Jojo Rabbit: A Choice Between Authentic and False Community

“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”

Jojo Rabbit

“Love is the strongest thing in the world.”

“I think you’ll find that *metal* is the strongest thing in the world, followed closely by dynamite, and then muscles.” 

Jojo Rabbit

You know it’s a good movie when you clap spontaneously, laugh like a maniac, and feel your heart torn to shreds in the same two-hour stretch.

Jojo Rabbit is that movie.

Saw it last night and have a lot to say about it. If you haven’t seen this wonderful movie, stop reading, watch the trailer, and get your tix. If you have seen it and want to discuss, keep reading.

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SPOILERS BELOW

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This is a movie about the choices between authentic living and belonging and the false kinds of life and belonging offered in conformity to the mass. In this case, that mass is totalitarian Nazi Germany’s obedience and death cult.

The Default: Belonging to the Mad Collective

The movie starts with young Johannes (Jojo) heading off to summer camp to “become a man,” (despite not being able to tie his own shoes) sprinting away to the delightful tunes of The Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” in German.

Turns out summer camp is more like a Hitler Youth training camp for 10 year-old soldiers. The sad (and hilarious) absurdity of the Nazi’s doomed experiment is quickly apparent, even though Jojo tries to go along with it all.

But he refuses to do one thing: when ordered to kill a defenseless rabbit, he refuses. That earns him the nickname “Jojo Rabbit” from the older Hitler Youth bullies in one of the first scenes of overt monstrousness. In an attempt to strike back, Jojo decides to double down on the “brave Nazi warrior” thing and wounds himself with a grenade.

We see that Jojo is evidently different. He is gentle. He is sincere (if sincerely brainwashed). And he isn’t exactly fitting in – he has precisely one real friend.

Did I mention his other friend is an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler?

Jojo heads into this story longing for acceptance and belonging in the suicidal death cult that is his culture. It’s hard to imagine that so many other kids shared the same backdrop for growing up, but that’s why this film is so important.

The Choice

We soon learn about one big reason for Jojo’s decent heart.

His mother Rosie (played by Scarlett Johansson) is a woman of kindness, independence, ferocity, humor, and imagination. In other words, she is everything the Nazis are not. Humor and imagination are bulwarks against tyranny in Rosie’s home, and her playful, loving interactions with Jojo are some of the most touching moments in the film.

We also learn that Rosie is part of the German resistance, and (much to Jojo’s horror) she is hiding a young Jewish girl in Jojo’s deceased sister’s bedroom.

Determined to write a book on Jewish people (all the better to defeat them, to his mind) Jojo begins to get to know the young woman, whose name is Elsa. Terror turns into curiosity, curiosity turns into tolerance, and tolerance turns into friendship – and later a serious crush.

As Germany falls apart in the latter days of the war, Jojo experiences a central transformation: from imaginary friendship (with Hitler) to his true friendship with Elsa. He finds true belonging in a human relationship with an unconquered individual with a rich inner life. At the same time, the false sense of belonging in the world of Nazi-dom loses its luster.

Then Rosie is hung for her participation in the resistance, and the Nazi dream (nightmare, rather) of Germany is falling apart all around Jojo’s ears. Kids, civilians, and old German shepherds (actual shepherds, not dogs) are conscripted to defend the city in a last desperate fight. Little boys who stayed in the “club” of the Hitler Youth are used as cannon fodder – a horrifying look at where inauthentic “belonging” ends up.

Authentic Living and Belonging

When the dust settles, Jojo and Rosie have each other. And though Jojo is afraid, he makes the decision to set Rosie free.

Before he does so, a brain-spattered Hitler – once his imaginary friend – warns him that unless he chooses the totalitarian way, he will end up in a “desert of insignificance.” It’s notable how the affable and goofy Hitler of Jojo’s earlier imagination has become something truly worthy of hatred and resistance.

Jojo responds appropriately: he kicks imaginary Hitler out the window with a well-placed foot to Nazi nuts.

In a perfect closing of a loop, he ties one of Elsa’s shoes for her as she prepares to step outside.

And then they dance.

Jojo goes from being his society’s false idea of “being a man” to “doing what he can” (as good a definition of true manhood as any).  Elsa, who had a childhood denied to her, found her imaginative inner life in Jojo and now takes a step into free womanhood in the outside world.

But more importantly, both found what it meant to live authentically and to belong authentically.

This movie shows life’s resilience and beauty despite tremendous evil. Rosie knew that:

“As long as there’s someone alive somewhere then they lose.” 

When evil seems most powerful, we all have to remember to keep our inner lives alive, as Rosie did, as Elsa did, and as Jojo did.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Roderick Long on the Plight of the Worker

In response to my Nickel and Dimed posts, my old friend Roderick Long referred me to his original review of the book.  Highlights of Rod’s review:

Ehrenreich went “undercover” to document the lives of the working poor and the Kafkaesque maze of obstacles they face: the grindingly low wages; the desperate scramble to make ends meet; the perpetual uncertainty; the surreal, pseudo-scientific job application process; the arbitrary and humiliating petty chickenshit tyrannies of employers; the techniques of intimidation and normalisation; the mandatory time-wasting; the indifference to employee health; the unpredictably changing work schedules, making it impossible to hold a second job; etc., etc.

None of this was news to me; I’ve lived the life she describes, and she captures it quite well. But it might well be news to those on the right who heroise the managerial class and imagine that the main causes of poverty are laziness and welfare.

Of course the book has its flaws…

But Ehrenreich’s misguided diagnoses and prescriptions occupy at most a tenth of the book. The bulk of the book is devoted to a description of the problems, and there’s nothing sneerworthy about that. And libertarians will win few supporters so long as they continue to give the impression of regarding the problems Ehrenreich describes as unimportant or non-existent. If you’re desperately ill, and Physician A offers a snake-oil remedy while Physician B merely snaps, “stop whining!” and offers nothing, Physician A will win every time.

Rod’s solutions:

First: eliminate state intervention, which predictably works to benefit the politically-connected, not the poor. As I like to say, libertarianism is the proletarian revolution. Without all the taxes, fees, licenses, and regulations that disproportionately burden the poor, it would be much easier for them to start their own businesses rather than working for others. As for those who do still work for others, in the dynamically expanding economy that a rollback of state violence would bring, employers would have to compete much more vigorously for workers, thus making it much harder for employers to treat workers like crap…

Second: build worker solidarity. On the one hand, this means formal organisation, including unionisation – but I’m not talking about the prevailing model of “business unions,” conspiring to exclude lower-wage workers and jockeying for partnership with the corporate/government elite, but real unions, the old-fashioned kind, committed to the working class and not just union members, and interested in worker autonomy, not government patronage.

I’ve had similar debates with Rod before, but I still can’t resist responding.  Verily, I do “heroise” the managerial class.  And at least in the First World, I do think that irresponsible behavior (partly fueled by the welfare state) is the main cause of severe poverty.  Specifically:

1. Management quality is vital for productivity – and measured management quality really is high in First World countries.  Contrary to stereotypes, poor countries have very little big business. Instead, their economies are dominated by “informality” and self-employment.  So yes, I am most grateful to managers for doing their jobs – especially given all the abuse that intellectuals and activists have heaped upon them.

2. In rich countries, non-work is the main cause of severe poverty.  A small percentage of non-workers are seriously disabled or genuinely can’t find a job.  The overwhelming reason for non-work, though, is behavior that intuitively seems highly irresponsible.  Such as?  Not searching for a job.  Not showing up for work on time – or at all.  Having impulsive sex.  Committing crimes.   Sloth (“laziness”) is one poverty-inducing vice, but don’t forget lust and wrath.

3. There are, of course, many full-time workers who – like Ehrenreich and most of her co-workers – end up moderately poor.  How is this possible?  I endorse the standard economic explanation: low-paid workers are, on average, low-skilled.  Since they aren’t very productive, employers don’t bid much for their services.

4. Why, though, do low-skilled workers endure such unpleasant working conditions?  Again, I endorse the standard economic explanation: making work more pleasant costs money – and low-income workers don’t want to take a pay cut to get more pleasant working conditions.

5. Rod apparently rejects both textbook stories.  Instead, he blames the government for using “taxes, fees, licenses, and regulations” to prevent the poor from “starting their own businesses rather than working for others.”  While I would be happy to see “taxes, fees, licenses, and regulations” go away, I’m afraid there’s little reason to think this would sharply increase the poor’s rates of self-employment or small business ownership.  Why not?  Because  it’s far from clear that regulation on net penalizes small businesses relative to big businesses.  Yes, some regulations impose fixed costs, which discourage small business and self-employment.  However, many regulations specifically exempt small business.  Furthermore, it is much easier for small business to evade regulation.  I wouldn’t be shocked if self-employment and small business became somewhat bigger under laissez-faire, but Rod’s confidence that this effect would be big is wishful thinking.

6. I totally agree with Rod’s view that government hurts the poor by suppressing economic growth.  Because government hurts almost everyone by suppressing economic growth.

7. I’m honestly puzzled by Rod’s desire to see the poor start their own businesses.  Romantic thinking aside, most people lack the competence for self-employment. With or without regulation, it’s incredibly hard.  I get that Rod has seen the ugly side of low-skilled employment first-hand.  But what about the ugly side of low-skilled self-employment?  Instead of bosses mistreating you, you’re mistreated directly by customers.  If you can actually get some customers, which is like pulling teeth.  Imagine how bleak Ehrenreich’s book would have been if, instead of trying to find a bunch of low-skilled jobs, she tried to found a bunch of low-skilled businesses!  Without her savings, she probably would have ended up homeless.

8. I’m even more puzzled by Rod’s desire to “build worker solidarity” and support for unions.  The standard economic story says that unions are labor cartels; they improve wages and working conditions for members at the expense of other workers and the rest of society.  While I’ll defend the legality of unions on libertarian grounds, they’re nothing to celebrate.  The best I can say is that without government help, very few people will belong to unions.  Indeed, even with hefty pro-union regulations on their side, private sector unions have almost disappeared in the U.S.  But isn’t solidarity nice?  Not solidarity with large, unselective groups like “workers” – and not when you build solidarity by scapegoating employers as exploiters and managers as bullies.

9. General observation: If you know a little social science and a lot of libertarianism, Rod Long’s story sounds great.  If you want to sell libertarianism to leftists, his approach is plausibly more persuasive than mine.  Alas, if you take the time to learn more social science, Rod’s story isn’t tenable.

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Competing Political Gangs and Their Territories

I took a walk recently, just to the bank. It turns out that’s 1.1 miles, one way. On this walk, I crossed a state border. Twice.

Strange. I felt no difference when I crossed, but suddenly a whole new collection of crimes was possible, while other activities suddenly became non-crimes. Just from crossing that imaginary line. Going both ways.

On one side I could have legally been carrying a bowie knife, a sword, or a switchblade. On the other side I’m fairly sure a switchblade would have been punishable– less sure about the Bowie knife. (The political gangs probably frown on me not knowing or caring much about their opinions.)

On one side of the line Cannabis is legal for medicinal use– and may be legal for recreational use before long. On the other side, the state and local political bullies are digging in their heels to keep from being dragged into the 21st Century.

The state line corresponds to a county line (obviously) and a line between towns. On one side of the line, in one town, people can keep chickens and other livestock. On the side of the line, where my house is, the political bullies forbid such responsible behavior.

Arbitrary rules based on nothing more than on which side of an imaginary line I happen to be standing, even though I can easily cross back and forth. Absurdity.

Political borders and the “laws” which go with them are total hogwash.

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Bullying’s Cure is Fighting Back

It’s as predictable as the equinox: school starts in the fall and bullying catches society’s attention anew.

It’s not as though bullying stops over the summer break, but then it is usually left-over momentum from the previous school year.

“Back to school” recharges it.

Schools decry bullying, often getting the community involved. It’s a halfhearted effort at best. Schools can’t eliminate bullying without undermining their own system since it’s based on authoritarianism — socially accepted bullying.

The dictionary says a bully is anyone who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate someone weaker, usually to force them to do what the bully wants.

Who, other than an insecure person with little self-worth, would behave this way? Whether it’s the schoolyard bully, the authoritarian teacher or principal, the politician or the politicians’ badged “muscle,” if you choose to push others around — literally or figuratively — to force them to do what you want, you can’t think very highly of yourself.

I pity bullies, even as I hope their victims fight back hard enough to make the bullies reconsider their poor life choices.

Fighting back is the only cure for bullying. The victims must fight back, and shouldn’t be penalized for doing so. Yet this is the solution no one in an official capacity, who claims to oppose bullying, is willing to accept.

Forcing victims to rely on someone else to solve the problem for them is also bullying. It doesn’t teach responsibility and won’t build confident character for facing life’s other struggles. Encourage the victim to stand firm. Back them up if you’re concerned about their safety, but don’t tolerate anyone who treats fighting back against a bully the same as bullying.

Some bullied kids have gone on to strike out in tragic, angry ways at those who didn’t bully them — themselves or other innocents. I suspect this is because healthy ways of fighting back were forbidden.

The frustration must build to intolerable levels, finally snapping in the worst possible way.

The victim, because of his lack of competence in dealing with bullies, becomes a bully. Or a mass-murderer.

It’s no excuse, but it is predictable.

You can create a monster by being monstrous to someone. Forbidding self-defense or turning a blind eye to officially sanctioned forms of bullying is monstrous. Society ends up paying the price for official cowardice.

Bullying is a problem. It won’t be solved by ignoring the solution or by making the social environment worse for its victims.

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The Broader Effects of Trade and Tech

Quite a few people consciously favor “free markets, but not free migration.”  When questioned, many explain that unlike free markets in goods, free markets in labor have “broad social effects.”  At this point, I have to suppress my urge to exclaim, “Are you out of your minds?”  They’re right, of course, that free migration has broad social effects.  They’re crazy, however, to imagine that free markets in goods lack these effects.  Indeed, at least within the observed range, ordinary market forces have changed society far more than immigration.

Start with international trade.  If the U.S. were a closed economy, manufacturing would still have shrunk, but it would remain a major source of employment.  The Rust Belt would be doing far better – and less eager for a populist political savior.  Opioid and alcohol use among the working class would likely be considerably lower.  Families would be more stable.  College attendance and the college premium would have risen more modestly.  More speculatively, church attendance would be higher, and nerd culture less dominant.

The broader effects of international trade are however dwarfed by the broader effects of all the technological progress that market forces unleash.  I remember life before the Internet.  When I was a teenager, I was almost completely intellectually isolated.  Overcoming boredom was a constant challenge.  There were no cyberbullies; we had real bullies instead.  When I wanted to publicly speak my mind, I wrote letters to the newspaper.  I had zero friends outside the U.S.  My parents and I were routinely out of contact for hours at a time.  I still feel young, but I remember a world that most EconLog readers would find primitive.

Nor is the Internet an isolated example.  The automobile has broad social effects.  So did household appliances.  So did modern contraception.  Obviously.

The pro-market, anti-migration thinkers could demur, “Yes, we all know that.  Our real complaint is that the broader effects of immigration are generally bad, while the broader effects of international trade and technological progress are generally good.”  But if that’s the real complaint, I say we’re entitled to a careful accounting of these broader social effects.  Who has even bothered to compile lists of these broader effects, much less try to measure them?

If no one is doing the math, why would anyone think that broad social changes are benign?  By the power of hindsight bias!  Once a major social change happens, people just get used to it, with little doubt about whether the change was in fact a net positive.

Immigration is, of course, the main exception.  We can’t imagine going back to a world without the Internet, automobiles, or contraception.  It doesn’t ultimately matter whether their broad social effects are good or bad; we just have to live them them, because turning back the clock would require draconian tyranny.  We can, however, imagine going back to a world with near-zero immigration, so fretting about the broader effects of immigration has great appeal.  Wouldn’t that require draconian tyranny, too?  Well, since the victims aren’t fellow citizens, no.

My personal view is that the broad social effects of international trade, technological progress, and immigration are all, on balance, positive.  For immigration, I’ve done my homework; for trade and tech, however, I’m only guessing.  What’s clear, however, is that broader social effects are ubiquitous.  Selectively invoking “broader effects” may be rhetorically effective, but it does not make you wise.

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“You Don’t Like Cops”

The people around me know I don’t put up with bullies, thieves, molesters, thugs, or any archators. Yet, they choose to characterize this as “You don’t like cops“. Really? That’s what they get from that? That’s what they focus on?

They’re right. I don’t like cops.

Not because they are cops, but because they are bullies and thieves and molesters and thugs and otherwise nothing but archators. Even if they very rarely do something helpful. There is no such thing as a “good cop”– no good person can be a cop. Not because they are a cop, but because of what the “job” requires. In the exact same way that there can’t be a good rapist.

I don’t make exceptions to disliking bullies, thieves, molesters, thugs, or any other archators just because it’s part of the “job” they choose to carry out.

To abbreviate this as “You don’t like cops” is to miss the entire point.

The only reason I can see that this would be the focal point is that those around me make an exception for behavior they would otherwise recognize as bad, as long as it is carried out by a cop (or other government employee). Things they wouldn’t tolerate anyone else doing, they justify when done by a goon wearing a badge. That’s kinda pathetic.

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