Books & Culture

‘Grant’ and the Left-Wing MEET Complex

Let’s stop reacting to leftist narratives and instead direct our energies into both marginalizing them and replacing their products with our own.

The History Channel on Monday will premiere a three-part miniseries about Ulysses S. Grant. Produced by the arch-leftist and globalist Leonardo Di Caprio, with commentary by left-wing reparations activist Ta-Nehisi Coates, the show is based on Ron Chernow’s 2017 biography. This is the same Chernow who excoriated President Trump at the 2019 White House Correspondents’ Dinner and says Alexander Hamilton would have supported Trump’s impeachment.

But I am not interested in revisiting the endless spurious assertions we’re sure to hear from the people who produced what is sure to be another tired, this-is-who-we-are jeremiad pushing progressive liberalism. 

Trying to argue against it point by point will be a fruitless endeavor because you’re not just arguing against Ron Chernow, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Leonardo Di Caprio. You’re arguing against the combined powers of what passes for America’s media, education, entertainment, and tech industries. Let’s call it the MEET complex.

The MEET complex is a just appellation for the largely unitary body that shapes contemporary American culture. If “politics is downstream of culture,” these are the institutions that shape the culture. 

We Consume Their Products, They Fund Leftist Projects

The average American spends 11 hours per day consuming the products the MEET complex offers in the form of news, education, entertainment, or browsing online. At the moment, the MEET complex is firmly in the hands of leftists and their fellow travelers. It will continue to steamroll traditional Americans as long as it is largely unchallenged and, most important of all, granted legitimacy by people who do not acknowledge or understand its existence.

Most of what you read and consume in terms of news media is made and delivered by leftists. The vast majority of news journalists are liberal. “From having near-parity with the journalist Republicans in the 1970s, Democrats today outnumber Republicans today by four to one,” Investor’s Business Daily reported in 2018. In other words, when you read the newspaper or watch the news, you’re far more likely to encounter news written by and for liberals. It’s just a fact.

Most of what you “learn” at school is packaged and delivered by leftists. On average, there are 79 Democrats in elementary and secondary education for every 21 Republicans. Since 1990, teachers’ unions have directed 95 percent of their political donations to Democrats. When your kids go to public school and learn about\U.S. history, it’s being taught by and for people who see the world through a leftist lens. 

Even if your children go to private school, it’s likely they will be taught to see the world through a leftist lens because the universities, where their textbooks and teachers come from, are even more left-wing than the public schools. At American universities only 3.8 percent of all professors identify as socially conservative.

Most of the entertainment you consume—television, movies, or educational documentaries—is made by and for leftists. Most of the people who write the scripts for your movies are liberals; most actors and actresses are on the left. Most of the musicians you enjoy are liberals. Most of the music executives who publish their works are liberals. And most of the comedians you watch on TV and online are also liberals. 

“Individuals and firms in the television, movie, and music industries gave $84 million in campaign contributions during the 2016 election cycle, with 80 percent going to Democrats,” notes Colby College sociologist Neil Gross. While “Hillary Clinton received three votes for every one that went to Donald Trump in Los Angeles county as a whole, actor-heavy areas like the Hollywood Hills recorded even more-lopsided tallies,” Gross adds. Hollywood’s money and their votes go almost entirely one way.

Finally, most of what you see when you use technology is also produced and curated by leftists. Big Tech is overwhelmingly liberal. One study by an online social media consulting firm claims that the average person who is online spends up to 40 minutes per day watching YouTube. Just remember, YouTube employees have directed 93 percent of their political donations to Democrats and none to Republicans

Maybe you like streaming content through Amazon Prime or Hulu or Netflix, the top-three providers of streaming content. Amazon Prime employees gave 70 percent of their cash donations in 2016 to Democrats. Hulu employees in 2016 gave 90 percent of their political donations to Democrats. Netflix employees gave $47 to Democrats for every $1 they gave to Republicans since 2000. 

An Insidious Narrative

Let’s return to the History Channel’s Grant miniseries. Chernow, despite his faults, did an admirable job in rehabilitating some of Grant’s better traits and showing him in a positive, sensible, and humane light. The Claremont Review of Books review echoes most of my own positive thoughts about Chernow’s biography. But the book also has its flaws. 

To defeat whatever tropes are sure to come, you’re not just fighting the biased portrayal that the series is sure to offer. You’re fighting an entire apparatus working to advance the MEET complex’s leftist narrative. 

The media obviously is pushing it. As Adam Gopnik noted in the New Yorker in 2017, Chernow’s book contends there is nothing inherently new or wrong about identity politics:

Reading Chernow on Grant’s patronage practice, one may also start to cast a skeptical eye on the notion that “identity politics” is in any way a newcomer to progressive coalitions. Worrying about providing significant spoils to minorities—and women, too, who, though unable to vote, were still subjects of patronage—was half the political work that Grant had to do. His campaign theme for his eventual reëlection sounds positively Clintonian, in Chernow’s summary: “He had appointed a prodigious number of blacks, Jews, Native Americans, and women, and delivered on his promise to give the country peace and prosperity.” A group of reform Republicans—Henry Adams’s father among them—formed a party to run against Grant in 1872 on a confused platform of good government and support for renewed “home rule” in the South. They displayed a now-familiar refusal to believe that the real source of persistent racial resentment among their fellow-countrymen was persistent racial resentment.

Chernow’s thesis that Grant was a tragic hero fatally wounded by America’s intractable flaws dovetails nicely with the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Earlier this month, the Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its debunked “scholarship,” which places America’s founding not in 1776 but in 1619 when the first slave was forcibly transported to the British colony of Virginia. This is the newspaper whose employees in 2016 and 2018 gave 95 percent and 100 percent of their campaign cash to Democrats. The 1619 Project, like Chernow’s Grant, has its own host of celebrities, educators, and tech bros making sure that it dominates American thinking and that conservatives respond to its critiques—which in itself grants it legitimacy.

Grant, like the 1619 Project, is yet more history taken up and presented by establishment education, entertainment, and tech. There is already a “Grant” classroom curriculum based on Chernow’s book. Now thousands of unsuspecting youths can be indoctrinated with Chernow’s arguments by thousands of unsuspecting teachers at best or social justice activists at worst. 

Resisting the MEET Complex

The fact that DiCaprio produced this documentary and specifically picked Coates and West Point’s Elizabeth Samet (a left-wing English professor) tells us the series will not just be mere “infotainment.” It will be advanced by our tech overlords who will make sure it’s the first thing that pops up when you search for “Ulysses S. Grant” whether that’s on Google, Yahoo, Amazon Prime or any other online search engine or content provider.

This is how ideas like those contained in productions like “Grant”  and the almost infinite other leftist projects that touch on identity politics, sexuality, marriage, family, criminal justice, taxes, social welfare, drugs, and foreign policy become dogma in a generation. 

Our schools get saturated with it. Our media pumps it into our televisions and screens. Our actors and actresses play in movies written by directors who conform to the narrative. And our technology industry gently nudges us in the direction of what the Left calls “mainstream” through its algorithms and its pre-selected menus of what we can watch on our streaming services. 

Fast forward a few decades and the old history that Grant sought to defeat is replaced with this entirely new narrative that becomes accepted by most people. Then your future Democratic politician in 2040 or 2050 shows up downstream from the cultural change that was wrought by the MEET complex in 2020 to reap the benefits by crafting policy based on these half-truths and outright lies. 

Taken together, the MEET complex is formidable in its ability to saturate the American public with its slanted propaganda. It writes, teaches, portrays, and filters any history that might confirm right-leaning assumptions out of the story. 

If you really want to defeat leftist propaganda, you first have to isolate and defeat the MEET complex. We should stop reacting to the narratives they foist on us and instead direct our energies into both marginalizing the MEET complex and replacing it with our own by marching through these institutions as vigorously and purposefully as generations of leftists have already done to our great detriment. That is one of the most pressing political questions of this generation. Until we do this, we’ll forever dance to the tune that the complex plays.

Books & Culture

A review of “Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald Trump,” by John J. Pitney (Rowman & Littlefield, 248 pages, $21.95)

Rage Against the Effective Republican

For John Pitney, it is Trump who has needlessly created a climate of incivility. And far from making America great again, Trump has come in to wreck it.

John J. Pitney’s Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald Trump, is currently ranked 288,742 on Amazon’s bestseller list and 1,162 in sales on Amazon’s “Political Commentary and Opinion” list. Equally noteworthy is that Bill Kristol and Tom Nichols have both given the book resounding endorsements. Given the remarkable traction in sales and praise from some of today’s most relevant conservative writers, the book merits a closer look.

Pitney is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. As he explains in the book’s preface, he is a life-long Republican who voted for every Republican presidential candidate during his entire voting life until 2016. That year, the election of Donald Trump moved him to change his party registration to “independent” on election night. He has since been a fervent member of the NeverTrump camp.

The book, a compilation of every stale NeverTrump talking point out there, offers no anecdote or allegation that has not already been made elsewhere obsessively by Trump’s opponents. From “Russiagate,” the Ukraine scandal, the Charlottesville affair, the Birther movement, the Central Park jogger case, and so on, Pitney recounts every trope backed up with the same razor-thin evidence as we have heard them recounted a thousand times. Every article and tweet against the president accusing him of racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, divisiveness, corruption, and being friends with autocrats, is trotted out one after another as a slide show.

The overarching premise weaving it all together is that Trump is a “fake patriot.” Pitney asserts that while Trump likes to call other people “un-American,” it is Trump himself who is “un-American.” The election of Trump has avalanched the Shining City on the Hill. In denouncing Trump, the Democrats, the media, and every manner of leftist organization now all embrace the great American ideals that Trump, and increasingly his supporters, are spurning. 

In every war of words Trump has with politicians and pundits on the Left, Pitney comes to the defense of the latter. They are merely innocent bystanders bullied by this disgraceful orange man. For Pitney, it is Trump who has needlessly created a climate of incivility. And far from making America great again, Trump has come in to wreck it.

Pitney is writing only for the initiated. His intended audience is other NeverTrumpers who are mutually sickened by Trump. He may also be writing it for some mainstream leftists who might enjoy the novelty of having their hatred for the president validated by a Republican college professor. But Trump’s smarter opponents, even on the Left, would not feel they have gained anything from reading this book.

So, Professor Pitney, instead of leaving the party and writing angry books about Trump, why not make your criticisms constructive? Why not help Trump to be better?

There are seven chapters, six of which are named for a different line in the Declaration of Independence. Within each, Pitney shows us all the many ways that Trump represents the antithesis of Jefferson’s words. But the title of the whole book is key. For Pitney, Trump is uniquely “un-American.” Every president from George Washington to Barack Obama is described as having lived up to the ideals of the American promise until Trump came along to shatter them.

In Pitney’s telling, the context in which Trump entered the fray of American politics was one of civil controversy. In Pitney’s world, the Left treats the Right with respect and collegiality, the media is fair to Republicans, and every president from both parties has been worthy of the high office, until now.

He is particularly critical of the evangelical support for a man who does not live a Christian life. He calls their support for him a “Faustian bargain.” That is a particularly low blow to the many Christians who understand what is at stake.

But most importantly, Pitney does not address what Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters like about him, nor does he seem even remotely curious about that. In Pitney’s world, the most steadfast Trump supporters are Klansmen and neo-Nazis. 

I live in Youngstown, Ohio, in the midst of “Trump Country.” I invite Pitney to come here to the Rust Belt and meet with the kind of Trump supporters he is unlikely to come across in Southern California. They are patriotic, freedom-loving, working-class Americans who support him precisely because he offers an entirely different brand of politics. They like Trump because he hears their voice of anger at the very establishment elite Pitney seems to prefer will remain in control in Washington. Are they “un-American” too?

Why has Pitney even been a Republican his whole voting life?

If he is a life-long Republican, does he not see it a good thing that Trump has created a much more conservative federal judiciary and has made major strides in dismantling the bureaucracy? Does he not prefer that Mike Pompeo and not a liberal like Susan Rice is running the State Department? Is it not a good thing that Betsy DeVos—and not a teacher’s union stooge—is the education secretary? Would he prefer a climate alarmist heading up the EPA? Would he prefer that we have a Democrat in office signing off on progressive legislation?

And does Pitney honestly believe that the Democrats care about character and civility? Has he forgotten the Paul Wellstone memorial? Does he not see that Republicans are routinely vilified in the media and on university campuses? Does he not see that it has been the Left, not Trump, that has divided America with their rhetoric? The Left certainly does not believe America is exceptional, but rather that it is a nation built on bigotry, slavery, greed, and imperialism.

The Republicans have tried (and failed) continuously with the kind of morally decent candidates that Pitney likes. Mitt Romney arguably ran the most honorable presidential campaign in decades, yet his opponents still portrayed him as a sinister demon who wanted to kill their grandmothers and put African-Americans “back in chains,” and a sexist for asking for women’s résumés to be brought to him in binders. And Romney stood by and took it. Why does Pitney not see the necessity of having someone who fights back?

The most cringe-worthy section of the book is the one where he tries to psychoanalyze Trump. According to Pitney, Trump’s many harsh words for Obama are motivated by “envy and psychological projection.” And before comparing these two presidents’ academic records, as if that matters, Pitney adds, “Obama is younger, thinner, smarter, and more physically vigorous than his successor.” He asserts that Trump is subconsciously jealous of his predecessor’s intelligence, charm, and physique. It seems that, like Chris Matthews, Pitney also gets a tingle up his leg at the thought of former President Obama.

It would be helpful if Pitney reexamined his animosity to Trump and his misguided nostalgia for Democrat presidents. Republican political scientists are a rare commodity and Republicans on campus can use all the help they can get.

So, Professor Pitney, instead of leaving the party and writing angry books about Trump, why not make your criticisms constructive? Why not help Trump to be better?

Books & Culture

The Venezuelan Collusion of
Danny Glover

In 2007, Hugo Chávez’s oil-rich Venezuela paid one of its Hollywood supporters tens of millions of dollars to produce a film. Thirteen years later it remains unmade and the money is unaccounted for. 

Much has been made of the alleged (and now disproven) “Russian collusion” of Donald Trump campaign associates Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and George Papadopoulos during the 2016 election. We now know that, of those investigated, none had direct ties to Russia (Manafort’s were to pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine), and the prosecution of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn recently imploded. 

Yet Democrats continue to insist some sort of behind-the-scenes “Rick and Morty” relationship exists between Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Add to that the current trend of Democrats such as Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) refusing to appear at the conference of the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, or attacks by Democrats on Trump’s “deference” to Saudi Arabia, and one could be fooled into thinking that the party is serious about rejecting foreign influence in the American political system. 

Don’t be.

This attitude does not extend to one of Sanders’ most long-standing supporters and surrogates, actor and activist Danny Glover (“The Color Purple,” “Lethal Weapon”). 

An examination of Glover’s public record and positions within nonprofit organizations shows that his ties to multiple foreign governments in Latin America rise above those of any of the Trump aides. The relationship on the surface appears to be no more strange than the standard celebrity progressive international activism such as that of Michael Moore who lauded Cuba’s healthcare in the 2007 film “Sicko.” 

For Glover, however, there were paid visits and an actual transfer of funds for a movie to be produced. And most conspicuously, this film has never been made.

South of the Border

How did the connection start? Glover’s political opinions have always been reliably left-wing, but given his prominence in Hollywood blockbusters like “Saw” and “The Shooter,” his central role in many far-Left organizations has been ignored. 

In 2004, Glover paid a visit to Venezuela where the nation’s Marxist President Hugo Chávez welcomed him. Joining him was AFL-CIO senior official Bill Fletcher and Patricia Ford, an executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest public-employee union in the United States. 

Later that year he would be appointed goodwill ambassador to the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), following his frequent castmate Whoopi Goldberg who held the post in 2003. Glover and Fletcher at the time were, respectively, the chairman and president of the TransAfrica Forum. In 2005, according to its own disclosure, he was also the co-chair of the board of directors of Vanguard Public Foundation, a major anti-war organization led by Hari Dillon. This organization would later collapse as a result of an investment scam run by fraudster Samuel “Mouli” Cohen. 

Glover’s visit to Venezuela would initiate a long and tight friendship with the Chávistas in Venezuela that continues to this day. 

Glover returned in 2006 with friends Harry Belafonte and Cornel West to tout a 40 percent discounted heating oil program. Less than a month later, CITGO, the American subsidiary of Venezuela’s PDVSA oil conglomerate, would conclude an agreement to bring 2.5 million gallons of home-heating oil to the state of Vermont with a then largely unknown congressman: Bernie Sanders. Later that year, Sanders would be elected to the Senate. 

Lights, Camera, Inaction

It appeared that Glover would take part in efforts by Venezuela to create its own film industry to compete with Hollywood starting with a $42 million studio known as Villa del Cine. But the role he would play was perplexing. 

Nominally, according to Chavista journalist Nikolas Kozloff writing for, the new studio would aim to help filmmakers native to Venezuela. “By spurring local film production, Chávez and the staff at Villa del Cine hope to counteract the pervasive influence of Hollywood and to promote Venezuelan history and culture,” Kozloff wrote. 

It must have come as a surprise, therefore, when in May 2007 the Caracas government gave Glover $17.8 million to have him produce an historical epic about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture. In April 2008, it was announced that another $9 million was granted to the project, with Chavista politician Simon Escalona saying the film would be part of “our ideological canon against Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM).” 

Glover would even form a movie production company known as Louverture Films. Partners of his include Susan Cohn Rockefeller, the second wife of the oil heir David Rockefeller, Jr. who is on the board of the megacharity Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and has chaired both the larger Rockefeller Foundation and Rockefeller Capital Management. Another partner is the Bertha Foundation, an overseas charity headed by South African pharmaceutical billionaire Tony Tabatznik. Their names are important, as Glover would eventually claim he failed to raise enough money to produce the film, despite the funding from the Venezuelan government and aid from his well-heeled partners. Nevertheless, Louverture had a hand in the production of 34 other titles

Glover said in July 2008 that the film was not attracting producer funding because it had no “white heroes.” 

Despite this setback, a mere three months after Chávez’s second tranche of petrodollars, Glover claimed in 2015 and 2017 that he was still trying to produce the film. One might have asked at that point, to what purpose, as “Toussaint Louverture” was released in 2012 by France 2 television as a two-part miniseries directed by Senegalese French filmmaker Philippe Niang? Perhaps Glover feels that the film was too generous in its treatment of L’Ouverture’s French masters, who are depicted in the movie throwing a chained slave into the harbor and watching him drown.

Interlocking Obligations

Glover’s ties to Venezuela would be strong enough based on the $27 million the Chavistas invested in the aborted film. It’s not known whether that money was ever returned. But Glover’s relationship with the socialist regime goes deeper.

In April, my exposé of The Real News Network, a supposedly independent news organization on whose board Glover serves, showed how the group is a Venezuelan government mouthpiece. In addition, Glover has a number of professional associations with Venezuelan or pro-Venezuelan bodies:

  • Glover and Belafonte were named to the advisory board of TeleSUR English, a TV network owned by the governments of Venezuela and allies like Ecuador and Argentina. Hosting a show on TeleSUR was Bill Fletcher, who in 2015 interviewed . . . Danny Glover. Fletcher’s show “The Global African” was shared unedited on The Real News Network’s website in June 2015.
  • In 2004, a group called the Venezuela Information Office registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The VIO reported directly to the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C. The group’s 2005 FARA disclosure lists Glover receiving a phone call from the VIO on October 4. The logs of VIO staff member Jo Ellen Chernow disclosed in the FARA report show eight calls, meetings, or emails to Bill Fletcher in his capacity as president of TransAfrica. Another TransAfrica board member, James Early of the Smithsonian Institution, also received several calls from VIO. Early is known as a “friend of Cuba” and like Glover has been a board member at The Real News Network.
  • Glover serves on the board of another pro-Venezuela organization, the Center for Economic Policy Research. In 2013, CEPR’s co-director Mark Weisbrot wrote an op-ed for The Guardian titled “Sorry, Venezuela haters: this economy is not the Greece of Latin America.” In 2014 the country’s economy crashed as oil prices shrank.
  • According to the Washington Free Beacon, the PR Firm MCSquared paid $500,000 to Glover and actress Mia Farrow on behalf of the government of Ecuador, then led by Venezuelan ally Rafael Correa, in order to visit and promote a lawsuit against Chevron.
  • Glover in 2017 signed a letter along with Noam Chomsky condemning the Ajuste (austerity) policies of new Argentine President Mauricio Macri. Macri’s predecessor, Cristina Fernandez de Kirschner, was a major ally of Venezuela and her government helped fund TeleSUR.
  • Glover has also contributed articles to the Institute for Policy Studies for which James Early has served as a board member. One such article was in advocacy of his long campaign to free the “Cuban 5,” a group of Florida men arrested in 1998 who admitted to spying for the Castro government against Cuban exiles.

Caracas Central Casting

Added to this is Glover’s position as a surrogate on both of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns. 

In 2016, Sanders and Glover were interviewed by The Real News Network CEO Paul Jay. Fletcher had written editorials in The Progressive in 2014 and an essay for Jacobin in 2016 supporting Sanders before he became a national phenomenon. After Sanders folded that year, Glover was named a board member and fellow of the Sanders Institute, which was headed by the senator’s stepson, David Driscoll

Unlike Our Revolution, a 501(c)(4) lobbying group headed by fellow Sanders acolyte Nina Turner, the lesser-known Sanders Institute is a fully tax-exempt 501(c)(3) and is exclusively devoted to promoting Sanders’ legislative proposals. In April, former Our Revolution political director David Duhalde described the difference in a Jacobin article, and proclaimed that the group “failed to live up to its potential.” But as for the Sanders Institute, in less than three years of existence it produced very little literature and largely served to share reports by the IPCC and Obama-era federal departments before being shuttered in 2019.

With Bernie’s movement now effectively over, Chávez dead, and Venezuela selling off its gold reserves to Iran, will Danny Glover finally get around to making that movie with the $27 million that Chávez gave him? Did he or will he give the money back, like Brett Favre now has agreed to do with the $1.1 million he received from the state of Mississippi for speaking engagements he did not honor? Something tells me former co-star Mel Gibson would not have had trouble finishing a movie that was so well-funded by now.

Books & Culture

A review of “The Book of Matt,” by Stephen Jimenez (Steerforth, 383 pages, $19.95)

Protecting the Official Myth of Matthew Shepard

Stephen Jimenez’s brand of reporting is an endangered species in the wasteland of modern media.

On the night of October 6, 1998, the robbery and beating of a University of Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard put a microscope on the quiet college community of Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard, small and fragile in build and openly gay, had been found by a mountain biker tied to a fence “like a Halloween scarecrow.” 

Six days later, after attempts to keep him alive failed, Shepard died and forever entered the public mind as a martyr and a namesake of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009). 

Two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were arrested and charged with Shepard’s murder. The motive of the crime, thanks to conflicting statements by McKinney and his girlfriend Kristen Price, was assumed to be homophobia. The murder sent shockwaves through the country, as gay rights activists protested nationwide in response to unverified media reports about the motive, while both gay and anti-gay activists such as Reverend Fred Phelps picketed the trial of McKinney. By 2000, theaters across the country were performing the play The Laramie Project based on statements of locals and people who knew Shepard. The play was later adapted as a film in 2002 by HBO.

But, in 2004, ABC’s “20/20” aired a one-hour report with anchor Elizabeth Vargas that in numerous ways contradicted the accepted story about the murder. Based primarily on the investigative work of Stephen Jimenez, the report showed that, far from being a hate crime, Shepard’s murder likely was the result of his and McKinney’s activities within the local methamphetamine trade. 

Price also recanted her hearsay statement about Shepard attempting a sexual advance on McKinney, and it was further revealed that both Shepard and McKinney may have been involved in male prostitution. In 2013, Jimenez released The Book of Matt, the product of more than a dozen years of his research into the evidence known at the time of the murder as well as other pieces only revealed later thanks to his numerous interviews with prosecutor Cal Rerucha. 

I interviewed Jimenez in March in anticipation of the June 30 release of an updated edition of his book.

Russell Henderson, an Accomplice Not a Murderer

In our conversation, Jimenez was clear on several points that are central to the book. He made a bold separation between McKinney and his accomplice, Henderson, who pleaded guilty thereby foregoing a trial; and in numerous conversations face to face with Jimenez during prison visits, Henderson reiterated his remorse over Shepard’s death. 

According to all evidence available, Henderson’s role in the murder was limited to following McKinney’s instruction to tie Shepard to the fence. But indeed, as Jimenez points out both in our interview and in the book, McKinney had assaulted several other people within the same 24-hour period, including two Hispanic men in Laramie, fellow meth cohort Monty Durand at the home of his cousin Dean McKinney, and Henderson himself during Shepard’s murder when Henderson tried to stop the beating. 

According to Jimenez, who continues to keep in touch with various contemporaries of both McKinney and Henderson, there is no evidence of an underlying motive of hate, nor that Henderson had any intent to murder Shepard.

The theme of homophobia and hate crimes, thick in the dialogue of The Laramie Project and in media reporting on the murder, is also refuted by Jimenez. 

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Wyoming, over decades. Remember that in connection with this book I went there . . . it was in the early winter of 2000 that I went to begin working on this case. And I’ve got to say that I don’t find Wyoming any more or less homophobic than any other place,” he said. (Jimenez is a native of Brooklyn, New York.)

The Symbol vs. the Secrets

Jimenez’s award-winning investigative work with ABC News and the subsequent publication of his book have not gone unanswered by those who have made Shepard’s life and murder a sanctified rallying point, and who see the journalist’s revelations as defamatory. 

In response to his critics, Jimenez repeated several crucial points. Nine law enforcement officers and prosecutors connected to the murder case overwhelmingly support the conclusions of the book regarding McKinney and Shepard both being involved in using, buying, and selling meth. Federal agents sent in 1998 to investigate the crime as a violation of Shepard’s civil rights were unable to find evidence to support it and left empty-handed after several weeks of investigation.

McKinney and Shepard were seen together in the company of Laramie limousine driver Doc O’Connor in the months prior to the murder, according to multiple named sources. All of these circumstances contradict the notion that McKinney and Shepard were “strangers” and that McKinney became enraged at him over a sexual advance on the night he was killed. 

Perhaps least surprising was the politicization of Shepard’s murder. 

According to Jimenez, two Clinton White House VIPs were dispatched to the funeral, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Togo West and then-deputy staff secretary Sean Patrick Maloney, who is himself gay. For Maloney, the murder became the springboard for him to become the legal advisor for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. 

According to one profile, Maloney’s interview with Vargas was edited out of the “20/20” broadcast in order to fit the investigation’s portrayal of the murder being motivated by drugs. I asked Jimenez about Maloney and his comparison of Shepard’s murder to the legendary lynching of Mississippi black teen Emmett Till in 1955. His response was sharp:

[Maloney’s] attempt to instruct me that Matthew Shepard is to gay civil rights what Emmett Till is to the civil rights movement, is pure baloney. First of all, the cause of gay civil rights does not hang somehow on the tragic murder of Matthew Shepard.

Jimenez also told me that during Judy Shepard’s interview with Vargas, Maloney admonished Jimenez to “tread lightly here . . . because of what Matt is as a symbol.” In the 2000s Maloney made a failed bid for New York State Attorney General and was a staff member of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, before being elected to Congress in 2012 for the state’s 18th district.

Jimenez analogized the willful ignorance or suppression of the facts in the Shepard case that did not get reported by the media to the type of irresponsible and misleading reporting that led to the Iraq War, or to those who have objected to investigations into the sordid but verified details of Thomas Jefferson’s private life and his sexual relationships with his own slaves.

The Underground Addiction

The topic of methamphetamine and its impact on crime and violence were strong themes both of The Book of Matt and our discussion. 

Jimenez reiterated over and over that the meth epidemic was already in full bloom in late-1990s Wyoming, and law enforcement was hopelessly behind in addressing it. He also agreed that while the nation at large has been hard hit by the rise of meth and opioid addiction, that “crystal meth in particular has been a very serious problem in the gay community.”

Jimenez told me during a follow-up that in his new edition he is including new witness accounts and research that further supports his findings against the critics of the book. Laramie County Sheriff Dave O’Malley, who was the lead police investigator of the murder, consistently has denied that Shepard was dealing meth. But in a new chapter, Jimenez cites a 2004 interview of Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, in which she admits that she was at least aware of his meth use when he lived in Denver. This point of contention is just one example of how tightly the official myth of a hate crime is protected.

True Crime Journalism as It Once Was

Jimenez’s brand of reporting is an endangered species in the wasteland of modern media. As an outsider responding to the Shepard murder, Jimenez gained the trust and confidence of prosecutors, police, and acquaintances of the three main figures in the case over several years. He did not ignore the inconvenient facts that dispelled the myth of a murder driven by raging bigotry and took many risks to his own physical safety in meeting dealers who knew the truth of McKinney and Shepard’s deep involvement with crystal meth. 

In responding to my highlighting of skeptics’ criticism of The Book of Matt, Jimenez answered, “If you want to believe that this was simply about homophobia, OK, then you’re just opening yourself to having many, many other drug-related [crimes]; because you don’t want to look at how this one actually happened.”

Books & Culture

The ‘Architect’ Has Left the Building

In the mid-1950s, there were certain risks associated with being a black rock-and-roll superstar, although “rock and roll” and “superstar” were not yet words in everyone’s vocabulary.

At one point in his career Little Richard, who died last weekend, was so famous he thought he might be killed.

“I was afraid to go outside,” he said. “I was scared someone would shoot me.”

In the mid-1950s, there were certain risks associated with being a black rock-and-roll superstar, although “rock and roll” and “superstar” were not yet words in everyone’s vocabulary.

In part, it was this fear that led to his retirement in 1957, following a two-year string of hits including, “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille” and more.

The movie “The Girl Can’t Help It” (1956) featured Little Richard’s vocals on the title song with Jayne Mansfield in the titular role.

How could he leave it all behind? I asked him in 1984. At the time, I was a reporter on the pop culture beat with the Baltimore Sun. He was a music legend in Washington, D.C., promoting a book, The Life and Times of Little Richard, by British journalist Charles White.

A-hum, yes. I was the king,” he said.

The turning point came when he was flying on tour in Australia. His plane was having engine trouble, and he had a vision of the world coming to an end. He even saw a red light streaking across the sky, thinking it was a sign from heaven.

Actually, it was Sputnik, the first earth satellite launched a few days earlier by the Russians. Just the same, the message was clear: It was time to clean up his act and get right with God.

Richard Wayne Penniman, who was washing dishes for a living in the Macon, Georgia Greyhound station only a few years earlier, stopped being Little Richard and enrolled in a Bible college.

He realized later it was an urge to reform his life, but it would take several more retirements before the process was finally complete.

“I’m a minister now in the Remnant Church of God,” he said, suddenly sounding like a down-home preacher. “We are a Ten Commandments-keepin’ church. Yes, we are.”

At the height of his fame in the ’50s, keeping the Ten Commandments was the last thing on Little Richard’s mind.

“Oh, Lord, when I think of some of the things I did, it scares me to death. I couldn’t go through that again. I just couldn’t . . . I did everything from marijuana to angel dust and coke to heroin . . . I’ve had everything the gay world and the straight world had to offer. I’ve had smorgasbords and short orders, I’ve had my dinner served, so to speak.”

But along with the urge to reform he got the urge to entertain again. Maybe there was a way he could do both.

A European tour in the early 1960s was a major success. The Beatles opened for him in Britain and Sweden. Between shows he taught Paul McCartney and George Harrison how to do his trademark high-pitched scream, which they used on one of the Beatles’ first big hits, “She Loves You.”

Then came guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix. After being tossed out of the Army paratroopers, he was hired by Little Richard to play in his backup band.

Rock-and-roll revival concerts in the 1970s and ’80s rejuvenated his waning career and finally provided him with the money he never saw during his heyday.

He didn’t get a penny in the early years, he claimed. Not even from “Tutti Frutti,” which he wrote and recorded in 1955, the song that made him a household name in every household with teenagers.

“The first thing I’d do if I was in the singing business today is get a CPA to take care of my money.”

Little Richard’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1986, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selected him, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly among others as its first inductees, in effect the founding fathers of rock and roll.

After that, movie parts were offered and Little Richard was suddenly in demand to promote everything from children’s television to Wrestlemania.

More honors came: induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, then the  Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame. The Library of Congress included “Tutti Frutti” in the Library’s National Recording Registry, saying “the unique vocalizing over the irresistible beat announced a new era in music.”

Rolling Stone magazine praised the song’s opening line as “the most inspired rock lyric on record.”

I’d always been unsure what that line was so I asked the man who wrote it back in his dishwashing days. There are several versions, he said, but “the most respectable one” goes:  “Wop bop ba luma ba lop bam boom.”

By 2012, on his last visit to Washington, Little Richard had managed to merge a rock-and-roll revival with a real revival, which made many of his final stage shows as much about the hereafter as they were about golden oldies.

“The world is getting close to the end,” he told the crowd at Washington’s Howard Theater. “Get close to the Lord.”

Then he launched into his classic “Lucille” and sang other hits before finishing with “Tutti Frutti.” To loud applause, he thanked everyone for coming and declared: “I am the architect of rock and roll.”

The architect has left the building.

Books & Culture

A review of “Alphabetland” by X (Fat Possum Records, $13 CD, $20 vinyl)

X: The Thrilling Return of Free-Thinking Punk

X is back, and not a minute too soon.

This is going to be a review of Alphabetland,” the fantastic new album by the band X. A legendary punk rock band that formed in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, the band includes vocalist Exene Cervenka, vocalist-bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D. J. Bonebrake (yes, that’s his real name).

The band released seven studio albums from 1980 to 1993. The best, in my view, is 1983’s “More Fun in the New World.” Inactive for much of the 1990s, X reunited in the early 2000s and have been touring more or less ever since. Their influences include Gene Vincent, surf rock, the Beat poets, John Steinbeck, the Ramones, the city of Los Angeles, and postwar hardboiled crime fiction.

But before getting to the review proper, I’d like to offer a quote from “nice guy, punk legend” guitarist Zoom. In a 2004 interview with Mark Prindle, here’s how Zoom described his political outlook:

I am not a Republican; I am a conservative. The Republican Party is a political party, and I think all politicians are basically full of crap. However, I lean towards conservative values because basically what I want is a government that provides national defense so that we are free to do what we want within our borders, and that keeps criminals off the streets so we’re free to do what we want in our homes, and that provides a fire department to help fight a fire if my house is burning down. And basically, other than that, I kinda want ’em to stay out of my life. I’m a big fan of things like freedom and liberty, and I see those as being conservative values, and I see liberals as wanting to have bigger government that sticks their nose in everybody’s business and takes away our freedoms.

The point of highlighting Zoom’s comments from 16 years ago isn’t to paint X as some kind of right-wing group. They’re not.

Exene generated some controversy in 2017 for apparently praising President Trump, but read what she said closely and the old language of pro-labor populism comes through loud and clear. “It was better before they voted for what’s-his-name,” Cervenka and Doe sing in “The New World,” a lyric that was interpreted in the early 1980s as a shot at Ronald Reagan. (At a December show, Exene said of the song, “The lyrics will be as true in 60 years as they were when they were written.”)

No, the point of quoting Zoom is to highlight that the members of X are four literate, intelligent, and philosophical people who have read books and observed culture; they believe in free expression and ground it in thought and experience. Punk pioneers, the band is a reminder that at its best, punk was not just rage and rebellion and humor, but rage and rebellion and humor (and fun) bursting forth from an intelligent mind.

Here’s Exene on “All the Time in the World,” the spoken-word final track on “Alphabetland” the looks back from adulthood:

We have all the time in the world

Until the limitless possibilities of youthful infinity turn into mortality

But that’s after a long, fun struggle of watching everyone

Not me and not you

Suddenly go pale

Some failed to live up to life

Some trailed behind their own comet tails

Some wailed and cried out to God to no avail

And some got impaled by speeding metal

And infected needles

These are not the lyrics of a dope. The same could be said for most of the best records from the punk and post-punk era in which X thrived.

Leftist agitators, the Clash’s 1979 masterpiece “London Calling” sounds like a novel, and the title of the Smith’s 1986 classic “The Queen is Dead” is based on the novel “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” (Morrissey, the Smith’s lead singer, is a nationalist who has been all but canceled in the UK for his politically incorrect views.)

The Communist Gang of Four—“the postgraduate Clash”—named a song after a line from Joseph Conrad. Elvis Costello’s song “Beyond Belief” could almost pass for a T.S. Eliot poem. Listening to the Dead Kennedys in the early 1980s was like taking a bumper-car ride with your brilliant anarchist professor.

It wasn’t all leftism, either: Siouxsie and the Banshees’ brilliant lament “Rhapsody” was written for Stravinsky, a victim of Stalin’s insane malice. In fact, a basic credo of punk was distrust of hippies and left-liberal utopianism.

Understanding that history is key to understanding what makes X so great. Sonically, “Alphabetland” has end-to-end moments of pure, exuberant rock and roll fun. Zoom’s guitar riffs soar and growl, Bonebrake’s drumming is driving and flawless, and Exene and John Doe’s dovetailing vocals have never sounded better.

Lyrically it’s like the coolest English literature seminar you ever attended. The opener in “Alphabetland” is about the god Mercury: “Mercury you will skate on solver blades / Figure eights on a frozen lake.” “Goodbye Year, Goodbye” was inspired by James Leo Herlihy’s Midnight Cowboy, with the lyrics “brother and sister pretend to be lovers,” a reference to an Andy Warhol party.

“Water and Wine” is a perfectly timed commentary on the new coronavirus reality in America.

The divine that defines us

The evil that divides us

There’s a heaven and a hell

And there’s an ”oh well”

Who gets passed to the head of the line?

Who gets water and who gets wine?

That seems somber and didactic, but the surf-rock vibe will get people on the dance floor and a backing sax adds extra buoyancy.

Like a lot of punk bands of their generation, X are as much fun as they are cutting. “I Gotta Fever” is adrenalized L.A. noir, and “Cyrano deBerger’s Back” (which Doe wrote 40 years ago) is a funky celebration of a man who is an articulate wingman for a strong silent type: “I’m gonna listen carefully / To hear what your Roxanne is gonna say / Though I love her 20 times more / I never say.”

Smart, sexy, fun, and trenchant, “Alphabetland” is a triumph. X is back, and not a minute too soon.

Books & Culture

The King Is Dead, Long Live the King

American rock-n-roll architect Little Richard joins the great jam session in the sky.

Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as “Little Richard,” died on Saturday at his Nashville home. He was 87. Millennials and such may be unaware of the man and the great American music he pioneered.

As the big-band era of the 1940s began to wane, musicians opted for smaller combos. They pounded out a rollicking sound with a heavy backbeat, honking saxophones, percussive pianos, and simple lyrics that lingered in the mind. When Chuck Berry sang “roll over Beethoven, dig these rhythm and blues,” that was the music he was talking about. By the mid-1950s, rhythm and blues had been rebranded as rock and roll, and Little Richard was the king.

Backed by great musicians such as Earl Palmer on drums and Lee Allen on tenor saxophone, the Georgia native crashed away at the piano as he belted out bawdy lyrics that sent crowds into a frenzy. As “Rip it Up,” explains, Little Richard didn’t care if he spent all his dough, because tonight he was going to be “one happy soul.” As he told Miss Molly, “when you rockin’ and a-rollin’, you can’t hear your momma call.” She didn’t care, and neither did those dancing to the music.

For her part, Long Tall Sally was “built sweet, she got everything uncle John needs,” but like Miss Molly she was determined to “have some fun tonight.” A gal named Lucille was known for refusing to do her sister’s will. Little Richard wanted Lucille to come back where she belonged but when he asked some friends about her, alas, “all they lips was tight.”

Some unnamed woman kept knocking but Little Richard told her she couldn’t come in. He was probably busy at the time, maybe with Molly or Sally (though, as an admitted homosexual, maybe he was with somebody else). But he did say, “come back tomorrow night and try it again.” So maybe they hooked up after all.

The gal named Sue, “she know just what to do,” as Little Richard said in “Tutti Frutti,” ludicrously covered in 1957 by, yes, Pat Boone. The original artist was happy for the publicity and the royalties, and in 1956 Little Richard recorded a cover of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” first released by Lloyd Price in 1952.

Little Richard kept cranking out the hits, and some lesser-known tunes such as “True Fine Mamma,” the B-side of “Oh My Soul.” He punctuated many of his songs with that soaring falsetto “whoooo!” later imitated by the Beatles.

Little Richard’s music is not terribly sophisticated and the recordings do sound alike. On the other hand, there are no studio tricks, and as with fellow rock pioneer Chuck Berry, no politics or social messaging.

Little Richard, the first great rock showman, put it out there with all his might, and what you hear is what you get. If the music doesn’t move you in some way, maybe, as Edwin Starr said, you got “no kind of soul.”

Finally, fans may be unaware that Little Richard recorded gospel tunes such as “God is Real”; so it seems the American original was ready to move on long before he hit 87. Richard Penniman outlived many of his imitators, and, should he outlast them in the public mind as well, as time marches on, that would be a good thing.

Books & Culture

When TV and Film Still Had Heart

Steven J. Cannell and John Hughes were ’80s greats. How could two people create shows and movies that varied so much between the absurd and the comical to the serious? And, today, what is the goal? It’s like there is a competition to see who can create more darkness.

There is a real darkness in our country and, no, it isn’t the president’s fault. He has simply amplified a hidden sentiment that has been masked for a long time. This goes for all forms of media, but specifically, it applies to movies, television, and obviously the news. I’d include music, but I have zero idea what the kids are listening to nowadays. Saying the media is biased is like saying Led Zeppelin is your favorite band, so let’s just go down the path of television and movies.

I was blessed to be a 1980s child, a time when movies were so unrealistic they were a thing of beauty. From “Indiana Jones” to “The Goonies” (I mean, who didn’t dare their friends to do the “truffle shuffle”?) to “The Princess Bride”—it is a miracle that such a majestic beauty was directed by (and I’ll be nice) such a nonmajestic man—to all the movies Yoram Globus and Chuck Norris made. Let’s not forget the amazing “Lethal Weapon” series, and of course the greatest action movie ever made, “Die Hard.”

In television, there was no better time to be a boy. It was as if Stephen J. Cannell knew how to speak to a young boy’s fantasies: From “Airwolf” to “The A-Team,” “The Greatest American Hero,” and of course “21 Jump Street.” (Do not watch the movie, which is but a poor remake of the show).

And who could forget “Knight Rider,” and, of course, all the great sitcoms: “The Cosby Show,” “The Wonder Years,” “Family Ties,” and “Growing Pains.” Some were realistic, some were not, but one thing they all had in common, was that when you turned off the television you felt better than when you turned it on.

I bring up Cannell specifically because he was to television what John Hughes was to movies. They both knew how to write for kids, teens, adolescents, and adults, without ever speaking down to, or insulting the intelligence of the audience. Both were prolific writers and directors. Both, sadly, died young; and both left incredible vacuums when their left the scene.

Maybe best of all, there was no political messaging—even subliminally. The only message was “enjoy, maybe think a little, and please escape, because that is what television and movies were made for.”

I know I missed a ton of great movies and television shows from what I consider the second Golden Age for both mediums. Also, I purposely didn’t mention any Hughes movies, for fear of slighting one movie by mention another of his greats. And who can forget the music that so inspired Hughes?

Cannell and Hughes were 1980s greats. How could two people create shows and movies that varied so much between the absurd and the comical to the serious?

And what is the goal today? It’s like there is a competition to see who can create more darkness. We get it. Ryan Murphy, you are the cream of the crop—I’m just not drinking it. Honestly, I’m not sure how many truly are, since a TV “hit” today is 5 million viewers. Shows used to get canceled if they had only 15 million viewers. These days the message counts more than the numbers. Where have the Tartikoffs gone?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, since we are all binging on streaming services in the time of COVID-19. When a friend told me this week that his son was about to have a virtual high school graduation, I realized that I’d rather watch that over the overly-hyped “Ozark” starring an actor whose likeability I simply don’t understand.

So, why not stream graduations? I know it’s odd watching other people’s graduations, and no one wants to feel like the cheering leather guy from “Little Miss Sunshine,” but what are the alternatives these days?

For the record, I am not one of those people who thinks yesterday was always better, and I encourage all to watch anything that was on the USA or sci-fi networks in the mid-2000’s. And yes I am a “Psycho.” And please preorder the new Killers album.

Maybe I am one of those people. Who knows? When I hear “Make America Great Again,” it doesn’t conjure in my mind anything about race or anything political. It evokes a longing for a time when kids could be kids. When one could argue over whether Billy Joel was better than Elton John (Billy, of course). Or when we could imagine we were Jake Ryan but, in reality, we were Brian Johnson. Or when we could pretend to be looking for lost and buried treasures or imagining ourselves as a commando unit that escaped into the Los Angeles underground. To quote The Killers, it was an era when “little boys have action toys for brains, I’m living proof it can last a long time.”

Imagining, and imagination is what makes us great and imagination always trumps the dark and the darkness.

Books & Culture

A review of “Hillary” (Nanette Burstein, executive producer; Hulu, 243 minutes, TV-MA)

Hillary on Hulu

It is ironic that the former secretary of state fought for much of her life trying to prove that being a woman didn’t hold her back, but when it came to running for president she couldn’t forget the fact herself.

After two failed presidential runs, many Americans might expect Hillary Clinton to fade gracefully into the background, her political life now history. With her recent public endorsement of Joe Biden and the release of a highly glamorized documentary series, however, Hillary is trying to claw her way back into the limelight. For what ends, we don’t yet know.

Hillary,” the four-part documentary created by Nanette Burstein and aired on Hulu attempts to put Hillary Clinton into context for a generation that did not grow up with her as their First Lady. Collective memories are short—when many today think of Hillary Clinton they picture her 2016 run for president, her time as Secretary of State, or maybe her 2008 run for the Democratic nomination, but the documentary puts Hillary in the context of over 50 years of cultural transformation. Each episode pivots back and forth from the presumed end of Hillary Clinton’s political career to the beginning. It weaves a narrative of a woman who was “too right too soon,” and who stood up for women’s rights when most women saw their options as limited.

The documentary features segments of more than 2,000 hours of behind-the-scenes campaign footage, some of the 35 hours Burstein spent interviewing Hillary, as well as interviews from Hillary’s friends, family, supporters, friendly journalists, and campaign staff. Missing are interviews of any Hillary opponents or critics.

Overall the documentary was as favorable towards Hillary Clinton as possible without coming across as a self-serving inauthentic campaign ad—not that one should rule out that this very well could be a future campaign ploy. Whether you voted for Hillary or not the series offers a compelling narrative, one that entices the viewer into believing that they know Clinton better. For the close observer, however, the veneer of authenticity wears thin, as when Clinton refuses to talk about her marital issues and when she avoids eye contact with the camera when talking about why the film crew was shut out of her hotel room on the 2016 campaign night.

Clinton as Feminist Icon

The biggest theme in the series is something that was forgotten or ignored about Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election: that she is a radical feminist. Hillary’s campaign staff admit that running next to Bernie in the primaries made Clinton look like a moderate.

The series goes to great lengths to remind younger generations of Hillary’s radical, groundbreaking past. Each episode opens with still portraits of Hillary through the years as the punk anthem, “Take Back the Power” plays. At the beginning of the documentary, Hillary explains that she was born in a classic post-World War II “Leave it to Beaver” upbringing. “I never knew a woman who worked outside of the home except for my teacher and librarian,” she said.

Hillary Clinton’s life moves in tandem with the second wave of feminism. The documentary paints a portrait of Hillary’s life-long struggle to demonstrate that women are equal to men and the push-back that this elicits.

The documentary lingers on Hillary’s feminist awakening while in college and how Hillary gained national attention for her impromptu politically charged remarks at her college graduation. Hillary only became more enmeshed in the Feminist movement while attending Yale Law School. One of Hillary’s classmates said that there was no way to be at Yale Law School in 1969 without being part of the second wave of feminism.

The documentary then describes the battles Hillary had to fight as the unconventional wife of the attorney general and then governor of Arkansas: from being maligned for not changing her last name to Clinton to being discounted because she worked full time as a lawyer and refused to dress the part of matron.  “Every battle we fought at Yale abstractly, she was actually fighting,” Nancy Gertner, Hillary’s Yale classmate said.

Hillary may have been “too right too soon,” but now she is not right enough for those taking over the Democratic Party.

According to the way Hillary tells it, these types of battles never ended. She describes the misogyny she faced while running for president, being told to smile more, people bringing “Iron my shirt” signs to her rally or John Edwards commenting on her jacket during the 2008 debate.

Hillary is continuously portrayed in the documentary as a feminist icon, the leader of the 1992 “Year of the Woman.” Burstein even inserts footage of Liza Minnelli singing at the 65th Oscars, “Its ladies’ day at last . . . Hillary will lead the way.”

As first lady, Hillary famously spoke at the United Nation’s Fourth Women’s Conference in Beijing declaring “women’s rights are human rights.” Hillary gained more sympathy from women generally after Bill Clinton announced he’d had an affair with Monica Lewinsky.

After serving in the Senate there was tremendous pressure put on Hillary to run for president. One of her Yale classmates stated that she and Hillary’s other friends believed that Hillary would be letting the movement down if she didn’t run. Little time is spent on Hillary’s bitter primary battle with Barack Obama except to make the point that everyone was so enamored with the idea of electing the first black president that the thought of electing the first woman president paled in comparison.

It wasn’t until her concession speech to Obama that people seemed to wake up to the fact that Hillary herself was making history. In her speech, Hillary said that from now on it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories and unremarkable to think that a woman could be president. Now the glass ceiling has about 18 million cracks in it, she said.

The documentary shows that as Secretary of State, Hillary was one of the most respected and most powerful women in the world. However, by the time Hillary ran against Bernie Sanders in the 2016 democratic primary her reputation had been severely marred in scandal and controversy. Further, next to Sanders, Hillary looked anything but radical. When asked if she would give free college to all or get rid of ICE Hillary couldn’t answer in the affirmative, “I suffer from the responsibility gene,” she said, “I don’t like to say I’m going to do something that I know is not doable.”

Hillary was exasperated at not getting as much attention or credit as she believed she deserved for being the first woman to win the Iowa caucuses, because everyone was too busy being surprised at how well Sanders had done.

It is ironic that Hillary fought for much of her life trying to prove that being a woman didn’t hold her back, but when it came to running for president she couldn’t forget the fact herself. When Donald Trump accused Hillary of playing the woman card she leaned into it, making her campaign slogan, “I’m with Her,” and stating at one campaign rally,

“Well, if fighting for women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in!”

Should be Rejected by the #MeToo Movement 

The documentary ends with Hillary Clinton trying to find a silver lining to her 2016 election loss. She says that even though she lost she was pleased with the reaction that came from it, the fact that a record number of women won seats in Congress and millions of women gathered to march in opposition to Donald Trump. She believes that 100 years from now her loss will be seen as an historic turning point, the thing that lit the fuse.

There are a few problems with Hillary’s hope. Though she is admittedly a leader of second-wave feminism, as the documentary makes abundantly clear, it was a new wave of feminism or really a new wave of liberalism that took to the streets the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated president, a wave that does not quite accept Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Amy Chozic, a New York Times reporter, saw a generational divide during the democratic primaries between young women and their mothers. While older women loved Hillary their daughters had no reflexive gender allegiance. Instead many of them supported Bernie Sanders.

While Hillary tried to claim the #MeToo Movement, it does not claim her. Their mantra, “Believe all women” sounds sour when applied to a woman who helped protect her husband against the consequences of numerous allegations of sexual harassment.

Further, the documentary conveniently neglects to mention the Clintons’ disturbing relationship with either convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein or accused child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Apart from being a major fundraiser for the Clintons and Obamas, Weinstein threw Hillary Clinton a birthday party in 2000 when she was running for New York Senator and was the one originally set to produce the Hillary documentary. Several people have come forward claiming they warned the Clinton campaign about Weinstein’s reputation. Hillary’s connection to the real catalyst for the #MeToo movement doesn’t quite fit with Berstein’s feminist icon theme.

How can Hillary credibly talk about topics like “toxic masculinity” and the innate privilege of white men while being married to Bill Clinton, a man who took over a dozen rides on Epstein’s Lolita Express and has been accused himself of sexual assault or harassment by four women, not to mention his admitted infidelity? Obviously staying in the marriage was a political calculation that Hillary believed would come out in her favor, but this is akin to the calculation #MeToo advocates made when considering whether to declare “I’m with Her.”

There is no doubt that this new form of feminism and identity politics has come out of second-wave feminism and the sexual revolution, but the two are not the same. The divide between Hillary’s incrementalist approach and the radical bent of identity politics was made clear in the documentary when Hillary Clinton, a strong civil rights advocate, was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protestors during one of her campaign rallies. Metrics on the Left have shifted and Hillary did not move quickly enough to the left for many of these groups.

Anything short of complete support for a criminal justice revolution, sanctuary cities, and reparations is not woke enough. Yet in the documentary, Hillary offered no apology for her remarks in the 1990s about “superpredators” or the 1994 crime bill. In fact, this is one of the moments Hillary gets most defensive in her interview with Burstein. “I was always . . . trying to explain things that people didn’t want to hear,” she tells the filmmaker.

This is unforgivable for the increasingly extreme Left. Hillary may have been “too right too soon,” but now she is not right enough for those taking over the Democratic Party.

In the end, Hillary’s assessment of her own career and success might be a bit optimistic. It does not seem that Hillary put as many cracks in the glass ceiling as she imagined. Yes, there were a record number of women who entered the 2020 Democratic primaries, but all were bested by two white men in their seventies.

Books & Culture

A review of “All I Ever Wanted: A Rock and Roll Memoir” by Kathy Valentine (University of Texas Press, 304 pages, $26.95)

She Got the Beat: A Go-Go’s Search for Family

This is a wise and spiritually rich book by a true rock and roll survivor.

It’s the great irreducible truth of human existence. Human beings flourish best when they are raised with a mother and a father, as well as brothers and sisters who can challenge them, protect them, and show them how the world works. Without such a structure, children are vulnerable to depression, anger, and addiction. All the liberal denials can’t change that.

While the importance of family is the theme of countless conservative articles and position papers, the obvious importance of family has found touching new expression in an unexpected place: a rock ’n’ roll memoir. All I Ever Wanted: A Rock and Roll Memoir is a new book by Kathy Valentine, who plays bass for the girl band The Go-Go’s. Those who come to the book looking for sex, drugs and New Wave music will find it. But the more salient theme is Valentine’s longing for and defense of the traditional family. It’s not an exaggeration to say that she sometimes sounds like Ann Coulter. I’m not kidding.

Born in 1959, Valentine is the daughter of an Air Force serviceman, Clifford Wheeler, and a free spirit mom, Margaret Valentine. The two met in England and then moved to Lubbock, where Kathy was born, and then moved on to Austin. The couple divorced in 1962, an event that was devastating for Valentine, who, but a child at the time, buried her grief. Years later her mother described how Valentine would wait on the front stoop for her father to return and “cry inconsolably,” leaving Kathy to wonder “how decades could have passed with me unable to acknowledge that childhood grief.”

It got worse. Margaret Valentine embraced the 1970s free-love era in all its excesses and ill-advised stupidity. Dressed in tights or a mini-skirt, mom “hung out with a circle of academics and bohemian intellectuals,” smoked pot with her daughter, and slept with one of Kathy’s teenage friends.

“I read constantly or escaped into an imaginary life crafted with elaborate but mundane fantasies about normal families, best friends, and romances,” she writes. “I could gaze out a window or stare blank-faced at a wall replacing recurring, tedious storylines. Sometimes I wonder if the neural pathways for addiction might have started with my penchant for checking out to daydream.”

Again and again, Valentine turns to this theme, her anger at her parents’ refusal to protect her churning just below the surface. “How do you misbehave when nothing is off-limits?” she asks.

When Valentine gets a visit from cousin AJ, it’s a revelation: “I still couldn’t believe I had actual guys as family members. Deprived of brothers and a father, I was enamored of AJ’s male-ness, easy assurance, and cockeyed cast.”

As a teenager, Valentine got into drugs, sex, and skipping school. She had an abortion while in high school, an account that is searing and tragic: “It took me a long time to understand or cultivate compassion.”

Valentine was saved, as so many are, by rock ’n’ roll. Her first eureka moment came in the mid-1970s. During a visit to England, she saw American glam rocker and bassist Suzi Quatro performing on the popular British music television program Top of the Pops. Valentine had her goal: to be in a band with other like-minded female musicians.

“I thought I was just playing guitar the way I played violin in grade school,” Valentine said in a  recent interview. “It never occurred to me that I could be in a band, like Keith Richards [in the Rolling Stones], It just didn’t cross my mind until I saw Suzi Quatro in a band. It was like, ‘That’s all I wanted to do.’”

In late 1980, Valentine connected with an all-female L.A. punk group called the Go-Go’s: singer Belinda Carlisle, guitarist Jane Wiedlin, guitarist-keyboardist Charlotte Caffey, and drummer Gina Schock. Valentine, who had been a guitarist in small groups, switched to bass, spending three days learning the Go-Go’s songs before filling in for the band’s usual bassist who was out sick. The group was impressed with her playing, and Valentine suddenly found herself a member of one of the most groundbreaking, joyful, fun and talented groups of the 1980s.

Hit songs such as “Our Lips Our Sealed,” “Vacation,” and “We Got the Beat” made them rich and famous. There was also “Head Over Heels,” featuring one of the greatest bass breaks in pop history.

As expected, Valentine recounts the excess of the 1980s—the sex, celebrities, videos, cocaine, fights. It’s fun, juicy stuff, but not as profound as the sections where Valentine describes getting sober. She eventually has a daughter, Audrey, and slowly begins to assemble a family, which is “all I ever wanted.”

In the end, Valentine offers a beautiful summation: she has a reconciliation with her father before his death, her dissipated mother gets sober, and Valentine moves from L.A. back to Austin, finally to live as a family. This is a wise and spiritually rich book by a true rock and roll survivor.

Books & Culture

A review of “Waco” (Paramount Network/Netflix, 292 minutes, TV-14)

An Un-American Tragedy

At a time when distrust in the government and suppression of civil liberties is at an all-time high, the lessons of Waco are more relevant today than they were almost three decades ago.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep businesses shuttered and our normal lives have ground to a halt, many are turning to Netflix and other streaming services for escape. But with the plethora of binge-worthy shows available at our fingertips, it’s possible you haven’t yet seen the one that ought to be the quarantine theme show. (Spoiler alert: It’s not “Tiger King”).

“Waco,” a six-part miniseries originally developed by Paramount first premiered in 2018, but was released on Netflix earlier this month. Ever since, it has been trending among the top ten most popular programs on the global streaming platform. Like the much-hyped and heavily memed “Tiger King,” “Waco” is a true story that you have to see to believe; if the former’s catchphrase is “Murder, Mayhem, and Madness,” then the latter’s should be “Terror, Tyranny, and Truth.”

An Old Tale for a New Generation

Despite having first premiered two years ago, “Waco’s” distribution on Netflix has seen it garner a whole new level of popularity and rekindled a widespread discussion on the disastrous siege at the heart of the story. While some have, rightfully, questioned why so many are treating this phenomenon as if it is the first time people have heard about the infamous Waco siege, it actually proves just how many in the rising generations truly were unaware of what happened during those fateful 51 days in 1993.

Although the release of the series on Netflix was most likely planned to line up with the 27th anniversary of the end of the siege on April 19, the timing ended up being even more relevant with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown. At a time when distrust in the government and suppression of civil liberties is at an all-time high, the lessons of Waco are even more relevant today than they were then.

Many in the Millennial generation, myself included, were born after the Waco siege took place. All of Generation Z, or the “Zoomers,” were born long after the incident. For most of us, 9/11 was the defining historical event of our lifetimes, and for good reason. But it is far easier to hate a foreign terrorist organization than it is to have contempt for aspects of one’s own government. “Waco,” however, shows why, in some cases, that contempt is deserved, especially when the end result of that government’s activity is the same as that of terrorism: A mass murder of Americans on American soil.

Complicated and Condensed

How else do you tell such a story to the younger generations that, in many cases, have never even heard of Waco, David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, or Mount Carmel? You convey just how confusing, complicated, and contrived the entire ordeal was, with plenty of blame and moral ambiguity to go around on both sides.

At the core of the government’s motivation is greed. Following the failure of the Ruby Ridge siege, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is facing a public relations crisis that threatens to see the bureau defunded and even disbanded. In desperation, the ATF hopes to perform a “legitimate” bust in order to regain credibility and stave off their own elimination.

This is born out of a clash between the FBI and the ATF at Ruby Ridge, where the FBI took over and horrendously botched the operation when one of their snipers killed Vicki Weaver; yet due to the FBI’s political machinations, the ATF still ended up with the blame. The same dynamic is painfully repeated at Waco, with the FBI once again determined to finish what the ATF started, even if it means ending in disaster.

On the other side, religious fanaticism drives the Branch Davidians’ leader stubbornly to defy the government even when it becomes clear that surrender is everyone’s preferred option. David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch), with his pseudo-religious delusions of grandeur, believes that the siege is a divine test of his faith, and manages to convince his followers the same. He pleads with them to put their faith ahead of their materialistic desires, even the desire to live, rather than be tempted by the “Babylonian” forces that have surrounded them.

It is a perfect storm of ego, obstinance, desperation, and hatred on both sides, which ends about as well as any scenario in which an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. The standoff’s fiery conclusion, just like its beginning, is frustratingly unclear.

No Heroes, All Villains

The series is overshadowed by a profound sense of hopelessness, where the cooler heads do not prevail, but are instead crucified for trying to prevent death and destruction.

ATF Agent Jacob Vazquez (John Leguizamo), who initially was sent into the compound to infiltrate the group and find any evidence of illegal weapons, eventually warns his superiors when the Branch Davidians uncover his identity and become aware of the coming raid. But because he previously advocated leaving the group alone, he is thrown under the bus publicly, falsely accused of failing to warn his superiors of the Davidians’ knowledge of the coming raid, and is even accused of being corrupted by Koresh and the others in a manner that tainted his judgment.

FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon), fresh off of successfully negotiating a relatively peaceful end to the Ruby Ridge siege one year earlier, comes to understand the Branch Davidians’ way of thinking and tries to appeal to Koresh’s beliefs in order to convince him to surrender. But he and fellow hostage negotiator Walter Graves (Michael Hyland) are accused by their superiors Mitch Decker (Shea Whigham) and Tony Prince (Glenn Fleshler) of indulging a madman in his own delusions. For his trouble, Noesner is transferred off the case right before the fatal final assault.

On the Branch Davidians’ side, Koresh’s right-hand man Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks) expresses reservations early on about Koresh’s leadership, and particularly his supposedly divine duty to take multiple wives, including Schneider’s own wife, Judy, for the purpose of having multiple children with them. But any tensions between the two evaporate when they are united against the government in the siege, and especially when the FBI openly tries to manipulate Schneider and turn him against Koresh. At that point, even knowing that what they are saying is true about Koresh, Schneider chooses to remain at his side purely in defiance of a now hateful government.

As such, it can be argued that there are truly no heroes in this story: Heroes usually emerge victorious, and that is not the case in Waco.

In the end, ego is to blame: It is because of ego that the more sensible actors are overruled and forced out, and it is this same ego that leads to everyone’s downfall.

Koresh becomes determined to spread the message of his interpretation of the Bible on a mass scale, and spends days dictating his memoirs to one of his wives for transcription, in a move that the agents in charge come to see as a stalling tactic. A similar ego drives the two agents in charge, who can best be described as arrogant, trigger-happy meatheads, as they appear almost possessed by an unholy bloodlust, with no reservations (until it is too late) about killing as many Branch Davidians as possible in order to bring the standoff to an end.

Of Guilt and Innocence

But while the series does go out of its way to portray both sides as flawed, it ultimately makes clear that despite neither side being completely innocent, one side is indeed far more guilty than the other. The blame is ultimately placed at the feet of the government for an obscenely excessive use of force against American civilians, and subsequently spreading deliberate lies in an attempt to control the narrative as the situation spirals out of control.

The government is seen firing the first shots in the initial raid on February 28, when ATF agents shoot and kill the Branch Davidians’ dogs. They lie in the subsequent press briefing and declare that the Branch Davidians fired the first shots.

Agent Vazquez repeatedly warned his superiors that not only were the Branch Davidians prepared for the raid but also that they were most likely innocent and did not deserve to be raided. His superiors in turn lie about Agent Vazquez and accuse him of being brainwashed by the group. And they even lie about coming under fire from the Branch Davidians as the compound is burning to the ground.

Even if these instances are simply dramatizations, the seeds of doubt are planted in viewers’ minds both with regard to the government’s conduct during the raid, as well as the subsequent investigations that exonerated the FBI and ATF of wrongdoing during the final assault. That doubt can be summarized by a single line spoken by Koresh during his first exchange with Noesner, after Noesner says that the FBI has taken over from the ATF:

Isn’t that like getting in a fight with a neighbor boy, and he whoops ya, and his big brother comes over to investigate?

Koresh has a point. Can a government really be trusted when it investigates itself and finds no wrongdoing, especially when the vast majority of the other side of the conflict is not alive to give their side of the story?

The Unanswered Question

Even beyond exact questions about who shot first, it is certainly difficult to take the government’s side when the viewer is presented with a full display of the government’s overuse of force, which might as well have turned the outskirts of Waco into the heart of Baghdad. With that in mind, one question follows not only from characters within the show, but from the viewers as well.


In perhaps the most significant exchange in the series, Schneider and another Branch Davidian briefly exit the compound to retrieve a case of milk from Noesner and the local sheriff as a sign of good will. Noesner has a brief conversation with Schneider. When his efforts to turn Schneider against Koresh fail, Schneider turns the tables right back on Noesner and simply says:

You know what? Despite everything you’re saying, no one’s explained to me what we did to deserve all of this.

Noesner is left speechless and—in a moment of the series when an invisible hand might as well have pressed the pause button—the audience is also left in silence lingering over this very simple statement, and the question it raises: Why?

Yes, Koresh had his own problems. He was not a good guy. His issues even caused rifts with his followers. He credibly could be called a false prophet, a pervert, a polygamist, and even possibly a pedophile. And yes, the Branch Davidians did have a sizable stockpile of weapons, albeit with absolutely no evidence—either in the series or in real life—that they would ever be used in any capacity other than self-defense.

So, the series posits, it is perfectly reasonable to ask: Do the questionable sexual actions of one man, and perhaps a few obscure weapons violations, justify the government declaring war on a compound filled with over 100 American citizens, on American soil?

Did Koresh’s polygamy justify the government sending tanks rolling onto the property?

Did the possession of such firearms justify having the power cut off, and floodlights and loudspeakers blaring loud noises into their home all night long, for days on end?

Did having bizarre, though peaceful, religious beliefs justify a deliberate effort to gas women and children out of their home?

These tactics may, on occasion, make sense against enemies in a faraway land, like Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; but to see these them used on American citizens, including women and little children, in the heart of Texas, is an entirely different story.

Like many “shocking” true stories, however, once the initial question of “did this really happen?” is answered, the next question inevitably becomes “how could this happen?” This is even asked aloud by a recurring character in the series, local radio host Ron Engelman (Eric Lange), during a somber monologue in the series’ final episode:

We are, all of us, Americans. When did we start seeing each other as the enemy?

In 1993, Englemen was clearly concerned with the divide between the federal government and the common citizen. But today his question is even more relevant. Not only can this question be reasonably asked of the government currently arrests women for playing with their children at playgrounds, or fathers playing tee-ball with their daughters in an empty field, but also it could be applied to the ongoing divisions between Americans, as the very fabric of our society is being ripped apart by an ongoing “cold civil war.”

Many Meanings

Just as the events of the series are plagued with ambiguity and equally flawed participants, the overall message of the series is unclear. There is an overarching tone of hopeless nihilism, from the grim realities of the brutal 51-day siege to the inevitable outcome that we all already know. There is a clear distrust of the government, both from the victims and even from several agents.

But the exact message is, ultimately, up to the viewers’ interpretation. Is it a generic “don’t trust the government” message? Is it a desperate plea for unity and civility?

As this Chinese virus tears across our world, I couldn’t help but take away this message: Life is precious, and can change for the worse in an instant.

The Mount Carmel Center goes from a happy and peaceful commune to a besieged fortress in seemingly no time at all. The images of men, women, and children laughing and dancing at a wedding are soon forced out by images of those same people crying, bleeding, and ultimately dying at the hands of their own government.

The progression is so fast that an equally relevant question, besides “why,” is “how did we get here?” How did this quiet community suddenly end up being gassed and burned alive by the authorities who ostensibly were supposed to protect both them and us?

With that in mind, you may very well walk away from “Waco” with a greater distrust of government. You may leave it with a renewed determination to be kinder to your fellow Americans, for the sake of restoring a civility that now seems long gone. But it nonetheless will leave a heavy feeling in your heart, like many a cautionary tale.

“Waco” is far from the kind of feel-good entertainment most may be seeking right now. It certainly does not sugarcoat its subject matter, but perhaps that is exactly why it is one of the most important shows you can possibly watch during these troubled times.

Books & Culture

Give ‘Mrs. America’ a Chance

If conservatives are outraged at an imperfect portrayal of one of their heroes, maybe it’s time that they stop throwing their money into fruitless right-wing organizations that produce nothing and invest in conservative artists.

The new FX/Hulu miniseries “Mrs. America,” which chronicles the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the early 1970s, has become a lightning rod in conservative circles. The show’s portrayal of the late-great icon Phyllis Schlafly played by Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett has upset her family and supporters who believe the show is unflattering and fabricates her life’s story. Despite their concerns, some of which are legitimate, conservatives are wrong to boycott the program and Hollywood.

“Mrs. America,” which aired its first three episodes on April 15, shows Schlafly’s rise in the movement against the ERA and feminist leaders, including Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzug. Show creator Dahvi Waller gives the program the look and feel of “Mad Men,” which she co-produced for a time. Like “Mad Men,” “Mrs. America” has a political and social narrative about women’s place in the world and in America a half-century ago and how it compares to today.

For all its half-truths and fictionalized scenes, “Mrs. America” really doesn’t demonize Schlafly. Yes, she’s seen as politically calculating, but the talent, work ethic, and charisma that Schlafly had in her own life shine through. She’s realized as a full person in scenes as a nurturer to her aging mother, a political mastermind, the creator of a grassroots organization, and a matriarch. Remarkably the show even allows for Schlafly’s conservative message to come through at certain moments.

In the show’s premiere episode, Schlafly’s character is speaking to a women’s group about the repercussions of the women’s liberation movement’s agenda. “What is going to happen if you push women out into the workforce is that women are going to find themselves with two full-time jobs,” she says. “They’re going to be exhausted and unhappy and feel like they’re not doing either well until they decide not to have children at all.”

Schlafly was prophetic. There’s now a catalog of social science that shows in the 50 years since Schlafly took on the ERA, successful single women are unhappier than ever, having fewer children, and regretting those decisions later on in life. An Office Pulse Survey from 2011 found the most unhappy people in the country are unmarried women in their 40’s who had professional careers and no children. This wasn’t the only survey to find that the individualist lifestyle championed by feminists has left many Americans feeling empty. A Gallup poll from 2013 also found that a majority of Americans over the age of 45 who had no children wished they had at least one.

So while feminists won the battle over abortion in the ‘70s and have given women more opportunity to live an anti-Schlalfly life, it hasn’t made them more fulfilled. Perhaps that’s why a YouGov poll from 2018 found that nearly half of American women don’t identify themselves as being a feminist.

Despite the show’s moments showing Schlafly at her best, they still confine her to being a prisoner in traditional America. She’s portrayed as intelligent, politically savvy, and charismatic, yet despite all her abilities at outsmarting and outworking her male counterparts, she’s a victim of the patriarchy. The world of the 1970s does not allow many women to go to the halls of Congress, and when she’s invited to speak to congressmen, she’s treated as little more than an assistant. So Waller pushes the idea that Shlafly’s ability to succeed despite the culture of the time shows she both a trailblazing feminist and hypocrite for propping up the institutions that are holding her back.

Scenes with her husband Fred are especially cringeworthy at times. They suggest he only supported her run for Congress because he knew she couldn’t win, and there’s a sex scene where the exhausted Schlafly pleases her husband despite not being all that interested at the moment. Once again, entirely fictionalized scenes to show homemakers during that time were victims of their circumstances, even ones as successful as Schlafly.

The show gets a lot wrong to build this narrative. Blanchett is not just playing Schlafly the historical figure, but a character for all housewives living traditional roles during this period. Waller works to fuse her concept of that time and the role of the housewife in with Schlafly’s own life story, even despite facts. To her credit, Waller does this to the feminists’ characters as well, portraying them as catty, political novices, who are incredibly flawed individuals.

Would it have been better to show that Schlafly was a happy warrior who paved the way for generations of conservative women? For sure. It would have been great to have a more factual portrayal of the woman who remade American politics. Everyone from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to the Tea Party Movement and even Donald Trump owe part of their success to Phyllis Schlafly and the road she paved.

“Mrs. America” is far from a perfect portrayal of Schlafly, and no one should take the TV show as the gospel truth. Yet it’s the most positive portrayal of a conservative we’ve seen come out of Hollywood in a long time. And if that outrages conservatives, maybe it’s time that they stop throwing their money into fruitless right-wing organizations that produce nothing and invest in conservative artists.

It’s only through engaging in the culture that conservatives are going to win longstanding political fights, rather than sitting on their hands and balkanizing themselves from the rest of America. Maybe if we had conservatives in the arts, we’d be able to tell better stories and move the culture in a direction Schlafly would have supported.

Books & Culture

‘The Weight’ Worth Waiting For

The 50th anniversary performance of “The Weight” is universal not only in the diversity of the performers and their instruments made possible by technology. It reflects as well the universality of the Christian promise of Easter, one of repentance and renewal.

Last fall, this remarkable 50th anniversary video recording of Robbie Robertson’s 1969 hit song, “The Weight,” dazzled viewers with its international cast of performers. Easter inspires further exploration of the religious depth of the country lyrics.

Canadian Robertson has long been fascinated by the South, with its heritage of the Bible, tragedy, ancestral ties, and regional pride, as seen in his 1968 “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” (for which he recently came under fire from the P.C. police).

The Weight” begins with a particular place but culminates in a universal call to human self-knowledge. The title signals that this is a tale about burdens—and their ultimate relief.

pulled in to Nazareth
Was feeling ’bout half past dead
I just need some place
Where I can lay my head
“Hey, mister, can you tell me
Where a man might find a bed?”
He just grinned and shook my hand
And “No” was all he said

The first line’s reference of arriving in Nazareth, where Jesus practiced his ministry, alerts us to the request that we share the ultimate burden, the cross of Jesus. (Nazareth, Pennsylvania, which has been named as the town where the song is set, is several miles north of Bethlehem, Penn.)

The Christian allusions help explain the riveting chorus:

Take a load off Fanny
Take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny
And (and, and) you put the load right on me
(You put the load right on me)

Bearing Fanny’s load is none other than Jesus:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

The yoke is a double yoke, shared by Jesus and he who would be His friend and companion. Jesus will help us bear our crosses. That is the story told by “The Weight.”

“Fanny” here is not the derrière, but more a reminder of Annie or Anna (“Annie” preceded by “off” will sound like “Fanny.” Anna is the old prophetess who predicted that the baby Jesus would redeem the world (Luke 2:36-39). Anna was married for seven years, then was widowed and lived and prayed in the temple for decades after. Anna’s burden of waiting for the salvation of Israel is now relieved. This song is a reminder of our constant duty of not disappointing (F)anny.

The unnamed narrator will be a savior of a different kind—of his own soul and of another. Each of the song’s five stanzas recalls an encounter involving Jesus, at different phases of his life. Do we, whether among the righteous or not, see Jesus in our fellow humanity? “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?” (Matthew 25:35-43)

As astonished as the righteous may be when they show mercy to strangers, in doing so they recognize “the other” as Jesus.

This is abundantly clear in the first stanza. The weary narrator, despite a friendly greeting, is denied a bed to sleep in, recalling Mary and Joseph having to make do in a stable. The baby Jesus’ crib, as unsuited a place for a putative son of God as imaginable, reminds us of the cross he would receive at the end of his life.

We must learn to bear our crosses, just as the narrator must.

In the second stanza the narrator, just as Jesus did next in the Gospels, has to fight off temptations of the Devil, but like Jonah he also tries to hide the baggage of his past.

I picked up my bag
I went looking for a place to hide
When I saw Carmen and the Devil
Walking side by side

The Devil denies us the pleasure we would seek with Carmen “downtown;” and she leaves, giving the Devil free rein.

I said “Hey Carmen, come on
Let’s go downtown?”
And she said, “I gotta go
But my friend can stick around”

The chorus reminds that Jesus, victorious over the Devil’s temptations of pleasure, power, and pride, will share our burdens and thus remove temptation by replacing it with love of Christ.

The next stanza, the third, contains the most explicit biblical references.

Go down, Miss Moses, there’s nothin’ you can say
It’s just ol’ Luke, and Luke’s waitin’ on the Judgment Day
Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee?
He said, “Do me a favor, son, won’t ya stay and keep Anna Lee company?

“Go down, Miss Moses” recalls God’s supporting Moses against Pharoah in liberating the Jews from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 8:ff.). The escaped slave and abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman was known as Miss Moses. But it’s not the case, “there’s nothin’ you can say.” Like the Prophetess Anna of Luke’s Gospel (2:36ff.), Luke waiting for Judgment Day, signals obstinate but futile behavior. But both Harriet Tubman and the Prophetess Anna received the rewards of their work and prayers—the liberation of the slaves and the coming of the Messiah. Young Luke is asked to wait again with Anna.

The fourth stanza describes Crazy Chester’s offer to exchange “Jack, my dog” for a bed (a “rack”) or his own “rack” on the cross. In answer to the narrator’s protests, Chester replies, “feed him when you can.”

Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog
He said, “I will fix your rack, if you’ll take Jack, my dog.”
I said, “Wait a minute, Chester, you know I’m a peaceful man.”
He said, “That’s okay, boy, won’t you feed him when you can.”

Crazy Chester is Christ on his Cross, telling his mother “Woman, behold your son” and to his beloved discipline John, “Behold, your mother” (John 19:26-27). Addressed as “woman,” Mary is to care for John, and faithful John/Jack is to care for his new mother, the new Eve, mother of all humanity.

In the Gospel this curt address as “woman” is anticipated in Christ’s first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana. There he turned water into wine and addressed his mother, who had asked him to keep the party merry, as “woman” (John 2:1-11). Jesus’ first and last miracles are linked to the rebirth of his mother as the new Eve.

So, also, will the narrator’s fate be linked to this rebirth.

The narrator’s insistence that he is a “peaceful man” may seem odd—but he is merely repeating Jesus’ offering of “peace” to his disciples, when they are disturbed by his resurrected presence. He accepts Jack/John as part of his family—a new kind of burden but a wonderful one.

Now the song’s title—not mentioned in the lyrics—becomes even clearer. “The Weight” is also the “Wait” for the Messiah, and it is also our “wait” for the return of Christ.

Finally, the fifth stanza ties together these themes and points toward the future.

Catch a Cannonball, now, to take me down the line
My bag is sinkin’ low and I do believe it’s time
To get back to Miss Fanny, you know she’s the only one
Who sent me here with her regards for everyone

The Cannonball train will whisk him back to his starting-point. The reference takes us beyond small-town Pennsylvania to the whole of America. The first lines of “The Wabash Cannonball” are “From the great Atlantic ocean/To the wide Pacific shore.”

The weight of his bag, now filled with his new dog Jack, makes him want to depart and return to Miss Fanny, “Who sent me here with her regards for everyone.” That is, Jesus came “for everyone.” The narrator has replicated the experience of Jesus without actually having been crucified. He can now live for everyone, that is, spread the Good News to everyone.

The 50th anniversary performance of “The Weight” is universal not only in the diversity of the performers and their instruments made possible by technology. It reflects as well the universality of the Christian promise of Easter, one of repentance and renewal. The universal lyrics reinforce what the mere diverse bodies and voices of the performers only isolate. This reflection on the human condition allows us to recognize the divine within us—or accept that we are even less than dogs.

Diseases, trade, terrorism, and technology are universal but so is Christianity, though its force today has gone unacknowledged. As we obsess about medical technology we suffering servants of mere humanity, so preoccupied with threats to our bodies, need to recollect the hope of the divine spark in our souls. “Unload your burden on the Lord” (Psalm 55).

And take a load off Fanny
Take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny
And (and, and) you put the load right on me
(You put the load right on me).

Books & Culture

A review of “America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It,” by C. Bradley Thompson (Encounter Books, 584 pages $32.99)

Was the Revolution About Reason?

What Thompson evidently wants to do is substitute his Enlightenment natural right epistemology for that of Tocqueville, and withal his own Enlightenment rationality for the theological-political unity Tocqueville struggled with.

The book’s intricate title, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It, enlists readers into the spirit of revolution. It appeals to thirsty intellects and to those who long for noble actions, with its careful reading of profound documents and appreciation of monumental actions, thus asserting the political and moral power of words. We gird ourselves for an exciting read.

The book has particular fascination for me, because I know the author—we were colleagues at Ashland University in the 1990s, and Brad Thompson is now professor of political philosophy at Clemson University. I have long admired his audacity, intellect, and love of America, even as I strongly disagreed with some of his ideas.

Thompson’s patriotism is that of an immigrant (from Canada) and his determination that of an athlete (track). And, given such self-made qualities of soul, one is not surprised to encounter insightful studies of the evolution of American identity, natural rights doctrine, and the founders’ prudence, all organized in the form of elaborations of key phrases of the Declaration.

Do I know the author too well to do an objective review? Despite the legitimacy of this question, I offer the review as a gentle corrective of his presentation of major issues of our time. The reader will have to judge—I am no objectivist in that sense at any rate.

The book proceeds with chapters on what the author takes to be the Declaration’s Enlightenment background, the laws of nature, self-evident truths, equality, slavery (well worth consulting in light of the 1619 Project), rights, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” consent of the governed, consent and justice, and revolution. It concludes with exhortations on Americanism and the American mind. The book as a whole is scholarship with a political purpose. As Thomas Pangle says, the book is “at once eloquent and erudite.”

With barely a mention of him, Thompson does not take up Harry Jaffa’s argument from A New Birth of Freedom (2000) about the Declaration. That is, there is no attempt to find an Aristotelian or ancient grounding in the American founding. Thus the author often makes extreme claims (that he later qualifies, for example, about how and in what sense America is Lockean or how America’s Founders reflected Enlightenment principles).

In particular, he downplays the role of religion in the founding in a way that makes the book dependent on America as a sign of the advance of the Enlightenment, with its peculiar form of reason and its banishment of religion, rather than the theological-political question that the Declaration promulgates. After Christianity, freedom in the modern world requires that its defenders acknowledge the tension between reason and revelation as the source of civilization.

The book is an elaborate attempt to undo that tension on behalf of Enlightenment reason. Thus, for example, he declares

Locke’s epistemological goal was moral: in a world inundated with religious mysticism, his intention was to show that man’s rational faculties were in fact capable of discovering and knowing objective moral laws for the purpose of guiding human conduct.

In this regard, Thompson’s portrayal parallels the dispute between Jaffa and Martin Diamond, and thus the difference between the West and the East Coast Straussians. And indeed that is reflected in some of the blurbs from George Will, Harvey Mansfield, and Thomas Pangle, not to mention several other eminent scholars, such as a principal teacher of Thompson, the historian Gordon Wood.

But we would err to label Thompson any kind of Straussian either—recall his often astute critique of some students of Leo Strauss, such as Bill Kristol, for their promotion of a reckless foreign policy and their compromises with Progressivism in Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea

Rather than survey his entire argument, we should first jump to his conclusion, from which we can evaluate the book. Key parts of the book are found in this excerpt at American Greatness.

In concluding, Thompson is rhapsodic in his praise of Tocquevillian America:

This new American creed of “rational liberty” did not mean that its practitioners lived alienated and crabbed lives in atomistic isolation from one another . . . . Quite the opposite. These rugged American individualists joined together in bonds of civic friendship as they experienced and lived through seemingly never-ending disasters . . . . The moral and political philosophy by which they lived their lives was no antisocial creed that confined men to their own spiritual cages. Together, as friends and neighbors, the westward-moving Americans built—literally—cabins, houses, barns, roads, canals, libraries, schools, colleges, villages, towns, and cities. Freedom produced unparalleled social cooperation.

Later he hails this as a “natural system of liberty” which “encouraged and generated new associations and bonds of civil cooperation.” But it was not mere self-interest, which Tocqueville explicitly denies can be the source of those aristocratic bodies he saw in American civil associations. More to the point, the bulk of the examples Tocqueville describes are associations that are explicitly or implicitly religious, from churches to charities. Most of these associations are religious in both their origin and purpose.

This is not surprising. Early in Democracy in America, Tocqueville speaks of America’s unique unity of the spirit of freedom and the spirit of religion. The two are “perfectly distinct elements that elsewhere have often made war with each other, but which, in America, they have succeeded in incorporating somehow into one another and succeeded marvelously.” Moreover, as Tocqueville says later, “Americans so completely confuse Christianity and freedom in their minds that it is almost impossible to have them conceive of the one without the other . . . .” But Thompson would expunge Christianity not only from Tocqueville’s account but from America’s self-understanding. He even goes so far as to say,

This, then, was the great paradox of American society: it united radical individualism with tight bonds of civil association. The former was responsible for the latter. It was e pluribus unum.

Thompson knows perfectly well that the “one from many” enshrined by e pluribus unum was the one nation out of many states, not many individuals. To speak of “a natural system of liberty” is as misleading as the “religious mysticism” he derides.

As much as I admire Tocqueville, he is a compromised source for Thompson’s endeavor, because of his suspicion of American patriotism (a separate topic) and of the Declaration of Independence as a philosophic document. For the latter, see Tocqueville’s letter from America to his cousin Chabrol on July 16, 1831. He honors the sentiments that the Declaration engenders but, unlike Thompson, not its teaching. After all, Tocqueville never mentions the Declaration in his 700-page classic.

But perhaps Thompson, agreeing with Tocqueville on the fading of the force of religion and hence of the mores required for freedom, wishes to supply the decay of religion with his version of reason and thus refound a dying American morality and with it the American regime.

What Thompson evidently wants to do is substitute his Enlightenment natural right epistemology for that of Tocqueville, and withal his own Enlightenment rationality for the theological-political unity Tocqueville struggled with. This is not just a point about misinterpreting Tocqueville but, even more important, it is ignoring what is central  in the Declaration: the theological-political dynamic.

I don’t believe I’m being unreasonable to suggest he winds up doing something more like what is described in Mary Shelley’s novel about a Modern Prometheus, sewing together the corpses of Tocqueville and the Founders into another, superior (as he sees it) America. This is a kind of Jefferson Bible version of America. In describing it thus, I honor this amazing and ambitious book.

Like all other attempts to undo what Leo Strauss built up, and Harry Jaffa following him tried to continue, this one falters. Much of this goes back to the way Thompson reads Locke. Compare Edward Erler’s understanding of Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and its relation to the Declaration. “Locke treated the ‘pursuit of happiness’ not as a natural right but as a moral duty. The American founders, however, translated Locke’s understanding of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ into both a natural right and a moral duty,” Erler argues in Property and the Pursuit of Happiness. He quotes Thomas West, for Locke “the pursuit of happiness is the fundamental natural inclination—not self preservation . . . .”

West’s elaborate 2017 study, The Political Theory of the American Founding, covers much of the same ground as Revolutionary Mind but is both far more sober in its project and more revolutionary at the same time.

With its focus on state practices, West’s book can be more explicit in its treatment of both morality (including marriage and sexual morality) and property, the subjects of the second and third parts of his book, about 250 pages.. West affirms some of Thompson’s views of the Declaration’s morality but also takes the argument to other places. For example, writes West, “Pangle and Mansfield are far from being the only scholars who accept the ‘Nietzschean’ view that the higher and rarer virtues are missing in the founding.” He then goes on to quote Martin Diamond and Gordon Wood to the same effect.

West then proceeds to show how the American Founders and the ordinary citizens manifested moral virtues such as courage and explains how Nietzsche’s “herd morality” embraces some noble traits, “‘Under different names,’ to use Nietzsche’s phrase, force and fraud might be called courage and prudence, the very virtues praised by the founders . . . .” All this to show how work on the Founding opens up discussion even further on important, central themes. We know the founders even less than we think we do. And we distort their teaching by seeing more agreement on some issues than we might think there is.

And to use Lincoln most effectively Thompson, besides appealing to the scientific electric cord metaphor for human equality, also should have looked at the biblical one of “blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh”—both scientific revelation and support for the Declaration that Lincoln laid out in his famous speech of July 10, 1858. And, even more striking, Thompson omits Lincoln’s succinct definition of slavery there: “you work and I eat.”

We know today whom Lincoln was describing as the new slaveholders—those who live off of transfer payments and globalist economics, which throttle a dynamic society of those who would rise through hard work.

Thus, Thompson’s dismissal of the theological-political issue makes him miss some major points. And the book fails to acknowledge adequately other work, such as Jaffa’s New Birth of Freedom, which points the way to an even more revolutionary understanding.

In the preface to America’s Revolutionary Mind we see the young boy Brad reading a book about the American Revolution and then knowing “that I was an American born in the wrong country.” That phrase recalls a monograph by a late colleague of his at the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University, fellow immigrant (from Hungary) the late Peter Schramm, author of “Born American But in the Wrong Place.” Both of these imposing additions to America got to the right place and knew that patriotism was not enough, but came to understand her in different ways.

Books & Culture

Bronson’s Appealing ‘Cold Sweat’

A solid, suspenseful story that moves more slowly than today’s crime dramas but is all the better for it by allowing for appropriate attention to the ethical conflicts.

I’ve been watching Charles Bronson movies lately. I have no explanation for this extraordinary activity, except that a couple of them showed up on cable, which prompted me to explore some of his other movies on Amazon Prime. I had already seen most of Bronson’s crime films from the 1970s onward, but some lacunae remained.

One Bronson film I do not recall ever having heard of before this current expedition is “Cold Sweat,” released in 1970 and hence one of his earliest crime-story-era starring roles. Judging by the title, one would suspect that it is full of action and eruptions of madness, on the order of “Mr. Majestyk” and “The Mechanic.” That is not the case here.

Cold Sweat” is an excellent old-school crime drama with emphasis on suspense and character rather than a steady stream of action sequences. There are some very good action scenes nonetheless. An extensive car chase scene through the mountains of southern France is particularly impressive.

The film has the feel of 1950s crime novels by David Dodge, Henry Kane, Leigh Brackett, and Richard S. Prather; which is a very good thing, in my estimation.

Bronson gives an excellent performance as the main character, an American living in France and operating a charter boat service (reminiscent of “To Have and Have Not,” of course). Like Bogart’s character in “To Have and Have Not,” Bronson’s Joe Martin wants only to be left alone to live a normal life, after a rocky time in the U.S. military in Joe’s case. In classic crime drama form, however, his past catches up with him when cronies from a botched crime during the war years escape from prison and seek revenge—and his assistance in a drug-running scheme—for his having deserted them as their getaway driver after they unnecessarily escalated a robbery into murder.

James Mason’s Southern accent is unconvincing, but his characterization of the central villain is nuanced, menacing, and brilliant. The other villains are suitably seedy and degenerate, and the characters represent certain types of men of that era very convincingly. Liv Ullmann is very good as Bronson’s wife, contra some of the comments at the Amazon page, and Mrs. Bronson, Jill Ireland, is terrific as Mason’s hippie consort. The film is worth seeing if only for the chemistry between Bronson and Ireland.

Add to that some difficult moral dilemmas for the characters, which test their mettle; a solid, suspenseful story that moves more slowly than today’s crime dramas but is all the better for it by allowing for appropriate attention to the ethical conflicts; plus the aforementioned action scenes, and it all makes for a very good (though not great) crime story.

Cold Sweat” is well worth a look.

Books & Culture

A review of “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” (Netflix, 191 minutes, TV-MA)

Netflix and Learn: The Woman Who Should be on the $20 Bill

The story of Madam C.J. Walker is inspiring, motivating and definitely binge-worthy. And, for older kids currently out of school, it’s a great history lesson they likely wouldn’t ever hear in a classroom.

Coronavirus binge-watching these days doesn’t need to be limited to guilty pleasures like “The Mandalorian” and “Tiger King.”

On Netflix, the new miniseries “Self Made” tells the compelling, true-life story of Madam C. J. Walker, who should have been the hands-down favorite to be the first woman whose portrait would grace American paper money. Unfortunately, she was overlooked altogether.

Walker was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. Born to recently freed slaves, the ambitious Walker rose from humble beginnings of picking cotton and washing clothes for pennies to founding and running her own factory, salons, beauty school, and hair care business.

Motivated by her own pattern baldness, and utilizing her experience as a traveling saleswoman for another hair care entrepreneur, Walker developed her own hair treatment for black women and marketed it around the South as the “Walker Method.” She expanded her business with “Walker Agents”—giving well-paid, much-needed and empowering jobs to the same black women who were her customers.

Walker, who died a millionaire in her early 50s, became a prominent philanthropist. She supported the musicians, writers, and artists who led the Harlem Renaissance. She was an early and generous donor to the NAACP and efforts to combat lynching. She was also instrumental in preserving the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Octavia Spencer—who won both an Oscar and Golden Globe Award for her role in the 2011 movie “The Help”—does a masterful job playing Walker. Not the typical flashy Hollywood star, Spencer provides a portrayal that brims with the determination and heart Walker embodied to be able to succeed in that era.

“Self Made” is up-front in declaring that it is “inspired by” Walker’s life story, and that is important to note. After all, historical records from that time aren’t extensive—particularly for black Americans. And besides, Hollywood can’t help itself when it comes to embellishment.

Walker’s on-screen business rival is based on a real-life competitor, but the intensity of the rivalry and some of the confrontations are fictional. Another character (no spoilers!) is presented as an out-and-proud lesbian, yet the author of the book upon which the series was based—who is a direct descendent of that person—told O, The Oprah Magazine that “[w]hat is portrayed in the series is certainly not something that really happened.” The series also wrongly implies that Walker sided with the socialist W. E. B. Du Bois over the capitalist Booker T. Washington, when she simply wanted her entrepreneurship to “advance the race.”

That being said, the series spectacularly heralds entrepreneurship. It shows Walker finding her motivation (“hair is power”), selling her products, doggedly seeking investors and promoting self-reliance in the black community. There’s even a scene showing the importance of guns for self-defense.

Walker was honored on a postage stamp in 1998. But those lobbying to put a woman on paper money totally ignored her—instead promoting feminist icons such as Eleanor Roosevelt and already-celebrated heroes such as Rosa Parks. The woman who will eventually go on the $20 bill is abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

In a 2015 commentary for Project 21, I appealed for Walker to be the new face on our money:

[W]hy not make a bold choice—one that’s free of a political agenda? . . .

Walker persevered in a male-dominated era where separate-but-equal Jim Crow discrimination was the law of the land. She saw how other businesses ignored black customers, and she stepped in to fill the void and became a success.

The story of Madam C. J. Walker, as portrayed in Netflix’s “Self Made,” is inspiring, motivating and definitely binge-worthy. And, for older kids currently out of school, it’s a great history lesson they likely wouldn’t ever hear in a classroom.

Books & Culture

A review of “Power and Purity: The Strange Origins of the Social Justice Movement,” by Mark T. Mitchell (Regnery Gateway, 256 pages, $26.99)

Nietzsche, Narcissism, and the Left

Today’s social justice warriors are sick people, but they are sick in a way that is much deeper and more disturbing than Power and Purity imagines.

In Power and Purity, Mark T. Mitchell argues that today’s Left is a combination of two seemingly opposing forces: the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the intolerance of the Puritans. Take Nietzsche’s will-to-power and his rejection both of Christianity and of other supposedly “outdated” moral standards and mix that with the thunderous zealotry of Cotton Mather, and you have today’s social justice warriors and identity politicians.

Mitchell, who teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, and is the co-founder of the webzine Front Porch Republic, writes that in SJWs “we see the devastating effects of the will to power married to a moral absolutism lacking any justification other than individual will subconsciously energized by a rejected Christian past.”

Mitchell is a clear writer and sharp thinker, but in my view his thesis is not entirely accurate. While there are certain elements of Nietzsche and the Puritans in their psychic makeup, today’s leftists in reality are not impervious egomaniacs, but psychological weaklings. It is their very lack of the imperious arrogance that marked the thought of Nietzsche and the Puritans that makes today’s Left so hysterical and unhinged. Instead of bestriding the world with a power ego they suffer from a minimal sense of self.

To understand why it’s helpful to turn to the work of Christopher Lasch. Lasch became famous with his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism. a book that is frequently misunderstood. In the clinical definition that Lasch relied on, narcissism was not self-love and a strong ego, but their opposites. The narcissist had no sense of self, but is saddled with rage and suffering from psychological malformation. It’s a much more accurate description of the modern Left than the one provided by Mitchell in Power and Purity.

According to Lasch, societal changes that began in the 20th century started to prevent children from developing psychological health. These changes included the separation of work from the home, mass production, change in authority from personal to abstract, and to the takeover of education, mental health and even care of the soul to the professional “caring professions”—teachers, doctors, therapists.

These changes altered the traditional socialization of children. Critic Louis Menand summed it up well in an essay about Lasch:

Lasch held that psychological development and health is dependant on a child gradually reducing infantile fantasies of omnipotence and helplessness, accompanied by the child’s modest but growing sense of mastery, continually measured against its human and material surroundings. Formerly, the presence of potent but fallible individuals, economically self-sufficient, with final legal and moral authority over their children’s upbringing, provided one kind of template for the growing child’s psychic development.

Without this process of development, what is left is the “minimal self”—a narcissist with overwhelming feelings of rage and no sense of limits, mortality, or self.

The narcissist, wrote Lasch, is a “self uncertain of its own outlines, [yet] longing either to remake the world in its own image or to merge into its environment in a blissful union.”  Menand notes that this makes “acceptance of limits, finitude, and death more difficult, which in turn makes commitment and perseverance of any kind—civic, artistic, sexual, parental—more difficult.”

Lasch’s full description of narcissism is quite powerful and relevant:

Having surrendered most of his technical skills to the corporation, [the contemporary American] can no longer provide for his material needs. As the family loses not only its productive functions but many of its reproductive functions as well, men and women no longer manage even to raise their children without the help of certified experts. The atrophy of older traditions of self-help has eroded everyday competence, in one area after another, and has made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation, and other bureaucracies.

Narcissism represents the psychological dimension of this dependence. Notwithstanding his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience. His apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free him to stand along or to glory in his individuality. On the contrary, it contributes to his insecurity, which he can overcome only by seeing his “grandiose self” reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individualist saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped to his own design.

Time spent on Twitter or other social media, or witnessing the raging of cable TV pundits, or the gladiator battles that our politics has become, makes it evident that our elite culture is not commanded by well-adjusted people whose calm reason and emotional continence set the tone of our public life.

Mitchell opens Power and Purity with several examples of the violent, bloody and crazed imagery employed by many leftist journalists during the 2018 nomination battle over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Yet to this writer—who, some might recall, was very close to the blast zone of that conflict—the chants, marches, harassment and shrieks that erupted from the Left were nothing like the thunderously confident—and often very funny—declarations of Nietzsche or the infallible judgments of implacable Cotton Mather.

Instead, I was reminded of Lasch’s description of the narcissist: “a self uncertain of its own outlines, [yet] longing either to remake the world in its own image or to merge into its environment in a blissful union.” Thus the tendency of leftists to alternate between shrieking political rage and New Agey calls for peaceful union with the environment. These are sick people, but they are sick in a way that is much deeper and more disturbing than Power and Purity imagines.

Books & Culture

Tragic Affairs of the Human Heart

In Fritz Lang’s “The Woman in the Window,” Edward G. Robinson shines as an academic, yearning for passion over his life of silent desperation. But, as his character reveals, there is always a cost for such untamed desire.

The human heart is sometimes fickle. Hidden desires come out uninvited and, sometimes, human beings can become slaves to them. If a desire is hidden and suddenly reveals itself, most often as a kind of forbidden fruit, it’s usually a good indication of direction one should not go. There is always a voice of ethics as opposed to a voice of the erotic that calls us back to reality so we might avoid the dire consequences of succumbing to unmoored eros. History and literature warn us that this is an especially dangerous temptation for middle-aged men no longer feeling vital in the midst of the ordinary turn of events.

In “The Woman in the Window” (1944), directed by Fritz Lang, Edward G. Robinson plays such a man. A professor of psychology at a local college, Richard Wanley deems himself an ordinary man who is aware of the precarious nature of his age. He doesn’t indulge in any wanton talk of a mid-life crisis. Instead, he uses logic and intellect to weed out any submission to emotional and irrational desires.

But when his wife and two children leave to go on short vacation, Wanley goes to his club to meet with a few friends. Before he enters the club, he is taken in by a painting in a store front window display: a portrait of a woman with a mysterious and suggestive facial expression, her neck and shoulder tastefully exposed. His gaze is one of curiosity but, it would appear here, he is mainly drawn in for aesthetic reasons.

At the club, his friends tease Wanley about the fact that he is now a “bachelor” while his wife and children are away. He assures them he is nothing of the sort—that there is no cause for concern or rude jokes. After his friends leave, and in order to pass the time, Wanley does pick a book—but not just any kind of book. Clearly alluding to the nature of hidden desires, the book is Song of Songs or Song of Solomon—the great Biblical erotic poem about two lovers who sing praises of each other as they desperately try to reunite.

There are many interpretations of the Song of Songs, some taking the relationship to be literally between man and woman, others have taken on a more philosophical, theological, and symbolic meaning. But it’s clear that the intent in the film is to look at the poem from a literal point of view.

As he reads, Wanley falls asleep, only to be awakened by the club’s butler so he heads home. He is driven to take another look at the painting of the woman in the storefront window. But this time, Wanley’s look is hardly distant or absent. As if reading the Song of Songs activated a long-forgotten desire, Wanley’s gaze is contemplative and yearning. He thinks that he has the power over the desires the painting draws out but in fact, it is the woman who draws him into her fold.

As he carefully examines the woman, as he is becoming obsessed with the desire to possess the painting, the face of the woman begins to come alive. Wanley is startled only to realize that there is an actual woman standing behind him. The woman is Alice Reed, played by Joan Bennett, and it turns out, she happens to be the woman who posed for the painting.

After a brief exchange, Wanley agrees to go out for a drink with her and to her apartment in order to see the original sketches of the painting. There is a suspenseful quality to this exchange. We know that this meeting will not end with Wanley going home, having a cup of warm milk, putting on his striped pajamas, and falling asleep. Alice is coy—as any femme fatale would be.

But this brief erotic exchange, this possibility of an affair is quickly extinguished by the abrupt and aggressive arrival of a man, Frank Howard. He is angry and appears to be threatened by Wanley’s presence in Alice’s apartment. He tries to murder Wanley but instead, in self-defense, Wanley kills him.

Alice the femme fatale suddenly becomes an irrational damsel in distress. Bennett switches so easily and beautifully from cigarette-smoking, gin-and-tonic-drinking seductress to a helpless woman, who suddenly has a dead body in her apartment. Any notion of a love affair, which seemed attractive and dangerous (and which the audience might have expected), is completely destroyed by this one act.

But can Wanley be judged in the same manner as a cold-blooded killer? Can he make this already absurd situation any better? If only he refused the siren call of the woman in the painting! The ethical necessity has taken over the erotic force. Nothing matters now, except the next step.

Wanley decides not to call the police and that the only option is to get rid of the body. Every scene keeps the viewer on edge because Wanley is continuously making clumsy mistakes in covering up the murder. Robinson is a master at playing Wanley as both a pathetic and pitiable man but also as a man who is trying to escape justice. He doesn’t deem himself guilty of murder, only guilty of having met and been drawn in by Alice.

Bennett’s Alice is warm and caring toward Wanley but that, too, is not something of which we can be certain. After all, who is she really? Why was she interested in the middle-aged Wanley? Was the whole thing just one big set up in order to get rid of Frank Howard? Is Wanley simply a dullard who was used for untoward purposes? Or is Alice really no femme fatale but merely a poor, confused woman caught in a nightmare? Or is there a most surprising twist in the end?

Lang certainly could be considered the creator of the film noir genre, especially with his 1931 film, “M.” But even before that, at the height of German Expressionism, in his silent masterpiece “Metropolis” (1927), we see the elements of darkness and tension, which become part of Lang’s language and oeuvre. As a director of silent films, he had to rely purely on images in order to convey the gravity of the plot and suspense. In “The Woman in the Window,” Lang’s background in making those choices stands out, especially in close ups. The film remains part of the great American tradition of film noir, as well as a perfect marriage between American cinematic vision and Lang’s roots in German Expressionism.

Robinson’s capacity as an actor to convey the interiority of a human being remains unparalleled. He is often known to the general audience as a man who played gangsters, but this is poor and lazy analysis. Robinson’s range throughout his career reveals a man deeply aware of the foibles of the human heart—one who knows that nothing is simple or superficial about people, not even gangsters. In this film, he shines as an academic, yearning for passion over his life of silent desperation. But, as his character reveals, there is always a cost for such untamed desire.

Books & Culture

A review of “The Age of Entitlement,” by Christopher Caldwell (Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $28)

The Myth of Civil Rights

Agree or disagree, the rage that Christopher Caldwell identifies isn’t going away.

What was the 2016 election really all about? In one version, Donald Trump’s rise was an awakening of bigotry, of nostalgia for the days when Americans were mostly white, women knew their place, and gays lived in the shadows.

But there is another way of telling this story. It is one in which Americans who grew up in a country that was more or less prosperous and wholesome for the majority had found, by 2016, that they were strangers in their own homeland. A mixture of hedonism and demographic changes had despoiled the decency of family life and eroded cultural unity. Meanwhile, globalization strip-mined the economy and made life precarious for the middle class. America had become a mistrustful and lonely place, increasingly a land of winners and losers who didn’t talk to their neighbors, or even knew what country their neighbors came from.

A new look at the Trump era, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties by Christopher Caldwell, examines our political crises from the point of view of those Americans who, by 2016, were feeling that the country they knew and loved was slipping through their fingers. Like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, which spawned countless essays on the merits of the Founding philosophy, this book is a literary mortar charge that spares no idols.

It’s central target: the Civil Rights revolution, particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Caldwell’s explosive idea is that the inchoate grievances that have animated conservatives for generations—spasms of rage about “reverse racism,” affirmative action, political correctness and the like—have really been directed at the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Whether they realized it or not, by 2016, a working majority of Americans found that they did not like what “free at last” had become—indeed, what it had been destined to become.

There’s nothing new about conservatives grumbling about the 1960s, affirmative action, or political correctness, of course. What makes this book so provocative is its suggestion that the triumphant account of civil rights is a myth—that it is just one way of looking at things. History is written by the victors, and after fifty years of civil rights winning, the mere suggestion that maybe this victor shouldn’t have won is heresy.

Most revolutions gone wrong are characterized as having been pure at their inception. Die-hard socialists insist that Stalin corrupted the pure intentions of Marx and even Lenin, for example. Today, many conservatives are in the curious position of doing the same with respect to the 60s, a revolution that was never even theirs. While allowed to lament its excesses, all Americans are required to accept that the epoch was a necessary step forward. Leftism today may be extreme, but the progress made back then was necessary. Feminism today may be too radical, but Betty Friedan’s was the authentic article. With respect to race, the race-conscious militancy of today, with its vicious sloganeering and brazen hostility towards whites, is seen as the corruption of the pure, race-neutral liberalism of the civil rights movement.

But Caldwell nudges the reader to see the civil rights revolution as a genuine revolution, one that came with “staggeringly high” costs to “money, freedom, rights, and social stability” and, like the upheavals of 1789 and 1917—though he does not make the comparison directly—left the world in its aftermath completely unrecognizable. Those who suffered the most had realized, by 2016, that they were on the losing side of an upheaval and waged a counter-revolution with Trump. That Caldwell identifies civil rights and King at the core of this conflict makes for a bold argument indeed.

Caldwell riffs on a familiar critique of revolution: what was meant as a liberation went south, and instead seeded new forms of oppression. With civil rights, the promise was less consciousness of race. Instead, it made race into the central fact of American life. Once institutionalized, civil rights grew into a mighty, bureaucratic regime, an identity-fixated Eye of Sauron empowered to police and transform every nook and cranny of public and private life. The two primary tools at its disposal, political correctness and affirmative action, emanated directly from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which created new ways of working around the will of the majority. Through fear of litigation and the stigma of being labeled a bigot, civil rights empowered activists to win transformative changes not by persuading the people to accept them and passing laws but through a combination of legal gamesmanship, censorship, and court-ordered redress.

In Caldwell’s telling, everything that conservatives hate about political correctness and progressivism—the bullying and witch hunts, the judicial activism—was baked into the civil rights pie. At each step of its advance, civil rights intimidated a majority into giving up its rights, status, dignity, and resources to an ascendant group of protected minorities who had acquired “an iron grip on the levers of state power,” working in tandem with “judicial elites” to short-circuit democracy. Civil rights empowered “minoritarian impulses,” like the push to normalize gay marriage, to “override every barrier that democracy might seek to erect against them.”

Gradually, this new system became its own “rival constitution,” one that steadily eroded the understanding of liberty that Americans had taken for granted under the written Constitution of 1787. While minorities acquired a “mysterious set of passwords and procedures” that required society to “drop everything and respond to their demands,” the erstwhile majority got the short end of the stick. They were dethroned and relegated to the margins of America’s national story. Life in America became about “diversity,” and nothing more. That is, it became about everybody except them.

Conscripted in the Racism Witch Hunt

Very quickly, the kumbaya anti-racism of King had devolved into a national witch hunt against “racism” in which all Americans were conscripted. This is not what was expected. Whites thought that once racism was “solved” through legislation, all Americans could live in harmony and peace. But what started in the 1960s as a movement against racism had turned, by 2016, into an entirely new social order defined by race—as well as sex, sexual orientation, and other forms of belonging centered on those groups that previously had not “belonged.” What was billed as a one-time solution to segregation had become an “entire new system of constantly churning political reform” that was extended to include new groups: women, gays, immigrants.

A new paternalistic state looked with favor on certain groups while heaping punishment on others, most of all whites but especially white men. While the “winners” in the new system praised it as a liberation, the “losers” grew conscious of having been displaced.

In spite of this profound re-alignment, civil rights continued to draw from the “permanent emergency powers” established in the quest to smash the “sham democracy” of Jim Crow. Caldwell here alludes to a curious feature of revolutionary regimes: namely, the need to pretend that it is always the year that the revolution began. This make-believe gives the regime moral authority. As the “good” intentions of the revolution are corrupted, it becomes increasingly necessary to trick the people into believing that the revolution is in imminent danger, that an existential threat to its ideals is still present. One of the distinct features of civil rights ideology, it seems, is a time freeze: it is always 1964, and Jim Crow is alive and well. Caldwell makes notes of the curious, recent explosion in the cavalier use of “white supremacy,” even as public displays of racism have dropped, the costs of being branded a bigot have become ruinous, and of course, the actual population of whites is dropping. Under civil rights, everyone is required to pretend that it’s still Reconstruction.

The regime that civil rights built was most unnatural, one that required “trillions upon trillions” of dollars to maintain and a constant effort to humiliate and repress those on the wrong side of the revolution. Eventually, Caldwell suggests, white Americans realized that pressing claims for their rights and dignity in the name of the old constitution was a waste of time, since it had been replaced by something else: an ideology of “anti-racism” that had actually developed into plain old racism, this time directed toward them. Precisely through their constitutional exclusion under civil rights, whites became more conscious of their race. Whether they realized it or not, by 2016, the only way back to the race-blind, old constitutional order had become “the repeal of the civil rights laws.”

By presenting civil rights as an optional, necessary choice between two social orders, as something either to be accepted or rejected rather than the inexorable unfolding of Justice, Caldwell crosses a line—but a line Caldwell suggests all conservatives must cross themselves, like it or not.

In a revolutionary regime, the greatest crime is to question the revolution. Caldwell’s gravest transgression is to attack civil rights’ preeminent status as the “unique surviving narrative” of an era awash in suspicion of the past. We are accustomed to viewing civil rights as a story of everyday heroes working together to organically, even miraculously, overcome the odds and perfect the logic of democracy. But Caldwell presents it as a minoritarian, hostile takeover accomplished at every step by force or deception or both. Rosa Parks, he audaciously observes, was not a random bus passenger but an “organizer of considerable sophistication” and an intellectual leader of the civil rights movement, an oft-overlooked fact in popular folklore. Verboten observations like these are sprinkled throughout: a majority of Americans disapproved of the mythic March on Washington in its immediate aftermath.

Such hate facts were washed away by diversity, the official, pseudo-religious ideology of the revolutionary regime of civil rights. Reverence for King was ordained, and any skeptical thoughts about the rightness of civil rights became crimes. It was as if America had been founded in the 60s and everything that happened before was a cause for shame. Americans were now required to think of their country and its history as a disgrace, and no group was more deserving of humiliation than American whites. As diversity became America’s creed, a Manichean dualism that held up “white” and “people of color” as moral opposites crept in. “The lines between white racism, white failure, and mere whiteness blurred,” and whites became evil.

Immigration in the Wake of Civil Rights

Alienation was forcefully shepherded through the civil rights regime. A major preoccupation of The Age of Entitlement is the titanic demographic shifts that followed in the wake of the Hart-Celler act of 1965, a law which, like civil rights itself, was vastly underestimated even by its proponents. The reassurances of Hart-Celler’s advocates now read like parody. “The ethnic mix of this country will not be upset,” said Senator Ted Kennedy at the time. “The bill will not aggravate unemployment, not flood the labor market with foreigners, nor cause American citizens to lose their jobs.” It did all of those things and more.

Dove-tailing with Hart-Celler, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 institutionalized permanent transformative change, by marking illegal immigrants “victims,” American citizens their moral and legal inferiors, and any criticism of migration racist and taboo. By 2016, America had been totally transformed in ways that no one had voted for. A “link that had made Americans think of themselves for three centuries as, basically, a nation of transplanted Europeans” had been cut on the sly.

The costs and the indignities of the new order, from its intrusions on free speech to its incursions on dignity, from its forceful cultural transformations to the exorbitant costs of maintaining the Great Society, eventually grew intolerable to a majority that disproportionately had borne them. In Caldwell’s telling, the 2016 election was a bottled up explosion of populist anger that had been delayed, for some time, by Ronald Reagan. Elected to cut welfare and stop mass migration, Reagan instead bought an expensive illusion of peace between the two constitutions by leaving Johnson’s Great Society in place and simultaneously cutting taxes for the white middle class. Under the order Reagan created, which made globalization and mass migration permanent features of American life, the majority would continue to suffer a stream of indignities, from the loss of their labor power to foreigners, to the loss of their status under a civil rights regime that Reagan did nothing to roll back. By 2016, when whites’ economic prospects had diminished enough to make the loss of their rights unbearable, the Reagan peace was no longer tenable.

It may be a mark of civil rights’ success that Caldwell approaches his fraught subject with a polite delicateness that borders on consternation. “The more distant King’s vision of race relations became,” he notes with vexation, “the more imperative it became to advertise it as if that were the vision of race relations the country had gotten.” But elsewhere, Caldwell hints that the race-conscious militancy that civil rights became was always lurking somewhere in King’s rhetoric. In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham City Jail, in which King expressed his disappointment with “the white moderate” and his reluctance to surrender his privileges, Caldwell sees the invocation of a “pragmatic international solidarity against white rule” that presaged intersectional politics, which would unite a rag-tag coalition of minorities against a common white enemy. While King is seen as taking a more moderate approach than Malcolm X in “twenty-first-century civil rights pageantry,” King “soon moved beyond it” and “turned down a different path.”

Fatal Contradictions?

So was civil rights really bedeviled by a fatal contradiction? The idea doesn’t exactly meld with the portrait of a terrifying, powerful system that Caldwell sketches. Perhaps this “contradiction” was not really a weakness, but a fault imputed to civil rights by its frustrated victims? The “winners” certainly would never challenge its legitimacy by contrasting what it had become, in 2016, with how it started. Indeed, they received—and continue to defend—civil rights in its whole trajectory as a blessing. Why posit a “contradiction” when civil rights devolved so quickly into race consciousness, and never went back, anyway? Perhaps this “contradiction” can be elided by assuming that civil rights has no such weakness—that it was a kind of sleight of hand, and that its fifty years of revolution have been a stunning success on its own terms?

Caldwell seems to say as much, but the outer limits of his position are somewhat unclear. While clearly sympathetic to the “losers,” he does not argue for the repeal of civil rights outright. Caldwell is clear that Jim Crow was an evil system that could not stand. And yet, civil rights “moved beyond the context of Jim Crow laws almost immediately.” So at what infinitesimal point in time was civil rights legitimate? Presumably, never.

Here’s where The Age of Entitlement reaches the peak of provocation: by asking, “was civil rights a mistake?,” Caldwell at least hints at the prompt, “was there an upside to segregation?” or at least, “was there a downside to desegregation?” Integration was necessary, but “the costs of civil rights were high.” The most radical consequences of civil rights were not incidental but developed logically in a cascade out of desegregation and its erasure of what Caldwell calls the “master freedom,” the First Amendment’s implied freedom of association. Once groups began mixing freely, race-neutral jurisprudence had to be replaced with “something the overwhelming majority of [American] citizens would never have approved: an explicit system of racial preference.” Since mixing groups together came with the possibility of friction and offense, political correctness was created to iron out that wrinkle.

Caldwell makes a convincing case that the polite tremor that greets the mere question, “was civil rights legitimate?” was in some sense engineered, that it is the product of ideology. As such, The Age of Entitlement is sure to provoke predictable howls of condemnation. Liberals will see in its eloquent narrative a reactionary wail of sentimental “racism.” To simply dismiss the grievances of the “losers,” though, is to identify oneself with the “winners,” and not much more than that.

To evaluate a book like The Age of Entitlement in a culture as fragmented as this one may be complicated by that fragmentation. It is fitting that Caldwell cites Nietzsche, father of all postmodernists, because The Age of Entitlement depicts an America in which a “will to power” is all that really matters anymore.

“It is far easier,” he writes, “for both former perpetrators and former victims alike, simply to transvalue the prejudices—so you wind up with the old world turned upside down.” If Caldwell is right, then words like “racism” have become terms of abuse used by the “winners” to keep the “losers” in their place.

Jim Crow was intolerable, but what it almost immediately became in its replacement has been intolerable, too. There’s a simple and dark answer to this conundrum, the idea that equality is not possible. This realization is the darkest part of The Age of Entitlement. Caldwell is obviously disturbed by the difficulty, impossibility even, of equality, of how old inequalities seem to succeed almost inevitably to new ones. That is something familiar from the history of revolutions, of course. Caldwell dives into the chaos of revolution and counterrevolution without really taking a side. He recedes into Nietzschean perspectivism, presenting the “loser’s” point of view without fully adopting it himself. Since this is a work of heresy, that is not only understandable but wise. Americans now live in a country in which a deadly pandemic cannot be discussed without making it about race.

Agree or disagree, the rage that Caldwell identifies isn’t going away. But then again, if he’s right about the awful power of civil rights, perhaps it’s just a final spasm of dissent.

Books & Culture

Psyche, Soul, and ‘Cedarwood Road’

It is only in middle age that we can begin to break free from the forces that shaped us.

Been thinking about life and mortality today. I’d rather die gloriously in battle than from a virus. In a way it doesn’t matter. But it kinda does.”

That was the tweet sent out recently by Representative Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who was one of an untold many exposed to the novel coronavirus at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. The congressman closed his office and remained at his Arizona residence for the duration of his seclusion. It was from here that he sent out his tweet. It was mocked on social media, with tweeters encouraging the “would-be Spartan” to enlist in the army.

And yet, Gosar’s observation remains poignant. Most people would like to think they have a destiny, that their lives won’t end in some meaningless way from a bat-generated virus.

Gosar’s observation represents a battle between our public face and the feeling in our soul that God wants us for a different kind of destiny. In psychological terms, it’s the battle between the ego and the subconscious.

As psychologist James Hollis had observed, the ego is in charge of the “executive function.” It allows us to drive to work, pay bills, have well-behaved children, and present a civilized face to friends and colleagues. The subconscious, on the other hand, is a place of myth, desire, fate, and legend. It’s where we confront the life we were meant to live. The life of Jesus is a representation of this. The Lord had a regular childhood and adolescence, then performed his public ministry, but during it all his subconscious soul and connection to God were leading him, inexorably, to his destiny the cross. And even he had a moment when he wanted the cup to pass away from him.

Dynamism Over Nihilism

Gosar’s tweet reveals a wrestling match between ego and subconscious, or between our will and God’s. Thinking about life and mortality, the subconscious desires honor, valor, a glorious ending. The ego intrudes and attempts an override, saying that “it doesn’t matter.” Then the subconscious pushes back: But it kinda does. Dying with honor for a great cause, obeying God’s will for us, matters.

Hollis is the executive director of the Jung Society in Washington, D.C., where I recently saw him give a series of lectures. The disruption caused by the coronavirus has given his ideas fresh potency, as people are second-guessing their careers and starting to consider their destinies. (Honestly—do we really need as many journalists as we have?)

At one lecture Hollis observed that the ego is nothing but a “thin wafer of consciousness floating on an iridescent ocean called the soul.” The powerful, archetypal forces of the unconscious—which Hollis also calls the psyche or “the gods”—are a tectonic force that has its own plan. Ignoring this destiny can cause depression, anxiety, addiction, and listlessness.

“When we are off track, psyche protests,” Hollis writes in his book What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life. “Noisy demonstrations are held in the amphitheatre of the body; streets are blocked in the brain by rebels from the cane fields; dreams are invaded by spectral disturbances; affects riot and tear down the work of years.”

As journalist Oliver Burkeman observed, “This is a radical and humbling way of thinking about psychology. It means that what you think you want from life probably isn’t what life wants from you. And it means that living meaningfully is almost certainly going to screw with your plans, forcing you out of comfort and certainty, and into suffering and the unknown.” Hollis quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by ever greater things.” To be fully alive, the soul has to “meet its appointment.”

While people may dismiss Hollis (and Jung) as New Age, his writing is grounded in a sober reality that is absent in the sunny bromides of too many Christians. It’s also far more dynamic than the dull nihilism of the elites and the young.

Myth, Legend, Destiny

There are arguments to be made against Hollis’s approach. One of the problems in the Western world over the last several decades is that more and more people neglected their obligations to explore their destiny, often leaving broken families in their wake. “The heart wants what the heart wants,” was used by Woody Allen to defend his marriage to his step-daughter. The power of myth to chart an unavoidable fate rendered characters in the dismal recent “Star Wars” movies as helpless and robotic. The young partiers in Florida getting water during the pandemic look more lost than followers of the soul’s code.

This is why age is important to the concept of embracing your destiny. Hollis’s book titles reveal this: Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, and Middle Passage. For the first few decades of our lives we are at the mercy of external forces that we have no control over: family, environment, the politics of our time, and our social status are constantly affecting the way we see the world, often so powerfully that we, as Hollis notes, “wind up living someone else’s life.” It is only in middle age that we can begin to break free from the forces that shaped us. It’s important that we follow our bliss, but we’ll only have the wisdom to do so when we’ve been alive for a while and can begin to untangle what has influenced us.

There is an exception to this rule: the worlds of sports and the arts. Professional sports teams gain certainty that it is “their year” to win it all, performers feel a destiny at a young age and embrace it. Brad Pitt once noted that there was a point when he was a young man in high school that he had a certainty that he was going to be famous.

Rock and roll is replete with songs about “destiny” and forces that are going to make life or love happen no matter what. In their 2014 song  “Cedarwood Road,” Irish band U2 explores how their fateful meeting seemed to be destined. It opens:

I was running down the road
The fear was all I knew
I was looking for a soul that’s real
Then I ran into you
And that cherry blossom tree
Was a gateway to the sun
And friendship, once it’s won
It’s won, it’s one
Just across the river to the Southside
That’s a long way here

All the green and all the gold
The hurt you hide
The joy you hold
The foolish pride
That gets you out the door
Up on Cedarwood, Cedarwood Road

This is a powerful distillation of Hollis’s thesis. Bono was not hunting for fame but “looking for a soul that’s real”—i.e. letting himself be led by the subconscious and not the ego. He meets guitarist the Edge, their coming together “a gateway to the sun.”

Bono is operating in the realm of myth, legend, destiny. His environment, Ireland in the 1980s, is a place rife with politics and violence, as represented in the colors of green and gold and hard geographical boundaries. Yet he will embrace the “foolish pride” that gets him out the door and onto the world stage.

The last lyric in the song is “a heart that is broken is a heart that is open.” Bono has met his soul’s appointment to the world’s stage, where he will be “defeated by even greater things.” People might say that ultimately it doesn’t matter if U2 had ever gotten out of Dublin. But it kinda does.