Monthly Archives: February 2016

Trumbo (2015)

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To say that Hollywood is inhabited by narcissistic egomaniacs is perhaps an understatement and self-evident. However, that’s not to say that the Hollywood creative class is without talent, skill or deeply held ideological convictions. If nothing else, Hollywood films are very good at promoting Hollywood’s own brand of self-righteous mythology. Specifically, that Tinseltown is inhabited by collection of pious crusaders who are On the Right Side of History.  Trumbo is unequivocally one of these films. 

Trumbo is a biopic which dramatizes the life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. It also touches on issues of free speech, free markets, the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 50’s and the Hollywood Blacklist. This film is roughly analogous to Reds in that it dramatizes a figure of the American Left who had Communist sympathies and was persecuted for his convictions. It is far inferior because in contrast to Redsit utterly fails to pinpoint the failure of Marxist ideology. Nor does it acknowledge the reversal of roles that has taken place between the Right and the Left in contemporary society. In the latter respect, Trumbo is dismal bit of partisan hackery. It seeks only to reinforce the mythology of the American Right as corrupt, vacuous authoritarians who are Wrong About Everything. Conversely, it portrays the Left as the principled, virtuous rebels On the Right Side of History whose voices and spotless moral rectitude are under perpetual assault by dirty ReTHUGliKKKans. It’s refreshing to get a Hollywood film that wears its political stripes on its sleeve, but the solid philosophical points it makes are completely undermined by its partisanship.

Trumbo starts off on very shaky ground and only devolves. We’re presented with an extravagant poolside party with Bryan Cranston’s Trumbo arguing passionately in favor of the beleaguered proles whose labor creates so much surplus value for the greedy Hollywood capitalists. The soulless and indifferent Hollywood executive with whom he was arguing haughtily dismisses him as a Dirty Red and walks away leaving a cloud of contempt in his wake. This incident portends the ostracism to come. Principled, Compassionate Leftist is just trying to speak his mind and stick up for the Little Guy and he’s just shut down by an Evil, Heartless Conservative. Poor Comrade Trumbo. 

In a subsequent scene on the plush ranch he purchased from the earnings he made from the dirty capitalist system, Trumbo is taking his daughter Niki on a horseback ride. Niki nervously asks him if he’s a Communist to which he answers clearly and unequivocally, “Yes.” She asks him if she’s also a Communist. Instead of educating his child with history, economics, and sound reasoning, he lays out a half-baked, simplistic analogy which offers no sound foundation upon which to make an informed choice. Rather than expounding on why he was sympathetic to Marxist politics, he likens Communism as being exactly equivalent to sharing a sandwich with a student at school. This is the level of vile sophistry to which Hollywood has descended. Socialism is just charity and caring for your fellow man, proles. That’s all. Utterly contemptible and loathsome.

Anti-communist sentiment was on the rise, and Trumbo and his screenwriter colleagues banded together to oppose the ascendant persecution. Ironically, they proclaimed the freedom to assert their political convictions on First Amendment grounds. In another gathering of Hollywood elites, David James Elliott brilliantly channels John Wayne’s cartoonish patriotism and his anti-Communist bloviations. The roomful of executives and actors express their agreement with cheers, applause and laughter at every proclamation. Once again, we see the Dirty, Evil Conservatives in the thrall of patriotic groupthink and the Fearless, Intrepid Leftists who just want to assert basic American Constitutional principles. The gathering ends with a confrontation between Trumbo and Wayne in which Wayne is taken down a peg when Trumbo reminds him that his patriotism was only tested in the comfort of a Hollywood studio. Not in the trenches of the battlefront. As failed actress, gossip columnist, and all around contemptible bitch, Hedda Hopper, Helen Mirren giddily informs Trumbo that he will be ruined in the court of public opinion by her column.  The film’s attempt to attribute Hopper’s media Star Chamber to conservative/anti-communist ideology is yet another example of the film’s sheer dishonesty about the contemporary Left.  

Despite making waves for his political sensibilities, Trumbo lands a lucrative contract with MGM. As he’s about to sign on the dotted line, Louis Mayer holds up Hopper’s column and warns him not to make these kinds of headlines. He signs and simply advises him not to read the papers. His career lift is soon cut short as he’s served a subpoena to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He is subject to an interrogation that most have come to associate with the term McCarthyism. He refuses to answer questions on the grounds that he’s not being charged with an actual crime. Trumbo is ultimately charged with contempt of Congress, and sentenced to time in the federal penitentiary along with nine others. The infamous Hollywood Ten are born. Once again, the film is placing all of the toxicity on one side of the political equation.

Hopper exerts her influence even further in a private meeting with Mayer. She pressures him into refusing employment to those on the Blacklist by threatening to tar him in her column and manipulating him with appeals to patriotism. Mayer tries to push back, but caves in when he realizes he’s cornered. She plunges the knife in further with a few choice anti-Semitic digs at him and other Jewish studio heads. Here, we see the filmmakers peddling the mythology of racism, Nazism, authoritarianism and fascism being the sole province of the Political Right. Never mind the Nazi’s application of Keynesian economic policy in the run up to World War II which mirrored FDR’s applications. Never mind FDR’s internment of the Japanese. The filmmakers clearly want the viewer to associate Nazism and fascism with the Political Right.

While in prison, he befriends a gruff and surly inmate, Virgil Brooks, who is in charge of prison supplies and happens to be black. Naturally, since Trumbo is a Leftist and Friend of the Dispossessed and Unjustly Persecuted, he is able to ingratiate himself to him sufficiently in order to obtain work typing up requisitions. Brooks offers him the gig, but reminds him that he will “fuck him” if he violates his trust at any point. During his period of incarceration, a former Trumbo actor colleague, Edward G. Robinson, is called to HUAC to testify. The inmates are able to watch the hearing on the communal television. Robinson confesses to being a liberal Democrat, but outs his own former colleagues as Communists just to avoid the ostracism that Trumbo and the remaining Hollywood Ten received. After the testimony, Brooks says that if anyone in prison snitched like that, they’d be killed. That’s right, proles. Truly ethical behavior and real human virtue can be found in the prison population of America. The American criminal justice system is surely guilty of being overzealous in prosecuting an ever expanding sphere of illegality, but this persistent effort to invert reality and attribute virtue to all things Leftist is positively odious. This phenomenon is due in no small part to activism from both the black community and liberals alike. You’re more likely to hear idiotic lectures about white privilege than you are admissions of their respective roles legislating these outcomes.

In another bit of blatant partisanship, Trumbo encounters fellow inmate and former HUAC committee member and interrogator, J. Parnell Thomas. Thomas was sentenced for corruption charges, and Trumbo takes a shot at him by reminding him that he’s the only real criminal between the two of them. Apparently, only conservatives are corrupt and abuse political power.

After serving his year long sentence, Trumbo returns to his family and attempts to revive his flagging career prospects. He’s forced to sell his plush ranch and the Trumbo family take up residence in the Los Angeles suburbs. His neighbors are aware of him and the persecution continues with threatening anonymous notes and vandalistic messages on their property. Desperate for work, Trumbo makes a deal with B-movie kingpin, Frank King and agrees to write scripts under a pseudonym. During this time, he secures work for his blacklisted colleagues and enters into a period of relentless output and perpetual solitude. In a family meeting in which Trumbo conscripts his family into his semi-clandestine script writing factory, Niki wonders how she will fit in time for her studies and her Civil Rights activism. Got that, proles? Leftists are smart, studious, industrious and of course, care deeply about Social Justice. Trumbo’s star is also quietly rising as he wins Oscars for penning Roman Holiday and The Brave One, but cannot claim credit due to his blacklist status. His relationship with his family is increasingly strained as a result of his punishing work schedule, and things come to head during Niki’s sixteenth birthday. She cannot believe that her own father cannot spare even a minute to share a piece of birthday cake on this momentous occasion. She storms off in a fit of frustration. Trumbo seeks her out in order to attempt a reconciliation and finds her fighting #PATRIARCHY and #RACISM at the racially integrated café. For once, the Hollywood film portrays the father as a positive influence on his daughter. Apparently, even Leftists have to affirm family values and the virtues of fatherhood every now and then.

Trumbo’s fortunes finally turn when Kirk Douglas asks him to work on the script for Spartacus. Douglas is able to win Trumbo over by telling him that Spartacus is the story of a man who stood his ground when the world was against him. Trumbo’s script catches the attention of filmmaker Otto Preminger and he’s offered another big opportunity to write the script for Exodus. Hopper’s defamation campaign is relentless and she attempts to manipulate and threaten Douglas for employing Trumbo, but ultimately caves in to Douglas’ resolve. “When did you become such a bastard?” asks Hopper. “I’ve always been a bastard,” retorts Douglas. What appears to be Spartacus’ Randian message of individualism against the tyranny of the collective is transformed into the facile collectivism of #JeSuisCharlie. The reign of repression is finally broken when Preminger goes to the press with an open admission that Trumbo is the writer of Exodus.

Trumbo is canonized with an award in the final scene, and here, the film commits its final atrocity of intellectual dishonesty and smug, self-congratulatory partisanship. In a speech, Trumbo asserts a hypocritical and contemptible moral relativism by claiming that there were “no heroes and no villains” during the anti-Communist purges. After two hours of demagoguery and demonization of the Political Right, the filmmakers just want you to believe that this was just a non-partisan slice of history without an agenda from which you can draw your own conclusions. It’s not as though the politicization of Hollywood began under FDR and has continued to push government propaganda ever since then. It’s not as though leftists have triumphed overwhelmingly in their legislative pursuits over the past century and those policies have contributed to any of the negative outcomes in America. It’s not as though leftists have overwhelmingly colonized academia and Hollywood and nearly all of the messaging reflects a solidly leftist ideological bent. It’s not as though leftist social justice activism has taken on the exact same characteristics as the McCarthyist witch hunts and people now lose their jobs and fortunes in the Star Chamber of social media. There are no failed leftist policies and there is no reckoning to be made with the historical connections to failed socialist states and contemporary leftist policy. Nope. It’s just those dirty conservatives and their nationalism, authoritarianism, racism, and dumb, selfish devotion to capitalism.

Trumbo is a an interesting story which touches on an earlier and highly politicized atmosphere in America from which important lessons can be drawn. Unfortunately, it’s just peddling the same lesson that Hollywood is almost always selling. As long as you’re a Leftist, you’re a Good Person. If not, you’re evil, racist and stupid and on the Wrong Side of History. Setting aside his socialist politics, Trumbo’s life stands as a testimony to the importance of free speech. It reminds us of the inextricable link between individual freedom and economic freedom that can only flourish under capitalism.  It serves as as a warning against the pernicious influence of politicians who exploit the power of the State in order to carry out political vendettas. Regardless of political affiliation, everyone can learn from these examples. It’s just too bad they’ve been papered over with the facile talking points of the Left.

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Vladimir Lenin: The State and Revolution

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I’ve been listening to the rhetoric and propaganda emanating from the Bernie Sanders campaign and the media bootlickers who cover him, and found myself increasingly disturbed by the tenor. It sounded remarkably familiar to the rhetoric from socialism’s tragic past. I took a dive into Vladimir Lenin’s revolutionary tract, State and Revolution, to see how much common ground there is between these two self-aggrandizing, power hungry sociopaths.  To my dismay, I discovered more than a few parallels between Sanders’ pugilistic bluster and Lenin’s.

Tragic similarities notwithstanding, I have to give Lenin credit where credit is due. He doesn’t mince words. State and Revolution is completely blunt about the totalitarian ambitions of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. You can learn a lot about totalitarianism by reading the words of totalitarians. He is remarkably forthright about his communist ambitions and the role of the state in this book. It’s also infinitely more readable than pretentious wanks like Das  Kapital. In this regard, State and Revolution is a useful document by which to compare Sanders’ rhetoric and agenda. Sanders is an elected official seeking the highest office in the land.  He has a reputation as a truth speaking contrarian and certainly demonstrates an ability to be blunt in his own right. The book reveals where Sanders’ rhetoric and ambition are similar to Lenin.  It also reveals his tendency to dispense deceptive platitudes in order to shade and distort the nature of state power and the cold truth about his agenda. 

State and Revolution has truth value as a statement of intention, but it is also batshit crazy with delusion and sophistry.  Lenin expounds upon his insane notions about the withering away of the state and the era of classless emancipation that will somehow magically materialize from the proletarian “smashing of the state”. These lunatic ravings mirror the gauzy weasel words and unattainable promises Sanders deploys in his own rhetorical grifts.

Since Marx’ predictions of widespread socialist revolution never came to fruition in the revolutions of 1848 or the failed Paris Commune of 1871, Lenin published this tract in order to bridge the divide between Marx’ unfulfilled predictions and the Bolshevik revolution he’d been actively cultivating. Subsequently, State and Revolution has become the cornerstone of what has become known as Leninist Marxism. 

According to classical Marxist theory and its Hegelian view of historical inevitability, the forces of production would reach a sufficient level of maturity that when the revolutionary proletariat would take their rightful place at the helm of society, the era of classless emancipation would naturally unfold.  However, in 1917, Russia was hardly a developed industrial economy ripe for a proletarian revolution. Not a problem, according to Lenin. What the proletariat need is a revolutionary vanguard to lead a violent revolution and hasten things along a bit. 

In State and Revolution, Lenin opens with what he argues is the correct role of the state and that his thesis is, in fact, grounded in Marxist canon. 

Lenin and by extension, Engels and Marx, are completely correct about the nature of state power. The state is an agency of violence.

Hit it, Vlad:

The  state  is  a  special  organization  of  force:  it  is  an  organization  of  violence  for  the  suppression  of  some class.  What  class  must  the  proletariat  suppress?  Naturally,  only  the  exploiting  class,  i.e.,  the  bourgeoisie. The  working  people  need  the  state  only  to  suppress  the  resistance  of  the  exploiters,  and  only  the  proletariat can  direct  this  suppression,  can  carry  it  out.  For  the  proletariat  is  the  only  class  that  is  consistently revolutionary,  the  only  class  that  can  unite  all  the  working  and  exploited  people  in  the  struggle  against  the bourgeoisie,  in  completely  removing  it.

The problem, of course, is his conflation of state power with capitalist economics.  To Lenin and Marx and many progressives, they are one and the same.  Marxist doctrine posits that capitalism is inherently expropriative, but the apparatus of the state must be controlled in order to “expropriate the expropriators”. The proletarian revolution will only come about by using the suppressive, violent force of the state against the bourgeoisie.  The era of emancipation that follows is a given and a historical inevitability.

Lenin simultaneously reveals the sheer elitist contempt he holds for the oppressed class he professes to represent as well as supremacist delusions he has and ascribes solely to the proletariat class.  After all, they are the only class that is consistently revolutionary.  The proletariat are incapable of emancipating themselves, so they require a revolutionary vanguard to lead the revolution for them. 

The cultish devotion and absolutist mentality of Sanders voters and their apparently unshakable faith in his promises of bread and circuses and retribution against the bourgeois 1% is no different from Lenin.

Compare the messianic self-righteousness and megalomania of their allegedly prole-positive sentiments.  Lenin contends the following:

Only  he  is  a  Marxist  who extends  the  recognition  of  the  class  struggle  to  the  recognition  of  the  dictatorship  of  the  proletariat.

Sanders’ proclamation of the purity of his progressivism:

Lenin argues that the “withering away of the state” will ensue after the proletariat have taken control of and “smashed” the machinery of the state.  This is the exact type of rhetoric that’s deployed by socialist agitators, media sycophants and Sanders himself. 

This  course  of  events  compels the  revolution  “to  concentrate  all  its  forces  of  destruction”  against  the  state  power,  and  to  set  itself  the  aim, not  of  improving  the  state  machine,  but  of  smashing  and  destroying  it.

Compare these sentiments to those expressed by Slate toady, Jim Newell, in describing the aims of Sanders’ “political revolution”:

The Vermont senator doesn’t want to bring Republicans and Democrats together. He means to tear it all down.

Lenin was similarly dismissive of “opportunists” who tried to negotiate with the liberal bourgeoisie of the democratic state.  Sanders attitude towards the billionaire class is equally hostile and describes them as being “on the warpath” in the Newell piece. 

Opportunism  does  not  extend  recognition  of  the  class  struggle  to  the  cardinal  point,  to  the  period  of transition  from  capitalism  to  communism,  of  the  overthrow  and  the  complete  abolition  of  the  bourgeoisie.  In reality,  this  period  inevitably  is  a  period  of  an  unprecedently  violent  class  struggle  in  unprecedentedly  acute forms,  and,  consequently,  during  this  period  the  state  must  inevitably  be  a  state  that  is  democratic  in  a  new way  (for  the  proletariat  and  the  propertyless  in  general)  and  dictatorial  in  a  new  way  (against  the bourgeoisie).

Newell elaborates further on Sanders’ goals:

He campaigns on a promise to turn the whole thing upside down, to create a grassroots “political revolution” that will give him the mandate to bring working- and middle-class people together to overwhelm the “billionaire class” into submission.

Lenin’s ambitions sound pretty similar:

It  is  still  necessary  to  suppress  the  bourgeoisie  and  crush  their  resistance.  This  was  particularly  necessary  for the  Commune;  and  one  of  the  reasons  for  its  defeat  was  that  it  did  not  do  this  with  sufficient  determination. The  organ  of  suppression,  however,  is  here  the  majority  of  the  population,  and  not  a  minority,  as  was always  the  case  under  slavery,  serfdom,  and  wage  slavery.  And  since  the  majority  of  people  itself suppresses  its  oppressors,  a  ‘special  force’  for  suppression  is  no  longer  necessary!  In  this  sense,  the  state begins  to  wither  away.  Instead  of  the  special  institutions  of  a  privileged  minority  (privileged  officialdom the  chiefs  of  the  standing  army),  the  majority  itself  can  directly  fulfil  all  these  functions,  and  the  more  the functions  of  state  power  are  performed  by  the  people  as  a  whole,  the  less  need  there  is  for  the  existence  of this  power.

Sanders routinely inveighs against the corrupt political system which favors the billionaire class over the poor and middle-class.  Lenin engaged in an identical form of demagoguery. 

But  from  this  capitalist  democracy that  is  inevitably  narrow  and  stealthily  pushes  aside  the  poor,  and  is therefore  hypocritical  and  false  through  and  throughforward  development  does  not  proceed  simply, directly  and  smoothly,  towards  “greater  and  greater  democracy”,  as  the  liberal  professors  and  petty bourgeois  opportunists  would  have  us  believe.  No,  forward  development,  i.e.,  development  towards communism,  proceeds  through  the  dictatorship  of  the  proletariat,  and  cannot  do  otherwise,  for  the  resistance of  the  capitalist  exploiters  cannot  be  broken  by  anyone  else  or  in  any  other  way. And  the  dictatorship  of  the  proletariat,  i.e.,  the  organization  of  the  vanguard  of  the  oppress.

One of the more striking resemblances between the rhetoric of Sanders and Lenin is their mutual obsession with forcibly imposing a theoretically equalized bureaucratic order modeled after the postal service. 

Lenin proposes the following:

To  organize  the  whole  economy  on  the  lines  of  the  postal  service  so  that  the  technicians,  foremen  and accountants,  as  well  as  all  officials,  shall  receive  salaries  no  higher  than  “a  workman’s  wage”,  all  under  the control  and  leadership  of  the  armed  proletariat that  is  our  immediate  aim.  This  is  what  will  bring  about  the abolition  of  parliamentarism  and  the  preservation  of  representative  institutions.  This  is  what  will  rid  the laboring  classes  of  the  bourgeoisie’s  prostitution  of  these  institutions.

Contrast these proposals with those proffered by Comrade Sanders:

We need to stop payday lenders from ripping off millions of Americans. Post offices exist in almost every community in our country. One important way to provide decent banking opportunities for low income communities is to allow the U.S. postal Service to engage in basic banking services, and that’s what I will fight for.

How do they differ?  I’m not convinced they do.

Sanders makes a very big deal out of the inclusion of the word “democratic” when he speaks of “democratic socialism”, but Lenin is much more forthright about the nature of democracy.

No,  democracy  is  not  identical  with  the  subordination  of  the  minority  to  the  majority.  Democracy  is  a  state which  recognizes  the  subordination  of  the  minority  to  the  majority,  i.e.,  an  organization  for  the  systematic use  of  force  by  one  class  against  another,  by  one  section  of  the  population  against  another.

Sanders has been garnering enthusiasm for his calls for “political revolution”, but this excerpt of Engels referenced by Lenin sheds a brighter light on what that means. 

Have  these  gentlemen  ever  seen  a  revolution?  A  revolution  is  certainly  the  most  authoritarian thing  there  is;  it  is  an  act  whereby  one  part  of  the  population  imposes  its  will  upon  the  other part  by  means  of  rifles,  bayonets  and  cannon,  all  of  which  are  highly  authoritarian  means.  And the  victorious  party  must  maintain  its  rule  by  means  of  the  terror  which  its  arms  inspire  in  the reactionaries.

Fundamentally, Bernie Sanders is promoting an agenda which has few differences from Lenin.  The rhetoric is softer and the platitudes are attuned to American sensibilities, but the agenda is forcible confiscation, redistribution, unlimited monetary expansion, arbitrary equalization and bureaucratization of economic life.  

Karl Marx was recently cited as the most assigned “economist” in colleges.  After decades of leftist policy including central banking, regulation, price and wage controls, progressive taxation, public education and the entire welfare state apparatus, the ascendancy of Bernie Sanders’ campaign is a sad consequence of the indoctrination of statist economic orthodoxy and the phony pretense of Marxism’s Fight the Power pugilism. Marxist doctrine offers several  convenient advantages for the power hungry politician. Not only does it provide a ready made analytical lens with which to diagnose society’s ills and lay blame at the feet of an omnipresent capitalist boogeyman, it’s an agenda of greed, vengeance and spite painted over with a fig leaf of moral righteousness.

Ironically, when you strip away the delusions of the “withering away of the state”, Lenin had some keen observations about the democratic republic.

To  decide  once  every  few  years  which  members  of  the  ruling  class  is  to  repress  and  crush  the  people through  parliament. This  is  the  real  essence  of  bourgeois  parliamentarism,  not  only  in  parliamentary constitutional  monarchies,  but  also  in  the  most  democratic  republics.

Based on the policy initiatives being championed by Sanders, we can predict what will come to pass if he were to be elected and his policies enacted.  Somehow, socialism manages to escape all criticism and its current champions are always able to promote the idea that It’s Going to Be Different When We Do It.

Sadly, Sanders is also driven by the same repressive desire to centralize, command and dictate from on high that drove Lenin, but Lenin was far more blunt about his ultimate goals of “Equality.”

The  whole  of  society  will  have  become  a  single  office  and  a  single  factory,  with  equality  of  labor  and  pay.

If only Sanders could be that honest.

Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?

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If you take up the cause of criticizing the validity of the State, you soon discover that there are certain criticisms that are strictly verboten.  Public education, roads, PBS, NPR, the National Parks, the EPA, NASA, the NIH and libraries are all pretty much sacrosanct. Any criticism of these institutions or initiatives will generally draw opprobrium and accusations of being a retrograde neanderthal. 

Of all the sacred cows, the biggest of all is perhaps civil rights. Bring up civil rights, Brown v. Board of Education, the ’64 Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King Jr. and you’re likely to hear swooning praise from all political persuasions. You are almost guaranteed that these pieces of legislation and court decisions will be hailed as brave, principled, and an unequivocal American success. The overwhelming consensus is that these legislative successes helped set America on a path towards rectifying a sordid past filled with race based oppression and state enforced segregation.

But do these legislative achievements translate into real world achievement for the communities for whom civil rights legislation is intended? 

Do statistical disparities in outcomes or representation automatically indicate the presence of prejudicial attitudes?

Even if prejudicial attitudes are present, does it automatically follow that the target of discrimination is damaged for life and his economic prospects are forever compromised?

Is there a positive correlation between legislation and economic achievement?

Is the legacy of civil rights legislation rhetoric or reality?

In Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality, Dr. Thomas Sowell asks these questions and comes up with some startling answers. Not content to accept the received wisdom, he unpacks the underlying motivations and assumptions behind the civil rights movement. It is generally regarded as axiomatic that disparities in outcome or representation are the result of discriminatory views. It is further held that the very existence of these views will diminish economic prospects for the target of the discrimination.  Sowell treats this as a hypothesis to be tested instead of an unchallenged article of faith.  These assumptions are tested on the outcomes for both blacks and women. The results of his findings do not fit the social justice narrative and often run completely contrary to it. 

Dr. Sowell draws an essential distinction at the outset.  Civil rights initially meant equality of opportunity. Not equality of results. Since Brown v. Board of Education and the ’64 Civil Rights Act, the meaning of “civil rights” has swung unequivocally towards a focus on outcomes. This shift in focus has been accompanied by an ever expanding activism from the State and its various proxies in academia. 

This book provides a very clear window of insight into the contemporary social justice movement and its pathological fixation on equal representation. Dr. Sowell argues that a key factor in this ideological sea change can be traced to two key edicts: LBJ’s Executive Order 11246 and Green v. County School Board of New Kent County. These two orders shifted the civil rights focus away from equality of liberty and towards equality of outcome. I personally contend that the entire contemporary social justice movement has origins in these orders.

The role of family life, parenting, technological innovation and cultural trends are rarely, if ever, acknowledged by civil rights activists.  With respect to economic advancement for blacks or any other seemingly disenfranchised minority, these aspects of life are routinely shut out of political discourse. Social justice advocates are all too willing to consider the passage of a law, the election of a politician or the installation of a bureaucrat as the sole determining factor in maximizing economic achievement. Sowell deploys a trove of statistics to show how high economic achievement is closely correlated with a stable home life. Unfavorable and tragic outcomes are equally correlated with instability and single parent homes.  The latter being especially true for blacks

Sowell also examines a number of policies which align with the civil rights vision, but produce negligible results. Licensure requirements, regulation, subsidies, food stamps and minimum wage make good campaign rhetoric, but they only aggrandize politicians and undermine black achievement. 

This book was published in 1984, and even back then, feminists were flogging the myth of the wage gap.  The numbers were a little different, but the myth of rampant sexism remains unchanged.  Sowell devotes a chapter to this fairy tale and destroys it handily and effortlessly.  Though feminists like equate themselves with minorities, it is a false equivalence. The effect that motherhood and marriage plays in economic outcomes simply cannot be overstated.  Despite working fewer hours and choosing careers with few physical demands, lower skill levels and greater flexibility, feminists insist on rehashing the fiction of an oppressive, sexist patriarchy that’s holding them back. The passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 as well as a labor force participation rate that’s been steadily rising since 1948 are also conveniently omitted from the standard narrative. The stubborn persistence of the wage gap myth is a sad testimony to the power of demagoguery and repetition.

Civil rights activists have successfully agitated for universal suffrage, but Sowell argues that the pursuit of equal economic outcomes by way of the ballot box or bureaucratic fiat is wrongheaded and doomed to fail. If there’s a threat of government punishment hanging over the heads of an employer in order to fulfill some arbitrary diversity quota, the hiring incentives become completely perverted. Employers will either screen out unskilled labor more aggressively or hire an employee who meets the diversity criteria, but is otherwise poorly qualified. Either way, it’s a recipe for handicapping those that the laws are intended to help. 

Frederic Bastiat correctly concluded that slavery was one of the moral blights that plagued the American experiment. America has been trying to atone for the oppression of African-Americans since the passage of the 13th Amendment.  Despite being one of the first major countries in the history of human civilization to end slavery, all of this self-flagellation has culminated in a contemporary social justice movement that’s more toxic and divisive than ever.

Like the original women’s suffrage movement and the efforts of early Second Wave feminism, the intentions of the Civil Rights activists were noble and laudable.  Sadly, the contemporary social justice movement has mutated into an embittered and vengeful mob which prioritizes groupthink. Social justice advocates automatically assume the presence of prejudicial attitudes as the cause of poor achievement. Subsequently, they are pathologically fixated on granting preferential treatment on the basis of race and gender to the exclusion of personal achievement, skill, character and merit.  

Just as Christina Hoff Sommers challenged a rising tide of irrationality within feminism, Thomas Sowell saw a comparable level of victimology brewing within civil rights activism. Like Sommers, he set out to lance the boil of opportunism and demagoguery growing on the face of American politics and academics. This festering pustule of ideological rigidity has only grown since this book’s publication in 1984. The cold facts he lays out stand tall like an immovable pillar of stone amidst the fickle winds of political hackery and academic quackery.  Social justice warriors, academic ideologues, and political charlatans deserve rebuke for fomenting division, disseminating misinformation, and insisting on treating people differently because of biological traits which cannot be changed.  This book is the sober rebuttal to their pathetic bleatings.

Reds (1981)

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I admit it.  It’s not the Marxist lovefest I expected.  

I went into Warren Beatty’s 1981 opus expecting it to be another Hollywood love letter to socialism.  Instead, what I witnessed was a remarkably honest portrait of a doomed love affair between two seminal American communist radicals. Without any cheap appeals to sentimentality or candy coated platitudes, Beatty gives an unvarnished account of the various ways their radical ideals pitted them against one another and drove them apart despite their deep devotion to one another. 

Reds is a sweeping historical political drama which encompasses the roots of the American socialist Left, World War I, and the Bolshevik Revolution. The film is built around the tempestuous love affair between John Reed and Louise Bryant played by Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton respectively. Its major achievement is how it manages to expose the limitations of Marxism by showing how the central characters’ allegedly revolutionary ideals undermined their ability to simply be with one another. 

As expected, the film spells out some of the facile appeal of socialism at the outset.  Beatty takes a very classical approach to filmmaking and the themes of the film are embedded in the characters. Louise Bryant is the aspiring writer and avowed feminist with libertine sexual mores who scandalizes Portland’s high society.  John Reed leaves jaws agape at the Liberal Society when he openly opines that the motivation behind the war is the capitalistic profit motive. Louise is enthralled by Reed and asks him for an interview. They spend an evening together in which Reed bores the shit out of her regales her with his passionate desire to foment a socialist revolution. Socialist feminist and Marxist revolutionary meet and the seeds of a deep love affair at a momentous time in history are sown. 

All of the touchstones of leftist bohemian ideals and political activism are present. Naturally, the couple shared a permissive attitude towards sexual promiscuity and polyamory. Their disdain for capitalism, anti-war sentiment, artistic idealism, and initial refusal to submit to traditional bourgeois values are attitudes that would define the Left for decades. Most importantly, they shared a naïve hope in the promise of a worker’s revolution.  

Reed and Bryant eventually travel to Greenwich Village and we’re introduced to the seminal figures of America’s socialist Left including Emma Goldman and Max Eastman. The atmosphere is ripe with revolutionary spirit, and Reed dives headlong into activist journalism. Reed’s attempts to cover labor organizing efforts for his socialist magazine take him away from Bryant and drive an emotional wedge between them. Meanwhile, Bryant tries to peddle her journalism, but fails because her writing sucks. She tries to assert her independence, but can’t confront how much she ultimately wants and needs Reed. The couple resolve to remain together and set out to Provincetown, MA with Eugene O’Neill to live as artists in a quasi-communistic manner. 

Reed’s activism leads him away from the idyll of Provincetown, and on to the campaign trail to canvass for Woodrow Wilson. Bryant has an affair with O’Neill, and Beatty draws out the conflict between monogamy and the bohemian spirit of free love.

Bryant and Reed separate again, but are reunited when Reed follows her to France. He asks her to join him on his journey to Petrograd to cover the imminent Bolshevik Revolution. Though their love is rekindled in the fires of the Revolution, their activity is not viewed favorably by US federal authorities. Reed is given a platform at a Bolshevik rally and stirs up the proles with some good old fashioned demagoguery. It’s impeccably staged and plays like an Occupy Wall Street protest if it weren’t run by a bunch of pussies. 

They return to the US with a renewed hope in revolution, but with the Feds hot on their tail. Adding to their travails is their renewed tensions with the American Socialist Party.  Reed is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and tries to persuade them to adopt a Bolshevik spirit. Predictably, he finds that his views are at odds with the leadership of the party. Reed breaks with the main party and forms his own more “pure” Socialist Party and is voted as the leader to seek the sanction of the Bolsheviks in Moscow. Here, the film turns a corner and starts to show how the revolution and Marxist dogma ultimately implodes and pits socialists against one another.  The bickering and tests of purity which the party members apply to one another translates perfectly to modern day purges carried out by social justice progressives today.  

After enduring imprisonment for improper paperwork, Reed travels back to Moscow is ultimately conscripted by the party elites to be a propagandist. The consequences of his choice hit hard as he is denied return to the United States. He finds his appeals to the Party squashed by crushing authoritarianism. Reed is further dismayed to discover that he is unable to get a simple communication to his wife due to the palsied bureaucratization, incompetence and backwardness of life in Soviet Russia.

He is ultimately reunited with the recently deported Emma Goldman and he ponders his fate in her squalid apartment. In a devastating monologue, Goldman tries to appeal to his sense of reason by pointing out the tragic failure of the revolution.  Instead of emancipating the proletariat, the Bolshevik regime has metastasized into a brutal and repressive police state. Not only is the dictatorship of the proletariat intolerant of dissent, it has driven the economy into deep contraction and dysfunction. Blinded by his idealism, Reed brushes it off and says that you just can’t have a revolution without cracking a few skulls.  

Reed is sent on a fateful mission to Azerbaijan to bring the gospel of Bolshevist Socialism to the Muslims. Adding to his escalating disillusionment, he discovers that his propaganda speech was mistranslated by Party kommissar, Zinoviev.  Drawing an excellent and accurate parallel between Marxism and Islam, Zinoviev replaced “class war” with “Holy war”. Reed gets upset that his voice and intent was subordinated by the will of the Party and launches into a screed against the tyranny of the collective. It’s good stuff. 

The train is sacked by counter-revolutionaries and a stunning battle scene involving cavalry, muskets and cannons ensues.  

Meanwhile, Bryant travels to Russia to try and find Reed.  They are ultimately reunited, but Reed contracts typhus and he spends his last days in a Soviet hospital.   

Despite the patina of revolutionary politics, Reds is a traditional romance which ultimately affirms monogamous bourgeois values. Reed and Bryant were variously portrayed as marginal talents and busybodies who were trying to reconcile their artistic ambitions with their political sensibilities and libertine sexual desires. These values worked at cross purposes more often than not and each paid an emotional price.  

Reds is an impeccably produced dramatic romance which tackles a lot of pithy material. It reveals the roots of socialism’s enduring appeal while also showing where it went off the rails. Socialist ideals still hold a lot of appeal with the Hollywood set, but Beatty deserves credit for tackling it head on and with a higher than expected level of intellectual honesty.  

Lawrence Reed: Great Myths of the Great Depression

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I remember very little from the US history courses I took during my time in public schools. It felt like a relentless flogging of names and dates. I remember covering the major stuff. The Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, the Civil War, the World Wars, and of course, the Great Depression were presented as a mind numbing barrage of details to be dutifully regurgitated in an exam. Beyond my impression that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff was a funny sounding name for a piece of legislation, the most I remember about the Great Depression was that capitalism failed and the government under FDR’s leadership saved the day.  Based on the sentiments expressed by progressives to this day, this impression seems widely shared. 

However, this romantic view doesn’t square with reality.  A great deal of clear eyed research has been conducted to expose the factual record, and Great Myths of the Great Depression is a fantastic primer on the true legacy of the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations. 

Written by Foundation for Economic Education president, Lawrence Reed, the piece is filled with interesting facts and summarizes the best of this research very effectively. Perhaps the most interesting revelation is how the Hoover administration’s economic activism paved the way for of the FDR administration’s highly interventionist policies of the New Deal. Contrary to popular mythology, Hoover was not the hands off, laissez-faire Republican many claim. 

Starting with a highly inflationary monetary policy spurred by the Fed, the 20’s stock market bubble was induced by central bankers. This catastrophe was only compounded by the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 followed by the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930. These tariffs triggered deep contractions in agriculture and sparked an international trade war. In the wake of a global collapse in commodity and asset prices precipitated by the ’29 market crash, the Fed took a bad situation and made it worse by raising the Fed funds rate and throttling the money supply into a deflationary spiral.  Hoover further compounded the problems by increasing subsidies to businesses and farmers which were doled out through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Federal Farm Board respectively. Just as modern politicians and would-be intellectuals believe that high wage mandates lead to increased purchasing power and higher consumer spending, Hoover’s Department of Commerce bullied businesses into keeping wages high.  This allegedly laissez-faire president threw another wrench into an already sputtering economic engine by passing the Revenue Act of 1932.  Hardly the legacy of a president friendly to free markets. 

Ironically, the candidate who charged the Hoover administration of leading the country to socialism and promised to restore fiscal rectitude by shoring up the gold standard was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Rather than making good on these promises, FDR escalated every one of Hoover’s policies in ways that prolonged and protracted the misery of the Depression. 

Paving the way for the eventual destruction of sound money, one of FDR’s first major acts as president was to criminalize the ownership of gold through the signing of Executive Order 6102.  When you’ve got a hard money supply and you’ve got designs on an expanded warfare-welfare state, the Fed can inflate the money supply a little more easily if the proles don’t own too much gold. 

FDR’s first big legislative move which had the unfortunate effect of turning business into quasi-fascistic wards of the state was the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933.  Instead of responding to the natural forces of supply and demand, businesses were forced to comply with a raft of arbitrary mandates imposed from on high. 

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One of the particularly horrific and wasteful mandates of the New Deal was the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933; a legislative abomination that seemed more befitting of Stalin than an American president.  Crops were burned, livestock were slaughtered and taxes were levied all in service of eliminating surpluses and increasing the purchasing power of agriculture producers. Despite being initially stricken down as unconstitutional in 1936, the AAA’s destructive consequences weren’t limited to kneecapping the agriculture industry. The seed of the eventual destruction of the gold standard known as the Thomas Amendment was written into the AAA. This amendment paved the way for unlimited credit expansion by the Fed.  FDR would eventually revive the AAA in 1938 and institute a vast array of agriculture price supports, quotas and subsidies through Federal Crop Insurance Corporation and Commodity Credit Corporation. These actions enshrined an era of farm belt crony capitalism and big agribusiness for years to come. 

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By 1935, FDR implemented the Works Progress Administration. This bureaucracy doled out millions to fund domestic infrastructure projects. It also left a seemingly indelible impression of the virtues of federal economic activism in the minds of the public. Though many roads were paved and bridges built, a closer examination of the WPA legacy reveals more than a few arbitrary mandates, squandered resources and crony coffers lined. 

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Things went from bad to worse with the passage of the quasi-Marxist National Labor Relations Act of 1935 aka the Wagner Act.  The Wagner Act took labor grievances out of the courts and into the purview of a new federal bureaucracy, the National Labor Relations Board. Under the cover of legitimacy accorded by the Wagner Act and NRLB, labor unions could threaten and intimidate employers and nonunion workers into compliance and acquiescence.

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As if these actions weren’t damning enough, the origins of the 2008 housing crisis can also be traced to Federal Housing Act of 1934.  The vast complex of government sponsored entities and federal agencies were charged with overseeing home ownership mandates. Instead, they created a set of incentives which provided more than enough legislative helium for a housing bubble when conjoined with an inflationary monetary policy.

The conventional wisdom about the government’s role in alleviating the Great Depression and the private sector’s role in creating it is badly perverted.  Sadly, politicians benefit by peddling promises of prosperity that they can never fulfill.  Each dollar diverted towards a subsidy is a dollar of wealth destroyed which could have been diverted towards private enterprise. Each dollar of subsidy dispensed by a bureaucrat enriches a crony, aggrandizes the bureaucracy and diminishes the sphere of voluntary exchange.  Each minimum wage increase is an increase in production costs and prices low skill labor out of the market.  Each federal agency charged with upholding abstract notions of “public good” creates a license for corruption and moral hazard which only diminishes people’s faith in private enterprise. 

As politicians agitate anew for yet more intervention into an economy to “fix” problems that were legislated into existence with the laws they wrote, the history and legacy of the Great Depression deserves a deeper reexamination.  Mr. Reed’s essay is an essential starting point.