Whispering Smith (1948)

When Whispering Smith opens, we see a man riding his horse out of the mountains.  We hear some lazy music playing as the credits tell us that Alan Ladd is starring in this movie.  If you didn’t know better, you might think that winter has passed and Shane has decided to ride back into the valley to visit Joe and Marian Starrett and their son Joey.  Of course, this is absurd, because Shane would not be made for another five years.

In this movie, Ladd plays Luke Smith, also known as “Whispering” Smith, because, as it is later explained to us, he is so soft spoken, even when he has the drop on some railroad robbers.  This often happens, because Smith works for the railroad in the capacity of a private detective, Western style, of course.  But it would seem strange to call a man “Whispering,” however, as in, “How have you been, Whispering?”  So he is also called “Smitty.”

The lazy music comes to an end and is replaced something a little more grim as two men with rifles take aim at Smith.  They shoot, and the horse rears up and falls over landing squarely on top of the stuntman, who was presumably scraped away so that Alan Ladd could take his place, who, as Whispering Smith, doesn’t seem hurt at all.  He sees three men ride away, who we later find out are the Barton brothers, who Smith has been sent to bring to justice for robbing a train and killing a guard.  His horse needs to euthanized, Western style, of course, and Smith ends up having to walk the rest of the way.

The scene shifts to a train, where we meet wrecking boss Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston), hail-fellow-well-met.  It is his job to clear wrecks off the tracks, and he has just returned from performing that chore, nothing but a “rockslide and a broken arm,” as he puts it.  As far as he is concerned, the bigger the wreck, the better.  He deplores the way modern equipment and more frequent inspections will soon make his job obsolete.  We figure he just means that he likes the challenge, but later we find out that he has been profiting personally from these wrecks, claiming goods have been irreparably damaged and taking possession of them, when in fact they are still in good condition.

A conductor reaches out the window of the moving train and grabs a telegram (don’t ask me how).  It is from the president of the railroad, and it says that Luke Smith has been assigned to take care of the Barton brothers.  Murray waxes nostalgic about the old days, when he and Smitty (that’s what he calls him) first took jobs with the company, even rooming together until Murray married Marian.  Marian?  This is another Shane coincidence.  And just as Shane and Marian Starrett fell in love, though she was married to Joe, so too do we find out that Smith and Marian in this movie were in love too, but he never thought he was good enough for her, and she married Murray, figuring that Luke (that’s what she calls him) didn’t want her.  Later in the movie, Murray begins to catch on to the fact that there is something between the two of them, which strains the friendship.

Anyway, Smith manages to come aboard the train, which is then held up by the Barton brothers, two of whom Smith manages to kill.  He is also shot, but the harmonica in his pocket deflected the bullet, so he is not fatally wounded.  Murray brings him home with him, and Marian nurses him back to health.

Through conversation, we find out that Murray has a big ranch, and he offers Smitty a partnership to run it, but he is not interested, probably because he does not want to be around the woman he loves while she is married to his best friend.  Murray says he has to head into town to turn in his report on the train wreck, which is three days late, to “Shiny Pants,” George McCloud (John Eldredge), the new division superintendent.  Murray derisively refers to him as a “college guy,” who has “a little book called How to Run a Railroad.”  In other words, McCloud is not a real man, like Murray.

Then some cowhands come riding up, telling Murray that Rostro, a sheepherder, has been grazing his sheep in the North Flats again.  Murray tells them to take the dogs and run the sheep into the river.  Marian points out that the North Flats is government land, and that Rostro has a right to graze his sheep there if he wants.  Murray tells her to keep out of it.  “The trouble with Marian,” he says to Smitty, “she’s been mixing in things that are none of her business, and I’m going to break her of it.”  Even in 1948, the audience would have regarded this as verbal abuse, even if they might not have used that term.  So we are beginning to see the dark side of Murray.

Another clue to his dark side is the conflict with the sheepherder.  Even if we didn’t know that Rostro was within his rights to graze his sheep in the North Flats, we would know that Rostro is a good man and Murray is a bad man, because that formula, sheepherder good, cattleman bad, is almost without exception in a Western.  (The exception would be Devil’s Doorway (1950).)

Also adding to our suspicions is the fact that Murray and Marian do not have a child.  Now, a bad man in a Western might have adult children, like Ike Clanton in a Wyatt Earp movie, but he won’t have a really young child like, well, Joe and Marian in Shane, to bring that movie up once more.

Furthermore, Smith becomes suspicious about Murray’s ranch, wondering how he could have acquired it on the pay he receives from the railroad.  He suspects that Murray has been in cahoots with a thief and cattle rustler named Rebstock (Donald Crisp), who has a hired gun named Whitey Du Sang.  All in all, it is clear that Murray is corrupt.

Anyway, once Murray gets to town, he turns in his report to McCloud, asking him if he wants it written in “violet ink,” implying, of course, that McCloud is effeminate.  Later on, when McCloud arrives at a wreck, Murray offers him some brandy, saying it will “make a man out of you.”  McCloud confronts Murray, telling him that the merchandise that is in his wagon is not damaged, and that it is actually loot, and that what Murray is doing is what he, McCloud, was sent to stop.  Smith backs him up.  Murray becomes angry and tells his men to unload the wagon by smashing the boxes and bags as they do so.  One man tosses some material at Sinclair, saying, “Here’s a dress for you.”

Sinclair fires Murray and his men, and Murray becomes so angry that he decides to go in with Rebstock all the way, purposely causing trains to wreck so they can steal the merchandise.  Eventually, a guard is killed.  From this point, the movie follows an unimaginative plot.  Du Sang kills Rebstock and steals his money.  Smith kills Du Sang.  And finally, Smith has to kill Murray.  It is left to our imagination that Smith and Marian, after a decent interval, will get married.

But let’s back up a minute.  When a posse is formed to go after Rebstock and his gang for holding up the train and killing the guard, McCloud tells Smith that he can ride and shoot, and that he would like to come along.  Smith agrees.  Once the shooting starts, however, McCloud ends up being killed.

It would have been an interesting variation in the standard formula if after Smith killed Du Sang, McCloud killed Murray.  But the people who produced this movie apparently agreed, perhaps without being fully aware of it, that Murray’s contempt for McCloud as bookish and effeminate was justified.  And so, what could have been a refreshing change of pace became routine fare, an unremarkable Western barely worth the effort of watching it.

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The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-1963)

I was just becoming an adolescent when The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis started playing on television in 1959, and like the title character of that show, I had no interest in being at home with my parents watching television. Like Dobie, I wanted be with my friends, but mostly, I wanted to be with girls.  And so it was that the show that I might so easily have identified with, I never saw.

But in the age of Netflix, it is now possible to watch old television shows on DVDs in the order in which they originally aired, and being retired with lots of time on my hands, I have lately been taking advantage of that possibility.  I say I have lots of time on my hands not only because I no longer have to work, but also because the attractions of youth have largely dissipated.  While I do have friends, the need to hang out with them incessantly, the way I did when I was a teenager, no longer exists for the simple reason that I do not have the need to get out of the house and away from my parents the way I used to.  As for women, while I still find them desirable, I am no longer willing to put out the effort, in part owing to the decline of passion that comes with age, and in part owing to the wisdom that also comes of age.

I don’t wish to give the impression that watching old television shows is the bulk of my entertainment.  I watch recently produced movies and television shows too.  Many of them are quite good, fortunately, but many more try my patience.  Sometimes a show seems so determined to check all the boxes of ethnic and sexual diversity that the story is overwhelmed by these unrealistic combinations of characters.  It might be argued that America has become a more ethnically and sexually diverse country than it was in the 1960s, and that is true.  But while some of that diversity might actually show up in our family or close circle of friends, it seldom does so to the degree that it does on the screen, where the amount of diversity we see is a result forced by the felt need to get it all in.

One of the charms of an old movie or television show is that there was no need for this.  Everyone could be white and heterosexual without anyone thinking there was anything politically incorrect about it.  This is important not because being white and heterosexual is intrinsically better than the alternatives, but because it makes for simpler dramatic situations.  Whether diversity is a good thing in real life is a different question from whether it is a good thing in drama.  If The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis were made today, Dobie’s best friend would no longer be the not-too-bright beatnik Maynard Krebs, but an African American who is always ready with sage advice.  Zelda Gilroy, the one girl that Dobie could actually have but did not want, because she was neither pretty nor sexy, would be replaced by someone who is gay, trying to convince Dobie that since he is getting nowhere with girls, he should consider having a boyfriend instead. Both these substitutes would have overwhelmed the simple plots and precluded the light humor that makes watching this show a pleasure.  Instead, the tension between white and black, on the one hand, and between straight and gay, on the other, would have made this a very different show.  And that would be just for starters. Thalia Menninger would no longer be a scheming gold digger, but a girl intent on having a professional career. And room would also have to be made in Dobie’s life for a Latino, an Asian,and a Muslim.

Could it still have been funny?  Maybe.  And if a show makes us laugh, nothing else matters. But when I watch a modern situation comedy that does not make me laugh, and I find myself at the same time being acutely aware of all the obligatory diversity that has been crammed into it, I cannot help but wonder if the latter is the reason for the former.

On the Significance and Function of Holidays

So here we are on Martin Luther King’s Day.  We are all familiar with the struggle of Martin Luther King, Jr. for civil rights, and we are all familiar with the derivative struggle to make a federal holiday in honor of him.  The appropriate day for honoring King is his birthday, January 15, which is today, a Monday.

But that is a coincidence.  By law, the holiday occurs on the third Monday in January. Right away, that makes us suspicious. I mean, what is more important, honoring King by having a federal holiday occur on his birthday, whichever day that may be, or making sure federal employees get a three-day weekend so they can have a good time?

Let’s back up a little, about six thousand years ago, when God created the heavens and the earth in six days.  On the seventh day, he rested.  And if having a day off was good enough for God, he figured it would be good enough for the rest of us too. Well, no one had to be told twice to knock off work once a week, but God wanted the day to be in honor of his creation, not a day for people to enjoy themselves by playing games or loafing around.  So, one of his Ten Commandments is to remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.  That part about keeping it holy meant that the Sabbath had to be turned into the most boring day of the week, and so much so, that some people would actually sneak off and do a little work anyway, for which, if caught, they would be put to death.

This has been the tension in holidays ever since.  On the one hand, we are supposed to honor something or other, which presumably means having a somber expression, speaking in reverential tones, and passing the day in a mirthless manner. On the other hand, getting the day off is something we hate to waste, and so we soon forget the original purpose and use the day to have fun. For example, Good Friday and Easter, the days Christians are supposed to honor the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior, has become Spring Break, the week college students head to the beach for sun and surf, sex and suds.

And that is no doubt why in 1994, President Clinton signed a law designating Martin Luther King Day a National Day of Service.  I think the idea was that we would all use the day off to do some volunteer work.  Of course, that suggestion was directed primarily to government workers, because the rest of us typically go to work just as we do on any other Monday.  The fact that those in the private sector have to work while those in the public sector get the day off created an invidious distinction, engendering hostility and resentment.  The purpose of the National Day of Service, then, was so that those of us who had to go to work would not feel cheated, knowing that those government workers that did get the day off would be spending it doing volunteer work.

Of course, the one holiday that is unequivocally about having a good time is New Year’s Day.  We honor nothing on that day, but merely recover from partying the night before.  Exactly why people should get the day off merely to celebrate the passage of time is a mystery.  But at least we are not asked to feign honor and reverence.  And we are not asked to volunteer.  But most important of all, the rest of us get this day off too, and not just civil servants.

At the other extreme, there are Thanksgiving and Christmas. We know that these days are meant to be taken seriously, because they have yet to be moved to the nearest Monday.  Of course, some people manage to take off the Friday after Thanksgiving, turning that into a four-day weekend, and some people manage to combine Christmas and New Year’s Day into a whole week off, but all in all, the fact that these days are not invariably celebrated on a Monday tells us that they are meant for more than just having fun.  Besides, these are days many of us have to spend with relatives, so how much fun could we be having anyway?

The Fourth of July doesn’t count.  It cannot be put in the same category with Thanksgiving and Christmas, even though it is not celebrated on the nearest Monday. Rather, this holiday is tied to the actual day it is supposed to celebrate owing to the fact that its name designates that day.  It has this in common with New Year’s Day. Sometimes it is referred to as Independence Day, and if that ever takes hold, we will finally be able to move it to the nearest Monday, the ultimate destiny of every holiday.

It is interesting that Memorial Day has been moved to the nearest Monday, but Veterans Day has managed to remain fixed to November 11, even though both days have something to do with honoring people who served in the military. But more private sector employees get off for Memorial Day than for Veterans Day, probably because the former affords people a three-day weekend, whereas the latter does not.  In other words, Veterans Day has more honor and reverence, because it remains tied to a particular date, but Memorial Day is more important to us, on account of the long weekend we get.

Columbus Day is another one of those holidays in which only government employees get the day off.  This is in honor of the Europeans who killed off the Indians and took their land. There is a movement to change the name to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in honor of the Native Americans who were killed by Europeans and had their land taken away from them.  There are two things about this day that will not change however it is designated:  it will be celebrated on a Monday, and only government employees will get the day off.

Finally, we come to the one holiday in which everything comes together without the usual tension between honor and reverence on the one hand, and having a good time on the other.  That is Labor Day.  This is all about honoring the worker. He gets to take the day off and honor himself.  This is the one lasting contribution of the labor movement.

Republicans still haven’t figured out how they let this one get past them.

On Whether a Dishwasher Is a Luxury or a Necessity

Last month, the dishwasher in my apartment conked out.  The maintenance man said that owing to the holidays, it would take about a week to order a new one and install it. And so, during the last week of December, I had to wash the dishes by hand, something I had not done in fifty years, back when I still lived with my parents while going to college.  What a chore!  I had completely forgotten what that was like.  First, I would fill one sink with hot water and liquid dishwashing detergent. Then, after soaking the dishes for a bit, I would scrub them, if necessary, rinse them, and then dry.  It all made me appreciate what a luxury a dishwasher is.  Right now, the dishwasher is churning away as I write this, and what a pleasant sound that is.

My next door neighbor saw the maintenance man removing the dishwasher from my apartment, and she called me to find out what was going on.  When I told her, she said she never used her dishwasher.  She lives alone, and she said she just washes the plate and utensils as soon as she is finished eating. A few days later, I brought the subject up while playing bridge, and the one man and two women at the table all pretty much said the same thing:  they never use their dishwasher, but simply wash everything by hand as soon as they finish eating. The man did allow that he used the dryer in the dishwasher rather than dry the dishes by hand, but that is all.  I don’t like to ask people personal questions, so I do not know this for sure, but I think they each live alone.

That, I suspect, is a critical feature.  I have never been married nor even lived with anyone, but I believe an arrangement in which each person would be responsible for washing his or her own dishes would be not work.  And then there would be the problem of the utensils used in common, such as the pots and pans.

Taking turns might be one solution, but there is the problem of asymmetrical personalities.  I knew a couple guys who were roommates while in college. They agreed each would do the dishes on alternate nights.  But one was neat, while the other was a slob.  On the first night, Mr. Neat did all the dishes, but on the second night, Mr. Slob just never quite got around to doing them, and so they were still in the sink the next morning. Mr. Neat decided he would teach Mr. Slob a lesson, so he let the dishes go unwashed the next night as well. Problem was, Mr. Slob didn’t care, if he even noticed at all.  The only one who was taught a lesson was Mr. Neat, and not long after that he moved out.

I found that story amusing enough when I heard it, but it is with a sense of dread that I broach the subject of married couples.  From what I gather, it usually one person who does the dishes, whether it is the wife (because it’s woman’s work) or the husband (because she cooked the meal, after all), but I suspect there is a lingering resentment about the arrangement however arrived at and by whatever justification.

I once knew a woman who said that when she was single and in hopes of getting married someday, if she went to a man’s apartment and the sink was full of dirty dishes, that pretty much ended the relationship right then, because, she said, she had no intention of cleaning up that mess on a regular basis. Of course, a man who would bring a woman to his apartment with a sink full of dirty dishes would also likely be messy in other ways, it being just an obvious indicator of a general situation.  After she had been married for a few years, presumably to a man with tidier habits, she started having an affair.  Her lover typically had dirty dishes in his sink, but she would walk right by that pile and go straight back to the bedroom.  “I knew I wouldn’t have to clean up after him,” she said, “so it didn’t bother me one bit.  As long as there weren’t any cracker crumbs in the bed, I didn’t care.”  (I knew a guy who did have cracker crumbs in the bed the night he brought a woman to his place, and he just got out the broom, stood on the bed, and swept it out.)

In any event, I suspect that much of the marital tension over doing the dishes is greatly alleviated by the presence of a dishwasher.  Though they were not married, I suspect Mr. Neat would have just put the dishes in the dishwasher and turned it on, if they had had a dishwasher.  But when the dishes have to be done by hand, that is when the trouble begins.  A friend of mine said that one night after dinner, his wife started doing the dishes by hand, for they had no dishwasher, while he sat on the couch and started playing his guitar.  After a few minutes, his wife, who worked same as he did, and who had been the one to cook the dinner they just ate, said, “If you loved me, you would offer to do the dishes.” He stopped playing the guitar, thought for a moment, and said, “Then I guess I don’t love you.” That was not the only reason she eventually left him, but I am pretty sure it made a major contribution to their estrangement.

After she left, the dishes piled up in the sink.  For a few months, he would take the top dish off the pile along with some silverware he could dig out, wash them, use them to eat his meal, and then put them back on top of the pile again. Finally, the absurdity of the situation became too much.  So, he set aside one dish, one glass, one fork, spoon, and knife, and threw the rest away.  His wife said that when she heard about that, she felt as though he had thrown her away. All hope of a reconciliation was dashed.

But suppose they had had a dishwasher.  Their marriage might have been saved. She would never have felt the need to challenge her husband’s love for her, because the dishwasher would already have been doing its job before any ill feeling could accumulate.  And had she left him anyway, for whatever reason, he would never have needed to throw the dishes away, and they might have patched things up.

I doubt if I would have reached the point of throwing most of my dishes and silverware away if I did not have a dishwasher, but after a week of doing them by hand, I suspect the temptation to let them pile up in the sink would ultimately have prevailed.  And that brings me back to these people I know that live alone and do not even bother to use the dishwasher, who were as surprised to find out that I did use one as I was to find out that they did not.

And so it seems that if you live alone, a dishwasher is a luxury that you may or may not care about, depending on the kind of person you are.  But if you are married, I believe it is a necessity.  So, just in case you were looking for a little marital advice from a bachelor, there it is.

Truth, Reality, and Ideology

Although we expect all politicians to dissemble, equivocate, and lie, the disconnect between the Trump presidency and the truth has taken all this to a level most of us have never before experienced.  By “the Trump presidency,” I include not only President Trump and his administration, but also the support Trump receives from Fox News and certain members of Congress, not to mention Trump’s base. What most of us would call undeniable facts, they deny with equanimity or with passion, depending on the temperament of the one who denies them.

What exactly, we wonder, is their connection with the reality? Do they truly believe what they say?  Or are they, with full consciousness, telling bald-faced lies? Are playing word games, intent on deceiving us while staying right with God?  Or are they confused, unable to bring the facts into some kind of connection with their thoughts?

It was with these unanswered questions in the back of my mind that I sat down to read Robert Warshow’s The Immediate Experience, because Warshow was an influential film critic, while I am a movie lover.  In other words, I was just planning on gaining a few insights regarding movies I had watched, and thus it was with a bit of serendipity that I came across his 1953 essay, “The ‘Idealism’ of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,” written shortly after the Rosenbergs were convicted of spying and sentenced to death. While in prison, they wrote letters to each other, which were published.  Warshow’s essay is a discussion of those letters. What struck me was the resonance between his analysis of the Rosenbergs’ idealism and the present situation concerning the Trump presidency, made all the more striking by the fact that they are at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Warshow says that “the commitment for which they died—and by which, we must assume, they somehow fulfilled themselves—was precisely that the truth was not to be spoken.”  Because the Rosenbergs knew their letters to each other would first be read by prison officials, and because they were hoping to avoid execution, Warshow admits that they cannot be expected to have been completely honest about their spying for the Soviets.  But their dissociation with the truth goes beyond mere prudence:

Under the circumstances, they could not have been truthful.  But there is something uncanny nevertheless in the way this husband and wife felt compelled to write to each other, never evading the issue but, on the contrary, coming back to it continually in order to repeat continually what was not true.

Warshow quotes excerpts in which the Rosenbergs speak of their innocence, of how they had been framed, putting the word “Communist” always in quotes, and denying that they had committed the crime they had been convicted of.  Of this, Warshow says:

No doubt there is a certain covert truth-telling in all this, with “we are innocent” standing for “my resolve is unshaken; I will not confess.” But one is forced to wonder whether the literal truth had not in some way ceased to exist for these people.  It is now about seventeen years since Communists told the truth about themselves … and enough time has passed for the symbolic language of Communism to have taken on an independent existence.

The suggestion here seems to be that while a single thought cannot survive if it contradicts reality, when numerous thoughts are brought together under an ideology, they begin interacting with one another rather than with experience, which they are able to ignore.  And the internal logic of the ideology alters the meanings of words in such a manner that denying facts can act as a substitute for denying the ideas held by others.  For example, as Warshow notes:

… when he [Julius] says “it is obvious that I could never commit the crime I stand convicted of,” we cannot assume that he is simply lying.  More probably, what he means is something like this:  If it were a crime, I could not have done it.  Since in the language of the unenlightened what I did is called a crime, and I am forced to speak in that language, the only truthful thing to say is that I did not do it.

Not only did their ideology detach itself from external experience of the world, but also, according to Warshow, from experience of themselves as persons:

It is as if these two had no internal sense of their own being but could see themselves only from the outside, in whatever postures their “case” seemed to demand—as if, one might say, they were only the most devoted of their thousands of “sympathizers.”

And later Warshow concludes that “they filled their lives with the second-hand, never so much as suspecting that anything else was possible.”  And as such, they could relate to anything that served their purpose, and just as easily disown it later, “the initial responses and their contradictories [being] equally real, and equally unreal.”

There is something to this more profound than insincerity…. The Communist is always celebrating the same thing:  the great empty Idea which has taken on the outlines of his personality….

What they [the Rosenbergs] stood for was not Communism as a certain form of social organization, not progress as a belief in the possibility of human improvement, but only their own identity as Communists or “progressives,” and they were perfectly “sincere” in making use of whatever catchwords seemed at any moment to assert that identity—just as one who seeks to establish his identity as a person of culture might try to do so either by praising abstract painting or by damning it.  The Rosenbergs thought and felt whatever their political commitment required them to think and feel. But if they had not had the political commitment could they have thought and felt at all?

The thrust of all this seems to be that the most important aspect of their ideology was their personal identification with it.  We normally think of an ideology as directed toward some end, toward a better world in some sense. But once an ideology has triumphed over experience, the better world can be asserted and believed in regardless of the facts.  Jesus once asked how it would profit a man if he gained the whole world but lost his soul.  In this case, we may ask how it will profit a man if he loses both the world and his soul for the sake of an ideology.

I believe it would be both tedious and unnecessary for me to list examples from the Trump administration, Congress, and Fox News as corresponding instances of Warshow’s analysis of the Rosenbergs, so I will leave all that to the reader’s imagination.  And as to whether his analysis captures the nature of the Trump presidency and its relationship with the truth, I will leave that to the reader’s judgment.  But I have saved for last my favorite tidbit from Warshow’s essay, which I will present without additional comment:

On July 4, 1951, Julius clipped a copy of the Declaration of Independence from the New York Times and taped it to the wall of his cell.  “It is interesting,” he writes to Ethel, “to read these words concerning free speech, freedom of the press and religion in this setting.  These rights our country’s patriots died for can’t be taken from the people even by Congress or the courts.”  Does it matter that the Declaration of Independence says nothing about free speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of religion, and that Julius therefore could not have found it “interesting” to read “these words” in that particular document?  It does not matter. Julius knew that the Declaration of Independence “stands for” America. Since, therefore, he already “knew” the Declaration, there was no need for him to actually read it in order to find it “interesting,” and it could not have occurred to him that he was being untruthful in implying that he had just been reading it when he had not.  He could “see himself” reading it, so to speak, and this dramatic image became reality: he did not know that he had not read it.

Death and Taxes

According to Benjamin Franklin, nothing in this world is certain except death and taxes.  When he said that in the eighteenth century, these two things were doubtless thought to be independent of each other, except to the extent that the former puts an end to the latter.  This is as it should be, for one of the consolations of life is the finality of death, which finally puts an end to our torments.  And of the torments that plague Republicans, paying taxes is the worst. (When paying taxes is no longer a Republican’s worst torment, he becomes a Democrat.)

There was a time when chief among life’s consolations was the hope of an afterlife, a Heaven devoid of all sin and suffering. But soon that was spoiled when some meanie came up with the idea of Hell, full of torment everlasting, the fate awaiting the vast majority of mankind.  This led to the paradox that many true believers ended up fearing death more than the atheists, for whom death meant nothing more than oblivion.

Much in the way that the idea of Hell spoiled the consolation of Heaven, so too did it occur to Republicans that the idea of having to pay taxes after one has died would offend our sense of the rightness of things, for such would extend our torments beyond the grave.  Thus it was that they came to refer to the estate tax as the death tax, hoping to persuade people to let the rich pass on their wealth in its entirety.

Robert Novak once said, “God put the Republican Party on Earth to cut taxes,” from which it follows, I suppose, that Satan put Democrats on Earth to raise them again. Psychologically speaking, there may be something to that, for whereas Republicans always cut taxes with a sense of righteousness, Democrats experience feelings of guilt just thinking about raising taxes when they are in power, and so much so, that often as not they fail to raise taxes at all.

This asymmetry can be seen in the surveys that ask people, “Do you believe that something needs to be done about the entitlements?”  I am not so concerned with how many people answer that question one way or the other as I am with the implicit bias in the question, for the “something” that “needs to be done” in such questions is always understood as cutting the entitlements, never raising taxes to support them.

I have been opposed to every tax cut since 1980, which is when I first started paying attention to politics.  For that matter, I have been continually in favor of raising taxes ever since, and not just on the rich.  When the Greenspan Commission recommended raising the retirement age for Social Security as well as increasing the payroll tax, I thought to myself, “I wish they would leave the retirement age alone and simply raise the payroll tax even more.”  And this was at a time when I knew I would be paying that tax for years to come.

Another asymmetry concerns the deficit.  To express concern about the deficit is usually understood to mean that one wants to cut spending, seldom that one wants to raise taxes, as is the case for me.  The way I see it, we should first figure out what we are going to spend our money on.  Then we compare that with the revenue the government expects to receive through taxes.  If there is a shortfall, we raise taxes until the budget is balanced.  Actually, I would raise taxes just a little more, create a surplus, pay off the national debt, accumulate a savings, and lend it out to foreign nations at interest.  Essentially, this is what I did with my life—avoiding debt, saving money, lending at interest—and things worked out well for me.

But ever since I took that course in economics in college, I have been told that what is good for the individual is not necessarily good for society as a whole.  I naturally thought that since an individual would be better off if he saved his money, then society would be better off if everyone saved his money.  But I was informed that I was guilty of the fallacy of composition, the inference from what is true of the parts to what is true of the whole.  On the contrary, it turned out that there was this thing called the paradox of thrift, which has it that if everyone saves his money, this leads to a fall in aggregate demand, leading to less growth, perhaps even to a recession and higher rates of unemployment.

That made me feel bad.  You might think that I could just go on saving my money, knowing that society is full of spendthrifts who will not save, so I need not fear that what I am doing will harm the economy.  But as luck would have it, I had read Immanuel Kant, and I was familiar with his categorical imperative, which states, “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”  In other words, according to Kant, it would be wrong for me to save money. Fortunately for me, I am not that good.  So I saved my money anyway.

Or consider the recent tax cut.  The Republicans I play bridge with were allowing that this cut in taxes should stimulate the economy.  I said I wouldn’t be at all surprised, much in the way that a man who lives on borrowed money can enjoy a higher standard of living than if he lived within his means.  They were undeterred by my sarcasm, for they had also taken that course in economics, and they reminded me of the fallacy of composition, pointing out that what would be profligate spending for a household, leading to misery and ruin, can be regarded as sound finance when applied to the federal government, leading to prosperity.

According to Steven Mnuchin, this tax cut will not only pay for itself, but it will help pay down the debt as well.  Ivanka Trump went further, saying that it would completely pay off the national debt.  Well, it looks as though nothing needs to be done about the entitlements after all, right?  Wrong!  With the flip of a Necker cube, Republicans will now become serious about all this deficit spending, saying that we must cut the entitlements.  Of course, since President Trump has assured us that the average household will see a four thousand dollar increase in income, on which the payroll tax will have to be paid, one would think that this additional revenue would put Social Security and Medicare pretty good shape.  But there I go again with the fallacy of composition, thinking that what will be good for each household will in turn be good for society as a whole.

And so it is that the entitlements will have to be cut.  This will have a twofold effect. First, by cutting the entitlements, this will reduce the deficit, just in case the tax cut does not pay for itself.  Second, by cutting the entitlements, there will be more death. And death is cheaper than life.  That is, by cutting Social Security, there will be more poverty for the elderly, leading to a lower life expectancy, which in turn will reduce the amount of money that has to be paid out to recipients.  And by cutting Medicare and Medicaid, people will not be able to afford good health care, which in turn will lead to an earlier death, further reducing government expenditures.  And so it is that cutting taxes will lead to more death, and more death will lead to greater tax cuts in the future.

Now, you may be thinking that since death is bad for the individual, then all this death will be bad for society as a whole. But that just means you still don’t understand the fallacy of composition.

Strategic Air Command (1955)

When watching Strategic Air Command, you almost expect to hear Reed Hadley saying, “These are the men of the Strategic Air Command, who stand ready to defend our nation against nuclear attack…,” and so forth, accompanied by triumphal music, determined to inspire us with patriotic admiration.

I am tempted to say that this is a dated movie, one that might have had some resonance in the 1950s, when the threat of nuclear attack seemed very real, except for one thing:  I was around in those days, and contrary to what you may have heard, children were not terrified by the threat of the hydrogen bomb.  We use to love getting out of class to go see those films demonstrating the destructiveness of this weapon.  It was better than doing long division.  The teachers would tell us that if we saw a flash of light, we should immediately “duck and cover,” but we joked about the futility in that.  One wise guy posted a note on the wall, saying, “In case of nuclear attack:  (1) Bend over.  (2) Put your head between your legs. (3) Kiss your ass goodbye.”  So, what I am trying to say in all this is that even in 1955, this movie would have been boring.  It’s just that it is even more so today.

As a check on how people of the day may have reacted to this movie, I consulted Bosley Crowther’s review for the New York Times.  He devotes the first six paragraphs to talking about the visuals.  In the seventh paragraph, he finally gets around to talking about the plot and the acting.  But then, given the plot and the acting, he might just as well have devoted a couple more paragraphs to the splendors of Vista Vision.

James Stewart plays Dutch Holland, a professional baseball player.  He was a pilot during World War II, and now, being in the reserves, he is called back to active duty to fly the long range bombers that carry a nuclear payload in case World War III should break out.  His wife Sally, June Allyson, really shouldn’t worry her pretty little head about the important work men have to do, but being a woman, she is all sentiment and feeling, and she just doesn’t understand her husband, who has to make all the big decisions in their marriage without consulting her, because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

Unfortunately, World War III does not break out.  That means the movie must manufacture moments of dramatic tension:  a seemingly hostile situation just turns out to be a drill; an engine catches on fire, causing a crash; a bomber almost runs out of fuel, and Dutch has to land in the fog.  It makes you sympathetic to the device in Top Gun (1986), in which a dogfight occurs between American fighter planes and those of an unnamed enemy, even though the country is not at war.  Let’s face it.  Military movies set during peacetime can be pretty dull.

During the crash that occurred because the engine caught on fire, Dutch injured his shoulder.  This eventually leads to his being discharged, giving us the typical Hollywood ending:  Dutch got the satisfaction of doing the right thing by deciding to make a career out of being in the Air Force in spite of Sally’s objections, and Sally gets her way when he is forced to return to civilian life.  Of course, with an injured shoulder, it is unlikely that he will ever play third base again, which is in keeping with the sense of sacrifice that the men of SAC must make to keep this nation safe, as Reed Hadley might have said, just before the credits start to roll.