Film and the Apocalypse

Lynne Boss Mahr has written up a list of apocalyptic films, which include post-apocalyptic entries too, and I thought I’d serve up my own picks. I choose seven of each, plus one film that qualifies as both, for a total of 15.

By apocalyptic, I mean a film set during a catastrophe that spells the end of civilization, will do so if not averted, or is perceived to carry this threat in some way. The catastrophe could be anything, and represented on my list are divine punishment (Noah, The Rapture), resource depletion (Sunshine), nuclear devastation (Threads), nature (The Birds), existential (The Seventh Seal, Tree of Life), and disease (Contagion).

By post-apocalyptic, I mean a film set after the end of civilization or its dramatic upheaval due to catastrophe. Again, the catastrophe could be anything, and represented on my list are nuclear devastation (The Divide, Threads), resource depletion (The Road Warrior), environmental (Snowpiercer), technological takeover (The Matrix), dysgenics (Children of Men), the breakdown of law and order (Escape from New York), and unknown (The Road).

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1. The Divide, Xavier Gens. 2012. Post-apocalyptic. This nasty film is set in the basement of a New York high rise apartment, where nine strangers gather to survive a nuclear holocaust. Despite uneasiness and distrust, they try working together at first, and do pretty well until cabin fever, radiation sickness, and their own base humanity take over. There’s torture, rape, sex slavery, and full-blown lunacy on display, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel — which in this case happens to be, literally, a tunnel of shit. The Divide holds humanity completely captive to misanthropy and is the best Lord of the Flies-themed film I’ve ever seen. The performances are brilliant; even I was deeply chilled by what Gens believes people are really like under our societal conditioning.

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2. Sunshine, Danny Boyle. 2007. Apocalyptic. Set in a future where the sun is dying, and people can barely stay warm and alive, a space crew of eight embarks on a mission to deliver a thermo-nuclear payload that will re-ignite the sun’s fire. To get through one disaster after another, the crew members have to sacrifice themselves, and at one point they even contemplate murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. On top of all this, there is the subplot of a hideously disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die, and does everything he can to slaughter the crew. The theme of the apocalypse is woven in on multiple levels. Sunshine is Danny Boyle’s best work — far better than his overrated post-apocalyptic zombie-fest 28 Days Later — and besides a top-notch apocalyptic film, it’s also my favorite outer-space drama.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2020/02/road-warr.jpg3. The Road Warrior, George Miller. 1981. Post-apocalyptic. The best movie sequel ever made plays more like a ’70s film. Like Snake Plissken (see #13 below), Mad Max is an anti-hero out of pulp escapism, something Edgar Rice Burroughs could have created, and his solitary wanderings across a wasteland remain an incredibly inspiring archetype. There’s so much about this classic impossible to forget: the feral kid with the boomerang who narrates the story as an adult, the amazing road stunts for pre-CGI days, and the idea of gasoline being the most precious commodity — which resonates rather loudly in the 21st century. The Road Warrior has a high rewatch value, and I’ve probably seen it more than 20 times since my coming of age years in the ’80s.

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4. The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman. 1957. Apocalyptic. As a knight plays chess with Death, he journeys through a land struck by plague and fanaticism, and attempts to penetrate God’s mysteries. The film opens with the citation of Revelation 8:1: “When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”. Bergman was obsessed with the silence of God in the world, and in his masterpiece he ties the theme with mortality, existential dread, and apocalyptic fears. The film is set in the 14th century, as the crusades were becoming obsolete, and when modern anxieties queried even more basic aspects of the Christian faith. There are bar brawls, apocalyptic tirades, insult contests, self-mutilation — and a witch-burning to top it off — and in his futile quest for meaning, the knight’s best reach comes by enjoying a simple meal of wild strawberries and milk in the countryside with a peasant man and wife.

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5. Threads, Mick Jackson. 1984. Apocalyptic and Post-apocalyptic. This British TV-film was born of the same intent as the American The Day After (1983), but it’s much better — and far, far more traumatizing. And keep in mind The Day After upset Americans so much that people were telephoning the government to ask if this is what a nuclear attack would really do. Threads takes place in the town of Sheffield, and when the bombs strike, things are as ugly as it gets; the aftermath sends humanity hurtling back into a primitive age of famine, lawlessness, and mental retardation. It’s a completely miserable film to watch. It’s well done, but you don’t enjoy any aspect of it at all; you simply suffer through it as an educational exercise that was very necessary back in the Reagan years.

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6. Noah, Darren Aronofsky. 2014. Apocalyptic. Here’s the story of Noah’s Ark served up Lord of the Rings style, which works because the first eleven chapters of Genesis are myth; the same sort of mythic pre-history that Tolkien intended by Middle-Earth. So when we see giant rock creatures (the Watchers) and bits of magic here and there, it somehow makes the story of Gen 6-9 seem as it should. It’s a sweeping epic that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide. Don’t listen to complaints that this theme of divine vengeance has been anachronistically aligned with pagan environmentalism or vegetarianism. If Christians knew their bibles, they would know that God didn’t add meat to the human diet until after the flood (Gen 9:3). And while Noah plays on gnostic myths, it isn’t quite that either. But it does portray the Creator as monstrously cruel as Noah hardens himself to slaughter his baby grandchildren.

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7. Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-Ho. 2013. Post-apocalyptic. The U.S. release coincided with that of Noah (the winter of 2014), and I saw them back to back as a weirdly surreal double-feature. Noah is of course apocalyptic, telling the biblical story of the flood: a righteous man and his family are spared the global holocaust, and are commissioned to preserve the animal creation while humanity is wiped out; Noah goes homicidal on the Ark and barely stops himself from butchering his newborn granddaughters. Snowpiercer is post-apocalyptic, set in 2031, long after a sudden ice age froze the planet. The only survivors boarded a train called (yes) the Rattling Ark, which after 17 years is still keeping people alive in a perverse state of affairs. As in Noah, the lead protagonist fights urges to kill babies, and the cause of righteousness is under a question mark. The film is many things: a social class war, a claustrophobic horror piece, and bat-shit insanity that would make David Lynch envious.

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8. The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock. 1963. Apocalyptic. Not many people think of this classic as an apocalyptic film, but it absolutely fits the bill. It portrays unstoppable biological forces that have suddenly decided to sweep down on a humanity minding its own business, for reasons we never learn. The coastal setting works wonders, and while at first blush it looks like a localized apocalypse, the implication is that birds are attacking elsewhere in the world. By ’60s standards the attack sequences remain terrifying. When nature comes after us, says Hitchcock, things aren’t going to turn out okay, and I think he’s probably right. The Birds is nihilistic to the core and unapologetic about nature’s savagery. And like the great horror films rarely seen anymore, it has the patience to let its characters breathe and become people we care about before terrorizing and killing them.

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9. The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick. 2011. Apocalyptic. It seems that 2011 was the year of abstract apocalyptic films. There was Melancholia, an apocalypse that accompanied a woman’s psychological anguish; Take Shelter, a hallucinated apocalypse of a schizophrenic; and finally The Tree of Life, an existential apocalypse, and one of my favorite films of all time. Malick portrays an apocalypse experienced in the “now”, as both wish fulfillment and transcendent reality. A man reflects on his childhood within the grand context of the universe’s life cycle, from Big Bang to Absolute End; the latter intrudes on the present through visions of a dead and barren Earth, a white dwarf sun above it, desert shores with waves rolling in, and dead souls walking the shores. I don’t care what your religious convictions are: if this film doesn’t move you, you aren’t alive.

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10. The Road, John Hillcoat. 2009. Post-apocalyptic. Dispiriting in the way only Cormac McCarthy novel adaptations are, and the only entry on this list where the cause of humanity’s devastation isn’t explained. In a dead wasteland of marauding cannibals I would probably do as the lead character’s wife and just kill myself. Nothing promises to get better, and it’s impossible to survive in any way that makes life meaningful. Even the goodness inside the best of people isn’t always so resilient: the father played by Viggo Mortenson sinks to some ugly depths to protect his son. Precisely because of this, The Road is so uplifting, especially when the two lone protagonists reach their destination at the eastern sea, and the father dies. I watched this film a second time after the death of my own father in 2010, and it was helpful in the grieving process. It’s a powerful and noble work.

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11. The Matrix, Andy & Lana Wachowski. 1999. Post-apocalyptic. What hasn’t been said about The Matrix? I will say this: it got me hooked on going to the theater to see movies instead of relying almost exclusively on the VCR. (Chucking the VCR and embracing DVDs would soon follow.) The Wachowski brothers managed to work in everything: martial arts, realities inside the mind (Doctor Who’s Deadly Assassin from the ’70s was actually the first to use the matrix), with as much philosophy as action, even neo-gnosticism, and all in the context of a horrifying future where machines rule and people are nothing more than chemical batteries. And never mind that Keanu Reeves can’t act to save himself. Here he doesn’t need to. But skip the lousy sequels.

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12. Contagion, Stephen Soderbergh. 2011. As in his brilliant drug-trade drama Traffic (2000), Soderbergh uses a geographical network narrative to connect people under crisis, but this time the crisis is apocalyptic. Millions of people die in weeks from a super-virus originating God-knows-how-or-where, and unlike many medical thrillers, this one is grounded in good science, which makes it very scary. It also makes it effectively a horror film, though it wasn’t marketed as such. The epilogue is one of the most brilliant unsettling explanatory flashbacks I’ve seen in a film — where we see the cause of the virus traced back to poorly prepared meat that one of the main characters ate on her business trip to Hong Kong.

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13. Escape from New York, John Carpenter. 1981. Post-apocalyptic. Some deny this qualifies as post-apocalyptic, since it’s just New York City (set in 1997) turned into a prison. But the background in the untruncated script involves global chemical warfare, and gas released on a massive scale causing people to go crazy and criminal everywhere, so it fits the bill. I’m amazed how well it holds up, and what the production team accomplished on such a low budget. The criminal world of Manhattan is compelling, and the terrorist plane crash near the World Trade Center is downright chilling to watch after 9/11, not to mention Snake Plissken’s risky landing on top of WTC itself. It’s no accident this film debuted months after The Road Warrior (see #3 above); Plissken is a lot like Mad Max, a perfect amoral anti-hero.

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14. Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón. 2006. Post-apocalyptic. This is an adaptation of the P.D. James’ novel, except that women are infertile instead of the men. It’s a future where people can’t reproduce, immigration is criminal, terrorism runs rampant, religious nut-cases flagellate themselves, and law officials treat people like beasts. A pregnant woman suddenly offers hope for humanity, but it’s not terribly clear why, anymore than how women lost their fertility to begin with. Cuaron’s dislike for back-story and clear exposition seems to have led him to use the concept of infertility as a vague metaphor for the fading of human hope; yet the film ends on a note that plays into one’s predispositions, so that optimists will sense at least some hope for humanity, others not so much. Whether this means Children of Men is unsure of its vision or profoundly polysemous, I’m not sure, but there’s no denying its mythic power.

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15. The Rapture, Michael Tolkin. 1991. Apocalyptic. This one is too much for some people, but I found it compelling in a very awful way, and I was completely fooled by the end. Throughout the story I thought Sharon was a typical nut-job who found Christ and prayed for the apocalypse, but didn’t think the film would take her expectations seriously. Especially when she goes out into the desert to wait for the rapture, and ends up (yes) shooting her little daughter to force God’s hand. I mean, she blows her crying kid’s brains out. For which she’s rightfully thrown in jail; obviously the kingdom isn’t coming for perverse born-again Christians. Except that it does. The horsemen of Revelation make a stunning literal appearance out of nowhere, jail prisoners are liberated… God, it turns out, is real and ushering in the end times. Tolkin treats his subject matter with a respect it doesn’t seem to deserve — indeed he portrays the outrageous at complete face value — and in so doing, makes the rapture seem oddly plausible. In this sense, The Rapture is a lot like Frailty (2001), another film that had the balls to take the world-view of an unsympathetic Christian fanatic seriously… and come out surprisingly stronger for it. That’s good film making, no matter how much it may upset you.

William Howard Heft (1909-1913)

William Howard Taft was so fat that he fell asleep everywhere — at important meetings, state funerals, even White House dinners as he was in the middle of feeding his face. He did not get stuck in the White House bathtub, but sweet Jesus, I’m not surprised people believe that urban legend. Taft clocked in at 332 pounds at the time of his inauguration, and reached 350 pounds toward the end of his presidency. But his heft was surely for the better. It kept him lethargic and far more restrained than his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt.

Taft was elected largely to carry out Roosevelt’s programs, and while he did continue on in some ways that were detrimental, he wasn’t nearly as aggressive in foreign policy. And though he prosecuted anti-trust lawsuits like Roosevelt, his lawsuits were at least grounded in legality (and not capricious views about “a greater good”). Taft was in fact a vast improvement over Roosevelt, for whom the Constitution was anathema.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Taft intervened unnecessarily in Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, using “dollar diplomacy” to champion business overseas. This was better than the belligerent policy of his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt, and especially his successor Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt and Wilson sent military troops into neighboring countries “for their own good” — i.e. to keep them from being invaded by European countries, even though most of the time that was an absurdly phantom menace. Taft’s policy was more benign, relying on money as a way of promoting American interests abroad. But it still wasn’t good: it burdened the U.S. to protect its investments abroad, and entangled the nation in worldly affairs it would have better to stay out of. Moreover, the dollar policy utterly failed. It failed to create new allies or open up new markets for American industries, and set a bad precedent for future administrations to imitate.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

Taft’s voice of reason allowed the country to recover from the Panic of 1907. Where Teddy Roosevelt scared the business community into panics and recessions — with scathing diatribes on wealthy capitalists (in 1903 and 1907) — Taft had no use for obnoxious bombast. Still, he did some harm by his own initiatives, in (a) reinstating the income tax and (b) approving high tariffs. When he did follow Roosevelt’s playbook, in (c) antitrust suits and (d) land conservation, he at least did things fairly and legally.

Income tax and tariffs

The Sixteenth Amendment legalized the federal income tax. The tax was first introduced by Lincoln to help finance the Civil War, and then was abolished under Grant. Then it was reinstated by Grover Cleveland but found to be unconstitutional. An income tax is pernicious for two reasons: (1) it punishes success, and (2) it’s an assault on privacy, requiring citizens to allow the federal government to investigate their entire financial history. One doesn’t have to be a libertarian to believe that such a tax violates the Fourth Amendment’s restrictions against unreasonable searches and seizures without just cause. The IRS has a license to audit anyone at any time. While Lincoln gets the heaviest penalty for the income tax (he’s the one who established the precedent for it), Taft gets a good measure of the blame for getting it established with permanence.

To his credit, Taft asked for reduced tariffs, but Congress sent back a law (the Payne-Aldrich Act) that increased tariffs, and Taft went ahead and signed it. So American citizens got the worst of both worlds: new taxes and high protectionist tariffs.

Antitrust initiatives and conservation

On the one hand, Taft outdid Roosevelt, by doubling the number of antitrust lawsuits against businesses in his single term as Roosevelt did across two terms. However, Taft’s antitrust policy was at least fair and grounded in the rule of law, completely unlike Teddy’s capricious and arbitrary policy of prosecuting certain trusts while leaving others alone.

Matching Roosevelt, Taft set aside about as many acres of land for conservation as Roosevelt had. This is a good policy to begin with, and Taft did it straight up. He didn’t sneak around Congress using arrogant executive orders like Teddy. He obtained Congress’s approval for the land.

3. Liberty

Aside from establishing the Income Tax which violates privacy, Taft made no assaults on American liberty. In fact he made some very good moves on citizen rights. Most notably, he got the Publicity Act (1910) — also known as the Federal Corrupt Practices Act — passed, which allowed the public to examine records of donors to campaigns for public candidates to the House of Representatives. This helped fight corruption and backroom dealing.

Conclusion

On whole Taft wasn’t a bad president, though he was born to be a chief justice rather than a chief executive. Warren Harding appointed him chief justice in 1921, and Taft ended up leading the Supreme Court through one of its best eras in the Roaring Twenties. As a president before that, he was for the most part middle-of-the-road. The policies that he did continue from his bad predecessor were diminished, toned down, and made subordinate to the Constitution rather than vice-versa. This is his report card:

Peace — 10/20
Prosperity — 12/20
Liberty — 14/20

TOTAL SCORE = 36/60 = Average

The Constitution be damned: Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

Teddy Roosevelt is on Mount Rushmore, but he sure as hell shouldn’t be. He was not a constitutional president and he brazenly flouted the document. Perhaps this is why the Younger Bush loved him so much, as Bush (like his right-hand Dick Cheney) disdained congressional checks on his authority. Dubya wasn’t candid about this, however, and he probably wasn’t even honest with himself on the issue. More probable is that Bush admired Roosevelt for his big-government conservativism. Most of the big-government “progressive” spenders have been Democrats, but in Teddy the Younger Bush found a kindred Republican. Roosevelt increased the number of government employees by a whopping 50%; Bush too was a flaming liberal in matters of domestic largesse.

In any case, Theodore Roosevelt set an extremely dangerous precedent — that it was okay for the president to go beyond, or ignore, the document he swore to uphold. He was blasted by the Speaker of the House for having “no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license”. Teddy was unfazed, stating that he could do what he wanted “for the greater good”. He thought he was above the law with unlimited powers. That mentality caught on like a contagion with later presidents, like Woodrow Wilson and FDR, and especially in the post World War II era, where executive overreach has often been the White House norm.

Donald Trump, however, is the first president since Roosevelt to be so candid in actually stating that he can “do whatever he wants” as president. Like Roosevelt, Trump has gone through his term like an executive bully, unmindful of anything the law might have to say about his actions. This is not to say that Roosevelt and Trump have committed the most egregious overreaches or the worst Constitutional offenses (those belong undeniably to Wilson and FDR), but they are certainly the two presidents who have been the most drunk on their own self-regard.

That drunken narcissism showed in all three areas of Roosevelt’s policies — peace, prosperity, and liberty — and I’ll go through each of them.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Roosevelt mediated a peace settlement between Russia and Japan to end the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05), for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. But he was not a peaceful president. He enlarged the military and engaged in numerous incidents of unnecessary gunboat diplomacy. He was addicted to solving problems at gunpoint and had a bloodthirsty streak. He had fought in Cuba during the Spanish American War (1898), and one soldier described him as “reveling in victory and gore” during the charge up a hill at San Juan Heights. Jackson Lears (a professor of cultural history at Rutgers University) ranks Teddy Roosevelt the sixth worst president of all time, because Roosevelt actually “celebrated the regenerative effects of military violence.”

And to legitimate his violent actions, he began by perverting the Monroe Doctrine.

Monroe Doctrine Perverted

Since 1823, the idea of the Monroe Doctrine was that the U.S. and Europe were to remain separate spheres of influence. Specifically, the United States

  • would not interfere in already existing European colonies
  • would not interfere in European affairs
  • would forbid European colonization of new areas
  • would forbid European recolonization of former colonies

That was all fine and well until Teddy added the corollary that the United States should intervene in neighboring countries to stop any perceived wrongdoing, instability, or weakness that could become an excuse for European intervention. Bluntly speaking, these vague criteria meant that the U.S. could invade and occupy neighboring countries in order to preempt others from invading and occupying those countries. The U.S. didn’t have to wait for a European power to actually try intervening or invading; all that was needed was a loosely perceived threat. The hypocrisy of this corollary is gargantuan, for obviously the countries in question would see little difference between American or European occupiers.

Venezuela

Roosevelt’s most dangerous act of gunboat diplomacy was his first one in 1902-03, when Venezuela didn’t pay its debt to a German-British consortium. The two governments threatened a naval blockade until the money was paid. Both Germany and Britain made clear to the U.S. that they only wanted debt payment and not any foothold in Latin America. But when the naval blockade escalated, Roosevelt accused Germany of threatening war and got belligerent, until the blockade was lifted. He had recklessly courted war with Germany and Britain over an unlikely possibility of Germany establishing a minor toehold in Latin America.

Panama

What is today seen as Roosevelt’s greatest accomplishment was in fact his most disgraceful offense. He fomented rebellion in the Panamanian province of Columbia, and supported it with U.S. troops, in order to steal territory for a future Panama Canal. The Spanish-American War (1898) had shown a need for the canal, and the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty (1901) paved the way for the U.S. to build it. But Roosevelt thought Columbia asked for too much money, and so he instigated a rebellion in Panama. He implied to the Panamanian rebels that if they revolted, the US Navy would assist their fight for independence. Panama declared its independence in November of 1903, and the US Navy impeded Colombian interference. The grateful Panamanians gave the U.S. control of the Panama Canal Zone on February 23, 1904, for $10 million.

Roosevelt’s cabinet members were thoroughly disgusted. Secretary of War Elihu Root said to Roosevelt, “You have shown that you were accused of seduction, and you have conclusively proved that you are guilty of rape.” Former Secretary of State Richard Olney said, “For the first time in my life, I have to confess that I am ashamed of my country.” Other critics called Teddy’s grabbing of the canal zone a “sleek and underhanded piece of national bank robbery”. Roosevelt had thoroughly disgraced himself, and the United States, to save a few million dollars.

Other gunboat diplomacy episodes: Turkey, Morocco, and Cuba

In Turkey (1904), the sultan refused to grant U.S. missionaries the same privileges that European missionaries had. Roosevelt sent navy ships until the sultan capitulated. A lame and presumptuous reason to threaten violence if there ever was one.

In Morocco (1904), someone claiming to be a U.S. citizen was kidnapped by a terrorist named Raisuli, who demanded a large ransom from the sultan in charge of Morocco. Roosevelt sent the naval fleet to Morocco to bully the sultan into negotiating with Raisuli for the hostage’s release. It turned out the hostage was actually a Greek, and Roosevelt’s secretary of state wanted him to back off. But since Raisuli still believed the hostage was a U.S. citizen, Roosevelt felt that the kidnapper was insulting the United States, and thus American honor needed avenging. So he kept pressuring the sultan to negotiate with a terrorist (negotiating with terrorists is almost always bad policy), all for the sake of besmirched honor.

In Cuba (1906), an insurrection broke out, and both sides in the conflict appealed to the U.S. for intervention. A U.S. senator reminded Roosevelt that the U.S.-Cuban treaty gave the United States, not the president, the right to intervene and demanded that Roosevelt seek congressional approval before committing troops. Roosevelt retorted that the “situation was evolving too rapidly”, and — with considerable balls — also candidly admitted that he was trying to expand the powers of the presidency. True to his word (and his balls), he launched a full blown intervention in Cuba. The Constitution makes clear that the president can take military action on his own only when the nation is defending itself from attack. In this case, not only was there a negligible threat to U.S. security, Roosevelt’s action was an imperially offensive strike, not a defensive one. It was carried out to bring stability to a region, so that other foreign powers would not gain a toehold there. Roosevelt was way out of line, and his actions clearly unconstitutional.

The Great White Fleet

Roosevelt was ceaseless in his efforts to display a swaggering macho presence on the world stage, and all of his gunboat diplomatic efforts culminated in his launching of the Great White Fleet — sixteen navy battleships that sailed around the globe from December 16, 1907, to February 22, 1909. The mission was nominally to make “courtesy” visits to many countries, but was in truth an unmistakable display of power — a warning to the world that the U.S. was not to be messed with.

The Philippines

The U.S. had won the Philippines in the Spanish-American War (1898), and when Roosevelt took office, the guerilla war from the Philippines insurrection was petering lout. He ordered military commanders to end the guerrilla war by any means necessary. They did this by burning entire villages; torturing and killing all Filipinos down to age ten; burning, whipping, and hanging the Filipinos by their thumbs. This caused a public shitstorm in the U.S., and Roosevelt tried to whitewash the whole incident, but there was no washing the blood from his hands. Another disgraceful legacy.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

To his credit, Roosevelt got Congress to pass reforms like The Meat Inspection Act (1906) and the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), which served the much needed cause of sanitation and the proper labeling of ingredients in food and drugs. He was also an environmental conservationist and set aside 230 million acres of land into public trust; this land was used to create national monuments, parks, forests, bird refuges, and game preserves.

The rest of his reforms left much to be desired. The Elkins Act (1903) amended the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, and allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to impose heavy fines on railroads that offered rebates to large companies, and upon the shippers who accepted the rebates. Roosevelt maintained that rebates were price discrimination against smaller companies that used the railroads, but price discrimination is a standard business practice. (Even the small guy gets a discount for buying in bulk.) It is reasonable that railroads would give discounts to secure large customers. The Hepburn Act (1906), gave the ICC the power to set “just and reasonable” rates, which is absurdly subjective. The act had far-reaching consequences in regulating the marketplace, blocking rate increases that the rail companies needed to make, and leading to the panic of 1907.

Roosevelt was also a trust-buster. Trust-busting is counterproductive and decreases healthy competition in business. Anti-trust laws usually allow politically well connected companies to break up or keep out large potential competitors from a particular market. Even Roosevelt admitted that the economy did better when big business operated most of it and the government stayed out, but he had a strong pro-regulation constituency. The anti-trust laws were applied using Roosevelt’s “greater good” argument, meaning that companies were sued not based on whether they broke the law, but on whether they were “good” or “bad” companies — which was flagrantly unconstitutional, certainly unfair, and didn’t do the economy much good either.

3. Liberty

Worst of all — as I prefaced at the top — was Roosevelt’s repeated flouting of the Constitution. He stated boldly that he could do anything he wanted “for the greater good”. The idea that the president is above the law and has virtually unlimited powers is extremely dangerous, and it cuts at the heart of what a republic stands for. Roosevelt was saying that a president can basically do anything which the Constitution doesn’t explicitly forbid him from doing. The founding fathers were rolling in their graves; the Tenth Amendment states specifically that powers not specifically delegated to the federal government reside either with the states or with the people.

Federal coercion in labor disputes

Roosevelt established federal coercion by intervening in a coal strike in 1902, threatening both sides by saying he would use the army to seize the mines if they didn’t accept arbitration. The Pennsylvania governor had told Roosevelt that no federal assistance was necessary, and Roosevelt admitted that as president he “had no right or duty to intervene in this way on legal grounds”. But he jolly well did so anyway, and he went so far as to order an army general to be ready to use force to stop the strike, throw out the coal operators, and seize the mines.

Congressmen were aghast at this, and James Watson demanded of Roosevelt: “What about the Constitution of the United States? What about seizing private property without due process of law?” To which Teddy hollered back — as if he were Jesus Christ debating the sabbath — that “the Constitution was made for the people, and not the people for the Constitution”. This stream of bullshit was nothing more than Theodore Roosevelt remolding the Constitution on the spot for his own purposes.

Appalling race relations

It is true that Roosevelt angered the South by inviting Booker T. Washington (a prominent African American author and educator) to the White House, which was the first time a black was entertained there. But no one should be fooled into thinking that Roosevelt wasn’t a racist, as he most certainly was.

He believed that blacks were inferior to whites because of “natural limitations”. And he showed his contempt for those “inferiors” on a particular occasion, by requiring black soldiers to prove their innocence to avoid dishonorable discharges from the military. The black soldiers were being blamed for shooting up Brownsville, Texas, and killing one man and wounding another. Though the evidence pointed to the black soldiers being framed, Roosevelt — in outrageous contradiction to the American tradition of innocent-until-proven-guilty — said that if none of the African American soldiers admitted to shooting up the town, they would all be assumed to be guilty and all of them discharged. None of them did, and sure enough, Roosevelt discharged them all. He stood firmly by his decision in the resulting furor, and needles to say, his popularity in the black community was forever nuked.

He is also legendary for saying that “the most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian”, and that “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are; and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

Conclusion

Here is Teddy’s less than glamorous report card:

Peace. For peacefully mediating the Russo-Japanese War and the European competition over Morocco, Roosevelt deserves credit. But he must be severely downgraded for his ceaseless belligerence — the never-ending gunboat diplomacy, the fomenting of rebellion in Panama, the reckless courting of war with Germany in Venezuela, and sanctioning war crimes in the Philippines. Worst of all was his perversion of the Monroe Doctrine, which has had lasting consequences throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. I score him 5 points for the two peaceful mediations. Aside from those two acts, there was hardly anything peaceful about Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency.

Prosperity. His positive contributions for healthy meat, the proper labeling of food and drugs, and conservation of land must be weighed against the majority of his “progressive” policies that were harmful to the country. In particular, his pernicious regulation of business and trust busting contributed to the recession of 1907. I give him 12 points. He probably deserves less, but his positives for health and the environment carry considerable weight, in my view.

Liberty. For openly disdaining the Constitution, continually disregarding its imperatives, setting one horrible precedent after another, presuming that African Americans are guilty until proven innocent, and openly disdaining the human rights of Indians, he gets a putrid liberty score of 3.

Peace — 5/20
Prosperity — 12/20
Liberty — 3/20

TOTAL SCORE = 20/60 = Bad

My Litmus Test for Presidential Rankings

Whenever I come across a ranking of the U.S. presidents, I run it through my initial litmus test:

(a) Are John Tyler and Warren Harding in the top 10? They were the two best presidents in history, but they are usually judged by the establishment to be among the worst, if not the very worst.

(b) Are Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush in the bottom 10? They were the most abysmal presidents to date, and yet the official C-Span historian survey puts Wilson all the way up at #11, and does not put Bush in the bottom 10.

I have found this to be a very reliable gauge, and it condemns the vast majority of presidential rankings out of hand. Those that do pass aren’t beyond criticism but at least get their priorities straight. They don’t overreact to sex scandals and graft scandals; they don’t elevate charisma over policies; they actually care about the Constitution and what it stands for. Here are three in particular:

recarving_2nd_1800x27001. Ivan Eland’s Recarving Rushmore passes the test. He has Tyler at #1, Harding at #6, the Younger Bush at #37, and Wilson the very worst at #41. To be sure, there is much I disagree with in Eland’s rankings. For example, he includes Grover Cleveland and Martin Van Buren in his Mount Rushmore (in the top 4), whereas I judge Cleveland and Van Buren to be very poor presidents. Conversely, he puts Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy at rock-bottom, where I think they belong in the top half. Nonetheless, Recarving Rushmore is an important contribution. It grades the presidents on their actual policies for a change — specifically, what they did for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty.

2. This blogger also passes my first swipe. He has Harding at #10 and Tyler at #11 (close enough), and Wilson as the very worst president. (He didn’t rate Bush, believing that at least two presidents need to pass through the White House to give an accurate ranking of any recent president.) I disagree with some of his rankings (the Senior Bush is way too high), but on whole it is a well thought out list, and far better than what mainstream historians have to offer.

3. Robert Spencer’s new book, Rating America’s Presidents, is another that passes at first glance (it will be published in August). In his blog preview, he lists Tyler and Harding in the top ten, Wilson and the Younger Bush in the bottom ten. Once again I have points of dispute, the most notable ones being Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump in the top 10, and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in the bottom 10. But even when I disagree with Spencer I respect his reasoning. Like the above two graders, he focuses on policies, not personalities or management styles — what the presidents did for the betterment of the American people. I’m looking forward to this book.

The problems with mainstream rankings

The establishment favors presidents who were charismatics, goal-oriented “managers”, foreign interventionists, and/or fiscally irresponsible globalists. I’ve been astonished by this. Ever since FDR especially, presidents have been evaluated primarily on the basis of their oratory skills, and their effectiveness in achieving ambitious goals — never mind whether those goals were good or bad. Take for example this statement from Stephen Ambrose in his book on Eisenhower:

“To say that Eisenhower was right about this or wrong about that is to do little more than announce one’s own political position. A more fruitful approach is to examine his years in the White House in his own terms, to make an assessment on the basis of how well he did in achieving the tasks and goals he set for himself at the time he took office.” (Eisenhower: Soldier and President, p 541)

This statement is absurd, but it could easily pass for boilerplate wisdom in the halls of the establishment. It’s absurd because you have to “announce your politics” when assessing political figures. You have to get your hands dirty. Otherwise your task has no meaning.

Here’s another one from Kenneth Davis’s rankings. In his analysis of James Polk, he gives him a perfect A, his lead reason being that Polk “stated what he was going to do and accomplished his goals”. (Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents, p 202). On that logic, any national leader can be great for simply doing what he sets out to do, no matter how dire his policies (not least Hitler and Stalin).

I see this stupid reasoning time and time again, and it finally led me to rank all of the presidents myself. Seriously, if no one else will do it right… I’m not interested in high-school class presidents who gave moving speeches or won popularity contests. Nor am I won over by global interventionists, spendthrifts, or those who curtailed freedom in the name of upholding it. I am impressed, rather, by chief executives who did what they swore to do in upholding the Constitution, and advanced the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty. For that reason, it is often (though not always) the presidents who are commonly judged worst who are in fact the best, and vice versa.

Refused to become king: George Washington (1789-1797)

Happy Presidents Day — or Washington’s Day, or whatever your state calls it. It’s only right that I cover Washington today for my president series.

As a nation we owe a huge debt to George Washington. He had his faults, but they were atoned for by how he ensured the survival of a new constitutional system through a very rocky first stage. Above all, he refused to become king — which is something he could have easily done.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

For the most part, Washington stayed out of foreign wars and overseas alliances that would tangle the new nation in conflicts. He broke alliance with France (left over from the American Revolution) when it declared war on Britain in 1793, which was in itself commendable, though Washington didn’t exactly stay neutral. He signed the Jay Treaty in 1795, which strongly favored Britain, and infuriated the Jeffersonians. The consequences of the treaty were threefold: (1) it sharpened the division between the Federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans; (2) it infuriated France, leading to the Quasi-War (1798-1800) under John Adams; (3) it left issues unresolved with Britain, leading to the War of 1812 under James Madison.

A year before signing the Jay Treaty, Washington suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion (1794). He did so without killing anyone, and then pardoned the rioters, which is commendable, but he should not have sent federal troops to begin with. The Whiskey Rebellion was only an anti-tax protest, not a revolt against the U.S. government, and the governor of Pennsylvania told Washington that the issue could be settled in the courts. By sending federal troops without the consent of the state, Washington violated the Constitution with needless aggression.

At the start of his presidency, Washington vowed to negotiate with the Native American Indians over their territories, but he ended up using force to seize their lands in the Midwest. In fact, during his administration, 80% of the federal budget was spent on fighting the Indians. Washington had initially held the Indians in high regard, but after fighting them in the Ohio War in 1790, he denounced them as “having nothing human but shape”. While Washington’s policies against the Indians were no way near as pernicious as those of later presidents — especially Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses Grant — he began a precedent that has haunted the American legacy from day one.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

At the start of his presidency, Washington had a healthy hatred for political parties — but that didn’t last. By his second term he was unequivocally in the Federalist camp, impressed by (Secretary of the Treasury) Alexander Hamilton’s vision of using government for the advantage of big business.

What Hamilton did, and what Washington backed, were two especially bad policies: (1) the erection of a protective tariff, and (2) the creation of a national bank. Tariffs are bad because they protect businessmen at the expense of consumers; they are not ultimately good for business, and are very bad for free trade. The First Bank of the United States (1791-1811) was bad because, like its successor (1816-1836), it benefited merchants and investors at the expense of the population. By controlling the nation’s money supply, the bank gave its wealthy owners a large return with very little risk, and would be invariably involved in corruption, such as bribing government officials, making sweetheart deals with congressmen and newspaper editors.

Hamilton argued that the Constitution didn’t forbid the government from creating tariffs and a national bank, but that was slippery, since the Tenth Amendment said that all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government lie with the states or with the people. The founding fathers wrote the Tenth Amendment specifically to prevent what Hamilton was doing — using an argument of silence to justify the expansion of federal power.

It was a good thing that the Federalist party went extinct (losing influence after 1801, dying for good in 1824), but Hamilton and Washington set a precedent that has lived on ever since. Thomas Jefferson was so disgusted with government-business collusion under Washington that he resigned as Secretary of State in 1793.

3. Liberty

Washington was the soul of liberty, and notably a respecter of all faiths. He once wrote to a rabbi: “May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Aside from an occasional overreach (like in the Whiskey Rebellion), he was firmly committed to respecting the checks and balances of the government. He deferred to Congress on most legislation, and used his veto power only when he firmly believed a bill was unconstitutional.

Washington recommended the Bill of Rights, one of the most important contributions to American thought. That alone earns him a perfect liberty rating. But even more critically — and what often goes unmentioned — is that Washington refused to become a king. He stepped down after eight years and set the precedent for maximum two-year service. He didn’t have to do that. His popularity was so great, and the country in its fledgling years, that if he had wanted to remain president until he died he could have easily done so. That would have set a horrible precedent, and undermined everything the republic stood for.

Conclusion

George Washington was the third best president of the United Sates, after John Tyler (best) and Warren Harding (a close second). Here is his report card.

Peace. For intervening in the Whiskey Rebellion, he loses a point. For breaking off the alliance with France he earns gold stars, but then loses a point for the Jay Treaty (which was partly good but carried long-range consequences). For his aggressive policies in seizing Indian lands he loses 3 points.

Prosperity. Things weren’t too bad under Washington, but for buying into the vision of Alexander Hamilton, which carried long-lasting negative consequences, he loses 7 points.

Liberty. For recommending the Bill of Rights, he gets a full 20 points. What that bill did for America can’t be exaggerated. And for stepping down from office after two terms he gets a +5 bonus. I don’t normally award bonus points in these presidential assessments, but I have to make an exception for Washington. Relinquishing the presidency when he could have easily kept it until he died is, I believe, the best and most important thing a president has ever done in his capacity as president.

Peace — 15/20
Prosperity — 13/20
Liberty — 20/20 (+5 bonus)

TOTAL SCORE = 53/60 = Excellent

My Valentine Film List — Non-Sappy, Unconventional Romances

These are the cinematic couples who have most moved me, for better or worse. Most of them have unhappy endings. Have a very nice Valentine’s Day.


1. Clarence and Alabama. True Romance, 1993. Quentin Tarantino wrote these sweethearts, and Scott directed them with his usual flare, combining an extremely violent tale with morbid humor. A cocky reckless drifter and a ditzy bimbo end up in over their heads with drug dealers, but the story is about their unconditional love-at-first-sight, and I dare say their final scene on the beach is one of the most well earned epilogues in any romance. No question, Clarence and Alabama take the #1 slot.

Blue Is the Warmest Color movie review (2013) | Roger Ebert
2. Adele and Emma. Blue is the Warmest Color, 2013. They gained notoriety for graphic lesbian scenes (which are actually tasteful and well used) instead of the love story, which is a bit sad. The film isn’t about sex, but the searing power of love which becomes destructive, but with room for healing afterwards. Blue is a romance film that has the nerve to ask what comes after a nasty breakup, and give that part just as much attention. It’s three hours long but I could have watched Adele and Emma’s lives play out for three hours more.


3. Jesse and Celine. Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013). I love the trilogy of conversational exercises between Jesse and Celine, and by the time we know them in the last film, they’ve been in a steady relationship for nine years. But their reflections on how they met and how their lives have changed, are just as compelling as the original outing when they were young and took bold risks. It adds up to a very rare trilogy — in fact, I cannot think of any other trilogy — in which the excellent first is followed by an even better second and then (against every odd) the third which is best of all.

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4. Caleb and Mae. Near Dark, 1987. There is certainly no seductive glamorizing of these two vampires — this is a very violent and nihilistic tale — and yet the romance between Caleb and Mae remains one of the most tender in any vampire story. The happy ending and return to the nuclear family betray the ’80s period; had this been made in the ’70s, Caleb and Mae would have stayed vampires, and one of them likely met some tragic end. But the film is so awesome you can forgive the ending.

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5. Monika and Harry. Summer with Monika, 1953. This Bergman classic is a tale of youthful escapism everyone has fantasized about at some point: two lovers abandon their jobs and families, and run away in a motorboat to spend weeks on an isolated beach in the Stockholm archipelago. They dream the dreams of children, of a blissful married life ahead of them… and then return to the cold reality of poverty, dissatisfied adultery, and unwanted babies.

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6. Juno and Bleeker. Juno, 2007. The romance between these two kids is just one of the many endearing things about this comedy about a teen who contemplates abortion but wants to have the baby and give it to a wealthy couple. (And no, it doesn’t glorify teen pregnancy or serve an anti-abortionist agenda.) Maybe I’m sappy after all, because I love the final scene.

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7. Elio and Oliver. Call Me By Your Name, 2017. Some have actually accused this film of promoting pedophilia — I kid you not, a romance between 24-year old and a 17-year old — but what happens between Elio and Oliver is neither illegal (the age of consent in the film’s setting is 16) nor immoral (since there is no manipulation or abuse of any power on the part of Oliver, the 24-year old). America has become an overprotective zone which condescends to 15-17 year olds as if they’re 10-12. As a sexual coming of age story, the story between these two guys one of the most moving I’ve seen of its kind.

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8. C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham. Shadowlands, 1993. I’m not usually fond of dramas in which one of the pair gets bad news from the doctor and ends up dying in horrendous agony, but Shadowlands filters the tragedy through the lens of a famous theologian who had written so much on the necessity of human suffering. Confronted with it personally, he finds himself mocked by his own wisdom. Shadowlands is the rare romantic tearjerker without melodrama, and a brutal look at how a Christian theologian was broken by his own lessons.

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9. Carol and Therese. Carol, 2015. A love affair between two women was unspeakable in the ‘50s, and that era provides the perfect canvass for an examination of feminine hungers and pains. Watching Carol is like being pulled through a looking glass and tasting forbidden love in an austere time. I’ve always been in awe of Cate Blanchett, and this is probably her best performance. Which is saying a lot.

Blue Valentine | Netflix
10. Dean and Cindy. Blue Valentine, 2010. By far the most depressing romance I’ve ever seen captures the start and end points of a hopeless relationship begun in puppy love followed by stagnation. The film flashes between past and present, but sheds no light as to what caused the decay, which is much the point. People marry on impulse, and then before they know it, they can’t remember what they wanted in the first place.

Top-Notch War Films

If you want good war films, check these out. You won’t find Saving Private Ryan here, nor any of Oliver Stone’s screeds against Vietnam (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, etc.). I used to like the Civil War film Glory, but that one hasn’t aged well. For more recent efforts, I found American Sniper and Dunkirk to be overrated. The following are superior.

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1. Shame. Unknown setting. In my survey of “best war films” lists online, I have found none which includes Shame, which is beyond shame. Released in 1968, it remains the definitive war film, in my opinion, and is unsparing in its examination of the soul. Ingmar Bergman shot it off the small island of Farö, but it’s not clear that the setting is intended as Swedish. Whatever this nation is, it’s either at war with an invading country or engaged in a civil war — left deliberately hazy to suggest a war that symbolizes all war without any political axe to grind. Its focus is on a simple married couple who are uprooted from home, falsely accused of bad allegiances, then freed on the condition that Eva performs sexual favors for a government official. Things escalate to the point of such humiliation that Jan, a pacifist by nature, snaps and becomes a moral monster. We share Eva and Jan’s intimacies and hopelessness on a level not matched in any other war film. Shame speaks deeply about the human psyche and the will to survive. The final scene of the exodus into a sea of corpses still haunts me.

Paths of Glory: “We Have Met the Enemy . . .”
2. Paths of Glory. France, 1915-16; World War I. Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war film is presented with an uncompromising polemic but no sanctimony, and remains a lesson Oliver Stone could have learned. Paths of Glory is about the suicidal attack on an impregnable fortress captured by the Germans, inspired by the six-month bloodbath during the Battle of Verdun for Fort Douamont. It holds up well after so many decades (much as Spielberg tried, he didn’t surpass this brutal intensity in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, a film I dislike), and the court marshal of the second part remains a convincing piece of courtroom drama. And then there’s the final scene: the poor ridiculed stage-singer who manages to shatter everyone’s soul, a moment’s epiphany in a cruel uncaring world. Against the terrible backdrop of the first world war, soldier grunts emerge as worthless pawns, to be thrown away for the sake of their superiors’ aggrandizement, and military tribunals stand as parodies of justice.


3. The Thin Red Line. Solomon Islands, 1942-43; World War II. This masterpiece was overshadowed by Saving Private Ryan (also released in 1998), when it should have been the other way around. Terrence Malick is a genius in all the ways Stephen Spielberg is Mr. Cheese. The Thin Red Line laments warfare through naturalist philosophy, and it’s both horrific and uplifting in a completely organic way. I believe that anti-war films have strong difficulty doing right by the viewer. They must get their message across loud and clear, but without resorting to college-campus screed, political innuendo, or hollow contrivances. What Bergman did at the level of personal intimacy (Shame) and Kubrick along the ladder of military hierarchy (Paths of Glory), Malick expands to the broadest level possible, examining life and death in cosmic terms. He finds beauty in each, yet an undeniable rage at the way the latter is reached. It’s a brilliant film, and the exotic setting of Melanesia somehow aligns perfectly with the tone of what Malick aims for.

The Painted Bird | Film Threat - Part 2
4. The Painted Bird. Eastern Europe, 1944; World War II. If there was ever a film that depicted hell on earth through the eyes of a single person, it’s surely The Painted Bird. Set during the Holocaust in an unspecified Eastern European country (the language spoken by the characters is Interslavic), it shows the odyssey of a Jewish boy, as he wanders from village to village and is subjected to every kind of depravity. He’s beaten; he’s terrorized; he’s buried up to his neck. Eventually he is seized and given to the Nazis, and while he escapes execution, he winds up in the hands of a pedophile. Then it’s out of that frying pan into the fire of a female pedophile, who molests him around acts of bestiality; at one point she has intercourse with a goat. And so forth and so on. There are moments of fleeting compassion in this godawful road journey, and you will certainly need them. The Painted Bird shames the human species as it examines the worst of our impulses in the darkest scenarios, and yet strangely it offers the most authentic rays of hope in its rare moments of grace.


5. Lone Survivor. Afghanistan, 2005; Afghanistan War. If you want a true-story set in the Middle-East, this is the one to see. (What’s fact and fiction is explained here.) It tells of four navy seals on a covert operation in the Hindu Kush mountain range, spying on a Taliban hideout. When they’re spotted by a random group of goat herders, the seals make the kind (but very stupid) decision to let them go instead of killing them on the spot. From that point they fend off an unrelenting assault, as Taliban soldiers chase them through the mountains, surround them, appear suddenly from behind trees, entirely at ease in native territory. This is probably the most emotionally draining military sequence I’ve seen, and shows how much damage the human body can absorb before giving up the ghost. Lone Survivor honors the seals who died in this operation, but also the Afghan villagers who sheltered the lone survivor of the four, when it was basically suicide for them to oppose the Taliban in this way. The film is also acclaimed by military personnel as being one of the most realistic war films ever made, despite some of the dramatic license in the plot.

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6. Full Metal Jacket. Vietnam, late 1960s; Vietnam War. There are zillions of films about the Vietnam War, many of them by Oliver Stone, most of them not very good. Even Kubrick’s has its problems, but I’ve seen the boot-camp part so many times it’s ridiculous. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is one of the most entertaining film characters of all time, and he completely owns Full Metal Jacket. As a nineteen-year old, I remember thinking he went over-the-top for sake of theater, but quickly learned that actor R. Lee Ermey had been a real-life drill instructor, and that Kubrick allowed him to edit his own dialogue and improvise as he saw fit. I also remember my father saying he experienced some of these degradations heaped on the privates (and he was only in the Air Force, not the Marines). The film’s middle part is its weakest (where it feels like Europe more than Vietnam), but the sniper sequence at the end pulls it back on its feet. The first part alone earns it the sixth slot on this list.

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7. 1917. France, 1917; World War I. The story begins on the fateful day Woodrow Wilson brought America into World War I (April 6, 1917), though there are no Americans portrayed in the film. It’s about two British soldiers ordered to deliver a message to a colonel who is sending his battalion into a nasty trap. The battalion is chasing after the Germans who only appear to be fleeing but are really about to unload an ass-pounding on the unsuspecting Brits. One of the two soldiers has a lot at stake in delivering the message since his brother is part of the battalion. What distinguishes 1917 is the immersive experience it offers through its entire “single shot” in which the camera never cuts. You feel like you’re there, in the rat-infested trenches, the underground bunker that collapses on the two guys (they barely escape), the desolate fields and ravaged towns. Unlike the incredibly overrated Dunkirk, this film lives up to the hype.


8. Fury. Germany, 1945; World War II. Few war films capture soldier camaraderie with Fury’s plain authenticity that makes you alternate between hating and loving these guys by the minute. The story is set in the final days of WWII; an American tank crew of five plow across Germany, and while they know American victory is guaranteed by this point, they sure don’t feel it; the Nazis dig in to the end. The tank battles are nightmares; the Germans resist every step of the way. The best scene comes at the film’s midpoint, right after the tankers conquer a German town. Two of the tank crew barge into an apartment where two women are hiding; sex results, but it’s not rape, and the unexpected tenderness on display is entirely real. Then the other three members barge in drunk, and a thoroughly unpleasant (and surreal) dinner ensues. The tank battles are spectacular and thoroughly realistic. Fury is defined by them.

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9. Black Hawk Down. Mogadishu, 1993; Somalian Intervention. Never has the chaos of battle been depicted so effectively as in Black Hawk Down. What should have been a simple seizing of Somalian lieutenants turned into a nightmare of 18 soldier deaths across an overnight standoff, with another soldier being captured as well. All things considered, it’s amazing the rangers and special forces were able to fight off an entire city as they did. I was actually in Africa the year of this event, and remember hearing of warlord Aidid. His weapon was hunger: capturing all the food coming into Mogadishu. The American intervention was long delayed and frustrating, and when finally put into effect was blown to smithereens by unforeseen blunders. Small mistakes and cruel acts of fate — these more than anything else are what left the soldiers stranded in the city teeming with Aidid’s thugs around every corner, well into the next day.

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10. The Hurt Locker. Baghdad, 2004; Iraq War. Neither anti- nor pro-military, it’s a respectful sobering lesson in what bomb deactivation squads go through. This is basically the film American Sniper tried lamely to repeat: special-skilled soldiers, battle addiction, and the toll taken on wives back home. The title refers to shell shock, or the physical trauma of being continually close to the blast of an explosion: the horrible noise and prelude of compressed silence encasing you in a locker of pain. Kathryn Bigelow deserved to take best picture for this. The Hurt Locker is an adrenaline rush, but also a professional depiction of the Iraq War that refuses to plant a flag on either side of the conflict. It’s a thoughtful film about what it means to have skills that set a soldier above his peers, without glamorizing the role.

The Electoral College: Six Election Failures and Their Consequences

Since the 2016 election, people have demanded that we abolish the electoral college in favor of a national popular vote. I said the same thing in the wake of Trump’s victory, but I realize I was saying that out of sour grapes. That the candidates I happened to oppose in 2000 and 2016 (Bush and Trump) lost the popular vote but won the election is no reason to trash the voting system. What if the shoe were on the other foot?

The fact is that the electoral system is a very good one, but flawed since the days of Andrew Jackson. This is what Edward Foley argues in his timely new book, Presidential Elections and Majority Rule: The Rise, Demise, and Potential Restoration of the Jeffersonian Electoral College. Not only is this book timely during the 2020 primaries, it sheds added light in my ongoing president series.

The electoral college as we know it was set down in law in 1803 during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, which is why Foley calls it the Jeffersonian system. It reflects, rightly, that the United States is a federal republic, made up of individual states each requiring a distinct voice in elections. America is not a single monolithic “democracy” to be ruled by an overall popular vote. If it were, then presidential candidates would never bother appealing to smaller states with low populations. Candidates would seek votes from those living in big cities on the east and west coasts, along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and along the Great Lakes. If you don’t live in those areas, your views would hardly matter; effectively, you wouldn’t be part of the constituency.

Not only that, a national popular vote carries the danger of mob rule — like the reign of tyranny during the French revolution, or the Brexit vote, when 51% or 52% of the people imposed their will on 49% or 48%. The American founders wanted more than just a simple majority rule; they wanted a compound form of majority rule, or a “majority of the majorities”. Since Jefferson’s presidency in 1803, the goal of the electoral college has been based on this principle of compound majority rule — not a majority of the national popular vote, but a majority of the electoral votes compiled from states in which the victor also achieved a majority of the statewide popular vote.

That system works like a gem in two-party elections, where the winner by necessity obtains a compound majority of the vote. But ever since Andrew Jackson’s presidency in 1828, plurality “winner-take-all” elections became the dominant method of the states, and that’s how it remains to this day. Meaning, even if a candidate doesn’t receive a majority (more than 50%) of the popular vote in the state, as long as he or she receives a plurality (which can be less than 50% as long as it’s more than any other candidate), that candidate takes all of the state’s electoral votes. This makes it possible for a third-party or independent candidate to rob another candidate of a true Jeffersonian victory.

The Six Election Failures, and Their Consequences

In his book, Foley discusses the “Jeffersonian failures”, that is, six cases in which the winning president (a) would have (or might have) lost the election if he had been up against a single opponent, and (b) failed to achieve a majority of the electoral votes by accumulating votes in states in which he also achieved a majority of the (statewide) popular vote. They are the elections of 1844 (James Polk), 1884 (Grover Cleveland), 1912 (Woodrow Wilson), 1992 (Bill Clinton), 2000 (George W. Bush), and 2016 (Donald Trump).

In the recent two cases, everyone fixates on the fact that Bush and Trump lost the national popular vote. But that’s irrelevant. There have been other presidents who lost the national popular vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888. But their victories were still achieved by the compound-majority standard. They won the presidency on pure terms. (And for that matter, Adams and Hayes were far better than those they were running against, Andrew Jackson and Samuel Tilden, respectively.) The victories of Bush and Trump, by contrast, failed the standard, not because they lost the national popular vote (which again is irrelevant), but because they didn’t achieve the majority of majorities.

I’ll go through all six, and spell out the drastic consequences (except in one case) of these undeserved presidential victories. The presidents in green would have definitely lost in a heads-up contest; the blue cases are unclear.

  • James Polk (1844). His rival was Henry Clay (Whig). The presence of James Birney (Abolitionist) on the ballot caused Clay to lose, since most Birney voters would have supported Clay over Polk. Clay wasn’t the abolitionist Birney was, but he was far less pro-slavery than Polk. Without Birney in the mix, Clay would have been the clear Jeffersonian winner; he would have achieved a compound majority of majorities.
    Electoral votes: Of the 138 minimum required electoral votes, Polk got 170, but only 129 came from states in which he won the popular vote.
    Consequence: Polk was the king of manifest destiny (the term was coined on his watch), and thanks to him, the country was put on a clear path to the Civil War. Polk recklessly courted war with two countries at once (Mexico and Britain) for what he perceived as a God-given right (seizing territory in the southwest and northwest), and for waging war on the weaker nation, the Mexican War, which the American citizens and Congressmen opposed and thought immoral. The end result was a preordained Civil War, as southerners wanted all the new territories acquired in the Mexican War to include slavery, while northerners wanted to prohibit further extension of slavery. Under the Missouri Compromise of 1820 both sides had been kept happy, but the new land in the southwest changed all that. Had Henry Clay become president as he should have, America’s history would have unfolded much differently.
  • Grover Cleveland (1884). His rival was James Blain (Republican). The presence of two minor-party candidates — Benjamin Butler (Greenback) and John St. John (Prohibitionist) — on the ballot caused Blain to lose, since most everyone who supported these candidates would have voted for Blaine over Cleveland.
    Electoral votes: Of the 201 minimum required electoral votes, Cleveland got 219, but only 153 came from states in which he won the popular vote.
    Consequence: His accidental victory paved the way to a second term, and during both of his terms (1885-1889; 1893-1897) Cleveland set the country back and then some. He believed his primary mandate was to veto anything that came across his desk; he vetoed literally hundreds of bills more than any other presidents in history (save FDR). He supported the segregation of blacks and refused to enforce their voting rights. Thanks to him, the Indians got shafted and lost 67% of their land holdings. He lobbied Congress to ban Chinese people from reentering the U.S. if they left. He believed that women had no place in politics and condemned the suffrage movement. He sent federal troops to break up a union strike being conducted by workers forced to live like slaves in “Pullman towns”. He refused to sign pension bills for disabled Civil War veterans. He refused to lift a finger to aid those suffering from drought and natural disaster. Basically, as the Progressive Era was under way in the 1890s, Cleveland shat on minorities, women, the lower classes, the disabled, and anyone in need of help.
  • Woodrow Wilson (1912). His rivals were William Taft (Republican) and Ted Roosevelt (the Bull Moose), the latter of whom was running again for a second term, but as an ex-Republican third-party candidate. That decision gave Wilson a thoroughly undeserved slam-dunk victory, since both Roosevelt and Taft divided what otherwise would have been clear majority victories for either one of them. Roosevelt wasn’t as fiscally conservative as Taft, but he was still far more conservative than the populist Democrat Wilson. Those who voted for Roosevelt overwhelmingly preferred Taft over Wilson, just as most who voted for Taft favored Roosevelt over Wilson.
    Electoral votes: Of the 266 minimum required electoral votes, Wilson got a whopping 435, but only 126 came from states in which he won the popular vote. With almost 3/4 of his electoral votes from states where he could not obtain a popular majority, Wilson was a serious Jeffersonian failure.
    Consequence: There is no U.S. president who has had a more catastrophic impact on the country, or indeed the entire world, than Woodrow Wilson. World War I could have easily ended in 1916, and probably would have, but it kept going because Wilson decided to bring America into it in 1917. He entered the war as part of his wider agenda to “sell” American values abroad, enlarge markets overseas, and leave a mark on global affairs. He succeeded in that aim with a vengeance. Not only did he lead America into a pointless slaughter and perpetuate it, the way he did so later caused the largest war in world history (World War II) and the longest war in American history (the Cold War). Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler were all monsters born of Wilson’s policies. At home Wilson violated civil liberties more than any other president. He used the post office and Justice Department to suppress free speech, and ordered the War Department to censor all telegraph and telephone traffic. He fined and imprisoned thousands of citizens for criticizing the war. He was a virulent white supremacist who put whites in jobs that his Republican predecessors had given to blacks, and he encouraged some of his cabinet members to re-institute racial segregation in federal agencies. Racial violence escalated during his administration, along with lynchings, anti-black race riots, and the birth of the second Ku Klux Klan. On top of all this, he created the Federal Reserve, which contributed to the Great Depression and future recessions with a massive centralized easy-money supply. It’s no exaggeration to say that Woodrow Wilson torpedoed the 20th-century and beyond. That he should have never been president to begin with is sobering.
  • Bill Clinton (1992). His rival was George H.W. Bush (Republican). The presence of Ross Perot (Independent) on the ballot may have caused the Elder Bush to lose, though this isn’t clear. Some analysts say that Perot actually pulled more votes away from Clinton than Bush.
    Electoral votes: Of the 270 minimum required electoral votes, Clinton got 370, but only 9 — yes, 9 — came from states in which he won the popular vote (6 from his home state of Arkansas, and 3 from Washington D.C.). That’s 98% of his electoral votes from states where he could not obtain a popular majority. By this yardstick, Clinton’s election was the worst Jeffersonian failure in U.S. history.
    Consequence: This is the only case of the six where the consequence of a failed Jeffersonian victory was actually (IMO) for the better. Clinton wasn’t a great president overall, but he was an improvement on the Elder Bush. His economic and fiscal policies were outstanding. He slashed federal spending and turned a huge deficit from the Reagan and Bush eras into surplus. If this trend of budget surpluses had continued, all national debt would have been liquidated by 2013. (The Younger Bush and Obama would kill this streak with nation-building wars and fiscally toxic bailout/stimulus packages.) Thanks to Clinton, we got the prosperity of the ’90s. His accidental victory turned out plenty of good.
  • George W. Bush (2000). His rival was Al Gore (Democrat). The presence of Ralph Nader (New Party) on the ballot certainly caused Gore to lose, since most Nader supporters viewed Gore as preferable to Bush. Gore would have been a pure Jeffersonian winner, no question.
    Electoral votes: Of the 270 minimum required electoral votes, Bush got a bare 271, and only 217 came from states in which he won the popular vote.
    Consequence: Like Woodrow Wilson, the Younger Bush left disaster in his wake, on America and the world. He was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, because he could have prevented them. He was responsible for ISIS, because he deposed the lesser evil of Saddam Hussein. He was responsible for peddling a rosy view of Islam, which impedes an understanding of the motivations of jihadists — the religious ideology that drives groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. He was responsible for the deaths of over 4000 American soldiers and 100,000 indigenous peoples in Iraq. His gross fiscal policies caused the Great Recession, and he chose to “heal” the recession by making the whole thing worse with bank bailouts. He believed himself to be above the law and disdained Congressional checks on his authority. Like Abraham Lincoln (and no other president), he 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. Most notoriously, he created CIA detention centers overseas, and the Guantanamo prison in Cuba, where he and his vice president sanctioned the use of torture. If Nader had not been on the 2000 ballot, Al Gore would have obtained a pure Jeffersonian victory, and today’s political climate might be unrecognizable, maybe even an idyllic paradise compared to what has been left in the wake of the Bush-Obama-Trump fiascos.
  • Donald Trump (2016). His rival was Hillary Clinton (Democrat). The presence of both Gary Johnson (Libertarian) and Jill Stein (Green) on the ballot may have caused Hillary to lose, but it’s hard to say. Many Johnson supporters, at least, viewed Trump as the lesser of two evils and would have voted for him anyway.
    Electoral votes: Of the 270 minimum required electoral votes, Trump got 304, but only 197 came from states in which he won the popular vote.
    Consequence: The outcomes of Trump’s leadership are still unfolding and not a pretty sight. How bad he ends up remains to be seen, but he’s quite similar to Andrew Jackson. Like Jackson, Trump came as a savior to the disaffected, an outsider to politics and unstable, appealing to the masses who were furious at an elitist government doing nothing for them. His demagoguery calls to mind the usurpers of Rome who led their republics to ruin in the name of saving them.

The most catastrophic of these election failures were those of Wilson and Bush. Cleveland was garden-variety bad, and Bill Clinton was actually for the better. Clinton and Trump may have owed their election victory to a third-party candidate, though it’s not clear. The other four — Polk, Cleveland, Wilson, and Bush — unquestionably got into the White House by third-party accident.

And once again, lest the point be misunderstood, the national popular vote is not the issue. As Foley says,

“The point is not that Hillary Clinton won more popular votes nationwide than Donald Trump. For one thing, Hillary Clinton had only a national plurality (48.18%), not a majority, of the popular vote. Trump might have been able to win a national runoff against Clinton. It depends on what the Johnson and Stein voters would have done in a national runoff. Instead, the key point is that Hillary Clinton might have been the majority-preferred candidate in enough states for an electoral college majority.” (p 116)

Foley also expresses concern that half of the above six failures (1992, 2000, 2016) have come in the last quarter century:

“One reaches the alarming conclusion that the last quarter century has been the most problematic period in the history of the Jeffersonian Electoral College. It is not clear that the Jeffersonian system identified the correct winner, from its own perspective, in 1992. It is absolutely clear that the system misidentified the correct Jeffersonian winner in 2000. In 2016, it is again unclear whether the system was correct or incorrect, according to its own principles. This record of three fumbles in the space of seven elections is cause for great consternation… The Jeffersonian system, as it currently operates with its Jacksonian appendage of plurality winner-take-all, cannot adequately handle multi-candidate races.” (pp 116-118)

The recent flurry of fumbles probably owes to the ascendance of tribal politics. More and more independent and third-party candidates have been trying to offer alternatives to what has been a dismal status quo since the ’90s, and an outright failure of Republicans and Democrats in the new millennium. Foley is right in any case. The problem was never with the Jeffersonian model. The seeds of the problem were planted in 1828, when the Jeffersonian insistence on majority winners transformed into a Jacksonian willingness to accept (statewide) plurality results.

The Solution

If there’s any way to fix the electoral system, it has to made on the state level. A federal level remedy would mean a constitutional amendment, and that’s never in a million years going to happen. Foley proposes that individual states require that a candidate must receive a majority (not plurality) of that state’s popular vote in order to receive all the electoral votes, and then implement a system to determine how that can be achieved. Anything short of that, he says, results in an electoral college majority that is meaningless, because it relies on a series of plurality “winner-take-all” outcomes at the state level.

The solution is not to prevent third-party and independent candidates from getting on the ballot, because that would violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The Constitution requires states to give minor parties and independent candidates a fair chance that they are better alternatives to either of the major party candidates, and that is indeed as it should be. The solution is to have runoffs, whether a two-round system (which New Hampshire adopted in 1792) or an instant runoff procedure (which Maine adopted). Under the first system, any and all parties would participate in the first round of voting and have an equal chance of making it to the second round, in which the two candidates who got the most votes would compete heads-up for a majority victory. Under the instant runoff system — often called rank-choice voting — voters would rank all the candidates according to their order of preference, but without obligation; the voter could vote for as few (even only one) candidate if he or she chose. The instant runoff system effectively holds the two rounds of voting at the same time.

The two-round and instant runoff systems are probably the most straightforward methods, but there are other ways of ensuring majority winners besides. States would have the leeway to decide what works best for them. It’s a realistic goal, unlike trying to modify the Twelfth Amendment. I agree entirely with Foley’s proposal. Andrew Jackson corrupted a fine system. It’s time to uncorrupt it.