Friday, October 31, 2008

Save the bears

Photo: Grizzly bear

It occurs to me that there is little point in being an intellectual if you don't have power. Who wants to sit around reading Shakespeare -- or Marx -- only in order to privately congratulate himself on his taste and his great deep soul, his "living for the gods" as Marcus Aurelius said? And then only to go out into the world and talk to people who probably can't spell Shakespeare (then again, neither could he, consistently)?

This topic came up last night as we sat watching a television program about the grizzly bears in Yellowstone, and about how evil developers and people are encroaching on the bears' habitat and cutting down the white pine trees they need to survive, and so on. There were on the program the usual array of talking, turtleneck-sweatered heads, with Ph.D at the bottom of the screen beside their names, all gently mourning this state of affairs and trying to feel their way toward a new era when bears and people can co-exist. One lady's earrings swung delicately as she spoke. One of the guys had an earring, too.

We turned to each other and asked "why is public television so left-wing?" And why, too, are universities and big media newsrooms equally so? (It's funny. When I was growing up, the soft-spoken Bear Lady with the swinging earrings would have seemed to me simply a normal part of life, a normal part of an evening's television watching. Of course, her information was the truth and her point of view correct. Now I look at her and see someone indoctrinated. Someone who, like all the rest of us, may at times be wrong.)

At first I entertained the thought that the left's predominance on PBS must have something to do with money, with public television being funded more by taxes than by advertising, and so largely immune to the danger of disgusted and bored viewers turning off the propaganda machine and taking their consumer dollars elsewhere. To NASCAR broadcasts, for instance. But even free money doesn't explain why that money attracts left-wing people. Universities and newsrooms don't necessarily operate only through the the public dole, and yet they attract the left, too.

This is not the first time that I have puzzled over the topic. Once I even tried to put it into fiction, probably without much success. The more I consider it the more I think it must be that the left-leaning intellectual has an awfully bleak day-to-day existence unless he has power, or at least the hope of power, even on a small scale. The university professor, or even the high school or the fifth grade teacher, with his captive audience of goggling and impressionable young people; the journalist with his pulpit in print; the Ph.D. clutching his degree in white pine and grizzly bear symbiosis, the highlight of whose life may very well have been an interview with a crew from public television, filming a special on the menace of development near Yellowstone National Park. All these people would have nothing much practical to do with all the learning and passions they have amassed, unless they find the power to impose their views on other people. Teaching the young to "how to think" -- writing editorials on proper thinking and feeling, on the truth -- stopping development. All these, at least, are actions. Doing them is better than sitting quietly at home after a day at work, reading, or worse, writing great and important books and dissertations that most people will never look at.

The lust for power is a human trait and I am sure right-wing people want power, too. But there is a difference. Right-wingers may run for office and start businesses and publish books, but right-wing ideology does not seek power over the individual and his private choices in the way the progressive left does. Right-wing ideology seeks to leave people alone to sink or swim, which is exactly what the left excoriates about it. This makes the right evil, cold, and compassion-less.

But free people, left alone to sink or swim, are also free to ignore intellectuals, and this normal state is what threatens to strip intellectuals of their chance at power. Right-wing intellectuals can afford not to care, since the right by and large has no roster of collective actions it wants all of us to do for the general good. The left has an endless roster of such actions, and so to left-wing intellectuals, being ignored, being powerless, not only bleakens life -- as it does, a little, for all eggheads who bite their tongues when in the company of good people who can't spell Shakespeare -- it's also morally outrageous. The answer, to them, is proved so simple. They've seen the light. They've become left. So can others. Get power. Teach. Editorialize. Stop development. Make a documentary. Save the bears.

And so they congregate particularly in places of small-scale power, where they can revel in funded but unelected authority, in pulpits and captive audiences and the young. Of course they flatter themselves that it's just such selfless, open-minded, thought-provoking, and artistic professions which naturally attract compassionate, deep people who want to save the planet and touch the future ("I teach," as the refrigerator magnet almost purrs). They would never say, "I've cast my lot with an intellectual attitude that is meaningless unless it lets me mold other people." No more would a right-wing person say, "I've cast my lot with an intellectual attitude that is meaningless unless it lets my company log in Yellowstone and persecute mother bears."

This election and all the commentary about it has led me to wonder, among other things, if the Founding Fathers were not a most unusual group of history's intellectuals, a group which deliberately sought to give away or fence off power, especially the coercive power of the state which they formed. Perhaps that's why they annoy modern left-wing intellectuals so much. What fool gives away the only solid pleasure an egghead has, and to the people? Barack Obama's radio interview from 2001, in which he speaks of the Constitution's "negative rights" and its dreadful failure to indicate the powers the government has over the individual, reminded me of exactly what my professors from a rinky-dink community college used to say twenty-five years ago. I remember one Ph.D. in particular who used to praise the Mexican constitution, because it was who-knew-how-many-thousand pages long and spelled out exactly what you can and can't do, unlike our own feckless one which runs to at most three or four pages and explains practically nothing.

We students were all too dumb to call him on this nonsense, but as I've gotten older I've reassured myself that at least he, and intellectuals like him, remain ensconced in universities where they do their thing to nineteen-year-olds and then the nineteen-year-olds move on. Now I'm not so sure. My deeply ignorant, I might say life-ignorant old professor is now hideously close to the presidency, really. Oh, he isn't Barack. But he may as well be. It's the ideology that is campaigning, and it doesn't change for decades. And it amazes me that so many Americans who would roll their eyes in boredom at this if they were trapped in a little white drywall classroom, with homework coming, love it when they see it up on a stage strutting in a great baritone voice.

But then, I was in love with it too. Power as aphrodisiac, or, being overpowered as aphrodisiac. Yes, sometimes, even among audiences which are not yet captive.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

You need help

It was, I think, John Kenneth Galbraith who said in one of his books that every few generations, at least in the modern world, people get comfortable and start to think they can have wealth without work. It isn't possible, as on-margin investors in the stock market learned in 1929. People who bought homes -- which are a kind of wealth -- without money beginning in the compassionate Jimmy Carter years are now learning the same thing. As are all the rest of us, compelled to bail them out.

(And incidentally, the mystery is solved. I used to drive past acres upon acres of enormous new homes, or look at real estate listings featuring "starter" homes beginning in the $150,000 price range, and wonder what on earth these people did for a living to be able to afford this. In my ignornance I used to think, well, they must be in the computer field, or something. And, who knew? -- the answer was so simple. They couldn't afford them.)

This cycle will work itself out, provided the government does not get involved and make things worse with interference that no one person or committee can know is the right interference to make; I think it is interesting that this should happen just when it seems the scholarly consensus is that Franklin Roosevelt did not "get us out" of the Depression with his programs and plans, he prolonged it. This was news to me when I went back to college a few years ago, and now I see it echoed by responsible people elsewhere. Why did it take seventy years for the best and brightest to figure this out, or to dare to say it? And will it take another seventy years for this consensus to filter down to ordinary people?

I ask because yesterday I met a woman of another mindset entirely, who is well-meaning and mature and does not realize that her opinions on the issues of the day are not those of a citizen who understands what freedom is. She said that she thinks the government should be in charge of everyone's health care, because "most" people cannot manage or budget for that themselves. She was speaking of John McCain's idea to give $5000 to every uninsured American to buy health insurance. (Do the rest of us get 5 grand, too? Are we to be punished for being already insured? And if the answer to all these financial problems is to give away taxpayer money, why not simply abolish taxes and let everyone keep the money in the first place?) She said that when most people have that wad of cash in front of their eyes, they will not necessarily use it for health care, they will use it for something immediate, who knows what. In other words, they will make free choices with it and they'll reap the consequences, for good or ill.

I'm sure she's right about the human tendency to succumb to temptation, or simply the human ability to look after our own interests and make trade-offs as we see fit. But her leap of hopeless illogic -- that therefore the government can be more sensible about your life than you can -- is what I find chilling. She is an intelligent lady. She's thought about this. On the other hand, if she were to get instructions from some government functionary telling her what groceries to buy tomorrow, she would be outraged. "How can you know what I want or what's best for me?" she would ask. But when it comes to human beings in the aggregate, human choices, human problems, she is all for the idea of state control for everyone else's good. And she doesn't even realize it.

As it happens, she is a nutritionist. She wants people to eat well and make "healthy lifestyle choices." Having just opened a nutrition counseling business in February, she is disappointed that not many customers are coming to her and paying her for advice. Instead, they are making their own food choices and are spending their money on other things apart from her counseling, bills, gas, the mortgage (let's hope). She tries to persuade them that they need her, too. What is the point of getting your life in order, she asks, when after you have solved all your other problems, you are not healthy? Good point. But free people are free to ignore her and her business. Just like free people are free to budget their own health care. Or not.

Her earnest desire to help everybody live cleanly, properly, and happily may be very American, but her emotional assumption that most people need state help to do it is, I think, not so. I'm reminded of a quote from a popular biography of King Louis XIV by Olivier Bernier (A Royal Life): in seventeenth-century France, "freedom" meant the right of the weak and poor to state protection. I'm reminded in turn of stories of riotous crowds in pre-modern Russia, or France, rushing to royalty to thrown stones at palace windows and demand huge divine gifts like "Peace, Bread, and Land" whenever times turned rough. This assumption that human beings are naturally helpless, childlike, and the state is not, does not constitute the bedrock on which free people -- well, build houses.

But how do you convince still-free people, like this lady nutritionist, that her attitudes are corrosive of the very untrammeled, competitive, free market, "dog-eat-dog" economic system that has enabled her to risk starting her business and creating wealth in the first place? It's a mighty dopey business, too, in my opinion, but luckily for her my attitudes to it are beside the point. How could I have convinced this lady that, yes, in a free economy, in a free country, her fellow citizens have the right to lead messy, fast-food lives? And that banks have the right to foreclose on their homes and sell elsewhere when they don't pay their mortgage, even though it looks un-compassionate?

I don't know how to convince her of these things, but I'm learning, as the economic "crisis" goes on and I meet bright people like her, in ones and twos, who feel as she does, who still wear "Obama 08" t-shirts and still chortle about Republicans jumping off roofs on November 5th, how much appearances matter. Illusions matter. For comfortable people, the illusion of compassion, the appearance of comprehensive outrage against the great, against injustice or unfairness, is deeply satisfying and will always spur votes and that's that. Democrats are Compassionate, and want to Help the Poor. That's that. As long as there are people who don't do as well as others in life, then Democrats will have a lock on the millions of votes that witness this and see the answer as a heartfelt abstraction -- as love, I suppose. If the "rising tide that lifts all boats" ebbs considerably because large numbers have voted against the system that frees the tide to rise, tant pis, as the French say (so much the worse).

Maybe my compassionate friends will live long enough to have one of those paradigm shifts they want everyone else to have, and notice simple things. Ebbing tides lower all boats. You can't have wealth without work. Simple. Oh, and people have thought like serfs before, in other times and places. Simple.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What's a "conservative" movie?

I have no intention of going to see An American Carol because the ad for it looks stupid and I don't trust any reviewer's assurance that something is "funny." People thought -- or were told -- Charlie Chaplin was funny.

But I also think that conservative writers and commentators, and conservative screenwriters and producers in Hollywood for that matter (all two of them, it seems) are wrong in even trying to support or to make a "conservative" movie. I agree that Hollywood is chock a block with left-wing people making left-wing movies, but the public by and large give these movies the treatment they deserve by ignoring them. It isn't just the last five anti-Iraq war, Susan Sarandon-type vehicles that have failed utterly at the box office. I seem to recall reading that a few years ago, when Clint Eastwood's girl boxing film Million Dollar Baby won its Oscars, the Wayans' brothers White Chicks actually grossed more than that and all the years' other lofty, artsy Oscar nominees combined. Most moviegoers want to be entertained, not dragged through a tale of misery and deep, aching meaning for their own moral good.

But there's another reason why I have no intention of going to see An American Carol, and it speaks to the reason why manufactured "conservative" films are useless. I understand that it's a satire on Michael Moore. Why should I go see a film making fun of Michael Moore? He's not that important in my life that I need to see him mocked. In fact, what the movie amounts to is a compliment to his power. I agree that he makes tendentious, dishonest, and foolish films, but his last one didn't perform so well at the box office and he's releasing his most recent effort for free on YouTube or somewhere. Why not let it go at that?

Its theme makes An American Carol pathetic and outdated from the start. And I'm not impressed by the roster of "big name" stars in it. Perhaps I'm out of touch, but who is Kevin Farley? And talented though James Woods, Kelsey Grammer, and Leslie Nielsen are, only politeness would call them anything other than B-list performers. Jon Voight and Dennis Hopper are from another century. The stars who wouldn't touch this with a ten-foot-pole -- stars like George Clooney, who I gather is also a butt of the film's jokes -- will smile at its compliment to their stature.

Maybe the very reason why someone like James Woods doesn't seem to work much is because he's a blackballed conservative, and that's why it is all the more important that "we" support his sticking his neck out for the kinds of films he's willing to act in and the politics he espouses. But something in this equation doesn't add up. The way to make a conservative film is not to collect somewhat faded stars and then have them fall all over themselves reacting to and confirming the Hollywood left's belief that it is the most serious and important thing in everyone's daily life. Rush Limbaugh plugged the film and noted that "it's not long." No, I daresay it isn't. The implication, unfortunately, is that there is not much for a conservative film to say. Susan Sarandon would smile, too.

Then what makes a "liberal" film? A negative message, certainly, a reflexively anti-authority or anti-American message, or a theme involving liberal or, more correctly, progressive creeds that are not to be questioned: the weeping splendor of gay rights, the tragedy of melting Arctic ice. But no one can therefore flip the coin and make a conservative film about -- what? Patriotic, religious characters who hunt or stay married or start up a small business? Hollywood, in making "liberal" movies, simply makes good movies about characters who are struggling with some kind of problem or confronting some kind of injustice or evil. Of course it's tendentious that the evil usually stems from America or big business or the military, but still each individual plot line is technically plausible on its own. I'm sure In the Valley of Elah was made because its producers and stars are left-wingers who loathe George Bush and wanted to instruct us all, but the story -- grieving parents of a soldier, I think -- is humanly creditable. Antigone (not that I compare the two in all ways) is also a humanly creditable story of people struggling with each other and with authority, fate, decisions, law, and grief.

An even putatively right-wing film has got to be so different that it must set aside any story, and grapple hard with agenda first. This is especially out of character for conservatives, who tend not to want to govern the universe through progressive groupthink anyway. Laissez-faire, Don't Tread On Me, and so on. How do "we" get our agenda across? In contemplating this challenge, we approach propaganda already and the game, the game the left has mastered and which we are playing on their field, is lost already. The Hollywood left makes effortless propaganda partly because it can always point to its films as art first. No story of conflict is ever inherently left- or right-wing. And of course, its films are A-list art because the progressive idea fueling them all seems to attract to the soundstage the wealthiest and stupidest and most sheltered and most glamorous A-list artists of all. It's called self-reinforcement, I suppose.

So what could a conservative film be, and how do "we" make or support them? I say, relax. Movies are meant to be entertaining, and when they don't entertain we reject them handily. White Chicks was a conservative film. So was Titanic. So were those in my new favorite series, Die Hard -- although it's too bad some dopey left-wing screenwriter had the kid in Die Hard 4 pontificate, unanswered, about "FEMA taking five days to get water to the Superdome" after Hurricane Katrina. (Yes, kid, very good! And why? FEMA had no economic incentive to get water to the Superdome. They're a liberal government agency whose balance sheets and pay scales don't depend on satisfying customers, not like the terrible greedy capitalists. Now hand me that gun. Next!)

And An American Carol, a conservative film? Let's hope not. Will it do well at the box office? My guess is no, because conservative moviegoers don't rack up weekend "must-see, must-love" lists which they then wear as a badge of advanced moral understanding, like an Obama "Hope" button. Also -- no, because it's probably as dumb as it looks.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Diary with Hero

Sunday. Only twenty years on, I have discovered the iconic Die Hard movies. One sits through a festival of gore and profanity, in order to arrive at the scenes of heroic rescue at the end, especially the ends of the first two movies, in which the hero rescues his wife. Probably equally a male as a female fantasy, especially in movie number 1, at the end of which the hero, in shock from all the killing, hands her down like a queen from the rubble -- and then protects her again. All the while covered in his own and other men's blood. A kind of Christ figure? No; Odysseus perhaps.

Anyway, extremely pleasurable. The strong, decent man going through hell for justice and for his woman. It's ridiculous of course -- if he turned green and immense and hollered "Hulk smash!" I would have no patience with him, but he may as well do that -- but one waits for solitude the next day for a chance to slip the movie back into the DVD player, and fast forward to the scenes of rescue. He staggers, weak and bloodied, through the snow, calling his wife's name, and weeps when he finds her. He -- Bruce Willis -- proved himself a pretty believable cry-er in the first film, and so a poorer set of scriptwriters gave him more crying scenes in the second.

Tuesday. Alas, can't get the DVD player to work. It pixelates at that scene. Proof of over-use perhaps? A few hundred other human beings have also wanted to see just that, just one more time?

Friday. It's funny how the appetite for hero worship never goes away -- human nature, I suppose -- and one is really almost disappointed to learn that the actor, not necessarily this one but any one, is just another human being, who dates starlets or gets thrown out of nightclubs or whatever. And when one particular fictional crush wears off, you wonder what was inadequate about you that you needed to fall for that. In reality, there wasn't anything wrong with you, you're just a human being and you like heroes and gods. I have no doubt that plenty of the great figures of history, especially the religious figures, were handsome men. Only that first draws the human eye, and introduces the theme of -- I was going to say godliness. No; god-likeness.

Anyway. Great fun. And will be again.

Sunday. Didn't I say so? Twenty years on: Nights in Rodanthe. One sits through a festival of beautifully coiffed people dealing with fake problems. "You weren't there for me"/"I wasn't there for him," etc. The beach. Richard Gere -- and I have always meant to see Days of Heaven, it's said to be marvelous -- in whose face I can faintly see the cute-as-a-button old man he is going to become. Watch the movie: there's got to be a rescue soon, because that is tantamount to permission to make love, especially between two characters who have just argued. Ah, yes, here it comes! The hurricane. The crashing china cabinet. She is about to be crushed. He leaps and pushes her out of the way. Perfect. I still think I prefer the fantasy full-blown, a la Die Hard, guns blazing and the hero facing far more formidable foes than toppling furniture.

Great fun, and will be again. Haven't I said so?