Books & Culture

Rowling and King Slam Into the Woke Diversity Cult

To the Woke, art presents an unpredictable hazardous threat to the nonsense they’re forced to repeat ad nauseam. Any creative endeavor is pregnant with risk and presents a moment where the mind is unguarded and pliable.

Nothing is more appetizing than watching the limbs of progressive icons mulch between the jaws of the Woke.

With a giddy regularity, the picadors of piffle lower themselves to those over which they loft. A glorious sight—like savannah lions ripping through their prey. There’s something deeply primal about it. And something deserved about it.

The death sentence applies for offenses of an increasingly trivial nature.

J.K. Rowling, a scribbler of terrible yet terribly popular tales, recently suggested biology is real. Yes, in defense of a think-tank researcher rendered jobless after tweeting that “Men cannot change into women,” the author broke with the Wokeing Class.

Such reality is unacceptable, such thoughts “deeply problematic.” To describe with accuracy what is before your eyes is now a de facto signature sanctioning your death.

Maya Forstater lost her job as visiting fellow of Centre for Global Development for saying that men and women are different. Not that trans people deserve ridicule or persecution. Merely that men and women are different.

In vain, Forstater tried to explain. “My belief,” she said, “is that sex is a biological fact and is immutable. There are two sexes, male and female. Men and boys are male. Women and girls are female. It is impossible to change sex. These were until very recently understood as basic facts of life by almost everyone.”

Rowling cushioned her support for Forstater with the qualifier that people should be free to dress, address, and caress whomever or however they like, but biological reality is, well—reality.

A fair glug of common sense, no? Not for the Woke mob. Rowling’s thoughts triggered a trite “discussion” of her “transphobia.”

Horror novelist Stephen King this week broke from his incessant presidential henpecking to scoop a prize for “backward and ignorant” comments.

King, responding to Oscar nominations deemed by the mob as not diverse enough, said he “would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.”

Now, that might make sense to you, but King wrote this “damaging,” “thoughtless,” and of course, “privileged” ribbon of common sense on Twitter—an alternate spiritual plane home to wandering embittered souls yet unfit for ascension.

On Twitter, the laws of nature cease to apply. A caps-locked orgy sprawled. King then, of course, walked back his comments—the price one must pay for even partial redemption.

What King said matters most. An artist, he is interested in the truth. When judging art, all that matters is the art itself. This was taken to mean that diversity and quality are mutually exclusive.

By way of his meek climbdown, King offered his own thoughts for re-education and abandoned his mental privacy.

What King did was deny the truth, which is the lifeblood of political correctness, and render his own mind and thoughts unsound.

Something not dissimilar corrupts the wrongly convicted. They, at first, protest their innocence. For a quieter life, they eventually give in, accept their own thoughts as alien, incorrect, defective.

Which is why the Woke enforce the various nonsenses of political correctness so dutifully.

Given its flagrant, gaping untruth, Woke rhetoric depends on indoctrination and brutish enforcement. Dissidents beholden to their own minds are ostracized, canceled from polite society.

Such madness is useful to those gripping the levers of power—the proles are kept busy, resentful of their peers, engrossed in matters thickening by the week in their triviality.

Perhaps a generation raised on self-esteem, Grubhub, and Netflix, believes reality must be tailored to their own algorithm.

This is a generation that finds “Friends” problematic; a generation that soaks itself in “diversity,” as long as that “diversity” ends with the loudest getting what the loudest wants. Wokeness is the political expression of insecurity, diversity a mask of inadequacy, deluding one’s self is less painful than the brief medicine of honesty.

And what is art if not the helpless pursuit of honesty, of the truth?

To the Woke, art presents an unpredictable hazardous threat to the nonsense they’re forced to repeat ad nauseam. Any creative endeavor is pregnant with risk and presents a moment where the mind is unguarded and pliable.

This is especially true in comedy. Laughter, the purest expression of truth, is often involuntary, unfiltered. What makes a joke funny is the atom of truth at its core, and it is this that deems it dangerous to those dependent on the traffic of untruths.

As King and Rowling found out, the truth is not what matters.

And it’s not just within the strange contours of Twitter. An article at Splice Today pointed out a new development: the advent of the “Sensitivity Reader.” Yes, for a small fee, a sensitivity reader will scour your manuscript for “accidental bias”—social offenses determined on the whims of the eagerly offended.

Accidental bias can include “white savior complex” and “improper physical descriptions of minorities.” How such descriptions could be deemed “improper” by anyone not the author is a question nobody is supposed to ask.

Then again, to assume that art should be judged on its quality, and not on the diversity of the artist, was until this week a truth nobody was supposed to question.

Books & Culture

Woke Harry Potter

What if J.K. Rowling reimagined Harry Potter in the satirical tradition of Orwell’s Animal Farm? She should.

J.K. Rowling, author of the beloved “Harry Potter” children’s fantasy books, delighted countless children with her works, became wealthy, famous, and admired—then disappointed many conservative parents with her conventional leftist grandstanding.

Recently, she disappointed part of the activist Left, too, by endorsing the reality of biological sex. Inhabitants of some fantasy worlds were enraged. The equivalent of electronic “Howlers” filled the Internet, as Social Justice Death Eaters mobilized.

So far as we know, this attack hasn’t resulted in Rowling doing an Orwell, turning her formidable talents to trenchant criticism of ideas with which she’d formerly sympathized. It’s too bad; she could write the 21st century’s equivalent of Orwell’s Animal Farm about the social justice mob if she cared to do so.

Or even revisit a familiar setting, with a new twist . . .

Harry Potter, Jr., Volume One: Is the Sorcerer Stoned?

Headmistress McGonagall ran Hogwarts School of Wizardry very well, and she knew it. Perhaps in some ways, not quite as well as Dumbledore had done in his day; and she knew that, too.

Then again, the challenges of his time had been different ones entirely. He would have been poorly suited indeed, to dealing with some of these. She regarded the latest envelope from the Ministry of Reimagining Magical Education sourly. What would it be this time? More absurd counterproductive regulations, with vague hints of dire consequences for less-than-zealous cooperation?

Another attempted imposition on precious instructional time, for another seminar on Pureblood Privilege to be inflicted upon helpless students who’d had no more control over their bloodlines than any muggle had? She set it aside—it could wait.

The next envelope was from a parent—a notorious Hoverbroom. In Dumbledore’s day, witches and wizards had expected their offspring to uphold the family reputation at Hogwarts. Today, it tended to be faculty, not students, who received the parents’ wrath if the child misbehaved. She tossed it in the HowlerCooler, a new and necessary office furnishing in these times. In the HowlerCooler, the magic missive could be disenchanted.

What a very apt word, “disenchanted,” McGonagall thought dourly to herself. Ah, well, a new year, new opportunities; at least the Sorting Hat ceremony was tonight and that was enough to cheer anyone up.

Suddenly she had a suspicion that the letter from the Ministry would announce the intention of “equalizing,” denaturing, and destroying the individual traditions of the Houses. “Antiquated,” “elitist,” “imperialist,” and who-knew-what-else-ist, surely.

“Not while this Gryffindor has anything to say about it,” she muttered. Scowling one final time at the unopened envelope, she left.

***

The Hat had always been shrewd, mischievous, and a bit grumpy. McGonagall suspected the grumpiness was usually for show, for the sake of the students; she knew a bit about that herself. This year, though, the Hat seemed to be showing a certain genuine annoyance.

Upon the head of the year’s first candidate, a bright-eyed blonde boy from somewhere in the North of England, the hat swayed gently, side to side. Much cleverness, upon which to draw . . . so this child goes to . . . RAVENCLAW!” The hat straightened with finality and regarded her.

“Yes,” the esteemed witch agreed. “And?”

“And?” asked the hat. “And what?”

“You know what, and why it’s necessary.”

The hat sighed. “Though I find the question crude—I announce this child is a dude.”

“Use the official language,” McGonagall reminded him. “For legal reasons.”

This time, the hat nearly snarled. “A male. This student is a biological male. Any idiot can tell that, without the use of magic! You people should not need me to tell you this.”

No, we shouldn’t, she thought to herself. She said nothing aloud, however, merely gesturing to the next student in line, as House Ravenclaw cheered their newest member. McGonnegal took the opportunity to lean in close to the Sorting Hat and whisper a few words of reassurance.

“I know it isn’t very dignified, but it’s going to help us retain a bit of common sense around here. Just keep announcing and making official which ones are boys, and which ones are girls. For the record. Dark forces are abroad in the world, and the best defense against some of them, is simple truth plainly stated.”

She resumed her dignified posture and the Hat, slightly mollified, resumed its.

Just then, Peeves the Poltergeist rocketed into the hall, then decelerated to a leisurely cruising speed. An envelope and a letter with a familiar and ominous official letterhead fluttered along with him. Peeves began to chant:

“The Ministry thinks that it can switch,
Which is wizard and which is witch!
Switchitty switch, which is witch! Switchitty switch, which is witch . . . ”

McGonagall’s already-stern features hardened further. It was going to be a long year.

Books & Culture

The Feminist Sociopath

Which will it be, 21st-century feminists? An unfeeling, virtually sociopathic feminism or a feminism that is a proud and integral part of an ongoing project to more completely embrace humanity?

The media are doing everything in their power to divert the spotlight from Ricky Gervais’ opening monologue at last week’s Golden Globes. Michelle Williams is clearly Hollywood’s chosen beneficiary. Her emotional “on-the-verge-of-tears” speech advocating a woman’s “right to choose” is garnering much acclaim from women’s groups, after she claimed that her personal “choice” enabled her to have the kind of career success that brought her the award.

Williams’s speech addressed women directly from the stage, warning that they needed to similarly act in their own “self-interest.” She vaguely alluded to November’s election, with the oft-heard clarion call that Roe v. Wade would meet its demise given anything but total Democratic victory.

Pro-life activists and writers were equally quick to push back on Williams’s speech.

“After all, we are talking about a human life that was ended for the sake of her career,” Abby Johnson tweeted. “How sad it must be to trade an innocent human life for a tiny golden statue!” Other pundits, such as National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis, went further and called out Williams’s euphemistic use of the word “choice” to denote abortion. DeSanctis then carefully dissected the actress’s logical fallacies (such as the assumption that abortion is a woman’s only option before conception or after).

“Rather than empowering women,” DeSanctis wrote, “Williams is telling them that they won’t be able to fulfill their dreams without exercising the right to kill their own unborn children, that they must use violence against another human being in order to get ahead.”

That’s correct, and Williams’s speech deserves the scrutiny it is getting on that point. Yet there is a need to train the spotlight on what her speech means for feminism as a movement.

Having achieved the self-actualization that feminism promised, women must now fearlessly own the consequences of their actions. We need to be suspicious of those who try to justify their own choices in the name of all women. Michelle Williams was not necessarily advocating a considered feminist position from the podium. She was defending her own arguably selfish ones. It is increasingly important and necessary for women to be able to tell the difference.

From Self-Determination to Self-Centeredness

It’s also a make-or-break year for feminism. This year marks the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote, and all feminists will advocate that women need to make choices—not only for themselves as individuals, but for their daughters and women as a social class.

Genuinely progressive ideals consistently have tended to expand and grow the domain of personhood, of the people entitled to the protections and rights that a person may claim. Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century protofeminist author of Vindication of the Rights of Women, wrote “It is time to effect a revolution in female manners—time to restore them to their lost dignity. It is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners.” When Wollstonecraft articulated that position, women could not vote; they could not own or inherit property except through male authority.

Yet even within the constraints she under which she lived, Wollstonecraft knew that there were immutable human principles of right. Wollstonecraft considered those to include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—concepts with which she had familiarized herself when studying Rousseau, Thomas Paine, and John Locke. Her work argued that educating women and granting them the same rights as men, was a human good. She pushed further: “How can a rational being be ennobled by anything that is not obtained by its own exertions?”

Other writers in the feminist canon likewise spoke to self-determination but at the same time were careful to place it within the larger universal moral and human context. Susan B. Anthony asked “Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not.” Anthony lived a full century after Wollstonecraft, yet she was aware that advances in technology were helping to free women from the time-consuming tasks necessary to ensure survival,  not only for themselves, but also for their families. “Modern invention has banished the spinning wheel,” Anthony wrote, “and it is the same law of progress that makes the woman of today a different woman than her grandmother.”

Her colleague at the famous Seneca Conference, Elizabeth Cady Stanton articulated this early tenant of feminism that stemmed from Wollstonecraft’s original treatise. Feminism recognized that the humanity of children was equally important. “When you consider that women have been treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.”

At the Golden Globes, where some women nodded their assent around the rather angelically clad Williams, a certain irony was increasingly apparent. Williams’ words were reflective of self-centered and arrogant thinking, quite adrift and apart from the societal advances that have all but removed abortion as a tragic necessity.

Yet so-called feminists cling to abortion rights as if we still lived in the fetid tenements of 20th century New York City. This is not the case in post-millennial America.

Means and Ends

When the State of New York passed its Reproductive Health Act last year, it placed the right to choose abortion in the New York State Constitution. This enshrinement within the state constitution is designed to protect a woman’s right to abortion if Roe v. Wade is, by some ruling of the judiciary, overturned—a presumed cataclysm that would send us back to the pioneer days, or hurtle us into the dystopian world of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead.

The extreme nature of New York’s law is not merely protective of a woman’s right to choose. It is a pro-active right to kill another person based solely on the determined value by another person amid the passions and exigencies of the moment. Recent scientific advancements, particularly in imaging, have rendered obsolete the “clump of cells” argument formerly made against the humanity of the fetus in the uterus.

When pro-abortion arguments such as Williams’ are based so explicitly on power and dominance, it undermines the fundamental morality behind feminism as a progressive social movement. This is a major turning point. It is not just a preservation of Roe v. Wade, which sought to strike a balance between the interests of a woman in the earliest stages of pregnancy when the “humanity” of the fetus might be in question, and the rights of an undeniably viable later-stage fetus. Instead, it changes feminism into a type of personality disorder.

Professionals in the fields of psychiatry and psychology have debated the distinctions between sociopaths and psychopaths, but most agree the personality traits associated with them are similar and are destructive. Both sociopaths and psychopaths see others only as a means to their personal ends, not as fellow human beings with rights, feelings, or needs.

The DSM-5 includes Antisocial Personality Disorder under the heading of personality disorders. Impairments in both self and interpersonal personalities are present as well as pathological traits. Symptoms tend to begin in adolescence or early adulthood and continue over many years. Some symptoms someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder may exhibit are:

  • Being very charming or witty in order to manipulate someone or get what they want.
  • Exudes a sense of superiority or arrogance.
  • Impulsive and prone to taking risks or engaging in dangerous behavior with little regard to how it may affect others.
  • Lack of empathy or feelings towards others or a situation.
  • May display hostile, aggressive behavior, or become violent.
  • Being dishonest or lying to people.
  • No regard or care for what is right or wrong.
  • Being irresponsible.
  • Inability to maintain healthy relationships.
  • Lack of regard for rules or societal norms.

Michelle Williams’ reasoning, entirely self-focused and narcissistic, appalls those whose views on abortion were framed around the genuine social and physical cruelties of earlier generations. Neither first-wave feminists like Susan B. Anthony nor more contemporary second-wave feminists like Betty Friedan would likely be wholly comfortable endorsing a position like the one Williams advocates today. Friedan, like Wollstonecraft, defined the fully realized role that women play in The Feminine Mystique as being an integral part of the human whole:

We have gone on too long blaming or pitying the mothers who devour their children, who sow the seeds of progressive dehumanization, because they have never grown to full humanity themselves. If the mother is at fault, why isn’t it time to break the pattern by urging all these Sleeping Beauties to grow up and live their own lives? There never will be enough Prince Charming’s or enough therapists to break that pattern now. It is society’s job, and finally that of each woman alone. For it is not the strength of the mothers that is at fault but their weakness, their passive childlike dependency and immaturity that is mistaken for “femininity.” Our society forces boys, insofar as it can, to grow up, to endure the pains of growth, to educate themselves to work, to move on. Why aren’t girls forced to grow up—to achieve somehow the core of self that will end the unnecessary dilemma, the mistaken choice between femaleness and humanness that is implied in the feminine mystique?

Friedan, like her earlier philosophical counterparts places feminism as a driver in the locomotive evolution of human rights, the same thoughts that feminists from Wollstonecraft to Anthony continued to develop as time and technology propelled humanity forward.

Women’s Conundrum Now

The most damning thing about Williams’s tearful oration was not that she had had an abortion. It was her bizarre justification for doing so. Not since Judith Jarvis Thomson defined the fetus as a parasite in her 1971 article In Defense of Abortion, has there been such a reductionist view of reproduction in a woman’s life.

Williams, like Thomson, has an extremely atomistic view of childbearing and womanhood. It is hard to see it as socially constructive. Such compartmentalization is now out of step with other mores that frame women as the complete and complex human beings grown an intelligent women know they are.

The gender barriers were broken long ago, and more are being broken every day. Women can be mothers and maintain successful careers. Women have dozens of options to exercise before we have sex. Why is it seen that a woman’s decision to kill someone is the only decision she can exercise to further her opportunities? When others take lives for personal or financial gain, it is called murder, not self-defense or self-preservation.

Williams unwittingly has exposed the conundrum feminism poses to women now. On the one hand, feminism tolerates those who want to use the feminist mystique for their own non-feminist, even antifeminist ends: the organ traffickers; the human traffickers; the men who want purely recreational sex to be the social norm, a norm wholly detrimental to the interests of society.

On the other hand, feminism can stand proudly on the shoulders of the men and women who came before them and will come after them. It can adhere to the human rights traditions that extend and expand our awareness of what demands recognition as being human.

Which will it be, 21st-century feminists? An unfeeling, virtually sociopathic feminism or a feminism that is a proud and integral part of an ongoing project to more completely embrace humanity?

Books & Culture

Roger Scruton, Seeker of Truth and Beauty

The philosopher, who died Sunday at 75, was often criticized by the leftist intellectual establishment for nothing more than making much-needed observations they termed value judgments, which involved a defense of Western Civilization and the order of things.

“I think we are losing beauty, and there’s a danger that with it, we will lose the meaning of life.” These were the introductory remarks of British philosopher and writer, Sir Roger Scruton, during the 2009 BBC program, “Why Beauty Matters.” Scruton, who died Sunday after a short battle with cancer, was certainly a defender of all things true, good, and beautiful. The intellectual world, as well as the broader society, has lost an intelligent, reasonable, and imaginative voice in philosophy, art, music, and literature.

Scruton’s long career encompassed many different aspects of intellectual life: a professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck College in London, editor of The Salisbury Review, writer of over 50 books—on topics of moral and political philosophy, aesthetics, as well as fiction—regular contributor to magazines such as The Spectator, an activist who provided support for Czech dissidents during the brutality of the Communist regime, and a chairman of the British government’s “Building Better, Building Beautiful” Commission⁠—an effort at preserving beauty and order in England’s architecture. 

Scruton was conservative but to call him a “conservative philosopher” or a “conservative writer” does not do his work justice. This kind of reductionism minimizes not only his achievements but also creates a caricature of a man who was an intelligent and open-minded thinker.

He was often criticized by the leftist intellectual establishment (especially in his native country) for nothing more than making much-needed observations they termed value judgments, which involved a defense of Western Civilization and the order of things.

“For better or worse I have been identified by the British establishment as the person who can be relied upon to defend the indefensible, and who might be allowed to defend the indefensible even on state television (that is, the BBC) provided the defense is sufficiently diluted by others defending the obvious,” Scruton wrote in The American Spectator in 2010.

He understood what was at stake: this battle was not about mere theorizing and academic navel-gazing. Rather, the battles that Scruton engaged in were cultural, and the lines between definitions of free thought and totalitarianism had to be drawn. 

“Coming close to death,” Scruton wrote in December, “you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”

Given the amount of work that Scruton has left behind, it is impossible to mention all of it here, but at the core of his work are two essential aspects of the human condition: awe and gratitude. Without having a sense of wonder about our diverse world and its infinite variety, we will be unable to ask what indeed is the meaning of life. The experience of all that is beautiful around us, but also all that suffers will go unseen, and as a result, we will not feel connected to the past, present, and certainly not to the future. 

Seeing the connecting strands not only of the darkness of the human condition but also of the light and hope was very important for Scruton. In many ways, this vision of beauty is also a vision of salvation for Scruton because our lives depend on an encounter with other people as well as everyday experiences. We have lost a sense of the sacred because we are unable to see the difference between what is sacred and what is profane. On top of it, we are unable or unwilling to recognize the vulgar in our contemporary society, with which we are constantly assaulted.

Why should this be important? Why should we concern ourselves with awe about anything in our world? Isn’t it all just a bunch of haphazard and chaotic happenings amounting to nothing more than nihilism, as we inevitably slouch toward the land of anhedonia and utter meaninglessness? For Scruton, the phenomenon of “the flight from beauty” which has taken a seemingly permanent hold in our society, must be recognized and understood for what it is: an ideological attack on the order of things.

Writing in his book, Beauty (2009), Scruton observes that in our society, “there is a desire to spoil beauty, in acts of aesthetic iconoclasm. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, the desire to pre-empt its appeal can intervene, ensuring that its small voice will not be heard behind the scenes of desecration. For beauty makes a claim on us: it is a call to renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world.” 

Of course, this means that what Scruton is asking us to do is to truly see that man is not the beginning and the end. And yet, Scruton reminds us that to deny the beauty of the human form is to engage in “willful desecration” of it, which not only “spoils the experience of freedom” but, ultimately, is a “denial of love.” Whether writing on eros and sexual desire, Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the meaning of citizenship, or the tyranny of ideology, Scruton continuously affirms the importance of perennial ideas and forms (as found in Plato and Aristotle) that elevate man as opposed to toss his humanity and the search for the divine into the dustbin. 

Scruton doesn’t mention this explicitly, but he might as well have said that if one is able to stand in awe of the true, the good, and the beautiful, then it follows that one inevitably will feel gratitude. As the year 2019 came to an end, Scruton wrote a “diary” of all the months in the year and what the events brought to him. He is honest whether he writes about cancer, a very public smear by The New Statesman, or his birthday party surrounded by family and friends. 

“During this year much was taken from me,” Scruton wrote in The Spectator just before Christmas. “Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen. Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”

As a new generation of thinkers arrives on the intellectual shores, perhaps, upon discovering Scruton’s immense philosophical contribution, they too will be awakened to beauty.

Books & Culture

A review of “Originalism’s Promise: A Natural Law Account of the American Constitution,” by Lee J. Strang (Cambridge University Press, 326 pages, $110 [cloth], $34.00 [paperback])

Can Aristotle and St. Thomas Help Us Preserve the Constitution?

If his fellow scholars take Strang seriously (and they should), he might indeed move us further away from government by judiciary, and back toward the rule of law and the Constitution’s original understanding.

One way to understand the American Revolution is that it was Englishmen fighting Englishmen for the rights of Englishmen. The failure of the British monarch and the British parliament to give the North American English colonists a say in whether they were to be taxed and how, whether their rights to trial by jury were to be honored, whether their goods and homes would be subjected to arbitrary searches and seizures, and whether their very lives might be put in peril without the safeguards guaranteed by the English common law were the reasons for that rebellion.

It was the boast of Americans then, and so it remained until recently, that as it was enunciated by John Adams in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780—ours was a government “of laws, not men.” The meaning of this phrase was simply that our republic was based on the idea that no one was above the law, and that only the sovereign people could dictate what that law was to be.

Underlying that notion was the great emerging principle of the science of politics, that liberty was best secured by separating the functions of government, so that the legislature legislated, the executive carried out the Constitution and laws as written, and the judiciary expounded on the true original meaning of those documents.

To state those simple principles is to suggest how far from the original understanding we have come. The dominant jurisprudential view in American law schools, for example, for two generations has been that we have a “living Constitution” and that it is the task of the judiciary to alter the meaning of that fundamental legal charter in order to meet the changing needs of the times. Perhaps it wasn’t always so, but it has certainly been suspected from the time, in the early 20th century, that Finley Peter Dunne had his fictional wise Irish bartender, Mr. Dooley, remarked that “The Supreme Court follows the election returns.” In any event, it is obvious that something has changed.

The shameful situation, understood by anyone who cared to review what the Supreme Court had done from 1937 onward in permitting the federal government to exercise a regulatory authority over intrastate as well as interstate commerce, or to examine what the Warren Court had done interpreting the 14th Amendment ahistorically to give the federal courts jurisdiction over public education, redistricting of state legislatures, abortion, or marriage (all areas allocated by the original understanding of the Constitution to the state and local governments) was that we had undemocratically become subject to government by judiciary.

Instead of self-government, instead of the Republic as it had been originally conceived, this nation, with a Supreme Court committed to a “living constitution,” had become subject to nine elite black-robed lawyers sitting in Washington, D.C. One might have expected, given that our law schools are supposed to be bastions for the preservation of the rule of law, that there would be howls of protest from the legal academy over what amounted to the Court’s betrayal of the Constitution. And, to be fair, there was at least some fairly muted protest from the bench and the law professoriate.

Much more common, however, was the attempt to justify what the New Deal and Warren Courts had done by discovering “principles” within the Constitution which could be teased out by creative judges and jurists, who were able to argue that so long as these deeper Constitutional values, such as “fairness” and “equality” were being followed it didn’t matter that there had been a fundamental change in the manner the Constitution’s structure was being interpreted, and thus there had been a fundamental departure from the original understanding of that document.

While this may have pacified some potential legal academic critics, the Supreme Court’s naked exercise of law-making continued to roil our politics, and, indeed, there were abortive efforts to impeach Earl Warren, and at least one of the Warren court’s most creative judges, William O. Douglas. By 1968, it had become expected that Republican candidates for president would run on platforms of appointing judges and justices who would “interpret” rather than “make” the law, and Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese, a former law professor, initiated a crusade, of sorts, to return constitutional law to its original understanding.

Shortly before that, in 1977, Raoul Berger’s book protesting “government by judiciary,” had been published, and, soon, what was to become the most important vehicle for promoting this traditional view of Constitutional law, the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy, an organization of lawyers, law professors, and law students, was founded. So powerful had the Federalist Society become, in fact, that when Donald Trump ran for president, he openly collaborated with the Society (and the Heritage Foundation) in formulating a list of potential Supreme Court justices, one of which, Neil Gorsuch, he appointed soon after his election.

Nevertheless, because controversial Warren and Burger Court decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Roe v. Wade (1973) were favored by progressives, and since progressives dominated the law schools, there continued to be countless articles and books written by law professors defending the creative and progressive jurisprudence epitomized by those decisions and others.

At least one law professor, Georgetown’s Louis Michael Seidman was bold enough to concur with the view articulated by a justice for whom he had clerked, Thurgood Marshall, that the Constitution itself was outmoded, and the quest for a return to the implementation of the original understanding was hopelessly misguided. Something like that was also the view of one of the most intellectually exciting movements in the law schools during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the Conference on Critical Legal Studies (CLS), whose members argued that law, even Constitutional law, was simply politics, and we would do well to acknowledge that.

If law was merely politics, however, it would hardly be the noble profession venerated for centuries, and CLS’s influence, while powerful in some quarters, never achieved academic dominance. More to the point, politics is not free from arbitrariness, and raw political power surely seems like something different from a government of laws, not men (or women).

Accordingly, some of the most brilliant writing in the law schools for the past decade or so, heavily influenced by the Federalist Society (which is, after all, the antithesis of CLS), has sought to defend the traditional view of the Constitution and jurisprudence. According to that view, most clearly articulated in our time by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch, the Constitution should be understood and interpreted in the manner that it would have been by those who framed and ratified the document. If the meaning of that document is to be changed, it should be by the Article V Amendment process, and not by justices.

Lee Strang’s book is a worthy contribution to the current renaissance in works promoting the original understanding, and is itself a highly original take on the problem. Before Strang, the most persuasive defense of original understanding jurisprudence (or “originalism,” as it is usually called) was based on the structural features of the Constitution, such as the separation of powers and federalism (as maintained, for example, by the Federalist Society), or its character as approved by supermajorities of the American people.

Strang attempts the much more challenging task of justifying original understanding by recourse to the philosophical tenets of Aristotle and Aquinas, and, indeed, claims to be putting forth a defense of originalism through an appeal to natural law.

This is not the easiest argument to expound or maintain, as there is little to no evidence that the framers thought of themselves as Aristotelians or Thomist scholars. They were practical politicians, concerned with the abuse of political power, and the Constitutional structure they put in place was designed to save us from ourselves, and to check and balance power’s exercise to prevent corruption and tyranny.

Strang, however, in the tradition of Aristotle, believes that the Constitution ought to be about the promotion of “human flourishing,” and, in a complex presentation drawing not only on the work of Aquinas, but on virtually every scholar writing on Constitutional law in the past few years, Strang explains how originalism is the best means to secure that flourishing for Americans.

The book is a provocative and worthy contribution to the literature, although the high level at which it is pitched makes it most clearly of interest to other professors rather than to the general public, as suggested by its publication by one of the best scholarly presses.

Most intriguing in Strang’s presentation is his grappling with the problem of “non-originalist” precedent, the question of whether the current Supreme Court should follow decisions such as Brown v Board of Education and Roe v. Wade which depart from the original understanding, and are clear exercises in judicial legislation rather than interpretation.

Brown, the decision that outlawed racial segregation in public education, and the decision that has come to stand as the quintessential example of the judicial branch championing of our core value of equality, is praised and endorsed by Strang, presumably as a worthy means towards human flourishing. On similar grounds, Strang condemns slavery and, even though it was part of the original Constitution, he seems to suggest it never should have been, as it is contrary to natural law, at least as understood by some natural lawyers. In a move that takes great courage in our time, however, Strang condemns Roe v. Wade, the decision that overturned state prohibitions against abortion, since Strang apparently sensibly believes that natural law ought to be understood to offer protection even to human life in the womb.

This is a tricky business, obviously, and not all will find Strang’s arguments on these points persuasive, particularly his choices of what non-originalist precedent to preserve and what to discard. This should be done, he maintains, when the non-originalist precedent in question is “deeply entrenched, widely respected, and just,” but how the proof of such qualities can be conclusively determined by jurists is murky and, indeed, to suggest that what is “just,” ought to be the test is to favor equity over law, and to encourage discretion rather than certainty.

Nevertheless, Strang is onto something. Even if the framers weren’t Thomists, one can certainly find a common thread in the thought of framers such as Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and Samuel Chase, for example, that one couldn’t have order without law, or law without morality, or morality without religion, and this seems at least within striking distance of the position that Strang takes.

Even if one believes that the purpose of the Constitution was more highly political than philosophical, and even if one hesitates to endorse the practically Maslovian concept of “human flourishing,” or “self-actualization” as some used to describe it, Strang deserves praise for seeking to present the case that there is an American “common good” that the Constitution exists to promote. In our current era of poisonously divided politics and culture, to seek means of uniting us is certainly laudable. Moreover, Strang’s approach seems correctly to understand that where the Constitution is ambiguous, it should not be the job of the courts, but rather that of the popular branches—the legislative and the executive—to construe its meaning. (p. 90)

If his fellow scholars take Strang seriously (and they should), he might indeed move us further away from government by judiciary, and back toward the rule of law and the Constitution’s original understanding. This may be more a matter of common sense than Thomistic or Aristotelian philosophy, but in our time common sense is in short supply, and Strang’s project is a worthy one.

Books & Culture

Once Upon a Time in Conservative Hollywood

Does the world really need low-budget, right-leaning genre movies when high-budget right-leaning movies are already being made by people with exceptional talent?

The elevator pitch for “Run Hide Fight,” a film currently in production, is simple: “a 17-year-old female ‘Die Hard’ in the middle of a school shooting.” Swap out cop Bruce Willis for student Isabel May, exchange the Nakatomi Plaza in “Die Hard” for Vernon Central High School in Texas, and you have the plot.

It’s an offensive idea for a movie—and a dumb one. “Run Hide Fight,” written and directed by Kyle Rankin, is being produced by Rebeller, a new right-leaning film production company. Rebeller is the brainchild of Dallas Sonnier. Sonnier is also the founder and CEO of Cinestate, a film production, distribution, and publishing operation launched in Dallas in 2016.

According to Sonnier, Rebeller will offer films in the “outlaw cinema” category, focusing on “genres that Hollywood is ignoring and from scripts that Hollywood is too afraid to touch.”

Yet mainstream Hollywood is already producing films much more daring, and more conservative, than “Run Hide Fight.” Quentin Tarantino’s award-winning “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is the best example. It’s a subversive film that anathematizes the 1960s. It’s also stylish and smart.

Cinestate, under which Rebeller will operate, is known mostly for the films of S. Craig Zahler. Zahler’s films include the western “Bone Tomahawk,” with Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins; “Brawl in Cell Block 99” with Vince Vaughn; and noir police drama “Dragged Across Concrete” with Vaughn and Mel Gibson.

Zahler’s films, in the words of one critic, have “gotten attention for their hyperviolence and reactionary politics.” Liberals have accused Cinestate of producing films in which the heroes are all white men and the antagonists minorities. For his part, Sonnier rejects the idea that he’s pushing a Trump-savvy brand: “I didn’t even vote for the guy,” he said in an interview. “I don’t necessarily crave a conservative audience, but that may be an outcome, and it wouldn’t surprise me. I understand that audience deeply. But it’s not a mission statement.”

Risk-Averse . . . Or Decent?

“Run Hide Fight” might not be part of fulfilling any mission statement, but it’s hard to argue that it is not a conservative provocation. For years the script was passed around Hollywood studios but Rankin noted that after the Parkland, Florida school shooting in 2018, the story became “radioactive.”

“Everyone I talked to for this piece confessed to initial trepidation about the project, which scared them and still seems to scare them, despite their firm belief that it can play a positive role in the conversation,” he said. “But in an increasingly risk-averse industry, the answer was a hard ‘no.’”

Perhaps Hollywood wasn’t simply being risk-averse, but what conservatives are always demanding they be: decent.

After years of reaction a the hands of Hollywood and the media, conservatives have found footholds in journalism, publishing, and social media, but their mirth at “owning the libs” can become reductive—and in the case of “Run Hide Fight,” it has tipped into misjudgment. The poor taste sounds like the result of a late-night bull session among young attendees of a Democratic Socialists of America conference: “Hey guys, who can come up with the craziest, wildest, most offensive idea for a right-wing film, a movie that would represent not conservatism, but a parody of deplorable conservatism? How about ‘Die Hard’ set at Parkland?”

Recalling “Shadow Cinema”

The best filmmakers can analyze and criticize a culture with nuance, irony, and even subtlety.

In critic Charles Taylor’s book Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You, the author celebrates the “shadow cinema” of America after Vietnam—movies like “Prime Cut” (1972), “Vanishing Point” (1971), “Eyes of Laura Mars” (1978), “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971), “Ulzana’s Raid” (1972), “American Hot Wax” (1978), and the Pam Grier vehicles “Coffy” (1973) and “Foxy Brown” (1974).

The shadow cinema was reserved for films in the spot between greats like “The Godfather” or “The French Connection” and horrible grindhouse grunge. “For me, the staying power of these movies has to do with the way they stand in opposition to the current juvenile state of American movies,” Taylor writes. “The infantilization of American movies that began in 1977 with the unprecedented success of ‘Star Wars’ has become total. Mainstream moviemaking now caters almost exclusively to the tastes of the adolescent male fan.”

Rebeller is marketing itself as outlaw cinema, but “Run Hide Fight” seems too adolescent and predictable to be truly iconoclastic. To be sure, shadow cinema wasn’t great. Still, the films offered an ambiguity that didn’t “hold the realities of human behavior hostage to ideology.” A character could have an abortion and feel terrible about it. Films could both love and resent America and capitalism. Good guys bit the dust. In these films, Taylor found “the connection to the world, and to real-life emotions—not to mention the craft—that today’s blockbusters and remakes and churned out franchises work so hard to avoid.”

Then there is David Lynch’s 1986 film “Blue Velvet,” which combines surrealism, horror, nostalgia, and humor into a truly odd and unique package. Lynch shocked liberals when he came out as a conservative. As Variety writer Owen Gleiberman noted, “Born in Montana in 1946, he was a quintessential child of the ’50s, and he reveled in the Eisenhower era.” Lynch “was attracted to its dark underbelly, to lifting up the rock and looking at whatever was under it, but for that reason—out of that very obsession—he fetishized the safety of the surface, the square American values he’d grown up with. The reason he never rebelled, except in his art, is that he thought it was that squareness that made his inner wildness possible.”

As Lynch told Gleiberman, “I didn’t like hippies.”

From the Ridiculous to the Unoriginal

To try to combine a school shooting with a film like “Die Hard” is unoriginal and tone-deaf. “Die Hard” is not a drama that is closely analogous to real-life violence—like, say, “Saving Private Ryan.” It’s a fantasy that is enjoyable for its unreality, a ballet of mayhem that is violent, corny, ridiculous, sometimes touching, and ultimately cartoonish (the final punishment of villain Hans Gruber is right out of Wile E. Coyote). Audiences love “Die Hard” because it is so obviously fake, a celluloid carnival ride.

To attempt to commingle this high-octane dream with dead children at school shootings is not bold or rebellious. It is a base and lazy middle finger to perceived enemies. “Run Hide Fight” shares the same space if not the same politics as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, taking something sacred and dragging it down to the lowbrow

Further: does the world really need low-budget, right-leaning genre movies when high-budget right-leaning movies are already being made by people with exceptional talent?

Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a brilliant revisiting of 1960s Hollywood. Praised by everyone from the New York Times to David Bentley Hart, the film is a celebration of male friendship and the work ethic that graphically depicts a war veteran and stuntman beating senseless a member of Charles Manson’s cult.

“Once Upon a Time . . .” was nominated for five Golden Globes and will probably receive at least that many Oscar nods. As a countercountercultural statement, it’s much more rebellious than anything that has come out of Cinestate.

There’s also “Ford v. Ferrari,” a marvelous film about the American spirit and the importance of risk-taking for idiosyncratic oddballs who become champions by refusing to abide by conformist corporate culture.

Perhaps most iconoclastic is Terence Malick’s beautiful new film, “A Hidden Life,” which submerges the viewer into the mystery of love and Christian martyrdom.

A recent article revealed that the cast and crew of “Run Hide Fight” paused production for a moment of silence on November 14, when a 16-year-old gunman killed two students and himself at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California. That was a good opportunity for Sonnier to shut the film down for good.

Conservatives have never prided themselves on the idea that they have no limiting principle.

Books & Culture

‘Party of Five’ Reboot Is Pure Illegal Immigrant Propaganda

A reimagining of the popular 1990s series appears to be an exercise in bemoaning “All That’s Bad With America Under Trump.”

Remember “Party of Five”? The seminal ’90s show gave us five young siblings who struggled to keep their family together after suffering horrible tragedy. The show opens six months after a drunk driver kills their parents. The five are left to fend for themselves with the two brothers and three sisters caring for each other as they grow up facing the challenges of their teenage and young adult years.

“Party of Five” also gave us early looks at some actors who later enjoyed successful careers. Matthew Fox went on to lead the mega-hit “Lost,” while Jennifer Love Hewitt went from being a sixth-wheel love interest in “Party of Five” to star in several Hollywood films and is known worldwide as the “Ghost Whisperer” (and for being one of the nicest and most beautiful actresses of the last couple of decades).

Neve Campbell leads the successful slasher “Scream” film series. “Scream 5” has been given the greenlight and she’s in it. Lacy Chabert grew up to appear in numerous Hallmark Channel films. Considering that Hallmark can rack up more viewers than CNN now, she’s bigger than Anderson Cooper and on a bigger channel.

The point is, the ’90s “Party of Five” was a generational star-maker built on a very compelling premise. The show really didn’t need rebooting. It ran for six seasons (1994-2000) and told its story. The kids grew up. But Freeform has decided to reboot it anyway, only without the compelling tragic storyline and with lots and lots of wokeness.

Check out the trailer. It’s a 30-second lecture on “All That’s Bad With America Under Trump.” Instead of the kids being orphaned by a law breaker who drives drunk, they’re orphaned by a different kind of lawbreaker. Their parents are illegal aliens and deported by the “terror” group ICE.

Before wokescolds object to the term “illegal alien,” it’s how the federal statutes describe those who enter our country without respecting the legal immigration process that our elected representatives have approved through majority votes. We are a nation of laws, and “illegal alien” is what the laws say.

The parents’ conscious choices in the reboot directly put the kids in their predicament, but that is not the intended message. In the trailer’s opening scene, the family are in a restaurant minding their own business when a mean-faced white male in his capacity as a government ICE agent demands “papers” from the father. In clear but accented English, the father replies “I don’t have any papers.”

Cut to a montage as the ICE agents take the parents away in handcuffs, a little girl cries and Trump’s America is cruel and unjust. Cut to a court scene, where another white male who is a judge says “My hands are tied, the former ruling stands,” and slams the gavel down on their idyllic life in America. The parents must go and it’s all the fault of Trump’s xenophobic patriarchy. Not the parents who chose to break the law.

The parents could be refugees, you say. Well, there’s a system for that. If the parents went outside that system, they knowingly broke the law and put their kids in jeopardy. If they were refugees and worked within the system, they would have proof.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement service is one of our front-line agencies protecting the integrity of our country from the border inward. They protect us from cross-border diseases, ordinary criminals, drug cartels, and even terrorism.

The likes of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and others on the Left demonize these civil servants and the agency they work for. ICE is the one government agency liberals single out for canceling, simply because it enforces laws progressives don’t like.

This woke “Party of Five” sets itself up as a dreadful piece of propaganda in the age of Trump. He got elected promising a border wall to control illegal immigration. The rebooted “Party of Five” occupies the branding of an iconic ’90s show as a skin suit to bash a president they don’t like and American immigration law (which, by the way, is still far more lenient than similar laws in Mexico and many other countries).

The kids here appear to be younger than those in the original version, to make them more vulnerable and sympathetic. The mother even resembles AOC during her fake cry at a border parking lot. (By the way, Ocasio-Cortez is Puerto Rican and therefore a natural-born American citizen and not an immigrant of any kind.) The kids obviously are cast to put a face on the so-called “Dreamers,” children brought illegally to the United States by parents who made the choice to break the law to enter.

Those parents then repeatedly break laws to remain here. They may have lied to obtain work, identification or even committed identity theft to obtain driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers. Illegal entry begets other crimes and leaves the family always vulnerable, due to the choices the adults in the situation make time and time again.

These are serious issues deserving of serious treatment. Similar crimes abetted the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and several illegal aliens from Saudi Arabia were among the hijackers. They overstayed visas, making them among the most common types of illegal aliens.

Not all illegal aliens are here to work or intend to become immigrants or “Dreamers.”

If the rebooted “Party of Five” gets into any of that, it could be interesting. But it won’t. It also won’t point out that President Barack Obama deported more illegal aliens than Trump has by far.

None of these facts serve the Left’s narrative that the border is cruel and America is wicked and unjust—despite the fact that there must be some very compelling reasons so many people deliberately break the law to come here and break more laws to stay here. The new “Party of Five” will be a Wake of Woke.

Books & Culture

To Hell With These Gilded Charlatans

The hero we need doesn’t care about money or social status or celebrity. He is the true rebellious independent who actually fulfills the human potential that all of us carry.

Ricky Gervais just does not care. He delivered a scalding opening monologue at the Golden Globes on Sunday, in which he lambasted the excesses of Hollywood culture, the creative laziness of most large studios, and the hypocrisy of constant virtue signaling from a wealthy and largely out-of-touch Hollywood elite.

That Gervais’ irreverence was desperately needed in a Hollywood venue was made abundantly clear by the shocked and disgusted look on Tom Hanks’ face. These people are rarely told to go to hell. And here they were, on live television, with a British comedian doing just that. To their faces. 

What is even more remarkable is that this is not Gervais’ first time. 

When Gervais first hosted the show a decade ago, he joked about the Hollywood Foreign Press accepting bribes for Golden Globes. He didn’t care that they were technically his employers for the show. “I’m not going to do this again anyway,” he added with a smirk. He was clearly wrong. He has masterfully hosted the show four times since.

But that attitude of not caring, prominently displayed to higher degrees in each subsequent show, is precisely what makes him so powerful and successful. He is not starstruck by celebrities. He is not politicking to curry favor with the powerful producers and executives in the audience. He is not there to be Hollywood’s friend. He is there to do his job.

One of the most poignant moments came after he made a joke with the punchline that convicted sex-offender Jeffrey Epstein obviously didn’t kill himself. The crowd immediately booed.

“Shut up,” Gervais commanded, “I know he was your friend, but I don’t care.”

That was not the only time that evening that Gervais made it abundantly clear that he didn’t care what these pampered and glorified entertainers thought or how they felt. Each time he said, “I don’t care,” he was rejecting the power of an out-of-touch cultural elite and the vested corporate interests to which they have sold out.

Because ultimately, Gervais’ audience for the night was not the actors, directors, producers, and executives in that star-studded hall. His audience was the people. The people who have started souring on the garbage that their self-appointed overlords produce. The people who harbor far more populist notions than most in Hollywood would care to admit. 

Instead of taking risks to build a new culture, we are like scavengers, rapidly deconstructing the edifices our ancestors constructed.

And those people desperately wanted someone to tell the failing cultural elite to go to hell.

And that will be the standard take from most right-leaning commentators. But it goes further than that. 

Because ultimately, Gervais doesn’t care what the TV audience thinks either. He isn’t following the audience. He’s leading it. Not only is he criticizing the elite but he is also doing their job for them. And that’s what makes him just so damn charismatic.

Many believe that the American people do not want an elite. Not true. 

Most Americans do not begrudge wildly successful people—we understand that these people produce a great deal of cultural, economic, and spiritual value when they are doing their jobs properly. A good society requires some type of elite with a bright vision, a self-motivated sense of purpose, and a strong commitment to their societal responsibilities. 

A nation’s cultural elite should comprise those who are able to rise above the strong primal concerns that drive most of the public—those who effectively can raise a higher standard of principle. And while many NeverTrumpers and leftists ape principle on a daily basis, very few in our society actually have any principles beyond survival and self-interest. 

The truth is that while creative America may have sold out to corporate America, corporate America sold out to the American consumer a long time ago. And because of this, our music, films, news, products, and services iteratively have evolved into two optimizing parameters—increasing profit and decreasing risk. And unfortunately, the combination of these two goals is killing us.

We care way too much about what the consumer wants and way too little about what the consumer needs.

Instead of taking risks to build a new culture, we are like scavengers, rapidly deconstructing the edifices our ancestors constructed. That’s because yet another remake, sequel, or spinoff is guaranteed to turn a profit as the public binges for another day on memberberries.

Our music has been debased, ultimately appealing to the primal and base desires that even the most unsophisticated listener can comprehend. Instead of challenging listeners to grow through the consumption of music, we have commodified it into a carefully designed drug.

Even the public’s altruistic desires have been filtered, distilled, and packaged to be sold on social media as yet another opioid that promises to make you feel good. Just ask Colin Kaepernick how much Nike paid him for his home-brewed wokeness.

The public doesn’t want to turn into a cultural drug addicted mass. They yearn for something greater than bland materialism. They want something to believe in. But the cultural elite has turned into highly effective materialistic drug pushers. It’s hard to win a fight against an elite working hand-in-hand with the smartest neuroscientists, engineers, chemists, psychologists, and marketing professionals to make the perfect narcotic.

We all find ourselves struggling to understand what we want. What we truly want. But most of us have a sense. After all, few of us want to identify with the avaricious pragmatist, willing to compromise anything for an extra buck, or with the social climber and gossip, who carefully manipulates and politics his way through a social group. No. We’d prefer to identify with the hero who stands strong, against all odds, for what he believes.

This hero doesn’t care about money or social status. He doesn’t care what other people think. He is the true rebellious independent who actually fulfills the human potential that all of us carry. And while that life may be far more unstable, it heals the soul from the scars of a life of quiet desperation that far too many of us live.

But ultimately, this hero need not be ripped and dashing or a caped crusader punching bad guys and saving the world. At the end of the day, a cutting British comedian telling a bunch of entitled spoiled celebrities to go to hell will do just fine.

Books & Culture

The Golden Globes: A Televised Execution

An Englishman conquered America by mocking the hypocrisy, ignorance, and self-indulgence of Hollywood.

Last night, 386 miles south of San Quentin State Prison, NBC televised a “live” execution from the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California.

Outside, where twin palm trees stand like paintbrushes beneath the hotel’s logo, where a cursive, lower-cased “the” runs above the hotel’s name, where the marshmallow white exterior highlights the hotel’s red signage, where the letters engrave a giant sheet of hotel stationery, the contrast is clear. 

A monument to mid-century design rather than a mausoleum for the living dead, whose ranks include death row inmates and men with life sentences, the hotel is where Ricky Gervais committed legal homicide. 

As the host of the 77th Golden Globes Awards, he did more than kill. He fired a series of comedic missiles that destroyed all sense of calm and comity. 

An Englishman, he conquered America by mocking the hypocrisy, ignorance, and self-indulgence of Hollywood.

By refusing to have Hollywood politicize another awards show, by refusing to have the world’s richest stars propound about the globe’s gravest problems, by refusing to yield the spotlight to celebrities who crave the limelight, by refusing to surrender the stage to actors who pontificate onstage, Gervais condemned the millionaires and billionaires in the room.

He condemned Amazon, Apple, and Disney too.

He condemned his guests by laughing at them. He gave Americans the last laugh.

Books & Culture

On the Death of a Villain

“Oh, no, now there’ll be a war!”
Wails the plaintive Lefty throng
Who conveniently ignore
That there’s been one, all along—

Jihadis, at war with us
By their own eager admission—
Our policies should cover this
Pre-existing condition.

Our responses will reveal
Who’s Chamberlain-ish, or Rooseveltive:
Barry tried the art of the deal.
Trump has authored a sequel: “Dealt With.”

Books & Culture

Democrats and the Tuxedo Test

If Democrats are to retake the White House, they had better pin more than their hopes on the only candidate who looks somewhat presidential in black tie and tails.

FDR refined it, JFK romanticized it, LBJ relaxed it, Richard Nixon restored it, Ronald Reagan revered it, and Donald Trump continues to respect it—the tuxedo jacket.

If Democrats are to retake the White House, they had better pin more than their hopes on the only candidate who looks somewhat presidential in black tie and tails. That man is Joe Biden, who speaks the way Bernie Sanders looks: dazed and confused.

Put Sanders in a tuxedo—dress a socialist like a capitalist—and the candidate may as well be the emcee or guest of honor at a retirement dinner on behalf of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).

Put Pete Buttigieg in a tuxedo—dress a boy like a man—and the candidate may as well be a child magician; a quick-draw artist with flowers up his sleeve in lieu of a sleeve gun, brandishing a bouquet of paper tulips and polyester roses, while his clip-on bow tie points to the 4 o’clock position and parents check their watches.

Put Elizabeth Warren in a tuxedo—dress Sacheen Littlefeather like Marlon Brando—and the candidate may as well return to her reservation with neither a golden statuette nor a treaty to mine gold on her own land.

Given this absence of glitz, given the fact that Buttigieg campaigns without a suit jacket and Sanders looks like the spokesman for a campaign to outlaw combs; given the absence of stamina, too, as Biden’s most staged appearances are like Jerry Lewis’s worst appearances onstage—an embarrassment of gaffes—in which the star assumes a permanent smile, waving to anyone he sees and saying hello to no one he knows; given the sense that any hour may be the final hour, when Joe (or Jerry) loosens his tie and loses his inhibitions, nibbling on his wife’s finger or chewing the microphone before breaking into song, Democrats need more than a new wardrobe.

They need a new candidate, and a lot more.

Books & Culture

New Year’s Eve: Marxism-Lennonism Revisited

If you doubt that Lennonism has a powerful hold on the thinking of many Americans, consider how “Imagine” has become the more-or-less official anthem of New Year’s Eve in the United States.

The New Year’s Eve celebration at Times Square will again this year feature John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” We thought this article, first published in 2017, would be worth sharing again this year. Republishing it also affords us an opportunity to wish you a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year. Thank you for all of your support in 2019. We look forward to an even greater year in 2020. —The Editors

I have a friend who is a retired public school teacher. She is very likable and in some areas an independent thinker. One day in conversation she brought up the terrible poverty and near-anarchy that prevails just on the other side of America’s southern border. It quickly became clear that she believed America was at fault, that America’s prosperity was somehow the cause of Mexico’s problems. When I asked her what the solution might be, she replied without hesitation that we should get rid of that border, and not stop there but get rid of all borders. Then, she said, people everywhere could live in peace.

If I could capture for you precisely how she said this, you would hear as I did John Lennon’s “Imagine” forming her thoughts:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace . . .

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man.

The simplest explanation of what happened to the modern progressive Baby Boomers is that they found for themselves a new national anthem, one they like much better than that old and out-dated one that asked them to be brave if they expected to be free.

When John Kerry in a commencement speech told college graduates they will live in a borderless world, he made it clear his muddled Marxist thinking—like my friend’s—is of the Lennonist variety.

In conversations with my progressive friends, I find they see America as the problem. They place their hopes in the world beyond America’s borders. When Kerry said America needed France’s approval to conduct foreign policy, his assertion made perfect sense to Lennonists. When Bill Maher said if half the country wants Trump as president then the United Nations needs to intervene, he spoke for American Lennonists everywhere.

You have to admit that American Lennonism has a certain logic. If America is the problem, then getting rid of America’s borders is an important and even essential step toward a better world. But if America is not the problem, if America deserves to live, if there are still many Americans who want America to live, then not so much. And if getting rid of America turned out to be a mistake, it would be a mistake impossible to undo.

If you doubt that Lennonism has a powerful hold on the thinking and the imaginations of many in America, please consider this: “Imagine” has become the more-or-less official anthem played in the United States on New Year’s Eve.

I prefer “The Star-Spangled Banner.” To me, nothing expresses America’s uniqueness better than the fact that, as it is traditionally performed, America’s national anthem ends with this question:

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

That question is actually a challenge. Our national anthem issues a challenge to every generation down to our own, reminding us of our responsibility to preserve the Founders’ gift.

I’ll ask you the same question: have we kept America the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Books & Culture

A review of “No Safe Spaces” (Directed by Justin Folk, PG-13, 95 minutes, Atlas Distribution Company)

Freedom of Speech No More?

“No Safe Spaces” succeeds at its primary goal: revealing the fundamentally evil designs of our enemies. There are, however, serious flaws in this otherwise polished production.

For his work in devising a way to predict the spread of infectious diseases, physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis found himself on a list of top global thinkers in 2010. The year before that, he was ranked among the world’s most influential people, making him one of the brightest stars in the constellation of liberalism. And yet none of these ornaments of an enlightened and celebrated intellect could inoculate Christakis from a disease that has infected the public mind of late, incubated in the petri dish of academia.

“What you did was create space for violence to happen,” shouts one student in the footage of the mob that surrounded Christakis at Yale in 2015. He and his wife had held positions at the prestigious university until that fall.

Just days before he found himself facing off against his students, Christakis suggested that they did not need the university to set guidelines for appropriate Halloween costumes. With that politically incorrect opinion, Christakis invited the sword of diversity down on his neck.

A recording of the incident shows a visibly concerned Christakis standing amid a swarm of mostly nonwhite students. As they verbally flog him for having transgressed against the cult of diversity and inclusion, the professor musters the courage to utter a few trepidatious words. But he is immediately interrupted: “Be quiet!” a student screams.

According to the mob, Christakis had promised to make Yale a safe space “for all human beings,” but he fell fatally short of that lofty mark. It was his “job” to create a “place of comfort” for the students. His response to that charge is timid. “I have,” he says—to which a student, in response, shouts, “You have not done that!”

Onlookers break down in tears when Christakis refuses to plead guilty to crimes against political correctness. The professor’s place, the students say, is not to defend himself, but to absorb the full gravity of their collective grief and repent. At one point, a tall black male charges up and comes nose-to-nose with the professor.

By the end of that academic year, Christakis stepped down, and his wife followed him out the door.

This story, all but forgotten now, was given new life in “No Safe Spaces,” a documentary featuring conservative commentator Dennis Prager and comedian Adam Carolla. The aim of the film is to expose the illiberal direction that the halls of higher education have taken. The days of rage that have rocked universities across the country in recent years are well documented here.

Recall that in 2017, Berkeley was plunged into a fiery hellscape ahead of a Milo Yiannopoulos speaking event. Police barricades were furiously swept away by students, plate glass windows were shattered, explosive devices were hurled at police officers. “We need our voices heard, and if this is how it must be done,” said one Berkeley student, “then I suppose that’s what we gotta do.”

It generally escaped notice that Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin was a member of an Antifa-affiliated group, By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), on Facebook. “BAMN orchestrated the violence that shut down a scheduled lecture at UC Berkeley featuring Milo Yiannopoulos in early 2017,” according to journalist Tom Ciccotta. The message that these protests were intended to convey, as one student said, is “that under no means will we allow any of this go on anywhere near Berkeley.” Only after that message was sent did Arreguin condemn those “black-clad extremists” with whom he had associated.

The film follows Isabella Chow, a student senator at Berkeley, who found herself before the queer armies marching beneath the rainbow standard. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “the Queer Alliance Resource Center asked the student Senate to pass a bill condemning the Trump administration for considering a legal definition of gender that would require it to match a person’s sex at birth.” Chow abstained from voting based on her traditional Christian beliefs. The backlash was swift as it was predictable.

“Tonight is not about dismissing Christianity as universally toxic,” said a student of Chow’s abstention, “but about validating the experience of those at the hands of bigots who have cowardly hidden behind religion to justify their actions.” Because Chow did not compromise on her beliefs, she was declared a bigot. Because she would not bow before the outrage mob, she was condemned a coward. At Berkeley, “war is peace,” “freedom is slavery,” and “ignorance is strength.”

The Defenestration of Bret Weinstein

But things go from bad to worse when we arrive at Evergreen State College in Washington. During the spring of 2017, the little college in the woods was transformed into the national headquarters of the LGBTKGB.

For years, Evergreen has held a “Day of Absence” event, where minority students and faculty stay off campus to show just how much they contribute to the university. Around the same time that Berkeley was being torn apart by protests, the script was flipped at Evergreen: “students of color” demanded that whites stay off campus for the Day of Absence.

The change in format did not sit well with Bret Weinstein, a self-described “liberal” biology professor at the college. “There is a huge difference between a group or a coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and underappreciated roles,” Weinstein wrote in an email, “and a group encouraging another group to go away.”

“The first is a forceful call to consciousness,” he explained, “which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force and an act of oppression in and of itself.” But Weinstein’s students had, in fact, merely taken the logical step that follows consciousness: action against their white oppressors.

Weinstein’s refusal to be absent from the campus sent the student body into a rage. Campus police officers were immediately outnumbered and overwhelmed. “This group, it’s getting more and more hostile,” Stacy Brown can be heard saying on a recorded line, then the chief of police for Evergreen. “Things are escalating, two officers are not enough to engage, even if someone is being physically hurt,” she says. The film cuts to a black male cornering an elderly white woman at the college. He appears to be shouting at her, pointing his finger at her, and she can only cower against the wall.

Brown ends the call, announcing that the campus police are “disengaging”—that is, retreating.

The students at Evergreen eventually took over the administration building. They can be seen forcing their way into faculty offices, ultimately intimidating the president of the college to agree to a “meeting.”

“Prioritize people of color,” shouts a student as the kangaroo court enters session. “If you’re white and sitting down, give your seat up to a person of color.” Weinstein, of course, attended what he assumed would be his firing at the hands of students. “The food and water that was available, publicly supplied,” he said, “were for people of color.” White people were instructed to “not avail themselves of those things.” The staff and faculty had utterly lost control of the campus. “Whiteness is the most violent fucking system ever to breathe!” shouts a student to wild cheering and applause.

As Weinstein left the campus flanked by students, one among them was naïve enough to break ranks and speak to the canceled professor. The following day, a rally was held at the college. The student who talked to Weinstein was forced to read a statement in front of everyone on campus. “They effectively humiliated her in order to demonstrate that they had recaptured her in some way,” said Weinstein.

The next day, as Weinstein biked to the campus, he saw what can only be described as a checkpoint. Students appeared to be looking for him. On a bad feeling, he rode to the police station, telling officers what he thought he had just witnessed. The students “are looking for you,” an officer told him, “and what’s more, I can’t protect you; you’re not safe on campus, and you’re not safe anywhere in town on your bicycle.”

By June, Evergreen students had formed vigilante patrols to “police” the campus with baseball bats for the politically incorrect. “Credible reports protestors w/ bats roaming campus for 2 days,” Weinstein wrote in a tweet. “People hit, won’t report.”

In the aftermath of Evergreen, Weinstein warns that it would be a mistake to dismiss the incident as anomalous.

“In some ways,” he says, “Evergreen is a preview of what is coming. The fact that this is happening across so many campuses means that it is going to spread into every quadrant of society.” Eventually, these students graduate and go on to hold the levers of power in government, in large corporations, in schools. Weinstein, therefore, believes that “Evergreen is describing a future that is rapidly approaching.”

Conservative Blinders

“No Safe Spaces” succeeds at its primary goal: revealing the fundamentally evil designs of our enemies. The arc of history will be bent by them or broken over their collective knee, but they will never stop. There are, however, serious flaws in this otherwise polished production. For a start, the mainstream conservatives Prager props in the documentary have recently behaved themselves in a way consistent with how the Left operates.

After Prager says to an audience that our opponents cannot merely denounce us as “wrong,” but must paint us as “evil,” the film cuts to Ben Shapiro. Though he has styled himself a gladiator for free speech, Shapiro has developed a reputation for castigating nationalists, but refusing to debate them.

Next comes Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA, brought on by Prager as a sort of expert.

“Make no mistake, it’s not just the free speech laws and the free speech zones, but it’s the ‘culture,’” says Kirk. “This is what’s so important—it’s what is culturally allowed to be said, and not allowed to be said.” Kirk’s words ring hollow in the wake of his recent “Culture War” tour where he refused to address right-wing students during Q&A sessions on the basis of what Kirk himself thinks is “culturally allowed to be said.”

Those asking questions about demographics were charged with holding “racist” ideas. Those with queries concerning traditional marriage, morality, and values were accused of being “behind the times” by Kirk’s gay cohost, and, therefore, without “any place in the conservative movement.”

Kirk, like Shapiro, styles himself as a free speech warrior. And yet like Shapiro, Kirk has made it a habit to paint his detractors as ne’er-do-wells, going so far as to bar them from events by security. At UCLA, Kirk was booed off the stage with chants of “America First” after canceling the Q&A session to save himself the trouble of answering the tough questions that come with free speech. As journalist Sharyl Attkisson says in “No Safe Spaces,” it’s far easier to vilify a person or an idea than to debate in earnest.

There is, on the other hand, Prager’s subtle attempt to extricate liberalism from leftism throughout the film. It is not expressly stated, but nevertheless comes into view through dialogues and interviews: liberalism is separate from leftism; there is little or no connection between the two. Therefore, one cannot be blamed for the rise of the other. This has been a project of Prager’s for sometime, and arguably it has been wounded by this production.

Contradictions of Liberalism on Display

Since Evergreen, Weinstein has resumed chipping away at the foundations of the only social force with the moral and ethical framework to counteract leftism: Christianity.

“Some of history’s darkest chapters involved brutal coercion of people because they didn’t accept that ‘Jesus is the son of God,’” wrote Weinstein recently. “Assuming Christians have outgrown that inclination, they’d be wise to quit broadcasting this exclusionary claim. Seems obvious. What am I missing?”

That is, Christians must stop being Christians. Or to use Prager’s line, on preferring “clarity over agreement,” Weinstein is merely clarifying that liberalism requires that Christians dissolve Christ and adopt a secularized theology of humanism. In doing so, he sounds an awful lot like Isabella Chow’s adversaries. This hostility to Christianity—to tradition—undoubtedly played no role at Evergreen, where Weinstein “did not see a coup in the institution coming.” When his liberal colleague and spouse, Heather Heying, laments that academia seems to have been “destroyed from within,” one can only be amazed by her obliviousness.

Meanwhile, Christakis is still committed to the proposition that the liberal political project can show us the way up from “tribalism.” He still quotes Martin Luther King Jr., “that we might one day come to judge each other by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin.” But King expressly supported race-based arrangements. “If a city has a 30 percent Negro population,” said King in 1968, “then it is logical to assume that Negroes should have at least 30 percent of the jobs in any particular company, and jobs in all categories rather than only in menial areas.” If he were alive today, King would not be a card-carrying member of the Heritage Foundation.

These are the contradictions—between what is claimed by liberals and what is true—that leads the youth down the road to disillusionment. When disillusionment turns into rage, a generation emerges convinced that illiberal leftism is, paradoxically, the only answer to the impossible dreams of liberalism. But long before then, liberalism pointed the sword of criticism at the heart of society in the name of liberating the hearts and minds of men. All those “pleasing illusions” of society, as Edmund Burke wrote, “as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion” by the rationalist guns of liberalism. The crackdown on politically incorrect speech is a symptom, not the cause of this social explosion.

Before leftism, it was liberalism that counted the stripping away of traditional moral and ethical codes as victories for free speech and expression. The elimination of the Hays Code, which, whatever its flaws, attempted to establish moral guidelines for motion pictures in America, was counted as a victory for free speech by liberals. Now the Left pushes child pornography through Netflix.

Certainly, the end of blasphemy laws, which were intended to protect the very belief system on which our regime is based, came with a sigh of relief from liberals. Now the Left can cast Jesus Christ as a homosexual in film. When Americans saw fit to outlaw flag burning in 48 states—to subordinate free speech and expression to social cohesion and moral order—liberals counted it as a win when the Supreme Court overturned each and every protection statute.

All the Left has done, then, is to impose its own moral and ethical framework in the lacuna left by the victories of liberalism. Most Americans at the time of the founding, professor Barry Alan Shain notes, “believed it was the legitimate and necessary role of religious, familial, social, and governmental forces to limit, reform, and shape the sinful individual.” In other words, Americans had no qualms then against  “legislating morality” at the expense of free speech and expression.

Nor did older generations of Americans believe that moral neutrality was possible or even desirable. Those on the Right who profess this view are condemned as “reactionaries” by liberals, even as the Left forcibly imposes its own bizarro morality to limit, reform, and shape the politically incorrect individual.

What is cancel culture but the punishing of those who blaspheme against the tenets of leftism? What is the promotion of degeneracy and the vilification of traditional values in media as an industry standard, but an inverted Hays Code? The Left even has the power to prohibit the destruction of its preferred flag. An Iowa man was recently sentenced to 16 years in prison for burning a gay pride flag.

Though the documentary ends on a high note of Prager conducting an orchestra, nothing in the film, or that has happened since its release, indicates that Weinstein’s forecast has been changed. So far as we have seen, mainstream conservatives are not up battling the Left, and seem more concerned with gatekeeping the Right. Liberals remain oblivious or in denial of their role in radicalizing a generation. Who could really believe that the future of civilization rests on the job security of Weinstein, Peterson, and Christakis?

Liberals have not only disillusioned the Left, but a generation of right-wing dissidents who see in them the hands from which the moral order has slipped.

Books & Culture

A review of “The Two Popes” (Directed by Fernando Meirelles, PG-13, 129 minutes, Netflix.)

The Simplistic Hero and Villain of ‘The Two Popes’

The film really isn’t about the two popes, but about one—Francis. Benedict is only used as a vehicle and a way to portray Francis as the savior of the Catholic Church.

It is no secret that our mainstream culture no longer seems to understand or value religion. Most depictions or attempts to explain it are reduced to mere sentimentality, and this is particularly true whenever there is a liberal treatment of Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism. It isn’t only the simplistic emotionalism of the artists grappling with the material that is the problem but also their urge to reduce religion to political doctrines that are inevitably (and wrongly!) connected to various secular ideologies. This analysis encapsulates the main issue with the new film, “The Two Popes” (2019), available now on Netflix.

Directed by Fernando Meirelles, who is known for such films as, “City of God” (2002) and “The Constant Gardener” (2005), “The Two Popes” aims to present two different theological and spiritual approaches to the papacy. Meirelles directs a script written by Anthony McCarten, which presents a series of dialogues between Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). The time during which the film takes place is divided into three parts: the death in 2005 of the pontiff Saint John Paul II, the subsequent election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, and Benedict’s resignation and the election of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio as Pope Francis.

The film’s opening titles tell us that what follows was inspired by true events. This is a correct statement in one sense only—the actual existence of two men known as Benedict XVI and Francis. Almost all of the scenes (especially dialogues between the two popes) are made up in more ways than one. I was hardly surprised to see Ratzinger portrayed in a negative light, whereas Bergoglio is presented as the savior of mater ecclesia. Ratzinger is portrayed as a dull, dry theologian and academic, who doesn’t smile and has no clue how to connect with people. He doesn’t know about popular music, wants to converse only in Latin, and what’s worse, he doesn’t like soccer!

“You’re very popular,” says Ratzinger to Bergoglio.

“I just try to be myself,” says Bergoglio humbly.

“Whenever I try to be myself, people don’t seem to like me very much,” Ratzinger replies in a way that suggests childish envy. This alone is enough to make the viewer skeptical, as if someone like Ratzinger would suffer from such a psychological ailment, and even if he did, we have no actual evidence of it.

By contrast, Bergoglio is more social, knows how to connect with people, his Argentinian community calls him Jorge, he knows how to tango, is very affectionate, has a great sense of humor, doesn’t like the pomp of the Catholic Church, and dresses in modest clerical garb, not to mention, he wears simple, plain, black shoes. Ratzinger, by contrast, wears those darn red shoes, which are too ostentatious and conspicuous.

None of these details is on its face untrue. Ratzinger is more reserved, his charism is more theological than pastoral, and it is expressed in his gift for beautiful philosophical and theological expression in the myriad of books he has written over the decades. Bergoglio does seem more outgoing and easy going, which of course, is what people like. The issue in the film is that the writer, McCarten, defines the Catholic Church on the basis of these two popes’ personalities rather than doctrine. It is as if McCarten is saying that unless a pope can have a beer with the people, he’s not worthy of being a pope. We need a pope who is fun, not some stodgy German, who talks about theology all day long!

The filmmakers take a huge liberty by suggesting that Bergoglio met with Benedict in 2012 to ask for his resignation, which never happened. On top of it, the events are completely fictional in the assertion that Benedict confided in Bergoglio about his spiritual struggles and how he no longer wishes to “play this role” of Pope.

All of this could be forgiven but what makes the film particularly irritating and anger-inducing is when the two men confess sins to each other. Bergoglio confesses his failure to give support to his fellow Jesuits during the political unrest and violence in Argentina in the 1970s. Ratzinger, by turn, becomes visibly angry when he begins to confess his own sins, but we never know what they are. The voice is drowned out and we cannot hear what he is saying. We are only left with with a picture of Bergoglio demonstrating visible shock on his face. As the sound begins to return, we get a glimpse of what Ratzinger may have been talking about, namely the sexual abuse of boys enacted by Marcial Maciel, a founder of Legionaries of Christ. The weird part is that Bergoglio simply stands up and begins to blame Ratzinger for the alleged neglect in addressing this situation. No ordained priest would do such a thing. Rather, he would absolve the penitent of his sins.

This fiction that Ratzinger never did anything to address the sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is absurd. As a prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, he changed the canon law practices and procedures, which made it possible to remove the priests who were abusing children and seminarians. As Benedict XVI, Ratzinger has met with victims of sexual abuse, and Francis has never done that. Not only that, but Francis has never addressed the accusation of Archbishop Vigano or the cover ups and defenses of many cardinals, most notably, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick who engaged in decades-long abuse of seminarians.

The fact that most of the events in the film are simply untrue renders the aesthetic analysis of the film almost impossible. Meirelles creates a beautiful cinematic effect and the photography is reminiscent of his wonderfully brutal and mystical, “The Constant Gardener.” But given the fact that the script is nothing but lies, all that cinematic mysticism is useless and empty. It is nothing more than a piece of propaganda that underscores the narrative of “Benedict Bad, Francis Good.” As such, the performances of such brilliant actors—Hopkins and Pryce—are drowned out, much like that phony confession of Benedict. Both actors are only working with what they are given, namely an incredibly simplistic, two-dimensional, and untrue script.

The film really isn’t about the two popes, but about one—Francis. Benedict is only used as a vehicle and a way to portray Francis as the savior of the Catholic Church. Even the election of Francis is met with applause by the entire college of Cardinals, as opposed to the ominous and reluctant election of Benedict. Francis is a hero and Benedict is a villain, as if both men are in a pseudo-theological cartoon—cheap and silly drawings in a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet or Jack Chick fundamentalist comics.

In the hands of a serious filmmaker or student of theology, the subject matter of this film might have been a truly fruitful exploration. There are certainly political implications inherent in any papacy and the doctrinal distinctions between Benedict and Francis are multi-faceted subjects that touch not only on the meaning of organized religion, but most importantly on questions of faith and love. As Benedict XVI writes in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, “God’s love is fundamental for our lives, and it raises important questions about who God is and who we are.”

At the core of the Christian faith is an encounter, both with Christ and with people. Encounter also involves a continuous presence of dialogue with God and His people. In his book, The Nature and Mission of Theology: Essays to Orient Theology in Today’s Debates (1993), Ratzinger writes that the “first element” of any dialogue is “listening.” This is because

What takes place is an event of opening, of becoming open to the reality of other things and people. We need to realize what an art it is to be able to listen attentively. Listening is not a skill, like working a machine, but a capacity simply to be which puts in requisition the whole person. To listen means to know and acknowledge another and to allow him to step into the realm of one’s own “I.”

Sadly, the makers of The Two Popes did not understand the metaphysical aspect of an encounter. They did not listen. If they did, their film would have been a very different one—perhaps one that is concerned with the interior lives both of Benedict and Francis. It would have shown the papacy and the priesthood as a vocation, and not a battle of competing two-dimensional personalities. Most importantly, it would have shown the meaning of faith.

Books & Culture

A review of “Richard Jewell” (Directed by Clint Eastwood, R, 131 minutes, Warner Bros.)

Clint Eastwood Portrays the American Greatness of Ordinary Americans

Eastwood’s project of demonstrating the greatness in the American character is again exemplified in “Richard Jewell.”

Something really interesting is happening at Malpaso Productions, Clint Eastwood’s movie production company. Eastwood’s films, especially in recent years, portray the best in the American character through real stories of ordinary Americans called by events to stand up and shine. In his latest, “Richard Jewell,” Eastwood continues exploring a theme I’ve called “American Greatness in the Shadow of 9/11.” The result is a body of work that is awe-inspiring and unlike anything we have seen before in American cinema.

His subject is the American hero in the still unfamiliar new world that emerged after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Eastwood’s theme is made quite clear in “Sully.” The film tells the story of “the Miracle on the Hudson.” On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and co-pilot Jeff Skiles managed to do the impossible. U.S. Airways Flight 1549 from New York’s La Guardia Airport slammed into a flock of geese right after takeoff, causing both engines to fail. The successful water landing on the river next to Manhattan saved the lives of all 155 people on board—and averted another disaster for the city similar to the one on 9/11.

The 9/11 attacks are evoked subtly throughout the film, and the very first moments brilliantly establish the connection between 1/15/09 and 9/11/01.

“Sully” tells the story of a miracle, and is itself a kind of cinematic miracle. This is filmmaking at its best. Like Sully Sullenberger managing to do the impossible, Clint Eastwood manages to do what most directors won’t even attempt because it is simply too difficult. He tells a story we all know, tells it as it actually happened, and succeeds in making a great film. He even makes a film in Hollywood that celebrates America!

In “American Sniper” he tells the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper in the film, saved countless lives, and became a legend among U.S. forces. That made him a prime target of the enemy, placing him in greater and greater danger through four tours of duty in Iraq, only to be murdered at home in America by someone he was trying to help.

Like Sullenberger, Kyle’s astonishing skill puts him far beyond the ordinary. Yet, in keeping with our theme of American greatness, the film is not titled “The Chris Kyle Story.” It is, the title tells us, the story of an American sniper, told with the brilliance we have come to expect from Eastwood.

“The 15:17 To Paris” tells another well-known true story of American greatness. Three young Americans on vacation in Europe subdue a jihadist on a speeding train, saving everyone on board. Once again, we are in the shadow of 9/11. “15:17” has elements of the story of United Flight 93 on 9/11 when a heroic band of Americans on board rushed the jihadis who had taken over the airplane.

In working through the theme of American greatness, Eastwood shows us that we cannot simply rely on our Sully Sullenbergers and Chris Kyles. In the end, American greatness has to come down to you, and me, and the American who lives next door or is in the seat next to us.

There are some very interesting differences between “15:17” on the one hand and “Sully” and “American Sniper” on the other. Sully and Kyle are heroic men with extraordinary abilities—and they are played by movie stars. The three Americans in “15:17,” Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and especially Spencer Stone, who displayed astonishing bravery and survived miraculously, are American heroes, yet they are also the boys next door in your hometown—and they portray themselves in the film.

As I wrote before about that casting decision, “You have to work up to a thing like that.”

Where to go from there? “Richard Jewell” is Eastwood’s answer. Here Eastwood rises to the challenge of making a great film by again telling a true story we all know, and recounting it as it actually happened—but this time he makes it the story of an American hero who does not look or talk like our image of a hero and who, as a result, is not treated like one.

Richard Jewell was the American security guard who saved thousands of lives from a terrorist bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The FBI tried to pin the crime on Jewell and the press disgraced itself by running with the story that Jewell was the bomber.

While it is true that the master manipulators of political correctness are going all out to convince you that you don’t want to see “Richard Jewel”—all the evidence any sensible person should need to convince one that he does want to see it—I believe some people are challenged by the film because the central character is not played by an actor like Tom Hanks or Bradley Cooper. Don’t let that keep you from seeing this great film. Jewell can’t be played by a dashing Hollywood type, and he is played brilliantly by Paul Walter Hauser in a once-in-a-lifetime great role. (As always, Eastwood gets great performances out of every member of the cast.)

“Richard Jewell” is film-making at its very best. Go see it. And you might also want to see the other films in this American Greatness series. They are all worth seeing again.

Books & Culture

Mary, Didja Know?

 Did the Holy Mother realize how politicized her journey to Bethlehem would become?

Mary, didja know
How your journey, would be politicized?
Mary, did you know
How dumb it would get—or have you been surprised?
Didja know
SJW’s would howl outrageously,
At any public ref’rence,  to the Lord’s nativity . . . ?

Mary, didja know
How your foes would attempt to hijack the stable?
How they’d reframe the manger,
Their agendas to enable?
Didja know
How they’d preen themselves, with unselfconscious pride—
King Herod’s heirs—the justifiers of infanticide?

Mary, didja know?
No, surely not, for Gabriel stayed on topic.
Christian, just say “no”
To the provocations; don’t become myopic—
For we know
That when ancient wise men to the manger came,
They found peace past understanding—and we may do the same.

This we know.

Books & Culture

This article was published originally on December 24, 2017.

I Heard the Bells
on Christmas Day

The musical adaptation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Christmas Bells,” is gorgeous. But it isn’t really about Christmas.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” has become a holiday standard. It’s been sung by Bing Crosby, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, and Burl Ives to name only a few. The problem is, it’s not a Christmas carol.

The song is a musical adaptation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Christmas Bells.” The poem is beautiful, haunting, and dissonant. It is full of mournful reverence that can leave the reader breathless.

Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1863. The country that he loved was being ripped apart by the Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest three days in American history, had taken place only six months prior. Lincoln had delivered the Gettysburg Address just a month earlier. On top of this, Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, had recently died tragically in a fire and his oldest son, Charles, had been badly wounded on November 27. As he wrote to a friend, “I have been through a great deal of trouble and anxiety.”

The result was one of his most intimate poems.

Still, this wonderful poem is not about Christmas. It does not point to the incarnation or the imminent propitiatory sacrifice for sin that makes Christmas joyful. It is a requiem for a sundered nation, a lost wife, and a wounded son. But even so, it concludes with a note of hope. Longfellow’s wife was gone, but his son recovered, and eventually, the war ended and the union was restored.

In spite of its title, “Christmas Bells” is better read on July 4 than on December 25. It’s personal, powerful, and profoundly American. So next summer when you’re thinking about the Founding, try and remember Longfellow’s poem.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Books & Culture

A ‘Christmas Carol’
For Our Times

Retreat to your chamber and pray. Come forth and join your even-Christians in prayer and song. Let your eyes shine with the vision of a wonder that the world does not know.

I have heard it said that Charles Dickens, by his famous novella about the miserly buyer of bad debts who is visited by a series of ghosts and who consequently learns to open his heart and his purse, “invented” Christmas for us speakers of English. That is how we have ended up with a holiday spree of buying and giving, all under the wink of that confidence man in the red suit. The film “Scrooge” put the two motifs together, so that we see Albert Finney as Santa, tossing out monetary largesse to all and some.

Ho, ho, ho, Murry Krismuss.

Of course, it is all nonsense. Englishmen had been celebrating the twelve days of Christmas, building up to the feast of the Epiphany, for many centuries. Many of our best-loved carols come from the Middle Ages. Dickens for his part was centrally concerned, in A Christmas Carol, with the gospels, as he was throughout his novels. “And he took a little child and set him in their midst”—that is the verse Peter Cratchit is reading to his smaller siblings when Scrooge sees them in the prospective future, while Tiny Tim’s crutches and brace are preserved lovingly in one corner of the poor room. “Unless ye become as little children,” said Jesus, “ye shall not enter the kingdom of God.” That is what happens to Scrooge, who awakes from his adventures and does not know what day it is. “I don’t know anything at all,” says he. “I am quite a baby!”

Still, there is something to that notion of a reinvented or dismantled Christmas. We say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas,” having forgotten that a holiday is or used to be a holy day. Americans have no American “holy days” anymore, only long weekends, and that is both a symptom and a continuing cause of their loss of identity as a people. Christians have sometimes responded, as far as Krismuss is concerned, by saying that we should put Christ back in it, and remember that he is the “reason for the season.” The jingle is jarring. We might as well remember that he is the reason for the treason, in that we sin against him all the time: we are Herod the murderer of infants, Caiaphas the Machiavellian politician, Judas the false friend, Pilate the hand-washer, and Peter the denier. The swaddling bands will be the shroud, the stable or cave will be the tomb.

Or we might think of the tail end of Krismuss, and say that we should put the Mass back in it. I am a Roman Catholic, and I will be attending Mass on Christmas day with my family. But I mean Mass here in a broader sense: the coming-together of Christian believers to give thanks and praise to God, and to beg from him the grace to clear the darkness from our eyes, and to soften the hardness of our hearts.

I mean that if we say, “We remember that Christmas is about Christ, unlike these late-stage pagans, hunters and hunted, harried from shop to shop,” we too have missed the holiness of the night. Christ did not come among us because we were good. He did not search for the automobile with the most sincere bumper stickers.

He came among us because we were bad: benighted, lost, ever wandering yet not advancing one step toward the light. Says the poet Herbert, in “Christmas”:

O thou, whose glorious yet contracted light,
Wrapped in night’s mantle, stole into a manger,
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To man of all beasts be thou not a stranger:

Furnish and deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging than a rack, or grave.

C. S. Lewis gives us a brilliant way to consider a world without the holy day: it is always winter, and never Christmas. So we have songs about the wonders of snow and ice, to be heard on the radio in Honolulu as well as in Anchorage; and we worry about the retreating of the glaciers, but neglect the weather of our circumpolar hearts. For a while we smile along, flashing teeth made bright with titanium dioxide, and crooning “Santa Baby,” or something. A time for family, we tell ourselves, putting out of our minds the truth, that for many, the family business makes the un-holiday a site of intense pain, but producing no remorse, since we have banished the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.

As there is nothing more lonely than to be at a loud party where nobody is genuinely interested in anybody else, so there may be nothing more dispiriting than Krismuss. Put it out, dear reader. Retreat to your chamber and pray. Come forth and join your even-Christians in prayer and song. Let your eyes shine with the vision of a wonder that the world does not know. Remember the holy day, to keep it holy. Let Christmas be like a door thrown open into solemnity and joy.

Enter it, and beckon others to enter, too.

Books & Culture

Tom Wolfe’s Bad Blood

Remembering the “Man in White” as an American prophet.

On May 14, 2018, the irreplaceable chronicler of postmodern and post-millennial American decadence, Tom Wolfe, slipped from this world into the next. One of the master craftsmen of “Gonzo journalism,” or what Wolfe himself would call in his 1973 collection of the same name, The New Journalism,

Wolfe, like his more radical journalistic counterpart in the Aquarian age, Hunter S. Thompson, perfected the art of the late 20th century American cultural polaroid. With his keen nose for everyday America with its queer combination of eccentric debauchery and straight laced WASPishness, Tom Wolfe was adroitly able, in both his works of nonfiction as well as his novels, to provide America with a blurred but smartly correct snapshot of herself as a country.

Like Thompson, Wolfe began his journalistic career seemingly as a man of the New Left, inserting himself within the new countercultural movement. While the left-wing (but ardently pro-Second Amendment) Thompson was embedded with the Hell’s Angels, narrowly escaping with his life with a collage of odd stories for 1966’s Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, Wolfe was hanging out with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters recording tales of drug cocktails and wild road trips to Mexico for his first great nonfiction work The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test (1968).

Unlike Thompson, however, Wolfe was more of a fly on the wall, curiously chronicling the large scale temper tantrum by 1960s’ radicals against the newly air conditioned stuffiness of Eisenhower Era into which they were born. Having “been there” himself, Wolfe became keenly aware that the counterculture and social revolution of the 60s was marked more by hypocrisy, hatred, and self-indulgence than by “peace, love, and happiness.”

Unfortunately, although smart enough to realize the revolution did not go as planned, Hunter S. Thompson never left his acid trip and committed suicide in 2005, while Wolfe, not quite raging “against the dying of the light,” was able to mellow and lived until 88 years of age. Moreover, while Thompson maintained a fierce and wild, albeit reclusive persona holed up in his compound in Colorado, Wolfe played the part of the genteel WASPish defender of morals—albeit himself marked by the definitively American Puritanical hypocrisy.

One of Wolfe’s central preoccupations was Americanness and the strange ability of the United States to assimilate various disparate ethnicities and hold them in a shared tension. Wolfe felt at home as an American and among Americans regardless of their ethnicity or religious background even and perhaps especially when these ethnic groups clashed and bumped against one another in struggles for both social justice and political power.

In his first novel, 1987’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (originally released as magazine serial in Rolling Stone à la Charles Dickens), Wolfe depicts the rattle of “Master of the Universe,” WASPs, ethnic Catholics, Jews, and black Americans amidst the roar of Wall Street in the shadow of the capital-friendly Reagan administration. In the book, Irish Catholic policemen proudly adopting the appellation “harps” and “donkeys” (due to their dedication to hard work) share a deeply divided but nonetheless deeply American New York City with “Saturday do-it-yourselfers” middle class whites, as well as “Wasp charity-ballers sitting on … mounds of inherited money.” These words, coming from the mouth of a corrupt, wily black preacher named Reverend Reginald Bacon, who is modeled on Al Sharpton, are meant, from the hand of the puckish Tom Wolfe, more in good humor than in malice toward wealthy WASPs, a coterie of which Wolfe himself was proudly a member.

There is another wild pontification from Reverend Bacon, which came back to haunt Wolfe in his last novel. As a way of threatening the mayor, Reverend Bacon catalogues the post 1965 Immigration Act demographic changes that had transformed New York’s boroughs even as early as the 1980s:

It’s the Third World down there! Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Columbians, Hondurans, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Filipinos, Albanians, Senegalese, and Afro-Americans! Go visit the frontiers, you gutless wonders! Morningside Heights, St. Nicholas Park, Washington Heights, Fort Tryon—por qué pagar más! The Bronx—the Bronx is finished for you! Riverdale is just a little Freeport up there! Pelham Parkway—keep the corridor open to Westchester! Brooklyn—your Brooklyn is no more! Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope—little Hong Kongs, that’s all! And Queens! Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Hollis, Jamaica, Ozone Park—whose is it? Do you know? And where does that leave Ridgewood, Bayside, and Forest Hills? Have you ever thought about that! And Staten Island!

Amidst all this bluster in which a preacher’s training has been harvested for the sacred cause of identity politics, Wolfe gives us a glimpse into the future of America, a future that Wolfe himself was only able to peer into for much of his life. As Wolfe correctly notes, this new immigrant grouping would provide a ready supply of votes for the Democratic Party and would elect officials who would end up transforming the Democrats from the party of labor to the part of identity politics—Reverend Bacon boasts that soon there will be a “Reverend Bacon for mayor, and a City Council and a board of Estimate with a bunch of reverend Bacons from one end of the chamber to the other!”

Reverend Bacon’s threats did not immediately come to fruition as the demographic and social milieu of New York and other major American cities went through various stages of white flight, immigration, and emigration as well as the unexpected (at least in the 80s) process of gentrification. Nonetheless, the world of increasing ethnic diversity and subsequent ethnic tensions that Tom Wolfe’s Reverend Bacon prophesized did slowly begin to materialize and take shape in the United States.

A Man in Full, Wolfe’s magisterial 1998 chronicle the of the tremendous turnover and boom that affected Atlanta after the 1996 Summer Olympics is fundamentally about how a mushrooming Southern city, nicknamed “Chocolate Mecca,” was able to hold together both blacks and whites. In one of the more humorous and brilliant portions of the novel (and there are plenty), the Afro-Centric mayor explains to his fraternity brother the more naïve and gentle Roger “Too White” White II the structure of late 20th century Atlanta politics. After asking Roger if he has ever unraveled a baseball, Mayor Jordan expounds:

It’s not a particularly illuminating exercise, but I used to enjoy doing it when I was ten or eleven years old. After you take the white horsehide cover off, you come across a ball of white string, or it’s like string. There about a while of the stuff, once you start unraveling it, all this white string. Finally you get down to the core, which is black, a small hard black rubber ball. Well, that’s Atlanta. The hard core, if we’re talking politics, are the 280,000 black folks in South Atlanta. They, or their votes control the city itself. Wrapped all around them, like all that white string, are three million white people in North Atlanta and all those counties, Cobb, Dekalb, Gwinnett, Forsyth, Cherokee, Paulding…

This memorable passage encapsulates the genius of Tom Wolfe and his ability to place a stethoscope on the beating heart of 20th century America. Despite his much publicized feuds with left wing race hustlers like Al Sharpton, Tom Wolfe had a profound feel for the pulse black of America and black Americans, who, no matter how liberal nonetheless, being American, use the typically American method of narrative yarn spinning with sports tales—especially baseball stories (interestingly, one of the many very awkward elements of Barack Obama’s presidency was his inability to use baseball metaphors).

The Atlanta of 1998 just like the America of 1998 slowly has begun to fade away. In the 21st century Atlanta is no longer a black and white city or a Protestant City with prominent Catholic and Jewish elements, but rather, for better or worse, a truly global city with the attendant benefits and downsides of being a microcosm of the diversity of the world itself.

In Wolfe’s last novel and 2012 swan song, Back to Blood, the “man in white” attempts to grasp this new “post-American” America by crafting a portrait of one of the many microcosms of possible American futures: Miami, Florida. Back to Blood was released during the waning halcyon days of the Obama Administration when the hope for a “More Perfect Union” for America had been shaken by a president whose promises of healthcare for all, initiating world peace, and of bringing about a racial harmony ultimately proved to be hollow.

Although championed (and scorned) by its critics as a book about the racial fragmentation of America, Back to Blood is not so much a novel about race, as it is a book about the decadence and simmering decline of a city that is too vital and too preoccupied with money-making and pleasure (like much of America) to attend to its social issues, which, in the end, as is evident in so much of Wolfe’s writing, may not be as bad as liberals think.

Set in red hot Miami, one of the first global American cities in which the demographic tipping point has been reached—making it into a “minority-majority city”—Back to Blood is woven from the tapestry of a host of lives drawn from multiple echelons of Miami life. There is a bittersweetness to Back to Blood that is reflective of the ironic bittersweetness of the Obama era. On the surface the remnants of the liberal WASP establishment were still honeymooning in the glory days of electing the first black president. The denizens of the haute bourgeois New Left, whom Wolfe himself had so brilliantly lampooned in the 1970 masterpiece Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers, had finally obtained the radical Puritan turned Yankee dream of creating a new Jerusalem of equality upon earth. Outside of the book’s black and rough and tumble working class white characters, Wolfe feels most home among the haut culture WASPs with whom we begin the novel.

At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to Ed and Mac Topping, two Gen X Anglos living out of place in the Spanish speaking Floridian port city. The prologue, “We een Mee-AH-mee Now,” is typical Tom Wolfe and is a brilliant exposé of the well-mannered left-leaning WASPs who are nervously but humorously unaware of how much America had indeed changed.

Ed, or Edward Topping V, editor of the dwindling English edition of the Miami Herald is being chauffeured by his wife Mac in a “ ludicrously cramped” “Mitsubishi Green Elf Hybrid,” an odd little car that only white people would be foolish enough to buy, on their way to Balzac’s restaurant to meet “six Anglos, real Anglos like themselves, American Protestant Anglos . . . ” for dinner.

In search of the great symbol of anxious American restlessness, the parking spot, Mac is cut off by a “beautiful . . . stylish, chic, and rich” Latina driving a “Ferrari 403” who steals the spot. Mac’s rational Northern European appeals to “manners” and honesty do not seem to work, nor does her WASPish appeal to the force of Americanization work. Mac shouts, “SPEAK ENGLISH, YOU PATHETIC IDIOT! YOU’RE IN AMERICA NOW! SPEAK ENGLISH!”

The sassy Latina, well aware that Miami is no longer White Anglo Saxon Protestant Country—nor has it been for quite some time—lets Mac know the bitter truth in tortured Spanglish, “We een Mee-ah-mee now! You een Mee-ah-mee now!”

Mac and even Ed all but disappear for most of the novel, like “the dying genus” of Wolfe’s satirical phrasing, they represent taking a back seat as the primary WASP protagonist, the dapper Yalie gumshoe reporter John Smith, who functions as a much younger version of one of the grandfathers of bloodhound “Gonzo journalism,” Tom Wolfe himself.

However, Miami of 2012 is not the Haight Ashbury of 1968 or even 1984 pinstriped New York City. Miami, in Back to Blood is a world in which Tom Wolfe, for the first time in his career, appears out of place.

As a profound symbol of the new America represented by Miami, Wolfe introduces the book’s character, the muscular and macho but ultimately sheepish and kind hearted Cuban American police officer Nestor Comancho who is uneasily working with two apparently Irish American relics of another world of big city American law enforcement, the simply named “Kite” and “McCorkle,” members of the Miami PD, on whose appearance Nestor revealingly comments, “The blond ones!—with blue eyes!—they made you think americanos in spite yourself.”

This brief reflection touches on one of the central themes of Black to Blood, which itself is a reflection on the wider early 21st century political climate in America in which many (or at least some) of the new Americans feel awkwardly American while the older American immigrants themselves feel awkwardly out of place.

While (almost) mastering the minds of Northerners and Southerners, Christians and Jews, Irish and black Americans, Wolfe—though never failing to be insightful—seems slightly out of place in mapping the thoughts of a working class Cubano. Nestor, to whom Wolfe refers as the “Knight of Hialeah” in homage to Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote, is a profound symbol not only of the new Americans but also of the madcap world of the new America. Nestor’s Quixotic quests in the Obama era world of Miami involve an arrest of an illegal immigrant from Cuba, which earns him the scorn of his family and fellow Cubans; tussles with an on again, off again girlfriend aptly named Magdalena; a fight in a crack house that risks sparking a race riot; as well as the take down of an international Russian art forging operation.

Wolfe is more at home detailing the tortured love lives of Jewish billionaire snowbirds as well as the typically American machismo of the black chief of police chief who ultimately is forced to defend Nestor from the Cuban-American mayor looking for a fall guy. It is in this terrain of earlier generations of Americans that Wolfe feels most at home, both in his satirical as well as his (little discussed) deeply humanistic love of everyday Americans and their often humorous foibles. At the same time, there is a sense of moral and almost theological urgency and uneasiness in Black to Blood that is uncharacteristic of Wolfe’s other works.

In addition to awkwardly waging a cold cultural war via the polyglot press and engaging in odd power plays during tense office situations as well as in scuffles in the street, the primary manner in which these disparate people interact in the novel is via a host of ultimately unsatisfactory love affairs. In addition to a rocky romance with Nestor, Magdalena dates the manipulative sex therapist Norman Lewis whom she leaves for a tryst with the scary but alluring Russian oligarch Sergei Korolyvov. Indeed, perhaps more than any of Wolfe’s other works, Back to Blood is saturated with the strip clubs, wild parties, and risqué cinema that define Vice City in the minds of so many Americans.

At the same time, rather than being a celebration of the flesh or even a moralizing rebuke to post-”Summer of Love” America, Back to Blood, slightly in the vein of American existentialist novels like those of Walker Percy, poses a deep question about the meaning and purpose of America that transcends the confines of culture or identity.

The novel ends with Nestor dialing a phone number and announcing to a yet unnamed interlocutor, “Well, I have some good news. The Chief gave me my badge and my revolver back. I’m reinstated; I’m a real cop again.” The reader, of course, thinks that this modern day Cubano Don Quixote will return to Magdalena, his dulcinea from Little Havana.

However, we learn in the closing of the novel that it is Ghilsaine, the café au lait daughter of the Francophile Haitian Professor Lantier, who announces with some hesitation and exaggeration, “That’s…so…wonderful…”

Wolfe’s phrasing here suggests to us that this will be yet another postmillennial cross-cultural fling and temporary “hook up” in the great and unhappy tropical melting pot of Miami. This deflating and perhaps disappointing satirical irony, which, despite being counterbalanced with hints of the almost Christian morality that mark much of Wolfe’s work is less satisfying in Back to Blood than it is in his other novels.

While his 2004 lampoon of the outrageous debauchery of 21st-century college life, I Am Charlotte Simmons—which makes John Landis’s wild celebration of college life in “Animal House” (1978) seem tame in comparison—presented the possibility that all the frat boyish hedonism would end (or at least taper out) after graduation, Back to Blood leaves the reader with the uneasy feeling that some deeper moral foundation is needed to shore up a country worn out by material excess and singed by burning ethnic tension.

Admittedly, Tom Wolfe will not be remembered as a “world historical” or epoch-forming American novelist like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Herman Melville, but he will be remembered as a great American novelist precisely because he was able to snapshot the greatness of America, a greatness that is inseparable from the at times rough coarseness of America—a fact that Wolfe, a high brow writer of middle brow literature, encapsulated in his own life and work, and throughout his career, Tom Wolfe showed us that it just may be possible in this big country for disparate tribes to maintain a consonant peace as Americans.

Books & Culture

Clint Eastwood Ahead of the Curve on the FBI

Sharp-eyed viewers will catch the foundational message of “Richard Jewell” in the caption on a poster hanging on the wall in a defense attorney’s office: “The government scares me more than terrorists.”

From Spaghetti Westerns to Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood has carved out an image as the righter of wrongs, settling scores and protecting the innocent. In Eastwood’s latest outing as a director, “Richard Jewell,” he’s protecting us from our protectors.

Twenty years before Carter Page there was Richard Jewell.

Jewell’s all-too-true story serves as a cautionary tale about the FBI’s casual abuse of power, and also as a not so esoteric commentary on the “Crossfire Hurricane” debacle.

Paul Walter Hauser plays Jewell, the security guard originally lauded as a hero for discovering pipe bombs that killed two and injured over 100 others in Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics.

Within three days, the FBI had fingered Jewell as its prime suspect. The real culprit was captured six years and several bombings later.

Sam Rockwell plays G. Watson Bryant, Jewell’s lawyer and long-time friend. Jon Hamm plays the imperious FBI agent who led the investigation.

There are those who would believe a few bad apples were responsible for the monstrous abuses we see in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and presidency.

But watching “Richard Jewell” makes one wonder if there’s not a manual of sleazy practices passed down inside the bureau since the days of J. Edgar Hoover. We see how the FBI played the same dirty tricks on Jewell that it used on Carter Page, Michael Flynn, and the rest.

The bureau chose Jewell as its target based on the flimsiest of evidence: A profiler decided Jewell was a law enforcement wannabe who planted the bomb so he could get attention for having discovered it—the “profile” of a lone bomber. Confirmation bias took over, and investigators distorted everything to fit their pre-ordained conclusion.

The parallels between Jewell, Page, and the others caught up in the Trump investigation don’t end there.

Just as the FBI did with Flynn in January 2017, agents used a false pretext when they interviewed Jewell.

They told Flynn he didn’t need a lawyer for what was a routine interview when in fact they were gathering evidence for their Crossfire Hurricane con job.

They told Jewell they wanted him to be in a training video about bomb detection they were making. “For the sake of authenticity,” they then asked him to sign away his constitutional rights to have a lawyer present “since this is how we’d actually do it with a real suspect.”

A Justice Department internal investigation later said the deception was ”a major error in judgment” but concluded there was “no intentional violation of Mr. Jewell’s civil rights and no criminal misconduct” by the FBI agents. (Emphasis added.) No intent, no bias, no criminal wrongdoing. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The worst the agents faced was a temporary suspension or letter of reprimand. As Senator John Kennedy (R-La.) said, it’s “easier to divorce your spouse” than to get fired from the FBI.

Agents wired Jewell’s friends and sent them in to record “friendly” conversations with their target. They also ignored exculpatory evidence, just as Inspector General Michael Horowitz found they did with Carter Page.

They conducted highly visible searches of his home while the media watched, akin to the televised raid of Roger Stone’s home.

The media is Eastwood’s other villain. As Jewell’s lawyer says in the film, the two most powerful forces in America, the government and the media, targeted his client.

We know James Comey and others used leaks and a complicit media to foist the Russia hoax on the public and whip Washington into a frenzy. Similarly, agents leaked Jewell’s name to a media eager to perpetuate the myth of the FBI’s infallibility.

Non-spoiler alert: A controversy over the film’s depiction of a reporter using sex to get information from the FBI agent does not detract from the larger point.

We hear Tom Brokaw declare authoritatively: “The speculation is that the FBI is close to making the case. They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him, but you always want to have enough to convict him as well.”

The Bryant Gumbel stand-in in a reenacted “Today Show” interview asks why would the FBI investigate Jewell if he weren’t guilty of something.

In contrast, we hear Nadia, the Russian-born assistant to Jewell’s attorney, say, “Where I come from if the government says someone is guilty you know they are innocent.”

The unholy alliance between the FBI and the media predates even Richard Jewell—it is straight out of the J. Edgar Hoover playbook.

For decades, Hoover’s FBI harassed and gathered dossiers on Martin Luther King, civil rights activists, antiwar leaders, and others. He regularly would feed dirt on them to friendly reporters. Civil libertarians warned that the FBI’s secret machinations threatened our democracy.

In the 1970s, the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee discovered intelligence agencies and the FBI kept files on thousands of Americans and peddled disinformation to the news media.

Such abuses led Congress to establish Senate and House Intelligence Oversight committees—and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court—to protect us from our protectors. For all the good they’ve done.

It shows profound ignorance, misunderstanding, or disregard for history for Democrats to invoke the name of Martin Luther King as they’ve done in their recent impeachment putsch.

Security operatives of our government used the same tactics against King—surveillance, leaks, guilt by association—they used against the Trump campaign and his presidency.

Democrats and anyone else needing a refresher course on history and abuse of government power need to see “Richard Jewell.”

Early in the film, we see Jewell abusing his authority as a campus security guard just as the FBI would do later. The message is clear: Power corrupts.

The temptation to abuse power dwells in everyone’s heart. Ask Stanley Milgram.

Sharp-eyed viewers will catch the foundational message of Clint Eastwood’s film in the caption on a poster hanging on the wall behind Jewell’s attorney in his law office: “The government scares me more than terrorists.”