The Liberty League

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Individuality is a concept crucial to liberty. The understanding that each of us is an individual is necessary if we are to keep our freedom and use it wisely. Individuality is, therefore, the main concept that tyrants want us to forget. Tyranny makes war on the individual. That means that it makes war on each and every one of us.

I hear a lot of talk, in libertarian circles, about “isms” and “ists.” It seems that these days, everyone has to adhere to an “ism,” be some sort of an “ist” or at least march under a banner that makes a bold statement. Am I a paleolibertarian, an anarchocapitalist, an Objectivist, a Rothbardian, or a Gold Coinage Free Spiritarian? (I made that last one up, but it sounds grand.) When I tell people that I consider myself a just plain libertarian, they tend to sigh as if to say, “How boring!”

It’s disheartening to me to hear my fellow liberty-lovers label themselves like that. I like to think that only statists think that way. But to most people of any political stripe, it seems inadequate simply to be themselves. It’s as if they’re little kids, trying on different superhero costumes at the department store. Which color cape, tights, and boots do they want to wear? What sort of special superpowers do they aspire to possess?

Tyranny makes war on the individual. That means that it makes war on each and every one of us.

I have reached that settled point in middle age where my main concern is how I believe I should live. How can I be the best individual human being I’m capable of being, based on my own priorities in life? Flashy capes and go-go boots do nothing for me (as probably everyone who could visualize me in them would agree). Living my own, ordinary, non-superheroic life is pretty much a full-time job.

Perhaps our society’s fascination with superheroes springs from the notion that we, ourselves, as individuals, are woefully insignificant. To many people, minding their own business and living their individual lives as best they can is simply boring. Being masters of themselves and wielding power in their own lives doesn’t strike them as enough.

But the truth of the matter is, that’s all we’ve got. Each of us can do, in our lives, only whatever it is given us to do. If our liberty to live as we see fit is not impeded, and we accomplish this, then at the end of our lives we can be satisfied that we’ve reached our full potential. It could very well be that the reason big government and political power have become so important in our society is that few of us understand that.

Our society’s fascination with superheroes may spring from the notion that we, ourselves, as individuals, are woefully insignificant.

Many people feel the burning need to tell others how to live. They aren’t content unless they’re wielding power over as many other people as possible. Because they don’t see themselves as enough, they feel they must join some entity larger than themselves, wear a fancy label, and function as components of a collective endeavor. Planning their own lives is not nearly as exciting as planning everyone else’s.

We wear labels in order to influence other people. To mind our own business, we need no label. A life of quiet integrity leads by example. Few of us ever learn that this is the deepest and most profound influence any human being can ever wield.

It’s possible, of course, that those of us who are libertarians would win more converts if we donned colorful costumes with tights and capes. Instead of “The Justice League,” we could call ourselves “The Liberty League.” Ours would need to be more effective than the old American Liberty League of the 1930s. After all, we wouldn’t want to be one-picture wonders. To endure, we must have an entire franchise.

If Hollywood did make movies about us, liberty would become — as the kids say — a thing. But under those conditions, my own wish would be to possess Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth. I could stride into D.C. brandishing that magical weapon and drive every politician and ideologist, of whatever kind, out of town. I can imagine no service I might perform for my country that would be more superheroic.




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Bound for Destruction on the Queen Mary

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During the last weekend in April I attended the second annual meeting of StokerCon.

Before you ask what StokerCon may be, I have to confess that I didn’t “attend” in the sense of “pay to attend” or “sit through any of the sessions.” I attended only as a person who suddenly discovered that StokerCon was going on all around him.

It began when my friend and I checked into our cabin on the liner Queen Mary — the Queen Mary that has, since 1967, been tied to a dock in Long Beach, California. It’s a fascinating vessel, and the idea that you can rent a room on it is marvelous in itself. But my subject is not the QM. It’s the mob of people in black t-shirts and black and red badges that we encountered in the ship’s lobbies and corridors, a crowd that was growing when we arrived on Thursday, swarmed on Friday, and did not depart until late Sunday afternoon.

Contemplating the convention’s logo, I looked at my friend with a wild surmise.

You don’t pay much to attend a StokerCon — you can get by with as little as $99 for (early) registration and, I think, $119 a night for your room — and you evidently get your money’s worth. There are lectures, receptions, product displays, and constant opportunities to meet and mingle with like-minded people. The whole ship was involved in the life of the group.

But what, you insist on asking, is StokerCon?

My friend and I had various ideas about that. Was there a railway union that still called itself the Stokers, just as the Teamsters still call themselves the Teamsters? Was this a convention designed not for people who prepare food but for people who stoke up on it? (A lot of the attendees were, indeed, very hefty.) Or were we meeting the constant players of some videogame we’d never heard of?

At last came the light. Contemplating the convention’s logo — a stylized, perhaps intentionally spooky, version of a house or castle — I looked at my friend with a wild surmise. The Con got its name from a man named Stoker — Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. The Con was about horror fiction.

I was right. According to itself (and I have no reason to disagree) “StokerCon is the annual convention of The Horror Writers Association (HWA), the premier organization of writers and publishers of horror and dark fantasy.”

In addition to sessions on such topics as “The Nuts and Bolts of Publishing Your Own Comic,” “Unraveling the Dark, Mysterious, Twisted World of Online Marketing,” and ”How to Write Awesome Dialog,” StokerCon offered parties, book sales even larger than those at libertarian conventions, and readings by a ton of authors (none of them known to my friend or me). All about the production of Horror. And all proof that Adam Smith was right about the division of labor.

One thing we did not learn was how many students have figured out how to make money from their education in fright.

The crowd was evenly split, male-female, with all ethnicities represented; and there were fair numbers of black women, though for some reason no black men (as far as we could see). Plenty of tattoos and strange millennial hair, but a good representation of retired people and folks who looked like librarians. In fact, there was a strong emphasis on libraries and librarians throughout. A few Stokers came dressed as stock horror characters — Death with a Scythe was my favorite — but I don’t think they kept it up during the entire event; even Death took a holiday. Looking for some common feature of the group, my friend said “strident voices,” and it was true that many, including librarians, had never mastered the indoor range of decibels. But that’s how we learned a lot, without paying any cash.

One thing we learned is that “universities” throughout the English-speaking world are cashing in on the evidently widespread desire to write horror fiction. If you want to do that, you will have no trouble finding classes, evening classes, summer classes, and online classes in the art of scaring people. One thing we did not learn was how many students have figured out how to make money from their education in fright. Clearly, few of the people who shipped on the Queen Mary that weekend were burdened with extra funds; I’d put the average annual income at $55K, and the median income from literary sources at a straight $55. And from one point of view, that’s a good thing, because the vast majority of genre fiction — detective, romance, western, horror, whatever — is and always has been junk. As a matter of fact, most fiction has always been junk. The more Stokers there are — the more writers there are — the more junk is going to be produced.

But here’s the thing. The feature of this group that was even more common than strident voices — the feature that was, indeed, universal — turned out to be happiness. Moods ranged from smiling contentment to shrieking hilarity, but there were no unhappy ghouls or goblins.

A good time was had by all, except people like my friend and me, who were always getting trapped in some public space with mobs of intrusively cheerful people. Yet when Sunday night rolled around, and we were sitting in the bar by ourselves, we sort of missed the Stokers. They didn’t leave us desolate, but they left us with a little less to talk about. A little less to have fun with. They were . . . something. They were not nothing. As much as I dislike the fact that everyone in America now describes himself as a member of some “community,” these people had actually created a community for themselves, and they were enjoying it, and they were doing no damage to other people (beyond the occasional shattered eardrum). And if that isn’t good for America, I don’t know what is.




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The Case for Gary Johnson

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It’s a Liberty tradition: before a presidential election we invite our authors to make the best case they can for the Democratic candidate, the Libertarian candidate, the Republican candidate, and no candidate at all. In some instances, the best case isn’t one that the authors themselves find the most convincing. C’est la guerre.

* * *

I’ve always associated the name Gary with a regular guy. Perhaps that’s because one of my favorite old-time movie stars is Gary Cooper — the epitome of a regular guy. My favorite among his many roles was Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. Even as an extraordinary guy, Gary Cooper still managed to be regular.

Gary Johnson also manages — with breezy ease — to be both regular and extraordinary. Any man who contends for the presidency must be extraordinary in some sense. Yet Governor Johnson has always remained one of the common folks. He isn’t the type who inspires the Beatlemania that still possesses fans of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. He has a way of quietly inspiring trust.

If we still control who gets elected, then the power still resides with us. The potentates behind the scenes have not yet succeeded in stealing our country.

Young people’s devotion to Ron Paul did reach the level of Beatlemania. But Governor Johnson is certainly catching on with millennials. They’re young enough, and fresh enough, to recognize the mentality of “I can’t vote for somebody who can’t win” for the brain fungus that it really is. All — and I mean literally all — it would take for Gary Johnson to be elected would be for that delusion to end and the many millions it has infected to come to their senses and recognize that absolutely nothing stops them from voting for him, and that if they do vote for him, he will win.

We know that government can’t really change much — at least not for the better — no matter who holds office. But if we still control who gets elected, then the power still resides with us. The potentates behind the scenes have not yet succeeded in stealing our country. Gary keeps telling us that we can vote for whomever we want — and that if enough of us do that, we can foil the plans of our would-be rulers. In 21st-century America, that in itself is a revolutionary message.

The growing support for Gary Johnson’s candidacy is a sign that we’re flexing our muscles. That we recognize — however flabby we’ve gotten — that we haven’t lost them. And that if we fail to use those muscles, we will lose everything that matters to us.

In an unprecedentedly blatant way, our self-appointed betters are telling us simply to like it or lump it. We are coming to the realization that we want to do neither, that a choice between them is no real choice at all.

Johnson is helping us to see that running the country is our job — and his job is to get out of our way so that we can do it.

The American Revolution led not only to a change in who would run our lives but to a shift in our perspective. However unpleasant this election year may be, it gives us that same potential. It has existed all along, but we needed to recognize it anew. Like Rip Van Winkle, or the characters in some episode of The Twilight Zone, we are awakening to the reality of what surrounds us.

Gary Johnson’s candidacy reminds us that we do have a real choice, even in an election year as distasteful as this one. He isn’t going to lead us out of all our troubles, but he alone, of all the candidates, doesn’t claim that he will. He’s telling us, in fact, that no candidate for public office can do for us what we need to do for ourselves. He understands his role as helping us to see that running the country is our job — and as getting out of our way so that we can do it.

Some of the stuff he’s been saying doesn’t sound very libertarian. He wants the US to remain in the UN (and I think it’s imperative to our survival as a sovereign nation that we leave it). Far from making it more likely that I’ll vote for him because he thinks anti-gay bakers should be required by law to make my wedding cake, such pandering actually insults me. I vehemently disagree with him that Planned Parenthood should receive any taxpayer-funding. And disarming people with mental health issues — people who are far more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators — is a notion I find not only bigoted but disgusting.

Can I live with a president who says such things? As long as he is just a president, and not an emperor or a king, then the answer is yes. He alone, of all the candidates, doesn’t aspire to reign over us like medieval royalty. We don’t need to worry that every dumb notion that pops into his head will automatically be forced upon the rest of us. Given the other candidates’ statist ambitions, their stupid ideas would almost certainly end up being not only their problem, but ours.

Even libertarians can get fooled into looking at an election through a statist lens. It’s not about power: about who gets elected, or even about what he or she promises to do. It’s about us. We get fixated, along with everyone else, on how much money a candidate has in the “war chest” — as if that is what determines the outcome — but nothing has changed the fact that we are still the ones who mark our ballots for the candidate of our choice. The power is still vested in us.

Gary Johnson alone, of all the candidates, doesn’t aspire to reign over us like medieval royalty.

“Yes sir,” declared Gary Cooper in another of his movies, Meet John Doe, “we’ve been in there dodging left hooks since before History began to walk. In our struggle for freedom, we’ve hit the canvas many a time, but we always bounced back because we’re the people — and we’re tough.”

Gary Johnson is beckoning us up from the canvas once again. I, for one, fully intend to rise, take my stand, and fight.




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The Libertarian vs. the Activist

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Last month I read a pair of little news stories about animals in German menageries and what people have done, and not done, about them. These stories suggested certain analogies to human behavior that, when they occurred to me, appeared far-fetched. They may be so. But the stories kept coming back to me — evidence, at least, that they spoke to some personal identification with the ideas they suggested. They may be suggestive to you, too.

One of the stories had to do with a pair of male penguins in a German zoo. They were brought there to mate with female penguins and help preserve the king penguin species. But “they only mated with one another.” The zookeepers gave up and let them enjoy themselves in their all-male love nest.

In the other story, humans just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Animal rights “activists” — what a peculiar word that is, “activist,” as if being “active” were some kind of profession — were inspired by the slogan “Free All Animals” to break into a small circus and “free” two ostriches and a goose. The goose and one ostrich were recaptured, but the surviving ratite might have to be executed, because German law requires ostriches to be kept in pairs and the other ostrich was killed by a car. It seems that fowl, once “freed,” still aren’t very good at negotiating modern streets.

Of course, the animals themselves are not a fair analogy to humans, who do indeed have rights and deserve to be free. What interests me about the stories is that they illustrate two different approaches to life.

What a peculiar word that is, “activist,” as if being “active” were some kind of profession.

The penguins benefited from the first approach. They enjoyed the tolerance and capacity for reflection that leads people to say, “Oh well. Our plan failed. I guess we don’t know everything. But go ahead; be yourselves. We’ll let you alone.”

This, as I take it, is the libertarian approach, and the truly libertarian mindset. But there is another mindset, one that sometimes masquerades as libertarian. This is the approach that destroyed the ostriches. It’s the approach that assumes, “I know everything, and what I know is that everything is a moral issue, and everyone has an obligation to be active in addressing all moral issues, and therefore no one should ever leave anyone or anything alone.”

I confess that this attitude disturbs me about as much as anything could, especially when it gets mixed up with the idea of rights and freedom. Even the notion that animals have rights strikes me as a fantasy originating in a refusal to leave anything alone.

The concept of rights, which is perhaps the most valuable concept that mankind ever discovered, is grounded in the observation that there are beings in this world that have the capacity to make their own moral decisions and take responsibility for doing so. A coherent conception of rights involves the notion that rights are guarantees and therefore must not contradict other rights or guarantees. My right must not conflict with your right.

College can cost a lot, and students often go into debt to finance their college education. There’s a real solution to this problem: do nothing about it.

The animal rights “activists” whom I have known — good people, well-meaning people, fine people in almost every way — have waged war on hunting, zoos, pet stores, and even municipal restrictions on the presence of wild animals in the hearts of cities. Yet they have kept their own cats, dogs, fish, and ferrets in close captivity, and they have had no moral compunction about killing them when they got old or sick. Surely there is a contradiction here. And surely there is a contradiction in thinking that a cat has the right to kill a bird, just as a bird has the right to fly where it wants, even if it’s into the jaws of a cat. The deeper problem is that none of these animals is capable of making a moral decision or accepting responsibility. None of them is capable of respecting other animals’ “rights.” And no wonder, because they don’t have rights. That’s why nobody, least of all the “activists,” wants to try Pudgie the poodle for killing Peter the possum.

Animal rights “activists” (who are often libertarians) believe in rights, which is good; and they believe — when it comes to animals — in kindness and tolerance, which are also good. But they can’t leave any of those concepts alone; they have to take them out of their proper context and let them run wild, to trample or be trampled, until there is nothing left but carrion.

And they aren’t the only ones. This is what you see when a libertarian calls you a racist or a fascist, a foe of all rights, because you place some value on borders and border security. These good people think that terrorism is merely a word invented by government to tighten its control on the populace. They believe that when religious zealots bomb a footrace, bring down a skyscraper, or shoot up a Christmas party full of friendly co-workers, they are merely responding to American aggression in the Near East. These intellectual activists are eager for everyone who has the price of a plane ticket to migrate to America, be supported on government subsidies for education, healthcare, transportation, and every other feature of the welfare state, and finally vote for a government that is exactly the opposite of libertarian. The abstract idea of “rights” is all that matters to them. And if you disagree, they cannot leave you alone in your ignorance and folly. No, they must attack.

If you can find this activist streak in libertarians, where can’t you find it? It is perhaps the major problem in America today. Here’s a topic, picked literally at random: student loans.

College can cost a lot, and students often go into debt to finance their college education. There’s a real solution to this problem: do nothing about it. Leave the young penguins alone. Don’t keep telling them that everyone must go to college. Don’t keep suckering them into government-sponsored loans. Don’t keep sending federal money to colleges, to make sure that everyone can and will attend them. It doesn’t lower student costs, although it does give administrators larger salaries and larger staffs and greater leverage in society. Let the colleges find out how to offer students something they value — actually value for itself, not for the notional status of having graduated from an institution (any institution will do) of higher learning. Let students go into debt, if they think their education is worth it because, for instance, they think it will qualify them for a good job, or because they may learn something in college that they wouldn’t learn anywhere else. If their decision was rational, they can pay off the loans, as other people pay off loans, considering them payment for value received.

Conservatives' problem is not so much with the concept of rights as with the concept of righteousness.

But the liberals won’t leave the idea of “college” alone. They insist all the more that everyone should be “free” to go to college, in fact should go to college, and that colleges should be so well subsidized by the government that most of them never need to attract students by lowering their costs. The liberals make sure to increase these costs by saddling colleges with every kind of social mandate they can devise, thereby doubling or tripling the total price of a college education. After that, the liberals insist that everyone in the country has a responsibility to pay off the loans that the students contracted — either that, or just pay everyone to go to college. College education — free at last! Here again we see the ostrich of “freedom” bolting wildly through deadly traffic.

Conservatives are justly famous for not being able to leave anything alone. Their problem is not so much with the concept of rights as with the concept of righteousness. Is it right that foreigners have corrupt governments? Is it right that some people’s lives are ruined by drugs? Is it right to spend every waking hour drinking, smoking, fornicating, and indulging an “addiction” to pornography? No, it is not right. But the conservatives, like the liberals, cannot stop with such an admission. They have to do something to make sure that, metaphorically, no penguin ever makes the mistake of mating with the wrong penguin.

Now picture the near future, part of which is already with us, thanks to conservative and liberal activism. In that future stands the great composite ideal of the liberals and conservatives: an 18-year-old Marine who is being sent to die in Afghanistan without ever having drunk a beer, smoked a cigarette, sniffed some coke, gone to a dirty website, owned a personal firearm, had sex without a condom, used a racial epithet, neglected to recycle, or expressed a doubt about global warming. And all this because he has been doing what he is told and required to do.

Please don’t write in to debate about whether these particular prescriptions are right or not. That young Marine is not right. He is an absurd deformation of the concept of humanity. He is one more ostrich on the loose, racing toward spiritual annihilation. But that’s what the activists always want. They want to maximize their favorite types of behavior. They often call that “freedom.” The results? Why worry?

Well, I said it was a far-fetched analogy. But is it? I hope so. But the point about the penguins is not far-fetched. Leave the penguins alone.




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The Art of the Jungle

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Sometimes a movie should be approached from the perspective of its artistry more than its philosophy or its storyline. The new Jungle Book is one of those films.

Sure, we could examine the underlying theme represented by the “Law of the Jungle”: For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack. We could debate whether this philosophy favors the individual or the community. (I think it favors the individual, since “the Law” feels more like an invitation and a promise than a command or a threat.) We could also comment on the Law of Peace that wary animal species establish in the movie to gain safe access to water during a drought: the animals agree not to attack one another when they are at the only available watering hole. The truce is enforced simply by their own self-interest and their consideration of long-term consequences should they violate it. Isn’t that a lot like the libertarian tenet that commerce or trade is preferable to war for people who have different values and beliefs?

Even more stunning is the way the animals move — not as animals imitating people, but with the darting gestures or lumbering heft of animals who happen to speak.

We could also howl at the way the well-structured anapestic rhythm of Kipling’s original language has been marred by the wolves’ substituting And the Wolf that keeps it shall prosper, but the Wolf that breaks it must die for Kipling’s measured scansion: And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die — a small thing, but I shall use it in my intro to poetry courses.

But right now, let’s just focus on the beauty of this film, the quality of the acting, the massive number of people who worked in harmony to produce it, and the amazing technology that made it possible.

The film opens with Mowgli (Neel Sethi), clad in a red loincloth, dashing barefoot through the jungle over rocks, across trees, through bushes until a branch snaps and he plummets to the ground. But there aren’t any trees — or grass or rocks or bushes, or ground for that matter; the movie was filmed entirely through digital animation and live-capture action in a studio in West L.A. The VFX (Visual Effects) are simply stunning, from the realistic blades of grass and bark of the trees to the fur on the animals and the way the wind ruffles the scene. Even more stunning is the way the animals move — not as animals imitating people, but with the darting gestures or lumbering heft of animals who happen to speak.

Adding to the sense of realism is the fact that Mowgli has scars, bruises, scrapes, and cuts, as one would expect of a young boy who lives in the wild. (In fact, watch for the scars on his shoulders — one seems to be an R, and the other a K, in a nod to Rudyard Kipling.)

Twelve-year-old Neel Sethi was the only live actor in this film and performed entirely on a blue screen set, assisted by mechanical stand-ins and director Jon Favreau, who often stood just off screen to help focus Sethi’s eye lines. He had to imagine the animals pursuing him, the bees stinging him, the trees he was climbing, and the conversations he was having. As Mowgli, he appears in nearly every scene, so the success of this $175,000,000 production rested on his acting abilities. He is utterly believable and engaging throughout.

Kipling wrote many poems encouraging boys to behave like men. In this film, Favreau encourages humans to be themselves.

An additional challenge with a film of this scope is scheduling the live work fast enough so the actor doesn’t age over the course of the film. That means all the animation had to be set in stone before live filming began — no retakes are possible when the other cast members require weeks or months to recreate.

The actors who voiced the animals did their work separately within a sound booth, of course, long before Sethi entered the scene. They, too, must imagine the action and react to other characters virtually. They imbue their characters with their personalities simply through the inflection of their voices, and rely on animators to add gestures and facial expressions to bring the characters to life in other ways. Bill Murray as the bear Baloo and Christopher Walken as the gigantopithecus King Louis (an orangutan in the 1967 version) are particularly impressive. Murray’s low-key, offhand, Teddy-bear delivery is funny and endearing, while Walken’s Brooklyn accent is completely different from the way Louie Prima envisioned King Louis in the 1967 version. In fact, Louis’ sinister entrance is reminiscent of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in Apocalypse Now.

This is not a musical, but it would not be The Jungle Book without some of the beloved songs from the 1967 version (which was the last animated feature on which Walt Disney himself worked; he died before it was released). Favreau introduces the familiar melodies subtly within the background score, and when they do sing, it happens naturally, the way one would sing on a sunny day. Baloo and Mowgli float down a river singing “The Bear Necessities,” but they don’t dance. Other songs from the original also show up, but not until the credits roll (Kaa’s “Trust in Me” performed by Scarlett Johannson, King Louis’ “I Wanna Be Like You” performed by Christopher Walken, and a reprise of “The Bear Necessities” by Kermit Ruffins. So don’t be in a hurry to jump up from your seat when the book closes.

The Jungle Book is a story about self-discovery, manhood, and learning whom to trust. This version also presents a fair view of humans, who can be bad, as represented by their introducing fire to the jungle (never mind that lightning had been causing forest fires long before that!) but can also be very good if allowed to develop in a natural habitat. At first Mowgli suppresses his human qualities of problem-solving and tool-building, guided by his guardian panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and his adoptive wolf-mother Raksha (Lupito Nyong’o) to “fit in with the pack.” But Baloo sees the value of Mowgli’s remarkable inventiveness, and encourages him to use it productively. Eventually Mowgli’s tool-building skills save the pack and everyone else in the jungle.

Influenced by 19th-century sensibilities about gender roles and manhood in particular, Kipling wrote many poems encouraging boys to behave like men. In this film, director Favreau encourages humans to be themselves. By taking care of himself, Mowgli also takes care of the pack. I think that’s a pretty good law of the jungle.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Jungle Book," directed by Jon Favreau. Walt Disney Pictures, 2016, 105 minutes.



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Alive! It’s Still Alive!

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In 1823 Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and explorer, was mauled by a bear and left for dead by the soldiers who were ordered to remain with him until he either recovered or died naturally. One of these guardians was 19-year-old Jim Bridger (yes, that Jim Bridger, who would become a significant explorer of the American West). Alone and without any weapons or supplies, Glass managed to set his own broken leg, dress his own wounds, and drag himself 200 miles to Fort Kiowa, where he vowed revenge against those who had abandoned him. His story became the stuff of wilderness lore for nearly two centuries, and provided material for numerous articles, books, and movies, including Man in the Wilderness (1971) with Richard Harris in the title role.

In the hands of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass, this story outshines them all. A 19th-century romantic sensibility runs through the film, beginning with the cinematography that mimics the Hudson River School of art with its soaring landscapes overshadowing the humans; at one point Glass is a mere speck in an ocean of snow, barely visible between two towering mountains. Romanticism also appears in the film’s reverence for nature and the “noble savage,” its presentation of spiritualism and the occult, and its celebration of rugged individualism. The film is an exquisitely beautiful paean to nature. All this occurs through the artistry of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who could be experiencing a hat trick at the Oscars, after taking home the award for cinematography (Gravity, Birdman) the past two years. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s musical score, with its deep somber strings resonating with sorrow and grief, is also masterly.

Most of all, though, it’s a thrilling story with many heartstopping moments. I heard myself shouting, “Oh no oh no oh no!” as I felt myself plunging headfirst over a cliff. I also hurtled down rivers and over waterfalls, endured bloody hand-to-hand combat (including a fight with that bear), encountered stunning dream sequences, and could swear the overhead fans swirled icy air through the theater whenever Glass was nearly freezing to death.

At one point Glass is a mere speck in an ocean of snow, barely visible between two towering mountains.

Three main storylines intertwine to develop the plot. First, a group of fur trappers must make its way to safety at Fort Kiowa, after being attacked by Indians and losing most of its men. The group is led by Glass and his Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) until Glass is mauled by a grizzly protecting her cubs. It’s one of the most terrifyingly realistic animal encounters I’ve ever seen on film. I don’t know how DiCaprio had the courage to make this scene, and I don’t even want to know how they did it; I just want to believe it. Second, in a reverse allusion to John Wayne’s The Searchers (1956), the Indians are searching for their leader’s daughter, who has been kidnapped by a group of white men. Finally, a group of French fur traders contributes to the problems encountered by both of the other groups.

At the center of the conflict is Glass’ personal vendetta against John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the man who has killed his son and then abandoned Glass to a premature grave. Fitzgerald is an illiterate adventurer whose backwoods accent is so thick it’s sometimes hard to understand his words. But there’s no misunderstanding his pragmatic survivalism. When Bridger (Will Poulter) reminds him to think of his life, Fitzgerald responds, “Life? I ain’t got no life. All I got is livin’.” With no hope for a life beyond trapping, he is motivated only by his animalistic need for protection, food, and shelter. But Glass does have a life, or at least he did; he had a son. His desire for revenge motivates him to keep moving when others would have given up and died. He emerges from his grave as a man emerging from the womb of the earth. Wrapped in the skin of the bear that mauled him, he becomes the bear, avenging the cub he could not protect.

As did the romantic artists and writers of the era in which this film is set, The Revenant champions rugged individuality. Iñárritu does this by contrasting pack mentality with the personal choice and actions of individuals on their own. For example, an early scene shows the fur trappers skinning hundreds of animals and leaving behind stacks of bloody carcasses to demonstrate the wanton waste and brutality of their trade. Soon after this scene we see Glass and his son Hawk stalking and killing a moose that they intend to eat, and we feel respect for their skill and their reverence for nature. Indeed, the men of all three groups are kept alive in the frigid winterland by wearing bearskin coats and hats. Later, a pack of wolves chases down a bison calf and kills it, and we feel horror for the calf. But when Glass catches a fish barehanded and bites its head off, straight out of the water, we feel how famished he is and again respect his skill. Similarly, when whites or Indians are in groups, they massacre each other’s villages viciously. But when Bridger sees a lone Indian woman in one of those massacred villages, he leaves behind a packet of food for her, and when a Pawnee Indian comes upon Glass in the wilderness, he shares his food, dresses Glass’ wounds, and gives him a ride. In short, groups are tyrannical, individuals are kind. I don’t know whether it was Iñárritu’s intent to demonstrate the tyranny of the masses vs. the nobility of the individual, but I found this aspect of the film quite satisfying.

Iñárritu gets the kind of budgetary green lights other directors can only dream of, and for good reason: he knows what to do with it. He is one of the most visionary directors in Hollywood today and will settle for nothing less than what he envisions a film to be. He has a reputation for being demanding and uncaring toward his actors and his crew; to make The Revenant they froze, they starved, and they froze some more. You can see the exhaustion and desperation in the actors’ eyes, and it’s perfect for the film. Reportedly some crew walked off the set, saying it was too dangerous and too hard. I can’t blame them. Yet those who stayed behind had the opportunity to make something remarkable. The Revenant is a film you will discuss on many levels for a very long time. It’s long, but oh my goodness, is it gorgeous!

The Revenant champions rugged individuality by contrasting pack mentality with the personal choice and actions of individuals on their own.

Another director known for his visionary style, engaging stories and brutal scenes is Quentin Tarantino, who has lately developed a tradition of releasing a new film on Christmas Day. Now, I would never choose a bloody Tarantino film to celebrate the joy of Christmas, especially one with the title The Hateful Eight. But movies are the “gifts that keep on giving,” so I waited to see his latest offering until two weeks later.

The two films have several other characteristics in common, in addition to the distinctiveness of their directors. Both are westerns that begin with expansive snowy landscapes reminiscent of the Romantic era, with characters appearing as mere specks in the frame. Both contain gorgeous musical scores that establish the mood of each scene and carry the story forward. Both tell intense stories that lead to graphic, bloody battles. Both plots are driven by the capture of a woman, and characters in each film are driven by a desire for revenge. Both even contain characters who whimsically stick out fat tongues on which to catch snowflakes, and both have characters who lose their testicles. So what sets them apart?

Let’s turn to The Hateful Eight. This is Tarantino’s eighth feature film (if you don’t count his segments in Four Rooms and Sin City, but you do count his half of Grindhouse, and you count Kill Bill as one film, even though it was released as two separate films . . .) Maybe you get the idea. Tarantino loves to create homages and echoes and allusions, and calling this one The Hateful Eight (which he arrives at by not counting the stagecoach driver, who would be the ninth character in the film) is important to him because it allows an allusion to Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), the title of which was chosen because Fellini had then made eight and a half films. Tarantino seems determined to make his homage fit, even if it means cutting off his toe to cram his size 10 foot into Fellini’s size 8 ½ glass slipper.

Tarantino waits a long time before the bloodbath begins, and even when it finally does, it isn’t at all what you expect.

As you can see, the homages and allusions and traditions can become a bit too precious and overbearing, but at the same time they create a certain resonance in Tarantino’s works that his fans have come to expect and enjoy. He also likes to include props and dialogue that astute fans will recognize from other films, and he has a stable of favorite actors who have become a veritable performance troupe with him. Fans also know to watch for his cameo appearance in his films, à la Alfred Hitchcock; in this one, which contains a closed setting similar to Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), he voices the narrator.

Tarantino is also known for his orgiastic use of blood, which is always over the top, and always more than necessary. Way more. But he is a masterful storyteller, and that makes the gore almost worth enduring. Almost. I suppose many viewers have become inured to it by now. I have not.

In this film Tarantino waits a long time before the bloodbath begins, and even when it finally does, it isn’t at all what you expect. The first half of the story is immediately engaging. A stranger stops a stagecoach in the gathering snow and asks for a ride into town. The stagecoach is occupied by a bounty hunter named “Hanging John” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prize, the outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The stranger turns out to be another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), and after some sparring and posturing the two bounty hunters are soon making their way by stagecoach to Red Rock, Wyoming, to deliver their cargo of outlaws. Major Marquis generally chooses the “dead” option in “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and he piles his three bodies atop the stagecoach where they are as stiff and oblivious as Grandma in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). “Hanging John,” on the other hand, believes in bringing them in alive so he can watch them hang. He keeps his lucrative captive handcuffed to him until he can exchange her for the $10,000 bounty. A third stranger (Will Poulter) also appears along the snowy road and joins them in the stagecoach. Tarantino develops the suspense in these opening scenes subtly. Knowing looks are exchanged between characters, unexplained props are noticed, and skillfully written music plays on our emotions. It is eerie and highly effective.

When the stage and its passengers encounter a blizzard, they pull into Minnie’s Haberdashery, a way station where four other travelers are already ensconced and Minnie is nowhere to be seen. No one trusts anyone else, and Ruth is particularly nervous that someone is going to get away with Daisy and steal his $10,000 bounty. The men exchange stories to pass the time, and as more and more details around the Haberdashery make less and less sense, the story plays out not only as a western but as a who-done-it and a what-exactly-has-been-done. It’s part Agatha Christie’s Then There Were None, part 3:10 to Yuma, part Magnificent Seven, part Canterbury Tales, part Hitchcock’s Rope, and some Friday the 13ththrown in for good measure.

With its single setting and familiar ensemble of actors, The Hateful Eight often feels as much like a stage play as it does a movie, and the jumble of genres becomes tedious when we are trapped with the characters in the cabin. But Jennifer Jason Leigh is particularly good as Daisy, the outlaw on her way to a hanging. She doesn’t have much dialogue, but she appears in most of the scenes. Just as then-newcomer Steve McQueen drew attention to himself in the Magnificent Seven by quietly making movements in the background — fingering his hat, spinning his gun, pacing around and generally upstaging Yul Brynner — Daisy wipes her noise, pokes around in her teeth, drags her tongue over her lips, grins seductively at the men despite her filthy ugliness, and steals nearly every scene. By contrast, Kurt Russell provides an understated performance as he channels John Wayne in the cadence of his drawl.

The story plays out not only as a western but as a who-done-it and a what-exactly-has-been-done.

Ennio Morricone’s original score is probably the best part of The Hateful Eight. Morricone scored most of the Sergio Leone “spaghetti westerns” that made Clint Eastwood a star. Morricone’s symphonic arrangements recall a 1950s sensibility, while his music controls the emotion of the film and leads the story throughout. It is a score that stands alone and could be enjoyed even without the film. I am not surprised that he won the Golden Globe award for original score, even though Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for The Revenant is also a powerful and essential part of that film.

In 2007 two westerns set in the 20th century, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, competed for the top film awards. This year we have two other westerns that were aiming for a shootout at the Oscars. Both have intense, gripping stories. Both demonstrate masterly cinematic skills. Both are long. But only one is gorgeous. The other made me want to go home and wash my eyes out with soap. There are many good reasons only The Revenant was nominated for Best Picture. Sorry, QT.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "The Revenant," directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. New Regency Pictures, 2015, 156 minutes; and "The Hateful Eight," directed by Quentin Tarantino. Weinstein Brothers, 2015, 165 minutes.



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The Big Short Finds Joy

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In 2008 the United States experienced the biggest collapse in the real estate market since the Great Depression of the 1930s. While many had been talking about the expanding bubble, no one really thought it would burst. Real estate was the one sure deal, the tangible investment that everyone needed and thus would never disappear. During the upward panic to get into the market before prices skyrocketed even further, buyers were snapping up houses within a matter of days after they were listed, often engaging in bidding wars that drove the sales price higher than the asking price. “What our houses are worth now” was the gleeful topic of every cocktail party in every neighborhood, whether you were interested in selling or not. Using easy credit made easier by the “no-doc” loans that guaranteed virtually everyone a mortgage, people who had no business buying houses got into the market, and people who already owned homes risked their solvency by taking out additional home-equity loans to use for other purposes. After all, real estate was too big to fail. Prices always go up.

Until they go down. In September 2008 the bubble burst, leaving overleveraged homeowners in precarious positions — unable to sell, unable to pay, unable to forestall foreclosure, and underwater with their mortgage-to-equity figures. The Big Short attempts to explain what happened, in a film that is sassy, quirky, glib, and sometimes even right.

After all, real estate was too big to fail. Prices always go up.

In the interest of telling a good tale, the filmmakers simplify it, presenting a small portion of the story as if it were the whole story. For example, they virtually ignore the Community Reinvestment Act, which was designed to make mortgage and investment money available in “underserved” (read: poverty stricken) areas. The Act was a noble goal, but it meant that people would be granted mortgages who really couldn’t afford them, and had no cushion whatsoever to deal with repairs, upkeep, or changes in employment (read: getting fired). These were called “subprime” loans officially, but “Ninja loans” derisively (No Income, No Job, Accept Anything). It also meant that the demand for homes increased dramatically, driving prices and new construction upward in response to this new bloc of buyers. By ignoring this Act, the filmmakers suggest that all of the blame lay in the private sector of investment funds and rating services.

Instead, this film focuses on the creation of mortgage-backed securities, which is an investment vehicle that spreads the risk of foreclosure by bundling many mortgages into a single security and then selling shares of that security to a number of investors. Everyone shares in the risk and the reward. And because of that, local bankers no longer keep the mortgages they grant to individuals in the community; as soon as the signatures are dry, the mortgages are bundled away onto the secondary market. In the interest of brevity and creating a single straw man, the film blames this on the mastermind behind the mortgage-backed security, Lewis Ranieri (Rudy Eisenzopf), but this is an oversimplification of what went wrong. Many factors were involved, including Federal Reserve policy on the national level and overproduction of building permits on the local level.

Let’s face it: life is not a screenplay. But that’s how this caper is presented. A few savvy investors notice the increase in late mortgage payments and foreclosures beginning around 2004, anticipate the collapse, and figure out a way to profit from it. All these characters are based on real people. One is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who breaks the fourth wall to narrate the film in a cool, hipster tone that draws us into the web. Others include the Silicon Valley-based eccentric Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the moralistic Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and two young founders of a trading fund called Brownfield Capital, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who bring the also eccentric investment trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) out of retirement and into their deal. Working independently from one another, these traders are convinced they can make a killing by shorting the real estate market (hence the title, The Big Short).

In order for our heroes to succeed in making their millions on short sales, the entire market had to collapse, with millions of Americans bearing the loss.

W.C. Fields made famous the idea that “you can’t cheat an honest man,” and the investment bankers at Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Bear Sterns, and Lehman Brothers personify that adage. They laugh conspiratorially behind the backs of these short sellers even as they take their money, so confident are they that real estate is “too big to fail.” Of course, we know that the last laugh will be on them. But the bankers will not go down without a fight. The film demonstrates the dubious shenanigans and downright manipulation they used to try to keep the market afloat and force the investors to close their short positions before they could exercise them.

If all this sounds a tad confusing, not to worry! The filmmakers explain such concepts as short selling, CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations), ISDAs (International Swaps and Derivatives), and other potentially dry, technical terminology, using the unlikeliest characters. A glamour girl lounges in a bubble bath, sipping champagne and explaining mortgage-backed securities, while the soap bubbles and the fizz bubbles provide a sleazy metaphor for the market bubble that is brewing. A chef chops up unsellable three-day-old fish to make a marketable stew as he explains the fishy rating system that kept these mortgage-backed securities at AAA status even when their defaults were ballooning. A stripper undulates on her pole as she explains yet another investment concept. Music videos appear unexpectedly to demonstrate the euphoria of various characters. These unexpected moments, coupled with a soundtrack reminiscent at times of an Ocean’s Eleven sting, keeps the film hopping and lively.

But this is not a fun topic, and the short-selling sting was not directed against a Las Vegas gangster who deserved his comeuppance. In order for our heroes to succeed in making their millions on short sales, the entire market had to collapse, with millions of Americans bearing the loss. And their brilliant scheme would deliver a double wallop to the already precarious investment banks. According to the film, six million lost their homes, and eight million lost their jobs. Rickert puts it into perspective when he reminds Charlie and Jamie, “If we make money, it’s because ordinary people lose homes, jobs, and lives.” Banks held the prices of their securities up as along as they could, hoping for a turnaround, but in the process they simply made things worse. Regulators were in bed with the companies they regulated, creating a false sense of protection that contributed even more to the disaster. The result was almost as devastating to employees of the major investment firms as the day the World Trade Center was attacked. In its scale, the personal devastation was worse.

The Big Short is not the whole story. It might not even be the true story. But it is an important portion of the story, told with an outstanding cast in an entertaining and engaging way. Surprisingly, it does not trash big business, even though it shows collusion, fraud and manipulation at many levels. Mostly it shows individuals putting their own needs first, protecting their own jobs and security and using their influence to manipulate the bond ratings and the markets to their advantage. No one is overtly evil in this film. It tells a very personal story, one that each of us might be drawn into on a smaller scale if we aren’t careful.

Joy, another film about business, opened the same week as The Big Short, focusing not on the big dealers but on the underserved. Both have been nominated for Golden Globe Awards and both are populated by an ensemble of AAA actors, including Melissa Rivers, who in Joy does a sharp but poignant turn as her mother, Joan Rivers, in her role as a QVC spokesperson. Both films rely on nonlinear storytelling, flashbacks, and dream sequences to make some of their points. This is especially effective in Joy, where disconnected, disorienting scenes demonstrate how seemingly disconnected ideas come together in the imagination to form something new and valuable.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a creative, bright, hardworking young mother of two and valedictorian of her high school class who has been held back from success by the emotional and physical demands of her eccentric family, most of whom live in her house. Her agoraphobic mother (Virginia Madsen) spends most of her days in bed, watching soap operas; Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), a wannabe singer, lives in her basement and can’t keep a job; her philandering father Rudy (Robert De Niro) also lives in her basement when he’s between girlfriends; and her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), who narrates the story, is the only person who believes in her.

Joy didn’t set out to make my life better, or anyone’s life better except her own. She needed to pay her mortgage, fix her plumbing, and put food on the table.

As a child Joy had big dreams of becoming an inventor, but her parents’ divorce drove her ambitions inside, much as a cicada (a recurring metaphor in the film) spends 17 years in unproductive safety underground. When she cuts her hands badly while sopping up the mess made by a broken wine glass, she figures out how to make a “wringless mop” and decides it’s time to reemerge into the light and dangers above ground to sell her invention to others.

I own this mop. I love it. It keeps my hands clean and dry while it makes my floor clean and sparkly. I also own the Huggable Hangers that the real Joy Mangano invented. They keep my silky shirts and dresses from falling onto the floor in my closet. I’m grateful that she had the spunk and tenacity to overcome all the obstacles she encountered on her way to success, and I’m glad her hundreds of household inventions have made her filthy rich, because her inventions make my life better. But she didn’t set out to make my life better, or anyone’s life better except her own. She needed to pay her mortgage, fix her plumbing, and put food on the table. And like so many other entrepreneurs, she did that by making other people’s lives better too. This is what I love most about this film.

To do it, she needed capital. She needed to conduct a patent search, apply for a patent, design molds to produce her mop, negotiate with manufacturers to make the mop, and market the mop to mass audiences. Capital is the lifeblood of entrepreneurship. Joy finally convinces her father’s latest girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) to invest in manufacturing and marketing her invention. The rest of the film demonstrates both the elation and the devastation of entrepreneurship. Through it all, Joy never gives up — not on her invention, not on her family, and not on herself. Harry Browne fans will appreciate Joy’s advice to her young daughter: "Don't ever think that the world owes you anything, because it doesn't. The world doesn't owe you a thing.”

Eventually Joy creates a successful manufacturing and marketing empire that provides startup capital for other small entrepreneurs with an idea and a dream. Joy is a triumphant film about the power of persistence and innovation, desperation and conviction, and the possibility that a simple mop can change the world.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "The Big Short" directed by Adam McKay. Plan B, 2015, 130 minutes; and "Joy," directed by David O. Russell. Annapurna, 2015, 123 minutes.



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The Star Wars Lesson for Libertarians

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With Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas, and a new trilogy helmed by science fiction superstar director J.J. Abrams beginning on December 18, Star Wars is in the news in a way it has not been for over a decade. This may be the time to observe that a valuable lesson for libertarians can be found in the original Star Wars trilogy, a lesson easily overlooked by the millions of obsessive Star Wars fans — as well as by libertarians.

Consider what Darth Vader says to Luke Skywalker in the lightsaber duel near the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Vader seeks to goad Luke into an angry hatred of him, hoping that this will lead Luke to the Dark Side. Also consider Return of the Jedi, where Vader and Luke duel again, and Vader tries to threaten Luke into becoming angry with him. Again, the implication is that anger and hatred lead to the Dark Side. This interpretation of Star Wars also echoes the teachings that Yoda gives Luke in his Jedi training. I don’t want to spoil the movies for those who have not seen them, but it becomes clear that the Emperor’s plans to turn Luke to the Dark Side also focus on making Luke angry and full of hatred. A pivotal moment comes when Luke attacks the Emperor, an attack which the Emperor invites as part of Luke’s path to the Dark Side. And the conclusion of Jedi is defined by the conflict between love and hate.

Social conservatives should focus on cultivating virtue in themselves instead of focusing on hatred of sin in others, because this hatred of sin really is the sin of hatred.

Here’s the interesting thing that few fans notice: Darth Vader and the Emperor want Luke to become angry at, and direct his hatred toward, none other than Darth Vader and the Emperor. Hatred and the Dark Side are practically identical, while love is the central power of the Force.

The principle can be described like this: “Goodness is love and evil is hatred. Hatred of evil is more akin to hatred than it is to goodness. Therefore, hatred of evil is the path to evil, not to goodness or love. Love of goodness is not the same as hatred of evil. Hatred of evil is hatred, and is therefore evil.”

This set of ideas, which we can call the Star Wars Principle, has obvious applications to both social libertarianism and economic libertarianism. The people who want to criminalize drugs are fueled by their hatred of drugs. But this hatred of drugs is hatred, which is evil. The good thing for them would be a love of goodness, in this case sobriety, which they could manifest by choosing to be sober and live a drug-free life. Social conservatives should focus on cultivating virtue in themselves instead of focusing on hatred of sin in others, because this hatred of sin really is the sin of hatred.

The Star Wars Principle means that you should focus on goodness in your own life and ignore evil in other people’s lives, other than to defend yourself from it when it assaults you. If you don’t do this, you will be consumed by hatred toward the evil in others, which will make you a mean, nasty person, constantly full of anger. The Principle reduces to a “mind your own business,” “live and let live” attitude that is quintessential libertarianism.

Peaceful, calm, respectful civility is absent from our politics; and sadly, this is also true of many libertarian radicals who demonize their enemies.

In economic terms, hatred of the rich is quite different from love of the poor. Instead of making money and donating money to charity or working to create economic opportunity for the poor, the socialists and leftist liberals make war on the rich and the owners of private property. The culture of the Left is a culture of hatred of the rich, driven by envy — a hatred of people who have been more successful than you, instead of a sincere caring about people who have been less successful. As such, socialism is very clearly a servant of the Dark Side. In contrast, a culture of love of the poor, if it was strong with the Force, would focus on charitable work for the poor, on donating one’s own money to help the poor, but with an understanding that you can’t donate money unless you first make money. It would not be focused on stealing other people’s money to help, or try to help, the poor.

The political climate in the United States is dominated by anger and hatred, of Left against Right and Right against Left. Which Fox News or MSNBC political talk show airs without insults or anger? Which political candidates run campaigns in which they promote themselves as good and do not try to tear their opponents down as evil? Peaceful, calm, respectful civility is absent from our politics; and sadly, this is also true of many libertarian radicals who demonize their enemies and are full of anger against “supporters of the state.” The Dark Side, where you get power by making people angry, is easier and more seductive for people who seek to rule, at the expense of love, goodness, peace, and the Force that embodies them. Libertarians would do well to learn this Star Wars lesson.




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Marooned on Mars

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The final story in Ray Bradbury’s collection The Martian Chronicles is called “The Million Year Picnic.” In it, an American family escapes the nuclear destruction of the earth and lands on Mars, where the father tells his children, “Tomorrow you will see the Martians.” The next day he takes them on a picnic near an ancient canal, where they look into the water and see their own reflections. Simply by moving there and colonizing, they have become Martians. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) makes a similar point when he is stranded on Mars in Ridley Scott’s The Martian: “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars.”

The Martian is a tense, intelligent, and engaging story about an astronaut who is left for dead when his fellow crew members are forced to make an emergency launch to escape a destructive sandstorm. Knocked out rather than killed, he regains consciousness and discovers that he is utterly alone on the planet. Solar panels can provide him with renewable energy, oxygen, heat, and air pressure. But the next mission to Mars isn’t due for another five years, and he has enough food to last just 400 days. What can he do?

As we approached the freeway and began to pick up speed, I realized I had only one chance for a safe outcome.

There is something fascinating about this storyline of being marooned or abandoned and left entirely to one’s own devices, whether the protagonist be Robinson Crusoe on his desert island; The 33 (2015) workers, trapped in a Chilean copper mine; Tom Hanks, Cast Away (2000) in the Pacific; the Apollo 13 (1995) crew, trapped in their capsule; Sandra Bullock, lost in space (Gravity, 2013);or even Macaulay Culkin, left Home Alone (1990), just to name a few. These films allow us to consider what we would do in such a situation. Could we survive?

I well remember the time I was left behind at a gas station at the age of ten on the way to a family camping trip. I had been riding in the camper of the pickup truck while my parents and sister rode in the cab. I had stepped out of the camper to tell my mother I was going to the bathroom, but before I could knock on her window, my father shoved the transmission into gear and started driving away. I didn’t know where we were, where we were going, or how I would contact my parents after they left without me. I was even more afraid of strangers than I was of being lost. It would be at least 300 miles before they stopped again for gas, and even then, they might not look into the camper until nighttime, and how would they find me after that? All of this went through my mind in a flash. Then I leapt onto the rear bumper of the truck as it eased past me and clung tightly to the handle of the camper.

I was hidden from sight by the trailer we were pulling behind us. No one would see me there, and if I jumped off or lost my balance, I would be crushed by the trailer. As we approached the freeway and began to pick up speed, I realized I had only one chance for a safe outcome. I managed to pry open the door of the camper, squeeze through the narrow opening, and collapse onto the floor, pulling the door shut behind me. Instead of being frightened by the experience, I was exhilarated by my successful maneuver and problem-solving skills. I could do anything! My only regret was that no one saw my amazing feat.

One of the reasons we enjoy movies like The Martian is that they allow us to participate with the protagonist in solving the problem of survival. Rather than curl up and wait to die, à la Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away (honestly — five years on a tropical island and he’s still living in a cave, talking to a volleyball? He hasn’t even made a shelter or a hammock?), Watney assesses his supplies and figures out how to survive until the next mission arrives. A botanist and an engineer, he exults, “I’m going to science the shit out of this!” And he does. He makes the difficult decision to cut up some of his precious potatoes for seed, knowing that his only chance for survival is to grow more food. He figures out how to make water, how to extend his battery life, how to deal with the brutally freezing temperatures.

He also keeps a witty video journal, through which he seems to speak directly to the audience. This allows us to remain intensely engaged in what he is doing and avoids the problem encountered in Robert Redford’s 2013 castaway film All is Lost, where perhaps three sentences are uttered in the entire dreary film. Welike Watney’s upbeat attitude, his irreverent sense of humor, his physical and mental prowess, and his relentless determination to survive. We try to anticipate his next move.

A botanist and an engineer, he exults, “I’m going to science the shit out of this!” And he does.

The visual effects are stunning. Many of them would not have been possible even three years ago, before the innovations created for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013). The techniques used to create weightlessness as the astronauts slither through the space station are especially impressive; we simply forget that they aren’t really weightless. The unfamiliar landscape — the red desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan, where the outdoor scenes were filmed — is a bit reminiscent of a futuristic Monument Valley. It contributes to the western-hero sensibility while creating a feeling that we really are on Mars. I’m not sure the science works in the dramatic ending, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. The Martian is smart, entertaining, and manages to work without a single antagonist — nary a nasty businessman or greedy bureaucrat can be found. If that’s what our future holds, I’m all for it.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Martian," directed by Ridley Scott. Scott Free Productions, 20th Century Fox, 2015, 142 minutes.



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PIGS: Only the Ruins Remain

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As I write this, I am in Rome. From this city, an empire once ruled a large part of the world. During its intellectually better days, Rome, building on the achievements of Greece, provided a way of perceiving the universe that distinguished human beings from animals and raised them from barbaric life to civilization. Greece and Rome showed humanity a way to reason and to understand causality.

Greece and Rome started an approach that could release humanity from quivering before the unknown, mysterious, and unpredictable forces of nature and the priest. In the late middle ages, Italy contributed enormously to the Renaissance and thus to the succeeding eras of massive, unprecedented material progress in the history of humanity. Geniuses such as Leonardo and Michelangelo lived here.

Decades of easy life and freebies have hardwired many people in PIGS countries to expect free stuff as their right.

In today’s world, a common narrative is that Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain — acronymically known as the PIGS — are freewheeling societies that provide a lot of personal freedom. They may not be rolling in money, but according to the narrative, their people seem actually to enjoy their lives, as compared with the workaholic North Americans. Their fashions attract people from around the world. Their public squares attract crowds of young people early in the evenings, arriving after their siestas and still partying in the mornings. PIGS countries are known for their deep social cohesion and close-knit families. It is believed that people there are social, and care for one another.

Scratch the surface, and the reality is very different.

Greece just voted “no” to reducing its dependence on free stuff. Decades of easy life and freebies have hardwired many people in PIGS countries to expect free stuff as their right. After many talks with people over the month since my arrival in Italy, I am struggling to recall anyone who may have suggested that it was not his right to expect Germans to keep on paying his bills.

PIGS are third-world countries in many ways and would be considered so, were they not proximal to northern Europe. Graffiti is everywhere. Public spaces are extremely dirty. There are always long line-ups at train stations and banks to get service, which is usually impolite and unhelpful. If you annoy an Italian auntie — who somehow assumes a superior position — every issue will be blown out of proportion. Even non-issues will crop up and then blow up.

A situation that is created by emotions cannot be undone by reason. You must know how to de-escalate, emotionally.

When I arrived late at night to the sprawling airport of Milan, there was no one at the information counters. In fact there was no one of any kind to answer questions. With 41% unemployment among young people, something just didn’t add up. Why weren’t they manning service counters? There was no ATM machine available — all were locked behind walls for the night.

Two millennia after the construction of the Coliseum, it gets far more visitors every day than it did when it was built. Cities are packed with tourists of all kinds, from museum visitors to northern Europeans on beach vacations. Museums, heritage sites, and so forth collect huge amounts of money. But what I experienced when I arrived at Milan airport — with no one to help — stood true even during daytime visits to historical sites. I usually saw no one monitoring the safety of historically precious things at the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, and the museums I visited. People who were supposed to act as guards mostly stood outside the buildings, smoking and chatting away.

There was no one of any kind to answer questions. With 41% unemployment among young people, something just didn’t add up.

People in PIGS countries suffer from a massive victim mentality, which by itself is enough of a vice to undo any civilization. On Bloomberg they seem to blame their plight on Germany, but if you encounter them in the street, they — not unlike Shias and Sunnis — blame all their problems on their nearest neighbor; Germany is too far away. Italians express displeasure about all things Spanish and Greek, Greeks about all things Turkish, Turks about things Armenian, and vice versa. The individual here is never wrong. Even questions about who created which kind of art, who invented the alcoholic drink Anis or the Greek-Turkish desserts can lead to disturbing confrontations and embarrassed faces among people who look well educated. An outsider shudders at their small-minded nationalism.

Pickpocketing is rampant in PIGS countries. Two weeks ago, my passport, money, camera, etc. were stolen from my bag while I watched the allocation of the platform of my train, right under CCTV cameras. Within minutes I was at the police station to complain. The people there all kept their seats, made me fill out a form, and waved me off. They had no interest in wasting time by going through the CCTV recording. Of course I missed my train, and the officials to whom I showed my ticket and the police report had no interest in helping me take the next one, despite knowing full well that all my money was gone.

In my subsequent conversations with people, they always assumed that the thieves were gypsies. If you are an African, a gypsy, or a Muslim you should not expect to get a job in these places. I have absolutely no sympathy for people who, having been given a better chance, should have exploited it, but did not. Where these particular people came from was far worse than the PIGS countries are. They should have been more grateful. Still, I find it strange that these groups cannot be granted opportunities and must always be looked down upon. Most people who would have been assimilated in North America remain outsiders and get blamed by those with a victim mentality. In my case, the thieves were likely white, Italian males; I saw one of them, and that was what he was.

If you encounter them in the street, they — not unlike Shias and Sunnis — blame all their problems on their nearest neighbor.

Compared with people in the US and Canada, people in Latin countries tend to be more apathetic toward their work (and more keen on partying), to spend more of what they have (and hence be more prone to indebtedness), and to be more tribal (and hence not really to care much about others, outside the tribe). Utter lack of respect for basic rules (as in driving, for example) does not necessarily translate into more freedom in society.

I am not sure how close PIGS families are, but how they do their jobs and how they look after their public spaces demonstrates a total lack of social cohesion. Rampant smoking and dislike for work does not show much about happy lives. It must be hard to spend your waking hours doing what you hate. Often pleasure-centeredness and neverending partying are nothing but an escape from what is regarded as the drudgery of normal existence.

So I am not sure whether the people of PIGS are as happy as the common narrative indicates. On the contrary, I believe that those who think the problems of the PIGS are merely about their debt look only at the surface. The problem of PIGS is the problem of their culture. They have lost reason. Leonardo da Vinci and the great Greco-Roman philosophers would feel completely out of place in their homelands today.




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