Saturday, February 24, 2007

Amazing "Amazing Grace"

Ioan Gruffudd (c) as William Wilberforce in "Amazing Grace" movieAn early scene in Amazing Grace establishes the film's themes in a way that is more subtle than it may initially seem.

Young William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) confronts a man who is beating an exhausted horse as it lies inert in the mud, in an impossible and heartless attempt to get it to do its appointed work. But it is not simply Wilberforce's compassion that is at work here—that would be an insufferable cliche. Instead of responding to the man's threatening reaction with anger or accusations or pleas for sympathy for the exhausted animal, Wilberforce confronts him with straight facts, pure reason, and an appeal to the man's self-interest: he tells the man that if he lets the horse rest for a half hour or so, it will be ready to carry on.

The man grudgingly realizes the sense in this, and drops his whip into the mud.

This is precisely what Wilberforce would go on to do as a Member of Parliament and the man who led the Empire to abolish slavery. His great cause was to bring to light the facts of slavery and persuade his countrymen to do the right thing.

Amazing Grace is certainly suffused with religion, but it is not a "religious film." Issues and consequences of religious faith appear precisely where they belong in this particular story (and in all observations of human works): at the heart of the characters' motivations. Most of the film deals directly not with religion but with politics. And the treatment of politics is thoroughly intelligent and insightful.

Amazing Grace tells the story of the late-eighteenth century English Member of Parliament William Wilberforce, who as a young man finds his religious conscience so seared by the existence of slavery in his society that he turns away from a career in the religious ministry, which he would greatly prefer to undertake, in favor of a career in politics, where he can manifest his love for God by making the world a better place.

This is both scripturally sound and historically accurate. Wilberforce did indeed help to make the world a much better place.

The film shows the transition from a society in which a small aristocracy ruled without much influence from the general public, to one in which the public's opinion mattered immensely. This is a manifestation of the world-changing effects of Protestantism, and Amazing Grace shows that relationship by depicting the central place of Wilberforce's evangelical zeal in motivating his entirely quixotic ambition to end the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

It is quixotic because slavery is so ingrained into the British economy that almost everyone has an interest in keeping it going. Hence, at first there is overwhemling opposition to Wilberforce's ambitious proposal. He has to struggle for years before he can even get close to victory.

The filmmakers' skill in telling this story is impressive. The screenplay, by Stephen Knight, jumps back and forth through time to keep the story's themes at the forefront. The cinematography of Remi Adefarasin skillfully uses light and dark to bring out the story's themes.

During the scenes depicting Wilberforce's long years of struggle, light and dark visual compositions convey the measure of his optimism and pessimism, respectively. That's at least a convention and at worst a cliche in the movies, but it makes sense here and is done with sufficient skill that it doesn't obtrude. In addition, given that the great majority of the film portrays times of struggle, the darker scenes predominate greatly and thus afford a basically consistent look.

This theme of light and darkness is taken up in the narrative in the story of John Newton, an Englishman and former slaveship captain who converted to Christianity and became an evangelistic preacher. Newton wrote the beloved hymn "Amazing Grace," and its prominent line, "I . . . was blind, but now I see," is used in the film to great effect, when Newton loses his sight but speaks to Wilberforce of his real ability to see. In depicting this character, Albert Finney once again shows his great brilliance as an actor in depicting both Newton's towering strength and his harrowing doubts and personal guilt. Newton's life is indeed, as the film makes clear, a powerful illustration of each person's need for a Savior.

A particularly effective use of this interaction of light and dark occurs in a scene in which Wilberforce expresses to his wife-to-be, Barbara, his doubts that he and his forces will ever be able to end the slave trade. As he speaks, Wilberforce twice takes a new candle, melts the bottom over the expiring flame of one that is about to go out, and sets the new one firmly in place of the old. It is a beautiful image that is easy to miss, but it means much in the context of the film. Renewal of the struggle, the need to shed light on injustice, the replacement of one strategy with another, and the power of just a little light—all of these themes are reflected in and reinforced by this humble, even mundane image.

Director Michael Apted contributes his usual solid, dependable, and basically self-effacing work. It is very effective here, as he concentrates on eliciting persuasive and affecting performances from the film's immensely talented cast. Ioan Gruffudd's performance is impeccable, and his skills are quite up to the task not only of depicting Wilberforce but also of not being blown off the screen by superb performers such as Finney, Michael Gambon (as the MP Lord Charles Fox), Benedict Cumberbatch (whose performance as Pitt the Younger is superb), Romola Garai (in an effectively understated turn as Barbara), Bill Paterson (excellent as wily Scots MP Lord Dundas), and Rufus Sewell in his standout performance as Wilberforce's friend and inspiration, Thomas Clarkson.

Adding further interest is the film's intelligent and comprehensible depiction of the politics of the time. The conservatives, of course, are those who will not even consider any alteration to the institution of slavery. Their concern (one that seemed valid at the time but was proven entirely illusory immediately after abolition) is that such a basic change will bring vast social disorder, poverty, and defeat in an imminent war with the French.

The radicals, represented by Clarkson, are too impatient to accept gradual change and require an immediate transformation of English society such that the entire aristocracy will be thrown out immediately, as is happening in France.

The liberals, Wilberforce and his allies, want change but recognize that they must find a way to do it such that both liberty and order will be maximized. A more perfect illustration of the essence of classical liberalism would be difficult to imagine. In an important and impassioned scene, Clarkson argues with Wilberforce about the need for thorough, immediate change. Wilberforce points out that prudence and justice require that things be done in an orderly way. Ultimately, both the radicals and the conservatives come to see things Wilberforce's way—or at least give in to it.

In his reaction to the French Revolution, Wilberforce shares the thinking of the great British political philosopher and parliamentarian Edmund Burke, one of the first great modern liberals. Perhaps the most startling thing about Amazing Grace is its vivid illustration of the Christian foundations of true liberalism. In Christianity as in the world in general, reason and compassion are always in tension. In Christianity, however, as Amazing Grace and the life of William Wilberforce demonstrate vividly, they are ultimately in harmony. In any particular case, it is up to the body of believers to find where the two come together, in the greatest balance of liberty and order, for in that balance is improvement of the human condition made most consistent and endurable.

Most Highly Recommended.

From Karnick on Culture.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Amazing Grace

Don't mean to step on ST's turf, but as this review in CT says, you should take the time and go see the new movie Amazing Grace, the story of the abolitionist William Wilberforce, whose efforts as a British MP finally ended the slave trade in the British Empire. The movie doesn't shy away at all from Wilberforce's evangelical faith and manages at the same time not to bludgeon you with it, either. It's not a perfect film, but it's quite good and I think may point interestingly toward where Evangelicalism is headed over the next generation or so. But more on that later...just go see the movie.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

LTG Mike Dunn on Doug Feith and the NDU

Following on my earlier post on that silly New York Times front-page nonstory on Doug Feith's contract to teach at the National Defense University, Lieutenant General Mike Dunn, USAF (Ret.), sent the following letter to the Times. The Times is far too uninterested in actual facts to publish the letter, and so I reproduce it here.

February 17, 2007

Dear New York Times Editors,

I read your piece (15 Feb) on former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith realized it must have been a slow-news day. For a paper that prides itself on bringing its readers "all the news that is fit to print," you failed on that piece. What I found most interesting is that you strung a long list on innuendos together to paint a skewed picture of both Mr. Feith and the National Defense University ... and then put the piece on your front page.

It is instructive to look at the facts: First, Mr. Feith, several TV media pundits, and your downtown print rivals - the Wall Street Journal - have debunked the DOD IG report ... which states that questioning intelligence is not the prerogative of policy officials or senior leaders. If it is not their prerogative, it clearly should be.

Secondly, you imply it was improper for the National Defense University to seek someone of Mr. Feith's credentials to lecture and research at NDU. How else are our future leaders going to learn how policy is developed, the rationale behind policy decisions, or what inside alternative considerations might be? You conveniently leave out the fact that Mr. Feith has lectured at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, many other universities, and is presently a distinguished professor at Georgetown University. You also failed to mention that Mr. Feith had lectured at NDU many times in the past. His class critiques have been complimentary; his knowledge of the policy issues facing this country was and is better than any lecturer we had during my tenure as President.

Thirdly, you interviewed me last May for almost 2 hours about the "supposed" impropriety of NDU being a repository for Mr. Feith's and Secretary Wolfowitz's personal papers. You never mentioned that NDU has the personal papers of almost every Chairman of the Joint Chiefs since General Maxwell Taylor, including General Powell's. And NDU also stores the papers of other senior distinguished generals. We are honored to have these collections ... as historians of the future will have access to a treasure-trove of first-hand information for research and reflection. It certainly was not in your agenda to point out the General (Ret) Wesley Clark graciously donated his papers to the university ... and wrote his first book at the university.

Finally and most importantly (and in deference to Secretary White) you imply that NDU ought to avoid controversy in its selection of professors and that choosing someone less qualified might better serve the interests of our nation ... in a time of war. I dispute this point. It might be OK in civilian universities. But our future military and diplomatic leaders deserve the best. And that is what we sought with the selection of Mr. Feith.

Michael M. Dunn
Lt General (Ret)
Former President, National Defense University

Hot Air from America's Icebox

First Al Franken, now this.

Over at NewsBusters, Noel Sheppard has hopped on the Drudge-highlighted story from a couple of days ago that the University of Minnesota is going to favor Al Gore with an honorary degree in climatology for his execrable documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth. He is justifiably flabbergasted that 90 minutes of utter piffle can earn one an advanced degree, an Oscar, and a Nobel Peace Prize. But I think he's taking the Gophers a bit too seriously here.

My husband earned his law degree from Minnesota while I spent three years as a research fellow in the School of Public Health. Not only did I have a personal interest in this item, I knew that it usually pays to look a little deeper and find the punch line that lurks in pretty much any story originating in the Twin Cities. With this one it's easy; you need look no further than the original story from the U's student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. Get past the breathy quotes from the climate change groupies that Sheppard highlights, and read to the last paragraph (slightly rearranged to suit my sense of comic timing) to put this silly little episode in perspective:

The University has given 223 honorary degrees to date. Past recipients include Sandra Day O'Connor, Hillary Clinton, Charles Schultz, and Yanni.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

What Did Conservatives Get Right?

I was challenged by a friend on the other side of the great ideological divide to come up with the high points of conservatism's record over the last 50 or so years. My thoughtful answer was that there's a continuum, that both the New Deal and the undesirability of confiscatory levels of taxation have captured the center, that Nixon was a liberal and that Bill Clinton was not unconservative, but that was apparently unsatisfactory. (I thought it was we righties who are the simplistic Manichaeans, seeing everything in terms of black and white, but not so, not so.)

I despise laundry lists, but I do credit the ability of conservatives, when asked, to actually answer a direct question. (Oooo, I should have included that one.) And so:

---That the constantly rising tide of taxation needed to be reversed, as it stifles hard work, entrepreneurship, innovation, and ultimately, prosperity.

---That the constantly rising tide of regulation needed to be halted, as compliance begins to elbow out actual production.

---That deregulation largely results in lower prices for consumers (energy, telephones, airlines).

---That communism was an ideological tyranny, an enemy of freedom and of man's spirit, and needed to be opposed and rolled back at every opportunity. (The Strategic Defense Initiative, "Star Wars," drove liberals nuts but drove the Soviet Union to suicide.)

---That autocrats like the Shah are better and more able to reform than totalitarian ideologies like the one that now operates Iran. (We may thank the late Jeane Kirkpatrick for that one.)

---That, per Washington's Farewell Address, religion is not an enemy, but an irreplacable ally for any republic that depends first and foremost on individual self-governance.

---That the family is the core platoon of society (there is a provable higher incidence of almost every social pathology in its absence), and that the welfare system was destroying it and individual initiative as well.

---That affirmative action is at best neutral in the short term, that its greater access is offset by things like lower graduation rates and suspicion of minorities' genuine achievement.

---That in the long term, emphasizing the discrimination against groups as trumping individual effort and achievement has resulted in an epidemic hopelessness and a destructive racial divide.

---That choice in schools (vouchers) is the only real solution to resegregation. (One can be sure that if conservatives had such a monopoly on the schools and the education establishment [without whose money and volunteers the Democratic Party would die], good liberals everywhere would be in favor of such freedom.)

---That Milton Friedman's Earned Income Credit is a truly beautiful thing, where if you work harder (or work at all), even for low wages, you end up with more money, to spend as you will. What a concept.

---That despite the flaws of things like Three Strikes, locking up pathologically habitual offenders keeps them off the streets and it's a mathematical certainty, borne out by the stats, that crime rates decrease.

---That a person has a right to defend kith and kin, even with a gun if necessary.

---That the 55 mile an hour speed limit totally, clearly, and unimpeachably sucked.

If all conservatives ever accomplished was the last one, I'd say it was all worth it. Please feel free to jump in; I'm going to make a printout when it's done, because there are so many things we take for granted after Reagan and Gingrich that people need to be reminded of just now.

On both sides of the great divide.

You Say Shameless, I Say Shamless

Shameless, shamless, shlamshlame, whatever. Sorry for the misspelling in the heading of the post below; but it does seem a bit Freudian, in that my writings indeed are devoid of sham (in my humble view, anyway), while the rantings of the Levin/Rockefeller crowd are anything but.

Shamless Self-Promotion

My essay on Doug Feith, the CIA consensus, and the IG/Carl Levin/Jay Rockefeller axis can be found here. Comments welcome.

Can Pro-Lifers Vote for Giuliani?

Well, of course they can. But should they? Of that, I am much less sure and this essay doesn't go any distance toward convincing me. Kyle-Anne Shiver suggests that, in fact, the President doesn't have all that much to do with the question of abortion, save his role in nominating judges who are likely to overturn Roe v. Wade (she says "strict constructionist") and dealing at the margins with some abortion legislation. I'm not sure that's right - or at least it's incomplete.

The President has some control, for instance, over our aid budgets - one of the things that just makes the pro-abortion crowd hopping mad is how successive Republican administrations have tied American foreign aid up in ways that prevents it from expanding "reproductive rights." If Giuliani is President, do you think he'll continue the current administration's policy in that area? Why would he?

More importantly, Shiver herself recognizes that the President will have the opportunity to decide whether to veto bills funding abortions or embryonic stem-cell research (actually, she doesn't mention the latter), but, as she notes, Giuliani hasn't committed to vetoing those bills. Indeed, it's hard to see why he would - in his incarnation as Mayor, he was in favor of public funding of even the most grotesque forms of abortion procedures. If he's as hard-headed as she says, will he change his mind on this as well?

And, finally, there's something she just misses here. Suppose, now, that the Supreme Court one day overrules Roe v. Wade. (It's unlikely to happen in one fell swoop, but stick with me). The debates then turn to the legislatures - both federal and state. On the federal level, Congress can mandate that the states allow abortion merely by saying that they have to in order to keep their health-care funding. Would a President Giuliani veto such legislation? Color me doubtful. Perhaps more importantly, at the national level, having a pro-choice President will matter in those debates. The Presidency is the single most important bully pulpit in the nation and if he's firmly in the pro-choice camp, he's likely to sway things his way.

So this pro-lifer ain't convinced and Giuliani still isn't on my list of possibles...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Black Conservatives Getting Some Love

Well, not really. But they may be getting a little respect. I came across an article by noted black conservative scholar John McWhorter a few weeks ago that warmed my heart. He writes about a play running in a small theater in Philadelphia where one of the main characters is about him. The play’s black conservative character, much to McWhorter’s surprise, is portrayed as a normal person. As he well puts it:

This is a symptom of a larger trend that we ought to keep in mind during Black History Month: a range of views beyond the left are becoming more easily accepted in the black community. This is crucial, because a discussion in which anyone with right-of-center views is dismissed as a moral pervert is not a healthy one.

The viewpoint increasingly questioned is that poverty and other ills in black America cannot be expected to change significantly short of a seismic transformation in how America operates. Under this analysis, we must hope that whites will undergo a "realization" after which there will be no racist biases whatsoever, that low-skill job facilities will relocate to dangerous inner cities, and so on. The assumption is, broadly, that black America must seek a "revolution" of some kind.

Increasing numbers of black people are realizing that this will never occur, and that it doesn't need to: it is possible to help people to help themselves within the current system. There is a proliferation of local organizations shunting low-skilled people into lasting work, helping ex-cons negotiate their way back into the system, and educating students of color well, on shoestring budgets.

That is, itself, the revolution, and important black people are with it. No one can accuse Bill Cosby of being "not really black" and yet he has taken to the road with a message of responsibility. Juan Williams, outspoken liberal and darling of National Public Radio, has written a book arguing that too many black leaders have focused on grievance rather than building. Essentially there are no new leaders in the race-baiting vein of Reverend Al Sharpton.

This is tremendous news. Black victimology and alienation have been the default position of politically correct black thinking for the last 30 years or more. This mentality has done nothing but impoverish a poor minority of this community in both soul and money, and has made the climb up the economic ladder that much more difficult for many of the others. In effect Black Americans have imposed this on themselves, and race hustlers who call themselves Black leaders have exploited it for their own profitable ends. It looks like this is finally changing.

One indication of this culturally speaking is a new show I’ve been watching on the ABC Family Channel called “Lincoln Heights.” At the center of the show are a black cop and his family who move back to his old neighborhood, i.e. The Hood, and deal with the struggles of raising a solid family unit in the midst of (mostly) black cultural breakdown. The family is solidly middle class, and the parents raise the children to resist a black culture that mocks civilized behavior.

Specific to the point of a growing diversity of black thought, last night’s episode dealt with the son learning that being “authentically black” doesn’t mean being a hoodlum. Each episode conveys something like that. Honesty, integrity, respect, all solid middle class, dare I say bourgeoisie, values are proudly on display and promoted in the face of black cultural decay by this black family on TV. It has taken some time, but maybe Martin Luther King’s dream of “one day” is finally being taken seriously by those whose ancestors lived the nightmare.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Liberal Against Leftism, or: I am a scumbag

(Executive Summary: If justice becomes our primary concern, we'll all be in jail and there will be nobody left to feed or protect us.)

A buddy of mine recently wrote that conservatives have been wrong about virtually everything over the last 50 years. A strong and sweeping statement, but that's cool. I like strong and sweeping, as it often holds more truth than weak and mealy-mouthed.

It's hard to know what conservative means. If it means opposing radical change, then yeah, I plead guilty. If being a conservative means opposing all progress, well, I wouldn't want to be caught dead in a field with one.

Conservative commonly means defending the status quo, and since the world is not as good as it can be, conservativism cannot be the embodiment of good. And where conservative can become a catchall for all the imperfect or even bad in the status quo, liberalism can be a catchall for all things good.

It's clear that America as a whole has embraced the New Deal as a good and desirable safety net for the weakest among us, so liberalism in the FDR sense has captured and defines the American center. Even Edmund Burke, the philosophical godfather of conservatives, acknowledged the need for change as essential to the life of a nation or a people, and both he and the reputed apostle of capitalism, Adam Smith, saw the need to make provision for the poor as both a moral and practical imperative. We may properly call them classical liberals.

Many conservatives think of themselves as classical liberals, at least the best of them, and in economics, free markets and personal enterprise are often referred to as neo-liberal. The conservatives in Australia are known as the Liberal Party. Rhetorically, when liberal equals good, everybody wants to be a liberal.

Hey, I'm a liberal. I can live with that.

What's troubled me about the current vocabulary is that there is a difference between liberal and left. Conservative is routinely used in contradistinction to both, which lessens its accuracy. By that standard, almost anything can become conservative. For instance, the radical Islamic revolutionary mullahs in Iran, although also anti-liberal, are now "right-wing" in the common media parlance. But conservative might be most properly used in contradistinction to radicalism, and Iran's in particular.

Lyndon Johnson's Great Society in spirit is/was liberal for instance, to lift the lowest, and as one of FDR's Four Freedoms, it pursues the freedom from want. One of the two children secreted under the robes of Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Present was Want.

The other was Ignorance. Had Dickens lived another 100 years later, he'd've had to include their evil triplet, leftism, which combines and maximizes the worst features of both. Its willful ignorance of human nature serves only to increase, not alleviate, human want.

What Hugo Chavez is up to in Venezuela right now, bringing the economy under control of the state, is leftist, radical, and supposedly in the name of justice, of homogenization. This equals that equals you equals me. Because he has decreed what everything should cost, the grocery store shelves are empty of everything that people tend to like and can still afford. All that's left is filet mignon and canned turnips, the sublime and the ridiculous.

What the classical liberal seeks to liberate is the human potential, our individual talents and pursuit of our individual excellences, but leftism is another kettle of fish altogether. If America is not a melting pot but a seafood salad or a cioppino, think of putting one in your Cuisinart. Ick. They're trying to feed us Purina Human Chow, and no matter how tasty it is at first, it's disgusting after a mouthful or two.

The question becomes whether progressivism as a politics, when its end becomes justice and not charity, saps its host society of its dynamism and cohesion.

And so, per Edmund Burke, I find myself a conservative and a liberal on the same day. Conservativism, when used in its best sense, is not opposed to change but to radical change, which is why, unlike the more radical Thomas Jefferson, the French Revolution scared the bejesus out of Burke.

Although the tension is often unbearable, change and status quo must remain in tension, so we may sort out babies and bathwater. So I'm conservative not out of dogma, but because as Burke would note, once the baby's tossed, you seldom get it back. The inevitable consequence of radicalism, of leftism, and of Chavez and Marxism in particular, is that babies get tossed, usually off the highest floor.

By disposition, conservatives don't do anything, which is their failing and their virtue. They aren't creative towards the problems of our condition. Not progressive, if you will.

On the other hand, that's not their role. It's not fair to judge them on what they "do," but on what they by persuasion or obstruction prevent. You might say conservatives are the condoms of the human race. History doesn't reveal its alternatives, and prophylactics don't come with a printout with all the bad things that didn't happen because of them.

I can live with that, too.