The Courageous Conversations Compass

I came across something interesting in a Professional Development event a while back: the Courageous Conversations Compass.

It was used as a method of talking about race.

Something I’ve recognized before is how people can talk past one another, and it’s a fair point that this can occur if they’re coming from a different point on the compass. If one person is emotional and another is rational, there may be some opposition. The emotional person will feel that their concerns aren’t addressed, while the intellectual will be confused about inconsistency. One person may want to be heard, while another thinks the best response is to do something, and a third is considering about first principles.

This disconnect can also explain a lot of internet arguments.

One unique problem is that the emotional arguments are really hard to communicate since the other person may have a different frame of reference. One person may be thinking about how they feel due to instances of what may have been systematic racism, while another’s emotions may be riled by the sense they’re accused of racism.

This obviously extends to other topics. You could certainly imagine these different kinds of reactions on questions to do with mask mandates, vaccine requirements, educational priorities, congressional spending, etc.

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Films Seen in 2021 Part 7

This is a continuation of observations on films I’ve seen this year. For this batch, I didn’t go with any further challenges, although I did end up watching several African-American horror movies, and did my best to take advantage of some temporary streaming service discounts.

Movie #126: Sgt. Stubby (DVD)
This is an accessible and enjoyable animated film, perfect for watching with relatives/ family friends of all ages (older folk interested in history, kids who like dogs and animation.) It has a decent match of animated hijinks and serious subject matter (mustard gas.)

Movie #127/ New Movie #90: The Secret Life of Trees (Movie Theater)
It demonstrates how ordinary nature documentaries have become capable of astounding visual beauty. It’s a decent spotlight on an environmentalist, as well as how how trees operate and coexist as part of a larger ecosystem.

Movie #128/ New Movie #91: The Suicide Squad (Movie Theater)
I haven’t seen the original, but this remains accessible and fun. Stylistically it’s quite interesting, although it gets really dark, even for an R-rated superhero film in a way that isn’t believable or satisfying. There can be a discussion piece about the extent to which the film critic community is okay with movies that have a dark left-wing view of things. That said, some of the stuff does work pretty well. Margot Robbie’s Harleyquinn and Idris Elba’s Bloodsport make for great antiheroes.

Movie #129/ New Movie #92: Extra Ordinary (Showtime)
It’s a decent horror comedy, with a take on ghosts that is both funny and mundane.

Movie #130/ New Movie #93: Stillwater (Theater)
This was a movie that had to tread very carefully given the sensitive subject matter of a middle-aged blue collar white guy investigating suspicious events in France involving people of color and his daughter’s same-sex relationship. Matt Damon provides a good sense of a guy out of his element, who means well but has been a fuckup since long before the movie started. A key development seems a bit derivative of a recent well-regarded film from a similar genre. However, it is a great conversation starter.

Movie #131/ New Movie #94: Red Riding: 1974 (AMC+)
It feels like a 1970s noir. Andrew Garfield is decent as a reporter who gets caught in a messed up conspiracy. Rebecca Hall is better as the tormented survivor. The central mystery is a bit vague, a set-up to a larger trilogy and the bad guys are generic. Still, there are some decent twists at the end.

Movie #132/ New Movie #95: Horror Express (AMC+)
The set is decent, although from an earlier film. The generic horror movie debate about scientific exploration is kinda lame. It’s the type of film that acts as if Christopher Lee should immediately realize a mummy is alive and hunting people on a train.

Movie #133/ New Movie #96: The Green Knight (Theater)
This is a beautiful film that sometimes feels deliberately confusing and unsatisfying, although it works pretty well to get viewers debating what just happened. This is not a film to see cold, given all the references to medieval lore. There’s a sense of people similar to us living in a society that is quite different, where it is natural to see giants or ghosts. There are some excellent tricks with time and possible futures, as it gets to some important questions about honor and meaning.

Movie #134/ New Movie #97: Pandorum (Showtime)
The sci-fi story may have too many high concepts, featuring a race of evolved hunters, people waking from cryogenic sleep with limited memories, an odd form of craziness and the destruction of the Earth. The quality of the twists is inconsistent.

Movie #135/ New Movie #98: The Tomorrow War (Amazon Prime)
This is a time travel sci-fi story by a writer I like, so I should enjoy it. But it’s not good. Part of it is that the aliens aren’t great, kinda like The Quiet Place without the genius sound design or a hook about what makes them interesting. the response to a major event just doesn’t seem right. Twists are predictable and I’m not sure it plays fair. The third act is tonally off, but at least addresses plot induced stupidity when a small group puts the world in danger.

Movie #136/ New Movie #99: Source Code (Showtime)
I checked it out because it was much better reviewed than I thought, and it’s a decent combination of mystery and an ordinary man’s response to an extreme situation. A central twist with the tech is inconsistent with the set-up.

Movie #137/ New Movie #100: Horror Noire (AMC+)
It’s an okay overview of the depictions of African-Americans in horror (and anything that’s meant to scare) from Night of the Living Dead to Get Out. It did encourage me to watch a bunch of the films that were covered, even if this wasn’t particularly compelling as far as documentaries about movies go.

Movie #138/ New Movie #101: Tales From the Hood (Starz)
This is worth checking out just because it’s Twilight Zone stories with a 1990s indie African-American aesthetic, which is not a combination found elsewhere. Good horror anthologies get to the drama and supernatural events faster, which is one reason I enjoy them so much. Here it works to go for a nuanced message than just featuring one story. It can cover the harms of so-called black on black violence as well as racist politicians and police officers. It can sometimes seem ridiculous in the depiction of race, but it did come out at a time when David Duke was a credible candidate for office so some of that is forgivable. The frame story gets around some of the logical inconsistencies.

Movie #139/ New Movie #102: Free Guy (Theater)
It’s a fun sci-fi comedy, similar to Ready Player One (same writer) and The Truman Show, and while it’s not great, it works on the strength of Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer.

Movie #140/ New Movie #103: Blacula (AMC+)
It’s a decent horror movie, with probably the best take on the common trope of a vampire’s love for a reincarnation of his ex. It has some striking images and is interesting as an artifact of the 1970s, although ahead of many other films of the time in the depiction of diverse young professionals.

Movie #141: Monterey Pop (Criterion Blu-Ray)
This is clearly my favorite concert film, and I’ve been thinking about what makes it so effective. The songs are great, with most being decent music videos in their own right. It’s short, although there is additional material available as extras on the Criterion editions for anyone who rightly wants more. It seems more honest than the usual concert film, showing what the festival is like, but also showing when 1960s outdoor concern sound systems aren’t perfect.

Movie #142/ New Movie #104: Ganja & Hess (Showtime)
There is a 1970s indie film vocabulary that is a bit tough to follow, especially in the worldbuilding. Bill Gunn’s style remains experimental even if you do take that into account. The visuals are compelling, and it is thematically rich, with new takes on vampires (technically this is a different monster) and religion.

Movie #143: Kameradschaft / Comradeship (Criterion DVD)
Last time I was disappointed with Eisenstein’s 1930s films due to the propaganda, but I still enjoy this story of workers from different countries uniting for a common class-based goal, so it’s worth considering what makes it different. Part of it is the message is fair. It is important for people from different countries to work together (especially in the context of a film made prior to World War II.) The little stories work. There is actual conflict (IE- French border patrol agents shooting at a German rescue team) and misunderstandings. Most importantly, in addition to impressive sequences, there can be a sense of humor, like when a dramatic scene of young men leaving a village is interrupted by a mom making sure her son has sandwiches.

Movie #144: I, Tonya (Showtime)
Margot Robbie is not the expected lead for a film about someone who falls in love with a guy who calls her pretty, but despite the moral question of casting someone who doesn’t look like her character, she is fantastic, and it fits her persona as an actress (a brash old-fashioned broad.) The film handles ambiguity well to the extent that actions of certain characters remain mysterious. It also has some great villains, including Alison Janney’s trainwreck mother, the idiot who engineers the attack, an abusive husband who may be the victim of unreliable narrators or worse than we believe, and the community of judges. This is a great example of film as an empathy machine, but it doesn’t let the lead off the hook.

Movie #145: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (Criterion DVD)
It’s a grim cold war story of a spy sent to infiltrate an organization, but set up to fail in the effort. It’s a great showcase for Richard Burton’s British world weariness; he’s like an English Bogart and it’s quite effective here. It takes a while to get going, but the end is powerful.

Movie #146/ New Movie #105: Death Takes a Holiday (Criterion DVD)
Friedrich March’s take on Death is alien and strange, and makes for some humor when he pretends to be a foreign prince. It hints at some big questions, but doesn’t really get to it. Perhaps it is a bit tainted by better work on the grim reaper, and a more mature understanding of the fascination with death, but I still enjoyed it.

Movie #147/ New Movie #106: Candyman (1992) (DVD)
It’s got a great hook with researchers checking out urban legends getting drawn into horror. It’s shot like a 1990s psychological thriller, which works when things go supernatural. There’s a bit of a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? sensibility at times, as it is both ahead of its time and behind ours in depictions of race. Virginia Madsen is a good horror lead, balancing the naivete of the first half prior to an effective fakeout and the intensity/ vulnerability of the second half when things go much worse. Tony Todd’s Candyman is one of the most underrated horror film monsters.

Movie #148: Darkest Hour (DVD)
This movie is certainly my jam. It’s sometimes obvious, but in a way that’s acceptable in a great film. It’s a good look at an iconic moment in England, as a flawed man who is right for the moment considers appeasement or fighting. Oldman is excellent, the epitome of the transformation of a name actor into a world-historical figure, showing Churchill at his most brilliant and aggravating at a time when his legacy was being defined.

Movie #149/ New Movie #107: Forty Guns (Criterion DVD)
It’s a decent short western on the theme of people good at handling themselves in the wild west struggling to find a place for themselves in a more civilized setting. It has a more complex take on the bad guys than usually; we can really see why Barbara Stanwyck’s character likes them despite her understanding that their time has passed.

Movie #150: Midnight in Paris (Amazon Prime)
It’s easily the best of Woody Allen’s late films, from that period when he’s famous enough to get A-list casts to play out his dramas. It’s effective at making the story of a screenwriter trying to be a novelist unpretentious, partially through the contrast of lead Owen Wilson with Martin Sheen’s pedantic professor. Marion Cotillard is adorable, and I like the twists with her character. It has a great take on nostalgia and the search for a golden age.

One thing I came to appreciate in this month of filmviewing is the effectiveness of movies as conversation-starters. The best of it here certainly qualifies. I think you could have really interesting conversations about Candyman, The Green Knight, I Tonya and a few others. It’s an interesting test for the value of a film.

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Dishonesty as a virtue

Years ago, I read The 48 Rules of Power. My brothers got it for me as a Christmas gift, since I like to write stories about powerful people, and they figured this would provide advice for stories about successful assholes. That was certainly the case.

Some of he major rules are to be dishonest in selective ways. Even the appearance of honesty is to be used in a selective fashion.

There are similar books about this, mainly dealing with improving your love life.

But what interested me is the people who take this seriously in their professional lives, especially if they’re operating in the public sphere. How do you deal with ambitious people who are really skilled at lying, and see it as virtuous? Scott Adams made a case that this was one of Trump’s great abilities, that he was willing to bend the truth in ways that go beyond standard politicians. Even if it failed him (which is debatable as he’s the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024) there may soon be people who are better at it. Some will be on your side politically.

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This Should Be a Movie


Once upon a time it was controversial to suggest that doctors should wash their hands. The Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis was the first to advocate for the need for this. It did not end well.

So Semmelweis hypothesized that there were cadaverous particles, little pieces of corpse, that students were getting on their hands from the cadavers they dissected. And when they delivered the babies, these particles would get inside the women who would develop the disease and die.

If Semmelweis’ hypothesis was correct, getting rid of those cadaverous particles should cut down on the death rate from childbed fever.

So he ordered his medical staff to start cleaning their hands and instruments not just with soap but with a chlorine solution. Chlorine, as we know today, is about the best disinfectant there is. Semmelweis didn’t know anything about germs. He chose the chlorine because he thought it would be the best way to get rid of any smell left behind by those little bits of corpse.

And when he imposed this, the rate of childbed fever fell dramatically.

What Semmelweis had discovered is something that still holds true today: Hand-washing is one of the most important tools in public health. It can keep kids from getting the flu, prevent the spread of disease and keep infections at bay.

You’d think everyone would be thrilled. Semmelweis had solved the problem! But they weren’t thrilled.

For one thing, doctors were upset because Semmelweis’ hypothesis made it look like they were the ones giving childbed fever to the women.

And Semmelweis was not very tactful. He publicly berated people who disagreed with him and made some influential enemies.

Eventually the doctors gave up the chlorine hand-washing, and Semmelweis — he lost his job.

Semmelweis kept trying to convince doctors in other parts of Europe to wash with chlorine, but no one would listen to him.

The iconoclast in me would like to see a film in the point of view of someone fighting for a horrible cause, turning the idea of film as an empathy machine around in order to make the audience see the perspective of someone who screws up terribly. This one would probably work better from the perspective of Semmelweis as the traditional underdog, fighting for a noble cause but failing terribly. It’s useful as a reminder to people to not be like his critics who ended up on the wrong side of history.

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Reforming political primaries

It seems to me that there should be a few reforms to political primaries.

There should be runoffs. It’s problematic if a candidate wins in a crowded field with a quarter of the vote, especially if it’s for a safe congressional district or mayoral election, where the only threat is going to be from the party’s base. In New York City, Eric Adams has more legitimacy because he won a clear majority with the Instant Runoff vote. That system had some complications, although part of it was the expectation that we’ll know the winner immediately, which isn’t necessary months before the general election, and half a year before the next mayor’s term begins.

In the 37 states in which there’s a Lieutenant Governor, it should be selected the same way the Vice President is selected. The dumbest approach is to have separate elections for the two, in which case the Governor and Lieutenant Governor may be from a different party, so they’re often at odds with one another when it’s time to serve. It creates situations where a Governor’s departure outside of an election can change the party in charge, which has some perverse incentives.

But I don’t think it’s a great idea to have candidates running specifically to be Lieutenant Governor from the beginning. There will be a better pool of potential Lieutenant Governors if it’s selected after the primaries. In that case, it would include not only those who decided that their best chance for political advancement was by running for the #2 position, but those who sought nominations for other offices. A losing candidate for Senate might be a better fit than someone who recognized they wouldn’t be a contender for the office.

There is also a question of when to hold the primaries. There should be some balance between allowing late entrants and giving general election candidates enough time to be known. It seems to me that summer primaries are a bad idea, as it tends to weed out more casual voters. A September primary is a bit late.

Primaries in May or June allow the general election candidates time to introduce themselves to voters. And it gives independent candidates time to get on the ballot, if that’s necessary as an alternative to major party nominees. There are people who won’t run if the Democrats and/ or Republicans pick decent candidates, but would have an opening if one party picks extremists. Independents would have time to get on the ballot if the primary is settled by June, which I see as a good thing.

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Films Seen in 2021 Part 6

This is a continuation of observations on films I’ve seen this year. For this group, I added four sub-challenges: five movies by female directors, five Russian movies, five Shakespeare adaptations and five movies that were nominated for Academy Awards last year. With theaters shut down due to Covid, I didn’t see as many of those as I usually do.

Movie #101/ New Movie #71/ Russian Film #1: Alexander Nevsky (Criterion DVD)
The medieval certainly has an epic scale, and is effective propaganda. It’s probably worth analyzing more for the historical context than its worth as a traditional film. There are some interesting choices, like how Nevsky disappears for big parts of the narrative. The villains are lacking in personality, which makes the fight scenes less meaningful, even if they are legendary.

Movie #102/ New Movie #72/ Female Director #1: La Pointe-Courte (Criterion DVD)
This was arguably the first French new wave film, and it remains stylistically daring, with interesting cuts and cinematography decisions. It’s great use of an interesting location, where people prepare for jousting on boats and a river by someone’s house needs to be crossed. It shows a small community that isn’t happy with bureaucrats, a conservative message for a French new wave film. The argument between the couple is longer and nastier than I expected, going from intellectual to personal quickly. It’s a great example on a particular type of film, showing the difference between the visitors and the locals, and the many stories in a small town over one weekend.

Movie #103/ New Movie #73: Walkabout (Criterion DVD)
It’s a beautifully shot film about a clash of cultures, and two young siblings trying to survive. It’s a great sense of something that film excels at conveying: the difficulties of communication. I’m disappointed in how it ends, but this is not due to a defect of the film. I understand what happens; I’d have preferred something different due to an appreciation of the characters.

Movie #104/ New Movie #74/ Female Director #2: Zola (Movie Theater)
This film was interesting in how it depicts very modern facets of communication (text messages, twitter posts) in a crazy story about people in a very different culture than the one we usually see in film, also getting to the different codes of the leads. I could believe that these people exist outside of the film, and there are some interesting tricks with unreliable narrators. It ends a bit anticlimactically. I’d have liked to see more of a later reckoning, like what happened to the people involved after their crazy story went viral.

Movie #105: Chungking Express (Movie Theater)
Wong Kar Wai has some fantastic tricks when it comes to editing, and he makes some brilliant and deliberate choices in telling the stories of two cops, like the more confident one being the traffic cop who never has to take anyone down. It’s two stories that work well together, a neonoir in the perspective of someone who doesn’t know what’s going on, and a more traditional (but exceptional) romantic comedy. This grew on me, as I didn’t care for it as much the first time I saw it (partly due to the twist in the middle making this a different film than what I expected.)

Movie #106/ New Movie #75: Cruella (Movie Theater)
It really comes across as a knockoff of Joker (period piece about the origin of a famous villain with similar soundtrack decisions) which is likely unfair because it had to be in production before that one came out. I don’t envy directors and writers who have to tell an edgy Disney story, but it is fun and it gets into a conflict which may sanitize the character, but has meaning- whether to embrace the dark side. I’m still trying to figure out how Cruella got so much attention in the fashion industry without any customers, and whether Disney will one day make a prequel with a more sympathetic take on the Baroness.

Movie #107/ New Movie #76/ Russian Film #2: Major Grom- Plague Doctor (Netflix)
It’s an odd superhero film about an extraordinary cop taking on a vigilante. It’s interesting in what it says about Russia, with a populace on the verge of rebellion, and a message that they just need a tough guy who can break all the rules. The main story is generic (the riots seem to be like Bane, a CEO is a lot like Mark Zuckerberg, there’s a Marvel end-credit sequence) and some narrative tricks get in the way of making the film understandable.

Movie #108/ Shakespeare Film #1: Ran (Amazon Prime)
Like Bergman, there’s something off about seeing a Kurosawa film in color, even if he uses it to great effect. The medieval source material (merged with a Japanese legend) translates well to the samurai era, and there is the new element of the betrayed king dealing with the consequences of terrible things he’s done in the past in order to gain and maintain power. There is a new great villain in the evil daughter-in-law, over the top but with motives that fit the context.

Movie #109/ New Movie #77/ Nominees #1/ Female Director #3: Nomadland (DVD)
This is a fully realized take on a (largely involuntary) lifestyle/ class that’s rarely seen in major American films. Even indies typically skew younger. It’s really good at showing the dignity of the marginalized. It’s often lovely but shows a way of living that is hard. It’s a fantastic character study: Frances McDormand’s lead is a tough complex woman even if these circumstances, showing both a need for community and self-sufficiency, as she’s learning the ropes. This is a rare type of film: modern neorealist with excellent production values, where you gasp when a character accidentally breaks something, because you know how meaningful it is.

Movie #110/ New Movie #78/ Nominees #2: Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon (Netflix)
It’s charming enough, with some good gags. My problem is that I can appreciate wordless or silent animated films, but it only so far.

Movie #111/ New Movie #79: Fallen Angels (Movie Theater)
A companion to Chungking Express, it still has really nice cinematography but goes too far in the contrast between the narratives, as well as the increasingly eccentric cast.

Movie #112/ Shakespeare Film #2: Chimes at Midnight (Criterion DVD)
The Welles Falstaff-centric adaptation of (mainly) Henry IV Part 1 is imperfect; he liked ADR too much, the narrative is less effective when he combines events in multiple plays, and he had to compromise to get A-listers Jeanne Moreau and John Gieguld for limited shoots. But he is exceptional as one of Shakespeare’s best characters, and he gets to a central conflict of the different paternal influences on the future Henry V pretty well.

Movie #113/ New Movie #80: Monte Cristo Part 2 (Youtube)
The revenge continues in satisfying fashion. Trademarks include opulent settings, and reaction shots of large crowds to big news. There are some good character moments, like the resolution to a duel, although some moments are underplayed, like the main character’s romance. This is one of the most ordinary-looking leads I can think of in early cinema, and that’s quite fitting for a story of someone mysterious and underestimated.

Movie #114/ Russian Film #3/ Shakespeare Film #3: King Lear (1971) (DVD)
Kozintsev’s King Lear is beautifully shot. Jüri Järvet is a quieter Lear than I’m used to, ibe who doesn’t dominate the narrative, which works for this film and the director’s themes of focusing on the political turmoil of Shakespeare.

Movie #115/ New Movie #81/ Russian Film #4/ Shakespeare Film #4: Hamlet  (1964)(DVD)
Kozintsev’s Russian adaptation works really well, fitting Hamlet’s brooding and mood swings. As with Lear, there’s an interesting sense of political turmoil, that the recent death of the king has left the situation in Denmark unstable. The inevitable confrontation is legitimately sad, and it sells the big moments. The Facets DVD is imperfect, sometimes pixelated with a translation that seems to skip some stuff (this isn’t just Hamlet, it was an adaptation by Boris Pasternak.) But this is still a good adaptation of one of the best stories.

Movie #116/ New Movie #82/ Oscar Nominee #3: Minari (DVD)
It’s paced in an interesting way, casual but with a narrative force that slowly develops. It does a great job of showing the differences of the family members affected by the dad’s dream, and the sense of being outsiders in a weird environment, still quite different from the cliches. It’s rare to see the struggles of ordinary people depicted so well in film.

Movie #117/ New Movie #83/ Oscar Nominee #4: Hilbilly Elegy (Netflix)
I’m kinda pissed off at critics for hating this so much; that seems to be clearly political. It has a distinctive ethos in the struggles of a kid growing up in a weird family that is flawed, but more complex than the caricatures. The JD Vances are overshadowed by better performances from Glenn Close and Amy Adams, although that’s more about their talents than a problem with the film. It is odd to see the eras where I grew up as cultural touchstones in flashbacks.

Movie #118/ New Movie #84/ Female Director #4: La Pelle/ The Skin (DVD)
It’s a bit distracting to see Italian dubbing for American characters in a story that’s supposed to highlight American ignorance and bravado. It’s light on plot, showing the horrors after a country loses a war, and it’s interesting to see what Americans look like from the outside, in a perspective that recognizes complexity, even if it is often way over the top (IE- the revelation of what hundreds of soldiers are lining up to see.)

Movie #120/ New Movie #85/ Russian Film #5: Ivan the Terrible Part 1 (Criterion DVD)
Eisenstein’s biopic on one of Stalin’s role models looks nice, but it’s often boring. It’s a bit like Alexander Nevsky in that the requirements of propaganda make the narrative less satisfying.

Movie #121/ New Movie #86/ Shakespeare Film #5: Macbeth (1971) (DVD)
Polanski’s version (produced by Playboy) conveys a sense of a man grappling with ambition and destiny. The medieval setting feels lived in. I can see why lead John Finch was in such high demand at the time (studios offered him James Bond; he was the lead in a Hitchcock film the year after this.) He shows a Macbeth who is believable in the role, while not comfortable with what he does. This is more like a supervillain origin story. It was controversial at the time, but now tamer than Game of Thrones.

Movie #122/ New Movie #87: Chopping Mall (Amazing Prime)
Sometimes this story of teens VS robots plays with expectations about slasher films, as they recognize how stupid it is to go separate and go alone. And it has fun with consumer culture. But it doesn’t make the end result good.

Movie #123/ New Movie #88: Bamboozled (DVD)
This was an odd film to watch as I wasn’t sure where Spike Lee was going and whether I’d ultimately find it to be a good film. He touched a lot of third rails. Some stuff is dated, especially a particular type of early digital filmmaking, but much of it is quite prescient about controversies of representation and blackface. Some of it is genius, although the lead is annoyingly inscrutable, which makes his story less interesting.

Movie #124: Blast of Silence (Criterion DVD)
This is a weirdly positioned noir, bordering between the end of the original noir era and 1960s Independent New York cinema verite. It’s distinctive with cool shots, a Christmas setting (very fitting), second person narration and a lead who is out of his element in the big city.

Movie #125/ New Movie #89/ Oscar Nominee #5/ Female Director #5: Crip Camp (Netflix)
It’s a well-told story where the directors benefit from having decades of material to explore the lives of disabled Americans who had meaningful experiences in a summer camp, and reconnected through activism. The film gets into the process of what they do in interesting ways, even if I disagree with some of it (hunger strikes did not seem productive.) It certainly shows the many reasons they had for sit-ins and other protests (a desire to live ordinary lives, a sense of purpose and their loving community.)

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Judicial Philosophy

One thing I’ve observed when listening to discussions about policy on conservative and progressive podcasts, or reading articles about the matter, is that conservatives tend to care about legal rationale, while progressives focus more on results. This got me thinking about how as a reasonably informed person, I could pretty easily explain originalism and textualism, the main conservative philosophies, but not the progressive understanding of how the law is supposed to work.

I asked the following question on multiple forums to get a better understanding of the other side.

In a lot of the discussions about the Supreme Court rulings, I haven’t seen much explanation about the rationale of the liberal position(s). The subtext sometimes seems to be that the court should use whatever pretext possible to get the best policy outcomes, but that doesn’t seem correct. So I’m asking if anyone can recommend a good primer on the left-wing approach to the law.

I can appreciate that there may not be one left-wing approach, just as the approaches tied to conservatism: originalism and textualism have some differences, and there are further nuances (a literal interpretation from a text can differ from a consideration of how it would be understood.) But if anyone has a good online source (video, podcast, article) explaining left-wing judicial philosophies, I would like to read it. Does anyone have a recommendation?

One response was that Breyer wrote good books on the matter, and that there were some decent articles about the unwritten constitution, as well as a discussion between Breyer and Scalia for the Supreme Court historical society that get into these differences.

Thomas C Grey’s “The Uses of the Unwritten Constitution.”

There was also an argument that the constitution did not survive the Civil War, and that it was replaced by the 14th amendment, which has taken some time to be realized. Thurgood Marshall articulated this in his bicentennial speech.

While the Union survived the civil war, the Constitution did not. In its place arose a new, more promising basis for justice and equality, the 14th Amendment, ensuring protection of the life, liberty, and property of all persons against deprivations without due process, and guaranteeing equal protection of the laws. And yet almost another century would pass before any significant recognition was obtained of the rights of black Americans to share equally even in such basic opportunities as education, housing, and employment, and to have their votes counted, and counted equally. In the meantime, blacks joined America’s military to fight its wars and invested untold hours working in its factories and on its farms, contributing to the development of this country’s magnificent wealth and waiting to share in its prosperity.

It was also interesting to see how some progressives really misunderstand the originalist position. For example, there was a common response that originalists would be opposed to amendments, when originalists explicitly support the amendment process. These were listed as reasons to be an originalist in an overview of judicial philosophies by the UM-KC School of Law.

5. Leaving it to the people to amend their Constitution when need be promotes serious public debate about government and its limitations.

7. If a constitutional amendment passed today, we would expect a court five years from now to ask what we intended to adopt. [Can the same be said for a court 100 or 200 years from now?]

8. Originalism more often forces legislatures to reconsider and possibly repeal or amend their own bad laws, rather than to leave it to the courts to get rid of them.

Among the reasons to be a non-originalist was the difficulty of using the amendment process, This still requires originalists to favor it.

4. Non-originalism allows judges to head off the crises that could result from the inflexible interpretation of a provision in the Constitution that no longer serves its original purpose. (The amendment process is too difficult and cannot be relied upon to save us.)

The bar association’s discussion of this frames the question as “Is the Constitution a static document, the meaning of which is set in stone until the people chisel in an amendment? So the idea that originalists reject the 13th and 19th amendments is absurd.

I think part of the reason people are so mistaken on this is that they have to come up with a caricature to argue against because originalism and textualism otherwise just seem so sensible when determining the role of a judge. This is helpful for conservatives. Progressives would benefit from clearly articulating their view of the courts. Much of the criticism of the right is that originalism or textualism is used as pretext for policy decisions that Republicans want, but without an articulation of a different philosophy the main defense of progressive judges is that they’re going to go for preferred policies without much pretext. There’s less sense of the neutral principles at play.

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Films Seen In 2021 Part 5

This is a continuation of notes on films I’ve seen this year. For this batch, I’ve had a few sub-goals: five French films, five films from AFI’s list of the funniest movies ever, five films by actor-directors and because I’ve realized that I haven’t been many watching any silent movies this year (that’s what happens when I don’t keep track of decades): five movies from the silent era.

Movie #85/ New Movie #59: Tom & Jerry (DVD)
It’s mostly pleasant all-ages film. I like the conceit that human characters are live-action, and all animals are animated. There’s a carelessness to the story as evident by the lack of attention to what makes an A-list celebrity wedding special. Are they both famous? Are they actors? Influencers? The main arc is pretty obvious, although it’s resolved okay.

Movie #86/ New Movie #60/ Actor-Director #1: A Quiet Place Part 2 (Theater)
It may be a little self-indulgent for John Krakinski to do a film about how his character is so awesome. This sequel continues logically from the first, and builds on the world okay. There is some plot induced stupidity and the narrative trudges a bit, although it is interesting where it gets to the point where you don’t know what’s happening next.

Movie #87/ New Movie #61: The Sparks Brothers (Theater)
It’s a straightforward documentary about a relatively obscure long-running band. I’ve never heard of them, aside from the trailer for their upcoming other film Annette, although I do get the sense that they’ve been parodied dozens of times before, which makes sense. They’re so distinctive, and they’ve been visible enough over the years while still being kinda unknown. For the same reason some people who saw the movie thought it was an elaborate mocumentary, they are great to parody. Wright gets to what makes the band special, even if more time on individual songs would be appreciated when we’re dealing with a band so obscure. Granted, that trick might be hard with 25 albums. It does certainly show the band’s ability to change, and how they were often ahead of everyone else.

Movie #88/ New Movie #62/ French Movie #1: Le Chinoise (Mubi)
This is an odd Godard film. Mainly it’s intellectual debates among ridiculous left-wing radicals before they go and take things up a notch. It’s strange that Godard seemed to believe in militant maoism given how well he makes fun of it.

Movie #89/ New Movie #63/ French Movie #2: The Oldest Profession (Kino Lorber Blu-Ray)
It’s an oddball anthology with top French directors tackling the world’s oldest profession. I suspect that no one would be surprised that a 1960s French movie about prostitution is sometimes a bit misogynstic. For the subject matter, it’s also typically quite tame. Some of the jokes are okay.

Movie #90/ New Movie #64/ Silent Film #1/ AFI 100 Laughs #1/ Actor-Director #2: The Navigator (Blu-Ray)
It’s a fun Keaton film with two incompetent young people stuck on a boat together, barely able to manage, required complex rube goldberg devices to manage the most simple things. It often showcases Keaton’s mastery of the comedic long-shot. A final encounter with an island of cannibals has not aged as well as most of the film.

Movie #91/ French Movie #3/ Silent Movie #2: The Passion of Joan of Arc (Criterion Blu-Ray)
This time I watched the 24 frames per second version with the score by Adrian Utley and Will Gregory. The score was very modern, but worked quite well with the timelessness of the source material. It remains one of the best movies ever made, with a powerhouse performance by Renée Jeanne Falconetti at the destruction and spiritual salvation of a great woman.

Movie #92/ AFI 100 Laughs #2: Monkey Business (DVD)
It’s the Marx brothers, so it has some inspired gags, and is sometimes ahead of the audience. The brothers play stowaways who get involved in a mob conflict, which works as a centerpiece.

Movie #93/ New Movie #65/ French Movie #4/ Actor-Director #3: Let’s Make a Dream (Mubi)
This is very obviously a theatrical adaptation, with the direction a bit dull. Sometimes it goes on a little bit too long, although it is witty and charming. The restoration on Mubi is imperfect, but it does have some great sequences and twists, especially a cad’s elaborate fantasy of what his girl is doing when heading his way.

Movie #94/ New Movie #66/ French Movie #5/ Silent Movie #3: Monte Cristo Part 1 (Youtube)
I started watching clips someone put on Youtube, and then ordered a DVD of it to get a better transfer. Unfortunately, the DVD only included a 40 minute long cut (from a movie that totals three hours and forty minutes and in released in two parts in France), and the transfer was much worse than the Youtube.

This is quite naturalistic for a silent movie. The direction and performances are okay, but it is a bit of a struggle in the beginning, especially before the lead gets him arrested. It gets much more interesting when his imprisonment begins, and we get a sense of his suffering and a cleaner narrative with his friendship with someone who initially appears to be a lunatic. The story is quite episodic, with sections of the narrative dealing with new characters as the lead disappears for major stretches. Some of the stories are more powerful than others, but the results are satisfying.

Movie #95/ New Movie #57/ AFI 100 Laughs Movie #3/ Silent Movie #4: The Freshman (Youtube)
It’s a fun time capsule of college in a very different era. Harold Lloyd is a bit too old to be a college freshman, but he does a good job of playing someone well-meaning but way too eager to please. Some of the gags are inspired, and quite complex, especially where a party sequence where his clothes are falling apart, and a dizzy tailor has to help. There is legitimate emotion to it, and the narrative turns aren’t as obvious as you’d assume from a silent film. When he gets a chance to play in the big game, it initially does not go well for him.

oMovie #96/ AFI 100 Laughs Movie #4/ Actor-Director #4: Bananas (DVD)
There’s one joke here that aged really badly, when Woody Allen has to justify buying a porno mag by saying that he’s studying moral perversion and moving up to child molestation. Otherwise, it’s a decent early Woody Allen film with an earlier version of his nebbish persona and jokes that seem more common in a Mel Brooks film, or Airplane (many of which came out later.)

Movie #97/ New Movie #68: Black Widow (Theater)
It’s an okay Marvel movie with some decent sequences. The cast is fine, with Florence Pugh as a standout, setting up a potential replacement who is entertainingly self-aware. The story is a bit generic MCU (squabbling siblings, fight scenes on a base in the air, a villainous conspiracy going back decades) even if it is darker than most (a conversation about forced sterilization works to reveal character and just how the twisted the system the widows came from is) and it does have a larger point about how women and girls are overlooked. The direction is consistently impressive. It is over the top at times, closer at times to the stereotypes about Michael Bay and the Fast & Furious films than most MCU movies.

Movie #98/ New Movie #69/ AFI 100 Laughs Movie #5: Topper (PBS)
Cary Grant’s eight films on the AFI 100 Laughs countdown are built on his abilities as the best straight man in film, or as evident here, the life of the party trying to encourage someone else to loosen up a little. In this case, he’s doing it beyond the grave as a ghost. This might have one of the most flagrant examples of category fraud in Oscars history with the nomination of Roland Young’s Topper, the ultimate man who needs to loosen up, in the category of Supporting Actor. The results are fun.

Movie #99: Black Bear (Digital)
It’s interesting watching this again knowing what the twist is going to be. It’s a bit of an intellectual puzzle to figure out what’s going on, which makes it tougher to connect emotionally to a story about a couple and a stranger in an enclosed environment, although the difficulty of connecting emotionally is one of the themes of the story. One thing the film does quite well is to show the three leads and the setting in radically different circumstances, and it depicts both of those circumstances quite well.

Movie #100/ New Movie #70/ Silent Film #5/ Actor-Director #5: The Circus (DVD)
A Chaplin film which was a hit when it came out, and it still has a decent reputation, although it seems to now fall just outside his Top Five. There are some fantastic set pieces in the circus, as Chaplin’s little tramp ruins performances and briefly becomes the star of the show, getting involved in a love triangle with a poignant ending. Even if it’s not top-tier Chaplin, it has great sight gags. Especially when monkeys get involved.

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Baltic Modernist Films Seen In 2021

I’m going in a slightly different direction for the posts about films I’ve seen this year, as The Anthology Film Archives is making a collection of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian films available on Vimeo for the next week and a half. So I’m going to watch it all. So far, it reminds me a lot of the Czech New Wave.

Movie #76/ Estonian Film #1/ Film About Films #2: The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel/ ‘HUKKUNUD ALPINISTI’ HOTELL (Vimeo)
It is trippy, a rare example of Estonian science-fiction, as a detective story in a ski lodge takes a weird turn when suspected criminals start seeing duplicates. It gets into interesting moral questions about the right way to behave in an absurd situation. Can and should you follow the letter of the law when non-human entities are just trying to survive?

Movie #77/ New Movie #54/ Latvian Film #1: Four White Shirts/ ČETRI BALTI KREKLI (Vimeo)
The 1960s Latvian film (not released until 1987) that reminds me a lot of work from the Czech new wave. It’s a story we’ve seen before of an songwriter dealing with precious to change his lyrics, but in Soviet-Era Riga the censors have teeth. My Estonian-born mother was astonished that the film was even made, given the depiction of Soviet bureaucracy. The music was pretty decent, and it’s clever how the first censor is well-meaning, but gets the ball rolling. I might decide it’s 10/10 on a second watch. This was better than I expected any of these movies to be.

Movie #78/ New Movie #55/ Latvian Film #2: Redundant/ LIEKAM BŪT (Vimeo)
This generally feels like a well-made 1950s/ 1960s French crime film, albeit in a setting with different rules. It’s a story we’ve seen before of a middle-aged ex-con looking for a final score. What works is the sense of how trapped he is, and the alternatives available. This is a story where crime is not done out of economic necessity, but more to give a sense of purpose and to live big. We get to see the major relationships in his life: the prettiest Taxi Driver in Riga as his love interest, a sister who wants a normal life, desperate former colleagues, and the police officer who wants to help him find a good life.

Movie #79/ New Movie #56/ Lithuanian Film #1: Ave, Vita (Vimeo)
This was a take on the Holocaust released in the 1960s that feels modern in terms of how it deals with the topic, showing flashbacks to an atrocity while the present focuses on the survivors and the media attention to one man’s ritual. It seems like a bit like Godard. The strange editing choices (sudden cuts, obvious ADR, use of photos over text) work in that context. Unfortunately, scenes removed by censors make the narrative a bit hard to follow at times, and there is the icky compromise of removing Jewish references of key characters, which makes it seem vague why they were targeted. That was likely the only way the film could have been made at all, but it keeps the film from being great.

Movie #80/ New Movie #57/ Lithuanian Film #2: June, the Beginning of Summer (Vimeo)
It’s an interesting example of hyperlink cinema, reminding me of Altman or Rules of the Game, showing the interconnected stories in a small town, some of which are more compelling than others, or at least have better resolutions. It does have some nice touches about the specifics of the setting, like the question of whether the town can survive the addition of a new factory, or an injury caused by shrapnel embedded in a log.

Movie #81/ Estonian Film #2: Madness/ Hullumeelsus (Vimeo)
It was already one of my favorite Estonian movies (which I don’t mean in the sense of a backhanded compliment) and I like it even more this time around. Maybe it’s because I know the story, and that lets me analyze certain things differently. Maybe it’s the quality of the transfer. It’s a good idea for a story executed well, as a German official during the end of World War II searches for a British spy within an asylum. He interviews people with different forms of insanity, many of whom were affected by the war. Jüri Järvet, probably the best-regarded Estonian actor, is excellent as the official, starting out as sneaky but composed, and then getting more reckless and unhinged as the pressure mounts and he’s exposed to all the lunatics.

Movie #82/ New Movie #58/ Estonian Film #3: Ideal Landscape (Vimeo)
This is a weird one to make sense of. It follows a hapless Soviet bureaucrat, who can’t get the people of a small town to follow directions for a harvest. Complicating factors include local knowledge, as they recognize the climate doesn’t allow for a harvest yet. And he’s got a tough time figuring out if they’re telling the truth or lying to him. Sometimes it isn’t clear if they’re acting in good faith. It’s very Estonian, in the sense that it’s meant for an audience who understands the very specific context. Looking at it now, it just doesn’t feel like something set in the 1940s. It feels like what it is; people in the early 80s pretending it’s right after World War II. But it is interesting to see a Graduate-style story of a young man trying to figure out his life, in the very specific context of a CPSU official who just wants things to go well so he can go to college, and he can’t get the people around him to respect him.

Movie #83/ New Movie #59/ Latvian Film #3: Apple In The River (Vimeo)
This one has an almost anthropological take on young love, evident by the narration and one character’s job of working on an archeological dig. There’s a very specific sense of location (the small community in an island near the capitol about to be changed by the advent of a new bridge. It’s pleasant and captures the awkwardness of two young people in love trying to make sense of the world, and each other.

Movie #84/ New Movie #60/ Lithuanian Film #3: The Beauty (Vimeo)
The shortest of the films at barely over an hour. It does capture the world of children pretty well, with a little girl trying to figure out why the new kid doesn’t like her. The theme of inner beauty rings a bit hollow, because a sad speech about how outer appearances don’t matter is given by someone who doesn’t look too bad, but it does give a sense of how a kid sees things, and what she would prioritize and be offended by. It is beautifully shot.

There are some commonalities with the films. Asia and Africa seem quite exotic to people who see images of those countries, but have no hope of ever going there. The Soviet Union has no problem with Nazis being the bad guys, but while Jews are references in some of the films, there are no Jewish characters. There’s a mournfulness to the disappearance of an old way of life, and an understanding that bureaucrats don’t know best, which might be why some of the films weren’t widely distributed in the Soviet Union.

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Critical Race Theory

In a recent episode of the New York Times podcast The Argument, there was a discussion about the use of critical race theory in schools, with linguist John McWhorter taking the anti-CRT position, and Michelle Goldberg suggesting that the real problem was conservatives.

One point in favor of Critical Race Theory as an academic discipline is that it has resulted in useful understandings about things like the basic concept of structural racism. McWhorter suggests that something new has emerged that isn’t the CRT of the 1970s.

I usually don’t refer to all of this as critical race theory or CRT. I think that what’s happened today has evolved so far beyond those basic and interesting ideas that after a while, you have to start calling it something else, after a while what once was Latin has become French. The idea is that a movement now takes a page, maybe two pages from CRT, and instead has become a kind of punitive mob-like mentality that acquires disproportionate influence because most people are deeply afraid of being called a racist on social media. 

If the main dispute were that Critical Race Theory has useful observations about structural racism, and that the pushback against it will limit those discussions, that could be resolved by clearly identifying the theories that should be stopped, and coming up with a category for the thing that calls itself Critical Race Theory, but not. It seems to me that on the right, Critical Race Theory is essentially used as a catchall for stupid left-wing views on race, which can be inaccurate. But we can make sure that we’re only throwing out the bathwater by coming with different terminology. This isn’t the position I see from the Anti-Anti CRT people.

Goldberg said that academics she had talked to were more concerned about pushback from right-wing students than from being cancelled by the far left.

What I heard from them was enormous fear of getting on the wrong side of their conservative students, enormous fear that their conservative students were going to record something that they said and send it to the state legislature, or send it to college fix, or some kind of right-wing feeder media, it’s going to end up in Tucker Carlson. These are people who are, in often many cases, untenured. Some of them, adjuncts. They experience themselves as walking on eggshells. And I think it’s hard without some sort of rigorous study to see how widespread that sort of attitude is in conservative states where, again, you have both legislatures proposing laws banning both the 1619 Project and critical race theory from public institutions. And also, in the case, of Idaho, very specifically threatening their schools funding for doing things like expressing support for Black Lives Matter. I think the idea that there’s some sort of tyranny of progressivism in as much as that’s a reality for people, I think it’s really not clear to me whether that is just in certain sort of elite hothouse environments that we pay disproportionate attention to.

There may be academics worried that a student will record their lectures, and that there will be consequences from Republican legislators, but the discussion doesn’t mention what specific views would be considered objectionable. One concern with militant left-wing activism is that mainstream and defensible views are shouted down on campus. I suspect the progressive views that academics are worried about having recorded aren’t going to be shared by the wider population. People should still be free to discuss controversial or upsetting ideas. There is a difference in category and scale if progressives feel uncomfortable sharing opinions that are out of the mainstream, while academics on the center-left feel that there will be significant consequences if they reveal beliefs that are widely shared.

We can see major excesses from supporters of Critical Race Theory, or whatever you wish to call it. A Smithsonian (from the National Museum of African American History & Culture) exhibit on whiteness & white culture seems to share a similar view of white culture as white nationalists would have, suggesting that married parents, delayed gratification, the emphasis on the scientific method, planning for the future, valuing intent in legal matters are uniquely white. There was an infamous infographic used to present the position.

We should be able to avoid public support for this kind of garbage. It reflects the attitudes of higher-ups at the Smithsonian (the people who wrote it, and everyone up the chain of command who was in a position to veto it) who are presumably well-educated and carefully selected for their jobs, so it is worrisome how no one in the chain of command realized that this was a terrible idea. They use the excuse that it’s meant to facilitate discussion, but I’m not sure how that works as the text was informational rather than a conversation-starter. It’s certainly not done in a way that helps people of ordinary intellects and backgrounds have a discussion about sensitive topics. These are damaging ideas, and not conducive to equality in the workforce. If anything, it’ll discourage employers from hiring minorities, if the Smithsonian is saying what David Duke would say about which groups take time and effort seriously.

There could be a reasonable argument that positive attributes are wrongly associated with white people. The chart at the Smithsonian didn’t seem to be making it. Their argument is that these are attitudes that have been normalized and internalized, rather than these are virtues wrongly associated with white people. They’re combining things that are value neutral (children having their own rooms) and sometimes bad (an understanding that a person’s value is based on their salary, intolerance of polytheists) with some things they’re associating with whiteness that most people would consider to be positives. But there is one group that is overrepresented in American culture that may have different values.

Matthew Yglesias noted a problem with common norms from the antiracism training based on the work of Tema Okun. A claim that a need to measure results is symptomatic of White Supremacy Culture, provides a convenient cover if anyone asks to measure whether a particular type of antiracism training is effective. There have been a few projects that are ostensibly meant to be against racism and white supremacy that have a similar focus, and one question is whether this is about what appeals to white progressives rather than having anything to do with race, as they may be more likely to be against hierarchy and discipline.

She doesn’t put forward any evidence or arguments in favor of her claims (and indeed, “objectivity” is seen as a manifestation of white supremacy culture), but this is also not a lived experience argument. Instead she credits the second-hand wisdom of the late Kenneth Jones who was her co-author on the original version of the workbook that featured the list. And the reason it feels like an op to destroy progressive politics is that she’s pretty clearly not talking about race or racism at all. This whole document instead comes from a place of extreme characterological aversion to hierarchy and structure.

And we know from a range of evidence that if you look at the white U.S. population, being a Democrat correlates with the personality trait of openness to experience and being a Republican with the personality trait of conscientiousness. And indeed Christopher Frederico and Rafael Aguilera document that among the white population, having a high score on racial resentment batteries is associated with high conscientiousness and low openness.

In other words: if you filter the white people to find only the white people who are most fired-up about anti-racism, you will end up with a high-openness, low-conscientiousness group of people who are probably inclined to agree with Okun’s general sentiments.

But these are facts about white people.

White Democrats are eccentric because most white people are Republicans. In non-white communities, most people are Democrats and consequently, non-white Democrats are less ideologically left-wing than white ones and also have personality types that are closer to the broad population average. That’s why the ex-cop, tough on crime mayoral candidate in New York City is Black. That’s why religiously observant Democrats tend to be non-white. Generalized aversion to hierarchy and discipline is not a characteristic of people of color at all — it’s a characteristic of white leftists.

From any normal standpoint, the idea that “requiring people to think in a linear (logical) fashion” is racist is itself racist. People of all ethnic backgrounds can think logically! I promise. Go read my former professor Kwame Appiah’s intro to philosophy book, “Thinking It Through” and see for yourself. Obviously characterizing an emphasis on writing skills as “worship of the written word” makes it sound bad, but thinking that writing is important is not a distinctively white characteristic, as even a cursory read of the past several thousand years of human civilization would tell you.

This is an individual whose work is used to teach institutions how to handle sensitive topics. If a dollar of taxpayer money goes to support someone who thinks logical thinking is unique to white people, that’s a problem at a time when the country is paying more attention to reckoning with its racist past and present. It’s bad if companies, government entities or any other organizations pay crackpots money to pretend to be doing something about sensitive issues. It’s worse if people start believing untrue and stupid things.

We should all push back against this. We can do so without limiting discussion of things that reasonable people can believe.

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