Integrating “Academics” with the “Practical”

October 27, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Herewith I offer my first attempt at a grand unified field theorem of education reform. It’s a first attempt. Critique, suggestions, praise, horror, abomination, or testimonies of reveltory epiphanies are all equally welcome.

Most of the education space is divided into  two loosely congealed groups. There is a lot of diversity within each group, and sometimes there are nasty fights within the respective groups. But the big landscape is most fundamentally dominated by the dividing line between the two groups.

One group wants schools to focus on teaching basic skills first, and then a traditional liberal arts curriculum, to all students. The other group wants schools to be, in various ways, more “relevant to real life” – including everyone from down-to-earth, leathery-handed blue-collar voc ed advocates to pointy-headed, pie-in-the-sky, ivory tower touchy-feely progressives. Let’s call these groups the liberal artists and the pragmatists.

[Clarification: When I say “basic skills” I mean the three Rs.]

My formation and career have been entirely among the liberal artists. Ever since I read Dewey in college and recoiled in horror as if from the face of Satan himself – and indeed I can think of few intellectuals whose work has been more useful to Satan than Dewey – I have known that whatever else schools must be, they must not be what Dewey wanted.

But lately I’ve been increasingly worried about some of the stuff that leading liberal artists are embracing, and I’m losing enthusiasm for some of the core liberal artist commitments. And some of my pragmatist friends are hitting me with increasingly plausible arguments.

For example, most of what’s in this video seems to me to be not only true, but urgently needed:

And I found myself troubled by something in this exchange. Boiled down, it ran like this: Checker Finn sounded the alarm that P21, a key pragmatist organization that wants to destroy basic skills standards, even to the extent of suggesting that schools should really teach less algebra, was being incorporated into the push for national standards. Jay responded more or less with, “yes, and you should have seen that coming, because we told you so.”

Jay was, of course, right. But both Checker and Jay seemed to take it for granted not only that P21 wants to destroy academic standards, which it does, but also that the very idea of anyone wanting schools to provide practical applications, teach critical thinking or “instill an entrepreneurial mindset” is dangerous. That strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I want my daughter’s school to instill the entrepreneurial mindset.

And I don’t even buy the idea that applied or attitudinal outcomes are unmeasurable. We may not yet have an agreed-on way to measure them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not measurable. As Milton Friedman said, if you can measure it, measure it; if you can’t measure it, measure it anyway.

I think when Jay describes these things as “unmeasurable” what he really means is that they can’t be measured for accountability purposes, because that kind of measurement can be more easily manipulated. And there’s the rub; too many of us liberal artists have now reached the point where we’re only thinking about accountability, not about education.

Hence, my attempt to construct a grand unified field theorem.

I still think the liberal artists have a powerful historical case against the pragmatists. To speak in a fairly broad generalization, in the 20th century, K-12 public schools mostly gave a traditional academic education to middle-class (and above) white kids, and all the other kids were barely educated at all (if they were even in school). That problem was bad enough in the beginning, but it actually got worse over time, not better, even as the rest of society did a better and better job of including marginalized populations. That’s primarily because the school system fell under the thrall of the pragmatists, who didn’t value traditional academic education, and were even actively hostile to it because they thought it was inimical to learning practical application, critical thinking, creativity, the entrepreneurial mindset, etc.

The practical result of such thinking has always been the same. In the white suburbs, parents are rich and powerful enough to place limits on how far the schools go in gutting the traditional academic curriculum. Fail to teach a rich white kid algebra, and his mom and dad will notice, and they will make their presence felt. But in poorer and darker-skinned communities, while parents may want basic skills education just as much, they have less ability to make their demands heard. So the kids didn’t learn basic skills, and as a result, nothing else the pragmatists tried to teach them worked either.

The rise of standardized testing was the revenge of the liberal artists. They wanted to force schools to teach basic skills to every child. And bully for them! They’ve accomplished much good in doing so.

Yet it doesn’t work in the long term. Yes, to some extent you need to hit institutions over the head when they misbehave. But that alone cannot make an institution work. You can hit some of the people some of the time, but you can’t hit all of the people all of the time – as NCLB has shown. And if you try to make the club big enough to hit everyone over the head all the time, you’ll be giving way too much power to the people who hold the club – who watches the watchmen?

What’s needed to make institutions work is intrinsic motivation. People have to want to do what they ought to do, not primarily because of some extrinsic reward or punishment but because they understand it to be good in itself. No extrinsic motivations are strong and consistent enough to keep people doing what they need to be doing day after day after day.

And on that score, we liberal artists are not offering what we need to offer. We’re just hitting people over the head with basic skills tests. Watch that video again – that’s the voice of the professional educator who wants to educate the whole child, and doesn’t understand what basic skills tests have to do with that. He even affirms his desire for “higher standards,” but doesn’t understand why standardized tests are necessary for that.

I don’t think his view is adequate by itself. I think he’s missing the value of traditional liberal arts education. But if we want people like him to adopt what we have, we need to offer intrinsic motivation for liberal arts education – and that’s going to mean connecting our concerns to their concerns.

I’ll cut out the rest of the verbiage and come to the main point: Education needs to integrate the legitimate concerns of the liberal artists – basic skills and traditional academics – with the legitimate concerns of the pragmatists – a focus on active problem solving, creative thinking, and entrepreneurial innovation.

There are two main obstacles:

  1. Liberal artists and pragmatists see each others’ concerns as mutually exclusive. To pragmatists, time spent on basic skills and liberal arts is time wasted pursuing a failed 19th century model of education, time that could be spent on teaching kids how to solve real-world problems and connecting with their real-world needs. Meanwhile, to liberal artists, time spent on all that practical stuff is time that will ultimately be wasted because it’s outside of effective accountability structures that will ensure the schools teach all children basic skills and traditional academics.
  2. Some people have discovered that they can get credit for talking about integrating the two concerns without actually integrating them. See for example P21, which has been making noises about basic skills and 21st century skills being a “both-and” proposition. So are they now prepared to state for the record that schools should teach more algebra, not less? Eh, not so much.

The answer? School choice, of course. It solves both the liberal artists’ problems (how do we force schools to teach poor black kids how to read, and raise standards across the board for all kids?) and the pragmatists’ problems (how do we create new models of education that will prepare kids better for real life?) without a naïve reliance on changing schools through brute force systems (the most widespread fallacy among liberal artists) or neglecting to hold schools accountable at all (the most widespread fallacy among the pragmatists).

Coming next: where fighting the unions fits into all this.

“No, I’m Not Going to Stand Somewhere Else.”

October 14, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Molly, if you’re reading this – you still have a choice. You can try to run away from what you know you’re called to do, but Victor Laszlo is right: like Rick Blaine, you’re trying to run away from yourself, and you will never succeed. Or you can rejoin the fight from wherever you are now; the Internet makes it possible to do your part to save the world from any computer station, anywhere.

In case you missed the news, Molly Norris, the cartoonist who came up with the idea for Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, was admonished by the FBI that she needed to erase her identity and go into hiding, and she has done so. As Mark Steyn and others have observed, it appears that the United States law enforcement apparatus is now, effectively, working for the other side. Terrorizing people into abandoning their freedoms is precisely what the enemy is trying to accomplish. Now the FBI is helping them.

This is not the same thing as doing this for a witness in a criminal trial. You send mob informants into hiding because for them, hiding is what they need to do in order to fight the enemy. You can’t testify against the mob if the mob can kill you before you get to the stand. And if they get to you after you take the stand, the next informant won’t testify.

But for people like Norris, not hiding is what they need to do to fight the enemy. If mob informants go into hiding, we win. If Molly Norris goes into hiding, the enemy wins.

Earlier this year, when Norris cancelled her proposed Everybody Draw Mohammed Day out of fear for her life, I expressed my disappointment and she showed up in the comments to ask where all the people who were supposed to be protecting her had gone. It was a very just question! And she was thinking only of politicians and intellectuals, not the police. Who knew, then, that even the police would turn against her?

Yet we can’t give up. We can’t become cowards just becasue the FBI has done so. We are still human beings, and there is no escape from responsibility.

That’s why, in the tradition of Fasi Zaka, I’m proud to nominate Wim Nottroth for this year’s Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award.

The Gates of Vienna blog recounts the story:

Back in the fall of 2004, just after Theo Van Gogh was murdered, an artist named Chris Ripke painted a mural on a Rotterdam street with the text: “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. A scriptural quote, but universally accepted, one would think, and not at all controversial.

Needless to say, local Muslims complained, and the municipality ordered city workers to remove the mural. A video reporter [for a local TV station] named Wim Nottroth stood in front of the mural in an attempt to prevent its removal, but he was arrested by police.

The authorities also ordered all news videos of the operation destroyed, but at least one survived and was uncovered by the diligent detective work of Vlad Tepes.

The mural was on private property. The owner of the property had approved the mural. No laws were violated. But the police destroyed the mural and confiscated all videos of their crime (or so they thought) and erased them.

Four months later, it was revealed that an imam from the mosque that demanded the destruction of the mural was connected to terrorist organizations and inciting his followers to violence. He was deported for being in the country illegally.

Nottroth had been sent to the scene in his capacity as a journalist. His job was to film the police destroying the mural. But as the moment of destruction approached, Nottroth realized that although he was a journalist, he was a human being first. And nobody else was going to do what needed to be done by somebody.

So he went and stood in front of the mural. And he stood there until the police arrested him.

The translation from the Dutch is awkward in some places, but it’s impossible not to hear the courage and integrity behind the awkwardness: “We all do agree to that, don’t we? Thou shalt not kill, we all agree to, isn’t it?…If this goes away there will be more misery than there would be if you leave it.” He couldn’t have been more eloquent if he’d quoted Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration or Milton’s Aeropagetica.

This exchange encapsulates a lot in a short space:

Nottroth: It should be possible here in a democratic…

Policeman: You rather go stand there.

Nottroth: Well then, I will remain standing here.

Darn straight.

Each and every one of us must be ready to say that at any time, when our duty as human beings calls upon us. For reminding the world that standing for freedom, even against your own government when necessary, is every person’s responsibility, I nominate Wim Nottroth for the 2010 Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award.

Checker Finn, FREAK OF NATURE!

July 30, 2010


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Yet you can count the voucher programs on your fingers.

Wow! Checker Finn has TWENTY-FIVE FINGERS!

(P.S. Congrats to FEC on the rockin’ new website.)

[Update: Just realized I should have added a link to Matt’s outstanding demolition of Checker, below.]

Education and Citizenship on the Left and Right

June 29, 2010


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I’m bowled over by the new Claremont Review – Bill McClay’s cover story on the underlying cultural and educational sources of the nation’s current crisis is a real show-stopper. In the shorter items, Charles Murray has a great piece on the ups and downs of Ayn Rand, and my dissertation advisor Steven Smith has a fantastic (not that I’m biased) overview of the issues surrounding Heidegger’s Nazism.

In the education hopper, there’s Terry Moe’s Moore’s [oops!] review of E.D. Hirsch’s new book The Making of Americans. I haven’t seen the book yet; Moe Moore writes that Hirsch, always a man of the Left, makes the lefty case for curriculum reform centered on cultural literacy. To wit, schools paternalistically imposing upon children a homogeneous American culture strongly rooted in a matrix of moral values is the best way to help the poor rise, which is what lefties want.

Moe Moore also casually inserts that in this book Hirsch renews his flat-footed argument against school choice – that empowering parents with choice won’t improve schools because what schools need is better currucula. We’ve been around this merry-go-round with Hirsch before; his argument is like saying that empowering computer users to choose what computers they buy has no impact on the quality of computers; what makes computers better is that the computer companies invest in making them better. Of course, the reason computer companies work so hard to make their computers better, faster and cheaper every year is because they have to serve their customers in a highly competative market.

Moe Moore doesn’t draw the connection between Hirsch’s lefty argument for cultural literacy and his harebrained opposition to school choice, but the connection is there. It’s equally visible in Little Ramona, who – like Hirsch – has been wrongly considered a “conservative” for many years solely because she opposes multiculturalism and supports . . . well, the lefty argument for curriculum reform based on cultural literacy.

This matters because everybody’s all topsy-turvy about what is “progressive” or “conservative” in education, and it will take some effort to get our thinking straight.

Moe Moore picks up Hirsch’s statement that the movement for “progressive curricula,” i.e. the whole Dewey-inspired attack on traditional academic curricula, is really not a movement for a progressive curriculum but a movement against having any sort of “curriculum” properly so called. The point is not to change what’s in the curriculum but to have no substantive curriculum at all when it comes to inculcating a national character or a shared national culture. This is true, and it’s relevant to the question of why lefties who love cultural literacy hate school choice.


Since the late 1960s, the “progressive curriculm” (that is, the “anti-curricular”) movement has dominated the political left by making common cause with the teachers’ unions, who were not congenitally anti-curricular but whose interests were served by promoting the anti-curricular cause. As Moe Moore insightfully points out, the anti-curricular movement is really also an anti-teaching movement; it is therefore a perfect fit for the union agenda of more pay for less work. Thus, anyone who is “pro-curricular” is pigeonholed as being on the political right.

But that is a temporary phenomenon brought about by a unique confluence of political circumstances. In its historical orgins and in the logic of the position, the drive to use schools as engines of cultural homogeneity is a phenomenon of the authoritarian political left.

This goes all the way back to the roots of the system. It’s widely known that one of the major reasons America adopted the government monopoly school system in the first place was hysteria over the cultural foreignness of Catholics. However, there’s another tidbit worth knowing. As Charles Glenn documents in The Myth of the Common School, one of Horace Mann’s motivations for pushing the “common” school system was his vitriolic contempt for evangelical Protestant Christianity. The hicks in the rural Massachusetts countryside with their backward and barbaric adherence to traditional Calvinist theology – which had survived down through the centuries from the Puritan settlers – was repugnant to civilized and enlightened Boston-Brahmin Unitarians like himself.

Someone had to do something to rescue these culturally deprived children from their unenlightened parents! That’s why Mann’s schools had such a heavy emphasis on teaching the Bible – teaching it in a very particular way. Part of the school system’s purpose was cultural genocide against evangelicals, to use the power of the state to indoctrinate their children with unitarianism. And it worked beautifully; how many traditional Calvinists are left in Massachusetts?

[Update: It has been brought to my attention that the Presbyterian Church in America, a traditional Calvinist denomination, has lately been experiencing dramatic growth in New England. So perhaps I should have said “It worked beautifully; after a century of Mann’s schools, how many traditional Calvinists were left in Massachusetts?”]

What we have to get clear is that both the anti-Catholic and anti-evangelical hysteria – then as now – were on the political left.

The great crusade in the early 20th century to use the government monopoly school system to forcibly “assimilate” immigrants with “Americanism” was likewise a movement on the political left. On this subject, please do yourself the biggest favor you’ll do yourself all year and read (if you haven’t already) Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. Fanatical patriotism was, until the convulsions of the 1960s, the special hallmark of the left, not the right.

The issues got scrambled after the 1960s by two factors. First and most important was the rise of an aggressive cultural ideology (what we now call “multiculturalism”) seeking to use the government school monopoly to impose its amoral and anti-American value system on the nation’s children. This movement was not only born on the left, but, as noted above, it formed a fruitful partnership with the unions who were also on the left. So naturally, the backlash formed on the right, and the identification of being “anti-multiculturalist” applied to conservatives. However, this was never really the same kind of animal as the left-wing authoritarian drive to use government schools to enlighten the benighted and make them into good Americans. Conservative anti-multiculturalism is negative and defensive in character; it’s not seeking to use government to impose a culture, but to stop the multiculturalists from doing so.

Second, as Goldberg documents, the authoritarianism of 20th century progressivism began to migrate over and infect the right; hence we get absurd specatcles such as a “conservative” president saying such things as “when people are hurting, government has to move.” And, similarly, some conservatives try to use the power of the state to impose right-wing cultural values. But this is really the result of conservatives having drunk from the polluted cultural water of left-wing authoritarianism.

Now let me be perfectly clear. Anxiety about whether young people are picking up 1) moral values and 2) cultural identity as Americans is of course widespread on both sides of the political isle. Believe me, I’m as worried as anyone about whether the nation is successfully passing on its civilization to its children, and whether today’s immigrants will assimilate and self-identify as Americans – not only for the sake of the nation, but for their own sake, since the chief victims of amoralism and multiculturalism are the people who believe in them.

The difference is not in being worried about this problem, but in how we want to solve it. Using the brute power of a government monopoly school system to paternalistically impose a homogenous culture has never been a conservative idea. Go back and look at the great conservative debates over this in the 1990s; whether you’re talking about William Bennett, James Q. Wilson or Charles Murray, you just never find conservative thought leaders talking that way. It’s the lefties like E.D. Hirsch and Little Ramona who dream that their cultural anxieties can be salved with the soothing balm of state power.

And really, it should be obvious why. If you’re the kind of person who thinks the brute force of state power can change culture, well then, you’re probably also a political lefty. If you’re the kind of person who thinks our culture will get along just fine if the state will just stop tinkering with it through social engineering, then you’re probably also a political righty.

It all comes down to how you concieve of the relationship between the government and the nation – which is to say, between power and culture. As Reagan famously asked, are we a nation that has a state, or a state that has a nation? To put the same question another way, does culture drive politics or does politics drive culture? Or, to put it even more bluntly, is the use of power shaped by the conscience of the nation, or do we use power to shape the conscience of the nation?

The conservative approach to schools and American culture is to use school choice to smash state power, thus depriving the multiculturalists of their only serious weapon. Get the state out of the way and let Americans worry about how to pass on American civilization to the next generation.

Oh, and here’s one other way you can tell that this is the conservative approach: the evidence shows it works.

[HT Ben Boychuk for pointing out I misread “Terry Moore” as “Terry Moe” – and apologies to both Terrys!]

“Voluntary” Standards

June 4, 2010

I am shocked – shocked! – to discover that political manipulation of education is going on in here!

Your NCLB and RTTT grants for supporting national standards, monsieur.

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over on NRO, Heritage’s Lindsey Burke and Jennifer Marshall warn that the Obama administration is finding even more ways to use federal influence to push “voluntary” national standards on the states.

So much for Checker’s apparently serious assertion that the standards “emerged not from the federal government but from a voluntary coming together of (most) states, and the states’ decision whether or not to adopt them will remain voluntary.” Bwa ha ha!

Get Lost (If You Don’t Want to See Me Gloat)

June 2, 2010

“They teach you to predict the weather at a box company?”

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Sorry I’m so late to the party. I just saw the finale last night.

First let me gloat that I made (I believe) only one specific, concrete prediction, and after over a year of appearing to be falsified it was at long last fulfilled in the finale. The Axiom conquers all.

(OK, OK, it was only sort of fulfilled. But we all know that “moving on” for Daniel is going to include killing bad guys and winning Charlotte. Right?)

More generally, I feel vindicated in having maintained for so long that the real key to the whole show is the question of whether Locke was right to put his faith in the fundamental goodness of “the island.” I didn’t really get it all articulated at the time, but that was the reason I was struggling near the end to figure out, in retrospect, how Smokey fit in with Locke’s story over the course of the show. I wanted to know why they had chosen to incarnate Smokey in Locke’s body. Why remove Locke from the show when he was the lynchpin holding it all together? Now I see – they did it to set up the confrontation in the end between the spiritual Locke (Jack) and the physical Locke (Smokey). Jack had to finally admit, to himself and everybody else, that Smokey wasn’t Locke because he (Jack) was Locke.

On one level, I got what I wanted out of the finale. What I wanted was 1) a knock-down, drag-out knife fight for the fate of the world on the edge of a slowly crumbling cliff, and 2) a noble death. Check and check. I’m a happy guy.

But I think the ending is satisfying on a deeper level, too. I don’t need to know anything more than I now know about Dharma, Widmore, childbirth, chosen ones, etc. (It still bugs me that Walt appeared to Locke, but I can deal.) Those were all just skins the show shed, one after the other. On a show like this, it’s foolish to expect too much from the skins. What you have to do is follow the snake. Or maybe a better image is the old cups and balls routine – the ball moves from cup to cup, but it’s the ball you need to keep your eye on.

Jay is right that the soap opera stuff can’t hold up the show by itself. You need a larger drama to give the soap opera stuff meaning. Well, the larger drama was whether the island was good or bad, and on that it delivered just fine.

I’m not saying it’s the ending I would have written myself. I happen to think that “rejoining your loved ones” and learning to “move on” from the past, simply by themselves, is a contemptible vision of heaven. Even if that’s just the prelude to whatever “comes next,” what makes the afterlife attractive on this vision is having a chance to start again – a do-over. But what makes you think you won’t just screw it all up again – especially given infinite time – and just end up in the same place? Jacob committed the same folly – he kept bringing people to the island to show Smokey that people are basically good, and the people disappointed him every single time. You aspire to an eternity of endless do-overs? That’s the Buddhist conception of hell. I happen to believe that there’s a hell even worse than that, but the Buddhists are right when they say that if the afterlife is just more of the same forever, with periodic opportunities to start over with a fresh slate, then existence is suffering and annihilation is heaven. (It’s ironic that the show had the symbols of all the world religions in the church window. The world religions don’t really all teach the same thing, but there are some things they do all agree on, and the repudiation of this show’s vision of heaven is one of them. They all, in radically different ways, claim to offer an escape from the hell that is our own broken nature.)

But none of that detracts from my enjoyment of the show, because I don’t watch shows to have my own worldview affirmed. The enjoyment of narrative lies precisely in having the opportunity to explore a universe other than the one we really live in. Achilles is a horrible monster committing barbarism motivated by egocentrism in the service of unjust aggressors, but that doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the Illiad. (I have gotten much help on this subject from C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism.)

And if you don’t like my analysis, here’s my wife’s, which I think may find some agreement. “I figured out the secret ending,” she said to me this morning. “It’s the subliminal messages they put in the finale that say BUY ALL THE EPISODES ON DVD AND YOU CAN FIGURE IT ALL OUT.” She suggests that they put in references to all the world’s religions “not so that they’ll be equally happy but so that they’ll all be equally frustrated.”

Union Lobbyist Goes Down Hard

May 3, 2010

The unions talk tough. So did Michael Spinks.

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Collin Hitt of the Illinois Policy Institute just sent me this wonderful nugget, pulled off the official recording of the proceedings of the Illinois House Executive Committee last week.

Dramatis personae: Illinois Education Association thug lobbyist Jim Reed, and Rep. Daniel Burke.

Reed: I think the question to the downside [of the school voucher bill] is the fact that while you may think that you’re helping these 24,000 kids, the fact that you’re diverting funds from public schools means that the kids who are left in those existing public schools are going to have fewer resources. So there is a downside in terms of those students who are actually left in our public school system. That’s the downside.

Burke: Could they do any worse than what they are doing now, whether they’re funded or not?

Reed: You mean our public schools generally?

Burke: No. These schools that we are discussing, that are going to be affected by this legislation.

Reed: Probably not. They are the lowest of the lowest.

Wow! I bet Reed is still digging his teeth out of the carpet.

That’s quite a trick – I’ve never seen checkmate in one move before.

Unofficial transcript of what Rep. Burke said next

It’s “Nobody Draw Mohammed Century”!

April 30, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today, Mark Steyn posts a letter he recieved from cowardly lioness Molly Norris, along with his absolutely devastating response. Not to be missed if you’ve been following the bru-ha-ha over Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.

Steyn does leave one thing out of his response, though. Asked to explain why he and others are so contemptous toward Norris, he offers a number of unassailable demonstrations that it’s because her behavior is contemptible. But Norris’s betrayal of her own professed principles was not only a missed opportunity, as Steyn stresses. It was a unique kind of missed opportunity.

For one person or one partnership or one organization – like, say, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, or Kurt Westergaard and Jyllands-Posten, or Ezra Levant and his team at the Western Standard – deliberately says something calculated to push back against a violent threat to freedom of speech, that is nothing short of heroic. They take all the risk, and all the rest of us reap the reward of their bravery as parasitic free riders.

But you can’t build a civilization on heroic virtue. Civilization has to be livable for the ordinary person. If a civilization is going to be characterized by freedom, it has to be built in such a way that the ordinary person can enjoy freedom without having to demonstrate heroic virtue.

Kurt Westergaard (Photo by Daily Mail)

Don’t get me wrong – heroic virtue such as has been demonstrated by Parker, Stone, Westergaard, and Levant – and Mark Steyn – will always be necessary. But that’s just another way of saying heroes will always be necessary. And you can’t have a whole civilization populated by nothing but heroes. In other words, heroes are a necessary but not sufficient condition for a free civilization. By all means, let’s affirm that the ordinary person can’t be free unless heroes make his freedom possible – but he also can’t be free if freedom for heroes is the only kind of freedom we have.

So what else, besides heroes, is necessary for the freedom of the ordinary person? A mutual defense pact.

We need a culture in which it is expected that when one person’s freedom is threatened, others will rally to his defense. If it’s everybody for himself, the enemies of freedom can pick us off one by one. Or if nobody but the government is responsible to defend those whose freedom is threatened – well, how well does anything work out if it’s a government monopoly? But if we come to each others’ defense, then defending freedom doesn’t require heroic virtue. It’s hard to be the first person to stand up for freedom – that’s why we need heroes, or nobody can be free. But it’s not so hard to be the tenth, or hundredth, person to stand up for freedom – that’s why those who aren’t heroes can be free, too.

It’s not necessary for everybody in the whole world to come to everybody else’s defense. But it is necessary that those who are morally and culturally proximate to the threatened person come to his defense. By “morally proximate” I mean those who have a special duty toward the threatened, whether by natural relationship (such as being a friend or family member) or for some other reason (such as by professional responsibility – doctors have more responsibility to care for the sick than others, because they are more able to do so and have voluntarily accepted the professional responsibility). By “culturally proximate” I mean those who best understand the social situation of the threatned person because they themselves inhabit a similar social situation.

And that’s what makes Norris’s abdication especially galling. The idea of Everybody Draw Mohammed Day was a fantastic way for all of us who are – as professional producers of social commentary – morally and culturally proximate to those whose freedom is threatened here to exercise a mutual defense pact. Steyn himself has articualted on numerous occasions the imperative for professional producers of news and culture to rally to fight off the threat to free speech from political Islamism. Well, this seemed to be, for a few brief shining moments, a way for some of us to do that.

But not now. Nobody else can make EDMD happen the way Norris could have. Yet it appears that being hip – i.e. not being even remotely associated with anything her elite-lefty social circle finds declasse – was more important to her than striking what could have been one of the most powerful blows for freedom in our generation.

Pass the Popcorn: Favorites of the Aughts

February 26, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I know it’s a bit late for Aughts-in-Review type stuff, but here goes.

Note that it says “favorites” rather than “best.” That’s partly because I didn’t get to see all the movies I wanted to, and I don’t want to snub any really good movies that I may have missed; and partly because I wasn’t sure I knew which ones were “best” but I was sure which ones were my favorites.

One man’s opinion. Results not typical. Your mileage may vary.

Comedy (Wit)

Essentially optimistic narrative that generates humor through clever dialogue and/or plot manipulation.

Winner: Chicken Run

There are so many unbelievable lines in this movie I can’t begin to pick a favorite.

Oh, who am I kidding? Of course I have a favorite!

“You mean you never actually flew the plane?”

“Good heavens, no! I’m a chicken! The Royal Air Force doesn’t let chickens behind the controls of a complex aircraft.”

(Although “pushy Americans, always showing up late for every war” comes in a close second, followed by the dialogue at the end about what item, exactly, you would need to start a chicken farm.)

Also Nominated: Amelie

Everyone has a talent; Amelie Poussin’s is practical jokes. Amelie realizes that her calling in life is to use her gift for practical jokes to improve the human condition. (Talk about a candidate for the Al Copeland award!) Fortunately, she’s surrounded by a bunch of severely disfunctional people! Getting duped by Amelie’s clever schemes is just what they need to get their heads on straight. But the tables are turned after Amelie becomes fascinated with a handsome young man and uses a series of practical jokes to attract his affections. A lifelong loner, Amelie abruptly realizes that she’s bought more than she bargained for – the risks and sacrifices of real love are no joke. Is anyone shrewd enough to figure out how to get Amelie’s head on straight?

The first of two foreign films (French, in this case) to make my list. Someday I’ll compile a list called Foreign Films Actually Worth Watching.

Also Nominated: Down with Love

In form, this is a spoof of the old 1960s Rock Hudson/Doris Day sex comedies. But what makes it work so brilliantly is the filmmakers’ ambition – in which they are totally successful – to update the humor in light of subsequent developments in sex relations. Casual sex, and all the comprehensive overturning of traditional roles and expectations accomplished in its name, turned out not to be everything its disciples cracked it up to be. Yet, miserable as we are, nobody wants to go back to the old system, with its demeaning subordination of the female to the male. Can we re-domesticate sex without re-domesticating women? This movie answers with a resounding “yes,” and does so with some of the sharpest wit I’ve seen on the screen.

Comedy (Satire)

Essentially optimistic narrative that uses humor to create a critique of familiar human foibles (and vice versa).

Not sure why, or what this might say about the historical moment we were living through, but satire was the strongest category of the Aughts. All four of these movies are not just exceptional, but are standouts even among the decade’s exceptional movies. I’d put the “also nominateds” in this category ahead of most of the winners in the other categories. (I say this even though the single best movie of the decade wasn’t in this category; after you get past that particular movie, satire is where most of the big standouts are.)

Winner: Barbershop

Barbershop owner Calvin barely manages to ride herd on his feisty retinue of wisecracking barbers. He’s been breaking his back to keep the shop propped up for years, all out of a sense of obligation to the dead father from whom he inherited it. But all that time, he’s been dreaming of scoring big in a series of get-rich-quick schemes, and his irresponsible pursuit of easy riches has finally caught up with him – he doesn’t have the money to keep the shop open any more. As his final day of business unfolds, his madcap barbers (and clients) bicker and lecture each other about what really matters in life. Through all the verbal duelling and tomfoolery, Calvin comes to understand why his father was more interested in running a barbershop than in getting rich.

Obviously this movie has a lot to say about issues that are of particular concern to black Americans. The filmmakers ruffled some feathers – one of the customers says to a barber “You’d better not let Jesse Jackson hear you talking like that” and the barber replies, with relish and gusto, and yet also with very deep seriousness, “F$%# Jesse Jackson!” John Podhoeretz wisely commented that this whole movie, really, is just one long “F$%# Jesse Jackson!” from beginning to end.

But the deepest theme here is really universal – responsibility, courage, honesty and decency are more valuable than any worldly success.

Also Nominated: Lilo & Stitch

The greatest concept for a family movie ever. A genetically engineered alien monster designed in every aspect of his being to maximize his ability to create destruction and chaos meets a typical human child, and it turns out that except for their appearance they’re exactly the same in every possible way. There’s lots of other great satire here – Earth is spared from destruction by an alien armada because the aliens’ environmental bureaucrats believe the mosquito is an endangered species (and just wait until the end when you find out why they think that) – but the heart of this movie is the central insight that people are not naturally civilized. And that is a really funny fact. As if that weren’t subversive enough, the real message of the movie is that families are the only thing that civilize people. And this is a Disney movie!

Bonus points for the big-hearted ending, too. I’m not ashamed to admit I choke up during the climactic speech – exactly twenty words long – in which Stitch explains the basis of his loyalty to Lilo. It’s the only movie on this list that I always choke up at.

Also Nominated: 13 Going on 30

Mistakenly pigeonholed as a “female version of Big,” this is actually the opposite of Big in many ways. In Big, a thirteen-year-old boy who’s miserable and can’t wait to be an adult wakes up one morning to find that he is one. He discovers that the grown-up world is even more messed up than the kid world, and he teaches those around him to find their inner child. Everyone ends up happy because the hero teaches them all not to be so mature, and he’s happiest of all because in the end he gets to go back and be a kid – which, we now know, is oh so much better than being an adult and having lame stuff like obligations and responsibilities.

In 13 Going on 30, a thirteen-year-old girl who’s miserable and can’t wait to be an adult wakes up one morning and finds that she is one. And in this version, she gets to live exactly the life she wants – she’s a world-famous fashion magazine editor with a pro athlete boyfriend, etc. etc. And she discovers that that grown-up world, the world of adults who live in a perpetual adolescent fantasy, is more messed up than the kid world – it’s messed up because it wants perpetual adolescence. She’s miserable as a world famous fashion magazine editor with a pro athlete boyfriend – but her old high school pal who had more serious, more mature – more grown up – plans for himself is now happy and enjoying life.

She teaches the people around her the error of their ways not by helping them to find their inner children but by calling on them to grow the heck up. And the movie ends with her as an adult, living an adult life and happy with it.

Like Barbershop, this movie speaks from within the perspective of a particular segment of the population – in this case, teenage girls and young women. But the deepest theme is again universal; you might say this movie has the same core message, but focused on sex rather than money.

Also Nominated: Millions

A young boy finds a duffel bag full of money that was tossed off a train during a robbery. He tries in vain to find a way to give the money away to charity, but each time he brings the money to a new person, that person’s greed subverts his efforts. Even the professional UN do-gooder turns out to be on the take. He is sustained by visitations from saints, who encourage him not to give up hope and to keep trying to do the right thing. Yet the more he tries to rely on the goodness of those around him, the more deeply he’s disappointed. This whimsical movie won’t be for everyone, but if you’re looking for a movie that affirms the good even in the face of a very clear-eyed and sober reckoning with the dark side of human nature (the director’s previous movie was 28 Days Later, a lighthearted and cheerful flick about how the only thing more evil and repulsive than flesh-eating zombies is humans), this is the one to see.

Comedy (Situational)

Essentially optimistic narrative that derives humor from specific combinations of characters and plotlines.

Winner: Finding Nemo

Good gravy, what is there to say that hasn’t been said a thousand times?

Also Nominated: Return to Me

The only conventional romantic comedy on the list. This movie has many merits – the laugh-out-loud moments are frequent – but the most amazing thing to me is the way it solves the inherent problem of the romantic comedy. Most romantic comedies are mediocre at best because of the contradiction inherent in the form: the leads must be perfect for one another, yet there must be some obstacle preventing them from falling in love (at least fully and without reservation) until the very end. It’s not sufficient to simply keep them apart – if they fall in love but can’t be together for some reason, that’s not a romantic comedy, it’s a drama.

The problem is, almost all of the obstacles you can place between them require one or both of the leads to come across as either stupid or evil. Sometimes they don’t realize they’re perfect for each other, in which case we spend the whole moive watching them not see what is, to us, obvious (i.e. stupid). Most often, one or both of them have an existing “serious” or “committed” relationship. This requires the existing relationship to end in a way that provides emotional closure to clear a path for the happy ending – but this can only occur in one of three ways:

  1. The lead’s current partner is cheating or otherwise exploitative (i.e. the lead is stupid)
  2. The lead’s current partner is heartless enough to dump him/her, even though he/she is obviously a fantastic catch (i.e. the partner is stupid, meaning the lead is stupid for having been with him/her)
  3. The lead dumps the current partner even though the partner is not cheating or otherwise exploitative and doesn’t want the relationship to end (i.e. the lead is evil)

The best romantic comedy ever made, Next Stop Wonderland, brilliantly sidesteps the problem by not having the leads even meet one another until the very end. As we get to know them, separately, we see that they’re perfect for each other and each will be miserable until they meet, and they keep almost meeting but not quite, and then finally they meet, whereupon they fall for each other instantly. But that’s a one-shot deal; once someone has the audacity to make a Next Stop Wonderland, nobody else can make it. So what do you do?

You start the movie by having the male lead’s wife die in a car crash, and the female lead, who has heart disease, recieves her heart as a transplant. Genius. And very well executed.

Also Nominated: Ratatouille

Having already written about the movie’s substance…

It not only has sharp dialogue (consider, for example, the duel of wits between Linguini and Anton Ego in the press conference scene) and great humor (in its context, the moment where Ego is transported back to childhood by his first bite of Remy’s ratatouille is every bit as funny as the “I am your father” line in Toy Story 2), but also philosophical depth (the whole movie is basically Plato’s Ion in cartoon form, with cooking as a proxy for art and creativity generally – as Ego’s climactic monologue makes clear).

I’ll add one new comment. Situational comedy requires implausible situations. This movie embraces that and runs with it all the way. Halfway through the movie, just when you think they can’t cook up anything more outrageous, we find out that in the Ratatouilleverse rats can control people’s actions by yanking their hair. And they’re completely shameless about it. “That’s disturbingly involuntary!” I think that’s part of why this movie succeeds – it has the sheer audacity to set up the situations it wants.

Drama (Tragic)

Essentially anti-optimistic (though not necessarily pessimistic) narrative illuminating the nobility of human struggles against challenges that are too great for merely human capacities to reliably overcome.

Winner: Magnolia

An absolutely unflinching movie (seriously, don’t watch it if there are children anywhere within five hundred miles of your television) about the universal human phenomenon of guilt. Is there any escape from its unbearable burden? Vaclav Havel got down to the crux of the matter in his prison letters – the only thing that makes human beings at all meaningful is the fact that they are morally responsible. But . . . responsible to what? Or whom?

Unsurpassed performances from at least a dozen major stars, including a truly breathtaking performance by Tom Cruise that can stand without shame next to any other acting job ever filmed.

Also Nominated: Garden State

I never feel quite sure I’ve correctly identified what this movie is “about.” But it moves seamlessly between hilarious comedy and profound meditation. I think – but again, I’m never quite sure – that the “point” is that we’ve spent so much time and energy running away from disturbing emotional experiences that we’ve flattened our souls. The main thing that’s keeping us from being emotionally healthy is that we fuss and fret so much about whether we’re emotionally healthy – we’re psychological hypochondriacs. In the end, if man makes his own psychology the point of his life, then there’s no “there” there – just a bottomless void. You can scream into it all you want and never hear an echo. Better to just go home and get on with your life.

Also Nominated: Pieces of April

Yes, having already lavished extremely high praise on Tom Cruise, I’m now going to praise Katie Holmes. But she really is good – and Laura Linney is phenomenal – in this very raw and heartfelt movie about dysfunctional families.

Drama (Epic)

Narrative featuring high-stakes conflicts between titanic characters who evoke or represent transcendent forces.

Winner: The Dark Knight

Movie of the decade. (Duh.)

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: See here, here, here, here, here, and here. Nuff said.

Also Nominated: The Incredibles

Lots of the movies on this list are delightfully subversive, but this one? Forget about it. “When everyone is special…”

Yet it’s not just here for that; in fact, none of them is just here for that. Simply as an epic drama, this movie succeeds – dare I say it – incredibly.

Also Nominated: Casino Royale

Another movie I’ve probably said enough about already.

Category Killers

Movies that don’t fit comfortably into established genres, but that I really like and want to include on the list.

The Passion of the Christ

I know, I know. I understand. I feel you about this, I really do. But I’m sorry, I can’t leave the greatest work of devotional art produced in probably a century (What’s the competition for that title? This? Seriously?) off my list just because of the guy who produced it. Whatever is really in Gibson’s heart, there’s none of that kind of crap up there in the movie. It’s just not there. (My theory is that people like Charles Krauthammer see that kind of crap in the movie because they’re very good at detecting it in people, and they smelled the stench of it on Gibson and interpreted the movie through that lens.)

As a colleague of mine once said, the key to understanding this movie is that it’s not fundamentally a narrative drama, as most movies are, but a work of devotional art that just happens – by coincidence, as it were – to take the form of a movie. It’s much more like “a religious painting in movie form” than it is like a regular movie. The events happening on the screen are not the point. The point is that the experience of seeing this movie reminds the believing audience – a work of devotional art is not designed to create belief in those who lack it but to engage with the belief of those who already have it – of everything they already know and feel about Jesus. And for Christians – here comes the really key point – the events depicted here have a completely different meaning than a similar set of events would have in any other context. If you see the movie without that angle, as most of the critics did, you just aren’t seeing the movie. Of course all the extreme violence and the gore and the focus on his excruciating suffering would be bizarre and possibly pathological if they had no theological meaning. But they do, which is why Christian devotional art has always dwelled at length on them.


Director Spike Jonze at the peak of his career thus far. Nicholas Cage delivers a delightful performance as belagured author Charlie Kaufman, opposite an equally appealing performance by Nicholas Cage as Charlie’s twin brother Donald.

Charlie Kaufman also happens to be the movie’s real-life scriptwriter, a fact you’ll want to know going into the movie. Donald is fictional. But, in keeping with the concept of the movie, the script is officially attributed to “Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman.” And when it won was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay, the award nomination was duly conveyed upon both authors, making Donald Kaufman the only fictional character ever to win be nominated for an Academy Award.

Update: Oops. The movie did win an Oscar, but not for screenplay (HT Marcus, below). Donald is listed as a nominee, though. He also has his own page on IMDB!

Jonze is notorious for his mind-bending plots, and Adaptation can’t really be adequately explained in fewer than about 800 or 1,000 words. But for our purposes it’s enough to say that this movie delivers plenty of laughs to keep you entertained while it’s in the process of gradually building a truly amazing plot architecture, which (when considered as a whole) asks the question: Why do movies tell stories? And answers it to tremendous effect, merging philosophical depth with a narrative tour de force.

A lot of people didn’t like the ending. I’m with Roger Ebert, who put it succinctly: “If you didn’t like the ending, you didn’t understand the movie. Go back and watch it again until you get it right.”

American Splendor

The “category killer” to end all category killers. Two of Hollywood’s most talented actors (Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis) deliver outstanding performances as Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, whose amazing true story is depicted in the movie. Interspersed with this narrative is documentary footage of interviews with the real Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, who talk to us about the events we’re watching – why they did what they did, how they felt, etc. Is it a documentary or a drama? Call it the only dramentary ever made.

Like Adaptation, American Splendor is about storytelling itself. By inserting interviews with the real-life subjects into the story, the movie invites us to experience the “story” part consciously as a story. It’s a good thing Giamatti and Davis are talented enough to carry this weight; anything short of virtuoso performances on their parts would have turned this whole project into a huge turkey. But they’re up to the challenge, and the result is fascinating.

Like Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, Harvey Pekar (creator of the comic American Splendor) doesn’t want to tell “stories” because they’re not like life. But unlike Charlie, Harvey succeeds in making his non-stories interesting. This is in large part because Harvey encouters so many interesting people and has a gift for observing them – with characters like this, who needs plot?

Yet . . . a good deal of interesting plot does actually happen to Harvey. (The incredible true story of Harvey and Joyce’s first date is worth the price of admission by itself.) And that’s another layer to the movie – while the real Harvey has made a career out of simply documenting life as he experiences it, the movie picks out only the interesting parts of his life and arranges them in order to artificially create a satisfying story arc with a beginning, middle and ending that work seamlessly. Exactly the opposite of what the real Harvey does!

And yet, the real Harvey doesn’t seem to mind. Unlike Charlie, he’s never given himself airs about what he does and why he does it. He’s too jaundiced to be a prima donna.

Come to think of it – how many biopics have the guts to put the subject himself up on the screen and give him the chance to critique their movie version of his life? Talk about keeping you honest!

Too Soon to Tell

Recently released movies that I feel like I may later look back on as “favorites of the aughts,” but don’t yet feel fully confident including on the list because not enough time has passed to be sure.



Star Trek

Speed Racer



Pat Robertson Is an Expert on Deals with the Devil

January 14, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

You may be tempted to dismiss Pat Robertson’s remarks about Haiti on the narrow and pedantic grounds that Robertson is a crazy man. But before you do, you should know that when Pat Robertson talks about making deals with the devil, he speaks as an expert in the field.

1) He regularly cozies up to bloodthirsty dictators in nations where he has large financial interests – China, Congo, Liberia – praising them on the air as enlightened statesmen and inviting their mouthpieces onto his program to spread their propaganda. China has full and complete religious freedom! Falun Gong wants to eat your children’s eyeballs! It’s turning out that there are some things even Google won’t do for China – but not Pat Robertson.

2) The contract under which he sold his TV network to ABC (it became ABC Family) requires ABC to air his show in perpetuity, no matter how crazy he gets or how low the ratings go. He could be up there telling us to worship Mongo the Martian Monkey God and they’d still have to air it. That’s the price ABC paid to get the network. Rumor has it they’ve tried over and over again to buy the man out, and who can blame them? But he won’t sell – the only two things Pat Robertson loves more than money are his ego and his self-righteousness. And ABC put its blood on the signature line, so they’re stuck with him.

Of course, none of this is to deny that Robertson is, in fact, a crazy man. Check out this archive photo from the early days of his ministry:

It was after he shaved off the beard that his show really took off.

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