Great Performances from Kids

It’s hard for kids to act naturally, but some are truly born for it. These are my ten acting picks from young actors, by which “young” means the actor was no older than 14 when playing the role. So for example, one performance that didn’t qualify is Ellen Page as the 14-year old Hayley Stark in Hard Candy, since Ellen was actually 17 (believe it or not) and thus had more resources to draw on than a younger actor. (Ellen does make the cut for another role.) Natalie Portman takes the top slot in a slam dunk.

Mathilda (Click for video)

1. Natalie Portman (12), as Mathilda in Leon the Professional (1994). If Natalie Portman killed her image in the Star Wars prequels, she made up for it a thousand times before in Leon. I’m glad I missed the film when it first came out, because the American version wrecked it by removing 25 minutes that are the whole point of the love story. Alas, Americans aren’t equipped to handle that sort of thing between a 12-year old girl and a man in his 40s. The international version of the film is an uncensored masterpiece. Portman plays a girl whose parents, older sister, and 4-year old brother get gunned down by corrupt DEA agents, and so she hooks up with a hitman in her distress. She gets an instant crush on him and he doesn’t quite know how to handle it, but before long, he’s training her how to kill and taking her along on his hit jobs, while she takes every blatant opportunity to hit on him. Mathilda is Portman’s best performance (which is saying something, given Black Swan) and I’m in awe of the emotional range she summons here. She’s vulnerable and tender, sensuous, moved by inner furies, and none of it ever goes over the top. You believe her in every frame.

The kids of Stranger Things (Click for video)

2. Finn Wolfhard (12), Caleb McLaughlin (14), Gaten Matarazzo (13), and Millie Bobby Brown (12), as Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Eleven in Stranger Things (2016). All four of these kids come in at a close #2. They’re incredibly natural actors and the boys represent my ’80s childhood — the hours-long D&D campaigns being the obvious point of contact. It’s almost impossible to say whose performance is the best as they complement each other with personas just as striking. Mike is the group leader, the most sensitive, and the soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; Dustin a non-stop riot ruled by his appetites. The chemistry between them is extraordinary to watch. Their most iconic scene is probably their prepubescent horror at Eleven when she starts to take off her clothes in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are gut-busting hilarious. (Lucas: “She tried to get naked!” Dustin: indignantly mimics her taking off her dress.) Eleven herself is no less brilliant, and she conveys far more in her silences than most gifted actors do speaking. Simply put, there has never been a group of kids who set the screen on fire like the quartet of Stranger Things.

Mattie (Click for video)

3. Hailee Steinfeld (13), as Mattie in True Grit (2010). The role of Mattie Ross, like Mathilda in Leon, depends on just the right casting that makes or breaks a film. Which is ironic considering the two characters are so opposite. Mattie is completely unsexualized and humorless, living by a stern Presbyterian ethic which allows her to hold her ground in the face of adults who are otherwise inclined to dismiss her. Young characters who bark orders at adults are usually a fail in cinema, and scenes like Mattie running roughshod over a colonel in a horse-trading transaction by rights shouldn’t work. And yet they astonishingly do; at no point is Mattie anything less than 100% believable. When she and Rooster go off into Indian territory to hunt down the bad guy, the result is one of the best sidekick-adult relationships in movie history. Think how awful Short Round was in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. He gave youthful side-kicks a silly reputation. Steinfeld proved that kids can hold their own as the right-hands of heroes on missions of dirty work.

Danny (Click for video)

4. Danny Lloyd (6), as Danny in The Shining (1980). The youngest entry on my list places high. Lloyd was perfect in this horror classic, able to focus beyond what most six-year olds are capable of. Jack Nicholson may be the star of The Shining, and obviously very good, but he did go over the top; I always thought Danny Lloyd and Shelley Duvall were the true stars for the way they acted (reacted) to their maniacal father/husband, but especially Lloyd. Duvall gave an emotional performance that wiped her out; Lloyd portrayed the inner terror of a child so convincingly and under Kubrick’s careful guidance didn’t for a moment overact as kids this young inevitably do. It’s interesting that Lloyd was apparently not aware he was acting in a horror film — told by Kubrick that this was a “family drama” — which I find rather hard to believe given some of his lines and action sequences. Like when he’s being chased by the ax-wielding Jack, or when he conveys how terrified he is to his imaginary friend Tony, or when he’s shaken by his crying mother who wonders why he’s battered and bruised.

Jake and Tony (Click for video)

5. Theo Taplitz (13) and Michael Barbieri (13), as Jake and Tony in Little Men (2016). I have strong attachment to these boys, because I watched Little Men the day after the election (Nov 9), when I was feeling suicidal over Donald Trump’s victory. This was just the movie I needed to see — a film that celebrates difference despite the avalanche of parental roadblocks. Taplitz plays the shy Jake, Barbieri the uninhibited Tony; Jake is Caucasian and middle-class, Tony is Chilean and poor. The boys are allowed to play their roles with simple and understated tones that makes you feel you’re watching the everyday lives of real people. Their friendship grows the more their parents become enemies — they go so far as to boycott their parents by refusing to speak to them — but in the end, Tony and his mother are evicted for not being able to keep up with rising rents. I cried with Jake at the end; after election day this film was a serious trigger for me in light of Trump’s screeds against Hispanic people.

Iris (Click for video)

6. Jodie Foster (12), as Iris in Taxi Driver (1976). It’s funny how Foster has played against the very best and been terrified for her efforts. In Silence of the Lambs she never spoke to Anthony Hopkins off-camera (until the last day of shooting) because he scared her so badly in his Hannibal Lecter role. And that was when she was an adult. As a kid in Taxi Driver she was intimidated by Robert DeNiro — as she tells it today, he was “even quieter and more strange” back then — but I suspect it’s precisely this sort of thing that has always summoned the best out of Jodie Foster. After all, her roles as Iris and Clarice Starling are her best, and she deserves extra accolades for Iris given that she was only twelve. Both her real and in-character attempts to act and appear older as befitting a prostitute underscore all the more that she’s a child.

Maggie (Click for video)

7. Ellen Page (11), as Maggie in Pit Pony (1999). Here’s a family-friendly entry, just to prove I have a soft spot: Ellen Page’s first role on Canadian TV. I wish I’d grown up on Pit Pony instead of Little House on the Prairie, which was made insufferable by the self-righteous figure of Michael Landon’s Pa. The parental figures in Pit Pony are fallible and likeable. The locale is better too, set in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, in the time before unions (1901) when men and boys — and ponies — had a rather nasty time working in the coal mines. Ellen Page is the hidden gem, playing the younger sister of the boy who does more than his share in the mines. It’s amazing to watch her before she became famous as the castrating psychopath of Hard Candy and the pregnant teen of Juno. In this series she’s positively endearing — and even more tiny, as if possible — and I chose a clip from the episode where she runs away from her aunt and comes home to find that things have changed, which she doesn’t handle well.

Jack (Click for video)

8. Jacob Tremblay (7), as Jack in Room (2015). Like Danny Lloyd (#4), Tremblay played a five-year old confined in a horrible place, though I think I’d take the 400-plus room haunted hotel over a one-room tool shed. Tremblay had a tall order in Room. He had to convey a belief that the entire universe consisted of a single room that he never left, and then, in the second half, a child’s reaction to the real world never seen before and zillions of people living in it besides his mother. He nailed it; when Jack sees the sky for the first time, Tremblay looks genuinely poleaxed. Even more convincing and disturbing is the deeper sense he conveys at having been deprived of life’s necessities for the first five years of his life, he doesn’t want them when they finally come. They’re just too overwhelming for him — living in a big house with toys and a backyard — and it’s heartbreaking when he asks his mother if they can go back to live in “Room”.

Regan (Click for video)

9. Linda Blair (13), as Regan in The Exorcist (1973). It’s easy to overlook this one, but Linda Blair did a lot of Regan’s scenes. Her stunt double (Eileen Deitz) only stepped in at a few points. Even the crucifixion masturbation scene was done mostly by Blair. And she did, after all, win a Golden Globe, a People’s Choice Award, and an Oscar nomination. So even if most of her performance comes filtered through the mask of demonic makeup in the latter half, she deserves high praise. And some of her early scenes are frankly as disturbing without the demon involved, as notably when she is strapped down in the hospital getting an arteriogram. Friedkin used real doctors to get the arteriogram procedure exactly right, and it’s just as painful for real-life patients as it looks for Linda Blair. It requires the patient to be conscious. And doctors have actually used that footage to train radiologists who will perform arteriograms, because the procedure — and Linda Blair’s tormented reaction — are so accurately depicted.

Alexander (Click for video)

10. Bertil Guve (10), as Alexander in Fanny and Alexander (1982). I have difficulty assessing performances in foreign films, because when I don’t know the language I’m often clueless as to whether or not the actor is using poor inflection or overacting. But I’ll say this about Bertil Guve: he was obviously a natural. Bergman chose him because he “acted with his eyes”, and I never needed to understand Swedish to see that. And any boy who can act the Ishmael scene is top notch. It’s the pivotal scene where the androgynous figure physically caresses Alexander, encloses the boy in his arms, and together they will the death of Alexander’s abusive stepfather. Speaking of which, the scene in which Alexander defies him and gets beaten for it is also a stand-out, for his non-verbal cues as much as verbal. Because the film is ultimately about what Alexander perceives is happening, it depends on Guve being able to make us believe in the magic — that ghosts and such really exist. That’s what he does, and it’s a first-rate performance.

Babatha’s Orchard

Last week Gloucestershire Live published an article about an “Indiana Jones” biblical scholar who made a great discovery. Usually that’s a warning to count the spoons and brace for impact. But the scholar in question is Philip Esler — just about the last name you would associate with crackpot archaeology. So what is Babatha’s Orchard about?

In the first pages of the book Esler assures us:

“There are no Arks of the Covenant, hidden temple vessels, Holy Grails, lost Gospels or Mary Magdalens here. Instead this is a tale of domestic life. It is the story of how, around 99 CE, Shim’on, Babatha’s father, unexpectedly came to acquire an irrigated date-palm orchard in his village of Maoza, on the southern shore of the Dead Sea, in the kingdom of Nabatea.” (p xvi)

Babatha’s Orchard is exciting to read because it’s real. It offers a window onto everyday life in antiquity, unencumbered by sensationalism. That window is provided by the Babatha collection, discovered in 1961 by a team of archaeologists, which are the possessions of a second-century Jewish woman including sandals, balls of yarn, key-rings, knives, bowls, waterskins, and other items — and also a pouch containing 35 legal documents. These documents are dated between 94 and 132 AD, and consist of various contracts for purchase of property, loans, weddings, and the registration of land.

Esler is concerned with the earliest four documents, Papyri Yadin 1-4, the first of which dates to 94, the other three to 99. P. Yadin 2 and 3 describe the purchase of a date-palm orchard, first by a Nabatean high-ranking official named Archelaus, second by a Judean (Jew) named Shim’on (the future father of Babatha) only a month later — but purchased both times from the same woman. Esler not only reconstructs what went on between P. Yadin 2 and 3, he also argues that P. Yadin 1 and 4 bear on the same issue. “No one seems to have asked,” says Esler, “why the first and fourth documents were found in the archive in the first place.” Why did Babatha, years later, keep copies of these legal documents? They presumably had some relevance to the orchard acquired by her father and should help make sense of that event.

The mystery of P. Yadin 1

P. Yadin 1 describes a transaction in 94 AD that at first blush seems to have nothing to do with the orchard sale (and resale) in 99. Basically a Nabatean named Muqima borrowed money from his wife’s dowry to purchase a lease of property, and to share the investment risk enlisted a partner whose name was Abad-Amanu. What no one seems to have realized before Esler is that the Abad-Amanu of P. Yadi 1 is none other than the father of Archelaus, the buyer of the orchard in P. Yadin 2 — a link that proves of “critical importance in unlocking the mystery behind these documents” (p 111).

The mystery is how Abi-adan (the woman who owned the orchard) sold the orchard to Archelaus (P. Yadin 2) and then only a month later sold it to Shim’on (P. Yadin 3). Scholars have suggested that Abi-adan annulled her agreement with Archelaus when Shim’on offered a better deal, but Esler refutes this, for there is no way Abi-adan could simply have reneged on her deal which gave Archelaus legal rights. Not to mention the extreme unlikelihood that a non-elite woman would act in such a capricious way towards a strategos (a government official charged with both civil and military duties, as Archelaus was) (p 140). No, it must have been that Archelaus himself backed out of the agreement, requesting that Abi-adan annul the contract and refund his money. But why?

Esler spots the reason under our noses in P. Yadin 1 — and the reason for which that seemingly unrelated document is in the Babatha collection to begin with. The partner of that earlier transaction, Abad-Amanu, died soon after Archelaus bought the orchard in 99, and he was Archelaus’ father. At this point the woman (Amat-Isi) was still owed money under the loan agreement with her husband Muqima and Abad-Amanu. Esler argues that Nabatean law provided for universal succession (like the legal systems of Mesopotomia, Rome, and certain Judean provinces), which means that an heir (like Archelaus) received the entire estate of the deceased (Abad-Amanu), benefits and debt included. Amat-Isi would have been calling on Archelaus to pay Abad-Amanu’s debt, and his honor as a strategos was at stake. So he appealed to Abi-adan to rescind the bargain of P. Yadin 2. That turn of fate immensely benefited the Judean (Jewish) Shim’on, who was probably passed over the first go-around in favor of the strategos, and was now waiting in the wings to buy the orchard.

The mystery of P. Yadin 4

That triggers the second mystery, the one of P. Yadin 4, which survives as a fragmentary document without any legible names, but which Esler believes to allow more restoration than scholars have realized. Through brilliant detective work he shows that P. Yadin 4 is a grant (a cross between a gift and a sale, or a transfer of property where the return wasn’t necessarily a purchase price), and indeed the very grant mentioned in P. Yadin 3. Shim’on wanted to buy a larger portion of the orchard than Archelaus did, and Abi-adan was apparently planning to acquire that extra piece of orchard from a certain “son of Lutay”, who would give it to her as a grant. In P. Yadin 4 we have exactly that: someone saying that he will grant an orchard to a female.

More sleuthing on Esler’s part makes everything fall into place, as this “son of Lutay” emerges as the likely husband of Abi-adan. He acknowledges that he is debt to her in P. Yadin 4, and that he will reduce his debt by transferring the extra piece of orchard to her (which he was currently leasing to someone else, to expire in a few months). Esler points out that when men are indebted to women, it’s almost invariably the case of husbands indebted to their wives for having drawn on the wife’s dowry. Also, back in P. Yadin 3, Abi-adan and the son of Lutay are referred to together solely by their first names, which is a familiar manner of designation suggesting a married pair.

The relevance of Nabatean culture

Like any Philip Esler book, Babatha’s Orchard is prefaced by chapters of background history and cultural cues. I hadn’t realized how egalitarian the Nabateans were compared to their contemporaries, and that the ethic apparently pervaded all the way up to the kingship. Esler cites Strabo who describes the Nabatean king as a “man of the people” who served them at banquets, and who accounted for himself at popular assemblies where his means and methods were scrutinized. That’s a humble model of kingship hard to find elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean.

Esler accounts for this in terms of the nomadic mindset. From their earliest days (in the fourth century BC) the Nabateans jealously guarded their independence and freedom. They were able to take refuge in the desert when forces invaded, and were hard for enemies to overcome because of secret wells they could access. Fredrik Barth has explained how nomadic household leaders had a freedom that was incompatible with the hierarchical structures of agrarian societies.

“Unlike a sedentary community, which persists unless the members abandon their house and land and depart, a camp community of nomads can only persist through a continuous re-affirmation by all its members. Every day the members of the camp must agree in their decision on the vital question of whether to move on, or to stay camped, and if they move, by which route and how far they should move. Every household head has an opinion, and the prosperity of the household is dependent on his decision.” (p 38)

Even after the emergence of a sedentary lifestyle and the kingship (in the second century BC), the Nabateans retained a nomadic dimension to their existence right up into the second century AD. The king and the elites were in sync with this.

This becomes relevant when Esler is able to illuminate things in surprising ways. For example, in his reconstruction, Amat-Isi (the woman of P. Yadin 1) called on Archelaus to collect the debt his father owed her. But Archelaus was a strategos, and in most places in the Mediterranean, it would have been a bold if not suicidal move on the part of a woman (or non-elite man, for that matter) to risk affronting an elite. As a rule, however, the Nabateans disdained elitist superiority and didn’t go out of their way to make life difficult for “presumptuous” commoners:

“Influenced by the nomadic traditions still operative among the Nabatean elite, Archelaus was not someone filled with his own sense of importance and was not likely to hold it against Amat-Isi in the future that she had asked him for the money his father had owed.” (p 224)

Not exactly how things worked in Judea and Galilee.

The Upshot

If I could write a book like Babatha’s Orchard, I’d be very proud. Rarely can scholars piece together missing and obscured information so compellingly, and in a way that allows us to read it as a story. Esler writes that story in the final chapter — how a Jew living in Nabatea bought a date-palm orchard from a woman after a high-ranking official failed to do so — bringing to life a complex web of events, personal motives, and social relations. It’s a story one could easily get a novel from. The book is also impressive as a study for its own sake and not as a means to an end. “I am not concerned,” says Esler, “to interpret New Testament texts against a social context known from the Nabatean legal papyri. Rather, I am seeking to understand better that context itself.” That’s fresh air, and the kind of thing I’d love to see more from our New Testament scholars.

The post-script to Babatha’s story is sad. In the Jewish revolt of 135 AD, she was captured by the Romans and in all likelihood killed or enslaved. But not before hiding her collection in a cave by the Dead Sea, to await discovery in 1961. Esler’s book honors her in the best possible way.

The X-Men Films Ranked: All 10 of Them

Seventeen years ago saw the dawn of a millennium and a reboot of the superhero genre. Many consider the first X-Men film the most important superhero film ever made, and everyone is saying that Logan is the best in the franchise. I agree with both assessments. Here’s how I rank the franchise.

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1. Logan, James Mangold. 2017. 5 stars. This is one of two superhero films I award a 5-star rating, the other being The Dark Knight. Which is obviously a way of saying that I’m not the biggest superhero fan, because these are “anti-superhero” films for adults. (Deadpool also falls into this realm of adult cinema but in a satirical way: a potty-mouthed anti-hero attracts pretty much the usual audience of nerdy guys.) The year is 2029, and Logan is now trying to live a normal life in Mexico as a limo driver while taking care of Charles Xavier. Then a young girl shows up brandishing adamantium claws, evidently created to be a soldier like he was. She’s being hunted and Logan naturally wants no part of her until his heart wins out. (Heavy shades of Leon the Professional here.) The two of them proceed to slice and dice the baddies on a level of ultra-violence which has never been seen before in a superhero film. Logan is an undeniable masterpiece that fuses a trilogy of genres — superhero, western, and post-apocalyptic — much in the same indie vein as The Wolverine (also directed by Mangold), but three times as good, and the perfect farewell to this iconic X-Men character.

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2. X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer. 2014. 4 ½ stars. It’s difficult choosing between this one and United for the second and third slots. As a film United is more polished and objectively better. But I go with Days of Future Past for the emotional power and high stakes. From the start, the X-Men series has been pointing to an all-out war between mutants and humanity, and we finally get that. The time travel plot is handled well and without cheap resets, and so we have our cake and eat it as X-Men die but live to fight another day. The time warping also bridges the cast of the first three films with their younger versions from the First Class prequel. Things are so dire that Magneto teams up with Xavier, but as in the second film it’s a fragile alliance. The Catch-22’s are exploited for maximum effect: Magneto was right all along that humanity would eventually commit genocide on the mutants; but that’s only because of his own aggressive policies, which caused Mystique to set the genocidal plan in motion; Xavier is paralyzed in both the past and present, ashamed that Magneto was right, ineffectual to do much about it, even as he clings to an altruistic morality. I remain annoyed, however, that we never find out how Xavier came back to life after being killed by Jean Grey in The Last Stand.

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3. X-Men: United, Bryan Singer. 2003. 4 ½ stars. It was overshadowed by The Return of the King, but in that year X-Men: United emerged as the best superhero film ever made. It was The Dark Knight of its day. It took the dark themes of the first X-Men film and expanded the scope with confidence. Xavier and Magneto join forces to stop a military colonel intent on wiping out all mutants from the planet, though of course Magneto has his own counter-agenda to reverse the colonel’s purpose and wipe out all human beings instead. The White House assassination attempt is still one of the best opening sequences of any superhero film, and an adrenaline-rush no matter how many times you see it. Magneto’s escape from his plastic prison (above image) is pure genius, as he sucks the iron out the guard’s bursting skin, and fashions it into levitating plates and bullets. Jean Grey’s death is a noble sacrifice, and the final act in the Oval Office may well be my favorite conclusion to a superhero film, as Xavier, backed by his fellow mutants, schools the president on accepting others in a civilized nation.

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4. X-Men: First Class, Matthew Vaughn. 2011. 4 ½ stars. Many consider this the best X-Men film, and I can understand why. It’s superbly acted and exploits the historical event of the Cuban missile crisis to nail-biting effect. The missing ingredient is the dark brooding feel which is the point of the X-Men franchise. Matthew Vaughn was having a blast at the expense of Singer’s subversive tone. Critic Darren Finch has noted that First Class comes off as a “dude movie” against its own grain. Mystique has to choose between two handsome men — the young swaggering versions of Xavier and Magneto — and she’s now played by Jennifer Lawrence, who looks like a classic all-American blonde. Singer portrayed unambiguously weird kids, but with Vaughn they come off as “cool kids with problems”. First Class is a great film but it’s not very good at being an X-Men film. What it misses in mood, it more than makes up for in emotional power. We see Charles and Erik in the days of their friendship, and that Erik is the one who crippled Charles; and how Mystique began with Charles and grew up for many years with him before joining Erik.

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5. The Wolverine, James Mangold. 2013. 4 stars. This is how you focus on a single X-Men character. Not by going back to his origins, but by moving forward to another level. The Wolverine feels less like a superhero film and more like indie martial arts. If you like dark films suffused with existential turmoil (as I do) and if you love honor dramas set in Japan which are upended by an intruding western “barbarian” (as I do), then chances are this one will work for you. Logan has left the X-Men and rejected his Wolverine identity after being forced to kill Jean Grey (the Phoenix) in The Last Stand. It turns out he also has baggage from being a POW in Nagasaki when the bombs dropped. He’s not up against the high-stakes threats of political bigotry or rogue mutants. Now he’s in exile embroiled in a family feud. Ultimately this film is about death — Logan wanting to die to escape his guilt, his Japanese “friend” wanting to conquer death but at Logan’s expense, Jean Grey speaking from the grave in his nightmares. I’m not surprised that Mangold returned to focus on Wolverine again in Logan, which is hailed by everyone and their mother as the best film in the franchise.

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6. Deadpool, Tim Miller. 2016. 4 stars. Immensely entertaining, yes, but it needs saying that Deadpool isn’t quite as anarchistic as it thinks it is. Super is a more transgressive and better film that remains woefully underrated. Nonetheless, this standalone X-Men piece is very good. The hero-villain we cheer is a potty-mouthed contract killer whose black-market treatment for cancer has made him into a super-powered mutant. He’s hunting the guy responsible for his facial ruin, and he has graphic flashbacks to a failed relationship with a prostitute. You would think that ceaseless swearing and redundant violence would soon wear out its welcome, but Deadpool remains enjoyable from start to finish. For an adolescent fantasy about torture and sick revenge, that turns out to be precisely its strength — a purposeful shallowness that would be diminished by any toned down supplements. The character made his first appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but as I say in that entry below, you should avoid seeing that film at all costs. This film works perfectly fine on its own.

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7. X-Men: The Last Stand, Brett Ratner. 2006. 3 ½ stars. For reasons that escape me, this one gets a lot of hate, and some lists rank it below even Wolverine’s Origins. That’s just wrong. It’s true that Ratner is a commercial director given to flash and dazzle and lame dialogue, and when he gets things right it’s more by accident. But the fact is that The Last Stand does do a lot of things right — things I wish more superhero films would have the balls to do. The glaring one is the point that pissed off so many fans: the death of Professor Xavier. Ratner killed off the most important character of the franchise, as well as Cyclops, both in the first half of the story. Frankly, I think the entire Jean Grey/Phoenix story arc pays off wonderfully. The tender Jean has returned to life as a hideous killer, and it’s downright tragic when she begs Logan to kill her in the end. I also like the film’s premise involving a medical cure which some mutants want and others are naturally offended by. Rogue for example chooses the cure for understandable reasons (she can’t even kiss a boyfriend without harming him), while Mystique becomes human against her will, and is shockingly rejected by Magneto whom she saved. There’s good payoff all around in the character arcs, even if the central plot is hollow.

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8. X-Men, Bryan Singer. 2000. 3 stars. It’s difficult to rank the first X-Men film objectively. On the one hand, I consider it the most important superhero film ever made. It rebooted the genre and saved it from probable extinction. Batman & Robin made people embarrassed to express any interest in superheroes, but even aside from the ’90s travesties, most comic-book films that predate 2000 look lame and horribly dated. Bryan Singer found a way to connect with nerdy material in a serious way, offering darker and morally complex heroes, and playing up to social commentary (civil and gay rights) without being preachy. X-Men marked a huge step forward. But in retrospect it’s just not a hugely impressive film. It was finding its way as the first of its kind; the budget was modest; the action scenes show their age; green-screen backgrounds are a bit obvious (this was 2000, but still a year before the Lord of the Rings revolution); the plot not terribly ambitious. If I were grading this in the year 2000, I’d give it 4 stars unreservedly, but today it’s competing with too much advancement in the genre. It’s still decent and enjoyable, but feels like an extended prologue to the rest of the franchise.

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9. X-Men: Apocalypse, Bryan Singer. 2016. 2 ½ stars. There’s no polite way of saying for all its ambition and great ideas, X-Men: Apocalypse is an artificial bloated mess. It’s too many stories crammed into an overarching plot that doesn’t feel anchored in any conviction. And it’s too bad, because this really could have been as good as Days of Future Past. The scale is just as huge and the stakes as high. The lead villain is the world’s first mutant, En Sabah Nur, ruler of ancient Egypt who was sealed in his pyramid tomb and has now risen in 1983 to ravage the planet and rule in a new age of mutants. To do so, he has rounded up his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of whom (as we’d expect) is Magneto, the others being Storm (whom I certainly did not expect), Archangel, and Psylocke. A solid premise, but it’s just window-dressing for a mess that takes its first hour to set up loads of new characters who are never used well. Sophie Turner as the young Jean Grey, for example, is a brilliant casting choice but her moment of truth in the end doesn’t pay off well because of the story’s deficiencies. I give Apocalypse A for its ideas and ambition, a D for the results, which lands the 2 ½ star rating.

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10. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Gavin Hood. 2009. 1 star. Most everyone agrees this is the worst X-Men film, and some even say it’s the worst superhero film ever made. I’m not confident that it’s worse than Superman III and Batman & Robin, but you get the point: it’s really, really bad. The script is atrocious, the direction worse than amateur, and the acting so dreadful… it’s as if Gavin Hood was trying to make the worst film conceivable. The idea of exploring a single mutant’s origins was a good one but went to waste. This is a film I would urge not seeing under any circumstances, even if you’re a die-hard X-Men fan. Not only because it makes you laugh (or cry) at every ridiculous thing that happens next, but for the continuity problems it creates: it’s supposed to lead up to the events of the first X-Men movie, and while it lamely explains why Wolverine won’t remember any of the X-Men when he meets them “for the first time”, it certainly doesn’t explain why they won’t remember him.

The Critics

These are the rankings by Rotten Tomatoes scores. They coincide pretty closely with my rankings.

1. Logan: 92%
2. X-Men: Days of Future Past: 91%
3. X-Men: United: 86%
4. X-Men: First Class: 86%
5. Deadpool: 84%
6. X-Men: 81%
7. The Wolverine: 69%
8. X-Men: The Last Stand: 58%
9. X-Men: Apocalypse: 48%
10. X-Men Origins: Wolverine: 38%

Viewing Order

This is the best viewing order of the franchise (ignoring Wolverine Origins which shouldn’t be seen at all, and Deadpool which is self-standing):

The first series:

X-Men (2000)
X-Men: United (2003)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
The Wolverine (2013)

The “prequel” series:

X-Men: First Class (2011)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Logan (2017)

Concession or Critique: “The Poor You Will Always Have With You”

the-woman-anointing-jesus-feetIs Jesus’ saying a concession to the fact of poverty, or a critique of its continuing presence? Ray Vaillancourt argues the latter in his recent blogpost, and I think he’s probably right.

The relevant story is that of Mk 14:3-9/Mt 26:6-13/Jn 12:1-11, in which Jesus retorts, “The poor you will always have with you”, to his disciples, who are furious over a woman’s extravagant waste. The story actually seems to suggest that the disciples were concerned about the poor on that occasion, and not Jesus. The message would then be that followers of Jesus should resign themselves to the eternal reality of poverty — as long as Christians do “something nice for Jesus”, their consciences are clean.

If that’s true, then Jesus was radically revising Deuteronomy 15, sort of like the way Paul revised the figure of Abraham in Genesis 15 (by ignoring the stipulations of Genesis 17). Paul said that circumcision and ethnic commandments did not have to accompany faith. Jesus, if he were pulling a Paul, would be saying that jubilee and other debt provisions were no longer mandatory. Here’s the full relevant passage in Deuteronomy, with verses 4-5 and 11 in bold:

At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithes of your produce for that year and deposit them within your own communities, that the Levite who has no hereditary portion with you, and also the resident alien, the orphan and the widow within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied; so that the Lord, your God, may bless you in all that you undertake. At the end of every seven-year period you shall have a remission of debts, and this is the manner of the remission. Creditors shall remit all claims on loans made to a neighbor, not pressing the neighbor, one who is kin, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed. You may press a foreigner, but you shall remit the claim on what your kin owes to you. However, since the Lord will bless you abundantly in the land the Lord will give you to possess as a heritage, there shall be no one of you in need if you but listen to the voice of the Lord and carefully observe this entire commandment which I enjoin on you today. Since the Lord will bless you as he promised, you will lend to many nations, and borrow from none; you will rule over many nations, and none will rule over you. If one of your kindred is in need in any community in the land which the Lord is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand against your kin who is in need. Instead, you shall freely open your hand and generously lend what suffices to meet that need. Be careful not to entertain the mean thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” so that you would begrudge your kin who is in need and give nothing, and your kin would cry to the Lord against you and you would be held guilty. When you give, give generously and not with a stingy heart; for that, the Lord will bless you in all your works and undertakings. The land will never lack for needy persons; that is why I command you: “Open your hand freely to your poor and to your needy kin in your land.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-15:11)

As Ray notes in his blogpost, verses 4-5 supply a vision which verse 11 acknowledges won’t be realized, due to the conditional requirement: if you observe the law, then there will be no one in need. “Observing the law” in this case includes commandments like the forgiveness of debts every seven years, and the Jubilee redistribution of wealth every 49 years to clean the mounting slate of injustices. In effect, the Deuteronomy passage is saying that “If you cancel debts as required by the law, then there will be no one in need. If you don’t charge loans with interest, then there will be no one in need. If you keep the law in the spirit of Deuteronomy and the prophets (and less by the lights of Leviticus and the scribes), then there will indeed be abundance for everyone in the land.”

But that returns us to the question: was this in fact Jesus’ understanding of Deuteronomy 15, or was he, as our modern Republicans insist, spinning Deuteronomy 15 in a new lais·sez-faire way — saying in effect, “The poor you will always have, so just live with it and don’t worry.” The Republicans have a case, because if anything it’s the disciples who seem to be reinforcing Deuteronomy 15, not Jesus, who is scolding them for sticking up for the poor. The problem lies in their sincerity. Ray cites Malina and Rohrbaugh, who note that a female with free access to a dinner attended by males would be a woman of questionable reputation, and the resentful disciples are simply using poverty rhetoric to shame this woman. They’re more angry at her presumption than her wastefulness. By defending her Jesus is fending off their hypocrisy more than anything else. (Also, in the context of the larger gospel narrative, the oil she’s using isn’t a self-indulgent meal anointing, but a preparation for Jesus’ burial — a devotional act which resounds to the messiah’s honor.) In John’s version of the story, the hypocrisy is made explicit with the character of Judas, who defended the poor, “not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions”.

In other words, in retorting “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus brings Deuteronomy 15 into the spotlight in order to hold the disciples to their word. It’s meaningless to get indignant over injustices if you’re not committed to rectifying them, or if you’re just playing the social-justice warrior to cover for self-righteousness or prejudice. The disciples were doing one or the other or both, in over-zealously faulting a woman with good intentions.

Of course, Republicans can always rely on the face-value reading of Jesus’ saying. They can claim that a new day had dawned, and Jesus dispensed with the debt provisions of Deuteronomy — just like Paul later did with the circumcision requirement of Genesis. But I think that’s a heavy lift, given that the gospel testimony is replete for activism on this point, not least in the way Jesus tells disciples to sell everything they have and give to the poor. People like Jesus and Paul were as likely to reinforce scripture as revise it. Paul revised Genesis 15/17 for the benefit of his pagan converts. Jesus reinforced Deuteronomy 15 for the welfare of the poor.

Dragons and their Riders: The Rape-Premise of Mating Flights in Pern

dragons-mateI’m rereading the Dragonriders of Pern and realize that I’d forgotten some of the details about the telepathic bonds between dragons and their riders. I remembered that the dragons communicate fluently in human language but only telepathically, and only with the rider they bonded with after hatching. And also that they can teleport instantly over long distances that would otherwise take days or weeks of flight, which allows them to burn Thread out of the sky in many places at once. And that they can time travel — though that’s extremely dangerous.

I also vaguely remembered the way the dragonriders succumb to sex with each other during the mating flights of their dragons: The riders of the mating pair are overcome with sexual desire for each other, often against their will, sometimes hardly aware of what they’re doing. When it’s bronze on gold, it’s rather “standard” because gold dragons are queens, bronzes are males, the gold dragonrider is always a woman, and the bronze rider a male. But when it comes to the “lesser colors” — browns or blues mating with greens — it’s a bit murky and only hinted at in the early novels. Green dragons are females like the golds, but their riders are male. (The only female dragonrider is the one who rides the gold queen.) Which means that the human riders of the green dragons succumb to homosexual sex with the other dragonrider (regardless of their actual orientation) when their green dragon is being mated by a brown or blue. I’d missed this before, because it’s hardly evident. Green and blue dragonriders are regulated to lesser background characters, and I suspect that McCaffrey didn’t want to underscore the theme of homo-eroticism in any case. Back in my day homophobia was pretty strong.

The way it works is this. In the communities of dragonriders (the weyrs), it’s understood and accepted that sex during mating flights is not an option. Anne McCaffrey has said, “the dragon decides, the rider complies.” Dragons mate when they need to, irrespective of their riders’ wishes or sexual orientation, and the riders are overcome by urges they can’t physically control. In other words, the dragon-mating ritual is based on a rape premise (for the human riders), albeit one that is socially accepted. There is “consent” of sorts, in advance, but most people today would consider this the equivalent of something like marital rape.

pernese_dragon_sizes_by_sporelettMcCaffrey has also said that when they hatch, the dragons at least try to bond with a rider of “appropriate” orientation. So in other words, green dragons (which are female) will at least try to bond with a gay man. Blue dragons (which are male, but mate only with greens, never golds) try to bond with gay or bisexual men. Brown dragons (which are male, and usually mate with greens, but sometimes golds if they are big enough) try to bond with heterosexual or bisexual men. Bronze dragons (males) bond exclusively with heterosexual men, and the gold dragon (the queen) bonds exclusively with heterosexual women.

As she wrote more books for the series, McCaffrey fleshed out the history of why green dragons choose male riders. Originally that wasn’t the case. Green dragons used to bond mostly with females, until the practice was stopped because of the way dragon teleporting induces miscarriage in human riders — i.e. fetuses in the human womb can’t handle the “between” interval in teleporting. Given that green dragons are 50% the dragon population (blues are 30%, browns are 15%, bronzes 5%, and there is one gold per weyr), that’s half the fighting force required to burn Thread out of the sky. So the green dragons began bonding with males instead — gay if possible to make the mating rituals more tolerable.

I find all of this to be more fascinating than I remember as a kid, probably because at the age of 11 or 12, most of the character psychology, sexual tensions, and other adult themes went over my head. Let it not be said that homosexuality isn’t present in any classic fantasies from the 60s and 70s. And if at least 50% of the dragonriders are gay/bisexual, that’s not even a minority!

“The Five Ways Donald Trump is Wrong about Islam”

Foreign Policy magazine has an article called The Five Ways Donald Trump is Wrong about Islam. Granting that Trump is awful on the subject, this article has a few problems of its own. Let’s go through the five points, all of which are aimed at refuting the idea that the Muslim world poses a threat to the United States.

(1) The Balance of Power is Overwhelmingly in Our Favor. The Muslim world is weaker than we are. This is why foreign powers have intervened in Muslim-majority countries repeatedly over the past couple of centuries, while the reverse hasn’t occurred since the siege of Vienna in 1529. Not once.

Agreed. No problem here.

(2) Islam is Deeply Divided. The Islamic world is more disunited today than at any time in recent memory. It is divided among many different states, and many of those states (e.g., Iran and Saudi Arabia, or Turkey and Syria) don’t get along. There are vast geographic and cultural differences between Indonesia and countries like Yemen or Morocco or Saudi Arabia. There’s also the core division between the Sunnis and the Shiites, not to mention a number of other minor schisms between various Islamic offshoots.

This is mostly a non-sequitur. Islam has been deeply divided since time immemorial, and even in times of fragmentation the Islamic world has waged war abroad as they carry out sectarian strife. So no, this isn’t really a good argument.

(3) Terrorism is not that Big a Threat. We live in a world where lots of bad things can happen. You might get into a car accident. You could get cancer. You could mishandle a power tool and injure yourself severely. You may fall off a ladder, slip in a bathtub, or be in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up stopping a stray bullet. Or maybe, just maybe, you might find yourself imperiled by a radical Islamic extremist. You wouldn’t know it if you listened to Trump, to CNN, to Fox News, or to most of our politicians, but that last danger is miniscule. Not zero, but really, really small. We’ve been obsessed with terrorism ever since 9/11 but the reality is that the risk it poses is way, way, way down the list of possible harms that might befall us.

Agreed. Or as I said in last year’s post, “Even though I am more likely to get killed by a jihadist than a Christian extremist, I am still, for example, 1904 times more likely to get killed in a car accident driving to work in the morning, 452 times more likely to die from risky sexual behavior, and just as likely to be crushed to death by moving heavy furniture around my home.” Risk is built into our everyday lives. It’s true that jihad terrorists exist in numbers that are more disproportionate than Leftists acknowledge, and they are routinely active by the thousands on a daily basis. But your odds of being nailed by a jihadist (in America) are still woefully slim. From that perspective, Trump and Bannon are fear-mongers.

(4) “Creeping Sharia” is a Fairy Tale. The supposed danger is the slow infiltration of our society by foreigners who refuse to assimilate and who will eventually try to impose their alien values on us. If we’re not ceaselessly vigilant, we are told, someday our daughters will be wearing hijabs and we’ll all be praying to Mecca. This anxiety almost sounds right out of Dr. Strangelove. There is simply no evidence of “creeping Sharia” here in the United States, and no risk of it occurring in the future.

Creeping sharia is actually quite real, as the case of Europe has been proving, and there could be a risk of the U.S. becoming more problematic as time goes on. Admittedly I don’t see this happening in the near future, so I can concede the point. But this is a poorly stated opinion.

(5) The “Clash of Civilizations” is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. The final reason to reject Bannon and company’s depiction of a vast and looming Muslim threat to us is that this worldview encourages us to act in ways that make the problem worse instead of better. If U.S. leaders keep (a) demonizing an entire religion, (b) impose ill-considered bans on Muslim refugees, and most important of all, (c) continue to intervene throughout the Arab and Islamic world with military force, they will convince more and more people that Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were right when they claimed the West had “declared war” on their religion. The mountain of evidence shows that anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is overwhelmingly a response to U.S. policy, and not because they “hate our freedoms”.

This statement is true and false. Let’s break it down into the three parts:

(a) First is the question of Islam as a religion, which this article gets wrong. It’s not the religion of Islam that we should be trying to protect from being demonized. No idea or philosophy or religion is beyond being put through the shredder if it deserves to be. It is Muslim people, rather, whom we should not demonize. (That’s why “Islamophobia” is a propagandist term; the proper term is anti-Muslim bigotry.) We should be criticizing Islam with integrity and without apology, as Muslim reformers like Maajid Nawaz and Asra Nomani are doing. It is Leftists and members of the Muslim community who demonize these proactive heroes who belong in the hall of shame.

(b) Second is the question of the Muslim bans, which this article gets right. Trump’s moratoriums (“bans”) are ill-considered, counter-productive, and not justifiable in the interest of security. He should never have signed them.

(c) Third is the question of our military interventions, which this article gets half-right and half-wrong. It’s true that our war-mongering in the Middle-East is much to blame in exacerbating the problem of jihad terror and turning the jihadist ire on us. In that sense, the anti-Americanism in the Muslim world owes to our interventionist policies. Unfortunately this fuels the myth that jihadist terror wouldn’t exist if not for western war-mongering and/or imperialism. That’s not true. The Islamic world has been expansionist and war-driven since the seventh century, and Muhammad is the jihad exemplar. Thomas Jefferson found this out when the Barbary States attacked innocent American ships and took slaves — in the days long before “American foreign policy” existed. When he asked the Muslims why they attacked, the response of the Barbary pirates was the same as that of al-Qaeda leaders today: Muhammad’s eternal command is to wage war on infidels, and to bring them under caliphate rule. In other words, while our misadventures in the Muslim world have made us a hot target for jihad — and irresponsibly so — the jihad imperative exists regardless of what any nation does to provoke it. The command for Muslims to wage war remains mandatory in all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and that’s why Islam needs a reform.

President’s Day Special: From Nixon to Obama

bush-obamaI would say “Happy President’s Day”, except the presidency right now isn’t cause for joy. No matter, we’ll celebrate in a special look-back. Even the worst presidents are saints compared to Donald Trump.

In this post I rank the presidents who served during my lifetime according to their record. That’s eight presidents — from Nixon to Obama — and when I say “according to their record”, I mean for what they did for causes of peace, fiscal security, and a free society, not on the basis of their charisma or reputation. In Recarving Rushmore Ivan Eland has criticized the bizarre logic that leads historians to favor charismatic heroes who give great speeches and/or happen to serve in times of crisis, even when not for the better. He scores each president, from George Washington to Barack Obama, on a 60-point system as follows:

53-60 = Excellent
43-52 = Good
37-42 = Average
25-36 = Poor
7-24 = Bad
1-6 = Atrocious

To see his rankings of all the presidents since Washington, see my earlier post. These are my revised rankings of Eland for the last eight presidents:

1. Jimmy Carter (Good) — Peace (17), Prosperity (18), Liberty (14); Total score = 49
2. Bill Clinton (Average) — Peace (14), Prosperity (15), Liberty (12); Total score = 41
3. Gerald Ford (Average) — Peace (15), Prosperity (11), Liberty (12); Total score = 38
4. Richard Nixon (Poor) — Peace (8), Prosperity (12), Liberty (6); Total score = 26
5. Barack Obama (Bad) — Peace (4), Prosperity (10), Liberty (6); Total score = 20
6. Ronald Reagan (Bad) — Peace (2), Prosperity (5), Liberty (6); Total score = 13
7. George H.W. Bush (Bad) — Peace (3), Prosperity (1), Liberty (8); Total score = 12
8. George W. Bush (Atrocious) — Peace (0), Prosperity (1), Liberty (2); Total score = 3

I agree with Eland that Carter was the best (and only good) president in my lifetime and George W. the worst. My surprise came with Nixon. An examination of his record doesn’t show him to be quite as bad as I’d always thought. Eland has George H.W. above Obama and Reagan, whereas I rank him the worst of the “Bad’s”. Otherwise our hierarchies are the same. My individual scores are either the same or close to Eland’s, the two exceptions being the “prosperity” categories for Nixon and Obama, which I award much higher. I explain everything in the commentaries below.

richard-nixonRichard Nixon, 1969-1974. Peace (8), Prosperity (12), Liberty (6); Total score = 26/60 = Poor.

Peace (8/20): Nixon was a beast in Southeast Asia. He should have ended the Vietnam War right away, but spent four years and 22,000 additional American lives (out of the 58,000 total between 1961-75) to get a peace settlement. Even as he winded down in Vietnam, he escalated the war in other ways — by bombing Cambodia and supporting a Vietnamese invasion of Laos, each without Congressional approval. On the plus side, Nixon had an otherwise humble and commendable foreign policy. His visit to China not only resulted in improved relations with that country, but made the Soviets want friendly and peaceful relations with America. To his serious credit, he ended the draft, which had been in place since 1940, thereby removing the stain on a free society that requires people of a certain age and gender to be forced to enter a dangerous occupation for little pay. Also, he agreed to destroy U.S. biological and chemical weapons.

Prosperity (12/20): Eland gives Nixon only 4 points in this category, but as a fiscal moderate I see the good as much as the bad, and so jack him up 8 points. He’s known as the “last liberal president” (until Obama), despite his conservative image, for his spending on social programs. He gave elderly people an increase on social security benefits, and proposed universal medical insurance that provided even stronger coverage than Obama’s later Affordable Health Care Act. He created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the war on cancer, and a federal subsidization of the arts — all big pluses. He forced car makers to reduce emissions under the Clean Air Act, signed the Endangered Species Act, and expanded national parks. That adds up to a very progressive track record, brought down only by the fact that some of Nixon’s federal spending was too unrestrained and ended up contributing to a problematic economy.

Liberty (6/20): Watergate has defined Nixon and that’s not unfair. Spying on his enemies (or perceived enemies) was a serious offense because it undermined American liberty through the use of illegal tricks, misuse of security agencies, and obstruction of justice in trying to cover up crimes. But even worse than Watergate, in my view, is the war that Nixon launched on drugs. It’s still with us today, and obscenely criminalizes non-violent addicts (who need help, not jail) while causing violent criminals to go on parole in order to make room in prison for the drug offenders. Eland gives Nixon only 4 points in the liberty category, and that is just, but I have to bump him up 2 extra points for his treatment of Native American Indians. He endorsed a self-determination plan for the Indian tribes, and because of his activism Congress passed laws including the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act. More than any modern president, Nixon changed the course that had driven vast numbers of Indians into poverty. It’s worth bearing in mind that as Nixon was being kicked out of the White House, the Native Americans were singing his praises.

gerald_ford_official_presidential_photoGerald Ford, 1974-1977. Peace (15), Prosperity (11), Liberty (12); Total score = 38/60 = Average.

Peace (15/20): Ford had one of the most commendably restrained foreign policies of any modern president. He engaged militarily overseas only a few times in minor ways, and for the most part resisted the counsel of his hawkish advisors — Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Kissinger, all of whom would later advise George W. Bush, who unlike Ford would follow their atrocious advice. He maintained Nixon’s detente policy with China and the Soviet Union, and he removed American support from the racist governments of South Africa and Rhodesia. On the downside, he increased defense spending, despite the end of the Vietnam War, and briefly attempted to get America re-involved in helping South Vietnam.

Prosperity (11/20): Ford inherited the mess of the Vietnam War which had dragged for eternity. Like all wars it caused inflation since it was funded by taxes, borrowing money, and printing money, and Ford did about as much good as harm in trying to alleviate the bad economy. He created government jobs to help the unemployment problem, arguably for better and worse. He kept most of Nixon’s programs going (which I consider mostly good), but used his veto power to stop the creation of more given the bad economy (which is reasonable). Some of his vetoes were overridden, but on whole they did have the result of the lowest annual spending increases since Eisenhower.

Liberty (12/20): Eland gives Ford only 8 points in this category, docking him a monster 12 solely on the basis of his pardon of Nixon. That’s too harsh. Many historians actually commend Ford for pardoning Nixon in the interest of American morale, and you can make a case for the lesson cutting both ways. I see no reason to dock Ford more than 8 points in the liberty category, and so I score him 12.

jimmycarterportrait2Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981. Peace (17), Prosperity (18), Liberty (14); Total score = 49/60 = Good.

Peace (17/20): Carter believed that America shouldn’t police the globe, showing rare wisdom for a president in the post World-War II era. He avoided war in the Horn of Africa. He refused to support Somali aggression against the Soviets, thus avoiding confrontation with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. He got Congress to ratify an end to the neocolonial U.S. occupation of the Canal Zone in Panama. He criticized both sides in the Nicaraguan civil war and stopped U.S. aid to the right-wing dictatorship. He scaled back involvement in this region (unlike Reagan who would zealously support a covert war favoring the right-wingers against the left). He finished normalizing relations with China, and terminated the U.S.-Taiwanese defense alliance (unlike George W. Bush who would later recklessly pledge to defend Taiwan from a nuclear attack, thereby putting American cities at risk). On the downside, Carter failed to successfully negotiate for the release of American hostages in Iran, though without negative long-term effects (U.S. policy in Iran was doomed to failure before Carter took office). His biggest blunder was overreacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and allowing his National Security Advisor to initiate the campaign which supported the mujaheddin in both Afghanistan and Pakistan — promoting, in other words, Islamism to fight Communist forces. Reagan would increase support for these jihadists on an insane level, but it began with Carter, and these U.S. funded Islamists would go on to spawn al-Qaeda. On whole, this record is extremely impressive for a president in the 20th century.

Prosperity (18/20): If Nixon was the last liberal president (until Obama), then Carter was the first conservative president (since Coolidge). This despite the fact that Nixon has the conservative image, and Carter the liberal one. In fact, Carter was a monetary tight-ass in a climate of concern. He promoted individuals taking responsibility for themselves, pushed for reducing the federal deficit, advocated the deregulation of industries, and believed that welfare was bad for the family and work ethic. Ford left him a rather stagnate economy; Carter’s conservative policies led to the prosperity of the Reagan years (not Reagan’s policies, on which see below), and they would set the precedent for later tight-money policies that led to prosperity in the Clinton years. Carter’s principled stand as a budget-hawk (his priority was lowering inflation, not reducing unemployment) would cost him the support of many Democrats, which is why he didn’t get reelected. In this sense he was a lot like the tenth U.S. president John Tyler, a Whig who stood courageously alone against his fellow Whigs and lost support. Carter also created the Department of Education, for which Eland downgrades him (for governmental expansion and intrusion), but which I strongly endorse and thus award Carter 3 extra prosperity points for a total of 18.

Liberty (14/20): Carter was near perfect on liberty issues and by rights deserves a score of 20. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which aimed to ensure that women were treated equally in society. He avoided the tendency of post World War II presidents to support communist-hating dictatorships that committed human rights violations. But sometimes Carter’s criticisms of other nations did harm. For example, his blasting of South Africa’s racist policies caused its white supremacists to persecute blacks even more, and their fury at Carter is precisely what caused the election of Prime Minister John Vorster, who believed in apartheid. If Carter showed military and economic restraint, he didn’t always show restraint as a spokesman. For the most part, however, he has a good liberty record.

official_portrait_of_president_reagan_1981Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989. Peace (2), Prosperity (5), Liberty (6); Total score = 13/60 = Bad.

Peace (2/20): Eland’s chapter on Reagan should be required reading for those who treat him like a demigod. He was a terrible president. His anti-Soviet policies and massive defense buildup reversed Nixon’s friendly detente policy with the Soviets, and raised the specter of nuclear war. For all his swaggering anticommunist rhetoric, Reagan didn’t even win the Cold War. The Soviet empire collapsed because of its poor economic performance and over-extending itself in other countries. And as the Soviets were in decline, Reagan launched needless and harmful missions elsewhere. He sent forces to Lebanon. He invaded Grenada. He attacked Libya. All without congressional approval as required by the Constitution. In Lebanon, he actually cut and ran after Shi’ite jihadists killed hundreds of American troops (Osama Bin Laden would remember the way western leaders, even macho-men like Reagan, tend to beat a hasty retreat.) He then went to Grenada in a silly “rescue” of medical students from a supposed Cuban takeover; in fact there was no viable threat in that region at all. Then he picked the fight with Gaddafi in Libya, creating a new enemy for no good reason. Gaddafi was a tyrant, to be sure, but not nearly as bad as the Islamic jihadists whom Reagan zealously supported so that they would fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Out of that manipulative mess would step a very pissed-off Osama Bin Laden. In sum, Reagan was an incompetent, leftist-hating, war-hungry failure. And he was the first of a new dynasty of Republicans that began a long slide to where the GOP is today: in shambles.

Prosperity (5/20): Reagan’s conservative fiscal image is a myth, and one that I once believed. He was more fiscally liberal than Carter and Clinton, and spent loads, not least on defense and his ridiculous Star Wars program. He gave the largest tax cut in American history, but his tax cuts were fake since they weren’t accompanied by spending cuts. As Eland points out time and again, tax cuts without spending reductions mean nothing, because either the taxes have to be raised at a later date (which they were), government borrowing has to increase, or the government has to print money to cause inflation. (Because of bracket creep and inflation, Reagan’s tax reductions ended up benefiting only the rich.) Reagan was not responsible for ’80s prosperity in any case. The ones responsible were the heads of the Federal Reserve System — Paul Volcker under Carter, and Alan Greenspan under Reagan — who sucked inflation out of the system with tight-ass money policies. Greenspan was appointed by Reagan but didn’t follow his lead; he followed the tight policies of Volcker his predecessor. The prosperity of the Reagan years came not from Reagan himself but despite Reagan and his heavy spending and fake tax cuts, and this is lost on devotees who actually believe he was a fiscal conservative.

Liberty (6/20): The Iran-Contra scandal was as bad as Watergate. In return for the release of hostages, Reagan sold heavy weapons to Iran (a state sponsor of Islamic terrorism) and used the profits to fund the Contras in Nicaragua (in their war against the Marxist Sandinista government). First of all, this was in violation of the arms embargo against Iran and the Arms Export Control Act which carried criminal penalties. Second, only Congress can appropriate money for government activities; Reagan’s short-cut was as much a Constitutional violation as Nixon’s misuse of security agencies. Even worse than Nixon, Reagan escalated the war on drugs. He attempted to stack the Supreme Court with justices who were less committed to interpreting the Constitution than in legislating conservative mores from the bench. On the other hand, he also appointed Antonin Scalia, and as a result citizens retained the right to burn the American flag, not to mention other liberties. It’s difficult to say whether or not Scalia was a misfire on Reagan’s part, but because Scalia ended up being an important champion of Constitutional liberties, I’m awarding Reagan 6 liberty points instead of 4.

220px-george_h-_w-_bush_president_of_the_united_states_1989_official_portraitGeorge H.W. Bush, 1989-1993. Peace (3), Prosperity (1), Liberty (8); Total score = 12/60 = Bad.

Peace (3/20): Bush’s colossal failure was that he didn’t return to a policy of military restraint when the opportunity presented itself (like Ford did considerably after Vietnam, and as Carter did especially after him). There was no great power to take the place of the communist threat (when the Berlin Wall fell in ’89 and the Soviet Union dissolved in ’91), but Bush kept on with aggressive overseas policies. He invaded Panama for little reason. He went to war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, worried that Saddam might invade Saudi Arabia (and threaten the oil supply), even though there was no evidence indicating Saddam had such designs. After the Gulf War he left behind an unneeded military presence in the Persian Gulf, which infuriated Osama Bin Laden (on his return home to Saudi Arabia after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan). We’re still today reaping the consequences of the elder Bush’s pointless excursions in the Middle-East.

Prosperity (1/20): Eland gives Bush a putrid score of 1, for the terrible recession Bush presided over, for ballooning the federal budget deficit, and for doing nothing constructive to alleviate the problem.

Liberty (8/20): To Bush’s credit, he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. But on his watch the FBI covered up federal misconduct when residents were shot at the Ruby Ridge property in Idaho; the residents were acquitted of all crimes, and the FBI snipers had been given illegal shoot-to-kill orders, and yet of the shooters was promoted to the #2 job in the FBI hierarchy. Bush also pardoned high-ranking officials who were involved in Reagan’s nefarious Iran-Contra scandal. His choice of the unqualified Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court is one of the worst appointments in the cause of liberty, and clearly intended as a “token African American” to replace Thurgood Marshall. On the other hand, he appointed David Souter, who turned out to be one of the best justices of the post World-War II era.

800px-44_bill_clinton_3x4 Bill Clinton, 1993-2001. Peace (14), Prosperity (15), Liberty (12); Total score = 41/60 = Average.

Peace (14/20): Clinton usually kept military efforts under control and was reluctant to use ground troops after the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia. In the case of Somalia (Clinton’s first overseas involvement), Eland calls it the one legitimately humanitarian U.S. military intervention in the last century, and he’s probably right. Clinton also intervened in Bosnia, and while that was partly on humanitarian grounds there were political reasons too, as there were for the subsequent bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. Clinton got somewhat lucky with Kosovo, when Serbian forces were withdrawn because the Russians suddenly stopped supporting Serbia. Clinton also got lucky with North Korea, when he threatened war against Kim Il Sung. Fortunately Jimmy Carter had been invited by Kim to North Korea, and the former president was able to smooth things over and get Kim to freeze his nuclear program. When al Qaeda bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton replied with cruise missiles, pounding al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, taking steps to kill Osama Bin Laden but not persisting enough (though doing more than George W. Bush later did).

Prosperity (15/20): Clinton took office during the recession which resulted from the sins of Reagan and Bush, who gave fake tax cuts to benefit their rich Republican constituents without meaningful spending cuts. Clinton immediately reigned in government spending and became a budget hawk in the mold of Eisenhower and Carter (and the previous heads of the Federal Reserve System, Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan), to produce the prosperity of the mid to late ’90s. He worked with Republicans to curb welfare and converted a permanent underclass into temporary aid recipients who had to work while getting assistance. He expanded the Earned Income tax Credit, which lowered taxes for people just above poverty line which encouraged them to keep working instead of going on welfare. He created the World Trade Organization which on whole increased world trade flows.

Liberty (12/20): The David Koresh incident is a blight on Clinton’s administration; many of the Branch Davidians were killed in the standoff, some of them children. To Clinton’s credit, he wanted to lift the ban on gays in the military, but had to compromise with the silly “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevented the military from rooting out gays but required gays to stay in the closet. Worse was his signing the Defense of Marriage Act, which stalled progress on gay marriage. To be fair, he was boxed in by his opponents on this issue, but in recent years Clinton has admitted that he was simply wrong to sign DOMA. In general his liberty record is okay.

george-w-bushGeorge W. Bush, 2001-2009. Peace (0), Prosperity (1), Liberty (2); Total score = 3/60 = Atrocious.

Peace (0/20): George W. was not only the worst president in my lifetime, he was one of the worst in history. If I were put in charge of building an “anti-Mount Rushmore”, I would carve his face on it, next to those of Lincoln, McKinley, and Wilson. (Trump will likely oust one of these four.) Bush invaded Iraq for no legitimate reason at all, and bogged America down in a new Vietnam. Scholars are in wide agreement that the Iraq War was one of the hugest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. Not only was it a distraction from the critical task of focusing on the 9/11 attackers, it was based purely on Bush’s need to settle old scores with Saddam, and justified by manufactured evidence. He demanded that his advisors come up with proof that Saddam and al Qaeda were linked in cause, and that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — neither of which was remotely true — and when they couldn’t, he sent them back to the drawing board, saying “Wrong answer.” The biggest anti-war protests in history broke out across the globe. By removing Saddam, moreover, Bush empowered Islamists and jihadists to fill the power void, who are far worse than Saddam. (In Saddam’s Iraq you were at least mostly safe if you stayed out of politics and played by Saddam’s rules.) Eland’s indictment of George W. is a zinger: “If Bush had been president when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the U.S., he probably would have gone to war against Argentina instead of Japan or Germany.” He earns a goose-egg in the peace category.

Prosperity (1/20): Bush’s economic and spending policies were hideous and the cause of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Like Reagan he gave fake tax cuts while letting federal spending spiral out of control. He used the 9/11 attacks to dramatically escalate the defense budget, and most of this money didn’t even go towards fighting terrorism.

Liberty (2/20): Bush tried expanding the powers of the presidency in ways that make the Caesar-presidents of the 20th century (esp. McKinley and Wilson) look benign. He (and Dick Cheney) disdained Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as war commander in chief he was not subject to the constraints of the Constitution’s separation of powers. Like Abraham Lincoln (and no other president), Bush claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. Also like Lincoln, he suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. According to the Constitution only Congress can suspend this right, and only in times of invasion or rebellion. For the first time in U.S. history, Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war don’t apply to terror suspects, and it took years for the Supreme Court to overrule him on this. Most notoriously, he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture in overseas detention centers. Meanwhile on the domestic front, Bush signed three bills that restricted abortions.

440px-official_portrait_of_barack_obamaBarack Obama, 2009-2017. Peace (4), Prosperity (10), Liberty (6); Total score = 20/60 = Bad.

Peace (4/20): Eland calls Obama a “slightly improved version of George W. Bush”, and that’s pretty much right. Both presidents attacked countries for no good reason, escalated needless wars, and got vast numbers of American soldiers and indigenous peoples killed for little gain. Like Bush, Obama waged these wars under the illusion that America could bring democracy to the Middle East by removing dictators and encouraging their opponents to work for elections and peaceful change. Bush thought this in toppling Saddam, and Obama thought it when he helped bring down Mubarak in Egypt, and Gaddafi in Syria, and then Assad. The result was anarchy in Libya, instability in Egypt, and the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups who are much worse than the supplanted dictators. Obama was even worse than Bush on the subject of Islamism, for he outrageously ordered the removal of all mention of Islam from counter-terror training, and refused to allow high-ranking law enforcement and intelligence officials to study the religious ideology of the terrorists, which is necessary to understand and counter them. He also expanded, rather than reduced, Bush’s 9/11 drone wars, ramping them up in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. On the plus side he succeeded in killing Osama Bin Laden, but what he should have done at that point was declare the war on terror over, end the drone wars, and return America to a long-overdue policy of restraint and normalcy. Obama did none of these things. He deserves credit, however, for resisting strong pressures from American war hawks, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to pursue aggressive policies with Iran and Syria. Thus his score of 4 over Bush’s rotten goose-egg.

Prosperity (10/20): Eland gives Obama a score of 3, but I disagree for the same reasons I hold Nixon in higher esteem. As a left-libertarian I don’t share Eland’s hyper-hostility to government spending, and certainly not towards universal health care reform. So first I have to multiply Eland’s score by four to a score of 12, since I consider the Affordable Health Care Act a huge positive achievement. Then I have to downgrade Obama 4 points (and that’s being charitable) for his complete failure over two terms to address the plight of the middle class (for which reason we now have Donald Trump). That brings the score to 8. I add another 2 points though, because while Obama’s stimulus package was a fiscal monster, it did reduce unemployment and prevent a significant increase in poverty, at least in the short term. (George W., on the other hand, receives no positive adjustments from me for his liberal bailout program, since the recession was triggered by his own disastrous policies. You don’t get points for trashy bailout emergencies when you’re fixing your own mess.) So I say 10 prosperity points for Obama, though I admit that’s rather generous.

Liberty (6/20): Obama didn’t fulfill his promise to close Guantanamo, but Congress is to blame for that. On the other hand, Obama can’t blame anyone but himself for continuing Bush’s policies of indefinite detentions without trial, and watered-down kangaroo military commissions. He has been just as bad as Bush in killing people overseas without Congressional approval of hostilities, and in using domestic surveillance of American citizens without warrants. He did however stop the use of torture and overseas detention centers run by the CIA. On the domestic front, he got the military to stop the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, just as he ordered Justice Department lawyers to stop supporting the Defense of Marriage Act in courts, both of which had treated gays as second-class citizens. In view of his progress on torture and gay rights — and that he at least tried to close Guantanamo — Eland’s liberty score of 4 seems rather stingy. I’d be more inclined to say 9, except that I have to apply an automatic -3 penalty for a cause not mentioned by Eland: the drug war. It’s beyond reprehensible that an African American president did nothing for the drug war, given that (1) African Americans are the ones who suffer most from this obscene policy, and (2) increasing numbers of American citizens have been vocally demanding that drugs be legalized. My liberty score for Obama is thus a 6.