What No One Else Has
the Guts to Do:
Fisking John Derbyshire's Valedictory
Did you know that
5/6ths of all Americans are smarter than the
average black American? Ellington blew the SAT. Didn't take it.
DID LIKE BRITS. You may not have heard of this. It's becoming a
kind of nonstory. One crazy, evil white man who wrote something awful
and was immediately fired by his longtime employer, the National
Review. Proof that an immediate, harsh and unequivocal response is the
best way to accomplish damage control on what could be a fatal PR hit.
(NBC take note.) Here's what NR editor Rich
Lowry had to say (abundantly backed up by brief responses from
other NR staffers, as well as righty mouthpieces like Ace of Spades and
even the surviving eidolons of Breitbart, who can refer to it only in passing).
who has read Derb in our pages knows he’s a deeply literate, funny, and
incisive writer. I direct anyone who doubts his talents to his
delightful first novel, “Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream,” or any one
of his “Straggler” columns in the books section of NR. Derb is also
maddening, outrageous, cranky, and provocative. His latest provocation,
in a webzine, lurches from the politically incorrect to the nasty and
indefensible. We never would have published it, but the main reason
that people noticed it is that it is by a National Review writer. Derb
is effectively using our name to get more oxygen for views with which
we’d never associate ourselves otherwise. So there has to be a parting
of the ways. Derb has long danced around the line on these issues, but
this column is so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of
resignation. It’s a free country, and Derb can write whatever he wants,
wherever he wants. Just not in the pages of NR or NRO, or as someone
associated with NR any longer.
The left was anxious to pounce upon it, and you can find your way to
their usual obscene imprecations by googling "The Talk" John Derbyshire.
Thus, there's no shortage of condemnations, sweeping dismissals, and
self-righteous nastiness. What's missing is any attempt by anyone to
deal with the actual content. Which is frequently a sign that the
content can't be dealt with on its own terms, that it's just off-limits
to discuss at all. All such shortcuts share the same haughty
lorgnette's eye view of an incident that just shouldn't be spoken of in
public -- like a Victorian lady with the "vapors" whose farts can't be
mentioned and must be hustled into milady's parlor. Unless the content
is responded to specifically, there's always the suspicion that we
mostly agree on the content but wouldn't be caught dead admitting it.
In other words, if the content is truly wrong, a fisk is needed -- a
point by point response to the whole offending mess. The left has never
been good at fisks. Because they suck at it. I don't, however. So I
will do what no one else will. Permit me to begin by quoting from the
first instance in which I
felt obligated to respond to John Derbyshire:
Blaming talk radio for the present
misfortunes of conservatives is just plain idiotic. According to his
own voluminous c.v.,
Derbyshire is a Brit who first lived in the United States in 1986. He
cannot know what it was like growing up in this country before the
Reagan administration terminated the Fairness Doctrine. The only broadcast on which you could
hear conservative voices was Firing
Line. And it may be news to Derb, but you didn't have to be a
lowbrow to object to much of Buckley's presentation. He was so self-consciously intellectual, so
enraptured by his own vocabulary and semantic complications, that even
genuine intellectuals frequently felt like smacking
him on the back of the head. Brilliant? Yes. Also often laughable. That
conservatives in the population at large did not respond eagerly to
conservatism as an elaborate gentleman's game does not make them
lowbrows or deny them qualification as the middlebrows Derb claims to
Populism is an extremely argumentative term to throw around. By
connotation at least, it usually refers to political movements which
organize and manipulate the have-nots in an effort to extort benefits
from the haves. It implies simplistic rabble-rousing rhetoric, phony
"common man" leadership, and continual resort to the ugliness of class
warfare. That's not Rush Limbaugh's shtick and it's not his audience,
either. Limbaugh tapped into a huge population of "the Forgotten Man"
intellectual conservatives claim to speak for, the ones who pay the
bills for the social engineering delusions of liberals. But oddly
enough, they're too busy living their lives and paying the bills to
have much patience with the inside baseball affectations of the National Review. To them, politics
is not an abstract philosophical debate that mutters on through the
centuries in panelled drawing rooms and stylish cocktail parties.
Someone who figures out a way to reach the people who are paying the
bills is not a populist. He's an educator, a communicator, a common
sense analyst, and, yes, an entertainer. He expands the political base
among the competent doers on which the whole nation depends. That's a
far cry from the populist bomb-throwing of a Huey Long or William
Derbyshire can be smart,
insightful, and thought-provoking. This time he is none of the above.
He's being an ass.
I subsequently twitted him for his book called We Are Doomed. So it's not like he
is a new planet who has just swum into my ken. What follows is my
fisk. Which anyone on the right or the left could have done if they
were more interested in combating error and one-sided arguments
(proposed and believed in by more people than any of the star chamber judges want to
acknowledge) than make themselves look virtuous on the internet stage. That's the danger. What you rule off the table is the dish that eats you for lunch later on. A lesson the left, and apparently now the right, have forgotten entirely. Don't like it? Take it on head to head. No? Pussies.
Here is the text with its hyperlinks as preserved by the Ex-Army
blog, interrupted throughout by my own responses and rebuttals:
There is much talk about “the talk.”
“Sean O’Reilly was 16 when his mother gave him the talk that most black
parents give their teenage sons,” Denisa
R. Superville of the Hackensack (NJ) Record tells us. Meanwhile,
down in Atlanta: “Her sons were 12 and 8 when Marlyn Tillman realized
it was time for her to have the talk,” Gracie
Bonds Staples writes in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
uh, why wouldn't it be? Whatever your own grievances, there are
abundant reasons why black people in the United States might want to
warn their children to be careful of law enforcement in particular.
There are good cops, who are fair and doing their best, and there are
also bad cops. You can quibble about what makes them bad, but it's more
than urban legend that middle class blacks are too often pulled over
for driving while black. They also have reason for believing that many
white people are not as they appear. One would hope that "the Talk"
includes the instruction to be as fair as you would want them to be,
but being on guard is something every parent conveys to his children.
There is a talk that nonblack
Americans have with their kids, too. My own kids, now 19 and 16, have
had it in bits and pieces as subtopics have arisen. If I were to
assemble it into a single talk, it would look something like the
Oh. I see you feel the same way. Let's get to it, then.
(1) Among your fellow citizens are
forty million who identify as black, and whom I shall refer to as
black. The cumbersome (and MLK-noncompliant)
term “African-American” seems to be in decline, thank goodness. “Colored” and “Negro” are archaisms. What you must
call “the ‘N’ word” is used freely among blacks but is taboo to
Congratulations. For a Brit, it's pretty enlightened that you've
advanced beyond the term "wogs." Or didn't the Empire ever include
blacks among the wogs? Insulted? Think about it.
(2) American blacks are descended
from West African populations, with some white and
aboriginal-American admixture. The overall average of non-African
admixture is 20-25 percent. The admixture distribution is nonlinear,
though: “It seems that around 10 percent of the African American
population is more than half European in ancestry.” (Same link.)
One could easily argue that this is an example of hybrid vigor. But why
make a point of this? Unless you're arguing that they are in some sense
mutts with no claim on any distinct heritage. Or worse, that the "smart
ones" are smart because of their European blood. Which is no longer an
argument about cultural factors but pure racial-type racism, slightly
mitigated in cases of mixed blood. In which case you must be distinctly
disappointed that Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas are black-type
blacks, with none of the "high-yellow" features even American black
people seem to aspire to. That's all bullshit. In America, heritage is
more cultural than ethnic. Sure, there are still Italians who insist on
their children marrying Italians and Jews who insist on their children
marrying Jews. But such parents have been consistently defeated by
American freedom of choice. Does it matter that American blacks may
have had no choice about their European blood? No. Unlike you,
apparently, practically every American is a mutt, some wild mix of
nationalities so diverse almost none of us can track it all down. What
matters in this is your next point.
(3) Your own ancestry is mixed
north-European and northeast-Asian, but blacks will take you to be
Oops. Your kids are also mutts. Welcome to the United States of
America. Welcome also to the one-percent rule. Historically, everyone
in this country with any black blood is black. I suspect you feel the
same way. But tell me this: if you're black because someone in your
ancestry was, why wouldn't you brand everyone else as white? How could
(4) The default principle in everyday
personal encounters is, that as a fellow citizen, with the same rights
and obligations as yourself, any individual black is entitled to the
same courtesies you would extend to a nonblack citizen. That is basic
good manners and good
citizenship. In some unusual circumstances, however—e.g., paragraph
(10h) below—this default principle should be overridden by
considerations of personal safety.
This would be a fine sentiment if you didn't so thoroughly contradict
yourself later on. As you do.
(5) As with any population of such a
size, there is great variation among blacks in every human trait
(except, obviously, the trait of identifying oneself as black). They
come fat, thin, tall, short, dumb, smart, introverted, extroverted,
honest, crooked, athletic, sedentary, fastidious, sloppy, amiable, and
obnoxious. There are black geniuses and black morons. There are black
saints and black psychopaths. In a population of forty million, you
will find almost any human type. Only at the far, far extremes of
certain traits are there absences. There are, for example, no black Fields Medal
winners. While this is civilizationally consequential, it will not
likely ever be important to you personally. Most people live and die
without ever meeting (or wishing to meet) a Fields Medal winner.
Oh come on. Now you're just being a jerk. Are you seriously suggesting
that mathematical prodigies are an example of American citizenship,
virtue, and even civilization? Many are emotionally disabled freaks.
Yes, Blaise Pascal
recapitulated Euclidian geometry at the age of seven from the first
postulate in a single afternoon, but he was confronted by that
postulate, wasn't he? And Pascal never won a Fields Medal,
either, did he? Besides, as you so obligingly concede, there is variety
in human capability. Which means there may be more than one kind of
genius too. Is there a Fields Medal that credentializes the genius of
Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington?
(6) As you go through life, however,
you will experience an ever larger number of encounters with black
Americans. Assuming your encounters are random—for example, not
restricted only to black convicted murderers or to black investment
of Large Numbers will inevitably kick in. You will observe that the
means—the averages—of many traits are very different for black and
white Americans, as has been confirmed by methodical inquiries in
the human sciences.
Which is completely different from what you and your kids might be
facing in London by encountering cockneys at random. I'm still holding
my fire about you Europeans, with whom I have had abundant personal
Cockneys kill more cockneys than toffs. All the surveys prove it. But
when they get a shot at a toff, they can be ugly indeed. Why did you
ever move here, Derbyshire?
(9) A small cohort of blacks—in my
experience, around five percent—is ferociously
hostile to whites and will go to great lengths to inconvenience or
harm us. A much larger cohort of blacks—around half—will go along
passively if the five percent take leadership in some event. They will
do this out of racial solidarity, the natural willingness of most human
beings to be led, and a vague feeling that whites have it coming.
Amazing that you, a Brit, have so much difficulty recognizing class
resentment and warfare when you see it. Color is a big deal in America,
but actually not nearly as big a deal as accent in the U.K. I can only
imagine how condescendingly an Old Etonian would regard you, for
example. Just by the way you speak.
(10) Thus, while always attentive to
the particular qualities of individuals, on the many occasions where
you have nothing to guide you but knowledge of those mean differences,
(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.
(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date,
find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date
(neglect of that one got me the
closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).
Hell. What an ass. How about native human common sense? I happen to
live in a majority black town. Something I suspect neither you nor your
National Review inquisitors can say. There are no gated communities.
I've been in all kinds of situations where I was outnumbered by black
people. The Law of Large Numbers aside, they are people. Be polite
rather than paranoid and statistical, and guess what? Nothing bad
happens. I have never come even remotely close to a fistfight with a
black person, let alone having a gun drawn on me. Anecodotal? No more
than your 5 percent citation.
Here's the deal no Brit may ever get. In my experience blacks live by
much the same rule my racially prejudiced father and grandfathers lived
by. Cherish whatever prejudices you want in the general, "Large
Numbers" context. But leave it at the door. Take individuals as they
come and they are likely to do the same. No matter how much we
officially hate each other.
Good advice. And I feel the same way about college frat boys, biker
gangs, gays, and the Ladies Auxiliary of the Episcopal Church. Don't EVER get outnumbered by such folks. They may not mean you any harm, but they're sure capable of it.
(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality
run by black politicians.
Me too. In fact, don't live in a contemporary U.S. city. They're all
fucking nuts, not to mention more corrupt than you could imagine.
(10g) Before voting for a black
politician, scrutinize his/her
character much more carefully than you would a white.
Absolutely. Unless the Republican alternative is promising the most honest
administration in the history of Wherever. Or a Democrat. Oops. Was
that politically incorrect? Sorry. But MOVE. Immediately.
(10h) Do not act the Good
Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.
I grant you white fear on this point. But here's an unnerving fact.
When I was young and driving junkers and my car quit, which it often
did, guess who always stopped to help? Black people. They always had
jumper cables, they waved off money, and they never mugged me. I'm not
just talking my tiny hometown here. I'm talking Philadelphia. Make of
it what you will.
(10i) If accosted by a strange black
in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.
Funny. I have much the same rule for all strangers who accost me in the
street for no reason. If they want directions, I try to give them. If
they want something else, I don't smile. I avoid all eye contact and
move out like a snake.
(11) The mean intelligence of blacks
lower than for whites. The least
intelligent ten percent of whites have IQs below 81; forty percent
of blacks have IQs that low. Only one black in six is more intelligent
than the average white; five whites out of six are more intelligent
than the average black. These differences show in
every test of general cognitive ability that anyone, of any race or
nationality, has yet been able to devise. They are reflected in
situations. “Life is an IQ test.”
I'm thinking this is the real crime Derbyshire doesn't know how to
process. God, isn't he getting tiresome? Yeah, there's a sense in which
life is an IQ test. But there's also a sense in which IQ tests are (too
much of) life, meaning destiny. As a conservative, he must know how
poorly we have served the underclass of both blacks and whites. We have
a rotten public school system, populated by loser teachers who don't
know their subjects but spend their academic careers learning sociology
and other bullshit subjects. I'll point out that the same thing is
happening in the U.K. Result? Ignorant idiots who can't read or write,
know no history, and are force-fed delusions about their rights rather
than their opportunities to excel by actually learning something.
(12) There is a magnifying effect
here, too, caused by affirmative action. In a pure meritocracy there
would be very low proportions of blacks in cognitively demanding jobs.
Because of affirmative action, the proportions are higher. In
government work, they are very
high. Thus, in those encounters with strangers that involve
cognitive engagement, ceteris paribus the black stranger will be less
intelligent than the white. In such encounters, therefore—for example,
at a government office—you will, on average, be dealt with more
competently by a white than by a black. If that hostility-based
magnifying effect (paragraph 8) is also in play, you will be dealt with
more politely, too. “The
DMV lady“ is a statistical truth, not a myth.
In a pure meritocracy? There is no such thing. Under the liberal
delusion, government itself has become a welfare system. Should blacks
see through it and resist? Yes. But in reality, it's been their chief
route to the middle class, a source of income that can provide their
children with opportunities to go to the best colleges and and achieve
the greatest career potential. If you were a Greek in Rome, wouldn't
you follow the cracks in the system to do the same thing? Of course you
would. That it entails possibly fatal compromises is a risk you might
be willing to take. Truth is, a solidly prosperous black middle class
is now much larger than Derbyshire imagines. Too much affirmative
action? Probably. But bend-over-backwards fair is the American vice.
btw, the black American middle class is much much bigger than you think
it is. If you don't believe me, ask your own damn kids. They'll tell
you -- if they're not already burning you in effigy.
Time for my European rant. THEY [YOU] ALL HATE EACH OTHER. Swiss, Belgians,
French, Germans, Scandinavians, English (who also hate the Irish,
Scots, and Welsh, Indians, and of course all the others, not to mention
the awfulness of Canadians and Australians), Italians, Spanish,
Portuguese, and on and on,. The racial differences among them are so
tiny as to be inconsequential, but they can all agree that they hate
the Jews, and France and Germany and the U.K. have all demonstrated
that they have no idea what to do about muslims, except leave them in
language-imprisoned ghettoes, while Americans don't really fucking
care. (I remember a row of muslim burkhas at a Penn-Harvard football game. They were for Penn. Ugh.) I was an American consultant in western Europe and none of them
liked me. But when it came to project management, they all agreed that
an American had to be in charge because they couldn't otherwise work
with each other. And yet they insist that it's Americans who have a
racial problem. How convenient for them.
We do. But it's nothing like theirs. The relation between blacks and
whites in America is a lot like the relationship between alpha males in
Corporate America. We can get along in the hallways. We may not always
invite each other to dinner. Still. We can high-five each other about
music and sports and food and women. We're Americans. We can make
allowances. I like and respect and even love this one. No matter how I
feel in the abstract. Brits don't get that. Because they're rigid
pricks. Why their queen hasn't laughed out loud in 50 years.
(13) In that pool of forty million,
there are nonetheless many intelligent and well-socialized blacks.
(I’ll use IWSB as an ad hoc abbreviation.) You should consciously seek
opportunities to make friends with IWSBs. In addition to the ordinary
pleasures of friendship, you will gain an amulet against potentially
career-destroying accusations of prejudice.
IWSBs? Go home, honey. Back to Britain. And stay there. Wish I had a chance to talk to your kids. No way that friendships with Duane and
Hushel were so calculated. If you think they have to be, you're a twit. (Unless I got my vowels mixed up.)
(14) Be aware, however, that there is
an issue of supply and demand here. Demand comes from organizations and
businesses keen to display racial propriety by employing IWSBs,
especially in positions at the interface with the general
public—corporate sales reps, TV news presenters, press officers for
government agencies, etc.—with corresponding depletion in less visible
positions. There is also strong private demand from middle- and
upper-class whites for personal bonds with IWSBs, for reasons given in
the previous paragraph and also (next paragraph) as status markers.
(15) Unfortunately the demand is
greater than the supply, so IWSBs are something of a luxury good, like
antique furniture or corporate jets: boasted of by upper-class whites
and wealthy organizations, coveted by the less prosperous. To be an
IWSB in present-day US society is a height
of felicity rarely before attained by any group of human beings in
history. Try to curb your envy: it will be taken as prejudice (see
I grant that the piece gets worse and worse as you get into it. But a
fisking was necessary. If you don't look at it point by point, people
with vague objections and resentments can say you're just being a race
whore. The value of sweeping it all away without addressing its
Race resentment is legion in this country. The administration is
planning to use it as a trap. Make conservatives commit themselves to
ideas they don't entirely accept because they are offended by the
This post is a warning. Don't fall into the trap. Don't fall into the
trap. Derbyshire is not an American. He doesn't speak for us. He's an
ass. As he always was. But pompous denials that don't make specific
rebuttals are even worse.
Final thought. Life is not without risk. All I tell my daughter is, use your best judgment. Don't be stupid. But don't be a coward either. Cowards miss everything good in life. Cowards and snobs. Why Americans came here in the first place. Because they weren't cowards and they were tired of snobs.
Derbyshire? Consider yourself fisked.
More than anyone else would do. Consider it hands across the sea....
apologies if there are display anomalies associated with this post.
Oddly enough, the post from both the National Review and the original
Derbyshire post are disappearing. I linked them as I found them, with
the intent of preserving both text and hyperlinks. On one computer,
they're fine. On another, they're a mess of weird characters where
there should be commas, etc. Sorry. What happens when the internet is
trying to undo something that happened.
If you were
Dedicatory. Want to see the signatures?
the actual authentic document. I still have it. Hand-made paper.
Something about blood. Lady Laird said I was withholding it from the
ones who cared. I said, "It's mine."
said, "It's not. It belongs to the ones who still give a damn."
Well, here you go, then. Not all, but most.
Saturday, April 07, 2012
didn't sell. Not women's fault. It wasn't a nice looking vagina.
ON THE MATTER. I haven't done a car post in a while,
and there's this rumor afoot that western civilization doesn't properly
honor women. What a load of hooey. War? How about Worship? Even among
Men have been paying tribute to women forever. Especially rich men.
They couldn't do it properly in the Renaissance because symbolism
hadn't been invented yet. It took cars to do the subject justice.
General Motors wrapped up the breast
symbolism forever in the 50s and 60s. But the, uh, deeper symbolism
has never been far from the minds of male automobile stylists.
A small illustrative gallery:
Alfa Romeos. They
wouldn't otherwise exist at all.
Peugeot. French. Need I say more?
Back in the day, Lancia said it all.
Even the Germans participate. BMWs
are obsessed with slits.
Think this is
something new for Bugatti? Think again.
hammering the same theme for a century.
So sad that our president doesn't know how much rich white men idolize
women. Maybe, after he leaves office, he'll begin to figure it out.
We can only hope.
Friday, April 06, 2012
Let's Have Some
The War Against Women. So cool but
so, so old hat. James Thurber, a white man, always
knew that this particular war was eternal, not about
government at all, but sex and control and
completely private stuff.
. Think back to our national delusion of a
post-racial, unifying, all things to all people president. Now
that his reelection is in doubt, he wants war. The so-called Republican
war on women is only part of his multi-pronged offensive. He also wants
race war, discreetly fanning the flames of an arguably neighborhood
event in Georgia to a heat that holds the promise of becoming a
full-fledged Rodney King riot event:
Have you noticed
the cartoon motif. That's all this is. A political cartoon.
What happens in Sanford, Florida, regardless of how the police and
district attorneys decide? A riot if they don't charge Zimmerman? Or a
national, media-led lynch mob if Zimmerman is charged? Either way, it's ugly,
corrupt, and contrary to the spirit of American justice. But that's not
the point. The point is ginning up the base.
And what if these wars aren't
enough? How about a renewed assault on the Irish? They're white, mostly
Catholic, and, well, probably racist, aren't they?
thugs. Never were any damned good, were they?The purest blight on Chicago
marxist politics since before cameras.
Did someone mention the Jews? No? They will:
ask Lewis Ferrakhan. Or the Reverend Wright. Jews suck.
And all those Asians. Like the Koreans and suchlike. Marion Berry is
Chinese, Koreans, whatever. They're
all bloodsuckers in the 'hood. They work hard, they don't bitch,
they spoil the whole victim cause.
Yes, the Obama campaign is going to do
it all. With any luck we'll all be in a ferment of racial, ethnic, and
gender war before we concede that only One Dear Leader can save us from
ourselves with a government that just knows better. Before that day
comes there will be car fires, wholesale looting, drive-by shootings,
spousal castrations, synagogue fires, hoodies wielding broken bottles
against brokers and housewives, all the good stuff we need to lose our
minds and forget who we were before this messiah promised to make
While the hyper-educated mass media find fault at every turn with
everyone BUT the tin Mussolini behind it all.
Welcome to Post-Racial UglyLand.
Although Thurber did offer up one final warning the Obamians might do
well to consider:
No value judgment involved. Men are better at rioting than women are.
What else might the Obama administration have miscalculated? How about
everything? We're not all sliver identities the way he apparently is.
Most of us are Americans. I'm thinking we'll remember that when the
post-racial president presides over race riots in Florida. But then I'm
much more of an optimist than my commenters. I believe. They are living
the consequences of the end of America. I'm still hoping the worst
doesn't come to pass.
I was never a violent person. Still am not. But these days when I hear
the Chinooks beat-beating their way across the skies over our house in
the middle of the night, I'm content with the decision I made a few
months ago to move my grandfather's WWI trench knife from a display in
the living room to the drawer of my nightstand.
I told you I'd be talking about dark days. They are upon us.
uh, Happy Easter. I'm sure our president will have something inspiring
to say about the equivalent religious holiday of Festivus. Unless he
wants a riot about that as well.
Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Another Belated Review:
SURPRISE YOU. Someday I'll learn not to pay attention to other
reviewers. I wouldn't have watched this movie had not a friend
insisted. He wanted my opinion. I agreed but was reluctant because the
book on it was that it was a kind of Spielberg scam, simultaneously
mawkish and graphically graphic about war. A typical throw in
everything but the kitchen sink approach to moviemaking we've learned
to expect from Spielberg. There's nothing he won't borrow or steal or
reference from older, more classic movies to achieve an effect. Isn't
I can see some of that in War Horse.
reductions are easy: a cynic could call it My Friend Flicka from Flanders Fields
or Black Beauty Goes to World War I,
I'm not too young to remember a movie called The Yellow Rolls Royce, in which
the part of the horse in War Horse
is played by, you guessed it, a yellow Rolls Royce, a prop for multiple
world-weary plots. There's also a lyrical David Lean Ryan's Daughter type beginning and
a John Ford silhouettes against a bloody sunset ending, as well as a
nod to the popular hit Sea Biscuit,
little horse that could outrun the great black stallion.
But references like these are acceptable if the conception is sound,
and in this case it is, even if the critics don't know enough to
recognize a classic literary form that is absolutely relevant to the
subject matter. War Horse is
Dickensian, a fairly strict implementation
of the picaresque novel, which is always a parable. In the picaresque,
we follow a hero who meets a slew of people in the first half, then
meets the same people in the second half when all circumstances have
changed. By its very stucture it is an artifice, a morality tale, and
if it is merciless
in the hands of Voltaire, it can also be sentimental in the hands of
Dickens without lessening the effects of its moments of cold-blooded
reality. Spielberg has chosen the Dickensian route in War Horse, which is an artistic
choice I find myself admiring. It was World War I that slaughtered the
sense of meaning in literature and the arts, not to mention literary
structure that insists on framing human drama in formal terms. It is
true inspiration to approach modern nihilism from behind,
from the standpoint of people who had human values and never lost them
even as the world changed forever.
War Horse is a kind of
Most notable are the Spielberg tropes we don't see. For once, the adolescent
hero is not an alienated, ungrateful, self-absorbed brat. The movie is
anti-war without being monolithically anti-military. I think he's
trying to up his game here. There is something like distance and
perspective he is employing as he shows, without any editorial remark,
the transition from the 19th century conception of war as officer-led
cavalry charges to the malignant hell of trench warfare, rendered more
accurately and horrifically than any movie has yet done.
Symbolism is not soap opera, even when it plays on the heart-strings.
The horse is the boy and the boy is the horse, a fact driven home by
the parallel friendships -- War horse with his black stallion comrade
and the human protagonist with his ever-cheerful, loyal friend from
home. In both cases, the lesson of valor is that it originates not in
bloodlust but love. A kind of valor that moves those who encounter it,
even in the most extreme of situations. Men go to war but they are by
no means all evil and damned. The innocence of such true valor
repeatedly brings out the best in those who encounter it. Charles
Dickens would be proud.
Most heart-stopping moment. A 1914 cavalry charge exemplifying the last
gasp of chivalric 19th century warfare, which begins with typically
gorgeous cinematography (the movie is beautifully shot throughout) and
comes to a shattering climax with the unveiling of an endless line of
German machine guns. Welcome to the 20th century, for which absolutely
everyone will pay dearly.
There's also a lesson so subtle I'm shocked by its presence in a
Spielberg film. A grandfather tries to explain to his bellicose
granddaughter that there's more than one kind of courage. He cites
homing pigeons, who fly over the worst of war on their single-minded
mission to go home. He asks her to think what it's like to fly over
so much carnage. Does this not also require courage? Against this we
have the counter-example of the War Horse, who never learns to jump but
only to plow heroically through whatever obstacle he faces, at
tremendous cost. Just like his boy and his family back home.
Well, maybe not a lesson so much as a question. One I'd never have
thought Spielberg had the wit to ask. Because the answer isn't