Big Ten

If alphabetical order, here are ten of my favorite movies of 2018:

BLACKKKLANSMAN

Spike Lee’s wildly (and disturbingly) entertaining portrayal of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who, with the help of a Jewish colleague, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s and lived to tell the tale.  What Stallworth found, it turned out, was a gang of rowdy, bloodthirsty dimwits who could be fooled into believing anything so long as it was preceded by refrains like “White power!” or “America first!”  Any resemblance to current events is purely non-coincidental.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

By now, it should not be breaking news that Melissa McCarthy is a first-rate actress.  (That Sean Spicer imitation didn’t happen by accident.)  However, in case there was any residual doubt that McCarthy can do pretty much anything, as Exhibit A I offer her work here, playing a New York alcoholic who commits widespread literary fraud in order to pay her rent and feed her cat, eventually drawing the attention of the FBI.  I’d hasten to add that it’s all based on a true story, but if you know anything at all about New Yorkers, you probably figured that out already.

THE DEATH OF STALIN

If you’ve ever wondered what Veep would be like if it took place inside the Soviet Union in the 1950s, wonder no more!  Directed by Armando Iannucci—yes, the very man who created the funniest show on television—this ridiculous political farce about the jockeying for power among Kremlin bureaucrats following the demise of Uncle Joe undoubtedly carries a greater ring of truth than the official record might suggest.  Accurate or not, its cast of characters provide more demented laughs than any rogues gallery this side of the Trump White House.

THE FAVOURITE

Speaking of demented, here was a similarly-pitched historical rivalry committed ever-so-exaggeratedly to celluloid.  In this case, the competition unfolds at the throne of England’s Queen Anne in the early 18th century, and involves an All About Eve-esque usurpation of one loyal servant by another, both of whom vie for the queen’s affections with steadily-escalating, um, fervor.  The queen is played by Olivia Colman, her two suitresses by Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz.  The latter’s suggestion, “Let’s go shoot something!” is possibly the finest line reading in any movie this year.

FREE SOLO

Rarely am I driven to a movie theater by a New York Times opinion column, but after reading Bret Stephens’ beaming reaction to this documentary about 33-year-old rock climber Alex Honnold, I needed to know what all the fuss was about.  I understood quickly enough:  In 2017, after months of preparation, Honnold attempted to become the first person in history to ascend the 3,000-foot-tall face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope or harness—a suicide mission if ever there was one.  As Stephens wrote in his column, “In a world of B.S. artists—and in a country led by one—Honnold is modeling something else, a kind of radical truthfulness.  Either he’s going to get it exactly right, or he’s going to die.”

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

If the idea of the director of Moonlight adapting a novel by James Baldwin doesn’t get you racing to the nearest art house, I don’t know what more I can do for you.  Having made the best movie of 2016, Barry Jenkins could scarcely have chosen a richer source for a follow-up than Baldwin’s 1974 novel about love and racism in New York that, like much of Baldwin’s work, doesn’t seem to have aged a day.  That’s to say nothing of the divine lead performances by KiKi Layne and Stephan James and the gorgeous art direction, set design and musical score, the likes of which we haven’t seen since, well, Moonlight.

LEAVE NO TRACE

If a man raises his daughter right—teaching her important values, reading her fine books, feeding her healthy food—is it any business of the state that he does it in a tent in the woods somewhere in rural Oregon?  That’s the question this movie poses—in a blessedly non-political manner—and it’s to director Debra Granik’s great credit that it provides absolutely no answer.  All it offers is truth, realism and a group of people who are all doing the best they can under the circumstances.  Isn’t that what a movie is for?

ROMA

You don’t hear the word “Felliniesque” bandied about much nowadays—particularly not about a Mexican director best known for the third Harry Potter film and for launching Sandra Bullock into space.  Yet there is no more succinct way to describe Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma—a semi-autobiographical depiction of Cuarón’s childhood from the viewpoint of his nanny—than to observe how much it resembles—tonally and visually—much of the best work of Italy’s most famous auteur.  If Beale Street luxuriates in the most lavish possibilities of color film, Roma does the same for black and white.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

Who would’ve guessed that Black Panther would only be 2018’s second-best comic book blockbuster with an African-American protagonist?  While I shan’t say a word against Ryan Coogler’s groundbreaking, socially-conscious cultural behemoth, this animated Spider-Man spinoff nonetheless wins the superhero sweepstakes in my mind by the sheer force of its charm, its wit and—most pleasantly surprising of all—its acute understanding of the awkwardness of being the new kid in school just as puberty is beginning to kick in.  (See Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, which just missed my list, for the female version of this.)

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

I’m generally skeptical about turning human beings into saints, but if Fred Rogers wasn’t a saint, I don’t know who is.  In an age when we are (justifiably) jittery about leaving small children alone with kindly-seeming men of the cloth, here was a Presbyterian minister with a children’s TV show who proved to be exactly as gentle and trustworthy as he appeared—perhaps even more so—and who, as David McCullough once argued, probably had a greater educational impact on young people than any human being in the 20th century.

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History Has Its Eyes on You

Every action has an equal, opposite reaction, and so whenever any piece of popular culture becomes a runaway success, you can set your watch to the moment when the backlash comes roaring up behind it.

Seeing as Americans are determined never to agree on anything—albeit some of us more vigorously than others—it is inevitable—and probably for the best—that even the most widely and deeply beloved of our national treasures will sooner or later find a detractor or two hiding under some rock or other.

However, for a good long while, it appeared that in this regard—as in so many others—Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was truly one-of-a-kind.  That this audacious, revisionist Broadway musical-cum-history lesson had transcended all the usual cultural mores, rules and laws (including gravity) to emerge as the one thing on which everyone can agree.  Call it the Adele of the Great White Way.

As a true believer, I was perfectly fine with this rarefied mass ecstasy over (of all things) an expensive Broadway show.  As much as I value open debate on practically any subject, listening to the Hamilton cast album over and over has become something approaching a religious experience, and we all know what happens to reasoned dissent once religion enters the picture.

All the same, over the last week or so, a sort of anti-Hamilton faction has finally—finally!—begun to consolidate in various online media outlets.  While I have so far found the arguments in these pieces generally misguided and unconvincing, it is imperative that my fellow fanatics take a break from their unconditional Hamilton love and read them.  They might be surprised how much they learn.

While these critiques are by no means interchangeable—their authors approach Hamilton in different ways and reach different conclusions—they tend to focus on one of two claims:  First, that Hamilton is not as historically accurate as it appears; and second, that it is not as socially progressive or “revolutionary” as its creators and fans have proclaimed.

At first blush, the complaints about accuracy could be dismissed as preposterous—not because they’re false, mind you, but rather because strict adherence to historical truth is so obviously not this show’s primary objective.  To any fair-minded listener, it should become clear—say, during the Cabinet meeting where Hamilton tells Jefferson, “Sittin’ there useless as two shits / Hey, turn around, bend over, I’ll show you / Where my shoe fits”—that Miranda has granted himself certain liberties with the Founding Fathers that are, shall we say, fairly easy to infer.

It is the nature and the right of historical dramas to take history into their own hands for the sake of clarity and entertainment.  One must never let facts get in the way of a good story (as Mark Twain may or may not have said) and while the Revolution is undoubtedly one of the greatest stories of all time, artists have always manipulated the events of 1776 to their own ends.  It is absurd to hold dramatists to the same academic standard as historians and biographers.  “All we can reasonably ask,” Roger Ebert once wrote about a certain film, “is that it be skillfully made and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth.”

That brings us to the more compelling and provocative critique, which says that—contrary to the prevailing view that Hamilton is a watershed moment in American culture—there is actually nothing historically innovative about Miranda’s take on the Founding Fathers.  Specifically, that despite its ethnically diverse cast and über-contemporary soundtrack, Hamilton is ultimately just one more show that lionizes famous white men—and only white men—who birthed a nation that purposefully and violently excluded African-Americans and other undesirables from realizing their fullest potential as human beings.

In her superb essay, “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” Rutgers professor Lyra D. Monteiro sees Hamilton as a continuation of so-called “founders chic,” observing, “[D]espite the proliferation of black and brown bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play. […] Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world, and certainly that it was not an important part of the lives and livelihoods of the men who created the nation.”  (Monteiro then proceeds to name several black individuals who could easily have figured into Miranda’s story.)

Continuing this thought in an equally-thoughtful blog post, “Why Hamilton is Not the Revolution You Think it is,” NYU PhD student James McMaster writes:

“[I]n Hamilton, the fact that the white men that founded the United States—colonizers all, slaveholders some—are played by men of color actually obfuscates histories of racialized violence in the United States.  Case in point:  During ‘Cabinet Battle #1,’ when the talented Daveed Diggs argues as Thomas Jefferson for the security of the South’s slave-holding economy, the actor’s blackness visually distances his performance of racism from Jefferson’s whiteness, enabling a (largely white) audience to forget the degree to which they are implicated in the violent, anti-black histories of the United States.”

While we should all be extremely grateful for these reminders of the truth—the whole truth—of how this country came into being, my immediate response to these charges with regards to Hamilton is through an old Stephen Hawking line:  “You can’t think of everything.”

Or, to put it slightly less glibly:  Lin-Manuel Miranda devised a particular way to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton that would serve his own interests, which meant that a boatload of other interests—however worthy—would necessarily be left on the cutting room floor.

In point of fact, the writing of every play, movie and book in history has involved including a million little details while omitting a million others.  To be a writer is to be an editor and a synthesizer—as David McCullough once said, “I’m not a writer; I’m a re-writer”—which requires making choices that both sharpen and narrow the focus of one’s work in order not to juggle too many balls at once.

Contra Monteiro, who takes issue with Hamilton’s tagline, “The story of America then, told by American now,” I interpret the race-conscious casting not as a means to conceal the founders’ inherent white supremacy, but rather to demonstrate that the ideals for which they fought apply to people of all races.  That most of the founders clearly didn’t intend this at the time is an irony that cannot (and should not) be overlooked, and part of what makes Hamilton so irresistible is the implicit knowledge that if the real people suddenly materialized and saw themselves being portrayed by the likes of Leslie Odom, Jr., and Daveed Diggs, their expressions would be worth well over 1,000 words each.

In short:  Hamilton does not directly confront the realities and consequences of slavery because, in the end, that’s not what the play is about.  Miranda chose to dramatize the life of Alexander Hamilton and the handful of powerful people with whom he interacted, and that is how the piece should be judged.  Call me old-fashioned, but I find it slightly unfair to critique an artist for the work he didn’t produce rather than the work he did.

This does not mean that objections like the ones above should not be raised and heard.  If Hamilton has any purpose beyond entertainment, it’s to stimulate interest in the history of the United States—including the history that Hamilton does not have the time or inclination to cover.  If Miranda and company truly intend to democratize the country’s founding, they should own the ways in which their own efforts are incomplete.  They don’t need to be complete, but nor should they suggest that they are.

As it stands, we are left with exactly what we’ve always had:  A brilliant, addictive piece of theatre that we can love and question at the same time.  A guaranteed job creator for every talented non-white actor in New York that is nonetheless a celebration of dead, white slavers.

The truth is that Hamilton invited this minefield of hypocrisy the moment it took on America as its primary subject.  As a wise man said:  It’s full of contradictions, but so is independence.

Stand Up, John!

Listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for maybe the 20th or 30th time—per the code duello, I stopped counting after 10—a question popped into my head that had not been there before:

What in the world ever happened to John Adams?

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical may be primarily the story of America’s first treasury secretary and his deadly rivalry with Aaron Burr, but it is also—by necessity—the entire saga of the founding of the United States, covering most major political events between 1776 and 1804 (the year of the fateful duel).

Accordingly, in addition to Hamilton and Burr, Hamilton grants considerable time (and tunes) to such essential revolutionaries as Washington, Jefferson, Madison and the Marquis de Lafayette—not to mention lesser-known figures like John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan and various members of Hamilton’s immediate family.

And yet, for all this generosity of character, Hamilton somehow couldn’t find room at the table for our second commander-in-chief—a man without whom, it’s safe to say, the revolution probably would not have occurred.  Save a stray reference here and there, Adams has, in effect, been stricken from the record.

Story of his freakin’ life.

Really, at this point in history, you’d think John Adams would garner just a little bit more respect.  While long overlooked among America’s founding generation, Adams became slightly more of a household name after the release of 1776—the 1969 musical that underlined his role in passing the Declaration of Independence—before transforming into a full-blown headliner thanks to David McCullough’s 2001 biography and subsequent HBO miniseries, both of which made the case for Adams’ historical significance beyond 1776.  (As president, this included keeping the United States out of a pointless and potentially ruinous war with France at a moment when most Americans were practically begging for French blood.)

Why didn’t Miranda include any of this in his show?  Presumably because Hamilton hated Adams with the fire of a thousand suns—the feeling was most assuredly mutual—and there can only be so many antagonists in a single play.

However, there is at least one compelling reason an Adams subplot might have proved worthwhile:  Because he and Hamilton were so damned similar.

You see, the key to the main rivalries in this drama—Hamilton v. Burr, Hamilton v. Jefferson and, indirectly, Hamilton v. Madison—is that the characters in each match-up possessed fundamentally different worldviews and fundamentally different personalities.  Where Hamilton was loud and impulsive, the others were measured, crafty and cautious.  While Hamilton believed passionately in a strong federal government and a robustly capitalistic economy, the others believed just the opposite—that is, except for Burr, who believed in nothing at all.

With Adams, not so much.  At least on paper, he and Hamilton were peas in the same dysfunctional pod.  To wit:  Both men idolized George Washington.  Both favored England over France and North over South.  Both preferred a strong central government to a decentralized confederacy.  And, perhaps most salient of all, both were tireless (and oftentimes tactless) writers and orators who couldn’t help expressing themselves loudly and at length, regardless of how much trouble it might get them into with friends and enemies alike.

In the end, that last characteristic overrode all the others, leading Hamilton in the election of 1800 to pen a 54-page condemnation of Adams that ended—hilariously—with a formal endorsement over Adams’ competitors, Jefferson and Burr.  (Miranda included a rapped version of this pamphlet in an earlier draft of the script, but ended up cutting everything except its priceless final line.)  The latter two candidates ultimately prevailed—becoming president and vice president, respectively—and we all know how well that worked for Hamilton.

And so the feud between Hamilton and Adams—however brief—was, in many ways, the most symmetrical and the most tragic, insomuch as the two men had so much on which to agree, yet found themselves so very disagreeable indeed.  They should have been natural allies; instead, they were near-mortal enemies who each, in different ways, contributed to the other’s eventual demise.

What is particularly ironic about Adams being so shortchanged in Miranda’s magnificent play is that the play’s primary mission is to recover the reputation of a man who had, himself, been so shortchanged by history.  That’s why Ron Chernow wrote the biography on which Hamilton is based, and it’s also why David McCullough wrote his biography of Adams.  Hamilton’s closing number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” is about this exact problem:  No matter how virtuously you live your life, there is no guarantee that history will treat you fairly—that is, if it remembers you at all.

But then that’s why great art exists:  As a form of memory.  That’s why McCullough and HBO can resurrect the reputation of Adams in one corner while Chernow and Miranda sing the praises of Hamilton in another.  The number of unknown yet interesting historical people is greater than any of us will probably ever know.  Surely, the world is wide enough for them all.

Hitchcock Goes to Church

I thought I knew everything about Alfred Hitchcock, probably my favorite director of all time.  As it turns out, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

Playing in select theaters right now is a crackerjack documentary called Hitchcock/Truffaut, which recounts the time in 1962 when up-and-coming French director François Truffaut conducted an interview with the Master of Suspense that was so long and so deep that the resulting material, published as a book in 1966, runs some 368 pages and covers virtually every frame of every Hitchcock film.

Truffaut’s interview is considered a landmark in the history of cinema, because it marks the moment when Hitchcock began to be taken seriously by his peers.  Before Hitchcock/Truffaut, he was regarded strictly as an entertainer.  After the book was published, he became an artist and a renegade.  Today, he is considered arguably the most influential director who ever lived.

More noteworthy still is how much Hitchcock revealed about himself and his work.  Despite his reputation for being tight-lipped and (it must be said) a bit of a tyrant on the set, in his chat with Truffaut he pretty much gave the game away.

As such, perhaps the most tantalizing moment in the new documentary, which includes audio clips from the original interview, is the moment when Truffaut asks Hitch about the influence of his Catholicism in many of his most compelling works.  Hitchcock’s response:  “Go off-record.”  We hear a click, and everything goes black.

It was David McCullough who mused that you can learn an awful lot about a person from what he chooses not to say in public—particularly when he is perfectly willing to say so much else.  So perhaps if there is a “rosebud” to Hitchcock’s career, it can be found in his Catholic youth.

I must admit, I had no idea Hitchcock was Catholic.  Indeed, I had never given a thought to what religion he identified with, nor did it occur to me that such a thing might be relevant.

For some great directors, religion is inescapable—be it Catholicism for Martin Scorsese or Judaism for Woody Allen or Joel and Ethan Coen.  It’s not that their movies are necessarily about their faith so much as they are informed by the values and sensibilities that their faith espouses.  Taxi Driver could not possibly have been made by a non-Catholic and Annie Hall could not possibly have been made by a non-Jew.

You don’t get that sense with Hitchcock, whose movies are intended as mass entertainment above all else and possess no particular sensibility beyond wanting to give their audience a good old-fashioned thrill.

Or don’t they?

What changed my mind about this—what made me view Hitchcock’s work through a more theological lens—was seeing (for the first time) his 1953 film I Confess.  Based on an old French play, the story involves a priest who learns that a man has committed a murder, but because he hears this in the sanctity of the confessional, he cannot divulge any information to the police in their investigation of said murder.

This being a Hitchcock movie, the priest himself will eventually become implicated in the crime, thereby raising the stakes in his professional and spiritual obligation to “clergy-penitent privilege”—the notion that what happens in the confessional stays in the confessional.  By honoring his theological duty, he risks sacrificing his own freedom.  But by breaking his oath of confidentiality, he may well lose his job and, with it, his whole reason for being.

It’s a devilishly clever conceit—yet another variation on Hitchcock’s long-running theme of a man ensnarled in a legal bind from which there is no escape.

More than that, however, I Confess stands as one of the most singularly Catholic movies ever made by a major (and otherwise nondenominational) filmmaker.  The priest is played by Montgomery Clift—that most mysterious and charismatic of Hollywood stars—as a man undergoing a deep internal struggle over whether doing the “right” thing might involve turning his back on God.

It’s a performance of towering complexity—subtle, delicate and wrenching—in a movie that is brave and dignified enough to treat Catholic tradition with the gravity it deserves—in this case, the tradition of the confessional as a sacred space, even when that sanctity might allow a man to get away with murder.  Theological dilemmas don’t get much thornier than that.

It’s a measure of the movie’s nerve that audiences were not crazy about it when it was first released.  As recounted by Truffaut in his book, “[T]he public was irritated with the plot because they kept on hoping that Montgomery Clift would speak up.”  Hitchcock agreed, saying, “We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous!  No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.’”  When Truffaut asked if this disconnect served to weaken the film as a film, Hitchcock nodded, saying, with remarkable candor, “[W]e shouldn’t have made the picture.”

Here, in other words, was a movie more concerned with spiritual truth than with satisfying popular tastes.  That Hitch himself apparently disapproved of the final product only goes to show how personal the whole thing was, as if it was the one time he indulged whatever remained of his strict Jesuit upbringing, if only to get it out of his system once and for all.

However, even if I Confess is an outlier in the Hitchcock canon, it helps us to recognize the latent Catholic themes that run through virtually all of his great works—most prominently, the sin of guilt.  Janet Leigh’s guilt over stealing $40,000 in Psycho.  Kim Novak’s guilt over masquerading as James Stewart’s dream girl in Vertigo (and Stewart’s guilt in thinking he contributed to her death).  Eva Marie Saint’s guilt over deceiving Carey Grant in North by Northwest.  Farley Granger’s guilt over murdering a classmate for sport in Rope.  And on and on and on.

These are not Catholic movies, per se.  However, they are all haunted by the aura of divine justice and the fear of God’s eternal wrath that only a Catholic could fully appreciate.  While most of Hitchcock’s heroes probably fear the police and/or each other more than the man upstairs (this was certainly the case with the director himself), they are nonetheless aware that their actions have consequences.  That sooner or later, one way or another, they’re going to get what’s coming to them.

And unlike in, say, the films of Woody Allen—a writer-director who has very little faith in God or justice—these sinners generally do pay a price for their crimes, thereby allowing moral order to be restored to the universe just in time for the end credits to roll.

While Catholicism certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on guilt, sin, justice or anything else, Catholic filmmakers have long been uncommonly adept at portraying how the teachings of their ancient holy books manifest themselves in the contemporary world.  They’re the ones who take God seriously, for better and for worse.

I note this, in part, because there is a large cadre of nonbelievers who sincerely think that religion has nothing positive to offer civilization.  Or, at the least, that whatever good might come from religion could just as easily come from secularism and, in any case, is dramatically outweighed by the evil that could not come from anywhere else.

I used to agree with this assessment.  Most of the time, I still do.  But in the process of extricating myself from the world of the faithful, I have come to better appreciate the monumental role of religion in the lives of others.  I don’t think either God or religion is necessary to lead a fulfilling life, but roughly three in four Americans do, and their faith has sometimes inspired them to craft works of art that could not have emerged in any other way.

I can live without God.  I’m not sure I could live without Raging Bull.  I don’t generally resort to prayer to help solve my biggest problems, but I’m pleased that it worked for George Bailey.  Religion does little for me, but in the end that doesn’t matter so long as it does something for everyone else.  And if no religion meant no Alfred Hitchcock—well, I’m not sure that’s a trade-off I’d be prepared to make.

Paying To Be Good

Who knew that raising the price of a given product would dissuade people from buying it?

Well, surprise or not, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced last week that its experiment to levy a one-dollar surcharge on every new MetroCard has resulted in a precipitous decline in the number of new MetroCards purchased by riders of New York public transit.

Who’d a-thunk?

Here’s the scheme. The cost of a single ride on the New York Subway costs $2.50, charged to an aforementioned plastic MetroCard, which can be reloaded and reused forever (or at least until global warming submerges Manhattan in a sea of sludge and kelp).

However, most subway patrons are either unaware of, or uninterested in, the card’s temporal durability and opt instead to deposit it in the trash (or, by the looks of it, everywhere other than the trash) after one trip.

In response to the resulting mess, the MTA in March 2013 imposed a $1 fee for the card itself, meaning that every subway ride would suddenly cost $3.50 instead of $2.50—that is, unless customers took the radical step of actually hanging on to the damn thing and recycling it for all subsequent journeys.

As it turns out, they have done exactly that. In the first 14 months of the surcharge being in effect, the number of new cards in circulation dropped 71 percent, with $24 million in new revenue for the MTA along the way.  Presto.

To be sure, New York is hardly the first municipality to think of this. The Metro in Washington, D.C., charges $2 for a SmarTrip card, which, like a MetroCard, can be recycled ad infinitum and whose use, unlike a MetroCard, lowers the per-trip fee by a dollar, compared to using a disposal one-time-only ticket. In my hometown of Boston, the procurement of a CharlieCard, itself free of charge, grants a 50-cent discount on all subways and buses, plus free transfers.

In all these cases—and plenty more besides—the premise is one and the same: The most surefire way to make people behave in a certain way is to make it economically propitious for them to do so.

We don’t want people to smoke, so we raise the cigarette tax. We don’t want people to drive so much, so we raise the gas tax and the highway tolls. We don’t want people to soil the subway station floor with expired fare cards, so we charge them a dollar every time they do so. And so forth.  (Raising money for the government is, of course, a concurrent motivation.)

To be precise, the above are all instances of using monetary incentives to limit bad behavior, not to encourage good behavior. But then again, most such price-based government policies operate in exactly this way, leading to the common gripe about the so-called “nanny state,” which presumes to know what is best for us and compels us to act accordingly. (See: Michael Bloomberg, entire mayoralty of.)

But what if our elected overlords took a more, shall we say, wholesome approach to influencing the public’s behavior, rather than merely punishing or restricting it? If the state is going to be a nanny, why not be a fair and rewarding one?

There is often talk about super-taxing sugary drinks and snacks to dissuade kids (and grown-ups) from over-consuming them. Why do we so seldom raise the prospect of subsidizing healthy foods instead? It may be true that a bag of grapes will never be as enticing as a Snickers bar, but let us not pretend that the relative costliness of the former does not have a commanding role in wafting our shopping carts toward the latter.

With how much we, the people, currently pay farmers to transform soil into dinner, don’t tell me we couldn’t coax them into, say, growing more carrots and less corn, thereby tweaking the market prices of both and astronomically improving the nation’s overall health—itself the single greatest means of solving the puzzle of unaffordable healthcare.

Likewise, rather than merely punishing companies that emit too much pollution (as necessary as that is), how about actually rewarding those that make the greatest effort to emit the least—much in the manner of the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” program to raise public education standards?

Am I being naïve? You bet I am. I probably couldn’t know less about the root mechanics of these subjects if I tried.

What I do know is a sentiment expressed by historian David McCullough in defending government funding of the arts: “People say we don’t have the money. Of course we have the money. It all depends on what we want to spend our money on. You can tell an awful lot about a society by how it spends its money.”

What kind of a society do we want to be? One that actively strives for good, or one that merely avoids doing bad?

Mind you, these are not mutually exclusive ambitions. Just ask the MTA.