Regularly added bite-sized reviews about Literature, Art, Music & Film.
Voltaire said the secret of being boring is to say everything.
We do not wish to say everything or see everything; life, though long is too short for that.
We hope you take these little syntheses in the spirit of shared enthusiasm.
(Directed by Marielle Heller) (2019)
The Varnished Culture settled down with a choice wine to watch this, fully expecting to enjoy the contents of the bottle more than the film. Spared the viewing of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001) due to the tyranny of distance, we guessed this would be an uplifting panegyric of the famous kiddy presenter. Hence we feared a saccharine overdose as with The Sound of Music, more so when we perceived that the story, based on an article in Esquire, would centre around the the cynical, angry, world-weary, troubled, investigative journalist ‘Lloyd Vogel’ (Matthew Rhys), sent (querulously) to do a puff piece on the Play School good-guy, Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) whose quiet integrity would redeem and bring the common touch of humanity and grace to the hard-bitten.
We have to report, however, that director Heller (though she looks alarmingly like President Biden’s press secretary), has done a remarkable thing with this production. Made with a number of surreal touches, based around the TV show’s set with all its fantasy elements, we were drawn-in to an otherwise predictable yarn. Heller gives us more pauses than a Pinter play; she feels little pressure to gas up the action, but she doesn’t allow torpor to lead to ennui. How she manages to meld a light touch with a sincere depth for feeling, we are not quite sure: certainly there is a lot of love for Rogers that shines through, and the cast are uniformly excellent. In particular, we liked Susan Kelechi Watson in a fairly thankless supporting role as Vogel’s wife, Maryann Plunkett as Mrs. Rogers, and a nice performance by Chris Cooper as Vogel’s estranged, damaged, deadbeat father. Cooper is a great natural actor, and his scenes are valuable here as a fulcrum and for grounding.
The revelation is Hanks in the (co-starring) role of Mr. Rogers. Hanks is not a great natural actor, and many of his roles succeed because he has a winning personality. But here Hanks does get inside the character and makes you believe in him, as he obviously does. It is a lovely bit of playing, spurning the artistic nightmare of an on-screen saint and instead catching the crackle and fizz of a good man of flesh and blood, tranquil belief, sensibility, flaws, and wisdom. We’d never go on a trip with Hanks (e.g. in a spacecraft, on a domestic flight, in a light FedEx plane, or on a container vessel) but we’d be happy to be his neighbour (down here, we spell it with a ‘u’).
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(2008) (Coen Bros.)
This paean to American stupidity has been likened by The New Republic to the Trump administration. Actually, whilst The New Republic knows a lot about stupidity, it is probably more apt to wield the point in a bi-partisan manner, as the early hallmarks of Trump’s successor seem to trump Mr. Trump and his ilk. Whilst this film has some funnily absurd moments (Brad Pitt’s turn as a complete dope is hilarious, as is Frances McDormand’s outrage at having her attempts to betray her country rebuffed) it is more or less a slapdash affair in low misanthropy.
The plot, such as it is, involves the misplacing, then theft, of the draft memoirs of disgruntled CIA analyst (a phoned-in performance from John Malkovich, who nevertheless is invariably worth watching). His wife, a typically overwound Tilda Swinton, is dallying with feckless U.S. Marshall (George Clooney), who has numerous affairs to make up for lack of time to do his cherished 5-mile runs. (Everyone is having affairs). Gym workers Chad (Pitt) and Linda (McDormand) try to blackmail Malkovich to raise money for Linda’s series of plastic surgeries, leading to much blood, sweat and tears. Everyone is greedy, grubby and self-obsessed. All break the law and damage others with impunity. The project rattles its way, unevenly, to a cop-out conclusion. It takes a comic genius to make a funny film with these characters: the Coen Brothers do not qualify. Time to close that file: burn after watching.Continue Reading →
(Directed by Roy William Neill)(1946)
This obscure Universal film noir is rather odd in an intriguing, almost surreal way. A blackmailer, Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling), ex-wife of part-time pianist/composer and full-time drunk, Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), turns up strangled in her apartment, one of Blair’s songs reverberating on the record player. Blair was on the spot earlier but the Doorman, under instructions, told him to go jump, whereupon he went on a bender of epic proportions. Meanwhile, Kirk Bennett, a poor sap who’s been having an affair with Mavis, visits, but finds her dead and busily incriminates himself by leaving dabs all about and being seen while scarpering down the stairs. He is duly charged by low-key, low energy detective, Captain Flood (Broderick Crawford), tried, convicted, and sent off to the Big Chair.
Enter Mrs. Catherine Bennett (June Vincent). She is sure Kirk is innocent, and sets about trying to obtain some exculpatory evidence. Finding unlikely help from newly widowed Blair, the two conclude that another man visited Mavis on the fateful night: shady nightclub owner Mr. Marko (Peter Lorre). Blair recalls seeing him take the elevator while the doorman was showing Blair the door, and after all, it is Peter Lorre, the whispering menace. Tolerating Blair’s piano-playing and seduced by Catherine’s alleged torch-song talent, Marko hires them, conveniently allowing them to loiter between sets, hoping to gain access to Marko’s private office and safe. This they do, but complications arise: Blair’s declaration of love for Catherine is slapped away; she goes to see Kirk before he takes the juice; Blair hits the bars, and Peter goes sadly back to the Rio Club to smoke another hundred cigarettes and listen to Shostakovich records.
Eventually, all is revealed; the denouement is rather unusual. The film is clearly a ‘B’, Duryea and Lorre the only big names in the cast (Broderick Crawford would not be a leading man until All the King’s Men 3 years later). Duryea’s performance is patchy but he does rather well as the drunk who tends to fall head-over-heels at the drop of his hat (let’s not talk about his piano “playing” however); June Vincent, inexperienced and uncertain, tries her best, sings some silly tunes better than Claire Trevor, and is likeable enough in a role more apt for, say, Gene Tierney or Lauren Bacall. In The Lost One, she recalls that Lorre helped her a lot with tricky scenes, giving a lie to an oft-made suggestion that he phoned-in his lesser roles. He might not be at his peak here, but Lorre infuses Black Angel with style and real menace. He’s too good for the film, but his sad eyes and insinuating manner has – as usual – the viewer on the edge of the seat.
David Shipman wrote in “The Great Movie Stars” that Lorre on screen “was a man resigned to the follies of others, clasping to himself his own fastidiousness like a fetish.” He left a giant mark on film and became a symbol that endures in the pallid homages and appropriations which Hollywood re-vamp in the ever-lasting present, as film steadily degenerates into a fading and failing art form.Continue Reading →
By Kurt Vonnegut (1963)
Something of a succès d’estime in reverse, this book won admiration for its bleak humour, deadpan reportage and sci-fi elements, until the rot set in and everyone realised that it wasn’t hugely good, with its glib, jerky, episodic micro-chapters, cardboard characters and terrible snatches of verse. Vonnegut was not yet really a novelist; Cat’s Cradle is not really a novel. But here Kurt is an accumulator of ‘bits,’ an amasser of literary bitcoin, and some of his stock is quite brilliant. His false religion, Bokononism, owes something to Spinoza, but with typical jokey authorial touches – the doctrine infused with foma (harmless untruths), the teams of unrelated and oblivious persons somehow related (a karass), and the fulcrum of a karass, a wampeter. Unlike Spinoza, Vonnegut’s humourously desolate theology (with built-in “more zest, more tang“) is deeply nihilistic, which is why, whilst often top drawer, the comedy carries something of an antiseptic sting.
These are pleasant diversions, as is the thin but rich account of eccentric scientists and their indifference to logical outcomes of their research, but the binding triumph of this satiric novella – the brilliant bit – is Vonnegut’s absent-minded professor, Felix Hoenikker (he plays ‘Cat’s Cradle’ with a piece of string while the bomb he developed is dropping on Hiroshima) and his other invention, Ice-nine. Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature and acts as a seed crystal upon contact with ordinary liquid water, causing that liquid water to instantly transform into more Ice-nine, and so on, and compounding, until all the water in a closed system is transformed and the world ends. Such a plaything was given casually by Hoenikker “to such short-sighted children as almost all men and women are…” Written in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, part of the cold-war nuclear games of chicken with its doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, Ice-nine beautifully symbolizes the book’s skepticism about science-sans-morality, the turning of technology towards evil ends, and laughing nihilism.
We won’t describe the shenanigans that take the narrator – ostensibly researching the life of the Professor – to the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, inhabited by various professorial issue and headed by a Papa Doc figure who keeps his peasants in line with a corrupted version of Bokononism and threat of being hung from a Hook – and also where we confront Ice-nine, the stuff of which nightmares are made (Don’t gingerly test it with the tip of your tongue). Ice-nine’s ability to replicate and extend renders it as pervasive as the 2 most common elements in the universe, hydrogen and stupidity.
Instead of a synopsis, let’s salt, or sweeten our summary of Cat’s Cradle with some nice extracts:
“She believed that God liked people in sailboats much better than He liked people in motor boats.”
“When it [the rain] fell, it would freeze into hard hobnails of ice-nine – and that would be the end of the world! And the end of the interview, too! Good-bye!”
“There was a sign hung around my dead cat’s neck. It said, Miaow.”
“‘Americans’, he said, quoting his wife’s letter to the Times, ”are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be.””
“Never index your own book.”
“Crosby was in his cups and had the drunkard’s illusion that he could speak frankly, provided he spoke affectionately.”
“When Johnson and McCabe came upon the city, it was built of twigs, tin, crates, and mud – rested on the catacombs of a trillion happy scavengers, catacombs in a sour mash of slop, feculence, and slime.”
“It posed the question posed by all such stone piles: how had puny men moved stones so big? And, like all such stone piles, it answered the question itself. Dumb terror had moved those stones so big.”
“The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon is entitled, ‘What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?’ It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period. This is it: ‘Nothing.'”
“Science is magic that works.”
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(Netflix – 6 parts) (2020)
We know that bad things are about to happen when a miniseries begins with an attractive couple (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant as Grace and Jonathon Fraser) engaging in happy banter and in-jokes with their child (Noah Jupe as Henry Fraser) over a busy breakfast. Their New York apartment is Bohemian and chic, their clothes are Bohemian and chic, Jonathon is a paediatric oncologist, Grace is a marriage therapist for sleek couples and Henry goes to a ludicrously expensive private school which values diversity. You can see the trouble brewing from here, can’t you?
HBO is usually better than this. Grace Fraser is without doubt the world’s dumbest psychiatrist (although she is oddly referred to as a psychologist during a criminal trial). No half-wit who had spent their life alone in a remote cave could miss the mental issues by which someone close to her is beset, and which are displayed with carpet-chewing fervour in the final scene.
The acting is fine, although Noah Jupe is miscast as Henry, he’s too old for his role and, being a hobbit-type, could never be the biological child of Grant and Kidman. Donald Sutherland appears periodically as a sort of Chorus, expressing his loathing for Jonathon (“He’s like me!”). Matilda de Angelis is also miscast, putting in an odd turn as a plump, miserable, irritating femme fatale; looming at every turn. Her appeal is a mystery.
Someone is not where they are supposed to be, someone else is where they are not supposed to be, a third person gets their face bashed in and everyone is a suspect – no surprises there in this sort of by-the-numbers ‘psychological thriller’ (or should that be ‘psychiatric thriller’).
If you do watch this (perhaps for the lovely grey-blue faded beauty of Upper East New York, the John Carpenter-like music or Grace Fraser’s fitted bodice, full skirt brocade coats) skip the tedious opening titles. A red-haired girl wafts about, playing with bubbles while Nicole warbles, “Dweam a Little Dweam of Me”. It goes on for hours.
There’s a trial – of course. It’s risible. The defence lawyer (who seems to run a murder trial on her own) is more of an investigator and New-Age counsellor than an attorney. At one point, remarking that the case against her client is “circumstantial” (in reality there is no case), she says, “we need to offer-up another suspect”. It’s more like a popularity contest powered by Facebook than a trial. [Noma Dumezweni’s performance as the attorney is smart money to win an Emmy, which tells you all you need to know about the Emmys – Ed.]
The revelation at the end was unexpected but that’s because it defies all the laws of physics, chemistry, psychiatry and screenwriting.
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“The Earl of Louisiana” by A. J. Liebling (1961)
Liebling’s witty and nostalgic book shows us something of the old time politics and how it seems fresher and more vibrant than the sterile and shrill shenanigans of today. True, he had to travel to Louisiana (where the citizenry don’t expect corruption, they demand it) and he had a ringside seat to the Long legacy (the famous ‘Kingfish,’ Huey Long, Governor from 1928 to 1932 and a U.S. Senator until his death by gunfire in 1935, had been followed by younger brother Earl, Governor from 1939 to 1940, 1948 to 1952, and 1956 to 1960). Under the law then, a Governor was not eligible to serve consecutive terms: Earl thus decided he’d resign a few months before the end of his term and then campaign to ‘succeed’ his newly installed replacement – something of which even wily older brother Huey hadn’t thought.
The Longs were long on populist re-distribution and pork-barreling but they were also anti-racist in a State still prone to segregationist law and policies. Indeed, to effectively ameliorate such pre-Civil Rights Act injustices, it was necessary for an anti-racist to pose as a racist (he handed out quarters to white kids, nickels to black kids). As Earl snarled on the floor of the Legislature – as Liebling notes, being Governor, he probably had no right to speak as the head of the Executive – “you got to recognize that niggers is human beings!” This against a bill to remove black votes from electoral rolls. One lawyer observed to Liebling: “the state was tight as a drum and crooked as a corkscrew; now it’s still crooked, but it’s open to everybody.”
Long was a good ol’ boy but one on the side of the angels, fighting against segregationists, vested interests like Standard Oil, The Times-Picayune newspaper that detested him, and sundry other forces of darkness, but he fought with all the weapons he could amass. His stump speaking was legendary, a discursive, cornpone, meandering blend of invective, confession, pledges and appeals to the Supreme Deity. Of a hostile publisher; “Mr. Luce is like a man that owns a shoestore and buys all the shoes to fit himself. Then he expects other people to buy them.” When he promised to a representative of the cinema cartel to remove a tax on movie tickets, then renegued, his promisee said of his clients, “What do I tell them now?” to which Earl replied, “I’ll tell you what to tell them. Tell them I lied.” What ultimately blindsided him in the summer of 1959, however, when his impassioned speech brought him to the brink of apoplexy, was that his wife, Miz Blanche, would have him committed to a mental hospital in Texas. He did not see that coming.
With typical southern flair, Earl talked his way back to town, sacked the health officials that had facilitated his premature demise, and set his re-election strategy in motion. He fell short in the end, but the ride is wild and Liebling, the urbane staff writer for The New Yorker who fell (a little) under the demagogue’s spell, documents it with wit, affection and coolly measured prose:
“A Louisiana politician can’t afford to let his animosities carry him away, and still less his principles, although there is seldom difficulty in that department.” “Extended on a pallet in a dusty little hotel at Covington, where he lay after winning his way to freedom by firing the hospital officials, he recalled old newsreel shots of Mahatma Gandhi.” “The next sequence was pastoral – on the veranda of Earl’s old-fashioned farm at Winnfield, in his home parish, where it is politically inadvisable to paint the house too often.” “His delivery is based on increasing volume, like the noise of an approaching subway train; when he reaches his climaxes, you feel almost irresistibly impelled to throw yourself flat between the rails and let the cars pass over you.” “Square-chinned and leathery, Roussel has the kind of head Norman peasants carve on wooden stoppers for Calvados bottles.” “Outside, Alick [Alexandria, in the central part of the State] lay prostrate under the summer climate of Louisiana, like a bull pup flattened by a cow.” “The row of glowing cigar ends swaying in unison reminded me of the Tiller Girls in a glow-worm number.” “‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!’ [quoth Earl on the stump in Alexandria] At this point he was interrupted by wild handclapping from a group of elderly ladies wearing print dresses, white gloves, straw hats and Spaceman eyeglasses, who had been seated quietly on the platform…They were under the impression that it was an original line.”
Throughout, Liebling salts his articles (that became this book) with local colour and great set-pieces: Earl’s weird and wondrous shopping trips (he bought in bulk when he spotted a bargain – potatoes, goldfish, alarm clocks, billy goats, pitchforks, country hams, beer, etc); His daily review of form guides and telephoned bets on the gee-gees; Liebling’s visit to gubernatorial candidate Mayor deLesseps Morrison at City Hall in New Orleans (looking over all the autographed photos of the Mayor with various notables, Liebling wrote “I found the entire display an engaging disclaimer of false modesty“); Dining at the Governor’s mansion where one of his servants performs political cabaret turns to general hilarity; ““Vigorous” is another word that Morrison uses too often. It has connotations of hard labor that displeases voters in a warm climate“; In Glasgow covering the UK general election of 1959, dis-spirited by the bland, beige bromides of Macmillan and Gaitskell, he writes: “Nostalgic, I read a quotation from Uncle Earl: ”Jimmie Davis loves money like a hog loves slop.””
In the end, the run-off left standing only Mayor Morrison and Jimmie H. Davis, the eventual winner. Davis, the man who famously wrote “You Are My Sunshine” as well as less wholesome ballads, spelled bad news for the State’s less wealthy African Americans. As the writers of An American Melodrama wrote, “It seems odd that such a sunny fellow is also a relentless segregationist and was the author of the heartless legislation that took Negro women with illegitimate children off the relief rolls and left them to hustle or starve.” Meanwhile, Uncle Earl ran for State Congress, and won, but he died before taking up the office.
And Liebling, the irrepressible gourmand, liked Louisiana cuisine as much as P. J. O’ Rourke did the fried food in Arkansas when he went south to investigate the Clintons and Whitewater. Big, lengthy meals are a staple among politicos – think of the endless rounds of bars, cafes and restaurants inhabited by the crew in The Circus. Liebling was a big boy who liked his food (he liked three dozen oysters as a starter); in the introduction to the 2008 edition of the book by Jonathan Yardley, he reminds us that “in The Earl of Louisiana [Liebling] … recounts stupendous, and to the reader stupefying, repasts in the restaurants of New Orleans – with the result that he became dangerously obese.”
Some examples of this: “Manale’s…provided a glorious lunch of pompanos studded with busters-fat soft-shell crabs shorn of their limbs, which are to the buster-fancier as trifling as a mustache on the plat du jour must seem to a cannibal.” “A PoBoy at Mumfrey’s in New Orleans is a portable banquet. In the South proper, it is a crippling blow to the intestine.” “It was a good dinner, built around mallards shot by one of the guests, who emptied his deep freeze in the name of hospitality.” “The trenchers went around, great platters of country ham and fried steak, in the hands of black serving men, and sable damsels toted the grits and gravy.” “…we sat down to dinner in New Orleans – three dozen apiece at Felix’s and then shrimp and crabmeat Arnaud and red-snapper en court bouillon…” “In Kolb’s they serve planked redfish steak, snapping-turtle fricassee, jambalaya and gumbo, as well as pig’s knuckles and wursts…”
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(“The Road to Serfdom” by Friedrich Hayek) (1944) [and why it matters now]
“While the last resort of a competitive economy is the bailiff, the ultimate sanction of a planned economy is the hangman.”#
In 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany, there was a view that the fascists’ National Socialism model (as the joke went, neither nationalist nor socialist) constituted the lees of the empty vessel of capitalism, and that socialism and centrally planned economies represented the vibrant new vintage for the future. That year, Hayek, a Newby at the London School of Economics, wrote a short memo demolishing such nostrums, noting that “the scare of Russian communism has driven the German people unawares into something which differs from communism in little but name.” Nazism, then, was just another form (albeit more vivid in its moral squalor) of socialistic command-and-control as the Soviet system, “not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period but a necessary outcome of those tendencies...the fusion of radical and conservative [Prussian] socialism.” Eleven years later, contemplating the end of the worst global conflict of our times, Hayek expanded such ideas in this book, a landmark and decisive refutation of socialism.
Essentially, Hayek demonstrated, socialism calls for central planning – government control over prices, incomes, property, resources, enterprise and endeavour; rejection of the free market and its ‘chaotic’ setting of prices, incomes, property, resources, enterprise and endeavour. He proved by historical example and clear logic that socialism, even implemented with the purest and most altruistic intent, could only be meaningful through coercion – totalitarianism, tyranny, despotism, and oppression in the name of liberation. He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville on the authoritarian nature of socialism (1848): “Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”
In other words, socialism renders individuals as no longer free to choose how to live their lives but mere automata in a ‘rational,’ ‘scientific’ clockwork of serfdom or slavery where a small cabal of enlightened overlords formulate and administer (but never explain or articulate) how things be done. The obvious idiocy of such a paradise in practical terms needs to be explained in times of darkness and confusion – 1933, or 1944, or 1945, now, and perhaps always. The argument against pre-emptive collectivism via state control and its invariable descent into economic stagnation or collapse, has never been defeated, but it yet may be, through apathy, ignorance, obfuscation and misplaced good intentions. This book is more a political and sociological document than a purely economic one, but underpinned by clear understanding of the dismal science.
Of course, we currently contend with the spectre “democratic socialism, the great utopia of the last few generations, [which] is not only unachievable, but that to strive for it produces something so utterly different that few of those who now wish it would be prepared to accept the consequences…” Some of us, indifferent to wealth, suffused with ‘altruism’, or lazily preferring freedom from choice, have an unwholesome affection for the specious ease of leaving all to central planning, abdicating their right of choice along with their responsibility for chosen risk. It all seems so easy, but no longer couched as central planning but “investments” in “wage justice,” and to solve the ”environmental crisis” or the ”war on poverty.” Incredibly, Marxism and Socialism, like Frankenstein’s Monster, seem to be galvanised and rise again.
The absurdity and bitter fruits of central planning (not in any general policy sense, but in the genuinely socialistic sense of direct control) can be seen by a review of the economies of (1) Soviet Russia [Remember the kolkhoz described in John Barron’s classic KGB: it “contained one ramshackle store to sell bread, vodka, canned goods, and sundries, but its shelves were mostly empty. Years before, Moscow planners had allotted the store a piano and two motorcycles. They were still there, unsold and encrusted with the dried spittle of contemptuous people who could neither afford nor use them“]*; (2) Mao’s China [“the country was reorganized into “people’s communes” pooling possessions, food, and labor. Peasants were conscripted in quasi-military brigades for massive public works projects, mostly improvised…Mao’s steel targets had been implemented so literally as to encourage the melting down of useful implements as scrap to fulfill the quotas…From 1959 to 1962, China experienced one of the worst famines in human history, leading to the deaths of over twenty million people“]** and (3) Cuba [“An INRA (National Institute for Agrarian Reform) delegate, accompanied by a couple of armed soldiers, usually appears at a farm and announces that INRA is taking over everything but a certain portion. He may return later and cut the former owner’s allotment in half. Though the law says nothing about farm machinery or cattle, they are also appropriated. The whole transaction is completely informal; there are no hearings, no inventories, no receipts.”]^
Hayek wore no rose-coloured glasses about capitalism. He could see clearly enough the excesses that could arise through monopolistic practices (albeit these are often a first step towards socialism: vide the socialistic tendencies of contemporary giant monopolies such as Facebook, Amazon, Google et al), narrow vested interests, selfishness and materialism, the bruises from competition and the like. But he also saw clearly that there was no other way than to accept the myriad spontaneous forces of society, with appropriate safeguards to allow individuals equality of opportunity but not of outcome (“To produce the same result for different people, it is necessary to treat them differently“), through fair competition not arbitrary direction. Capitalism did not emanate from a textbook: pursuit of happiness, division of labour and free exchange are organic and so is the market – and while the market can be a moron, it is the only sure way to establish prices and incomes (Australia should abolish the Fair Work Commission, and its ideas of a “just wage,” and try it). As opposed to “the impetus of the movement toward totalitarianism [that] comes mainly from the two great vested interests: organized capital and organized labor.”
As Hayek points out, “…because all the details of the changes constantly affecting the conditions of demand and supply of the different commodities can never be fully known, or quickly enough be collected and disseminated, by any one center, what is required is some apparatus of registration which automatically records all the relevant effects of individual actions and whose indications are at the same time the resultant of, and the guide for , all the individual decisions. This is precisely what the price system does under competition, and which no other system even promises to accomplish.” And one synthesis that enhanced these natural processes was money, “one of the greatest instruments of freedom ever invented by man“, which gave serf and slave alike the chance to get on a footing with their masters.
These freedoms require a rejection of the false cul-de-sacs of ‘market’ or ‘competitive’ ‘socialism’ that some who ought to know better try to propound as a “fair” (favourite weasel word of the left Intelligentsia), third or middle way. “Either both the choice and the risk rest with the individual or he is relieved of both.” Ultimately, Hayek plumped for individual liberty, and with the end of WWII in sight, he feared that the world would commit the error of maintaining peacetime governance on a war footing, tilting the balance in favour of planned and dictatorial crisis-management against freedom. Whilst he had a coat of hard mittel – European varnish, Hayek was, at heart, a 19th century liberal – as Orwell described Charles Dickens, “a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”
Serfdom Crossroad – Now
“When the government has to decide how many pigs are to be raised or how many buses are to run, which coal mines are to operate, or at what prices shoes are to be sold, these decisions cannot be deduced from formal principles or settled for long periods in advance. They depend inevitably on the circumstances of the moment…In the end, somebody’s views will have to decide whose interests are more important; and these views must become part of the law of the land, a new distinction of rank which the coercive apparatus of government imposes upon the people.”
Whilst this can be pasted ready-to-wear on China under the modern CCP, you could attach parts to parts of western social democracies with relative ease. (Hayek notes a 1939 estimate that “the upper 11 or 12 per cent of the Soviet population now receives approximately 50 per cent of the national income.”)
“The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be “taken out of politics” and placed in the hands of experts – permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies.”
You couldn’t get a pithier statement that can be directly applied to the response of various democracies to the Covid-19 pandemic. In Australia, parliaments virtually shut down. The Prime Minister formed an ad hoc body
styled as a ‘National Cabinet’ to implement policy but the various State governments were more-or-less free to do as they chose within their sovereign borders. This they did, and a policy of plague management
transmogrified – without articulation, explanation or consultation – into an eradication policy: eradication of individual liberties on an hysterical, disproportionate and unprecedented scale. On this aspect, Hayek warned that “some of the men who during the war have tasted the powers of coercive control…will find it difficult to reconcile themselves with the humbler roles they will then have to play.” One might substitute “plague” for “war” and apply that alert to the State Premiers of Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia; in fact, in varying degrees, to the other States and Commonwealth Government as well. As does this: “What are the fixed poles now which are regarded as sacrosanct…? They are no longer the liberty of the individual, his freedom of movement, and scarcely that of speech. They are the protected standards of this or that group, their ”right” to exclude others from providing their fellowmen with what they need. Discrimination between members and nonmembers of closed groups, not to speak of nationals of different countries, is accepted more and more as a matter of course; injustices inflicted on individuals by government action in the interest of a group are disregarded with an indifference hardly distinguishable from callousness; and the grossest violations of the most elementary rights of the individual, such as are involved in the compulsory transfer of populations, are more and more often countenanced even by supposed liberals.”
In this plague year of 2020, we saw Australians banned from returning to their own country; banned from leaving it; banned from crossing state lines, in apparent/arguable breach of section 92 of the Constitution; locked in their homes unless adjudged by a bureaucrat as ‘essential workers’; arrested on beaches, golf courses, parks (and in the case of one pregnant woman in Victoria, handcuffed at home in her pajamas for suggesting the State government was overreaching); denied necessary and in some cases life-sustaining medical treatment; forced to close businesses; forced from hospital beds into Aged Care Homes to die; quarantined, hectored, lectured, and harassed, all often to the accompaniment of confused, contradictory and opaque edicts based on the highly spurious guesses of so-called experts.
“Others, it is true, believe that real success [in addressing unemployment] can be expected only from the skillful timing of public works undertaken on a very large scale…remuneration would soon cease to have any relation to actual usefulness.”
Prime Minister Rudd’s $14 billion primary school building program that failed to meet construction deadlines, was inflexible, often superfluous and had inadequate yet unnecessarily onerous reporting requirements*^ comes to mind.
“A movement whose main promise is the relief from responsibility cannot but be antimoral in its effect, however lofty the ideals to which it owes its birth.”
Because socialism obsesses over ends rather than means, with its only moral base being the sacrifice of the individual for the ultimate good of the whole – a conundrum that effectively puts its hierarchy at war with its underlings, and requires the state to smite the individual who dares to differ – its totalitarian imperative will tend toward and provide “special opportunities for the ruthless and unscrupulous.” (Hayek cites the famous dictum of Lord Acton; “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”) One need look no further than Top People in various socialist regimes, with an affinity for central planning, to gauge their human worth: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Enver Hoxha, Robert Mugabe, Hugo Chávez, Kim Jong-un… As a concomitant to rule by scoundrels, the truth must, inevitably, be suppressed, or even more effectively, transformed. So language, the outer clothing of ideas, is stripped of colour and design and replaced with a dead grey uniform devoid of nuance (e.g. ‘social justice’, that ‘empty phrase with no determinable content‘), brilliantly identified in Hayek’s chapter, “The End of Truth” and of course even more brilliantly in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four.
In a chapter, “The Totalitarians in our Midst,” Hayek cites the English communist historian, E. H. Carr: “The victors lost the peace, and Soviet Russia and Germany won it, because the former continued to preach, and in part to apply, the once valid, but now disruptive ideals of the rights of nations and laissez faire capitalism, whereas the latter, consciously or unconsciously borne forward on the tide of the twentieth century, were striving to build up the world in larger units under centralized planning and control.”
This was a crypto-syndicalist analysis of Europe after Versailles: to see such views in our contemporary society, take out “Soviet Russia,” “Germany” and “twentieth”, insert in lieu “Democratic Socialists”, “People’s Republics” and “twenty-first” and you have the corporate view of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and its Sinophile running dogs. On this, Hayek is also apt: “The Left intelligentsia, indeed, have so long worshipped foreign gods that they seem to have become almost incapable of seeing any good in the characteristic…institutions and traditions. That the moral values on which most of them pride themselves are largely the product of the institutions they are out to destroy, these socialists cannot, of course, admit.” But as with Dutschke’s and Gramsci’s Long March Through the Institutions, the flabby and flaccid guardians of western freedom and thought have dropped their guard, and allowed a creeping collectivism and diminution in cultural value to mug, tranquilize and convert Western Civilisation into an irrational confusion, a project that continues apace. As Milton Friedman said in his 1971 introduction to The Road to Serfdom, “we preach individualism and competitive capitalism, and practice socialism.”
Winnie-the-Pooh and the Bleak Prospects of International Order
While not central to his thesis, Hayek in 1944 could not ignore the world’s conflagration or the challenge of reconstruction that lay ahead. At that stage, the future of Europe was in hazard, and the Allies had a knotty problem: one of theirs was not one of them. The period 1945 to 1990 thus became an existential threat between the old liberal nations with their open markets and individual liberties, and the Communist Monolith with its attendant strengths and weaknesses. The so-called ‘end of history’ with the fall of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe was merely a presage of new struggles and power-shifts: the religious nihilism of the Islamic schism and its debris turned-out to be a sideshow to a much greater threat to individual liberty: the rising imperialism of Communist China, particularly under Xi Jinping from 2012.
Whilst the United States remained the world’s leader after 1990 in terms of military capacity and economic might, there has been, within the same period as the ascension of Xi, a sense of American decline, notable for the timid foreign policy of President Obama, the aggressive ‘America-First’ pivot of President Trump and the uncertain footing of the imminent administration of President-elect Biden. As to the latter, Mr. Biden’s age and possible debt to the left-wing of his party, make it difficult to predict with much certainty how the increasingly bellicose CCP will be addressed. For example, while at Kyoto, and Paris, and beyond, China continues (with help from its international socialist functionaries) to be styled a ‘developing country’ and increase carbon emissions, there are those in the U.S. Democratic Party – now in control of the White House, Congress, and perhaps after 5 January 2021, the Senate (and thus the Supreme Court) – who propose socialism for America, in the forms of policies such as the Green New Deal (Wage fixing and job guarantees, public housing and free education, 100% renewable energy with an energy guarantee to all citizens, junking the fossil fuel industries, ‘weatherizing’ all public buildings and infrastructure, or by construction anew, to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification, fully subsidising transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, spurring massive growth in clean manufacturing in the United States and removing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and industry as much as is technologically feasible, working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible, and forcing recalcitrant countries to ratify and legislate zero-emissions targets. It sounds a bit like Moses the raven’s Sugarcandy Mountain from Animal Farm).
In the meantime, Europe is in flux in the wake of the recent Brexit deal. Whilst one can understand and even sympathise with Britain’s decision to leave, it will tend to weaken both the UK (riven by guilt and anti-colonialism, which will now have its own constituent countries, such as Scotland, agitate to leave) and Europe, which struggles with the economic fetter of a single currency spread over a disparate polity. International Authorities – the United Nations, the WHO, the IMF – have fallen foolishly in love with socialistic ideas, abandoned the defence of Western Civilisation formed since the Renaissance and enlightened capitalism, lost their power or even inclination for ‘distributive justice,’ and are now yoked or owned by China after succumbing to Robert Conquest‘s Second Law of Politics: Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing. Which makes Hayek’s statement so prescient: “...while the great powers will be unwilling to submit to any superior authority, they will be able to use those “international” authorities to impose their will on the smaller nations within the area in which they exercise hegemony.”
Which is what the CCP is doing. Sheer bald-faced lies about the provenance of Covid-19; boycotts, intolerable tariffs and sanctions against nations calling for an international investigation into the pandemic’s origins; the ‘annexation’ and subjugation of Hong Kong; their ‘Company Store’ debt-trap diplomacy under the auspices of ‘collaborative’ belt-and-road programmes; the oppression of Tibet and religious and ethnic minorities; the lack of a rule of law; the suppression of a free press, free speech, freedom of movement and other individual rights; the sabre-rattling in the South China Sea and elsewhere; the patronage of terrorist states; the industrial espionage and cyber-war; the racial-supremacy and imperial arrogance; the nauseating disregard for human (and animal) rights. Cato the Elder, before the Third Punic War, admonished that Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”). Rather than adopt the warlike mantra ‘CCP delenda est‘, it might be more constructive to re-visit Hayek’s great book, and take up the defence of the principle there espoused, when the world – at least, our current age – “takes it for granted and neither realizes whence the danger threatens nor has the courage to emancipate itself from the doctrines which endanger it.”
(Directed by Derrick Borte) (2020) (Netflix)
The portentous opening credits, and indeed the horrendous opening sequence, suggest that Unhinged is going to have something profound to say about contemporary wrath, taking its Road Rage homily as a linchpin: sort of a cross between Duel, Falling Down and Romper Stomper. Alas, instead we get a trashy, c-grade, repulsively violent serving of haute psychomania.
Russell Crowe (an un-named man in a pickup truck) is at the end of his tether. Understandably distracted, he dawdles at an intersection with the lights on green. This causes annoying and scatty single mum Rachel (Caren Pistorius), who is already having a bad day (what with her messy divorce, her no-hoper, sponging brother and his girlfriend camped at her house not paying board, her doddery mum, and having just been sacked by a client for oversleeping, and now stuck in traffic taking junior Kyle – Gabriel Bateman – to school) to stand on her car horn – instead of applying a quick toot, or “courtesy tap” – and overtaking the pickup in an aggressive fashion.
‘The Man’ sidles up to her car and asks, fairly reasonably, for an apology. Not getting one, he decides to teach Rachel “what a bad day is...” From these promising beginnings comes a preternatural series of ingenious and ultra-violent episodes that play-out (despite often leaping broadly beyond the bounds of logic) with predictable tedium. In fact, somewhere along the feverishly developing twists and turns, viewing the ridiculous behavior of Rachel (she’s initially feckless and stupid but then finds miraculous inner resources), one found oneself wishing a little violence on her.
Crowe is very good, as usual (he was in Romper Stomper which also featured extraordinary in-your-face violence, but apposite in that film), and everyone else is fine, particularly the hapless lawyer friend (Jimmi Simpson) who cops excessive feedback, Stephen Louis Grush as the hapless fellow who tries to render assistance at the gas station, who also cops excessive feedback, and Anne Leighton as the annoyed client, who is lucky to avoid excessive feedback). The car chases, car crashes, and other instances of graphic brutality are vivid and galvanising, but the violence is ultimately ludicrous, the characters are undeveloped, the script is inadequate, and the finale is straight out of a bad dream of Quentin Tarantino’s.Continue Reading →
(Written by P.G. Wodehouse) (1934)
Your correspondent has a terrible confession to make. The unburdening of this shocking secret, whilst cathartic, may very well lead to a global un-platforming.
No, I haven’t been selling or buying on the Dark Web; I’m not a secret member of Antifa or Neo Nazis; I didn’t cast 134,000 votes for Joe Biden just before dawn the day after the U.S. election. It is much worse: I recently read “Right Ho, Jeeves” and didn’t find it funny at all. It’s about as funny as a child molester, actually.
Which is not to say it isn’t a light, pleasant read. Idle rich dolt Bertie Wooster wishes that his valet, Jeeves, would jolly well stop interfering with Bertie’s attempts to match-make, in two cases: of his old pal Gussie Fink-Nottle with soppy Madeline Bassett, and alumnus Tuppy Glossop with Bertie’s cousin Angela. Why someone asexual as Wooster would be any good at it is unexplained, but he certainly isn’t.
Hilarity ensues as Wooster works his magic wand, with unfortunate results. But the impassive, implacable Jeeves comes to his idiot Master’s rescue and all’s well that ends well.
Wodehouse has a nice line in the type of upper-class tweeting one expects from an upper class twit in the 1920s, and there are some amusing set pieces – Fink-Nottle’s drunken speech to the boys of Market Snodsbury Grammar School, Tuppy’s attempts to thrash Bertie when he thinks the latter has designs on Angela, and the exasperation of Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia are good examples, but frankly, this sort of stuff dates cruelly. Furthermore, one suspects that it appeals in particular to the type of clubbable English chap who schooled at Winchester, Stowe or Dulwich College. Elites in England love Bertie Wooster, without recognising him in themselves. And the sort of uncomplaining, attentive, discrete competence that Jeeves possesses went out with the days of indentured servitude, decent public education and heroic mercantilism.Continue Reading →