More Equal than Others

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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




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The Stains of Social Justice

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The United Nations defines social justice as "the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth." Furthermore, social justice is impossible "without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies." Social justice is an axiom held dearly by socialists — apparently reconciled by the belief that great wealth and prosperity would have been created in places such as North Korea, East Germany, Cuba, and Venezuela, if only the "strong and coherent redistributive policies" had been, well, stronger and more coherent. In reality, social justice brings stagnation and decline, which, to socialists, look like fruit ever ripening into new and increasingly meddlesome forms of social justice. To socialists, distributing poverty and despair (even abysmal poverty and despair) is acceptable, as long as they are handling the distribution.

The socialists (more precisely, eco-socialists) in charge of US redistribution have managed to create a new American phenomenon: permanent economic stagnation. While speaking at the November 2013 IMF Economic Forum, Harvard University economist Larry Summers, was puzzled as to why, after four years, the US economy had not yet recovered. Noting that efforts to prevent a future crisis might be counterproductive, he concluded his speech by saying, "We may well need, in the years ahead, to think about how we manage an economy in which the zero nominal interest rate is a chronic and systemic inhibitor of economic activity, holding our economies back, below their potential."

Translation: even at extremely low interest rates, bank lending has been flat since 2009 because businesses are afraid to invest in an economy tainted by socialist mischief. Since social justice (delivered through the redistributive policies of Climate Change, the Stimulus, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, etc.) is "a chronic and systemic inhibitor of economic activity;" we need to think about how to manage future stagnation, after some unspecified number of "years ahead" in continuation of the present stagnation.

The socialists in charge of US redistribution have managed to create a new American phenomenon: permanent economic stagnation.

Think about that. In the election year of 2008, we had a do-something-about-it-now problem. Today, in 2014, as the stagnation persists, is Washington ready to do something about it? No. Will Washington be ready to do something in the years ahead? No. But by then it will be ready to think about it. Maybe. The 2008 promises of jobs and economic growth were replaced by the vast, warm fuzziness of social justice vagaries such as equality, diversity, fairness, dignity, renewability, and sustainability. What happened to the grandiose 2008 plan for economic revitalization? In 2009, eco-socialist lawyers and academics reached into their magic hat of "strong and coherent redistributive policies" and pulled out a plan to build a new economy. Why fix an outdated economy that was driven by greed, racism, overconsumption, and planet-heating "fuels of yesterday"? Today, more than five years into the new economy of stultifying compassionate distribution, they reached back in and pulled out a Plan B: inurement.

But as this elite cabal was settling into a genial Washington DC, their big heads bubbling with theories (touted by bigger-headed sociologists and environmentalists) on how to build a shiny new economy, a handful of crass entrepreneurs was settling into the rude world of fracking, creating an oil and gas revolution that would blight the dreamscape of the social justice crowd. The New York Times article "North Dakota Went Boom" eloquently describes the discovery and development of the Bakken Shale Formation in western North Dakota, a rugged, empty area blemished by "roaring fires and messy drill pads." But the blemishes are producing a flood of jobs, prosperity, and cheap energy, infuriating eco-socialists, who have produced but a trickle of anything with their centrally planned economy of government-approved renewable energy. Then there is the horror that the great wealth befalling North Dakota is the result of "an economic imperative that dates back to the triumph of the treaty breakers who usurped the Native Americans and commodified the land, and to the waves that came in their wake, the great white hunters who cleaned out the buffalo." God have mercy. Has there ever been social justice in North Dakota?

Eco-socialists are unwanted in North Dakota, where household income is $2,214 higher than the national average, unemployment is the nation's lowest, and budget surpluses accrue even after major income tax cuts (more than 50% since 2009). But many of them can be found at the North Dakota border, weeping over economic fruits they are helpless to distribute. Tears blind them to "the allure of a derrick dressed up in lights and looming 10 stories over a desolate landscape where the leading academic solution to social and economic stagnation had been to surrender and let the land lapse into buffalo commons." Alas, the North Dakota buffalo commons strains the vision of prying eco-socialists peering into the state. It is a pathetically small plot (only 4% of North Dakota is federal land), barely large enough to hold a respectable climate change sit-in without its whimpers being heard in at least a few of the more than 6,000 wealth-producing drilling sites on private land, where 90% of the wells reside. Other eco-socialists are faced with the task of hawking income inequality or green jobs (such as solar panel installation at $38,000 per year) to the sullied hordes of climate deniers rushing into the state, on their way to oil and gas fields where the average annual wage is $90,225.

It has been said that veterans of the oil patch can estimate the productive capacity of an oil well from the size of its flare gas flame (which burns off the natural gas contained in the well). A seasoned eco-socialist can no doubt make a similar estimate based on the size of the yellow puddle at his stomping feet, as he rages against the carbon emissions that flaring spews into the atmosphere. Out of self-interest, oil companies eventually build gas-gathering pipelines that channel the gas to a processing plant, where they make even more money –while saving the gas. But for wells on federal land, these pipelines require the bureaucratic approval of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) — the same law that has delayed the Keystone XL Pipeline for more than five years. Oil companies, therefore, are forced to flare off gas while they wait for their permits. In Wyoming, for example, the average wait time is seven years. According to Forbes Magazine, the state's "lost opportunity cost associated with the delay of oil and natural gas development is $22 billion in labor income and $90 billion in economic output over a ten-year period." Not a problem, when social justice is at stake.

Eco-socialists are unwanted in North Dakota, where household income is $2,214 higher than the national average, unemployment is the nation's lowest.

Under social justice policies, GDP growth during the "recovery" has averaged 2% annually, dropping to an alarming -2.9% in the most recent quarter. This is stagnation. But to eco-socialists, it is not failure. It is merely an economic aberration that their intellectuals will have to think about managing in the years ahead. In the world of social justice, success is not measured by wealth, growth, jobs, or income; the expansion of "strong and coherent redistributive policies" is the only yardstick. Accordingly, with $17 trillion of debt, medium household income down 8.3%, labor participation down to 62.8% (the lowest since 1978), and 46.5 million Americans living in poverty, eco-socialists shamelessly exclaim that we are "heading in the right direction."

And that they have "more work to do." That work largely involves stifling the US oil and gas industry — the only bright spot in an otherwise moribund economy. While forging the new green economy, eco-socialists have suppressed oil (down 6%) and gas (down 28%) production on federal land. Fortunately for our stagnating economy, oil and gas production has increased dramatically (61% and 33%, respectively) on non-federal land. Thanks to entrepreneurs such as Harold Hamm (who discovered the prolific Bakken shale "play") and innovators who developed fracking and horizontal drilling, the US oil and gas revolution has created well over one million jobs, reduced annual oil imports by 800 million barrels, slashed our annual energy bill by $100 billion, and cut carbon emissions by 300 million tons. It has also increased GDP by more than 1.7% — a contribution without which eco-socialists could not claim (at least not shamelessly) that we are "heading in the right direction."

While most of us celebrate these achievements, eco-socialists fear them. Their vision of social justice calls for our vast oil and gas resources to "lapse into buffalo commons." Otherwise, the income inequality gap might widen or the earth's temperature might rise (by the end of the century) or a flame might shoot out of someone's faucet, etc. Besides, the economic contributions from the oil and gas revolution amplify the failure of their immense, whimsical green energy investments, and expose the disingenuous tenets of their overreaching scheme to rebuild the US economy. According to the insightful Hamm, “That’s why these guys are raising so much hell, because suddenly they realize that everything they’ve invested in isn’t going to work . . . They know they’re misleading the public.”

Nevertheless, the social justice parade marches forward. Armed with NEPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other social justice regulations, eco-socialists won't be happy until our utility bills "necessarily skyrocket" and the price of US gasoline matches the price in Europe — thereby paving the way for government-approved solar panels, windmills, and electric cars. Forget about oil and gas. They are yesterday's fuels, dirty and finite. We will have renewable energy in a sustainable economy, even if it takes permanent stagnation to get there.

Social justice leads to stagnation, which leads to scarcity, which leads to rationing, which is what eco-socialists do best.

The good news is that America's oil and gas boom is winning. Eco-socialists, in denial of its benefits, are resigned to the desperate hope that it will be like other booms — short-lived. But estimates of its increasing longevity have revealed a brown stain on the seat of the pants of eco-socialism. There is no stagnation in North Dakota, where energy experts expect the Bakken play to last for 100 years or more. There, the odor of flare gas is preferable to the stench of socialism and, with an annual salary of $90,000, oil field workers can buy all the social justice they need.

This sentiment, of course, is shared by Texas, home to the Eagle Ford and the Permian Basin, and the leading oil and natural gas producing state in the nation. And recent breakthroughs in drilling technologies have the boom spreading to Oklahoma, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico, where the combined shale oil production has increased 57% in the last three years — causing, no doubt, a proportionate enlargement of that nasty brown stain. Mr. Hamm — whose oil company is developing a drill pad packing technique that could put more than 100,000 wells into North Dakota — would probably estimate a much larger and darker stain.

Social justice leads to stagnation, which leads to scarcity, which leads to rationing, which is what eco-socialists do best — with their "strong and coherent redistributive policies." They believe that through such policies we now have affordable healthcare, a kinder Wall Street, a cutting-edge renewable energy industry, and a world-class education system. Soon, electric vehicles will pour out of a rejuvenated Detroit, millions of Americans will work at high-paying green jobs, and solar panels and windmills will bring us energy independence. By then, their economists may have begun thinking about how to manage the permanent stagnation. That is their story, and they are sticking to it, even if it means squandering the world's most prolific source of fossil fuel energy, a resource that, if properly exploited, could revitalize the economy overnight, increase the wealth of every one of us, and finance self-help programs for anyone still afflicted by social injustice.

Nothing will change the minds of eco-socialists. But America's enormous, expanding oil and gas revolution may eventually make them change their pants.




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The Zimmerman Verdict

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The trial of the decade (so far) has ended and George Zimmerman is a free man. What are the important points we should take from this?

First, it’s clear that the system worked. Zimmerman received a fair trial. A jury of his peers found him innocent based on the law and the evidence presented at trial. Obviously, Zimmerman was foolish to ignore police advice and continue following poor Trayvon Martin. But he committed no crime in doing so. His actions provoked the confrontation that ended in Martin’s death, but again, under Florida law he was justified in shooting Martin in self-defense. The jury believed that Zimmerman feared for his life, and that’s enough in Florida to justify taking a life, even if the killer instigated the events that led up to the killing.

This trial was not a repeat of the first Rodney King trial, in which a jury consisting of ten whites, one Hispanic, and one Asian was almost certainly blinded by a conscious or unconscious fear of blacks. Nor was it OJ all over again, with a panel practicing jury nullification in support of the defendant. It did, however, resemble the OJ case in that the prosecution was quite inept. The prosecutors were ineffective in all phases of the trial, possibly because they had a weak case to begin with. The defense on the other hand hardly put a foot wrong, aside from the unfortunate knock-knock joke in its opening statement. The authorities also overcharged the case — there was never any prospect of finding Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder. (Overcharging, by the way, is a tactic used by prosecutors all over the country as a means to get defendants to plead instead of going to trial. As such, it represents a major perversion of our justice system.)

We all should have the absolute right to defend our homes and families from aggression. But public spaces are a different matter.

We can be thankful that the verdict did not lead to major violence. The small-scale thuggery seen in Oakland and L.A. does not compare to the barbarism displayed in South Central L.A. after the King verdict. President Obama, who seems increasingly irrelevant both at home and abroad, performed a useful service by urging calm. On the other hand, the lack of a video in the Zimmerman case may have had as much to do with the absence of major violence as the measured words of America’s mixed-race chief executive.

Millions of people, both black and white, are deeply dissatisfied with the verdict. Many are urging the Justice Department to bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman. Such a case would be very hard if not impossible to prove. This analyst believes Attorney General Holder will decide not to bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman, for the simple reason that it would probably fall apart in court, embarrassing both the Justice Department and the president. That the Attorney General is an African-American probably makes it easier to resist the temptation to file federal charges against Zimmerman. An administration in which all the key players are white might very well feel compelled to do so.

Holder, like the president, has been a moderating voice in the wake of the verdict. This has been his finest hour — or rather, his first fine hour after four-plus years in office. In a recent speech he questioned the concept of Stand Your Ground laws, maintaining that people have a duty to retreat if they can safely do so — but adding the important qualifier, when outside their home. There needs to be a serious debate nationally about the concept of Stand Your Ground. In Vermont, where I live, the law says I should retreat even if a criminal comes onto my property or enters my home. This, to me, is crazy. The idea that I must flee from my home rather than subdue or kill someone coming onto my property with criminal intent repels me. But then Vermont is a crazy place.

In my view we all should have the absolute right to defend our homes and families from aggression. But public spaces are a different matter. It’s true that Zimmerman’s defense team never invoked Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Nevertheless, that law hung like a storm cloud over the proceedings. The principle of stand your ground as applied to public spaces has led, in this case, to the death of a young man who was simply returning from a trip to the store. A cop wannabe decides to follow a teenage boy (whom he may or may not have racially profiled) despite police advice to desist, and thereby provokes a fight that leads to his shooting the kid to death. Despite these circumstances, the wannabe is innocent in the eyes of the law. The kid is dead; the wannabe walks. Surely in this case the law is an ass.




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Not Miserable at All

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Victor Hugo's masterpiece Les Miserables has resonated with readers and viewers for over a century and a half. Even Ayn Rand said that Victor Hugo was her favorite author. Set in the decades following the French Revolution, Les Miserables is the tale of "the wretched ones" for whom the Revolution had meant little. They were still living hand to mouth, still tyrannized by authority and by public opinion; in short, still wretched.

Hugo frames his story as the classic conflict between justice and mercy. As a young man, Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children. He is tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years of hard labor. His sentence is doubled when he tries to escape. As the story begins, he is finally paroled. But the sentence stays with him; since he must present his papers wherever he goes, he cannot find a job or even lodging.

Inspector Javert represents justice. He believes that a convict can never change, and he keeps a close watch on parolees. When Valjean breaks parole by changing his name in order to get a job, Javert is relentless in his pursuit.

Jean Valjean represents mercy and redemption. He is transformed by a kindness performed on his behalf — perhaps the first kindness he has experienced in his adult life. Because this kindness is shown by a bishop of the church when he deserves only justice, Valjean vows to become like that man of God by emulating his godlike service. Fittingly, the bishop is portrayed in this film by Colm Wilkinson, the Irish tenor with the soaring voice who originated the role of Jean Valjean in London's West End and has played him off and on for 26 years. Onscreen, at least, Jean Valjean has indeed become the man of God.

Valjean embodies the idea that a person can be reformed and redeemed through the power of love. He is one of the noblest characters in literature. Time and again he gives up his own safety, comfort, and freedom for the safety, comfort, and freedom of another. At one point as he prepares to trade his freedom for another’s, he sings, "My soul belongs to God I know; I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone — he gave me strength to journey on." His sacrifices bring him joy, not sadness. In the climax, Valjean learns that "to love another person is to see the face of God."

Half a dozen film versions and a television miniseries have been made over the years, with varying success. Most of them focus on the wretchedness of the characters, not the joy that comes from being anxiously engaged in a good cause. The adaptation that immortalized the book is the 1985 musical written by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (original French lyrics), and produced by British theater impresario Cameron Mackintosh. "Les Miz," as it is affectionately known, has been seen by over 60 million people in 42 countries and 21 languages. It has won nearly 100 international awards.

Valjean embodies the idea that a person can be reformed and redeemed through the power of love. He is one of the noblest characters in literature.

Ironically, the stage version did not win the British Tony for 1985; that prize went to a musical comedy revival of Me and My Girl. The critics were not kind to Les Miz on opening night. But the audiences were more than kind. They were spellbound. I know — I was there at the Barbican during one of the preview performances. I had read Hugo's book, of course, but I had never heard the music. Few people had. Hearing it cold like that, especially the multi-layered "One Day More" that closes the first act, was the most profound experience I have ever had in the theater. I saw it at least a dozen times, taking our London visitors whenever they came to town.

Make room on the shelf, Mr. Mackintosh, because your awards will soon be in triple digits with the triumphant film version of the musical.

Mackintosh is executive producer of the film version, and it shows. He and director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, 2010) wisely decided to make few changes. They avoided the temptation to add unsung dialogue or additional background scenes except as they appear in montage during the songs. Instead, they simply trusted their source material and let the music carry the show. They also took the risk of using the voices as the actors performed them, rather than fixing them up in post-production or dubbing the voices of professional singers, as was done so often in the musicals of the 1950s and 60s (that's Marni Nixon's voice singing as Maria in West Side Story, Eliza inMy Fair Lady, and Anna in The King and I, as well as a slew of others).

The result may not produce as satisfying a movie soundtrack album; the voices in this film are occasionally unbalanced or even off-key. But the film is a richer, more intimate experience than the stage version. Hooper is a genius at eliciting natural emotion from his actors. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the factory worker unfairly cast into the streets by a spurned, lecherous foreman, displays such excruciating agony that it seems almost voyeuristic to watch her sing "I Dreamed a Dream." Similarly, the montage of expositive actions as Valjean sings "Who Am I?" brings a depth to his character not possible in the stage presentation. The entire film is a glorious experience. By contrast, the soundtrack of the recent 25th anniversary sung-through version is pitch perfect, but it lacks the emotional power and passion of this film.

I wasn't thrilled with the casting decisions; when I heard that Hugh Jackman would be playing Valjean and Russell Crowe would be playing Javert, my initial reaction was "right men, wrong parts." Valjean is a big, burly man, capable of lifting a 500-pound cart or carrying a man through the sewers. Crowe would be perfect as Valjean. On the other hand, Javert is tall, dark and slender, just like Hugh Jackman. It's the worst casting decision since Marlon Brando was given the romantic lead as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls while Frank Sinatra was given the supporting role as the lovable lummox, Nathan Detroit. I understand the reasoning; Jackman is a tenor with the Broadway credits to pull off a difficult role, while Crowe, let's just say, is not known for his singing. A masculine Marni Nixon would have been needed for sure.

But under Hooper's skilled direction, Crowe's weakness becomes Javert's strength. As an actor, Crowe is a megastar, confident and sure, but when he sings, there is an uncertainty in his voice and face. This uncharacteristic tentativeness inadvertently reveals the inner struggle of the character. Javert is a powerful representative of the law, confident and sure about the sanctity of justice, but in the face of Valjean's great mercy, Javert's certainty falters. Crowe's uncertainty as a singer serendipitously communicates Javert's uncertainty as an officer of the law. Crowe's imperfection is surprisingly perfect.

This is the best movie musical since the 1960s. Great story, noble hero, glorious music, moving lyrics, and a director who knocks it out of the park. The emotion is always right on the edge of rawness without falling into the maudlin. As one of my friends said, "the right guy at the right time for the right film." Don't miss it.


Editor's Note: Review of"Les Miserables," directed by Tom Hooper. Working Title Films, 2012, 157 minutes.



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Reverse Order

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Grace, a new play by Craig Wright, opens to a minimalist set of simple bamboo furniture, the kind you might find in a Florida beach rental. A front door and a sliding glass door stand alone, but there are no actual walls. Dominating the set is a halo of blue sky and puffy white clouds projected on the back wall and suggesting a hint of heaven. This is appropriate, because the idea of heaven dominates the theme of this play. In fact, for the first ten minutes, the audience sees nothing else. People fidget, waiting for the show to start, wondering why it is delayed. But in fact, like a Pirandello play, it has already begun.

Suddenly the halo of light turns ghastly green. Three characters, two men and a woman, enter the stage and immediately collapse to the floor. After a few moments one of them, Steve (Paul Rudd), rolls up onto the couch in a slumped position and then sits upright. His body shudders, a shot rings out, and he points a gun to his head. The scene is about to rewind. Dialogue is spoken in reverse order. The words are cosmic in timbre but out of context and confusing. More shots ring out and then everyone is standing. It is one of the most stunning opening scenes I have ever witnessed.

And then the sky is bright blue again. Sara (Kate Arrington) is cheerfully folding laundry as Steve enters their apartment with happy news. They have come to Florida to start a chain of “gospel-themed” hotels, and an investor has just committed to sending them $9 million. They are perky and happy and in love. And they believe. Oh, do they believe!

As they praise God and pray their gratitude for being guided to this place at this time for this purpose, Tim (Michael Shannon) limps onto the set shouting “Thank you Jesus F-ing Christ!” It is a primal scream of ineffable pain. His arm is secured in a sling and his face is covered in a mask to heal what appear to be hideous wounds. The set, we learn, functions simultaneously as Steve and Sara's apartment and as Tim’s apartment next door. It isn't a staging shortcut but a metaphor for how lives intertwine. It also suggests that life is far from fair or equal, despite Declarations to the contrary.

Graceis billed as a comedy, probably to attract the fans of Paul Rudd, who is best known for his comic rolls in Judd Apatow's popular and often raunchy movies (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman). Grace does have moments of biting irony. Moreover, with Ed Asner cast as Karl, the crotchety old pest control man, one would expect a play filled with offensive anti-Christian jokes and rants. Indeed, when Karl calls Steve "Jesus Freak" — and he does so frequently — the audience roars its approval. "Gospel-themed hotels"? This is, after all, what they came for.

But it isn't what they get. Grace has more in common with Greek tragedy than with light comedy. As the characters come to know one another, the play asks the audience to consider the cosmic questions: What is the purpose of earth life? Does God exist? If so, why do people suffer? If God is going to interfere in the affairs of men, why would he use a miracle to make Steve and Sara rich, but not intervene to prevent Tim’s tragedy? As Robert Frost asks in his poem “Design,” “What but design of darkness to appall? — / If design govern in a thing so small.”

Another question the playwright asks us to consider is whether the world is governed by fate or choice. Several times characters plead, "Can't we just start over?" The opening scene itself is a rewind, suggesting that a do-over would be the greatest miracle of all. Would we change things if given a second chance? Or are our actions predestined?

Although Grace poses the questions, it wisely does not try toprovide the answers. Instead, what we have is a riveting story presented through deftly acted characters who seem as though they could indeed live next door. Tim, a rocket scientist, represents the atheistic view. His earthbound job of filtering out the data noise that interferes with “pure communication” from space is a perfect foil for the worldly noise that believers filter in order to hear the “pure communication” of the spirit. Karl provides not only comic relief but a poignant back story. Asner fans will be sorry to see that he is onstage only briefly, but his part is the subtle heart of the story.

Graceis a brilliant show with brilliant staging and a brilliant cast. Paul Rudd is particularly natural as the earnest and affable young Jesus Freak — er, Christian — who feels compelled to invite everyone he knows to accept the reality of Jesus Christ. He has his standard arguments that seem to prove the existence of God — at least to him. His open smile and eager enthusiasm reveal a surface-bound testimony. Sara is the one who presents the deeper meaning of what it is to be spiritually converted. Perhaps the real gift of miracle lies not in being protected from suffering, but in being helped to endure it.


Editor's Note: "Grace," written by Craig Wright, directed by Dexter Bullard. At the Cort Theatre on Broadway, New York City, until January 6.



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Two Years

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Today the three women belonging to the band Pussy Riot were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” a charge that resulted from a brief protest they staged in a Moscow cathedral last winter. They were sentenced to two years in prison.

The women, who have been held by the authorities since their arrest last March, will now disappear into the bowels of the Russian prison system. A few hundred Russians held a protest outside the courtroom. The crowd, which included former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, was quickly broken up by police, and Kasparov was arrested. As this is written, there are unconfirmed reports of beatings.

According to a New York Times dispatch from Moscow, defendant Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said the following in her closing statement:

To my deepest regret, this mock trial is close to the standards of the Stalinist troikas. . . . Who is to blame for the performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and for our being put on trial after the concert? The authoritarian political system is to blame. What Pussy Riot does is oppositionist art or politics. . . . In any event, it is a form of civil action in circumstances where basic human rights, civil and political freedoms are suppressed.

Two years. A severe blow to liberty was struck in Moscow today.




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Negative Externalities

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Model Citizen

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Bernie Tiede was a model citizen in the small city of Carthage, “behind the Pine Curtain” in eastern Texas, as one resident calls it. As an assistant funeral director, Bernie took gentle care of the deceased. As a member of a local Protestant congregation, he taught Sunday School, sang in the choir, and made people weep with his lovely tenor solos. As an amateur thespian, he directed local musical revivals. As a trusted friend, he escorted a recently widowed curmudgeonly dowager to concerts, dinners, and even trips abroad. He was generous and kind. Everyone loved Bernie. Even after he killed the curmudgeonly dowager. By accident. Oops.

Bernie is a dark, deadpan comedy in the style of the Eugene Levy-Christopher Guest mockumentaries. But this is no mockumentary; the people being interviewed for this film are real citizens of Carthage, Texas, all dolled up for their close-ups and spouting colloquialisms you couldn’t get away with as a scriptwriter. “She had her nose up so high in the air, she would have drowned in a rain storm,” one snippety resident says about Marjorie Nugent, the deceased dowager. Another gives a detailed explanation of the five sections of Texas, ending with “I sort of skipped over the panhandle — but everyone does.” “The Gossips” (as director Richard Linklater affectionately calls them in interviews) do their best to support their friend Bernie and explain his motives. No one could ask for a better jury of his peers.

Linklater has carefully crafted a combination documentary and fictional bio-flick about this famous (at least behind the Pine Curtain) case. He interviewed dozens of people who knew Bernie Tiede, and then used their stories to write a script about it. Jack Black is perfect as Bernie, inhabiting the role with a distinct waddle, a beneficent smile, and a sincerity that invites endearment. You just want to reach out and hug him, or be hugged by him. Early in the film we join Bernie in his car as he drives through the town, singing a country hymn about his walk with Jesus. That long cut, interspersed with occasional interviews, tells us everything we need to know about his personality.

Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) is the kind of nasty, critical, overbearing old woman whom everyone wants to avoid. Her own grandchildren haven’t seen her in four years, and for good reason. At first she is charmed by Bernie’s attention and becomes charming as a result, but eventually she reverts to type, assailing Bernie, too, with her browbeating and criticism. MacLaine is wonderful in this role, tapping into her ingénue days to charm Bernie and then digging deep into her nastiness. But she never revels in the role or tries to steal a scene — she is convincingly Marjorie throughout. Wisely, MacLaine has resisted the Hollywood collagen-botox mania, so she can still move her face. She doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but she doesn’t need it. Her body language and facial expressions tell us what Marjorie is thinking and feeling without words.

Bernie is one of those unexpected little gems that surprise and delight us in every scene, despite its macabre subject matter. It asks us to sympathize with someone who should be utterly unsympathetic — and we do. Linklater’s melding of actors and townspeople is brilliant — actors could never have convinced audiences to empathize with Bernie, but these real residents who know and love him do. Moreover, the actors seem to have taken their cues from the interviews, matching their cadences and movements to the local residents. The result is a seamless blending of fact and fiction. Matthew McConnaughey is particularly good as Danny Buck, the preening peacock of a prosecutor. The film is a delightful piece of work, with a delightful protagonist. Too bad about Marjorie. Oops.

The film also inadvertently highlights a growing problem with the criminal justice system: the tendency for prosecutors to overcharge, with the hope of forcing a plea bargain. Let’s suppose a young man gets into a fight, and someone ends up dead. The fight may have been premeditated, but the killing was not. The prosecutor charges him with first degree murder and scares the bejeezus out of him with the maximum sentence of 25 to life. A plea bargain to manslaughter would get him a sentence of 8–10 years. Frightened about the potential risk of a jury trial, he takes the deal.

But what if he isn’t guilty at all? What if he has been wrongly accused? He already doesn’t trust the system; after all, they got the wrong man, and he knows it. Nevertheless, facing a potential sentence of 25 to life, and knowing that juries are wont to convict poor kids like him who have been assigned an overworked public defender, he might be convinced to plead out. If he does go to trial, he’s facing the higher charge of first degree, even though the prosecutor knows it should be manslaughter or, at most, second degree murder.

Any film that causes us to take a closer look at the criminal justice system is a good film in my book. And Bernie is a very good film. Don’t miss it!


Editor's Note: Review of "Bernie," directed by Richard Linklater. Millennium Entertainment (2011), 104 minutes.



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Who Let the Dog Out?

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Police are routinely judged by a different standard, a double standard under the law that allows them to violate the civil liberties protected by the constitution. The police do so with impunity. They can (and they do) get away with murder while the average, non-uniformed person is tossed into jail for forgetting to pay a traffic ticket.

A recent news story from WFMJ (Campbell, Ohio) and the Youngstown Vindicator illustrates how deeply embedded this double standard has become. An “off-duty” police dog was enjoying a walk with his partner when he spotted an 8-year-old boy playing hide-and-seek with his cousin. The dog attacked the running child, dragging him to the ground, shredding his sweatshirt, puncturing his T-shirt and leaving marks on the boy's arm.

What is the police response? They praise the dog's record as a crime-buster and drug-sniffer. No mention is made of sanctioning the police officer or taking the dog off the street. Any other dog would be put down for attacking a child without provocation; any other owner would be liable in civil court. But this dog was excused with the explanation that he could not distinguish between a fleeing suspect and a playing child. In short, the dog was just doing his job.

"They're [police dogs] trained that anything running could be a potential threat, and all he's doing is reacting and doing what he was trained to do," explained Sergeant John Rusnak from the Campbell Police Department. “He has caught three armed robbers. He has located numerous amounts of drugs. He has tracked down suspects. He’s been a vital, vital part of our police department.”

The libetarian commentary site The Agitator makes an interesting observation about the incident: “And if someone had come to the kid’s defense and shot the dog, as on- and off-duty cops routinely do, that person would be in custody right now. Of course, the problem isn’t the dog, it’s the handler. And when cops kill the family pet, the problem also usually isn’t with the dog.”

It is my understanding that no police dog attacks without a verbal command. If I am incorrect, then every police dog out there is a standing menace to every child it encounters. There is no mention of any sanctions or repercussions for the officer who let the dog in question get away. Apparently leash laws do not apply to everyone. As in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Orwell was speaking of swine. So am I.




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New Grit

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The story of True Grit is as simple as a classic western and iconic as a Greek drama — a tale of revenge and redemption, told with wit, grit, and a dash of cathartic poignancy.

Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) has killed Frank Ross in cold blood. Frank's 14-year-old daughter, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), is determined to see Chaney hanged for murder. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is a murderer of a different sort: as a U.S. Marshall, he has a license to go after outlaws and bring them back, dead or alive. More often than not, he brings them back dead.

Mattie is looking for a marshal with "grit" to help her find her father's killer. The trigger-happy Cogburn is her choice. But the title of the film could just as easily describe Mattie herself. Smart enough to outnegotiate a horse trader, well-versed in the law, plucky enough to tame and ride a new mustang, and tenaciously persistent, she is a girl with true grit. Cogburn is at first irritated by this young whippersnapper, but as he sees her determination, irritation gives way to grudging admiration. Eventually he grows to love her with the protective ferocity of a mother bear.

As they travel together, Cogburn slowly reveals his past to her. He has two failed marriages behind him, as well as a son who, he admits, "never liked me very much." With her unflinching courage and impressive education, Mattie becomes both the son and the daughter Cogburn did not raise. Gradually she comes to represent his opportunity for redemption as a father.

Comparisons to the 1969 version of True Grit, starring John Wayne, are inevitable. After all, the Duke won his one and only Oscar for this role. Many critics have complained that Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn is a grizzled old coot, barely visible behind his whiskers and eye patch. Nevertheless, Bridges sells it, supplying what I consider the original film’s missing ingredient: the growing emotional connection between the precocious yet vulnerable young girl and the old man who has buried his personal life in a whiskey bottle. The chemistry simply didn't exist between Kim Darby and John Wayne, who openly complained about his costar's lack of experience and depth.

Darby's Mattie was bent on reforming the irascible, hard-drinking, cynical Cogburn, but Steinberg's Mattie simply accepts him for who he is and takes care of him when he needs it. When she removes Rooster's tobacco and rolling paper from his fumbling hands and deftly produces a tight cigarette, she does it without condemnation or flourish; it's apparent that she has rolled cigarettes for her father many times before. The gesture symbolizes a subtle transfer of Mattie's affection and signals the beginning of Cogburn's redemption. By contrast, in Kim Darby's hands the cigarette is an unspoken accusation of his immorality.

The Coen Brothers are probably the most versatile moviemaking team in the business. They defy any attempt to place them in a genre box, unless that box is just labeled "Good." It has been said that paper is cheaper than film, and the Coens have taken that axiom to heart, beginning with a great script that leads inevitably to a great story and a great film. From the quirky Raising Arizona to the starmaking Fargo to the sleazy The Big Lebowski to the sublime O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men, they’ve known how to make movies the old fashioned way: with great stories, great acting, and great cinematography. True Grit may not be their quirkiest or most original, but it is a true winner.


Editor's Note: Review of "True Grit," directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Skydance, 2010, 110 minutes.



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