Books & Culture

A review of Serotonin: A Novel, by Michel Houellebecq (translated by Shaun Whiteside). (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $27)

Suicide in the West

Michel Houellebecq is a modern soothsayer.

It is almost a moral imperative to read any book Salem-ed by the types that shamble across the pages and pixels of The Guardian. You just have to.

French novelist Michel Houellebecq, l’enfant terrible, returns with a treatise which The Guardian describes as the last cry of the pitiful white male.  

He has form. Houellebecq’s Submission was decried in similarly reflexive terms. His prescience almost cliché. The still-warm, cadaverous Houellebecq: modern soothsayer.

His latest novel, Serotonin, follows the chronically depressed Florent-Claude Labrouste, 46, as he sacks his soulless job at the Ministry of Agriculture and transcends into an indulgent slow-burn suicide.

He’s drugged. (Like most of us.) A new antidepressant named Captorix taints his blood and deadens his libido. 

Unlike that of his detested girlfriend Yuzu, who,  20-years his junior, will not sap her own sexual ferocity. Without spoiling it, Florent digs through his girl’s laptop and discover her extra fidelities seam into (don’t read this book on public transport, or near other humans) frenzied orgies, and canines. 

A welcomed discovery. Florent hates her and her 18 skin lotions. He has just inherited $800,000 from his suicide-pact parents. 

Rambling across a France viced in decline, he lands in Normandy, where his old college friend, Aymeric, struggles to keep his aristocratic history alive on a declining milk farm deadened by the European Union’s cut in milk quotas. 

Aymeric drains his time selling off his ancestral lands to Chinese speculators, and drinking neat vodka. His wife ran off with a pianist. He’s alive in the medical sense; crushed by cheap overseas milk. 

At this point, Aymeric and the beleaguered farmers have surged into militancy. They’re forced into a zero-sum game of global capitalism they have no chance of even surviving. It’s hopeless.

When his old friend asks for his ruthless opinion, Florent tells him the truth: It’s fucked.

French farmers, we learn, are killing themselves “one by one, on their plots of land, without being noticed,” as the globalized Moloch erodes their history, their meaning, into spreadsheet figures. They’re “inefficient.” 

Much like the proles of Appalachia. The ex-steelworkers of Youngstown. Of heartland America. Trump country. And Brexitville.

Those forgotten people. They whose plight is undeserved of pity. Learn to code. 

That blithe disregard is afforded to Houellebecq’s biting depiction of a sanitized corporate landscape of which the many are entombed. Progressives donate nothing in the way of their endless compassion for those trampled by rampant globalism.

Florent should be like them. Educated, cultured. Yet, perhaps tellingly, he finds himself deadened at their service.  His doctor says his cortisol levels are of such a profound level, he, Florent, is “dying of sorrow.” 

He prescribes a course of prostitutes. The most vivifying kind, he suggests, are 16-years-old and found in Thailand. 

But Florent is already dead. And his part in the globalist project killed him. Its pursuit of unending efficiency. A money-machine whose bulimic charge of progress cares not for such blood-beating trifles as nationhood, community, history, or meaning. 

The same creed which promised yet plundered. The same creed which raped the Rust Belt, dosed and fed survivors into Fentanyl’s slow death. And blamed them for their semi-sentient oblivion. 

What ails the farmers of Serotonin is the same despair which overdosed 64,000 Americans in 2016. 

Deaths of despair—booze, drugs, and suicide—claim the lives of thousands of middle-aged men. And rightly served as a genuine puzzlement to researchers’ resident in the richest nation on earth.  

The sheer volume of deaths snipped, in 2016, American life expectancy

This, in an America where the citizens refuse to replace themselves. Sadly, the same anti-human protest simmers here in Europe

But, that, dear reader, is progress. 

One third of young people beset with anxiety disorders is progress. Florent’s method of annihilation—suicide—and its glacial cousins—booze, and drugs, are now one of the leading killers. That is progress. 

Like the novel’s farmers, we too have learned that the unbendable forces of globalization are not inevitable. Such wanton destruction is policy. A choice. Made by those who benefit most.

Like Aymeric, we must accept the will of the market. That angry God demanding of economic sacrifice.

But Aymeric, like Trump voters, like Brexiteers, is not too keen to die on his knees in thrall to a past he knew to be decent. 

He arms up. Surrounded by television cameras, and the heavily-armed gendarmerie, he takes into his own hands the only autonomy he has left. He pumps a bullet through it.

Florent’s own descent is marked by a burgeoning waist, and authentically deadening reminisces over a lost love—her name is Camille. 

A woman which one Guardian review chimed would never have loved Florent, whom the reviewer casts as Houellebecq himself.

Perhaps she read a recent essay in Harper’s. Houellebecq, who deplores the “appalling clown” president, then finds common ground. The final two words being of particular illumination:

What’s most remarkable about the new American policies is certainly the country’s position on trade, and there Trump has been like a healthy breath of fresh air; you’ve really done well to elect a president with origins in what is called “civil society.”

Because, like President Trump, Houellebecq is a member of the untouchables, a caste of dissidents capable of independent thought. 

Thoughts which tend to settle upon realization that globalism has been an unutterable disaster for everyone except the elite, and their coat-tailers—those who parrot The Guardian.

What they never ask themselves is why Florent, and millions of men, of all skin tones, find the rope or the pistol preferable. Do they really need to ask?

Books & Culture

American Soulless Cowards for China

NBA’s Steve Kerr, Adam Silver, and Greg Popovich play defense for Beijing’s totalitarian regime.

When Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey tweeted, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” Communist China called a foul. Down came the tweet and Chinese state television axed two NBA exhibition games. NBA boss Adam Silver promptly announced, “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.” Silver also barred NBA players then in China from speaking to the media.

For observers far and wide, particularly in embattled Hong Kong, it was a clear exhibition of China’s totalitarianism and a clear case of the NBA cowardly caving to China’s Communist dictatorship.

In the political, entertainment, and even the sports commentariat, many made that charge, but Golden State Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr said he had no comment on the “really bizarre international story,” and “a lot of us don’t know what to make of it.” It was a strange response for someone with firsthand knowledge of oppression and violence.

An NBA champion as a player and coach, Steve Kerr is the son of Malcolm Kerr, whose parents Stanley and Elsa arrived in the Middle East in 1919 to join relief efforts that followed the Armenian genocide. As Ailene Voisin of the Sacramento Bee recalled, in the early 1980s Malcolm Kerr left UCLA to become president of the American University of Beirut, “despite increasing political instability within the region.” Then, in 1984, Malcolm Kerr “was shot to death by terrorists outside his office.”

As a writer for ESPN noted, “two Islamic terrorists ambushed Malcolm outside his university office and shot him in the back of the head for the crime of being an American.” When the Islamic terrorists gunned down his father, Steve was only 18 and a freshman at the University of Arizona. Kerr wept through a moment of silence for his father prior to tipoff against archrival Arizona State.

Four years later, as Kerr and his teammates warmed up before a game with that same school, a group of 10-15 people began chanting “PLO! PLO!” The group also chanted, “Your father’s history” and “Why don’t you join the Marines and go back to Beirut?” As Kerr told Tracy Dodds of the Los Angeles Times, it was “pretty disgusting. It’s hard to believe that people would do that.”

In 1989, when pro-democracy Chinese students protested in Tiananmen Square, the regime deployed massive military force to crush the peaceful demonstration. For the Chinese regime, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are bourgeois formalities to be quashed by any means necessary. Kerr’s fans will find it hard to dig up anything he might have said against the regime, and he won’t comment on the “bizarre international story” of the pro-freedom tweet takedown.

Double-Teaming for Tyranny

In that cause, Kerr forms a double-team with San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich, also an NBA champion. Popovich said Silver’s pronouncement “helps you understand what direction you need to go in.” It was a curious statement for someone with experience in dealing with totalitarian governments.

Popovich majored in Soviet studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy and in the early 1970s served as an intelligence officer in eastern Turkey. In 1972, Popovich was cut from the U.S. Olympic basketball team. According to longtime colleagues, he never got over it. The United States won the gold medal game but officials put time back on the clock three times until the USSR scored. The USA victory was stolen but unlike Doug Collins, who made the free throws that won the game, Popovich has been rather quiet about that.

In similar style, if Popovich had concerns about human rights violations in the Eastern Bloc, he kept them to himself. The former intelligence officer was also quiet on the subject of terrorism. The massive terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, did not elicit passionate public statements from the Spurs coach. Neither did the 2009 atrocity just down the road at Ford Hood, Texas.

U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan, a self-described “soldier of Allah,” gunned down 13 unarmed American soldiers and wounded more than 30 others. President Barack Obama called the massacre “workplace violence” at the time, which made it difficult for victims to get the medals and medical treatment they deserved. By all indications, President Obama never did anything with which Gregg Popovich disagreed. With President Trump, every play is out of bounds.

“This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others,” Popovich said in an October 2017 exclusive for The Nation. “We have a pathological liar in the White House, unfit intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically to hold this office, and the whole world knows it, especially those around him every day.”

And so on.

With China’s Communist dictatorship, on the other hand, Adam Silver shows “the direction we need to go in.” Silver, Kerr, and Popovich play zone defense for Communist China. If anybody in California, Texas, or Hong Kong regarded this trio as soulless cowards, it would be hard to blame them.

Books & Culture

FIFA Punishes Fans Booing China but Not Booing USA

FIFA has a responsibility not only over soccer in Hong Kong, but also over the U.S. Soccer Federation. The U.S. Soccer Federation in turn has a responsibility to make sure the National Women’s Soccer League and Major League Soccer play by the rules.

The NBA isn’t the only sports league kowtowing to China. In soccer, Hong Kong fans’ protest against the authoritarian nature of China’s regime gets punished while in the United States the woke Left’s protests against our country are overlooked.

This month the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) levied a fine in Hong Kong after fans disrespected the Chinese national anthem during a game there. At the same time FIFA turns a blind eye when its U.S. member, the U.S. Soccer Federation, ignores or even rewards players disrespecting the U.S. national anthem and ignores fans booing members of the U.S. military.

The Associated Press reports that the fine against the Hong Kong Football Association was due to “fans disrespecting the Chinese national anthem before a World Cup qualifying game last month.” At the September 10 match against Iran, “Hong Kong fans booed and turned their backs when the anthem was played for their team.”

Just like in the NBA, the U.S. domestic soccer leagues for men and women feel free to demonstrate their “courage” by dissing the American flag at home. Plus professional U.S. soccer teams now allow supporters of a militant left-wing movement to fly their flag at soccer games in spite of league rules against use of political symbols at matches.

And, of course, when U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) player Megan Rapinoe protests the U.S. national anthem at games, FIFA is silent. The U.S. Soccer Federation went further, elevating Rapinoe after her anthem protests to be a co-captain of the U.S. Women’s National Team during the FIFA Women’s World Cup this year. (The corporate leftist news media celebrated Rapinoe as “the most courageous, open-minded social justice warrior American soccer has ever known.”)

When the U.S. Soccer Federation blatantly violated soccer’s Laws of the Game by placing a political image, the LGBT rainbow, on men’s and women’s national uniforms in international matches in 2017 and 2018, FIFA did nothing. According to soccer’s Law 04.5, “Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images.” The 2019 report I wrote, “Let All Play: Yes to Soccer, No to Politics,” details the many ways the U.S. Soccer Federation and other teams have violated FIFA’s regulations by using the LGBT rainbow on uniforms. Yet FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee has done nothing.

On September 11, 2019, fans in Portland, Oregon booed during a soccer match halftime swearing-in ceremony for Americans enlisting in the military when they stated “I will obey the orders of the President of the United States.” Yes, that’s right, the Portland fans protested Americans joining the U.S. military on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) did nothing. And the NWSL did nothing in 2018 when Portland fans carried out a harassment campaign against Jaelene Hinkle, the Christian player who resisted the USWNT’s effort to coerce players to wear an LGBT rainbow on the national Team USA jersey.

On September 24, Major League Soccer (MLS) carved out an exception to its Fan Code of Conduct, which bans political symbols at matches, to allow fans to display the Antifa Iron Front symbol at MLS games for the remainder of the season. MLS already makes an exception to allow LGBT and transgender flags, i.e. political symbols. Meanwhile non-woke political symbols remain banned.

FIFA has a responsibility not only over soccer in Hong Kong, but also over the U.S. Soccer Federation. The U.S. Soccer Federation in turn has a responsibility to make sure the National Women’s Soccer League and Major League Soccer play by the rules. In sports the rules are supposed to be enforced with fairness.

Books & Culture

‘Joker’: A Cinematic Marvel, and a Statement About Society

If “The Dark Knight” proved that regular people can become heroes in response to a bleak and unstable society, then “Joker” proves that regular people can become villains for the same reason.

By now, you have most likely heard one of two things regarding the new film “Joker,” and while one of those things could not be further from the truth, the other could not be more accurate if it tried.

The first, of course, is the widely-spread conspiracy theory by the mainstream media that “Joker” somehow glorifies violence, is a celebration of “incel” culture, and that the film is destined to be an inspiration for many a future mass shooter. This hysteria is not only blind to the many other, lesser films throughout Hollywood that regularly glorify violence, from the latest cheap horror film to the dime-a-dozen action movies of today, but it also displays a total ignorance of the film itself.

The second is what you will most likely hear from anyone outside of that uber-elite circle of film critics and media pundits who actually saw the movie: That it is an utterly amazing film, truly spectacular in every sense of the word, and that it is easily the greatest film of the year, if not one of the greatest films of all time (which, you will soon find, is not an exaggeration).

A Masterpiece of Filmmaking

First, just to get the technical aspects out of the way: In terms of every possible visual, audio, and cinematic technique you can think of, Director Todd Phillips has gone far above and beyond the scope of perfection. He uses every single tool at his disposal, from the lighting, to the score, to the production design.

“Joker” is a very dark and gritty film, and you see that from the very beginning. From the alleyways littered with trash, to the sidewalks lined with shuttered businesses, to the streets infested with potholes and plumes of steam from every manhole in sight, to the public transportation entirely defaced with graffiti, you will be every bit as immersed in the heavy and filthy environment of the city as the characters. Just as frequently-heard as the soundtrack are wailing sirens and honking cars in the background, adding further to the immersion as you journey into a modern Babylon in near total ruin.

As has been widely agreed, the film is all but carried on the back of Joaquin Phoenix’s dynamite performance as Arthur Fleck, which is so strong that Phoenix even manages to upstage the legendary Robert de Niro in the few scenes they share together.

With every single tormented laugh, awkward smile, gut-wrenching cry, and long, intense shots of Fleck’s face that make it nearly impossible to determine what thoughts are going on inside his warped mind, you will be on the absolute edge of your seat and gripping the armrests in every other scene, with hardly a moment of relief to be found. This unpredictability is put to very good use when he finally begins turning to violence.

And no Joker story is complete without humor. Although there are a handful of genuinely funny and good-natured jokes in the film from other characters, the film is most dependent on dark comedy that has the audience laughing despite themselves. Only a film as masterfully directed as this one can elicit laughter right after a brutal murder scene, as this film does towards the end. It is a further testament to how bleak the world of “Joker” truly is; that laughter is more of a last-ditch escape from the cold and harshness of reality, rather than a part of it.

If this film were to be compared to previous films, two classics from the 1970s come to mind. The first and more obvious comparison, which just about every critic has been making (for better or for worse), is with Martin Scorsese’s 1976 hit “Taxi Driver,” which also starred Robert de Niro; the comparison is appropriate, particularly given that the look of New York City in that film is compared to the Gotham City of this film.

The other is a film that preceded “Taxi” by two years: 1974’s “Death Wish,” where star Charles Bronson, like Joaquin Phoenix, portrays a perfectly normal man who turns to ultra-violence in retaliation against a city that has torn apart his world, authorities who do next to nothing to stop such injustices, and a society that is indifferent to his situation.

The Heart of Darkness

This film can best be described as a character study, but even that is not enough. What truly works about this film is that it places you directly inside Fleck’s deranged mind, so that you see every single development through his eyes. It is not told from an omniscient perspective or by an additional character; Fleck is the source of all your information.

This not only lends itself to some genuinely shocking twists as a result of his dementia, which are just as devastating to the audience as they are to Fleck, but it also provides a much more personal connection with the viewers, the likes of which have rarely been seen in any other great film.

Of the pantheon of great cinematic psychos—from Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” to Alex DeLarge in “A Clockwork Orange,” to Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” to Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho”—no film does more fully to examine the entire origin of its lead character and his complete transition into a maniac the way “Joker” does.

With “Joker,” you journey right alongside Fleck as he starts off as a normal person, but gradually realizes how his life has been influenced just as much by outside factors as it has been by his own mistakes. And there is ultimately no ambiguity about what has led up to this point; you will see it all before the credits roll.

This journey allows you to witness just how much his world crumbles around him by the end of the film, as he slowly loses his few friends and close relationships one-by-one. This is due partially to his own insanity, but it also contributes to that insanity, in a twisted self-defeating cycle of depression and darkness. With the gradual revelation that many of the people in his life—even the ones who appeared to be his friends early on—have dark secrets or selfish motivations of their own, he is left feeling as though he cannot trust anyone.

But the most overarching theme regarding the Joker’s journey to isolation is that just about everyone he encounters treats him horribly. It’s not enough that he is eventually betrayed by his friends and family, it comes even from random passersby on the streets. From a group of juvenile delinquents, to a snobby fat woman on a bus, to his boss and coworkers, to a group of rich yuppies who work for Wayne Enterprises, to a late night talk show host whom Fleck once idolized, and even Thomas Wayne himself—every single person Fleck encounters takes his turn at putting Fleck down in some capacity, chipping away at his morale until he finally snaps. Or that’s how Fleck sees it.

There truly are no heroes to be found in “Joker,” but there are more than enough villains. No, the film does not really sympathize with Fleck as he eventually turns to murder and unintentionally sparks a city-wide series of violent riots; but the film makes clear that if there is a true catalyst for the evil that transpires, it is the brokeness of that society as a whole.

A Broken Mirror

The preemptively negative response to “Joker” by the same elite that is vilified by this film only serves to prove the film right. Rather than spend too much time responding to the individual criticisms, as others here at American Greatness have already done, all that really needs to be discussed is the response by those who worked directly on the film.

Director Todd Phillips has made abundantly clear his frustrations with the critics and self-righteous bleeding hearts who denounce the film as “inspiring violence,” blaming this trend on the fact that we live in a society where “outrage is a commodity.” Star Joaquin Phoenix, rightfully, walked out of an interview with The Telegraph when the interviewer asked perhaps one of the stupidest questions of all time: if the film could inspire mass shooters.

But by far the greatest response to the faux outrage comes from one of the film’s executive producers, Michael Uslan, who described the film as having “held up a mirror to our society.” The subsequent backlash is the result of people who “don’t want to see that reflection,” and instead “want to run from it.”

Uslan could not be more right. “Joker” is a film that points blame in all directions, from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor; everyone holds some responsibility for the degradation of society when it gets to the point where no one cares for another anymore. Those who may support the anti-elite message are angered at the equal blame that is placed on the criminals and the common people, while those who support the vilification of the angry mobs are similarly bothered by the anti-rich sentiments.

Just look at how the media has unnecessarily focused on non-stories that have some tangential relationship to “Joker,” in the hope of somehow connecting the film to violence; such examples include two men being arrested for simply smoking in the theater during a screening of the film, or a man having his guns confiscated for posting about the film on social media. The film is already about the most powerful in society going out of their way to pick on the most insignificant members of the population who present the least threat to their power, simply because they can; real life, as it were, isn’t too different.

Perhaps, above all else, such voices in the media are seeking to suppress the film because it teaches a very simple lesson: Introspection. In the sure-to-become-iconic climax of the film, as Fleck rants and raves on his favorite late night talk show about how he became what he is, he offers a painfully accurate observation about society:

Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy … Have you seen what it’s like out there? … Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore! Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy!

For a media that profits on ratings, few things drive ratings more than magnifying the kind of partisan conflicts and socio-political divides that are currently plaguing our nation. If a message like these few lines were to be driven home to millions of Americans as effectively as they are in “Joker,” it could go a long way toward easing such tensions within our society, and the media has nothing to gain from that.

A Revolutionary Film

And yet despite the backlash, and despite how truly disturbing and uncomfortable the film is and was intended to be, the people have spoken: “Joker” is already proving to be a smash hit, producing the biggest October opening in film history, and far exceeding box office expectations with over $200 million worldwide in its opening weekend alone.

But even beyond the financial success, another important takeaway is the very high opinion viewers appear to have of the film. While critics are working overtime to reduce the film to an average score on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, the audience reviews on other major sites paint a much different picture.

On both Rotten Tomatoes and the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), “Joker” currently stands at about 90 percent among audiences. On the latter site, with well over 200,000 user reviews for an aggregate score of 9.0/10, the film is rated so highly on average that it currently stands as the 9th-highest rated film of all time on IMDb. It shares the Top 10 with such cinematic icons as the first two “Godfather” films, “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Schindler’s List,” and—fittingly enough—“The Dark Knight.”

2008’s “The Dark Knight—the second film in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films, and the film that immortalized Heath Ledger for his iconic performance of the same character—was widely considered a revolutionary film in the genre of comic book adaptations. It modernized the idea of the superhero and brought the world of DC Comics back down to reality, merging the adventures of the caped crusader with modern crime drama films.

The result was a film that was not only enjoyable to fans of the original comics, but also drew in legions of new fans out of moviegoers who normally couldn’t care less for comic book movies. It was this film that laid the groundwork for everything that the rival line of comic book movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, would copy with its wildly successful series of twenty-two films over the course of the next decade.

It is fitting, then, that within the same year the Marvel series came to a close with “Avengers: Endgame” in April, “Joker” comes along towards the end of the year to show us the way forward for a whole new era of comic book films. Just as “The Dark Knight” revolutionized superhero films, “Joker” has the potential to revolutionize supervillain films in the same way.

If it does, it will do so with an added caution: If “The Dark Knight” proved that regular people can become heroes in response to a bleak and unstable society, then “Joker” proves that regular people can become villains for the same reason.

Books & Culture

Cold War Kicks

Anyone who is still celebrating the liberal-capitalist “defeat” of communism needs to reckon with the field of Democratic presidential candidates; subject themselves to scold Greta Thunberg as she calls for Stalinist central planning to “fight” climate change; and must explain why virtually every mainstream media and academic institution is lurching us toward totalitarian darkness.

As talk of “cold civil war” heats up, I decided to turn on, tune in, and drop out with two flicks set in the days of the old Iron Curtain. Even through the lens of pop culture that favors them, it can be seen that liberals and liberalism always have been fundamentally incapable not only of fully confronting communism, but also of understanding the conditions that have made the siren song of Marx so appealing, then and now.

If the titular character of Aaron Sorkin’s “Charlie Wilson’s War didn’t once exist, he would have to have been invented.

Charles Nesbitt Wilson was a playboy, a socialite, and, as if by accident, a member of the United States House of Representatives. “Good Time Charlie,” as he came to be known, was a man made for a Hollywood. Somewhere between a congressman and Hugh Heffner, one could be forgiven for finding the escapades in the 2007 biopic—Tom Hanks takes the leading role—larger than life. But as it turns out, the movie gets most of Wilson’s story right.

The film centers on Wilson’s involvement in the program to enable the mujahideen in their struggle against the crushing heel of communism. There is a lot of cocaine, booze, and nudity in-between.

Portrayed as sympathetic toward Muslims then under the boot of a totalitarian, atheistic ideology, Wilson is, ironically, a religious skeptic himself in the film. Though it is unclear if Wilson was in reality a doubting Thomas, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin provides us with a self-described “liberal” congressman who looks most distraught when surrounded by refugees of war or Christians.

Wilson chides his flame, Joanne Herring (played by the beautiful Julia Roberts) for her overtly Christian rhetoric on the warpath. More than once in the film, Wilson and his partner in crime, a spook named Gust Avrakotos played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, discuss the grave potentialities of ascribing religious overtones to the war against communism.

There is not a little irony in philistine Wilson’s role as the hero in the war against the atheistic forces of communism. He thanks Herring for saving him from the “pro-lifers,” lunatics it would seem, and appears visibly disturbed when Representative “Doc” Long (played by Ned Beattie) rallies Middle Easterners with what essentially is a call for jihad against communism.

Nevertheless, Wilson’s fear of faith doesn’t stop him from ordering weapons in bulk with which the mujahideen can finally “shoot down those helicopters.” With this, Sorkin eagerly draws a direct line from American intervention against the Soviets to the September 11 attacks, and this has been the source of not a little debate. According to Fred Ikle, President Reagan’s undersecretary of defense, the CIA initially was reluctant to provide mujahideen fighters with anti-air missiles, while Wilson himself was in reality “lukewarm” on the issue. Osama Bin Laden, moreover, never received resources or training from the CIA. Nor was he involved in direct action activities until after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989. But perhaps the eventual fate of the United States should give us pause to consider Walter Lippmann’s warning in 1947, that the United States should not expend its “energies” and “substance” on “dubious and unnatural” allies such as the mujahideen. Sorkin, of course, would probably find Lippmann’s statement intolerant, racist, and Islamophobic today.

The film surprisingly shows in full detail the brutality of Moscow’s Third World strategy. We get a glimpse of what George F. Kennan meant when he wrote that the Kremlin was driven to fill “every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power” by any means necessary.

If, as Mr. Kennan said, the Russians looked forward to a “duel of infinite duration,” Americans enabled the mujahideen to make it at least a costly one in that Graveyard of Empires.

Still, Sorkin ends the film on an ominous note with an exchange between Wilson and Avrakotos that foreshadows September 11. Wilson tries and fails to secure funding through Congress for a school in a war-torn village. But the Americans are too greedy, too conservative as it were, to heed liberal Wilson’s desperate plea to educate the children. Education, insists Wilson—or perhaps Sorkin—is the promise of a better future for children in the Middle East. And yet, in reality, Bin Laden’s good education and cosseted upbringing only made him more dangerous and more resentful of the West. And, of course, early in the film Wilson encounters a Pakistani military officer who claims to have attended Oxford and, like Bin Laden, only seems to resent Westerners.

Holy wars are often launched by those eager to place the blame for a society’s troubles on a single group. Sorkin shows us that holy wars can be secular, too.

I paired Sorkin’s sordid affair with Goodbye, Lenin!, set not long after the events of Charlie Wilson’s War.

Directed and written by Wolfgang Becker, the German tragicomedy is something of a hidden gem. The main character is Alex Kerner, played by Daniel Brühl. The story revolves around Kerner’s family and their lives as citizens of the German Democratic Republic during a time of great transition.

One evening, Kerner participates in a protest that is violently broken up by East German police. His mother, Christiane, played by Katrin Saß, faints and falls into a coma at the sight of Alex being arrested by plainclothes police officers, or “Stasi.”

During her coma, the Berlin Wall comes down and East Germany, along with the Kerners, are thrust rapidly Westward. The forces of capitalism surge in as the tide of socialism recedes—for better and for worse.

The film shows that not all East Germans were happy with the transition away from socialism. Though few seriously doubt that life under the GDR was repressive today, it is a strength of the film that it captures the perspective of the Germans who, in some ways, preferred life under socialism. The film accurately portrays how East Germany was hit hard by the mass exodus of human capital following the toppling of the wall. Even today, East Germany trails the West in virtually every economic metric available. In this regard, which is one of the most important aspects of the film, Becker is faithful to the truth. Yes, the East is better off today; no, it was and is not without pain. For as Ben Mauk writes in the New Yorker, “regional inequalities persist” in the East, “and people struggle to find work. With Germany facing the threat of another recession, it does not seem likely that the gap between east and west will close anytime soon.”

The sudden retreat of socialism also plunged the East into the search for something to fill the void that socialism left, thus we see the incipient hedonism and materialism in the backdrop of Goodbye, Lenin! Becker skillfully communicates the zeitgeist of “Ostalgie” (Eastern, or “Ost,” nostalgia) in an often hilarious coming-of-age tale. Kerner becomes the man his absentee father should have been while taking care of his at first comatose, then awake but bedridden mother. The running gag of the film is Kerner’s attempt to hide the fact so much has changed in the months his mother was in a coma, for fear that the sudden shock of it all will kill her.

But Kerner’s scheme takes on a life of its own. It becomes increasingly clear that the Potemkin village he creates is for himself as much as it is for his mother—eventually more so for himself. Everything Kerner does to gradually move his mother toward the truth can be understood as Kerner coming to terms with the collapse of the GDR. The East is pushed forward by the West, but Kerner thrusts back into the past, haunting abandoned apartments for relics left by those who fled the East, desperately reconstructing that bygone world. The present becomes the lived lie that socialism once was. By the end of the film, Christiane becomes secretly aware of the truth, yet continues to play along for her son’s sake. She sees in him that whatever hope she had that socialism might provide for a better future could not exist in a repressive state—she suggests just before her death that she had always lived and regretted that lie—but instead in the love of her children.

Watching Goodbye, Lenin!, I think of my friends who grew up in East Germany. “Mikhail,” we’ll call him, whose father served in the East German army; “Masha,” whose brother was, after hospital staff claimed he had been stillborn, carted off, never to be seen or even buried. Under liberal democracy, however, children are only sequestered by the state when parents refuse to go along with gender ideology.

In all seriousness, the socialist practice of abducting children was common then; the lucky managed to reconnect with their “dead” relatives after the wall came down. Masha was not among them.

The beauty of Becker’s film is that in his characters, real people like Mikhail and Masha come through. People who survived the crush of socialism, then the capitalist-consumerist explosion. People for whom in the end “family is everything.” The family, first subjected to the jackboot of socialism against its throat; then liberalism and capitalism, threatening the family with the disintegrating forces of individualism and hedonism.

Sorkin’s boozing, philandering, philistine Wilson, by comparison, is unrelatable. He is a quintessential member of the ruling class, a manager occasionally taking pity on the plebs enough to help them in the way that he thinks is best for them; but oh so careful not to dirty his hands with their religion and quaint customs.

Both films provide an interesting perspective of a great transitional period. In both films, the East (or Middle East) meets the West and what follows is complicated. Between the two, Goodbye, Lenin! is the superior cold war film, however.

Unlike Charlie Wilson’s War, which is more like a cudgel against the enemies of liberalism, Becker’s film is a vehicle for deeper reflection on issues that are now more pressing than ever. It makes us question the effects of capitalism on the family, culture, and morality. It shows us the allure of socialism, and the reality behind the mask of compassion that socialism wears. It shows us why liberalism has created conditions conducive to, and even accommodative of, communism. Liberalism fields secular, rational, and scientific weapons in a fundamentally spiritual war against the materialist ideology of communism—which itself is secular, rational, and scientific.

Becker’s film, moreover, calls us back to the words of a cold warrior—Whittaker Chambers.

Chambers was a key figure in the case against Alger Hiss, a State Department official who was accused of being a communist spy and convicted of perjury in connection with that charge in 1950. In his memoir, Chambers wrote of leaving communism behind: “The world I was returning to seemed, by contrast, a graveyard. It was, in fact, the same world I had abandoned as hopeless when I joined the Communist Party in 1925. . . . I knowingly chose the side of probable defeat [by leaving the Communist Party].” Chambers believed that the West eventually would succumb to some strain of Marxism or another. An inevitability, he feared, because the West did not seriously consider or understand the same questions posed in Becker’s film. “Almost nothing that I have observed, or that has happened to me since,” wrote Chambers, “has made me think that I was wrong about that forecast.” Becker’s film asks us to consider the questions that, if unasked and unanswered, Chambers feared would deliver the world to the “totalitarian darkness” of Marxism.

Anyone who is still celebrating the liberal-capitalist “defeat” of communism needs to reckon with the field of Democratic presidential candidates; subject themselves to scold Greta Thunberg as she calls for Stalinist central planning to “fight” climate change; and must explain why virtually every mainstream media and academic institution is lurching us toward totalitarian darkness.

Books & Culture

‘Modified’ Should Be Vilified

“Modified” is an object lesson in propaganda, which applies whether the target is fracking, e-cigarettes, nuclear power, or some other disfavored technology or product: When the facts aren’t on your side, tell a story.

Every so often, we scientists encounter something that is so misguided, so wrong-headed, so perfectly idiotic it takes our breath away. It offends us. Such an example is a docudrama film called “Modified.” Disguised as a tender, sentimental story of a Canadian woman learning over many years from her mother the value of home-grown, homemade food—a sort of culinary version of “Anne of Green Gables”—it is nothing more than an anti-social screed providing fodder for the anti-science, anti-corporate echo-chamber that relentlessly attacks agricultural biotechnology, the application of modern genetic engineering to agriculture.

The film depicts an obsession with “GMOs,” or “genetically modified organisms,” that rivals that of Captain Ahab, Flat-Earthers, and people who are convinced they were once abducted by extraterrestrials.

This piece of repugnant propaganda deserves to be dissected, point by point.

In spite of its frequent colloquial use, the term “GMO,” or “genetically modified organism,” is meaningless. It does not have a clear definition, at least not in U.S. regulatory or scientific communities. One reason is that except for wild game, wild mushrooms, and wild berries, and fish and shellfish, virtually all the foods in our diet—including those grown organically, harvested, cooked and consumed so reverently in “Modified”—have been intentionally, if crudely, genetically modified over time.

The term “GMO,” which usually refers to the use of molecular techniques to craft new varieties, is often used pejoratively, to imply that genetic modification is an actual category—a new, discrete, and meaningful grouping whose members might present significant or uncertain risks.

 

Phantom Menace

The mother of filmmaker Aube Giroux dotes on her backyard garden and prepares gorgeous, mouthwatering dishes, but one day she awakens with sudden angst over molecular genetic engineering, or GE (terms we will use instead of the pejorative “GMO”) applied to food production. Much of her discomfiture stems from her idea that “some of the world’s largest chemical companies are patenting these new genetically engineered seeds and controlling the seed market.”

Such concerns are both dubious and misleading. Healthy, nutritious food is widely available, and not just from home gardens; large-scale agriculture has made food abundant, safe, and affordable. Many seeds, both GE and non-GE, are patented, so the suggestion that only GE seeds can be patented is simply untrue. Many research universities regularly patent new plant varieties and their seeds; a few are significant sources of revenue for those institutions.

Consider this from the website of the University of California, Davis: “Since its inception in the 1930s, the UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program has developed more than 60 patented varieties, turned strawberries into a year-round crop and increased strawberry yield from about 6 tons per acre in the 1950s to more than 30 tons per acre today.” These varieties were developed with “conventional,” not molecular, genetic engineering. More on that below.

Pretending that there is something unique, or particularly worrisome, about molecular genetic engineering is part of the activists’—and “Modified’s”—strategy, which is first to isolate, then disparage, and ultimately annihilate a new, improved, important technology that creates better seeds for the benefit of farmers and consumers. They have had some “successes”: The efforts of anti-GE activists, trolls, shills, and bots—both domestic and foreign—have prevented many of these seeds from ever making it out of research centers and into the hands of the people who need them most.

Note also that the concerns about big agribusiness companies “controlling the seed market” via patents conveniently ignores that in the marketplace, nobody compels a farmer to use a patented product, whether it is Windows software, an Apple Watch, a GPS device for a tractor (one of which is purchased by filmmaker Giroux’s brother in the film), or a GE seed. If a person doesn’t want to use it, there’s always the option of an older, less expensive (and often inferior) alternative.

 

Money Talks, but Whose Money? And What Does it Say?

A recurrent theme in the film is that money talks, enabling big agribusiness companies to control politicians and, thereby, to keep their products virtually unregulated. Money and lobbying are influential, to be sure, but it really doesn’t work in the direction these filmmakers imagine.

First, ironically, politicians’ and regulators’ willingness to accede to industry’s wishes have actually resulted in too high, not too low, a regulatory bar: During the 1980s and 1990s, the big agribusiness companies argued for—and got—sui generis and unnecessarily burdensome regulation by USDA, EPA, and FDA, in order to make it more difficult for small start-ups to compete with them in getting products to the marketplace.

Second, money does talk, but the fake news it inspires in this instance isn’t coming mainly from big agribusiness; it’s coming largely from the organic agriculture and “natural products” industries and their enablers, many of whom are featured—always admiringly—in “Modified.” Those industries have deep pockets.

In 2016, Jay Byrne, president and CEO of the marketing agency v-Fluence Interactive, examined the IRS filings, annual reports, and other financial sources of companies, trade organizations, and NGOs involved in the effort to discredit modern agriculture. Based on that information, he estimated that in 2011 the groups tracked by his company spent $2.5 billion campaigning against genetic engineering in North America alone. Globally, advocacy groups targeting agriculture probably spent over $10 billion—attacking other sectors as well, including vaccines, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals.

These expenditures go to a variety of activities, including lobbying, the commissioning and writing of op-eds, films such as “Modified,” and other active efforts to disparage and disadvantage their competition (conventional agriculture) and academic science communicators. One of the most aggressive campaigns by the anti-genetic engineering groups has been the promotion of government-imposed mandatory labeling of foods that contain ingredients from genetically engineered plants—a theme endlessly promoted in “Modified.” Such labeling raises the costs of those foods, because of the need for sequestration through the food-production chain from farm to fork, and increases legal liability if even inconsequential errors in labeling were to occur.

Higher food costs are the real threat to the public interest: When food is more expensive, consumers tend to seek cheaper, less nutritious sources of calories, and they have less disposable income to use for health-promoting purposes.

A flagrant inaccuracy in the film is the assertion that molecular genetic engineering in the United States is “virtually unregulated,” which turns reality on its head. In spite of a wide and long-standing consensus that molecular genetic engineering is an extension, or refinement, of older, less precise, less predictable techniques, GE plants are the most intensively regulated of all new plant varieties. The costs of regulatory compliance for a genetically engineered plant average about $35 million, far more than for conventionally modified new varieties.

This anomalous situation inhibits innovation with the best available technologies. Although many universities have developed scores of innovative GE crops with useful traits, the regulations are so burdensome and obstructive that the marketplace is largely limited to huge-scale commodity crops created by the same large multinational corporations that the film seeks to demonize. Ironically, because the onerous regulation sought by Giroux and her fellow travelers acts as a market-entry barrier to smaller companies, it would actually favor the big agribusiness companies they vilify.

Bad Science

The film also muddles a brief discussion of “pleiotropic effects,” the phenomenon of one gene being responsible for or affecting more than one trait. It approaching this subject it completely ignores traditional crop breeding, which by definition involves “genetic modification” to enhance or introduce desirable traits, or to diminish undesirable ones. As noted earlier, except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables, and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another. Often those techniques are the irradiation of seeds to obtain mutants; or “wide crosses,” hybridization that moves genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature, a phenomenon that is pointedly ignored in the film.

These more primitive and imprecise techniques of genetic modification are even acceptable in organic agriculture, including in the Girouxs’ garden. Yet because of the imprecision of these processes and the large number of genes that are moved or modified in old, or conventional, genetic modification, pleiotropy is far more prevalent and significant with these methods than when molecular techniques are used; and unexpected traits—such as a potato variety with toxic levels of an alkaloid, and corn with unexpectedly high susceptibility to a fungal pathogen—have emerged only in organisms modified with the older genetic techniques.

Yet another misleading assertion is the film’s insistence that consumers overwhelmingly demand labeling of food products that contain “GMOs.” Most consumers have no idea what “genetically modified” means, which is hardly surprising inasmuch as the term is ambiguous and arbitrary, and does not circumscribe a meaningful category. Moreover, consider that a survey by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that over 80 percent of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA,” about the same number as support mandatory labeling of foods “produced with genetic engineering.”

Even so, voters have turned down state referendum issues that would have required labeling, such as California’s Proposition 37.

Various characters in “Modified” deride the claims that GE will “feed the world.” According to one Canadian organic farmer, his yields are higher than his conventionally farming neighbors. (Organic agriculture bans plants made with molecular genetic engineering techniques—although old, less precise, less predictable methods are okay.) The data argue otherwise.

The fatal flaw of organic agriculture is its low yields, which cause it to be wasteful of water and arable farmland. Plant pathologist Dr. Steve Savage analyzed the data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2014 Organic Survey, which reports various measures of productivity from most of the certified organic farms in the nation, and compared them to those at conventional farms, crop by crop and state by state. His findings are extraordinary: Of the 68 crops surveyed, there was a “yield gap”—poorer performance of organic farms—in 59. And many of those gaps, or shortfalls, were impressive: strawberries, 61 percent less than conventional; fresh tomatoes, 61 percent less; tangerines, 58 percent less; carrots, 49 percent less; cotton, 45 percent less; rice, 39 percent less; peanuts, 37 percent less, and so on.

In developing countries, where the baseline of crop yields is lower, we can expect even greater increases with the introduction of GE crops. Moreover, the availability of more-resilient crops—drought-, heat-, flood-, and insect-resistant—will dramatically increase food security. What the poor desperately want and need is access to GE crops, as illustrated by the recent civil disobedience in India, with thousands of farmers illegally planting insect-resistant cotton and brinjal (eggplant).

Another advantage of herbicide-resistant GE crops is that it makes possible more no-till farming, with consequently less runoff of chemicals and soil erosion and release of CO2. And contrary to the claims in “Modified,” GE crops have enabled farmers to apply far less agricultural chemicals, and where they are necessary, to shift to less toxic ones.

“Modified” is an object lesson in propaganda, which applies whether the target is fracking, e-cigarettes, nuclear power, or some other disfavored technology or product: When the facts aren’t on your side, tell a story. The disinformation in “Modified” serves only to create confusion and apprehension in an audience with no idea they are being led down the primrose path to perdition. It deserves obloquy and oblivion.

Books & Culture

A review of Provocations: Collected Essays on Art, Feminism, Politics, Sex, and Education, by Camille Paglia. (Pantheon, 736 pages, $17.99)

Camille Paglia, Now More than Ever

More than anything, Camille Paglia’s style and élan vital invites readers to think further about culture and ideas and, in a society dominated by ideology, this is something we need now more than ever.

Ever since she burst onto the intellectual scene with the publication of Sexual Personae (1990), Camille Paglia has been challenging the norms of what it means to be a public intellectual. Her critiques of culture, art, and society have garnered a lot of attention from friends and foes alike. Love her or hate her, when Camille Paglia speaks, the world listens. As it should. She is a writer of enormous intellect, who has a feel for the nuances and intricacies of how being human works. She is a great synthesizer of the large and great ideas upon which civilizations were built and crumbled, and her views on gender, sexuality, and art are delivered with a verve and speed only a few can match.

Paglia’s new book, Provocations, is a collection of essays written over the course of the last 20 years. As one might expect, the essays cover a multitude of topics: feminism, politics, gender, higher education, film, and art. In many ways, Paglia has continued the approach of analysis and synthesis of ideas she did in Sexual Personae. She has the ability to take a large idea that encompasses one civilization in history and show us that those signs never left us.

Paglia certainly did this in Sexual Personae, in which she brilliantly posited the theory that the Apollonian and Dionysian divide in man never really left us despite the cultural and chronological distance of ancient Greek myths. Men are still thrusting toward the need to conquer and women still nurture but also have an incredible power over men. These are tough pills to swallow in today’s society of identity politics in which the struggle to erase the differences between men and women is all consuming, but according to Paglia, we are still re-enacting the most primal archetypes of humanity.

In the introduction to the new book, Paglia tells us that “this book is not for everyone.” It is not for people who believe to have found an “absolute truth about mankind;” it is not for people who are interested in controlling speech; or “for those who believe that art is a servant of political agendas;” or for people who wallow in victim culture; or “for those who see human behavior as wholly formed by oppressive social forces.” Instead, this book is for people who “elevate free thought and free speech over all other values; for those who see art as a “medium of intuition and revelation; it is for people who support gender equality but don’t demand “special protections for women as weaker sex”; for people “who see nature as a vast and sublime force”; and finally, “for those who see life in spiritual terms as a quest for enlightenment, a dynamic process of ceaseless observation, reflection, and self-education.” In other words, this book is for people who are interested in reflecting on what it means to be a human being.

No matter which subject Paglia writes about, she seems to at once channel Friedrich Nietzsche, Marquis de Sade, and Georges Bataille and yet, out of nowhere, she can become Plato, Shakespeare, and Bernini, chiseling and crafting words that come out of utterly masculine power, and then she throws another curveball and draws inspiration from St. Teresa of Avila—a Spanish Carmelite mystic—whom she calls “a woman of the future, blending practical realism with passionate idealism.”

The intellectual and spiritual openness that resides in Camille Paglia’s being is visible in all of the essays collected in this book. It is impossible to mention every essay here (the book is a whopping 736 pages!) but the overarching theme running through all of them is Paglia’s concern for freedom and individuality.

Today, the most apparent danger to free speech is found on college and university campuses. In “Free Speech and the Modern Campus,” Paglia centers her discussion around the notion of political correctness. For her, political correctness is always borne out of revolution but, inevitably, it turns sour. After the revolution is over, the original “rebels begin to fight among themselves, which may lead to persecution and assassinations. The victorious survivor then rules like the tyrants that were toppled in the first place.”

Inevitably, Paglia claims, the original and well-meaning “revolutionary principles  . . . become merely slogans, verbal formulas enforced by apparatchiks, that is, party functionaries or administrators who kill great ideas by institutionalizing them.” Today, most institutions of higher education ought to have the same advertising slogan: a place where freedom of thought comes to die.

Paglia is emphasizing the irony that institutions that  once were hotbeds for individual and academic freedom are now petri dishes of dangerous and yet boring ideologies. They’ve become places, it seems, with a mission to destroy any authentically wisdom-seeking mind. The problem of higher education is also “intensified by the increasing fixation of humanities and even history departments on ‘presentism,’ that is, preoccupation with our own modern period.” Indeed, everything is seen through the lens of today’s problems and so, reading Plato or Shakespeare or Milton becomes about deconstructing the text instead of understanding it on its own terms. But this isn’t akin to parsing a sentence for grammar and then putting the parts back together. Rather, this kind of deconstruction is an assault on the text with an explicit intention to discredit (as if they can!) the literary and philosophical canon.

Paglia is a great contributor to the elevation of film as an art form while at the same time she rejects the dullness and joylessness of film analysis from an academic perspective. In “The Waning of European Art Film,” she reflects on fond memories of seeing films by Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni and the fact that “Tragically, very few young people today, teethed on dazzling special effects and a hyperactive visual style, seem to have patience for the long, slow take that deep-think European directors once specialized in.” Although this is true, it is highly plausible that even at the time of their release, very few people had the patience for such films, especially in America. Nevertheless, Paglia’s wide-rangng knowledge of film directors, such as Bergman, Truffaut, and Fellini, illuminates her own thirst for cinematic provocations and the probing of the human soul.

Paglia’s writings on gender culminate in her discussion of gender fluidity as seen in the various personae of David Bowie. In “Theater of Gender: David Bowie at the Climax of the Sexual Revolution,” Paglia’s commentary on the great performer is just as unique and deep as Bowie himself. She rightly recognizes Bowie’s early performative choices as Romanticism and his constant playing with the notion of androgyne. As Ziggy Stardust, Bowie took gender “into another dimension of space-time, where sexual personae of both East and West met and melded.”

Throughout his entire career, Bowie constantly redefined the notion of gender and sexuality but the difference between him and the ideological gender warriors of today, is that for Bowie this was a fluidity that had aesthetic foundations as opposed to the elimination of biological differences between men and women.

Paglia fully supports this, and in “Feminism and Transgenderism” (an interview with Jonathan V. Last), Paglia says that “Although I describe myself as transgender (I was donning flamboyant male costumes from early childhood on), I am highly skeptical about the current transgender wave, which I think has been produced by far more complicated psychological and sociological factors than current gender discourse allows. Furthermore, I condemn the escalating prescription of puberty blockers (whose long-term effects are unknown) for children, which I regard as a criminal violation of human rights.” As we can see, Paglia’s position is unique and does not fit neatly into any existing intellectual categories.

Although she has always supported the Democratic party, Paglia has no problem calling Bill Clinton a “hormonal president.” Of course, her political commentary would be incomplete if she didn’t reflect on Donald J. Trump, whom she calls the “viking dragon.” Trump, according to Paglia, “is his own publicist, a quick-draw scrapper and go-for-the-jugular brawler. He is a master of the unexpected (as the Egyptian commander Achillas calls Julius Caesar in Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra).”

Paglia has always exhibited an aesthetic “disinterestedness”—a writer’s disposition that looks at the subjects (whether persons or ideas) as objectively as possible, and this is clearly visible in her treatment of political leaders and even of moral subjects. Is this a weakness? Not necessarily because Paglia does not pretend to be a moral philosopher. She has always been authentic and straight-forward about her views and positions.

Rather, Paglia is a cultural critic who sees the threads that connect one aspect of society with another and because of this, her perspective is invaluable. Paglia’s own stubborn freedom of thought, as well as her intellectual and spiritual openness, are inspiring. She is and remains a significant voice in the analysis of culture.

At times, her love of popular culture (low art) appears to minimize the importance of high art but it is precisely this unusual way of looking at the world that makes her unique and powerful. More than anything, her style and élan vital invites readers to think further about culture and ideas and, in a society dominated by ideology, this is something we need now more than ever.

Books & Culture

A review of Reclaiming Common Sense, by Robert Curry. (Encounter Books, 112 pages, $19.99)

Reclaiming Common Sense

Robert Curry’s Reclaiming Common Sense is a good antidote for America’s current post-truth insanity.

In a healthy society, defending common sense wouldn’t be necessary. But in 2019 America, it is.

Robert Curry offers just such a defense in his book Reclaiming Common Sense. Despite its brevity (107 pages), it covers the issues clearly and effectively.

Curry’s previous book, Common Sense Nation, showed how the American founders used common sense as their guide. Both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution reflect its influence.

His new book argues that elite “political correctness” is an attack on common sense. That attack targets the bedrock not just of the American founding, but of Western civilization itself:

Faltering belief in common sense is behind the rejection of the Founders’ idea of America. More broadly, it is behind the astonishing rejection of Western civilization by its own people—a rejection that has reached what looks to be a civilization-ending crisis in Europe.

Curry’s stated goal is simply to answer the attack on common sense. But reading between the lines, what his book actually achieves is something more. He:

  • Shows the absurdity of moral relativism.
  • Vindicates the idea of objective truth.
  • Points out the self-evident truth of some common-sense beliefs.
  • Argues that common sense is a central part of our American tradition.

He shows how common sense applies in many different areas, not just in everyday life, but also science, psychotherapy, and self-mastery. He also diagnoses some challenges to common sense based on a woozy romanticism and misinterpretations of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

And yet, there’s a paradox at the very heart of his project. Common sense is a bit like masculinity: you can’t think about it too much without turning it into something else. Likewise, using philosophical arguments to defend common sense risks turning it into abstract reasoning.

Curry resolves the paradox by implicitly observing three levels of common sense:

  • Logical common sense: Beliefs and assumptions that are necessary for any thought at all.
  • Human common sense: Beliefs and assumptions that are necessary for any flourishing human life and society.
  • Social common sense: Beliefs and assumptions that are applied successfully by particular societies.

Logical common sense is indispensable. It includes our knowledge that we exist, that reality is real, that logic works, and that evidence matters: “The world of the dream is our world absent the principles of common sense.” Even a Martian would need it.

Curry cites Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid as a defender of logical common sense, but Reid didn’t invent the idea. The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus noted that:

There are certain things which men not entirely perverted [can] see by the natural principles common to all. Such a constitution of the mind is called common sense.

Human common sense embodies millennia of human experience. It includes our knowledge that men and women are different, that children need guidance, and that social life requires law. Its truths are not infallible, but neither are abstract theories such as the lunatic pronouncements of postmodernists and gender-studies departments.

Social common sense embodies the customs, traditions, and expectations of particular human groups. It includes our knowledge that self-reliance is a virtue, that virtue is impossible without freedom, and that law should be applied impartially. Curry notes “while our capacity for common sense is inborn, we must enter into the common life of a human community to develop it.”

It’s that shared life of a human community—derived in large part from British common law and the Scottish Enlightenment—that inspired the American Founders:

Their wild and crazy notion was that people who are capable of personal self-rule by common sense are also capable of political self-rule by common sense … In the Founders’ vision, the ultimate foundation of American self-rule is the common sense of the American people.

Reclaiming Common Sense is a good antidote for America’s current post-truth insanity.

Books & Culture

Canceling the Joker

The truth is the critics just don’t want the Joker to be a disenfranchised white guy. If the villain was a woman or belonged to a racial minority, the film would be celebrated.

Leftists and feminists fear the Joker. They claim the new Warner Bros. movie, Joker, will inspire mass shootings and “incel” violence. The Batman villain, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is seen as the ultimate angry white man. Critics shriek that no such character deserves fair representation—it’s just too dangerous for alienated white men to see a fellow alienated white man on the big screen.

The criticism against “Joker” shows campus insanity bleeding over into the rest of society. On college campuses, leftists try to shut down opposing viewpoints with ridiculous claims that these words and ideas “threaten their lives.” Similarly, leftists want to cancel “Joker” with dubious claims that the film threatens public safety—all because the film may paint a disenfranchised white guy in a sympathetic light.

Hollywood has a decades long tradition of making movies about disaffected white guys—”Taxi Driver,” “Falling Down,” “Fight Club,” etc.—all released without the eruption of mass violence. Plenty of other new films and TV shows depict graphic violence, but liberals don’t worry about their negative influence. Art, as leftists say they understand it, depicts life in all its glory and misery; a film about an alienated man who becomes a comic book super villain doesn’t seem like a threat to national security.

But leftists persist in this claim.

These arguments essentially amount to telling Hollywood it shouldn’t tell villains’ backstories or show them sympathetically. “I don’t want to watch a well-intentioned but unstable man get bullied until he turns into a mass murderer.” But that’s the story of the “Friday the 13th” horror franchise, which did not inspire any bullied young men to imitate Jason Voorhees.

Many films have told the backstories of unpleasant characters in a sympathetic light. Mob movies don’t show gangsters as one-dimensional thugs, they give them a human face. The 2003 film “Monster” thoughtfully portrayed a brutal female serial killer, but leftists did not claim it would inspire copycat killers. The new movie “Hustlers” celebrates strippers who drug and rob men. This is a serious crime that can result in the death of its victims, yet Hollywood sells it as female empowerment.

Somehow, “Joker”—a movie about a comic book character—is far more dangerous than “Hustlers”—a glorification of real-life criminals. Unlike the Jennifer Lopez vehicle, “Joker” doesn’t celebrate the villain’s crimes or turn him into a hero. It just explains why he became a villain.

If that is scary to leftists, then we had better cancel all films about gangsters, serial killers, and dictators. Some one may want to be Idi Amin after seeing “The Last King of Scotland!”

The critics don’t go this far, because they would make their point ridiculous. The truth is they just don’t want the Joker to be a disenfranchised white guy. If the villain was a woman or belonged to a racial minority, the film would be celebrated.

Writer Geraldine DeRuitter made this point in a viral tweet thread.

“Joker” isn’t viewed as bad because it’s violent and sympathizes with a villain—it’s called bad because it’s about a white guy.

There is also the strange obsession with incel violence. An incel is someone who is involuntarily celibate. Left-wing journos are frightened by these men and believe they are all terrorists. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker has a girlfriend, however, so he’s not an incel. But his anger at society is somehow too close to incel disenchantment for comfort and we now have incel terror hysteria.

The U.S. military warned troops about the supposed incel terror threat surrounding “Joker” and some police departments say they will maintain a theater presence during its opening week.

The makers of “Joker” are aware of the outrage and think it’s stupid. “I think it’s because outrage is a commodity,” director Todd Phillips said. “I think it’s something that has been a commodity for a while. What’s outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda. It’s really been eye opening for me.”

Joaquin Phoenix walked out of an interview after a reporter asked about its dangerous message.

“Joker” executive producer Michael Uslan offered a solid defense of the film. “Look at what I consider some of the most important films: What have they done? They’ve held up a mirror to our society, and there are times when people don’t want to see that reflection, they want to run from it,” he said last week. “They don’t want to acknowledge it because sometimes the reflection shows warts and all, whether it’s biases and prejudices or what’s happened to our society, reflecting the times.”

Leftists would rather have a film that confirms their biases and does not challenge any of their assumptions. Art is only supposed to convey the message they want. Alienated white men are too evil for sympathy and they must be demonized.

“Joker” will be a blockbuster and one can hope we can laugh off the hysteria when the incel violence never happens. But the backlash may prompt Hollywood to fear releasing another film like this. Only woke, “Captain Marvel”-like superhero movies will be tolerated. It’s just not safe to sympathize with a white male villain.

Books & Culture

The Cruel Joke of Hollywood’s Sanctimony is Seen in Reaction to ‘Joker’

Whether “Joker” is good art or not, few know at this point. But one thing is sure: whether it’s a flop or it outearns “The Avengers,” it’s still just a movie.

Hollywood loves four things: sex, guns, crazy, and money. Quentin Tarantino has made a career of amping up all four brilliantly in his movies. Have you seen “John Wick” 1-3? The entire entertainment industry feeds off them, and as the saying goes in local news, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

But Hollywood and its media sycophants also love to criticize violence, men, and independent thinking while sexualizing everything including our children and castigating “the rich”—as long as those rich aren’t entertainers or their patrons. They orbit the likes of Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein and trash traditional values. Pretentious, preening Hollywood is the epicenter of #MeToo.

And Hollywood just loves mental illness and reveling in it. From “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to “Fight Club” to “Silver Linings Playbook,” exploiting mental illness is a constant Hollywood theme. Sometimes they even make it a superpower like on the FX show “Legion” or in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass Trilogy.”

But there’s nothing in Hollywood that is a bigger draw than a good guns blazing action flick. At the same time, however, throw a stick in any direction in Tinseltown and you’ll hit someone who criticizes guns, gun owners, the Second Amendment and the NRA.

They can’t have it both ways. Still, they try.

The True Tragedy of Horror Are the Lies About It

The madman who dyed his hair red and killed a dozen innocent moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 never called himself “The Joker.” He didn’t color his hair red to emulate the Joker—whose hair is green. He didn’t mimic the Joker in any of his actions.

This fact doesn’t stop the New Republic from maintaining there is a direct link from reality to the comics in its hit on “The Joker,” a new film that debuts today. TNR warns darkly about the film:

The shooting was a national story, and at the time it was reported that Holmes had referred to himself as “Joker” and dyed his hair bright red to more closely resemble a cartoon villain. Officials later refused to confirm that report, but the association between Holmes and the Joker was drawn clearly on the news, adding another facet to the Joker’s political identity: this time as carnage- and chaos-inducing domestic mass shooter.

The Joker has no “political identity.” He is a fictional villain and nemesis to the fictional hero, Batman. If conservatives identify with anyone in this scenario, it’s Batman, the unappreciated shadow who patrols the night to take on criminals the system is too weak to handle. But neither character is inherently political. If anything one represents chaos and the other stands for order.

It’s a given that most of what’s reported as fact in the moment and the immediate aftermath of a breaking horror like a shooting is wrong. The news got the Joker link wrong in 2012 and never bothered to correct it with adequate force despite its duty to do so. Because the madman targeted people who happened to be watching a Batman film (“The Dark Knight Rises” which, by the way, posits Bane and not the Joker opposite Batman), and because speculative statements from people a thousand miles from the crime injected the Joker into the killing spree, this nut and that character have been indelibly linked.

Dredging Up Old Horrors and Lies

Now seven years later, Joaquin Phoenix stars as the comic villain in a new film directed by Todd Phillips. This rendition of “Joker” takes the villain out of the comics and places him in a much more realistic world, with realistic plot points such as his loss of access to medication speeding his descent into violent madness. If only the Joker had Liz Warren’s Medicare for all, we could avoid this tragedy!

Since the Christopher Nolan directed trilogy, the trend of comic book films—especially those related to Batman— has been to get more real. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker remains the most realistic to date. The erroneous yet ironclad popular link to Aurora, and the more recent spate of mass killings, has some in the media and even in the military on edge as the film lights up screens around the world.

Theaters are banning costumes and face paint—as if cosplay leads to violence. But is this concern justified, or are the media spewing selective fear ultimately rooted in old politics?

Did Julia Roberts inspire young women to all run out and become prostitutes by starring in Pretty Woman? No serious person would argue that she did.

“‘The Joker’ is a problem, and it’s on all of us,” writes Digital Trends. And we’ve all learned a new term of identity, “incels,” short for “involuntary celibates,” who we’re told are men who idolize the Aurora shooter (again, a non-Joker) and may be set off by Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker in the new movie.

It goes without saying that not all so-called “incels” are mentally ill, own guns, are sure to see “The Joker,” or are primed to go on a spree. It also goes without saying that the media, nevertheless, will use all of these non-links to question the movie—at least as it concerns guns and male violence, exposing its hypocrisy on the other point that bears examination with regard to mass shooters: mental illness. The argument seems to be that if the movie inspires even one violent act, society has a problem and the guns and movies are at fault.

By that logic, literally everything is up for hand-wringing and possible banning. Mentally ill people who are prone to violence—a very small percentage of the mentally ill, by the way—may be triggered by almost anything. It is impossible to predict or prevent it, of course, because they are mentally ill. The connections don’t make sense to any well person.

A book, a movie, a song, even a ham sandwich may trigger someone dealing with serious mental instability. The risk rises if, as was the case with John Lennon’s murderer, strong drugs are involved. On the eve of “The Joker,” people who consider themselves serious are prepared to blame a movie that is not yet out for crimes that have not yet occurred and may never occur—over a falsely cherished connection to a past crime and movie. And get ready: they’re always ready to blame guns.

Blaming Everybody but Themselves

The media always want someone and something to blame—in this case as in most it will be guns and men—the fictional man in the movie, and the men Phoenix and Phillips who made it, and the men who are most likely to see it because of its comic book origins. And of course guns.

What Hollywood and the media are not willing to do is look at themselves and their own role in profiting from and glorifying violence and division, sowing frustration, and stigmatizing mental illness. For anyone who pushes back, the media have rigged the argument so that you can’t win. If it looks like you could win—that is if your jabs, to use a metaphor, draw blood—odds are they’ll just doxx you.

The answer here is not attacking art which, after all, is made both for its own sake and for the livelihoods of the artists. The answer is realistically to examine both guns and mental illness. The examination of mental illness must come before the guns, though, for the obvious reason that it seems likely one must be in the throes of some kind of mental illness or evil delusion in order to be inspired to take a gun or any other weapon for the purpose of committing mass slaughter of innocents who have done one no wrong. While one mentally ill person does this, millions more own guns and never ever harm a single soul. We cannot anticipate what will trigger people inclined to commit these horrors.

As for guns, more than 2 million Americans use firearms for legitimate self-defense every year. The media must surely educate itself on guns before offering opinions about them. Semi-automatic guns are not more powerful than other types of weapons, a “clip” is not a magazine, and actual automatic weapons have been severely restricted from civilian ownership for decades. Let’s start there and work forward. Media, do your homework.

None of this is to question whether art or the media have the power to influence through imagery and portrayals. Unquestionably, they do. From the kids who will dress as Batman for Halloween this year to the grown men who wear the jersey of their favorite football player, to the girls and women who have cut their hair to style themselves after Megan Rapinoe or Alex Morgan or JLo, image is one of the most powerful beacons on earth. As Andre Agassi famously said, image is everything. And we all want to belong to something.

Hollywood profits from this power. The media both siphons and amplifies this power. Whomever they glorify receives glory; whomever they scorn is cast out.

If there is a responsibility among the critics with regard to “The Joker,” it’s to be fair, un-rig the game they have rigged, and stop the incessant drive to curb the rights of the law-abiding. As for the artists, their responsibility is to make good art and make a living. Whether “Joker” is good art or not, few know at this point. But one thing is sure: whether it’s a flop or it outearns “The Avengers,” it’s still just a movie.

Books & Culture

Toward a New Cynicism

Recognizing not only the inefficiencies and corruption inherent in our political process and government, but also the stupidity to which modern man is prone, we should begin all dealings with human beings by assuming that, either out of their ineptitude or their malice, they are going to get it wrong.

When I was a teenager my kid sister and I came up with a concept we called CST. You see, my Cuban mom was always late. No matter what the occasion she reliably could be expected to be chronologically unreliable. Usually by about 30-45 minutes. So we conceived of the concept of “Cuban Standard Time.” Roughly, this meant “some time today.”

Given this small failing of hers, we would tell my mother we had to be at events an hour prior to the actual time, ensuring we’d arrive close to schedule if not slightly early.

We did this not out of any spite or resentment of our dear mom—she was a fine woman and we loved her dearly—but we understood and apprised our situation, so we took steps to correct it.

It was an idealistic cynicism, if you will

Hence my call for a new cynicism with respect to our politics. Recognizing not only the inefficiencies and corruption inherent in our political process and government, but also the stupidity to which modern man is prone, we should begin all dealings with human beings by assuming that, either out of their ineptitude or their malice, they are going to get it wrong.

By “it” I mean crusades, programs, initiatives, projects, investigations, and even mere day to day operations. This cynicism should apply both to Right and Left, liberal and conservative, statist and libertarian. Such an approach would probably benefit at least 70 percent of the dealings we have with our fellow citizens.

Or as my dad put it, “When I meet people I only think the worst of them. That way I only get pleasant surprises.”

When it comes to government, it is the very nature of the beast. It’s not that there aren’t intelligent people of integrity working there. But as in most places, they are few. The vast majority are people too lazy to do manual labor and who, if they don’t think life owes them a cushy existence, have at least finagled to find one.

So their time is spent feathering their nests and making the boss look good because soon after they join the ranks of the state they realize such activity is the way to get ahead. Of course it is, as there is no free market pressure for them to perform up to snuff in anything.

For example, if you go to a bank and the teller is rude and vulgar with you they stand a chance, if you report it, of being fired. Try applying that at the DMV or at your local county courthouse, especially in Democrat-controlled areas where the white collar government unions have an unholy campaign donation alliance with elected officials. Good luck.

Granted, the farther you go up the totem pole, the worse it is. There are those on the lower rungs who honestly try to do a decent job. But they don’t run the show or call the tune.

You may object, “But there is pressure on elected officials! It’s called elections!” Oh, really?

Have you seen incumbent return figures lately? As a former political consultant I can readily tell you that people form, for many different reasons, a proprietary relationship with certain politicians. Be it out of racial or ethnic solidarity, ideology, regional loyalty, or personal charisma, most voters are prepared to accept a lot from a politician who somewhere along the line bonded with them in some vague way of which even the pol may not be aware.

I remember talking to a close associate years ago who was keen on the idea of General Colin Powell running for president. I met General Powell once, when I was a young soldier and he was a general, coming out of an Army barbershop at V Corps HQ in Frankfurt, Germany. As we almost bumped into each other in the doorway I said, “Excuse me, sir.” He slyly grinned and got out of my way. Cool guy, plus his troops worshipped him. On those traits alone I might consider the general for the big office. But, when I asked my pal why she supported Powell, she responded, “I think he cares about me.”

I retorted, “You mean, about the American people, average people?”

“No,” she said, “about me and my life. I really think he understands. I can just tell.”

Ahem…cough…ummm…what?

Yes, Powell, who had never met or heard of her, inadvertently sparked the internal synapse in her that said, “good politician who cares about me.” Though, it was factually very unlikely that he did so in the specific sense, this is the way things work. Welcome to the discerning judgment of the typical U.S. voter. Does this make elections effective as a kind of market pressure? Uhhhh, no.

Our modern cultural and educational powers that be have gone a long way toward successfully substituting a petulant entitlement for the Protestant work ethic.

Our best option in this environment? When in Rome? Wear a toga.

Indeed fight the sans culottes on the political beaches at every opportunity. But on a personal basis assume that most whomever you deal with, with an emphasis on the public sector outside of the uniformed services, is a stone cold idiot or nefarious poseur.

Replace sad, silly, and empirically disproven hope and willy nilly expectations with a bright new cynicism borne of a realistic view of our present society. Expect nothing of government or of most people and you won’t be disappointed when they don’t come through. If you demure on this, you’re expecting birds not to fly.

By affecting a wry jaded visage and the corresponding demeanor when dealing with the majority of mankind you’ll be able to sip on that bourbon or gin at the end of the day, and/or puff on that Ashton or Fuente, with a satisfied glow, well secure in the knowledge that, like my kid sister and I, you were at minimum one step ahead of the game.

In a world full of the ineffectual and the iniquitous, that’s not a bad position to be in at all.

Books & Culture

A review of Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig and Election and Destroy a Presidency, by Andrew C. McCarthy (Encounter, 456 pages, $35.99)

A Detailed Account of America’s Greatest Political Scandal

Very few journalists were willing to confront that scandal amid the cacophony of Trump-Russia collusion. Andrew McCarthy was one of them.

In early 2017, as the shocking story of how the Obama Administration weaponized the world’s most powerful agencies against Donald Trump began to unfold, very few journalists were willing to confront that scandal amid the cacophony of Trump-Russia collusion. Andrew McCarthy was one of them.

From the pages of National Review to the set of Fox News, McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, explained complex legal procedures in layman’s terms. Americans unfamiliar with FBI counterintelligence probes or the workings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court or Special Counsel rules were educated by McCarthy in a way that made it easy for the non-lawyer to grasp. McCarthy, a humble, humorous, and gracious man by nature, offered his expertise without the self-gratifying puffery ingrained in so many prosecutors. (Think James Comey.)

His new book, Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency, includes and expands on this crucial work. In careful detail, McCarthy deconstructs the Trump-Russia collusion ruse; the wind-up of Crossfire Hurricane, the unprecedented investigation into a U.S. presidential campaign; and the ramifications of one of the biggest political scandals in American history. In addition to his knowledge and insight, McCarthy knows many of the players involved personally, including former FBI Director James Comey, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney.

Further, McCarthy is no fawning booster of the president so his coverage of the scandal was not in the service of protecting Trump, his family, or his presidency. In fact, McCarthy contributed to the infamous “Against Trump” issue published by National Review in February 2016. “The threat against us has metastasized in our eighth year under a president who quite consciously appeases the enemy,” McCarthy wrote. “But the remedy is not a president oblivious of the enemy.”

The ball of collusion, as McCarthy describes at the end of his 456-page book, is “counterintelligence as a pretext for criminal investigation in search of a crime; a criminal investigation as a pretext for impeachment without an impeachable offense; an impeachment inquiry as a pretext for barring Donald Trump from reelection; and all of it designed as a straightjacket around his presidency.” (Don’t let the number of pages scare you out of reading it; the author’s writing takes up about 350 pages.)

The book’s 18 chapters cover a range of central and corollary subjects. The biggest takeaway is how this entire scandal fused the competing interests of the nation’s biggest egos—some of whom clearly suffer from narcissistic personality disorder. This list includes the president, former president Obama, Comey, Mueller, former CIA director John Brennan, former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, and the collective Messiah complex of the Washington bureaucratic establishment and the national news media. McCarthy exposes the “small world” of partisan operatives, sycophants, apparatchiks, and deep pockets that populate the Acela Corridor and fuel the day-to-day turbulence of the American political climate.

Clinton Connections

For the last three years, Americans have been tormented by a dangerous power struggle waged by this claque of political actors who will use any means necessary in order to prevail. It is a black mark in history that will fascinate future historians; those historians undoubtedly will draw heavily from McCarthy’s book as a comprehensive account of what happened between 2016 and 2019, when Robert Mueller finally had to admit there was no evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin to influence the stunning outcome of the 2016 presidential election. As someone who has covered this scandal closely, I learned important new information from McCarthy about the timeline and the culprits involved.

McCarthy offers crucial background about the financial and political ties between Russia and the Clintons—yet somehow Hillary Clinton’s troubling past related to Russia did not provoke any FBI investigation. “Candidate Clinton and her husband had disturbing Russia ties, too,” McCarthy explained in the book’s introduction. “The Clinton campaign had not just Russia contacts; it had Bill Clinton meeting with Putin and taking a huge payment while Russia had important business before the State Department run by his wife,” McCarthy outlines in chapter 10. “It had Russian money pouring into the Clinton Foundation; its chairman, John Podesta, sat on the board of . . . a company into which Putin’s venture capital firm invested $35 million.”

But Carter Page gave a speech in Moscow.

A Multi-Pronged Plot

McCarthy provides an in-depth analysis of Washington’s unsettling relationship with Russia and Ukraine. Chapter four is a must-read: McCarthy explains how the Obama Administration manipulated intelligence for political purposes—yet another egregious example of how the Obama White House got away with bad behavior while their lapdogs in the media either ignored it or covered it up.

“No administration in American history was more practiced in the dark arts of politicizing intelligence than President Obama’s,” McCarthy writes. “Examples are legion.” This unchecked malfeasance led to the creation of the fabricated collusion ruse and the empowerment of ego-maniacs such as Brennan and Comey.

The next several chapters delve into the multi-pronged plot to sabotage the Trump campaign and derail Trump’s presidency. McCarthy confirms that—contrary to dubious claims by the New York Times and faithfully regurgitated by Trump foes—the FBI investigation was not initiated by an alleged drunken conversation between Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos and an Australian diplomat in the spring of 2016.

That ruse—which McCarthy calls an “unlikely story”—was an attempt to camouflage the way the dossier compiled by British political operative Christopher Steele, who was working on behalf of the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee, supplied the probable cause to launch Crossfire Hurricane, the official name of the counterintelligence probe into four Trump associates, three of whom are named in the dossier. (A document filled with still-unproven accusations.)

“Steele’s project was not intelligence-gathering,” McCarthy explains. “It was the crafting of a campaign narrative about a traitorous Trump-Russia espionage conspiracy. That’s why Steele and [Fusion GPS chief Glenn] Simpson peddled the information to the media at the same time Steele was feeding it to the FBI and the Justice Department. The Clinton campaign’s Steele dossier was the sheer political spinning of rank rumor.”

“This Should Never Happen”

McCarthy profiles the various spies deployed to infiltrate and monitor the Trump campaign, easily debunking another faux media narrative that the Obama Administration didn’t spy on Trump.

“The indignant anger over questions about the Crossfire Hurricane undercover operations . . . is misplaced,” he writes in Chapter 12.

The book’s chapter on the FISA warrant against Carter Page offers a crucial primer in advance of the anticipated report by Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s Inspector General, on how Comey’s FBI manipulated the secret court to get an order to spy on Page for a year. McCarthy admits his own miscalculation about how FISA might be abused after procedures were loosened following the 9/11 terror attacks.

“Back then, it seemed ridiculous to believe the FBI and the Justice Department would resort to FISA pretextually,” he concedes. “I was wrong. What I didn’t factor in was the possibility that, for political reasons, the upper ranks of the FBI and the Justice Department might decide to do an investigation by themselves. This should never happen.”

But in Trump’s case, of course, it did.

Comey’s “weasel moves” (that he insists he didn’t make but did repeatedly make when it came to Donald Trump) led to his ouster in May 2017. McCarthy is critical of the president’s handling of Comey’s firing, an assessment which is up for dispute. I strongly disagree that Comey was undeserving of his humiliating public dismissal because he “had served the United States well in many capacities over many years.” Comey will be—and should be—remembered for how he defiled the world’s most powerful law enforcement agency to gratify Barack Obama’s contempt for Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The inspector general recommended three criminal charges against Comey in his latest report; it’s very likely Comey will be implicated in more abuses as investigations into his conduct continue. But McCarthy does give an otherwise fair description of one of the most bitter president-FBI director relationships of all time.

The final chapter pores over the stretch of time between Comey’s firing and the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which Comey successfully prompted by leaking one of his memos documenting a private conversation with Trump to the New York Times.

“The collusion narrative had served its purpose,” McCarthy concludes. “The collusion narrative, seeded by the Obama administration, tilted by intelligence leaks and tended by constant media care accomplished its objectives. A special counsel . . . was imposed, despite the absence of criminal predicate, to monitor the Trump presidency.”

The Scandal Is Far from Over

If there is any criticism of McCarthy’s book, it is that he gives short shrift to the insidious role played by the anti-Trump news media. While McCarthy offers some examples of how news organizations such as the Times, CNN and the Washington Post eagerly reported classified information to fuel the collusion plotline, the destructive conduct of the media—including reporters, columnists, editors, cable news hosts, and various contributors on both sides of the Trump-hating political aisle—warranted more coverage. For example, MSNBC, which served as a nonstop organ of the collusion deception, only received three mentions in the book.

To his credit, however, McCarthy generously commends other journalists such as The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, Tablet Magazine’s Lee Smith, the Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross, and the Wall Street Journal’s Kim Strassel for their invaluable reporting on the scandal.

Even though the Mueller investigation is complete, this scandal is far from over. The public impatiently awaits the results of pending inspector general reports; criminal inquiries into McCabe and former FBI General Counsel James Baker; and an expansive investigation launched by Attorney General William Barr into what the Obama Administration did in 2016 and 2017 to try to destroy Donald Trump.

My guess is that McCarthy will have a chance to write a follow-up to this exceptional book.

Books & Culture

A review of Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies That Created The Parkland Shooter and Endanger America’s Students, by Andrew Pollack and Max Eden (Post Hill Press, 336 pages, $27)

Not by Negligence, But by Policy

A “national conversation” about guns is beside the point. We need to rethink wrongheaded school disciplinary rules.

Andrew Pollack is a man on a mission.

His beautiful and beloved daughter Meadow was one of the 17 students murdered by a deranged former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018, and Pollock is determined to expose the lenient school disciplinary policies that enabled the killer. His reasoning is simple: “I am not doing this to get famous, I am doing this so no family ever again has to feel the way my family feels,” he tweeted.

Due to the lax PROMISE policies spelled out in his new book, Why Meadow Died, many schools across the nation have become “no-go zones” for law enforcement, making it only a matter of time before another ticking time-bomb like the Parkland shooter goes off. The PROMISE program was put in place to keep students out of the criminal justice system, but critics say the policies have led to a culture of leniency.

(As a rule, American Greatness typically will not publish the names of mass-shooters. Throughout the book, Pollack refers to the shooter by his criminal case number, “18-1958.”) The book was co-written with Max Eden, an education researcher and journalist.

As happens in the immediate aftermath of every shooting, Democrat politicians, activists—and in this case Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel and Broward County School Superintendent Robert Runcie—rushed in front of news cameras to force the country to have a “national conversation” on guns.

Pollack stays out of the gun debate, but he has lots to say about the lax disciplinary policies championed by the grossly incompetent and corrupt Israel and Runcie.

“Broward schools put this MONSTER in class with my beautiful daughter,” Pollack wrote in a plaintive tweet Monday.

Pollack and Eden are not alone. Teachers, students, and parents in Parkland have worked with him for over a year to expose the sick system that allowed a dangerous lunatic to run wild.

“The reason he murdered my daughter and sixteen other people was that the system around him was even sicker than he was,” Pollack quips in the book’s preface.

And yes, 18-1958 was one sick pup. His birth mother, Brenda Woodward, was a career criminal and a drug addict. The book notes how she “had been arrested 28 times for crimes ranging from drugs and car theft to weapons possession, burglary, and domestic violence and was using crack while pregnant with her eldest child, Danielle.”

Woodward was also arrested for possessing crack while pregnant with her shooter son, who was adopted by Roger and Lynda Cruz in 1996, when he was still a newborn.

His biological sister, Danielle, has been arrested 17 times and is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence on charges that include the attempted murder of a police officer. But enough about their terrible genes.

The New York Post this week published eye-opening, never-before-seen information from the shooter’s school records:

Westglades students and staff had never seen anyone like [the shooter]. One student, Paige, recalled the time that she met [him]. They were standing outside their classroom waiting for their teacher to open the door, and [he] offered her a hug, which Paige accepted. Their teacher later pulled Paige aside and warned her, “Don’t touch him. He just got caught jerking off.”

If something frustrated [the shooter], he would curse and threaten anyone nearby. He would hide behind corners and doors, jump out and scream at people, and then cackle at their fear. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, he would burst into maniacal laughter.

Another student, Sarah, recalled a time when he threw his chair across a classroom. Later, she saw him sitting outside the classroom with his desk tied down.

[The shooter’s] torture and killing of animals became a source of pride for him as he interacted with other students. One student, Devin, recalled that, although he tried to avoid [him], [the shooter] would approach him almost every day and ask, “Would you like to see videos of me skinning animals?” Devin always declined, but [he] kept asking.

[The shooter’s] records suggest that his reign of terror at Westglades Middle School began halfway through his seventh-grade year, in February of 2013. For the next calendar year, [he] was suspended every other day. Why did the school allow him to remain enrolled despite his daily, deranged behavior for a full year? Not by negligence, but by policy.

Because he was enrolled in the PROMISE program (which Runcie initially denied), 18-1958 was eventually sent to an alternative school where he continued to exhibit troubling behavior.  Inexplicably, after about a year and a half, he was transferred back to MSD High School where he mainstreamed into regular classrooms and was allowed to join the Junior ROTC.

At MSD, his deeply disturbing, threatening behavior continued, including stalking and harassing an ex-girlfriend and attacking her boyfriend. When parents complained about having 18-1958 in the same classroom as their child, the school responded by changing their schedules, the book notes.

At one point, five students provided statements to Assistant Principal Porter that 18-1958 had threatened to kill people and brought weapons to school, and expressed concern that he might bring a weapon to school and kill somebody the next time he got angry. Administrators allegedly searched his backpack and found bullets (or bullet casings).  As a consequence, administrators gave him a two-day internal suspension and imposed a “safety plan” that banned him from bringing a backpack to school.

Pollack summed up: They decided 18-1958 “was too dangerous to be allowed on campus with a backpack, but he should not be arrested.

Off campus, Sheriff Scott Israel applied the same philosophy of the PROMISE program to the streets, measuring success by “the kids we keep out of jail, not by the kids we put in jail.” Indeed, Broward County officers visited the Cruz home a total of 45 times for various matters—and no one was ever arrested, not even after 18-1958 allegedly shot a neighbor boy with his BB gun.

According to Robert Martinez, a recently retired school resource officer (SRO), district officials explicitly told SROs not to arrest students for felonies, in addition to PROMISE misdemeanors.

“We all knew some sort of tragedy like this was going to happen in Broward,” said Martinez. “You can’t just stop arresting kids without expecting something like this. As officers, our hands were tied.”

Even though the lax disciplinary policies have been exposed, Pollack and company continue to fight an uphill battle. Local bureaucrats have dug their heels in and brand everyone who doesn’t toe the politically correct line as “racist.”

“When anyone questioned them, these bureaucrats hid behind political correctness and accused critics of racism,” Pollack writes. “Even though these policies are doing terrible damage to minority students. Even though we were asking those questions because our children were murdered.”

Even worse, the dangerously wrongheaded PROMISE program that started in Broward County, metastasized to school districts all across the nation thanks to a “Dear Colleague Letter” written by former President Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan.

The purpose of the policy shift away from “zero tolerance” was to end the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which activists contended was based on the racial bias of teachers. The fact that black students were disciplined more frequently than white students, was evidence that teachers were engaged in racial discrimination, according to the social justice warriors. Under the new rules, white and black students had to be disciplined at the same rates and a ridiculously cumbersome “multi-tiered system of supports” was put into place.

One teacher explained why they stopped bothering to fill out paperwork that is required to send kids to the office.

We began to spend more time calling parents and doing paperwork for troublemakers than planning lessons for the children who wanted to learn. Believe me, no matter what people think about “kids these days,” some kids really do come to school to learn. With all this paperwork and principals who don’t want to process it anyway, the best we can do for the good kids is to just let the troublemakers disrupt the class and try to teach around them.

As a result, the policies looked like a roaring success in the schools that implemented them. On paper. In reality, countless schools across the nation have become raging dumpster fires of chaos and violence.

In a few school districts, unions allow teachers to voice their concerns about school disciplinary policies on an anonymous forum. The book highlights some of their complaints, which are a cri de coeur against the dangerous policies that have ruined their schools.

In Oklahoma City, a teacher wrote that they were told referrals would not require suspension “unless there was blood.”

A teacher in Buffalo, New York wrote, “I have never seen anything like it. The behavior is unreal. The students know they can get away with acting out because there are no real consequences . . . .”

Another teacher from Buffalo concurred. “Students are threatening teachers with violence and in many cases physically attacking teachers with little or no consequence.”

In Fresno, California, a teacher wrote, “students are allowed to throw rocks at teachers. When they are sent down to the office, they return moments later. Teachers are allowed to call teachers ‘niggas’ [and] break windows and classroom doors when they’re mad. A student was seen touching his privates and sexually harassing others and was not even suspended . . . .”

Meanwhile, national media reporters after Parkland “treated questions about the district’s discipline policies as matters to be debunked rather than investigated,” Eden notes in the book. “Their attitude, like Runcie’s, seemed to be that anything other than guns was a distraction.”

If you have children in school, Why Meadow Died is mandatory, hair-raising reading. Schools all across the nation have radically changed in the past 10 years, and many parents have no idea what’s going on in their kids’ classrooms.

President Trump has rescinded the “Dear Colleague Letter” that forced schools to adopt lenient disciplinary policies, but that doesn’t mean the school districts have to reverse the policies. It just means that parents can have a voice again.

In deep-blue school districts, the lax discipline and ensuing chaos will likely continue. Nevertheless, Pollack holds out hope that with the help of enlightened parents, districts that aren’t as “corrupt and morally challenged” as Broward will be able to overturn these dangerous policies.

Books & Culture

Memento Mori: Rutger Hauer’s Message in ‘Blade Runner’

The death in July of Dutch actor Rutger Hauer brought out reflections on his career. Hauer made his film debut as a wild sculptor in Paul Verhoeven’s “Turkish Delight” (1973), and since then has starred in numerous films, but he is known primarily for his role as Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982). Hauer plays a replicant—a synthetically engineered being—with seemingly odd human qualities.

Scott’s film is loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). Even though it does not follow the novel completely, it retained the themes of Dick’s works, namely mortality, humanity, and God. Through his literary output, Dick developed a nontraditional structure of metaphysics, and in that structure, existential questions were a constant presence, whether in events or characters. For him, reality itself is always fragile and enveloped in an ominous cloud of doubt.

The film is a cinematic and philosophical tour de force. An amalgam of film noir and science fiction, “Blade Runner” features Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a burned-out cop who hunts down and “retires” (read: kills) Nexus-6 replicants. These beings were made by the fictional Tyrell Corporation, and their only purpose was to work on the off-world colonies. Deckard is cornered by his former boss, Bryant, to hunt down a group of Nexus-6 replicants—Roy Batty, Leon, Zhora, and Pris—who have returned to Earth illegally in hopes of extending their four-year lifespans.

As in most of his films, Ford exudes masculinity coupled with a need for justice, and yet the rebellion of the spirit is always visible in his face and body language. Ford’s Deckard knows that what he is doing is not necessarily ethical and yet the line between good and evil is so blurred that he is too fatigued to even begin questioning his actions. Wherever it may come from, Deckard’s persistence pays off because he manages to hunt down and kill two replicants (Zhora and Pris) before the final face-off with Roy Batty.

Batty cannot accept the fact that all the replicants (even those who were made from superior materials) have an expiration date. His time on Earth is connected to a definite mission: to find his creator and force him to extend his life. Tyrell tries to remind Batty of the beauty of his design and to stress there is nothing he or anyone at the corporation can do to extend his life. Batty is not satisfied and kills Tyrell.

As powerful as Harrison Ford’s presence in the film is, it is Rutger Hauer who shines in his performance as Batty. He is self-centered, calculating, and let’s not forget, coldly blond with equally cold blue eyes. He is a killing machine, and like any synthetic and superficially engineered android, he is incapable of compassion. And yet, his pressing desire to chase death away is very human indeed.

Batty redeems himself in a twisted way when he saves Deckard from falling off a building into the darkness of a dystopian, disconnected, and rainy space. Deckard is confused by this compassionate gesture, and instead of killing him, Batty delivers a short soliloquy, a meditation on mortality. As the rain falls on their battered bodies, Batty speaks with awe and resignation: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

With those words, Batty draws his last synthetic (yet human) breath. Deckard is unable to comprehend this moment of compassion and reflection. Batty’s words resonate and indeed remain alive even in the oppressive and never-ending darkness and rain. Hauer’s presence somehow brought together the malice of an android and the awe of a human being. His character stands as a symbol for our own incapacity to feel and to wake up from an existence of dread that hinders our capability to relate to one another.

Batty’s words also point to the significance of memory and whether any of our actions will be remembered at all. They are reminiscent of the famous first lines of Ecclesiastes: “Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath.” Do any of our actions matter? Should we be toiling if the toil will give us no rewards? Can we have certainty and assurance that our work will be recognized? And then comes that awful realization that the work we do on Earth may not be recognized or remembered at all. How can we, in the midst of this uncertain thought, achieve happiness? Or are we doomed to only have small glimpses of happiness and joy overtaken by dread, anxiety, and the everlasting burden of being? Responsibility to truly see is ours.

Roy Batty’s character reveals our relationship to death. His short speech is a meditation on dying as well as an acceptance of death. The denial of death is one of the funny and strange characteristics of being human. We think we can cheat it, run away from it, and like Ingmar Bergman’s knight in “The Seventh Seal” (1957). We think we can play chess with Death and what’s even more absurd, that we can win. We reject the absurdity of death and yet accept absurdities created by our own flawed wills. Is this the meaning of happiness—an acceptance of death?

Ironically, the character of Roy Batty dies in the year 2019, which is when the 1982 film is set. Rutger Hauer’s passing somehow gains a greater significance with this bizarre coincidence. But truly, are there really any coincidences? Isn’t that what Batty’s character is saying also—that there is always something higher than our own selves illuminating the often dark path we face?

Is it easier for us to live by coming up with a story that everything is connected and the world and life are not simply made up of chaos and haphazard disconnected events? In other words, is the life of faith made easier or more difficult by the fact that we die?

Memento mori—remember that you will die—says Roy Batty so that you may find an illuminating glimpse of happiness, renewal, and life itself.

Books & Culture

The Ministry of Humor Is Not Amused

Woke journalists are super seriously upset with Dave Chappelle, you guys.

Within the span of a week, a Netflix comedy special had the distinction of becoming the greatest threat to society since the Plague of Justinian ripped through Constantinople in the 7th century threatening to end civilization as we know it. It has climbed above the Hong Kong protests, another Ebola outbreak in the Congo, and the political crisis over Brexit as it seized the attention of every MacBook Pro-wielding gatekeeper and guardian of the Fifth Estate.

After almost two years of trepidation since his last assault on the already depraved social psyche of the world’s imperialist vulture’s nest known as Amerikkka, Dave Chappelle’s “Sticks & Stones” has irreversibly contaminated the art of comedy to such a degree that from now on all jokes must be reviewed by the MTV News on-duty editor and the corporate board of directors of Viacom and CBS. Since their merger is still in progress, it’s going to be a pretty sparse few months.

Stepping into the breach selflessly to shield the population from the noxious mind fumes of the hour-long Chappelle special was Taylor Hosking of Vice News, who bravely proclaimed: “You Can Definitely Skip Dave Chappelle’s New Netflix Special ‘Sticks & Stones’.”

Hosking’s courageous defense of the realm against the vile “comic” is but one step on her climb to greatness begun during her upbringing going to the exclusive all-girls Brearley School in Manhattan for her entire K-12 education (Tuition: $49,680). She then matriculated through the University of Pennsylvania (Tuition: $51,464) with a political science degree, interning at Philadelphia magazine, before receiving her political writing position at The Atlantic in 2017, and her second gig at Vice in 2018.

Naturally, those years of instruction at the feet of some of the brightest minds in comedy gave her the proper sort of gravitas needed to proclaim that Chappelle “doubles down on misogyny and transphobia” and to note how he “chooses to blatantly ignore the historic criticism against his style of comedy and new loud-and-clear criticism from the trans community.”

Who else could warn us of this reprehensible bile spewing forth from our LED screens? It is therefore essential that we hold her up as Atlas hoists the globe and prevents it from tumbling into the abyss.

Hosking has also advised the public that “the trans character in the Rocko’s ‘Modern Life’ reboot is a huge step forward,” so brava to her not only for warning us about what to avoid, but indeed reaching for sunnier vistas by giving us positive examples of what to watch!

The efforts of the intrepid Vice media critic, valiant as they are, are incapable of fully absorbing the hate of Chappelle’s hour-long special, but much to our serendipitous fortune the fetching Slate columnist Inkoo Kang also unsheathed her pen to proclaim, “Dave Chappelle’s Sticks & Stones Fights for the Rights of the Already-Powerful.”

In her compassion and mercy, Ms. Kang indulged Chappelle by analogizing him to one’s “rascally uncle” who never grows and matures from youthful gags meant to entertain the puerile tastes of children. Indeed how could Chappelle—risible although not laugh-worthy—ever pass the taste test of a brilliant mind like Kang, a graduate of the all-women Smith College (Tuition: $47,904) and UCLA (Graduate school tuition: $17,272 in-state, $32,374 out-of-state)?

Having written for Slate, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, MTV News and a cornucopia of other prestigious press establishments, she is eminently and uniquely positioned to pour forth her sage counsel to the masses on the pernicious moral corruption of Chappelle’s transphobic stage utterings. And considerately she also recommends an appropriate alternative transsexual affirming series by reminding us that “In season 2, Pose became one of TV’s most urgent dramas.” And wouldn’t you know, Kang also has enlisted us through her Twitter account to “tell [her] about your experience making your own pickles.” Ah, the civic consciousness just gushes from the brine.

And last, but certainly not least, is Tonja Renée Stidhum of The Grapevine—the uniquely distinct and unequivocally avant-garde section of The Root—sustaining the honor of the African American people so shamelessly besmirched by Chappelle.

She asks the most obvious question, one that could not possibly be deemed inappropriate when posed to a person of color: “Did Dave Chappelle use those Sticks & Stones to Build Himself a Lazy ‘Shock Value’ Box?” According to Stidhum, Chappelle’s comedy while lazy, was not edgy at all.

As a communications major at Northern Illinois University (Tuition: $14,204 In-state, $23,670 out-of-state), Stidhum can decipher the codes of sloth logic and indolent intellects. But to ensure the proper expertise, she references Robert L. Reece, Ph.D.’s Twitter emission on the topic: “Making fun of trans people is easy. Antagonizing people who call you homophobic is easy. It’s not cutting edge. It’s not creative. It doesn’t push political or comedic boundaries. It’s stale, and it’s lazy.” And what is Reece’s work all about? Here is a sampling of his notable articles:

Oh, and . . .

It is fabulous that we have such a brilliant observer of the behaviors of dorm-room porn stars, the ethnic composition of insect biologists, and Chappelle’s own racial theories to chime in and validate Stidhum’s work, though I would humbly propose that in the future she cite a scholar from a suitably vanguard gender.

It is with great bliss that I shall wake on the morrow knowing that arrayed in opposition to the horrid inflammatory virus of Chappelle’s rhetoric (and, by extension, those of the equally incendiary stage predators Aziz Ansari and Louis CK) are such sentinels of the public’s common sanity as Inkoo Kang, Taylor Hosking, and Tonja Renée Stidhum.

Books & Culture

A review of Return of Christ: The Second Coming, by Jack Snyder, with Pamela Cosel and Syed Nadim Rizvi (Independently published, 192 pages, $12.95)

Conviction vs. Passionate Intensity: A Story for the Ages

Between the Bible and the Complete Works of William Shakespeare is the story of humanity. Between the “Song of Solomon” and Shakespeare’s sonnets is the language of Western Civilization: a language that speaks to the better angels of our nature, while reminding us of the frailties of human nature, for temptations abound. 

Unless we remember we live in a fallen world, where we alone must choose between the promise of the cross and the power of the crown, unless we understand what these symbols represent, that we need not be Christians to choose God over the false god of tyranny, unless we choose righteousness, we have no choice but to render everything—including our souls—unto a ruler far worse than Caesar.

The drama of that choice also makes for great storytelling.

In Return of Christ: The Second Coming by Jack Snyder, we get a novelistic version of that choice. 

We get an authorial voice about sin and redemption, with more action—and consequences concerning people’s actions—than any standard action-adventure flick. We get the ultimate character in Jesus, too, whose importance Snyder describes with reverence and awe.

That Snyder is more ecumenical than evangelical, that he has a story to tell, not a sermon to deliver, is a testament (Old or New, take your pick) to his skill as a writer. One need not believe in the divinity of Jesus to accept Snyder’s depiction of Christ. One need only believe in the characters Snyder presents to know he respects all of God’s children—Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.

To see a film adaptation of Snyder’s book would be a treat. To see theatergoers in line for this film, not because they are of one faith, but because they are of one opinion, that a film should entertain an audience; to see people return to see the same film would be a delight; to see Return of Christ would be worth the price of admission.

Books & Culture

A review of The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, by Stephen Walt. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pages, $28)

Liberal Hegemony’s High Costs

The Harvard international affairs expert’s work provides intellectual ammunition for those who want to understand how U.S. foreign policy has gone astray.

Foreign policy is very much an insider’s game. A handful of journals, scholars, and think tanks control its direction. Influential figures in both parties have formed a substantial consensus on the importance of preserving U.S. primacy over all contenders, the need to promote democracy and other liberal values, the vulnerability of the “international system,” and the corresponding necessity of U.S. leadership in every corner of the globe to secure the “rules based international order.”

As a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Stephen Walt has a front row seat to the discussions, debates, and human types that dominate U.S. foreign policy. His assessment is bleak. With the leading lights of both parties wedded to the consensus that he calls “liberal hegemony,” the world’s predicted embrace of democratic capitalism and peaceful relations has not materialized. Instead, liberal hegemony has yielded long and inconclusive wars in the Middle East, regime change operations that have led to failed states in Libya and Yemen, U.S. military spending that dwarfs that of the rest of the world, resentment and passive resistance from our ostensible allies, along with increasing hostility from Russia and China.

In short, Walt makes a persuasive case that liberal hegemony is not succeeding, even on its own terms.

Walt is no stranger to controversy, having earlier touched the political third rail in an article that later became a book he co-authored criticizing the substantial and distorting influence of the Israel lobby. His latest work is no less ambitious or controversial, but looks at foreign policy as a whole: its assumptions, its culture, its practitioners, and its failures.

A Blinkered Bipartisan Consensus

Walt details the practice of liberal hegemony since the end of the cold war, when the United States found itself in the position of being the “sole superpower.” He explains that “the pursuit of liberal hegemony involved (1) preserving U.S. primacy, especially in the military sphere; (2) expanding the U.S. sphere of influence; and (3) promoting liberal norms of democracy and human rights.” This approach continued through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama presidencies, in spite of their superficial differences. Indeed, the bipartisan hostility to Trump shows how much consensus on foreign policy prevailed before his election, in spite of the heated debate over the Iraq War in the mid-2000s.

The early fruits of liberal hegemony include the ill-fated Somalia mission and the later intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. But most infamously, liberal hegemony provided justification for the Iraq War and contributed to the never-ending Afghanistan campaign. In both cases, liberal hegemony did not counsel limited punitive expeditions, nor would it conceive of classifying certain areas of the world as ungovernable “shitholes” that needed to be cordoned off and avoided. Instead, we would stay until these countries were stable democracies—100 years if need be. As George W. Bush ambitiously put the matter in his second inaugural address, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

One legitimate criticism of this strategy, for which we have real time confirmation, is that in addition to not achieving results in places like Iraq, Somalia, and Libya, these expansive aims have left little reserve for dealing with a genuine emerging competitor: China. Indeed, far from being prepared and equipped to counter a rising China, the NATO expansion counseled by liberal hegemony has driven the otherwise-declining power of Russia into China’s arms, while, at the same time, short-sighted free trade policies have expanded China’s economy while deindustrializing our own.

Walt acknowledges that Trump’s election was based in part on the American people’s rejection of the legacy foreign policy consensus. He is nonetheless critical of Trump on a number of grounds. For starters, and perhaps understandably for an academic, Trump’s style and apparent disorganization garner the lion’s share of criticism. In addition, Walt notes—correctly in my view—the apparent contradictions between Trump’s stated “America First” foreign policy minimalism and his acquiescence to the “blob” on issues like increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, bombing of Syria for its alleged use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and his departure from his earlier ambition for more businesslike relations with Russia.

The author also notes that Trump’s hiring has not matched his stated aims. The high turnover among appointees, the hiring of unskilled amateurs like Rex Tillerson to head the State Department, as well as the appointment of philosophically hostile people like Nikki Haley and John Bolton to handle important foreign policy positions could not realistically have been expected to turn the behemoth foreign policy apparatus in the right direction.

Our Sclerotic Foreign Policy Professionals

In spite of these criticisms, Walt could be more sympathetic to the fact that Trump finds much inertia and passive resistance among the career foreign policy staff in the State Department, Department of Defense, and various intelligence agencies, while also facing the active weaponization of intelligence agencies against him in order to preserve the status quo. Indeed, one may view the entire Russian collusion episode not only as an attempted coup, but also as a partially successful attempt to manipulate Trump into maintaining implacable hostility to Russia desired by his critics on both the Left and the Right.

The author does provide a useful explanation of why all this wrongheadedness persists. In the past, foreign policy was less professionalized. Connected members of the Eastern Establishment—bankers, lawyers, and businessmen—might be tapped for the OSS or a stint in the State Department. The high water mark of American foreign policy success was arguably when corporate attorney Dean Acheson could be given a critical position because of his reputation and intelligence. This has been replaced in recent decades by the near-exclusive dominance of lifelong “foreign policy professionals,” who have engaged in a step-by-step acquisition of various credentials and associations.

Walt’s work is an important critique of the smart set. It exposes the high costs and meager benefits of “liberal hegemony,” as well as this philosophy’s apparent indifference to the security and prosperity of Americans.

One benefit of the past practice is that the amateurs from the business world had wealth and unrelated employment in the private sector to fall back upon if they happened to stray from the conventional wisdom. In other words, they could afford to be independent. By contrast, Walt describes the current practice of foreign policy professionals moving from professional schools, to think tanks, to various defense contractors, and then back to government as rewarding a combination of networking, card-punching, self-promotion, and towing the party line rather than a vindication of any particular ability or history of success on their part.

As the careers of people like John Bolton or Douglas Feith illustrate, rarely is one excluded from this world for something minor, like losing a war or making a completely wrongheaded prediction. In Walt’s words, “Instead of being a disciplined meritocracy that rewards innovative thinking and performance, the foreign policy community is in fact a highly conformist, inbred professional caste whose beliefs and policy preferences have evolved little over the past twenty-five years, even as the follies and fiascoes kept piling up.” Walt’s discussion of the insider politics and culture of the modern foreign policy professionals is one of the more useful and interesting aspects of his book.

Toward a New Realism

Walt concludes his study with an invitation to return to foreign policy realism and, more specifically, the idea of the United States as a “balancer.” This is less ambitious and costly than the status quo and is a product of the tradition of foreign policy realism, which is distinct from a more robust “isolationism.”

Balancing would limit U.S. attention to rising “hegemons” like China and critical national interests like open sea lanes in the Persian Gulf. Balancing would also exclude peripheral cases like who governs Yemen or whether Moldova is a democracy.

Walt, however, does not seriously consider how the blessing of geography renders much of this limited balancing also unnecessary. After all, whoever controls the Middle East will still need to sell its oil. And whether Japan or South Korea are in China’s orbit or ours, neither diminishes our practical invulnerability due to a combination of the large ocean barriers to any would-be adversary, especially when this is combined with our large nuclear arsenal. As illustrated by the U.S. rise in the 19th century or China’s rise today, husbanding wealth and minimizing foreign involvement is a reliable formula for preserving national strength that can be called upon when needed.

In spite of this criticism, Walt’s work is an important critique of the smart set. It exposes the high costs and meager benefits of “liberal hegemony,” as well as this philosophy’s apparent indifference to the security and prosperity of Americans. Walt comments on a telling passage from Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass as follows: “‘For the United States to continue to act successfully abroad,’ writes Haass, ‘it must restore the domestic foundations of its power.’ Improving the lives of ordinary Americans is of secondary importance; what matters to the foreign policy elite is preserving America’s capacity to shape events around the globe.”

Liberal hegemony, in spite of its high cost and lackluster record, gives a patina of “fighting evil” through its high-minded rhetoric, which taps into our collective national pride from defeating the Axis in World War II. Walt is skeptical. Acknowledging economic reality in the age of the managerial class, Walt suggests that much of this do-gooderism may arise from no small amount of self-interest: “A more restrained foreign policy would give the entire foreign policy community less to do, reduce its status and prominence, decrease the importance of teaching foreign policy in graduate schools, and might even lead some prominent philanthropies to devote less money to these topics. In this sense, liberal hegemony and unceasing global activism constitute a full-employment strategy for the entire foreign policy community.”

Pervasive group think, failure, and a sophisticated propaganda effort to shore up its prestige and power are the hallmarks of an elite that may soon find itself displaced. Walt’s work provides useful intellectual ammunition for those who want to understand how our foreign policy has gone astray and how our country can remain strong, independent, and secure by changing course in a more realistic and restrained direction.

Books & Culture

The Tao of Dave Chappelle

What’s so funny about the Woke trying to destroy the rest of us? As it happens, a lot.

If you have been following the reviews of Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix stand-up special “Sticks & Stones,” you know that the media is already tearing it apart. The people at Vice say you can skip watching it and that the show “doubles down on misogyny and transphobia.” Paste Magazine called it, “boring, hypocritical and out-of-touch.”  The Root calls it lazy.

With reviews like that, you know you have to watch.

Why is it that the wokescolds are so opposed to it? Can you not engage in comedy about misogyny and transphobia? (Or is it only jokes about President Trump and Christians that are still allowed?) I thought that’s what comedy does—pointed out, poked at and prodded at the powerful, the pathetic and particular moments in society.

I hold stand-up in high regard, starting with people like Lenny Bruce and Mort Saul. It’s not that they were the funniest (always a debate) but rather I am enamored with their presentation. These days, I feel the same way about Seinfeld (his honesty has been refreshing) and Joe Rogan (check out his Netflix special where he plays out the inner monologue of Caitlyn Jenner while perched atop a bar stool. Amazing.)

I don’t find everything Dave Chappelle says to be funny. But I appreciate Chappelle is trying to do something that most other comedians aren’t doing: pulling out his and our inner demons and putting them in front of us, ideally for us to share a laugh over, whether it be nervously or in recognition of the truth in the existence of the demon. (With that in mind, watch “The Bird Revelation” on Netflix.)

In his special, Chappelle asks the audience to identify the subject of an impression he does of a stupid person that seeks to destroy people over a disagreement. (Warning—NSFW):

Some people thought it was an impression of President Trump. I’m not sure why people thought that. Maybe because that is what all comedians are doing these days? Chappelle explains that he is doing an impression of them, the audience:

That’s you. That’s what the audience sounds like to me. That’s why I don’t be coming out doing comedy all the time, because y’all n—ers is the worst mother f—ers I’ve ever tried to entertain in my f—ing life!

Truth. Chappelle recognizes that no one is safe from the offended class (The Woke!), not even him. Everyone, in their desperation to be “woke,” is looking to be offended, looking to be outraged, looking to virtue signal. It’s true for radio hosts, TV stars, film stars, musicians, athletes, comics, you name it: How do you entertain a crowd that is looking for the opportunity to destroy you?

In a society where everyone is trying to out-woke everyone else, everything you say and do will be held against you in the court of public opinion. In a society that has invented an unlimited number of ways to be offended, declaring offense validates their wokeness. And isn’t that the point? For them, it is . . . and it’s awful for the rest of us.

And it applies to everyday people in their everyday lives. The Woke respond to your being “offensive” by searching as far back into your history as they can to find whatever they can to hurt you. They can’t just disagree. They can’t just be offended and change the station or turn off the TV or walk out of the theater or stop talking to you. They must destroy the offensive thing – you; shame you, take away your ability to make a living or, as we have seen, physically harm you.

Dave Chappelle is speaking truth. He is saying what we are all saying: “These people are dangerous, and they want us to live in a world that we simply cannot live in.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at WIBC.com, where the author is a host. 

Books & Culture

A review of “Sticks & Stones,” Dave Chappelle (Netflix, 2019)

The Genius of Dave Chappelle

Common Sense is the radicalism of Thomas Paine, while common sense is the righteousness of the Everyman. The man whose masculinity students disdain, whose mindset critics despise, whose thoughts are an affront to the mindless groupthink of the crowd, the mob, and the Twitterverse of professional victims.

Among the latter, who banish their enemies not only from social media but society itself, who brandish the weapon of injustice, who wield the branding iron of conviction without due process of law, among the woke and the worst of passionate intensity, comes a reckoning—and a wrecker of the sensibilities and safe zones of every keyboard tyrant.

Against those who stain the soul without stamping the flesh, who nonetheless consume many pounds of virtual flesh, comes a soothsayer in the form of a satirist.

His name is Dave Chappelle, and he is a genius.

His new special on Netflix, “Sticks & Stones,” is brilliant because it defends the first rule of comedy: that there are no rules. 

No one, and by no one I mean no one, not even children, alive or dead—not even the victims of school shootings, whose zig-zag movements Chappelle pantomimes as today’s equivalent of duck-and-cover drills, as futile then as now—not even Chappelle’s own son, whose death he foresees as collateral damage, whose shooting Chappelle accepts as the cost of controversy, of choosing to make comedy of tragedy; no one escapes Chappelle’s line of fire, neither the armed trespasser on private property—on Chappelle’s property—nor the two men who allege, falsely in his opinion and mine, that Michael Jackson violated their . . . private parts.

Chappelle also mocks gays, lesbians, bisexuals, queers, blacks, whites, white heroin addicts, feminists, censors, and the transgendered.

Some people may find his jokes offensive. So? Watch the special. Right now.

Books & Culture

The Great American Movie

Watching John Ford’s “The Searchers” in the Trump era.

Among American cinephiles, there is a shortlist of movies that usually serve as the fitting answer to the question: What is the greatest American movie of all time?

No matter the answer, respected connoisseurs of cinema invariably will mention John Ford’s 1956 classic Western, “The Searchers.”

Featuring one of the strongest performances of that most iconic of Americans, John Wayne, “The Searchers” is the quintessential American film.

If “The Godfather” is a story about becoming American, “The Searchers” is a story about being American.

Further, it is one of the most beautiful, brilliantly crafted, well written, of the most influential films in cinematic history.

How odd, then, that the grande dame of what used to be conservative journalism, National Review, published a piece in the late, which (unsuccessfully) attempted to excoriate Ford’s masterpiece on every level.

In the presumptuously titled, “Everyone is Wrong about ‘The Searchers,’” National Review’s Kyle Smith paints Ford’s 1956 film as “mediocre for most of its run time.”

It is difficult to see what prompted Smith’s vitriolic attack on a film that not only defines the Western genre but has provided a template for more than 60 years of how a film should be made.

Smith’s distaste with the film springs, at least partially, from the fact that “The Searchers” has “became the Left’s favorite cowboys-and-Indians allegory, a metaphor for Vietnam, McCarthyism, and the civil-rights era.”

Smith is correct to reject the New Left reading of the film as a parable about social equality; however, what perturbs Smith most about the ideological underpinning of “The Searchers” is that it’s too unapologetically tough and, perhaps, in that sense, too “conservative.”

Smith points to the lack of moralizing in the film—especially the film’s refusal to condemn the harsh and brutal actions of the main character.

Exploring the tale of the stoic and brutal but indomitably loyal Ethan Edwards—a role in which Wayne fits like a revolver in a well-worn holster—“The Searchers” is a story about the price paid for making America American.

The Edwards character returns from the Civil War to his homestead in Texas only to find his brother’s family murdered and his nieces abducted by the Comanche. The conquest of Texas, like so much of how the West was won, was a bitter and often brutal tragedy, and Ford is not afraid to depict the great cost and the moral complexity of this tragedy in his masterpiece.

Rather than being a racist celebration of colonization as Smith suggests, “The Searchers” shows in all its ferocity what the struggle for life and land was really like between American settlers and American Indians.

Ethan Edwards is little different than Scar, the chief of a tribe of Comanche who had kidnapped the nieces of “Uncle Ethan.”

Scar kills American settlers out of vengeance for what was done to his family as Uncle Ethan fights Indians in response to their attacks on his family.

Both men are intelligent, strong, and even witty—one of the most humorous and charming scenes in the film is when Scar compliments Ethan on his ability to speak Comanche after Uncle Ethan had condescendingly asked Scar if someone had taught the Comanche chief to speak English.

Like Hector and Achilles in Homer’s great Greek epic, the Iliad, Scar and Uncle Ethan are the best of their people and each wields his strength in defense of kith and kin.

The central problem with the film, however, is how this kind of strength can be civilized without diminishing its power.

Scar is killed in the film not by Uncle Ethan but by Martin Pawley, a man with both European and Cherokee blood whose family had been killed by Scar. That is to say, Pawley is a man with split natural loyalties who must choose the better between them.

After returning his niece Debbie to her family, Ethan tellingly is left outside of the home and walks off into the wild Texas desert. His usefulness is utilized on behalf of that civilization but not exactly welcome to live within it.

The message is clear that no matter how necessary Uncle Ethan’s cool strength has been for the creation of America, he is not really a civilized man and must always lurk on the dark, liminal boundaries of American life.

Seemingly unable to grasp John Ford’s complex and serious message in the film, National Review’s slight to “The Searchers” is symptomatic of the wider crisis of American conservatism during the Trump era.

All Americans of good will and character are disgusted by the horrific propensity to violent rhetoric and even actual violence that seem now to burst into the headlines on a daily basis from both the Right and Left sides of the political spectrum.

This seething undercurrent of violence, however, is by no means the kind of heroic strength that made America great—for the violence of mass shootings, riots, and assaults ultimately comes from a place of cowardice and weakness.

What is needed in our country and in the conservative movement are heroes of strength, poise, and modesty.

We need the heroes that made our country great and will make American great again.