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.”

Books & Culture

Finding America
Among the Ruins

In a short re-dedication of his novel, The Virginian, Owen Wister wrote: “If this book be anything more than an American story, it is an expression of American faith.” Such a faith lies in the ruins with the book.

Under the town of El-Bahnasa, west of the Nile and 160 miles upriver from Cairo, lie the ruins and the garbage dump of the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus. The Muslims had governed the area for 1,200 years, and they had not bothered to search among the ruins. These were finally investigated in 1896 by British archaeologists, when what used to be called Great Britain had seized Egypt from the Ottoman Empire.

The old city had been a regional capital, depending for its agriculture on a canal and not on the regular flooding of the Nile. When the Arabs conquered Egypt, they let the canal fill up with sand, and Oxyrhynchus was no more. 

But the sand and the dry climate preserved what otherwise would have rotted away. Therefore you can find in the precious rubbish all kinds of things pertaining to business and government: account books, legal records, licenses, and so forth, and sometimes—because the people reused their papyrus whenever they could—you may find a census report on one side and a passage from the Gospel of Matthew on the other. Only a very small percentage of the hundreds of thousands of scraps have been transcribed.

Every week I go to our local Oxyrhynchus, otherwise called our town’s “transfer station,” to dump our garbage, and to discard, each in its proper bin, materials to be recycled: plastics, corrugated cardboard, paper, aluminum cans, and glass. Inside the building, people leave other things to be picked up by anyone who may want them: toys, small appliances, tools, old clothes, and books. 

I have in the past two years culled out more than 100 good books that otherwise would be ground to mulch. These include complete hardcover sets of the works of George Eliot, Somerset Maugham, and Washington Irving. That last one is poignant indeed. I live but a few hours’ drive from the Hudson Valley that Irving loved so well, he the initial and essentially American fabulist, and his works are to be sent to sleep with their fathers in the earth, and be known no more. 

Does our local school possess those works? To ask it is to raise a sad laugh. If we were a people who wanted our children to read the books of Washington Irving, they would never have been sent to the rubbish heap in the first place. Our family library of 9,000 books has often been stocked for nothing; and you may read, inside many a fine book’s cover, the stamp of some El-Bahnasa Library or El-Bahnasa Public School that used to own it.

Sometimes the books I find were owned by private persons. It is easy to guess what happens. The owners die, and the heirs clean out their houses. They take what they wish, and then they sell the lot of unwanted furniture, bric-a-brac, Americana, and classics to an estate buyer, and that is how books, the lowliest of things, end up in an antique store, where they will sit for many years even if they are priced at a dollar or two or three. 

The Virginian is a story of violence, told without a morbid fascination for blood, and a story of romance, told without a morbid fascination for skin.

I have before me now an excellent piece of Americana that I found the other day and bought for $4—rather on the high end, I confess. It is a hardcover edition of The Virginian by Owen Wister. The Ottoman scholars of our time, college professors of English, will chuckle and shrug, and say something dismissive about the author’s racism or sexism or his foolish romantic treatment of the American West; anything rather than dare to encounter an America that did exist, that was in various ways much more barbaric but also more glorious and civilized than our own, and that makes us look like dwarfs and cripples, resenting the giants whose strides we cannot match, and whose eyes, full of the wisdom of hard experience, would in a moment have fathomed the puddles of our souls.

Have I just engaged in a little antiquarianism, forgivable in an old man, but not to be taken too seriously? Perhaps. If so, I would be following Wister’s trail. 

He himself went west as a young man and wrote about what he saw and knew. “He will never come again,” says Wister of the cow-puncher, the horseman, “the last romantic figure upon our soil.” The horseman had made the west fit for civilization, and civilization made the west unfit for the horseman. It may have been inevitable, but it came at manhood’s cost. “The cow-puncher’s ungoverned hours,” says Wister, “did not unman him. If he gave his word, he kept it; Wall Street would have found him behind the times. Nor did he talk lewdly to women; Newport would have thought him old-fashioned.” 

The horseman was no saint. He led a rough life, largely an irreligious one, as Wister paints it, and he was no stranger to saloons, sprees of gambling, and women who worked at the world’s oldest profession. But he was real, and “whatever he did, he did with his might.”

The Virginian is a story of violence, told without a morbid fascination for blood, and a story of romance, told without a morbid fascination for skin. My copy was owned not by a man but by a woman, an Irene Rossiter, who signed her name on the first leaf. She must have loved the book dearly, because inside it she has saved two newspaper clippings about Owen Wister, one from a local New Hampshire paper I cannot identify, and an obituary from The New York Herald Tribune, Friday, July 24, 1938, the day after Wister’s death. 

“Owen Wister,” says the unnamed writer for the Associated Press, “was a curious mixture of conservatism, imbued by his upbringing and his education, and progressivism, obtained through his wide and varied circle of friends and associates and his many contacts with life throughout the world. His writing showed that mixture in an outspokenness which was at times tempered by a strong sense of propriety.” 

He was a very close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, to whom he dedicated The Virginian in words that are now inconceivable: “Some of these pages you have seen, some you have praised, one stands new-written because you blamed it; and all, my dear critic, beg leave to remind you of their author’s changeless admiration.” 

Wister detested Woodrow Wilson and was a ferocious critic of his old friend’s cousin and his New Deal. He says, in The Virginian, with a wry glance at Caesar, that “all America is divided into two classes—the quality and the equality,” and that it was “through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the eternal inequality of man,” for “true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing.” In this sense, he believed most passionately in the mythic romance of America. 

In 1912 he wrote, in a short re-dedication of his novel, “If this book be anything more than an American story, it is an expression of American faith.” Wall Street and the Labor Unions are stocked full of enemies to democracy, he says, with the former more to blame, because they have engendered the latter. “But I believe the pillars will not fall,” he says, “and that, with mistakes at times, but with wisdom in the main, we people will prove ourselves equal to the severest test to which political man has yet subjected himself—the test of Democracy.”

Such a faith lies in the ruins with the book. The Virginian at least deserves a better fate.

Books & Culture

Time in a Bubble

A strange—yet predictable—pick for “Person of the Year.”

With apologies to the late, great Jim Croce.

If I could save Time from its bubble,
The first change that I’d like to make—
Is, rather than appease
Trite left-wing pieties,
Give some coverage to news that’s not fake . . . 

If I could make somebody famous,
And assert that his tale must be told—
I’d choose a young Hong Kong protestor, not some
Underage Scandinavian scold.

But it seems the editors at Time
Don’t see what they don’t wanna see:
Somethin’ blinds ’em.
Time picks a person every year,
But they’ve left relevance, I fear,
Far behind ’em . . . 

If I had to wait in a lobby,
With a Time magazine to page through,
I would rather daydream
Or read some Field and Stream
Left there since 1972 . . . 

’Cause they never seem to make the right call
To restore relevance at all—
Pathetic.
We seen it enough times to know
The bias will be un-apol-
ogetic . . . 

But if I could save Time, from its bubble . . . 

Books & Culture

Quentin Tarantino’s
Film of the Year

In “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” the old wins its battle with the new and real men are portrayed as heroes once more. 

The best film of 2019 is a fairy tale about 1969.

The film ends with words of beginning. The film elides the end of five lives by giving viewers the ending they deserve. The film ends with the start of the title card: “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.”

The film is Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to a time and place in which Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is both eternal and ethereal, in which the sweep of her hair follows the lines and curves of her sports car, in which the black roofline fades to black as her hair shines like gold. 

She speeds through the hills and canyons in a Porsche 911 Sportomatic, a streak of sun above a silhouette of style. She is the daughter of Theros and the target of Thanatos. She is the beauty of summer in a season of murder.

Her murderers come bearing knives and guns, while her saviors relax next door. 

Outside the gate of her driveway, across the road, lives Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Together with his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton fights the devil with a burst of hellfire. 

He aims his flamethrower at Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), who runs through a sliding glass door and lands in his swimming pool. He flambés this flailing cultist. He kills this screaming shooter.

Thus do two TV cowboys deliver justice to three villains from a movie ranch overrun by outlaws and thieves.

Thus does Old Hollywood win its battle with New Hollywood. 

Thus stands the winner, Cliff Booth.

He wears the Champion® logo, not a pair of cutoffs or a blouse with ruffled sleeves and a satin collar. He smiles before he throws Bruce Lee into a car. He says two words before he knocks Steve “Clem” Grogan to the ground.

His co-champion is his boss and compatriot, Rick Dalton.

More emotional than enigmatic, Rick shares his feelings without losing Cliff’s respect. 

He worries about his career. He drinks to excess, forgetting his lines and embarrassing himself on set. But he does his job—he does it to the hilt—earning the admiration of his director and the awe of his costar.

He finds his mark on a hot August night, with the leaves hanging down and the grass on the ground smelling sweet.

Evil moves up the road, from the outside of town with a sinister beat.

Rick and Cliff defeat the evildoers.

They are heroes. They are men.

Books & Culture

Martin Scorsese’s Cinematic Splendor

Despite the criticism, “The Irishman” director has made a cinematically powerful film.

Martin Scorsese’s new feature film, now showing on Netflix, came highly anticipated by critics and audience alike. The anticipation shouldn’t come as a surprise because Scorsese is a director of high stature, who has been making films for over 50 years. The newest film, “The Irishman” has drawn some negative criticism, mainly from the critics. For the most part, the criticism has been something along the lines of “do we really need another movie about the mafia and gangsters?” or “that make-up is really bad” or “Al Pacino sucks.”

Although it’s certainly not the most perfect film in Scorsese’s oeuvre, the criticism has been undeserved. Like many of his films, “The Irishman” is three-and-a-half hours long, but even this is not a serious issue. Scorsese is known for the operatic nature of his cinematic output, and his latest is no exception.

The story revolves around three men: Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The film itself is based on a book by Charles Brandt, I Heard You Paint Houses, in which he presents Frank Sheeran’s confession that he killed Jimmy Hoffa, the one time president of the most powerful labor union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The hit on Hoffa, according to Sheeran, was arranged by the powerful mafia Bufalino family, and Sheeran dutifully carried out the job.

The mystery of Hoffa’s 1975 disappearance has been a part of both American labor union history as well as American myth and legend. Similar to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the disappearance of Hoffa has moved away from forthright investigations of truth and history into the territory of conspiracy theory. But as with any conspiracy theory, one wonders how many kernels of truth there may be in some of these outrageous explanations. As they say, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

[Another view: “The Irishman” Stinks]

Whatever the truth or the lie behind Hoffa’s disappearance may be, Scorsese’s intent is not to solve a mystery but rather to present the intricate relationship of the corrupt triangle personified in the lives of Sheeran, Bufalino, and Hoffa. The film doesn’t move in a chronological way. Rather, it creates a collage effect of images that shed light on the progression of events leading up to the murder of Hoffa. (I say murder because it is presented as such in the film not because of any evidence proving the veracity of that explanation for Hoffa’s disappearance).

Sheeran becomes an errand boy for Bufalino, which includes casual murders (are there any other kind in the mafia?), as well as a go-between for Bufalino and Hoffa. As is to be expected, political corruption is part of the set up in which it is revealed how much Hoffa hates the Kennedy family (especially Robert), who was intent on destroying Hoffa on charges of various corrupt dealings.

What drives the film is not necessarily the events themselves but the tangled relationships of these men. Criticism involving the lack of chronology may be warranted, but given the fact that Scorsese focuses on the relationships between characters, it is useless to dwell on the veracity of the story or the expected chronology. Scorsese is not interested in these things because that is not the story he is telling. As a result, most performances in the film reflect Scorsese’s intent to get under the skin of characters.

Scorsese is not a filmmaker who specializes in the extreme interiority of the characters, such as Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes. Rather, the approach is much like the wide and sweeping shots of building interiors—we move away from the character only to be confronted with his face and expression. Scorsese retains the mystery of the person, precisely by moving back and forth from exterior and interior shots.

The best performance, by far, is Al Pacino’s because he doesn’t really play Al Pacino as he does in so many other films. He plays Hoffa as a man who thrives on the insistence that he will not be mocked or destroyed or dethroned from his position as the leader of Teamsters. Pacino’s exposition of Hoffa’s stubbornness as well as an inability to speak to Bufalino or other mobsters directly becomes a constant method of his dealing with events that are thrust upon him. This is not say that we ought to view Hoffa as a victim but in the grand scheme of things (as far as the film is concerned), Pacino’s Hoffa is a character who deserves some compassion.

By contrast, Bufalino and Sheeran are the ones who should be detested. Bufalino for his machinations, and Sheeran for following orders without question. Pesci is not some irritating and whiny mobster, which was a role he played in Scorsese’s Casino (1995). Rather, he brings seriousness and significance only visible in the underworld of corruption.

Of the three main characters, the weakest performance, undoubtedly, is the one offered by De Niro, who plays, well, De Niro. Whatever powerful essence he may have had in the past, De Niro has lost. Unlike the other actors, he has not been getting better with age. Instead, he’s operating on thespian autopilot mode. It’s difficult to take him seriously precisely because of his typical De Niro grin, which at this point, has turned De Niro into a kind of caricature of himself rather than anything more substantial.

But even this weak performance has some redeeming qualities, namely that we see moments of absurd comedy during which De Niro’s Sheeran functions as an awkward messenger between Hoffa and Bufalino, whose petty and stubborn arguments resemble two old women bickering in Italian over the quality of the spaghetti sauce.

There are many brief performances and cameos in the film: Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno is superb. The mere gaze of Keitel carries a certain level of gravity. Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino was also quite surprising and shows that the comedian is up to the challenge of playing a serious role. One curious cameo was that of Fr. James Martin, S.J., who plays an actual priest officiating at an infant baptism. It left me wondering whether priests are allowed to act in movies playing priests. Isn’t there something theologically and pastorally odd about this?

Despite the criticism, Scorsese has made a cinematically powerful film. He has stayed true to the notion of “film as artform,” and what weakens the film, more than anything, is De Niro’s uninterested performance. Scorsese’s work, however, remains grand, expansive, and aesthetically profound.

Books & Culture

Baseball’s Owners Plot Baseball’s Demise

Killing the minor leagues in favor of more “analytics” will destroy America’s favorite pastime.

Relentless love of competition is a profoundly American trait, but you’d never know it from the way the Lords of Baseball run their game. From the Designated Hitter and Astroturf™ to the Wild Card and those 1980s-era Houston Astros uniforms that looked like construction signs, Major League Baseball’s owners have never been short on terrible ideas. Bud Selig didn’t get his dream of demolishing the leagues and replacing them with regional conferences, but he did do the next-worst thing—turn the Astros and Milwaukee Brewers into league-fluid franchises.

So far, they’ve somehow managed not to kill the game.

But now, the Major League owners show how little they really understand the game they steward, and the country that invented it.

Baseball’s winter meetings will begin on December 8, and Commissioner Rob Manfred will propose eliminating the rookie leagues, sending those signed to Analytics Reeducation Camp for their first year rather than having them play games, and severely limiting the number of players each team can have in their system.

As New York Daily News writer Bill Madden points out, the majors claim they’re paying too many players who won’t ever make the bigs. But paying those players to play is the price for getting the Derek Jeters, Mike Trouts, and Justin Verlanders ready for the big time.

At least it was. Owners think that the new analytics will save them this waste, that they can better prepare rookies by working with them on launch angle and exit velocity rather than having them, you know, play baseball. They’ll do this by killing minor league ball for 4 million paying customers a year in 42 towns and cities.

They can do this because Major League Baseball effectively runs the minor leagues, and runs them to the exclusive benefit of Major League Baseball. It took roughly a century to get to this point, so long that we have forgotten it didn’t used to be this way, and doesn’t have to be this way.

Analytics, Not Baseball

You probably know Branch Rickey as the guy who brought Jackie Robinson to the major leagues. You may not know him as the creator of the farm system.

Prior to Rickey, minor leagues were really independent leagues, as real and as competitive as the majors, just in smaller markets. They owned their players’ contracts, and could hold onto them or sell them or trade them, just like the majors. The major league teams had bigger markets and more money, so the talent tended to gravitate upwards, but a minor league owner didn’t have to sell.

Probably the most famous case was that of Lefty Grove, one of the best pitchers of all time. Grove helped pitch the Baltimore Orioles to five International League titles, because owner Jack Dunn wanted to fill the stands. Winning did that. Eventually, Dunn sold Grove’s contract for $100,000 to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics.

All that changed in the next couple of decades. First, Branch Rickey built farm systems for the Cardinals and then the Dodgers by buying minor league clubs outright. Other teams followed, as the cash-strapped minor leagues began allowing their owners to enter into player development deals, giving the major league teams rights to the players’ contracts.

Over the next seven decades, the terms of those deals meant more and more dependency and less and less freedom for the minor league owners.

With less and less control over their own players, the minor leagues stopped being about winning. The best players had always been looking up to the majors, but now that was the sole purpose of the minor league clubs. Players can be yanked mid-season, and neither they nor the teams have any connection to the towns they call home.

Fans know this—they know the players and managers don’t care about winning, and they know they’re watching an exhibition, not real baseball. For a few decades, the minors could coast along on nostalgia, but nostalgia needs a living memory, and besides, there’s MLB every night of the week on TV. For $20 a year, I can get every major league radio broadcast streaming.

Having reduced the minor leagues to vassalage, the majors profess to be displeased when nobody shows up to watch their “games.” And their answer is to begin killing the minors from the bottom up.

Not for nothing does this proposal come from the Astros, kings of sabermetric-driven tanking.  The Astros decided to put money behind the A’s “Moneyball” strategy, and for the first time, a large-market team became value investors, looking for players with every statistical edge they could find.

In fact, killing the rookie leagues may be driven less by salaries than by the cost of outfitting stadiums with the StatCast technology that measures launch angle, exit velocity, and distance. The next step might be to pull minor league ball from the outlying cities altogether and concentrate each team’s A, AA, and AAA operations at one site. It’ll save facilities costs, and non-MLB cities could probably be fooled into bidding for a stadium for three teams rather than one.

Tanking for Cash

That’s the analytics. The tanking is worse. The Astros won by first dismembering their operation and rebuilding it from the bottom up. The price was a noncompetitive major league operation for a few years, but the reward so far has been two pennants and a World Series title.

The problem is that they’ve inspired competitors to try the same thing. Bad teams race to the bottom for draft position, leading to terrible attendance. Because they still trade on the Major League brand, losing instead of bleeding red ink, they hemorrhage fans.

The same lack of competition that’s killing the minors is now starting to eat away at the major leagues themselves.

Look, I love sabermetrics. I’ve been reading Bill James since the mid-1980s. The analytical thinking that goes into these new measures, when done well, provides great insight into what happens on the field. But it shouldn’t become the excuse for my beloved Orioles deliberately turning in a parade of 100-loss seasons or collapsing the minor leagues into a series of simulated games played in glorified airplane hangars.

So what is to be done?

Bill James wrote an essay called “Revolution” for his 1988 Baseball Abstract, prescribing the bitter medicine: eliminate baseball’s antitrust exemption. (In fact, one of the arguments against stabbing the minor leagues in the back is that it will lead Congress to consider doing exactly this.)

While teams compete on the field, leagues compete at the ticket office. The only reason that MLB can get away with these ridiculous player development contracts is that the minor league owners let them. But this sort of cooperation between leagues is exactly the kind of anti-competitive behavior that antitrust law is designed to prevent.

In fact, there are independent minor leagues today. Some of them are small, some of them are new, but some have histories and some have teams that co-exist in the same cities and markets as major league teams. They suffer from low-level talent, and the fact that there’s no clear path to the majors since they’re not part of MLB’s organizational structure.

But they exist, and if all the minors were forced to go back to being independent, those leagues, and their competitors, would get to experience what real competition is like again.

Charlotte, Sacramento, Portland, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Austin, and Nashville are all larger than at least one major league market, and Jacksonville is roughly 40,000 people smaller than Milwaukee. (For a fun look at what trying to win will do, watch the Netflix documentary “The Battered Bastards of Baseball,” about the independent Portland Mavericks’ run from 1973-1977, possibly the only good thing to come out of that decade.) All of them are among the fastest-growing areas in the country. They’d have to compete with national TV and established fan bases, but they’d give players a chance to play and fans a chance to root for the home team.

To quote Bill James:

Competition isn’t always pretty. Teams would fold, go bankrupt sometimes, use nearly naked usherettes in a cheap attempt to boost attendance, pull out in the middle of the night without paying their debts—all of the things that businesses do. Baseball would be less stable. It would change more rapidly than it ever has, in part because each league would be learning from the experiences of the other leagues. But it would be changing because it would be growing, and it would be growing toward a baseball world which is larger, stronger, smarter, richer, more diverse, and more fair to the fans. It can happen.

In the 1930s and ’40s, the Pacific Coast League (PCL) had “near-major league” status, and was seriously discussed as a potential third major league. In 1947, the Los Angeles Angels drew over 620,000 fans, not far behind some MLB clubs, and only two teams, the Angels and their cross-town rivals the Hollywood Stars, were affiliated with major league teams.

On September 13, 2011, the Omaha Stormchasers, AAA affiliate for the Kansas City Royals, drew all of 4,200 for Game 1 of the PCL championship series. Even counting only fixed seating, that was barely two-thirds the capacity of the ballpark. I was there, and there were plenty of good seats still available.

Three months earlier, across town, the championship series of the College World Series, featuring clearly inferior players and aluminum bats—but real games—drew 26,000, more than six times the pros, because those fans had a reason to be fans, not just spectators.

Real winning and losing, with real risks and benefits and costs, can do the same thing for the PCL and other minor league cities, if we let it.