The Independent Institute


Review: Valerian Entertains with Focus on Visual Effects and Personal Dignity

Sometimes the box office is not a good indicator of a film’s quality, and such is the case with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The movie’s aesthetic is a satisfyingly conscious blend of space opera, fantasy, and action with a European flare. Throw in deep-seated government corruption that leads to planetary and species genocide, and the core of the film adds in a substantive message about dignity, self-respect, and trust.

Americans might be tempted to think this film and comic series was inspired by Star Wars. In fact, if a relationship exists, the influence may be the other way around. The film’s story is taken from the long-running French comic series Valerian and Laureline (1967-2010), which featured epic, diverse universes with inter-species cooperation and conflict. Indeed, the design director behind Star Wars: The Phantom Menace kept bound copies of the comic on his shelf during that film’s production.

The plot is straightforward. Valerian (Dane DeHaan, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Life, A Cure for Wellness) and Laureline (professional model Cara Delevingne, Paper Towns, Suicide Squad) are inter-planetarian government agents, working for the World State Federation. They are tasked with recovering a “converter,” an animal that ingests energy-intensive pearls harvested from the waters the planet Mul and creates new ones. The converter is the last known living specimen of its species because its home planet was destroyed by debris falling from a massive space battle above its planet.

Review: Dunkirk Immerses Viewers in Military Disaster

Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s new film about a World War II military disaster that ended up symbolizing the “never give-up spirit” of Britain, may well have established itself as the leading contender for Best Picture at next year’s Academy Awards. But be forewarned: Dunkirk is a survival film, not a typical war film. Viewers will leave the theater with a sense of dread and foreboding. This tone, however, is also what makes the film fresh.

Many war movies focus on the dazzling heroics of soldiers even when faced with overwhelming odds (e.g., Hacksaw Ridge). The lead characters are shocked from complacency by the specter of death and carnage, struggle to overcome the odds, and eventually emerge as something or someone better through maturity, wisdom, or deeper understanding.

Dunkirk doesn’t follow this storyline—the quintessential “hero’s journey.” The heroes are the ones that kept more people from dying, soldiers out of German prisoner of war camps, or bought a few hours in the hopes a miracle would avoid capitulation to the Nazi juggernaut. Their character arcs are flat, a creative choice that contributes to the film’s mood and tone. While the miracle appeared, it wasn’t a victory as much as a mitigation of a disaster.

50 Years Ago Today: The Detroit Riot and the Decline of Civil Rights Liberalism (III)

(continued from Part II)

After the Watts riot of 1965, bureaucrats in the administrative state (e.g., EEOC, Small Business Administration) created racial preferences in employment and lending programs based on their own administrative authority, not any explicit authorization from the Congress. Indeed, the Democratic majority (and the Republican minority) were adamantly opposed to racial discrimination against or for any “group.” For this reason, agencies like the SBA could not ask applicants their race; instead, the bureaucrats relied on visual profiling. This greatly hampered efforts to discriminate in favor of African Americans (which is what those bureaucrats wanted to do). In retrospect, the early effort to subvert the color-blind principle in the Civil Rights Act is amusing. In 1968, an agency historian for the SBA wrote internally:

“identification of minorities was a serious problem. Practices of the day were opposed to directly involving a minority member in any formal identification procedure, since such procedures in the past had been used by others as a tool of discrimination.” The SBA staffer-historian explained that the agency devised “a method of visual observation. . . . [SBA interviewers] made note of their ethnic background and later recorded the information. As a result, a precise [!] evaluation of the effectiveness of economic opportunity was made possible. . . . This system of identification is unique in government, and is still in use at SBA” (as of 1968). (Source: Bean, Big Government and Affirmative Action, pp. 43-44).

50 Years Ago Today: The Detroit Riot and the Decline of Civil Rights Liberalism (II)

(Continued from Part I)

Throughout American history, government at all levels has used race to categorize, enslave, segregate, and regulate human behavior, and limit immigration with “nationality” quotas that served as substitutes for race. Categorizing by race was essential to racist agendas.

In response, classical liberal civil rights activists struggled to eliminate government-mandated racial categories. They were anything but naive: racism was real, categories or no categories, but the government stamp of approval made things worse–and caused constant mischief in the ever increasing addition of group categories in the census or in immigration statutes. The only feasible solution was the most radical one: the complete elimination of government racial categories. Individuals might discriminate but would no longer have the support of the State. With time, classical liberals felt, the irrationality of racism and xenophobia would give way to better human relations.

Socialism Is Dead; Participatory Fascism Has Triumphed

“Socialism with Chinese characteristics” = Chinese fascism
“American capitalism” = American fascism
“Post-Communism in Russia” = Russian fascism
“Scandinavian Third Way” = Scandinavian fascism
“Italian fascism” = Italian fascism
“German fascism” = German fascism
“Spanish fascism” = Spanish fascism
“European corporatism” = European fascism

Are you starting to see a pattern?

College: Investment in the American Dream or an Escape from Reality?

These days it seems college is about everything but higher learning.

Undergraduates enrolled in a Global Politics of Human Rights course at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, for example, were allowed to stage a protest for their final assignment. “The focus,” according to the initial report by the Arizona Republic, “was opposition to many of President Donald Trump’s policies, with deportations and a call for a new border wall the major focuses.”

The students were “shocked” by what the Republic dubbed in a follow-up story the “social media mob” that ensued. “They didn’t understand why everyone was so angry,” said course instructor Angeles Maldonado.

But ASU is hardly an isolated incident.

50 Years Ago Today: The Detroit Riot and the Decline of Civil Rights Liberalism (I)

Fifty years ago today (July 23, 1967), the largest urban riot of the 1960s rocked Detroit for five days (July 23-28). An encounter with the police (shutting down an illegal after-hours bar), sparked looting and arson on a scale far surpassing the riots that had burned in other American cities. While such riots often started with incidents involving law enforcement, the police were ordered—again and again—to stand down and let a small minority of African Americans loot property of small business owners (both black and white).

The Detroit Riot marked a turning point in how American policymakers dealt with race. The classical liberal tradition of civil rights, with its emphasis on rule of law and equal protection (regardless of race) gave way to policies that purposely treated minorities as “protected categories” deserving of treatment not accorded other citizens. This was a crisis response to the riots and also the consequence of a “riot ideology” that condoned lawless mobs—as long as they were black. In short, the things that civil rights activists had long fought against—racial categories in the law, preferential racism (formerly for whites, now for blacks and others), and lawless mobs—were embraced as the means to achieve “social justice.” Ever since, classical liberals have struggled to get us back to the colorblind law and individualism that were at the core of the long civil rights movement. The story of that long civil rights movement is told in my Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader (University Press of Kentucky for the Independent Institute, 2009). I deal with Detroit (and other) riots in the article “‘Burn, Baby, Burn’: Small Business in the Urban Riots of the 1960s”, which is a good starting point to understand the competing interpretations of the riots.

In the next several days, I will comment on the turning point of 1967-1968, beginning with the classical liberal civil rights movement before and after the Detroit Riot. What lessons have policymakers learned? Are they the correct ones? How may we revive the classical liberal tradition of civil rights?

(continued here)

Public Choice Analysis a Scheme for Imposing Racist Oligarchy on the USA? Preposterous!

Public choice analysis shows, among many other things, that organized political interests will tend to dominate the political process at the expense of the unorganized members of society. This is not a claim that “the rich” will necessarily dominate “the poor” in the political process, although the rich obviously have an advantage in influencing politics, other things being equal. “The rich” and “the poor” are not standard categories in public choice analysis. In empirical public choice studies, one finds, for example, that groups such as the National Education Association exert disproportionate influence on legislation and regulation related to the public schools. Are school teachers members of “the rich”? Hardly. Likewise, labor unions such as the Service Employees International Union pack substantial political punch. Do the members of this union belong to “the rich”? Hardly.

The claim that public choice analysis is intended to, or actually does, assist the rich in dominating the poor, or the capitalists in dominating the workers, or the whites in dominating the blacks cannot be made in good faith by anyone who has the slightest familiarity with public choice analysis. Questions posed in these forms are simply not component parts of public choice analysis. Nor were they among the concerns of James Buchanan, one of the leading founders of modern public choice analysis. Buchanan’s principal concern pertained to the use of constitutional restrictions that would, to the maximum feasible extent, allow each individual’s preferences to be registered in the political process and prevent special interests and the state itself from overriding the rights and interests of those with the least voice in the process.

Progressives who do not understand public choice analysis (and indeed object to it on principle) seek to force it into the Procrustean bed of quasi-Marxist class-struggle analysis—you know, capitalists versus the oppressed working class as a whole—or into a quasi-Marxist multiculturalist framework in which privileged straight white men as a whole oppress women and members of ethnic and sexual-preference minorities as a whole. These aggregations are so coarse that they invite the mockery of informed people, and they certainly cannot be sustained by systematic research of the kind one finds in the pages of Public Choice and related peer-reviewed journals.

Nancy MacLean’s thesis that James Buchanan and his comrades in the development of public choice analysis sought to subvert democracy and put in its place a racist oligarchy at the behest of evil billionaires is too ludicrous to take seriously. Yet, today, a multitude of progressive academics and their fellow travelers are treating this baseless accusation as if it were an established truth. Ignorance is a sorrowful thing, but ignorance conjoined to ideological blindness is a vastly more wretched thing.

Review: Book of Henry Breaks from Convention to Ask Important Questions

Critics panned The Book of Henry when it opened in June, but this may say more about their ability to step outside their pre-conceived ideas about what a movie “should be” than anything else. The film’s storyline conforms much more to what a reader would expect in a suspense novel than the conventional three-act structure—inciting incident, hero’s journey leading to dramatic climax, and then conclusion—taught in film school.

This break from convention gives The Book of Henry unusual depth and sophistication in dealing with significant social issues, including the loss of a child from illness, the unwillingness of bystanders to stop child abuse, the meaning of parental responsibility, redemption, and the validity of vigilante justice. The Book of Henry is a conscious genre bender and does a remarkable job weaving the character arcs and personal journeys together to create a complete story and movie.

The film begins with a story revolving around an 11-year old boy genius, Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special, The Confirmation) and his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay, Room, Shut In), both of whom live in upstate New York with their single mother, Susan (Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive, 21 Grams, The Impossible). Susan has all but abdicated her role as mother, allowing Henry to step in as a de facto father figure by virtue of his intelligence and precociousness. Henry’s smarts have enabled him to create a nice financial nest egg for his family, but his mother insists on working at a local diner as a waitress. Thus, the opening minutes suggest The Book of Henry is perhaps a redemption story about Susan told from the point of view of her children.

Henry, however, discovers that Christina, the girl next door played by dancer Maddie Ziegler in her debut film role, is sexually abused by her stepfather Glen (Dean Norris, Breaking Bad, Little Miss Sunshine, Sons of Liberty). Driven by a strong sense of justice and ethics, Henry attempts to enlist his mother and other adults to help Christina, but to no avail. His frustration mounts as he grapples with intransigence, disbelief, and apathy. Adults either don’t believe an eleven year old, or are afraid to intervene. The stepfather, after all, is the police commissioner and well connected in the local community, creating a specter of retribution. As the principal of Henry’s school tells him, she needs more than the words of an 11 year old before she can accuse the police chief of child sexual abuse.

The principal’s practical ripost to Henry’s sense of injustice puts the question of personal responsibility at the center of the story and the motivations of the characters. Having exhausted all avenues, frustrated by the lack of cooperation from adults (and agencies), Henry resolves to kill Christina’s stepfather. Now, The Book of Henry transitions into a Hitchcock-style suspense movie. (This is where many film critics seem to have jumped ship.)

But suspense quickly turns to tragedy. As Henry plots out the murder, taking notes in his journal, he is diagnosed with late-stage brain cancer and passes away quickly, too quickly for him to carry out his plan. (These scenes are also among the film’s most poignant and emotionally wrought, a testament to the directing skills of director Colin Trevorrow, Jurassic World, Star Wars: Episode IX.)

Henry’s unexpected death dramatically shifts the film yet again to the point of view of Susan, who is emotionally unprepared to deal with his death let alone the full responsibility of parenting Peter and saving Christina. The remainder of the movie focuses on Susan’s coming to terms with Henry’s death, her challenges assuming the role of a parent, and her fumbling attempts to grapple with the consequences of Henry’s solution to ending Glen’s abuse of Christina.

The Book of Henry wrestles with enormously complicated personal and social issues, and the screenwriter Greg Hurwitz (crime novelist and comic book writer, Orphan X, Batman: The Dark Knight) has masterfully weaved together varied individual character journeys to tell this layered and nuanced story. Henry goes from boy genius with the confidence to accomplish almost anything, to a frustrated pre-teen committed to an outlandish murder plot, to a scared child facing his own heartbreaking mortality. Susan’s arc takes her from irresponsibility enabled by her son’s unique abilities, to a parent struggling to reset her relationships and reground herself in the reality of parenting. All the supporting players have meaningful character arcs as well (including the stepfather), creating tension that pushes the story forward.

Amidst this complexity, The Book of Henry doesn’t lose its grip on some of the weightiest issues in civil society: What are our individual responsibilities when our institutions are corrupt? What lines can be drawn in the name of justice and the protection of human life? Does the goal of saving of one human life from abuse and trauma justify the taking of another life? What responsibilities do those working within corrupt institutions have to intervene for the sake of justice, irrespective of the personal or professional risk?

Henry’s perspective is clear. When challenged by an adult claiming that violence should be avoided at all costs, he says the one thing worse is apathy in the face of injustice. It’s up to his mother to test the truth of Henry’s statement.

The Book of Henry is an ambitious film that dares to threaten the conventions of modern filmmaking. The movie is part coming of age, part tragedy, part Film Noir, and a lot Hitchcockian suspense. Some critics call this a “mess,” and lament the film doesn’t know “what it wants to be.” In fact, screenwriter Hurwitz and director Trevorrow know exactly what the film should be and keep it focused and cohesive. The second part (more Hitchcock) is intimately tied to the first part (tragedy).

While not perfect, The Book of Henry deserves a far wider audience than its disappointing box office suggests. Viewers on Rotten Tomatoes give this movie stronger marks than critics by a 3:1 margin. While viewers are sometimes more generous because they reward entertainment over craft, in this case they may well have allowed themselves the latitude to enjoy a complex plot and story structure more typical of suspense novels than remain trapped in filmmaking conventions and genres.

Writers Who Cannot Swim Should Stay Out of the Deep Water

I am a fan of astrophysicist Alex Filippenko, a famous prof at UC Berkeley. When I was homeschooling my stepson John Allen Hunley, we used a huge set of DVD’s in which Filippenko presents a fascinating intro course on astronomy and astrophysics. He is a wonderful teacher. My point here, however, is that in relation to what Filippenko knows and has accomplished in his field, I am a complete nincompoop. If I were to write a book aimed at showing how he has played a central role in bringing about a coup by astrophysicists to take over the U.S. government and turn its telescopes on the common people, everyone would rightly regard me as a total nut case.

Is Nancy MacLean’s book on Jim Buchanan any less preposterous? As Michael Munger has described in detail, MacLean has undertaken to portray Buchanan as the central figure in a Koch-funded conspiracy to destroy American democracy and replace it with a racist plutocracy. She has undertaken this fantastical enterprise notwithstanding that she lacks even a freshman-level understanding of the content and historical development of economics in general and public choice analysis in particular. In short, she has set out to write about one of the deepest thinkers of the past sixty-five years in economics and political philosophy without having a clue about these areas of study. Is it any wonder that she has produced a howler?

(P.S. Look for my book to be published soon by an obscure press without peer review. Tentative title: The Protocols of the Elders of Astrophysics.)