Movie Review – The Ritual (2018)

Rating: 4/5

The Ritual, a tense, tightly written horror film released a few weeks ago on Netflix, is a beautifully done film, that asks the right questions in a way that keeps the viewer in suspense, and provokes genuine sympathy for its characters. Like perhaps too many horror films, however, I don’t believe that, in the end, it answers fully the central question it asks.

It opens with a group of college friends in an English pub, arguing over where to go on vacation. They are opinionated, selfish; the seed of dissension is right beneath their skin. On the way home, Luke (Rafe Spall), the the central character of the story, stops by a liquor store with Rob, another member of the friends, only to discover while they are purchasing vodka that the store is being held up. In the mugging that follows, Rob is repeatedly bashed in the head with a tire iron until he dies, while Luke huddles, afraid, behind a shelf of champagne. For one moment, before the last blow strikes, Rob makes a great effort to look up at the hidden Luke, perhaps accusingly, perhaps imploringly. Ever afterwards, Luke is besieged by guilt, by the fear that if he had acted, confronted the criminals, Rob would never have died. Continue reading


The Chinese Leviathan

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Adam Greenfield writes perceptively about the growth of intrusive, government-initiated social technologies in China.  Artificial intelligence, through face-recognition technologies and cameras on every corner, allow the Chinese government almost complete knowledge of the each citizen’s actions, and as a result, they want to establish a system of “social credit,” through which a citizen is awarded or penalized for how well his life measures up to the official standard.  Take public transit instead of driving and get better insurance rates.  Or perhaps more sinisterly, in order to keep your passport, don’t attend Christian worship services. Continue reading

Is Social Media the New Totalitarianism?

It is popular to criticize the major social media giants—Google, Facebook, Twitter—for their impact on people’s minds, and the proliferation of unwanted ideologies. Both liberals and conservatives are concerned about the amount of “fake news” gobbled up by gullible social media users ready to be entrapped by clickbait. Facebook has been conducting, ever more publicly since the 2016 election season, a vigorous campaign to screen content for factual reliability. Twitter recently changed its guidelines for verified users to include measurement of offline behavior, so they could have a reason to block users associated with radical right-wing groups. Google has been leading the charge for diversity in the workplace, LGBTQ rights, and very recently along with Facebook implemented in-house rules for dating in order to support the #MeToo campaign.

Nevertheless, the tech giants continue to attract international scrutiny and criticism. Just in the past few days, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Facebook that unless it fixes its “fake news” problems soon, it will face direct government regulation from Ottawa. But others have identified what they believe is a deeper problem with the very nature of global social networks. Continue reading

The Writer as a Character: Phillip Lopate on Personal Non-Fiction

Phillip Lopate, in his book, To Show and To Tell, gives the following advice to the aspiring memoir writer:

Actions speak louder than words.  Give your protagonist, your I-character, something to do.  It’s fine to be privy to all of I’s ruminations and cerebral nuances, but consciousness can only take us so far in the illumination of character  Particularly if you are writing a memoir piece, with chronology and narrative, it is often liberating to have the I-character step beyond the observer role and be implicated crucially in the over-all action.  How many memoirs suffer from a self-righteous setup: the writer telling a story in which Mr. or Ms. I is the passive recipient of the world’s cruelty or is exposed to racism or betrayal, say.  There is something off-putting about a nonfiction story in which the I is infinitely more sinned against than sinning.  By showing our complicity in the world’s stock of sorrow, we convince the reader of our reality and even gain his sympathy.

Or, what makes Crime and Punishment so unnervingly fascinating?

Coercion and the Christian: Finding the Righteous Magistrate In the Political Thought of Augustine

Augustine certainly takes a dim view of the civic government of the earthly city, describing it as he does in The City of God as, despite being the “mistress of the nations,” itself “ruled by its lust of rule.”  The civic state and its coercion is a product of the Fall, since without original sin, there would have been no need for force.  Political authorities are often forced to do things which normally they would consider evil, such as torturing innocent victims to discover doubtful truth.  Perhaps a natural response to this realism and cynicism Augustine has about the role of the state in the world would be to conclude that the Christian ruler himself necessarily has to engage in sin in order to fulfill his duties within the state.  In fact, given what Augustine says about the earthly city, is there anything about how a Christian would occupy a position of political authority that would mark him out as a specifically “godly” ruler at all?  Continue reading

Bastiat, and a Return to a Blog Long Forgotten

Firstly, an aside.  I have not posted here in many months; in fact, I believe the last time I posted here with any kind of regularity is when I began an ill-fated project to blog my way through some potential thesis research on medieval memory techniques and their influence on medieval interpretation of scripture.  Since then the visicitudes of life have occasioned my flight from the groves of academia to seek my fortune in the wide world, where I met with some fortune, some misfortune, and became engaged to be married, among other things, before I returned very recently to the embrace of books, quiet morning tea, lectures, long evenings with Plato and bourbon, drizzly Moscow afternoons, and the other pleasures of an academic life.  Now that I am provided with a bit more leisure for literary pursuits, I hope to post here more often, but if my adventures in the world have taught me anything, it is to make few promises.

Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law, seeks to provide a definition and a role for the law and the legislator.  He begins by asserting the classical definitions of man and of justice received from the Enlightenment, that “Existence, faculties, assimilation–in other words, personality, liberty, property–this is man.”  Law, he says, was created for the preservation of man, that is, these rights: “it is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.”

The law, however, has been perverted through two causes, “naked greed and misconceived philanthropy”; greed, the natural tendency of legislators to use the force of law to plunder the lawfully earned goods of more industrious men; philanthropy, the misguided use of the force of law to enforce virtue and industry among the naturally lazy and dissipated populace.  Both of these causes lead to what Bastiat classifies as plunder, defined as “when a portion of wealth passes out of the hands of him who has acquired it, without his consent, and without compensation, to him who has not created it, whether by force or by artifice.”

Basiat then proceeds to spend the majority of the central section of his work examining why it is inappropriate to use the law for philanthropic ends.

The Socialists say, since the law organizes justice, why should it not organize labor, instruction, and religion?

Why?  Because it could not organize labor, instruction, and religion, without disorganizing justice.

For remember, that law is force, and that consequently the domain of the law cannot propertly extend beyond the domain of force.

When law and force keep a man within the bounds of justice, they impose nothing upon him but a mere negation.  They only oblige him to abstain from doing harm … But when the law, through the medium of its necessary agent–force–imposes a form of labor, a method or a subject of instruction, a creed, or a worship, it is no longer negative; it acts positively upon men.  It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own will, the initiative of the legislator for their own initiative.

This is the crucial distinction between postive and negative law that separates Bastiat’s plan from that of the socialists.  The purpose of the law, argues Bastiat, is merely to prevent injustice, and not to force justice, for, as he later says, justice, strictly speaking, does not exist; it is simply the absense of injustice, and it is this absense of injustice which is the legislator’s duty to enforce.  Note that it is difficult to imagine any philosopher prior to the Enlightenment defining justice in such a way.  “What is law?” asks Bastiat.  “Law is common force organized to prevent injustice;–in short, Law is Justice.”

The second distinction, which I find rather striking, is his denomination of what is within and without the “domain of force.”  Labor, instruction, religion: all these things stand outside the domain of force, that is, of justice.  For justice, as he defined at the very beginning of the work, is the preservation of the essential attributes of man: personality, liberty, and property.  Justice for Bastiat is not a standard which should be applied to every area, that is, justice with respect to religion, or justice with respect to labor, but rather a limited sphere devoted solely to the preservation of liberty.

Bastiat puts a great deal of faith in human nature:

Law is justice.

And it is under the law of justice, under the reign of right, under the influence of liberty, security, stability, and responsibility, that every man will attain to the fullness of his worth, to all the dignity of his being, and that mankind will accomplish with order and with calmness–slowly, it is true, but with certainty–the progress ordained for it.

I believe that my theory is correct; for whatever be the question upon which I am arguing, wether it be religious, philsophical, political, or economical; whether it affects well-being, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, property, labor, exchange, capital, wages, taxes, population, credit, or Government; at whatever point of the scientific horizon I start from, I invariably come to the same thing–the solution of the social problem is in liberty.

Bastiat, writing in the first half of the 19th century, looks to America as the great example of liberty’s success, though he warns of slavery and tariffs as America’s two great violations of the principles of liberty he sets forth, liable to break apart the union: a remarkably prescient observation.

One could argue that America’s societal decline is due to the increasing lack of the liberty which Bastiat advocates, but it seems that the lack of liberty has followed on the heals of moral dissipation, rather than the way round.  For example, Theodore Roosevelt greatly expanded the force of government over the economic sphere, yet he saw this as necessary due to the avarice and trusts and monopolies, the abuses of workers, and the moral dissipation that had already rotted through the heart of America’s labor.  It would not seem that liberty, in this case, quite led to man’s attaining the “fullness of his worth,” and “all the dignity of his being.”  The history of America is a history of decline, and the historical ordering of events seem to dictate that we look elsewhere from political structure for the source of that decline.

Liberty, at the end of the day, must be liberty to do something.  Bastiat seems to take it for granted that man’s natural tendency is to climb ever higher in order, peace, and prosperity, an assumption worth at least a second glance given the examples of history.

Poetry and Cultural Relevance

“Poetry and the Silencing of Art” by Hilton Kramer in the New Criterion, recently dug up from 1993 on the New Criterion’s Twitter, is a helpful article about tendencies in contemporary poetry I’ve been thinking about for a while. I have two observations. 

Firstly, the book, which the article describes by a certain Dana Gioia, has an excellent point: that poetry has been enervated by a subculture of its own creation. It doesn’t speak to everyday people anymore, the failure of most of the talk of the universities. He wisely observes, “The modern movement, which began this century in bohemia, is now ending it in the university, an institution dedicated at least as much to the specialization of knowledge as to its propagation. Ultimately the mission of the university has little to do with the mission of the arts, and this long cohabitation has had an enervating effect on all the arts but especially on poetry and music.”

 Secondly, the end of the article dismisses popular culture and its effect on the heart and the mind with, I think, too much readiness: “High culture cannot compete with its lethal effects on the minds and bodies of the young—and not only the young, of course—and neither can serious education, not as it is now conducted, anyway. And as long as the juggernaut of pop culture continues to swamp everything in its path, not only will poetry remain confined “to the private world that is the poet’s mind” but so will all of high art—whatever remains of it —be confined to the private world of its subculture.”

 Much of popular culture, no doubt, hurts the cause of high art, and the souls of those who absorb themselves in it with the wrong motivations.  But I do not believe one can safely ignore the simple fact that people turn to much in popular culture, as resonating with their actual experience, in a way which they do not and cannot turn to ‘high art’.  As long as poetry remains absorbed in its own high and academic subculture, it will fail to speak to individual lives in the same powerful way of the best of ‘popular music.’

 I would propose a question to contemporary poetry: why do most people identify with the sentiments of the better sort of our popular singers and musicians, far more than they do with the subculture of written poetry?