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January 2016

Trump Vs. Conservatives (and Conservatism)

Sometimes, in an effort to distinguish myself from the likes of Sean Hannity, I describe myself as "conservative but not right-wing." It's not a hard and fast distinction, of course, and it's not easy to articulate, but it's being pretty clearly illustrated by reactions to the Trump campaign. It's been a week or so now, so I'm late in commenting on this, but, as you may have heard, National Review published a cover story making the argument against Trump which includes contributions by a number of fairly well-known names on the right, both the religious (Russell Moore, R.R. Reno) and non-religious (libertarian David Boaz). There is an editorial summary of the case, "Against Trump", which is probably all you need to read unless you're extremely interested. But the whole story is online, too: "Conservatives Against Trump".

My favorite political blogger, Neo-neocon, has also had a lot to say about Trump; here's just one post. One reason she's my favorite is that she's very careful about researching everything she writes about, and, not surprisingly, the more she's learned about Trump, the more alarmed she is. (She was alarmed about Obama in 2008, too, and she was right about him.)

I think I'm like a lot of conservatives in that I just can't quite believe this is happening. I can't believe he's gotten this far. I can't believe he'll get the nomination. I can't believe he could win. Most of all, I can't believe that people who consider themselves conservative are supporting him. Whatever he may be, he is not a conservative in any remotely plausible sense of the word. We all know that "conservative" is in many ways inaccurate as a description of American conservatism. But I can't see that it has any application at all to Trump. 

Why, then, do so many people on the right support him? There is generally at least some connection between "right-wing" and "conservative". It's a species of populism, yes, but much more a rightist than a leftist sort. It's apparently driven by anger. The conventional, i.e. the liberal, response to this is to sneer at the angry people--they're just racists whose evil grip on society has been loosened, etc. etc. ad nauseam. Where non-white anger is concerned, liberals insist on looking for root causes. To do so in this case doesn't require a lot of digging. As someone put it a while back, in a quotation I haven't been able to find again, the American people are governed by an elite which despises them. The anger tends to focus on immigration, and with some reason, because it is here that the ruling class has shown again and again that it is indifferent to the effects of immigration on working-class and poor Americans. The best analysis I've seen of the syndrome is by William Voegeli at the Claremont Review of Books: "The Reason I'm Anti-Anti-Trump." 

Demagoguery flourishes when democracy falters. A disreputable, irresponsible figure like Donald Trump gets a hearing when the reputable, responsible people in charge of things turn out to be self-satisfied and self-deluded. The best way to fortify Trump’s presidential campaign is to insist his followers’ grievances are simply illegitimate, bigoted, and ignorant. The best way to defeat it is to argue that their justified demands for competent, serious governance deserve a statesman, not a showman.

On a deeper level, I think there's something more happening. The American republic is in decline in many ways, including in its character as a republic. I've often thought that monarchy is the most natural form of government, and there's certainly some warrant in history for believing that any form of self-government by the governed is a fragile business. Among other things Trump's candidacy is a personality cult. His supporters don't apparently care that much about what he actually believes; they just think he is a tough guy who will stand up to their enemies. There is certainly no sense that he cares about the constitutional order as such, and this doesn't seem to bother his supporters. He wants power, and they want him to have it, because they think he will exercise it in the way they want. It doesn't take much imagination to see how that could go wrong. You don't even have to be a pessimist.

This is easy for people on the left to see. What is not so easy for them is to see is that much the same could be said of them and President Obama, as with Clinton before him. The left in fact seems more susceptible to adulation of a president or a presidential candidate as a personality than the right--Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama (and arguably Carter), and currently Bernie Sanders, for the former, only Reagan for the latter, as far as I can recall. The difference in personality between Obama and Trump is great, but both they and their followers have in common an impatience with democratic processes: "We can't wait for Congress to do its job, so where they won't act, I will." The linked story is only one of a number of instances in which Obama has said something similar. Never mind that the Constitution prescribes a system in which the legislature makes laws and the executive implements them. That doesn't matter when the progressive cause is being thwarted. It will matter when an anti-progressive autocrat proceeds in similar fashion, but it may already be too late to stop the trend.


Actually I'm still not 100% convinced that Trump is not part of a scheme to elect a Democrat. 

52 Movies: Week 4 - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) is based on a cartoon figure quite unlike Spiderman or Superman. Colonel Blimp was a widely familiar newspaper ‘funny’, a portly man of strong but not always consistent or coherent views, typically holding forth in the Turkish baths. The film gives this two-dimensional vehicle of satire a name, Clive Wynne-Candy, and imagines a life story for him, stretching from 1902, when he is a young, decorated officer on leave from the Boer War, to 1943, when he is the portly figure of the cartoons, and as head of the Home Guard is about to oversee a large-scale exercise for the defence of London. We first meet him being interrupted from relaxing in the Turkish baths in the basement of his club by an impudent young officer’s “pre-emptive strike” the afternoon before the exercise is due to start.

One of the earlier Technicolor feature films made in Britain, Colonel Blimp is technically superb, amusingly written, and at times movingly acted. In the opening sequence the camera dizzyingly weaves in and around a phalanx of motorcycle messengers carrying the orders for the exercise (“War starts at midnight”). The portrayal of the TT races in George Formby’s breakthrough picture No Limit, much praised at the time, looks static by comparison.

Although it is very plainly a propaganda film, Blimp was controversial when it was made and questions were raised in high places as to whether it was opportune to release it. There seem to have been two sources of concern. One was that the portrayal of the pre-war officers of the professional armed forces as ‘blimpish’, hidebound old duffers was thought likely to be unconstructive in terms of morale. The other was that one of the two axes around which the plot revolves is the colonel’s relationship with a Prussian counterpart, a ‘good German’, who has some of the best lines in the film. Having a good German at all was a step too far for some.

In his Autobiography G. K. Chesterton wrote of British propaganda in the First World War, which included works such as his Crimes of England (in which the main crime of England turns out to have been being far too pro-German prior to 1914): write of the Crimes of England, under that naked title, was at that time liable to misunderstanding; and I believe that in some places the book was banned like a pacifist pamphlet. [. . .] My old friend Masterman, in charge of one Propaganda Department, told me with great pride that his enemies were complaining that no British propaganda was being pushed in Spain or Sweden. At this he crowed aloud with glee; for it meant that propaganda like mine was being absorbed without people even knowing it was propaganda. [. . .] The fools who baited Masterman would have published it with a Union Jack cover and a picture of the British Lion, so that hardly one Spaniard would read it, and no Spaniard would believe it. It was in matters of that sort that the rather subtle individuality of Masterman was so superior to his political surroundings.

The same sort of conflict between proponents of ‘subtle’ and ‘blatant’ propaganda was played out in 1943 at the Ministry of Information (which was, after all, one of the main inspirations for Orwell’s Ministry of Truth). A confidential screening of the final cut allayed enough fears for the film to be cleared for release. Ironically, one crisis in the plot of Blimp comes when, early in the Second World War, Wynne-Candy is due to give a talk to the BBC; not only is the broadcast cancelled under ministry pressure (with J. B. Priestley substituted at the last minute), but Candy is removed from the active list as no longer fit for service — hence his move to the Home Guard.

The film opens in 1943, on the eve of the Home Guard defence exercise, then flashes back to 1902, and from there builds forward into the present again for the climax and denouement — the protagonist’s admission that he is rather a stick-in-the-mud and perhaps new times do require new thinking. Chronologically the oldest point in the plot is that Candy, on leave from the Boer War, is interviewed by The Times. After reading the interview, an English governess in Berlin writes to him asking if he couldn’t come to Germany to counter some of the anti-British lies being spread by the newspapers there. He does so, contrary to official advice, then inadvertently insults the entire officer corps of the German Imperial Army, and to preserve Britain’s honour has to fight a duel with a German officer chosen by lot. The Prussian duel is presented as quaint and somewhat ludicrous, rather than sinister, which seems something of an achievement in the atmosphere of 1943. The scriptwriter, Emeric Pressburger, was himself an immensely anglophile Hungarian refugee, who could combine a nostalgia for pre-Hitlerian Central Europe with a warm but keen eye for English foibles. Candy’s opponent in the duel becomes his friend for life, and before the end of the film ends up a refugee in England.

Roger Livesey, who was in his 30s at the time, plays Candy in his late 20s (for the Boer War), in his early 40s (First World War), and in his mid 60s (Second World War), having to age 40 years over the course of the film. It is a remarkable achievement, skilfully done. His German counterpart, played by the Austrian refugee actor Anton Walbrook (originally Adolf Wohlbrück), has to do the same, but on the whole less successfully — his old man strikes me as much stagier. The leading lady, Deborah Kerr (later to be Anna in The King and I), got top billing, and doesn’t age a day. She plays a different part in each chronological section: first the patriotic and pedantic governess with whom Captain Candy realizes too late he has fallen in love (she has already fallen for the German); then an exhausted First World War nurse, who looks just like Colonel Candy’s old flame; and finally the chirpy, rather working-class driver that General Candy picks from the Army motor pool, from among 700 candidates, for reasons she cannot fathom.

While too subtle for the ‘blatant’ propagandists, the film has a very clear message that it hammers home in various ways. This is simply that Nazism is so evil that no qualms should stand in the way of doing whatever may be possible, however repugnant, to fight against it. A sweet old fuddy-duddy from a bygone age might think “I would rather lose my freedom than sink to such methods to defend it” (and naively think the BBC would let him tell the nation that), but realists knew that flinching from doing the previously unthinkable could only lead to defeat.

The year before Blimp the writer-director team, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, had brought out a very different film — black and white, pared back, natural sound only — about a downed bomber crew in occupied Holland trying to elude German capture: One of Our Aircraft is Missing, which I hope to return to in a later post. That film too had a very simple, central message. To caricature it only very slightly, if at all, it is that civilians in occupied countries loved being bombed, because they could see it hurt the Germans.

Powell and Pressburger went on to their greatest triumph after the war with Black Narcissus, based on a novel by Rumer Godden.

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.

The State of American Politics

It was soon discovered, that the forms of a free, and the ends of an arbitrary Government, were things not altogether incompatible.


I think that remark sums up the current direction of things pretty nicely. It serves as an epigraph to a set of articles in the most recent New Criterion titled "The corruption of our political institutions." I've only read the introduction (click here to read it) and one of the articles, and am not sure yet to what extent I agree with the diagnoses offered by the various contributors, but I certainly agree that the corruption is deep and advancing in exactly the direction described by Burke. 

Fahrenheit 451

I mentioned a few weeks ago (in a comment on Louise's George Orwell post) that I had listened to a recording of part of this book and had found it disappointing. I knew the recording was at least part of the problem. I just didn't care for the actor's voice and style, and didn't want to hear any more. So my wife picked up a used paperback for me, and I read the rest of it. 

Usually I find that hearing a recording of a novel enhances the experience. In particular I remember a couple of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, in which the actor's version of various voices and accents made the characters more vivid and immediate than they were on the page. But in this case it was the other way around. I think it must have been this version by Tim Robbins that I heard. He's a good actor, so maybe it was just a matter of my taste.

At any rate, I enjoyed the second half of the book much more than I had the first. Bradbury's tendency to over-write didn't bother me as much, and there seemed to be somewhat less belaboring of the wonderfulness of books. Or maybe I just didn't notice it as much. Anyway, the narrative seemed to take on more life. It still is, for me, one of those books read in adolescence which might better have been left there. But Bradbury's insights into the effects of electronic media are pretty impressive, especially considering that television was still a new thing at the time--the book was published in 1953 but the original version of the story had been written in 1950.

The edition I read is the 50th anniversary edition pictured here. It includes some interesting extra material by Bradbury himself, certainly worth seeking out if you're a fan of the book or of Bradbury in general.



52 Movies: Week 3 - Annie Hall

I suppose I should do a better job of trying to write for my audience with my next movie pick, but I instinctively gravitate towards my favorites when asked about the arts. Annie Hall is my favorite movie. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it since I first gave it a go when I was a teen-ager and did not really understand it or find it funny.

Growing up in Miami, Florida in a semi-Jewish part of town you get a feeling for the whole New York sensibility of things and are aware of Philip Roth, Henny Youngman, Simon & Garfunkel, and in movies, Woody Allen. I loved the early films like Bananas, Take the Money and Run, and Sleeper. So naturally I was interested in trying out Annie Hall too, and knew that it had fairly recently won Best Picture at the Oscars.

I watched it and got a few laughs. Enjoyed the breaking of the fourth wall, when Woody’s character Alvy Singer speaks to the audience, the ethnic jokes, the cartoon interlude, and the references to sex that I only understood through reading and movies. But all in all it didn’t do that much for me. The Woody character was a pretty mild everyman, without any outrageous gags or real silliness.

It was only with getting older and having a girlfriend, and a break-up, and then another girlfriend, that Annie Hall not only started to make sense, but really felt like the only movie that understood what relationships were all about to me. It is sort of a romantic comedy taking place in the real world, if Woody Allen’s imagination can be said to inhabit the real world at all.

I realize that Woody Allen will always be associated with the entire “marrying his step-daughter” episode of 20+ years ago. He is also a Jewish secular humanist. I have not heard him describe himself in these terms, but it is what I gather. He did not marry his step-daughter, nor do I think he molested his real daughter. I just mention these issues because I know people simply do not like him based on news headlines.

I am a practicing Roman Catholic, but I feel like I often have the sensibilities of a New York secular Jew. I enjoy humanism in the arts because I feel like these are the artists who are trying to figure out what makes people tick – whether it is literature, or art, or music, or movies, they always seem to me to have a very deep feeling for human nature. Perhaps the lack of real religion in their lives makes them more desperate to find their own answers.

I just re-watched Annie Hall so it would be fresh in my mind for this essay. I didn’t feel like I was in the mood, didn’t know that I would stay awake, didn’t really want to, figured I could just wing it without watching if need be. But I am always astounded at how enjoyable, fun, interesting, and quotable Annie Hall is. The movie is (to me) a perfect little 93 minutes of people trying to understand each other, wondering why it is so hard, and trying to simply learn from each relationship.

It seems a little racy when I think of the Light on Dark Water group, but watching it today I also thought how racy it is not compared to the standards of today’s movies, television, and internet options which young people have access to. Yes, pre-marital sex is a big part of the story line; but there is no nudity and little cursing. It is mainly one of those “adult content due to theme” types of movies.

It is a small miracle that Annie Hall won Best Picture. I am a big Academy Awards buff, and I cannot think of another comedy off the top of my head that won the big prize. Musicals, yes. Movies like Forrest Gump which have funny moments but also intense dramatic themes, yes. But not too many (if any others) that can be compared with Annie Hall. It is enjoyable to watch a young and beautiful Diane Keaton, who won Best Actress; and Woody himself, who somehow writes all of these movies he makes, as a perfect characterization of himself at the right age playing along a woman who is also the correct age for him. Paul Simon has a small part, perhaps because he is the only man Woody could find who is shorter than himself. Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, and Christopher Walken all have small roles. Jeff Goldblum has one that is even smaller (but he does have a short line of dialogue). I just looked for fun to see the other movies nominated for Best Picture that year, and Star Wars was one of them.

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Now that I have apologized and defended the movie I will say a little about plot and structure just in case there is someone out there who has not seen it and might be interested. Though it is hard to really lose a 93 minute bet.

Woody looks into the camera at the very beginning and is just randomly sort of talking and half-joking about things, in his stand-up comic persona. You as the audience are simply laughing and enjoying his riff, and then he says, “Annie and I broke up” and he gets a real pensive and thoughtful look on his face and you know right then that this movie is different from all of his previous ones. Watching it for maybe the 30th or so time I was struck how that one little sentence fragment made sense and is what the movie is all about, and why it is titled Annie Hall. I’m not sure I ever got it before.

Because then for the rest of the movie you sort of jump back and forth between comic interludes with Alvy Singer (the Woody character) and friends; Alvy with Annie; Alvy with previous wives and girlfriends; Alvy as a young boy (I love the red-headed kid he cast as himself!); Woody on the Dick Cavett show; Woody as a cartoon character. Then at the end for the final five minutes or so, probably less, there is a wonderful New York City shot with voice-over by Woody and his take on relationships. You get to that point and after the previous 90 minutes, it is just wonderful and sweet and you sort of want to cry over people, and who they are, and how they are not happy until they have found that right person. So they keep looking until they do.

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Alvy as a rabbi in Annie’s grandmother’s imagination.

 [My only other comment is that if you like this and want more, the second best Woody Allen movie to me is Hannah and Her Sisters. Which has a bravura Oscar winning performance by Michael Caine.]

—Stu Moore inexplicably moved from New Mexico to Mobile, Alabama thirteen years ago. He remains there surrounded by books, which concerns his wife.

52 Movies: Week 2 - The Bird People in China

Week 2-The Bird People in China-Janet_html_m2614024bI first came across The Bird People in China after I had watched Departures and I wanted to find out more about Masahiro Matoki who played the protagonist in the film. The name of the movie (Bird People) intrigued me, so I ordered it from Netflix.

I have to admit that I did not enjoy a good bit of the first part of the movie, but because I like this actor, and I really wanted to find out about the bird people, and because the promotional picture piqued my curiosity, I stuck with it, and after a while, I was really glad I had.

This is the story of Wada, a Japanese businessman who gets an urgent call from his company. The man who has been previously negotiating with a small village in China for the rights to mine Jade in their area has been hospitalized, and the company needs someone to take his place right away. Wada, who knows nothing about Jade, has been chosen to take his place.

Week 2-wellcameHe arrives, attired in a business suit, in a run-down, out-of-the-way town in China where he is met by his driver, who owns a dilapidated van, and with whom he can barely communicate. The driver takes him to meet Ujiie his translator and a representative of the people with whom Wada’s company is doing business. Shortly after they meet, Ujiie takes Wada into an empty building and beats the ever-loving daylight out of him. This has something to do with Ujiie’s employers dealings with Wada’s predecessor, but I could never really figure out what was going on, and Wada was as much in the dark as I am. This scene is filled with brutal violence and is painful to watch, and yet it is partly played for comedy. When the funny lines come, it’s really surprising.

Week2-rock birdResuming the journey, they drive into the night to an inn in a remote village (although in retrospect, this won’t seem so remote). It is at their evening meal that Wada first hears about the Bird People. There is a young man staying in the inn who has heard a legend about them, and he is on a journey to find if they really exist.

Week2-tattoosBy the time Wada and Ujiie are sharing a small room for the night, Wada has realized that Ujiie is a yakuza – a gangster. Wada never refers to Ujiie in any other way than as the gangster, so I will hereafter relieve myself of the misery of typing a word with a j followed by two i’s. When the gangster turns his back to Wada, we see that he is covered with strange tattoos, and during the night he is visited by terrifying dreams.

After a long journey in the van, they meet with the man who is going to guide them on foot over the mountains to the river on which the village is located. The men seem to have come to an uneasy truce, although occasionally the gangster seems compelled to abuse Wada in some way. Then, after a seemingly endless journey (a perfect metaphor for the beginning of the movie) they come to a river where they are ferried across by a very mysterious man using a very mysterious means of power, and the beautiful movie begins.

Shortly after finally arriving in the village, the men come across the small children of the village having their flying lessons. For sheer joy, it would be hard to beat this scene. I wish I could get a better picture.

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When they ask the villagers about the classes, they are told that the young woman who teaches them is Week2-annie goodthe granddaughter of a man who fell from the skies many years ago, and who was able to fly. She is teaching them what he taught her, although she doesn’t know if they will ever really be able to take flight. She has never done so herself. This young woman is very quiet and peaceful. I don’t know if we ever even learn her name. She seems entirely content with her life in the village, and her flying school and seems not to worry at all about the eventual success or failure of the flying lessons.

As the woman walks along, she frequently sings a soft and lovely song over and over. Soon Wada realizes that he knows the song, and you will too, and this adds to the mystery surrounding her family. As time goes by Wada becomes increasingly fascinated with the story of her grandfather and works hard to decipher the manuscript he left behind. As he learns more about the grandfather’s story, he begins to have a great desire to learn to fly.

I hesitate to say any more about the plot lest I give too much away. This isn’t a perfect movie. As I mentioned before the first part was not quite to my taste, although it was far from being totally bad. The second part had a few flaws too, but they were very much outweighed by its strengths. I would like to watch the film a few more times, although at the moment that would be difficult. It is available on DVD from Netflix, and can be bought from Amazon, but it’s pretty pricey. You can see a trailer here but I’m really not sure if it is a good idea to watch it before the movie. You can also watch the movie in Japanese, but stay away from the English version on Youtube because it’s not what it seems.


—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

"Discussion is pointless and dialogue is dead."

Out for a walk Sunday evening, I was brooding about the state of politics and culture in the U.S., and my personal frustration at the complete closed-mindedness of many of the liberals I know. Sure, there are many, many on the right who are equally closed-minded. But for the most part I'm not trying to argue with them (although I have reason to think that my first and so far only "un-friending" on Facebook was a result of my mocking Donald Trump). And anyway those who are that way are mostly not educated people (or should I say "educated"?) who have a great deal invested in an image of themselves as being above all smart, reasonable, and tolerant, so I find their visceral reactions more forgiveable. What frustrates me most about many liberals is that they think of themselves as the intelligent, thoughtful, rational, open-minded side of this quarrel. And within some limits they are. But where conservatives are concerned their mental processes often revert to the same raw bigotry that they decry in racists. In a sad parallel, the most egregious example of this also has to do with race: the instantaneous reflexive labeling of any right-wing person or group as racist, regardless of or even in spite of the evidence (e.g. right-wing support for Ben Carson).

What had me thinking along these lines was an Internet "meme" which credits Obama with "saving the country" in spite of "unprecedented racism and hatred." Saving the country from what? It didn't say (not that there was space to do so--Internet memes have replaced bumper stickers for simple-minded sloganeering). A right-minded person wouldn't need to be told, and therefore anyone who asks to be told is not a right-minded person. Where is the evidence that opposition to Obama is primarily driven by racism? If you have to ask, you're probably incapable of understanding, and by virtue of raising the question have placed yourself under justifiable suspicion of being racist, or at minimum "racially insensitive." 

And I was thinking about how someone on the right--me, for instance--would have an almost equal-but-opposite reaction to the meme, considering the statement laughable, believing in fact that Obama's presidency has done enormous harm to the country, and moreover that the reading of the widespread opposition to him as racist is itself an instance of the harm. I don't believe he would ever have been elected if he had not been officially black; he benefited greatly from the desire of white people, and not only white liberals, to feel good about themselves by voting for a black man. And he actually started out with a certain amount of good will from people who didn't vote for him, because of the hope of racial reconciliation his election represented. 

Well, so much for that.

I ended up pondering, as I often do these days, the fact that the division between what we can loosely call the right and the left has reached a point where the two sides can't even talk to each other. (The role that the Internet has played in exacerbating the hostility is considerable, I think, but that's a topic for another day.)

So I sat down at my computer and looked in on Facebook, and one of the first things I saw was a link to this post by Fr. Dwight Longenecker from which the title of this post is taken. He's talking about moral disputes, not so much political ones, although the two are very much connected these days.

When such irrationality prevails it is impossible to have a discussion. There are no moorings. There is no foundation for a discussion. The only way one prevails in an argument where there is this atmosphere, is to shout louder than the other person, and finally to hit the other person. 

And a week or so I'd read a similar thought from Michael Gerson, speaking of politics, specifically of the president's rhetoric on gun control.

But it matters when the president of the United States decides that democratic persuasion is a fool’s game. It encourages the kind of will-to-power politics we see on the left and right. In this view, opponents are evil — entirely beyond the normal instruments of reason and good faith. So the only option is the collection and exercise of power.

When the main players in our politics give up on deliberative democracy, it feels like some Rubicon is being crossed. 

Indeed it does. I've thought for a long time that the country has reached a degree of division which is going to be very difficult or impossible to resolve, and I'm running across more and more people who who are of the same mind. It isn't only conservatives. I've seen similar comments on left-wing web sites, generally in a tone of rage. And I certainly don't see any sign on the left that any compromise or reconciliation is being considered, except in the sense that Obama generally means it, i.e., that the opposition should quit fighting.

For forty years or so we've talked about being in a culture war, but it's only a war because it involves more than culture: it involves law and governance and mutually exclusive demands of them. Two cultures might be able to coexist within a framework acceptable to both--and perhaps the American system should accommodate that, up to a point, a point where the two are operating on such different philosophical bases that they can't agree on the framework. And that's the point we've reached. It's more and more clear that whether or not that coexistence is possible in principle, it isn't going to be possible in practice. Some say that this war has already been won by the progressives, who are now enforcing their will on the losers. But that may not be so easy. The losers may not be the ruling class--they do not possess the dominant institutions--the government, the press, the academy, the entertainment industry. But there are an awful lot of them, and they're pretty angry. I wouldn't bet much on the proposition that the United States as we know it will exist a hundred years from now.

Speaking of anger: I think the idea of Donald Trump as president is preposterous, and will no doubt continue to think so even if it comes to pass. But to dismiss his support as "hate"--and of course, always, "racism"--is to fail to grasp what is really happening. Here's a good piece by William Voegeli at the Claremont Review on that topic:

Demagoguery flourishes when democracy falters. A disreputable, irresponsible figure like Donald Trump gets a hearing when the reputable, responsible people in charge of things turn out to be self-satisfied and self-deluded. The best way to fortify Trump’s presidential campaign is to insist his followers’ grievances are simply illegitimate, bigoted, and ignorant. The best way to defeat it is to argue that their justified demands for competent, serious governance deserve a statesman, not a showman.

Does anybody here care about Star Wars?

If you do, here are a couple of reviews that I thought were interesting:

Christopher Orr in The Atlantic

Carl Eric Scott in National Review

Really, the main thing I found interesting in Orr's review was this:

And so with The Force Awakens, Abrams has begun one of the most important reclamation projects of our time: the complete erasure from cultural memory of The Phantom Menace and its sequels.


And what I liked about Scott's piece is that he dares to suggest not only that the "prequels"--the second series of three movies--should not have been made, but perhaps even that there should have been only one Star Wars movie, the very first one. I sympathize. I thought the whole thing began to take itself too seriously with the second movie, The Empire Strikes Back, though all in all I can enjoy it and Return of the Jedi. I don't think I've ever seriously considered seeing The Phantom Menace again, though it might be fun to ignore the plot and just enjoy the spectacle.

The piece to which Scott is responding is also interesting--see the link in his piece.

52 Movies: Week 1 - The Great Escape

This may seem an odd choice for the first entry in this series. Until a couple of days ago I had thought I would write about some high-class work that would fall into the general category of Art Film made by an Artist, probably something by Bergman. But for some reason I’ve been thinking about this one, and it occurred to me that it would be good to start off with what you might call a movie-movie—a Hollywood movie existing not because of an artist’s vision but to provide “product”, as it used to be called and for all I know still is, for the “entertainment industry” to sell. And it worked very well: it took in over $11,000,000 (over $85,000,000 in today’s money), which put it in the top 20 for the year, 1963. (I’m not sure what period of time that amount covers—I suppose it’s the duration of the initial release.)

Which is not to say that there was no artist at work: the director, John Sturges, has a lasting reputation, and the writing, acting, and general production are of high quality. Should we qualify “art” with “popular”? I don’t know. Does it really matter? Not much. Suffice to say that after more than fifty years The Great Escape remains an appealing and powerful work. A friend of mine once said that movie-making, at least in the Hollywood model, required so many people with so many different motives, so many of whom had no interest in anything but commercial considerations, that a really good movie seemed almost a miracle. Well, it happened in this case.

The Great Escape has a fundamentally simple plot: a group of Allied soldiers (American, British, Canadian, Australian) in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II attempt to escape by digging a tunnel. It’s based on real events, though according to the Wikipedia entry, to which I will not link because it summarizes the plot, the film makes the Americans the main players, while in reality most of the participants were British and Canadian. I suppose the American film-makers did this to appeal to the American audience.

I expect many people reading this have seen it, but for the sake of those who have not, I won’t say much more about the plot. I will include the trailer, which gives away a good bit, including one scene that I wish they had saved for the movie itself.


One might see it only as a good action-adventure film, but I think it’s more than that, a powerful study in courage. I saw it when I was 14 or 15, and I’m pretty sure I went back to see it at least one more time after the first. It made an enormous impression on me. A few years ago I wanted to see what I would think of it now and got the DVD from Netflix. I’m no longer 14 or 15, and I’m less impressionable and more critical. I know now what I probably sensed even then, that it is not entirely realistic—I mean, apart from the modifications made to the real story for the sake of drama, it is not a truly realistic picture of what the prisoners and the camp must really have been like. But I still think it’s excellent for its time, and excellent in a dramatic way despite its lack of realism.

The actors include some names that were big in Hollywood at the time or would become big—Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson. British names you’d recognize are Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasance. And though Gordon Jackson’s name might not be as familiar, anyone who ever watched the old Upstairs Downstairs TV series will recognize the face and voice of Mr. Hudson. The Americans may have more charisma than pure acting ability—James Coburn’s attempt at an Australian accent doesn’t work—but the charisma is enough. The cinematography is excellent for its time, as you can see from the trailer. And that was something else that impressed me as a teenager, something about the scenery and the cities. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was, and still can’t, really, but it had something to do with a vision of Europe, something almost like nostalgia, although of course I had never seen it at the time. A few years later I did go there, and I still feel nostalgia for what I saw and experienced then.

This movie is also appropriate for this week, by the way, as it's the first week of my retirement from regularly scheduled paid employment. With only a few breaks of a year or less, I've been doing that since 1970. It feels great.

From an Old Letter

I mentioned here a few months ago the unexpected death of an old friend. In the process of clearing out his apartment, a member of his family came across half a dozen or so letters I had written to him in the 1980s. A couple of things in this one from June 1987 struck me.

Karen and I had our tenth anniversary in May. It's pretty hard for me to believe that so much time has passed. The time since I went to work at Intergraph (over six years) especially has flown, there being fewer major transitions to mark the time. This, I suppose, is the way one goes to sleep and wakes up at retirement.

Now I'm retiring, and the fortieth anniversary is eighteen months away. I haven't been asleep, but as people always say, the time, when viewed from this end, seems remarkably short--at some moments. At others it seems an age

Along similar lines of thought--I'm amazed that it's already presidential election time again. Looks like a pretty grim array of candidates. I suppose the Democrats will nominate another bozo and I'll end up voting Republican, but it won't be with much enthusiasm. I find myself, after a six or eight-year flirtation with the conservative movement, feeling more and more estranged from it. Too many of the main players--at least as I perceive them through the lens of the conservative press--don't seem to me to be conservative where it counts. It remains true that the traditionalist conservative camp remains the major bastion of sanity on the current intellectual scene, but the "God bless our standard of living / And let's keep it that way" crowd seems to predominate....

With a couple of slight modifications I could have written that yesterday. My relationship to conservatism has been troubled from the beginning. 

I'm having trouble placing that quotation. It's a popular song...Paul Simon, maybe?...yes