Tuesday, May 17, 2011

CERTIFIED COPY - FILM REVIEW (2010 - directed by Abbas Kiarostami)

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“We normally think of poetry as one of a number of arts; and so, it is clear, did Plato.  But, if we now go on to look at the kind of thing Plato said when he was talking about art in general (including poetry but not limiting himself to it) and then at the kind of thing he said when he was talking about poetry only, we find a striking difference.  In the first case (thinking of art in general or poetry merely as one among other arts) he treats it as a form of mimesis - imitation.  Thus in the Republic we are told that poets and artists in general, are unreliable because they produce imperfect imitations or copies of nature; and Plato adds that, since nature herself is only an imperfect copy of an eternal and immaterial reality, the poet is a man who supplies us with an imperfect copy of an imperfect copy.”
- Owen Barfield

“‘Well,’ said Reason.  ‘Try now to answer my third riddle.  By what rule do you tell a copy from an original?’
The giant muttered and mumbled and could not answer, and Reason set spurs in her stallion and it leaped up on to the giant’s mossy knees and galloped up his foreleg, till she plunged her sword into his heart.  Then there was a noise and a crumbling like a landslide and the huge carcass settled down: and the Spirit of the Age become what he had seemed to be at first, a sprawling hummock of rock.”

- C.S. Lewis
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First released on May 18, 2010 at the Cannes Film Festival.

United States limited release on March 11, 2011.


This review may contain spoilers. (Sometimes the term "spoiler" can mean different things. In other words, usually, with a great film, once you decide to try the thing, it's preferable to read nothing at all about it, and to simply allow the story to reveal itself to you in its own way. On the other hand, I realize there are films upon which one isn't quite sure if one should spend the time and effort. You can just take my word for it that Certified Copy is absolutely one of these films. Or, if you still need a little convincing, I'm not going to reveal the ending so go ahead and read as much of this as you need to until you've decided to try it out.)

To state the obvious, most people will find Abbas Kiarostami's latest film, Certified Copy , incredibly dull. I believe the description film critics are also giving it is "pretentious." The entire film is simply a conversation. But oh the joy you'll miss if you are constitutionally incapable of sitting through, and reflecting upon, for only a short 106 minutes, this conversation. Of course, "conversation" is just one way of describing it. You could also say it was a "dare" or perhaps even a "duel," but more on that later.

First things first, I want to make it clear that Kiarostami gives us no reason for not taking this little story of his at face value. The man, James (William Shimell), meets a French woman antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche). They are strangers. They are interested in some of the same things, but they are also polar opposites. He is intellectual, cold, aloof and philosophical. She is passionate, warm-hearted, intimate, and whimsical. Both are very intelligent and thoughtful. He's a little full of himself. She's a little fanciful and idealistic. Some reviewers are concluding that they really are married, but doing so misses an important point in the story. More on this later.

At the heart of the film is a single idea, summed up nicely by the film's title (also the title of the book written by James). James has just written a philosophical book on art. In it, he makes the argument that the idea of something being real or authentic is just meaningless. A great work of art doesn't have to be the original copy in order to inspire or exhibit beauty to the viewer. In other words, a copy of something is just as good as the real something. To James, the word "fake" doesn't even have any meaning either. The derivative thing, the copied work, a forgery, or a replica work - are really no different from the original thing, the initial work, a archetype or a first work.

So, this French woman wanted to meet James to ask him about this book he wrote. (Is that just unbelievable? Do they have to be married really because no one really cares to question an author about the philosophical ideas of his book?) He's speaking at a book signing near where she lives in Italy, so she sets up a meeting with him. As they decide to go out for a drive and discussion, she begins challenging his main idea. Her sister, she says, agrees with him. Her sister is simple and prefers practical use to aesthetic value. In other words, her sister would argue that a mechanical gas fire in the fireplace is better than a hand built log fire in the fireplace. Binoche's character believes this is fundamentally wrong. She believes something that is real and authentic has greater value than something that is merely copied or faked. To her, these words do have meaning. And understanding that meaning - understanding the distinction between what is real and what is copied is fundamental to the lives we live.

Listening to these two talk is not dull. They each have sharp wits in their own way. She is immediately more likable and sympathetic than he, but that's just their personalities. Remember, he's distant and British; she's passionate and French. Since he asked her to get out of town for a bit, she decides to take him to a small quaint little Italian village to show him something. It's a clever idea to support her argument actually. She takes him to an art museum of sorts to see a beautiful old painting that was recently discovered to have been cleverly copied from an even older original work. In other words, it is the "real thing" when it comes to copies. She finds it special and paradoxical, he finds it ... dull. It's nothing new in his opinion. Copies like this sort of thing are everywhere, all the time, in every place.

His whole attitude towards the place is one of indifference. What value do any of these original or copied works have? Only the value, in his opinion, that the viewer subjectively gives them. Beauty, in his eyes, is solely subjective and determined only by each individual's own personal tastes. After all, she told him about how her sister likes her simple and stuttering husband. In and of himself, her sister's husband doesn't necessarily have value, but his wife gives him value in her own mind by caring for him. Again, value and worth are subjectively determined. If he doesn't choose to see value in the painting, then what's the big deal?

To get a better grasp of this debate, you really just need to watch the film. I admit I've only just seen it, and I immediately felt like writing as many thoughts that I could about the film down before I completely forgot all of them. Thus, I can't reproduce many lines of dialogue. But it's a discussion both worth having and worth listening to. However, the discussion/argument is just a prelude to the part of the film where the tension begins to build. These two next decide to go to a coffee shop, during which he has to step out for a phone call. While he's away, the waitress says something briefly to Binoche's character and it turns out the waitress is assuming the two of them are married. Almost on a mischievous whim, the woman decides to go along with it, and she creatively starts making up elaborate details about their "marriage" to tell to the waitress. This is also where the village becomes important. Not only does the village have an ancient building full of art, it also has an ancient tradition that a golden tree inside the building will bring luck to any bride and groom. Thus, the village is always full of people who go there to get married. Marriage becomes the subject used to test out these ideas.

The elaborate fiction of their marriage that she creates is further encouraged when he arrives back from his phone call to find the waitress asking him about his "marriage" and he decides to go along with it too. He's momentarily surprised, but when he sees the mischievous smile of this woman he's with, and when he listens to the elaborate details she has created about the problems they have in their marriage, he can't help but be impressed. And why not? And then, what starts out as a game turns into a meaningful conflict. What better way to prove their points to each other that they have just been arguing for the last couple hours? If he can show to her that, by pretending that they are married, contriving an inauthentic copy of a marriage is just as good as, or really no different from, the real thing, then he'll finally succeed in proving the very point that she has been so intent on challenging. If she can show to him that, by pretending they are married, the sham is not of the same value as the real thing, then she will have convinced him that the part of his book that so annoys her so is, indeed, actually wrong.

Thus, what begins as an amusing conversation and then turns to playful fancy develops immediately into a battle of wits. Both of them have left each other free to make up whatever details or memories of their marriage that they please in order to advance their own position. Both of them just have to keep playing along with pretending in spite of surprises that they are in a "real" marriage together. He, in order to show her that there's really no difference at all; she, in order to show him that there really is quite an important difference indeed.

But it isn't that easy. The match of wits between the two of them is fascinating to watch, but they both put themselves into playing their fake roles with such enthusiasm that it starts looking like the real thing. In order to play their roles, they both have to pretend to have the feelings of a married couple (married for 15 years is the story they get stuck with early on). But as they continue to discuss these ideas in the context of constructing a copy of a real marriage, they start getting into fights. Then, in order to play their parts well, their fights need to be emotional. But the line between pretending to feel and adopting the real feeling itself is a line difficult to discern. Both of them have lived long enough to have love and lost, and both have prior experiences to draw from in their making up stories about their "marriage." So both of them are inevitably playing with real experiences and real hurts from their past.

She finds it easier to put her real feelings into it sooner than he does, but once there, he can't help but respond. Storming off after having lost one argument that she almost unfairly (but it's not like they set any rules) contrives to make him out to be the bad guy in the marriage (constantly being away from his family, leaving her frequently for long periods of time on business, falling asleep on the night of their 15th anniversary), he thinks things through and comes back with an elaborately contrived story of his own about her (falling asleep while driving their son). The details are almost too perfect. It's no wonder so many other film reviewers insist on believing them. But simply assuming they then must really be married is, in my opinion, shortchanging Kiarostami. Half of their conversations and stories lose their magic if they're actually true. The genius of a man and woman both captivated by the other, going back and forth, masking their surprise and being impressed with the other's creativity, is part of what makes the debate between the two so riveting. It's like a dance.

Half the fun of this game they're playing with each other is making it up as they go along. There's an old statute of an affectionate man & woman in the middle of a fountain? They use it to discuss whether art is subjective, whether beauty is really only in the eye of the beholder, and whether romance and trust are really possible for a husband and wife. She says the idea of feeling safe in a marriage is a grand and noble idea. He says trusting any marriage to last, or the idea of a man and woman selflessly devoted to each other, is ridiculous and unrealistic. In other words, there are some things that he doesn't believe are real. He finds unrealistic people ridiculous. She brings this to his attention by constantly interacting with the new brides and grooms in the village. It's not a coincidence that this becomes a regular point of contention in their pretend relationship.

They do find each other attractive. There's a chemistry that builds between them early in the film. So as the debate continues, they both find it easier and easier to play their parts, and more and more believable that they really have been married to each other this long. After having drawn from their past experiences and frustrations to use against each other in this little competition of theirs, part of what gives their developing relationship its depth is that they each, at various intervals, seem to believe in the parts they are playing. Pretending that something is real can , under given circumstances, can begin to make something real. Sometimes, when you pretend, you can even forget what is real, for at least a little while.

Marriage is a union, a welding, a cleaving, a powerful development of intimacy and trust that ought to only strengthen with time. Over the hours that this man and woman spend together in the film, their intimacy with each other increases. Their understanding of each other strengthens. And the bond they are pretending exists in fiction starts developing of its own accord. They are really starting to feel close because they began pretending to feel close. She really has her feelings hurt by him because she has really begun to care about his opinion and his distance. He really starts to care about hurting her because her tears, that might have first been fake, don't look so fake anymore. How could she not, with this responsive disposition of hers encouraged by his sudden acts of gentleness, begin to really fall in love with him? How could he not, with a woman this fascinating, begin to really become captivated with who she is as a person?

Monday, May 16, 2011

TEN WAYS TO DESTROY THE IMAGINATION OF YOUR CHILD (2010) - by Anthony Esolen (Book Review - Part 2)

Here's the link for Part 1.

Esolen continues in developing his proposition that, in order to destroy the thinking capacity and sense of wonder among our children, we ought to keep our kids from being exposed to the outdoors. There are several modern techniques that accomplish this goal nicely. For example the outdoors ought to be carefully controlled, fenced in, and cordoned off so that exploring it is the equivalent of a tour through a fairly boring museum -

"One way to neutralize this fascination with the natural world is to cordon it off in parks and zoos, and then to act as if only the parks and zoos were worth seeing ... Children should be encouraged to think they have 'done' rivers, or bird sanctuaries, or botanical gardens, in the way that weary tourists are proud to have done Belgium." (pgs. 37-38)

There are many curiosities that make awaken a sense of dangerous wonder in your child. The very best way of deadening your kids' senses to this sort of thing is to only expose them first to the same thing, except only virtual realities of the same thing. Let them learn about the natural wonders of the world through the internet, not by going outside. For instance -

"If a child displays an unseemly desire to know something about cows, introduce him to an Internet Cow, giving Internet Milk, and leave it at that. Remember that information is to wisdom as a ceiling is to the sky." (pg. 46)

Another popular modern practice highly conducive to halting the development of a child's thinking skills is to rigorously control even his time outside of the schoolroom. Meticulously organize, schedule, and supervise all your child's play time, especially with other children. Grownups should always be in charge. And here is where we get to one of the best little sections of Esolen's book. From pages 49-55, he tells what is almost a modern Utopian fairy tale, of a world where everyone's existence is minutely controlled and scheduled down to the very last detail. This "ideal" world Esolen describes is hilariously bad, and yet I'm really not sure if there is a single part of it that isn't actually part of our modern lifestyle.
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"We ought to rename our planet according to the bureaucratic shackles we place upon our children. We shall call it Tormentaria. It seems quite apt. The Tormentarians are a humane race. They don't favor harsh (though swift) punishment; they grow queasy if anyone mentions a whipping post or even a smack on the posterior. They prefer to work on the mind, patiently, interminably, beneficently. It is never their aim to settle things with a free and open fight. That would upset the blessed routine of Tormentaria. No, they direct all the machinery of their social systems to mold and squeeze the offender into the perfectly square hole he is destined to fill, for his own good and the good of his fellow Tormentarians.

The chief offenders of Tormentaria, or rather those who would grow up to be offenders if they were left to themselves, are the objects of plenty of molding and squeezing, for roughly twenty revolutions of Tormentaria around its sun. When they are hardly old enough to toddle about, they are wheeled away to what is called, in Tormentarian, an asylo , meaning 'rainbow center,' where they are attended to by paid professionals, usually of a kindly disposition, who will feed them at regular feeding times, nap them at regular napping times, give them regularly scheduled 'activities' to keep them from rusting solid, and remember their names. The little Tormentarians learn to look forward to the asylo , because otherwise they seldom meet another of their own kind. Besides, the walls of the asylo are gaily painted with colors unknown to the flora and fauna of Tormentaria - gaudy blues to substitute for the sky and purples and oranges to substitute for fruit, and buds, and flowers. Children, the Tormentarians know, like that sort of thing, and the sheer blare of it all will make Tormentaria rivers and trees and bluffs dull by comparison.

In the asylo the children must be 'tormentarianized' into predetermined games, never of a competitive nature, lest anyone should be hurt by real anger or disappointment, or elated by real victory. They also practice their alphabet, and the brightest among them learn to read drivel. That satisfies the vanity of the parents, who hope to send them to the finest penitentiaries on the planet. It also prepares them for their adult lives, when they will be reading newspapers and magazines. It has the added advantage of inducing burnout . This is a fascinating phenomenon that warrants a closer look ..." (pg. 49-50)

"They get up very early in the morning to board a bus which stops every hundred yards to take on new passengers. This ensures that no child has very far to walk, and that the ride takes an hour or so in the morning and an hour or so in the evening. That will mean nearly two hours ripped out of every child's life, for no real purpose, day after day for twelve years - a significant achievement ..." (pg. 52)

"Then the child is shipped to what is called a 'home' room - the Tormentarians have not lost all sense of humor. Here the child is numbered and checked off. An alarm rings, and all the children move from the "home" room to one of the classrooms to be exercised in the alphabet, or whatever ... Also useful in the Tormentarian regime is the partitioning of time into discrete segments. For instance, the child will learn that forty-five minutes is the correct amount of time to devote, at one sitting, to any subject whatsoever. Are you looking at pictures of butterflies? You should look at them for forty-five minutes. Are you reading a short story about a pirate? You should read it for forty-five minutes. But he is about to be hanged from the yardarm! No matter; let him wait till tomorrow. Are you learning Tormentarian grammar? Probably not, but if you are, you should learn it for forty-five minutes. But you think you may have understood what a 'participle' is for the first time in your life, and you want to test your theory out? Sorry, your forty-five minutes are up. Not to worry; the momentary excitement of discovery will pass, and tomorrow will find you as befuddled as ever ..." (pgs. 52-53)

"No matter whether the child's interest is as deep as the sea or as shallow as a rain puddle, and no matter whether the subject is Kings of Old or Being Nice to Animals, the organizing adults will make sure you spend forty-five minutes on it, all of you without distinction, no more, and no less. Every subject will be taken equally seriously, which means, in effect, that none of them can be taken quite seriously at all. After six or seven hours of this - which cannot be called working at a 'grindstone,' because a real grindstone is a swift and lovely tool, and has the property of sharpening, whereas school is intended to blunt ... [T]he child is conveyed back to the bus, for an hour's ride to what is, again with delightfully wry humor, called 'home.' As no one is home waiting for him, he turns on a television to watch a program he has not the slightest interest in; this is called homework . So his life goes on, year after year..." (pg. 53)
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These are, of course, just excerpts. I'll stop there and allow you the pleasure of reading Esolen's imagination killing Tormentarian tale in its entirety when you buy his book. His further descriptions of - molding the thought processes of the brain, the modern concept of "burnout," the old antiquated and ignorant Tormentarian educational systems, the purposeful "herding" method useful for keeping each young Tormentarian lonely and anonymous, the modern concept of "down time" and how it ought to be controlled, holidays, "after school exercises," and daily planners with appropriate scheduling for weekends - are rollicking genius.

Esolen briefly addresses the problems of gangs. In the modern world, most children spend the majority of their time outside their homes and away from their families. It could be argued that this causes the increasing number of criminal gangs in big American cities. But, it's not being away from home that's the problem, and for just a moment, Esolen speaks seriously -

"It is not that these boys spend too much time outside of the home. It is that they have no genuine home to spend time outside of. They have, for one, no fathers in those flophouses. They have no groups of men to emulate, keeping order, getting together for sport or the hunt or protection of community. Churches have collapsed into hobby houses for girls and old ladies. The schools are huge and anonymous. Sports teams are, consequently, relatively few. Institutions that used to minister to troubled youths, in groups, have become day-care asylums or exercise clubs for middle-class families." (pg. 63)

Young kids enter gangs because their families have failed them. The consequences are dangerous, both to them, and to the rest of society. Returning to tongue-in-cheek, Esolen reflects upon the problem of danger. The difficulty here is, for a modern society devoted to deadening our souls, the world is still a dangerous place. The outdoors are just one example, even studying subjects like engineering, physics, mechanics, machinery, chemistry, etc. in school can lead to dangerous activities for an imaginative mind. The point of modern society is to make everything safe and secure. We want our exposure to even things like science to be carefully controlled, dull instead of dangerous. This is why we take our children on field trips. Better a field trip than a science or chemistry experiment.

"Now the science museum, by contrast, won't have anything you can actually do that might lead to things breaking (or bones breaking). But the science museum, like science classes in school generally, is not about the business of stirring the imagination. It is instead about persuading the child to Believe the Right Things about Science." (pg. 75)

Another useful technique is to blunt our kids' minds by teaching them what they ought to believe, or what political stances they ought to take about things, rather than actually about the things themselves.

"At all costs we must encourage our children not to be fascinated by the actual habits of whales, or by the design that makes it possible for them to be underwater mammals. We must encourage them to believe that Whales Must Be Saved." (pg. 76)

Monday, May 2, 2011

UP FROM LIBERALISM (1959) - by William F. Buckley, Jr. (book review)

- And On The Failure of Conservatism -

Times are changing. William F. Buckley left us on February 27, 2008. On March 4, 2008, John McCain won the Republican ticket for the next Presidential election. On September 3, he was nominated at the Republican National Convention. His loss to Obama on November 4th was easily foreseeable to anyone who understood the destruction McCain wrecked upon his own campaign the moment he decided to support the TARP bailout of October, 2008. McCain's support of the bailout represented a fundamental misunderstanding of economics, an understanding diametrically opposed to that of conservatism. How many conservative votes McCain lost as a result of this failure is impossible to estimate, but representative of this blunder was Buckley's own son, Christopher, announcing that he was voting for Obama bascially as a protest vote against McCain's version of his father's conservatism. Christopher Buckley wrote -

"John McCain has changed. He said, famously, apropos the Republican debacle post-1994, 'We came to Washington to change it, and Washington changed us.' This campaign has changed John McCain. It has made him inauthentic. A once-first class temperament has become irascible and snarly; his positions change, and lack coherence; he makes unrealistic promises, such as balancing the federal budget 'by the end of my first term.' Who, really, believes that? Then there was the self-dramatizing and feckless suspension of his campaign over the financial crisis. His ninth-inning attack ads are mean-spirited and pointless. And finally, not to belabor it, there was the Palin nomination. What on earth can he have been thinking?"

Ah yes, the Sarah Palin nomination ... on August 29, 2008, McCain announced that Palin was his choice for his Vice-Presidential running mate. The only reason he chose her was to try and rally support from conservatives that he was already losing. Unfortunately, even though Palin is a nice lady, and even though she was more conservative than McCain, her ability to actually articulate the conservative position was, to put it nicely, somewhat inadequate. While she could handle questions lobbed at her by Sean Hannity, having her principles challenged by Katie Couric on CBS News turned ugly. The entire interview glumly foreshadowed many future Palin speeches. When asked about the bailout, she replied -

"That's why I say, I, like every American I'm speaking with, we're ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the tax payers looking to bail out, but ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the healthcare reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping tho— it's got to be all about job creation too, shoring up our economy, and putting it back on the right track, so healthcare reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as— competitive— scary thing, but one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we've got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is a part of that."

Inability to articulate yourself. This is a historical problem that some conservatives have struggled with in the past, as explained in the book I was just privileged to finish reading entitled Up From Liberalism by William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley was a literary master, and his intellectual defense of basic American principles will be treasured for generations to come. But, what is striking about Up From Liberalism is his critique of the failure of conservatives to articulate themselves back in the 1950s. Anyone following the tradition of Edmund Burke would do well to heed Buckley's warnings against rhetorical incompetence. It is highly refreshing to read the prose of any writer who can order the English language towards lucid thought. It is not a coincidence that the celebrated novelist, John Dos Passos, was delighted to write the Foreword for the book. Passos writes -

"THE FIRST DUTY OF a man trying to plot a course for clear thinking is to produce words that really apply to the situations he is trying to describe. I don't mean a fresh set of neologisms devised, like thieves' cant or doubletalk, to hold the uninitiated at arm's length. We have seen enough of that in the jargon of the academic sociologists which seems to have been invented to prove that nobody but a Ph.D. can understand human behavior. Plain English will do quite well enough, but the good old words have to be brought back to life by being used in their original sense for a change."

In his 1959 Preface, Buckley writes -

"As to the conservative movement, our troubles are legion. Those who charge that there is no conservative position have an easy time of it rhetorically. There is no commonly-acknowledged conservative position today, and any claim to the contrary is easy to make sport of. Yet there is to be found in contemporary conservative literature both a total critique of liberalism, and compelling proposals for the reorientation of our thought. Conservatism must, however, be wiped clean of the parasitic cant that defaces it, and repels so many of those who approach it inquiringly."

It is this point of Buckley's I want to focus on in this column. For the first one hundred and forty pages of the book, Buckley takes a satirical look at liberalism, and lambasts the ideas of the New Deal, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Crosby, Keynesian economics, the then current administrations of Yale and Harvard, the Paul H. Hughes fiasco, the political compromises of Dwight Eisenhower, anti-McCarthyism, and the taxation policies of the state of New York. If you don't know who all these people or events are, it would be worth your while to educate yourself on them by reading Buckley's book.

Here's a few fun examples, for instance on page 30, Buckley makes fun of the liberal's absolute fanatical commitment to the cause of labor unions, a commitment that demands personal attacks upon anyone at all who disagrees with them -

"In the fall of 1958, Miss Irene Dunne, then a member of the United States delegation to the General Assembly of the United Nations, made a statement to the effect that in her opinion the right to work is a human right. The National Council for Industrial Peace did not lose a minute. It released a statement by Mrs. Roosevelt impugning the motives of all right-to-work proponents. As for Miss Dunne, said Mrs. Roosevelt, she had 'perhaps unwittingly' (That is, quite possibly Miss Dunne intended to deceive) allied herself with 'those who seek to enslave the American worker. The truth [as distinguished from that which one hears from such as Irene Dunne] is that the so-called right-to-work proposal does not concern itself ... with human rights or the right to work ... It's sole purpose is to enact into law a compulsory open shop that would destroy ... a democratic right.' In a word, anyone backing right-to-work is deceitful, totalitarian and anti-democratic, or in any case prepared to further the efforts of those who are."

Or, on page 88, Buckley cherishes the few people who still don't mince their words -

"There is something to be said for breaking away from modulation's trance; for straight thought, and straight talk, even of the kind which, on account of its directness, is capable of lifting people right out of their chairs; the kind of talk that will risk for the talker the reputation of being impolitic and ungenteel. At a crowded reception at the Kremlin in the early 1930s, Lady Astor turned to Stalin and asked, 'When are you going to stop killing people?' Bishop Sheen once called up Heywood Broun, whom he had never met but whose nihilistic columns he read every day, and told him he wanted to see him. 'What about?' asked Broun gruffly. 'About your soul,' said Bishop Sheen."

But while Buckley admires bluntness, and makes use of it on occasion, he also understands the use of crafting one's words in order to be persuasive in the public square. It is this part of Up From Liberalism that I found to be the most compelling.

On pages 139-140 -
"... conservatives have cheapened the vocabulary of caution - by defying the rhetorical maxim that one does not cry 'Wolf!' every day, and expect the community to heed one’s cries the day the wolf actually materializes ... Conservatives, as a minority, must learn to agonize more meticulously.

... if we permit ourselves to go on saying the same things about the imminence of catastrophe - if we become identified with the point of view that the social security laws toll the knell of our departed freedoms, or that national bankruptcy will take place the month after next - we will, like the Seventh Day adventists who close down the curtain of the world every season or so, lose our credit at the bar of public opinion ... (140)


One is reminded of talking heads like Sean Hannity, who claim to speak for conservatism today, interviewing the likes of Michele Bachmann, who's supposed to be a front-runner Republican candidate for president in 2012 -

Bachmann: "We are headed down the lane of economic Marxism, more quickly, Sean, than anyone could have possibly imagined. It's difficult for us to even keep up with it day to day ... At this point the American people - it's like Thomas Jefferson said, a revolution every now and then is a good thing. We are at the point, Sean, of revolution. And by that, what I mean, an orderly revolution -- where the people of this country wake up, get up and make a decision that this is not going to happen on their watch ...

"Economics works equally in any country. Where freedom is tried, the people rejoice. But where tyranny is enforced upon the people, as Barack Obama is doing, the people suffer and mourn ... Right now I'm a member of Congress. And I believe that my job here is to be a foreign correspondent, reporting from enemy lines. And people need to understand, this isn't a game. this isn't just a political talk show that's happening right now. This is our very freedom, and we have 230 years, a continuous link of freedom that every generation has ceded to the next generation. This may be the time when that link breaks. ... Do we get into an inner tube and float 90 miles to some free country? There is no free country for us to repair to. That's why it's up to us now. The founders gave everything they had to give us this freedom. Now it's up to us to give everything we can to make sure that our kids are free, too. It's that serious. I hate to be dramatic, but-"


Hannity: "It's not - you are not overstating this case, Congresswoman, and you don't need to apologize for it. And as a matter of fact, it's refreshing. And I can tell you, all around this country, on 535 of the best radio stations in this country, people are saying 'Amen!' 'Hallelujah!' 'where have you been?'"

One would satirically imagine Hannity playing R.E.M's "It's the End of the World as We Know It" in the background if one weren't afraid that he might have, in reality, actually already have done so. Buckley frowns upon the tendency of alarmists on our side to decry liberal or socialist programs as the end of the world.

pg. 158
"Conservatives have not 'proved' to the satisfaction either of the public ... that the moderate welfare state has paralyzing economic or political consequences for the affluent society. Our insistence that the economic comeuppance is just around the corner (not this corner, that one. No, not that one, that one over there ...) has lost to conservatism public confidence in its economic expertise."

As an example, Buckley looks at the conservatives', of his day, failure to argue against Social Security laws.

pgs. 151-152
"... if it can be shown that the economic consequences of a single federal social service are negligible, then it follows that the economic consequences of a second social service can be negligible; and perhaps a third, and so on. In a word, I am arguing that to a far greater extent than where philosophical values are the point at issue, the economic meaning of a social security measure is quantitatively measurable. A hundred billion dollar economy with federal social security running a deficit of, say, ten million, can be argued to have become able to 'afford' a further social service with the same contemplated operating deficit (say federal medical insurance) when its earnings are up to two hundred billion, a federal housing program might become 'feasible' - with economic dislocations no greater, proportionately, than they were back in the days when it was only social security."

A strong economy will not be immediately destroyed by socialist programs. So by predicting the collapse of the United States, conservatives belittle their own economic arguments and underestimate the strength of the American economy, as well as the longevity of an originally free market run society if put under gradual socialist encroachment. The arguments we ought to be making are not that President Obama is the equivalent to Vladimir Lenin, nor that it is impossible to live under socialist government (many Europeans have been doing so for decades without turning into third world countries). Buckley here was using social security as one example of a welfare state encroachment. The bad arguments made back in the 50s against social security are the same bad arguments being made against Obamacare today.

- still on page 152 -
"The social security program has been criticized, among other things, as certain to induce national insolvency. It will not, as presently projected; and it is not likely ever to cause it. It may cause other things ... but not that; and one must distinguish."

Glenn Beck -
"I called in all of the producers. I called in all the heads of my company, and we sat in a room and we listened to Americans describe how they were going to take down a major U.S. bank in May and how they were going to collapse the stock market and bring on a second economic collapse, how this could not appear to be coordinated and could not appear to be coordinated or union‑backed, how the unions were dead and the only way to really restart the unions is to collapse the system ... You must alert all of your friends. Whenever you hear someone say there’s plenty of money, it’s just in the wrong hands or it’s just in the hands of these greedy bankers, you know they’re part of this strategy. Have you heard anyone say we have plenty of money? ...

"I’d rather be laughed at, called a conspiracy freak, et cetera, et cetera and save the country ... You can call it a conspiracy theory, but ... wait until you see how they are going to use the state and county and local labor unions to do exactly what they did to the housing market. It’s the same tactic, gang. The same tactic. And it ends with the destruction of the economic system of the United States of America. They are bringing it on through chaos and bringing down of Wall Street and the stock market."


It's probably unfair to compare Glenn Beck's rhetoric to William F. Buckley's. After all, Beck has his roots in the John Birch Society. But, his polarizing, doom-prediction mode of argument is not different from that of a large number of modern excuses for conservatives.

But let's take this a step further. Now that the Tea Party is embracing the teachings of Ayn Rand, how does the conservative position look? The oldest critique of capitalism for its selfish materialism was by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and their criticisms did not go unnoticed. Immanuel Wallerstein argued that capitalism creates what is essentially slave labor. It was Che Guevara, held up as a hero today, who declared that capitalism was "a contest among wolves. One can win only at the cost of the failure of others." Modern influential economists like Paul Krugman write of what they call "market failure" when the pursuit of self-interest of one individual results in hurting society as a whole (e.g., Enron). Noam Chomsky wrote that selfishness in the marketplace simply "privatizes tyranny." Simply as a matter of rhetorical awareness, why on earth wouldn't conservatives avoid gruff philosophers, like Rand, who come along insisting on declaring how virtuous it is to be selfish?

pg. 141 -
"The conservative demonstration, at the hands of the old guard, has not been made successfully, in part because conservatism was made to sound by its enemies, frequently with the aid of its friends, like a crassly materialist position, unconcerned except with the world of getting and spending ... The conservative movement in America has got to put its theoretical house in order. A day-to-day conservatism of expediency will only carry us from day to day, hazardously, at best."

We don't need the likes of Ayn Rand and her "Virtue of Selfishness", or the John Birch Society with its conspiracy theories, or Murray Rothbard advocating that privatization ought to be extended even to the military, or Ron Paul opposing Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" proposal on the grounds that it doesn't correctly follow the principles of Murray Rothbard. If some of these sorts are endearing, they also get in the way and obstruct our ability to make reasoned arguments to the public. We don't need these obstructions as allies because we have other things, like oh say, history, on our side.