And the Higgy Goes to… Abraham Flexner

April 18, 2022

It was a very light year for Higgy nominations. I suspect that this is not because we have a shortage of (un)worthy nominees. Perhaps instead our team of regular nominators is just a bit worn out by all of the Higginess (to coin a new term) that surrounds us. But we must soldier on.

Greg submitted Steven Novella and David Gorski for consideration. These two academic doctors run a web site that claims to promote science in medicine. Unfortunately, under intense pressure from bullies, they abandoned that mission to erase and repudiate a positive review of Abigail Shrier’s book on the excesses of the transgender craze among young people, Irreversible Damage, that had been published on their web site. These actions by Novella and Gorski were cowardly and intellectually dishonest, making them (un)worthy nominees for The Higgy.

But they are not this year’s recipients for a few reasons. First, there are two of them and the Higgy can only go to one person. if we go down that slippery slope pretty soon we’ll be giving The Higgy to The Guardians, The Silence Breakers, Ebola fighters, The Protester, The Good Samaritans, The American soldier, The Whistleblowers, or even me — each of whom was selected by the parody (?) (check this) magazine, Time, as Person of the Year. Wow, nearly half of the persons chosen by Time in the last two decades weren’t persons at all. In any event, we have to maintain standards and limit the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year Award to an individual inhumanitarian.

In addition, while Novella and Gorski’s behavior was deplorable, giving inhumanitarian awards to every academic who displayed cowardice and intellectual dishonesty would be like handing out speeding tickets at the Indianapolis 500. Besides, those who really deserve condemnation in that saga are the bullies who torment people for saying eminently sensible things about the excesses of the transgender craze among young people and the academic institutions and organizations that should be protecting scholars against such abuse.

Joe Nathan also offered Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona as a nominee for The Higgy. Cardona is also a very (un)worthy nominee given his efforts to adopt regulations to strangle charter schools. But U.S. cabinet members destroying liberty by fiat falls more in the category of Big Scary Dictator Disorder (BSDD) than the Petty Little Dictator Disorder (PLDD) The Higgy is meant to recognize.

The recipient of this year’s William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year Award is Abraham Flexner. Flexner’s promotion of the false notion of an expert as someone with a credential is a perfect example of PLDD. He imagined that he could reshape the world for good with his controlling plans, but his righteous good intentions blinded him to the damage that would be done by paving the way for the certification of professions and occupations of almost every sort. This marks the first time that my nominee for The Higgy has been selected.

Abraham Flexner joins past winners, Alison CollinsMark DiRoccoKosoko JacksonJohn Wiley BryantPlatoChris ChristieJonathan Gruber, Paul G. Kirk, and the inaugural winner, Pascal Monnet.

Pass the Popcorn: Learning to Fight Like You

April 16, 2022

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

“It is strategic and necessary.”

Q: Is the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once as good as everyone says it is?

A: Yes. Yes it is.

Q: But now that you’ve told me it’s that good, won’t I inevitably be disappointed, because my expectations will be too high?

A: Nope. At least, not if you see it on the big screen, the way movies were meant to be seen.

Q: It’s that good?

A: It’s that good.

Q: Does it earn its R rating?

A: Yes. Yes it does.

Q: What is this movie about? What is its message?

A: This is an experience that will really be much better if you don’t insist on understanding it and evaluating it before you have it.

Q: But I am required to see it on the big screen, the way movies were meant to be seen?

A: Yes. There will be no dispensations.

Q: Why?

A: This is how I fight.

Higgy Deadline Extended

April 15, 2022

The announcement of winner (loser) of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year Award has been delayed until Monday, April 18. The Higgy and taxes are due at the same time and both are being extended due to the observance of Holy Week and Passover holidays.

Get your nominations and filings in so that you don’t have to pay a penalty!

For the Higgy: Abraham Flexner

April 15, 2022

The word “expert” shares the same root as the word “experience.” Both are derived from the Latin past participle for “try” — having tried. This origin reflects the long held understanding of what makes someone an expert. It is having done something for a long time so as to have attained mastery of the skill and wisdom from the experience.

Our current understanding of what makes someone an expert is having received a credential that certifies expertise. Someone is an expert in public health because they have a degree from a prestigious institution and hold a high office with responsibility over public health. There is no need for them to have had a long record of experience or demonstrate any wisdom. In fact, they can be relatively young and demonstrably foolish, but they have the credential and position and are therefore expert. If the gross malpractice of our public health response to the pandemic revealed anything, it is how destructive our modern notion of expertise has become.

The false and harmful substitution of credential and position for experience and wisdom in defining expertise has spread to almost every occupation. Teachers are deemed expert because they are certified, not because they have learned from practicing their trade and demonstrated effectiveness. Academics are thought to be experts in their areas because they have written on the topic and are faculty in that field, not because they have done relevant things and shown themselves to be wise. The confusion of credentialing for expertise has spread occupational licensing as a barrier to a whole host of careers, from braiding hair to making floral arrangements.

Abraham Flexner played a major role in creating this modern understanding of what makes someone an expert. Flexner earned a BA in classics from Johns Hopkins University at age 19 after only two years of study. He also briefly studied psychology at Harvard and University of Berlin without earning a graduate degree from either institution. He then returned to his native Louisville and opened a private prep school to promote his ideas about education. As Wikipedia describes it, “‘Mr. Flexner’s School’ did not give out traditional grades, used no standard curriculum, refused to impose examinations on students, and kept no academic record of students. Instead, it promoted small learning groups, individual development, and a more hands-on approach to education.”

In 1908 he wrote a book critiquing higher education for its use of lectures and outdated pedagogical techniques. This book impressed the Carnegie Foundation, which commissioned Flexner to investigate medical education and and make recommendations for how best to prepare doctors. The resulting Flexner Report is heralded for having reshaped and remarkably improved the training of doctors. That may be true (although there have been some serious, negative side-effects), but Flexner’s model for training doctors also negatively shaped how we train almost every profession and the associated notions of expertise.

When Flexner wrote his report, doctors were largely trained by a combination of apprenticeship and lectures. Prospective doctors were not required to have attended college. They were not expected to have studied basic sciences. They simply paid existing doctors to shadow them and/or enroll in one of the 155 medical schools, most of which were unaffiliated with a university and owned by doctors who gave lectures.

While condemning almost all of the existing institutions, Flexner praised Johns Hopkins, his alma mater. The correct approach according to Flexner was to require students to have attended college prior to medical education, have medical schools there were attached to universities and licensed by the state, and to emphasize hands-on learning, including laboratory-based science instruction.

These practices, which were quickly and widely adopted, may have been sensible but they may have been unnecessary to mandate and came at a significant cost. Raising the bar for entry into medical school by requiring that students first attend college and raising the expense of medical education by replacing cost-efficient lectures with laboratory science instruction drove almost all of the institutions training black doctors out of business. The quality of medicine may have improved overall but the sudden disappearance of newly trained black doctors and the difficulty of black patients to access white doctors had a negative effect on healthcare in the black community. In addition, state licensing of medical schools with the intentional goal of limiting the supply of newly trained doctors dramatically increased the costs of healthcare.

But the worst part of Flexner’s model for training doctors is that every profession insisted that they should adopt the same approach even if there were no improvements in quality to compensate for the discriminatory and financial costs of raising the barriers to entry through credentialing. The argument was that if you want to have high quality professionals you have to adopt Flexner’s approach. Now teachers, dental hygienists, optometrists, pharmacists, accountants, lawyers, and every other profession needed to be trained like doctors. In all cases, apprenticeship models where people could acquire experience in a professional, master its skills, and demonstrate wisdom were replaced with systems of credentialing.

Credentialing may be warranted in certain circumstances, but the burden of proof for requiring credentials should be on the profession wishing to raise barriers to entry given the discriminatory and financial costs that necessarily follow. We are also weakened in resisting these unwarranted calls for increased credentialing because we have broadly accepted Flexner’s modern understanding of expertise.

It is particularly ironic that Flexner was the champion of this modern notion of expertise as credentialing given how he lacked both the credential and experience as a doctor. Flexner reshaped medical education without ever having studied or practiced medicine. His claim to expertise, such as it was, was in pedagogy, having run a prep school. Lacking experience and wisdom from the practice of medicine, Flexner asserted a false expertise in medical education that made it easier for him to be foolish about the negative side-effects of his recommendations.

For having advanced this false notion of expertise, Flexner significantly worsened the human condition and is (un)worthy of consideration for The William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year Award.

For the Higgy: Steven Novella and David Gorski

April 12, 2022

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The crucial role of science is to provide logically and empirically rigorous tests, in cases where such testing is possible and methodologically appropriate, of our beliefs about the world we live in. We need these tests because for the most part, our beliefs are shaped by social forces that are not strongly (or at all) influenced by the question of what is actually true. As Jonathan Haidt has evocatively put it, reason rides belief not like a human rides a horse but like a human rides an elephant – for the most part, the elephant goes where it wants. The ability of one isolated individual to control their elephant is very limited, and so we are mostly at the mercy of social systems that seek to manipulate and exploit our beliefs for their own interests. Social systems that instead force us to hold one another accountable for being true and responsible in our beliefs are the only effective countermeasure – and science, which is at bottom a social system defined by mutual adherence to an agreed-upon set of methodological principles, is one of the most valuable of these systems.

Unfortunately, as the tragic example of William Higinbotham himself proves so pungently, scientists themselves are only human – elephant riders, subject to all the pressures of manipulation, exploitation and conformity. And the very success of science in providing reliable tests of belief has made the capture of “science” as a label socially valuable. Everyone wants to be able to claim that their policy is “evidence based,” so suborning the scientists has become one of the most important paths to political power.

Thus we have seen the rise of new institutions, created by scientists for the purpose of resisting these pressures.

And, inevitably, the subversion of these new institutions by the pressures they were created to resist.

Steven Novella and David Gorski run a website called Science Based Medicine. There are only three names on the SBM masthead: Novella (founder and executive editor), Gorski (managing editor) and Harriet Hall, who has the title “editor.” Stick a pin in that fact, we’ll come back to it.

As the About page of SBM puts it: “Online information about alternative medicine is overwhelmingly credulous and uncritical, and even mainstream media and some medical schools have bought into the hype and failed to ask the hard questions. We provide a much needed ‘alternative’ perspective – the scientific perspective.”

Novella and Gorski regularly draw a distinction between “evidence based” and “science based” medicine. “Evidence based” means you can point to some kind of superficially plausible piece of evidence supporting your view. This is the cheap and corrupt standard by which science is subverted. “Science based” means all available evidence that meets scientific standards is taken into account, with awareness that each individual piece of evidence is subject to ambiguity and uncertainty.

They blame “online information,” “mainstream media” and “some medical schools” for bowing to hype and pressure from merely evidence-based approaches, making a science-based approach impossible in those venues.

But when they themselves came under similar pressure, they folded. Faster than . . .

They made the mistake of publishing a review of Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage, which calls out the many claims in transgender medicine that are evidence-based without being science-based. In such a brand-new area of study, how can we know much of anything yet?

Unsurprisingly given the mission of SBM, the review was positive. And it was not by some fly-by-night outside contributor, but by Hall, editor of SBM and the only other name on the masthead besides Novella and Gorski. In fact, independent journalist Jesse Singal, who was instrumental in bringing the subsequent SBM shenanigans to light, went to Hall’s SBM archive page and counted 700 articles she had contributed to the site before this review.

Why do I have to post Singal’s count of how many articles Hall contributed? Because I can’t count them myself. The SBM archive pages for Hall and Novella are mysteriously not available to the public any more. (Gorski’s works fine, which may have to do with the fact that he is listed as the person who manages the author information pages.)

You know what else you can’t read at SBM any more? Hall’s book review. But you can read it at Skeptic magazine, which has reprinted it.

SBM’s archives are managed by Memory Hole Services, Inc.

Now, as you read the account below of of Novella and Gorski’s actions, to grasp their true Higgyworthiness you have to set aside not only your opinions on transgenderism and more specifically the merits of Shrier’s book, but even the merits of Hall’s review.

Assume in Novella and Gorski’s favor – in the teeth of all indications to the contrary – that transgenderism is great, that Shrier’s book is awful, and that Hall’s review is likewise awful.

Now, even on that set of assumptions, try to read this series of events without laughing:

  1. Novella and Gorski pull down Hall’s review and post a statement explaining that the review did not meet SBM’s editorial standards, but not explaining how or why it did not meet their editorial standards; the statement blusters angrily, across several paragraphs, about “false accusations” that the review was removed for political reasons, but without specifying any other reason the review was removed.
  2. This having mysteriously failed to alleviate anyone’s doubts, Novella and Gorski write and publish a lengthy article in which they repeat a series of false and anti-scientific activist talking points about gender science. Singal has the lengthy tale of the tape, but to take a few examples, they falsely claim that the DSM-IV treated all people who self-identify as another gender as mentally ill; they claim there is overwhelming evidence that the officially endorsed but nonbinding professional standards of youth transgender treatment are widely adhered to, while citing no such evidence and ignoring clear and convincing evidence to the contrary; and they apply extremely high methodological standards to studies whose findings they don’t like while ignoring even more serious methodological problems in studies whose findings they do like.
  3. SBM then publishes two articles by transgender activists that are equally full of false and anti-science activist talking points, including an impressive number of provable factual lies about the contents of Shrier’s book – even some made-up quotations that aren’t in the book! – as well as false statements about the underlying studies and news stories. One of the authors, in the course of attempting to discredit a set of studies, actually misrepresents the studies in a way that makes them look better than they are, presumably out of ignorance. Singal again has the lengthy tale of the tape.
  4. As Singal and others point out these errors, SBM corrects some and lets others stand.
  5. After having officially issued corrections of made-up quotations and other lies from the author of the second follow-up article, SBM proceeds to publish an additional article by that author – in case any shred of SBM’s credibility remained undemolished.

The walls of enforced silence around unscientific but “evidence-based” claims related to transgenderism seem now to be collapsing, partly because of this and this.

The effort to stop people from asking questions about science is, on the face of it, futile and Higgyworthy.

Which of course means such efforts are now going to be redoubled. Singal is still on the case; the headline on his latest article about this topic: “Researchers Found Puberty Blockers And Hormones Didn’t Improve Trans Kids’ Mental Health At Their Clinic. Then They Published A Study Claiming The Opposite.”

However, few people beclown themselves as obviously as Novella and Gorski. They are truly worthy of The Higgy.

Let Parents Take the Lead on Pre-K

April 5, 2022

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA carries my latest, which compares the government push to get more and more kids into pre-K with the recent (additional) dismal research findings on pre-K’s effects:

The study followed students through sixth grade and found negative outcomes lasting all the way through the study period. Students who attended pre-K had lower test scores than those who did not. A negative pre-K effect was also found for disciplinary infractions, attendance, and receipt of special education services.

Nor is this the first study to question the benefits of pre-K, at least for most students. A few years ago I published an OCPA report going over the issues in pre-K, including the results of decades of empirical research on its effects.

But the finding that pre-K is neutral or negative on the whole doesn’t mean pre-K is bad for every child; it just means the negative effect on some children outweighs the positive effect on others. Instead of trying to get all kids or no kids into pre-K, we might try getting the right kids in:

In fact, I serve on the board of a private school that offers a pre-K program. We don’t do that because we enjoy hurting kids. We do it because in the community where we serve, there are kids who will benefit from this program. It doesn’t matter how many other kids there are who wouldn’t benefit from it, as long as there are at least enough who would benefit to justify offering a pre-K classroom.

But we aren’t using the power of the state to shove families into pre-K indiscriminately. We know our community, and we work with parents to identify the students who would benefit from our program. No child walks into our doors unless both our staff and the parents agree that the child will benefit from being there—and nobody is applying political pressure to that decision.

Parents should be empowered with school choice, and then the state should back off and let them decide.

Let me know what you think!

The Higgy Isn’t Technically Late, But I May Still Win It – Nominate Me or Some Other Fool!

April 3, 2022

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Your humble Higgy correspondent apologizes for the tardiness of the opening bell for this year’s William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year Award. He was at a conference. He apologizes for the crime of prioritizing anything above JPGB.

You’d think he’d take this responsibility more seriously, given the weighty impact of The Higgy on world events. Last year’s winner, hobbled by the public humiliation of Higgy dishonor, has already been defenestrated from her position by a San Francisco electorate that was just too rabidly right-wing, too hidebound in Philistinish conservatism, to appreciate the fine performance art of her PLDD governance. (Among the troglodyte Frisco reactionaries organizing the recall election effort that removed her was Gaybraham Lincoln.)

We’re not technically late, because April 1 was still the last business day. But you’re free to nominate your humble correspondent for The Higgy anyway!

Yes, with the arrival of April Fool’s Day, it’s time once again for the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year Award – “The Higgy.” Each year, we (dis)honor the most (un)worthy candidate from your nominations of people afflicted with PLDD (not BSDD, note the difference).

Past “winners” of The Higgy include Alison Collins, Mark DiRocco, Kosoko Jackson, John Wiley Bryant, Plato, Chris Christie, Jonathan Gruber, Paul G. Kirk and the incomparably petty inaugural winner, Pascal Monnet. The award is named for history’s greatest monster, William Higinbotham; as a special way of (dis)honoring Higinbotham, we have not even given him The Higgy.

Get your nominations in by April 15, Tax Day – definitely a day to discountenance petty little dictators!

To inspire you to greatness in discerning pettiness, we carry on immemorial Higgy tradition and reproduce below the text of Jay’s original post launching The Higgy. Good hunting!


As someone who was recognized in 2006 as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, I know a lot about the importance of awards highlighting people of significant accomplishment. Here on JPGB we have the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award, but I’ve noticed that “The Al” only recognizes people of positive accomplishment.  As Time Magazine has understood in naming Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Ayatullah Khomeini as Persons of the Year, accomplishments can be negative as well as positive.

(Then again, Time has also recognized some amazing individuals as Person of the Year, including Endangered Earth, The Computer, Twenty-Five and Under, and The Peacemakers, so I’m not sure we should be paying so much attention to what a soon-to-be-defunct magazine does.  But that’s a topic for another day when we want to talk about how schools are more likely to be named after manatees than George Washington.)

Where were we?  Oh yes.  It is important to recognize negative as well as positive accomplishment.  So I introduce “The Higgy,” an award named after William Higinbotham, as the mirror award to our well-established “Al.”

Just as Al Copeland was not without serious flaws as a person, William Higinbotham was not without his virtues.  Higinbotham did, after all  develop the first video game.  But Higinbotham dismissed the importance of that accomplishment and instead chose to be an arrogant jerk by claiming that his true accomplishment was in helping found the Federation of American Scientists and working for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.  I highly doubt that the Federation or Higinbotham did a single thing that actually advanced nonproliferation, but they sure were smug about it…

I suspect that Al Copeland, by contrast, understood that he was a royal jerk.  And he also understood that developing a chain of spicy chicken restaurants really does improve the human condition.  Higinbotham’s failing was in mistaking self-righteous proclamations for actually making people’s lives better in a way that video games really do improve the human condition.

So, “The Higgy” will not identify the worst person in the world, just as “The Al” does not recognize the best.  Instead, “The Higgy” will highlight individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.

We will invite nominations for “The Higgy” in late March and will announce the winner, appropriately enough, on April 15. Thanks to Greg for his suggestions in developing “The Higgy.”

Don’t Regulate Sex in Schools! Give Parents Choice Instead

March 2, 2022

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

As always, we like to avoid the really hot, controversial issues here at JPGB.

OCPA carries my latest, in which I argue that parents worried about how schools handle sexuality and gender issues should fight for school choice, not for a futile new command-and-control regulatory regime:

We could adjudicate the merits of all these individual cases. In some I think the traditionalists’ concerns are valid; in others I think the traditionalists go too far. I’m never shy about stating my views on sexual morality; if you want to find out what they are, be my guest. For now, though, I’m more interested in why this is happening—and, in particular, why a century of fighting about sex in schools seems to have produced nothing but more fighting about sex in schools….

Like it or not, the modern world is persistently pluralistic. We can no longer assume that our neighbors believe the same way we do about the things that matter most in life. Partly that’s a direct result of the American experiment in religious freedom; people who disagree about God are going to disagree about many other things as well—about sex perhaps most of all, since sex has been closely tied to the sacred in all human cultures. And partly it’s a side effect of economic and technological development, which makes it much faster and cheaper to make radical changes in how we see ourselves and how we live. In a world where teenagers literally carry a phone-shaped window to the entire world around with them in their pockets all day, it’s unreasonable to expect the same kind of homogenous communities that used to be normal.

Choice would be more effective (more than zero definitely counts as “more”) in giving parents real control over education, and would have other benefits as well:

Above all, this would restore the bond of trust between parents and schools. Parents would know that their children were receiving an education they support. Schools could finally get a break from being constantly torn to shreds by culture warriors trying to seize control of them, and get back to teaching.

And—don’t miss the importance of this—students would know that the messages they hear about sexuality in the classroom are also supported at home, and vice versa. They would grow up in a morally coherent social world, instead of growing up amid constant fighting between competing authority figures over which morality is right. I’m a traditionalist on sexual issues, but in my opinion, children are much more harmed by growing up in an environment of moral incoherence and conflict between authority figures than in an environment of stable, coherent progressivism. 

Let me know what you think!

A Post-Pandemic Case for ESAs

February 21, 2022

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In its big new paper on bold post-pandemic state policy reforms, OCPA includes my case for ESAs:

Of course, it is always the right time to do the right thing. But during a crisis, it is especially important to think carefully about first principles. A crisis is the time when we will be most sorely tempted to compromise our most important commitments under the sway of special interests and specious fashions. Let’s hold on tight to what is good.

And our first principle for education should be to put parents first:

Human beings are not generic units, interchangeable and automatically functional, like the dollars in a teacher union’s bank account or the bubbles on a standardized test or the ones and zeros in a computer program. Human beings are unique creatures with unruly minds, hearts, and wills that are made to become mature, responsible, and free in a just community of equals. And it is obvious to anyone who knows the natural “facts of life” that the process of preparing a human being for mature freedom rests with families, since that is where human beings originally come from (the exact processes involved being a subject outside our current scope). To say that schools exist to educate is to say that they exist to help families rear their children.

I get into why choice should be universal, especially after the disruption of the pandemic, and why ESAs are the best policy design.

Let me know what you think!

Pass the Popcorn: The Function of Man

February 8, 2022

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Just no other way to do this, folks – this post contains MEGA mega mega spoilers.

You have been warned.

My impression of No Time to Die changed on second viewing. When I first saw it in theaters, until the end I was enjoying it thoroughly, but I also felt it had flaws. Dialogue often seemed incomplete. Like many people, I thought the motive of the villain was unclear. But the opening gut punch (when he’s in the car and can’t decide whether to bother fighting back, when he puts Madeleine on the train) really landed, and when the ending came, I was genuinely moved. I thought: “That was really gutsy, and it worked really well.”

Upon seeing it a second time, I appreciate the whole movie much more. What I had thought were flaws were, in fact, a byproduct of a highly complex plot that requires you to attend to everything that’s going on throughout. Some important things are unstated, and become more clear with familiarity. I appreciate that attention to detail, and the invitation to the viewer to discover the implications of the story on our own.

No Time to Die is both a highly satisfying story in its own right and provides a highly satisfying conclusion to the arc of the Daniel Craig films. Nothing, of course, can redeem the monstrous idiocy of the movie Spectre – like many of the most important things in No Time to Die, that goes without saying – but this movie makes a full enough recovery, and makes enough good use of the setup provided in Spectre, that I no longer feel like the time I spent on Spectre was fully wasted. And that takes some doing.

Like Bond in Havana, let’s spend a moment with Ana de Armas before we get to the main event.

Everyone who said that de Armas stole the whole movie in the 20 minutes she was on screen was, obviously, right. Let’s just be thankful she gave the movie back to Daniel Craig on her way out. I felt like she could have walked off with it and there would have been nothing we could have done.

“I’ve trained for three weeks!”

And some people thought the conventions of the Bond franchise couldn’t be retooled for the 21st century cultural environment.

What I really appreciate about the whole Havana-and-oil-rig segment is the great effort that clearly went into making it work on multiple levels – comedy, action, drama – even though it’s essentially disposable in the larger arc of the movie. Even the death of Felix Leiter, while it is used in a very important way to make the point that the movie is making, is strictly unnecessary to the larger plot. They could have skipped Havana and the oil rig entirely and just had a 60-second scene in which the turncoat scientist kills off Spectre.

This is a long movie; there must have been a pretty awful temptation to go that way. But then this would be just another escapist fantasy, rather than a movie about something. And they put in the work to make it entertaining as well as about something.

Speaking of Felix and what this movie is about, let’s get to the main event.

Take a look at this picture of Bond, in his bulletproof car, surrounded by enemies, sitting next to a woman he no longer trusts, trying to decide whether or not saving his own life and hers is even worth it.

Now hold that thought for a moment.

In a way, No Time to Die is the tragic flip side to the essentially happy ending of Skyfall. The lessons of Skyfall, as loyal JPGB fans may recall, are as follows:

  1. All your fancy modern technology and advanced civilization will not save you if you are not the right kind of person.
  2. If you have forgotten how to be the right kind of person, look to your elders and return to the place where you came from.
  3. Do not hesitate to use your fancy modern technology to kill your elders and blow up the place you came from if that is what being the right kind of person requires.

Skyfall is a pretty good way of distilling how the classical liberal view works out in the context of the 21st century. The advance of technology and civilization does not remove, or make less agonizing, the titanic moral struggle at the heart of humanity. That is what divides classical liberals from illiberals whose preferred flavor of illiberalism is progressive.

The sources of the past are all we have to guide us in that struggle, since the sources of the future are unavailable. But the struggle is not to preserve the past, the struggle is to win the battle against evil in our own hearts. The institutions and authorities we have inherited are themselves subject to the same struggle, and inevitably tainted with moral failures, past and present. Sometimes that makes it necessary to destroy them.

Like when they behave irresponsibly and outside the law – which, as we established in Skyfall, they often have to do in order to fight evil.

And here is the happy ending part: To destroy the institutions and authorities we have inherited – if we do it for genuinely moral reasons, and not because we’re infantile and we want to show mom and dad that we’re grown up now and they can’t tell us what to do any more – is to carry forward all that is morally valuable in them. It is in fact the only way to carry forward what is morally valuable in them.

Bond and Mallory reconcile and carry on the fight together.

But we pay a price, because we need these institutions and authorities for more than moral reasons. They provide identity, meaning, purpose – wholeness. We cannot simply decide for ourselves what the meaning of our life is, because we have no non-arbitrary basis on which to make the decision. Of course, a very few are capable of reasoning all the way back to the true non-arbitrary source of all things and then reasoning forward from there, but most people require a coherent world of cultural structures to guide them to the right conclusions.

This brings us to what divides classical liberals from illiberals whose preferred flavor of illiberalism is traditionalist.

We need wholeness. But in the advanced modern world with its constant flux of institutions, we struggle not only for morality (as we always did) but now for wholeness as well. The signposts that used to tell us who we are can no longer do so because they are constantly being created and then swept aside in what is by historic standards an eyeblink of time. This is caused by the ceaseless churn of technological change, economic development and freedom of belief – which are, in the long run, interdependent and come as a package deal.

The basic question that confronts us is which of the two struggles – for morality or for wholeness – will take precedence. For the illiberal traditionalists, “because it is right, because justice requires it” is not an adequate reason to tear down the whole cultural world. For liberals, it is.

This is the tragedy of liberalism – that, to preserve what is morally good in the tradition from the shipwreck of its own injustices, we must throw ourselves into a world without wholeness.

The ending of Skyfall left us feeling like we would have what we needed in the new world created by our stand for justice.

No Time to Die admits that we really don’t – and chooses the new world anyway.

Bond and Madeleine want to write their pasts on slips of paper and burn them, visit the grave to ask forgiveness, and then leave the war for justice behind and enjoy wholeness.

Now look again at that other picture of Bond, not sure whether saving himself is even worth it.

The war for justice can’t be left behind. (Nothing but God is really sacred.)

Bond, because he is a warrior for justice, cannot have wholeness. That was, in its way, the lesson of Casino Royale. But now we learn it more completely. (All the best stories have something in the end that points you back to what you saw at the beginning, but now having a different perspective because of the intervening story.)

The lesson of No Time to Die doesn’t require three points, only one.

Wholeness is overrated.

As I’ve said before, Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter has been an enormous gift to this franchise. In contrast to the very British Bond, Leiter always represents America – whether that’s the slick New York sharpness of Jack Lord in Dr. No, or the “aw shucks” Midwestern charm of Cec Linder in Goldfinger, or the simultaneous smoothness and bluntness of Wright, “a brother from Langley.”

Leiter, hemorrhaging, struggles for life in the rising water:

“It’s like back when I was a kid on that shrimp boat.”

“You’re from Milwaukee.”

“Am I? I thought I made that up. . . . You got this?”


“Make it worth it. . . . James . . . it’s a good life, isn’t it?”

“The best.”

Wholeness is overrated.

The villain in No Time to Die doesn’t want to destroy the world. The big beef about this movie was: “He wants to destroy the world, but we never find out why!” Washington Post movie reviewer Sonny Bunch answered this effectively with: “Come on. Who doesn’t want to destroy the world?”

That is, in fact, part of what this movie is about.

Safin doesn’t want to destroy the world; he’s selling his viral/nanobot/whatever weapon to people who want to destroy the world. (Kill millions, actually, not destroy the world – but the forms must be obeyed.)

Safin’s whole family was murdered by Mr. White on behalf of Spectre, and he was left as a child with nothing.

Like the illiberals of left and right – the differences between the two flavors hardly matter – all he really wants is to stop the pain and get his lost wholeness back.

For him, that means taking Mr. White’s daughter and granddaughter and making them – or at least the granddaughter, if the daughter can’t be subjugated – his new family.

And it means creating a new technology that will change the world, making his life matter because he left a lasting impact, without caring whether it was just. Just like Nietzsche said we would need to do if we wanted to create wholeness for ourselves in a world that had been stripped of wholeness precisely by the (his words) “slave morality” that cares more about justice than wholeness.

Safin says Bond, with his war for justice, leaves nothing behind him. But he thinks that he, unlike Bond, does.

He gives the world what he thinks it wants: “People want oblivion.”

This nihilistic nullity has been the final endpoint of all illiberalism in the modern world, of left and right alike: to steal other people’s children for indoctrination, and destroy anything they can’t control.

Because they want their wholeness back, and they care more about that than about justice.

As Pat Buchanan said in 1992: “Somebody’s values are going to prevail. Why not ours?”

What better image than a poisonous garden built on top of a decommissioned ICBM silo for all the efforts, on both left and right, to take our wholeness back?

The naïvely rationalist Romanticism of the illiberal left would seize the technological and economic capacity produced by classical liberalism and use it to build a Brave New World. The naïvely traditionalist Romanticism of the illiberal right would seize that capacity and use it to build a Brave Old World.

Both are “brave” because they begin by summoning up the courage to kill the part of us that loves justice more than wholeness.

And both end in poison, fire and death.

Safin is wrong. Bond does leave something behind.

In the end, we see Madeleine driving with Mathilde.

Visual clues tell us, subtly but unambiguously, that they are back at Matera.

Bond has been buried with Vesper, where he always belonged.

Madeleine has visited the grave to ask forgiveness.

She is going to tell Mathilde about her father, who sacrificed his life – and his wholeness – so she could be safe, and be raised by her mother and not a madman, in a world ruled by the merely weak and venal rather than the diabolically insane.

Meanwhile, his friends at MI6 also tell his story and remember him.

Then, clink the glass and: “Back to work.”

The war continues.

Wholeness is overrated.

The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.

I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.

I shall use my time.

In the advanced modern world, we all agree on this. In fact, there has never been a time when this was not agreed upon. But it has taken on new urgency in the advanced modern world because, having lost our wholeness, we are constantly tempted to merely exist and prolong rather than live.

But what do we use our time for? All the big divisions are about this.

Seeking to take our lost wholeness back only grows poisonous gardens that end in fire.

We need wholeness. But we need to serve others more.

It’s right to want wholeness, because we ought to love ourselves.

But love of self becomes poisonous if we don’t make it an even higher priority to love others as we love ourselves.

Mathilde wants wholeness, too.

“If it’s an error, it’s on my shoulders, fair and square,” says Mallory, who endured torture for three months as a prisoner of the IRA.

“I’ve dedicated my life to defending this country. I believe in defending the principles of this…”

He gestures, and looks around at London, and falls silent, unable to find any words to sum up what he serves.

“Of this.”

The burden of responsibility, the legacy of injustice and corruption, the necessity of making new worlds, the sacrifice of wholeness…

If we love others as ourselves, we must accept it.

The war goes on.

Back to work.

%d bloggers like this: