Spoiler alert: Spoilers abound in this review. But read on anyway. The beauty of “The Age of Adaline” is in its presentation and its romantic moral lesson, not its implausible plot.
Vampire movies are now passe as a cinematic vehicle for considering weighty questions like mortality. As a fan of the genre, it pains me to admit that, but what else can you conclude when vampirism has become just another hazard of a high school girl’s love life, like pimples and a 32A bra size? And where high school boys are more concerned about the size of their biting fangs than the size of their… uh, you know what.
Have no fear, though. Immortality is not dead yet as a topic for secular movies. This year’s Lionsgate production “The Age of Adaline,” for example, has an innovative approach. Suppose that by some freakish accident (say, being hit by lightning and surviving) you became immortal, even while everyone around you continues to age and finally succumbs to that one-on-one with the grim reaper? How would that make you feel? (This assumes, of course, that you become immortal at an age where you are still fit and attractive—not as a pudgy old man or wrinkled old woman. Remember, we’re talking about the movies.)
Our initial reaction—other than consternation—might be: Lucky me! No Botox in my future, I’ll always be attractive to the opposite sex, and I’ll accumulate knowledge with age that will plunge me ahead in my career. But gradually reality sets in, as it does for Adeline in this movie. Your daughter grows older and older, while you do not; you have to let her in on the secret, and then the two of you pretend she’s your aunt, later your grandmother. False IDs become necessary to keep you at the same age to match your photo. Soon two FBI agents, who had the ID-artist under surveillance, are after you to see what your story is. You have to move each time a new, updated identity is needed.
Most of all, however, you increasingly feel the pain of loneliness. A vampire could create an immortal partner, even if it’s a partnership in hell, with some quick biting and sucking action. You can’t. So when you fall in love with your Mr. Right, you realize it won’t work. You can’t ask him to accept a marriage where he grows old while you stay the same age. So you never show up for the date where he was going to give you a ring. You move on, heartbroken.
In “The Age of Adaline,” our gal is played by Blake Lively with subdued emotions that are all the more powerful because of her need to suppress them. (She’s learned to accept her fate.) Adaline/Blake is also a classic beauty, which is appropriate since she is now over 100 years old; only hair styles and fashion styles change every decade or so to throw off the FBI snoops and work associates and friends who will start to wonder how she retains her beauty. Currently she works in the archives department of the San Francisco library, where she can reminisce over the events she’s witnessed in all those years; prepares to send her grandmotherish daughter to an assisted living facility; and refuses offers to date, which, after all, can come to no good. Immortality ain’t what it’s advertised to be.
Until she meets Ellis (played by Michiel Huisman) at a New Year’s Eve party she’s been dragged to by a friend. He is too handsome, too sincerely wonderful, and too persistent. It was obviously a case of love at first sight for both of them, and before she figures out how to refuse, he is taking her to meet his parents, who are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary.
That’s when the proverbial crap hits the fan. Before Ellis can introduce her to his parents as Jenny, the name she is now using, his father (played magnificently by Harrison Ford) blurts out her real name—Adaline!—in astonishment. Everyone wants to know, of course, why he seems to recognize her and calls her Adaline. Adaline quickly realizes this is the man she fell in love with a half century earlier, only to leave him jilted with his ring, and that now she’s in love with his son—only she can’t say any of that publicly, of course. Instead she says she looks very much like her mother, who was named Adaline, and Ellis’s father admits that he had been in love with her “mother.” Ellis’s mother is hurt because this is the first she’s heard of that love affair, even though it happened before the two of them met and got married. It’s a hefty shock coming on your 40th wedding anniversary. Everyone is in shock at this turn of events.
The remainder of “The Age of Adaline” is what sets it apart as a remarkable love story—three love stories, actually.
The easiest resolved is the love between Ellis’s father and mother. Mom has been jolted, but upon reflection realizes that the earlier love affair happened before they met, and she has had 40 years of proof that her husband truly loves her. The 40th wedding anniversary goes on as planned, with a house full of friends joining in the emotional and happy ceremony.
Then there’s that love story from a half century earlier. Ellis’s father realizes that Jenny is an exact clone of the Adaline he fell in love with—a scar, and its exact location, gives that away. Adaline explains her mortality dilemma, and that she really loved him but that’s why she had to jilt him. He’s a scientist, so he finds it hard to accept that claim of immortality, but the evidence is directly in front of him. He pleads with her not to jilt Ellis the way she did him, but she cannot help but run away again. When Ellis realizes Adaline has fled, his Dad tells him the true story, and Ellis pursues her.
Finally, there’s the culmination of the love affair between Ellis and Adaline. As she flees, Adaline is in another accident but is revived with a defibrillator, surviving with no apparent disabilities. Ellis and Adaline reunite, this time with Ellis knowing the truth. The movie fast forwards to a year later, and we see the couple preparing to go to an elegant party. Adaline takes one last trip to her vanity mirror to make sure everything is perfect, when she sees something. She plucks it out—it’s a gray hair! The second jolt of electricity, the one from the defibrillator, had reversed the effects of the long-ago lightning and made her mortal again. Her joy is overwhelming, for now she and Ellis can grow old together.
And that is the real lesson of this three-love-stories-for-the-price-of-one movie: The real joy in life is not to be immortal, but to find someone we love and grow old with together.
Hokey? You bet. Scientifically implausible—of course! This is a fable, dummy. A tear-jerker? Bring a whole box of Kleenex with you. This is why audiences love this movie and critics hate it, despite the Academy Award-quality performances by Blake Lively and Harrison Ford. “The Age of Adaline” speaks to the heart, not the cynical mind.
I finally saw “American Sniper” this week—it was leaving my local theaters after a blockbuster three-month run at the box office. The Academy Awards basically dissed the film, but the American people didn’t. It is the highest grossing war film of all time, the highest grossing film of 2014 in the U.S., and the highest-grossing of director Clint Eastwood’s many successful films.
I generally hate movies about war or football—two nonsensical human activities in my opinion. What makes it worse is that I am captivated when I am tricked (or carelessly succumb) into watching a movie on either topic. This time I had to see the movie out of curiosity. Why would Clint Eastwood, one of the most libertarian directors in Hollywood, write a war movie that apparently was not an open antiwar movie? My libertarian and conservative friends who saw the movie were no help. Very few were enthusiastically pro or against. Most praised it as an intense movie, but insisted “you have to see it for yourself.” So I did.
Now I understand the ambivalence of most of my friends about this movie. It is a work of intense and creative genius, thanks to two men—director Clint Eastwood, and Bradley Cooper, who plays Chris Kyle, the deadliest marksman in American military history. But this is not John Wayne leading the charge.
Cooper plays the role with a somber seriousness rather than melodrama, but there is no doubt he is the epitome of physical manhood. I’d love to see Bradley Cooper and Vladimir Putin duke it out, shirtless, in a ring, in no-holds-barred boxing and wrestling. Now that would be a way to settle our diplomatic differences with Russia!
For a war movie, I found “American Sniper” oddly distant. I could have walked away from it except for Eastwood’s taut direction. We do not get at the heart of why Chris Kyle puts himself through the hell of Iraq. Yes, as a child in Texas, his father admonished him that “there are three types of people in this world. Sheep, wolf, and sheepdog”—and it was clear that no son of his was going to be sheep or wolf. We briefly see the 9/11 attack on the television, and how that affects Kyle and his wife (the way it affected all of us, dumbstruck and horrified). But the lack of great opportunity for a rodeo cowboy seemed even more important in getting him to enlist as a Navy SEAL.
American flags are not used to ping your heart, the way they are in most war movies, and you rarely see them except at the end, showing the funeral and tributes to Kyle. There is no rousing patriotic music, no stirring speeches. What we do see is the bonding of a team, where they are each responsible for each other’s lives. That is understandable and necessary for survival, but those feelings come across with intensity, not bravado. Even Kyle’s role is played with minimalism; he is always part of the team. This is not the dueling between the rival Nazi star sniper and Communist star sniper in the World War II drama, “Enemy at the Gates.”
Indeed, “American Sniper” would have risked becoming boring were it not for Clint Eastwood’s skills as a director. We proceed through Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq, but each is essentially the same. So why do he and the other men keep coming back for another tour? I got the feeling that it started out as a challenging adventure backed by patriotism, but then earned reprises because war is addictive—particularly when you are good at it. Kyle loves his wife and two children, who are born while he is in Iraq, but he keeps leaving them for another tour. War is his heroin.
Why did Clint Eastwood do “American Sniper”?
When you have had as many successes as Eastwood, both as actor and director, choosing the topic of the next movie has to be a real challenge. You do not want to merely reprise the old successes, but want to keep the success going with a new topic. My favorites are his “Dirty Harry” movies, where he fights for justice as a lone wolf because the American justice system is a sick joke. But I also was immensely moved by “Gran Torino”—only an immensely gifted actor could command affection as a bigoted white man in a changing neighborhood.
In my heart I know Clint Eastwood has to be a loner (the libertarian) rather than a pliant company man (the patriot). War was a Big Picture topic he could not ignore, particularly in an era of perpetual war. But these are not the times for a World War II-type guts and glory film. We know too much today about the real reasons our leaders drag us into wars. So I think he took the route of portraying an individual hero—but a flawed hero. No paean to George W. Bush or to American political “exceptionalism” in this movie. There is a tribute to one kind of American exceptionalism, however—the art of killing people, and we get the feel of that with the deadly war setting. But no bombing of civilians, no American torture racks. Just an individual hero, almost a modern-day Dirty Harry, doing his job by protecting his team.
Why did the American public love “American Sniper”?
This is harder for me to answer. On the one hand, I see the American people as immensely warlike—our bloody history would certainly suggest that. But on the other hand, I look at the Americans I know and have known in my lifetime, and I see Americans who just want to devote themselves to their families and careers, enjoying the ordinary satisfactions of daily life. War? Heroics? Let the other guy do it, and I’ll fantasize about it. I reconcile my views of these two types of Americans by considering most of my countrymen to be sheeple—basically decent individuals who are easily led astray by innocence or gullibility.
And, today, there are so many new sources of information. Most Americans do not want to believe the worst about their leaders, but it is hard not to with the information and viewpoints available to us today.
Given that context, I think Americans flocked to see “American Sniper” hoping it would bring some clarity to the past two decades. And because of their great respect for Clint Eastwood. Did the movie end up being what they expected? There’s the rub. There has been speculation in libertarian circles that Eastwood thought an explicitly antiwar movie would do nothing to change people’s minds—it would just confirm people’s prior convictions on both sides. But maybe a movie showing war’s impact on individual soldiers would have more eye-opening impact. I would have opted for a solid commitment against war along the lines of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” but I respect Eastwood’s familiarity with the movie audience.
What’s next for Clint Eastwood?
Eastwood has been close-mouthed about his motivations for doing “American Sniper.” But I wish that with his next Big Picture movie, he makes a bold statement of his personal credo. If he does that, I may be somewhat disappointed to learn that my fantasy is not his reality. But a passionate statement of his beliefs would be something not to be missed.
If I am correct in my assessment of the man, this sequel would fall squarely in the “realist” camp—no false romanticism or mere nostalgia. I think Eastwood is a deeply patriotic man with an Old Testament streak of striving for justice. I would like the subject of that film to be, not a lone Dirty Harry, but rather America. This country has been such a symbol of hope and humanity—and simultaneously such a disappointment. What has gone wrong? Is there any hope?
For me, if I had Eastwood’s talents, that would be a dystopian look into the future—a calamity marking the fall of our present American Empire, and a look into what replaces it, both the good and the bad. But that’s me. I’d like to see Clint Eastwood’s version.
P.S. My personal “close encounter” with Clint Eastwood
How can I write at length about one of my favorite people without noting my “close encounter” with him?
It was 1970, and my wife Holly and I were traveling across the continent doing research for our forthcoming book, Safe Places. Purely by coincidence we found ourselves in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, where the movie “Play Misty for Me” was in production. The supporting cast and staff was staying at the Holiday Inn, where we had reservations. I was pleased to meet blond bombshell Donna Mills having makeup applied in the lobby. Holly was waiting for the leading man—you know who.
Our chance came that night. Holly was surprisingly well informed on Eastwood, enough to know the favorite restaurant of this future mayor of Carmel. Not surprisingly, that is where we ate that night. And as we were well into our dinner, I noticed my wife flirting with someone behind me. I turned around and saw why Holly seemed so flush—it was Clint Eastwood himself, enjoying dinner with Dizzy Gillespie. (That itself was no surprise, since Eastwood’s first love is jazz and he himself plays jazz piano.)
We hurried through dinner and positioned ourselves at the bar, ready to pounce when they left. Eastwood headed for his pickup truck, and we were not far behind in our car, hoping to follow him to his house. That lasted while we were on Carmel’s main drag and turned onto a side street. Eastwood then took off seriously, navigating the winding back streets of Carmel and easily losing his stalkers.
I cannot think of that experience without smiling expansively. Eastwood obviously had a lot of experience evading fans when he wanted to, and we were in his home territory. “Close Encounter” but no encounter!
My apologies in advance to my original conservative compatriots Doug Caddy and Bill Schulz for any minor inaccuracies in this account of our early escapades with M. Stanton Evans, who departed this world on March 3, 2015. Any such mistakes are not intentional, but the result of a memory that was never too good to begin with, further impaired by 58 years of perhaps too many beers and vodka martinis. Live with it—or risk a mouth punch (see below).
The year was 1957, and we were the very first Human Events journalism class taught by Stan Evans. Thousands of students followed us over the decades, but there was nothing like that first time. For the next several years, we three students would have daily contact with Stan as our teacher and mentor, our friend, and our on-and-off roommate. What a blessing.
American conservatism as a “movement” didn’t really exist at that time. It was an intellectual idea conceived by William F. Buckley Jr. when he launched National Review several years earlier in 1955, the name bestowed by NR Senior Editor Russell Kirk in his book The Conservative Mind. There wasn’t even any consensus on the moniker “conservative.” I considered myself an individualist, others considered themselves libertarians or classical liberals. The Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (ISI) existed to provide intellectual fodder for us youngsters, but there were as yet no conservative activist organizations. We would help remedy that deficiency in the coming years 1957 to 1960. We were there at the creation.
What a blessing! I cannot imagine how boring it would be to be a teenager with too much energy and too little sense, where my biggest decision was whether to pursue history or math as my major. We were out to conquer the world, or at least to change it! We weren’t “normal” students.
Soon after the three of us arrived in Washington, Stan gave us our instructions on what we were going to do as activist journalists: “First, we take over the Young Republicans. Then we take over the Republican Party. Then we take over the nation. And then we defeat world communism.”
I am not making this up. You can’t make up something that preposterous and that precocious and that audacious.
We were the first Human Events Journalism Class, offered work scholarships to write for Human Events while we finished our undergraduate studies. Our pay was a pittance, but young people have a way of overcoming inconveniencies like that. You simply cut out all human nourishment but beer and pizza.
Human Events at that time was an eight-page weekly newsletter—a four-page news section on what was going on in Washington and national politics, and a four-page article, written by a different person each week. Its circulation was only a few thousand, but it kept the right alive between World War II and the formation of the National Review-Goldwater movement.
Human Events actually began as a series of Human Events Pamphlets published right after World War II in Chicago, the creation of Henry Regnery of later book publishing fame; Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago; Felix Morley, long-time editor of the Washington Post (hard to believe!); and journalist Frank Hanighen. They soon changed to the newsletter format, moved the offices to Washington, D.C., and installed Hanighen as editor.
Hanighen was coauthor of Merchants of Death, an expose of the role of the munitions industry in World War I, and as such the first book to oppose what became known as the Military-Industrial Complex. As you might suspect by now, Human Events newsletter was firmly in the anti-interventionist camp of Republican leader Robert Taft and the America First movement. It stood for the opposite of what the Republican Party and the conservative movement stands for now. Back then we routinely referred to the Democrats as “the War Party.” Sigh.
After graduating from Yale University, Stan served short stints at National Review and the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), where he was introduced to the libertarian philosophy by the writer Frank Chodorov, and later took classes from economist Ludwig von Mises. Then Stan was recruited by Hanighen to be Managing Editor of Human Events. Chodorov had conceived the idea of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (ISI) and then promoted the idea of bringing young conservative/individualist student writers to Washington to work and study at Human Events. That’s where Bill Schulz, Doug Caddy, and I entered the picture.
Present at the Creation
Today’s Washington is filled with people who claim to be conservatives, even if they aren’t, but in 1957 there may have been 30 people in Washington who self-identified as conservatives, and we all knew each other. Human Events was Ground Zero in Washington conservative circles, and Stan Evans was our gatekeeper to that tiny but exciting world.
The two political traditions represented by that remnant were the Old Right-Taft Republican camp, and the anticommunist followers of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Most of us were of both persuasions. Bill Schulz was a student at Antioch College in Ohio, which followed a four-season academic schedule—three months of study, three months of work, repeated until you graduated or got tired of the routine. Bill worked writing columns and radio editorials for Fulton Lewis Jr., the Rush Limbaugh of his day, and that brought Bill to the attention of Human Events. Doug Caddy wrote for local conservative and McCarthyite periodicals while a high school student in New Orleans, and planned to attend Georgetown University in Washington. I was editor of my campus newspaper The Foghorn at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, and my editorials caught the eye of Hanighen and Human Events publisher James L. Wick, an Ohio small-town newspaper man.
I claim bragging rights to being the very first Human Events/Stan Evans journalism student, since I was the first student contacted by publisher Wick. Schulz contests this claim, since he was the first one physically at the Human Events office thanks to his Antioch academic schedule. As you can imagine, this is a serious schism in First Class theology.
I wish I could remember my impression of Stan the very first time I met him, but I just remember that the four of us bonded immediately and thought of ourselves as a team, not as teacher and students. After all, we were 18 or 19 years old, and Stan was just four years older than us. Hanighen, Wick, and Chodorov were old fogies, and didn’t participate in our nightly beer and pizza excursions. We were on our own, and happily so.
Not that there were no differences of emphasis. Doug and I were Southern Democrats, a breed that no longer exists (among white folks at least), while Bill had been raised in Manhattan and Montclair, New Jersey, with a Republican upbringing. When Stan gave us our activist instructions, which he had got from his elders like Bill Buckley and Bill Rusher, Doug and I bristled. Why the Republican Party, for gawd’s sake? Stan explained that the Democratic Party was much too loosely organized at the grassroots level to be captured, while the Republican Party was organized like a country club that could be captured. We bowed to his expertise as a wise 22-year-old.
A few years ago I confronted Stan. “You know, Stan, at least two-thirds of your original journalism class has left the Republican Party in disgust. Does this suggest a failure on your part?” Stan put on that sardonic grin and voice he was famous for, and replied: “Maybe it’s a sign of just how well I taught you.”
When we first came to Washington, the Human Events offices were on K Street, N.W., but we soon moved to Capitol Hill—closer to “the action.” Days were taken up with writing and college classes, in different proportions, and one night a week Hanighen would have his generation of friends talk to us students—people like Chodorov and Freda Utley (mother of Jon Utley) and Chicago Tribune Washington correspondent Willard Edwards (father of Lee Edwards). Stan was a serious teacher when it came to style and accuracy, and I vividly remember his red-ink changes on my copy. (I have always said that my three best red-ink editors were Stan, Bill Buckley, and Neil McCaffrey, founder of Arlington House and the Conservative Book Club. Writing lost something important when the computer eliminated the red pen. Seeing all that red on your copy really caught your attention.) Stan’s most important advice, however, was: “The hardest part of writing is gluing your ass to the chair in front of the typewriter and actually starting to write.” I still have that problem 58 years later.
Life was never dull at Human Events. I remember the time an elderly woman dropped in at our office and complained to our receptionist—an older, sweet relative (aunt?) of Chuck Colson—how she had been abducted by aliens, they had implanted something in her head, and she was in constant pain. We were her last hope for help! The nonplussed receptionist came to Stan for assistance, and got it. Stan impulsively picked up some aluminum wrap (now where did he get that!) and soothed the woman. “Put this around your head as a hat,” he explained, “and it will block out the alien signals that are causing your pain.” She walked out a renewed and happy woman.
Under Stan’s tutelage we got our first tastes of direct political action. National Review’s Brent Bozell (the real Brent Bozell—pater) was running for some local office in suburban Maryland, and we joined in. The entire Washington conservative movement would gather on Brent’s side porch for instructions. And when Khrushchev became the first Soviet dictator to visit Washington, former Communist trainer Marvin Liebman came down from New York to instruct us on how to organize peaceful picket lines. (We were truly naïve about things like that. Nice boys and girls of the ‘50s didn’t picket.) We soon learned that picket lines in front of the White House were great social opportunities, particularly with some beautiful anticommunist coeds from Catholic girls’ colleges in Washington like Dunbarton and Trinity, and that only increased our activist fervor.
We had so little money, roommates were a necessity, and often a number of them. It was a very fluid situation. The New Left later had communes; we had flophouses. Stan used to love telling the story of how he returned from a weekend trip to find a stranger in his apartment living room. “Who are you?” he asked. The person gave his name and explained: “David Franke has left your apartment, and I have taken his place.” Out-of-towners would use Stan’s apartment as their home away from home. The Finn Twins (Charles and George) were rambunctious California veterans fighting the federal bureaucracy to start “The Flying Finn Twins Airline, Inc.” Whenever they were in Washington to press their case, they stayed, natch, at Stan’s Capitol Hill apartment. At one point Stan, myself, Robert Ritchie, and Harvey Fry became unlikely Washington civil rights pioneers when we rented a house in a then-black neighborhood of outer Capitol Hill.
We younger members of the Washington conservative community liked to meet at a historic Georgetown inn, Martin’s Tavern. The original Roosevelt brain trust used to meet in an extension of its main room called The Dugout, where they formulated their plans for the New Deal. We loved to flatter ourselves that we would be the new New Deal. Ah, hubris! In fact, that may be where Stan delivered his beer-soaked instructions on how we were going to destroy world communism.
A more frequent haunt (because it was cheaper) was Harrigan’s, a beer and pizza joint in Southeast Capitol Hill later leveled by urban renewal. That was the scene of perhaps our most hilarious escapade. For some reason Bill Rusher, the publisher of National Review, was in town and joined Stan and our journalism class for dinner than night. Now, those of you who had the privilege of knowing Rusher, will remember him as a formal type wearing three-piece suits, carrying an umbrella, and sporting a bowler hat—he really was born in the wrong country in the wrong period. But he was a great value to the conservative movement. Anyway, here we are having our proletarian pizza and guzzling cheap beers (you get the recurring theme here, right?), and our conversational level rose as the evening passed. Stan was extolling the virtues of this upstart new Senator Goldwater from Arizona, and a man at the next table took issue, leveling some expletives about our future leader. Stan demanded an apology, which wasn’t forthcoming, and then stood up, shouting: “That calls for a mouth punch!” Which he gave, and the two were grappling on the sawdust floor.
Luckily the proprietors broke up the fight before the police arrived, but fussbudget William A. Rusher was horrified—horrified, I tell you! You couldn’t convince him that this wasn’t Stan’s usual demeanor, or that the man deserved it for what he said about Barry. “That calls for a mouth punch” became Stan’s most famous saying until he announced, “I was always against Nixon—until Watergate.” As for Rusher, I think it was several years before he ventured back to the swamps of Washington, and then he took cabs straight from National Airport to the University Club and never left its doorman-guarded confines.
You can’t see me as I’m writing this, but I have both tears in my eyes and a grin on my face. Until we meet again, Stan.
“The Babadook” is an Australian horror flick that will open on most screens in December. Essie Davis plays the mother and widow Amelia, whose husband died six years ago in an accident as they rushed to the hospital when birth was imminent. Noah Wiseman plays her 6-year-old son Samuel who was born that day. Essie gives what may be the finest female performance in a horror film that I have ever seen. Noah is by turns as endearing or as scary as the script demands. Director Jennifer Kent does a superb job of building the suspense slowly and steadily, giving us time to get to know and care about the two main characters.
Why, then, is “The Babadook” not my choice as the “one to see”? It’s not because there’s too much gore; it is actually rather restrained in that department by slasher film standards. It’s because no matter how much I liked the acting, I came down with an acute case of déjà vu. I kept remembering that I had seen all of this before—the maybe-she-is-maybe-she-isn’t seeming insanity of the mother, the rages, the knives in the kitchen, the knocks on the front door when nobody’s there, the thump-thumps in the walls, the swarming cockroaches, the strangled family dog, the creepy cellar, the characters being pulled by invisible forces against the walls or levitated into the air. If I’ve forgotten anything, the film hasn’t.
If you have never seen a horror film, “The Babadook” is a great one to see because of its exceptionally great acting. It will probably scare you because you’re a horror virgin. Otherwise, it’s your flip of the coin if you are already a horror film addict. It is undoubtedly better than anything you are likely to see this Halloween season.
“Faux Paws” succeeds in doing for its genre (the werewolf movie) what “The Babadook” fails at doing for horror. “Faux Paws” expands the boundaries of the genre to give us a fresh look at the world of werewolves, and it does so in a way that makes this a comedy rather than a horror film.
“Faux Paws,” you see, is a story of the road-trip adventures of two gay werewolves. Yes, you read that right. But don’t stop reading. No matter what your opinions are on homosexuality, this is not a case of ideology or sexual orientation political correctness being shoved at you. Rather the film uses a major current social preoccupation (homosexuality) to make us laugh. Of course, if you believe that homos should only be portrayed as dangerous sexual deviants, not as sort-of-normal human beings or sort-of-normal werewolves, you are probably not interested in humor.
When we first meet Brian (played by Brian Wimer) and Doug (played by Doug Bari), they are incarcerated in a lycanthrope detention facility. A bare-bones history at the beginning of the film lets us know that werewolves are no longer being killed in the U.S., only incarcerated, because it has been discovered that the saliva of werewolves has miraculous medicinal properties.
Doug and Brian are an older-younger odd couple, though I hesitate to call them “gay” since they are at each other’s throats much more often than they are lovey-dovey. It’s sort of as if Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (or Tony Randall and Jack Klugman in the TV series) were gay werewolf roommates.
We also learn along the way that Doug, the older one, is impotent. Only in terms of this absurdist movie, that means that he can no longer “change” when there’s a full moon. Therefore he concentrates on trying to keep his partner out of trouble during full moons.
Anyway, Brian and Doug manage to escape from the lycanthrope detention center. The road trip begins. Their goal is to reach Maine, the only U.S. state with a sanctioned tolerance of werewolves. I may be reading too much into this, but does that indicate a libertarian orientation on the part of the filmmaker? A conservative would have picked New Hampshire, a liberal or socialist would have picked Vermont, but neither would be appropriate. Maine is individualistic and iconoclastic in a way that defies followers of ideology. Also, there is the matter that the various police forces (and they are everywhere) never ask for your driver’s license as ID, but for your National Identity Card. Hmm, that’s a giveaway.
On the road to Maine, a substantial (and the funniest) part of the movie involves a stopover to see Brian’s family. He’s afraid that if he gets to Maine, he will never be able to see them again, and he’s very family oriented. This is not without tension for Brian. His family knows that he is a werewolf, and accepts that. But will they be able to accept his homosexuality, and the fact that Doug is as old as his father? Not to worry. Brian’s kin are a parody of hippiedom, and there are plenty of thrills and laughs as the bounty hunters and police close in on them at a full moon.
So, do Doug and Brian make it to Maine? I won’t give that away, except to say that this is one case where I hope there will be movie sequels, perhaps even a TV series in the works.
I saw the movie “God’s Not Dead” on Easter Sunday, an appropriate time, I thought, for an agnostic to see it. As it turned out, I had a personal screening—there was nobody else in the entire theater. Could that be a sign? And if so, a sign of what, exactly?
I went into the theater expecting to see an unsophisticated, indeed embarrassing defense of faith. After all, it had an abysmal 13 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The experts had spoken. I left the theater convinced that “God’s Not Dead” may be the most intellectually invigorating general-audience movie we are likely to see on the big screen in a long, long while. It actually takes both science and theology seriously. It is two hours of philosophical discussion, masterfully alternating the articulate classroom debates with emotion-packed vignettes of a handful of college students, professors, and academic hangers-on struggling with their faith or lack of same.
With a movie like this, full disclosure should be a requirement for the reviewer. Here it is: After a very religious childhood, I have been an agnostic virtually all of my adult life. But I describe myself as a “friendly agnostic.” I try not to disparage your faith, since I think we all have questions about eternity; I just do not adhere to a particular creed. And that includes atheism, which I regard as a creed with one commandment: “Thou shall not believe in any god.”
That is how I entered the theater—as a friendly agnostic. And that is how I left the theater—as a friendly agnostic. But the movie itself was a delightful experience that I had not anticipated.
A devoted Christian and college freshman finds his faith belittled by an atheist philosophy professor with a grudge against God. The professor gives him three 20-minute class sessions to prove to the class that God exists, and passing the course depends on his convincing his classmates. It is an unfair test, of course, since the professor is an authoritarian god inside the classroom; but, of course, the student prevails in the end.
The professor’s girlfriend is a Christian, and finds their differences increasingly difficult to reconcile—while there is a loving side to their relationship, it depends on her bowing to his authority, and he is as demeaning to her in public as he is to the Christian freshman in the classroom. A Muslim girl has to hide her growing interest in Christianity from her father and family, and the result when she finally confesses her faith in Jesus is physically and emotionally violent. (The movie’s portrayal of Islamic intolerance will not win any political correctness awards. Good for them.) An exchange student from China tries to explain to his father over the telephone why he finds the debate increasingly engrossing, and the father sternly warns him not to talk about God on the telephone because “you never know who is listening.” A skeptical newsgal is diagnosed with advanced cancer, causing her to reevaluate her secularism. And there are several other secondary characters and themes, as well as intriguing “interviews” by the newsgal with the public face of “Duck Dynasty,” Willie Robertson, and his wife, and the members of the Christian rock group Newsboys. Not to mention a stirring final concert by the Newsboys—stirring, that is, to anyone except the most hardened anti-religious spectator.
Cardboard Characters and Stacked Arguments?
That is the near-universal and main criticism of “God’s Not Dead,” even in a posting on this site. I will concede the accuracy of the criticism to a large degree, while still maintaining that this is an excellent film. Let me explain.
When is the last time you saw a movie where the decks were not stacked in the direction the directors and producers desired? When was the last time you saw an intellectual discussion on television—forget that. When was the last time you saw any forum on television where the decks were not stacked and the sound-bite arguments were anything but superficial? Apparently everyone is allowed to employ predictable characters and stacked plots and arguments—except an unapologetically Christian film.
Now, I think it would be great if “God’s Not Dead” did not have these shortcomings, but the movie has compensating attributes. The acting of the secondary characters is excellent. Even the acting of the two main characters—the professor and the student—is excellent within the confines of the stereotyped roles given them. The personal vignettes are convincingly emotional and engrossing. The script is articulate and literate. Production values are stellar. In short, the movie succeeds despite its shortcomings.
With any movie, we have to ask, what is its primary intended audience? Here it is obviously young Christians who find their faith under attack in our secular educational institutions. I suspect “God’s Not Dead” gives them the emotional and intellectual support they are looking for. Indeed, the Alliance Defending Freedom had a role in inspiring this movie, and an epilogue lists the many instances where Christian students and their supporters have engaged in legal battles against campus discrimination. The movie’s practical success can be seen by the fact that it cost $2 million to produce and has already quickly grossed $50 million at the box office. Christian-themed movies have come of age, and a substantial audience is eager to see them.
Where I think “God’s Not Dead” is unnecessarily stereotypical is in its portrayal of the two main characters, the professor and the student who stands up to him. I don’t think atheist professors ever take as confrontational and arrogant a stance as in this movie; they are much more devious in undermining their students’ faith. And this freshman student is so articulate, he comes across as a young born-again Evangelical clone of William F. Buckley, Jr., only without the polysyllables. But hey, he is Daniel in the lion’s den and I can see the Christian student audience cheering him on against the evil professor.
The Bottom Line, Faith-Wise
Will “God’s Not Dead” create significant converts in the battle against atheism? I doubt it. I think any “converts” will likely be viewers with personal spiritual struggles who are predisposed to being converted, and just need the emotional support the movie provides. But I think that has been the case with religious movies from “The Robe” (1953) to “Son of God” (2014). I suspect that a movie director or producer who seeks to make mass conversions will find that task to be “above his pay grade.”
One final distinction needs to be made, and that brings me to the critical failure of “God’s Not Dead” from this agnostic’s viewpoint. The title of the film concerns the existence of God—a very basic philosophical question. The content of the film assumes that once you acknowledge the existence of God, you immediately become, shall we say, a card-carrying Christian. “God’s Not Dead” does a pretty decent job, as movies go, of disproving the arguments for atheism, of portraying Stephen Hawking as a fallible and false god, of arguing that a belief in evolution can coexist with a belief in God. That is quite an accomplishment in itself. Limited to that existentialist arena, and expanding those arguments, the film might make some real converts. But of course the film wants to do more than that. In making the leap of faith to a Christian creed it is preaching to the choir, and will have limited impact on the secularist hordes strolling outside the church. But the choir will absolutely love it.
Jia Zhangke is one of China’s most prominent film directors, but his latest movie has been banned inside the country itself for its treatment of sensitive subjects. “A Touch of Sin” was nominated for best picture at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and won the best screenplay award for Jia. The movie is considered a harsh criticism of the new “capitalist” order in China, though it is hard for me to tell how much that was Jia’s intent, and how much is the knee-jerk reaction of liberal Western movie reviewers, who have given “A Touch of Sin” a remarkable 92 percent critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Without a doubt, the movie is exceptionally well produced. It’s a two-hour downer, but a downer I would readily see again if I had the opportunity—it is that good. There is no music; the stories are gripping enough without musical promptings of your emotions. The violence is graphic but surgical. The English subtitles are the easiest to read on the screen in my memory. The cinematography is outstanding, even though I do not recall one frame where we see clear skies; whether mountains or cityscapes, all are shrouded in pollution, perhaps a metaphor for the storyline itself.
“A Touch of Sin” is in fact four stories. You proceed from one to the other with no signal other than the characters changing. Corruption and violence are the leitmotifs of the four stories. All are based on “true stories” of modern China, though, as usual with movies, the truth is often forsaken, or expanded, for dramatic effect.
The first story involves a miner fighting local corruption by the party chief in his village. This is a very widespread problem in China, of course. Our character’s final solution is a shooting spree, though he hardly comes across as a hero, aiming his hunting shotgun at the innocent as well as the guilty.
The second story is the shortest and most disturbing of the four. It depicts a deranged individual who kills for money, and is based on the case of a Chinese gunman who was charged with robbing and killing at least nine people, putting him on China’s “most wanted” list. I thought this was the least successful of the four stories, since I got no clue as to his motives or delusions.
I found the third story to be the most poignant, as it touches on the degradations suffered by too many women in China. A young woman finally realizes her married lover is not going to leave his wife and marry her, but she faces even worse conditions in her subsequent jobs. Finally, as a receptionist at a massage parlor, she is accosted by a local businessman brute who attempts to rape her, before she stabs and kills him in self-defense. Her ultimate fate is left in question in the movie, but in real life Deng Yujiao became a cause célèbre across China in 2009, with hundreds of thousands of Chinese protesting her imprisonment for murder, resulting in her release.
The last of the four stories follows the downward path of a young man ill equipped to advance himself in the new society. He is too moral and traditional to continue in his job as a concierge at a sex hotel for China’s 1 percent, but his final job as an assembly line worker for a “Fortune 500” company makes him so despondent that he commits suicide.
These are deeply personal and touching stories, exceptionally well acted, but in the hands of movie critics they become something more: an indictment of modern “capitalism” in China. The last story is the most obvious in this regard. It is based on a real-life 2010 spate of suicides at Foxconn, a large contractor for Fortune 500 companies. I have no doubt that Foxconn would not be my employer of choice, but the fact is that the suicide rate among its employees was much lower than in China in general, as well as in all 50 of the United States. But we don’t want that to interfere with a good victim-oppressor, labor-capitalist, story, do we?
A more honest treatment would compare the lives of these industrial workers with the starvation-level lives they “enjoyed” in the good old days, not to mention the lives of the first generation of industrial workers in Britain and the U.S. In the West, each generation built on the previous generation’s achievements, and I have no doubt that will happen in China, if the politicians and crony capitalists don’t muck things up.
One final observation from your Sinophile reviewer. I have always felt much safer in China than I have in the United States, whether I am walking alone after midnight in Beijing’s Chaoyang Park (its “Central Park”) or in hinterland areas where I am the only American in sight, sometimes the only Westerner in sight. I do not believe in romanticizing a society, or downplaying its dark side, but this is a movie only about the dark side of Chinese society. Granted, as a foreigner I cannot enter the worlds depicted in “A Touch of Sin,” but I also know that far away from the tourist world of five-star hotels, I have seen the bright side of Chinese society, where millions of Chinese are enjoying a life never before possible.
In the tension between capitalism and traditional society, it does seem inevitable that crime is going to increase, though let’s hope not to the level we put up with in America. China is entering the modern world, for better and worse.
“White House Down”
A Hollywood-White House-Democratic Party Production
Starring Barack H. Obama as the President
John A. Boehner (Speaker of the House) as The Villain
And assorted white supremacists as his troops
Pity the poor Democratic Party-lackey screenwriters and movie makers. Events move so fast today that they can’t keep up. Not that it bothers them in the least. They just keep turning the scum out, and if you add enough preposterous (but exhilarating) action sequences, the booboisie public will pay your rent to stay in LA.
“White House Down” must have been written in the heady days when President Obama moved into the White House. A new day was dawning. Gone would be the reckless militarism of the cowboy Republican regime of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. We now had a sensitive and—glory be, black!—President in the Oval Office.
Of course, it sometimes takes an embarrassing amount of time for script to be turned into movie and released at the box office. This movie thus debuts when Barack, no longer a sensitive soul trying to bring peace to the Mideast, is making Dubya look like a wuss by comparison. Not to worry. Just throw in more explosions and right-wing villains. Logic and ideas have no place in a movie anyway.
Jamie Foxx plays Barack Obama, but a Barack Obama who shows he knows how to use a semi-automatic or a rocket launcher when he has to. The lovely Michele Obama gets only a cameo role. Sasha and Malia get only a photo in the White House bedroom. After all, we don’t want to exploit the children for Hollywood’s sake.
Spoiler alert! In the final sequence the John Boehner of the opposition party (and you know who they are) turns out to be the Ultimate Bad Guy behind this complicated scheme to do away with the President and the Vice-President so that he himself becomes President. Only in my dreams does John Boehner have the cojones to try and pull off something like that.
What a waste of money and celluloid, or whatever they use in Hollywood today.
“Mud,” now making the rounds of movie theaters in a limited release, was a hit at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Rotten Tomatoes says that 98% of 122 film critics have given it a thumbs-up.
Glory be. Who would have thought that a conservative movie could receive such an enthusiastic reception?
Skeptic that I am, I believe that’s because nobody but me realizes it’s a conservative movie. It does not touch on the political, and it doesn’t preach. The focus is kept on culture, and it communicates its politics in a very personal way, letting the script and acting (both excellent) make its points so effectively that the audience is unaware of the larger implications.
“Mud” is a coming-of-age story about two 14-year-old boys, Ellis and Neckbone, growing up in an Arkansas town on the Mississippi River.
Ellis is distraught because his parents are separating and plan on getting a divorce. The boys find refuge from the world on an island in the Mississippi, where they stumble upon a fugitive from the law who calls himself “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey). Mud is madly in love with beautiful Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who is supposed to meet him in their town. Mud’s crime is that he killed the man who impregnated Juniper and who threw her down the stairs to abort the baby. We know nothing else about the circumstances of that fight and why it resulted in the death.
The problem is a lynch mob organized by the victim’s father and other son. They are not legal bounty hunters. They plan to kill Mud in revenge, not bring him back to justice in Texas, where the murder took place. And they have paid off the local police to let them do it. Read More…
This has been a sad time for me, considering how important a role Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) played in my life at a young age. The faux paper organization that pretends to be YAF this weekend expelled Rep. Ron Paul from its National Advisory Board, a move that will hurt them far more than the Congressman.
It’s easy to figure out why they did this. At this past week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., Ron Paul won the presidential straw poll for the second consecutive year. The energy and organization behind this victory was Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), the Ron Paul youth group. YAL was leaving YAF in its dust, not that there ever was a contest. In desperation, YAF had to do something to try and make itself still seem relevant and newsworthy, so it hit upon the idea of expelling Ron Paul from its National Advisory Board.
The ploy worked well in that it gave YAF more publicity than it has received in years. But the ploy also spotlighted the severe limitations of a paper organization. The big headlines in the media were about Ron Paul winning the CPAC presidential poll. The YAF ploy was just a sour-grapes asterisk to that story.
What made the situation worse for YAF was the intemperance and incoherence of the YAF statement, and these additional temper tantrums by YAF National Director Jordan Marks:
“Rep. Paul’s refusal to support our nation’s military and national security interests border on treason (emphasis added), aside from his failure to uphold his oath to the United States Constitution…”
“Rep. Paul is clearly off his meds and must be purged from public office. YAF is starting the process by removing him from our national advisory board.”
Whoa! It’s obvious who is off his meds, and it ain’t Dr. Paul. Read More…
The world as revealed to me last week:
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder
Snyder is a Yale historian of the Holocaust and East Europe. Yesterday I saw this C-SPAN2 Book TV taping of his speech on his new book at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York City. What an admirably organized and passionate historian! If he is as good a writer as he is a speaker–and all the reviews indicate that he is–this is a must-read book for anyone interested in the tragedy of the 20th century.
It’s hard to imagine such a relatively small area of the Earth witnessing the deliberate murder of more than 12 million civilians in a few years (that’s not counting “collateral damage” or soldiers killed in combat). A tidbit that astonished me: Germany deliberately killed more Russian prisoners of war than Jews. It is agonizing to consider the decisions millions of hapless East Europeans faced as the two dictators’ armed forces closed in: whether to flee to the East or the West–what a horrible choice to have to make. This is a book unsparing of both sides. But because Stalin had so many more apologists in the West, that is where the greatest revelations are confirmed. Fortunately for historians, says Synder, the Soviets were even more meticulous in the recording of their crimes than the Nazis. It just required the collapse of the Soviet Empire for historians to have access to those archives.
“When the historian Robert Conquest was asked to provide a subtitle for a new, post-Cold War edition of his book on Stalin’s purges, he suggested, ‘I told you so, you f—ing fools.’ The fools are now looking even more foolish, thanks to the efforts of indefatigable historians like Snyder.” — Reason
Osama Bin Laden, by Michael Scheuer
From a short interview of Michael Scheuer on Book TV:
Michael Scheuer was head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden desk for years before his retirement. His biography of bin Laden is due out in February, and it promises to be a most revealing read.
Bin Laden is not a raving maniac, says Scheuer, and we don’t do America any good by pretending that he is. He is unsparingly honest about why he is fighting America, and it has nothing to do with disgust of our freedoms and our “way of life.” Can anyone get the idiot Rudy Giuliani to read this book–and Osama bin Laden’s own explanations? Read More…
A Generation Awakes: Young Americans for Freedom and the Creation of the Conservative Movement, Wayne Thorburn, Jameson Books, 576 pages
By David Franke
On the weekend of Sept. 9, 1960 nearly one hundred young conservatives gathered at the Buckley family estate in Sharon, Connecticut, to start a conservative youth organization. We had started single-issue and single-campaign groups; now something more permanent was needed. Adult supervision was minimal—host William F. Buckley Jr., editor of National Review; several other editors from the magazine, and its publisher, Bill Rusher; and Marvin Liebman, the genial PR puppet master who taught us all how to organize, how to conduct a successful picket line or demonstration, how to get media attention, how to raise money, and how to have fun while doing all this. We became particularly good at that last task.
The organization we formed—Young Americans for Freedom—lasted more than 30 years and was successful far beyond what any of us at Sharon dreamed was possible. That calls for a celebration, and this book is an important part of that celebration.
Wayne Thorburn has given us an unbelievably thorough, yet highly readable and enjoyable history of Young Americans for Freedom. He credits the “generous support” of Young America’s Foundation—the successor to the youth organization—for making it possible for him to write this book, and all I can say is that he earned every cent and then some.
When Stan Evans wrote the first history of the young conservatives, Revolt on the Campus, in 1961, we affectionately dubbed it “the telephone book” because he included every young conservative who showed any medical sign of life, and the first thing you did was look at the index to see whether Stan mentioned you. A Generation Awakes is Revolt on the Campus on steroids. The names-only index is 18 large double-columned and densely packed pages. By my estimation, Thorburn tracks the activities of 2,163 YAF activists, 16 YAF national conventions, and 21,934 YAF factional fights. (Okay, I made up that last figure. But you get the idea.)
The most amazing aspect is how fair Thorburn seems to be. I was active in Young Americans for Freedom from its creation in 1960 to 1967, when my last hurrah was to get YAF on board the fight for a volunteer military. I read the 163 pages covering that era with rapt attention and have no complaints.
Present at the Creation
What was it like to be at Sharon? Words such as “exciting” don’t begin to do justice. But it was largely an excitement based on finally meeting people we had heard about in one way or another—what today is called “networking.” This was an opportunity to meet people who shared your convictions in what otherwise was a desolate landscape of liberals and leftists on your campus or in your community.
Doug Caddy, the main organizer of the conference, and I probably knew more people there than anyone else, since we had started the very first conservative youth organization—the National Student Committee for the Loyalty Oath—in late 1959 and had been in touch with young conservatives from across the nation ever since. But for probably half the attendees, this was their first excursion into organizational politics. They had read about the upcoming Sharon Conference in National Review, Human Events, or ISI’s The Individualist and signed up to come at their own expense.
The greatest thrill for most of the participants was to meet William F. Buckley Jr. in the flesh. I don’t think it is possible for a young conservative today to understand the overwhelming presence of WFB Jr. in 1960. Sure, a college student involved in libertarian youth politics today will be absolutely thrilled to meet Ron Paul. But that student also has countless other sources of information and inspiration—organizations, websites, radio and cable personalities, you name it. We had a much more limited conservative universe, and it revolved around one person, Bill Buckley. (I’m not including here the politicians who inspired us, such as Barry Goldwater.) We were just beginning to think of ourselves as a “movement,” and that was thanks to Bill Buckley and his National Review. He was the brilliant rhetorical fighter who first took on the Liberal Establishment, a gifted orator, our first TV star, prolific and organized beyond belief, and charismatic, to correctly use an overused term. And now he and his family had opened up their estate to us.
Did we have a sense of this being an historic moment? Yes and no. Yes it was historic in the sense of being unprecedented, and even audacious in its aims. But I don’t think most of us realized just how historic the occasion would be—that in less than two years we would host an overflow crowd at Madison Square Garden, that in four years we would be run candidate for president who would capture the GOP nomination, and that in 20 years our movement would elect a conservative as president of the United States. Granted, in 1957 Stan Evans had given the three of us who made up the very first Human Events journalism class our instructions: “First we take over the Young Republicans. Then we take over the Republican Party. Then we take over the White House. And then we defeat world communism.” But that was the sort of bravado young people engaged in over late-night pizza and many, many beers. At Sharon our dreams were more sober. At least mine were. We had officers to elect, a Sharon Statement (written by Stan Evans) to adopt as our guiding principles, an operational plan to start working on. And, true to my nature, I had discovered a beautiful coed from Smith College to pursue.
For an historian and researcher relying on the memories of others, Wayne Thorburn does a good job of detailing what went on at Sharon. But it’s too much to ask of him to capture the essence of what was going on in our minds. You had to be there.
What Ever Happened to Tom Huston?
A Generation Awakes is a very good example of a “house history”—that is, a work commissioned to celebrate a particular person, organization, corporation, or movement. I say this not as denigration. Every movement needs a house history to tell the tale of great deeds done, and YAF is fortunate to have Thorburn’s.
In a house history, scandals or embarrassing events are elided. You don’t open a house history celebrating the 50th anniversary of Acme Industries expecting to find tales of how the beloved founder seduced female employees, stole secrets from his competitors, and colluded with government officials to gain market share. Similarly, you don’t expect those kinds of tales from a movement’s house history.
I am not saying that Thorburn has covered up any great YAF scandal. But there were, let us say, embarrassments that you won’t find detailed in these pages. And I’m not talking about the countless factional fights. Omit the schisms and internal battles, whether in a chronicle of SDS or YAF, and you’ve lost 90 percent of your history. We all look back on those fights with amusement and Thorburn seems to be uncommonly fair in recounting them. There are no “bad guys” in those tales.
As an example of an embarrassment that gets the silent treatment, however, let me bring up the Huston Plan. (And I bring up this example without any personal animus.) This project was authored by a former national chairman of YAF, Tom Charles Huston, when he was on the personal staff of President Nixon. Nixon wanted ideas on what to do about left-wing hippie radicals, and the author of the Huston Plan knew how to give Nixon what he wanted to hear. According to Wikipedia, “the plan called for domestic burglary, illegal electronic surveillance and opening the mail of domestic ‘radicals.’ At one time it also called for the creation of camps in Western states where anti-war protestors would be detained.” You know you’ve gone over the top when J. Edgar Hoover, of all people, reacts in alarm and gets Nixon to rescind the plan before it is implemented. The proposed plan came to light during the Watergate hearings and created quite a scandal of its own. (This was years before torture became part of the “conservative” arsenal.)
A reflective history would ask what brought the author of the Huston Plan to this point. Does this represent some disturbing sentiment in the heat of the Vietnam War beyond one person, and what are the lessons to be learned? Indeed, what does Huston himself think about the whole brouhaha today, decades later? That would be an interesting interview. But in a house history, you simply don’t mention this tale.
The greatest limitation of a house history is that there is no thinking outside the box. That’s not allowed. A house historian of the Texian Revolution is not going to second-guess the motivations or decisions of Sam Houston and the defenders of the Alamo—at least he wouldn’t have done that when I was growing up in Texas, or he would have been lynched. We want our heroes in white, not gray, hats, and our revolutions without serious blemishes.
With a house history, the past is fixed. We are looking at it with 20/20 hindsight, and the unspoken assumption is that whatever happened was inevitable. It happened, therefore it was meant to be. History is in the documentable details, without the distraction of musings about what might have been. In reality, of course, we had choices every step of the way, and our choices are what determined the outcome.
How the Movement Failed
From my perspective, the conservative movement that I helped start has been an unmitigated failure. Since the 1955-1965 period when the conservative movement began, the U.S. government has expanded its hold over our lives in ways we would not have dreamed possible. Liberty has been in retreat in our personal lives, in the economic realm, and in the growth and scope of unconstitutional government activities. And this retreat has been constant—with some ebbs and flows, to be sure—under Democratic presidents and Congresses as well as Republican presidents and Congresses, under the rule of “conservatives” as well as “liberals.”
Add to this the constant dumbing down of what conservatism stands for. For just one example out of hundreds, conservatives once stood firm against an imperial presidency—a rereading of James Burnham’s Congress and the American Tradition is instructive in that regard. Fast forward to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and John Yoo, and the message is that anything the emperor wants, the emperor gets—as long as it’s a Republican in the Oval Office, of course.
To be sure, it’s hard to find a conservative today who admits to having supported that crowd—we are in the midst of a national epidemic of short-term memory loss. But the truth is that 95 percent of Republicans (i.e., “conservatives”) voted the GOP ticket in 2004, 2006, and 2008. Republicans lost Congress and the White House because of the defection of independents, not because conservatives abandoned the party.
The conservative response usually is, “Well, it would have been much worse if we had not been fighting the good fight.” Given that the United States is now a bankrupt nation facing political chaos, I wonder what “much worse” could be. And ask President Obama and the congressional Democrats how hard it is to sell the line, “Well, the recession would be much worse if the Republicans were in power.”
The ultimate conservative response, however, usually is, “At least we defeated the Soviet Union and communism, and that makes it all worthwhile.” What they mean is that under Reagan we took advantage of having the world’s reserve currency—the U.S. dollar—to force the Soviets to spend themselves to ruin. Another way of looking at that version of history is that conservatism means owning the printing press and keeping it going 24/7. The problem is, that leads to an addiction. The printing press didn’t go into mothballs once the Cold War was over, and untamed money creation has led us to our present bankruptcy.
Actually, not everyone agrees about why the Soviet Union fell. An alternative explanation is that it was their adventure in Afghanistan that led to their financial and geopolitical demise. Oops. For some reason that doesn’t make me feel any better, given our own excursions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Either way, the “conservative” victory over communism is turning into a Pyrrhic victory.
To me all of this spells failure for the conservative movement. I fully realize how hard it is to accept this. Many of us at Sharon remained involved in the conservative movement throughout our lifetimes. Those of us who went on to nonpolitical careers nevertheless remained committed to the cause. It is extremely hard to look over 50 years of that sort of commitment and admit it was a waste of effort, other than the pleasant personal relationships it led to. But if we don’t do that, others who are more emotionally detached, more objective, more analytical, will have to do the job of answering the question, “Why did conservatism fail?”
So thanks, Wayne, for the memories, and I suppose we need these self-congratulatory nostalgic pick-me-ups. But once the cheering is long over from YAF’s 50th anniversary celebration, conservatives will still have to determine why we have failed in what we set out to do, with such youthful spirits and pure hearts, 50 years ago in Sharon, Connecticut.
David Franke was one of the founders of the conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s, when Democrats and liberals were the ones who believed in big government, fiscal recklessness, and an imperial presidency.
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When the Left looks at anti-government protests, it sees hate and hears slurs — even when they aren’t there.
By David Franke
I did not watch the coverage of the protests against Obamacare last weekend, nor the coverage of the actual passing of the health care bill, nor the coverage of President Obama’s signing. I had had enough by the time all this came up. I knew where I stood, nothing that happened in the last 24 hours was going to change my mind, and I definitely had better things to do.
Therefore I did not “see” any of that happen in real time, and cannot vouch for what happened one way or the other. I have seen some after-the-fact coverage on CNN and MSNBC, but just a little before I could get around to changing the channel.
But now I’m concerned about the accusations of racism being hurled at the Tea Party protesters. In particular, charges that they shouted epithets at black members of Congress as they were headed for the Capitol chambers to vote.
If that charge is accurate, it points – at the very least – to pretty poor crowd control on the part of the Tea Party organizers. I do not believe they are so morally deficit as to condone something like that, or so politically tone-deaf that they wouldn’t realize how an incident like that can damage and even destroy a movement.
So, I turned with interest to an article forwarded to me, “Anatomy of a Racial Smear,” by Jack Cashill. It appears to be a pretty well-reasoned article, even though it appears in a neocon rag (The American Thinker) that I don’t usually cite approvingly.
“Tea Party protesters scream ‘nigger’ at black congressman”
That’s the headline on an article Cashill says was written by reporter William Douglas, and published by the McClatchy Newspapers chain. I couldn’t believe a supposedly respectable newspaper chain would put something that inflammatory in print, so I started Googling, and here it is, right on the chain’s site.
The question then becomes, is it true? And Cashill does a convincing job of taking that headline apart, word by word, as well as the article itself. Truth, it appears, is pretty elusive. The smear, you come to believe, is everywhere in that McClatchy headline and article.
Check it out. Read Cashill’s article, and while you’re at it, definitely check out his links – a video of the Tea Party protesters shouting at the congressional Black Caucus (see if you can hear the “N” word) and an audio link of House Majority Whip James CIyburn, who walked with the Black Caucus contingent, admitting to Keith Olbermann afterwards, “I didn’t hear the slurs.” (Maybe that’s because there were none?)
Use of the word “nigger” has no place in our political discourse, of course, or in protests. But so far the only place I’ve actually seen or heard use of the epithet is in that McClatchy Newspapers headline and article.
Videotapes are everywhere today. Has anyone actually seen or heard a tape where the Tea Party protesters at the Capitol used racial taunts or epithets? If so, please bring this to my attention. Short of some real evidence, all we seem to have is the “word” of members of the Black Caucus and an apparently biased reporter. I wouldn’t take the word of a Black Caucus congressman if he had both hands on the Bible, they are such propagandists. Ha, that’s probably true with any Member of Congress other than Ron Paul, so maybe I’m being racist myself in singling out the Black Caucus. But they are very conspicuous propagandists, and they’re the center of this particular story.
I’ve personally witnessed only one Tea Party gathering, the original one on Capitol Hill last year, and that was as an observer. I wanted to see how many people showed up. What I saw were very ordinary Americans. Definitely not the Beautiful People you see at Washington soirées, both on the Left and the Right. Most of them probably were not exactly “sophisticated” in their way of expressing their concerns – ordinary Americans, after all, have better things to pursue with their lives than politics, things such as jobs, family, etc. But they were angry enough to get off their duffs and come to Washington to protest. That anger, however, was directed at the federal government’s messing up their lives, and our nation’s future. I certainly heard or saw no anger that was racist.
Isn’t this the kind of civic involvement all the “good government” types say we should be encouraging? Why is it (in the MSM) that only leftist rallies and demonstrations are portrayed as virtuous?
I am certain there are some racists in the Tea Party movement, just as there are in any broad-based movement. That doesn’t mean they define it, and from what I’ve seen, the Tea Party organizers have tried to weed them out. Heck, there are racists in any big civil rights gathering, only their racism is directed at whites. I see fear of homos and fear of Mexicans as much bigger problems on the Right today.
Do not mistake vehemence for something more sinister
Americans have every right to be angry at almost everything the feds do, and passions on both sides were strained as this epochal battle over health care reached the final vote. I look at the video linked in Cashill’s article, and I definitely do see anger. But no evidence of racism. What – were they supposed to stop their protesting and just smile and wave “hello” to these congressmen because they were black? That’s racism itself.
By the way, can anyone explain why the members of the Black Caucus were walking through the crowd? Where were they coming from? Since I didn’t watch the live coverage, I have no idea why they were there.
Congressmen usually take the underground Capitol Hill subway when going from their Senate and House office buildings (if that’s where they were coming from) to the Capitol for a vote. And if they are arriving by car, the car usually pulls right up to an entrance of the Capitol, so in that case they wouldn’t be walking a gauntlet through the crowd. Call me Mr. Suspicious, but it sort of looks to me like they wanted to provoke a reaction – not such a stretch for members of the Black Caucus. Call me Mr. Conspiracist, but I think I smell a set-up.
So, show me the videotape or recording evidence – not of vehemence, but of actual racism. If you produce it, I’m ready to condemn it. Short of that, I condemn the people who smear their opposition – without evidence – with such labels. That sort of group-smear may be politics as usual, but that’s why most Americans hate politics as usual.
A note to my liberal friends:
If you are uncomfortable with the vehemence of the protests, all I can say is, get used to it. It’s only going to get worse in the years ahead, on both the Left and the Right. As the nation heads toward bankruptcy, “entitlements” will be drastically cut and taxes will be drastically raised. There are going to be a lot of pissed-off people.
David Franke was one of the founders of the conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s. He is the author of a dozen books, including Safe Places, The Torture Doctor, and America’s Right Turn.This essay originally appeared at LewRockwell.com.
Does the Texas congressman’s victory at this year’s conservative convocation signal changing priorities — or a survival strategy — for the movement?
by David Franke
The Beltway Conservative establishment has its hands full right now, not to mention pie on its face. It has to explain how Ron Paul won the presidential straw poll at this year’s just-concluded Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
It wasn’t even close. Paul got 31% of the vote, a 40% margin over runner-up Mitt Romney’s 22% of the vote. Romney was the Beltway Conservative candidate, and had won the last three CPAC straw polls. Paul and Romney were followed by a number of single-digit fringe candidates such as Sarah Palin (7%), Tim Pawlenty (6%), Newt Gingrich (4%), and Mike Huckabee (4%).
The official line is: This doesn’t mean anything, folks. Our straw poll isn’t scientific. The people who win our straw votes never win the presidency or the Republican nomination anyway, so don’t pay it any attention.
Funny. I voted for Ron Paul at CPAC and I didn’t see any notice on the ballot warning, “This poll is unscientific and stupid. But if you’re bored and still want to vote, here are your choices.”
Sea Change at CPAC Mirrors Changes in the GOP and Nation
As the nation’s economic and fiscal stability deteriorates, voter priorities are changing.
In the nation at large, independents are the sexiest voters around. Both Republicans and Democrats are wooing them as if every day is Valentine’s Day. And all the polls show that the independents are “fiscal conservatives” who put economic issues above social issues.
In the GOP, the three big victors this year – in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts – placed more emphasis on economic issues than social issues, and won by capturing the independent vote. Indeed, Scott Brown has become a Republican hero for capturing “Teddy Kennedy’s seat” and returning it to the people, and got a rousing welcome at CPAC. It doesn’t seem to matter that he’s soft on the social issues.
Even in Congress – the most backward part of the nation – who would have guessed two years ago, or even one year ago, that Rep. Ron Paul would have hundreds of cosponsors for his bill to audit the Fed?
So, too, are things changing at CPAC, the largest gathering of conservative activists each year. To be sure, the neoconned are still in control – witness the applause that greeted Dick Cheney at his surprise appearance, and the emphasis given to War Party rhetoric by most of the establishment speakers. But they are meeting more and more resistance, and Ron Paul’s victory in the presidential straw poll is only the most visible sign. Let’s look at some of the undercurrents.
First, a general observation. Fabrizio McLaughlin & Associates conducts the straw poll each year, and they ask about a lot more than presidential choices. Some of the questions change from year to year, reflecting what’s in the headlines, but most questions are repeated each year, allowing us to measure trends. Only CPAC registrants are allowed to vote (your badge is checked). And the total straw polls cast this year was the highest in CPAC’s history – 2,395, up from 1,757 in 2009 and 1,558 in 2008. This no doubt reflects the “stimulus” effects of an Obama administration on the opposition.
You’ve seen this excuse from the neoconned spokesmen and media: “Ron Paul won because a majority of CPAC attendees were college students, and we know that’s his strength. But they don’t reflect the country as a whole.”
The truth: The percentage of students declined this year, to 48% from 52% in 2009. And the percentage of registrants aged 18 to 25 also declined this year, to 54% from 57% in 2009. (The percentage of those under 18 stayed the same both years – 2%.) So the growth in Ron Paul’s popularity cannot be dismissed as merely a surge of college or young voters.
Young people are the future of our nation and our movement, blah blah blah, you’ve heard that endlessly from every politician in the land. So when do you start dumping on the young people? When you need an excuse for explaining away the Ron Paul phenomenon.
The pie got larger this year (more registrants), but CPAC demographics remained remarkably constant from 2009 to 2010. So the surge in support for Ron Paul cannot be explained with some sort of “takeover” conspiracy.
Mitt Romney’s fortunes at CPAC this year remained pretty much the same as last year. The neoconned establishment’s candidate got 20% of the vote last year, and actually increased his share this year to 22%. What happened was that Ron Paul gained at the expense of all the fringe candidates:
Paul: up 18%, from 13% in 2009 to 31% in 2010
Palin: down 6%, from 13% to 7%
Pawlenty: up 4%*, from 2% to 6%
Gingrich: down 6%, from 10% to 4%
Huckabee: down 3%, from 7% to 4%
Undecided: down 3%, from 9% to 6%
*Pawlenty’s political machine mounted a determined offensive at CPAC this year, which explains this gain. But they couldn’t fight the Ron Paul surge.
It’s now official – the race is between Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. Let’s get it on!
CPAC Attendees on the Issues
I mentioned at the beginning of this article that voter priorities are changing in the face of economic disaster. This is evident in the straw votes at CPAC.
Each year attendees are asked about their most important political goal, with three choices. I think there are problems with the wording of the three choices, but since that wording stays the same from year to year, we can measure trends. Those whose primary goal is to reduce the size and scope of government rose from 74% in 2009 to 80% this year. Promoting traditional values dropped from 15% to 9%. And guaranteeing American safety at home and abroad dropped from 10% to 7%.
Then they are given a list of more specific issues and asked which is most and second most important to them personally. Combining “most important” with “second most important,” here are the results:
Reducing size of federal government. Up 9%, from 43% to 52%
Reducing government spending. Up 9%, from 24% to 33%
The war on terrorism. Down 5%, from 23% to 18%
Lowering taxes. Down 4%, from 22% to 18%
Doing away with abortion. Down 5%, from 15% to 10%
Stimulating the economy to create jobs. No change, 9% and 9%
Restoring honesty to government. Down 2%, from 8% to 6%
Protecting gun owners’ rights. Down 1%, from 7% to 6%
Illegal immigration. Down 5%, from 10% to 5%
Improving education. No change, 5% and 5%
Promoting traditional values. Down 3%, from 8% to 5%
The war in Iraq. Down 2%, from 5% to 3%
In addition, three issues were on the list this year but not last year:
Reforming Social Security 3%
Stopping gay marriage 1%
Reducing health care costs 1%
I doubt that CPAC conservatives have become more liberal, or libertarian, on social issues. What has changed are their political priorities. Addressing our economic and government spending crisis has come to the forefront, and that explains the Ron Paul surge within the ranks of CPAC. After all, Ron Paul is the only candidate who has a consistent record of fighting for fiscal sanity in Washington, and now he is reaping the rewards.
David Franke was one of the founders of the conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s, when Democrats and liberals were the ones who believed in big government, fiscal recklessness, and an imperial presidency. This article originally appeared at LewRockwell.com.
I am a curious choice to comment on a manifesto entitled “The Next Conservatism” in a magazine that includes the word “conservative” in its title since I am a religious agnostic and, in political terms, a libertarian, classical liberal, individualist, or radical—anything but conservative. Still, I respect the authors and admire the magazine and found myself nodding in agreement more than I initially expected.
I thought I was a hopeless romantic, wanting to dismantle the American Empire and return to the Republic of the Constitution. But Weyrich and Lind make me look like an incrementalist. They not only want what I want, they also want to return to “the 1950s, the last normal decade.” (I suspect they really have an earlier date in mind—the 12th century, perhaps, “the last normal century”?) This is where I get off the train—and I love trains and trolleys almost as much as they do. I actually prefer the American society I live in today over the one I left behind in high school.
I suspect most Americans my age would, at first impulse, wax nostalgic about “the good old days” but in the end would choose to live in today’s society. Of course we don’t get that choice. I predict the Weyrich-Lind brand of cultural conservatism won’t get very far because, while society is in constant change, it rarely, if ever, makes a U-turn to an idealized past. Totalitarian governments can seek to enforce a return to an imagined golden era, but even with all their power they fail. Given freedom, very few people choose to return to an earlier lifestyle. We cope with the present and try to improve it, piece by piece.
In my favorite paragraph, Weyrich and Lind rightly laud the home-schooling movement as an “important act of secession” and refer to “the only safe form of power: power of example.” Substitute “is” for the colon and that phrase belongs in our lexicon right next to Lord Acton’s “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” On this cultural libertarians and cultural traditionalists can agree.
As long as we are free to choose, I can choose to favor—as I do, with them—small organic farms, mass transportation, and the New Urbanism while at the same time enjoying—as I gather they do not—a multi-ethnic America with Latinos and Asians sharing my neighborhood, workplace, and social life.
We have that freedom to choose—culturally if not politically—to an amazing degree rarely seen in history. Yet very few Americans choose to live a quasi-Amish lifestyle, or even a Russell Kirkean lifestyle with electricity but no television.
In fact, I suspect Weyrich and Lind will find it harder to wean their fellow conservatives from their business-culture lifestyle than from the GOP. Let me give you an example from my personal life that illustrates why I say this.
While I love world music and African dance, my home base is traditional American music and dance. In particular, you’ll find me contra dancing every Friday. The odds are that you haven’t heard about contra dancing, so let me explain that its initial roots are in England, but by now it’s as American as, well, apple pie. When I’m on a contra line, I’m sharing that line with colonial Vermonters of the Green Mountain Boys era and every generation of Americans before and since. We dance to live music, with New England, Appalachian, and Celtic tunes being the dominant influences. Many of our dance moves are the same as in square dancing, though we are arranged in long lines of couples rather than squares.
This is a quintessential American experience harking back to an earlier era. Live acoustic music, not the DJ- and rock-oriented club scene. No alcohol or drugs—people come only to dance and socialize. We often share potluck meals or snacks. It’s truly intergenerational, with everyone from grandparents to teens and young children dancing with each other. Dance flirtation is encouraged, but try to go beyond that and you’ll be invited to find a different venue. At a contra dance weekend, everyone adopts the young kids by looking out for them so their parents can dance too. This is a uniquely American cultural community, found in hundreds of towns and cities across the nation.
Why do I bring this up? Because in 15 years of contra dancing and all the conversations I’ve had with the other dancers when we’re not on the floor, I cannot think of one conservative among them. Occasionally one will show up for one or two dances, but they don’t come back. I don’t know why, but from conversations with a few of my conservative friends who know of my strange obsession, I suspect they find it too quaint, too hokey for their tastes. They prefer the more fashionable forms of dance and partying that are popular in the suburbs, the synthesizer over the fiddle, the country club over the Grange hall. Heck, they don’t even know what a Grange hall is. So from my personal experience in social and cultural traditionalism, I’d say Weyrich and Lind have their work cut out for them, culturally perhaps more than politically.
But wait. All this was true in contra dancing until a couple of years ago. Inexplicably and spontaneously, at dances across the country, high-school and college students have discovered this ancient art form and taken to it with all the energy and enthusiasm you’d expect in their age group. Church youth groups are beginning to come together to our dances. And from conversations with the kids, particularly at rural dances outside metropolitan Washington, D.C., I know that a surprising number of them are home schooled. Being outside the cultural mainstream already, they have no problem with a dance form that might be sneered at by the “in” kids at school. And their parents certainly have no problem with the wholesome atmosphere at the dances.
I’m not sure that Weyrich and Lind will ever realize their cultural dreams through an organized movement. Nevertheless, individual by individual, in an apparently non-directed fashion, some people will make the choice for more traditional pursuits over the commercialized consensus. And just possibly, thanks to the dedication of Weyrich and Lind and others, significant numbers of Americans will make the “right” choices.
David Franke is co-author with Richard A. Viguerie of America’s Right Turn.