Saturday, February 20, 2010

"We the Living," Romney the Vulcan

With my Italian libertarian economist friend, I rewatched the very libertarian Italian movie We the Living, adapted in 1942 without Rand’s authorization (but with her retroactive approval decades later) from her early novel about a young woman in Rand’s native Soviet Union dreaming of escape and torn between two lovers, one anti-communist but driven to cynicism and despair, the other a principled but deluded Communist Party member. Even with the film’s truncation/ambiguity about the end of the original story, things do not go well.

Nor did things go well with the film’s original release — released (in two parts) with the approval of the authorities in Italy during WWII because it was anti-Soviet, it was yanked after a few weeks when the authorities realized its individualist message was anti-fascist as well (Mussolini’s goons apparently having been as slow to figure out that individualist messages are incompatible with fascism as were left-wing British rock critics who condemned Rush as proto-fascist).

We the Living may be the most normal-human-feeling Rand story of which I’m aware, particularly her willingness to make Andrei the Communist a surprisingly sympathetic character. Socialism, as depicted in Rand’s work, is an inexcusable, alien offense in the U.S. but a genuine tragedy in Mother Russia. The convincing scenes of Party meetings at the local university, with their air of participatory democracy (marred by out-of-sight executions and backroom deals), reminded me very much of the unintentionally poignant descriptions in American Bolshevik reporter John Reed’s writings of his experiences in the early Soviet Union, when people really believed that the spontaneous collective bridge-building and so forth that they were engaged in was a model for the freer and more spontaneous future they were creating (with only occasional hints in the Reed essays I read of drafts, food shortages, and other rapidly-widening cracks in the armor of the worker’s paradise).

Depicting Andrei as basically a good man actually does fit neatly into Rand’s thinking, though: She said repeatedly that one would be better off dealing with a principled Marxist, who at least feels obliged to render his thoughts coherent, than with a mush-minded welfare statist with no clear principles. The former offers the opportunity for rational persuasion, but the latter, as we know from everyday life in the U.S., is largely immune and can simply shift gears, in an almost postmodern fashion, when cornered. Indeed, the Rand speech I read to Yale students on Wednesday ended with the prediction that the mushy middle would not hold and that the future would belong to one or the other principled extreme: Objectivism or Communism (this inspired one student to ask if I’m an Objectivist and, when I said no, to follow up with the amusing question, “Well, then, are you a Communist?” — Rand greatly underestimated people’s willingness to muddle along somewhere in the middle, right up to and perhaps beyond the point of the welfare state’s collapse).

For my copy of the We the Living DVD, I should again thank Duncan Scott Productions and Patrick Reasonover (who is more a paleolibertarian than Objectivist, but we like paleolibertarian media guys). My Italian economist advisor notes, though, that the English subtitles on the film are a very loose, sometimes just flat-out wrong, translation, something that future distributors might want to revisit. When Andrei calls himself a traitor to Communism in the English subtitles toward the end, for instance, he actually says in the original Italian that he had been deluded.

P.S. In other video news that raises questions about coercion and freedom, I was amused to read that in an online video, the L.A. rapper who got into an altercation with Mitt Romney on a plane explains that he is not a “salmon” to be seized by a “condor grip” — and indeed that Romney has no right to use a “Vulcan grip” on people (hey, maybe he’s a Romnulan).

If Romney’s using sci-fi battle tactics on fellow passengers, one can only imagine the horrible showdown that will occur if he is ever seated next to Kevin Smith on a plane. At least he didn’t insist that anyone’s dog be transported on the roof of the plane.

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