Five Short Reviews

I have fallen a bit behind on my intention to write about everything new I read or see this year.  I may have let some things slip through the cracks, but here is a brief run-through of five works I have not previously written on, which (I think) gets me up to speed.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

I have not seen the previous Mad Max films, but this one was a tense, over-the-top action film.  I suspect it would suffer if viewed on a screen smaller than the size of a wall, but it is put together with a master craftsman’s care and precision.  Although likely not a film everyone will enjoy, for what it is it is incredibly well done.  It also passes my personal “suspension of disbelief” test, which I would explain something like this: a film or book that fails makes you say, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense.”  A work that passes makes you think, “Given the premises, how does that work?”  The stunts are ludicrous, but Fury Road leaves you asking the second question.
Grade: A, maybe even A+

The Providence of Fire, by Brian Staveley (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne II)

Staveley’s first installment, The Emperor’s Blades, I was quite impressed with, noting particularly his stubborn willingness to stick with a couple characters’ viewpoints, especially in contrast to the now-normal fantasy trick of trying to capture everything.  In the sequel, the viewpoint remains, but the clarity is largely gone: appropriate enough, I suppose, as Staveley’s fictional empire has descended into chaos, but also largely a function of Staveley trying to fit too much detail and too many events into a non-enormous book.  The effect is to render the plots and counter-plots incoherent rather than tantalizing – and the overshadowing threat feels much less ominous than it probably is intended too, lost in the mesh of all the other complexities.  It would take quite the artist to untangle things again in the following books after the mess this one makes of things.
Grade: C

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

A story not so much of simple good versus evil as honor versus cynicism, the film is carried by the acting of the two leads (Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, neither of whom I’d heard of).  It’s a slow-moving film and quite simply but beautifully done.  The climactic action scene is jarring after the tense build-up – but the final resolution falls flat, a moral drawn without any conviction.  Some fine moments throughout, but not, it seems to me, a truly great film.
Grade: B+

For Love and Glory, by Poul Anderson

Anderson’s books are often a little odd.  In this case, the reader is left with the pressing question: how much does the author agree with his own protagonists?  Set in a future Milky Way galaxy with human colonies and various aliens enlivening the scene, the story is compelling but the characters are not entirely likeable – which is perhaps the point.  Or perhaps not.  I’m really not sure.
Grade: B

Scoop (2006)

Most easily described as a screwball comedy crossed with a murder mystery, and starring Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman, and Woody Allen as the leads, Scoop doesn’t quite live up to its potential.  It has its moments, but in trying to hold suspense and goofiness in tension it doesn’t quite achieve the heights of either.  It’s still not a bad way to spend a couple hours.
Grade: B-

A Brief Note on the Supreme Court

As concerned citizen or as self-appointed internet pundit, it seems incumbent on me to say something about the United States’ Supreme Court’s activities over the last couple of days.  Anyone who has paid the least amount of attention to my opinions in the past likely already knows what I think of both contentious decisions, and those who paid careful attention could likely summarize my arguments; I will not go into much detail on either count but feel compelled to register my dissent.

There is a certain air of unreality about the celebrations one is confronted with on every hand after the Supreme Court discovered – or, less kindly, invented – a Constitutional right to marry a person of the same sex.  It is much the same sort of disbelief I would express were we to be found throwing parties on the anniversary of the legendary attempt of the Indiana legislature to set pi equal to three.  It will likely take some time for the fault to make itself clear, longer than it takes a piece of shoddy engineering to collapse, not least because currently there are many other societal ills from which the family, both in institution and in particular examples, is already suffering.  However much celebration of “equality” is all very well, making sure that the things declared equal are in fact equal would seem to be a necessary precaution: and in this case, their obvious inequality is ignored in favor of emotional appeals to “dignity”.

Strangely, having read the decision and dissent, I concede that on a legal or social basis – which is to say, leaving aside the moral heinousness of calling a same-sex sexual affair a “marriage” – there is some case to be made for recognizing a same-sex “marriage”.  That case, however, is not the case made by the majority opinion, but rather is best made as an extension of Justice Thomas’ dissent, which is mainly a discussion of the meaning of liberty.  Thomas concedes that with the repeal of sodomy laws etc. such affairs are legal to carry out, and points out that no restriction is currently in effect on informal (meaning non-governmental) “marriages”, only on State recognition.  He does not say, but it might easily be argued, that if such things are being conducted (or at least desired) anyway, it may behoove a State to recognize them formally, and thus bring potential domestic crimes more closely under its observation.  But that would be a legislative rather than a judicial argument, and as the dissenting opinions all note, the Court is not a legislature, and as Thomas takes pains to point out, “due process” was in fact followed in defining marriage in the various states, and the majority opinion collapses to the status of, in Justice Scalia’s phrase, “the mystical aphorisms of a fortune cookie”.

Taking one thing with another, however, I am much more concerned by Thursday’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act.  The case concerned several individuals who, taking the act literally, ought to have been exempt from the mandate on the basis of cost, except for an IRS regulation issuing subsidies for all purchasers (as against the plain reading of the law).  Now, as a matter of social policy, paying out subsidies to more individuals than originally specified by a law is much less concerning than declaring that two men may “marry” each other.  But as a matter at law, the Court’s reasoning in this healthcare case on Thursday is far more concerning than its handwaving a day later.  On Friday the Court squinted a bit and suggested a “right” which it naturally found worthy of protection; this at least has the saving grace that many people are claiming this right exists.  But on Thursday, the Court managed to determine that the phrase “established by a State” meant nothing in particular, when it was convenient to so conclude – and that the contrast (presumably deliberate) to cases where the phrase was not used should be ignored.  Words, in short, have lost all meaning, if the Court has decided that following a policy is necessary.

And, almost as concerning as the Humpty Dumpty approach to words, the Court took on itself the authority to decide that the effect of a law was not that intended, and the law must be enforced not as written but instead as the Court found it necessary to read it to achieve a more creditable result.  Abraham Lincoln is often credited with the dictum that the best way to force change of a bad law is to enforce it; the Court, deciding the law was bad, elected to change it by whim, with – necessarily – little study done as to whether the result would be an improvement.  Scalia’s dissent in fact suggested at least one way in which this poor re-interpretation of the law could work against the law’s intended purposes.

On Friday, the Supreme Court at least went looking for a claim of basic rights to set against State law: that is, the publicly attempted methodology was reasonable, whatever the merits of the argument.  But on Thursday, the Court’s judgment made no pretense to be anything but legislative, and plainly stated that for convenience it would ignore the clear meaning of words.  Both opinions appear to me specious, but I am far more concerned by the one that sets aside basic honesty.

Unserious Discussion

Jon Stewart, celebrity comedian, is receiving a lot of attention and praise today for spouting a bunch of platitudes – as far as I can tell, his normal mode when not being funny (and he is very funny) – about the Charleston shooting.  You can watch that here.  He has three main points: that this was an act of racially-motivated terrorism, which is obvious; that we don’t talk or want to talk about racism, which is a statement requiring qualification; and that it is quite likely nothing will change, which seems quite likely to be true.

As far as talking about racism – well, the media has done little else for the past year until distracted by Jenner, and it’s not like they were silent about it beforehand.  As for action – a vast host of programs and schemes, from welfare to the “war on drugs” to the ACA to the various school reform bills, have at least nominally had the goal, or a goal, of correcting injustices, creating opportunity, and achieving greater equality.  That none of these have been – at best – more than a partial success does not mean that nothing has been done or that nobody cares.  It might be grounds for an onset of pessimism, or (on a more hopeful note) a reason to re-examine both axioms and hypotheses about the best way to resolve the problem.

However, it is an axiom of much of the media and academia, apparently, that we don’t talk enough, or seriously enough – anyhow, that we lack awareness of the problem, or simply don’t view it seriously as a problem.  There are likely places this is true; from all I hear, though I have no familiarity with the place, South Carolina seems to be one of them.  So despite the utter nonsense Stewart’s statement seems when considering his probable audience’s views and experiences, I will allow that he very likely has some legitimate point here.

Now, what do you think Stewart might bring up as evidence of the perpetuation of racism?  Income inequality and the various allegations of unfair hiring practices?  No.  Unequal societal expectations and discrimination in high-profiles job – football coaches, CEOs, Congressional offices, or what-have-you?  No.  The hundreds dead this year in Baltimore and Chicago without comment, but this killing – did it get noticed only because the criminal was white?  That line of thinking might prove interesting: why does it seem most shooting victims and criminals are black, but most mass attacks and domestic terrorism is perpetrated by whites (apart from killings on military grounds, which seem most often to link to Islamic terrorism)?  But of course this speculative line was not Stewart’s choice.  (And probably a wise choice: any serious discussion would near years of study first to state any definite conclusions.)  Did he talk about the difference in family culture (or lack thereof) or uneven social expectations between the white suburbs and the black downtown – maybe with photos comparing Bethesda and Anacostia?  No.

According to Stewart, the biggest sign of continuing racism in America – the most obvious problem we need to address – the largest challenge facing a black person in the modern era – is that in the South there are roads named for Confederates, and that the Confederate flag is still part of the culture.

Now, I take it as given that in a sane society the Confederate flag would not be displayed nearly as often as it is.  The Confederacy’s link to slavery, to say nothing of the flag’s later association with the KKK and other groups, severely limits any usefulness as a symbol even for alternate legitimate connotations – states’ rights, restraint of the central government, or battlefield virtue.  The Confederate veterans are all dead, and so are virtually all if not all of their children, and even, I assume, the vast majority of their grandchildren.  There seems little call to display the flag beyond perhaps over a graveyard or memorial, in a reenactment, or perhaps as part of a state flag (or military unit ensign) choosing to remember the CSA.

You will notice I leave room here – far more than Stewart would be likely to.  It is of course undeniable that in large part the Civil War was driven by Southern concerns over the continuation of slave-holding.  To many, this is enough to taint all association with the Confederacy forever, but I would argue this is impractical if not outright unjust.  Are the Stars and Stripes to be considered only a symbol of double-dealing imperialism in Florida, across the Great Plains, or in Cuba and the Philippines?  Is the Union Jack nothing more than an emblem of patriarchal colonial tyranny?  Does the Tricolor stand for nothing more than the Terror?  I could of course go on.

Additionally, the Union was not in the least concerned with slavery except perhaps as a self-justification after the fact: Lincoln himself swore up and down he would not touch it, before eventually issuing the Emancipation Proclamation – applicable to rebel states only – as a war measure; “separate but equal” (or more often “unequal”) seems to have been the general idea even in the North; and in some places the bigotry was more pronounced than that: for instance, in Oregon immigration by black persons was banned constitutionally – and not formally repealed until 1970, though obviously the amendments and court decisions rendered that provision moot long before.

I have wandered away from my point, of course, and that point is this: It’s not that Stewart’s wrong to criticize this.  Although it seems unclear that display of the flag – perhaps a great-grandfather fought at Gettysburg – makes one a white supremacist, we can note that since it also has that connotation it might inspire a kind of mob confidence if the feeling is otherwise common enough.  This problem he goes on about is no more than a historical artifact, or a symptom of bigger issues, though that is not to deny that it can still be a problem, or lead to one.  But also, there’s a curious lack of – curiosity.  Stewart – like many others – shows little inclination to wonder why someone might name a road or a town or a school after “Stonewall” Jackson.  To try to eradicate the Confederacy from history and Southern culture – without addressing underlying bigotry and hatreds – seems backwards if not pointless, an evidence we’ve learned little from Ireland, or the political troubles in Iraq.