Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Socialism as Epic Tragedy

By Joshua Muravchik
May 16, 2019

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Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels,Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Joseph Stalin

The saga of socialism constitutes an epic tragedy. It was the most popular political idea ever invented, arguably the most popular idea of any kind about how life should be lived or society organized. Only the great religions can compare. Within 150 years from the time the term “socialism” was coined, some 60 percent of the world’s people were living under governments calling themselves socialist. Of course, not everyone who lived under such a regime shared its philosophy, but many millions did embrace socialism, join socialist parties, vote for socialist candidates, and even kill and die for socialism.

The powerful allure of socialism lay in its appeal to idealism. Every major religion affirmed the superior importance of the spiritual realm as compared with material things. Socialism spoke to this value system, promising a secular path to its fulfillment — and, even better, one that entailed little sacrifice. Socialists reasoned that if only property were owned in common, everything shared, and the fruits divided equally, people would no longer have cause to vie with one another. A new day of brotherhood would dawn. Freed from competition and invidious distinctions, individuals could enjoy a closeness they had never known before.
And there was more. No longer obsessed with the scramble for wealth, individuals could instead pursue self-fulfillment. I might hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and write criticism in the evening, said Marx. Individuals could thus focus on developing their talents. Every person, said Trotsky, could become a Beethoven or a Goethe.
There would no longer be want. Not only would the sharing of goods ensure sufficiency for all, but also, instead of wasteful production for profit, economies could be focused on producing for need. Schools and libraries might be built instead of casinos or brothels, mass transit or family sedans instead of thrill or prestige cars, and so on.
The early socialists, starting in the 1820s, created model communities, hoping to demonstrate the superiority of the system they espoused. These all fell apart, usually quickly. But the fact that the system proved difficult to put in place did not negate the beauty of the idea, and few socialists plumbed the question of why, exactly, it was so difficult to create and sustain this system.
In any event, Marx and Engels soon appeared and rescued hopes, dismissing the early experiments as “utopian” and thus devoid of meaning. Instead, the duo claimed to have discovered laws of history revealing socialism to be mankind’s more or less inevitable destiny. The deus ex machina that would dig the grave of capitalism was the “proletariat,” a fancy word for the working class. Ruthless competition would compel capitalists to squeeze the compensation of employees until the workers, finding themselves constantly more miserable and exploited, rose up and overthrew the system, replacing it with socialism.
Oddly, this prophecy did not induce complacency. On the contrary, Marx and Engels became intensely involved in socialist organizations and parties. In their footsteps, socialists thereafter balanced the confidence of being on the right side of history with political activism intended to help history along. But new disappointments were in store.

In the 1890s, half a century after Marx and Engels set forth this vision, their intellectual heir, Eduard Bernstein, the one who had been chosen by Engels to produce volume four of the socialist bible, Capital, just as he himself had produced volumes two and three from the notes Marx had left, confessed to the observation that events were not bearing out the Marxian prophecy. The workers exhibited no interest in revolution for the apparent reason that they had been experiencing steady improvement in their material conditions rather than the forecasted deterioration. Economic historians now estimate that the standard of living in the advanced countries roughly doubled over those 50 years. Bernstein had access to no such data, but in contrast to Marx and Engels, he hailed from the working class and was intimately familiar with its vicissitudes, and thus was well equipped to assess changes in diet, wardrobe, and the like.
Bernstein drew the logical conclusion. He abandoned socialism. He determined to continue struggling to wrest better conditions for the workers, but he said, “The ‘final goal of socialism’ is nothing to me.” Others, however, were not ready to abandon the “final goal.” Although workers’ lives may have improved, their lot was still harsh. More important, the point of socialism was not only to ameliorate the plight of workers; the larger goal was to build a new society more harmonious and humane than any before.
In sum, socialism had reached a crossroads. If the workers were not going to create the revolution as predicted by the Marxian model, then a socialist had to choose. One could choose, as Bernstein did, to stick with the workers but give up on the revolution. Or one could choose to stick with the revolution but look to people other than the workers to bring it about. That was the choice of Lenin.
He shared Bernstein’s premise. In his terminology, history had shown that, left to their own devices, the workers would achieve only “trade-union consciousness,” not “revolutionary consciousness.” In other words, they sought higher wages, not bloody upheaval. But Bernstein’s conclusions enraged him. The majesty of socialism could not be forgone just because workers’ standards of living had risen. If the workers would not make the revolution, someone else had to.
Lenin hit upon the idea of creating a party of professional revolutionaries who would fill this role. They would not merely act in the name of the workers or for the benefit of the workers. They would collectively constitute the “vanguard of the proletariat” even though Lenin acknowledged that individually they would not be, or would not mostly be, proletarians.
This metaphysical leap may have been hard to follow, but it worked — at least insofar as Lenin’s band succeeded in seizing power and proclaiming the world’s first socialist state. Knowing that he commanded the allegiance only of his “vanguard,” an armed minority, Lenin then felt, with reason, that he had little means of ruling other than to prohibit opposition and cow the populace into obedience. He exhorted his followers to exert “merciless mass terror against kulaks, priests, and White Guards; persons of doubtful standing should be locked up in concentration camps.”
Lenin, to be sure, harbored an extraordinary thirst for power, but he was not merely out for power. He had a mission: socialism. In Russia, where the economy was predominantly agricultural, that meant collective farming. But the farmers, wanting nothing of the sort, resisted passively. Faced with economic disaster and civil war, he backed down on collectivization. But his successor, Stalin, renewed the struggle, engineering a famine, in which some 5 to 10 million starved to death, in order to secure the peasantry’s capitulation.
If Stalin was a tyrant of stupefying brutality — what previous despot had deliberately starved his own population? — he was matched or even outdone by such other Communist rulers as Mao and Pol Pot. Of this dynamic, Milovan Djilas, once a top leader of Yugoslav Communism, said: “How could they . . . act otherwise when they ha[d] been named by . . . history to establish the Kingdom of Heaven in this sinful world?” Had these men wished only to rule and enjoy the perquisites of unbridled power, they would have killed fewer. It was their devotion to an ideal that prompted them to slaughter millions of unresisting innocents.

Nor was this all. The idea propounded by Marxism of a redemptive future toward which history is trending but that can be helped along by mass violence proved open to permutation. Just as Lenin substituted the vanguard for the proletariat, Mao and Pol Pot added the wrinkle of substituting the peasants for the workers and then the vanguard for both. Mussolini, who was weaned on Marxism, spun another twist, replacing class with nation. He argued that downtrodden Italy belonged to the “proletariat” among nations while the wealthier states of northern Europe were the “bourgeoisie,” the enemy. Then Hitler replaced the nation with the so-called Aryan race and identified the Jews as the enemy class of his National Socialism. Thus, the ideal of a new brotherhood yielded one episode of mass murder upon another, altogether sketching as sanguinary a chapter as history has ever known.

No, Abortion Isn't a Constitutional Right

By Ben Shapiro
May 22, 2019

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In the past several weeks, a bevy of states have passed extensive new restrictions on abortion. Alabama has effectively banned abortion from point of conception. Georgia has banned abortion from the time a heartbeat is detected, as have Ohio, Kentucky and Mississippi. Missouri has banned abortion after eight weeks. Other states are on the move as well.

This has prompted paroxysms of rage from the media and the political left -- the same folks who celebrated when New York passed a law effectively allowing abortion up until point of birth and who defended Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's perverse statements about late-term abortion. According to these thinkers, conservatives have encroached on a supposed "right to abortion" inherent in the Constitution.

This, of course, is a lie. There is no "right to abortion" in the Constitution. The founders would have been appalled by such a statement. The Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) is a legal monstrosity by every available metric: As legal scholar John Hart Ely wrote, Roe "is not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be." The court's rationale is specious; the court relied on the ridiculous precedent in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) that a broad "right to privacy" can be crafted from "penumbras, formed by emanations." Then the court extended that right to privacy to include the killing of a third party, an unborn human life -- and overrode state definitions of human life in the process.

How? The court relied on the self-contradictory notion of "substantive due process" -- the belief that a law can be ruled unconstitutional under the Fifth and 14th amendments so long as the court doesn't like the substance of the law. That's asinine, obviously. The due process provision of both amendments was designed to ensure that state and federal government could not remove life, liberty or property without a sufficient legal process,  not to broadly allow courts to strike down state definitions of conduct that justify removal of life, liberty and property. As Justice Clarence Thomas has written, "The Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause is not a 'secret repository of substantive guarantees against "unfairness."'"

Nonetheless, the notion that such a right to abortion is enshrined in America's moral fabric has taken hold among the intelligentsia. Thus, we now experience the odd spectacle of those on the political left declaring that the Constitution enshrines a right to abortion -- yet does not include a right to bear arms, a right to freedom of political speech, a right to retain property free of government seizure or a right to practice religion.

For much of the left, then, the term "constitutional right" has simply come to mean "thing I want." And that is incredibly dangerous, given that the power of the judiciary springs not from legislative capacity but from supposed interpretive power. Judges are not supposed to read things into the Constitution but to properly read the Constitution itself. The use of the judiciary as a club has led to a feeling of radical frustration among Americans; it has radically exacerbated our culture gap.

The legislative moves in Alabama and other states will open a much-needed debate about the role of the states, the role of legislatures and the role of government. All of that is good for the country. Those who insist, however, that the Supreme Court act as a mechanism for their political priorities are of far more danger to the country than that debate.

Ben Shapiro's Latest Book The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great is available on Amazon

'Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood' review - Tarantino's dazzling LA redemption song

By Peter Bradshaw
21 May 2019

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Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio

Quentin Tarantino’s exploitation black-comedy thriller Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood finds a pulp-fictionally redemptive take on the Manson nightmare in late-60s California: a B-movie loser’s state of grace.

It’s shocking, gripping, dazzlingly shot in the celluloid-primary colours of sky blue and sunset gold: colours with the warmth that Mama Cass sang about. The Los Angeles of 1969 is recovered with all Tarantino’s habitual intensity and delirious, hysterical connoisseurship of pop culture detail. But there’s something new here: not just erotic cinephilia, but TV-philia, an intense awareness of the small screen background to everyone’s lives. Opinions are going to divide about this film’s startling and spectacularly provocative ending, which Tarantino is concerned to keep secret and which I have no intention of revealing here. But certainly any ostensible error of taste is nothing like, say, those in the much admired Inglourious Basterds. And maybe worrying about taste is to miss the point of this bizarre Jacobean horror fantasy.

Quite simply, I just defy anyone with red blood in their veins not to respond to the crazy bravura of Tarantino’s film-making, not to be bounced around the auditorium at the moment-by-moment enjoyment that this movie delivers – and conversely, of course, to shudder at the horror and cruelty and its hallucinatory aftermath.

Our first non-hero is Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a failing cowboy actor and alcoholic going to seed in the autumn of his career and in moments of bad temper beginning to resemble Jack Black. His best friend – pathetically, his only friend – is Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt in his Ocean’s-Eleven mode of easygoing competence and imperturbability. Cliff is Rick’s stunt double and has an awful secret in his life: a grisly event for which he may or may not be guilty. Cliff has to drive Rick everywhere because he has lost his licence, and he is Rick’s best pal, assistant, factotum, and the person who has to straighten Rick when he bursts into boozy tears of self-pity.

Things head south for Rick and Cliff’s careers when Rick’s western TV show Bounty Law is cancelled. His agent Marvin Schwarz (an uproarious cameo for Al Pacino) tries persuading Rick to head out to Italy to reinvent himself in these new “spaghetti westerns” they have out there. But in the interim and on the basis of Rick’s boisterous turn on an episode of FBI, Schwarz gets him a job on a western TV show in America, Lancer, with Sam Wanamaker directing, and Rick has a weird epiphany. Apart from everything else, he is inspired by the fact that he lives next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), of whom he is entirely in awe.
In tandem with the eerie resurgence of Rick’s self-worth, Cliff finds himself giving a lift to a hippie girl out to the Spahn Ranch, that actual movie location which Tarantino imagines to be the place where Cliff and Rick shot films together and which was, of course, the real-life chilling headquarters of the Charles Manson cult. Cliff makes an impassive appearance at this creepy compound and Tarantino audaciously makes this a kind of western-thriller episode, as Cliff makes a social call on the owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern). Lena Dunham plays one of the acolytes, incidentally, casting which may be a subliminal reminder of the title both of Dunham’s famed TV show Girls, and Emma Cline’s novel about Manson’s followers.

Rick and Cliff are basically nonentities, the only difference being that easy-going Cliff has no ego to bruise, no ambition to nurse. But their marginal status is transformed by Tarantino’s parallel-universe comedy.

The mention of Polanski and Tate raises the stakes in all sorts of ways: Cliff is offered a blowjob by one of the girls and turns it down because she can’t produce evidence that she is 18. Rick finds himself opening his heart to a preternaturally intelligent child actress (Julia Butters) because he feels that he is over the hill. On hearing that she is eight years old, he mutters that in 15 years time she will know how he feels: a nasty ungallantry of which he is immediately ashamed. All this is a gesture of self-consciousness, a deadpan incitement – and there is no doubt that this is a very male movie, although Margot Robbie gives a sympathetic portrayal of Tate, Dakota Fanning is intimidatingly sinister as the Mansonite called Squeaky and Lorenza Izzo has a spirited turn as the mercurial Italian screen star Francesca Cappuccino.

The most outrageous scene – and the funniest – is Cliff getting a stunt-man job on The Green Hornet and getting challenged to a fight by Bruce Lee in his Kato costume. It is an extraordinary punch-up, though I’m not sure I agree with how Tarantino imagines the result; but I carried on laughing for about three minutes after the scene ended.

And then we get the finale, a piece of bloody mayhem which leads to a bizarre denouement which might well have you replaying the entire film in your head. It’s entirely outrageous, disorientating, irresponsible, and also brilliant.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood screened at the Cannes film festival, and is due for release on 26 July in the US, 14 August in the UK and 15 August in Australia.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

'Deadwood' Fans Are Finally Getting a Finale Worth Freaking Out About

By Eric Estrin
May 21, 2019
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When HBO’S Deadwood was unceremoniously canceled 13 years ago, diehard fans pleaded for a reprieve that never came. So when news broke last July that the period western would be resuscitated as a film and receive a proper ending, countless critics who (rightfully) consider it a masterpiece—not to mention legions of fans who frequented the now-defunct site, 2006’s version of #SaveBrooklyn99—have been awaiting the May 31 arrival of the feature-length finale. The showdown we’ve all been waiting for is here.
Deadwood never pulled in Game of Thrones numbers for HBO, but it was, in the parlance of the day, excellent water-cooler television. Visionary creator and executive producer David Milch crafted a thoroughly researched, multilayered drama of biblical proportions featuring an array of con artists, gunslingers, and whores, many of whom were based on real people from the Dakota Territory of the 1870s. Timothy Olyphant, who plays straight-arrow Sheriff Seth Bullock, and Ian McShane, as corrupt saloon owner Al Swearengen, fronted a first-rate cast that reveled in Milch’s profane and witty dialogue, often spewed in poetic, Elizabethan rhythms. (Imagine Shakespeare slamming his hand in a car door, and you have a rough idea.) As HBO stablemates Six Feet UnderThe Sopranos, and The Wire started to wind down, Deadwood’s deep dive into the birth of a lawless town kept viewers hanging on every shift in the fictionalized political landscape. After a third season, HBO pulled the plug—an unimaginable move in this, the era of Peak TV—leaving a gold mine of plot resolutions woefully unexcavated.
The film picks up ten years after we last saw Swearengen scrubbing fresh blood from his barroom floor, with the denizens of Deadwood—all of them as foul-mouthed as you remember—reuniting on the verge of South Dakota’s impending statehood. “In a weird way, had the series gone on, I’m not sure we’d be at this point now,” says Carolyn Strauss, who was president of HBO Entertainment at the time of the show’s cancellation and served as an executive producer on the series and movie. “There’s something extraordinary about coming back to something 16 years after we began it and allowing the true passage of time to play a role.”
Olyphant’s Bullock is “still the same old guy” struggling with the same old anger-management issues, the actor says. “Everybody for one reason or another comes back to town, and we’re gonna find out if the whole thing explodes.” Olyphant also promises performances as compelling as Milch’s dialogue. “There were times I’d say, ‘The problem with this goddamn show is that everybody knows how to steal the scene,’” he says. “And it’s true. They’re all masters of their craft. They were ten years ago, and now they’re just better.”
Advance knowledge of plot points is hard to come by, but per Robin Weigert, who was plucked from obscurity as a New York theater actress to deliver a bravura performance as Calamity Jane, at least one death is imminent: A hush-hush funeral scene was filmed near the show’s Melody Ranch location in Newhall around the same time as last year’s wildfires. “The air was thick with smoke,” Weigert recalls. “There was something so big about the sense of mourning that day. It’s now part of the tremendous poignancy of that moment in the film.”
The return of Deadwood comes at a crossroads for HBO, which is ramping up production in an attempt to compete with Netflix and other streaming services. Len Amato, president of HBO Films, acknowledges that there’s a lot riding on the Deadwood movie, but only from a creative standpoint. “We know there was disappointment when the show ended,” he says. “We hear about it every year from TV critics. But the pressure on a project like this is that you want to live up to the legacy of the show, and you want to do right by David.” And by an eager fan base that will finally get to watch this series ride off into the sunset.

'Tolkien' review: Nicholas Hoult stars in sympathetic and sensitive portrait of the Lord of the Rings novelist

By Geoffrey Macnab
2 May 2019

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Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins
AA Milne wouldn’t have created Winnie the Pooh, George Mallory wouldn’t have attempted to climb Mount Everest, and JRR Tolkien wouldn’t have written The Hobbit if it hadn’t been for the “Great War”. The evocative new biopic Tolkien follows on from such films and books as Goodbye Christopher Robin and Wade Davis’s Into The Silence in foregrounding the effect that trench warfare had on the imaginations and aspirations of British writers, artists and explorers.
Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) is seen early on during the Battle of the Somme. He is shell-shocked and in a very frail condition but tells his colleagues he is going “up the line” to find a friend. The friend in question is the poet, Geoffrey Bache Smith, who had been at King Edward’s School in Birmingham with him. Both were members of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society (the TCBS), the tiny society they formed together with two other friends, Robert Gilson and Christopher Wiseman.
As Tolkien and another soldier wander through the trenches, the flashbacks to his youth begin. He is shown as a boy, play fighting with his brother and their friends in the woods. His childhood in rural England after a period in South Africa appears to have been idyllic in the extreme.
“Lock this all in your heart… lock it tight and it will be there forever,” Tolkien’s ailing mother tells him as the family’s “impecunious circumstances” force them to move away from his beloved countryside to Birmingham. Thanks to the intervention of a kindly priest, Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney), the two brothers are able to attend King Edward’s School.
Finnish director Dome Karukoski recreates early 20th century England in an extraordinarily lavish way. Whether it’s the satanic mills and factories of industrial Birmingham, the grounds of Tolkien’s public school, the spires of Oxford or even the tea rooms where he and his friends liked to meet, everything is depicted in loving and fetishistic detail. Hoult plays Tolkien as a high spirited and idealistic figure with an obvious genius for language.
At first, Tolkien and his posh and precocious new pals seem very smug. They all want to be poets or artists or musicians. There is an excruciating scene in which one of them proposes to a waitress, seemingly unaware that he is humiliating her. However, one of the benefits of having an outsider like Karukoski telling this story is that he isn’t as obsessed with class as a British director might have been. The film develops into a period version of a rites of passage story about youngsters on the verge of adulthood – a sort of Edwardian American Graffiti.
Tolkien and his friends form such a close-knit group that it’s a small miracle he has spare time to spend with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), the beautiful, Wagner-loving young piano teacher who lives in the same boarding house. The screenplay (by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford) makes it very clear that Edith’s passion for Wagner’s Ring cycle rubbed off on Tolkien and helped inspire the mythology found in his own novels. Her free-spirited approach to life also influenced him.
The Lord of the Rings author’s family have already disowned the film but it’s hard to see quite why. If it has taken liberties with its subject’s life, it has done so in order to make the film richer. Tolkien’s main dilemma is whether to concentrate on his studies at Oxford or to marry Edith. Father Francis refuses to allow him to do both. On its own, this wouldn’t make much of a story but the flashback structure and the continual shots of him during the Battle of the Somme add an extra layer of drama and pathos.
Wagner fires his imagination in one way. The horror he witnesses in the trenches traumatises him in one way but (it is implied) inspires him in another. He hallucinates that he sees white horses and monsters on the battlefield. The combination of his academic brilliance, his romantic obsession with Edith and his wartime suffering, pave the way for his fantasy novels.
Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings films, exchanged Middle Earth for the First World War with his recent documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old. This biopic shows the same journey in reverse. Whether or not the film satisfies the fans of Jackson’s movies or Tolkien’s books, or keeps his family happy, this is still a sympathetic and sensitive portrait of the novelist as a young man, evolving his creative vision. If you want to know where Bilbo Baggins came from, this is a good place to start.

Monday, May 20, 2019


May 18, 2019

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Nicholas Hoult as J.R.R. Tolkien

I have a confession to make. Indeed, I need to make an apology. A few weeks ago, I wrote an essay entitled “Wormtongue’s Revenge”, in which I expressed my fears and misgivings about the new film, Tolkien, which focuses on the writer’s youth. I was concerned that the film would convey a homosexual and anti-Catholic agenda, weaving a fabric of lies of which Wormtongue himself would be proud. I cited the track record of the two screenwriters, David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, and predicted the worst. “I might be wrong,” I wrote, “and will happily apologize to Messieurs Gleeson and Beresford should this be the case.” I should have added that I hoped to be proven wrong. I am, therefore, very happy to make the apology.
My fears about the film were assuaged by a couple of good and trusted friends who wrote to me after they had seen it.

“I had long shared your fears that a Tolkien biopic might make Fr Morgan into an ogre,” wrote the first friend, “but this one did not.” On the contrary, my friend continued, the priest who was the orphaned Tolkien’s legal guardian, “comes across, especially towards the end, as a father figure to Tolkien, which is definitely accurate”. My friend praised the acting of Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien, who had Tolkien’s “eccentricity and his mumbling speech pattern down to an art form”, concluding that he had enjoyed the movie much more than he had expected and expressing his hope that I would go and see it.
The other friend wrote to say that he and his wife had gone to see the film with my scathing prophecies in mind “and were mostly pleasantly surprised at the lack (as far as we could tell) of any homosexual agenda”. Far from such an agenda being evident, my friend reassured me that “the main emphasis of the movie was, in fact, the love story with Edith”. He continued to praise other aspects of the film:
The Somme scenes brought attention to the loss of wartime poets and a composer, which I thought might please you. Also, Tolkien was delirious on the battlefield at one point, and he saw visions of demons rising out the flames of bombs, and then a vision of Christ on the cross, as a kind of antidote, which pleasantly surprised us. The priest who raised him was portrayed as manly and firm, acting in his best interest to delay the marriage and who then blessed the marriage and praised Edith, when Tolkien had come of age, showing it had been the right thing to wait and the priest’s motives pure.
My friend concluded by stating that “the biggest sins of the film, were of omission”. He baulked at the suggestion, implicit in the film, that the central message of The Lord of the Rings was “fellowship,” without any suggestion that such fellowship had any deeper Christian meaning beyond male camaraderie. “I would say,” my friend concluded, “that it is not a film you should be afraid to see due to obvious problems”, adding that “it would be wonderful to read your review, if you do care to write one”.
With such endorsements from trusted friends, I rushed off to see the film.
The theatre was largely empty, which would have pleased me had my predictions proved correct, but which now saddened me as I began to warm to this warm-hearted dramatization of Tolkien’s early life, wishing that more people could see it.
The depiction of the idyllic life in the Shire-like Warwickshire countryside, with scenes of the young Tolkien and his friends playing in the woods, was juxtaposed to great effect with the family’s moving to the industrial slums of Birmingham, where the belching fumes and filth of the city’s factory chimneys reminds the viewer insistently and allusively of the scarred landscape and polluting stench of Mordor and Isengard. Tolkien’s mother is portrayed well, as is Tolkien’s closeness to her, but it is the characterization of Fr. Francis Morgan which surprised me most. There’s none of the anti-Catholic bigotry that one has come to expect in the characterization of priests in contemporary cinema. He shines forth as a compassionate father-figure, which is how Tolkien described him in his letters, who has Tolkien’s best interests in mind at all times, even and especially at those times when he appears most harsh, such as his decision to forbid Tolkien from seeing Edith.
As for Edith, the fellow orphan with whom the teenage Tolkien falls in love, she is shown to be feisty and highly cultured, which works in terms of the love story being told on the screen but lacks consistency with the real Edith whom Tolkien married, who was uncomfortable in the intellectual and academic circles in which her husband moved. The on-screen Edith is reminiscent of the characterization of C. S. Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, in the Hollywood version of Shadowlands, in which Debra Winger plays her as a feminist who is much smarter than Lewis’s male academic companions. In much the same vein, Lily Collins’s portrayal of Edith shows her as being much smarter than Tolkien’s male friends, and smarter than Tolkien himself. She is not only his Muse, which corresponds with the real Edith’s serving as the inspiration for the elven princess Lúthien Tinúviel, but is also his mentor, teaching him how to use his imagination fruitfully. Such tampering with the facts is within the realm of poetic license, however, and does not prevent the willing suspension of disbelief which is necessary if the film is to be enjoyed as a good story. It is, therefore, important to see it as a story based loosely upon historical facts and not as a documentary purporting to be objectively accurate in all respects. In short and in sum, this is a good yarn but a bad biography; indeed, it is a good yarn because it is a bad biography!
The homosexual agenda is inserted incognito in the characterization of Tolkien’s friend, Geoffrey Bache Smith, but in such a subtle manner that only the cognoscenti will notice it. Needless to say, there is no evidence that the real Geoffrey Bache Smith had such inclinations. Equally subtle and much more edifying are the allusions to Tolkien’s later life, especially his friendship with C. S. Lewis, in shots of Magdalen College, at which Lewis, Tolkien and their fellow Inklings met each week, and of Addison’s Walk, the footpath along the river on which Tolkien convinced Lewis of the truths of Christianity, laying the foundations for the latter’s conversion. There’s also a reference to the Eagle and Child, affectionately known by Tolkien and Lewis as the Bird and Baby, the pub in which they met with friends each week to wax lyrical and convivial on all matters pertaining to culture. Also refreshing was the relatively cerebral nature of the story, in which the importance of Tolkien’s academic work in the field of philology is treated with the necessary gravitas, and in which the role of the Church and its liturgy in comforting the afflicted is addressed with dignity.
On a less edifying note, it is true, as a reviewer in the Catholic Herald complained, that Tolkien’s Catholic faith is largely airbrushed out. The impression is given that Fr. Morgan’s presence is a consequence of the faith of Tolkien’s mother, whereas there’s no suggestion that Tolkien was himself a believer. On the contrary, the odd raised eyebrow at something that the priest has said gives the impression that the young Tolkien did not share his mother’s faith. There is, furthermore, no suggestion that Tolkien served Fr. Morgan’s Mass daily, nor that he would remain a lifelong practicing Catholic, still less is there any indication that The Lord of the Rings is, as Tolkien insisted, a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work”. And yet, laying these quibbles aside, there is no doubt that this is a good film with an adroitly crafted storyline, bereft, thankfully, of the poisonous wormtongued agenda that I feared it would have. It seems, therefore, as Treebeard might say, that I have been too hasty in my judgment. For this faux pas I offer my most heartfelt apology, adding that I have seldom been more pleased to be wrong.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Smuggling Conrad Black over the border was always my Plan B

By Mark Steyn
May 17, 2019

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Former press magnate Conrad Black leaves federal court in Chicago in June 2011 after being re-sentenced to three and a half years in prison.(Brian Kersey/Getty Images)

The last time I saw my old boss Conrad Black was a week ago. It was a very Conradian occasion: We ended up keeping a visiting prince (not from the House of Windsor, as it happens) waiting in the lobby, and by the time we parted on the doorstep the conversation had worked its way round to Doris Day, then still among us. When Miss Day died a few days later, almost all the broadcast tributes played a snippet of:
Que Sera Sera
Whatever will be will be
The future’s not ours to see…
That’s a little fatalistic for my tastes. Nevertheless, in just a very few areas of life the future is ours to see, with piercing clarity: For example, if you attract the attention of America’s federal justice system, you’re going down, no question. You have the “right to a fair trial,” but U.S. prosecutors win 99 per cent of the cases that go to court — a success rate that would embarrass Kim Jong Un and Saddam Hussein. Indeed, the feds win 97 per cent without ever going near court. In 2007, on the first day of Conrad Black’s trial on the 12th floor of the Mies van der Rohe skyscraper that houses Chicago’s dozens of federal courtrooms, I went looking for somewhere to make a discreet call on my cellphone. There were people everywhere — reporters, lawyers, spouses, curious deputy attorneys dropping in from neighbouring offices, a fan of mine wanting me to autograph my Broadway book to his pal John Mahoney from “Frasier”… Eventually, I pushed open a door and found myself in an empty courtroom. So I phoned from there in complete privacy. When others attending the trial discovered the room, I went to the empty courtroom further down the corridor. And, when in turn that grew popular as a handsomely paneled telephone booth, I went to the empty courtroom upstairs, or downstairs.
So many courtrooms, and no trials. Because, when the odds of not losing are one in 100, who goes to court?
Americans who know anything about the country’s evil and depraved “justice” system grasp that central fact. It’s only rubes who say “let the process play out” or “if you haven’t done anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear.” For a start, by the time the process “plays out,” you’ll be broke and scavenging from dumpsters (as Trump’s fallen National Security honcho Michael Flynn learned, shortly before copping a plea). Second, from a prosecutorial point of view, “if you haven’t done anything wrong” they can still get you on misremembering to the FBI in a matter for which there’s no underlying crime (as Martha Stewart discovered), or, alternatively, on Robert Mueller’s second-favourite process crime of hanging out with too many foreigners in alleged breach of the “Foreign Agents Registration Act,” which Trump aide George Papadopoulos told me recently Mueller had threatened him with. (I met most Aussie cabinet ministers of the John Howard years, so I’m undoubtedly guilty on that front, even before you factor in dinner with Jason Kenney and a bit of chit-chat with Maxime Bernier).
It’s a corrupt system heavily reliant on blackmail. But its crude thuggish simplicity concentrates the mind, and thus everyone gets it. Which is why, when the dismantling of Conrad Black’s business empire began 16 years ago, the rich and powerful were the first to abandon him: whatever will be will be, but one thing’s for certain — Conrad’s screwed, he’s over, cut him loose now. The U.S. government threatened to send the “independent” directors of Hollinger “Wells Notices” — that’s to say, a public warning that you may be on the hook for violating securities laws. The way to avoid getting a Wells Notice was to testify against Lord Black at trial. So former Illinois governor Jim Thompson, former ambassador Richard Burt and former vice-chair of the Royal Commission on Canada’s National Passenger Transportation Marie-Josée Kravis meekly trooped up to the witness stand to explain that, although their names appeared on all the same documents Conrad’s did, they had no idea, as mere simpleton governors, ambassadors and royal commissioners, what they were signing, and had simply “skimmed” the paperwork — “skimmed” being the agreed formulation. InMaclean’s I described them as America’s synchronized skimming team.
On the day of Jim Thompson’s testimony, a staffer approached me and said the governor wondered if I were free for lunch. I replied that I’d rather eat dog feces than dine with a dead husk of a nothing of a shell of a non-man who’d lay down his friend for his life.
And yet, although not a synchronized skimmer myself, I too fell prey to their fatalism. As I disclosed after the trial, I’d advised Lord Black to climb into the back of my pick-up, I’d throw a tarp over him and drive him across the minimally guarded Pittsburg, N.H./La Patrie, Que. border post and east to Fortune, N.L., where he could take the ferry to St. Pierre et Miquelon and a waiting twin-prop….
Nonsense, thundered Conrad. He was an innocent man, and he would be vindicated by the justice system of this great republic.
I suppressed a titter and the urge to tell him that would support an insanity plea.
And so the battle consumed vast amounts of money — and even more if you add in the cash the feds simply stole from him, like the proceeds they confiscated from the sale of his New York apartment. It cost him also lifelong friendships, as prosecutors bought up his closest business partner, David Radler, and his secretary and anyone else who helped them get closer to the big fish, and threatened those in Toronto and London willing to testify on his behalf what would happen should they choose to set foot in the U.S. to appear at his trial.
It is a sad fact that many Canadians revile Conrad Black: They loathe him for his politics and his peerage and his publications (including this one). But even so they ought to give him credit for the sheer strength of will required to push back against the onslaught of the last decade and a half. His ordeal ended with a Trump pardon I confess I had minimal hopes of, because, as the president was doubtless advised, there’s nothing in it for him.
For the record, here’s the final score:
The Government of the United States initially brought 17 charges. Everyone seems to oooh and aaaah over that, but to bring multiple charges over a single crime is, in itself, malodorous. Even with the Boston Marathon bomber, it wasn’t enough that the guy loaded up his backpack, detonated it and killed and maimed a bunch of people; it was also necessary to charge the surviving Tsarnaev brother with “unlawful interference in interstate commerce” because he used a stolen credit card to withdraw US$800 from an ATM. There’s no question the bomber is guilty of bombing, and, if I had my way, he’d have been dangling from a gibbet six weeks after, but this kind of wanker sophistry degrades the very concept of law.
So why do it? Well, it’s a way to force you to forego justice: You’re facing 47 felonies adding up to 397 years in jail. So you agree to a plea “bargain.” Because otherwise you risk a jury that wants to show how Solomonic it is by acquitting you on 44 counts but convicting on three — enough to destroy your life. The U.S. Attorney operates on the same principle as the IRA, who, after the Brighton bombing, taunted Mrs. Thatcher that they only had to be lucky once; she had to be lucky every time. Patrick Fitzgerald had to be lucky once; Conrad Black had to be lucky every time. He came close.
Of those 17 counts, four, including perjury and money laundering, were abandoned before trial, and the US$400 million he was accused of “looting” was reduced to US$60 million.
Of the 13 remaining counts, Conrad was acquitted on nine, including racketeering and tax evasion, and found guilty of stealing US$2.9 million.
The surviving four counts were appealed to the Seventh Circuit. Unfortunately, Black had the misfortune to appear before a quasi-celebrity judge smitten by his own genius. Come the big day, alas, Richard Posner was just another lazy hack who all too obviously didn’t know the case and hadn’t read the briefs and was blustering his way through with windy generalities about “pretty naked fraud,” even though “pretty naked” is not really a legal term, never mind an appellate argument.
Conrad pressed on, to the highest tribunal in the land. If you followed the Kavanaugh hearings, you’ll know that America’s hideously politicized Supreme Court has four lefties and four righties and a designated swinger who’s the Supreme Judicial Arbiter of 300 million people. Yet, on June 24th 2010, the Supremes ruled unanimously in Conrad’s favour. That’s right: The left, the right and the swinger all voted as one with Madam Justice Ginsburg’s withering opinion about Posner’s “anomalous” “judicial invention.” His judgment was vacated, Conrad was released from prison, and the four counts kicked back down to the Seventh Circuit for “further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
Of those four counts, two were overturned through gritted teeth by the Seventh Circuit, but the deeply insecure Posner could not bring himself to quash the two remaining counts, and in turn kicked them back down to the trial judge, Amy St. Eve, for “re-sentencing.” Judge Amy, just as insecure if not quite such a narcissist, decided to send Conrad back to prison for seven months on the grounds that incarceration seemed to be doing him good. She also revised down the financial penalty to US$150,000 — or (if my rough math is correct) point-oh-oh-oh-three-seven-five of what he’d originally been accused of “looting.”
Those two surviving counts were one of mail fraud and one of obstruction of justice, in which, as with Martha Stewart, there was no underlying crime left to “obstruct” other than that sole lousy count of “mail fraud,” one of those stupid catch-all non-crimes designed to provide a pretext for federal jurisdiction over almost anything that tickles their fancy. For that reason, none of those Canadians who feasted on Conrad Black’s comeuppance could actually explain, in the midst of their conga lines, what crime it is he actually committed. Because it isn’t a crime in Canada, or England, or Australia or Belize or Mauritius, Singapore, St Lucia, Tuvalu or anywhere else in the common-law world.
Recently, Conrad Black was kind enough to testify on my behalf in one of my own more modest legal proceedings down south, against a sociopathic billionaire who won’t stop suing me. We worried about how much credibility an ex-con might have before an American jurist, so we figured we might as well own it in the briefs, and described the witness thus:
“The Lord Black of Crossharbour is an eminent Canadian historian, a member of the House of Lords, a papal knight, the former Honorary Colonel of the Governor General’s Foot Guards, and in America a convicted felon.”
We took the position that, in a system run by the likes of Patrick Fitzgerald and Robert Mueller, that last distinction, like the foregoing, is just another badge of honour. It shames only a wretched and ugly system that no American should support.
The Incredible Shrinking Crime Spree of Conrad Black, after shriveling from 17 to 13 to nine to four to two counts and from 400 million to 92 million to 60 million to 2.9 million to 285,000 to 150,000 dollars, has now vanished entirely. Throughout an ordeal that consumed over a fifth of his life and more of his wealth, he staggered on, refusing to cut the deals that his pathetic deputy and his wretched worthless board did. That requires an amazing resilience few of us could muster.
There is one bit of unfinished business. In a pitiful spasm of belated Canadian me-tooism, the then governor general and the then prime minister decided, on account of those two surviving convictions, to have Conrad Black removed from the Queen’s Privy Council and the Order of Canada. A man who endured what he did can surely survive having his post-nominals cut off. Nevertheless, it was a craven and gutless move. It would be appropriate, I think, for the successor regimes on Sussex Drive to reverse those actions.
On the other hand, I’m not sure Conrad would take those baubles back. He lost almost everything, but in the end, on what mattered, he won. Last year, after CRTV/Blaze TV sued me for ten million, lost the case and were ordered to pay me four million, Conrad declared on stage that my victory was “the greatest act of accidental justice produced by the American legal system in decades.” I would return the compliment, but, in the case of Conrad Black, there was nothing “accidental” about it. He fought back against a disgusting system of unlimited resources and overwhelming power, and inch by painstaking inch he prevailed. I was wrong to offer him a ride to Miquelon under my tarpaulin. His way was better.