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Category Archives: Atlas Shrugged
Posted: December 18, 2019 at 9:18 pm
It was always going to be controversial. A 25-foot-tall sculpture of a man cradling a condo, standing on multi-coloured cubes. Commissioned by the developer Camrost Felcorp and made by celebrated German artist Stephan Balkenhol, Toronto Man (2019) is one of the citys newest public artworks. It got a mixed reception when it was unveiled in August.
Balkenhol spends his time living between Meisenthal, France and Karlsruhe, Germany, where he teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts. Hes been a commanding presence on the European art stage for decades, and the work is the sculptors first commission in North America.
NOW spoke with Balkenhol by email over a number of weeks this fall. His comments made clear why he thinks his work has sparked dialogue: The sculpture is just a pretext for a conversation Toronto needs to have with itself about rapid development in the city.
Located at 101 St. Clair West and facing the street, the work is part of a three-condo development complex on the site of the former Imperial Oil building. It has provoked consternation ever since it went on display: here is the invasion of the city by developers made literal. Is the artist mocking us? Toronto Man inspired a social media debate, with one Twitter user noting that it represents a certain class dominance over the society that is supposed to be diverse and multicultural. Its a fair summation of the ambivalence the work has prompted.
Toronto Man is big. At 25 feet in height, its not at human scale. When asked how he decided on the size of the work, Balkenhol called the sculpture big, but not too big.
The location on the street in front of the high buildings demands a certain height of the sculpture, he said. It was meant to be a kind of landmark and should be perceived [by] the people driving on the road as well for those who walk by.
The rough-hewn surface of Toronto Man is characteristic of Balkenhols practice. Using a carving style that dates back to the Middle Ages, he hacks and chisels his figures out of single blocks of wood. Casting the figure in bronze and adding a coat of paint is the artists contemporary update on this tradition. At the same time, the rustic look conveys a message about the techniques medieval origins.
The figure of a standing man wearing slacks and an open collared shirt often recurs in Balkenhols work. A Twitter comment noted that Toronto Man has a Soviet messianic look in his eye. Is the figure some kind of new New Soviet Man? Or, more likely, John Galt, the libertarian architect hero of Ayn Rands 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged? In the book, Rand conflates architecture with a maverick world-building that cares not for the destruction it leaves in its wake. Torontonians could be forgiven for feeling that developers are equally disruptive, given the impact of condo development on city life.
But this reading falls short of seeing the sculpture as a whole. The cubes at the Mans feet are as important as the building he is holding.
Who exactly is Toronto Man? This guy in Toronto is a nobody in an everybody he could be you, says Balkenhol. This sculpture invites you to take his place and hold the tower [while] standing on the coloured cubes.
The cubes are a decisive detail. On a traditional sculpture, the pedestal separates the viewer from the figure it represents. The base of Balkenhols work suggests a more playful invitation.
That said, Balkenhol makes clear that seeing the man as a developer is not a misreading.
I dont want to illustrate stories but invite people to invent some by looking at my sculptures, he says. I do make proposals but dont tell a story myself up to the end.
Vice writer Mack Lamoureux couldnt decide if the work was intended as a celebration of developers hold on the city or as an indictment of it. Is the sculptor shitting on the developers for gentrifying cities by putting up some luxury condos, he asks, while conceding theres also the real possibility that the developers are in on the joke.
Balkenhol said in a 2014 interview: It is the viewer who fills it with meaning. Astonishingly enough, many beholders can hardly bear this openness.
In the last decade, Toronto has been utterly changed by condo development. The skyline is more glossy, the population is bigger and rental prices keep going up. All of this is rolled up into one big, 21st-century package of globalization.
The Yonge + St. Clair BIA is also pushing to raise the profile of the neighbourhood and make it more of a destination. Public art is a big part of the strategy. Other recent projects include an eight-storey mural by Sheffield, UK street artist Phlegm and the pop-up Tunnel of Glam, an 80-foot long tunnel of sequins running to January 6.
More broadly, the city has a policy that requires a percentage of large-scale development projects go toward public art. Until Toronto Man, no public work has been funded through that program while overtly commenting on the city-building phenomenon that made it possible. Toronto Man bears the heavy weight of Torontos new lived reality on its sturdy, capable shoulders.
Look Closer is a column in which a writer visits public art or an art exhibition and explores why a specific work jumped out at them. Read more here.
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Posted: November 18, 2019 at 6:46 pm
The title may conjure up the Ayn Randian philosophy of theVirtue of Selfishness or Atlas Shrugged. The article does take some of AynRands philosophy and apply this to todays life. Altruism as defined byAuguste Comte, calls for living for the sake of others. The belief that one must place the welfare ofothers over our own self-interest. That a person must become a sacrificiallamb and self-sacrifice as a value and duty. Other interests are subordinate to your owninterests and its is ones moral obligation to live life in this manner.
Ayn Rands definition of selfishnessis that a person has the right to live for their own self. It does not mean the person can do whateverthey want. Morality and ethics are partof the societys culture and laws that need to be obeyed. The person has a right to live a life ofreason, purpose and self-esteem.
It is not my intention to uphold or debate the RandianPhilosophy, rather make the point that in order to be altruistic a person mustbe selfish. Lets look at the basic needs of the Altruistic person that need tobe met for the Altruist to help others.
Health. Too often we have seen people neglect theirown health in order to make life easier for others. While this may work in the short term,eventually your disregard for your health will catch up with you. The longhours at the office, the second job, unhealthy eating habits, the striving caregiver. The selfish motive of Altruism should be to place your health above allelse as a rational interest, in order to pursue the unselfish goals.
Wealth. There needs to be enough to meet the basicneeds of the Altruist. We have seen the exemplary charitable behavior of BillGates or Warren Buffet who have more to give than most people can imagine. Inorder for the normal person to contribute either in time or money, both ofwhich are interchangeable, there should be a buffer of wealth that allows theperson to contribute in a meaningful way.
Mental Fortitude. The Altruist needs to develop theappropriate mental strength so they can immerse themselves in the aid ofothers. It means at times taking the selfishstep to devote time and energy in their own mental wellbeing. To feed theirsoul with the rest, reflection and recuperation it needs.
To quote Ayn Rand from the Fountainhead: To say I Love You one must know first how to say the I. The I must be self-aware, self-accepting and strong.
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Posted: November 7, 2019 at 3:49 am
A view of the Amtrak Superliner Diner on Amtrak National Train Day at Union Station in Washington, DC.
A view of the Amtrak Superliner Diner on Amtrak National Train Day at Union Station in Washington, DC.
Photo: Paul Morigi / Getty Images For Amtrak
A view of the Amtrak Superliner Diner on Amtrak National Train Day at Union Station in Washington, DC.
Super-train pipe dreams create odd link in history: Getting There
What do Ayn Rand, Hollywood and Adolph Hitler have in common?
They all dreamed of building super-trains.
Maybe it was because their visions for giant, high-speed trains came before the era of cheap flights moving large numbers of people over great distances, but each of them had a grandiose vision of fast, luxurious rail travel.
In her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, Rand made the construction of a coast-to-coast train, The Taggart Comet, central to the plot of her dystopian America set some time in the future. In an era of crumbling infrastructure, the construction of an 8-mile rail tunnel under the continental divide saw mismanagement lead to a fatal passage, killing all on board.
Fast forward 22 years and NBC was still dreaming of high-speed, transcontinental rail travel, this time on Supertrain. This fictitious nuclear-powered cruise-ship-on-rails would zoom from New York to Los Angeles in 36 hours at a cruising speed of 190 mph.
Equipped with a swimming pool, disco, infirmary and shopping center, the double-decker train was so big it had to run on a broad-gauge track. One-way tickets in a roomette were $450.
The life-sized set for the shows shooting looked tacky, and the few cutaway shots of the $10 million Supertrain scale-model cruising across the country were unconvincing. Of course, the show wasnt about the train but the people who rode it, like a Loveboat on land. The vision of TV mogul Fred Silverman, the show was a disaster and lasted only one season.
Mind you, by 1979 when Supertrain was taking to air, Amtrak debuted its own double-deck long distance trains, dubbed Superliners. The cars still run today on such trains as The Empire Builder (Seattle to Chicago) and the California Zephyr (San Francisco to Chicago). But these trains are more ballast than bullet, with a (rarely achieved) top speed of 100 mph. And though they do offer a dining car and glass-topped observation lounge, there is no pool or disco.
What inspired Rand, NBC and Amtrak to such rail dreams? It might have been Adolph Hitler.
Early during World War II, Hitler was thinking and building big. Berlin was to be rebuilt as Welthauptstadt Germania, capital of the world. And to move people across conquered Europe, the network of Autobahns was to be complimented with the Breitspurbahn, translated as broad-gauge railroad, with trains twice as wide as standard gauge.
The locomotives designs ranged from traditional steam to gas turbine, but the rail cars would make Supertrain pale in comparison. Each double-deck car would be 138 feet long, 20 feet wide and 23 feet tall, the size of a small house.
The train would be a third of a mile long carrying 2,000 to 4,000 passengers at 120 mph. On board would be a 196-seat cinema, barbershop, sauna and a dining car for 176. Daytime and night seating (and sleepers) would be offered in three classes. Additionally, a single car could carry up to 450 slave laborers. There was also room for several 20 mm anti-aircraft guns.
Hitler had a team of 100 top engineers working on the railroads design right up until the end of the war, though a prototype was never built.
Today we have any number of super-fast trains, but none as large as earlier generations had imagined.
Posted: at 3:49 am
When the Berlin Wall was erected in August 1961, to stop the flood of refugees from communist East Germany into capitalist West Germany, Ayn Rand was well positioned to state its true meaning to the world.
A native of Russia, Rand was twelve years old when she first heard the communist slogan that man must live for the state and she immediately condemned it as evil, even as the Russian Revolution established its iron grip on the nation. Her first novel, We the Living, published ten years after she had escaped to America, told a semi-autobiographical story of young lovers whose lives and hopes are crushed by the Soviet state.1 In the 1940s, Rand was an outspoken critic of Russian propaganda in movies and Russian infiltration in Americas government.
In the early 1960s, following on the publishing success of her masterwork, Atlas Shrugged, Rand was in demand on college campuses, lecture halls, and radio and television as an interpreter of culture and current events. When the Los Angeles Times invited her to write a syndicated column starting in June 1962, her first contribution introduced her philosophy, Objectivism, which upholds rational self-interest and condemns altruism the doctrine that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only moral justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty. Using the Berlin Wall and other recent horrors as examples, Rand challenged her readers to see a link between that altruist morality and the disturbing state of the world around them:
You may observe the practical results of altruism and statism all around us in todays world such as the slave-labor camps of Soviet Russia, where twenty-one million political prisoners work on the construction of government projects and die of planned malnutrition, human life being cheaper than food or the gas chambers and mass slaughter of Nazi Germany or the terror and starvation of Red China or the hysteria of Cuba where the government offers men for sale or the wall of East Berlin where human beings leap from roofs or crawl through sewers in order to escape, while guards shoot at fleeing children.
But Rand was just getting warmed up. On August 17, 1962, a young East German bricklayer named Peter Fechter jumped from the window of a building near the wall and into a death strip patrolled by armed East German border guards. Fechter ran across this strip to the main wall, which was over six feet high and topped with barbed wire, and started to climb. But before he could reach the top, guards shot him in the pelvis. He fell back to earth and lay there in the death strip, helpless, screaming, bleeding to death with no medical help from the East German side, and inaccessible to the crowd of West German onlookers and journalists. An hour later, he was dead. The next month, Rand published The Dying Victim of Berlin, in which she used the example of Americas foreign policy to describe the process by which the morality of altruism is destroying the world.
Using the Berlin Wall and other recent horrors as examples, Rand challenged her readers to see a link between that altruist morality and the disturbing state of the world around them.
This is the purpose of shooting an eighteen-year old boy who tried to escape from East Berlin, and letting him bleed to death at the foot of the wall, in the sight and hearing of the Western people.
West Germany is the freest, the most nearly capitalist economy in Europe. The contrast between West and East Berlin is the most eloquent modern evidence of the superiority of capitalism over communism. The evidence is irrefutable. Russia does not intend to refute it. She is staging an ideological showdown: she is spitting in our face and declaring that might is right, that brutality is more powerful than all our principles, our promises, our ideals, our wealth and our incomparable material superiority.
Such is the silent symbol now confronting the world: the steel skyscrapers, the glowing shop windows, the glittering cars, the lights of West Berlin the achievement of capitalism and of capitalisms essence: of free, individual men and, lying on its doorstep, in the outer darkness, the bleeding body of a single, individual man who had wanted to be free.
In the ensuing decades, Rand never stopped reminding the world of Soviet Russias evil and of that evils source in the morality of altruism. During her last public speech, in 1981, the Q&A session featured this exchange:
Interviewer: . . . Is Russia a real threat today?
Ayn Rand: Russia as such was never a threat to anyone. Even little Finland beat Russia twice during World War II. Russia is the weakest and most impotent country on Earth. If they were in a war, most of the miserable Russians would defect. But Russia has one weapon by default which we have surrendered, and that is the morality of altruism. So long as people believe that Russia represents a moral ideal, they will win over us in every encounter. That is one of the reasons for dropping altruism totally, consciously, as the kind of evil which it really is.
When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, Ayn Rand had been dead for seven years. But we know from her many writings on the subject that she would have joined the civilized world in celebrating the demise of that monstrosity.2 However, she would doubtless have reminded us that so long as altruism reigns unchallenged, such evils and worse ones are inevitable in the future.
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Posted: October 20, 2019 at 10:40 pm
Recently in The Bulwark, I speculated that President Trumps betrayal of the Kurds would lead to much crazier things happening, or at least to much crazier things seeing the light of day, without responsible adults around to make everything look grown-up and professional.
That result was not long in coming. And yes, Im talking about Trumps crude, childish letter to Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which had everybody asking whether it could possibly be real.
Lets be clear. Nobody was asking whether this was something Trump would write, because weve all seen his Twitter feed and we know that this sort of thing is his natural style of expression: Dont be a tough guy. Dont be a fool! I will call you later. Thats actually a bit more literate than his average tweet. What was a surprise is that this wasnt coming from his personal Twitter feed but was released by the U.S. government, that it was not scribbled in crayon but typed out neatly on White House stationery.
How did that happen?
* * *
Tom Nichols wonders about the letters we havent seen. But I have no doubt that this is what the first draft of every Trump letter has looked like, before the serious people come in and translate it to adult human. But now were getting Donald Trump unfiltered, as he is, with no help and no enablers. Why?
Maybe his aides had no choice. Maybe the president has finally reached the point at which he feels confident overriding all of his advisors. Maybe he has gotten away with so much and become so fed up at the sense that he is being handled that he has decided to write his own letters and make his own foreign policy without anybody elses involvement. Or maybe he has fired and driven away all of the serious people, so there is nobody left who is willing or even able to make the president look more serious. But the abruptness of the change raises another big possibility: maybe his aides and advisors have gone on strike.
Imagine this situation from the perspective of a highly qualified professional expert, the kind of person who is there to help the president make informed decisions, implement them smoothly, and communicate them in a sober way. Its your job to make sure the president always looks like he knows what hes doing, like he has the relevant facts available, and like he is able to speak to foreign leaders and to his own federal bureaucracy in a way that commands respect. Now imagine that the president has ignored and overridden you repeatedly, and this debacle with the Kurdsa vicious and impulsive decision, made against everybodys adviceis the last straw. Youre tired of the fact that the president never listens to you but does listen to random noisemakers on the Internet. You are ashamed that our allies are paying in blood for it. So at some point, youre going to get fed up, and youre going to stop even trying to make Trump look good.
Youre going to decide that if the president wants to write a letter that makes him sound like a not especially bright toddler, he can go ahead and do it. Youre going to lift up the curtain and let everybody see what he is really like.
* * *
Its not just the letter. There is Trumps shambles of a meeting with congressional leaders to discuss Syria, where he actually boasted about that letter to Erdogan.
Or there is his meeting with the parents of a young British man killed in a car accident by the wife of an American diplomat who fled back to America claiming diplomatic immunity. Trump expressed his sympathythen ambushed them with a harebrained reality-TV scheme to introduce them for the first time to their sons killer in front of a bank of cameras. He was supposed to look sympathetic and conciliatoryand just came across as that much more callous.
Where are the aides who could have nodded their heads gravely, then quietly killed this obviously bad idea? Has he fired them all, or have they simply given up?
* * *
A year ago, when an anonymous senior White House advisor confessed to the New York Times that he and others were only staying on to try to hold things together and repair the damage from Trumps worse impulses, I made an extended analogy to the plot of Ayn Rands Atlas Shrugged. This is partly because I have Atlas Shrugged on the brain a lot these daysbut bear with me, because the analogy is even more relevant now.
In Rands novel, the main character is a competent professional who spends her time cleaning up everybody elses messes and undoing their damage in a desperate attempt to save her familys company and the country from disaster. Its a good motive, but eventually she realizes that shes achieving the opposite of her goal. Every time she bails her brother and his political cronies out of a disaster, they have an excuse to stay in power. Shes helping them evade responsibility so they can keep making all the same stupid mistakes.
Shes not saving the country, as she thinks. Shes serving as an enabler for the people who are destroying it. So what does she eventually do? She goes on strike. She stops trying to solve their problems and clean up their messes. She lets them collapse under the weight of their own viciousness and incompetence.
Im guessing a few more people at the White House, maybe even the author of that anonymous op-ed, have reached this stage.
The point of going on strike is that you have decided that its time for everyone to know the worst and deal with it. You have decided that the short-term disaster of exposing the worst of Trump may be painful, but it will lead to a quicker recovery.
And we need to recover as quickly as possibility. When Erdogan got that letter from Trump, do you know what he did with it? He threw it in the trash. He knows by now that this is just empty bluster from an unserious leader. I shudder when I consider what Trumps successor is going to have to do to make other world leaders take the United States seriously again.
The sooner we start that process, the better.
Posted: at 10:40 pm
In the months leading up to the 2016 election, conservative writer and director Dinesh DSouza released his polemic Hillarys America, a documentary on the secret history of the Democratic party. While the film did well financially for a documentary (it was the top-grossing doc of 2016), it was almost universally panned by critics as blatant partisan propaganda stuffed with conspiracy theories. As the United States begins to head in another contentious election cycle, it appears that conservatives are again using movies to promote their policies. with R. J. Daniel Hannas film Miss Virginia, the result is a much more milquetoast affair.
Rather than go after a specific candidate, the topic of Hannas film is school vouchers essentially, a system of using public money to send kids to private schools. Its long been a pet cause for many American conservatives, with President Trump appointing voucher advocate Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education and even releasing a plan to expand the voucher system this year. With Miss Virginia, we now have a movie on this very subject, the first narrative film from Moving Pictures Institute (MPI), a production company funded in part by the Republican megadonor Mercer family (though MPI asserts that donors do not have control over film content).
Based on the story of Virginia Walden Ford, Miss Virginia is a fictionalized telling of the passing of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a program championed by Walden Ford that provides publicly funded scholarships for low-income students in DC to attend privately owned schools. Set in 2003, the film follows Virginia Walden (Uzo Aduba, Orange is the New Black), a poor single mother whose son James (Niles Fitch) is struggling in his neighborhood school. After James is suspended for fighting, Virginia enrolls him in a private academy and takes on a cleaning job for DC Congresswoman Lorraine Townsend (Aunjanue Ellis) to help foot the bill.
James immediately begins to thrive in his new school but is forced to drop out when Virginia cant make enough to pay for tuition. At the end of her rope, Virginia upends one of Townsends townhalls, demanding to know why she cant get money to send her son to the private school. Virginia enlists the help of Congressman Cliff Williams (Matthew Modine) to help pass legislation providing a voucher program for DC residents. While Virginia is leading a grassroots movement, without the stimulation of private school, James begins to work for a local gang.
Ideology aside, Miss Virginia is a pretty by-the-numbers inspirational movie. Hanna presents the well-worn trappings of inner-city poverty: dilapidated public schools, gangs, and drug-addicted parents. We watch a single mother with a troubled child succeed despite the odds posed against them. Aduba brings a strong performance as Virginia, giving the character a wide emotional depth and presence on screen. Honestly, Aduba is too good of an actor for this movie. Virginia is presented too one-dimensionally as a righteous force, and it would have been compelling to see Aduba given the opportunity to bring more nuance to her character.
Through the latter acts of the film, we watch James fall into the gang life his mother is working so hard to give him the opportunities to avoid. When she discovers what her son has been up to, we only see Virginia react to his actions. There is no period of Virginia wondering how she could have not seen her sons struggles while she was wrapped up in her own cause, the type of scenario that would have given Aduba some true internal conflict to work with. As it was, the only personal struggle Virginia is given is a fear of public speaking, which she seems to overcome quite easily.
Ideology aside, Miss Virginia is a pretty by-the-numbers inspirational movie.
Consistent through the film is the idea that government just doesnt work. We watch Virginia be stymied by Townsends endless promise for a better tomorrow if we just give schools more money, and the bureaucracy of government. Ellis portrays Towsend as vengeful and power-hungry, the rights apotheosis of a big-city liberal politician. The film doesnt give Townsend an ideological reason to oppose school vouchers, only that it would be bad for her donor. This leads to one of the most ironic moments in the film, where Virginia decries someone speaking against the program in a meeting as a lobbyist as if a program that gives public funds to private companies wouldnt have lobbyists of its own.
In contrast to Townsends coldness, Modines Williams is an obnoxious politician who hates politicians conservative. Similar to how Townsend wasnt given a substantial reason to be against Virginias cause, Williams isnt given a reason to support it. He takes up the cause seemingly because he did something similar in Milwaukee and he likes to pass legislation. Its an odd omission that he doesnt have a monologue extolling the virtues of school vouchers. Rhetorically, it makes sense for Townsend to oppose the vouchers due to malice or personal gain, but it seems odd they dont have Williams explain why they are a good idea. Even if it would have made the political subtext even more apparent, it would have at least provided the character with an apparent motive.
This is to say nothing of the movies dicey treatment of race, with the story eventually evoking that creakiest of tropes: the white savior. The two primary antagonists for Virginia are women of color: Alongside Townsend, theres talk show host Sally Rae (Vanessa Williams), who brings Virginia on her show for a round of gotcha journalism in order to paint Virginia as Williams pawn.
While Virginia draws on support from the Black community in activism for the voucher program, there is an undercurrent of White paternalism from Williams being the one to actually get the legislation passed. When Virginia finds legislation drafted by Williams in Townsends trash, Townsend tells Virginia that Williams doesnt want people like us to do better. Similarly, when Virginia introduces Williams to her community, they wonder if he can represent people like us, and Williams assures them that, even despite his considerably higher amount of wealth and Ivy League education, he can. In the end, by pitting a White male politician against a Black female politician, it gives the air of old White guys will do whats best for you, trust us, especially by making Townsend seem so conniving.
The praise for, or vitriol against, Miss Virginia will inevitably be mostly based on the viewers feelings towards the films politics. This is no Atlas Shrugged: while far from spectacular, the filmmaking and script are of decent quality, and Adubas acting has enough pathos to pull you through Virginias journey. Moreover, by wearing its ideology so openly on its sleeve, the politics of the film will inevitably color the viewers appreciation of it.
Miss Virginia is currently available in theaters.
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Posted: October 4, 2019 at 3:41 am
WASHINGTON House Democrats leading an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump have called on five State Department officials to appear before their committees, thrusting several veteran diplomats into the middle of a partisan clash between Congress and the White House.
Who are the diplomats at the center of the case?
Three are seasoned diplomats with years of experience under both Republican and Democratic presidents and stellar reputations among their colleagues. Two are newcomers to the State Department, one with close ties to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and another a businessman turned ambassador who contributed to Trump's inauguration.
All five could deliver key insights into Trump's actions related to Ukraine after a whistleblower complaint alleged that Trump sought to hijack U.S. foreign policy for his own political gain, delaying military aid to Ukraine while pushing for a probe of Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden and his son.
Trump and his deputies have dismissed the whistleblower complaint, defended the president's phone call and actions on Ukraine, and blasted the impeachment inquiry as a purely partisan attack designed to damage the president and the administration.
Kurt Volker, perhaps the most important witness from the State Department given his rank and his role, is due to testify on Thursday. Volker stepped down as U.S. special envoy to Ukraine after his name appeared in the whistleblower report and after he was deposed to testify before House lawmakers. He served for more than two decades as a diplomat and does not have political ties to Trump. During his career, he worked on the 1995 Bosnia peace agreement and served as a legislative fellow in Sen. John McCain's office before rising to be Washington's ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush. Volker is known for favoring a tough line on Russia and backing robust support for Ukraine. After his stint as NATO envoy, he worked in the private sector until Trump named him in 2017 as a special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, an unpaid, part-time post.
According to the whistleblower's report, Volker and the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, flew to Kyiv and "reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to 'navigate' the demands that the president had made of Mr. Zelenskiy," meaning Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. A day before their meetings, Trump asked Zelenskiy for "a favor" to look into allegations against Joe Biden's son, according to a summary of the phone call between the two leaders released by the White House last week.
Volker and Sondland, and other State Department officials, spoke with the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in an attempt to "contain the damage" to U.S. national security from Giuliani's efforts to dig up information on Biden in Ukraine, according to the whistleblower's report.
Volker and Sondland "sought to help Ukrainian leaders understand and respond to the differing messages they were receiving from official U.S. channels on the one hand, and from Mr. Giuliani on the other," the report said.
Daniel Fried, a retired diplomat who held several senior posts during 40 years in the foreign service, said Volker's approach as described in the whistleblower report was an understandable response that many other diplomats might have undertaken. "I think Kurt is going to explain how he tried to advise Ukrainians on how to handle themselves given this difficult if not impossible situation," Fried told NBC News.
"He is relentlessly constructive," Fried said. "He was applying his skill and constructive attitude to a situation where his good instincts and skills were not enough because of the situation the president and Giuliani created."
In Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Zelenskiy, Trump refers to the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine as "the woman" who he says is "bad news." Marie "Masha" Yovanovitch, a decorated senior diplomat who has served in three ambassadorships, most recently in Ukraine, is due to testify on Oct. 11.
She was removed abruptly from her post in Ukraine in May, months ahead of her scheduled departure, after coming under attack from right-wing media, who alleged she was hostile to the president. Her departure set off alarm bells among Democrats in Congress but the State Department said at the time her exit was "as planned."
According to the whistleblower complaint, which cited several U.S. officials, Yovanovitch's tenure was cut short because she had run afoul of the then-prosecutor general, in Ukraine, Yuri Lutsenko, and Giuliani. Lutsenko at one point alleged she had given him a "do not prosecute" list. The State Department has said the assertion was an outright fabrication and Lutsenko himself later walked back his comments.
Her former colleagues describe her as one of the State Department's most talented and conscientious diplomats, and that it would be totally out of character for her to engage in partisan politics.
"There are some foreign service officers who are willing to go out on a limb if they think it's important," said one former senior diplomat who worked with Yovanovitch and helped shape U.S. policy on Russia and former Soviet republics. "She's one who always stays within her instructions. The charges against her are preposterous given the type of person she is. She is an innocent victim of political machinations in two capitals."
In their interview with Yovanovitch, lawmakers likely will ask the diplomat if she or the embassy staff were asked to assist Giuliani in any way, and what her response was.
During her tenure, Yovanovitch was outspoken in her calls for Ukraine to tackle corruption, a stance in keeping with U.S. policy over successive administrations.
After Yovanovitch gave a tough speech in March urging the government to sack a senior anti-corruption official, she came under fire from Lutsenko, conservative voices in the U.S. and the president's son, Donald Trump Jr.
"I think she was a minor player in this whole burgeoning problem, who was taken out because the people in Ukraine who were useful to Giuliani and President Trump had it in for her. And they had it in for her because she was doing her job," the former diplomat said.
Yovanovitch is currently a State Department fellow at Georgetown University where she is teaching graduate students a class entitled "Policy Analysis on Ukraine" for the fall semester.
George Kent is a career foreign service officer who was the No. 2 ranking diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine from 2015 to 2018, serving under Ambassador Yovanovitch for much of that time. He is currently the deputy assistant secretary in the European and Eurasian Bureau overseeing policy on Ukraine and five other countries. Lawmakers will likely want to know if he is one of the State Department "officials" referred to by the whistleblower as taking part in conversations with Ukrainian officials about how to manage inquiries from the president's lawyer.
Fluent in Russian, Ukrainian and Thai, Kent joined the diplomatic corps in 1992. Former colleagues say Kent is a brilliant diplomat who had an excellent understanding of Ukraine. One former senior U.S. official who worked with Yovanovitch and Kent said the Ukraine affair has placed them in an uncomfortably public position.
"These people like Masha and George, they just want to keep their heads down and do their job. They don't want any part of the media limelight. They hate this stuff. They were just trying to help Ukraine to become less corrupt and more stable," the former official said.
U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who House Democrats have asked to testify on Oct. 10, is a political appointee and long-time Republican donor without prior diplomatic experience.
According to the whistleblower report, Sondland met at least twice with Ukrainian officials, along with Volker, the special envoy to Ukraine, "to help Ukrainian leaders understand and respond to the differing messages they were receiving from official U.S. channels on one hand and from Mr. Giuliani on the other."
Two former U.S. officials say he was supportive of Volker's diplomacy on Ukraine, and favored lending U.S. assistance to Kyiv to counter the threat posed by Russia and pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.
A hotel mogul, Sondland is director of the Aspen Companies, a private equity firm, and CEO of Provenance Hotels, a network of 14 boutique hotels. Among his most prized possessions is a first edition of Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged," signed by the author, which he gave to his wife, Katy Durant, according to a 2018 interview.
Sondland's support for President Trump was not unqualified. In July 2016, Sondland was listed by the RNC as one of more than 80 bundlers for Trump. But one month later, Sondland publicly pulled his support after Trump criticized Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son was killed in Iraq.
After Trump was elected, Sondland donated $1 million to Trump's 2017 inaugural committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He was nominated as ambassador to the E.U. just over a year later.
Two weeks before the Ukraine revelations, Sondland discussed his role in negotiating trade relations between the E.U. and the U.S. and defended Trump's approach to Europe in an interview with Politico. Asked if Trump was good company, he said, "He's a hell of a lot of fun."
Soon after taking the helm as secretary of state in May 2018, Mike Pompeo named an old classmate from West Point, T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, to be State Department counselor, a senior adviser role. Pompeo and Brechbuhl's shared experiences go back decades. Both graduated from the same West Point class in 1986, and both earned higher degrees from Harvard. Brechbuhl's degree was in business, while Pompeo went to the law school.
Brechbuhl, born in Switzerland and fluent in four languages, later became a business partner with Pompeo in Kansas, helping him found Thayer Aerospace, a firm that reportedly included investment backing from the Koch brothers.
He has kept a low public profile as Pompeo's adviser, but given his close ties and access to the secretary, lawmakers likely will be asking him what he knows about the administration's dealings with Ukraine over the past year.
When he started his post, Brechbuhl's priorities included helping to fill numerous vacant top leadership positions and "get our team staffed up," then-State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said at the time.
As counselor, he reports directly to the secretary, providing "strategic guidance" on foreign policy, conducts special international negotiations and handles "special diplomatic assignments," according to the State Department.
Brechbuhl was a guest at a June 4 dinner hosted by Sondland, Trump's ambassador to the E.U., at which Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine, was also in attendance, as was Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, according to photos released from the U.S. mission to the E.U.
None of the five diplomats responded to requests for comment from NBC News.
Apart from testimony from the deposed State Department officials, House congressional committees conducting the impeachment inquiry have subpoenaed Pompeo for an extensive list of documents. Pompeo has pledged to produce the documents on Friday.
Those documents include records related to the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy, as well as a list of State Department officials who "participated in, assisted in preparation for, or received a readout," and any copies of a transcript that is in the State Department's hands. In addition, the congressional committees are asking for records referring to Giuliani, and those that refer or relate "in any way" to the suspension of security assistance to Ukraine.
The rest is here:
Posted: at 3:41 am
I dont watch TV. A big contributor to my joy at becoming single three years ago was the option to read a book rather than watch tv with my ex at night. There is no better distinction between tv and books than the fact the former can be consumed with other people, while the latter demand solitude. My introversion grows with the years, and I mostly eschew TV these days; in part, because reading feels more introverted all the voices are in my head rather than my home. Lately, I cull my friend-verse by focusing on the ones who want to talk about what theyve read rather than watched.
Yet the occasional show reels me in if Im lucky, maybe one a year. I Love Dick floored me; released when I was newly single, it reassured me that the change in my gynecological status (you know, when your doctor asks the sexually active? question that feels nosy and doesnt seem to have a right answer) was temporary, because guess what?! all kinds of women (and non-binary genders) were having all kinds of sex, including epistolary. A couple of years later, I stumbled onto the first season of Fleabag, which hooked me with different bait the titular character, so wicked that she drove her best friend to suicide, was also so clever that I wanted to be her new bestie, despite the clear occupational hazards of the role. The reviews leading up to its second season tantalized me there was a priest! And a wedding! And merch! (A boob-revealing black jumper, Marks & Spencer cans of gin and tonic). I spent a half-hour early in May trying to find it, only to discover that it wasnt dropping on Amazon Prime until May 17th. My lust for it felt like a sin, a betrayal of the tower of books on my bedside table.
When Fleabag Season Two finally hit my screen, I rationed it like the best kid in the marshmallow experiment, watching in doubles because I could not bear watching a mere half-hour at a time (so not the BEST kid, but surely the top tier). I made it last a month, with three discrete viewing sessions. Over the course of those three hours, I grew increasingly stalker-ish in my feelings for the shows star and creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge (PWB to those obsessed with her). My season one admiration had escalated by the final episode that last look back at the audience, quick headshake, and departure from my life forever to something restraining-order-worthy. How does this woman GET me, I kept whisper-moaning to the screen of my iPad the only screen I trusted to get this show right for me. I needed to watch it inches from my face.
Fleabag and I are unlikely BFFs. She is in her fertile 30s; Im peri-menopausal, pushing 50. She lives in London; I live in a small US city. Im a soccer mom; she has a guinea pig. Im a money manager with a running addiction; shes a struggling caf-owner in a perpetually hungover state. She has sex with lots of men; subsequent to separating from the father of my child, I am celibate (now proudly proclaiming No! when my doctor asks if Im sexually active). If anything I identify more with Fleabags big-career sister Clare, who is trying to get pregnant with her socially maladroit husband Martin (in fact, my exs name is Martin, although happily the baby-daddy resemblance ends there).
So I wouldnt put Fleabag in the category of, say, Eat, Pray, Love (EPL). The publication of EPL coincided with my Elizabeth Gilbert stage of life: single, childless, mid-30s, questing. Presumably many women have such a phase, one they look back on (from their next phase, perhaps a Rachel Cusk era of new motherhood and career sacrifices) with a mixture of embarrassment and nostalgia. In a predictable clich, I read the book on vacation in Bhutan, where I fell briefly in love with a strapping young Bhutanese guide who delighted in overnight treks to escape his infant daughter and exhausted wife, and I visited a fertility monastery as I contemplated conceiving my own child with anonymous, expensive, frozen sperm (or, possibly, the Bhutanese guide). I was a poor womans Elizabeth Gilbert, someone dipping her toe in the ocean of adventure, passion, and well reckless abandon into which the writer flung herself, with no life raft other than a book contract. (No small thing, as I have come to find out, but a smaller raft than I would have required to part ways from my cushy, overpaid job).
I was in the exact right place and time for EPL but lots of friends havent enjoyed it as much as I did. Women my moms age, grandmothers settled into comfy retirements punctuated by weekly golf games with their husbands, raved about the book. Gilberts female Odyssey to find her home, her self, captivated women across generations. With the benefit of hindsight, I am more nuanced in my idolatry of EPL and its author; the book now shares space with Atlas Shrugged, which Ill only admit to reading in college, and Lean In, loved and later debunked by a combination of personal and Sheryl Sandberg-specific circumstances. Its not (only) that Gilbert left the man who rescued her (although not before writing another book about the merits of marriage based on their idyllic relationship). Its that I have come to view the book, not as an odyssey, but just another goddamned marriage plot, the umpteenth Jane Austen remake with a sassy protagonist which culminates in a good match.
EPL provides a template for target audience that is much broader than the outline of the lead character herself. Fleabag shows those of us putatively with our shit together our reflection in the face of an emotionally disheveled woman. Fleabag, cest moi: hard around the edges, wickedly funny in a way that occasionally hurts people (although mostly is for my own benefit, or that of the invisible camera following me around), worried that I am unlikeable, in fact frequently unlikeable, and as her addled dad points out in a rare moment of clarity capable of tremendous love.
In season two, Fleabags search for meaning lands her in a love triangle with a priest (granted, a hot, sweary priest, as far from the asexual pedophiliac version as you can get) and God, who shows no signs in His portrayal on the show of being anything other than a traditional male deity. There is a hilarious scene at Quaker Meeting my faith home of choice these days in which Fleabag is moved by the Spirit to cast aspersions on her feminist credentials. I wish I felt so moved in the soporific Asheville Friends Meeting House.
Spoiler alert: the holy triangle eventually folds in on itself to force Fleabag out. The priest chooses God (the good ones usually do), and bids our heroine farewell with an I love you too and This will pass. We know he is right; and, we know this is the only honest ending for the series. It is a measure of my trust or, shall we use that freighted word, faith? in PWB that even in the first scene of the season when a bloody-nosed Fleabag assures us, This is a love story I know that it cant be, because there is no such thing as a love story. Fleabag is an anti-marriage plot, and also an anti-odyssey. It doesnt end just as our life journeys do not end until death do us part from them. Call it a reality narrative (leave plot, with its suggestion of a formula and ending, out of it), which shows us one persons messy life and allows us to laugh and cry along with her in her attempts to address her messes, which, while not identical to our own, elicit universal emotions: shame, grief, schadenfreude, anger, love, lust.
The morning after I finish watching Fleabag (and dream about it after a half hour of sobbing over the priests choice), I hear someone named Richard Rohr talking to Krista Tippet about how hard it is for men who dont have good father figures to embrace Christianity because it is a distinctly male theism. And I make the final connection to Fleabag that she is not just looking for her man, but also for her (presumably male) God. Like me, Fleabag is unmanned the term I use for my current life chapter. Fleabag has lost her father to marriage; the priest and the inklings of God she saw through him are gone as well. My split with my ex coincided with my fathers death; I lost half of my son to joint custody; even my exs dog was male. I went from swimming in a pool of testosterone to a desert.
I could use agood, old-fashioned, male God to offset these losses, but when I mouththe words of the Lords Prayer, I might as well be talking about my own father(who, presumably, art in Heaven). These days, unmanned, I have to findmy own worldview. This might include a God; although I am duly unmoved,intellectually speaking, by the prospects for one, I have come around to DavidBrooks view that, in its best form, religion does a lot of work for people byproviding creedsthat have evolved over centuries. (Secularists meanwhile are painfullysweating the details of their reinvented wheels of moral code.) I have come tounderstand my newfound longing for faith, which I manifest by listening for(not, sadly, to, not yet) God at Quaker Meeting, as a longing forsomething to replace the men in my life.
At the end of Fleabag, we dont know what she will do next. Go find God? Go fuck that lawyer who gave her an almost-uncomfortable nine orgasms in one encounter? Get herself to a nunnery? (Either version?) Im not sure what Ill watch next, either. (The next season of Better Things, another exception to my book-trumps-tv rule, wont be out for a while). I might just continue to ponder Fleabag, and delight in the company of her unmanned misery.
Or I might get up my courage to write a letter to my idol, something along the lines of:
Dear Phoebe Waller-Bridge,
Will you come findGod with me?
With love andrespect,
Your biggest fan,Unmanned
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Posted: at 3:41 am
SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
THAT CLARENCE THOMAS is now the longest-serving justice on the US Supreme Court, as Corey Robin tells us at the outset of The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, inspires me to start doing the math on my own age. Anita Hill, jade-suited, sitting alone before the Senate, is among my earliest memories of American politics and what is now called the news cycle.
Since his 52-48 confirmation in October 1991, Thomas has exerted quiet influence on American jurisprudence and politics. The majority of justices now share Thomass politics, if not his unique perspective and reasoning. Neil Gorsuch and freshman Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whose own confirmation hearing was a Thomas-like affair, are lockstep with their judicial elder. Among Thomass former clerks are 11 nominees to the federal bench, including seven on the court of appeals, and 10 who are either administration officials or members of the Office of US Attorneys, helping to craft current US immigration and deregulation policy. Just as importantly, Thomas has written more than seven hundred opinions, staking out controversial positions on gun rights, campaign finance, and other issues that have come to command Supreme Court majorities.
But he remains an enigma, particularly to liberal White America whose knowledge of him is often limited to the Anita Hill hearing, his silence during oral arguments, and the mistaken belief that Thomas was merely Antonin Scalias puppet. As a longtime reader of the right from the left, Robin writes, I know how tempting it is for people on one side of the spectrum to dismiss those on the other as unthinking defenders of partisan advantage. To his great credit, Robins aim is to avoid facile critiques from the left of Thomass political and legal philosophies.
He also aims for something other than a biography of the justice who filled the seat of Thurgood Marshall, who was himself too easily dismissed by liberal heavyweights like Archibald Cox and Bob Woodward. He writes,
Because the temptation to dismiss is even greater in Thomass case perversely mimicking the dismissal of Marshall and because its sufficiently difficult to get people to believe that Thomas has a jurisprudence, much less to hear it, the imperative to let him speak without the interruption of easy criticisms is that much more acute.
Instead, Robin engages in a close reading of Thomass writings in the hopes of providing a coherent description of Thomass political and legal philosophies as well as their historical and personal contexts.
Throughout, Robin demonstrates that Thomass worldview is complex, contradictory, and, at times, has plenty in common with far more progressive modes of thought than liberals might think. For one thing, Thomas is a Black nationalist. He can quote Malcolm X, chapter and verse. As the child of Jim Crow, he remains deeply skeptical of the conciliatory, post-racial politics of liberal America. His jurisprudence is almost universally informed by a race-consciousness that stands in stark contrast to the thinking of almost all of his fellow Justices.
Moreover, despite his conservatism, many of his arguments have, over the years, utilized a type of structural analysis of race and class in American society that could rest, if uneasily, next to that of radical left thinkers. Whats most fascinating about the book is watching Thomass thoughts evolve, seeing him move to the right in real time; from the Black Student Union treasurer at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, who chanted, Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh during a rally in Cambridge to free Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins; to the law student at Yale who argued for government regulation with a young John Bolton; to the head of Reagans EEOC who was still relying on the theory of disparate impact when considering affirmative action policies; to the nominee who claimed that the Anita Hill hearings were a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks; to the Justice who has staked out the most conservative position on the Supreme Court.
Robin splits the book into three parts Race, Capitalism, and Constitution, the primary categories of Clarence Thomass jurisprudence and their development corresponds, roughly, to Thomass biography. The parts build off one another as we get closer to the present. His early experiences in Jim Crow Savannah and his chastening experiences as a Yale Law student flow into his post-law-school drift toward political and economic conservatism, thanks in large part to encounters with explicitly pro-capitalist Black thinkers in the mid-to-late 1970s. By the 1980s, with Thomas heading the EEOC under Reagan, there appeared a real chance of being named to the bench; only then did he start thinking seriously about developing a constitutional jurisprudence, of which, as a career politician, he had had little need. Thomas was on the federal bench a mere 16 months before his nomination by George H. W. Bush.
At Holy Cross, Thomas spoke the grammar of 1960s Black Power and was elected secretary-treasurer of the newly formed Black Student Union. The BSUs 11-point manifesto was steeped in the Black nationalism of Marcus Garvey, Kwame Ture, and Malcolm X, whose Autobiography Thomas read as a freshman: 7. The Black man wants  the right to perpetuate his race; 9. The Black man does not want or need the white woman. Thomas was one of the more radical members of the BSU, remembered for his edgy race consciousness.
But it wasnt all Little Red Books and hard left resistance to The Man, as Robin explains:
Like all ideologies, black nationalism is a contested tradition, whose exponents and analysts seldom agree on its basic tenets. While a stringent definition might entail a belief in the separate cultural identity of African Americans and a commitment to their gaining a sovereign state, black nationalists frequently have taken up one position without the other, larding both with a thick layer of pragmatism.
One evening Thomas might take a hard line on an issue, but by the next morning, he might soften his stance. He was a young man testing the limits of his politics during one of the more incendiary periods in American history.
Although Thomas has since denied being a Black nationalist, Robin points out that he has never completely disavowed the movements grammar as the formative base upon which he built his subsequent politics. Black nationalist theory continues to pepper his court opinions. Thomas is the only justice to frequently quote W. E. B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass. Hes even lifted from James Baldwin, without attribution.
At Yale Law chosen because it had a more liberal reputation than Harvard Thomas first questioned the welfare states intervention on behalf of African Americans. He began to view such liberal political programs as both perpetuating and masking the deep racism at the heart of the American project. In Thomass mind, to a White student, a Black student at Yale Law could only ever be the result of White largesse, thereby undermining any sense of achievement the Black student might derive from having gained admission.
His position on the court, undermining affirmative action programs, was an irony lost on no one, with Rosa Parks once quipping, He had all the advantages of affirmative action and went against it. Yet, unlike fellow conservatives who decry affirmative action as simply reverse racism, Thomass beliefs rest on the notion that affirmative action further marks already marked bodies. For Thomas, Robin explains, the most important form that racism takes is the stigma or mark it puts on black people, designating them as less worthy or capable than white people. Thomas has said as much in the 1995 decision Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pea:
So called benign discrimination teaches many that because of chronic and apparently immutable handicaps, minorities cannot compete with them without their patronizing indulgence. Inevitably, such programs engender attitudes of superiority or, alternatively, provoke resentment among those who believe that they have been wronged by the governments use of race. These programs stamp minorities with a badge of inferiority and may cause them to develop dependencies or to adopt an attitude that they are entitled to preferences.
Yet Robin astutely notes that Thomass form of race-consciousness doesnt extend to all classes: The victim of racial stigmas Thomas has most in mind is not a poor black person racially profiled by the police but the ambitious black striver condescended to by liberal whites. The victim he has in mind is someone like him.
Thomass feelings about affirmative action were still inchoate in the early 1970s. And even several years into his appointment, Thomas was conflicted about completely giving up on such political measures. It makes sense that, as Thomas struggled with the racial politics of the welfare state, he became receptive to the radical free-market ideology that had started creeping into the mainstream from the fringes, while faith in Keynesianism on both the center right and left disintegrated under the weight of the Vietnam War and domestic civil unrest.
Free markets promised solutions to Black self-sufficiency in a still utterly racist landscape. After Yale, Thomas went west, where he found himself working in the Missouri Attorney Generals office, headed by the Republican John Danforth. At this point, according to Thomas, the most conservative thing hed done was vote for George McGovern in 1972, but philosophically he was in transit, writes Robin, moving away from a black left that disquieted him and white liberals who looked down on him.
In 1976, he had his first important encounter with conservative Black politics when a friend recommended the University of Chicagotrained economist Thomas Sowells Race and Economics, which Robin calls a mix of Malcolm and Milton. Through an analysis of urban and rural slavery and the varying economic experiences of immigrant groups in the United States, Sowell lays out an argument that politics is the domain of White power and that the market is the key to Black survival. Even in the antebellum South, argues Sowell, market logic constrained the masters cruelty more than morality. A slave was, after all, an investment and an asset; to harm a slave was to work against the goals of capital accumulation. This contention had an immense impact on Thomass politics and, later, his jurisprudence. He registered as an independent in 1976, voted for Gerald Ford, and became the most conservative attorney in an office that included John Ashcroft.
Though Thomas claims a Pauline conversion to conservatism, Robin is skeptical. Sowell may have been the final straw, but in the summer of 1971 Thomas read Ayn Rands Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead (he still requires all his clerks attend a judicial term-opening screening of King Vidors 1949 film version of The Fountainhead), and was increasingly disenchanted by his own participation in tear-gassy demonstrations as an undergraduate, which never seemed to put a dent in state power.
Thomass personal path in the 70s also reflected larger currents in Black politics at the time, which were increasingly shot through with pessimism and fatigue and the belief that, for all its achievements such as 1964s Civil Rights Act and 1965s Voting Rights Act the movement had done little to improve the daily life of African Americans and left a bloody trail in its wake. Black nationalism often gains traction, Robin writes, when conditions for African Americans are getting worse, as was the case with the Garvey movement in the 1920s, or when the movement for multiracial democracy comes up against the hard limits of white supremacy.
Under these conditions, Black leaders, like Thomas, turned to the markets, recalling Adam Clayton Powells initial use of the phrase Black Power to suggest Black business ownership. This is not to say that Black Power in the 70s was simply co-opted by capitalism, but there was significant discussion and disagreement within the movement about the direction in which it should head. And the discussion remains relevant today, as the recently slain Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle is eulogized for encouraging Black business ownership and entrepreneurship as a means of empowerment.
Capitalism resonated with Thomas on a personal level as well. His own father, M. C. Thomas, or simply C, abandoned his family when Thomas was one, and the boy and his siblings were raised primarily by Myers Anderson, their grandfather, to whom Thomas refers as Daddy. In Thomass memory, Myers represented what capitalism could accomplish for African Americans. As a young man, Myers owned his own fuel oil business, supplied ice, and had several rental properties. In Myers, Thomas saw the archetype of a strong, independent Black man living on his own terms; he contrasted his grandfather with his mother and sisters, whom he viewed as weak and incapable of providing for their family. This valorization of Black masculinity, which was also deeply informed by the vernacular of Black Power, remains a core feature of Thomass worldview.
Memories of his grandfather and Sowells writing confirmed to Thomas that there was a surer route to Black emancipation than politics. On the court, he has gone out of his way to deemphasize, even discourage Black political participation, in the hope that African Americans would turn to the markets something of a rehash of Marcus Garveys declaration:
[The Negro] cannot resort to the government for protection for government will be in the hands of the majority of the people who are prejudiced against him, hence for the Negro to depend on the ballot and his industrial progress alone, will be hopeless as it does not help him when he is lynched, burned, jim-crowed, and segregated.
While Thomass jurisprudence regarding ballot access hews mainly to the conservative line on federalism, when it comes to the question of electoral power, or the ability of a group to elect representatives of its choosing, he diverges from the general consensus of the court as well as from conservative politics at large.
Since the 80s, when Thomas briefly tried to convince Blacks that they should be Republicans either to influence Republican politics or to signal to Democrats that the Black vote could not be taken for granted, Thomas has largely abandoned the belief that there is any constitutional solution for incorporating Blacks into a political process that Sowell and others argued was forever rigged against them. Thomas sees the Courts attempt to address Black disenfranchisement and voter dilution as just more liberal White paternalism, which allows Whites to maintain symbolic and real power over Blacks.
Robin identifies this as an argument of despair, which resembles the social theorist Albert O. Hirschmans futility thesis. According to Hirschman, futility is a common tool for conservatives, who argue that attempting broad political action results in largely superficial changes, leaving structural inequities in place. And Hirschman notes that thinkers on the left may also be daunted by the difficulty of structural change and fall into the trap of futility thinking. Futility arguments, along with the concomitant arguments of perversity (that a policy will have the opposite effect) or jeopardy (that a policy will undo some previous achievement), are convenient for Thomas; he uses them frequently to demonstrate the failure of state intervention and regulation.
Another important aspect of Thomass project to steer African Americans away from politics is his contention that they do not constitute a stable, collective political class. They may share a collective stigma and experiences vis--vis racism, but for Thomas that doesnt necessarily translate into a coherent collective Black politics. Its hard to argue with the notion that individuals hold wildly different perspectives on a great number of things, or that there is an obvious class hierarchy within Black life. Still, when Thomas argues for a Black capitalism at the expense of politics he fails to take into account how capitalism and race are inextricably tied. If American politics is rigged against Blacks, capitalism is doubly so. As Huey Newton warned on the pages of Ebony in 1969, Black capitalism would merely be trading one master for another. A small group of blacks with control our destiny if this development came to pass. People like Thomass grandfather entered the rentier class, extracting labor value and rents from the Black community.
While Thomass views on capitalism and race are unique among his peers on the court, they often fit, without too much effort, into the arc of contemporary conservative politics. His justifications may be different, but the result is the same. However, Thomass conception of the Constitution, to which Robin devotes the last third of his book, resides in a wholly different sphere. This section of Robins book may represent his most interesting break with the conventional reading of Thomass thought.
While many legal scholars brand him a constitutional literalist, often to fit the Scalias puppet narrative, Robin argues that Thomass originalism is at best episodic, and of greater import is his conception of two separate versions of the Constitution. This conception supports his belief that a strong moral authority is necessary for keeping African Americans on the straight and narrow. One version is the Constitution of Reconstruction, with its signal achievements, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, since undermined by liberal paternalism and a misapplication of their content. The other is the original Constitution of three-fifths and states rights, which, after the failure of Reconstruction, was revitalized as Jim Crow.
At no time does Thomas argue that United States should return to forced segregation or chattel slavery. Rather, he looks to those times as exemplary moments when African Americans developed virtues of independence and habits of responsibility, practices of self-control and institutions of patriarchal self-help, that enabled them to survive and sometimes flourish. During Jim Crow, in other words, authority was clearly marked out; it offered a framework within which Black men could protect and provide for their families and communities. That framework was obscured and undermined by the welfare state.
Both Thomass Black and White Constitutions work to create a stark form of authority meant to order Black political and social life. For Thomas, the most important part of the Black Constitution is its extension of the Bill of Rights to all citizens after the Civil War, most notably, the right to bear arms. This Constitution granted Black men the means to physically confront White terror, a means that was with notable exceptions like the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831 absent in the antebellum United States. Thomass Black Constitution allows [him] to tell a version of American history from the revolution against slavery to the counterrevolution of Jim Crow in which racial violence has been the motor of change [and] black actors and black violence are central both to the making of freedom and to its unmaking.
However, in order for Thomass Black Constitution to exist, society must remain in a permanent state of tension, and its in the last chapter, The White Constitution, that Robin presents the Justices logic at its most perverse. Only an antagonistic White Constitution of states rights can re-create the conditions that made for black survival[,] undo the culture of rights and replace it with a state of exigency. That exigency is to be found in the harsh rules of the penal state. All the better if these harsh rules are implemented in a racist fashion, because only then will the necessary tension rescue Black patriarchal authority.
How could a Justice who spends so much of his energy arguing that affirmative action and welfare are the tools of White domination give a pass to the carceral state? Here, Robin reads between the lines, surmising that the carceral state
serves a vital function: it provides African Americans with every reason they need to steer clear of trouble. That is a foundation not only for law-abiding behavior but also for the market-based activity  Thomas regards as critical to the African American community. The carceral state re-creates the kind of adversity African Americans once suffered under Jim Crow.
Unless the state enacts carceral violence there is no hope, in Thomass mind, of bringing about his ideal of the strong Black patriarch, who will protect his race from the forces of White supremacy. This is the disturbing core of Thomass constitutional jurisprudence a nostalgic project that aims to return us to the idealized life of his childhood, where men were patriarchs, women wore their finery to church, and boys never strayed from the lines that authority had laid out for them.
Corey Robin has done all US citizens a great service by reading Thomas with such care, and by providing a fascinating and original interpretation of the man who, in many cases, quietly determines the direction we are taking. Thomas now wields significantly more power on the Court than he did even a decade ago, and his acolytes are in step with him on deregulation, the expansion of the state monopoly on violence, and the project to erode hard-won rights. Even if they dont share his unique views, the results are the same: the vote is 5-4.
John W. W. Zeiser is a poet, journalist, and critic. He no longer lives in Los Angeles.
Posted: August 20, 2017 at 6:41 pm
Dating site OkCupid made the unusual move of announcing that it had given a single member a "lifetime" ban on Thursdayand naming himin order to make a point.
"We were alerted that white supremacist Chris Cantwell was on OkCupid," the company wrote at its official Twitter account on Thursday. "Within 10 minutes, we banned him for life."
Cantwell was the subject of a Vice documentary about the white-supremacist Unite The Right marches in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the past weekend, where he offered numerous racist and threatening comments while acting as a march organizer and riding in a car alongside former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. ("We're not non-violent," Cantwelloffered at one point in the documentary. "We'll fucking kill these people if we fucking have to.")
In announcing this ban,OKC alsoasked its users to be vigilant about any other active members of hate groups found on the site. "If any OkCupid members come across people involved in hate groups, please report it immediately," the company wrote on its Twitter page. The tweet linked to the company's official "feedback" site.
On OkCupid, Cantwell wentby the handle "ItsChris603" where he described himself as "a professional podcaster and writer specializing in controversial political satire" who specifically sought only"white" women. His dating profile did not contain statements anywhere near as sensational as those in the Vice documentary, though in a section titled,"I spend a lot of time thinking about," Cantwell wrotethe following: "Getting married, and how to stop the Democrat party from destroying Western Civilization." (A 2015 archiveof his dating profile is different, as it containsa shout-out to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and a declaration that "I will make you laugh at things you might feel guilty laughing about, which is my favorite kind of laughter.")
Cantwell's OkCupid profiles look remarkably different fromonewritten by theSouthern Poverty Law Center, which describes him as "an unapologetic fascist who spews white nationalist propaganda with a libertarian spin" (and with many citations).
OkCupid's media relations team actively approached news outlets at the moment the company announced the ban, including Gizmodo, whichpublished a statement from OKCupid CEOElie Seidma: "We make a lot of decisions every day that are tough. Banning Christopher Cantwell was not one of them."
In that same report, Gizmodo went to the trouble of rifling through Cantwell's Internet history to find his own "dating advice for the ladies" post that revolved around his use of OkCupid; this post included a "tip" to women that simply said, "In a photo of you and a friend, I assume you are the ugly one." Cantwell has since deleted that and similarposts from his personal site.