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The Greek Experience by C. M. Bowra

reviewed by Barbara Branden

Sir Maurice Bowra is a minor miracle among historians, in at least three respects. First, he is a superbly colorful and exciting writer, bringing to a field whose practitioners often seem to be mere compilers of catalogues, the drama, the richness and the creative power that one hopes to find in fiction. Second, he is a man with a decided and unequivocal point of view, who sees human history not as a long gray march of meaningless events, but as the inevitable working out in action of the ideas men hold and live by. And third, he is a man passionately in love with the period about which he writes—with those shining centuries from the time of Homer to the fall of Athens in 404 B.C. which he calls “the lost youth of the world.”

Bowra is not primarily concerned with presenting a narrative history of Greece—although his interpretations are fully buttressed by historical fact—but with presenting an explanation, a cause for the grandeur that was Greece. What manner of men were those Greeks who built so noble a culture and who left us such magnificent gifts? What made them what they were? What were the central principles of their thought? What were their liberating ideas?

As his material, his evidence and the source of the conclusions he reaches, Bowra gives us a fascinating panorama of the whole Greek experience of the period he treats, a survey and summing-up of Greek politics and government, poetry and drama, philosophy and science, religion and mythology. (Thrown off almost casually throughout this survey are ideas that are a delight to ponder—as, for example, Bowra’s provocative suggestion that the very quality of the light in Greece, a light brighter, cleaner and stronger than in any other European country, a light which by its strength and sharpness forbids the shifting, melting, diaphanous effects found in France or Italy, played a part in the formation of Greek thought and influenced the clear-cut conceptions of Greek philosophy. “Their minds,” he writes, “like their eyes, sought naturally what is lucid and well-defined.”

Bowra begins by describing what he calls the “heroic outlook” of the early Greeks. This outlook, he maintains, marked in the Homeric period the emergence of a distinctively Greek view of life, differentiating the Greeks from “the herded multitudes of Egypt and Asia” and from the more primitive peoples on their own frontiers, and shaping their development thenceforward. The heroic outlook was characterized by the notion that “a man wins his manhood through unflagging effort and unflinching risk,” by the notion that one must make the most of one’s opportunities and create new opportunities, that life is a high value and is to be filled with noble deeds. In this view, “the Greeks had found a principle which gave meaning to life and inspired them to astonishing achievements.”

Turning to an analysis of the Greek view of their gods, Bowra writes: “A people gets the gods which it deserves.” In the Homeric age, the Greeks transformed their gods into the likeness of men; the gods were stronger, wiser, more beautiful than men, but they were no longer animals or birds. This transformation, Bowra contends, “was a prodigious stroke of emancipating thought. It meant that the Greeks were so impressed by the range and possibility of human gifts that they could not conceive of the gods in any other shape.”

Bowra proceeds to show how this new and distinctively Greek view of life and of man—“the belief in the special worth of man…the belief that he deserves respect for something unique in him and has unanswerable claims to find his own destiny”—was thereafter manifested and reinforced in every area of Greek life and thought, and became the motor of Greek civilization. For example:

    —In ethics, divine sanctions played little part. The Greeks believed that a man owed certain obligations to himself, to his own idea of what he ought to do and to be; if the gods approved of his actions, this was natural, but it was not the cause or motive of the actions.
    —Greek politics—under which the Greeks lived in greater freedom and tranquility than had ever been known before—was dominated by the conviction that “men have a right to live for their own sakes and not for the sake of some exalted individual or supernatural system.”
    —Greek art (poetry, drama, sculpture, etc.) with its exaltedly grand style and its eager concern for the beauty and richness of man and his world, was overwhelmingly man-centered. Nature was background; man was foreground.
    —In Greek philosophy and science, of which we are all the beneficiaries, the position was taken that “truth is man’s first duty and that no effort must be spared to discover it…The strength of Greek philosophy lies in its assumption that there is no problem which cannot be solved by hard and careful thought.”

The Greek Experience is a brilliantly fascinating and rewarding lesson in the power of ideas to shape human life and to determine the course of history—in the power of a concept to turn men from the intellectual, emotional and physical gloom of primitive barbarism to the creation of the world’s first golden age.

[This review originally appeared in the Holiday 1969 issue (#3) of Academic Associates' Book News and was posted to Objectivist Living with the reviewer's permission on Thursday, August 3, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]

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Thinking as a Science by Henry Hazlitt

reviewed by Barbara Branden

Thinking as a Science—to which the author has added a Preface and an Epilogue—was first published fifty-three years ago, in 1916, when the author was twenty-one. Remarkably, it remains, to this reviewer’s knowledge, the best work dealing with the predominantly ignored or ineptly-treated subject of how man can most efficiently employ his rational faculty. As Hazlitt (who is a noted economist and advocate of free enterprise) points out in his Preface, the principles of thinking do not change, just as the principles of logic, on which efficient thinking relies, do not change.

No less remarkable, the author’s age, far from detracting from the value of his book, adds to it elements too-rarely found in writers who deal with serious subjects—or, for that matter, with any subjects. Combined with an unusual intelligence and thoughtfulness, the young writer projects a vitality, an enthusiasm for his subject, a conviction that “thought is a great adventure, a bold voyage of discovery,” and a charmingly candid intellectual arrogance, that make his work a delight to read and separate it from the usual dry, heavy tomes that contradict their purpose by making thinking seem the dullest and most painful of duties.

Hazlitt begins by pointing out that thinking—hard, independent, original thinking about significant problems—is a neglected art; that before this art can be revived, we must arouse in ourselves the desire for thinking; but that even a strong desire to think is not, in itself, sufficient. We must know how to think and we must, therefore, discover the rules and methods which will help us to reason constructively and correctly. Thinking with method, rather than haphazardly and aimlessly, is, he insists, crucial to effective mental activity.

The remainder of the book consists, in essence, of the presentation of those rules and methods which the author has discovered, and which he believes to be the components of a rational methodology. In his Preface, he explains that “I was determined to be completely honest with my reader, and not to use any argument on him that did not convince myself, or propose any method or technique to him that I hadn’t tried or at least planned to try myself. I was as suspicious then as I am today of the you-can-do-anything-you-set-your-mind-to variety.” This attitude sets the tone for the carefully practical and systematic delineation of those methods which he considers to be most fruitful.

In a brief review, I can give only a random sampling of the many valuable areas which this book explores:

    1. The nature and importance of purposefulness in thinking, and of classifying a problem from a variety of relevant aspects.
    2. The methods of analogy and of empirical and experimental observation, and their potential pitfalls.
    3. The means of avoiding error and of testing for truth.
    4. The nature of concentration, some of the causes of mental wandering, and means of combating difficulties in concentration.
    5. The causes of intellectual prejudice, the disguised and insidious forms in which it can present itself, and the means of discovering and overcoming one’s prejudices.

In a particularly important and interesting chapter, Hazlitt warns against the danger, so prevalent today, of using reading as an escape from or substitute for thinking. He suggests a concrete methodology of reading, a practical guide to getting the most out of what one reads. And he stresses the fact that, while many men conscientiously devote a certain period each day to reading, most men think only accidentally and at random, brief intervals; they do not—but should—set aside definite “thinking periods” each day.

The purpose of Thinking as a Science is to make clear the importance of such “thinking periods,” and to suggest the means and methods of making them of optimum value. It is a purpose that Mr. Hazlitt admirably fulfills.

[This review originally appeared in the Holiday 1969 issue (#3) of Academic Associates' Book News and was posted to Objectivist Living with the reviewer's permission on Thursday, August 24, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]

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Obedience to Authority by Stanley Milgram

reviewed by Barbara Branden

If this book does not make you think long and hard about the world in which you live, about the people you know, and—most particularly and perhaps painfully—about yourself, then I know of no book that will do so. It has had that effect on me. I first read Obedience to Authority almost a year ago; it has been in my thoughts many times since then and has caused me endlessly to buttonhole friends and acquaintances, urging them to read it. I am glad to have the opportunity to bring this profoundly important work to the attention of readers of Libertarian Review.

The thesis of Obedience to Authority is simply stated. “Ordinary people,” explains Stanley Milgram (professor of psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York), “simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. However, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Does this seem like a description of Nazi Germany? It is a description of a cross-section of over a thousand Americans—men and women, aged 20 to 50, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish, from all educational levels and a wide range of occupations and professions—who took part in a series of laboratory experiments first conducted by Milgram at Yale University and then repeated in other parts of the country.

Very briefly, each subject of the experiment was told (falsely) that he was participating in a scientific study of the effects of punishment on learning. A white-coated scientist in a laboratory requested the subject to administer a series of progressively stronger electric shocks to a third person, the “learner” (who was strapped into a wired chair), each time the learner failed correctly to answer one of a list of simple questions. The subject was told that the learner, like himself, was a volunteer. This was not the case; the learner knew the actual nature of the experiment, and in fact received no shocks at all. An overwhelming majority of the subjects, in the absence of force, in opposition to their moral principles, despite feelings of intense internal conflict and doubt, and despite the please, screams and apparent acute suffering of the learner, continued to administer the shocks until the scientist-authority told them to stop. The psychological power of the authority-figure was far stronger than the power of their own moral values.

There is no way, in a short review, to communicate the appalling quality of the spectacle the experiments unfold, the spectacle of predominantly decent people motivated, not by feelings of aggression and hostility, but by their inability to resist the commands of an authority, to systematically torture what they believe to be helpless victims.

Milgram gives a number of fascinating and valuable explanations both of the causes and the psychological mechanics which make such behavior possible, explanations drawn in large part from his subsequent interviews with his subjects. The most significant mechanism involved, in my view, and the most common, is the subjects’ self-creation of an “agentic state.” That is, the subjects ceased, as the experiment progressed, to see themselves as responsible for the actions they were taking; they attributed the initiative and the responsibility to the authority, viewing themselves as only his passive agents. It was the authority who defined the moral meaning of their actions. What caused disobedience in the minority who refused to continue administering shocks? The conviction that they were autonomous entities, who could not and would not abrogate moral self-responsibility. A “residue of selfhood,” states Milgram, allowed the minority to keep their personal values alive.

Milgram’s summation of the meaning of his work is chilling. His results, he writes, “raise the possibility that human nature, or—more specifically—the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act, and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.”

The first step in averting the catastrophic potential implied by Milgram’s findings is to understand it. I urge you to read Obedience to Authority.

[This review originally appeared in the October 1975 issue of Libertarian Review and was posted to Objectivist Living with the reviewer's permission on Tuesday, August 29, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]

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Planned Chaos by Ludwig von Mises

reviewed by Barbara Branden

Ludwig von Mises, the most distinguished economist of our age, is an intransigent advocate of freedom and capitalism. With brilliant lucidity and ruthless logic, Planned Chaos discusses the major collectivist ideologies of the twentieth century, as they have been put into practice in various countries: interventionism (the so-called “mixed economy”), fascism, Nazism, socialism, communism. Originally written as an epilogue to Socialism (an encyclopedic and devastating analysis of the fallacies of collectivist economic doctrines), Planned Chaos is now available as a separate book.

A central point of Planned Chaos is Professor Mises’ eloquent refutation of one of the most disastrous myths of the twentieth century: the belief that capitalism and socialism are not the only alternative economic systems, that there is a “third way.” This alleged “third way” is interventionism, the hampered market economy, in which the state “seeks to influence the market by the intervention of its coercive power, but it does not want to eliminate the market altogether.”

Professor Mises demonstrates that interventionism, politically and economically, is unstable, impractical and futile. Unless it is abandoned and the free market restored, it leads necessarily to full socialism. As one illustration, he cites the futility of government enforced minimum wage rates: if minimum rates are fixed at the market level, they are useless; if they are raised above the level the free market would have determined, the result is permanent unemployment of a great part of the potential labor force, which cannot be absorbed into the market at economically unjustified wages. In the latter case, the government then has no choice but to add new regulations in the hope of making its initial regulation work. Since any interference with the free market produces harmful economic consequences, a government which will not abandon interventionist policies faces the constant necessity of taking further measures in the attempt to eliminate the consequences of past measures—until all economic freedom has been legislated out of existence and socialism has replaced capitalism.

Socialism, in this century, has taken two different forms. “The one pattern—we may call it the Marxian or Russian pattern—is purely bureaucratic. All economic enterprises are departments of the government just as the administration of the army and the navy or the postal system….The second pattern—we may call it the German or Zwangswirtschaft system—differs from the first one in that it, seemingly and nominally, maintains private ownership of the means of production, entrepreneurship, and market exchange….But the government tells these seeming entrepreneurs what and how to produce, at what prices and from whom to buy, at what prices and to whom to sell. The government decrees at which wages laborers should work and to whom and under what terms the capitalists should entrust their funds. Market exchange is but a sham.” Thus, socialism, Nazism and fascism are equally “leftist”; they differ, not in basic principle or goal, but only in techniques of implementation.

The American New Deal and the Fair Deal (and, one may add, the New Frontier) have followed the pattern of the Nazi or fascist variety of socialism. Many New Dealers consciously and admittedly adopted Mussolini’s corporate state as their model. Today, the state is not moving in the direction of making all economic enterprises departments of the government, but in the direction of making private ownership nominal, of telling “seeming entrepreneurs what and how to produce, at what prices and from whom to buy, at what prices and to whom to sell.” (Consider, for example, the government’s farm policy, or President Kennedy’s recent efforts to dictate steel prices.)

The Nazi slogan: “The commonweal ranks above private profit,” would be unreservedly endorsed by any socialist, and by any advocate of interventionism. This slogan implies, Mises states, “That profit-seeking business harms the vital interests of the immense majority and that it is the sacred duty of popular government to prevent the emergence of profits by public control of production and distribution.” If the Nazis, the socialists and the interventionists are agreed in their estimate of “profit-seeking business,” it is not astonishing that they are agreed in their estimate of how the “menace” of profit seeking should be dealt with: the annihilation of the freedom that makes profit seeking possible—that is, the annihilation of freedom.

Those who advocate interventionism deceive themselves and/or seek to deceive others if they pretend that the end they will achieve is anything other than totalitarian statism. The interventionist aims at the substitution of governmental force for the choices of individuals dealing by voluntary agreement on the free market. As Professor Mises points out: “If a man were to say: ‘I do not like the mayor elected by majority vote; therefore I ask the government to replace him by the man I prefer,’ one would hardly call him a democrat. But if the same claims are raised with regard to the market, most people are too dull to discover the dictatorial aspirations involved.”

For the reader who seeks to untangle the twisted pretensions of interventionism and to understand the fundamental political-economic alternative now confronting the world, Planned Chaos offers invaluable material. In an age when men are told that all extremes are evil, that one must neither demand complete freedom nor accept full slavery, but must endorse a “middle of the road,” Mises demonstrates that nothing but one or the other extreme is possible. “The issue,” he writes, “is always the same: the government or the market. There is no third solution.” The choice is coercion—or voluntary trade; slavery—or freedom.

[This review originally appeared in the January 1962 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter and was posted to Objectivist Living with the reviewer's permission on Tuesday, September 5, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]

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The Roosevelt Myth by John T. Flynn

reviewed by Barbara Branden

In the years of his power and the years since his death, eulogies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his alleged achievements grew and spread, mushrooming into an elaborate mythology. It is particularly the young people, children of the New Deal—too young during the 1930’s and early 40’s to have a first-hand knowledge of political events—who have been deluged by the massive propaganda effort, via textbooks, articles, lectures and speeches, conducted by those who share Roosevelt’s ideology.

In the wake of the 1929 depression, many of the country’s intellectual leaders were declaring that free enterprise had failed, that government must now take a more active part in directing the economic activities of the nation—that Americans must be given a new deal. Interventionist practices—the introduction of government controls into the economy—had been brought into American politics long before, and had been increasing since the turn of the century. But Roosevelt’s administration was the first deliberately to embrace Interventionism as a ruling philosophy of government and as a consistent policy; this was the “New Deal” which Americans were given.

Who were the creators of this policy, and what motivated them? What was its effect on the American form of government and economic system? What legacy has it left to our day? Was it a New Deal—or something very old, with a long and bloody history in Europe?

In his carefully documented, comprehensive account of the New Deal years, John T. Flynn provides the answers to such questions, by providing the facts which the mythology of Roosevelt and his times was intended to conceal.

The New Deal—states the myth—saved a desperate country from total economic collapse, and pulled it out of the worst depression in history. What are the facts?

When Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1932, there were over eleven million persons unemployed, over sixteen million on relief, and a government debt of sixteen billion dollars. Roosevelt was elected on a platform which promised to end the deficits, curtail spending, abolish useless bureaus, assure a sound currency and reduce taxes.

In the first one hundred days of his administration, he produced a deficit larger than Hoover had produced in two years, and created a burgeoning network of new bureaus, boards, administrations, commissions and agencies. One of these agencies, dedicated to “fighting” the depression, was the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, headed by Henry Wallace. The AAA paid men $700,000,000 within two years to burn oats, kill millions of hogs and cut corn production—while the Department of Agriculture issued a bulletin “telling the nation that the great problem of our time was our failure to produce enough food to provide the people with a mere subsistence diet”—and while we imported oats, lard and corn from abroad.

By 1939, Roosevelt had spent more than seventeen billion dollars of borrowed public funds, he had gone off the gold standard, taxes had more than doubled—and there were over eleven million persons unemployed, over nineteen million on relief. The revival of business investment, essential to economic recovery, was nowhere in sight.

At a time when his carefully manufactured “public image” was that of a near-omniscient national savior, Roosevelt complained—after his cabinet informed him of the administration’s failure to cope with the depression—“I am sick and tired of being told by Henry (Morgenthau) and everybody else what’s the matter with the country while nobody suggests what I should do.”

The New Deal—states the myth—was spearheaded and run by an intellectual, humanitarian elite, eminently competent to direct the course of the nation. With systematic detail, Flynn describes the hectic, carnival atmosphere that characterized the activities of this “elite”:

    —Roosevelt deciding that the price of gold should be raised to twenty-one cents, because twenty-one, being three times seven, is a “lucky number”—
    —Harry Hopkins informing the President that the Civil Works Administration had “got four million at work but for God’s sake don’t ask me what they are doing”—
    —Eleanor Roosevelt “gushing over the air for toilet preparations, mattresses and other products,” for which gushing she received from $1,000 to $4,000 an appearance, and basking in the attentions of the young leaders of Communist front organizations, while entertaining them on the White House lawn—
    —Henry Wallace, in search of his soul, sampling mystic cult after mystic cult, practicing vegetarianism and boomerang throwing, while directing the activities of the Department of Agriculture—
    —Roosevelt admitting to Frances Perkins, his Secretary of Labor, that he knew nothing of economics and had never read a book on the subject—
    —the Office of War Information dropping over North Africa such items as cakes of soap, coloring books, and pin buttons with a picture of Roosevelt colored to look like an Arab, in order to “sell” America to the North Africans—
    —Leon Henderson, head of the Office of Price Administration, reporting that his work “was fun all the time even when I was mad.”

“It was fun,” comments Flynn, “pushing 130 million people around.”

The New Deal—states the myth—secured our democratic system and restored its waning vitality. What are the facts?

Immediately upon his inauguration, Roosevelt reversed a central principle of his campaign: his pledge to resist the trend toward a powerful centralized government. The tentacles of government began to encircle business in a manner unprecedented in America.

Prominent New Dealers were extolling the fascist system of Mussolini. Roosevelt emulated that system through such means as the establishment of the National Recovery Administration. The NRA undertook to organize each industry into a trade association which would regulate production, prices, distribution, etc., under the supervision of the government.

Together, Flynn points out, the NRA and the AAA constituted “a plan to take the whole industrial and agricultural life of the country under the wing of government, organize it into vast farm and industrial cartels, as they were called in Germany, corporatives as they were called in Italy, and operate business and farms under plans made and carried out under the supervision of the government.”

The New Deal tentacles began encircling Congress. Roosevelt removed from Congress, and placed in the hands of the Executive, a significant part of the former’s constitutional prerogative of law-making. The countless bureaus created by Roosevelt’s demand were soon vested with virtual law-making powers; thee were so many of them, their duties so complex and varied, that it was impossible for Congress to police them all; gradually, directives and regulations began to issue forth from them “so that they actually became legislative and appropriating instrumentalities of a large area of government.”

A further step toward concentrating power in the hands of the Executive was the policy of “blank-check legislation.” Congress put billions of dollars into the President’s hands, to be spent as and when he chose. “The great purse—which is the greatest of all the weapons in the hands of a free parliament to oppose the extravagance of a headstrong executive—had been handed over to him.”

Some of Roosevelt’s power grabs—such as his plan to pack the Supreme Court with dedicated New Dealers—were blocked by Congress. Some of them—such as the NRA—were ultimately declared unconstitutional. But the basic tenet of the New Deal, the underlying philosophy of statism, was unchallenged. The “New” Deal had brought to America that “modern” resurrection of medievalism and mercantilism which was practiced by such distinguished “liberals” as Bismarck, Hitler and Mussolini.

Roosevelt followed their inspiration not only in his domestic policies, but also in his foreign policy: by resorting to war in order to “solve” his internal problems. He had found a solution to the depression in the spending of vast sums for National Defense.

“I say to you fathers and mothers and I will say it again and again and again. Your boys will not be sent into foreign wars.” This was Roosevelt’s promise to the American people in 1940. In 1941, states Flynn, he “exposed our fleet and our soldiers in Hawaii and the Philippine Islands to an attack which he knowingly invited.”

It was Roosevelt—states the myth—who led us through a great war for democracy and freedom, and who saved the civilization of Europe.

Eleven billion dollars of American taxpayers’ money was given to Russia during the war, in the form of Lend-Lease—dollars whose consequences, I might add, we can now see ninety miles from our shores. In secret agreements between Roosevelt and Stalin, sixteen European and Asiatic countries and over 725 million people were surrendered to Russian tyranny.

In his own economic convictions, John T. Flynn is not an advocate of laissez-faire capitalism; although he does not indicate his views clearly, he seems to sanction some form of mixed economy. But his ruthlessly factual presentation of the events of the New Deal period, and of the long-and-short-range consequences of its policies, make his book absorbing and eminently valuable.

When one is reading The Roosevelt Myth, one is heartened by a single thought: that by some near-miracle, America survived the New Deal. But then, when one reads today’s newspapers and considers the present political scene, one realizes that that is the question still to be decided.

[This review originally appeared in the December 1962 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter and was posted to Objectivist Living with the reviewer's permission on Tuesday, September 12, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.

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Chinatown & Deathwish

reviewed by Barbara Branden

Each of us probably has his own mental picture of the decadence that marked the closing days of the Roman Empire. My own picture is no doubt unrealistically exalted, because it comes from Sienkiewicz’ novel Quo Vadis. I think of a great city turned into an ocean of flame and smoke, and of the noble Petronius opening his veins so that with him might perish all the poetry and beauty left to his world. But if our own civilization should be destroyed, I would choose a more realistic picture of its terminal symptom and symbolic epitaph. I would visualize a corrupt, leering old man dragging a screaming girl-child from the blasted body of her dead mother and carrying her off to his incestuous lair—and I would imagine this picture accepted as high art by a respectful public and admiring critics. In a word, I would picture director Roman Polanski’s latest movie, Chinatown, a hymn to his stated conviction that life is a sewer. If my choice is valid, our civilization will end, not with a clap of thunder, but with a belch.

Those who do not care to see a movie if a reviewer reveals the ending should stop reading now. Or better still, don’t stop reading: I’d like to keep you away from it.

The story of Chinatown concerns a flaccidly well-meaning private detective (played by Jack Nicholson) who sets out to solve the mystery surrounding a beautiful woman (Faye Dunaway) whose husband has been murdered. After a series of events—mostly involving the exposure of the unspeakable corruption and depravity of businessmen and the ineffectuality and/or corruption of policemen—the beautiful woman is killed. She is not killed in spite of the actions of the detective, but as the direct, inevitable result of his efforts to protect her. At her side when she dies is her sister-daughter. (Yes, that’s right; the fifteen-year-old girl is the product of an incestuous relationship between the woman and her father.) The girl instantly falls into the lecherous hands of her father-grandfather (John Huston) from whom the mother was trying to save her. (The mind boggles at the possibility of a future offspring who will be daughter-aunt-sister and daughter-granddaughter-great-granddaughter.) The story’s climax and denouement has a black, sick, totally unintentional kind of humor; it is the reductio ad absurdum of the triumph of evil. It would be merely disgustingly silly if it were not for the movie’s reception by viewers and critics. Viewers are flocking to see it, and critics across the nation are hailing it as a major motion picture event, moving, profound, important.

To denounce the philosophical content of a movie is not, of course, esthetic criticism. A movie might be philosophically revolting, yet artistically brilliant. But, with the exception of a remarkable performance by Jack Nicholson, this is not the case with Chinatown. Polanski’s international reputation as a director is not justified by his work on this movie. Great—even competent—direction is not simply a matter of occasional sensitive and provocative moments, which, admittedly, Chinatown has. It involves many other aspects, among them tempo, pace, and purposefulness. Chinatown crawls by at a snail’s pace: throughout the film, we find ourselves gazing uncomprehendingly at interminable shots of someone meaningfully lighting a cigarette, meaningfully looking into space, meaningfully frowning, meaningfully thinking, meaningfully wondering, meaningfully hoping, etc., etc., etc., etc.—all of which contributes nothing but boredom.

Nevertheless, Polanski does have one important directorial talent, if one can endure the purpose to which it is dedicated. Throughout the movie, he imposes a single and unwaveringly consistent viewpoint upon his material, so that the final climax is prepared and justified not only by the events, dialogue, and characterization, but by the movie’s overall sense of life: the “life is a sewer” sense of life.

Examples: Early in the story, the detective’s nose is slashed open by the knife of a menacingly sadistic hoodlum (played, in a triumph of logical casting, by Polanski); thereafter, for approximately half the movie, a large white ludicrous bandage is plastered over Nicholson’s nose and much of his face; our hero is effectively transformed, if he weren’t already, into our anti-hero, lest we should be in danger of respecting or admiring him, which we weren’t. Just before the love scene between Nicholson and Dunaway, the bandage is removed, and Dunaway lovingly ministers to the oozing, bloody mess the bandage mercifully had hidden; the two then kiss; there is no risk that the audience will be swept up into their passion; it is not possible to feel anything except a cringing shudder at what the kiss must be doing to his nose. Finally, when Dunaway is shot to death, Polanski favors us with a final gilding of a gratuitous lily; we have the privilege of watching her brains emerge through her eye, just in case we missed the point.

For the record, let me say that I understand there was considerable tampering—by Polanski—with Robert Towne’s original script, specifically including the imposition of the present ending.

“Most of us,” announces the villain-father-grandfather-businessman (for whom rape and incest are only minor peccadilloes in a life which, since he’s a businessman, naturally is devoted to the rape of a city and the plundering of its poor) “never have to face the fact that at the right time and in the right place, we’re capable of anything.” This category of thematic statement is never intended to be taken literally, and Chinatown does not take it literally. Chinatown does not tell us that we are capable of anything; its characters do not even mistakenly blunder into doing good. It tells us that mankind is composed of swinish brutes and helpless incompetents, who, in their attempts to fight evil, only hasten its inevitable triumph. It tells us that, in the last analysis, we are capable only of evil.

Psychologists know that an individual who is poisoned by self-hatred cannot indefinitely exist in that state; he develops self-esteem or he destroys himself. The same is true of a culture. We are living in an age of self-hatred, both as individuals and as a nation. We bow our heads meekly while art, religion, and philosophy tell us that we are hopelessly morally sick. We agree to a national “Day of Humiliation”; we search our conscience as atonement for the sins committed by Richard Nixon; we lift to our moral shoulders the faults of our ancestors, accepting guilt because they sanctioned slavery even if we abhor it. Chinatown is only a particularly ugly addition to the endless parade of demands that we despise ourselves. It is the dead end of that view of ourselves which, if not replaced by self-esteem, may yet destroy civilization.

* * *

Death Wish is, in essence, a New York City Western—bringing to the city and modern man the values usually found only in Westerns. Sans horses, cowboys, and Indians, it shows us a decent and sensitive man of the city in a life-and-death confrontation with the savages of our modern world. It is a fascinating movie, suspenseful, taut, exciting. Its theme is the direct antithesis of Chinatown.

Death Wish is the story of a New York design engineer whose wife and daughter are brutally assaulted by three vicious, mindless thugs. As a result of the attack, the wife dies and the daughter retreats into hopeless psychosis. The man—played by Charles Bronson—turns to the police for help. But they tell him that they cannot help him; there is little chance that they ever will find the thugs; there is nothing they can do. There is, however, something that he cannot do. He cannot simply go about his business and forget what happened. He cannot survive, emotionally and morally, if he passively accepts the evil that destroyed the two people he loved.

In a particularly memorable scene, he asks his son-in-law—who is regretting the fact that he and his wife did not long ago escape the city—what one would call a man who, when faced with a destructive and frightening evil, runs away from it. “Civilized?” says the young man.

Bronson is not that “civilized.” Nor does he accept passivity and retreat as the hallmark of civilization. During the Korean War, he had been a conscientious objector. But now he deliberately sets himself up as a target for New York’s muggers. He begins walking the city’s parks at night, riding the midnight subways, sauntering along dark and deserted streets—like a Western sheriff enticing bandits to pick him off. When he is attacked and his life is threatened, he retaliates: he shoots his attackers to death. He does not do it hysterically or as a frenzied act of vengeance; he does it calmly, thoughtfully, unemotionally.

Bronson’s acting is impressive—clean, hard, and restrained. But the real triumph is that of screenwriter Wendell Mayes (who adapted Brian Garfield’s novel) and of director Michael Winner. There is not an unnecessary line of dialogue in the movie, not an unnecessary gesture or event or camera angle; everything is intensely purposeful, and therefore intensely exciting and gripping.

I detest the present trend of gratuitous bloody violence in films. I am offended by the sight of butchered corpses and by the sound of necks cracking under heels. But although there is one truly shocking scene of violence in Death Wish—the scene in which Bronson’s wife and daughter are assaulted—it is not offensive because it is fully justified by the plot and essential to the psychology of the protagonist. Further, when Bronson kills his attackers, the camera does not linger lovingly on wounds and death; like Bronson, the camera is concerned with extermination, not with slashed noses and oozing brains. Despite the nightmare quality of the original assault, despite the fact that the movie involves a series of killings, one does not leave the theater depressed. Quite the contrary. The reason for this pertains to the theme of Death Wish.

Many critics have argued that the movie’s message is: Each man his own vigilante. But this is absurd. A work of art does not tell us to imitate the particular concretes it utilizes; a work of art presents an abstract theme. The events of Death Wish are not the ones I personally would choose if I were presenting its theme, nor are they the ones I most would wish to see. They are primitive, but they work. Death Wish is not a demand that we all take to the streets with guns. It is the story of a man who refuses to submit to evil, who risks his life to fight it, and who wins. It is the story of a man who stands up in defense of what he believes to be right.

Most of the critics have denounced Death Wish, implicitly or explicitly, as brutish, sick, appealing to our base instincts, a glorification of murder, and fascistic. If the theme of Death Wish is fascistic—or any of the other adjectives they apply to it—then so is morality and self-assertion and independence and self-esteem. By this standard, only a film such as Chinatown, untainted by such concepts, is “democratic.”

Fortunately, movie-goers have not accepted the verdict of the reviewers. I understand that the film is playing to more-than-capacity crowds across the country and that audiences are cheering it enthusiastically. This is at least one encouraging sign that the self-contempt and self-hatred clawing at the insides of our society has not reached a vital organ—and may never do so.

It is, of course, a sad commentary on our culture that one must go to a movie about a man exterminating hoodlums in order to feel uplifted. But that is the fact. In the context in which we all live, Death Wish is uplifting. The character played by Charles Bronson is a man—and there are few such beings to be seen in movies today.

[This essay first appeared in the October 1974 issue of Libertarian Review and was posted to Objectivist Living with the author's permission on September 12, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.)

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Our Man Flint (movie) in “Cultural Barometer”

reviewed by Barbara Branden

[introduction: This column will appear at irregular intervals and will give brief reviews of current books, movies and plays which are not necessarily valuable or recommended, but which are indicative of today’s cultural state. The purpose of this column is to observe the present direction of our culture by means of its best barometer: art.]

Naturalism may be beginning to retreat from the screen before the advance of the secret-agent thrillers. Our Man Flint is one of the best examples to date of the timid, hesitant, slightly apologetic revival of Romanticism which is taking place. Starring the highly talented James Coburn, this story of the super-super-super agent of them all is witty, ingenious, fast-moving and immensely entertaining. (Flint’s mission is to thwart three master scientists who are attempting to take over the world by controlling its weather, his household staff consists of four beautiful girls, his suspenders are lined with razor blades, he engages in mortal combat with a bald anti-American eagle and he effortlessly demolishes Secret Agent 008.) Unlike too many Romantic thrillers—which laugh at their hero one moment, then treat him seriously the next—Our Man Flint is openly intended as humor. Because he is not meant to be believed literally, Secret Agent Derek Flint is not required to sneer at himself; the result is a good-natured, cheerful and light-hearted movie.

But, at its best, Our Man Flint represents only the dim foreshadowing of a possible return to Romanticism which deserves better than to be hidden behind a grinning comic mask.

[This review first appeared in the February 1966 issue of The Objectivist and was posted to Objectivist Living, with the author's permission, on Sunday, October 1, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote in “Cultural Barometer”

reviewed by Barbara Branden

This book has been hailed as a masterpiece by an almost unanimous consensus of today’s literati, and as the emergence of a new form of literature, the “non-fiction novel.” It is the dramatized report of the actual events surrounding a “real-life” crime—and, as such, may be termed a high-class true-confession story. It is the true account of two killers who, in the course of an attempted robbery, slaughtered an innocent and helpless family, then escaped, were pursued, captured, tried, convicted and eventually hanged.

The book is not without merit: it is, for the most part, well-written and structured; the author accomplishes the difficult task of creating an atmosphere of chilling suspense, despite the fact that the reader knows the outcome of the story; his treatment of the killers is often psychologically perceptive and sensitive.

In its projection of moral depravity, In Cold Blood is a step beneath The Police Gazette. The reader is offered the detailed study of two men who kill without motive, without passion and without regret. One of them states, discussing the murder: “I wonder why I did it….it wasn’t because of anything the Clutters [the murdered family] did. They never hurt me. Like other people. Like people have all my life. Maybe it’s just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it….nothing about it bothers me a bit. Half an hour after it happened, Dick was making jokes and I was laughing at them. Maybe we’re not human. I’m human enough to feel sorry for myself.” The author passes no moral judgment upon them, neither explicitly nor implicitly. What is clearly implied is that they—as much as the murdered family, and probably more—are victims, victims of a society that did not give them sufficient love. (Not a line of the book, which follows the killers from childhood to execution, gives even a hint of any qualities in either man that could have inspired love in anyone.) We are not expected to damn these men; we are expected to “understand”—and, of course, to forgive. This, presumably, is the way life is; this is what it makes of its “victims.”

In this book, the “slice of life” school has reached its apex. We are no longer reading about living men, in any but the strict biological sense. What we are now presented with, for our edification and pleasure, is a slice of death.

If 20th-century man stands at the brink of a new Dark Ages, and if he wishes to leave, in a time capsule, for the benefit of the men of some future civilization, only one book as evidence of why our civilization perished, I would nominate In Cold Blood—and its admiring reviews—as that legacy.

[This review first appeared in the February 1966 issue of The Objectivist and was posted to Objectivist Living, with the author's permission, on Sunday, October 1, 2006.]

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The Politics of Liberty (2-record LP album) by John Hospers

reviewed by Barbara Branden

Professor John Hospers, Director of the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, and author of such books as Libertarianism, Introduction to Philosophical Analysis and Human Conduct, was the presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party in the last election. He has now recorded, exclusively for Academic Associates, his talk entitled The Politics of Liberty.

The Politics of Liberty is a fascinating, lucid and persuasive presentation of the essentials of the libertarian political position. Dr. Hospers begins with the first principle of libertarianism: “that no one owns anyone’s life but his own, and that no one’s life belongs to other people to dispose of as they wish.” Arguing convincingly from this principle, and from the practical consequences of the idea he opposes, he makes clear what libertarians stand for and why, for instance, they oppose the draft and favor a volunteer army, why they refuse to sanction social security, why they oppose the public school system, why they reject anti-pornography legislation.

The libertarian society, Dr. Hospers explains, is one in which each man is free to believe, to think, and to act as he chooses, so long as he does not force his views or actions on others. “The libertarian ideal is the only utopia in which no one is a pawn on someone else’s chessboard.” And liberty includes economic liberty—it includes the freedom to produce and trade products and services on a free market, without interference by the government.

In the concluding section of his talk, Dr. Hospers outlines eleven factors which he calls the warning signs of totalitarianism, and discusses the status of each in our society today. These should be noted and heeded by anyone concerned with the future of freedom. Among them are: the government’s negative attitude toward private property—the presence of compulsory psychological treatment for those considered mentally disturbed—government imposed controls on wages and prices—the executive branch of government more powerful than the legislative.

The Politics of Liberty—like the politics of liberty—is imbued with an enormous respect for individual rights, and for the value and power of individual intelligence and judgment. But Dr. Hospers makes very clear the desperate danger which liberty faces today, and the need for understanding and action if the trend toward total government is to be reversed.

I recommend this talk highly. Libertarians will find it of great interest. Non-libertarians will find it a valuable introduction to the nature, the reasons and the implications of libertarianism.

[This review was first published in Academic Associates Book News, February 1973 (#10) and was posted with the author's permission to Objectivist Living on Sunday, October 15, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]

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The Oscar, Dear John, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Born Free (movies) in “Cultural Barometer”

Reviewed by Barbara Branden

If one were fully to accept, as an accurate portrayal of man, the views of his nature presented in a recent group of movies, one probably would consider moving, instantly and permanently, to the nearest zoo; one would hope to find there more acceptable companions. One might hesitate, however, and consider, instead, the possibility of migration to a lion’s den in Africa—because, one would recall, even zoos have human keepers.

What is man, according to three successful recent movies?

The Oscar, starring Stephen Boyd, is the story of a vicious, amoral actor’s rise to fame and fortune in Hollywood, a rise climaxed by his nomination for an Academy Award. (In the name of what looks like a hurriedly tacked-on moral lesson, he ultimately fails to win the Award.) The movie contains a series of flashbacks, showing the steps of his rise, which consisted of clawing, lying, cheating and plotting murder—but never, as far as one can judge, of learning to act. However, according to the story, the mores of Hollywood are such that learning to act as a means of achieving success would be the height of irrelevant naiveness; clawing, lying cheating and plotting murder are the accepted coin of a realm that voraciously feeds on and generously rewards depravity and vice.

The question has been raised by some critics: Why does Hollywood produce such a movie about itself?—Why does it present so revolting a portrayal of its actors and its moral code? But if one considers the history of Hollywood, this is not startling. Hollywood has never been committed to trend-setting; with a few notable exceptions, it has predominantly been the obedient servant of the current intellectual and esthetic trends. In the 30’s, glamour—even if of a rather crude kind—was valued by the culture; and Hollywood dutifully produced a string of movies containing gobs of glamour, while its publicity men photographed female stars as femmes fatales and male stars as dashing adventurers. Later, folksiness became the vogue, and we saw movies about the saccharinely wholesome folks next door, and photographs of stars barricaded behind aprons, babies, pots and pans. Today, glamour and folksiness are equally “camp,” and sewers are high fashion. The new matinee idols are Freudian complexes, Kraft-Ebbing case histories and Jungian subconsciousness; actors are photographed on psychiatric couches, proudly displaying, as the new décolleté, scandalously undraped neuroses and psychoses. In The Oscar, Hollywood is, as always, au courant.

If one wishes to avoid the “tooth and claw” view of man represented by The Oscar, one may turn instead to the lonely, gently sad, “lost waif” view of man offered by Dear John. A beautifully directed and acted Swedish movie, starring Jarl Kulle and Christina Schollin, Dear John is the story of a love affair between a ship’s captain and a young waitress whom he meets in port. It is intended to be a drama of sexual passion. It is advertised with quotes from reviews commending it as “a tour de force of erotic realism,” “an unabashed look at real-life sex.” Yet despite scenes of near-nudity, despite the frankness of the dialogue, despite the explicitness of the sex scenes, it is, in fact, almost completely sexless. Its theme is loneliness. It is loneliness that draws the young couple together, it is loneliness that causes them to begin a sexual affair, it is loneliness that threatens their relationship, it is loneliness that ultimately leads them to huddle together for mutual comfort and solace. The story, the characterizations, the romance, the motivation, all are startlingly passionless; the lovers are not driven together by an intense and overwhelming attraction; they cling together like frightened children seeking warmth. In this film, man is not evil nor vicious nor ugly; he is wistfully, dispiritedly helpless; love is his last forlorn hope, his only means of achieving momentary forgetfulness and the illusion of togetherness.

Vaguely depressed by this passionless sexual affair, one may move on from Dear John to the sado-masochistic view of man, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The movie, which stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, depicts an evening in the life of George, an ineffectual, cynical professor of history, and his wife Martha, a drunken, vulgar shrew; they entertain a new young faculty couple and, during the course of the evening, they drink enormously, swap sexual partners, and tear at each other verbally in an attempt to inflict as much pain and draw as much spiritual blood as possible.

Surely no one can go to this movie—whose critics have announced that it is brutal, blunt, profane, anguished, that it “boils with venom and power,” that it is “high-voltage drama”—without expecting to be, if not entertained or edified, then certainly shocked and appalled. But instead of shuddering, one yawns. One discovers how bland and boring large, meaningless doses of screeching viciousness can become. The four-letter words and uninhibitedly sick sexuality of the protagonists have about ten-minutes worth of shock value, after which one feels a profound “So what?” One feels the same exhausted desire to go home that one would feel in real life if one were forced to watch the venomous bickerings of two sodden, ugly drunks.

There is, however, one real shock in the movie—but not of the kind the author and producers intended. The shock results from a glaring omission, an omission that speaks volumes about the author and about the critics and movie-goers who have completely failed to notice it. What is omitted from the film is any trace or hint of motivation. George and Martha are cruel and violent, they revel in inflicting and receiving pain, they are consumed by hatred and malice, they are joyless, vindictive and defeated—and no one, most particularly not the author, has thought to ask “Why?” The movie contains not the slightest indication. The reason is supposed to be self-evident, requiring no explanation. It is self-evident that such is man. Men are brutal, destructive savages; we all know that, don’t we?—we all know it by introspection, don’t we?

For those of us who don’t know it, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has nothing to offer.

Where can one go to see courage and benevolence and loyalty and integrity and intelligence? Where can one go for emotional fuel, for the sight of a living being proudly fighting for its life and its values, and winning against terrible odds? Why, one can go to a lion’s den in Africa—to a movie about the remarkable lioness, Elsa—to Born Free.

Born Free, starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, is the true story of Elsa, a lioness who was found as a cub by Joy Adamson, wife of an African Game Warden, and raised with the love and care one would give to a puppy or a kitten. But when Elsa is grown, and has become thoroughly domesticated, the Adamsons have to choose between sending her to the imprisonment of a zoo or training her for a life of wild freedom in the jungle—in which she is now totally unfit to survive. They choose to do the latter, to train Elsa to fend for herself, to stalk and hunt, to kill for food, to become the fierce wild animal she was born to be.

More than once, Elsa almost fails to survive the rigors of the jungle in which they leave her, and limps back to the Adamsons, battered and emaciated, only to be nursed back to health and to go, once more, with weary, calm dignity, into lonely danger. After months of excruciating effort, of exhausting, heart-breaking failures, the Adamsons and Elsa achieve what had never been done before: successfully returning a domesticated lioness to her original state of freedom—with the added miracle that she never forgets the Adamsons nor ceases to love them. In the end, wild and self-sufficient again, a proud Elsa comes back to visit her foster parents, leading her own strapping cubs to show them, while her puzzled, aloof mate waits in the distance.

Born Free is an entrancing story of dedication and perseverance, of devoted struggle, of loyalty and love. One need not be an animal lover to enjoy the sight of Elsa’s intelligence and heroism—and to wish that movie makers would grant to man at least some of that same potentiality.

[This review was first published in The Objectivist), September 1966, and was posted with the author's permission to Objectivist Living on Sunday, October 15, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]

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Capable of Honor by Allen Drury in “Cultural Barometer”

Reviewed by Barbara Branden

Capable of Honor, Allen Drury’s third and most recent political novel, is a fascinating—and frightening—expose of the liberal columnists, commentators, broadcasters, writers and reviewers who largely control our media of communication.

“They have made it virtually impossible,” Drury writes,

for anyone who disagrees with them to receive an impartial hearing in America. They have successfully scoffed and attacked and withered almost every attempt to state the opposing view. They have established such a monopoly on the means of communication that those who venture to assert an independence from them are subjected instantly and automatically to a savage campaign to smear, suppress, or ridicule down. It is no mean accomplishment, and Walter [Walter Dobius, the novel’s chief liberal columnist and chief pundit of American journalism] and his world are justified when they reflect, with the smugness born of a secure intellectual hegemony, that their views, and their prejudices, are quite, quite safe.

If their countrymen sometimes show a certain restiveness at this, if on occasion there is some harsh indication—such as, say, a roar of cheers at a public meeting when someone attacks the press—Walter and his world are highly indignant and dismayed. Their consternation is, in fact, quite comical. It is not enough for them to exercise the virtual censorship of American thought that they do, in fact, exercise: it is necessary to their self-esteem that they be allowed to believe that they are getting away with it.

In Capable of Honor, Allen Drury refuses to let them get away with it. Brilliantly, absorbingly, with unmistakable authenticity—an authenticity which his readers can verify by turning to any liberal newspaper, magazine, radio or TV newscast of their choice—former Washington correspondent Drury draws a complex and detailed portrait of Walter and his world.

The plot of the novel—which picks up where Drury’s earlier novels, Advise and Consent and A Shade of Difference, left off—concerns the struggle of three potential Presidential candidates for their party’s nomination; it concerns their relationship to Walter’s world—and to the crucially important issue of whether America should deal with communism by unending accommodation and appeasement, by “crawling on one’s knees to Moscow,” or by taking a firm, unequivocal but unbelligerent stand, refusing to be intimidated and retaliating against force with force.

One of the three candidates is the President of the United States, Harley M. Hudson. His unforgivable, damnable, mortal sin—in the eyes of Walter and his world—is that when, in a far-away corner of the earth called Gorotoland, American citizens are butchered and American property destroyed by communist-backed rebels, he sends in troops to put down the revolt and to defend American lives and property. He, his policies, and his Secretary of State, Orrin Knox—who is also a candidate for the nomination—face the full scale assault of the liberal press. The two men are called warmongers, aggressors, imperialists—murderers. Newspapers and magazines, radio and TV programs are flooded with “objective” reports to that effect.

Spearheading the attack against the government’s policies, Walter writes:

Using the flimsy pretext that freedom-loving elements in Gorotoland, seeking the just achievements of their just desires, have inadvertently attacked and possibly killed a handful of Americans and may also have damaged an oil monopoly’s plants, Harley M. Hudson has committed his country to what amounts to a state of war in the middle of Africa.

A montage of newspaper stories that follow in Walter’s wake, captures the slanting and distortion that will be painfully familiar to ay reader: a story about European opinion condemning the United Stats—based on quotes from thirty-seven anti-American newspapers and five pro; photographs from Gorotoland showing rebel women mourning the death of their children; full-color spreads detailing the misery of captured rebel soldiers. The picture of a brutal, overbearing United States terrorizing a helpless little backward nation gradually comes into sharp relief.

How have Walter and his world built up their influence to the point where they can impose such a view on the country? How do they get away with it? Drury answers:

His [Walter’s] columns, a little turgid but filled with the calm certainty that he was absolutely right…laid down a line that was frequently echoed by editors not quite sure of themselves, local columnists casting about for a subject to fill up today’s six hundred words, national commentators needing inspiration with which to face the evening cameras, book and drama critics anxious to maintain their standing at Manhattan cocktail parties, reporters who found themselves awed and impressed by his fabulous reputation and so inclined, often quite unconsciously, to see the news and transmit it with a selection and emphasis that subtly but powerfully reflected his ideas.

Drury adds:

It would really be quite naïve to think that this is a deliberate plot on the part of Walter and his world. There is here no Great Conspiracy such as their more conservative countrymen profess to see. There is, rather, the much simpler, quite naïve and really quite pathetic conspiracy of just wanting to be popular with the right people in the right places…to live snug and secure in a nest of parroted certainties about all the frightful problems to which you do not, really, know the answers; and to have the comfortable assurance that nobody is going to be sarcastic about your ideas, nobody is going to tear down your reputation, nobody is going to treat you with ridicule….It is just that it is so much more pleasant to be popular with your friends than it is to write the harsh, objective truth. It is so much easier and more comfortable to adopt the automatic, well-polished attitudes of the group than it is to take the hard and lonely road of thinking for yourself. It is so much nicer—and so much more profitable—to be In than Out.

Drury’s portrayal of the novel’s third major figure, Ted Jason, liberal Governor of California, is a fascinating psychological study of the slow and deadly moral decay of a man who wants political power, but who has no firm political principles. Jason wants to be President, not for any ideological purpose, not in the name of great ideals, but for the glory and power of the office. When his story begins, he is not an evil man; when it ends, he is. Drury shows each step of his gradual, at first almost imperceptible, betrayals of honor, the steps by which he moves from one equivocation to the next, from one compromise to the next, from one dishonor to the next. He had tried to use, for his own ends, radical groups from all parts of the political spectrum—to use them, but never to commit himself to them; he finds himself, at last, coerced into the image of their desires, the slave of those he has wooed, the prisoner of his creators; he finds himself, at last, helplessly silent in the face of riots led by those of his followers who do have long-range political goals, silent in the face of their Storm Trooper methods, silent and helpless in the face of the blood they spill.

Ted Jason is, of course, the favored candidate of Walter and his world. He is their fair-haired boy, their hope for the future—the malleable man they need. All their energies are devoted to promoting him. The same newspapers that call Hudson and Knox aggressors, and that bury snide reviews of Knox’s collected speeches somewhere on page 23, rush into print with lead articles, cover stories, personality sketches and interviews in depth on Jason, and with featured reviews of his collected speeches, announcing them as “must” reading. In countless women’s magazines, wistfully admiring articles on Mrs. Jason’s recipes, hairdo and clothes are presented for the edification of the public.

Drury follows the three candidates—with Walter and his world yapping at their heels—up to and through the nominating convention in San Francisco. The convention is the scene of a mountingly suspenseful and violent political struggle—and of a startling climax that more than lives up to the promise of the suspense. I shall not reveal the surprises here; I shall say only that Drury understands, to an extent equaled by very few contemporary writers, the art of building a story to a climax that is both unexpected and completely convincing.

Allen Drury combines literary talents of a very high order with a writing style that is, unfortunately, sometimes pedestrian and labored. But he is a master of the dramatic situation: he has the ability to put his characters into situations of maximum conflict that keep his reader breathlessly eager to know the outcome.

His treatment of the motivation of his characters is, however, uneven. Despite the psychological acumen of his portray of Jason, and of his analysis of how Walter’s world achieves and maintains its influence, Drury’s grasp of the psychology of his characters is far less impressive in other respects, and constitutes a major weakness of Capable of Honor. Drury never pronounces an unequivocal moral judgment on men; he denounces actions and their consequences, but not the actors. It is as if the concept that some men are evil, at least in certain respects, has no reality for him; and in his attempts to explain their actions without this concept, he is hopelessly inadequate. He admits that Walter and his world are deliberately suppressing and distorting facts, that their desire is to run the country as they choose, a desire to be fulfilled by any means whatever; but the worst he will say of them is that their reasons “are not particularly sinister or unpatriotic. Rather they spring from idealism carried to arrogance, patriotism carried to intolerance, egotism carried close to the point of insanity.”

But precisely because Drury has made these men so brilliantly real, his explanation is utterly unconvincing, Idealism does not become vicious opportunism; love of one’s country does not turn to attempts to destroy it; conceit (if that is what Drury means by egotism) does not turn to hatred-filled social metaphysics. One wishes to say to Drury: There are evil men in the world; a liar is not a misguided honest man; a power-luster is not a misguided friend of humanity; a murderer is not a confused man of peace. The world is not perishing because of the men who don’t know the good, but because of the men who refuse to know it.

Drury is not a writer in the Romantic tradition, but he is a journalist of unusual skill. In his three political novels, he has presented a fictionalized political history of our times that has the unmistakable ring of truth, that captures, through interesting events and characters, “the way it is” in America in the twentieth century.

The evidence of Drury’s accuracy is all around us:

In Time magazine, October 14, 1966, there is a description of a TV newscaster’s indecision

over whether to run the now-famous film sequence showing U.S. Marines in August 1965 burning a Vietnamese village…it was decided that the pictures were simply too good to pass up…’This is what the war in Viet Nam is all about,’ he [the narrator] intoned, as the cameras passed over crying women and old men…To him, the war in Viet Nam was all about husky, well-equipped Marines burning down an entire village, leveling 150 homes…wreaking a kind of harsh vengeance.

In Capable of Honor, a puzzled newspaper editor wonders:

‘Aren’t there more people friendly to America who might have been interviewed?’ Or, ‘Aren’t there any non-rebel women who lose children in the fighting, too?’ And, ‘Isn’t war hell for non-rebel soldiers, too, when they get captured by the rebels?’

In The New York Times, October 2, 1966, an editorial objects to the “escalation” of the Viet Nam war:

Can the United States steadily escalate the war in Vietnam, prepare for a still bigger war next year, and at the same time bring about peace negotiations with Hanoi? Peace offers with one hand; killing, burning, defoliating, destroying, bombing with the other.

In Capable of Honor, a supporter of the President’s policies in Gorotoland states, to a citizen of Walter’s world:

It’s always the same, with you and your crowd, isn’t it? You always succeed in turning everything upside down so that you get the whole world arguing about what the United States has done—instead of what has been done to the United States. Ignoring, of course, very conveniently, the fact that if nothing had been done to us—we wouldn’t be doing anything.

On August 16, 1959, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, there appeared a strongly favorable review of Allen Drury’s first political novel, Advise and Consent. The reviewer stated: “I believe that Advise and Consent will stand as one of the finest and most gripping political novels of our era. Many Americans will learn about their Government through its dramatic pages.” In the Times daily book page, on August 11, 1959, another reviewer stated: “This is the best novel about Washington I have ever read.”

Advise and Consent is indeed a fascinating novel; it is not in the liberal mainstream—since it presents the beginnings of Drury’s case against the philosophy of peace with Russia at any price—but the main body of its action is devoted primarily to a presentation of the mechanics of politics as they operate in the Senatorial conflict over the President’s appointee for Secretary of State. Some of the liberal press recognized the danger signs, and denounced the novel; the Times apparently felt it could afford to be objective.

A featured review of Drury’s second political novel, A Shade of Difference, in the Times Book Review, September 23, 1962, was less enthusiastic. In this novel, Drury challenges the liberals’ deification of the United Nations. His book is concerned with the interaction of the white and Afro-Asian races in the United Nations and with racial problems in America; he shows the passionate anti-Americanism of most of the Afro-Asian delegates, and the naïve, benevolent good will of Americans which permits them to put up with vicious denunciations, venomous attacks, trickery, treachery and hatred. Even though A Shade of Difference concludes with Drury’s unconvincing and embarrassingly sentimental plan for the U.N. as our only hope for the future, the Times reviewer found it necessary to chide Drury: “There I relatively little in the way of an understanding and compassionate heart.” Drury’s stock was dropping; apparently he was attacking too much that is dear to the hearts of liberals.

With the publication of Capable of Honor, it is as if the Times deliberately set out to prove Allen Drury’s thesis about the nature of the liberal press—to prove it by doing precisely what Drury accuses them of doing. Capable of Honor is an impassioned denunciation of the liberal press—and Drury pays the inevitable penalty. Now, a writer who warranted front page enthusiasm in the Times Book Review for Advise and Consent, is relegated to page 54. (Even Orrin Knox’s collected speeches were buried no deeper than page 23.) In a shockingly snide and malicious review, worthy of Walter at his best—or worst—a writer formerly honored for his great talent is attacked, distorted, ridiculed. A writer formerly called a reporter of rare perception and sensitivity is accused of fictionalizing reality beyond recognition.

To know fully how effective and important a case Allen Drury has made in Capable of Honor, one need look no further than The New York Times Book Review. As Drury said: “Everyone who questions must be attacked, everyone who disagrees must be vilified, everyone who opposes must be slandered and condemned…It is necessary to their self-esteem that they be allowed to believe that they are getting away with it.”

[This review was first published in The Objectivist, October 1966 and was posted with the author's permission to Objectivist Living on Sunday, October 15, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]

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  • 4 weeks later...

I had forgotten Barbara Branden's review of Our Man Flint. Of the spy-spoof movies it holds up well. James Coburn as an actor has good body of work wheather as a supporting actor, villian or hero. He's worth watching and Our Man Flint is one of his best.

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  • 4 years later...

I watched "Our Man Flint" (or some of it) many years after first reading Barbara's review in a bound volume of Rand's publication. I found OMF silly and boring, but perhaps I'll give it another try some day.

Edited by Starbuckle
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