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Batman: The Dark Knight Rises

Batman: The Dark Knight Rises

Before the third of the Batman trilogy hit theaters, I had heard that The Dark Knight Rises was a film without hope, with a long and dreary narrative that never loosens its grip. It leaves the viewer without a sense of answers.

I saw it and left confused. It saw it again, and left confused again. All the while, I kept wondering if this interpretive effort would pay off. Maybe it’s just another movie and lacks the ideological significance of the previous two.

I too had read several reviews that had condemned the film from a left-wing point view, arguing that it took a cheap shot at the Occupy Wall Street movement, suggesting that it consists mainly of brainless menaces who are easily manipulated by a strongman leader. The filmmakers deny this.

Regardless, this was probably the best political feature of the film.

However, the merit of its warning about left-wing populism was seriously compromised by the portrayal of the Gotham cops as saintly guardians of the social order. Neoconservatives loved this part of the film, made all the better to them because the prisons are full and Gotham is ruled by a civilian-led authoritarian regime of tight law and surveillance — the neocon dream come true.

What’s going on here? Why is the movie so full of mixed messages and, in the end, so unsatisfying?

Finally, it hit me. And this will be perfectly obvious once you hear it.

The problem is that the film gives Gotham (and us) a choice between two forms of despotism, one “left wing” and one “right wing,” and asks us to choose the lesser of two evils. We can have one of two systems: bureaucratic/authoritarian or revolutionary/dictatorial. The idea of a self-managing society is just out of the question. The film biases that choice by showing one as offered by the evil villain and the other by a corrupt, yet stable status quo.

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ARTICLE | Ray Bradbury: Anarchist at Heart Thumbnail

Ray Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012)

On June 5, acclaimed author Ray Bradbury passed away. I can’t say I have been much affected by the loss. My relationships with most authors typically begin and end within the pages of their books. I find that delving into writers’ and actors’ lives — specifically the components of their political beliefs — is often a disappointing venture to complete. Yet it still saddens me that our world is no longer graced by the man’s presence.

It is interesting that he descended from Mary Bradbury, a woman who was convicted and sentenced to hang in the 1600s during the infamous Salem witch trials. After such brutalities were imposed on the family, I can’t tell if it’s nature or nurture that Ray grew up to be skeptical of the way things were. Among Mary’s other descendents is Ralph Waldo Emerson, the world-renowned individualist writer who grew up to say, “The less government we have the better.” I found out a few years ago that one of my great-great-great-great- ad infinitum grandmothers, too, was prosecuted as a witch during the Puritans’ wicked trials. I can take this only as a fantastic compliment and hope that my antistate relatives were fighting the good fight with the Bradbury family, leading to the libertarian ideals I now cherish so deeply.

Bradbury’s first original book, Fahrenheit 451, is a fiery testament against the censorship of opposing ideas. He maintained repeatedly that the people — not the state — were the book’s antagonists, but the real enemy, more than the actual individuals in question, was their obsession with political correctness, which led to the shredding and burning of old literature in the first place. And as anyone will tell you, we libertarians typically have little patience for political correctness. It does nothing except dilute the true meaning of words and stupefies the population into apathy.

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ARTICLE | Market Failure? The Case of Copyright Thumbnail

Government Failure by Gordon Tullock, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady

How gigantically humongous and intrusive is the federal government? A traditional measure is to look at the pages of regulations in the Federal Register, which is, by now, probably the world’s largest book collection. The problem with this approach is that it takes no account of how a single bad regulation can have monstrously deleterious effects.

Copyright regulation is a good example of this. There was no universal enforcement until the very late part of the 19th century, and terms were mostly short in the early days of this regulation. In the course of the 20th century, regulations became ever more tight and the copyright terms ever longer, so much so that today, the words you sign away to a conventional publisher are theirs to keep for your lifetime plus 70 years!

One standard argument for doing this is that noncopyrighted works will not be efficiently exploited. You have to assign ownership or else the resource will vanish into the ether. No one will care about it, and civilization will lose extremely valuable literary works. Our market for ideas will be impoverished.

Now, to me, this argument seems obviously false, but that’s probably because of my own experience in publishing. I’ve seen it happen — so many times that it is predictable — that once a work has fallen out of print but is still under some kind of protection, it is mostly neglected by the heirs. No one who “owns” the work has the incentive to bring it to light, while those who care about it fear the law or don’t want to pay some arbitrary price set by the owners.

Meanwhile, when a work is public domain, there are dozens of people bidding to get it into print. This was true all throughout history, actually. The reason American school kids in the 19th century read British literature is that it was not regulated in the United States, and therefore, it could be sold very cheaply and distributed very widely. It is true today: Whether music or books, the material in the commons is far more in demand than that which is regulated. And the demand leads to the supply.

In other words, the opposite of the conventional exploitation theory is correct. The copyrighted works drop from memory, while the public domain works last and last. But of course, this observation draws from my deep involvement in the industry, and we can’t expect academic scribblers to understand anything about how the world actually works in real life.

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The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

Whatever good you have heard about The Hunger Games, the reality is more spectacular. Not only is this the literary phenom of our time, but the movie that created near pandemonium for a week from its opening is a lasting contribution to art and to the understanding of our world. It’s more real than we know.

In the story, a totalitarian and centralized state — it seems to be some kind of unelected autocracy — keeps a tight grip on its colonies to prevent a repeat of the rebellion that occurred some 75 years ago. They do this through the forced imposition of material deprivation, by unrelenting propaganda about the evil of disobedience to the interests of the nation-state and with “Hunger Games” as annual entertainment.

In this national drama and sport, and as a continuing penance for past sedition, the central state randomly selects two teens from each of the 12 districts and puts them into a fight-to-the-death match in the woods, one watched like a reality show by every resident. The districts are supposed to cheer for their representatives and hope that one of their selected teens will be the one person who prevails.

So amidst dazzling pageantry, media glitz and public hysteria, these 24 kids — who would otherwise be living normal lives — are sent to kill each other without mercy in a bloody zero-sum game. They are first transported to the opulent capitol city and wined, dined, and trained. Then the games begin.

At the very outset, many are killed on the spot in the struggle to grab weapons from a stockpile. From there, coalitions form among the groups, however temporary they may be. Everyone knows there can only be one winner in the end, but alliances — formed on the basis of class, race, personality, etc. — can provide a temporary level of protection.

Watching all this take place is harrowing to say the least, but the public in the movie does watch as a type of reality television. This is the ultimate dog-eat-dog setting, in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” in the words of Thomas Hobbes. But it is also part of a game the kids are forced to play. This is not a state of nature. In real life, they wouldn’t have the need to kill or be killed. They wouldn’t see each other as enemies. They wouldn’t form into evolving factions for self-protection.

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The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

So you want to see Hunger Games when it comes out on Thursday at midnight? It’s not likely that you will get the chance. Tickets in my community have been sold out for weeks. In fact, the first 10 showings of the film are sold out. This disappoints me greatly because it is one of the few teen flicks I’ve really wanted to see.

The whole phenomenon seems set to make the Harry Potter hysteria and the Twilight mania seem like warm-up acts. Ask around among teens, and you will hear this confirmed. This is a true example of mass frenzy. Actually, the whole thing seems like a modern “madness of crowds.” It’s “pandemonium,” as People magazine put it.

Both the plot line and the marketing genius have lessons for our time.

Based on a book by Suzanne Collins that came out in 2008, the film tells the story of an impoverished, totalitarian society in which rebellion among the subjects is punished by the creation of a killing game for mass entertainment. A teenage girl is put in the position to kill or be killed, but she cleverly plots to stand up to the regime by cooperating with her opponent. Together, they win the hearts of the crowd and bring the regime to its knees.

In other words, it is a story about personal freedom against a powerful state, a tale of courage and defiance in the face of power. The reviews by actual readers (versus professional critics) are over the top. It’s Amazon’s No. 1, and it has 4,000 reviews and counting. This is a phenom.

Aside from the plot line, there is something contemporary about the theme of sheer deprivation and survival. It sums up the way young people are looking at the opportunities they are being presented in these times. We aren’t playing hunger games yet, but when an entire generation is pretty sure that it will not fare as well as its parents’ generation, that’s not good. Life seems like the zero-sum game posited in the film.

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Dr. Uchronia

Dr. Uchronia

The history that didn’t happen can be just as interesting as the history that did.

This article is a small example of its own topic. Except by chance, I wouldn’t now be writing it. Not finding what I wanted while browsing in our library’s magazine aisles, I came across mention of “uchronie” in Le Nouvel Observateur. The philosopher Charles Renouvier chose this word as the title of his novel of 1857 and 1876; he coined it from Greek roots meaning “no time.” He was following the pattern set by St. Thomas More, whose Utopia derives from roots meaning “no place.” Utopia is a place that does not exist; uchronia is a time that did not exist. Uchronian works — to introduce the English adjective — are also called “what-if,” alternative, conjectural, or counterfactual history. They consider what would have happened if something else had chanced to happen.

Such works fall into two categories. The distinction is fuzzy but useful. Writings of the first kind, unlike actual history or a standard historical novel, are sheer fiction. They are not speculations about real events; they are stories that stand on their own. The Star Wars movies and Tolkien’s tales are good examples. Another is Islandia, a novel by Austin Tappan Wright, published posthumously in 1942. Wright describes events and personalities in a country on a fictional continent in the Southern Hemisphere before World War I. The people of Islandia, while highly civilized and advanced in philosophy and psychology, prefer their old ways, rejecting railroads and most other modern technology and narrowly limiting contact with the outside world. The reader (this one, anyway) drifts with the author into sympathy with the Islandian way of thinking.

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) projects an opposite vision, one intended as backward only in an ironic sense; it imagines a prosperous and happy socialist utopia of 2000. This uchronia actually exerted some influence in its time, converting many readers to socialism because they wanted to live in the world of Bellamy’s vision.

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REVIEW ARTICLE | Henry Hazlitt, Literary Critic Thumbnail

The Anatomy of Criticism (1933)Remembered mostly for his contributions to economics, including his pithy and still-timely classic Economics in One Lesson (1946), Henry Hazlitt was a man who wore many hats. He was a public intellectual and the author or editor of some twenty-eight books, one of which was a novel, The Great Idea (1961) — published in Britain and later republished in the United States as Time Will Run Back (1966) — and another of which, The Anatomy of Criticism (1933), was a trialogue on literary criticism. (Hazlitt’s book came out twenty-four years before Northrop Frye published a book of criticism under the same title.) Great-great nephew to British essayist William Hazlitt, the boy Henry wanted to become like the eminent pragmatist and philosopher-psychologist William James, who was known for his charming turns of phrase and literary sparkle. Relative poverty would prevent Hazlitt’s becoming the next James. But the man Hazlitt forged his own path, one that established his reputation as an influential man of letters.

In part because of his longstanding support for free market economics, scholars of literature have overlooked Hazlitt’s literary criticism; and Austrian economists — perhaps for lack of interest, perhaps for other reasons — have done little to restore Hazlitt’s place among the pantheon of twentieth-century literary critics. Yet Hazlitt deserves that honor. He may not have been a Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, Cleanth Brooks, William K. Wimsatt, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, or Kenneth Burke, but Hazlitt’s criticism is valuable in negative terms: he offers a corrective to much that is wrong with literary criticism, both then and now. His positive contributions to literary criticism seem slight when compared to those of the figures named in the previous sentence. But Hazlitt is striking in his ability to anticipate problems with contemporary criticism, especially the tendency to judge authors by their identity. Hazlitt’s contributions to literary criticism were not many, but they were entertaining and erudite, rivaling as they did the literary fashions of the day and packing as much material into a few works as other critics packed into their entire oeuvres.

Hazlitt became literary editor of The Nation — a position once held by Paul Elmer More — in 1930. At that time, formalism was the dominant school of literary analysis in Russia, and the New Criticism was in its nascent stages in America. The former scrutinized supposedly invariant linguistic patterns or grammars of poetry and sought to divorce authorial biography from textual criticism. Formalism also sought to break down literature into its constituent elements: form, irony, meter, voice, plot, point of view, and so forth. Proponents of Russian formalism included Shklovsky, Boris Eikhenbaum, Yuri Tynyanov, Boris Tomashevsky, Vladimir Propp, and Roman Jakobson. Each of these men produced idiosyncratic works that have in common a certain attention to the manifest structure of language. Each considered syntactical systems as imperative to the organization and meaning of artistic works. In 1930, the same year in which Hazlitt assumed his position at The Nation, Shklovsky renounced formalism, which had come under assault by socialist and communist ideologues who insisted that criticism tow party lines and tolerate no dissent. It would be another three decades at least before Russian formalism received extensive critical treatment in America — except among small Slavicist academic circles — but the commonalities shared by formalism and the New Criticism reveal something (what, exactly, is debatable) about the global trajectory of literary criticism during a topsy-turvy era.

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