The Oregon school shooting and America’s brutal society


3 October 2015

The killing of nine students and the wounding of seven others by 26-year-old Chris Harper-Mercer at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon on Thursday have once again revealed something deeply dysfunctional in American society.

Harper-Mercer opened fire on students in multiple classrooms in the campus’s Snyder Hall. He was subsequently killed in the course of a shootout with police outside the hall.

In coming days, more information will emerge about the particular psychological motivations—and illness—that led to Thursday’s events. Some details have begun to come out. Social media accounts belonging to Harper-Mercer indicate that he held a confused mix of right-wing nationalist ideas. A Myspace account had numerous pictures glorifying members of the Irish Republican Army. The name he chose for an online dating website, IRONCROSS45, is apparently a reference to a medal awarded by the Nazis. In his dating site profile he identified as a conservative Republican but noted organized religion as one of his dislikes.

In a recent blog post, Harper-Mercer reveled in the attention Vester Flanagan received when he killed two news reporters on live television in August. He then encouraged readers to view the video of the killing that Flanagan had posted on social media, saying, “It’s a short video but good nonetheless.”

The killings at Umpqua Community College are the latest in a seemingly endless series of horrific tragedies. The website, which has tracked mass shootings in the United States since 2013, reports that there have been at least 296 incidents so far this year in which multiple people have been killed or wounded by gunfire.

A recent study by Harvard researchers Amy Cohen, Deborah Azrael and Matthew Miller found that between 1982 and 2011 the average amount of time between mass shootings in which more than four people were killed or wounded was 200 days. Since 2011 the number of days between shootings has fallen to an average of 64, meaning there has been a three-fold increase in the rate at which such killings occur.

The list of mass killers includes: 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killed six people on January 8, 2011; 24-year-old James Holmes, who killed 12 and wounded 58 in a movie theater on July 20, 2012; 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who shot dead 20 first graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012; 22-year-old Elliot Rodgers, who killed seven and wounded seven on the UC Santa Barbara campus on May 23, 2014; 21-year-old Dylan Storm Roof, who shot and killed nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 18 of this year.

Even such a limited accounting gives a picture of a truly sick society. No economically advanced country comes close to the number and frequency of mass killings in the United States.

In a rambling press conference held in the wake of Thursday’s shooting, US President Barack Obama struggled to account for yet another mass shooting during his tenure in office. “Somehow this has become routine,” he said fatalistically. “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.” At a press conference the next day Obama reinforced his loss for an explanation, superstitiously blaming all violence on “original sin.”

As he has done many times before, to the extent that he offered any explanation, Obama blamed lax national gun control laws, a problem that he said could be solved by the passage of the correct piece of legislation. “We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. So the notion that gun laws don’t work, or just will make it harder for law-abiding citizens and criminals will still get their guns is not borne out by the evidence,” he argued.

Obama’s proposed solution to mass shooting—mainly aimed at increasing the power of the state and the police—will do nothing to actually address the underlying social issues that give rise repeatedly to such tragedies.

While each shooting has its own peculiarities, a phenomenon that occurs with such regularity must have deeper causes. What is the social environment that produces them? Decades of the suppression of class struggle and the promotion of individualism. An ideology that explains individual failings or successes as the product of personal characteristics, leading to deep disillusionment and alienation.

A general sense of hopelessness pervades among a generation of young people, who, if they were lucky enough to go to college, are saddled with a trillion dollars in student loan debt, with no prospect of a decent paying job that provides them with a good standard of living.

As for pervasive violence, this applies first and foremost to the state and the ruling class that controls it. Over the last two and a half decades, which encompass nearly the entirety of Harper-Mercer’s life, the United States has been at war in one country or another more or less continuously, resulting in the deaths of more than a million people and displacement of millions more. The shooter has grown up during the “war on terror,” which has been used by the ruling class to foster an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion, and to justify all manner of violent actions by the state.

Under Obama’s drone assassination program, open murder has become the official policy of the US government. The president and other government officials publicly boast of “taking out” people placed on their kill lists, including American citizens. While the US government keeps secret how many people it has killed with drones, conservative estimates based on public reports indicate that thousands, including women and children, have been summarily executed without charge or trial.

Domestically, a society riven by growing economic inequality has at the same time been increasingly militarized, with military service glorified at every possible moment as the highest service to the nation. Police forces have been armed to the teeth with armored vehicles and assault rifles making them indistinguishable from military units. Killings and brutality are routine, with nearly 900 people murdered in encounters with the police so far this year.

The United States remains the last economically advanced country that imposes the death penalty. Since 1976, 1,416 people have cruelly and inhumanely been put to their death. So far this year there have been twenty-two such state-sanctioned murders.

The solutions routinely advanced in the wake of such shootings will do nothing to address the causes of mass killings that are rooted, in the final analysis, in America’s brutal society.

Niles Williamson

New App Lets You Rate and Review Actual Human Beings

Imagine all your worst ideas poured into an app and you’ve basically got it.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Chaikom

If there is one thing that absolutely no one has been asking for, it is a social media app that lets you rate people as if they were products or restaurants. But a Calgary-based company isn’t letting that major issue get in the way. Instead, it’s developed an app called Peeple, which allows anyone age 21 or over who has your phone number to rate you on a scale from 1 to 5, and to give you a review.

Sounds like just what the Internet needs, right? Another way for people to voice their unfiltered and unsolicited opinions on something — or someone, in this case — just because!

Here’s how this awful, no-good idea, which cofounders Nicole McCullough and Julia Cordray say will launch in November, will work: Users will log into Peeple via Facebook and enter their phone numbers to demonstrate they aren’t bots and to verify their identity. Then, to rate a person, they’ll have to pick a category that defines the nature of their shared relationship: personal, professional or romantic. From there, they can issue a rating and write a review, the way you might on Yelp or Amazon, only about a flesh-and-blood human being.

But wait, there’s more! Even if you don’t sign up for the app, someone else can create a profile for you. According to the Peeple site, “[i]f the person you are searching for is not in the app you can add their name, profile picture, and start their profile by rating them.” All you need is said person’s cell phone number. And once you have a profile in the Peeple app — even one you yourself didn’t create — it’s there for good.

Peeple co-founder Nicole McCullough, speaking to the Calgary Herald, said, “The aim of our platform is to showcase a person’s true character. I came up with this idea over a year and a half ago from wanting to find a good babysitter in my neighborhood. We tend to trust referrals and so we wanted to create a platform that allowed people to refer each other in several different ways.”

“People do so much research when they buy a car or make those kinds of decisions,” co-founder Julia Cordray told the Washington Post. “Why not do the same kind of research on other aspects of your life?”

The short answer is, because people are not cars or objects. Summing a person up on a scale of 1-5 seems irresponsible and overly simplistic, not to mention completely unnecessary. (You want to know what someone’s like? It sounds crazy, but you might try talking to that person.) If, as McCullough suggests, the company was simply interested in creating a means of vetting service providers — e.g., baby sitters — why not build a site like Healthgrades or Rate My Professor, which focus on rating a person in a capacity that it makes sense for a reviewer to comment on, or a potential customer to know? Why would anyone think that essentially inviting any acquaintance — from old lovers to former co-workers you mostly avoided — to weigh in with thoughts on a person is a good idea? Knowing what we know about the Internet, and how people behave online, who wouldn’t see this as a devolutionary step in social media? It’s all just so obviously made to go terribly awry.

What’s more, the Washington Post also notes that, even under the best of circumstances, rating sites and app users exhibit inevitable human biases:

[A]ll rating apps, from Yelp to Rate My Professor, have a demonstrated problem with self-selection. (The only people who leave reviews are the ones who love or hate the subject.) In fact, as repeat studies of Rate My Professor have shown, ratings typically reflect the biases of the reviewer more than they do the actual skills of the teacher: On RMP, professors whom students consider attractive are way more likely to be given high ratings, and men and women are evaluated on totally different traits.

McCullough and Cordray point to Peeple’s terms and conditions, which rule out things like bullying, abuse, hateful content, sexism and more, but I think we’ve all seen how effective that is in practice on any number of sites. Still, there may be one way to avoid the inevitable downsides of this whole thing. Positive ratings will post on a profile the instant they’re submitted, but negative ratings will be withheld for 48 hours while the parties involved attempt to settle the issue. If you aren’t registered for the site, you can’t engage in that process, and your page will therefore only display positive comments. (You can also respond to negative comments, Yelp-style, but I say not registering seems like the best route for everyone.)

Until their launch, McCullough and Cordray are speaking with angel investors and venture capitalists to raise funds. The Post estimates the company is currently valued at $7.6 million.

“Peeple will revolutionize the way an individual is seen in this world through their relationships,” Cordray said to the Calgary Herald. “When social graces are becoming lost to the past, we want to revive this forgotten manner and bring attention to how a person appears to others.”

It’s an ironic statement, considering the app seems to eschew the very social graces Cordray suggests it was created to promote.

Rave SWAT Teams

Cops Cracking Down on ‘Evil’ People Who Dance Late at Night

The motion is a reactionary step following the death of two people at last month’s HARD Summer music festival.

Los Angeles, Ca — Last week, local politicians in Los Angeles voted unanimously to create a new police task force that will be entirely focused on electronic dance music events. Earlier this summer, Los Angeles County council members proposed banning these types of events entirely. While that option is still on the table for them, they are now moving to crack down on these events until they are able to initiate a complete ban.

The recent proposal to create a police task force was put forward by county supervisors Hilda Solis and Michael Antonovich. The motion reads “Ultimately, in the interest of public safety, a ban of electronic music festivals at county-owned properties remains a possibility that will continue to be evaluated.”

“I want to emphasize that our efforts around this motion, above all, are about the health and safety of those attending these events. No lives should be lost while attending any music event,” Solis said in a statement.

The motion is a reactionary step following the death of two people at last month’s HARD Summer music festival at the Pomona Fairgrounds.

While deaths at events are a concern, they are largely due to the prohibition of these drugs, which makes them more dangerous. To make matters worse, the zero tolerance policy at events prevents drug users from getting the help they need when something does go wrong.

The development of a rave task force is reminiscent of the fear-mongering propagated about raves in the late 1990s.

In April of 2003, the government passed a law that everyone could agree on, the Amber Alert Bill. The Amber Alert is a notification system that sends warnings about missing and abducted children.

At face value, this seemed like something that was completely positive, and when it comes to rescuing abducted children, the Amber Alert system has surely saved many lives. However, the piece of legislation that put this system into effect is a perfect example of how the government is able to pass unpopular laws, by attaching them to popular bills.

In the case of the legislation that set up the Amber Alert system, there were also completely unrelated issues covered in the bill. For example, hidden deep within the bill was one of Joe Biden’s pet projects, the RAVE ACT, a law that imposes legal penalties on hosts and participants of late night dance parties.

According to the Wikipedia entry for the RAVE ACT:

On Thursday (April 10, 2003) the Senate and House passed the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act (formerly known as the RAVE Act) as an attachment to the child abduction-related AMBER Alert Bill. The language of the original act was changed slightly before the bill was passed without public hearing, debate or a vote.

Festivals and other events are not to blame for overdoses, or other personal decisions that attendees make on their own. This is especially important to consider when the events host anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 people.

In an area with that many people, as populated as some towns are, it is inevitable that a wide variety of situations can pop up. In fact, any large event that hosts so many people see occasional deaths. Due to the large volume of people, the chances increase that something will go wrong somewhere. This goes for sporting events to parades and other types of events that are considered wholesome and family-friendly.

Some other factors to consider are the many unintended consequences of the drug war, which causes drugs to be more dangerous, and limits harm prevention policies that could be put into place to prevent overheating and drug overdoses.

John Vibes is an author, researcher and investigative journalist.

Noam Chomsky: How America’s Way of Thinking About the World Naturally Produces Human Catastrophes

The scholar talks about the seemingly innocuous elements of our socialization that promote one-world view over another.

Tavis: Noam Chomsky is, of course, internationally recognized as one of the world’s most critically engaged public intellectuals. The MIT professor of linguistics has long been an unapologetic critic of both American foreign policy and the ideological role of the mainstream media.

He joins us now from MIT to talk about the seemingly innocuous elements of our socialization that promote one-world view over another. Before we start our conversation, a clip from “The West Wing” that I think will set this conversation up quite nicely.

Tavis: Professor Chomsky, good to have you on this program. Thank you for your time, sir.

NoamChomsky: Glad to be with you.

Tavis: I think that clip, again, sets up our conversation nicely. Let me just jump right in. Why all these years later is the west better than the east, the north better than the south, Europe better than Africa? These notions continue to persist. Tell me why.

Chomsky: There’s a generalization. We are better than they, whoever we are. So if you look through the whole history of China, one of the most ancient, most developed, civilizations which, in fact, was one of the centers of the world economy as late as the 18th century, China was better than everyone else.

It’s unfortunately a natural way of thinking, very ugly and destructive one, but it’s true. We are the west, the north, Europe and its offshoots, not Africa. So, of course, we’re better than them.

Tavis: When you say it’s a natural way of thinking, unpack that for me. What do you mean by a natural way of thinking?

Chomsky: It’s not unusual for people to think that our group, whatever it is, has special traits that make it better than others. So, for example, I happen to be Jewish. If you look at the Jewish tradition, the leading rabbis and so on, many of them held the position that Jews are a special race above ordinary mankind.

China had similar views. The north and the west had the same views and, of course, it’s enhanced by the imperialist history which ended up with Europe and its offshoots conquering and controlling most of the world.

Actually, this world view about, you know, the north somehow being on top and the south being on the bottom goes way back to the origins of what’s called western civilization.

So, for example, it was believed in classical times that nobody could live south of the equator because their heads would be pointed downward. I think even St. Augustine held that view, if I remember correctly.

And it carries over up to the present when Henry Kissinger says, “Nothing important ever came from the south.” He’s essentially expressing a modern version of the same racist conception.

Tavis: Since you mentioned Henry Kissinger, I was just about to ask, so I will now, Professor Chomsky, how our socialization–or as you might put it–how this natural way of thinking ultimately impacts and affects our foreign policy. If we think that we are better than everybody else, how does that impact and affect our foreign policy?

Chomsky: Oh, very definitely. You see it very clearly if you study internal documents, you know, declassified documents discussing how leaders plan things among themselves.

So go back to, say, 1945 when the U.S. pretty much took over domination of the world. It was incredibly powerful without any counterpart in history, half the world’s wealth, incomparable security, military powers.

So, of course, it planned detailed plans as to how to run the world. Now a lot of it was laid out by the State Department policy planning staff. It’s head was George Kennan, one of the highly respected diplomats, one of the framers of the modern world.

And he and his staff parceled out different areas of the world and described what they called their function within the U.S.-dominated system. So, for example, the function of southeast Asia was to provide resources and raw materials for the industrial countries of Europe and the United States and so on.

When he got to Africa, he said, well, we’re not that much interested in Africa, so we will hand Africa over to Europe for them to exploit–his word–for them to exploit for their reconstruction. If you look at the history of relations between Europe and Africa, some slightly different conception might come to mind, but it never entered the thought of the planners.

So the idea that Europe should exploit Africa for Europe’s reconstruction passed without comment. This is just deeply imbedded in the consciousness of what’s sometimes called white supremacy which is an extraordinary doctrine.

Comparative scholarly studies, George Frederickson, for example, one of the main scholars who dealt with it, concludes that in the United States, white supremacy was even more extreme than in apartheid South Africa. It’s a very powerful concept here. It’s buttressed by imperial domination.

The more powerful you are, the more you dominate others, the more you create justifications for that in ideology and education and media and so on. If you’ve got your boot on someone else’s neck, it’s typical to provide a justification for it. We’re doing it because we’re right, they deserve it, we’re better and so on.

Tavis: I want to come back to how we change that thinking before our conversation ends. Let me go back one more time, though, to your Kissinger reference when Henry Kissinger said that, “Nothing good ever came out of the south”.

If the earth is a sphere–think about this–if the earth is a sphere and we’re constantly in motion, what is to be gained by drawing consistently certain countries on the top half and other countries on the bottom half? What is to be gained by that?

Chomsky: What’s to be gained by that is a graphic representation of the fact that we are more important and better than them. We’re the north, they’re the south. We dominate because of our essential superiority of character, qualities, righteousness and so on.

It’s a graphic manifestation of the we are better than them conception that, as I said, is unfortunately pretty natural and is greatly enhanced by when it’s associated with power. So when you actually dominate others, that enhances the natural we are better than them conceptions.

Tavis: Speaking of conceptions, it seems that every other day now someone else is announcing that he or she is running for president. And I suspect, between now and November 2016, we will hear the term “American exceptionalism” over and over and over again.

By any other definition or espoused any other way, is this notion again that we’ve been talking about tonight that the USA is all that and then some, what do you say to the American people about how we challenge our own thinking, how we reexamine our assumptions, how we expand our inventory of ideas, as it were, about this notion that we hold onto so dearly?

Chomsky: Well, the best way to do it is to look carefully at the facts that are easily available to us. So take the phrase, “American exceptionalism”, which is supposed to express our unique superiority to other countries, the unique benevolence of our intention with regard to others. You get this across the spectrum.

So a recent issue of the New York review of books, the kind of ideological journal of the left liberal intelligentsia, has an article by the former head of the Carnegie Institute for Peace saying that it’s just obvious beyond discussion that the United States is unique. Other countries work for their own interests. We work for the interests of mankind.

That’s American exceptionalism. There are two problems with it. For one thing, it’s flatly false. As soon as you look at the record, you see nothing like that is true.

The second problem is it’s not uniquely American. Take other great powers in their day in the sun, they had the same doctrine. England was British exceptionalism. France was France’s civilizing mission. Anywhere you look, you find the same thing.

We happen to be the world dominant power for a long time, certainly since the Second World War economically, even before that. Sure, American exceptionalism is our version of the same disgraceful conception of history that’s concocted by the powerful. And how do you combat it? With the facts.

Tavis: Easily said, not easily done. Always pleased to be in conversation with this brilliant thinker, Noam Chomsky, challenging us tonight to reconsider our world view. Professor Chomsky, thanks for your time. Never enough time with you, but I’m honored to have had you on this program tonight, sir.

Chomsky: Thank you.

Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT.

Chicago Public Schools announces hundreds of teacher layoffs, spending and pension cuts


By Kristina Betinis
14 August 2015

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) released its 2015-2016 budget Monday, including $200 million in spending cuts and 479 additional teacher layoffs. In June, the district announced 1,400 layoffs.

Despite the cuts and layoffs, the district still has a $480 million operating budget gap. Republican governor of Illinois Bruce Rauner has offered to advance $500 million to help fill the gap, dependent on additional CPS “reforms”, including an end to district contributions to teacher pensions. But these funds are by no means guaranteed. Based on the current operating deficit, it is likely additional cuts will be announced. A $676 million pension payment is due this school year.

In line with Rauner’s request, CPS announced the end of pension “pick up” August 4, telling teachers to shoulder their own pension contributions. This will create a significant cut to teacher take-home pay—an estimated 7 percent. The district had “picked up” 7 percent of teacher pension contributions, an agreement made in 1981, in exchange for lower pay raises in subsequent years.

About 21 percent of the $200 million budget cut is expected to negatively affect the more than 50,000 special education students in the district, through a change in the funding formula giving principals a lump sum for special needs students, rather than a guaranteed number of staff.

In recent days, the newly appointed Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool has made a series of public statements on what the city will demand from teachers in what is to be a multiyear contract negotiation. Claypool was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in July to head the district after the resignation of his predecessor, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who stepped down in the midst of a federal corruption investigation involving more than $20 million in CPS contracts. Before being appointed to head CPS, Claypool oversaw the Chicago Transit Authority and supervised the Chicago Park District, where he became known for cutting operating costs.

Claypool also announced the end of an informal agreement the district had with the Chicago Teachers Union to work on a one-year agreement. The length of the contract now under negotiation has not been disclosed.

Earlier this week, CPS also proposed to phase out contributions to the pensions of non-union office employees, other district employees and non-union support staff by 2018, and eliminate pension contributions for new hires. This cut is supposed to save about $21 million in those three years, affecting 2,100 workers, excluding principals and assistant principals.

CPS teachers have been without a contract since June 30 and the district still has more than 1,400 teaching vacancies to fill before the start of the school year in early September. The board of education is set to vote on the annual budget August 26.

As Republican Governor Bruce Rauner proceeds with his offensive against the public sector, the Chicago Teachers Union is seeking to more closely align itself with Democratic mayor of Chicago and former Obama administration official Rahm Emanuel.

CTU president Karen Lewis spoke to Chicago magazine August 4 to absolve Emanuel of responsibility for the education “reform” policies his administration—working together with the White House—has made notorious, including school closures and mass layoffs of teachers and staff.

In speaking of the 2012 teacher contract negotiations and the public education policies that led to the first teachers strike in the city in 25 years, Lewis fully accepted the official claim that there is no money to fund basic social services in order to cover for Emanuel and peddle the lie that there is no money:

“I think part of the problem we had last time is that Rahm had an agenda that was pushed by other people, including [Gov. Bruce] Rauner that I don’t know if Rahm even truly believed in. A lot of it was kind of like, ‘Put the union in their place and dah dah dah.’ The elephant in the room is the budget and not having any money. So then it becomes a matter of what your priorities are, what your vision is. And I think we have yet to see that, but I think [Rahm’s] thinking about it.”

In September 2012, 30,000 Chicago teachers went on strike to oppose school “reforms” that included closures and layoffs, expanded use of standardized tests to erode teacher seniority, and fewer restrictions on firing. The strike, which placed teachers in a political standoff with the education policies of the Obama administration just ahead of the 2012 presidential election, was shut down after only one week by the CTU, who conceded to all of Emanuel’s essential demands in a three-year contract, paving the way for the closure of 50 public schools and the layoffs of thousands in 2013.

As the WSWS reported when he was elected, Emanuel both campaigned on education “reform” and opened his first term with similar plans for schools and city operations. Lewis’s comments highlight the role of the CTU in preventing teachers and other workers from making a break from the Democrats, as they now work to advance the bipartisan assault on essential public services in the state.

Not only does money exist for schools, monopolized by Chicago’s many multimillionaires and billionaires, the financial aristocracy is taking windfall profits in the form of interest payments being made by the cash-strapped city on municipal bonds, including CPS bonds now at junk status.

Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Analytics told the Chicago Tribune in July, “The situation in the city will compromise the ability to keep quality schools, to keep the streets clean. But for investors who can stomach the ups and downs that are probably coming for Chicago, (the bonds) give an attractive amount of income.”

The series of city credit rating downgrades by Moody’s and Fitch signaled to investors higher bond yields and interest rates. Unlike distressed corporate debt, distressed municipal debt is guaranteed by the citizens who can be made to weather cuts and tax hikes in order to make payments. Relieving the debt burden usually takes place through debt restructuring or bankruptcy of one or more city agencies.

The Tribune also reported that the $347 million in tax-exempt bonds Chicago sold in July “offered investors yields of up to 5.69 percent—almost unheard of for tax-backed debt issued by a city.”

Those who invested in Chicago’s bonds earned up to 50 percent more than those who invested in Philadelphia bonds issued in July, the Tribune notes.

The credit downgrades mean Chicago will pay something like $150 million more in interest payments based on restructuring pensions or raising property taxes, or both.

Woody Allen’s Irrational Man

The familiar flatness and lack of conviction

By David Walsh
14 August 2015

Written and directed by Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man, focuses on controversial philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who arrives at fictional, liberal arts Braylin College in Newport, Rhode Island to teach a summer course.

A depressed Lucas, who sips from a flask at every opportunity, has clearly run out of intellectual and emotional steam. For years he has been trying, without success, to finish a book on Martin Heidegger and Nazism. A close friend of his has been killed stepping on a landmine in Iraq. Political activism, by which Abe apparently means “human rights” work in Darfur and other global “disaster areas,” has failed him. Nothing energizes or excites him about life. He is also impotent.

Lucas becomes involved with two women, Rita Richards (Parker Posey), an unhappily married fellow professor, and Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), one of his brightest students. Lucas resists Jill’s advances for some time, but they become constant companions and her youth and enthusiasm rub off on him.

Irrational Man

Lucas expresses disdain for academic philosophy, asserting that there is a vast difference between “theoretical” reality and the “real, nasty world.” He suggests to a roomful of students, including Jill, that much of human theorizing is a form of “verbal masturbation.” He seems to favor an absurdist, existential view of things, referring in his classes and conversations to Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Dostoyevsky and others. I have “no zest for life… I’ve given up,” he tells Jill. At a party he even indulges in a dangerous game of Russian roulette.

A conversation that Abe and Jill hear by chance, while sitting in a diner, changes things. (Anyone who doesn’t care to know the central narrative wrinkle in Irrational Man should stop reading now.) The woman in the next booth is tearfully explaining to her friends that a particular judge is unfairly going to find for her husband in a bitter custody dispute. Supposedly, the judge has some prejudice in favor of the husband, but will not recuse himself.

As Lucas tells us in a voiceover, he there and then determines to become a vigilante for the cause of good and bump off the judge, calculating that this will be a “perfect murder,” since he has no motive or connection to any of the judge’s cases.

Having accomplished the deed, Lucas quickly comes back to life. Now everything starts “flowing.” He has made his “existential choice… Life has the meaning you give it.” Thanks to his “meaningful act,” Abe can have sex with both Rita and eventually Jill. Unfortunately, this idyllic state of affairs is interrupted by a police investigation and the suspicions of several people close to him.

Allen’s Irrational Man has the same fatal flatness and lack of conviction that have plagued his filmmaking for the past two decades, since Husbands and Wives (1992). Reality, personal and social, has clearly knocked the stuffing out of the writer-director. He continues to turn out a film a year, calling on the services of some of the most intriguing talent, but the works are largely drained of and starved for life. (And it is an indication of the state of the contemporary film world that performers are reportedly thrilled to work with Allen, for far less money than they normally receive.)

Irrational Man

The idea content of the new film is very weak. Aside from the fact that Lucas’s relatively undiluted and gloomy existentialism would have been far more appropriate—where is postmodernism, for instance?—to the period when Allen might have gone to university (he dropped out, in fact, in the 1950s), the presentation is full of clichés.

Particularly irritating is the sight of the two female leads—who are far more interesting and dynamic as personalities than Phoenix or his character—circling around an individual who hardly possesses a single original thought. When Jill exclaims worshipfully to Lucas, in a restaurant, “I love that you order for me,” and Rita, equally adoringly, proclaims after their first successful sexual encounter, “What happened to the philosopher? Christ, you were like a caveman,” one feels that the filmmaker (for whom every leading male character is a stand-in) has simply made himself a little foolish.

The faint, faint echoes of Crime and Punishment are evident. To mention the two works in the same paragraph, however, is inappropriate. Dostoyevsky, for better or worse, approached his novel with the utmost urgency and sincerity, intending to take up what he perceived to be pernicious nihilistic and atheistic views and attitudes. The dialogue and actions in the novel, with the exception of its concluding, falsely self-abnegating section, are thoroughly convincing.

There is terribly little that is convincing in Irrational Man. That Lucas, as personally miserable as he may be, would embark on a plot to murder another human being in cold blood on the basis of one snippet of overheard conversation is preposterous. In any event, far from carrying out a “perfect murder,” Lucas allows himself to be seen at key moments by various eyewitnesses.

Flatness, lethargy, sluggishness, intellectual exhaustion: these are words or phrases that come to mind throughout.

It should not be necessary to begin from zero on the subject of Woody Allen’s sad, protracted decline. In 2005 (Melinda and Melinda), we commented: “The Allen persona wore thin a good many pictures ago, but it carried him through until the early 1990s. Various factors, including personal ones, may have caused him to lose his way so dramatically, but no doubt social changes played a decisive role. The milieu that he lovingly, if sardonically, chronicled has disintegrated.”

Irrational Man

Four years later (Whatever Works), we wrote that it was “impossible to detach Woody Allen’s decline, notwithstanding its individual twists and turns, from the general fate of considerable numbers of quasi-cultured, semi-bohemian, once-liberal, upper middle class New Yorkers in particular.

“Intellectually unprepared for complex social problems, culturally shallow, ego-driven and a bit (or more than a bit) lazy, exclusively oriented toward the Democratic Party and other institutions of order, distant from or hostile toward broad layers of the population, inheriting family wealth or enriching themselves in the stock market and real estate boom…for a good many, the accumulated consequences of the past several decades have not been attractive.”

In 2014 (Magic in the Moonlight), we noted that “Woody Allen’s new film seems very distant from life, including his own life.” Over the course of the previous year, Allen had been subjected to a scurrilous campaign, spearheaded by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, the champion of imperialist “humanitarian interventionism,” over unproven 20-year-old allegations of child molestation. We added that “Allen seems too self-absorbed and too limited at present to be able to bring into his filmmaking the central dilemmas of our time, even when they involve him directly. So, as a consequence, his work resembles life less and less.”

Nonetheless, Allen remains a cultural presence, largely and residually based on his earlier comedy and film work and also in recognition of the fact that he has never entirely thrown in his lot with the Hollywood system.

His pessimism is not attractive, and it has consequences, whether he recognizes that or not. At the drop of a hat, Allen tells interviewers how miserable he is and how he finds life pointless and absurd. For example: “I’m a great believer in the utter meaningless randomness of existence… All of existence is just a thing with no rhyme or reason to it. We all live subject to the utter fragile contingency of life.” (He seems to have gotten over his view in 2009 that “now we’re entering into at least a period of some hope, of some human possibilities for the country … we’ve made progress, and elected our first African-American president.”) To preach such things to young people in particular is highly irresponsible.

Allen also declares, whether sincerely or not, that most of his films are “failures,” a judgment, unhappily, that one is obliged to agree with.

The writer-director has dealt before with the protagonist-criminal, most notably in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Match Point (2005) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007). The first of those films is perhaps the most important and deepgoing in Allen’s career: a wealthy ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) faces a crisis due to the increasingly strident demands and threats of his mistress (Anjelica Huston). He turns to his shady brother (Jerry Orbach), who hires a hit man to take care of the woman.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen no doubt, consciously or otherwise, took a look at the filthy, money-grubbing ethos of the “Reagan years,” but more generally, he alluded to the moral and social shift of an entire social grouping, the erstwhile liberal, Jewish, New York middle class, which was suddenly finding itself wealthy and obliged to support the most ruthless measures in defense of its riches.

Unfortunately, Irrational Man is almost entirely bereft of that historical and social concreteness. It floats like an inconsequential straw in the breeze.

While the film may be relatively negligible, it raises some issues that are far from negligible.

Allen’s title deliberately refers to the well-known 1958 study (and promotion) of existentialism of the same name by William Barrett. The latter, an American academic, who, after “flirting” with Trotskyism in the 1930s, like many of his generation, converted to anticommunism and irrationalism under the intellectual influence of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre. Barrett ended up a sour neoconservative.

Barrett’s Irrational Man, which was almost mandatory reading in American high schools and universities in the 1960s, was one of the milestones marking the move of significant sections of the intelligentsia toward anti-Marxism. “Marxism,” Barrett pontificated ignorantly, “has no philosophical categories for the unique facts of human personality, and in the natural course of things manages to collectivize this human personality out of existence.” (Have we ever heard this kind of thing before?)

Marxism, he goes on, is one of the “relics of the nineteenth-century Enlightenment that have not yet come to terms with the shadow side of human life as grasped even by some of the nineteenth-century thinkers themselves.” (Again, is this the slightest bit familiar?)

The Marxist “picture of man,” according to Barrett, “is thin and oversimplified. Existential philosophy, as a revolt against such oversimplification, attempts to grasp the image of the whole man, even where this involves bringing to consciousness all that is dark and questionable in his existence. And in just this respect it is a much more authentic expression of our own contemporary existence.”

To what degree Allen takes this reactionary viewpoint at face value is unclear. But to the extent that this type of ideology has remained in the background of his thinking, it gives a clue as to some of the difficulties at work.

One of the peculiarities of Irrational Man, the film, is that Allen on the face of it subscribes to Lucas’s outlook. Presumably, as long as one sits around and discourses pseudo-profoundly about the meaninglessness of life and doesn’t poison or push one’s fellow creatures down elevator shafts, existentialist nihilism retains its allure.