Chronicles, April 2009

George McCartney’s review of the movie The Reader begins with a description of a comedy sketch in which Kate Winslet said that making a movie about the Holocaust is a sure way to win an Oscar.  That part starts at 3:13 in the clip below.

McCartney argues that the movie misses the moral point of Bernhard Schlink’s novel.  Movie and novel both dramatize a sexual relationship in the late 1950s between Hanna, a former Nazi concentration camp guard, and Michael, at the time a 15 year old boy.  The two see each other again years later, when Hanna and other war criminals are on trial and Michael is a law student observing the process.  For McCartney, the key scene in the novel comes at this trial:

In the novel, Schlink’s point is that Hanna is being personally scapegoated for crimes that many others participated in, whether actively or passively.  To prosecute her without admitting this is to perpetuate the nation’s guilt and ramify its bitter consequences.  The novel fully dramatizes the wholly unwarranted self-righteousness of the other young German law students as they observe the trial.  They take it as an occasion to despise the older generation, including their parents, for their complicity in the policies of the Third Reich.  Michael would undoubtedly be with them but for his relationship with Hanna.  As it is, he’s left with the impossible burden of coming to terms with her culpability in the midst of his lingering feelings for her. 

Questioned at this trial about mass murders in which she participated, Hanna asks the judge in a state of true bewilderment, “What would you have done?” 

Of course, with the moral clarity available after events, it’s all too obvious what she should have done.  Schlink’s larger point is that it’s also obvious what the Germans should have done about their Nazi rulers.  But as Hitler rose to power and the Nazis took command of state institutions, barraging the populace with ceaseless propoaganda complemented by a relentless program of civilian surveillance, what course was safely open to the ordinary individual?  It’s easy, Schlink implies, for those who enjoy freedom today to say their elders should have resisted.  Of course they should have.  So should the Russians have resisted the rise of the Bolsheviks and Stalin’s police state.  So should all Americans have denounced George W. Bush’s criminal policies.  Schlink argues that these should haves are only helpful in the present if applied by those who realize that they themselves may not have had the moral heroism necessary to stand up to those in power.   

The novel “does a fair job of examining” the “deformation of a soul” like Hanna’s, a deformation which made it possible for her to commit acts of immense violence while seeing herself only as a victim.  The movie, by contrast, dwells on the actors’ physical nakedness, offering little insight into the psychological terrain in which the characters made their decisions.   “We need to see more than the actors’ breasts, buttocks, and genitalia to understand them.  We need principally to understand what happened to Hanna to make her the way she is.  On screen, we never do.” 

McCartney also objects to the fact that the sex scenes are played out between an 18 year old man playing a 15 year old boy and a 33 year old woman.  “In a film that means to expose the ongoing effects of abuse, we’re edified by the spectacle of a boy actually being abused by his director and his costar.  What else can we call what happens to David Kross in this movie?… [I]s 18 the age whhen, for professional reasons, a boy can disregard the sexual appeal of a nude 33 year old actress pressing against his naked body?  Who’s kidding whom?” 

Irving Louis Horowitz, of all people, contributes a piece to this issue of Chronicles.  An eminent sociologist, once a titan of the intellectual Left, Horowitz’ byline is still one of the last I would expect to see in the pages of this ultra-ultra right wing publication.  He reviews two books, written by eminent scholars Harry Frankfurt and Colin McGinn, published by major academic presses, under titles that include harsh Anglo-Saxon words.  Horowitz objects to the titles, on the grounds that such words are a form of violence.  They have “the power of weapons behind them.”   

Thomas Fleming claims that for contemporary Americans, “freedom means dependency,” as succinct a way as any of putting the paradox that bureaucratization poses to modern people.  Efficient bureaucratic organizations free us from many of the burdens that had weighed on earlier generations, but in turn infantilize us.  Fleming goes on to imagine a conversation with Cicero in which the old worthy complains that “you people are always mistaking words and ideas for things and then, by treating what is unreal as if it were real, you cannot see the real.” 

A review of Paul Theroux’ Ghost Train to the Eastern Star includes some quotable bits.  A quote from Theroux ties in with Fleming’s remark above: “Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world.  That is its purpose.” 

Two pieces include the opinions of retired banker David A. Hartman on a possible response to the current financial crisis.  In the first, Hartman proposes a re-regulation of the financial sector:

Limit the role of commercial banks to accepting deposits and providing loans for personal and commercial needs.  Use derivatives only if they are limited to hedging the bank’s investments and loans.  Regulators would serve as auditors of risk and the appropriate limits of risk and as custodians of deposits and prudence in loans and investments, seeing to it that banks exhibit transparency in proving their solvency.   

These proposals are quite modest by comparison with the tax changes described in an article about Hartman by his associate William Lutz.  Hartman apparently believes that the USA should adopt a Value Added Tax.  Already used in 153 countries around the world, including all of Europe, Japan, and China,  the Value Added Tax favors domestic manufacturing over imports.  The Value Added Tax seems to be gaining some support on the “Old Right”; see American Conservative articles about the Value Added Tax here and here; see an argument for it in a book by Eamonn Fingleton here.  Hartman also wants to do away with the inheritance tax, on the grounds that individual entrepreneurs are more likely to show behave responsibly than are corporations.  I don’t want to do away with the inheritance tax, but I must admit Hartman has a point there.  Individuals, even very powerful individuals, do seem to respond to many forms of social pressure which leave impersonal bureaucracies like corporations unmoved.


  1. cymast

     /  April 3, 2009

    “In a film that means to expose the ongoing effects of abuse, we’re edified by the spectacle of a boy actually being abused by his director and his costar.”

    Oh give me a break! It’s called “acting.”


    ” . . such words are a form of violence. They have ‘the power of weapons behind them.'”

    Huh? How obscene.

  2. acilius

     /  April 3, 2009

    Could you expand on your comments? I’m not sure where you’re coming from.

  3. cymast

     /  April 3, 2009

    I haven’t seen the movie so I don’t know how hard- or soft-core the sex scenes are, but as a society, we’ve decided the age of consent is 18. I think 18 is reasonable. And apparently McCartney has trouble distinguishing between acting and real life.


    Horowitz reminds me of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and the rest of the professional “victims.”

  4. acilius

     /  April 3, 2009

    Well, any work is real for the workers performing it, and actors are real people. So if an actor is subjected to sexual abuse in his or her workplace, that’s a legitimate concern. I don’t agree that asking an 18 year old boy to writhe in a nude embrace with Kate Winslet is sexual abuse of that boy, but it’s hardly unreasonable of McCartney to doubt that a boy that age could achieve the detachment actors claim they have in sex scenes.

    Oh, and what did you think of the video? Have you had a chance to see it?

  5. cymast

     /  April 3, 2009

    Yes, actors are real, I know from experience.

    Detachment comes with experience . .

    I watched the video, I guess I don’t “get” it. I know it’s supposed to be funny.

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