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Facing the Firing Squad: Dr. Charles Murray

Posted by on Sep 18, 2018 in Blog, Book Reviews, Essays, Facing the Firing Squad | 5 comments



If Dr. Charles Murray was a cocktail, he’d be double-shot of classic American conservatism served in a tall glass, with a libertarian twist.



Dr. Charles Murray is one of the most controversial intellectuals of modern times.  His writings and ideas have provoked charges of overt racism and triggered mass protests on college campuses.  His appearances have tested the very essence of what free speech means and who it applies to.  His libertarian philosophy led to his prescribed set of conclusions known as “Murray’s Law,” which asserts that government-managed social welfare programs, however well-intended, do far more harm than good.

So, what’s he doing answering questions from me?  Some might wonder why Dr. Murray is being featured on a personal webpage dedicated largely to the advancement of socialism and secular humanism.  After all, Dr. Murray’s core views are pretty much the antithesis of just about everything I espouse.  Why would I grant this precious social media real estate to someone who’s allegedly so divisive?  Why would I be interested in listening to Dr. Murray, and perhaps more puzzling to observers, why would we be friends (gasp!) — given our severe polarity on so many incendiary political and social topics?

The short answer to these questions is that free expression and the unencumbered discussion of ideas belongs everywhere.  Though we share little common philosophical ground, and his research is far beyond my areas of subject knowledge, Dr. Murray is most certainly the bravest academic I have ever known.  He’s spent a lifetime conducting research and writing books about how he views society and our world.  I may not agree with these ideas, but they certainly merit listening to and even debating — without mob-mentality intimidation and the objections of detractors, many of whom have never bothered to read his writings.

“Read the fucking book,” is my favorite Murrayism — barked on a few occasions I’ve witnessed directed at critics who lazily capitulate to tribal assumptions and false innuendo.

Many readers may recognize Dr. Murray’s name as the combative but mild-mannered co-author of The Bell Curve, published in 1994.  This book about race and intelligence lit a firestorm which continues burning to this day.  Say what you will about the authors’ conclusions in The Bell Curve, but not many books still generate mass boycotts and protests 25 years after being published.  You got to give him that (READ MORE HERE).

Yet, that’s only one chapter in Charles Murray’s extensive biography and expansive list of interests.  His 1984 book Losing Ground:  American Social Policy 1950-1980 may as well have been the public policy blueprint for the Reagan Administration.  A more recent best-seller published in 2012, Coming Apart:  The State of White America 1960-2010 is a thoroughly convincing revelation of widening class divisions, which Dr. Murray asserts, led in part to the election of President Donald Trump, who was supported in large numbers by those who felt disenfranchised.  He’s got a point.  Murray’s detailed research and writings, backed with data, have established him as a definitive personification of classic American conservatism, albeit with a pronounced libertarian twist.

Unfortunately, what’s lost within the inevitable partisan shuffle and deep division in America are Dr. Murray’s teachings, lectures, interviews, and several other insightful books on a variety of other topics — including The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead; Apollo:  The Race to the Moon; What It Means to Be a Libertarian; Real Education — to name only a few volumes of his literary output.  In all, he’s written 14 books.  He’s written too many articles to count.  He’s appeared on virtually every major political talk show and forum and written op-eds for every major newspaper in the country.  He’s also toured America several times, lecturing, but also listening.  That’s one characteristic of Dr. Murray, of many, I admire.

Few are likely to know that after receiving his undergraduate degree from Harvard and his doctorate in political science from MIT, Dr. Murray spent his early years enlisted in the Peace Corps.  He lived abroad for many years and has held a lifelong fascination with Asian politics and culture, ever since.  He’s been a college professor, a best-selling author, and is now a distinguished fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (READ MORE HERE).

Despite his calm disposition and a self-professed connoisseurship of top-shelf martinis, Dr. Murray still can’t escape the lion’s den of controversy surrounding him wherever he goes — nor would he ever be willing to abdicate an opportunity to defend his work against the barbs and arrows of critics.  Months ago, I invited Dr. Murray to speak at a poker-related event held in Las Vegas.  I was eager to hear how Dr. Murray, an academic accustomed to commenting upon far more weighty social topics, would translate his knowledge and experiences into a lecture about poker, gambling, and the culture of Las Vegas.  True to his nature of taking on the most unique challenges, Dr. Murray accepted our invitation.  But that’s when and where another debate began.

To my shock, Dr. Murray was (and remains) so controversial that many among the group anticipated would attend announced their strong objections.  Some discussed a boycott.  Some feared another Middlebury incident [READ MORE HERE].  And so, the invitation was withdrawn.  Upon being repudiated by this small but vocal minority, most would-be speakers would have simply canceled travel arrangements and opted not to attend.  Why bother with such a group?  But Dr. Murray still came to Las Vegas anyway and participated in the event as he promised.

I think that bold decision and inherent display of civility speaks volumes about Dr. Murray’s character.  It also shows a steadfast commitment to free expression and open debate.  We may not always like nor accept what we hear from people like Dr. Murray who do challenge our assumptions about politics and society.  But it’s far better to listen to those ideas than to fear them, or worse — try to silence them.

Thank you to Dr. Charles Murray for agreeing to “Face the Firing Squad.”



Follow Dr. Charles Murray on Twitter HERE.





What are some of the things you stand for?



What are some of the things you stand against?

Using “disinterested” to mean “uninterested.”  Pronouncing “data” with a short a.


What living person do you admire the most, and why?

Mitch Daniels. Would have been the greatest president since George Washington.


What historical figure do you admire the most, and why?

Sorry to be trite, but George Washington. He was truly indispensable.


What living person do you despise?

Sorry to be trite, but Donald Trump. And academics who tell me how good The Bell Curve is in private and don’t say so in public.


If money were not an object, what profession would you choose?

Love the profession I have, but I yearn to know what it’s like to appraise a chess position like Garry Kasparov or to appraise a poker situation like Doyle Brunson.


What is it about yourself that you are most proud of?

That I’ve never raised my voice when answering idiotic questions about The Bell Curve.


What is it about yourself that you’d like to change?

I’m a terrible negotiator.


What’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever done?

Maybe the first time I unhooked a bra.


What’s the most unusual time and place you’ve ever visited?

Prince Regent Inlet, Northwest Passage, on a boat stuck in the ice pack.


Name a place you’ve never visited where you still want to go.

Japanese fishing villages.


Favorite book, favorite movie, and favorite musician.

The Cruel SeaGroundhog Day, and (I’m an old guy) Frank Sinatra.


What upsets you the most?

Deliberate meanness. People being rude to people who can’t talk back.


What bores you?

Cocktail parties. And, lately, public policy analysis.


Do you believe in an afterlife and why do you believe it so?

The literature on near-death experiences makes me open to the idea.


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Mob Scene: The Top 10 Gangster Movies

Posted by on Sep 17, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Movie Reviews | 7 comments



What are the best gangster movies of all time?

I’ve made my “Top Ten” list.  See if you agree with my choices.

By definition, gangster movies refer to films about organized crime, the mob, the Mafia, and other elements of the criminal underworld.  Note that in order to be listed in my “Top Ten,” the film must focus on some element of organized crime.

Now, let the countdown begin!



Key Largo (1948) — Ranking older films poses a challenge.  Classic films are weighed down by outdated production values, by today’s standards.  Hence, we’ll focus instead on the storyline and performances.  Now, 70 years after it was first released, Key Largo stands the test of time.  This post-war classic casts five outstanding actors in their primes — including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore, and Claire Trevor (who won an Oscar for her performance).  The great John Huston directed and also co-wrote the screenplay.  But what really stands out in Key Largo is the look and the mood of the film.  Key Largo is often cited as the epitome of what became known as film noir, conveying a menacing sense of danger and mounting suspense in black and white.  We’re drawn to the fates of Bogart and Bacall, trapped inside a suffocating oceanside Florida luxury hotel and where they’re kept as hostages by a gang of hoodlums.  As always, Edward G. Robinson delivers perfectly as the villain.  Making the situation even more dire, a hurricane is approaching.  In Key Largo, Bogart plays a far more vulnerable character that we’re used to seeing until he finally rises to the challenge in a crowd-pleasing, climactic finale.



Donnie Brasco (1997) — Most movies about organized crime, whether intended or not, glorify mobsters and celebrate their misdeeds.  Donnie Brasco doesn’t do that.  Based is on the true story of FBI agent Joe Pistone (BTW, the book is terrific), Donnie Brasco shows day-to-day mob life as it really is — dull, depressing, dangerous, and surrounded by people who are dumb.  Rank and file mobsters are broke much of the time — “fighting over the same nickel.”  Johnny Depp, in one of his best performances, infiltrates the New York mob where he befriends a low-level wiseguy played by Al Pacino.  For Pacino, this role is quite the polar opposite of Michale Corleone. He’s weak and afraid.  He’s a loser, and he knows it.  However, after spending months together and accumulating mountains of incriminating evidence as an undercover agent, Depp begins to develop sympathy for his partner in crime which raises moral and ethical questions.  Depp becomes so immersed in the undercover assignment, he abandons the needs of his real family.  Just as intriguing, the film reveals the often aimless and empty rewards of working in law enforcement.  This is one of the most realistic movies ever made about organized crime.  Like many great movies, it gets better with each viewing.



On the Waterfront (1954) — It’s hard to appreciate how groundbreaking this film was when released in the early 1950’s, during the height of the Mafia’s control of American labor unions.  Previous films about organized crime were very careful not to go too far and malign specific trades or ethnic groups.  Criminals were portrayed as caricatures.  Despite the obvious connections of Italian-Americans to organized crime, they weren’t portrayed as underworld figures until The Godfather.  Two decades before taking on that Oscar-winning role, Marlon Brando won his first Academy Award playing the good guy and unlikely hero, a former small-time boxer who somehow musters up enough courage to stand up to the mob and challenge their grip New York City’s corrupt loading docks.  We all know Brando will pay a price for his act of selfless heroism.  The excellent supporting cast includes Lee J. Cobb, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger.  Directed by the great Elia Kazan.  A classic.



Sexy Beast (2000) — This is one of the most entertaining and cleverly done movies I’ve seen in the last 20 years.  Tongue in cheek farce of a dark comedy about an ex-British mobster, played by the always-marvelous Ray Winstone, desperately trying to leave his criminal past behind and move on with his life along with his wife at a posh retirement villa in Spain.  However, two of his former mobster mates, both psychopathic killers played brilliantly by Ben Kingsley and Ian McShane, have one last job for Winstone — which is robbing a vault in London.  This vastly underrated film covers lots of emotional real estate — it’s funny, suspenseful, violent, poetic, frightening, and deeply moving in parts.  Several previous films have been made about London’s criminal underworld.  I think this ranks as the very best.  Kingsley chews and spits out every scene he’s in.  But also watch for Winstone and McShane, which is equally worth the time and price of admission.  Interesting Tidbit:  Ian McShane, who plays crime boss “Teddy” never blinks once in any of his scenes, including several close-ups.



Casino (1995) — Director Martin Scorsese is in familiar territory here with his usual ensemble cast of badasses — including Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci as the stars.  Sharon Stone also delivers arguably her best film performance.  Based on the true story of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and the Argent Corporation scandal which engulfed the now-demolished Stardust Casino in the late 1970’s, the plot essentially depicts the decline of organized crime in Las Vegas (and the subsequent rise of something even worse — big corporations).  Typical of many Scorcese films, the story is told with character narration and in a long series of flashbacks.  Some insist this repetitive style has become overused.  I think it works perfectly in Casino, which is stacked with multiple stories and plotlines.  Casino isn’t just a movie.  It’s an opera about the old Las Vegas criminal underworld.



State of Grace (1990) — The Irish Mafia doesn’t get nearly as much attention but has been a force dating back to the mid-1800’s, especially in New York and Boston.  Irish mobsters are just as tough as any Sicilian.  That bravado is characterized in Gary Oldman’s stunning portrayal of a streetwise hoodlum in State of Grace, which should have won an Oscar.  Nearly 30 years before he played Winston Churchill and took home a long-deserved Academy Award (last year), Oldman’s standout performance stole this movie as the fearless alcoholic Westies foot soldier.  Ed Harris plays the Irish don.  Sean Penn is an undercover cop who infiltrates Hells Kitchen.  Similar to Donnie Brasco in the sense life in organized crime isn’t sentimentalized, State of Grace stands as a realistic portrayal of the underworld as a predatory grind where loyalties are continuously tested and every day is filled with danger.



Miller’s Crossing (1990) — Some films rise to the level of an art form.  Miller’s Crossing is the ideal example.  Written and directed by the Coen Brothers, this film stars Gabriel Byrne, along with Maria Gay Harden, John Turturro, and Albert Finney.  Set during the Prohibition era, hardened Irish mobsters are engaged in a deadly fight for control over illegal bootlegging — with Byrne caught in the middle.  The plot takes many turns and twists, but what’s portrayed perfectly throughout Miller’s Crossing is the inherent sense of suspicion and paranoia among those who chose to commit crimes for a living.  Beautifully filmed, wickedly humorous, and enhanced by a brilliant musical score, the Coen Brothers deliver one of their very best films.  Oddly enough, the movie flopped at the box office when it was first released.  Since then, however, Miller’s Crossing has been elevated by critics and latecomers who have slowly come to appreciate one of the best films ever made on the gangster genre.



Goodfellas (1990) — This film is frequently cited as the most-deserving “Best Picture” that didn’t actually win the Oscar (Dances With Wolves inexplicably won the Academy Award that year).  Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece about real-life events that happened in Queens and Brooklyn during the mid-1970’s is an almost perfect movie.  Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, its stocked with thoroughly believable performances, a suspenseful story, scenes that are marvelously shot, and includes a memorable rock-based soundtrack which all combines for not just a masterful tale, but a truly cinematic experience.  We’re totally immersed into the criminal underworld and witnesses to a secret society that despite its ceaseless violence also contains expected codes of conduct.  Everything in this film works — including Joe Pesci in the explosive role that will likely define his career, then-unknown Ray Liotta as the lead character, and Robert De Niro as his mentor and crime partner.  Lorraine Bracco is perfectly cast as Liotta’s naive wife who gradually succumbs to the ways of crime.  Goodfellas used lots of improvisation and ad-libbing which came out of early rehearsals.  “Scorsese let the actors do whatever they wanted.  He made transcripts of these sessions, took the lines the actors came up with that he liked best and put them into a revised script that the cast worked from during principal photography,” according to Pesci.  The famous scene of Pesci admonishing Liotta in the restaurant, yelling menacingly — “Funny how?  Like a clown?  Do I amuse you?” — was reportedly a real mob conflict Pesci witnessed firsthand.  This overt sense of realism is what defines Goodfellas.



The Godfather (1972) — “Epic” may be overused but it certainly applies to The Godfather, which is often ranked as one of the greatest movies ever made.  Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel was brought to the screen by Francis Ford Coppola, then directing only his second film (Coppola had previously won the Oscar for writing the screenplay for Patton).  It’s not so much a tale about organized crime as a story of the bonds and bounds of blood and family.  The Godfather had almost everything going against it when it was filmed.  Previous movies about organized crime had been unsuccessful.  More than a decade removed since his last hit movie, Marlon Brando was widely considered toxic at the box office.  Mostly unknown actors, including several first-timers, were cast in key roles.  There was little to suggest The Godfather would ever succeed as a movie, let alone over time even come to redefine the image of the Mafia.  While the movie is certainly an overtly romanticized portrayal of the criminal underworld, Brando reportedly accepted the title role because he thought the story to be a mirror image of corporate capitalism.  Like all great movies, much is left to the viewer’s interpretation.  It should also be noted that Nino Rota’s score stands as perhaps the greatest movie music ever composed.



The Godfather Part II (1974) — What makes the sequel to The Godfather better than the original?  Isn’t that blasphemy?  The reason Part II surpasses the original is that expectations were so exceedingly high it was virtually impossible for any follow-up movie to match the Shakespearean majesty of the groundbreaking first film.  Yet somehow, just two years later, Francis Ford Coppola pulled off the impossible by opting to tell dual stories in the sequel — utilizing pre- and post-Godfather sagas alternating back and forth, with Robert De Niro as the highly-principled younger Vito Corleone, and his son Al Pacino as the heir apparent to the powerful throne who slowly succumbs the pressures of his immense responsibilities and ultimately loses his soul by getting revenge against all those who betrayed him.  The early Godfather scenes take place during the early 1920’s and are often lighthearted and even humorous, in juxtaposition to the sad bitterness of the same family being torn apart in later scenes which take place during the late 1950’s.  Some roles — including Talia Shire, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, John Calzone, and others are reprised.  Yet to The Godfather Part II’s credit, scenes with legendary Actor’s Studio icon Lee Strasberg manage to upstage the original ensemble cast.  The story of the Mafia’s role in leading to the Cuban revolution combined with true events from the Kefauver Senate Hearings remains a gripping history lesson.  Every element succeeds in this film.  Fittingly, it won Best Picture and earned Coppola a Best Director Oscar.


[Honorable Mention — Listed Chronologically]

Scarface (1982) — Director Brian De Palma’s flawed remake of a 1930’s original contains some wonderful scenes and outstanding performances.  Al Pacino has cited this role as the one he’s most proud of.  Scarface has since become more than just an entertaining movie.  It’s a controversial statement of aspiration by the downtrodden where society’s rules are looked upon as laws to be broken in order to get ahead.  Everyone at the top screws everyone else to crawl up the economic ladder.  Drug dealers are no different.  That’s the message of Scarface.

A Bronx Tale (1990) — I’m not a fan of this movie, but many people I respect rank it highly.  I’ll leave it at that.

Carlito’s Way (1993) — Once again, Al Pacino gives a standout performance.  But Sean Penn, playing a coked-up, big mouthed mob lawyer, steals the movie.  Some scenes are ridiculous, including the finale which takes place at Grand Central Station (the shooting goes on for ten minutes — where’s the police?).  Really, really bad in parts, but also great in others.  A guilty pleasure classic for those who like mobster movies.

Once Upon a Time in America (1992) — Some rank this as one of the greatest organized crime movies ever made.  There are several versions out, including a “Director’s Cut” which allegedly fills in lots of plot gaps in the uneven cinematic release of the original.  Everyone remembers director Sergio Leone from his classic spaghetti westerns.  His cinematic fingerprints are all over every frame in this movie as well, starring James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, and Robert De Niro.  This movie has some nice moments but drags for me way too much.  Worthy of seeing, but too much of a mess to make the “Top Ten.”

The Departed (2009) — On Martin Scorsese’s film resume, this probably ranks somewhere around being his 12th-best film.  It’s nowhere in the same league as Goodfella’s, Taxi Driver, Casino, Raging Bull, Hugo, or The Last Temptation of Christ.  Nonetheless, Scorsese won his long-deserved Best Director Oscar for this uneven story of the Boston underworld.  Jack Nicholson plays the bad guy in what was perhaps his last memorable film role.

Black Mass (2015) — Johnny Depp plays Whitey Bulger, the real-life Boston Irish mobster who was a fugitive for many years before finally being caught.  Supporting cast is outstanding.  There’s little in this movie worthy of admiration, including corrupt cops and feds.  But the film is allegedly an accurate portrayal of what really happened.  I’ve seen this a few times and might rank it higher as it was better the second viewing (often the mark of a very good movie).


Addendum:  After some follow-up comments, I’ll add these to the Honorable Mention category — Get Carter (1971); American Gangster (2007);  and A Most Violent Year (2014)


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