Ben Stein's Diary
Here I am watching the "peace" demonstrators all around the world, and I am once again struck by one of the main observations of my life. I call it "political realism." Here is how it goes. It says that the political attitudes and behavior of most people are based on their personalities, childhoods, fears, angers, lacks of confidence, and feelings of strength. What comes out of their mouths is couched in terms of public policies such as war, peace, capitalism, socialism, dictatorship, gun control, gun ownership, right to life, pro-death, but it is really all about the working out of personality issues.
I came to this idea in what I think you might find an interesting way. Back at Yale Law School (class of 1970, "Bulldog, Bulldog, Bow Wow Wow"), I was privileged to study a tiny bit of what was called "legal realism." This was and is the most important analytical tool in the history of jurisprudence, in my humble opinion. The theory of legal realism, developed by such geniuses as Lasswell, McDougal, and Llewellyn, the first two of whom were at Yale, said that judges made up their minds about cases based on their own personal views and prejudices and then clothed their decisions with "precedents" and "statutes" to make it look as if they were impartially reading some "brooding omnipresence in the sky" called law. That is, the judges made up their minds about a case because they liked the plaintiff's legs or went to the same country club as the defendant or had a similar thing happen to them once in college, and then they made up a lot of interesting fake reasons for why they reached their decisions.
This analysis continued that this had to be true because in any important legal case at the appellate level, there will be ample precedent on both sides of the issue, and judges can always find some reason to apply some bits of it to clothe the nakedness of their own prejudices.
Legal realism was further refined by the late, great Alex Bickel and the still living and still great Robert Bork to say that if judges could find even the faintest shred or shadow of a precedent to "legitimize" their own prejudices, they would do so and act as if they were reaching a conclusion any sane and learned judge would reach. The great examples of this are the abortion decisions in which the Court found a right of privacy that covered a right to murder a fetus and claimed that there were "penumbras" and "emanations" from the Fourth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment, when really there was nothing to legalize abortion.
In my own extensive experience in securities law, I also find this to be true. Judges with a feeling of kinship with the brokers find for the brokers, and judges with a feeling of kinship with the consumers find for the consumers and stockowners.
My close friend in law school, the flamboyant and spellbinding Duncan Kennedy, later revised legal realism and created his own field which he calls "critical legal studies." It holds that judges decide cases based on their own class interests, and these tend almost always to be on the side of the bosses. Duncan has sadly vanished from my life, but some years ago I read a horrifyingly long essay by him attacking the "law and economics" approach to jurisprudence, which approach basically says decisions should be based on what is sound economics. Duncan said it was a fascinating aspect of "law and economics" that it always came down on the side of the bosses.
Duncan's politics and mine could not be further apart at this point, but his demolition of "law and economics" was provocative, to say the least.
Anyway, back to the icky peace demonstrators and what I call political realism. Political realism says that people in a free society make up their minds about an issue based on whether or not they hate their fathers, whether or not they are sexually oriented toward the same sex, whether or not they feel sexually confident, whether or not they want to win the love of their fathers, and then they make up a rationale based on public policy to justify whatever it is they are doing.
For example, peace demonstrators are depressed and feel insignificant and are furiously, violently angry. Joining the peace movement addresses all of these concerns. It gives them public visibility. It allows them a forum to express their rage and homicidal urges (i.e., calling for death to Bush and comparing him to Hitler, or think of the pitiful rages of an Alec Baldwin), while at the same time allowing them the (flimsiest imaginable) pretext for pretending they occupy the moral high ground and have pretensions to meaning in their otherwise depressed lives.
The gun control demonstrators are an even clearer case in point. In the guise of calling for gun control, they really can fight their own murderous urges to kill with guns, attack men, and symbolically castrate them as they feel they have been castrated by an accident of birth which made them women.
The pro-Bush people and pro-defense people tend to feel insecurities but want to address them by an appeal to their symbolic Daddy, the President, and symbolic male authority figures, the military. This is a far more direct and less tortured path to working out their inner feelings and involves an attitude of appeal to Dad and not confrontation with Dad. This is why the defense forces look quite calm and peaceful and the antiwar forces look tortured and twisted. (It is fascinating to see how calm and serene soldiers and especially U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine, and Army pilots look compared to the "peace" demonstrators. I would love to test both groups on the anger and insecurity indices of the MMPI and see how each rates. I am going to predict the pilots are calm and happy and the "peace" demonstrators are off the charts.)
The craziest of all are the pro-abortion demonstrators, who really at base are campaigning for the right of one privileged group-grown women-to be able to maintain their privileged status by killing a group of totally defenseless babies who challenge them. The challenge from babies is to make mothers behave responsibly. This is a challenge to them to grow up and take responsibility for their actions instead of avoiding them by committing homicide. Most women, of course, do accept the challenge and handle it beautifully. But a fair number choose abortion rather than responsibility and love-and so naturally they look the most furious and twisted of all. First, they are guilty. Then, they are rebelling against being women, against life itself, and against the most fundamental possible feeling-a mother's love. Small wonder they look so crazy. Who wouldn't with such twisted motives and carrying around so much hate and guilt? Believe me, I have been in debates with a lot of them. They are scarily angry. Mostly at themselves, but then that is almost always thecase with really angry people, at least in peacetime.
To make all of this come to a point . . . the antiwar demonstrators basically could not care less about the war. They could not care less about people getting killed. Their goal here is to jam the gears of the father figure, George W. Bush, and the father-dominated family, the United States, to elevate themselves out of their pitiful depression (and this I understand because I am often depressed too), and to make their totally miserable lives appear to have some meaning.
I think their demonstrations should have about as much influence on Mr. Bush's decisions as if a group of patients in a mental hospital were writing their messages in their own excrement on their cell walls, and I hope that is how much importance Mr. Bush gives them. They are the working out of psychopathologies large and small, and let's hope Mr. Bush sees it clear.
(And you thought I was just another pretty face.)
Well, wait a minute. Some people who are not at all crazy are also against the war. They are just carrying out the party line of the left-leaning Democrats. Their problem, if it is a problem at all, is to fail to study the subject and instead just to go with the standard litany of complaints of the Democrats. And then there are the ones who do it out of anti-Semitic feelings. I am not sure whether this is a mental disease or not. It is surely not soundly thought-out policy, but it isn't a pure mental illness-like borderline disorder. Hmmm. Maybe it is a mental disease to hate unreasonably on the basis of race. But then who is to decide? No, I think I won't classify racism as a mental disease. That waylies totalitarianism. Let's just say it's not nice and it is a not a good reason to decide on a thing one way or the other.
Uh-oh. A bad movie review coming up. As you may recall, I am a huge Civil War buff. I spend at least some time every day reading about the Civil War in my many Civil War magazines and books. And I am tortured by it all of the time. Did so many fine young men really have to die? Couldn't there have been a way out involving buying the slaves? And, by the way, talk about acting out of guilt and fear, how about that Edmund Ruffin and the other fire-eating pro-slavery guys? Talk about proclaiming a moral cause where there was not one. And then think of the incredibly unbelievably brave men who died in the awful cause of protecting slavery. I honor them every minute, but-as Grant said-rarely have so many men fought so bravely in such a bad cause. (Although think of the brave German soldiers fighting for Hitler. How do we explain their unquestionable bravery? This has to be examined by someone smarter than I am.)
Anyway, I have been salivating thinking for some time now about going to see Gods and Generals, the movie about the Civil War. And tonight, wifey and I are off to a lovely theater in Westwood to see it.
Oops. Mistake. This is a movie that needs desperately a lot of surgery. The battle scenes are good, although intensely repetitive. The scenery, especially at beloved Washington and Lee, is perfect. But the acting is so wooden and stiff you cannot believe it. The scenes are so stilted and long that it boggles the mind. You sort of have tosee how everyone gives a speech for the slightest reason, with no provocation. Nothing happens quickly, but everything is in slow, gelatinized, ultra-pretentious motion. The part of Stonewall Jackson is just hilariously stuffy and slow. So are all of the parts. And the poor black people in it make the black people in Gone With the Wind look like Malcolm X. They are such Uncle Toms and such mealy-mouthed apologists for the slave system by their very deference that it makes the viewer wonder why there even was an antislavery movement if the slaves were so happy with their masters.
Plus, there is a scene in which Stonewall is congratulating the Stonewall Brigade for their fine service in the famed Shenandoah campaign (which Douglas Southall Freeman does not think was really that much of a success. And my WordPerfect does not recognize Shenandoah as a word. Nice, huh?) But at no time does the film even mention what happened in the Shenandoah campaign or why it was so important. Plus, General Bee's vital contributions at Manassas are almost totally overlooked, and one would never guess that Lee was not the head of the army of Northern Virginia from Day One.
Anyway, what a ghastly movie. We left after two hours-and it was only half over.
Oh, I have to mention one other amazing scene. This is the one in which Stonewall and his black cook pray together for the freedom of the slaves. What! Where did that come from? Stonewall Jackson as an abolitionist? This is all mixed up with some nonsense about a plan to free slaves who would fight on the Confederate side-a plan that did exist at the very end of the war-and which Lee shot down cursorily. "If we were to do this, would it not undermine the entire basis on which the war was fought?" he asked, in words to that effect. He meant that the basis was that the black man was not fit for freedom or battle. How wrong he was, and yet he was widely loved, and still is, for his skill and (in most cases) gentlemanliness. (My WordPerfect does not recognize gentlemanliness either.)
Anyway, Gods and Generals was about as big a disappointment as a movie could be. Stick to Freeman's Lee's Lieutenants or just his massive biography of Lee himself, or, if you really want a spectacular treat, try Benet's John Brown's Body. In my little opinion, which does not count for much, it is the definitive American epic poem. You can get it on Amazon, although go to the online Advanced Book Exchange, www.abebooks.com, to get the rare illustrated version. Or maybe stick with Gone With the Wind, a movie by people who knew how to make a movie.
Oh, also, a little lesson for moviemakers. First, Gods and Generals started with a book by a man who (in my opinion) is not a great writer on the Civil War and really knows far too little about great writing to be a worthy source. This was a mistake. Then, the producers of the movie idiotically allowed the screenwriter, someone named Ronald Maxwell, also to direct. This was an actual debacle. He obviously could not bear to leave out one word of his deathless script, and the result is a massively bloated, not at all dramatic, portentous, and pretentious blob. From now on, Ted Turner, producer, try a little bit of intelligence and have a different writer and director. Anyway, all in all, a giant disappointment.
And, say, by the way . . .
Here wifey and I are out at our house at the beach, which we are enjoying very much. After weeks of bad weather, the clouds are gone and we are happy campers. We can see the ocean with smashing clarity, blue and peaceful and endless out our windows, and, believe me, this is a treat indeed.
Since I just told you about a movie you might wish to skip, I will tell you about something fine in the world of amusement.
Both of us, wifey and I, have gotten addicted-wifey first-to a series of British murder mysteries written by a genius named Simon Brett. He is one of the powers of the British mystery world and has written several series of mysteries. But the ones we love (and, again, wifey "discovered" him) are about a fictitious actor-drunk-detective named Charles Paris. Paris is a middle-aged, irresponsible, slobby, although handsome, alcoholic failure as an actor, but he is a tenacious detective as men and women are murdered all around him on his various acting jobs. His observations and those of the narrator-played by a genuine prodigy of talent named Simon Prebble, the best voice talent I have ever heard-are stunningly funny and on target.
It seems to me that Simon Brett understands real life, not stuffy fake literary life, but real life, better than just about any author I have ever read. His characters really suffer humiliation, really feel depressed and worried, really are beaten up by the arrogance of proud men, feel the sting of the insolence of office, are victims of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And often his hero, Charles Paris, makes mistakes, is so nervous that he has attacks of diarrhea and cramps, and is generally one of us.
I love his insights into how plays and TV shows get made. I love his astonishing witticisms as he relays to us the critics' almost invariable jibes at his past performances. Maybe you should start with Star Trap or Murder Unprompted or So Much Comic. All are great, but by all means get the books-on-tape versions.
Now I listen to Charles Paris mysteries all day and night in my car. I have finished most of them, but I have about five left. What I shall do when I am done, I have no clue. Maybe I will resume listening to my volume of greatest speeches. My life is largely about giving speeches, and I like to learn. My favorite speech is John E Kennedy's first inaugural (and only inaugural, owing to Khrushchev and Castro's cruel decision to assassinate him-see Edward Jay Epstein's astounding book, Legend). He ended with the greatest phrase of all time in a speech that I am familiar with, "Here on earth, God's work must truly be our own."
Who wrote that speech? Mr. Goodwin? Mr. Sorensen? Someone must know.
Anyway, so here Alex and I are in Malibu, with the two dogs, and I have made a fire in the fireplace, and we are watching a little treasure. It is called A Shock to the System. I bought it on Amazon. It is from a book by the self-same brilliant man, Simon Brett, I have just been telling you about. It is not a Charles Paris story, nor is it even a mystery. It is a story of a murdering executive, who only kills people who deserve it. (Swoosie Kurtz as the evil wife is fabulous and Peter Riegert is pure genius as the mean-spirited, boastful man who trumps the hero's ace-at first. And Michael Caine is at his best as the murderer. Wow, is he great. He is always great, but in this, he is really, really great. You must see him in Funeral in Berlin, The Ipcress File, and above all, Get Carter, but he is also fabulously menacing and provocative in A Shock to the System. Get it and tell me what you think.
Anyway, a fine movie, but then a dismaying night. I dreamt my house was robbed. Then I dreamt I had been sent to a concentration camp for old writers and actors, where we just pitched stories to ourselves and acted in a hammy way in a huge rolling field, with our old, battered cars all around us.
I was so relieved to awaken in my own bed, with the ocean's roar below me and my dogs on top of me. Thank you, God, that I am still alive.
I had a hard time getting back to sleep, so I said my prayers that I have been saying every night for a while now. "Please God, show wisdom and strength to our president, George W. Bush, and to Karl Rove, and to Condoleezza Rice, and to Donald Rumsfeld. And please bless and keep Tony Blair, a great, great man, and the leaders of Israel. And please watch over every soldier, sailor, airman, marine, and CIA man, and all of the women who do these dangerous jobs to keep us free. And bless all of the policemen and firemen and FBI men and INS agents and everyone who keeps us safe." Then, if I can remember it, I add:
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose power binds the restless wave,
Who biddest the mighty ocean deep,
Its own appointed limits keep,
O, hear us in peril when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the Sea.
This is the navy hymn, adapted, I believe, from an earlier English hymn, and I feel it in my bones for those brave enough to offer their lives for us.
And by the way, do we ever need a pay raise for the military. It is criminal how little they are paid as they offer their lives on the altar of freedom. Mr. Bush, let's do it now.
I said my prayers and ate an English muffin, and soon, yea, soon, I was asleep on my little bed, which, I hope, will not be vaporized by the North Koreans any time soon.
Why, oh why, did Clinton not rush forward with missile defense? If he had done so, we might have a defense right now. How I wish we had one, and I don't care how much it costs. America has to learn that our life is on the line. Crazy people have atom bombs. This is not a good situation and we need to defend ourselves.
Now for a few words about two dearly departed.
There really were no men or women at the Nixon White House who were not kind, dear people. They were all good, kind people, without exception, at least as they interacted with me. Now I learn they said terrible things in private, but as they met me, they were dolls.
One of the kindest of all was a young press secretary named Ron Ziegler. He was only four years older than I was, but he was vastly senior to me in every way. Rank, responsibility, experience. He was under constant, horrible pressure day in and day out. The press yelled at him and belittled him. They mocked him and his boss. He had to go into the lion's den, like Daniel, day after day, sometimes more than once a day.
Yet he was invariably cheerful and kind. I used to run into him in the White House West Wing and he would stop me and ask how I was and how my father was. One of my tasks was to walk the president's dogs-I volunteered for this, my main job was speechwriter and sometimes lawyer. Ron would always stop to pet the dogs and ask how my own dog, the mighty Weimaraner, Mary, was doing. He always looked sharp and had a neat, crisp way about him. I do have the horrifying memory that he almost always had a cigarette in his hand, but maybe I am wrong about that.
In any event, he was always kind and even cordial. I think of him when I think of how various powers in finance and journalism (but never Hollywood) have cut me dead over the years. He was as kind as he was put upon, and as he was steadily more and more crucified, he became kinder, not meaner.
I still have photos of him and me out at San Clemente after Nixon resigned. He looks happy and relaxed. The pressure was off.
I ran into him at various Nixon functions and he was always cordial and kind. He had several big jobs, but never let it go to his head and lived modestly and like the unpretentious guy he was.
Now he is dead at the insane age of sixty-two, of a heart attack. I read about it online late at night during one of my many sleepless nights. God bless you, Ron, you were a prince to me and did not deserve all of the grief you got. You served the peacemaker, the man who cursed in private but made a more peaceful world in public. God bless all of the peacemakers, including Richard Nixon and his press secretary, and counselor, Ron Ziegler. We'll all be together again soon.
(As I write this, I am sobbing, thinking of how happy I was at the White House, having lunch with my father at the White House Mess, often seeing Ron there too. How cruel life is, to give us those highs and then take them away. Young people, enjoy them while you can.)
And now one other surprising obituary.
From about 1953 to 1962, my family lived next door to Carl Bernstein and his family in a lovely neighborhood in Silver Spring, Maryland. Carl's family had moved from a far fancier neighborhood in Northwest Washington. His family had experienced difficulties because a witness before a congressional committee had said that they had belonged to various groups allegedly connected with the Communist Party. Or maybe they had been named as Communists themselves by Elizabeth Bentley. To tell the truth, it was fifty years ago, and I don't remember. What I do remember is that Carl's father and mother always, without exception, treated me like gold. Life, as Wlady Pleszczynski says, is personal and not political, and Carl's mother and father treated me, a neighbor and a Republican, absolutely great.
I can well recall how often Mr. Bernstein and I argued about politics. I must have been about ten or twelve and he would have been about forty-four or forty-five, and he always discussed things with me with dignity and a good sense of humor. He sat in his den, smoking his cigars, and was endlessly polite.
I cannot ever recall him raising his voice (unlike Carl's mother or my mother) about anything. Plus, he was a Columbia grad, and that says something.
Anyway, he was a big-time leftist, and he suffered for it a lot. He had been a powerful aide to Senator Burton Wheeler and a major rising star in government circles-and then he was nobody, living from a Laundromat (another word my WordPerfect does not recognize). But he was always dignified and good-natured and a great neighbor. Then he got a series of good jobs for various nonprofit organizations and lived a long life and saw his children grow and prosper. I saw him only a few months ago at a wonderful reunion of our neighborhood, sponsored by a lovely girl named Roberta Greenblatt. He was in his early nineties and looked small, but great.
Carl called me a few days ago to tell me his father was dying, and last night I got an email from Carl that his father, Alfred Bernstein, had entered immortality, with his wife and his children at his side.
Let's only remember the good. The political is long past and over with. He was a man who sued to let black people use public swimming pools in D.C. and to keep little people from being fired over anonymous smears. We all make mistakes about politics when we are young, and Alfred Bernstein's heart was always in a good place. Now he is gone and I feel for Carl. Losing a father is a serious business.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Ben Stein's Diary. Contributors: Not available. Magazine title: The American Spectator. Volume: 36. Issue: 2 Publication date: March/April 2003. Page number: 66. © Not available. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.