L’Amour, L’Amour!

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I’m sure that at some time in your life you’ve had a friend who made you his confidant about the details of a troubled romance. He claimed to want your advice, but advice was hard to give, because he kept painting different pictures of his special person. One day she was an angel; the next day, a devil; the third day, some woman he could barely remember — a minor mistake from which he was moving forward. But the cycle began all over again, and you wondered whether he was talking about the same person, or any person, or just a strange projection of himself.

I thought of this when I watched the behavior of the alleged news media on the weekend of January 18, when they fell in love with a story provided by an oft-discredited reporter for the oft-discredited BuzzFeed. The story, which involved “evidence” that Donald Trump had told one of his attorneys, the oft-discredited Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about a hotel deal in Russia, was unlikely on the face of it. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the media took to it like trout to Acme’s Amazing Fly. Then it was proven false, and became, like a discarded love affair, a sad betrayal of ardent feelings, closely followed by, “Oh, that! Do you still care about that?”

I’m doubtless being too judgmental, but ye who have watched a friend go through this cycle again and again, whisper now to me: after a while, don’t you begin to wonder whether your lovelorn buddy is actually very bright? You don’t care whether he’s a college professor or an expert on something scientific, or even a talking head on TV. You wonder: maybe this guy’s just not very smart.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the media took to it like trout to Acme’s Amazing Fly.

I say that, because the media have gone through all this many times before, and we know they’ll go through it many times again. Curiously unable to make a cogent argument against the Trump regime, the $300K-per-year hacks of big media are always dying to romance another story with flashy makeup and fishnet stockings, protecting themselves from consequences not with a condom but with a magic incantation: “If this is true . . . .”

On January 18, the phrase, “If this is true, then President Trump will be impeached” was repeated so often that, a couple of days later, during the wake-up-with-a-hangover-but-without- your-wallet period of the news cycle, I heard a pundit on MSM-TV (don’t ask me which; they all look alike to me) exclaim: “‘If true’ — the most important words in Washington today!”

Here’s the game, and any fanatic, or newsroom partisan, or idiot with an axe to grind, knows how to play it: in a well-wired nation of hundreds of millions of people, you can source any kind of story you want to run. If you want to suggest that plants can talk, or microwaves cause cancer, or marijuana has no medical value, or minimum wage laws create jobs, or immigration increases average household income, or crime is out of control, you can refer to a study or report that makes that claim, broadcast it, and add, “If true, this calls for . . .” some kind of action.

After a while, don’t you begin to wonder whether your lovelorn buddy is actually very bright?

You can do the same with any well-known person. You can find someone who accuses him or her of something, present some version of testimony or senior officials’ anonymous comments or the cleaning staff’s careful review of discarded notes, add the “If true,” and make your own suggestions about impeachment, hanging, drawing and quartering, or merely (because you are full of mercy) firing, shaming, and reeducating.

Intelligent people can usually see through this. Unintelligent people assume that nobody will. It is with this in mind that I present the comment of Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-SC) regarding the “if true” debacle of the weekend of January 18: “I don’t think that my Democratic friends are in any way rushing to judgment because they qualified right up front [by saying], 'If this is true.' When you preface your statement with 'If this is true,' that, to me, gives you all the cover you need."

So if some rightwing screed should claim, with no evidence except its say-so, that Jim Clyburn told an election official in his district to pack the ballot box, the whole establishment media as well as House Republicans would be justified in saying to the nation, in tones of solemn righteousness, “If this is true, Clyburn will be thrown out of Congress”? Well, if you say so. People have been hanged on less evidence.

Intelligent people can usually see through this. Unintelligent people assume that nobody will.

But let’s return to the wording of Representative Clyburn’s statement, the part about “if this is true” giving “you all the cover you need.” Cover, used in this sense, has interesting connotations. It originated in the argot of criminals — “Yeah, I’m a bank teller; that’s my cover, till we git through with lootin’ the joint” — and it has never shed its associations with shady dealing. To cover yourself means to obscure a wrongful or equivocal deed. No one says cover myself without meaning cover up. If Clyburn doesn’t know this, he’s illiterate. If he does know it, he’s bragging about his colleagues’ shadiness.

Aaron Blake, senior political reporter for the Washington Post (what titles they have!), reviewed the issues about BuzzFeed’s fake news and its, ahem, coverage in a long series of tweets, going back and forth over the ethical problems like a cow searching helplessly for that last blade of grass (“I honestly don’t know what the answer is here”), and munching such deep thoughts as: “Each piece that’s written about something that may turn out to be untrue is counter-productive, at best. Even with extensive caveating (which I included), it furthers a story the [sic] erodes trust in the media.” He preceded this observation with a muddled commentary on the supposed responsibility of you and me, his audience (if any): “Media consumers aren’t as savvy as we’d like them to be, and just because something is technically accurate and qualified doesn’t make it good. People skip right over those caveats, and if they want to believe these reports, they treat them like gospel.”

Well, isn’t that smart! It’s almost as smart as thinking that caveating is a word, and very hip and cool, indeed. It’s almost as smart as telling your audience (media consumers) how dumb you think they are. But wait! Maybe that means that you yourself aren’t very smart. If that is true . . .

If Clyburn doesn’t know this, he’s illiterate. If he does know it, he’s bragging about his colleagues’ shadiness.

It’s hard to think about Washington, the place where words and phrases go to die, without thinking of that great eviscerator of meanings, the Washington Post, which recognized and continues to encourage the talent of Mr. Blake. On the night of January 18, the Post ran a story, as it had to do, about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s contemptuous dismissal of the BuzzFeed report. At the end of that story appeared the words, in bold type: “Reporting the facts for over 140 years” — a bizarre reference to the Post itself. This claim was followed by a list of articles that “The Post Recommends.” The first two ridiculed President Trump. The third was headlined in this way:

Five big takeaways from the stunning report that Trump told Cohen to lie

If Trump told Michael Cohen to commit perjury, this could break the dam.

For God’s sake, couldn’t they drop the “recommends” at the moment when they themselves were debunking the stunning report?

Intelligent? No.

But as if to verify a lack of intelligence, the liberal media, and some noteworthy conservative media, immediately fell head over heels in love with a new story — a story about the supposed attack on an “ancient,” “frail,” American Indian “elder” and “Vietnam War veteran” who was “surrounded” and “harassed” and “threatened” by teenagers from a Catholic school in Covington, Kentucky who had come to Washington to participate in a church-sponsored anti-abortion rally.

It’s almost as smart as telling your audience how dumb you think they are.

By this time, I don’t need to tell you what happened on January 18 at the Lincoln Memorial. My own version, which I believe is now the generally accepted one, is that the teenagers were waiting for a bus when they were attacked with violent words by a nutball group of “black Israelites” who called them crackers, faggots, and incest children, and called their black members a word that sounds like Negro, but is not. Rather than respond with violence, the students continued to wait, with placid, dopey high-school expressions on their faces. Then, out of nowhere, an American Indian from Ypsilanti, Michigan came forward to beat a drum in their faces. I mean in their faces. Through all these things, the students responded with goofy good humor, chanting inane school cheers, jumping along with the rhythm of the drum, etc. That’s it. Here is Robby Soave’s account of the story, from Reason. And here are videos, of various political tendency. You are welcome to disagree with Soave’s interpretation, or mine.

In any event, the “elder’s” entourage bore cameras, and by means of a Twitter source that even Twitter has now banished for misrepresenting itself, an invidiously edited video of the proceedings was made available to established “news” organizations, which immediately, without waiting a second, retailed the incident as a prize example of white racism.

This new spasm of national outrage included, in short order and with no pretense of investigation, fervent denunciations of the students not only by the usual suspects but also by the March for Life, the students’ Catholic diocese, the neighboring Catholic diocese, their school, and that august conservative journal, supporter of the right to life, and scourge of political correctness, National Review. NR published an article alleging of the students that “they might as well have just spit on the cross and got it over with.”

I’m not a Catholic, but I’m willing to confess: when I see “spit” being used instead of the real form of the verb in question, which is “spat,” my thought goes to, “You’re pretty dumb, aren’t you?” Especially if you’re a religious person, supposedly steeped in Scripture, and think that the Kentucky students are like the Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross. That’s the comparison that NR’s author made. My liveliest feeling was disgust at this combination of ignorance (why can’t you bother to investigate, at least, before you accuse people of being Christ-killers?), lack of perspective (even if the kids had been guilty of something, they’re effing kids, man), and inquisitorial thinking (by this point in history, I don’t need to explain what I mean by that). National Review — is that the journal William F. Buckley once edited?

When I see “spit” being used instead of the real form of the verb in question, which is “spat,” my thought goes to, “You’re pretty dumb, aren’t you?”

Eventually NR apologized for the frantic article by its deputy managing editor, but with some curious excuses. The author, it said, was “operating off the best version of events he had” — an excuse that can be made for any failure to exercise a modicum of skepticism — and he was “writing as a faithful Catholic and pro-lifer who has the highest expectations of his compatriots, not as a social-justice activist.” Wait a minute — did I get that right? Are readers of NR supposed to be reassured that a writer of trash is one of their own?

Within a few days, and after a few threats of lawsuits, many prominent people who had said literally thoughtless things about the Kentucky high-school students — such as the suggestion that there were never more punchable faces than theirs (a desire for physical brutality is ordinarily a sign of intelligence, correct?) — were deleting their posts and tweets and declarations and journal articles (such as the NR article), sometimes in coward silence, but sometimes with sickeningly stupid attempts at explanation.

Example: one Jack Morrissey, a figure in Hollywood, has a Twitter account, on which he said, “#MAGAkids go screaming, hats first, into the woodchipper.” He followed that evocative phrase with a famous image from the movie Fargo, in which a dead body is fed into a woodchipper. Be it noted that the Kentucky kids were, some of them, wearing MAGA hats, which seems to have been the real reason why they were harassed, first in person, and then in the media, it being fair to attack kids as faggots and incest children and words that sounds like Negro but are not and people who have stolen your land, so long as they appear to be supporters of the opposite political party. Very well. Mr. Morrissey dumped his tweet, and apologized. He said, “Yesterday I tweeted an image based on FARGO that was meant to be satirical — as always — but I see now that it was in bad taste.”

Are readers of National Review supposed to be reassured that a writer of trash is one of their own?

Well, good. But wait a minute. Morrissey also said, “I have no issue whatsoever with taking responsibility, but also completely apologizing that I clearly intended it to be seen as satire. That was clearly not recorded that way by many who saw it.”

Oh, I see. It’s we the readers who were dumb enough to miss the point that Morrissey clearly intended to be seen as satire. I’m very sorry! I completely apologize (as opposed to partially apologizing). But tell me, what was it a satire of? If Morrissey would give me a clue, even in his afterthoughts, that it might conceivably be a satire of people who rush to judgement and persecute other people and, in effect, feed kids into a woodchipper, alive and screaming, hats first, then perhaps I will understand. Otherwise, I will conclude that it was a satire of the students, and it was a kind of satire suggesting that something atrociously bad should happen to its objects.

I don’t think that smart people join mobs.

And I don’t think that smart people, apologizing for writing something that appears to be a vile attack on others, will abdicate their responsibility to discover, at long last, the relevant facts of the situation they wrote about. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Morrissey is as smart as he’s paid to be. Maybe it isn’t dumb for him to have added: “I have seen tweets from both sides feeling disappointed that the mainstream media went his [sic] way or that way. But I haven’t had the headspace to take the time to watch all the videos.”

Isn’t that precious? He doesn’t have the headspace. And I’ll bet he’s right. He doesn’t.




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Elizabeth Warren’s Comedy Act

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I thought that American politics couldn’t get any funnier, but of course I was wrong. And right now, the funniest politician is actually the sour, self-righteous Elizabeth Warren.

Long ridiculed by President Trump, and millions of other people, for claiming to be an American Indian, Warren has now triumphantly released a study of her DNA. According to the Stanford professor who analyzed the data, “the facts suggest that [she] absolutely [has] Native American ancestry in [her] pedigree.”

Warren could have as much as 1/64th Indian ancestry. So just make that cup 1/64th full.

“Pedigree”? Oh well. But the unwary reader may conclude, as Warren appears to have concluded, that her Native American “heritage” has now been authenticated. But that’s ridiculous — for two reasons.

One is that the purported percentage of her Indian ancestry is a whopping 1/1024th. That’s right — one part in a thousand.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“Yes, please!”

“Fill it up?”

“Not quite. Just make it 1/1024th full.”

All right, I distorted the hard, scientific “data.” Warren could have as much as 1/64th Indian ancestry. So just make that cup 1/64th full.

Even the TV actors who burble about “discovering their Swedish heritage” by taking a DNA test and learning that they’re 40% Swedish aren’t as absurd as this US Senator.

The second ridiculosity is the whole notion of “heritage” based on genes. Culture has nothing to do with your body. But suppose it did. If you need to have your DNA analyzed to find out whether you’ve inherited some cultural characteristic, then you haven’t.

Even the TV actors who burble about “discovering their Swedish heritage” by taking a DNA test and learning that they’re 40% Swedish aren’t as absurd as this US Senator. But given her total lack of self-awareness (which is nothing unusual, given her occupation), I suppose it won’t take her long to appear on television to inform the other hundred million Americans who are at least 1/1000th Indian that now, because of the wonders of science, they too can discover who they really are — and prove it, by ending their long night of discrimination and electing one of their own (guess who?) as president.

We are all Indians now.




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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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Refugee Screening

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Elizabeth Warren and the Poison of Identity Politics

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Seven months ago, I considered Harvard Law School Prof. Elizabeth Warren from a libertarian perspective. The establishment media darling and Democratic candidate for the US Senate from Massachusetts didn’t offer much to like.

Since then, she’s become considerably more entertaining. And thought-provoking, though not in a way she would have intended.

During the past few weeks, Warren has been caught in a moronic controversy that has put her campaign on the defensive, led supporters to question her political savvy, and — perhaps most damaging — confirmed the impression that she’s a charlatan. The gist of it: for about 15 years, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Warren listed herself in various academic professional directories as a member of a racial minority. Specifically, an American Indian.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Reporters from the Boston Herald asked Warren about her claims of minority status: why she’d made them, then stopped making them, and whether she’d “played the race card” when applying for teaching positions at posh law schools such as Penn and Harvard.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Then, faced with hard evidence from several directories (including the Association of American Law Schools’ annual directory of minority law teachers), she “clarified” her answer. What she’d meant to say was that she’d never made the claims while applying for teaching jobs.

But there were more rakes in the yard . . . and Warren promptly stepped on them. When reporters asked her to explain in detail her claim of Native American ancestry, she babbled:

My Aunt Bee . . . remarked that he — that her father, my papaw — had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do! Because that’s how she saw it. And she said, “And your mother got those same great cheekbones and I didn’t.” She thought this was the bad deal she had gotten in life. . . . I was listed [in the minority directories] because I thought I might be invited to meetings where I might meet more people who had grown up like I had grown up. And it turned out that’s — there really wasn’t any of that.

Note the passive voice of “I was listed.” By all accounts, she did the listing. Her nervous rhetoric betrayed her effort to shirk responsibility for the mendacious act of including herself among minority professors. And some pundits focused on the lazy, verging on racist, generalizations behind the dizzy professor’s words: “high cheekbones” are something “all of the Indians” have.

Not exactly Prof. Kingsfield.

Warren’s campaign rushed into damage control mode. Smoother spokespeople explained that, on a marriage license application in 1894, Warren’s great-uncle claimed that his grandmother — a woman named Neoma O.C. Sarah Smith — had been a Cherokee. The campaign then produced a Utah-based genealogist who confirmed that Neoma, Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother, was at least half Cherokee. (According to some, the initials “O.C.” meant native Cherokee; according to others, contemporary documents described Neoma as “white” which, by the practice of the time, could mean she was half Indian.)

If Neoma was a full-blooded Cherokee, Warren is 1/32; if she was half Cherokee, the professor is 1/64. A thin reed, but the campaign was determined to hang Warren’s robes on it. Staffers pointed out that Bill John Baker, the current chief of the Cherokee nation, has a similarly slight blood connection to the tribe.

Really, this is madness.

When I was in college, we read Mark Twain’s satiric short novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, which rightly ridicules racial distinctions based on 1/8, 1/32, or 1/64 ancestry. The story is often dismissed as an angry product of Twain’s bitter late period — and it is angry. But it’s also a strong perspective on the games that identity-politics practitioners such as Warren play. And have been playing for more than 100 years.

Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma.

Warren’s handlers can spin the story — but the damage is done. On the Internet, ever merciless, the dismissive nicknames have started: Pinocchio-hontas, Fauxcahontas, Sacajawhiner. As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote, paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson: in some cases, the substance of a charge isn’t important; the response — however skillful — is damaging in itself.

(Actually, what LBJ said was: “I don’t care if the story [that his opponent had sex with farm animals] is true. I just want to hear the son of a bitch deny it.”)

A few days after Warren’s campaign came up with the marriage license application, the story took an ironic turn. While Neoma’s provenance remains murky, her husband — a man named Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma. About 4,000 Cherokees died on that “Trail of Tears.” So, even if she’s part Indian, Warren is also descended from an oppressor in one of the most disgraceful episodes in US history.

Here we reach the logical end of racial identity politics — a muddle of conflicting conclusions based on incomplete or contradictory government documents. Statist bureaucrats love categorizing people; but their categories are usually false, so they don’t hold up over time.

And a mediocrity like Elizabeth Warren ends up being vilified by partisans both Left and Right.

The Boston Herald’s populist grievance merchant Howie Carr put Warren’s miscues in the disgruntled right-wing frame:

The problem the elites have understanding the power of this story is simple. They’ve never been passed over for a job they were qualified for because of some allegedly disadvantaged person who wasn’t. . . . [T]he upper classes have no comprehension of the “rottenness” of this system. . . . [S]omeone in the Harvard counseling office might sadly inform a young Trustafarian that he might have a problem getting into the law school. But then Someone who knows Someone picks up the phone and young Throckmorton suddenly bumps a kid from Quincy with higher LSATs . . .

In this worldview, Warren’s shenanigans cost a “real” disadvantaged minority person a slot teaching at a first-rate law school. But the problem with right-leaning populism is that it embraces rentseeking. It settles for asking that the corruption be administered equitably.

Carr comes close to the truth when he tells the story of the smart kid from working-class Quincy — but falls just short of real insight. He gives in to emotional paranoia about the corrupt phone call. The best solution isn’t to “fix” the crooked preference system; it’s to eliminate rentseeking entirely because it always leads to corruption. The kid from Quincy doesn’t need a redistribution system that spreads spoils equitably; he just wants to be evaluated objectively.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

On the Left, partisans voice contempt for “box-checking” by free riders like Warren. Last summer, the Coalition of Bar Associations of Color passed a Resolution on Academic Ethnic Fraud. The resolution noted that “fraudulent self-identification as Native American on applications for higher education ... is particularly pervasive among undergraduate and law school applicants.”

In a recent editorial, The Daily News of Newburyport wrote:

It seems clear that Warren’s “box-checking” on law reference application forms was designed to help further her career. Similarly, Harvard Law School benefited by citing Warren as a minority faculty member at a time its diversity practices were under fire.

Warren’s claim that she checked the box claiming Native American heritage in her application for inclusion in the Association of American Law Schools desk book so that she could meet people with similar backgrounds is laughable.

This touches on a critical point: identity politics corrupts institutions as well as people. In 1996, when Harvard Law School was criticized by campus groups for a lack of racial diversity among its faculty, officials touted Warren’s supposed Cherokee roots. According to a Harvard Crimson story at that time:

Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, [spokesman Michael] Chmura said professor of law Elizabeth Warren is Native American.

These days, Harvard’s press office says that the university doesn’t make official pronouncements about employees’ ethnic or racial backgrounds. Which seems a bit . . . carefully . . . timed.

Of course, the whole story beggars belief. Warren skeptics are even showing up on Daily Kos, the left-wing political opinion web site that practically launched the professor’s political aspirations. Its Native American columnist Meteor Blades recently wrote:

What’s unclear is whether Warren checked the “Native American” box solely out of pride or because it might perhaps give her a one- or two-percent edge over some other job candidate without that heritage. She says she didn’t. . . . What Warren also didn’t do was step up in 1996 when it became clear that Harvard, under pressure from students and others about the lack of diversity on its law faculty, was touting her Native heritage. . . . What Harvard did was despicable. What Warren didn’t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.

If she’s lost Daily Kos, Warren is in deep trouble.

Others on the Left are distancing themselves from Warren, frustrated that she was supposed to be a winner and now may not be. In the online magazine Salon, Edward Mason noted:

The story about Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage refuses to die. . . . Some Democrats, haunted by the infamous meltdown of Martha Coakley against Scott Brown two years ago, are wondering if it’s déjà vu all over again. “The people in Washington are saying, ‘The people in Massachusetts are a bunch of fuck-ups who couldn’t run a race for dog catcher,’” said one veteran Massachusetts Democratic insider.

But, to me, the most relevant material came in the reader comments that followed Mason’s cautious story. One commenter earnestly tried to make sense of the hullabaloo:

At no time on any census was OC Sarah Smith, nor any of her off-spring listed as anything other than White. . . . As a contrast, my Great Great Grandmother was listed on the Census and Marriage Certificate as White Indian (Cherokee) but even my relative may not have been full blooded. There is no actual evidence, other than family lore, that Sarah Smith was Cherokee, and zero chance she was full blooded Cherokee. At best, and there’s no evidence to support this, Warren could be 1/64 Cherokee.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

Identity politics is a poison that sickens people, intellectually and spiritually. It abandons them in a madness of paranoia, pettiness, and profanity. Ambitious statists like Elizabeth Warren believe that they can manage the poison more effectively than the little people whose support they assume they have. But they’re lying — to themselves first and to the little people eventually. And inevitably.

rsquo;t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.




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