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Klavan On The Culture

Monthly Archives: October 2011

What Leftism Does to People

October 31st, 2011 - 7:05 am

News Photo of Occupy Wall Street... or possibly a still from "Night of the Living Dead."

The true test of a philosophy is not what it promises to make of the world but what it makes, in fact, of its adherents. Human nature is remarkably recalcitrant, but  ideas do affect people over time, for good or ill, and the societies people make will ultimately bear the image of those effects and thus of the ideas. When historian Paul Johnson, in his book Intellectuals, detailed the often vicious and demented lives of such thinkers as Rousseau, Shelley, and Marx, he was not engaging in casual ad hominem attacks, or playing gotcha with our universal tendencies toward weakness, perversion, and moral failure. He was attempting to trace both the origins and the consequences of his subjects’ philosophical errors. Our beliefs arise from who we are and we become what we believe, a process which, according to our choices, can either resemble a spiral staircase heavenward or a flushing toilet. To him who has, more will be given, and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

Leftism is bad for people. It makes them awful. The unwashed, ill-mannered, anti-Semitic, entitled, and now violent mobs littering various parts of the nation under the banner “Occupy” believe their ideas will lead to a better society — but they actually are the society their ideas lead to. Their behavior when compared to the polite, law-abiding, non-racist demonstrations of so-called tea partiers tells you everything you need to know about the end results of statism on the one hand and constitutional liberty on the other.

This is not, of course, to say that every left-winger is a miscreant but rather that the natural, indeed inevitable, result of statism is to produce nations of miscreants. When the state is permitted to make the individual’s moral choices, the individual is forced to become either a slave or a criminal; when the state is permitted to redistribute wealth, it chains the citizen into a rigid, two-tiered hierarchy of power rather than freedom’s fluid, multi-layered rankings of merit and chance; when the people are taught to be dependent on entitlements, they are reduced to violence when, inevitably, the entitlement well runs dry; when belief in the state usurps every higher creed, the people become apathetic, hedonistic, and uncreative and their culture slouches into oblivion. I need hardly expend the energy required to lift my finger and point to Europe where cities burn because the unemployable are unemployed or because the hard-working won’t fund the debts of the indolent; where violent and despicable Islamism eats away portions of municipalities like a cancer while the authorities do nothing; where nations that once produced history’s greatest achievements in science and the arts can now no longer produce even enough human beings to sustain themselves.

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Novel: The Doomsday Book

October 28th, 2011 - 7:00 am

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was searching for good fantasy fiction, a genre I generally enjoy on the screen but not on the page. Don’t like guys named Thorbak of EldWorld; can’t stand Big Ideas expressed in terms of hardware; and so on. But after reading and enjoying Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, I felt I might like some more stories where a magical or science fiction element intrudes on a world I recognize. Tried Edinburgh Dead with mixed results. Then followed one of those Amazon “if you enjoyed,” threads and came up with Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book.

What a wonderful novel. Really. Just beautifully done. Written almost twenty years ago now (1992), won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and I’d never heard of it before. My bad.

The story: in the Oxford of the future, a female history student goes back in time to the 14th century. There’s more of a plot than that, but why give it away? The writing is simple and powerful, the characters extremely enjoyable, the setting so realistic you can smell it, and the whole thing is such a pleasure it’s like eating cake. (This in spite of the fact I was swamped with work and could only read it in small portions, which can ruin a book.) Willis writes with enormous compassion but precise observation.  She does children, especially, better, I think, than anyone I’ve ever read. Without treating them in either a romantic or reductive way, she captures perfectly how they can be endearing and annoying at exactly the same moment. She also has an uncanny way of presenting a vision of the world that is at once very, very dark and very, very hopeful—sort of like real life. I’m not sure at all but I’m guessing she’s a Christian of some stripe, but if ever a writer managed to write a Christian worldview in a non-vomitous way, it’s she—and other happy-talk Christian writers should take note, and indeed take notes.

Some of the best things about the book are the things Willis doesn’t do. She doesn’t imagine the future in any particular detail or explain time travel very much. She tells you the rules without trying to come up with some elaborate explanation for them—and then on with the characters and the story. It’s a very clean, gripping approach.

Many years ago, I realized with surprise that I don’t really read very many books by women anymore—almost none by American women. I’ll write about the reasons another time when I feel like starting an argument. But I freely and humbly confess that almost everything I like about this novel—the warm compassion, the leisurely and domestic plotting, the lovable characters, the brilliantly done children—is in some sense womanly. So brava for the pure force of talent that overcomes prejudice. In fact, just to show you what kind of guy I am, I won’t even mention the pro-Obama picture on her website. Oops…

But seriously, forgive and forget the Obama tote. The author’s politics in no way intrude on the proceedings here. If you like fiction and you’ve never read this, pick it up. It’s absolutely terrific.


DVD: The Caller

October 26th, 2011 - 7:00 am

Okay. It’s Halloween. You can’t get a date because you’re dressed up like a pumpkin. You want to watch a spooky movie but you’ve already seen all the scary classics and you’re so amazingly cool (for a guy dressed as a pumpkin) you’ve even seen the obscure-but-excellent Lake Mungo.  What should you watch?

Well, let me give a measured but generally favorable nod to this out of the way little picture, The Caller. Seems to be some kind of joint UK-Puerto Rico (of all things) production. Stars cute Canadian actress Rachelle Lefevre of Twilight fame.

The basic plot:  a woman caught in an ugly separation fight with her violent husband moves into a new apartment only to start receiving weird phone calls from a woman she doesn’t know. I won’t give away any more because the story provides a lot of surprises, all of them fair and some of them really eerie. The credit here, I’m guessing, goes to writer Sergio Casci who does a genuinely top-notch job of plotting. If this had been a well-written novella, it might well be a ghost story masterpiece.

As a film?  Well, it’s small—really small—almost a one-hander with really just a couple of locations. Its sense of time, place and situation are virtually non-existent. Where are they exactly? What does this girl do for a living? How come no one’s updated the phone? There are answers, if you’re watching carefully, but they’re just lines of dialogue that don’t really provide a feeling of context. And the classic ghost story technique of repetition—the caller calls, then calls again, then again, each time upping the ante—has always worked better on the page than on the screen where it can feel, you know, repetitive.

All that said, the plot is so interesting and unravels at such an expert pace that it may keep you going in ways a lot of these pictures don’t. It’s got some really worthwhile spooky moments. And while I won’t say it’s original, it’s different enough to feel fresh. All in all, it’s certainly worth a Halloween look, if you want something you haven’t seen before.

And get out of the pumpkin suit, man, you look like an idiot.


The Mask of Fascism

October 24th, 2011 - 6:55 am

Some of the Occupy Wall Street protesters have been wearing the Guy Fawkes mask from the film V for Vendetta.  I think this is appropriate.  I have not read the graphic novel on which the movie is based and make no comment on it, but the film itself, which wears the mask of a liberating screed, is in fact one of the most purely fascist American films ever made.  It is a despicable apologia for murderous violence against free institutions, and presents a pitifully unrealistic rationalization for some of the most oppressive ideas currently in vogue.

Like all leftist art, V for Vendetta achieves its occasionally powerful effects by re-writing reality to fit the upside-down progressive imagination. For instance, the film suggests Christianity lies at the heart of political oppression. But in Realworld, no matter what you might like to believe, the simple fact is that Christianity has been in on the ground floor of every truly free society on earth since the fall of Rome. (The one arguable exception is Israel — go figure.) The film depicts the west’s war with Islamo-fascism as an Orwellian mix of racist propaganda and eternal mock-warfare. That in itself is an Orwellian lie.  Whatever its merits as a religious philosophy, Islam has produced violent and oppressive states since its beginning — and was oppressive even in its cultural heyday, now almost nine centuries ago. It’s difficult to imagine any genuine vision of a free world that does not include the suppression of Islam’s violent extremists.

More. The film’s central gay character extols the beauty of the Koran, the followers of which would endorse his murder — yet he is murdered by Christians who, in life, might condemn his practices but would also preach his loving acceptance as a fellow sinner. The same supposedly enlightened character also rhapsodizes on the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose sado-masochistic photos of leather-clad men could easily have illustrated the sexual imaginations of the brownshirts who facilitated Hitler’s rise to power.

By turning the world-as-it-is on its head, the film manages to dramatically justify torture and terrorism in defense of oppressive and violent conformity.  It positively envisions a world in which all people will come together as one to support acts of terrorism against free institutions. This united people even end up wearing the signature mask that will remove from them every trace of individuality. The target of their climactic attack is the British Parliament, the mother of all Parliaments, and thus the starting point of every modern free society. Earlier, the terrorists also strike at the Old Bailey, a symbol of the rule of law.

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Living in Glenn Beck’s Imagination

October 21st, 2011 - 7:32 am

Last summer, I met with Glenn Beck to discuss doing videos for his new enterprise GBTV.  As I sat in his office, the three televisions on the wall were playing different news channels.  On one, London was burning as a generation of entitled, unemployable louts looted working class shops to make no point whatsoever.  On another, the Dow Jones was in a graveyard spin.  On a third, the bodies of Navy Seals were being flown home from Afghanistan.  I glanced at the TV’s and said, “Gee, Glenn, you’re beginning to seem like a cockeyed optimist.”  Some people say Beck is crazy.  Even he jokes about it.  But right now, it seems to me we are all living in Glenn Beck’s imagination.  Worst case scenario:  he’s crazy AND we’re living in his imagination!  Anyway, here’s a sampler of my Very Serious Commentary that GBTV put up on YouTube.  Otherwise, you got to subscribe.  A small price to pay to find out what’s going to happen next.

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DVD: Limitless

October 19th, 2011 - 7:31 am

Neil Burger’s stylish directing and good acting from Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro can’t quite redeem the plotting choices in Limitless—which are the fault either of the screenwriter, or whichever executive mugged the screenwriter to get him to make the changes. The picture starts out with an interesting premise. Cooper is a wannabe novelist who can’t get his life together.  After his girlfriend dumps him, he bumps into his ex-wife’s dealer brother. Takes a pill that enhances his intelligence. All cool, original stuff…  different characters…  must’ve come out of the novel by Alan Glynn (I’m guessing; I haven’t read it).

But after that…  well, all Cooper really does with his big brain is make more money and get more girls. Sure, that’s what you’d start out with, but I bet that would get dull after a while. Plus I bet you’d get corrupted and start making some bigger and badder choices.

But the script never goes there and you can almost hear the script conference meetings:  we don’t want the hero to become unlikeable…  we don’t want to offend…  there could be some really cool fight scenes…

As a result, while the picture is watchable, it’s small and full of missed chances.  Plus I’d like to know about a couple of major plot points the resolutions of which seem to have ended up on the cutting room floor.

You won’t be bored watching this. Then you’ll forget it ever happened.


There is an old British saying — I’ve never been able to find the source of it — “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.”  The idea, of course, is that when a crisis arises, a leader will also arise to show the way out of it. By this faith too the ancient Hebrews lived in the period of the Judges when they followed God — and no one man — as their king.

But those of us who feel the upcoming presidential election represents a crossroads of sorts are starting to find this faith in providential leadership somewhat shaken.  We’re starting to think that if the man is cometh-ing he better hurry-eth up and geth here already.

Because Mitt Romney ain’t the guy.  While he may win the Republican presidential nomination by default — and while he may indeed win the presidency due to desperation — it is clear from every word he says that he understands neither the peril nor the needs of the present moment. Even his supporters seem to realize that he’s not really what is called for.  Even his own political strategy — don’t mess up, cling to around 23 percent of the primary voters while other candidates rise above briefly and fall below permanently, force the earliest decision possible before someone better comes along and takes the prize away — indicates that Romney himself comprehends he is no one’s idea of the nation’s savior.

The professionals and money guys in the Republican establishment don’t seem to mind that.  As always, they feel that they are the old pros who take care of the all-important business of electability while we children in the base worry about such nonsense as principle and the preservation of the republic.  It’s these establishment types who have traditionally delivered the truly electable choices like Bob Dole and John McCain while staunchly protecting us from extremists like Ronald Reagan. On Fox News’ Journal Editorial Report this weekend, the Wall Street Journal‘s Dorothy Rabinowitz — a cultural commentator I esteem for both her fearlessness and her insight — seemed to give voice to that establishment opinion when she said that “reason is going to have to prevail” among conservatives and that they’ll ultimately have to abandon the likes of Herman Cain and “all of the alternatives that are warming their little hearts, that they’re playing with,” and learn to live with Romney as their guy.

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TV: American Horror Story

October 13th, 2011 - 10:22 pm

I’m inclined to give this FX Original one or two more chances, but after the first two episodes, it’s not doing it for me.  I want to like it, but it just hasn’t ignited.

Rubber match.

It’s the story of the Harmon family, Dad, Mom and daughter, who move to a haunted house in LA to recover from family trauma.  Unfortunately, the house is evil and has a long, long history of what I believe is technically called “creepy badness.”

The cast is doing a good job, especially the women. Taissa Farmiga (sister of Vera of Up In the Air fame) plays the daughter with a strong attention to detail and her subtle beauty grows on you.  Jessica Lange has a field day with the role of a delightfully vicious neighbor with a Down Syndrome child. And Connie Britton, from Friday Night Lights, manages to play a wronged wife without getting on your nerves, no small feat. Nothing wrong with Dylan McDermott either, except his part is kind of ridiculous and under-researched and his character weak and unlikeable.

But it’s the story that isn’t working.  It’s overstuffed with scares and violence, and a lot of it is pretty cheap.  Too many women walking down dark corridors.  Too many things jumping out at you, people standing there you hadn’t realized were there and so on.  There’s so much of it, it’s already gotten almost comical. And when the writers try to play with that by injecting irony, it just feels forced. I think they would have scared us if they could have. Instead, they laugh knowingly at themselves. Yeah, thanks. Pass the remote.

And with all those scares, too, there’s not an original one among them.  Whether it’s the child warning, “You’re going to die in there,” ala The Exorcist or the house possessing Dad and playing on his weaknesses ala The Shining or the mysterious stranger following the hero around to deliver a warning ala The Omen, or any of a dozen other moments, you can pretty much sit there and name the source of every sequence.  The grandiose title—American Horror Story—gives the writers some cover for this:  the premise seems to be that the house has lived a large swath of American history horror by horror so the occasional reference to past films is appropriate enough.  But after a while, I found myself thinking more about what fancy, self-referential tricks the writers were up to than who the characters were or what was happening to them.  It all seems too, too post-modern—which, after all, is already post old hat.

As I say, I may give this another try before I knock it off my DVR list, but I find it a disappointment so far.


The Green Jobs Answer Man

October 10th, 2011 - 7:58 pm

Here’s the start of a new video series I’m doing for the Manhattan Institute, with Klavan on the Culture alumni and PJTV stalwart, Justin Folk:

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Have the hills stopped screaming, Clarice?

“I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!
How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
Fal, lal, la!”

This wonderful lyric from Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Iolanthe is quoted in Steven Pinker’s fascinating book The Blank SlateIt illustrates the Harvard psychologist’s argument that there may be a genetic predisposition toward one political leaning or the other. Pinker writes:

The Right-Left axis aligns an astonishing collection of beliefs that at first glance seem to have nothing in common… Why on earth should people’s beliefs about sex predict their beliefs about the size of the military? What does religion have to do with taxes? Whence the linkage between strict construction of the Constitution and disdain for shocking art?

Pinker believes the answer may lie as much in a person’s nature as his nurture.

Both the Gilbert and Sullivan lines and Pinker’s book came back to me last week as I read this article in the movie trade paper The Hollywood Reporter about a poll they sponsored on the movie-going habits of Republicans and Democrats. The poll confirmed what many of us believe: Republicans go to the movies less, in part because they feel their values will be assaulted on-screen… which, of course, they will be.

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