Review: Vice (2018)

There has been an ongoing debate among critics of the George W Bush presidency: was George W as malicious as his government or was he just a naive puppet? Adam McKay’s film is unambiguous on this question: Bush was a puppet and a secondary figure in and administration that had seen a shift in power that could be called a coup. The villain of the piece is the subject of the film, Dick Cheney.

The cast variously become their roles. Christian Bale appears to have been literally eaten up by a voracious Dick Cheney who has swallowed the actor whole, like No-face in Spirited Away. Steve Carell is initially recognisable as Donald Rumsfeld but as the film progresses, he too appears to be consumed by the power-hungry ghosts. Sam Rockwell plays George W Bush convincingly but gets to survive intact, mainly because George W only gets to be a side-character in his own presidency.

This is a weird film. It flips from straight drama, to documentary, to weird satire and skits. A restaurant scene with Cheney and his co-conspirators in the wake of 9-11 has the waiter present a menu that consists of a variety of excesses and abuses of government power that they think they can get away with. Unable to pick between them Cheney orders the lot.

At other times characters slip into Shakespearean dialogue, a Fox News presenter explains how Republicans began planning for conservative media in the 1970s and archive footage and actors are mixed together.

Tying the mish-mash together are two things. First is a narrator “Kurt” (Jesse Plemons) a younger man with a relationship to Cheney that is not revealed until near the end of the film but who has an extensive knowledge of Cheney’s life, including his hard-drinking years when he is booted out from Yale.

The second thing that holds the film together is the relationship between Cheney and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams). Repeatedly helping Cheney through his career, forcing him to get his life together when he is a violent drunk in his twenties and later running his congressional campaign when he is too sick from heart disease to campaign himself.

Despite the intensity of the anger at Cheney throughout the film, the strength of the acting and the focus of the film keeps humanising him. His relationship with his daughters and the close family bonds are shown as a virtue (until finally, Liz Cheney’s own political ambitions cause a split with her sister Mary over marriage equality). Reaching a point in Cheney’s life in the late 1990s when his political career had run dry and he was living a wealthy life on his pay from Halliburton, the film abruptly ends with an explanation that he then lived happily ever after with Lynne and his two daughter’s breeding Labradors — and the end credits roll…

…only to start again as George W Bush becomes Cheney’s next willing victim to his Richard III like machinations. Quickly the film brings itself back to the opening scene with the 9-11 attacks in progress and the Whitehouse in panic and Cheney dispensing Presidential authority as if George W was an irrelevance.

The film is unambiguously polemic. It’s styled as comedy but I can’t say I ever laughed. The jokes are raw and full of pain and horror at the events that follow. Thousands dead, America drawn further into torture and abuse of power and dictatorial -style government: each of these are shown as not simply an outcome of Cheney’s uniquely powerful vice-presidency but part of a long term objective of multiple players within the Republican party.

I don’t know if this is a good film. It certainly has excellent performances and commanded my attention throughout. It’s entertaining in the way a lengthy Twitter rant can be entertaining, a passion fueled diatribe mixing facts and dark jokes and memes and pictures and side explanation into Unitary Executive Theory. It could be called propaganda, it certainly isn’t attempting to provide a balanced perspective on Cheney, but if anything it is too manic to be propaganda — at its worst, it is like being cornered by a drunk guy at a party who wants you to understand why democracy is a sham. The danger in its central message (Cheney was a monster who essentially hijacked the executive authority of the USA and used it to kill civilians and torture people to test the limits of that authority and found that nobody would stop him) is that it leaves you feeling nothing but cynicism. If the rich and powerful can get away with anything then what’s the point?

But by pointing the finger at Cheney the film does something else that is valuable, which is bringing him to people’s attention again. When talking about the film before going to see it, I was struck by how many people were initially puzzled by ‘Dick Cheney’ as the name. People have forgotten him, which isn’t unusual for a Vice President but is notable given the power and control he had.

The hodge-podge of styles and side lectures might be grating for some. Amy Adams and Christian Bale are well worth seeing. The story is full of pain and anger.

Reading Molyneux So You Don’t Have to: Ethics

Molyneux not only doesn’t have a distinct philosophy of truth or metaphysics or theology but he doesn’t have a sufficient grasp of the these topics to see that he doesn’t have one. I’m not sure his grasp of ethics is much better but he does have his own brand of ethics. It has a name “universally preferable behaviour” which at least nominally points towards Kant as an inspiration.

Molyneux has written about his theory of ethics on multiple occasions. He wrote a long treatment of it in 2007 that’s available as a free PDF from his website (UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics – archive link). It’s an interesting read only if you want to chart Molyneux’s capacity to write philosophically — which appears to be declining over time. I don’t want to imply that this earlier work is good or intelligible, it isn’t, but it at least feels like he’s exploring ideas. He is also clearer back in 2007 that his ideas connect with other philosophers:

“As Hume famously pointed out, it is impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is.” What he meant by that was that preference in no way can be axiomatically derived from existence. It is true that a man who never exercises and eats poorly will be unhealthy. Does that mean that he “ought” to exercise and eat well? No. The “ought” is conditional upon the preference. If he wants to be healthy, he ought to exercise and eat well. It is true that if a man does not eat, he will die – we cannot logically derive from that fact a binding principle that he ought to eat. If he wants to live, then he must eat. However, his choice to live or not remains his own. “

Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 30)

David Hume, the is/ought distinction or the general term “Humean” don’t appear in the later work. However, the same tendency to vagueness while asserting clarity is apparent in the 2007 work. Also, Molyneux is already attempting to win arguments in advance with appeals to a kind of weaponised begging-the-question:

“In general, any theory that contradicts itself in the utterance cannot be valid. It does not require external disproof, since it disproves itself. We do not need to examine every nook and cranny in the universe to determine that a “square circle” does not exist. The very concept is self-contradictory, and thus disproves itself in the utterance. “

Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 31)

Eleven years later he is using a modified form of this:

“Testing the hypothesis of an argument against the methodology of communicating the argument is a powerful method for rejecting irrational arguments.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1087-1088). Kindle Edition.

He aims to appeal to the basic principle of non-contradiction but this is mainly a rhetorical move on his part. It is a revision of a technique used by followers of Ayn Rand who would defiantly assert that “A is A” as their deep logical insight and therefore that they cannot be wrong because [here they insert a convoluted and tendentious argument] they are really just asserting that a thing is what it is. Molyneux’s strategy is an improvement on that but not by much. He aims to appeal to the principle that it cannot be the case that A is not-A and that when you say that he is wrong, you are asserting that he is right.

To get to this point with ethics, Molyneux asserts a principle of infinite preference.

“If I point at Africa on a map and refer to it as the Arctic, and you correct me, it might not be much of a debate, but clearly you are correcting me with reference to the true name of that continent, which is Africa. You are not saying you have a made-up name for the continent, personal to you, and that you would like me to indulge you by referring to the continent by that name – you are in essence saying two things:

1. The correct name for the continent is “Africa.”

2. Using the correct name is infinitely preferable to using the incorrect name.

I use the phrase “infinitely preferable” because some preferences are relative, and some preferences are absolute.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 2257-2263). Kindle Edition.

I won’t belabour the flaws in the example (which are many) as I assume if given long enough he could come up with a better example less dependent on contextual language. The key point is Molyneux’s claim that if a person corrects another person then they are implying an infinite preference for the truth. In 2007 he makes his point clearer by avoiding a confused example:

PREMISE 4: CORRECTION REQUIRES UNIVERSAL PREFERENCES

If you correct me on an error that I have made, you are implicitly accepting the fact that it would be better for me to correct my error. Your preference for me to correct my error is not subjective, but objective, and universal. You don’t say to me: “You should change your opinion to mine because I would prefer it,” but rather: “You should correct your opinion because it is objectively incorrect.” My error does not arise from merely disagreeing with you, but as a result of my deviance from an objective standard of truth. Your argument that I should correct my false opinion rests on the objective value of truth – i.e. that truth is universally preferable to error, and that truth is universally objective.

Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 35)

It’s a better argument. Not a great one but it at least attempts to get at the idea that preferring to be right is a kind of ethical choice. That it is universally or infinitely preferable though is simply asserting what needs to be demonstrated. The is/ought distinction is still there and if somebody consistently chooses to be wrong there isn’t a 100% watertight reason why being factually/logically right should be chosen above being wrong in all circumstances. We essentially appeal to the virtue of correctness.

It is a virtue that I try to hold myself to and believe in. I can point to many practical circumstances as to why it is better in general, to be right rather than wrong but in a fallible universe where knowledge is imperfect, we have access only to what is apparently factually/logically correct. So aiming to be correct is actually playing the odds. The person stubbornly ignoring reason and evidence in some particular circumstance will sometimes be right.

In 2007 Molyneux pulls this together in this way

“if I argue against the proposition that universally preferable behaviour is valid, I have already shown my preference for truth over falsehood – as well as a preference for correcting those who speak falsely. Saying that there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour is like shouting in someone’s ear that sound does not exist – it is innately self-contradictory. In other words, if there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour, then one should oppose anyone who claims that there is such a thing as universally preferable behaviour. However, if one “should” do something, then one has just created universally preferable behaviour. Thus universally preferable behaviour – or moral rules –must be valid. Syllogistically, this is:
1.The proposition is: the concept “universally preferable behaviour” must be valid.
2.Arguing against the validity of universally preferable behaviour demonstrates universally preferable behaviour.
3.Therefore no argument against the validity of universally preferable behaviour can be valid. “

Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 40)

The trick should be now more apparent. Molyneux’s argument is circular. He assumes the concept of infinite preference lies at the heart of any assertion of truth and then declares the argument won because any argument against it is an appeal to truth which he has asserted is one of infinite preference.

Oh and for f_ck’s sake whatever that set of three points is at the end is, it is NOT a syllogism. And NO, by pointing that out I’m not proving Molyneux’s point about infinite preference. I’m just pointing out that he hasn’t a clue what he is talking about.

Back in 2007 I start to feel like he’s trolling me…

“Thus it is impossible that anyone can logically argue against universally preferable behaviour, since if he is alive to argue, he must have followed universally preferred behaviours such as breathing, eating and drinking. Syllogistically, this is:
1. All organisms require universally preferred behaviour to live.
2. Man is a living organism.
3. Therefore all living men are alive due to the practice of universally preferred behaviour.
4. Therefore any argument against universally preferable behaviour requires an acceptance and practice of universally preferred behaviour.
5. Therefore no argument against the existence of universally preferable behaviour can be valid. “

Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 41)

You should have noticed several things by now:

  • I’m quoting from the 2007 book more than the 2018 one.
  • Molyneux doesn’t seem to be grappling with any actual ethical issues.
  • That ‘if you argue with me then I must be right’ trick is very annoying.
  • Molyneux has zero idea what a syllogism is.

This goes nowhere. The point isn’t to illuminate ethical principles but to set up a set of confusing fallacies so that Molyneux can assert that he is right. From there he can assert whatever he decides is right in some circumstance as being right.

Rewatching Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

[Content warning: murder of a child] I decided to re-watch this classic film because of a joke I’d made on Twitter about it being a Christmas movie. It isn’t set at Christmas but there is snow and travellers from the East. I’d also forgotten that it was directed by Sidney Lumet, a director I associate more with gritty films set in American cities rather than cosy mysteries with novelty detectives and celebrity casting. Sandwiched between Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon it looks incongruous in his filmography but many of his films focus on crime and claustrophobic settings.

It’s also a slow movie to get started by modern standards. The movie opens with an extended montage of headlines and clips detailing a sensational kidnap and murder of the child of a wealthy family, modelled partly on the real-life Lindbergh kidnapping. After that, the film introduces Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney immersing himself completely into the role) who is currently in transit from Istanbul. Before the eponymous train departs, each of the celebrity subjects gets a brief visual introduction, either on a boat across the Bosphorus or arriving at the train station. It’s not this sequence is dull but when the train’s engine finally switches on its headlamps and pulls out of the station and the music swells up, you feel ready for the start of the film proper.

Before I continue, some things to note. I have read some Agatha Christie but if I ever read Murder on the Orient Express then I don’t recall having done so. I don’t know if this movie was faithful to the book or an improvement on it but do know that Agatha Christie was disappointed in Poirot’s moustache. Based on the trailers, the moustache was remedied in the recent Kenneth Branagh version of the story but I haven’t watched that version. Lastly, spoilers. After the fold, I will openly discuss the “who” of the “whodunnit” because it is the structural core of the film. I assume everybody knows the twist but I did rewatch the film with some younger people who had no idea — it was fun to see at which point they realised the solution.

All aboard!

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