- This new Southern gothic film looks good Yohana Desta, Vanity Fair
- Could giving kids a pill boost their income years later? Nurith Aizenman, Goats and Soda
- The last communist to challenge Stalin to his face Pietro Basso (interview), Jacobin
- Some new insights into the Hong Kong clampdown Helen Davidson, Guardian
- Libertarians can’t save the planet (but is this a bad thing?) John Quiggin, Jacobin
- Great piece on class and contemporary film in the US Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
- Against the “balance sheet” approach to colonialism (or, how Leftists turn conservative) Robert Heinze, Africa is a Country
- If a monopoly gives away free services is it a problem? Izabella Kaminska, Alphaville
- California’s fires (no mention of “property rights”) Claire McEachern, LARB
- Nationalism is not always the enemy of liberalism Asle Toje, American Interest
- Universal Love, said the Cactus Person Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex
- Great list of recent low budget sci-fi flicks Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex
Last Friday, Joker hit cinemas to much acclaim and some anxiety. Hot takes claim it glamorizes violence while the Slate pitch is that it’s boring. Having seen it over the weekend, I don’t see anything more transgressive about it than the various Batman films to which Joker is a sort of prequel, but it is more entertaining.
The film uses both narrative and moral ambiguity driven by the theme of mental illness. We are not quite sure what’s real and what’s not. And what (if anything) is responsible for catastrophic events that turn wannabe standup-comedian Arthur Fleck into the Clown Prince of Crime. This ambiguity is in league with contemporary criminology. Many researchers now suspect that crimes are typically the result of multiple, incremental causes (little things going wrong) that together add up to sometimes catastrophic outcomes.
So with spoilers already skulking in the alleyways over the fold, let’s review some of Joker’s overlapping narrative alongside some theories of crime (some of which I draw from my forthcoming book chapter on evidence-based policing).
One thing the Notes on Liberty community may not know about me is that I worked for a while as a research (and writing) extern for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Because of my academic background in history and the arts, most of my work focused on historical communism, especially as related to propagandist representations from inside communist countries. The experience provided me with an opportunity to immerse myself in the documentation and wording of communism.
Most people know how the Soviet and Maoist propagandists portrayed their own people: the moral, brave underdogs who are hated and despised by rich, corrupt weaklings. Any of the sufferings connected to communism – famines, shortages, economic instability – these were all the fault of external forces. Except in the case of the Chinese, to whom Mao refused to offer explanation and simply told the people that their sufferings were glorious and were sacrifices to the revolution. Hua Yu in his memoir China in Ten Words conveys quite poetically exactly how “glorious” everyone’s sufferings were. Even today, we are still treated to a modern iteration in the form of Nicolás Maduro and his wild accusations regarding the cause of Venezuela’s collapse. Most of the time, the perpetrators are the White House and CIA, though in August 2018 he blamed Colombia and some unidentified Floridians and in December 2018 he threw in Brazil, along with the traditional “White House did it” trope.
What is less commonly known – outside of film and literature aficionados – about Cold War era portrayals is their representation of those who live on the other side of the divide, i.e. in capitalism. Across the board, the portrayals were fairly simplistic – the rich were evil, the poor were good. The premise was always that the former were useless and the latter were meritorious, belonging in a socialist workers’ paradise, instead of in a system that metaphorically chewed them up and spat them out. The propagandists were masters of imposing this interpretive paradigm universally, from traditional Western literature (or even their own traditional literature in the case of China) to news items. For example, the failed yachtsman and minor-league conman Donald Crowhurst became a proletariat hero in the Soviet film Race of the Century in which he is driven to his death by a greedy, capitalist sponsor (in real life, Crowhurst’s angel investor). The propaganda point being that in capitalism human life is expendable. One has only to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to see under which system an indifference to human life was, and still is, ingrained.
There is a reason that Marxist and post-structuralist theory and criticism focus on the concept of “the other.” It is because communism can only arise from chaos and conflict. In order to justify its existence and explain its ills and failures, there must be an “other” which opposes it. The other can be the White House, foreign intelligence services, or foreign bankers. “Othering” can be imposed on practically any person or group of people, and the dynamic can be read into any relationship. If one wants to find an “other” in Solzhenitsyn, a very good candidate is Fetyukov from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. For a literary criticism standpoint, Ivan Denisovich Shukov’s contempt for Fetyukov is a case of the former “othering” the latter. “Othering,” while a development of Marxist thought, is not a domain exclusive to communist writing. Ian Fleming used the paradigm, consciously or unconsciously, in his James Bond series, with their black-and-white portrayals of who was the good and who was the bad party.
Study of the language and structures of Marxist thought and propaganda is both lacking and overwhelming today. Yes, on the one hand, our universities have been overtaken with grievance studies and criticism classes. But on the other, the tropes and thought processes of Marxism have subtly appeared in contemporary American dialogue. More insidiously, they are not coming necessarily from the overt socialists, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but from figures that identify as center and right. Ocasio-Cortez and her idol Bernie Sanders might be pardoned for regurgitating Marxist tropes, given that at least these politicians have had the decency to acknowledge their ideological leanings, but for “Conservative” [note the big “C”] intellectuals to do so is indicative of either ignorance or manipulation, both of which are unforgivable.
Consider what Michael Lind, a prominent neo-conservative, wrote in an article titled “Classless utopia versus class compromise,”published in American Affairs in summer 2018,
Democracy, then, requires strategically strengthening institutions that working-class people can control or at least influence. That means, among other things, defending the institutional independence of diverse religious communities, while sometimes favoring pragmatic municipal socialism. Whatever form an authentic grassroots working-class movement might take in the twenty-first-century United States, it is likely to look like historic precedents, including old-fashioned Milwaukee-style “sewer socialism” (municipal ownership of public utilities) and the Salvation Army. It will not look like the campus-based social justice and climate-change NGOs of progressive upper-middle-class professionals or, for that matter, free-market agitprop groups funded by the libertarian rich.
Lind has had a decades-old, well-publicized bugbear with libertarian thought, and to some extent his language reflects this. What is concerning about his words is the justification of localized socialism (history shows that this would not remain local for long) using the language of agency. The entire argument is built upon the fundamental Marxist assumption that the proletariat has no agency, wants it, and must collectivize to have it. In Marxist speak, Lind’s acceptance of the laborer-has-only-his-labor paradigm effectively “others” everyone on the other side of an indeterminate class line – upper-middle-class professionals (progressive or not), college students, free-marketeers, oh, and rich libertarians (one wonders where poor student classical liberals and middle-class libertarians fall in this equation).
In old fairy tales, a common theme is a beloved plant, usually a tree, that begins to wither away. The tree is externally healthy, and no one can discern a logical reason for it to be dying. After a long search, consulting of necromancers, and other typical fairy tale activities, the hero digs around the tree’s roots and discovers that there is a repulsive, venomous animal, usually a snake or a toad, living there, and it is the cause of the plant’s slow decline. Marxist thought and paradigms, not Marxism as an ideology, have become that snake for American Conservatism and center-right politics. Its poison is exacerbated by the fact that its acolytes and proselytizers appear to be unconscious of its presence as they argue that their only desire is to preserve the American Republic through preventing class conflict. But if they are doing is to hurl us faster and faster, more inexorably toward this very breakdown, as their ideas begin to overlap with those of the acknowledged far-left.
On the new year day, searching on Youtube for something to watch, by chance, I stumbled upon a low budget and poorly made Western Yellow Rock (2012). By now, I watched enough of Hollywood products that were tailored to current “diversity” ideology and PC tastes. At least, some of them (e.g. Django Unchained, Black Panther, Dances with Wolves) were well crafted . But this Yellow Rock really “rocks.” It totally “overwhelmed” me.
An official plot description is rather innocent:
“A man searching for his missing son hires a group of rugged cowboys to take him into territory controlled by the Black Paw Indians. When they come upon an ancient burial ground, their own greed tears them apart, as the posse turns on itself.”
Yet, in reality, from the first scenes, you are literally plunged into the “diversity pulp fiction”: caricature whisky-drinking and swearing white male rednecks (the posse) approach a camp of no less caricature noble American Indians who are taken care of by an all-female team of noble physicians and nurses. The head of the posse claims that he is looking for his missing son. Yet, in reality, they need to secure a permission from the tribe to cross Indian lands to reach an abandoned gold mine to get hold of some sacks with gold dust. Through their wooden characters, from the very beginning, producers defined clearly ideological sides: noble victims (Native Americans), allies (white women), and oppressors (white males). Not a single shade of grey. The only exception is a white male alcoholic scout who takes the posse into the wild. As a victim of his addiction, he is also somewhat qualified to be noble, and, in fact, he acts as an ally too.
The cliche plot is painfully predictable: the posse of the “whitey” wants to cross straight across Indian burial grounds, although the “Injuns” warn them not to do it. Of course, by violating the sacred land, the “whitey” offend local spirits, who send against the rednecks a pack of wolves who appear as grotesque caricature shiny silver wolves resembling their brethren from New Age postcards and posters. Finally, the evil posse, which en route harasses an accompanying female physician and a male Indian, finds the gold. Yet, driven by an expected greed, the members of the posse take on each other. The rest of them are finished by the physician who is able to snatch a gun and by Black Paw Indians who arrive just in time to commit the act of justice. The movie ends with a scene of a slow motion collective execution of the last greedy redneck by a group of the Black Paws who repeatedly shoot the guy holding tightly a sack of gold. When the justice warriors lean over the dead corpse, they find out that gold dust somehow miraculously turned into regular dust; elements of paranormal and New Age mystique are rather common in latter day Westerns.
I would not have ventured into the description of this “movie” unless it had not provoked me to jump to an obvious conclusion: at times a trashy cultural product might serve as a good learning tool. Trashy stuff highlights dominant ideological cliches and sentiments more than any other more or less well crafted movie. Like an imbecile who mimics the behavior of surrounding people, such “masterpieces” clone the mainstream ideology that is superimposed on people in public schools and colleges. To me, Yellow Rocks demonstrated how deeply the educational system (film studies along with the rest of humanities) and print media has ingrained in the minds of movie makes the pillars of what people on the right label Cultural Marxism and that people on the left call Critical Theory. In its turn, this elusive theoretical “beast” served as a major fountainhead of the Multiculturalism ideology.
Watching that particular movie, I suddenly felt catapulted to the “good old” Soviet Union. Replace noble Indians+female do-gooders with noble workers (proletarians) and greedy white evil males with greedy capitalists and you will get a solid Soviet movie tailored according to the cliches of Socialist Realism. For those who do not know what Socialist Realism is, I want to note that it was a Stalinist doctrine that required from movie makers, poets, writers, and the rest of the intellectual gang to depict the surrounding life not as it was but as should be in the ideal future. I have also realized that comparing old Soviet and communist Chinese movies with current multikulti products in European and American realms might have a pedagogical value. It will allow us to trace the genetic links between the Marxism of old that had been obsessed with political economy and class warfare and the current Cultural Marxism that is obsessed with racial and gender identity wars. In the 1920s and the 1930s, both in the Soviet Union and Western progressive subculture the ultimate noble savage was a metaphysical muscular male proletarian.
Since the 1960s, “noble savages” of old Marxism became replaced by the new cultural left with new “noble savages”: third world, people of “color,” females, gays….The list of victims who are simultaneously to act as redeemers from the evil Western civilization is not yet complete.
In a typical Soviet heroic movie a people-friendly misfit character without a stable class-based moral compass chaotically fought against oppression. He or she needed a solid back up form a wise muscular industrial proletarian who, with his working class salt of the earth wisdom, was to take this character to the highest level of consciousness. In Yellow Rock, the alcoholic scout similarly was upgraded by female and Indian wisdom. Incidentally, the same trope one can observe in the third part of the famous (and well made) Hunger Games trilogy that I watched again last night. The major character, Katniss Everdeen, a noble female warrior, was not complete without receiving an endorsement (in the final scene of that trilogy) from the victim/redeemer of a “higher caliber.” After Everdeen defeats dictator Snow, an aged cunning white male, a black female elder approaches Everdeen and gently leads her to the center of the new power, where masters of the multikulti paradise gathered to usher the new world.
I am a big fan of animation, but I often have to ‘turn my brain off’ to enjoy a comic trying to make political commentary. With rare exceptions, like the Incredibles series, the industry has a strong statist bent. The industry is so statist that Superman: Red Son, a story line with the premise that Superman landed in the Soviet Union instead of the United States, ends with the message that communism would work if only it were a bit more democratic. Note that I say statist bent, as opposed to leftist bent. They are smaller in number, but there are several conservative comics (e.g. the Kingsman) that leave a statist aftertaste.
I can’t do much on the supply side of liberty-friendly comics, but I can at least highlight those comics that I think fellow libertarians might enjoy via blog posts.
First off is Burn the Witch, a new comic series published by Shonen Jump. I was pleasantly surprised when I read through Tite Kubo’s Burn the Witch. Tite Kubo is best known for authoring Bleach, a comic about Japanese school children fighting demons in fantasy Mexico.
Burn the Witch is about Anglo-Japanese school children fighting demons in fantasy Britain. The twist? Unlike their counterparts in fantasy Mexico, the British demons (referred to as ‘Dragons’ in-series) aren’t killed outright. Instead they are raised for the resources they provide. Only ‘bad’ demons who are killing humans or otherwise causing destruction are killed. It is noteworthy that the protagonists refer to themselves as ‘conservationists’. They kill the occasional demon, providing the story with action scenes when doing so, but their primary purpose is to conserve them. In an off hand comment the protagonists note that their fantasy Mexican counterparts are barbaric and indiscriminately kill their demons.
Contrary to the protagonist’s comments, it isn’t that individual fantasy Mexicans are barbaric so much that fantasy Mexico doesn’t recognize property rights in demons. Since no one has a property right in demons, no one has an incentive to conserve, much less domesticate, them in fantasy Mexico. Fantasy Britain enjoys strong property rights and consequently has minimal problems associated with its demons. One of the protagonists is ethnically from fantasy Mexico, but seems to be thriving under fantasy Britain’s rules. The story’s lesson? Property rights matter.
Only one chapter of Burn the Witch has been published thus far, and it’s unclear if it’ll become a recurring series, but I like what I’ve seen so far.
Thoughts? Comments? As always, write in the comments below. If you’re a fan of animation and a fellow libertarian, consider joining the anime libertarian alliance facebook group.
I saw an early release of the Incredibles 2 last night. I wasn’t expecting too much given Pixar’s history with sequel. Finding Dorothy, Monsters University and the Cars sequels were okay, but below average for Pixar. I am happy to report that the Incredibles 2 was a pleasant exception. Not only did the film re-capture the magic of the original, it made a point that many readers and fellow Notewriters should appreciate: legality doesn’t equal right.
The film starts off directly after the events of the first film. The titular Incredibles family fights off the Underminer, a mining themed super villain. Instead of getting praised for their actions though, they get arrested. Superheroes are still illegal. The events of the past film haven’t changed that. One of the characters wisely remarks, “Politicians don’t understand why someone would do the right thing for its own sake. They’re scared of the idea.”
The family is let go, but they’re at a low point. Their home has been destroyed. They’re unemployed and broke. They’re gifted with super powers, but they live in a world where they can’t legally use them. That’s when a businessman approaches them and asks – why not use their super powers? The businessman proposes that the family continue to use their powers illegally, and convince the government to change the law after the public has been shown how useful superheroes are. This leads to a funny exchange where the characters argue about how they’re being asked to be illegal in order to become legal.
I won’t spoil the remainder of the film, but I love the businessman character’s early scenes. It’s refreshing to see a corporate character, and his disregard for legislated morality, portrayed in a positive light. Tony Stark/Iron Man starts off this way in the early MCU films, but makes a u-turn by Captain America: Civil War. This new character, for better or worse, stands by his beliefs.
The tension between legislation and morality isn’t a new theme for Pixar. The idea of breaking the rules to do what’s right was a central feature of Monsters University as well. It’s a lesson I think many children, and their parents, could benefit to learn. Legislation isn’t morality.
I give the film a solid 9/10. It’s around Wall-E or Up levels of quality. It’s easily one of the funniest Pixar films in a while. The animated short before the film is, as standard for Pixar, a tear jerker. Bring some tissues.
Thoughts? Opinions? Post in the comments.
That’s the title of my Tuesday column over at RealClearHistory. An excerpt:
The relevant socio political commentary is more interesting, in part because people today still use the film to attack media moguls they don’t like (such as Fox News’ Rupert Murdoch). One narrative about the film’s sociopolitical impact even likens the film to a subtle anti-fascist, and pro-war, production because of the attention it draws to the immense power media moguls wield, and the incentive structures they face (and produce). This argument has at least some bite to it, as one of America’s most powerful media moguls in the 1940s, William Randolph Hearst, refused to give the film any sort of advertisement in any of his many publications. This blackballing on the part of the powerful led, of course, to the Citizen Kane’s relative flop at the box office.
Read the rest, baby!