Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 2017

The secret villain

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Note: This post alludes to a plot point from Pixar’s Coco.

A few years ago, after Frozen was first released, The Atlantic ran an essay by Gina Dalfonzo complaining about the moment—fair warning for a spoiler—when Prince Hans was revealed to be the film’s true villain. Dalfonzo wrote:

That moment would have wrecked me if I’d seen it as a child, and the makers of Frozen couldn’t have picked a more surefire way to unsettle its young audience members…There is something uniquely horrifying about finding out that a person—even a fictional person—who’s won you over is, in fact, rotten to the core. And it’s that much more traumatizing when you’re six or seven years old. Children will, in their lifetimes, necessarily learn that not everyone who looks or seems trustworthy is trustworthy—but Frozen’s big twist is a needlessly upsetting way to teach that lesson.

Whatever you might think of her argument, it’s obvious that Disney didn’t buy it. In fact, the twist in question—in which a seemingly innocuous supporting character is exposed in the third act as the real bad guy—has appeared so monotonously in the studio’s recent movies that I was already complaining about it a year and a half ago. By my count, the films that fall back on his convention include not just Frozen, but Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and now the excellent Coco, which implies that the formula is spilling over from its parent studio to Pixar. (To be fair, it goes at least as far back as Toy Story 2, but it didn’t become the equivalent of the house style until about six or seven years ago.)

This might seem like a small point of storytelling, but it interests me, both because we’ve been seeing it so often and because it’s very different from the stock Disney approach of the past, in which the lines between good and evil were clearly demarcated from the opening frame. In some ways, it’s a positive development—among other things, it means that characters are no longer defined primarily by their appearance—and it may just be a natural instance of a studio returning repeatedly to a trick that has worked in the past. But I can’t resist a more sinister reading. All of the examples that I’ve cited come from the period since John Lasseter took over as the chief creative officer of Disney Animation Studios, and as we’ve recently learned, he wasn’t entirely what he seemed, either. A Variety article recounts:

For more than twenty years, young women at Pixar Animation Studios have been warned about the behavior of John Lasseter, who just disclosed that he is taking a leave due to inappropriate conduct with women. The company’s cofounder is known as a hugger. Around Pixar’s Emeryville, California, offices, a hug from Lasseter is seen as a mark of approval. But among female employees, there has long been widespread discomfort about Lasseter’s hugs and about the other ways he showers attention on young women…“Just be warned, he likes to hug the pretty girls,” [a former employee] said she was told. “He might try to kiss you on the mouth.” The employee said she was alarmed by how routine the whole thing seemed. “There was kind of a big cult around John,” she says.

And a piece in The Hollywood Reporter adds: “Sources say some women at Pixar knew to turn their heads quickly when encountering him to avoid his kisses. Some used a move they called ‘the Lasseter’ to prevent their boss from putting his hands on their legs.”

Of all the horror stories that have emerged lately about sexual harassment by men in power, this is one of the hardest for me to read, and it raises troubling questions about the culture of a company that I’ve admired for a long time. (Among other things, it sheds a new light on the Pixar motto, as expressed by Andrew Stanton, that I’ve quoted here before: “We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.” But it also goes without saying that it’s far easier to fail repeatedly on your way to success if you’re a white male who fits a certain profile. And these larger cultural issues evidently contributed to the departure from the studio of Rashida Jones and her writing partner.) It also makes me wonder a little about the movies themselves. After the news broke about Lasseter, there were comments online about his resemblance to Lotso in Toy Story 3, who announces jovially: “First thing you gotta know about me—I’m a hugger!” But the more I think about it, the more this seems like a bona fide inside joke about a situation that must have been widely acknowledged. As a recent article in Deadline reveals:

[Lasseter] attended some wrap parties with a handler to ensure he would not engage in inappropriate conduct with women, say two people with direct knowledge of the situation…Two sources recounted Lasseter’s obsession with the young character actresses portraying Disney’s Fairies, a product line built around the character of Tinker Bell. At the animator’s insistence, Disney flew the women to a New York event. One Pixar employee became the designated escort as Lasseter took the young women out drinking one night, and to a party the following evening. “He was inappropriate with the fairies,” said the former Pixar executive, referring to physical contact that included long hugs. “We had to have someone make sure he wasn’t alone with them.”

Whether or not the reference in Toy Story 3 was deliberate—the script is credited to Michael Arndt, based on a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Lee Unkrich, and presumably with contributions from many other hands—it must have inspired a few uneasy smiles of recognition at Pixar. And its emphasis on seemingly benign figures who reveal an unexpected dark side, including Lotso himself, can easily be read as an expression, conscious or otherwise, of the tensions between Lasseter’s public image and his long history of misbehavior. (I’ve been thinking along similar lines about Kevin Spacey, whose “sheer meretriciousness” I identified a long time ago as one of his most appealing qualities as an actor, and of whom I once wrote here: “Spacey always seems to be impersonating someone else, and he does the best impersonation of a great actor that I’ve ever seen.” And it seems now that this calculated form of pretending amounted to a way of life.) Lasseter’s influence over Pixar and Disney is so profound that it doesn’t seem farfetched to see its films both as an expression of his internal divisions and of the reactions of those around him, and you don’t need to look far for parallel examples. My daughter, as it happens, knows exactly who Lasseter is—he’s the big guy in the Hawaiian shirt who appears at the beginning of all of her Hayao Miyazaki movies, talking about how much he loves the film that we’re about to see. I don’t doubt that he does. But not only do Miyazaki’s greatest films lack villains entirely, but the twist generally runs in the opposite direction, in which a character who initially seems forbidding or frightening is revealed to be kinder than you think. Simply on the level of storytelling, I know which version I prefer. Under Lasseter, Disney and Pixar have produced some of the best films of recent decades, but they also have their limits. And it only stands to reason that these limitations might have something to do with the man who was more responsible than anyone else for bringing these movies to life.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2017 at 8:27 am

Quote of the Day

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In its use of words poetry is just the reverse of science. Very definite thoughts do occur, but not because the words are so chosen as logically to bar out all possibilities but one. No. But because the manner, the tone of voice, the cadence and the rhythm play upon our interests and make them pick out from among an indefinite number of possibilities the precise particular thought which they need. This is why poetical descriptions often seem so much more accurate than prose descriptions.

I.A. Richards, Science and Poetry

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November 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 3

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In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy never actually mentions the hedgehog and the fox, but he does talk at length about another animal made famous by an ancient Greek. About a third of the way from the end of the novel, he inserts an extended aside about Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, which allegedly proves that all motion is impossible. Tolstoy notes that calculus, “a modern branch of mathematics having achieved the art of dealing with the infinitely small,” offers one possible solution, and he goes on to make the same argument for historical science:

In seeking the laws of historical movement just the same thing happens. The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous. To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of history. But to arrive at these laws, resulting from the sum of all those human wills, man’s mind postulates arbitrary and disconnected units…Only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history. To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and study the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved. No one can say in how far it is possible for man to advance in this way toward an understanding of the laws of history; but it is evident that only along that path does the possibility of discovering the laws of history lie.

Reading this section over again, I realized for the first time that I’d seen much the same language somewhere else. More than seventy years before the Foundation series, Tolstoy was talking about psychohistory, and in remarkably similar terms. For Tolstoy, the perfect historical science would be a matter of integrating all the infinitesimals of individual human behavior; for John W. Campbell, it would take the form of symbolic logic; for Isaac Asimov, it was something like the ideal gas law. (If there’s one thing we can say for sure, though, it’s that Asimov wasn’t directly influenced by Tolstoy—he says in his memoirs that he tried and repeatedly failed to finish War and Peace.) And all three men were interested in seeking what they conceived as the laws of history, which would allow it to be treated as a science with the same explanatory and predictive power as physics or chemistry. The problem, of course, is that this collides headlong with the troublesome notion of free will, as Tolstoy writes in a lengthy epilogue to his novel. The italics are mine:

In history what is known to us we call laws of inevitability, what is unknown we call free will. Free will is for history only an expression for the unknown remainder of what we know about the laws of human life…Only by reducing this element of free will to the infinitesimal, that is, by regarding it as an infinitely small quantity, can we convince ourselves of the absolute inaccessibility of the causes, and then instead of seeking causes, history will take the discovery of laws as its problem…And if history has for its object the study of the movement of the nations and of humanity and not the narration of episodes in the lives of individuals, it too, setting aside the conception of cause, should seek the laws common to all the inseparably interconnected infinitesimal elements of free will.

And Tolstoy was never able to reconcile his unmatched knowledge, as a novelist, of the unique qualities of individual men and women with his desire for a calculus of history, which requires, as Isaiah Berlin observes in The Hedgehog and the Fox, that all of its infinitesimals be “reasonably uniform.”

If Tolstoy were alive today, he’d presumably be interested in the rise of data journalism, which represents an attempt to implement some of these principles in practice. In reality, it’s as vulnerable to error and wishful thinking as anything else, and much of it represents the same old punditry dressed up with a fancy new infographic. Both the qualitative and quantitative forms of political coverage suffer from a tendency that Tolstoy identified nearly a century and a half ago:

Postulating some generalization as the goal of the movement of humanity, the historians study the men of whom the greatest number of monuments have remained: kings, ministers, generals, authors, reformers, popes, and journalists, to the extent to which in their opinion these persons have promoted or hindered that abstraction. But…the connection of the people with the rulers and enlighteners of humanity is only based on the arbitrary assumption that the collective will of the people is always transferred to the men whom we have noticed.

Replace “men” with “information” and you have a fairly good critique of the fundamental weakness of so much data journalism. Just because an available set of numbers is interesting, seemingly correlates with broader trends, and fits nicely into a spreadsheet doesn’t mean that it has predictive or analytical value, and equally important factors may go unremarked. And Tolstoy’s original point about the overemphasis on great men holds as well. Trump, if nothing else, is one of “the men whom we have noticed.” We can hardly help it. And this makes it hard to look past each day’s new outrage to get at anything deeper.

So where does that leave us? Tolstoy, unsurprisingly, ended by becoming cynical about intellectual claims of any kind, to the point of sounding a little like Trump himself, as Berlin writes: “Tolstoy looks on [intellectuals] as clever fools, spinners of empty subtleties, blind and deaf to the realities which simpler hearts can grasp, and from time to time he lets fly at them with the brutal violence of a grim, anarchical old peasant, avenging himself, after years of silence, on the silly, chattering, town-bred monkeys, so knowing, and full of words to explain everything, and superior, and impotent and empty.” (Tolstoy’s trust in “the untouched depths of the mass of the people” also has a slightly more sinister ring to it today.) Some degree of skepticism is obviously warranted, even if, as Berlin notes, it can all too easily turn into despair:

This, for both Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, is the central tragedy of human life; if only men would learn how little the cleverest and most gifted among them can control, how little they can know of all the multitude of factors the orderly movement of which is the history of the world; above all, what presumptuous nonsense it is to claim to perceive an order merely on the strength of believing desperately that an order must exist, when all one actually perceives is meaningless chaos—a chaos of which the heightened form, the microcosm in which the disorder of human life is reflected in an intense degree, is war.

The paradox of psychohistory—which we see in both Tolstoy and Asimov—is that it becomes especially attractive in wartime, when our desire to predict the future feels particularly urgent, even as the events themselves make nonsense of our pretensions. That’s worth remembering now, too. And perhaps the only lesson that we can take from all of this lies in Berlin’s conclusion: “We are part of a larger scheme of things than we can understand…We ourselves live in this whole and by it, and are wise only in the measure to which we make our peace with it.”

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2017 at 8:36 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 2

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Almost a year ago, on the morning of the inauguration, I wrote on this blog: “Even now, I find myself wavering between seeing it as an outcome that could have gone either way or as a development, in retrospect, that feels inevitable.” That’s true not just of this election, but of human existence in general. As Isaiah Berlin puts it in The Hedgehog and the Fox: “Practical wisdom is to a large degree knowledge of the inevitable; of what, given our world order, could not but happen; and conversely, of how things cannot be, or could not have been, done; of why some schemes must, cannot help but, end in failure, although for this no demonstrative or scientific reason can be given.” The irony, of course, is that if fifty thousand votes had gone the other way last November, we’d be drawing a starkly different set of lessons from a confluence of circumstances that were fundamentally the same. In his discussion of Tolstoy’s view of war, Berlin brilliantly skewers the fallacy of so much of this kind of political and historical analysis:

With great force [Tolstoy] argues that only those orders or decisions issued by the commanders now seem particularly crucial (and are concentrated upon by historians) which happened to coincide with what later actually occurred; whereas a great many other exactly similar, perfectly good orders and decisions, which seemed no less crucial and vital to those who were issuing them at the time, are forgotten because, having been foiled by unfavorable turns of events, they were not, because they could not be, carried out, and for this reason now seem historically unimportant.

All history, to some extent, consists of retroactively picking out explanations that happen to fit with what actually happened, and since we tend to think in terms of narratives and protagonists, perhaps the most common model of all is the myth of the great man—and the gender isn’t an accident. Tolstoy is rightfully contemptuous of this whole notion, as Berlin notes:

There is a natural law whereby the lives of all human beings no less than those of nature are determined; but…men, unable to face this inexorable process, seek to represent it as a succession of free choices, to fix responsibility for what occurs upon persons endowed by them with heroic virtues and heroic vices, and called by them “great men.” What are great men? They are ordinary human beings, who are ignorant and vain enough to accept responsibility for the life of society, individuals who would rather take the blame for all the cruelties, injustices, disasters justified in their name, than recognize their own insignificance and impotence in the cosmic flow which pursues its course irrespective of their will and ideals.

Any individuals who believe that they can somehow influence the course of events are gravely mistaken, and Tolstoy devotes much of War and Peace to the castigation of “these hollow men, half self-deluded, half aware of being fraudulent, talking, writing, desperately and aimlessly in order to keep up appearances and avoid facing the bleak truths…[and] all this elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness.”

And it’s revealing that Tolstoy reserves his greatest scorn for the one person whom we’d be least likely to describe in such terms. His portrait of Napoleon is both hilariously unfair and not entirely inaccurate, and although any such comparison is inherently ridiculous, it’s hard not to read this description without thinking of Trump:

[Napoleon spoke] like a man who values every moment of his time and does not condescend to prepare what he has to say but is sure he will always say the right thing and say it well…It was plain that Balashëv’s personality did not interest him at all. Evidently only what took place within his own mind interested him. Nothing outside himself had any significance for him, because everything in the world, it seemed to him, depended entirely on his will…The commencement of his speech had obviously been made with the intention of demonstrating the advantages of his position and showing that he was nevertheless willing to negotiate. But he had begun talking, and the more he talked the less could he control his words. The whole purport of his remarks now was evidently to exalt himself and insult Alexander—just what he had least desired at the commencement of the interview…He evidently wanted to do all the talking himself, and continued to talk with the sort of eloquence and unrestrained irritability to which spoiled people are so prone.

And a little while later, we read: “It was evident that he had long been convinced that it was impossible for him to make a mistake, and that in his perception whatever he did was right, not because it harmonized with any idea of right and wrong, but because he did it.”

There are moments when Tolstoy deliberately takes this portrait too far, as Berlin writes of the views of the historian Nikolai Kareyev: “Napoleon may not be a demigod, but neither is he a mere epiphenomenon of a process which would have occurred unaltered without him; the ‘important people’ are less important than they themselves or the more foolish historians may suppose, but neither are they shadows; individuals…have social purposes, and some among them have strong wills too, and these sometimes transform the lives of communities.” This rings true of both Napoleon and Trump. But so does the following passage, in which Berlin goes beyond the hedgehog and the fox to uncover an animal that has been lurking in the background:

There is a particularly vivid simile [in War and Peace] in which the great man is likened to the ram whom the shepherd is fattening for slaughter. Because the ram duly grows fatter, and perhaps is used as a bellwether for the rest of the flock, he may easily imagine that he is the leader of the flock, and that the other sheep go where they go solely in obedience to his will. He thinks this and the flock may think it too. Nevertheless the purpose of his selection is not the role he believes himself to play, but slaughter—a purpose conceived by beings whose aims neither he nor the other sheep can fathom. For Tolstoy Napoleon is just such a ram, and so to some degree is Alexander, and indeed all the great men of history.

If Jared Kushner had actually read The Hedgehog and the Fox, I’d like to think that these lines would have given him pause, if only for a second. Tomorrow, I’ll conclude by considering what Tolstoy and Berlin have to say about the problem—which Kushner should be taking especially seriously these days—of “how and why things happen as they do and not otherwise,” and whether it’s at all possible to predict what might come next.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2017 at 8:04 am

Quote of the Day

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The archaeologist has work to do for the good of the race; he is making bricks for the mansions that others after him shall build. That is his justification for devoting a lifetime to “unpractical” pursuits. He may be wrong, but you will not lightly convince him of his error.

O.G.S. Crawford, Man and His Past

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 1

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Over the long weekend, both the New York Times and the Washington Post published lead articles on the diminishing public profile of Jared Kushner. The timing may have been a coincidence, but the pieces had striking similarities. Both made the argument that Kushner’s portfolio, once so vast, has been dramatically reduced by the arrival on the scene of White House chief of staff John F. Kelly; both ran under a headline that inclined some version of the word “shrinking”; and both led off with memorable quotes from their subject. In the Times, it was Kushner’s response when asked by Reince Priebus what his Office of American Innovation would really do: “What do you care?” (The newspaper of record, proper as ever, added: “He emphasized his point with an expletive.”) Meanwhile, the Post, which actually scored an interview, came away with something even stranger. Here’s what Kushner said of himself:

During the campaign, I was more like a fox than a hedgehog. I was more of a generalist having to learn about and master a lot of skills quickly. When I got to D.C., I came with an understanding that the problems here are so complex—and if they were easy problems, they would have been fixed before—and so I became more like the hedgehog, where it was more taking issues you care deeply about, going deep and devoting the time, energy and resources to trying to drive change.

The Post merely noted that this is Kushner’s “version the fable of the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one important thing,” but as the Washington Examiner pointed out, the real source is Isaiah Berlin’s classic book The Hedgehog and the Fox, which draws its famous contrast between foxes and hedgehogs as a prelude to a consideration of Leo Tolstoy’s theory of history.

Berlin’s book, which is one of my favorites, is so unlike what I’d expect Jared Kushner to be reading that I can’t resist trying to figure out what this reference to it means. If I were conspiratorially minded, I’d observe that if Kushner had wanted to put together a reading list to quickly bring himself up to speed on the history and culture of Russia—I can’t imagine why—then The Hedgehog and the Fox, which can be absorbed in a couple of hours, would be near the top. But the truth, unfortunately, is probably more prosaic. If there’s a single book from the last decade that Kushner, who was briefly touted as the prodigy behind Trump’s data operation, can be assumed to have read, or at least skimmed, it’s Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. And Silver talks at length about the supposed contrast between foxes and hedgehogs, courtesy of a professor of psychology and political science named Philip E. Tetlock, who conducted a study of predictions by experts in various fields:

Tetlock was able to classify his experts along a spectrum between what he called hedgehogs and foxes. The reference to hedgehogs and foxes comes from the title of an Isaiah Berlin essay on the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy—The Hedgehog and the Fox…Foxes, Tetlock found, are considerably better at forecasting than hedgehogs. They had come closer to the mark on the Soviet Union, for instance. Rather than seeing the USSR in highly ideological terms—as an intrinsically “evil empire,” or as a relatively successful (and perhaps even admirable) example of a Marxist economic system—they instead saw it for what it was: an increasingly dysfunctional nation that was in danger of coming apart at the seams. Whereas the hedgehogs’ forecasts were barely any better than random chance, the foxes’ demonstrated predictive skill.

As intriguing as we might find this reference to Russia, which Kushner presumably read, it also means that in all likelihood, he never even opened Berlin’s book. (Silver annoyingly writes: “Unless you are a fan of Tolstoy—or of flowery prose—you’ll have no particular reason to read Berlin’s essay.”) But it doesn’t really matter where he encountered these classifications. As much as I love the whole notion of the hedgehog and the fox, it has one big problem—as soon as you read it, you’re immediately tempted to apply it to yourself, as Kushner does, when in fact its explanatory power applies only to geniuses. Like John Keats’s celebrated concept of negative capability, which is often used to excuse sloppy, inconsistent thinking, Berlin’s essay encourages us to think of ourselves as foxes or hedgehogs, when we’re really just dilettantes or suffering from tunnel vision. And this categorization has its limits even when applied to unquestionably exceptional personalities. Here’s how Berlin lays it out on the very first page of his book:

There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels…without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit [experiences and objects] into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.

The contrast that Berlin draws here could hardly seem more stark, but it falls apart as soon as we apply it to, say, Kushner’s father-in-law. On the one hand, Trump has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams by harping monotonously on a handful of reliable themes, notably white nationalism, xenophobia, and resentment of liberal elites. Nothing could seem more like the hedgehog. On the other hand, from one tweet to the next, he’s nothing if not “centrifugal rather than centripetal,” driven by his impulses, embracing contradictory positions, undermining his own surrogates, and resisting all attempts to pin him down to a conventional ideology. It’s all very foxlike. The most generous reading would be to argue that Trump, as Berlin contends of Tolstoy, is “by nature a fox, but [believes] in being a hedgehog,” a comparison that seems ridiculous even as I type it. It’s far more plausible that Trump lacks the intellectual rigor, or even the basic desire, to assemble anything like a coherent politics out of his instinctive drives for power and revenge. Like most of us, he’s a mediocre thinker, and his confusions, which reflect those of his base, have gone a long way toward enabling his rise. Trump bears much the same relationship to his fans that Emerson saw in the man who obsessed Tolstoy so deeply:

Among the eminent persons of the nineteenth century, Bonaparte is far the best known and the most powerful; and owes his predominance to the fidelity with which he expresses the tone of thought and belief, the aims of the masses…If Napoleon is France, if Napoleon is Europe, it is because the people whom he sways are little Napoleons.

Faced with a Trump, little or big, Berlin’s categories lose all meaning—not out of any conceptual weakness, but because it wasn’t what they were designed to do. But that doesn’t mean that Berlin doesn’t deserve our attention. In fact, The Hedgehog and the Fox has more to say about our current predicament than any other book I know, and if Kushner ever bothered to read it, it might give him reason to worry. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

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