time. TCM is one of those things, and Osborne was largely responsible for its continuance and success.

Osborne's acting career fizzled. But his enthusiasm for the art of film turned out to be a hundred times greater than his desire to act.

Osborne was famous for his friendships with Hollywood stars, but he was no idolator or press agent. His interviews with them dwelt on serious questions of art and craft and the challenges of life, and he had a way of gently bringing people out in conversation so that pretense vanished and personality emerged. He took human weakness for granted and went beyond it, to more interesting things.

I have no idea what Osborne’s politics were, because they were irrelevant to his work. I wish I could say as much about the unequal figures who have occupied the scene at TCM during recent years, years of the mysterious illness that seems finally to have claimed Osborne’s life. He was himself a strong personality, but he never thrust the purely-Osborne forward; he was always Osborne in pursuit of the life of film.

For this I am thankful. As Auntie Mame said, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” People who don’t know the history of film are missing much of the food and most of the fun. Osborne’s mission was to issue invitations to the banquet, to inspire in others his own enthusiasm for a great art form. He was not a “legend,” as dead celebrities are always proclaimed to be. No, he was a reality.




Share This


Compassion Fatigue

 | 

We are a compassionate society. Or at any rate, so we keep being told. Why is it, then, that as the list of those deemed worthy of our compassion grows — ever longer — we find it more difficult to overflow with it? Our human kindness comes forth, much of the time, at no more than a trickle.

I keep hearing that libertarians are unkind. That we’d starve our grandmas for a tax break, or something to that effect. But the people most inclined to exalt themselves as paragons of compassion often behave the most hard-heartedly. They say they are compassionate, so we’re supposed to believe them. Yet in their interactions with their fellow human beings, they show precious little evidence of it.

Most of us have had the bizarre experience of being informed what we believe, even before we can tell others what we think.

The genius of libertarian philosophy is that it honors the individual, even as it acknowledges the universal. We can — at least theoretically — empathize with any other person because we share a common humanity. Yet even though each of us shares in the human condition, every one of us is unique. You and I can appreciate, in those we love, that each of them is distinct from every other human being who ever has been or will be born.

It’s a privilege for me to know the people I love, and even the ones I merely like. My life would be far less meaningful if it lacked a single one of them. None of them is enough like another that I could lump them together and sum them up. Each is a beautiful stone in the mosaic of my personal world. If I saw all of them as alike, instead of seeing each of them as a unique part of a mosaic, I’d be looking at nothing but the antiseptic wall of a public bathroom.

Compassion fatigue sets in not because we’re lacking in that particular quality, but because it gets exhausted. We’re shamed into genuflecting before a political altar, but that is hardly the same as feeling solidarity with our fellow human beings. This is the bitter fruit of statism. As individuals, the state considers us useless. We matter to it only as a herd, so we’re conditioned to behave, and to treat each other, like livestock.

I happen to be something called a white Christian gay female middle-class American. That’s quite a lot to wrap my mind around. I very much prefer to think of myself as me. In any interaction that I have with each of you, I prefer to think of you as you.

When I started living as openly gay, I began to notice that instead of being recognized more fully as an individual, I’d merely joined another herd. I wasn’t even expected to have opinions or preferences of my own; they were all assigned to me by others. People with fixed opinions about gay issues are always telling me what I should believe, what I can’t believe, or what I do believe — whether I actually believe those things or not. To those who care only about power, our individuality is nothing but a nuisance.

The latter treatment is given tolibertarians in general. Most of us have had the bizarre experience of being informed what we believe, even before we can tell others what we think. Even though many of the things we’re told that “all libertarians believe” bear little or no relation to our actual convictions.

On the libertarian spectrum, I’m left of center, but center-left. I used to be much more of a statist progressive. I still care about the same issues, my concerns having changed very little. I simply no longer believe that government action is capable of making the world a better place. All I’ve seen it do is create one gigantic mess after another, and make life even worse for those it endeavors to “help.”

Were we able to give of ourselves voluntarily, without the guns of government compassion pointed at our heads, I suspect that we would prove ourselves as generous as anyone.

I’ve become something of a gadfly for better treatment of the mentally or emotionally ill. I’m also involved in work on behalf of alcoholics, drug addicts, and the homeless. Of course I care about women’s issues and gay rights. But I no longer trust in politicians to save anyone. All they do is say pretty things, while doing whatever serves their own, petty interests.

The “compassionate” left hasn’t yet figured out how to exploit people suffering from psychological disorders — beyond offering them Obamacare, which is to say, offering them no help at all. Women and gays are of interest to social justice warriors only so long as we obediently march in their army. Alcoholics, drug addicts, and the homeless tend to vote only when they’ve succeeded in freeing themselves from the curse of perceived helplessness foisted upon them by “progressive” politics. And then, they’re dangerously likely to vote for those who tell them they’re capable of running their own lives. Truth be told, no one’s plight is of much interest to the ostentatiously compassionate unless it can be exploited in one way or another.

My progressive friends fear that I’ve gone over to the dark side. I’m frequently accused of having lost my “compassion.” But when I try to interest them in actually getting off their bums and doing things to help those for whom their hearts bleed, I often get blank stares or even anger. They are afflicted with compassion fatigue.

All thatmany of them think they need to do, for those they’re officially informed they should care about, is vote for the potentates who claim they’ll accomplish what needs to be done. Thus assured, they’re likely to sit back passively and do what they’re told — to give whatever is demanded of them, without asking what’s done with it. They are always admonished to obey their self-appointed superiors — those who insist that they know best.

Given the limited view they have of the world, I can hardly blame them. They are perpetually being told to feel for this gripe-group or that one. Never are they encouraged to recognize anyone in these groups as actual, flesh-and-blood people, with names, and faces, and stories of their own. But on behalf of separate and disparate groups, victimized by the disembodied forces of evil, their compassion is milked daily. We can only take so much of that before we are milked dry.

Libertarians like to save our milk for the nourishment of those we truly care about. We recognize that it belongs to us, and that no one else has any automatic claim on it. Certainly, we know that no one else’s claim on our milk supersedes our own, or that of those to whom we choose to give it.

Were we able to give of ourselves voluntarily, without the guns of government compassion pointed at our heads, I suspect that we would prove ourselves as generous as anyone. Maybe more than most. Those who truly need our help would likely never find it lacking. What a shame it is that because it is so often squandered, when it’s actually needed and deserved we may have nothing to offer but an empty pail.




Share This


Fakers and Enablers

 | 

Last month, a UCLA graduate student in political science named Michael LaCour was caught faking reports of his research — research that in December 2014 had been published, with much fanfare, in Science, one of the two most prestigious venues for “hard” (experimental and quantifiable) scientific work. Because of his ostensible research, he had been offered, again with much fanfare, a teaching position at prestigious Princeton University. I don’t want to overuse the word “prestigious,” but LaCour’s senior collaborator, a professor at prestigious Columbia University, a person whom he had enlisted to enhance the prestige of his purported findings, is considered one of the most prestigious number-crunchers in all of poli sci. LaCour’s dissertation advisor at UCLA is also believed by some people to be prestigious. LaCour’s work was critiqued by presumably prestigious (though anonymous) peer reviewers for Science, and recommended for publication by them. What went wrong with all this prestigiousness?

Initial comments about the LaCour scandal often emphasized the idea that there’s nothing really wrong with the peer review system. The New Republic was especially touchy on this point. The rush to defend peer review is somewhat difficult to explain, except as the product of fears that many other scientific articles (about, for instance, global warming?) might be suspected of being more pseudo than science; despite reviewers’ heavy stamps of approval, they may not be “settled science.” The idea in these defenses was that we must see l’affaire LaCour as a “singular” episode, not as the tin can that’s poking through the grass because there’s a ton of garbage underneath it. More recently, suspicions that Mt. Trashmore may be as high as Mt. Rushmore have appeared even in the New York Times, which on scientific matters is usually more establishment than the establishment.

I am an academic who shares those suspicions. LaCour’s offense was remarkably flagrant and stupid, so stupid that it was discovered at the first serious attempt to replicate his results. But the conditions that put LaCour on the road to great, though temporary, success must operate, with similar effect, in many other situations. If the results are not so flagrantly wrong, they may not be detected for a long time, if ever. They will remain in place in the (pseudo-) scientific literature — permanent impediments to human knowledge. This is a problem.

But what conditions create the problem? Here are five.

1. A politically correct, or at least fashionably sympathetic, topic of research. The LaCour episode is a perfect example. He was purportedly investigating gay activists’ ability to garner support for gay marriage. And his conclusion was one that politically correct people, especially donors to activist organizations, would like to see: he “found” that person-to-person activism works amazingly well. It is noteworthy that Science published his article about how to garner support for gay marriage without objecting to the politically loaded title: “When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality.” You may think that recognition of gay marriage is equivalent to recognition of gay equality, and I may agree, but anyone with even a whiff of the scientific mentality should notice that “equality” is a term with many definitions, and that the equation of “equality” with “gay marriage” is an end-run around any kind of debate, scientific or otherwise. Who stands up and says, “I do not support equality”?

The idea in these defenses was that we must see l’affaire LaCour as a “singular” episode, not as the tin can that’s poking through the grass because there’s a ton of garbage underneath it.

2. The habit of reasoning from academic authority. LaCour’s chosen collaborator, Donald Green, is highly respected in his field. That may be what made Science and its peer reviewers pay especially serious attention to LaCour’s research, despite its many curious features, some of which were obvious. A leading academic researcher had the following reaction when an interviewer asked him about the LaCour-Green contribution to the world’s wisdom:

“Gee,” he replied, “that's very surprising and doesn't fit with a huge literature of evidence. It doesn't sound plausible to me.” A few clicks later, [he] had pulled up the paper on his computer. “Ah,” he [said], “I see Don Green is an author. I trust him completely, so I'm no longer doubtful.”

3. The prevalence of the kind of academic courtesy that is indistinguishable from laziness or lack of curiosity. LaCour’s results were counterintuitive; his data were highly exceptional; his funding (which turned out to be bogus) was vastly greater than anything one would expect a graduate student to garner. That alone should have inspired many curious questions. But, Green says, he didn’t want to be rude to LaCour; he didn’t want to ask probing questions. Jesse Singal, a good reporter on the LaCour scandal, has this to say:

Some people I spoke to about this case argued that Green, whose name is, after all, on the paper, had failed in his supervisory role. I emailed him to ask whether he thought this was a fair assessment. “Entirely fair,” he responded. “I am deeply embarrassed that I did not suspect and discover the fabrication of the survey data and grateful to the team of researchers who brought it to my attention.” He declined to comment further for this story.

Green later announced that he wouldn’t say anything more to anyone, pending the results of a UCLA investigation. Lynn Vavreck, LaCour’s dissertation advisor at UCLA, had already made a similar statement. They are being very circumspect.

4. The existence of an academic elite that hasn’t got time for its real job. LaCour asked Green, a virtually total stranger, to sign onto his project: why? Because Green was prestigious. And why is Green prestigious? Partly for signing onto a lot of collaborative projects. In his relationship with LaCour, there appears to have been little time for Green to do what professors have traditionally done with students: sit down with them, discuss their work, exclaim over the difficulty of getting the data, laugh about the silly things that happen when you’re working with colleagues, share invidious stories about university administrators and academic competitors, and finally ask, “So, how in the world did you get those results? Let’s look at your raw data.” Or just, “How did you find the time to do all of this?”

LaCour’s results were counterintuitive; his data were highly exceptional; his funding was vastly greater than anything one would expect a graduate student to garner.

It has been observed — by Nicholas Steneck of the University of Michigan — that Green put his name on a paper reporting costly research (research that was supposed to have cost over $1 million), without ever asking the obvious questions about where the money came from, and how a grad student got it.

“You have to know the funding sources,” Steneck said. “How else can you report conflicts of interest?” A good point. Besides — as a scientist, aren’t you curious? Scientists’ lack of curiosity about the simplest realities of the world they are supposedly examining has often been noted. It is a major reason why the scientists of the past generation — every past generation — are usually forgotten, soon after their deaths. It’s sad to say, but may I predict that the same fate will befall the incurious Professor Green?

As a substitute for curiosity, guild courtesy may be invoked. According to the New York Times, Green said that he “could have asked about” LaCour’s claim to have “hundreds of thousands in grant money.” “But,” he continued, “it’s a delicate matter to ask another scholar the exact method through which they’re paying for their work.”

There are several eyebrow-raisers there. One is the barbarous transition from “scholar” (singular) to “they” (plural). Another is the strange notion that it is somehow impolite to ask one’s colleagues — or collaborators! — where the money’s coming from. This is called, in the technical language of the professoriate, cowshit.

The fact that ordinary-professional, or even ordinary-people, conversations seem never to have taken place between Green and LaCour indicates clearly enough that nobody made time to have them. As for Professor Vavreck, LaCour’s dissertation director and his collaborator on two other papers, her vita shows a person who is very busy, very busy indeed, a very busy bee — giving invited lectures, writing newspaper columns, moderating something bearing the unlikely name of the “Luskin Lecture on Thought Leadership with Hillary Rodham Clinton,” and, of course, doing peer reviews. Did she have time to look closely at her own grad student’s work? The best answer, from her point of view, would be No; because if she did have the time, and still ignored the anomalies in the work, a still less favorable view would have to be entertained.

This is called, in the technical language of the professoriate, cowshit.

Oddly, The New Republic praised the “social cohesiveness” represented by the Green-LaCour relationship, although it mentioned that “in this particular case . . . trust was misplaced but some level of collegial confidence is the necessary lubricant to allow research to take place.” Of course, that’s a false alternative — full social cohesiveness vs. no confidence at all. “It’s important to realize,” opines TNR’s Jeet Heer, “that the implicit trust Green placed in LaCour was perfectly normal and rational.” Rational, no. Normal, yes — alas.

Now, I don’t know these people. Some of what I say is conjecture. You can make your own conjectures, on the same evidence, and see whether they are similar to mine.

5. A peer review system that is goofy, to say the least.

It is goofiest in the arts and humanities and the “soft” (non-mathematical) social sciences. It’s in this, the goofiest, part of the peer-reviewed world that I myself participate, as reviewer and reviewee. Here is a world in which people honestly believe that their own ideological priorities count as evidence, often as the determining evidence. Being highly verbal, they are able to convince themselves and others that saying “The author has not come to grips with postcolonialist theory” is on the same analytical level as saying, “The author has not investigated the much larger data-set presented by Smith (1997).”

My own history of being reviewed — by and large, a very successful history — has given me many more examples of the first kind of “peer reviewing” than of the second kind. Whether favorable or unfavorable, reviewers have more often responded to my work on the level of “This study vindicates historically important views of the text” or “This study remains strangely unconvinced by historically important views of the episode,” than on the level of, “The documented facts do not support [or, fully support] the author’s interpretation of the sequence of events.” In fact, I have never received a response that questioned my facts. The closest I’ve gotten is (A) notes on the absence of any reference to the peer reviewer’s work; (B) notes on the need for more emphasis on the peer reviewer’s favorite areas of study.

This does not mean that my work has been free from factual errors or deficiencies in the consultation of documentary sources; those are unavoidable, and it would be good for someone to point them out as soon as possible. But reviewers are seldom interested in that possibility. Which is disturbing.

I freely admit that some of the critiques I have received have done me good; they have informed me of other people’s points of view; they have shown me where I needed to make my arguments more persuasive; they have improved my work. But reviewers’ interest in emphases and ideological orientations rather than facts and the sources of facts gives me a very funny feeling. And you can see by the printed products of the review system that nobody pays much attention to the way in which academic contributions are written, even in the humanities. I have been informed that my writing is “clear” or even “sometimes witty,” but I have never been called to account for the passages in which I am not clear, and not witty. No one seems to care.

But here’s the worst thing. When I act as a reviewer, I catch myself falling into some of the same habits. True, I write comments about the candidates’ style, and when I see a factual error or notice the absence of facts, I mention it. But it’s easy to lapse into guild language. It’s easy to find words showing that I share the standard (or momentary) intellectual “concerns” and emphases of my profession, words testifying that the author under review shares them also. I’m not being dishonest when I write in this way. I really do share the “concerns” I mention. But that’s a problem. That’s why peer reviewing is often just a matter of reporting that “Jones’ work will be regarded as an important study by all who wish to find more evidence that what we all thought was important actually is important.”

You can see by the printed products of the review system that nobody pays much attention to the way in which academic contributions are written, even in the humanities.

Indeed, peer reviewing is one of the most conservative things one can do. If there’s no demand that facts and choices be checked and assessed, if there’s a “delicacy” about identifying intellectual sleight of hand or words-in-place-of-ideas, if consistency with current opinion is accepted as a value in itself, if what you get is really just a check on whether something is basically OK according to current notions of OKness, then how much more conservative can the process be?

On May 29, when LaCour tried to answer the complaints against him, he severely criticized the grad students who had discovered, not only that they couldn’t replicate his results, but that the survey company he had purportedly used had never heard of him. He denounced them for having gone off on their own, doing their own investigation, without submitting their work to peer review, as he had done! Their “decision to . . . by-pass the peer-review process” was “unethical.” What mattered wasn’t the new evidence they had found but the fact that they hadn’t validated it by the same means with which his own “evidence” had been validated.

In medicine and in some of the natural sciences, unsupported guild authority does not impinge so greatly on the assessment of evidence as it does in the humanities and the social sciences. Even there, however, you need to be careful. If you are suspected of being a “climate change denier” or a weirdo about some medical treatment, the maintainers of the status quo will give you the bum’s rush. That will be the end of you. And there’s another thing. It’s true: when you submit your research about the liver, people will spend much more time scrutinizing your stats than pontificating about how important the liver is or how important it is to all Americans, black or white, gay or straight, that we all have livers and enjoy liver equality. But the professional competence of these peer reviewers will then be used, by The New Republic and other conservative supporters of the status quo in our credentialed, regulated, highly professional society, as evidence that there is very little, very very very little, actual flim-flam in academic publication. But that’s not true.

ldquo;decision to . . . by-pass the peer-review processrsquo;s not true.




Share This


Earps vs. Clantons at the Tolerance Corral

 | 

Arizona has a reputation as a politically nutty state. I’ve lived here all my life, and I prefer to think of it as Goldwater country: a feisty outpost of individual independence. I don’t like the idea that millions of other Americans think I live in loony-land, but given our occasional, highly publicized spasms of hysteria, I can see where they get the notion.

We’re seen as the Wild West. Land of the O.K. Corral. Still, at heart, an untamed territory, crawling with cowboys and yokels. But I don’t think our problem is really that different from problems anywhere else in America. We’re degenerating into an entire nation of spoiled and very bratty children.

We all remember the bullies from elementary school. Most of us had some classmates we liked, and others we didn’t. If we didn’t like somebody, we probably hung around with somebody else. But bullies aren’t content simply to dislike people. When they dislike us, they want to make it our problem.

There are bullies on both sides of the “tolerance” issue. I view the conflict with the detachment born of distaste. I don’t see why spoiled children, on either side, should carry the day. In this instance, thanks to Gov. Jan Brewer, they haven’t.

The other evening after Mass, some of my very left-of-center friends summed up our latest brush with lunacy by saying, “Well, the governor did the right thing by vetoing that stupid bill . . . but after all, it was just business.” Our Republican governor, in other words, pandered to those evil business interests. What a neat and tidy way to make sense of it all.

I know why the opinion-shapers to whom they listen are telling them that. Because the statist left is getting ready to punish the “religious freedom” crowd by pushing for statewide public accommodations laws, forcing every merchant to serve everybody. Now that they’ve won one showdown, their blood is up and they’re spoiling for another. It’s the Earps versus the Clantons all over again.

Hurting people’s feelings is not a crime, and it never should be. If peace is to reign in any society, those who simply want peace must be permitted to have it.

Many social conservatives will see this as all the gays in the state conspiring to violate their precious religious freedom. Though many gay people I know express opinions similar to mine, I can speak for no one but myself. I simply want to be left the hell alone. I want to live in peace.

I think it’s high time the Wild West was tamed, but I don’t think the Man with the Badge is the one to tame it. We, the ordinary citizens, need to tame it ourselves. I’ve seen enough of those old westerns to know that when the marshal rides into town, that’s when the real shooting starts.

Let’s begin with some clarification of what “public accommodation” means. Police, fire protection, and other basic, life-and-death services — for which we are all taxed to pay, regardless of our sexual orientation — are the true public accommodations, and as such, they must remain available to everybody. It is the marshal’s job to protect us all, whether he likes us or not. 

Those of us who respect liberty are interested in a solution that lets you be you and me be me. One that doesn’t force anybody to do anything. Bullies aren’t interested in peaceful compromise. They want a shootout every day. There are plenty of bullies on both the right and left, and those of us who want to clean up the town need to stop letting them goad us into needless conflicts.

When Arizona’s SB 1062 was being slopped together into a bill, it was suggested that a clause be added mandating that merchants who wanted to take advantage of the religious exemption publicly post that they were doing so. They didn’t like this. Not only did they want to be able to deny service to those of whose “lifestyles” they disapproved (meaning gays), but they wanted to be cowards about it. Though I agree that they should be free to discriminate against me, I do, however, think it’s only fair that they should warn me. According to my own religious convictions, bigotry is a sin. I believe that the Religious Right is as close to an Antichrist as any entity has ever been, and I don’t want one dime of my money supporting it. I don’t like these people, and I want no more to do with them than they do with me. But if they leave me alone, I’m perfectly content to leave them alone.

Along with reforming our civil court system to discourage frivolous lawsuits (like gay couples suing photographers for refusing to take their wedding pictures), we should exempt from litigation merchants who loudly and proudly post warnings that — because they’re such good Christians — they refuse to serve gays. That would bring an end to the clamor for heavy-handed legislation to protect the religious freedom of everybody who decides, willy-nilly, to discriminate against everybody else. It would also take the state out of the business of determining whose religious beliefs are really “sincere” and whose are not. Hurting people’s feelings is not a crime, and it never should be. If peace is to reign in any society, those who simply want peace must be permitted to have it.

I’m very glad we’ve gotten rid of lynching, and I’d like to see the gunfights come to an end. But there’s one Old West tradition I’d very much like to see revived. Some people ought to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. Those who persist in disturbing the peace by making their dislikes everybody else’s problem richly deserve to be dispatched in this way. When the mob forms to clear the country of them, I’ll be the first in line.




Share This


The Kiddies Get Played Again

 | 

The Duck Dynasty brouhaha is over, and for that we can be thankful. Many of those who got excited over it are somewhat embarrassed now. At least they should be. The way it ended — with the show’s resumption just as A&E was almost out of reruns — reveals it to have been a PR stunt and largely a sham. As a commenter on one of my favorite blogs put it, “Merry Christmas! We’ve been played!”

I wasn’t as entertained, or as exercised, as a lot of people. I was watching not the media-manufactured drama, but America’s reaction to it. Those on both the political Left and the political Right who usually get taken in by such nonsense were sucked in yet again. What I found reassuring was that so many others weren’t.

Americans may be waking up from their long, hypnotic daze. They now hear the show’s star, Phil Robertson, pontificating about the virtues of menmarrying 15-year-old girls, and even those who rah-rahed his anatomically-explicit anti-gay tirade in GQ magazine are revolted. This may be another Terri Schiavo moment, when the social right overplays its hand so grossly that its fraudulence is exposed for all to see. That people who’ve expended so much effort trying to get the government to censor others are now rushing to the barricades to defend their “religious freedom,” and that they’re so confused about what censorship is or isn’t that they think a business has no right to suspend an employee, is rich indeed.

It is high time we woke up. Those who blur the line between free speech and censorship most likely do so because they intend to cross it themselves. This is a sorry crowd to be lecturing anybody about the freedom of anything. Not that their political adversaries conducted themselves any more nobly. To their credit, many in the public recognized this, too.

Those who fancy they’ve “taught A&E a lesson” are apparently too dull-witted to realize that they did exactly what the network wanted them to do.

All the predictable people did all the predictable things, and a good portion of the audience is getting bored with the act. GLAAD, which fancies itself something of a gay Anti-Defamation League, leapt in immediately after the GQ article came out, demanding that Robertson be punished. If they could have called in the troopers to kick in the door to the family mansion and drag the entire clan off to jail, they probably would have. I got emails from several gay rights groups, telling me how outraged I should be — and shilling for donations.

Though I’m reassured that many people were sensible enough to see the mummery for what it was, I’m worried that so many others weren’t. Activist organizations on both sides of the controversy raked in piles of money. Several politicians — some of whom I would have expected to behave with more restraint — seized the chance to grandstand. There is no one I would vote for now that I wouldn’t have before, but there are about a handful I might have supported, but now, as a matter of principle, would vote against.

What is wrong with those who permitted themselves to be so cynically played? Are they really so hollow inside, and do they truly have so little sense of themselves, that they can be trained to salivate, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, at the ding-ding of a bell? Those who fancy they’ve “taught A&E a lesson” are apparently too dull-witted to realize that they did exactly what the network wanted them to do.

I would feel sorry for them, if I weren’t rather frightened. I don’t think that Jefferson, or Adams, or Franklin ever envisioned the possibility that 230-odd years into the future, so many Americans would be so childish, shallow, gullible, and grasping. They probably wouldn’t fall for the charms of a bellowing little man with a funny mustache and a swastika armband, but anybody who makes them feel like godly patriots, or evolved progressives — depending on their illusion of choice — could seduce them into following him (or her) anywhere.

Are there enough grownups left in this country to run it? Liberty presupposes that citizens who have reached the age of majority are capable of functioning as adults. A media-manufactured controversy like the Duck Dynasty blowup demonstrates, with stark clarity, who belongs at the big table and who should be sitting with the kiddies.

Perhaps Duck Dynasty should become a watchword — a shorthand warning — for every time the bell again goes ding-ding-ding. It may be enough to jerk some people into adulthood, or at the very least to jerk them awake.




Share This


To Protect Us from Ourselves

 | 

When the AIDS epidemic began in the late 1970s, contracting the virus was a virtual death sentence. No one had a cure. In fact, at first, there wasn't even a diagnosis. People just weakened and wasted away until they died, usually of pneumonia. I don't know anyone who didn't know someone who died from the mysterious illness during the 1980s.

Once it was diagnosed, finding a cure became a top priority, and pharmaceutical researchers who had promising results in lab experiments were fast-tracked to human trials in an effort to out-pace the death toll. But people were dying faster than the cure could be found. Moreover, only half the people participating in the tests were given the medications that might cure them; the other half were given a placebo, and even their doctors did not know who was getting the real thing. The FDA controlled the game, and while they were fast-tracking the research, they weren't fast enough for the patients who were dying at alarming rates, and alarmingly fast.

Meanwhile, researchers in other countries were working just as hard to find a cure. AIDS sufferers desperate for medicine went abroad for treatment. Many treatments consisted of high doses of vitamin and mineral supplements that would boost the compromised immune system, giving the body the strength to fight the virus. These supplements and medications were not illegal, but they were not approved either. Consequently, individuals could use them, but they could not sell them. To circumvent this technicality, "buyers clubs" were born. By purchasing a monthly membership, people could have all the supplements they needed for free. The FDA didn't like these buyers clubs, but they couldn't stop them unless the specific supplements were declared illegal to use. Buyers clubs flourished around the country as thousands of terminally ill patients lined up for treatment.

He shouts at his doctor, "Screw the FDA! I'm going to be DOA!" Then he drives to Mexico to find his own treatment.

Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), an electrical engineer and rodeo rider who contracted the AIDS virus in 1985. Given just 30 days to live, he begs to get into the clinical trials or to buy AZT, the only drug that was showing any promise. When he can't get into the clinical trials or buy the drug outright, he shouts at his doctor (Jennifer Garner), "Screw the FDA! I'm going to be DOA!" Then he drives to Mexico to find his own treatment from Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), an American who has lost his license to practice medicine in the US. The Dallas Buyers Club is born, and Woodroof lives another seven years, along with hundreds of other survivors who purchase memberships from him. The film documents his fight with the FDA as he struggles to keep his supplements from being actively banned instead of simply "not approved."

Ron Woodroof is about as unlikely a hero as you will ever find in a film. A disgusting man with disgusting habits, he's a foul-mouthed, homophobic, alcoholic, coke-snorting, porn-viewing womanizer without an ounce of the milk of human kindness. Both F words — “fuckin'” and “faggot” — regularly spew from his mouth. "Fifty bucks?" he says incredulously to a desperate young man who has come to join the buyers club. Then he strides to the door of his motel-room-turned-"club"-office and shouts to the men lined up in the parking lot, "Membership is four hundred bucks. You got that? Four hundred bucks. I'm not running no goddam charity!" He turns to the frightened young man: "Don't you come back here till you got $350 more." He's in it for the money. Saving lives is just a byproduct.

Ron learns what prejudice feels like when his friends turn against him. They call him "faggot" because they assume that's how he acquired the disease, yet they avoid him because they are afraid of catching it by standing too close. In anger Woodroof spits at them, knowing that his body fluids have become a deadly weapon. Early research demonstrated that AIDS mostly occurred among the "4H" group: homosexuals, heroin users, Haitians, and hemophiliacs. I remember the dark joke that used to circulate in the 80s: "What's the worst thing about getting AIDS? Convincing your parents that you're Haitian." But it was also a danger among promiscuous heterosexuals who engaged in indiscriminate, unprotected sex. And that was the way Ron Woodroof lived his life. He practically shouts "Hallelujah" when a woman who is HIV-positive joins the Buyers Club, because now he can have sex again without worrying about transmitting the disease.

The film portrays the FDA as the bad guys, in cahoots with the pharmaceutical companies and preventing sick people from getting the treatment they want and need. Like most libertarians, I am convinced that the FDA does as much harm in delaying the approval of effective treatments or approving the use of harmful treatments as it does good in its stated purpose of protecting the public. Dr. Vass tells Woodroof that the high dose of AZT used in the FDA-approved trials was toxic, poisoning the body along with the virus. Woodroof gets better when he stops taking his black-market AZT and starts taking Vass' supplements (as well as experimental Interferon he eventually buys in Japan).

However, I have to suggest that the patients involved in the clinical trials bear some of the blame for the skewed results of the early tests of AZT. Many of them were sharing or selling their meds in order to help friends who were also infected but could not get into the trials. For example, Rayon (Jared Leto) a transvestite whom Ron reluctantly befriends in the hospital, is selling half his AZT to his partner, who also has AIDS. This would have skewed Rayon's results. When Rayon got better, researchers naturally assumed that the dosage they prescribed was correct, when actually he was taking half as much as they thought he was taking. Future patients would be prescribed more than they needed, and they would not get better. These trials were flawed, because the patients were not being honest.

Of course, the whole system was flawed because the market was not allowed to operate in the open. As one almost-wise judge says in the movie, "Someone who is terminally ill ought to be allowed to take whatever he wants. But that is not the law." I would go one step further: we are all terminal. We are all going to die. We ought to be able to decide what we put into our bodies, as long as we accept the consequences of our actions — which includes getting sick and having to pay for treatment from our own pockets or the private insurance we pay for (which might not be available to us if our willful actions have caused the problem.) We don't need government watchdogs. Private organizations such as Consumer Reports, the Better Business Bureau, PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service), and even Good Housekeeping, with its Seal of Approval, work just fine, thank you very much. But if someone agrees to participate in a clinical trial, whether publicly or privately funded, that person is obligated to be honest and diligent in maintaining the integrity of the tests.

We are all terminal. We are all going to die. We ought to be able to decide what we put into our bodies, as long as we accept the consequences of our actions.

Matthew McConaughey lost 38 pounds for this role, and he looks terrible. His cheeks are sunken, his eyes dull, his skin sallow. Other actors have undergone massive weight loss for particular roles; Christian Bale and Tom Hanks come immediately to mind, as well as Jared Leto, who lost 30 pounds for his role as Rayon in this film. But McConaughey does not seem to be bouncing back from this extreme weight loss as well as others have. In more recent roles this year his skin still looks sallow, and his eyes still have that dark, almost vacant brightness. While I admire his dedication to his craft, and I'm not surprised that so many critics are predicting Oscar nominations for McConaughey and Leto, I hope that this fine actor has not inflicted permanent damage on his liver or other organs in order to make this film, especially because it is not a great film. It's an important topic, but the movie drags in places, and I caught myself looking at my watch several times.

Moreover, it is borderline pornographic, from the opening scene when Woodroof is having a threesome at a rodeo and continuing through his voyeuristic visits to strip clubs, to the porn adorning his walls, to additional threesomes — or maybe it was foursomes; I had to stop looking — even after he finds out he has AIDS. I realize that director Jean-Marc Vallee was developing Woodroof's seedy character with these scenes, but I think the audience could have gotten the point without the scenes being so graphic. As a result, this important movie with its strong libertarian theme is making the rounds of the art houses instead of the major theaters, where it could (and should) have been seen by hundreds of thousands more viewers, viewers whose minds might have been changed about the FDA and other government agencies created to "protect us from ourselves." These scenes might not bother you, but I will be recommending that my friends read the article written by Bill Minutaglio for the Dallas Morning News on which this story is based. Here is a link: http://www.buyersclubdallas.com/.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dallas Buyers Club," directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Voltage Pictures, 2013, 117 minutes.



Share This


One from Column A, One from Column B

 | 




Share This


Ronald Hamowy, R.I.P.

 | 

Ronald Hamowy, who honored Liberty by becoming one of its Contributing Editors, died at 11:30 a.m. on September 8, in a hospital in Baltimore. The final cause of death was sepsis. Ronald had suffered for years from heart and kidney problems, and he had been hospitalized for several months.

He was one of the libertarian movement’s most important and vital scholars. An historian of the 18th century, he was known for his impeccable standards of research and writing. To discerning researchers of the Enlightenment — left, right, or center — his word was law. If there was a scholarly myth or illusion, he was the one who was trusted to puncture it. He was the person who meticulously set things straight. Many times, when I have mentioned his name in an academic conversation, the reply has been, “Ronald Hamowy! You know him?!

For libertarians, Ronald will always be recognized as a bright star of the post-World War II generation — but unlike many other grand old men of this or that era, he never became a Grand Old Man. He retained to the end his youthful joy and sense of first discovery. To him, any new fact — or any old movie, viewed on his constant friend, Turner Classics — was a pleasure to be greeted as if it were the first one in the universe. Even when ensconced as chairman of an august intellectual conference, Ronald let his eyes sparkle and his mouth crinkle with laughter, and with some little Count Basie-like verbal gesture he set the whole house laughing with his infectious wit.

Ronald was born in 1937, in Shanghai, China, the scion of a cosmopolitan Jewish family. His father was born in Syria; his beautiful and beloved mother in Egypt. He grew up in New York, where he supported himself with a number of jobs (one of them was running the streets, selling pop records). During his graduate work at the University of Chicago, he co-edited (with Ralph Raico) the New Individualist Review, a lively, beautifully produced libertarian intellectual journal. If you read it today, you will be sure to enjoy every word of it. Liberty — this journal — was consciously modeled on the American Mercury and the New Individualist Review.

The most important thing was Ronald’s ability to distinguish pseudo-individualism from the real thing. Nothing could be too real for him.

Ronald’s advisor at Chicago was Friedrich Hayek, but Hayek contributed little to Ronald’s studies. Hayek was above it all. Ronald was on his own, as students of Great Academics always are. His first dissertation topic required him to do research at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where he found the research conditions impossible. Migrating to Oxford, which had resources adequate to another topic in which he was interested, he needed the sponsorship of some Oxford academic, to get permission to exploit the library. He approached Sir Isaiah Berlin, who rebuffed him. Berlin was “taking no more students.”

Ronald, who was only half as tall as other people, looked up at the great Sir Isaiah. “Listen,” he said. “I’m very smart. I’m very hard-working. And I’m funny.” All that was true. Sir Isaiah looked down at the small student in front of him, laughed, and said, “All right.”

Ronald was hard to resist. And he knew it. But he was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. If Ronald couldn’t make you laugh, you really weren’t worth the effort. And his wit was always . . . intellectually understood. No vulgarity. No easy laughs. Nothing but fun. But not coy, either.

One person who resisted Ronald was Ayn Rand. As one of the young libertarians (Ronald’s friend Murray Rothbard was another) who were invited to her apartment for intellectual discussions, he was cast into oblivion after a difference of opinion about . . . Rachmaninoff. Guests were asked to say who their favorite composers were, and when Rand’s turn came, she said “Rachmaninoff,” with specific reference to his second piano concerto. “Why?” Ronald asked. “Because he was the most rational,” Rand responded. At which Ronald laughed, thinking it must be a joke. He knew that the composer had dedicated that concerto to his psychiatrist — and anyway, rationality had nothing to do with its greatness. But Ronald’s laughter resulted in exile, and the loss of friends who were dear to him.

Ronald was a professor in the Department of History at the University of Alberta from 1969 until his retirement in 1998, at which time he immediately moved back to the United States. He detested conformist cultures, and he regarded both his department and, it is fair to say, Canada itself as epitomes of conformism. I once asked him what was wrong with Canada, and he said, “I’ll tell you. If you walk into a store in Canada, and you find a customer having a dispute with a sales clerk, 90% of the other customers will immediately side with the clerk. That person is regarded as an official, and therefore the one to obey.” He attributed this defect of Canadian culture in large part to the migration to Canada of people opposed to the American Revolution. They set the tone.

Ronald himself was always a revolutionary. He was outraged by any offense to individualism, so much so that he engaged in a ferocious online conflict with other gay libertarians who regarded the movie Braveheart as a tribute to the heroic individual. Ronald pointed out that the movie was historically ridiculous and anti-homosexual to boot. He argued, convincingly, that works of art really do need to be judged by their fidelity to historical truth, whenever they recommend themselves as historically true. But the most important thing was Ronald’s ability to distinguish pseudo-individualism from the real thing. Nothing could be too real for him. One day, when he and I were discussing various versions of libertarian thought, I asked him where he stood, and he replied (knowing I would not sympathize entirely), “Basically, I agree with Murray” — meaning with Murray Rothbard’s very radical libertarianism.

I believe that the antiwar strain of libertarian thought was important for Ronald. I remember accompanying him, when he visited San Diego, to the Adams Avenue (used) Bookstore (where else would you entertain Ronald Hamowy?). While browsing the stacks, I heard a voice muttering curses, somewhere else in the establishment. I found Ronald in a side room, seated amid stacks of books he was examining, and holding a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August in his hand. Tuchman justified British intervention in World War I. “Damned British crap,” Ronald exclaimed, putting the book down as if he were giving long-overdue punishment to a whole school of thought. Which he was.

His life demonstrated that we libertarians are right: the individual, complex and whole, is the mysterious and unending source of all that is vital in our world.

Ronald’s works include The Scottish Enlightenment and the Theory of Spontaneous Order (University of Southern Illinois Press, 1987), Canadian Medicine: A Study in Restricted Entry (Fraser Institute, 1984), Dealing with Drugs: Consequences of Government Control (edited, Lexington Books, 1987), Government and Public Health in America (Edward Elgar, 2007), The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (edited, Sage Publications, 2008), and many articles, including one that was especially valuable for Liberty, on the intellectual argument about the American Revolution (Liberty, July 2008, pp. 37-42).

After his retirement, Ronald and his companion Clement Ho moved into a pretty, three-story house in the Washington suburb of Rockville, MD. There Ronald completed his magisterial edition of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (University of Chicago Press, 2011), which straightens out a great deal that Hayek left, shall we say, unstraightened. Ronald was already in poor health, requiring the use of a cane and, eventually, one of those personal elevators that take you from the first floor of your house to another floor. He had countless near-death experiences — frequently being rushed to the hospital, with only a half hour available to save his life. Yet he bravely undertook a long journey to Greece and Italy, which he enjoyed, and he lived with equivalent bravery from day to day. To see Ronald sitting at his desk, surrounded with computer wires, like a snake-charmer among his clients, watching his computer with one eye and Cary Grant (Turner Classics, again) with the other, was to imagine a cultural world that was, for once, under intelligent control.

Ronald was a combination of supposed opposites. He was a fiery combatant, yet a generous and lenient friend. He was sensitive and nostalgic, often to the point of tears, yet an unflinching judge of the written word. He struggled, year after year, against the uncountable illnesses that racked his body; yet he was always as valiant as a soldier undertaking his first combat mission. But there was no contradiction. His life demonstrated that we libertarians are right: the individual, complex and whole, is the mysterious and unending source of all that is vital in our world.

Ronald is survived by his friend Clement Ho, who was with him every step of the way. Anyone wishing to contact him is invited to do so, at cho@american.edu.




Share This


The Craze to Canonize Mike Wallace

 | 

Day after day, the big news — according to Yahoo, CNN, the old TV networks, and all the self-important newspapers — has been the sad demise of Mike Wallace, at the young age of 93.

Always he is called the “legendary” Mike Wallace, as if “legendary” were a title like Grand Exalted First Convener of the Muskrats’ Fraternal and Benevolent Association — an honorary title that for form’s sake must always be prefixed to the real name. Sounds good, means nothing — except, I’m afraid, to the fraternity of “newspeople” who put out this stuff.

Fools like Wallace were, and are, appointed to parrot the common opinions of a small circle of “opinion leaders.”

The man was a legend? He was a television “correspondent.” How can a man who read the news (or purported news) be the subject of some mysterious legend? If “legendary” is taken literally, it can only mean that to most Americans, his very being was mysterious; until now, most living people didn’t even know he existed. But to read the “news,” one would think that American peasants sat around the hearth fire every night, spinning yarns about Mike the Great.

Fortunately for the nation’s sanity, one of Wallace’s real, uh, um, accomplishments has now resurfaced. It’s a documentary about homosexuality that he concocted for CBS in 1967. In it, he opined:

“The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in nor capable of a lasting relationship like that of heterosexual marriage. His sex life — his love life — consists of chance encounters at the clubs and bars he inhabits, and even on the streets of the city. The pickup — the one night stand — these are the characteristics of the homosexual relationship.”

That was grossly and offensively untrue. It is untrue now; it was untrue then. It was known to be untrue to people who actually knew any gay people (which, however, Wallace did), or had read a book that went deeper into the mysteries of sexuality than, say, the collected sermons of Pope Pius XII. Wallace later insisted:

“That is — God help us — what our understanding of the homosexual lifestyle was a mere twenty-five years ago because nobody was out of the closet and because that’s what we heard from doctors.”

But supposing it’s true that “nobody was out of the closet” (and some of the people whom Wallace encountered were out of the closet), and also that this is what everyone understood (which it wasn’t): why, if Wallace knew nothing more than the falsehoods that everybody else — i.e., “we” — appeared to know, did he appoint himself to announce those falsehoods from the papal chair of CBS, as if they were news?

Here’s what’s going on. Fools like Wallace were, and are, appointed to parrot the common opinions — that is, the callow beliefs, misinformed notions, strange hunches, weird superstitions, and flat-out hysterias — of a small circle of “opinion leaders.” That is the “we.” These people are not particularly well educated. They know little or nothing about history. They aren’t curious about it, either. Their knowledge of science (“what we heard from doctors”) is extremely limited and completely unskeptical. If they read a book, they look for something that will confirm their pre-existing views, especially their assumption that everything important or “legendary” will naturally pertain to people like themselves. They know little of normal human life, by which I mean not only the vast field of sexuality but also such commonplace and obvious matters as how money is made, the nature of governmental power, normal forms and practices of religious belief, the fact that people actually enjoy getting drunk (I have an academic book on my table that attempts to explain why people drink), the various reasons why people value guns and other means of self-defense, the reasons why young families might want to live in the suburbs instead of some “green” high-rise, the resistance of parents to new-fangled notions of education, and above all, the sullen resistance of normal people to being “educated” by dopes like Wallace.

Yet these people — the “we” — are advertised (by themselves!) as heroes and “legends.”

You can say this about every broadcasting or newspaper “legend” you find. Cronkite. Murrow. And the next one who dies. He’ll get no eulogies from me.




Share This


Unsubstantiated: Without Substance

 | 

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.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.