Have you heard about “virtue signalling”? Among the nationalist political writers, it’s all the rage to deride liberal causes and activists by using this term.

Apparently, the use of the phrase was popularized by one James Bartholomew, in this article for The Spectator:

“Go to a branch of Whole Foods, the American-owned grocery shop, and you will see huge posters advertising Whole Foods, of course, but — more precisely — advertising how virtuous Whole Foods is. A big sign in the window shows a mother with a little child on her shoulders (aaaah!) and declares: ‘values matter.’

The poster goes on to assert: ‘We are part of a growing consciousness that is bigger than food — one that champions what’s good.’ This a particularly blatant example of the increasingly common phenomenon of what might be called ‘virtue signalling’ — indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous.”

My take on this would be: “It’s a poster; what do you expect?” It’s propaganda (or “public relations”, if you prefer). But we’ll have it your way, Bartholomew.

The Wikipedia article on virtue signalling lists some other oft-cited examples of the phenomenon:

All of these things could also be described as public relations or publicity stunts.  The Ice Bucket Challenge did get a bit ridiculous as a way for do-gooders to establish their liberal bona fides. I mean, look at this guy:

But where did this term come from, anyway? Wikipedia explains:

“Signalling theory has been applied to human behavior. Costly religious rituals such as male circumcision, food and water deprivation, and snake handling look paradoxical in evolutionary terms. Devout religious beliefs wherein such traditions are practiced therefore appear maladaptive. Religion may have arisen to increase and maintain intragroup cooperation. All religions may involve costly and elaborate rituals, performed publicly, to demonstrate loyalty to the religious group. In this way, group members increase their allegiance to the group by signalling their investment in group interests. Such behavior is sometimes described as ‘virtue signalling’.”

This is an example of a phenomenon that often occurs in academic or bureaucratic writing: using overly-complicated language to describe a simple and straight-forward idea.

Demonstrating that one is part of a group is not an unusual or complex concept.  It is the basis for how organizations function. It’s an elementary part of social activity.

But by calling it “virtue signalling” and applying the phrase in such a way that it becomes a pejorative, it creates a whole new way to criticize commonplace behavior.

This manipulation of language to cast mundane things in a more sinister light is an age-old technique.  For example, in the marvelous book Strategy: A History, Sir Lawrence Freedman writes:

“The word plot also acquired negative connotations during the seventeenth century… Yet the etymology of plot resembles that of plan. Both originally referred to a flat area of ground, then to a drawing of an area of land or a building, then to a drawing to guide the construction of a building, and eventually to a set of measures adopted to accomplish something.”

“A set of measures adopted to accomplish something” has neither good nor bad connotations, but by using the word “plot”, one can make it sound inherently malevolent.

Something similar has happened with the use of “virtue signalling” to make routine statements or actions seem disingenuous or hypocritical.

Historians are familiar with the “Miracle of Dunkirk”: the fact that Hitler ordered a halt to the Nazi advance, allowing the British time to evacuate men from the port.  Some argue that had the British been annihilated at Dunkirk, they would have surrendered to Germany.  At any rate, saving all those men was obviously a huge boon for the Allies.

What’s less clear is the reason for the Nazi “halt” order.  Some say it was given because Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, wanted a chance to demonstrate that air power could annihilate the enemy, and wanted ground forces to halt so eh could make his point. (Which he then failed to do.)

Others argue that the order was given because Hitler, being a megalomaniac, wanted to make it clear that he was the one in charge, and by ordering his generals to halt, he could demonstrate supreme authority.

Still others say it simply came down to a matter of logistics.  German armor had advanced so far so rapidly that their supply lines were stretched too far, and they needed to stop to be re-supplied.

Still others argue it was because the Nazis, caught up in their pseudo-scientific, quasi-mystical racial delusions, saw the British as being of the same or similar “race”, and were reluctant to annihilate them, preferring they should surrender with few casualties and become part of the Aryan empire they envisaged.

Whatever the reason, the order was given, and it was obeyed.  And that’s the part I find interesting.

Heinz Guderian
Image via Wikipedia

The German advance through France had been led by the rather sinister-looking fellow pictured at right, Heinz Guderian. Guderian was famously a proponent of advancing very fast and unrelentingly surprising the enemy with speed. It’s probably partially thanks to his style that the term blitzkrieg got so famous.

Guderian was also not hesitant to ignore orders.  Higher-ranking officers were shocked by just how quickly he was moving through France, and ordered him to halt.  Guderian would ignore them and advance anyway, looking to press his advantage and not give the French time to regroup.

So, my question is: why did Guderian finally obey the order to halt at Dunkirk, when he had a golden opportunity? It seems wildly out of character for him. Was it simply that an order from Hitler himself he felt he had to obey? Had he in fact stretched his supply lines to the breaking point, and really was incapable of continuing to press the attack?

It’s nothing more than a footnote in the larger historical context, but it’s very interesting to me.

I. Plot Synopsis

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Poster for “Jackie” (Via Wikipedia)

The movie Jackie is only partially about the title character, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. (Natalie Portman) Ironically, it is categorized as a historical biopic when in fact it is an exploration of public relations, image vs. reality in politics, and, in some ways, the nature of Truth itself.

That does not mean Mrs. Kennedy is not featured prominently–she is in nearly every scene, and often in extreme close-ups. Especially in the film’s opening half, we see her raw emotion in response to the assassination of her husband.

But as the film makes clear from the framing device–a reporter, (Billy Crudup) interviewing Mrs. Kennedy in the days after the assassination–it is focused on the role of media and appearance in politics, and ultimately in history. During the occasionally combative interview, she explains not only her emotional state, but also the ways in which she sought to shape the perception of her husband’s legacy.

This segues to flashbacks, first to a televised White House tour given by Mrs. Kennedy in which she discusses various historical Presidential artifacts which she has restored to the White House. This tour really did take place, and the filmmakers clearly went to some trouble to recreate it.

From here, the film next shows us the fateful trip to Dallas, and Mrs. Kennedy’s grief and horror in the aftermath. But even in these circumstances, political intrigue continues, as we see glimpses of the tension between Robert Kennedy and the newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson.

As Robert and Jackie ride with JFK’s coffin in Washington, she asks staff members if they know anything about Garfield or McKinley. They don’t. She then asks what they know about Lincoln, and they respond that he won the Civil War and freed the slaves. She then decides that she will model her husband’s funeral on Lincoln’s, to ensure his memory lives on as Lincoln’s did.

In one memorable sequence, we see her wandering the empty halls of the White House, listening to John Kennedy’s favorite record, the recording of Camelot, while drinking and taking pills as she is overwhelmed with grief.

Planning for the funeral continues, and Jackie makes clear her desire to have a long procession–a grand spectacle, that will capture the attention of the entire nation watching on television, and preserve Kennedy’s legacy. However, the Johnson administration is hesitant to do so, because of the security risk.

When Oswald is shot by Ruby, it confirms the risk to Mrs. Kennedy, and she decides not to have the procession on foot and go by motorcade instead. She shouts at Robert Kennedy in frustration, berating him (and by extension all politicians), for being unable to know what’s going on or keep anyone safe, despite all their power.

But later, as they are sitting in the empty White House, it is Robert’s turn to rage in frustration at the apparent wasted opportunity of his brother’s tragically ended administration. As she listens, Jackie makes up her mind that his death will not be in vain, and goes to Jack Valenti to tell him the procession will be on foot after all.

Valenti tells her that the problem is that foreign dignitaries–specifically, Charles de Gaulle–are afraid of the risk. Jackie replies that she wishes to let it be known that she will go on foot, but if de Gaulle wishes to ride “in an armored car, or a tank for that matter” she will understand, and pointedly adds that she is sure the national television audience will as well.

Bowing to this implied threat of public humiliation, they accede to Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes and proceed on foot.

Interspersed with all of this, in addition to her exchange with the reporter, are scenes of Jackie conversing with her Priest. (The late, great John Hurt). She is understandably having a crisis of faith, and pours her feelings out to him. He tries to console her, but in the end even he can give no satisfying answer to why God inflicts such suffering as has befallen Mrs. Kennedy and her family.

As their interview concludes, the reporter assures her that she has preserved Kennedy’s legacy as a great President. She tells him there’s one more thing, “more important than all the rest”, and relates the late President’s love of the musical Camelot, quoting the lines: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot,/ For one brief, shining moment/That was known as Camelot.”

The film ends with this song playing over flashbacks of the White House tour and the Kennedys dancing together.

II. Review; Praise and Criticism

The film is very powerful, but also strangely disjointed. It can be hard to keep track of where action takes place even in the narrow time frame the film covers, so quick are the cuts to different moments.

Early on, there are many tight close ups on the face of the grieving widow, and long scenes of her cleaning the blood from her face and hair. These scenes are shocking, but seemed unrelated to the film’s larger theme.

The best scenes are those of the journalist interviewing Mrs. Kennedy. There is a tension between the two, who seem to strongly dislike one another, and Mrs. Kennedy’s harsh editing and commentary on what the reporter is and is not allowed to print starkly make the point about using the media to create a narrative–a point that seems especially relevant in light of recent political events.

In general, the acting is quite good. Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy is terrific, Hurt is very good, as he always was, and Billy Crudup is excellent as the journalist. The only actor who did not really seem right was John Carroll Lynch playing Lyndon Johnson, and this was not really an issue of his acting–which was quite fine–but simply his extreme non-resemblance to Johnson. There were times when I did not know who he was for parts of scenes.

This brings me to the star of the piece. Faithful readers know that Portman is my favorite actress, and it is because she is in this movie that I have followed it so closely.

Her performance is very good, and her Academy Award nomination is well-deserved. That said, all the talk that this is the greatest performance of her career is overblown–indeed, I would argue it is not even her greatest performance in a movie released in 2016. Her roles in Jane Got a Gun and A Tale of Love and Darkness (which Portman also directed) allow her far more range and depth.

There is however one very notable feature of her performance which, despite all the press about it, I have not seen mentioned in any reviews. That is the difference between how she plays Kennedy in the flashbacks and in the “present day” interview with the journalist.

In contrast to the panicked, grief-stricken widow of the immediate aftermath, in the interview scenes she seems about 20 years older, even though only a little time has elapsed. Her tongue is sharper and her attitude more bitter. The contrast is very noticeable, and quite effective at conveying the pain Jackie endured.

The single biggest problem with the film is its script. It is not uniformly bad–it is not even mostly bad–but when it is bad, it is absolutely dire. This might be worse than if it had been bad throughout, because it makes the really terrible lines stick out all the more.

At one point, someone advises Jackie to take her children, leave the White House quietly, and “build a fortress in Boston and disappear”.

Who the hell talks like that?

At another point, Robert Kennedy says that walking by the Lincoln bedroom reminds him that “one ordinary man signed an order that freed millions of people.” This is a rebuttal to Jackie saying it feels “peaceful”.

One scene was so bizarre I almost wonder if it really does have some basis in fact: aboard Air Force One, after the assassination, Jackie is asking about the bullet that killed her husband. “It didn’t sound like a .38” she says. “It sounded like a bigger–what do you call it?–caliber, like soldiers use.”

First of all, I find it hard to believe she would talk about the bullet. Second of all, I find it even harder to believe she would be able to tell if it was a .38 or not. And thirdly, if all that did happen, I think she wouldn’t then say “what do you call it” and be unsure of the word “caliber”.

Another example: when Jackie and Robert are walking through Arlington cemetery to select the grave site, Jackie is obviously having difficulty walking through the mud in her high heels. Robert asks her what’s wrong, and she says her shoes are getting stuck in the mud.

There’s no reason for her to say this.  It was clear enough to the viewer; so why include the line?

The Priest says lots of things that I highly doubt any Priest would ever say, least of all to the President’s widow. Even the scenes with the interviewer, strong as they are, have some ham-handed lines, such as when he awkwardly raises the subject of the White House tour film that introduces the flashback.

The musical score is just flat-out weird. It is primarily a growling, synthesized noise that is sometimes appropriately foreboding, but at other times is just annoying. Sometimes it overpowered scenes of the grieving Jackie in instances where silence would have been far more effective. (As if to drive this home, later in the movie many scenes have no soundtrack, and these are much better.)

The cinematography, on the other hand, is very good throughout. There are some beautiful shots of Washington D.C. and the White House interior, and the scenes at Arlington are appropriately grim. And best of all is a scene of Jackie and Robert talking about the funeral in the gloomy November twilight.  The scenery, make-up, costumes and acting all make it feel very real and immediate.

This all adds up to a wildly uneven picture.  Just when it gets good, some jarring line throws it off, and just as it seems about to run off the rails completely, the cinematography or acting grabs your attention again.

I would be tempted to say it’s a mess with great acting and cinematography.  If that were all there was to it, I could end the review now and just say, “See it if you are a Kennedy history buff or a Portman fan; otherwise, skip it.”

But that would ignore something.  Which brings me to the third and most complicated aspect of this thing…

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star_wars_phantom_menace_posterBefore we begin, let me first note that Cass Sunstein has written a very good article on this subject already, which you might want to check out before reading this post. Sunstein touches on a number of the same points as I do, and his article definitely influenced mine.  (Although, to be quite clear, I believed most of this before I ever read Sunstein.)

George Lucas repeatedly said one of the themes he wanted to explore in the prequels was how Republics become Dictatorships.  He drew parallels with the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Augustus, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to Emperor of France, and the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Each of these historical episodes resembles the others, in that each involves the demise of a Republic and the concentration of State power in one individual. In the French and German cases, these republics had existed for only a short time, before which the government had been aristocratic. The Roman Republic, on the other hand, had existed for centuries.

In each case, power was given over to one person in response to some crisis.  The existing governmental structure that allowed for multiple people to have input was deemed inadequate to the task of responding to the problem.

And of course, in each case, the person chosen to wield the power had used clever, cunning and morally dubious means to reach the position he was in.

The Star Wars prequels depict this same pattern playing out in a cosmic fantasy setting.  In this respect, they are a bit like George Orwell’s Animal Farm–a political allegory masked in a fairy-tale setting.

In Episode I, the political thread of the story establishes that the Galactic Republic is unable to cope with an illegal blockade imposed by the Trade Federation on the planet Naboo. When Queen Amidala goes to Coruscant for help, Senator Palpatine tells her:

“The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. There is no civility, only politics.”

This is one point that many people don’t appreciate about the prequels: the Republic really is weak. They are not capable of protecting their own citizens’ interests.  In this respect, the reasons for Palpatine’s rise are more understandable–the current government really was incapable of fulfilling its purpose.

Of course, Palpatine is the Augustus/Napoleon/Hitler figure in Lucas’s story, and so it’s also possible that (a) he is exaggerating the Republic’s weakness for his own gain and (b) the weakness is a result of some internal sabotage with which he himself is connected. Since he, as his alter-ego Darth Sidious, is originally responsible for the Federation blockade, it’s suggested that he might also be responsible for other problems in the Senate.

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Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid)

Nevertheless, the following Senate scene makes it clear that the current government can’t solve Amidala’s problem, and so she follows Palpatine’s suggestion to call for a vote of no confidence to remove the Chancellor.

Palpatine is then able to assume the rank of Chancellor. In Episode II, Palpatine is able to manipulate Jar Jar Binks into voting him emergency powers for a coming war. Of course, Palpatine himself (as Sidious) has again played both sides and created the entire situation that makes war necessary.

Finally, in Episode III, the war has dragged on and allowed Palpatine to remain in office and accrue more power.  The Jedi, finally becoming aware of his treachery, attempt to take action to preserve the institutions of the Republic, but fail. Palpatine then uses this moment of crisis to turn popular sentiment against the Jedi and establish the Galactic Empire, taking advantage of the now extremely militarized society he has created.

There’s a very ironic moment in the scene where Mace Windu is fighting Palpatine. Windu has him at sword point when Anakin, having been swayed to Palpatine’s side, arrives and says, “he must stand trial”.

This causes Windu to hesitate, because he knows Anakin is right.  Windu is there to save the Republic and its legal order, but cannot do so without himself violating the rule of law.  Paradoxically, Windu cannot fulfill his duty to the Republic without violating it.

Of course, Palpatine and Anakin take advantage of Windu’s momentary hesitation to kill him.

This speaks to another point that is often overlooked: the collapse of the Jedi Order is interwoven with that of the Republic.  Like the Republic, the story suggests there is rot at the core of the whole institution–witness how they violate their own traditions by training Anakin when he is “too old”, or Obi-Wan’s tolerance of Anakin’s marriage to Padmé, despite the Jedi Code demanding celibacy.

The underlying theme of the prequels is not merely that the Republic fell as a result of evil people like Palpatine, but also because of mistakes or corruption on the part of well-meaning people attempting to protect it.  Padmé, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Mace Windu–all make errors or lapses in judgment that contribute to the collapse.

Indeed, perhaps the most significant error all of them make is continuing to tolerate Anakin’s consistent rule-breaking.  Neither his wife nor the Jedi ever punish Anakin for his repeated wrongdoing.  Their misplaced forgiveness simply encourages Anakin to keep getting away with larger and larger crimes.

As a depiction of the process by which Republics become Dictatorships, the prequels are fairly successful: cunning and ambitious people take advantage of weak and crumbling institutions and take advantage or crises to seize power.

What significance does this have for the present-day United States? It is commonplace to compare the rise of Donald Trump to that of other dictators, and his language and methods are unmistakably authoritarian.

More significant even than Trump himself is the decline of U.S. institutions. I have written before about the century-long weakening of the U.S. Congress vs. the Executive branch. Beyond that, there is a general loss of faith in the Press and in Religious tradition.

Just as Palpatine’s plan would not have worked if he had not been able to take advantage of the crumbling Old Republic, the United States would not be vulnerable to authoritarianism if its institutions remained strong.

Why, then, don’t other people (besides me and Sunstein) look to the prequels as a relevant tale that captures the current zeitgeist?

I think to an extent it is because as works of drama, they are poor–Episode II in particular, which depicted the crucial political turning point, is something of a mess in regards to dramatic essentials like character and plot. While I’ve previously argued that Episode I is the best of all six original Star Wars films, even its compelling political plot was bogged down by pointless comic relief and a weak first act.

Another problem is that, as interesting as the political allegory is, it is scarcely related to the lighthearted, swashbuckling atmosphere of the first three films, Episodes IV, V and VI. The more complex motifs of the prequel trilogy flummoxed audiences.  (To extend the earlier analogy: it is as if one tried to market Animal Farm as a prequel to Charlotte’s Web.)

Finally, the spirit of the first three films–and the more recent, Disney-made knock-off–is much more optimistic and reassuring.  The light side, these films say, will ultimately triumph over the dark, and all will end happily.500x680_movie10postersstar_wars_episode_i_the_phantom_menace-us_teaser

The tone of the prequels, in contrast, is much grimmer.  Not only is Evil triumphant at the end of the trilogy, but there is a suggestion that the forces of Good enabled it, and by their own failings, rendered it possible. It’s a troubling notion–that perhaps goodness itself contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.

The reason for the unpopularity of the prequels may be linked to more than their flaws as pieces of narrative fiction–it may lie in their disturbing portrayal of human nature itself, and in our reactions to our own vulnerabilities.

I might even paraphrase another writer of dramatic works on politics and human nature, and say, “the fault is not in our Star Wars, but in ourselves.”

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The U.S. Capitol Building, as depicted in the post-apocalyptic video game “Fallout 3”

“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” With those words, written more than 200 years ago, the authors of the Federalist Papers explained the most important safeguard of the American constitutional system. They then added this promise: “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” Congress enacts laws, appropriates funds, confirms the president’s appointees. Congress can subpoena records, question officials, and even impeach them. Congress can protect the American system from an overbearing president.

But will it?

As politics has become polarized, Congress has increasingly become a check only on presidents of the opposite party. Recent presidents enjoying a same-party majority in Congress—Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010, George W. Bush from 2003 through 2006—usually got their way. And congressional oversight might well be performed even less diligently during the Trump administration.

–“How To Build An Autocracy”, by David Frum. The Atlantic. Read the whole thing.

Frum actually understates the case that Congress is weakening. The decline of the Legislative branch has been going on for at least a century.

It takes a long time to unravel a system of government like the one the Founders created.  “Erosion” is a fitting way to describe it–it’s occurred slowly, over generations.  But there is one entity that has consistently worked over the decades to reduce the power of the legislature.

That entity is… the United States Congress.

“Wait, what?” you say. “Congress is taking power away from itself?  Why would it do that?”

Well, it’s a long story.  And, as you probably suspected, it all began with the increasing costs of farming in the late 1800s.

Confused yet?  Trust me; this is going to be a long slog, but at the end of it, you will have a better understanding of the United States government.  If that seems boring or depressing, watch this video of Natalie Portman and Rashida Jones playing with kittens before you start. It always cheers me up.

All ready now? Let’s go.

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This weekend, in response to the Women’s Marches in various cities across the country, the new President tweeted:

The President of the United States had 140 characters to comment on massive protests against him and his policies, and he used 24 of them to offer the advice that celebrities were detrimental to the protest effort.

Now, why would he bother to do that? What interest does he have in teaching them how to protest more effectively?

Answer: the celebrities are actually very effective.  Thus, he is trying to discourage the Democrats and other groups opposed to him from utilizing them.

Let me repeat what I said in my first post on this subject:

[Celebrity supporters] made Democrats seem out of touch with the salt-of-the-Earth workers in the Rust Belt.

Moderate Republicans and Bernie Sanders voters alike have argued that the Democrats need to jettison celebrity support and focus on connecting with “everyday folks”.

It makes for a nice story. But it’s not true.

Again, it’s instructive to look at examples of a similar phenomenon from the past: Democrats advising Republicans on what sort of candidate they should run to win elections.

“You can never win with somebody so unpalatable to the diverse, socially liberal electorate”, they said. “Republicans need moderates like McCain and Romney if they want to win elections”.

This line of thinking was so influential that prominent Republicans bought into it.

The Democrats, meanwhile, convinced themselves that running against an extreme candidate like Trump would mean an easy win for them.

This was conventional wisdom in both the Republican and Democratic establishments. And it was wrong. The Republicans didn’t win with moderates, but did win with an extremist, completely contrary to what the Democrats (and the moderate Republicans) said would happen.

Let me repeat myself: Democrats would be wise not to listen to the advice given by their opponents.

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“Denial” (Image via Wikipedia)

Denial is a courtroom drama about the libel lawsuit filed by author David Irving (portayed by Timothy Spall) against Prof. Deborah Lipstadt (portrayed by Rachel Weisz). Irving sued Lipstadt for calling him a “Holocaust denier” in one of her books. Because Irving brought the case in England, the burden of proof is on the accused, and so Lipstadt and her legal team are required to prove Irving knowingly lied in denying the Holocaust.

As part of the research for the trial, Lipstadt and her lawyers go to Auschwitz, where her barrister, Richard Rampton, asks a series of matter-of-fact questions about the camp and the methods of killing. This makes Lipstadt very uncomfortable, but Rampton argues it is necessary to build their case.

As the trial begins, it is clear that Irving is a master of public relations.  He acts as his own lawyer, against Lipstadt’s well-financed legal team, to cast himself as an underdog and create a “David vs. Goliath” image.

As part of their strategy, Lipstadt’s lawyers don’t allow her to speak at the trial, or to the press.  They also refuse to allow Holocaust survivors to speak, even after Lipstadt is approached by one, pleading with her to allow their voices to be heard.

Lipstadt is greatly distressed by this. But as Rampton explains, these are the sacrifices they must make. “It’s the price you pay for winning,” he tells Lipstadt. The goal is to make the trial not about the Holocaust, but about Irving himself.

The strategy works well, and gradually they begin to expose Irving as an anti-Semite, and his “historical errors” as deliberately calculated to paint Hitler in the best possible light.  Ultimately, their strategy succeeds, and Irving is ruled to have knowingly lied to deny the Holocaust.

The victory is satisfying, but Irving remains a genius at the dark art of “spin”–after the verdict is announced Lipstadt watches as Irving is interview on television saying that he obviously beat Lipstadt’s legal team, but was just not forceful enough to convince the Judge.

Although the ending of the film is as upbeat as one could expect, given the subject matter, there is a certain subtext that suggests Irving may have lost in court, but will use his skills as a showman to win with the press.  I’m not even sure if the filmmakers intended this, but Irving is portrayed as a shrewd and manipulative man, and the implication seems to be that he–and others like him–could continue to trick uninformed people.

The acting is terrific throughout. Rachel Weisz is brilliant as Lipstadt, right down to her Queens accent. Timothy Spall plays Irving as a man of intelligence and a veneer of “old English gentleman” charm masking a core of hatred. Every performance is excellent.

The script is not bad, but at times tries too hard to be clever and snappy (a common flaw in dramas nowadays), and too often has characters blatantly stating exposition or background information for the benefit of the audience.

The annoying wordiness of the script is compounded by the fact that some of the film’s most powerful scenes are the ones where the characters don’t speak. The scenes at Auschwitz are every bit as powerfully haunting as they should be, without any words being necessary.

Of course, a courtroom drama is bound to have some talking, and the script is certainly good enough when it needs to be. The trial scenes are riveting, even knowing the outcome.

It’s a dark film, and not only because of the Holocaust subject matter, but also because of its depiction of how the bigot Irving advances his agenda with lies and clever manipulation of the press and public alike.  The concept of truth itself comes under attack from Irving, and Lipstadt is forced to confront the possibility that to even respond would be to lend him legitimacy.

Overall, a very good and interesting film. I recommend it. It prompted me to do more research regarding Irving, the lawsuit, and the subject of Holocaust denial generally.  I have a lot more to write on those topics, but that will be a separate post.

I’m a big believer in the “charisma theory” of Presidential elections.  To summarize, the idea is that the more charismatic candidate always wins. It has held in every election since 1992, and examples can be found going back to 1960.  In fact, the only instance I know of in which the more charismatic candidate lost was in 1896, before TV or radio existed.

One curious thing about charismatic candidates is that seemingly they always go up against non-charismatic opponents–people who may be good, studious, diligent policy wonks, but who are also stiff and boring.  Or, to use the words of Paul Graham, the creator of the theory, “people who are earnest, but dull.”

Think about it: the big knock on Hillary Clinton was that she “couldn’t connect with people”–versus Trump, who could at least connect with angry white men.

Same deal in 2012: Obama was one of the most charismatic politicians in history, and Romney was famously stiff and awkward.

Again, 2008: Charismatic Obama against boring, tired John McCain.

It goes on. In 2004, folksy “just a regular guy” George W. Bush vs. famously boring speaker John Kerry.

2000: Folksy Bush beats dull, awkward Al Gore.

1996: Legendarily charismatic Bill Clinton beats old, tired Bob Dole.

It goes on and on. Now and then you get elections where neither candidate was charismatic (Bush vs. Dukakis, Nixon vs. McGovern and Humphrey) but you seemingly never get two charismatic candidates running against each other. (Imagine what Trump vs. Obama would have been like!)

That seems highly improbable when you consider that there are lots of charismatic politicians, and that charismatic politicians have an innate advantage over non-charismatic ones. They should be running against each other all the time. What’s going on?

One possibility is that charisma is a winner-take-all sort of thing, in that whichever candidate is more charismatic automatically makes the opponent seem stiff and boring by comparison.  So if A is more charismatic than B, B looks boring, but B might be more charismatic than C, and make C look boring.

But it doesn’t seem to work this way.  Nixon lost to Kennedy on charisma, but he beat Humphrey and McGovern without getting any more charismatic.  Charisma simply wasn’t a factor in those elections.

Another possible explanation is that when one party has been out of power for a while, they become more likely to nominate a charismatic candidate. (Charismatic candidates usually start as long-shot outsiders, e.g. Obama and Trump) Similarly, when a party has been in power for a while, they are more likely to nominate a careerist politician who has paid their dues in the party. (e.g. McCain, H. Clinton)

If that’s the case, it apparently runs in an eight year cycle, conveniently matching up with Presidential term limits, and thus preventing possible “high-charisma showdowns”, as would have happened with Clinton vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Trump.

This could be the case, although it seems like an awfully big coincidence that it takes almost exactly eight years for one party to get a charismatic candidate, and that the other party seemingly forgets this lesson every eight years.

What are your thoughts on this pattern?

 

I decided to post this after reading this post by Barb Knowles.  Like her, I was disturbed to see that most of my favorites are white men. (And all but one of them is dead.) Also like her, I’d love to have suggestions on diverse authors. I plan to do a list of my favorite non-fiction authors–that should be a lot more diverse.

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W.S. Gilbert: As long-time readers will know, I’m a huge Gilbert and Sullivan fan. Sullivan was a fine composer, but in all honesty, it’s Gilbert’s words that I love.  Moreover, he has a huge number of other plays done by himself or with other composers.  So much wit and genius.  Truly, he “made his fellow creatures wise” by “gilding the philosophic pill”. He’s the reason I became a writer.

 

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George Orwell: Most people know him for 1984, and it’s a great book. But I think his best fictional work is Animal Farm. These books are more than just political satires on events of the time–they are timeless examinations of human nature.

 

 

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Charlotte Brontë: True, I’ve only read one book by her: Jane Eyre. And yes, it is in some ways dated with the trappings of Victorian melodrama. But it’s still a very good tale, filled with unexpectedly humorous moments.

 

 

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Robert W. Chambers: The King in Yellow, and more specifically, The Repairer of Reputations, is the greatest weird tale I’ve ever read. Not even Lovecraft or Poe ever managed to create such a bizarre atmosphere in so few words. I’ve read it countless times, and each time, I have more questions about it.

 

 

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Robert Bolt: He didn’t write books. He wrote films and plays–most notably Lawrence of Arabia and A Man For All Seasons. If you want to see historical fiction done right, look no further than these. Lawrence is one of my favorite films, partly for its beautifully spare script.  Man For All Seasons is a fascinating take on questions of morality and pragmatism vs. idealism.

 

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P.G. Wodehouse: As somebody once said: it is impossible to be unhappy while reading one of his books.

 

 

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Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most widely-read and beloved books in America. And yet I still think it’s underrated. Mostly, this is because so much of the talk about it focuses on Atticus Finch.  He’s a good character, but it means other characters like Heck Tate, Miss Maudie, Calpurnia, and even Boo Radley himself don’t get their due. Go Set a Watchman, meanwhile, is not bad once you understand it’s a draft–which many people don’t.

 

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Thomas Hardy: In some ways the anti-Wodehouse, as his stories are usually very grim. But he was a master at creating an atmosphere, and there are parts of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure that are shocking even now–I can’t imagine how they would have struck Victorian audiences.

 

 

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John Kennedy Toole: I’ve only ever read one book by him.  (For a long time, it was thought to be the only one he wrote.) A Confederacy of Dunces is a strange, strange beast. If I tried to describe it, you probably would think it totally crazy.  And it is.  But it is also brilliant–I’ve never seen such an intricate plot that fit together so neatly.

 

 

1024px-chris_avelloneChris Avellone: I did it. I put a video game writer in the same company as Brontë, Orwell and Hardy. And it’s justified. The script for Knights of the Old Republic II is a meditation on the spiritual and psychological effects of war that ranks as great literature. And the iconic Kreia is one of the all-time great female characters. I rank KotOR II slightly ahead of Avellone’s legendary Planescape: Torment, which explores many of the same themes, but both are absolute masterpieces.

For the second time in a week, I’m posting something I wrote years ago.  This one isn’t nearly as fun as “The King”, though. 

But first, some background: I got into a debate with someone the other day about the treatment of Germany after each of the world wars.  To summarize: her position was that Germany was treated harshly after World War I, leading to the rise of the revenge-based Nazi party, which in turn led to World War II. After that war, the Allies didn’t punish Germany as harshly, to avoid another Nazi-like revenge effort. The lesson, she argued, was that it was better to be charitable to defeated enemies, rather than being vengeful and vindictive.

My view is a little different.  And I know a bit more than most about this, because I had to write a term paper about it in college. I’m going to post a section of it here to give my thoughts on this topic. (Be warned, it’s full of irritating jargon as a 19-year-old undergrad tried to write like the professors he’d been reading.)

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There are several potential reasons for the differences in the treatment of Germany after World War II compared with World War I. The first and most obvious is that Germany suffered far more direct damage as a result of World War II. Many German cities were destroyed in addition to the number of lives lost. In addition, the destruction of the German government was more complete than after World War II; the elites could not be said to be left intact this time. These facts alone may explain in large part why the allies felt the need to aid the German recovery more than they did post-World War I. Also, it may have been thought that in the wake of this utter defeat, the German people had, in essence, learned their lesson. The allies may have felt they had “finished the job”, unlike after World War I.

Another reason is the dynamics of Europe after World War II. The Soviet Union and the United States, though allied in the war, immediately were at odds by the end of it. As the Soviet Union comprised Eastern European countries and even had control of East Germany, the U.S. felt that West Germany was an important strategic zone in the coming “Cold War”, and that Germany could not simply be abandoned but needed instead to be rebuilt in order that the West could have a presence in Europe to counteract the Soviet Union.

A third potential reason is the results of the treatment of Germany in the aftermath of World War I and the now apparent results. The harsh treatment of the German population after the first war had been a major factor that led to the second one, and the allies did not wish to repeat those mistakes by once again giving Germany a reason to want to acquire more territory. Of course, it is questionable, in my opinion, whether this would have been a realistic goal of Germany no matter how they were treated after the war. The devastation brought upon the infrastructure during the war was such that it would have suppressed German aggregate supply. This would mean that, far from wishing to acquire more resources, the Germans would have, without considerable help, been reduced to a poor, almost less-developed country that would be unable to rebuild for war. Furthermore, the demise of much of the population would have a decreasing effect on aggregate demand—the opposite of the scenario described above, in which a growing population increases aggregate demand, thus fueling the desire for “lebensraum”.

Because of the factors outlined above, it was imperative that the allies, led by the U.S., aid in the reconstruction of Germany. In the aftermath of World War II, the allies ordered many businesses in Germany to close. These only slowly, after a licensing process, were reopened. (Berge & Ritschl, 1995, p.9) Initially, a program of “de-Nazification” was implemented, though scholars have questioned both its effectiveness and the allies commitment to it in view of the Soviet threat. (Herz, p.1) The allies disbanded the German army in 1946. The Morgenthau plan was proposed, which essentially would have “returned Germany to a rural state”, in the words of Jeffry Diefendorf.  (Diefendorf, p. 244.)  The goal of this plan had been to make all industrial centers of Germany “international zones”, with all German territory becoming farmland. This plan was implemented to some extent initially, though later it was phased out, in favor of the Marshall plan. From 1948 to 1951, the U.S. contributed an estimated $1.4 billion to west-occupied parts of Germany under the Marshall plan. (Delong & Eichengreen, 1991, p.14)

[NOTE: I’ve cut out a lengthy section on the economic details of Germany both pre- and post-war. It uses a bunch of jargon and data unrelated to my present point. If you wonder why you see some stuff in the references that’s not cited in-text, that’s why.]

As mentioned above, after World War I, the United States’ desire to get out of the war quickly had led to a Peace that left the German elites intact, with the burden of the punishment for the war falling mainly on the civilian population. In contrast, in the wake of World War II, the German leadership was forced to suffer much more, and the population was given aid to rebuild. This is another key shift in attitude that contributed to the difference in treatment.

It would be remiss to omit the Soviet policy towards East Germany form this paper altogether. The Soviet Union’s treatment of East Germany was fairly harsh, as dismantling programs—discontinued in the West after 1947—continued past that point in the East. From this alone it appears that the Soviet Union, whether due to the nature of economic limitations, or else an unwillingness to do so out of a desire to punish Germany—the Soviet Union approved of and benefited from the harsh Morgenthau plan (Dietrich, p.14)—it appears that the Soviet Union’s treatment of East Germany was unable produce them same results as those produced in the West.

My own analysis, very broadly speaking; is that there are two points of view with regard to the reasons for the difference in treatment—one is of a more optimistic tone, the other pessimistic, or at least cynical. The optimistic explanation is that the allied forces decided that it was necessary to help the Germans to avoid again fostering a sentiment that they had been unjustly punished in some way. In this view, the lesson is that simple defeat is not enough; it is necessary to build relations and help the defeated enemy.

The pessimistic view is that it was necessary that Germany first be indisputably defeated militarily. While it may have helped matters, in the wake of the first War, if, for example, France had not demanded such exorbitant reparations; it would nonetheless be true that Germany had not suffered direct, total defeat, and thus any armistice would have seemed like a surrender. In this view, it was necessary that Germany suffer firsthand the effects of a large war on its own soil, and be defeated completely. In economic terms, the costs of war needed to be extremely high before Germany would ever abandon it. Only after this had occurred could Germany be rebuilt.

References

Berger, Helge & Ritschl, Albrecht. Germany and the political economy of the Marshall plan. 1947-1952: a re-revisionist view. In Europe‘s Post-war Recovery by Barry J. Eichengreen 1995. Published by Cambridge University Press,

Bessel, Richard. Germany after the First World War 1993. Published by Oxford University Press. Page 96.

Burdekin, Richard C.K. & Burkett, Paul. Money, Credit, and Wages in Hyperinflation: Post-World War I Germany. 2007. Economic Inquiry. Volume 30 Issue 3, Pages 479 – 495

DeLong, J. Bradford & Eichengreen, Barry. The Marshall Plan: History’s Most Successful Structural Adjustment Program. In Postwar economic reconstruction and lessons for the East today by Rüdiger Dornbusch. Published by MIT Press

Diefendorf, Jeffry M. In the wake of war 1993. Published by Oxford University Press. Page 244.

Dietrich , John The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet influence on American postwar policy 2002. Algora Publishing.

The Economist. Loads of money December 23, 1999. http://www.economist.com.hk/diversions/millennium/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=347363 Accessed May 3 2009.

Statisitsche Reichsamt, Zahlen zur Geldentwertung in Deustchland 1914 bis 1923. Quoted in Bessel, Richard. Germany after the First World War 1993. Published by Oxford University Press. Page 95.

Fischer, Conan. The Ruhr Crisis, 1923-1924 Oxford University Press, 2003

Eichengreen, Barry. Institutions and economic growth: Europe after World War II. In Economic growth in Europe since 1945. Crafts N. F. R, Toniolo, Gianni. 1996 Cambridge University Press.

Heinz-Paque, Karl. Why the 1950s and not the 1920s? Olsonian and non-Olsonian interpretations of two decades of German economic history. In Economic growth in Europe since 1945 by Crafts, N. F. R, Toniolo , Gianni 1996.

Herz , John H. The Fiasco of Denazification in Germany. 1948 Political science Quarterly. Vol. 63. No. 4. pp. 569-594

Keynes, John Maynard. The Economic Consequences of the Peace 1920. Harcourt, Brace & Howe. Inc.

Klein, Fritz. Between Compiegne and Versailles: The Germans on the way from a Misunderstood Defeat to an Unwanted Peace. In The Treaty of Versailles: A reassessment after 75 years. By Manfred Franz Boemeke, Gerald D. Feldman, Elisabeth Gläser Pages 203-220.

Myerson, Roger, B. Political Economics and the Weimar Disaster Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 160 (2004), 187–209

Ritschl, Albrecht. An exercise in futility: East German economic growth and decline 1945-90. In Economic growth in Europe since 1945 by N. F. R, Toniolo , Gianni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 1996.

Ritschl, Albrecht. The Pity of Peace. Germany’s economy at War 1914-1918 and Beyond. December 2003. In The Economics of World War I by Broadberry, S.N. and Harrison, Mark. 2005. Cambridge University Press.

Svenson, Jakob The institutional economics of foreign aid Swedish Economic Policy Review Vol.13 (2006) 115-137

Shuster, Richard J. German disarmament after World War I: the diplomacy of international arms inspection, 1920-1931 2006. Published by Routledge. Page 56.

Taylor, A. J. P. The origins of the Second World War 1996. Simon and Schuster

Footnotes

  1. MV = PY where M = Money in circulation, V = the Velocity of money, P = the Price level, and Y = index of goods. i.e. GDP.
  2. “Militaristic Keynesianism” is the concept of boosting aggregate demand through increasing military expenditures.