Archive for June, 2010
My wife and I watched The Insider last night. Michael Mann is one of my favorite directors, but I held off on watching this one for a decade because of what I perceived to be its leftward tilt. That’s unfortunate because it really is a fine film, made all the more interesting for me since much of the story takes place in Louisville. Although Mann is probably best known for orchestrating spectacular action scenes, The Insider is peculiarly action free, unless you count Russell Crowe hitting golf balls or falling down as action scenes. Nevertheless I think it’s one of Mann’s most engaging films, proving he can create high energy tension with lawsuits and gag orders just as well as he can with epic gun battles.
The leftward tilt is certainly present, but it’s more thematic than anything else, and I found myself rooting for Al Pacino’s plucky journalist as he attempted to stick it to the nasty tobacco corporations. The setup is this: Russell Crowe plays real-life tobacco executive turned company whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, and Pacino plays the feisty ’60 Minutes’ producer who sticks with Wigand through the whole sordid process, culminating in an industry-shaking interview that Wigand grants to Mike Wallace. It’s a true story made all the more compelling because the most dramatic and incredible plot points actually happened. Mann makes quite a spectacle of the inner machinations of big media and the extraordinary legal power that large corporations can bring to bear on their opponents. That tobacco company lawyers from a firm based in Kentucky could bring a media giant like CBS to its knees is almost unthinkable, and Mann plays the bizarre scenario for all the dramatic impact he can get.
The film is unapologetic in portraying Pacino’s character as a left-wing media activist. He tells Wigand he was part of the “New Left” of the sixties and glowingly reminisces about his political mentor Herbert Marcuse. Nevertheless, I think the film is a good illustration of the way in which the excesses of the free market require a free press to keep it honest. Free market conservatives and libertarians often attempt to absolutize the virtues of the free market, claiming that any state interference into the free market is unjust and bound for failure anyway. This may or may not be the case, but the role of government in regulating the free market is not what I want to address here. Here I want to point out that the free market, like any other hegemonic cultural institution, always needs outside influences to hold it morally accountable. Conservatives often argue that the market requires regular injections of moral virtue to keep it honest, but I rarely hear them talk about the power of the media as the minister of such injections. The true story that inspired Mann’s film is a perfect example of how the free press can act as a cultural regulating power for the free market, exposing particular areas of vice and injustice and opening new doors for legal ramifications.
The market, contrary to the grand claims of some free market advocates, isn’t inherently noble. It’s true that free competition will often weed out undesirable elements in the market, but I don’t think this is enough. The power of the market must be subject to outside checks and balances in the same way as the powers of the state and the press. Since I’m convinced that the state should play a minimalist role in regulating the market (except in clear cases such as prohibiting unjust child labor, enforcing a minimum wage, protecting the environment, and so on), I think other, non-legal checks and balances should be brought to bear on the market as well, such as the power of the free press.
It’s also worth pointing out that, like the market, the free press isn’t inherently noble either, and it requires its own system of checks and balances. Ask a political liberal if he is as interested in the state regulating the free press as he is in regulating the free market and you will get an emphatic “No.” The excesses and injustices of the free press often go unchallenged and unchecked. The only real regulating power for the press (outside of certain laws that govern speech not covered by the First Amendment) is the press itself. The rise of conservative media outlets over the last few decades is a good example of how this works. I’ll never understand why liberals spew hatred for the conservative slant of Fox News, when the very existence of conservative outlets like Fox and the Wall Street Journal act as a balancing force to their left-leaning counterparts in the mainstream media, just as those same leftist counterparts provide much-needed accountability for Fox. Interestingly, the rise of the blogosphere has resulted in a new force for holding the press accountable for its moral failures, as witnessed most clearly in the Rathergate controversy.
We always want the guy on the other side of the aisle to be held accountable, but blind allegiance to political ideals often obscures the need for our own side to be held accountable as well. The Insider is a good reminder of that for free market advocates, and I’m glad I finally watched it. It’s no Last of the Mohicans, but it’s still a great film with a valuable message.
The trailer for the next Chronicles of Narnia movie is up:
I’m hopeful but wary about this one. Prince Caspian was big and loud but I thought it missed the heart of Lewis’ novel. Walden Media is producing again, but this time Fox is financing and distributing the film since Disney gave up on the franchise after the mediocre domestic success of Caspian. The capable Michael Apted is the new director, and I can only hope he and his creative team have captured the spirit of one of my favorite Lewis novels. The ending with Reepicheep is a particularly powerful moment in the series, but the rest of the narrative is a bit untraditional for a fantasy story. It may be hard to pull off, so I’m approaching this one with cautious optimism.
For those interested, I’ve uploaded my Ph.D. dissertation to the Writings page. You can find it here. My friend John Fraiser is reading it, and I’d love some feedback from other philosophers and philosophy students. Here’s the abstract:
GOD AND MORAL FACTS:
A TRINITARIAN REALIST
MODEL OF CHRISTIAN METAETHICS
Michael Brian Trapp, Ph.D.
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010
Chairperson: Dr. Mark Coppenger
This dissertation is a model of Christian metaethics based on God’s Triune nature.
Chapter 1 discusses overall issues and problems in metaethics and how they relate to Christian theology, with emphasis on problems for Christian metaethics.
Chapter 2 examines contemporary secular versions of moral realism in the academy. It also inquires into the various ways God may be related to moral obligations.
Chapter 3 includes a broad survey of traditional Christian metaethics. Christian thinkers from both natural law and divine command traditions are examined.
Chapter 4 surveys metaethical models of writers from the revival of Christian metaethics in the twentieth century.
Chapter 5 includes the dissertation’s main argument for Trinitarian moral realism. God’s Triune existence is posited as a fruitful way of founding moral obligations that dodges familiar conceptual difficulties.
Chapter 6 seeks to show how Trinitarian realism can move from theory to practice. It first compares Trinitarian realism with Islamic metaethics. It then shows how the model can be applied to a particular moral case and, finally, to Christian apologetics.
Therefore, those who have no experience of reason or virtue, but are always occupied with feasts and the like, are brought down and then back up to the middle, as it seems, and wander in this way throughout their lives, never reaching beyond this to what is truly higher up, never looking up at it or being brought up to it, and so they aren’t filled with that which really is and never taste any stable or pure pleasure. Instead, they always look down at the ground like cattle, and, with their heads bent over the dinner table, they feed, fatten, and fornicate. To outdo others in these things, they kick and butt them with iron horns and hooves, killing each other, because their desires are insatiable. For the part that they’re trying to fill is like a vessel full of holes, and neither it nor the things they are trying to fill it with are among the things that are.
– Socrates, in Plato, The Republic, Book IX, translated by G. M. A. Grube
In other words, it’s better to spend your life seeking the true, the beautiful, and the good, than wasting it by merely indulging the flesh. Here’s a pictorial representation: