Polar Express and the Limits of Belief

Years ago, when first I tried to watch the 2004 Robert Zemeckis film Polar Express, I found the visual effects so bizarre that couldn’t sit through the film. But last year my young son watched the film on an Imax screen and loved it, so this year the family watched the film together at home.

I enjoyed the film more than I thought I would. To me, what’s interesting about it is how it sketches, through a strange dream sequence, the psychology of loss and anxiety. The boy at the center of the story worries that Santa Claus isn’t real and feels a sense of loss about that. It seems like, once the boy gets on the train to Christmasland at the North Pole, he should have an easy time getting there. But no. He finds himself atop the train, skiing down its roof with some weirdo ghost vagabond, worrying the entire train will crash or sink into water, riding a car detached from the main train, then wandering through a creepy abandoned toy factory looking for the “main event.” Watching the film might be the closest a toddler can get to the experience of an acid trip.

I still found the visual effects, computer animation based on live-action motion capture, totally bizarre and creepy. But in a way that enhanced the nightmare-like quality of the film.

Maybe the film is about learning to appreciate as myth a story one no longer believes is literally true. If so, I suspect that meaning goes over the heads of young viewers. Taken straight, the message of the story is that if you really believe something to be the case, the belief alone can make it the case. If you believe Santa is real, Santa is real. If you believe a silent bell will ring, it will ring, just because you believed it would. And this carries beyond the dream sequence to when the boy is awake.

What is a secular, science-minded parent to do with this? Obviously it is dangerous to think that wishing alone will make it so. If you wish something is so and then work to make it so through natural processes, great. If you appreciate the significance of a myth, great. But if you want a silent bell to ring, you can’t just believe it will ring. You have to do something, depending on the problem, to fix the bell or fix your hearing. As it is, thematically, the film’s a mess. I guess, by negative example, the film offers an opportunity for parents to discuss with their children the dynamics of myth and the nature of perception.

You know what would have made this a great film? In the film there’s a lonely and poor boy who gets on the train and finally makes friends with the main character and another girl. Well, in the end we’re just supposed to believe that Santa Claus alleviates the boy’s poverty and family troubles, at least for the day. What would have been a great ending is if the main boy had recognized the true spirit of Christmas and talked his parents into visiting the boy (he could have been planted in the story prior to the dream sequence) and inviting him on a genuine holiday adventure.

As it is, the film ends with the main boy ringing some damned bell like some drooling moron. Lame.

But, as I mentioned to one of my friends via social media, he just needs to believe that the film is good.

Image: Noël Zia Lee

In Defense of Rudolph

Caitlin Flanagan doesn’t like the 1964 television film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Actually it’s not entirely clear to me that she’s serious; her article is so strange I wonder if it’s tongue-in-cheek or satire. But it seems like Flanagan probably is serious so I will respond as though she is.

In my view, Rudolph is one of the greatest films of all time.

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Christina Sandefur on the Defense of Property Rights

Christina Sandefur of the free-market Goldwater Institute in Arizona discusses her coauthored book, Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st Century America (paid link), and related issues. This is the Self in Society Podcast #21. This episode is also available via iTunes and YouTube (audio only).

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Robert Alan Goldberg on American Conspiracy Theories

Historian Robert Alan Goldberg discusses the history of conspiracy thinking in the U.S. and explains how “new” conspiracy theories such as that involving QAnon recycle and embellish old themes. This is the Self in Society Podcast #20. This episode also is available on iTunes.

Buy Goldberg’s book, Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (paid link), via Amazon.

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Timothy Sandefur on Frederick Douglass

Timothy Sandefur, author of Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man, discusses Douglass’s life, political philosophy, and influence in his day and up to the present. This is the Self in Society Podcast #19. This episode also is available via iTunes.

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Buy Sandefur’s book, Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man (paid link), at Amazon.

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Michael Donnelly on Homeschooling and the Law

Michael Donnelly, Senior Counsel and Director of Global Outreach with the Home School Legal Defense Association, discusses the motivations for homeschooling and the legal aspects of it, with a special focus on Colorado. This is the Self in Society Podcast #18. The episode also is available via iTunes.

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Mark Silverstein on Your Rights when Interacting with Police

Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado, discusses your rights when interacting with police, troubling police actions during protests, and Colorado police reforms. This is the Self in Society Podcast #16.

Listen to the episode via iTunes or YouTube (audio only).

Read my article based in part on my discussion with Silverstein, “Police interactions come with rights, responsibilities.”

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Six Steps Toward Ending Police Abuses

“Please, I can’t breathe!” George Floyd begged as a Minneapolis police officer crushed a knee into his neck as he lay prone and handcuffed. The officer who killed Floyd deserves to be tried for murder, and the officers who participated or stood by and watched deserve to be tried as accomplices.

It doesn’t matter here what Floyd is alleged to have done. The person who called 911 said that Floyd was trying to pay a store with fake bills and that he was intoxicated. I have no idea whether the allegations are true. The officers involved claimed that Floyd resisted arrest. Video shows that Floyd struggled as police yanked him from a vehicle, after which Floyd cooperated. [Update: Subsequently released video seems to show Floyd struggling with police in a police vehicle.] Regardless, the officer’s extreme use of force obviously was entirely unnecessary to subdue Floyd. No reasonable person doubts that crushing a person’s throat for minutes on end can kill the victim. It is a police officer’s job to bring the accused to the courts for justice, not to play street executioner.

What, practically, can we as regular people do toward stopping such senseless violence by a minority of the people we pay to protect us? Here I review six main ways.

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COVID-19 Updates 2

I started this document on May 23, 2020, to keep track of select updates about COVID-19. Items are listed in reverse order relative to when I examine them (latest updates on top). This follows my first “COVID-19 Updates” file (April 28 to May 22) and the “COVID-19 Resources” page started March 24. My last post here is June 4. For subsequent updates about this, see my Liberty ‘Gator pandemics tag.

Major data sources: Our World in Data, Johns Hopkins, Worldometer, CO Dep’t of Public Health, USA Data (which has U.S. state-level data), CDC COVID-19 data, EndCoronavirus.org (which has great country and U.S. state case comparisons), Rt.live (which has estimates of reproduction rate, the accuracy of which I know not), Gu Infections Tracker (also includes R estimates), IMF Policy Tracker (country summaries), COVID-19 Projections Colorado page, AEI U.S. state and county tracker. See also Johns Hopkins’s Research Compendium. A handy stat: The U.S. population (estimated May 7) is 330,721,000.

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