In the Arguable e-mail newsletter, columnist Jeff Jacoby offers his take on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day. Sign up here.
I don’t have much interest in going to see “A Wrinkle in Time,” the new movie adaptation of a book I fell in love with as a child. Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel is perfect the way she wrote it — mesmerizing, erudite, passionate, theological, cerebral, creepy, exhilarating. Director Ava DuVernay’s big-screen version of the book may be a marvel of computer-generated imagery and special effects, but it can’t help but fall short of the mind-opening experience of reading the book one page at a time. I don’t want that amazing experience diluted, not even after all these decades.
Since I haven’t seen the movie, I’m admittedly relying on the opinions of those who have. But judging from the reviews, the movie doesn’t come close to capturing the magic of the book. There are lots of sci-fi trappings and great heaping dollops of self-esteem, but not a whole lot of emotional resonance. L’Engle’s masterpiece has been “bedazzled to within an inch of its life,” writes Amy Nicholson in The Guardian. The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern laments that, rather than trust the novel’s power to teach by example, “the film dispenses extended-release doses of standard Disney nostrums.”
Then there’s the whole racial theme that DuVernay has superimposed on the story: She has made clear in interviews that her version is very specifically a tale about “a brown-skinned girl” saving the world. “It’s not shied away from. It is front and center,” DuVernay says. “You’re seeing worlds being built from the point of view of a black woman from Compton.” All of which may be interesting and empowering and earnest and timely, but it isn’t “A Wrinkle in Time,” a novel in which the only race is the human race.
In any case, it isn’t “A Wrinkle in Time” as I first encountered it.
I can still see myself: I was 9 years old, tearing through the book, unable to stop turning the pages despite my palpable sense of the impending menace closing in on teenager Meg Murry, her precocious little brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin O’Keefe. I knew that something sinister was coming — the implacable malevolence, referred to only as “IT,” that had turned life on the planet Camazotz into a nightmare of faceless conformity, imprisoned Meg’s scientist father, and had now taken over the mind of Charles Wallace. I was four-fifths of the way through the book, utterly riveted, so tense I was barely breathing. And then I reached it — the appalling and creepy revelation I had been dreading:
IT was a brain.
A disembodied brain. An oversized brain, just enough larger than normal to be completely revolting and terrifying. A living brain. A brain that pulsed and quivered, that seized and commanded. No wonder the brain was called IT. IT was the most horrible, the most repellent thing she had ever seen, far more nauseating than anything she had ever imagined with her conscious mind, or that had ever tormented her in her most terrible nightmares.
I was one of millions of readers transfixed by L’Engle’s saga of the children’s journey across galaxies to find the Murrys’ missing father. I empathized with Meg’s awkward, frustrated insecurity; I puzzled over the time-space oddity that gave the book its name; I was creeped out by the novel’s malignant depiction of totalitarian mind control as the ultimate enemy. And, like Meg, I tried to understand the weird trio of old women — Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which — who were in fact not human at all, but the physical manifestation of stars that had sacrificed themselves eons ago in battle with the Dark Thing, the evil force that is always trying to dominate the universe.
Writing in The New Yorker in 2004, the poet Cynthia Zarin observed that “A Wrinkle in Time” has been variously described as science fiction, a Cold War allegory, a feminist landmark, a religious fable, a coming-of-age novel, and a work of pagan mysticism. But when she first read it as a child, Zarin remarked, “I was innocent of any of this.”
So was I. I only knew that “A Wrinkle in Time” was a great read, and that compared with other works of children’s fantasy I was devouring — Edward Eager’s droll tales about ordinary children having magical adventures, for example, or Eleanor Cameron’s “Mushroom Planet” series — it seemed deeper and truer.
With its multilingual quotations, serious theological questions, and cryptic plot, “A Wrinkle in Time” originally left publishers cold. More than 20 of them rejected L’Engle’s manuscript, believing that young readers would be turned off by it. Eventually Farrar, Straus & Giroux, not without misgivings, took a chance on the book, which went on to become one of the most beloved and memorable novels of the last half-century. L’Engle went on to write seven sequels; the eight Kairos novels, as they are called, center on the Murry and O’Keefe families across two generations.
Perhaps what made publishers uneasy about “A Wrinkle In Time,” I wrote when L’Engle died in 2007, was precisely what struck me, all those years later, as so remarkable about it: its message of a universe threatened by evil, in which the greatest good is accomplished by those prepared to swallow their fears and confront the enemies of truth.
“Maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet,” Mrs. Whatsit tells the children shortly before their hazardous trip to Camazotz.
Puzzled, Calvin asks: “Who have our fighters been?” Mrs. Who responds by quoting the gospel of John: “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
In one extraordinary scene, Meg struggles desperately to resist IT’s stifling, suffocating assault on her mind — an assault that promises peace and ease if only she will abandon her individual personality and convictions, and subsume herself in IT. To break free of the giant brain’s grip, she reaches frantically for words and ideas that don’t come from IT. Suddenly she thinks of the Declaration of Independence, which she had recently memorized:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident!” she shouts. “That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Whereupon IT retorts: “But that’s exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.”
For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. “No!” she cried triumphantly. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!”
That flash of insight helps Meg push back against IT’s insidious hold. And it introduced me, and who knows how many other young readers, to a lesson of incalculable worth.
As a 9-year-old, I was thrilled and horrified by the giant disembodied brain. What speaks to me so much more keenly today is L’Engle’s message of light confronting the darkness — her affirmation of God and goodness as the antidote to the lure of power and subjugation, and her teaching that individual freedom is worth the pains required to defend it.
I hope “A Wrinkle in Time” stays in print forever, fascinating and expanding young minds long after DuVernay’s glitzy movie has come, gone, and been forgotten.
Conservatives love immigration (or should)
As strident voices in conservative and Republican circles call for a hardline immigration policy, and with the Trump administration’s increase in workplace immigration raids and deportations of undocumented workers, I used a speaking engagement yesterday to present a different view of the immigration issue. My title was “I’m Pro-Immigration — and I’m Conservative,” and I want to share some of what I said:
Someone arriving today from Mars and just tuning in to our immigration discourse might assume that this is how it’s always been — that Republicans and conservatives have always been hardliners on immigration, while Democrats and liberals have always favored a more welcoming policy.
Liberals used to be considerably harsher on immigration, and not all that long ago. For example, Bernie Sanders voted against comprehensive immigration reform in 2007 — like others on the left, he was concerned that more Latino immigrants would drive down wages and hurt the employment of US natives. Labor unions had a long history of opposing immigration; they supported most major anti-immigrant legislation in the late 19th and much of the 20th century. Many liberals have also opposed liberalizing immigration on environmental reasons, part of a general “green” view that population growth is bad because it increases pollution and strains natural resources.
And don’t forget: Barack Obama, for much of his term, was known as the “deporter-in-chief” because on his watch so many undocumented immigrants were being rounded up and sent back. As recently as 2010, nearly half of all Democrats favored building a wall along the Mexican border.
Earlier still, Bill Clinton pushed a harsh line on immigration. “After years of neglect, this administration has taken a strong stand to stiffen the protection of our borders,” he said in his 1996 State of the Union message. “We are increasing border controls by 50%. We are increasing inspections to prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants. . . . I will sign an executive order to deny federal contracts to businesses that hire illegal immigrants.”
Under Clinton there was a sharp increase in the number of offenses for which immigrants could be deported. He oversaw a dramatic rise in the number of immigrants held in detention centers. And when boat people from Haiti were frantically trying to flee to America in 1994, Clinton ordered the Coast Guard to intercept them at sea and send them back.
One of my first Boston Globe columns, headlined “Let the Haitians in,” sharply criticized the Clinton administration’s hostile policy toward those desperate people trying to get away from life under a terrible dictatorship. Let me read you an excerpt:
“Why not let the Haitians in?
When our parents and grandparents fled terrors we will never have to fear, America’s door was open. It was open to Germans escaping wars in the 1790s, to Irish escaping famine in the 1840s, to Russian Jews escaping pogroms in the 1900s, to Hungarians escaping communism in the 1950s. Why should it be slammed in the face of panicky boat people kneeling at our threshold today, begging for sanctuary from dictators?
These are precisely the kind of newcomers America should crave: men and women willing to risk everything — even their lives — for a chance at freedom and freedom’s opportunities. Such immigrants are a national growth hormone. Thrilled to be here, grateful for the blessings of liberty, intent on building a little American dream of their own, the vast majority of immigrants repay their adopted homeland with energy, enthusiasm, hard work, and new wealth.
Immigrants come to make their lives better; they end up making everybody’s life better.
So why not let the Haitians in?”
That was in 1994. In 2018, I am still as pro-immigration as I ever was. I’m also as conservative as I ever was. I don’t think there is any contradiction between the two.
I went on to explain that, in my view, support for a generous and welcome policy toward immigrants — a policy as open as possible, without fixed quotas — is not only in America’s best interest, but is a profoundly conservative approach. While there has long been a strain of conservative immigrant-bashing and seal-the-border nativism, it used to be limited to a narrow sliver of the political right. Far more prevalent, I argued, was the pro-immigration warmth of Ronald Reagan, the most influential American conservative of modern times:
On YouTube you can watch a debate from the 1980 Republican presidential primary season, in which then-candidates Reagan and George H. W. Bush were asked whether children of illegal immigrants should be allowed to attend public schools for free. Both men made clear their sympathy for the undocumented immigrants. Reagan didn’t demonize Mexico, he called for greater American understanding of Mexico’s economic plight. “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems?” he said. “Open the borders both ways,” he added.
Throughout his political career, Reagan’s approach to immigration was to celebrate and expand it. As president, he signed legislation — the Simpson-Mazzoli Act — that created a path to citizenship for 3 million undocumented immigrants. He even talked about immigration in his farewell address to the nation. Invoking one of his favorite metaphors — the “shining city on a hill” — Reagan said he has always envisioned America as a land whose “doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
That was Reagan’s conservative approach to immigration, and it was — is — mine.
If it were up to me, the United States would scrap its broken system of national-origin quotas and its unworkable emphasis on family reunification. We would instead revert to the system that prevailed for the first half of American history, when immigrants were welcome to enter the country, subject to exclusion on specified grounds. Such grounds might include, for example, membership in a radical Islamist or racist organization or a record of violent crime. But I would go further, requiring would-be immigrants to pass an overriding litmus test: Are they likely, if admitted to the United States, to become good American citizens — peaceful, productive, and patriotic? That should be the focus of our vetting process. Nowhere is it carved in granite that immigration must be governed through quotas.
I ended with a point I’ve been making for decades:
An important teaching of conservatism is to cultivate an “attitude of gratitude”— to be grateful for our blessings, both personal and national. The fact that so many hardworking, enterprising people from other lands wish to come to America is an enormous blessing for which we should be hugely grateful, not sullenly resentful. Immigration has always been among the most powerful ingredients in our nation’s success. US citizens shouldn’t be fuming because millions of foreigners are eager to restart their lives here. The time to really start worrying — and I say this as a proud conservative — is when they don’t.
Postscript: Immigration o’ the green
“How did the celebration of a devout fifth-century missionary,” asks The Economist in its current issue, “become a global phenomenon when people drink whisky, dress up in green, and demand that people kiss them because they are Irish, even if they are not?”
The magazine’s answer: immigration. Driven by famine and poverty, some 2 million Irish left the Emerald Isle in the 19th century, most of them settling in England or America.
By the 1850s, the Irish accounted for up to a quarter of the population of cities like Liverpool and Boston. Within these communities, an Irish identity emerged based on a strong Catholic faith and the political cause of the day: independence from Britain. This nationalist identity was especially celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day when, in America and elsewhere, public sermons and orations celebrating Irish heritage became common. In 1852, the Catholic archbishop of New York noted that not only do the Irish “cherish fond memory for the apostle of their native land, but they propagate it, and make the infection as if it were contagious”.
By the middle of the 20th century, St. Patrick’s Day had become an occasion to revel in all things Irish, and was being commemorated across America. As the Irish assimilated into American life, anti-Irish prejudice diminished. In its place arose a more agreeable stereotype of witty talkers and natural-born politicians “who were not averse to an occasional glass of the strong stuff.” One result has been the popularity of St. Patrick’s Day as an excuse for a party — and for officials from Ireland to fan out across the globe in “an annual soft-power push like no other.” Dozens of countries will be hosting high-ranking Irish officials this week, and celebrations of Irishness will take place all over the planet. And maybe even beyond. Éirinn go Brách!
Site to see
Amid the internet’s vast ocean of drivel, some websites are extraordinary islands of knowledge and discovery. Each week, in “Site to See,” I call attention to one of these online treasures.
This week’s site is Utopia and Dystopia[URL: http://www.utopiaanddystopia.com/ ], a handsome source that explores these two opposing visions of society — one perfect, enlightened, and peaceful, the other grim and repressive. The site contains entries on utopian philosophies and experimental utopian communities, a timeline of events that influenced dystopian fiction, and list of dystopian comics and games. Best of all are the short descriptions of scores of utopian and dystopian literature and movies, many accompanied by dust jacket or movie poster art.
Here’s a sample — the description of the 1966 dystopian film, “Fahrenheit 451”:
“The movie adaptation of the Ray Bradbury’s 1951 novel of the same name follows Guy Montag, an enforcer in the dystopian government police force that has decreed that all forms of books and art are illegal and must be burned on sight. His beliefs eventually become compromised after he falls in love with Clarisse, a young woman who hides a large stash of books from the government. After reading some of the books, he starts to question the policies of the government and ponders whether or not he can continue working for them. ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is today regarded as one of the most famous dystopian cult films of all time.”
Want to recommend a website for this feature? Send me the link (firstname.lastname@example.org), and put “Site to See” in the subject line.
My Sunday column was about the way Western corporations aid and abet Chinese censorship and repression. As the price of doing business in China, far too many companies — Apple, Marriott, Delta, Mercedes — have been willing to toe Beijing’s political line, saying and doing nothing that deviates from the ruling Communist Party’s official view.
My column last Wednesday challenged former president Barack Obama’s claim that the White House was embarrassed by no scandals during his time in office. In reality, it was replete with scandals, a few of which I briefly recapped.
The last line
“Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts or start upright in bed with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: ‘Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!’” — Robert Louis Stevenson, “Treasure Island” (1883)Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.