Sunday, September 30, 2007


Via the Wikipedia entry, I find this source, which cites a 2005 Harris poll to the effect that NPR is the most trusted newssource in America.

That being the case, WHY DO WE CONTINUE TO PUBLICLY FUND IT? If you're the most trusted newssource in the land, surely you have enough market pull to foot your own bills?

Not that NPR's endowment eats up much of the federal budget, mind you. It's just the principle of the matter. Governments should not fund broadcast services. That is something that the public can (and obviously does) take care of itself.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Racism Only Happens in the South. Really.

I made my take on the Jena 6 clear a couple of days ago. Since then, some new takes on the issue have been called to my attention that make it all the more disturbing - because it seems increasingly likely that the charges brought against the six may be simply egregious. I hate it when Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are right (erm ... rather, randomly find themselves on the right side of the fence), but it's starting to look like they just might be in the case. We'll have to wait it out and see.

That said, I stand by the basic thrust of my argument. Whether or not the 6 teens charged are guilty (which remains indeterminate pending a proper trial), certainly it is inexcusable for the public to defend a gang beating on the grounds that it was a response to offensive symbols displayed months before. Whatever you think about hate crimes legislation (I myself despise it as a damaging legal absurdity), it is telling that no hate crimes charges were sought in this case. Whatever the truth of the case turns out to be, the sycophantic pandering to politically correct takes on race in America is über-annoying. And most pertinent to the point I want to make here: there is real anti-Southern bias in what the lib-left would call "this narrative."

Arguing a bit with commentator Midwesterner on a thread on Samizdata, I was exposed to Radley Balko's report on the Maye case. Balko (and Midwesterner as well) seems to think that the fact that he covered this case makes him an expert on what happened in Jena - never mind that he's never been to Jena (he was "an hour south" of it for an unspecified amount of time), let alone interviewed anyone there. He feels qualified to cry racism in public all the same. (The real culprit here is actually Glenn Reynolds, who asked Balko to comment.) See, Balko has been to Mississippi, where he covered a case in which the death penalty was overzealously applied to someone who happened to be black and was, in all likelihood, innocent of the crime he was charged with. Because he was black, and because this was the South, Balko and lots of the fifth column seem content to chalk the miscarriage of justice up to racism. And because Mississippi and Louisiana are both in the South, and Balko's stopped at a gas station in Louisiana, we're expected to believe his proclamation that "Just for background, this is another part of the country where race, sadly, is still a pretty prominent part of everyday life."

So I had a closer look at his coverage of the Maye case, and I can't say I'm pleased with what I read.

For background - the Maye case involves a man charged with murder for shooting a cop during a drug raid on his home. The list of inconsistencies in the case is staggering - and a layman's opinion is he's innocent. Here's da fax:

  1. Maye shot only one of the police officers.

  2. He wasn't mentioned by name in the warrant, which appears to have been issued for the wrong apartment anyway.

  3. Maye had no prior.

  4. There is no information about the anonymous informant who tipped the police off about Maye's alleged drugdealing (which it appears he wasn't guilty of after all).

  5. The people in the other apartment of the duplex, which was also raided, making them the only thing like witnesses to the incident, have disappeared.

  6. The forensic pathologist called to testify in the trial is shady - and a post-trial review would seem to indicate that his account of the crimescene data was flawed.

All-in-all, not the pattern of an open-and-shot cop-killah case. It seems unlikely that the prosecution could've gotten away with a death penalty convction on this. With good counsel, Maye might have even gotten off.

Certainly it will be a tragedy if this man was simply defending himself, happened to shoot a police officer (he claims the police merely banged the door in and didn't announce their presence), and has to hang for it. So I don't take issue with Balko's assembly of facts. Indeed, I'm glad he helped bring national attention to it - and especially pleased that he seems to have saved Maye from the death penalty.

Where I take issue is his playing of the race card. Maye happens to be black; the cop he shot happens to be white. Oh yeah, and this is in Mississippi. Therefore, goes Balko's logic, the prosecution of the case was racist.

It's just that ... I don't see any need for race as an explanatory factor here. Balko's article also tells us, for example, that the cop killed was the "well-liked, widely respected son of the town’s police chief." This is in a raid done by an ad-hoc police team (not the normal SWAT team) with a dodgy warrant (doesn't mention the inhabitants of one of the apartments by name) on scant evidence (no one knows the informant who named Maye, and Maye had no prior) - and to top it off, Maye claims they didn't even announce their presence as they broke into his house without warning. If Maye's version of events is correct, then it's pretty clear, without any reference to race, why the cops would want him put away. In a town of 1,000, the celebrity police chief's son gets gunned down in a bungled raid? Of course the honest thing for the cops to do would be to admit their mistake and take responsibility - but I don't think it's too shocking to imagine that they instead opted for a coverup to save their asses. The assailant doesn't have to be black, and the raiding cops don't have to be white, for that version of events to seem plausible.

The article then goes on to detail a list of boneheaded mistakes on the part of Maye's defense attorney. Maye chose to hire a private lawyer he could barely afford rather than go with a public defender. That lawyer happens to be black. Balko wants us to believe that, despite the public defender's sterling qualifications (for which he is unable to provide any evidenceaside from the man's own assurance, though such would certainly be publicly available), Maye was scared to be represented by a white person: "Blacks in the state often don’t trust public defenders, particularly white ones." But honestly, this is a death penalty case, so we hardly need race to explain Maye's decision to get private counsel! This is one of those things like surgery to cure a life-threatening ailment: no matter how poor you are, if your life is on the line and you can somehow scrape together the cash to buy yourself more professional care, you do.

This private counsel then goes on to bollocks up Maye's case in major ways. Some of these I agree are egregious mistakes. For example, despite having won an injunction on using the history of Maye's gun (it was stolen), she then brought up the matter herself, thus opening that line of questioning for the prosecution as well. She didn't interview the police officers early enough. She barely met with Maye himself. And then she didn't provide jury instructions, telling the judge she "didn't think the case would get this far."

All of this fits in a paragraph in Balko's account. He spends rather more time on her decision to move for a change of venue - which happened to be to a county with more white people.

Soon after taking Maye’s case, she filed a change of venue motion to move the case from Jefferson Davis County to Lamar County. Jefferson Davis County is 57 percent black; Lamar County is 85 percent white. Lamar is also richer (its median income is $37,628, while Jefferson Davis’ is $21,834), and more conservative (it voted 4 to 1 for Bush in 2004, while Jefferson Davis favored Kerry by a slight margin).

Balko concludes that "In an area where race and class figure so prominently in public and private life, Cooper’s mistake was devastating." But it isn't at all clear that it was. Balko himself admits that there were two blacks on the jury that convicted Maye - which is more or less the right percentage for the county where the trial ended up taking place. Mississippi had a unanimous jury requirement for criminal cases from statehood up to at least 2000. The only evidence I can see that it might have been ammended is HB688, which would have required a majority of 10. But I can find no evidence that that bill passed - so as far as I know, all 12 jurors were required to agree that Maye was guilty. That makes the 2 blacks on the jury "enough." Even so, it's rather presumptuous of Balko to say that the facts clearly speak against a death sentence, and then assume that all 10 white jurors would be willing to ignore it. There's something in the white genepool that makes them unanimously mean, then?

More to the point, what Balko mentioned earlier in the article but is failing to mention now is that while Jefferson Davis County is 57% black, the town of Prentiss, which would have been the venue for the trial, is close to 80% white. And this is a town of 1000 people in which the slain cop was the son of the police chief and "well-liked." It isn't difficult at all to see why Maye's attorney might want a change of venue. But let's assume Balko is right that the change of venue was ill-advised. I still don't see how getting a jury with two blacks on it can possibly be so bad as "devastating." In order to buy Balko's conclusions here, we basically have to go along with his assumption that jurors in Mississippi never, ever and under no circumstances vote for justice over race, and that in any case even with the bollocks-up defense, it was race and race alone that compelled these jurors to vote the way they did. Please!

Further on, Balko lets slip some other facts that speak against his (apparent) Race as Overriding Factor theory.

Worse, prosecutors are much less inclined to take circumstances into account when it comes to pressing charges against civilians who make similar mistakes. When civilians who are innocent or who have no history of violence defend their homes during a mistaken raid, they have about a one in two chance of facing criminal charges if a policeman is killed or injured.


It’s a remarkable double standard. The reason these raids are often conducted late at night or very early in the morning is to catch suspects while they’re sleeping and least capable of processing what’s going on around them...While narcotics officers have (or at least are supposed to have) extensive training in how to act during a raid, suspects don’t, and officers have the advantage of surprise. Yet prosecutors readily forgive mistaken police shootings of innocent civilians and unarmed drug suspects while expecting the people on the receiving end of late-night raids to show exemplary composure, judgment, and control in determining whether the attackers in their homes are cops or criminals.

Now, I am in full sympathy with Balko's argument that the Drug War is overzealously fought - indeed, that the main problem with it is, as he aptly puts it, that it increasingly is being fought literally as a war. My point here is simply that these kinds of tactics and double standards on the part of the police are yet another plausible explanation for the (apparent) miscarriage of justice in Maye's case that does not need race as an explanatory factor.

Balko goes on to tell us that the town aldermen fired public defender Evans soon after he agreed to handle Maye's appeal. The public defender claims he has no official complaints against him in 10 years of service, but Balko doesn't seem to have checked. Nevertheless, it isn't hard to take the defender at his word that he was fired for defending Maye specifically without resorting to race in the explanation. In a town of 1,000, the aldermen are presumably friends with the police chief, and it was the chief's son who was killed.

I'm not saying it's impossible that race played a role. Certainly it is possible. Certainly smalltown Mississippi has exactly the reputation that Balko ascribes to this particular town and county. And reputations turn out to be deserved at least as often as they turn out not to be. Notwithstanding, if you're going to actually accuse someone of living up to his nefarious reputation, as it were, you have to have more than just the reputation itself to go on. For every other claim leading up to the general conclusion that Maye is a victim of an overzealous drugs prohibition policy, Balko cites at least some kind of evidence. But the claims of racism are always mere assertions. It is taken as a given, for example, that trial by a majority-white jury means conviction while trial by a majority-black jury does not. And we are expected to believe that the 10-2 racial split on the convicting jury (the closest thing to actual evidence that Balko cites) was the deciding factor in Maye's conviction (recall that the change of venue was described as "devastating"), as opposed to the other ways in which the defense attorney bungled the case. Never once does Balko quote someone in authority saying something racist, nor does he cite similar cases involving white defendants who were not prosecuted, nor does he even offer a plausible suggestion for how this case might have gone differently if the guy who shot the cop by mistake had been a poor white guy rather than a poor black guy. There are, indeed, no statistics here to back up general claims of racism by this police force. All we get are his "impressions."

The most striking impression I get is the pervasive, suffocating role race plays in everyday life. The fear and paranoia from black residents can be overwhelming.

There are, of course, reasons why people's impressions are not admissible as evidence in court (not the least of which being, indeed, that we don't want racist policemen coming to hasty conclusions!). I see no reason to trust Balko's impressions more than anyone else's. His impression of racism may well be genuine. Just as likely, however, is that Balko, as a yank, comes to small southern towns with preconceived notions as to what he's going to find. And so he finds it.

Some other gems:

When people in the area talk about why they don’t trust law enforcement, you hear the same cops named over and over again.

Gee, ya think? This is a town of 1000 people! How many cops can there really be?

The county’s homicide rate in 2002 was five times the national average.

Again - town of 1000 people. 13,000 in the whole county. There's an obvious sampling-size problem here. In such a small population, a single anomalous year will easly swallow up statistical error, yielding precisely these kinds of supposedly-shocking statistics. It's a well-known problem. To establish that Jefferson Davis County is a hotbed of homicide, we'll need more than a single year!

And then there's the whole "This is still Mississippi" section (actual section title), which is full of gratuitous quotes from people wholly unrelated to the case to the effect that Mississippi is seething with racism.

In short, this article reads like a smear campaign against Mississippi, and that's wholly unnecessary. If the point it to illustrate how drug war tactics get abused and ruin innocent lives, then this story makes the case in full colors. I'm not sure what all the crap about racism is doing in this article - but it's not appreciated. Racism is no longer a problem exclusive to the South - if indeed it ever was. Quite the contrary - desegregation in Detroit and Boston was a larger, more painful, and more violent issue than it ever was in Alabama, and took place much later as well.

If Balko honestly thinks race played a role in this case, then let him produce some evidence to that effect - even if it is merely suggestive. Otherwise, he is simply peddling stereotypes - the very thing he is presumably taking a stand against. Unimpressive, and unfortunate.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Das Leben der Anderen

Last night I finally got a chance to see Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's widely-discussed debut film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). It was an absolute pleasure - in part because of the director's obvious skill (difficult to believe he's a rookie), in part because of the beauty of the music composed for the film, and in absolute-largest-part because Ulrich Mühe plays the lead role so effectively it has to be seen to be believed.

It's a tricky role to play. Indeed, most of the criticism of the film centers around how implausible the character supposedly is. A Stasi man who grows a conscience from exposure to art? Can't be!

And well maybe it can't. Certainly there's no evidence it ever happened in reality. One ironic hurdle the filmmakers famously faced was that the administrator of the museum built out of the Stasi prison in which they wanted to stage the opening scene wouldn't let them film on the premises because - in his words - "...that is exactly the difference. There was a Schindler. There was no Wiesler." He objected to the idea of a Stasi operative being the hero.

History aside, it remains an interesting character study. As fiction, I found Wiesler's transformation quite plausible. Perhaps not the totality of it. And certainly I agree with Jan Stewart that the movie "sabotages its best efforts with a sentimental payoff." Meaning that I disagree withthe extent to which mere exposure to art is meant to account for Wiesler's transformation. But the idea itself works well - for this character in this situation, anyway. Wiesler is a puritan. He's a true believer in the Party - of the kind that definitely did exist in the DDR. It isn't at all surprising that someone of his personality would be in the position he's in: he's loyal, but you sense that his loyalty has more to do with his social ineptitude than with real (rather - "independent") conviction. Wiesler's the kind of guy who's never been the hit at any party, and such people often throw themselves into their work and their personal causes. In a Catholic country he would have been a priest - not because he felt strongly "called" by God, but just because that's the ambient belief system, and that's what's available to him to fill the void in his life absent the love affairs he's never going to have. It makes sense that such a person ranks high enough in the Stasi to get the good assignments, but never so high that he's let into the inner circle. And it further makes sense that such a person - who has devoted his life to the Party because he lacks the zest to come up with his own causes and isn't interesting enough to be allowed to mate - should feel betrayed when confronted with the extent of the Party's corruption in the form of Minister Hempf. Indeed, most critics seem to have underestimated the complexity of his motives. It isn't just that Hempf is corrupt, or it isn't just that he's also attracted to Chrita-Maria, or it isn't just that he reads Dreymann's Brecht book. It's all of these things together - and the director, and the actor, do a skillful job at understating these things, but leaving them plainly evident all the same.

What is it that leads Wiesler to recommend that Dreymann be watched? It isn't entirely clear - but the reason he gives is revealing. Because Dreymann is "exactly the kind of arrogant guy I've warned my students to be on the lookout for." That's all. Dreymann is confident - he enjoys his life, likes himself, and has a beautiful girlfriend. Wiesler is the prototypical Socialist here: his motivations are mostly of that strange shade of envy tangled with and expressed through social conviction. Like many people who believe in imposing equality from above - Wiesler has the beliefs he does because he is a mediocrity. He will never be a shining star - and that's a fault of who he is. The only way to make it better is to go back to the playground rules, where "fairness" (narrowly defined) was enforced and everyone had to share. Wiesler is letting slip here that his real fight isn't for equality, it's against "arrogance." And I believe him.

This doesn't make Wiesler a bad seed. That his beliefs are born in envy does not mean that they are not well-intentioned in some sense, or that they are insincere. Indeed, Wiesler is completely sincere - and that's what makes his character interesting and instructive. I spend a great deal of time thinking about why Socialism remains attractive to so many people after a century's worth failure in the face of honest effort to make it work - and this is what I keep coming back to: that there are plenty of people just like Wiesler in the world. They want their share of time in the sun. They don't ask much - just to play with the big kids now and then. And because they're not asking much, what they want seems fair. And it is fair in some cosmic sense. But the world doesn't work that way. Justice doesn't work that way. It isn't the cosmic sense that counts, unfortunately for people like Wiesler. Justice is more detached; it's the day-to-day administration of it that counts; people remain ultimately responsible for making their own lives and finding their own success.

Wiesler's concept of where enemnity to the regime starts is correct: it comes from people who are successful because of who they are and unapologetic about it. Dreymann is the enemy of his system. And so his instincts are not wrong.

But as stated, Wiesler is not a bad guy. He's fair in the sense that he plays according to the same restrictions he wants imposed on others. He follows the Golden Rule. Fittingly, therefore, it isn't Dreymann - the target of his surveillance - who shakes his faith in the system. Dreymann is only under suspicion. It's Hempf - the corrupt party official using Wiesler to get David out of the way so he can take Bathsheeba - that undoes him. And that works for me too.

Consider Wiesler's position. He's a mediocrity in both senses. In the first sense: he lacks the charisma to shine, and he lacks the raw ability to accomplish anything meaningful on his own. In the second sense: he is also constrained by good upbringing. He cannot simply take what he wants from life either. He needs something from outside himself to give him meaning (or at least something to do), and being a basically decent person, he offers the only thing he has to give in return: his stellar work ethic. Wiesler is fair: he can forgive Dreymann for being "arrogant" once he knows that Dreymann is working for the system too. Dreymann does his part - maybe not with the attitude that Wiesler likes, but he plays the role that the Wieslers of the world need him to play to maintain their illusion of usefulness. Hempf does not. Hempf has nothing useful to contribute, and yet he takes what he wants from life anyway. Wiesler envies Dreymann, true, but he's a humble man on the whole. Hempf, however, betrayed him. He takes sides appropriately.

But this isn't the whole of the story - again, appropriately. Confrontation with Hempf's corruption alone wouldn't be enough to shake Wiesler out of his routine. After all, it's hugely implausible that Wiesler has survived into his 40s (we're told he's 20 years away from pension) in the DDR without noticing abuses of power. So why does this case break open the dam? That's where the exposure to art comes in - and, yes, where attraction to Christa-Maria comes in too. We only have to suspend our disbelief a little to buy that Wiesler has never really appreciated art until now - when he's hearing artists talk about it through his surveillance devices. Granted, it's a bit sentimental (especially that awful scene where Dreymann plays the "Sonata to a Good Person" - a genuinely moving piece of music, mercifully - and then comments that no one can really listen to it and remain bad. This is supposed to have brought Wiesler face-to-face with his inner good nature? UGH.) - but insofar as I can read the movie in such a way that it isn't Wiesler's only or even primary motivation, I buy it all the same. And in fact, I buy it in part because I can honestly believe that Wiesler is so devoted to his job that he has never really sat down and tried to appreciate good music or poetry before. No one in the school system in a socialist country bothered to tell him he had an inner life - and where else is a guy like Wiesler going to find that out? Indeed, only if someone forces him to sit down for a long time listening to good art - like, say, if he's confined to an attic for 12 hours at a time spying on artists. Or if, for the first time in his life, he is attracted to a woman (Christa-Maria - note the oh-so-clever name) for who she is.

A final motivation for his transformation that's overlooked by all critics I've read so far, but was very real for me, is the "just because" factor. Why now? Just because he's bored, probably. By coincidence, I ran across a similar-ish kind of episode from Noam Chomsky's life this weekend. I hate Chomsky's political commentary (I also, as it happens, hate his actual opinions) for three main reasons: (1) (most important) because he's dishonest. Rather than presenting the issues on which he comments, he selects the details most likely to bolster his conclusions and omits lots of other relevant facts. (2) He is unreasonable in his opposition to the United States. It's inconsistent for someone who claims to be against national power of all kinds, and he takes it to such an extreme that you have to wonder whether he got raped by American soldiers as a schoolboy or something. (3) It's 100% criticism and 0% constructive suggestions. Well, the incident in question concerns number (2). Chomsky frequently goes to Canada, where he is naturally a welcome guest so long as he's slagging on the US, which he's usually happy to do. But of course, even to the degree to which Chomsky hates the US, his primary motive really is more global: it isn't useful to him to bring down the US if it's just going to be replaced by more of the same. If this is true, it should irritate him to some degree to be used as a legitimizing force for anti-American echo chambers of people unwilling to turn the same kind of social criticism against their own nations. And at least one incident in his life confirms that it's true. Apparently in 1990 Chomsky appeared on a CBC commentary show of some kind and - in his own words:

In fact, you may recall the one occasion when I got sort of bored with going to Canada and criticizing the U.S., so I decided to talk about Canada. It was a radio program I'd been invited to appear on plenty of times; everyone had been quite happy to have me come and tell them how terrible the United States [is]; they'd all smiled ... As I say, I got sick of it at one point. I'd done a little background work, and I talked about Canadian hypocrisy ...

Telling, I think. He "got bored." He "got sick of it." Normally he's happy to slag away at the US - but that's only an incidental goal - not the primary one. Well, I think it's plausible that Wiesler, just like Chomsky, simply has enough of it one day. His primary goal is building a Socialist state. Supporting the DDR is something he's normally happy to do - because it mostly accomplishes his goal. But it isn't exactly the same thing as his goal, and so it's plausible to me that he just "gets bored" one day. The same way that Chomsky once got a wild hair and just decided - completely improbably, but there you have it - that that particular day on the radio show in Canada wasn't a good day for America-bashing. Chomsky's real concern (who knew?) is actually with global social justice - though it's usually hard to see that given the excessive amount of animosity he levels at the US in his diatribes. And Wiesler's real concern is actually with building a socialist state - though it's usually hard to see that given his excessive loyalty to the particular regime he serves. Why can't he just "get bored" one day like Chomsky did?

And so, contrary to most of the criticism I've read, I buy the character of Wiesler and his transformation - for exactly the reasons outlined in the movie. The movie did an excellent job here.

I should stress, though, that I only buy this as fiction. In reality, of course, no such thing was possible in the DDR - which is why there is no record of it ever having happened. In real life, Stasi agents themselves were never unsupervised; people like Wiesler just didn't get to sit in attics alone leaving out the bits they didn't want to report.

I should also stress - more damningly - that while I buy Wiesler's character and transformation, I find Dreymann completely implausible, which was majorly distracting. Dreymann is a bourgeois artist. He lives in a nice apartment, wears nice clothes, and has apparently never had to sell his soul to reach his position. He's not at all the kind of person I associate with successful artists in the DDR. And the mental tightrope he walks between his inappropriately-silenced friends on the one hand and loyalty to the regime on the other ... well, it just can't be - certainly not at this late date. There is simply no way Dreymann's 40, has watched regime-loyal friends being hung out to dry over trivialities, and remains completely sincere in his devotion to the DDR. The only reason I don't mind (enough to keep watching, anyway) is because I recognize that he's a plot device. The story is about Wiesler, not Dreymann. Dreymann is a prop.

My other bone to pick with critics' opinions I've read really only applies to one of them: John Podhoretz in this piece. Podhoretz likes the movie in part because he sees it as an all-too-rare example of a movie critical of Socialism:

Donnersmarck's work is so fresh and so original in part because he is working with a great, rich, infinitely absorbing subject--a subject other filmmakers across the world continue to avoid like the plague. This is strange. Life under communism would seem to be among the least controversial topics one could imagine.

Well, yes and no. I agree with Podhoretz to the extent that this is a movie critical of an East Bloc regime, and that there aren't nearly enough of those going around. I'm not sure it's really critical of Socialism itself, though.

Quite the contrary, in fact. Despite all the claptrap about how this is the first truly critical Ostalgie film - I actually think it's a pretty normal example of the genre in a lot of ways.

Consider. First, our hero is very much an everyman - content to be a cog in the system so long as nothing goes terribly wrong with it. Just like Alexander in Goodbye, Lenin! in a lot of ways. True, Alex isn't the gray apparatchik that Wiesler is, but they're both remarkable for being unremarkable DDR citizens. And then, I can't help but think of Alex's words at the close of Goodbye, Lenin! - to the effect that the illusions he was creating for his mother were not the DDR as it really was, but the DDR he would have wanted. And again, one can't help but get that feeling from Wiesler and Dreymann too. They both believe in the regime - not as it is, but as it might have been. The events of the film force them to reexamine their acceptance of the country they live in, but you never have the impression that either Wiesler or Dreymann repent of their socialism. Like every other Ostalgie film, a plausible viewing of Das Leben der Anderen is the normal tripe about how "Communism would have been great, if only we hadn't been betrayed by those damn corrupt party bosses." After all, it's reading Brecht, the posterchild DDR writer, that lets Wiesler know he has a soul. And the thrust of Dreymann's argument that the ban on his friend's work is wrong isn't that the state should be stifling individual expression. He agrees with that, as far as it goes. The objection is that Jerska is a good socialist too, and only therefore undeserving of his treatment. Fine by him if Hauser, a real critic of the regime, is forbidden from leaving the country. One can't help but get the impression that if things were left up to Wiesler and Dreymann, life in the DDR would have been great.

The main difference between this and classical Ostalgie, really, is in the atmosphere. Unlike the other films, this one tries hard to give you a sense of how tense and quiet everything was. And to that extent, it succeeds. Though I was never in East Germany, I was in what used to be East Berlin in 1994, and I remember this atmosphere well. At that time, the city looked more or less as it had done. Things were empty and ruined, and there was an oppressive tense QUIET over everything - especially if you went off the main streets. As though people were still afraid of being overheard. The empty, shabby bar Wiesler goes to after work very much reminds me of bars we visited in the East in 1994.

But that's all it can really say. In fact, aside from the attention to this one admittedly important detail, I have the impression that the other films are more accurate in their portrayal of life "back then." Dreyman, for example, wears implausibly good clothes, lives in an implausibly good apartment surrounded by items of implausible quality and friends who are implausibly confident (as he is) and implausibly outspoken in their criticism of the regime.

It is exactly the kind of movie a westerner with cliched ideas about Socialism would make about life in the East. The East is full of people just like us who think and act just like us and even live to roughly our standard of living - oh and by the way they're oppressed. Right.

So in sum, I think the fairest thing to say about this movie is that it's a "pretty thing." The directing is good, the acting is near-perfect, the original music is truly beautiful. The dialogue will do: occasional brilliance shines through here too. Despite what the critics say, Wiesler IS a believable character - if you can keep yourself from thinking too much about how disconnected the logistics of the plot are from actual historical reality, I mean. But of course, you can't, and that's the whole problem. A thousand nagging details conspire to ruin this film - and that's a real shame given the obvious level of talent involved.

Everyone has it Backward

I suppose it's about time I said something about the Jena Six case. I don't read the news as closely as I used to and only found out about the case through Facebook, when one of my "friends" (whom I've never met, but never mind) signed up for a group supporting the perversely-named "civil rights" protestors.


  1. The Jena 6 are a lynchmob, and public opinion defends them for this reason. This is a line I stole from Guy Herbert in a comment thread on Samizdata. Of course I was outraged that anyone was defending what amounted to a racially-motivated beating, but that particular irony hadn't occurred to me until I read Herbert's comment. He's exactly right, though. The Jena 6 beat up a white kid to "put him in his place" after he expressed "the wrong attitude" toward black people. In the eyes of public opinion, this is all (at least partly) justified because three completely-unrelated people who also happened to be white strung some nooses from a tree several months earlier. So yes, this is a lynchmob attack to the letter of the definition - and the so-called "civil rights movement" (which is misnamed in precisely the same sense as the "German Democratic Republic" or "Pravda" (Russian: truth)) has finally reached apogee in terms of absurd Orwellian self-parody.

  2. The case is revealing about the depth to which anti-Southern bias exists in the public consciouness. Another commenter on Samizdata pooh-poohs the idea that the charges against the Jena 6 could have been just because "Thank heavens we can rely on police in the South to be impartial in racially charged situations. LOL" I take issue with this, I'm afraid. Southen cops had a well-deserved reputation for racism 40 years ago. Things have changed a lot since then. I have no idea what the situation on the ground in Jena, LA is. Knowing little about the surrounding events, I would have to say that it seems plausible that the local justice system is racist simply judging from the fact that the 6 were originally charged with attempted murder for something that seems to be a run-of-the-mill bloodletting - i.e. nothing of the kind. Ganging up on someone 6-to-1 to beat him into the hospital is, and should be, a felony offense. But the 22 years these kids were facing was just off the charts, and I wouldn't be surprised if racism explains at least some of the local prosecutor's zeal. But whether or not the local law enforcement in Jena is racist is surely irrelevant to any conclusions to the effect that southerners in general are??? This is, after all, the same South that coughs up human dung like Mike Nifong - an opportunist who prosecuted his victims because they were white. In other words, the "South," just like any other region in the country, runs the gamut between pro-white racist, pro-black racist, and fair-and-impartial-non-racist law enforcement. So let's please keep our accusations of racism local - like we do when we're accusing the LA cops of racism (it was never suggested after Rodney King that "the West" was racist), or Boston cops of racism (I don't recall hearing in school that the desegregation riots in Boston ca 1975 fueled the general perception that "the North" is racist).

  3. Hate Crimes legislation is an absurdity, but as long as it's on the books it clearly applies to this case. If we're going to talk about a racially unbalanced administration of justice in America - which, thanks to the presence of race pimps like Al Sharpton in Jena this week, we apparently are - we need to talk about why these teens aren't being charged with a hate crime. Before I get misquoted on this - hate crimes legislation is (or should be) a legal absurdity in a free society. That is because hate crimes legislation punishes thought, something the law should not attempt to do. An assault on a person is not a greater violation of his rights because it was motivated by opinions that are unfashionable (however much free-thinking people may agree with the trend to condemn them). It is simply a violation of his rights - regardless of the motivation. So I do not want anyone charged with a hate crime in this case. But that is because I do not want people charged with hate crimes at all. That said, it is telling that no hate crimes charges are being contemplated in this case. If the law were applied fairly, they would be - because this is a "hate crime" in every sense of the term. What it means is: Sharpton's and Jackson's (and associated race-baiters') assertions to the contrary, public opinion in the United States is racially biased, it just happens that it's biased in the opposite way from what they say.

  4. I am really tired of people peppering their commentary on this and similar cases with sanctimonious proclamations of just how wrong it was to hang the noose in the first place. I mean, yeah, it was wrong, and the students were appropriately punished (which is to say, it is appropriate that they were punished, though I am in the camp that thinks that three days suspension is a bit light given the circumstances). High school students do things like this. There is no need for the kind of hyperbole that leads one of Samizdata's leading contributors to write: "I hope the fuckers who put up nooses to intimidate black people die a very long, painful death." Honestly, let's not get carried away. In what parallel universe is "a long and painful death" appropriate reward for hanging up offesnive and/or intimidating symbols? All anyone accomplishes with comments like this is to confirm that they can no longer think for themselves. They are so intimidated by the race-baiting lobby that saying things that will please them becomes more important than making intelligent contributions to the discussion. It really does remind one of Stalinism, where even the slightest practical suggestion for change would have to be prefaced by paragraphs convincing the relevant officials of one's overall loyalty. That's the only function such hyperbole ever serves - to convince the brayers that you're a team player overall. But why does anyone want to convince the likes of Sharpton and Jackson that they're team players? Don't feed the zoo animals - they'll just bite off your hand. No one in an intelligent discussion should have to convince the spectators that he's non-racist (especially not using these kinds of terms!) just for saying something Al Sharpton is likely to disapprove of. You should simply say your thing and wait for someone else to be obtuse enough to accuse you of racism (counterrevolution, being an enemy of the working class, whatever). And when they do, if you are not, in fact, racist, then you can get righteously indignant and respond appropriately. After all, you will have been falsely accused. But to volunteer this kind of slogan - well, it's just cowardly. Not that anyone's cowardice is any of my business - but I do think that this is the kind of thing that keeps Mr. Sharpton employed, and I object to it on those grounds. All such statements do is serve to prove that Al Sharpton and his ilk can still intimidate the public - essentially without trying. Would that they could not.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Little Bit Here, A Little Bit There

Leftist bias in the media has a way of being both brazen and subtle all at the same time. Don't believe me? Have a look at this cool article about the various presidential (isn't that election over a year away???) candidates' positions on healthcare. By which, of course, I mean Hillary Clinton's and Mitt Romney's positions on healthcare.
Like all good sucker punches, this one puts you at ease before it strikes:

"Individual mandate" is the jargon politicians use to describe health care plans that assume every citizen will enroll in health insurance, often with subsidies and under threat of penalty.

Alright, so far so good. Sounds like we're cutting through the fog and not letting politicians get away with oily-tongued phrasing, eh? Except...

As governor of Massachusetts, Romney pushed a plan that requires state residents to get health insurance or face tax penalties. The law includes a new bureaucracy to implement it, government subsidies for the poor and guidelines for health insurance companies.

The effort broke new ground by sharing responsibility between government, business and individuals.[Emphasis added]

What kind of New Age, Orwellian, psychedelic desert buffet is this, then? Since when is requiring someone to do something under threat of penalty "sharing responsibility?" This is the same kind of tripped-out thinking that allows the Dems to style themselves as the "good guys" because they're "helping people." Never mind that they themselves don't put up the money they spend to "help people," preferring instead to take it from other, more productive citizens. They're still the "caring" folks, as opposed to the people who actually create the wealth they use (i.e. make it possible to fund their pet programs in the first place), who are "greedy" or "selfish" or whatever. But see, if you smoke what this reporter is smoking, then actually people who prefer to pay their taxes rather than go to prison so that politicians can, say, build some houses for people who can't be bothered to work, are "sharing responsibility" for ... well, whatever, details details. Isn't that nice?

But here's where it gets really good:

As a presidential candidate, Romney opposes a national individual mandate. Balancing his belief in personal responsibility against his support of states rights, Romney came down on the side of federalism.

I mean, what do you even do with something like this? "Balancing his belief in personal responsibility against his support of states[sic] rights..." That's rich, that is. I'm not sure which is scarier - the idea that reporters engage in this kind of crass manipulation, or the idea that this particular reporter actually thinks of "personal responsibility" in this way.

Listen up, nimblenuts - "personal responsibility" is not never, ever, and in no way, and never has been used to describe the situation where someone agrees to accept a handout. Nor is it generally used to describe the situation where someone agrees to do something under duress. I mean, it's as if we're saying that a person with a gun to his head "does the responsible thing" by handing over his wallet in a mugging. OK, in some extreme sense of the term, I suppose he does, if you accept (as, granted, most people do) that people are responsible, within reason, for preserving their lives. But if we're honest, this is an abuse of the term "responsible." "Responsibility" doesn't enter into this situation at all - it's just someone following their survival instinct, really. Likewise, agreeing to enroll in a healthcare plan because someone will fine you if you don't is a pocketbook motive, not "responsibility." It's sort of like when you go to McDonald's, and they tell you that for $0.30 more you can make everything twice as big as it was before, and you do it not because you're a fatass slob who can actually put away all that coke and fries, but because, what the hell, it's only $0.30, and you resent being charged only $0.30 less for a fraction of the food. THAT's the deal Romney's offering. It isn't a matter of "responsibility" at all.

Later on, we get this:

Thirteen years after her singular leadership position ended in failure, Clinton proposed a $110 billion a year program that builds on the existing employer-based system of coverage.

The new plan requires citizens to get insurance as part of a "shared responsibility," but that claim rings hollow until the Clinton campaign says whether the mandate would be backed up by penalties.

So see, it's even worse than we thought. This moron of a reporter actually thinks that the normal definition of responsibility isn't responsibility at all. People don't get responsible until the government makes them by fining them for ... refusing to take responsibility. So you're not even responsible for being responsible, really - that's all on Hillary.

I think the best description of this kind of thinking is indeed that of Sir Keith Joseph, who lamented it as leading to a "pocket money society". You know, where Big Brother provides you with all you need to survive, and you simply keep (what's left of) what you earn to spend on "fun things." It's responsibility in the grade school sense: you do your chores and keep up with your homework, and Mommy and Daddy see that you have play money. So yes, alright, this kind of healthcare system "shares responsibility" if it's kids we're talking about. But surely this isn't an appropriate way to talk about adults?

The stunner for me, honestly, is that these are the reporter's words. I mean, we're used to politicians spinning their pet programs with glittering generalities like "responsible" and "freedom" (even when they're talking about forced enrollment in a healthcare plan as "responsibility" and suspension of habeas corpus as "freedom"). But it's the reporter doing this. Work for the Ministry of Truth much, buddy?

Is it so much to ask that reporters simply, you know, report? That they use language in the way that we're all accustomed to hearing it, and not choose sneaky trojan horse words that seek to infect their readers with a particular ideology?

I mean, don't get me wrong - writing an article completely without bias is probably impossible. Given limited column space, and given that reporters, like all human beings, are bound to view the world, at least to some extent, through their own ideological lenses, you'll never get an article about politics that's completely without bias. Hell, I'm not sure I would know what a "completely unbiased" view of an issue would even be. But allowing for that, surely this particular indulgence is excessive? Which is to say, even if this reporter honestly believes in a "pocket money" society as a shining paragon of civilized behavior, it is implausible in the extreme that he is unaware that most people don't use the word "responsibility" in the way he is using it here.

No, this can be nothing other than crass manipulation. Fortunately, I don't share his obviously dismal opinion of the general public. I think a lot of people will read this and see it for what it is: yet another example of subtle(?) liberal bias in the mainstream media, and further evidence of just how low an opinion the average leftist actually has of "the people" - whose interests he purports to represent - and their ability to think for themselves.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sometimes Roses Smell Sweeter if they're Roses

TOWM's quote of the day comes from a Lambda the Ultimate discussion thread on the adoption of R6RS - the new standard for the Scheme Programming Language:

Maybe I'll create a programming language called "<p>", just to drive browsers nuts. :)

That's in response to a couple of snarky statements - the first of which suggesting that the R6RS is so different from before that they should call it Scheme++, and a followup noting that that would actually be (+ scheme 1). I would just like to note that there already is a language so poorly-named that Google can't find its documentation on demand...

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Killing in the Name Of

Paul Marks has a rather interesting entry on Samizdata about Death Sentence - a revenge movie starring Kevin Bacon.

(Second-Hand) Spoilers Begin Here

I haven't actually seen the movie - but from what I've read on the internet, the plot goes something like this. Kevin Bacon plays Nick Hume, whose hockey-playing favorite son is murdered in a gang initiation ritual. Apparently the gang requires its members to kill someone at random to join, and Nick's son is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Due to lack of conclusive evidence, the DA will not be able to put the killer away for life, despite the fact that Nick can easily pick him out of a lineup. The best they can hope for is 3-5 years. So Nick decides not to testify, preferring to get revenge on his own. He tells the suspicious DA that he's no longer sure the man he picked out did it as it was dark at the time of the killing, etc. Without testimony, authorities are forced to release the suspect on bail.

Nick follows him on his release, learns who his friends are, etc. and kills him as he's taking out the garbage. Unfortunately, Nick's kind of an amateur and the whole thing goes badly: he's seen by one of the gangsters' sisters. So the gang comes after him, eventually killing his wife and putting his surviving son in a coma. With nothing left to lose, Nick buys a small arsenal, takes out the rest of the gang, and the movie closes with him sitting at home watching home movies while the police surround his house.

(Second-Hand) Spoilers End Here

The discussion on Samizdata revolves around what, and how morally acceptable, the message of the movie really is. Of course the standard Hollywood line on such a film would be to make it a morality play rant against vigilante justice. Violence begets violence, and so honest citizens are supposed to stay within the confines of the law, no matter how personally costly that may be for them. But Mr. Marks claims that this one isn't so simple. It's true that Nick's vengeance quest comes with a terrible price. An objective observer would say it were too high; after all, he loses the rest of his family, as well as his personal freedom, in the shuffle. But if Mr. Marks is to be believed, the movie portrays the situation in such a way as to suggest that, emotionally speaking, Mr. Hume has no choice.

The questions, then, are these:

  1. If this movie is opting for a more complex run on this familiar story than simply showing the destructiveness of "eye-for-an-eye" thinking, what, exactly, is the point it's trying to make? Is there a useful lesson to be learned from a situation that is hugely destructive and also unavoidable?

  2. Is one ever justified taking the law into his own hands in this way? If so, when is it allowed and when should people restrain themselves? What are the consequences for society of encouraging people to behave in this way?

Since I feel the discussion on Samizdata is too far advanced for me to jump in at this point, I'm posting my answers here:

To the first question: the usefulness of such a movie for me lies in reminding people that there is a price to be paid for vengeance rather than as the more traditional across-the-board condemnation of it. It's perfectly plausible to me that the movie is taking a more or less neutral stance on whether a man in this situation should avenge his son; the point is more that if you are in such a situation and decide to take matters into your own hands, you should do so with open eyes, fully cognizant of just how terrible the consequences can be. Never, as the saying goes, bet more than you are willing to lose. If you have a lot to lose, you should think twice before going on a vengeance quest. This point is especially well-made by the situation the movie sets up: the killers are unlikely to ever disturb Nick or his family again as doing so would give the police enough rope to hang them. Nick is perfectly capable of cutting his losses and walking away. He chooses not to do so, and I am with what I understand to be the producers' intended moral on this one: as long as he makes his choice with open eyes, I don't feel like I have the right to criticize him. It's his son and not mine, after all. (ASIDE: a lot of people on Samizdata have made the inevitable connection between this story and the War on Terror - which was largely motivated, at least at the outset, by a desire for revenge for the Twin Towers Massacre. One salient difference between the two for me is on precisely this point. In fact, I do not believe that foreign policy, or legal matters of any kind, should ever be motivated by revenge. But I do think that deterring future attacks is a good justification for foreign wars, and it was partly for this reason that I supported attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm in the camp that believe that doing nothing would have invited more attacks - and this is an important difference with Nick's situation, where doing nothing is the surest way to avoid future attacks.)

To the second question: I think it depends on what you mean by "justified." More precisely, it depends on what level of "justification" you are talking about. On the legal level, no citizen is ever "justified" in breaking the law - at least not inherently just laws like the prohibition on murder. No society that allows random murder can survive; indeed, the prohibition on the initiation of the use of force (a right reserved to the government) is the cornerstone of any libertarian society. So legally speaking, the only time a citizen is ever "justified" in killing another citizen is in cases of self-defense. That said, it's foolish to think that upholding the law is the whole of human existence, and on another ethical level - the personal level - Mr. Hume is quite justified in killing off the gang that killed his son.

Here's why I think so.

The law is a kind of reciprocal arrangement. We engage in law-bound behavior only because we have a reasonable expectation that others will do the same. In the overwhelming majority of cases, I believe that people obey they law becuase they know that other people will be decent enough to do so as well. Of course, there are the handful of cases where people obey the law simply because they are afraid of the police - but that will do for the rest of us. When we're talking about faceless co-citizens (as opposed to people we know well), it doesn't really much matter why they respect our rights, we just need to know that they will. As my uncle is fond of saying, "A lock will keep out an honest man." And there's a ring of truth to that; most people don't open locked doors not because they can't break the lock, but because the mere presence of a lock is enough to keep them out. These are the civilized people. Then there are those people who would open the locked door if only they could, but lacking the expertise and fearful of the consequences of breaking it, they don't. These people are not, stricly speaking, civilized, but they behave for all intents and purposes as though they were, and since civilization is not a religion (rather, it is a convenience for the majority of us - a preferable way to live than in the bush), I don't much care. Whatever is responsible for my lock's success at keeping people out of the room I want sealed, the point is that it keeps people out.

Unfortunately, there are those few who either lack scruples and can open the lock, or else lack scruples and can break it. What of them?

Well, of course we hope the police catch them. And of course we hope they are prevented from further smashing other people's locks. But I think we can also agree that a person who disregards my lock gives up his reasonable expectation that I will respect his. As I've said many times before on this blog, the thing that bothers me about my uncle's favorite saying is that locks aren't for honest men. A closed door and a sign is enough for an honest man. We have locks because we know that not all men are honest, and when dealing with dishonest people there is no rational negotiation and agreement. There is only the hope that superior force (the police, in the default case) will compel them to act in an appropriate way. When confronted with a person who not only is not honest enough to obey the law of his own free choice but is also unimpressed with the threat of violence that keeps everyone else nominally "civilized," there can obviously be no civilized dealings. So why the insistence in popular parlance that civilized people will bear the burden of behaving in a civilized manner even to people who have demonstrated that not only are they savages, but dangerous savages?

In fact, I don't believe they necessarily should. Civilized behavior and legal behavor are closely linked, but they're not exactly the same thing. Civilization keeps us from trying to break the lock, and the law enforcement arm (which is the lock itself) is for non-civilized cowards who happen to be living with the rest of us. Nothing will reasonably stop a non-civilized man who is not a coward, however, except reciprocal action.

In addition to the Diana nonsense, the girlfriend from the previous post also said some wise things - and one of them was that she wants a government that's bigger than her but smaller than God - a fancy way of saying more or less "what the Constitution's Framers intended." The government is not the final arbiter on moral matters. It's just something that will do for holding civilization together. And this is what the Framers had in mind when talking of rights as something that people naturally have, rather than something that the government gives them. The government's job is not to interfere with those rights; it does not create them.

If someone kills your son, I think it is fair to say that you have a natural right to go off and kill him. At the very least, the person who kills your son has given up any reasonable expectation he may have that you will NOT do so. Unfortunately, society cannot recognize this right in the general case because it is so easily abused. So, like so many other things in law, we make a tradeoff. With the exception of self-defense against a clear and present physical threat, we prohibit murder in general. The government retains a monopoly on the initiation of force, and vengeance is legally banned. Rather than viewing that as a moral prohibition against vengeance, however, I prefer to see that as a deterrent against vengeance. By treating a vengeance quest as a "murder one" like any other, we put a high premium on it and hopefully keep passion killings to a low frequency. This ensures that people will not take vengeance killing lightly - but I do not believe we should expect that it should ensure that such killings never happen. If it is worth it to someone who has lost his son to take this risk, then I see no purely moral argument to prohibit him from doing so.

This is similar to a convincing argument that Noah gave in favor of banning torture as a legal tactic in the War on Terror. Naturally people who support adopting torture will want to know what you do if a bomb is about to go off in 30min. killing tens of thousands, and you have in your interrogation room someone who can tell you where it is and how to disarm it. Do you condone torture in these circumstances? And Noah's answer is "yes, clearly - it is the civilized thing to do." The point is that the law is a dumb algorithm - like a computer program. It can't be expected to cover all circumstances. So we make laws that cover the general cases - and hopefully only prohibit things that are generally immoral, such as torture. Banning torture prevents its abuse - but it shouldn't be taken as a blanket moral condemnation of all torture in all circumstances. Clearly, there are circumstances where torture is the right thing to do; we just make engaging in it "expensive" so as to prevent it from happening in anything other than truly extraordinary cases.

Well, I feel the same way about vengeance. The interrogator who decides to torture, even though it is expressly forbidden, in order to save the lives of tens of thousands in the example above is "taking one for the team." He puts his own ass on the line, hoping that in the aftermath the president will pardon him, etc. But of course he has no guarantee that he will be pardoned. Civilization depends on his willingness to consider preventing mass murder something worth sacrificing for. And in some important sense, civilization also depends on individual people considering their families worth sacrificing for when the law lets them down.

Of all the arguments against gun control, one of the more convincing is that an armed population makes crime expensive. And crime should be expensive. Because committing a crime, in some important sense, is a refusal to play the game at the same handicap the rest of us take on. The rest of us agree to earn our money; and then a handful of rejects decide to take advantage of our labor without giving anything in return. The rest of us agree to earn our respect; but there's a handful of rejects who cheat and kill for it. The rest of us agree to persuade people to mate with us; and then there's this handful of rejects who skip that step and force it. The law cannot possibly prevent all crime. We wouldn't want it to - because the kind of legal system that prevented all crime would itself be criminal (in the sense of making copious amounts of mistakes and sending masses of innocents to jail on false and/or purely political charges). The fact that so many criminals slip through the cracks in our system is regrettable - but it's far better than the alternative, which is life in a police state. My point is simply that when the law fails, if a righteous individual wishes to take it upon himself to correct its failure, then who am I to stop him?

It will naturally be objected by someone at this point that this means that we're allowing all sorts of other actions under the same paradigm. To take what I guess would be a good counterargument - what of the jealous husband who strangles his wife when he finds that she's cheating on him? Can't this be seen as a kind of "revenge" that, while worth it to this individual, the civilized masses will rightly condemn?

Well, yes, of course. Strangling someone who "cheated" on you isn't civilized behavior under any circumstances - because the behavior in question isn't so terrible as to count as a giving up of the wife's reasonable expectation that her husband will not kill her. Personally, I would argue that a wife who cheats does indeed give up her reasonable expectation that her husband will stay faithful to her (see Heffner, Hugh for an appropriate, if excessive, response to marital infidelity) - to save a marriage in those circumstances requires something beyond justice, obviously. But cheating invites cheating; it does not invite killing (or physical harm of any kind). And I think all such potential counterexamples will come out the same. I'm not talking about uncivilized non-cowards, who will not play by whatever rules we lay down for them. We're simply talking about whether the rest of us are right to morally condemn someone who has been wronged and engages in reciprocal action when the law fails him. It's pretty clear to me that we are not

I think it's worth pointing out that Nick Hume's vengeance quest benefits a lot of people, actually. It may have destroyed him and his life, but it results in the elimination of a gang that was, let's not forget, routinely killing people for trivial reasons and thus likely to claim many more lives in the future. A gang that kills random civilians as an initiation ritual gives up any right to expect that the rest of us will not hunt them down and kill them. And it's satisfying to me that natural law caught up with them, even if the "official" law did not. I find movies like this comforting for that reason: because it is a reminder that ethics and rights are NOT creations of the government, and that we are NOT simply savages if we don't happen to live in a modern nation state. The vast majority of humanity is made up of basically good people who WILL behave like civilized beings if only they have a reasonable expectation that everyone around them will too. Government is necessary to give them that expectation with regard to people outside their immediate community - but it is NOT what creates civilized behavior and it is NOT the source of rights. Government exists to protect rights that people have by virtue of being born human. It is a tool, ultimately, and not something that we should hold in quasi-religious awe.

And indeed, in some important sense you have a slave's mentality if you are NOT willing to take up arms when people come to kill your family. Becuase you have, at that point, conceded that abstract principles administered by an uncaring (necessarily so!) entity count for more to you than what you feel in your blood to be right. Now, someone who is afraid he will not be able to carry out the killing and is unwilling to put his surviving wife and son at risk is of course perfectly free to forego the vengeance quest with no condemnation from me. My point here has simply been to argue that it is regretable that people have come to hold the government in such esteem that they confuse the law - which is a practical tool for keeping society running - with a final moral authority, which is something that individuals seek and adopt on their own.

Naturally there has been a lot of chirping on Samizdata about how the cliched anti-vigilante movie is proof that Hollywood has a leftist bias. I'm not so sure. Now, don't get me wrong: THAT Hollywood has a leftist bias is something I don't think can be reasonably denied. I'm just not sure that the leftist bias is what's to blame for this particular cliche. I think what's to blame for this particular cliche is something much more basic - and that's simple escapism. Anti-vigilante morality plays are escapism like anything else. People go to the movies to watch Rambo to feel like a badass, even though they're accountants in brown suits terrified of losing their pension in real life, or whatever. And by the same token, they go to morality plays condemning vengeance to feel morally superior on the cheap. Because it's really only in fiction - when you can sit on the sidelines and be smug - that a reasonable person can kid himself that he's so all-fired saintly and holy that when the bad guys come knocking he'll make the terrible sacrifice of letting them go for the "greater" purpose of staying civilized and law-abiding. I imagine if it happens in real life that someone kills your son for no reason the emotions aren't nearly so simple. You can obey the law if you want, and you can tell yourself that you do it because you're civilized, but you'll always wonder if it wasn't just because you are a coward. And as for anger at the injustice of the whole thing - that's just something you're going to have to live with, then - and again, I guess in real life that's not so easy as it sounds in your head when you're clucking your tongue at people who "let emotions get in the way" like Nick Hume did. So I guess this kind of movie is common in Hollywood not so much because Hollywood is a batallion of socialists, but because Hollywood's business is fantasy, and the idea that I, the moviegoer, am so moral I can accept the loss of my son in the name of civilization or law and order or whatever, is as comforting a fantasy as any other. (Of course, I won't rule out the idea that Hollywood is full of leftists because leftist politics are fantasies like any other. ;-) )

So, to make a long story short (too late!), Nick Hume can kill away all he wants with my personal moral blessing, if not my legal blessing.