Shock Corridor and Modern Greek Tragedy

Shock CorridorShock Corridor is one of the greatest films of the 1960s — perhaps one of the greatest films ever. It is widely regarded as a great film by a certain kind of cinephilia — my kind — the kind who loves substance and style done in an idiosyncratic way — where more creativity was spent than money. But everyone should love it. And I think I understand the reason that it doesn’t get as much respect as it deserves: it is seen as a message film. While it is indeed a message film, it is far more than that. And it is not primarily a message film regardless.

The reason people think of Shock Corridor as a message film is because it was written, produced, and directed by Samuel Fuller. And he is still seen as primarily a message filmmaker, even while people applaud his great technique and brilliant eye. It’s probably because he was liberal and anti-war. John Milius is never considered a “message filmmaker,” even though his films are noted for pushing messages clumsily. But he’s a conservative. He was never in a war. He did not experience anything as life changing as the liberation of a concentration camp at the end of World War II, as Fuller did.[1] Apparently, we are supposed to dismiss only films with messages when they are trying to make the world better.

Shock Corridor is a pure Greek tragedy. And it needs to be viewed that way. The main character is Johnny Barrett, a journalist on a mission for fame in the form of a Pulitzer Prize. If that sounds like an ignoble beginning for movie about a reporter, it is. Barrett is not very likable, even though what he wants to do to get the prize is noble. There was recently a murder at the local insane asylum. But because the witnesses are all insane, as was the victim, the police just let the case slide. So his intention is to pass for crazy, get inside, and solve the case. What could go wrong?

Barrett’s stripper girlfriend, Cathy, is critical to the plan. But she thinks it is literally crazy for Barrett to do this. She alone sees that Barrett’s goal of the Pulitzer is superficial and wishes him just to have a regular life with her. So, posing as Barrett’s sister throughout the film, she acts as the conscience of the film and as the representative of the audience. Because Barrett is crazy — not so much in his actions, but in his desires. To risk your life to help others is one thing, but to risk your life for something as meaningless as fame not.

Once inside the hospital, Barrett is in the world of Homer — specifically, The Odyssey. There are three patients that he must meet and penetrate the fog of their insanity. The first is Stuart, scarred by his captivity in the Korean War, he now imagines that he is Confederate General JEB Stuart. Then there is Trent, an African American whose experience being one of the young people to desegregate a southern college make him now believes he is a KKK member who starts race riots in the hospital. And finally, there is Boden, a scientists so filled with guilt about his work on nuclear weapons that he has reverted to a child.

In the brief periods of clarity, each man takes Barrett a step closer to finding the murderer. And in the end, he finds the murderer, makes him confess, and writes his story that wins the Pulitzer Prize. But all along, Barrett’s sanity has been slowly slipping away. After achieving his goal, he goes cantatonic. The film ends with Cathy sobbing as she tries to get him to react to her. And we see the hallway that started the beginning of the film, although it is filled with patients now — Barrett included. And the film closes with the Euripides’ quote it began with, “Whom God wishes to destroy he first makes mad.”[2]

Even today, the ending is extremely powerful. The solving of the mystery doesn’t matter. Like a Classical tragedy, Barrett is doomed from the start by his own hubris and lack of depth. We are left, as is Cathy, to watch helpless as the events play themselves out. Shock Corridor is a great film that must be seen.

[1] To be fair, John Milius apparently wanted to join the army but was refused for medical reasons. On the question of wanting to go to war, I refer you to this quote. But I would hope that he would have a more mature worldview had he gone to war.

[2] It is not a Euripides quote. But it was probably a common saying from that time and place.

Campaign Consultants and Wasted Contributions

Bruce BartlettI think that people overestimate the value of money in politics. I think that there is a threshold effect; that is to say, you need a minimum amount to be competitive. And I think up to a certain point, in any given race, there’s enormous value to each additional dollar that is raised, because it will be spent efficiently in increased votes. But I do think that there is a point at which it levels off and at which point each additional dollar doesn’t really help very much, if at all. I think that there’s also a downward point at which you have too much money, and you actually start alienating potential voters by running too many ads, doing too much stuff that just alienates, irritates them, so you actually end up being worse off…

I think campaign consultants basically know this, but there’s an enormous bias in the system. That results from the fact that basically campaign consultants make their money, by running as many ads as you can possibly raise the money to run. I’m not sure how many contributors really understand how the system operates.

See, what happens is, these consultants, they own the advertising companies that buy the advertising time and so they get a commission of like 15 percent on every dollar of advertising that a campaign buys. The more advertising that they buy, the more money that goes into their pockets. So it’s in their interests to keep buying more and more advertising, long past the point at which diminishing returns have set in. I’m not sure very many contributors understand this; and also I think candidates are just sort of conditioned to believe that more is always better. Advertising is something you can do pretty easily these days. You can cut an ad today and have it on the air tonight. It’s something you can always do right up to the very last minute that you think might help and probably won’t hurt. So there’s always tremendous pressure inside the system to keep doing more and as long as there’s somebody out there willing to write the check, there really isn’t any way of stopping it.

—Bruce Bartlett
Utter Insanity and Stupidity

Are the New Atheists Succeeding?!

AtheismIn general, I’ve been dismissive of atheists’ claims that the movement is growing. There really hasn’t been much information to back that up. Certainly, it has been clear that “nones” — people who aren’t affiliated with any religion — were growing in numbers. But that seemed to have more to do with people who just don’t care: neither agnostic nor atheist. But this recent Pew Research Center poll shows an enormous jump over the last seven years — not just in terms of “nones” but also in terms of agnostics and atheists.

What we see is that the number of “nones” has gone from 16.1% to 22.8%. That’s enormous. But we should be clear on just what the “nones” are. Pew subdivides this group into three parts. First, there are the explicit doubters: atheists and agnostics. Second, there are those who don’t follow any particular religion, and for whom religion is not important. And third, there are those who don’t follow any particular religion, and for whom religion is important. Over the last seven years, there has been big increase in the explicit doubters: from 25% to 31% of the “nones.” The second group has stayed proportionally the same. So the relative increase in the doubters came at the expense of the third group (not that they were the same people, because as you will see, their absolute numbers have also increased).

The atheists have seen themselves grow from just 1.6% of the population in 2007 to 3.1% in 2014. That’s almost double — truly amazing. What’s more, the agnostics have seen themselves grow slightly more in an absolute sense, but less in a relative sense: from 2.4% to 4.0%. The rest of the “nones” have also seen their numbers rise: from 12.1% to 15.8%. Again, that’s a larger increase in an absolute sense, but a much smaller relative change. But if we break out these “nones” into those who value religion and those who don’t, we find that those who don’t have increased a lot more: from 6.3% to 8.9%. Those who do value religion have only gone up from 5.8% to 6.8%.

Bottom line: the “nones” are getting less religious, even as their total numbers are increasing. At the same time, Evangelicals have dropped almost a percentage point: from 26.3% to 25.4%. Catholics have gone down over three percentage points: from 23.9% to 20.8%. And mainline protestants have, as expected, taken the biggest hit (both absolutely and relatively): from 18.1% to 14.7%. So what is going on?

As regular readers know, I’m pretty hard on the New Atheist movement — especially given that I am an atheist. But I have to give them credit. I think this is partly due to them. But I think it works differently than many people might think. I doubt that Christians are reading Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation and renouncing their faith. Rather, I think that there are a whole lot of people who are religious for purely cultural reasons. I think this is even true of regular churchgoers. The New Atheist movement has made it easier to abandon the pretense. It’s pretty simple: look at all those smart people who don’t believe in God and yet aren’t killing, cooking, and devouring babies.

One place where direct New Atheist argumentation probably helps is in the third group of “nones.” I’ve never found atheistic arguments against God all that compelling. This is primarily because “God” is about as poorly defined a concept as you can get. For some it means a loving father figure while for others it just means a first cause. So what exactly is an argument against God? An argument against the guy with white hair and beard? Or an argument against the first cause? My ontology tends to come down on the side of: there is no first cause — the multiverse isn’t like an animal that is born, lives, and dies. But regardless, this is not exactly something that Richard Carrier and William Lane Craig are going to debate about.

But the New Atheist arguments do make a profound case for giving up religious dogma. And that has an effect on every level in the chain. Once people give up the dogma, religion tends to become less important to people. So people go through these five stages:

  1. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!”
  2. “There’s got to be some reason for it all, and I’m gonna find out!”
  3. “There’s got to be some reason for it all, but I have better things to do.”
  4. “There might be some reason for it all, but who cares?”
  5. “There is almost certainly no reason for it all, and I would be better off looking for that teapot.

So good work New Atheists! I still think you could tone it down, a bit. But you obviously shouldn’t look to me for advice about growing a movement. On the other hand, I would caution you that growth like this is unusual in any movement. I don’t ever see atheists as being a large group. The focus should be to grow the “nones” generally. I think that could eventually become a majority. And that could be a great improvement. It could also be worse if people replace religious impulses with nationalistic ones or with the deification of the free market. But thus far, it looks fairly good.

The Iraq War Was a Bad Idea Even at the Time

Iraq War Mistake

Paul Krugman summarized three different articles discussing this whole business about the Iraq War and if Jeb Bush would have gone to war knowing what we know now, Blinkers and Lies. There are three parts. First: there weren’t intelligence failures, there were cherry picking “failures.” Second: it was obvious there was no need to go to war even at the time. And third: most of the Washington Elite Consensus wanted and pushed for the war. I’ve written about all of these things over the years. Let me go over them briefly.

The thing about the intelligence failures is particularly noxious, because we know that isn’t true. I read Richard Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies when it was published in 2004. And one of the big revelations in it was that the senior Bush administration all wanted to attack Iraq on that very day: 11 September 2001. There supposedly weren’t any good targets in Afghanistan. And Clarke was told to find a connection to 9/11. And this was followed by a year and a half of Bush and company constantly combining Iraq and 9/11. As far as I recall, they never explicitly said there was a connection — they just implied it. And that was a choice. If they had been explicit, the media would have had to counter the claim. By implying it, the administration could treat anyone questioning them as conspiracists.

On the other side of it, we have John Kerry and Hillary Clinton who both voted for the authorization to use force. This is always presented as an argument that everyone was mistaken. But Kerry and Clinton didn’t vote for that war because of the intelligence. They voted for the war because they were both planning to run for president and they thought if they didn’t vote for the war, they would be dismissed as hippies. It’s interesting that conservatives have no problem labeling both of them as craven politicians who will say and do anything to get elected, but then run to them claiming that their votes prove that everyone was mistaken about the intelligence.

What has most bugged me over the years is the second issue. This is because I spent the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003 working from home. So I listened to NPR all the time. Unlike the imaginations of conservative minds, NPR is incredibly middle-of-the-road. But in the case of the Iraq War, they were part of the Washington Elite Consensus. There was very little reporting that questioned the rationale or the practicality of it. Certainly I did not fail to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But I noticed two things that made that irrelevant. First, the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq likely had were nothing like what was being presented. It didn’t have nuclear weapons. So maybe it had some chemical weapons. So what?! I remember thinking back on the coverage leading up to the Persian Gulf War. There was constant discussion of Iraq having “the fifth largest army in the world!” As though that meant anything. And there was also talk about this really big cannon that it had. I knew that the media would present things that were true but also deeply misleading.

Second, it was clear that the Bush administration was going to war. All that was going on in the lead up was them selling it and rationalizing it to the international community. Really: you have to be singularly obtuse about human nature not to have seen that. The narrative that the mainstream media provided was that 9/11 had made Bush see that he couldn’t just stand by watch “rouge regimes.” That didn’t even make sense. It wasn’t a government that attacked us on 9/11. The reality, of course, was that 9/11 had allowed Bush to do something he and most of his advisers had been wanting to do for decades.

As for the third issue, of course the Very Serious People were for war. They always are. Just as in economics, making the poor suffer is how you show you are Serious, in foreign affairs, you show you are Serious by sending away young people to die — killing countless others in the process. But I’m more interested in the way that liberals facilitated the war. In the past, I’ve written about Peter Beinart and Jonathan Chait. As I wrote two years ago:

But even if we accept Chait’s take on the Gulf War that it was ripping good fun, how could he equate the very clear and careful planning done by the Bush Sr administration with the slapdash preparations of Bush Jr? This is where Chait really gets himself into trouble. He knew that the administration’s rationale for the war was a pack of lies. But this didn’t bother him because he came up with an alternative way to justify the war.

This was an extremely popular way to support the Iraq War. Chait is not alone by a long shot. But this is faulty reasoning. One must assume that the administration is providing the best rationale for war. They have the best information access, after all. If that case is weak, then coming up with your own is nothing but an exercise in apologetics. The administration’s case for war is the case for war. Any other arguments are simply your own justification for supporting the administration.

And this gets to my primary problem with all of these pseudo-mea culpas: they aren’t mea culpas. They are justifications for why support for the war was reasonable or at least understandable. When an administration is recklessly pushing us into war, it is no less reckless to follow them — regardless of the justification. It was clear at the time that the administration was hell bent on going to war. If that doesn’t cause a person to call for restraint, what will?

This is typical of all those who aren’t hardcore neocons. They want to have it both ways. They want to admit that the war was a bad idea, but that they weren’t wrong to think that it was at the time. But of course, they were wrong to be in favor of the war at that time. Just the same, the rest of us who were right are discounted because we are just against war. So in the mainstream media, there are only two kinds of people: those who were wrong about the Iraq War (Who coulda known?!) and those who were right but only because they are anti-war ideologues. Thus, the only people who are worth listening to are those who were wrong about the Iraq War. The fact that most of us who were against the Iraq War are not categorically against war doesn’t matter. They know we are — just like they knew that the Iraq War was a good idea.

Morning Music: Neil Young

Harvest - Neil YoungI long kind of hated Neil Young’s voice. But he is such an amazingly great musician and songwriter and after a while, the voice sounds kind of great. It’s like being in love and not noticing that, actually, she’s objectively ugly. But obviously, she is beautiful in a more profound way. Ultimately, Neil Young’s voice is lovely for the same reason anything is: because it is comfortable with itself. It doesn’t need fancy arrangements or digital processing.

Here is the first track of his 1972 album Harvest, “Out on the Weekend.” That seems appropriately strange to make up for last Monday when we did I Don’t Like Mondays.

Anniversary Post: Worms Massacre

Massacre of JewsOn this day in 1096, 800 Jews were killed in the Worms massacre. That was Worms, Germany — just in case you were wondering. Apparently, there was a rumor that “the Jews” had poisoned the town’s wells. Now where have I heard that before? Oh, that’s right: everywhere! You know, for all my displeasure with Israel, it is not hard to see why a Jewish state would be hyper paranoid. Of course, I find it kind of funny that now American Christians are big supporters of “the Jews.” Of course, they don’t actually care about Jewish people; they just think that “the Jews” must be in control of the Holy Lands for Jesus to come back and kick some major butt.

This was all part of the First Crusade. It was started by Pope Urban II to take control Holy Lands. So why were they murdering Jews in Germany? You know: any excuse to kill Jews! In 1096, it was the Catholics. But just 400 years later, Martin Luther had this to say about “the Jews”:

First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians…

Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed…

Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.

Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb…

Fifth, I advise that safe-­conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.

Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping…

Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam.

Feel that Christian love, brothers and sisters! Actually, this is almost point by point what the Nazis did to the Jewish population up to the Final Solution. It makes you wonder, except, of course, that the Nazis were Christians.

We mark this very sad event 919 years ago.