Pages

Sunday, February 7, 2016

What Kind of Male Role Model Would a President Trump Be?

No one in the public eye is currently driving more media attention and polarized debate than presidential aspirant, reality TV star, and billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump. His arrogance inspires rabid admiration and visceral disgust in equal measure. Many are horrified by the prospect that, as President, the bullying Trump might prove to be a Putin-style authoritarian; many find that same cocky aggressiveness to be electrifyingly, refreshingly virile. This raises an interesting, overlooked question: as a man, what kind of a role model would a President Trump be for our sons?
In her recent City Journal article “Coarsener in Chief,” Heather MacDonald addresses that very question. She is not a fan; after condemning Trump as “the most gratuitously nasty public figure that this country has seen in living memory” and “the very definition of a bully,” she urges his conservative supporters to consider Trump’s “effect on civilized mores”:
Boys in particular need to be civilized. That task will be more difficult with Trump in the White House... Any parent trying to raise a boy to be respectful, courteous, and at least occasionally self-effacing will have a hard time doing so when our national leader is so reflexively impolite, just as it is harder to raise girls to be sexually prudent when they are surrounded by media role models promoting promiscuity. The culture has been coarsened enough already. It doesn’t need further degradation from a president.
Amid quite a few uncivil ad feminam responses from Trump supporters that followed MacDonald’s article were comments along these lines: “For seven years, my family and friends have been waiting for a big, strong man to take center stage and say, "This way, men!" — a man who can provide inspiring leadership for America.” And this one, which seemed to sum things up nicely:
I wish Ms. Mac Donald had avoided making this into an issue where nasty, loutish boys must be “civilized.” Frankly, one of the problems we have been facing for the last half-century is the feminization of society... Because the pendulum has swung so far in that direction, a loudmouth buffoon like Trump seems authentic to a surprising number of people.
Those commenters won’t get any argument from me about the feminization of America, a half-century process (since the beginning of second wave feminism) which has left too many young American men in a state of confusion and helplessness about the definition and proper ideals of manhood. Nor would I deny that America is sorely in need of an inspirational leader in the White House who exudes strength and confidence and can restore American superpower. But are they correct that our current state of affairs makes a “loudmouth buffoon like Trump” seem authentically masculine? Is boorishness the mark of a leader of men? While I don’t think Trump’s quiet competition for the presidency, Dr. Ben Carson, is presidential material, is he any less manly because he doesn’t resort to bullying or trumpeting (pun intended) his impressive achievements?
Manliness is many things, and a fair subject for debate, but at its core, the basic ideals of manliness are simple: it is confidence, not loudmouthed cockiness. It is humility – not weakness, but humility – and service, not egotism and self-aggrandizement. It is chivalry, not bullying. It is leadership, not demagoguery. It is maturity and wisdom, not pettiness. Navy SEALs, whom no one would argue are feminized or unmanly or pushovers, are the epitome of such masculine characteristics.
These qualities today, along with manners and gentlemanliness, are too often considered old-fashioned and passé, and they are confused with weakness. Pop culture today, from the concert arena to the sports arena, sadly celebrates the brash, the egotistical, and the self-promoting, while the strong but quietly humble get overlooked. That doesn’t make the former manlier. Arrogance does not equate to masculine strength. If anything, arrogance proves to be nothing more substantial than bluster when the chips are down.
Heather MacDonald is correct that boys need to be civilized as they are raised (although these days girls, who are surrounded by all the wrong kinds of feminist role models, seem to need a strong civilizing influence themselves). But while our culture currently strives to sand down the rough edges of boys too far, there is a difference between civilizing boys and feminizing them. Too many of the commenters beneath MacDonald’s article, who seem eager to have a crass American Putin in the Oval Office, don’t seem to understand that, and that is an alarming commentary on our cultural confusion about manhood.
From Acculturated, 2/5/16

Friday, February 5, 2016

Creeping Totalitarianism at Harvard

In 1987, Allan Bloom’s bestselling book The Closing of the American Mind described how higher education was failing our students and “impoverishing their souls.” Bloom doubted that our colleges and universities could ever reestablish the ideal of a classically liberal education. Sadly, even as academically esteemed an institution as Harvard seems to be proving his skepticism right.
In a recent interview with political pundit William Kristol, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers complained that a “creeping totalitarianism” is casting a pall over our institutions of higher learning, Harvard included. As administrators and students obsess over safe spaces and microaggressions, educational excellence is being degraded by a “growing preference for emotional comfort over academic inquiry.” Schools are coddling a generation of militantly sensitive students while promoting a politically correct orthodoxy that stifles intellectual freedom.
In one example Summers mentions, “Holiday Placemats for Social Justice” appeared in a Harvard undergraduate dining hall last December. Created by the College’s Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, the placemats promoted social justice talking points for students to share with loved ones over the holidays, no doubt making for many an awkward Christmas dinner. The talking points included such messages as “Racial justice includes welcoming Syrian refugees.”
The placemats outraged alumni. Eighteen representatives complained in a letter that “We do not think the offices of the university should be in the business of disseminating ‘approved’ positions on complex and divisive political issues.” University President Drew Faust weighed in as well, calling the placemats “a really bad idea”:
“I don’t think the University should be directing people—students, staff, faculty—what to say or what to think. The University is a place that ought to foster robust discussion and disagreement, and welcome all perspectives, and that did not seem to be consistent with the message of the placemats.”
Exactly. The administrators responsible for the placemats issued an apology, but the PC push continues at Harvard on other fronts because, as Summers complained, some administrators have been “emboldened” to see this as “their moment to establish a kind of orthodoxy.”  
One of those who is seizing that moment is Rakesh Khurana. Harvard’s undergraduate dean since 2014, Khurana seems determined to implement a social justice agenda. He brought an end, for example, to the decades-old title of “house master” – for a male faculty member who oversees a dormitory – over the perception that the term resonates of slavery (will “master of arts” be targeted next?). Khurana wrote that the change was made “to ensure that the college’s rhetoric, expectations, and practices around our historically unique roles reflects [sic] and serves [sic] the 21st century needs of residential student life.”
But Khurana seems to be determining for himself what those needs are allowed to be. Now he is angering alumni by pressuring – some say coercing – the school’s all-male “final clubs” to accept women. Final clubs are off-campus undergraduate social clubs that sprang up after Harvard banned traditional fraternities in the 1850s. They have no formal relationship with the school, but Khurana contends that they are exclusive, elitist, and not “appropriate” for the university. He has asked such groups to consider whether their values “align” with the school’s mission.
And what is that mission? According to its website, it is “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” It seems more likely that Khurana’s issue with the clubs is not that they fail to align with this mission, but that – as an all-male tradition – they are an impediment to social justice.
“The role of single-sex groups on campus should be decided by students, not administrators,” said one alumnus. “Harvard should stand for intellectual freedom and open debate and should set a clear precedent of protecting minority viewpoints — especially those viewpoints with which the current administration disagrees.”
But at least two of the eight all-male clubs at Harvard have already bowed to Khurana’s reported “veiled threat” of expulsion and decided to accept women. No word on whether he will go after the five all-female final clubs.
Bartle Bull, a 1964 Harvard graduate and self-described liberal, said that the administration is “working against diversity, tolerance, and the freedom of association.” “Harvard as an institution has been more and more controlling in the name of liberalism,” said Bull. Another alumnus wondered, “What kind of values are they trying to impose on students?”
The answer is that schools now are passionately committed to tolerance and diversity in every way except intellectually. Political correctness enforces identity politics but is intolerant of debate, dissent, alternative viewpoints, and criticism. The Harvard College “About” web page boasts that the school encourages “intellectual risk-taking.” But the creeping social justice totalitarianism Lawrence Summers laments suppresses any intellectual growth at all, much less risk-taking.
Nearly 30 years after Allan Bloom’s book, our colleges and universities are no closer to reopening the American mind.
From Acculturated, 2/3/16

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Yes, They Are Coming for Your Guns

Progressives love to ridicule Americans who are concerned that their Second Amendment rights are being threatened by a gun control-obsessed Obama administration. “No one is coming for your precious guns,” the hoplophobes taunt. “We just want commonsense gun laws.” Except that the pursuit of “commonsense gun laws,” which already exist, is just a smokescreen – President Obama and his crew really are coming for your precious guns.
Obama has made it no secret that he intends to push hard for stricter gun control in his final stretch in office. He emphasized that determination by appearing to be overcome with emotion when discussing the Sandy Hook shooting in a speech on gun control on January 4. That tearful moment – staged or not – spoke powerfully to his fan base, because leftists are all about feelings rather than facts; they feel for the children lost to gun violence, and if you object to “commonsense gun laws” then you are obviously a heartless right-winger who doesn’t care if children die. Never mind that the measures they want to implement not only would not have prevented most mass shootings, but – like the impotency of “gun-free zones” – they are more likely to prevent law-abiding gun owners from defending themselves and their loved ones from mass shooters.
Just prior to that speech, Obama issued executive actions expanding background checks on people buying firearms online or at gun shows. “This is a dangerous level of executive overreach, and the country will not stand for it,” Speaker Paul Ryan responded. “The president is at minimum subverting the legislative branch, and potentially overturning its will.”
Also at the beginning of the year, the Obama administration finalized a rule allowing health care providers to report the names of mentally ill patients to an FBI firearms background check system. Now watch the definition of “mentally ill” begin to expand to include any belief or behavior that the left would like to stamp out – fervent adherence to the Constitution, homeschooling, and climate change “denial,” for example – enabling the government to categorize those gun owners as mentally ill and disarm them.
That’s not all. The Washington Examiner announced that Obama plans to build a new gun control force of 430 agents, more than eight times the size of the team of commandos he is sending to the Middle East to take on ISIS.
And yet in a televised townhall meeting a few days later, Obama treated concerns about gun control overreach as paranoia. CNN moderator Anderson Cooper asked the President about worries that his administration wants to seize all firearms as a precursor to imposing martial law. He blamed that notion on the National Rifle Association (NRA) and others who worry that “somebody's going to come grab your guns.”
Obama dismissed that concern as crazy talk. “Yes, that is a conspiracy,” he said, then added unconvincingly: “I'm only going to be here for another year. When would I have started on this enterprise?”
Actually, the legal groundwork for that enterprise has long been underway, and it is picking up momentum, especially in California, which is always on the cutting edge of progressive lunacy. Already this month, three separate gun control bills attempting to categorize just about every firearm as an “assault weapon” have been introduced in California, which already has the strictest gun laws in the country and nothing to show for it except increasingly fed-up, law-abiding gun owners.
Senate Bill 880, authored by Democrat Senators Isadore Hall III and Steve Glazer, would change the definition of “assault weapon” to include any semi-automatic, centerfire rifle, or even semi-automatic handgun that does not have a “fixed magazine” but has any one of a list of “evil features.” The bill defines “fixed magazine” as one that “cannot be removed without disassembly of the firearm action.” This would include potentially millions of firearms, including handguns, that would then need to be registered as “assault weapons” with the Department of Justice.
“Senate Bill 880 is another bill representative of the gun control frenzy we’re seeing from big-city Democrats these days,” says Brandon Combs, president of the Firearms Policy Coalition. “Legislators like Hall and Glazer absolutely want to take your guns one bill at a time.”
That goes for California’s fifteen-year-old Unsafe Handgun Act, which includes a roster of handguns that meet the state’s increasingly stringent safety requirements; that roster is getting gradually smaller. The Calguns Foundation estimates that “at the current rate the number of approved handguns will dwindle to practically zero within the next six years… leaving a state of some 38 million unable to purchase new semi-automatic handguns.”
As Eugene Volokh puts it at The Washington Post, calls for bans on the sale or home possession of semiautomatic weapons in general are increasing. “These aren’t calls for restricting supposedly narrow categories of guns that are allegedly used predominantly by criminals,” he writes. “These are calls for banning the sorts of guns that tens of millions of law-abiding Americans have in their homes.”
California Attorney General and anti-gun extremist Kamala Harris recently announced that over the last two years her Department had “doubled the average number of guns seized annually.” She is now backing a separate bill that would require all rifles sold in the state to have permanently fixed magazines. “The devastation wrought by gun violence on innocent victims, children and families in this country, is an international embarrassment,” Harris said in a statement.
International embarrassment? Here is something the internationalist left doesn’t understand: what the rest of the world thinks about American guns is irrelevant. The rest of the world is not America. No other country has or even understands our Constitutionally-guaranteed Second Amendment right. So no other country’s opinion matters.
The leftist media too like the idea of drastic anti-gun measures. Last December The New York Times posted a front-page op-ed for the first time since 1920. “End the Gun Epidemic in America” proposed reducing the number of firearms “drastically — eliminating some large categories of weapons and ammunition.” As for the Second Amendment: “No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation”:
Certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition, must be outlawed for civilian ownership. It is possible to define those guns in a clear and effective way and, yes, it would require Americans who own those kinds of weapons to give them up for the good of their fellow citizens.
The NRA is trying to counter the left’s anti-gun hysteria. For example, the organization has recently partnered with my friend Amelia Hamilton, a conservative blogger and author of the Growing Patriots series of children’s books, to produce a series of amusing fairy tales reimagined to show what might happen if some of the hapless characters like Hansel and Gretel were trained in the safe use of firearms. “Little Red Riding Hood (Has a Gun),” for example, depicts an armed Red and her armed grandmother successfully defending themselves against the Big Bad Wolf. The Huffington Post huffed and puffed that by doing so, the NRA is trying to put guns into the hands of children.
HuffPost also complains that in the Little Red Riding Hood tale, “the NRA doesn’t explore what would happen if the Big Bad Wolf showed up at the door wielding a firearm himself.” Well, what if he did? All the more reason for Little Red and her grandmother to have their own firepower to defend themselves – that’s why a handgun is called “the great equalizer.” But the left likes to believe that good guys with guns are inept, untrained, and a danger to themselves and others, so having a gun for self-defense only invites more potential for harm.
In the aforementioned townhall meeting, for example, a rape victim confronted Obama about his gun control measures and said she would never allow herself or her family to be victimized again. Here is the President’s condescending response:
There are always questions as to whether or not having a firearm in the home protects you from that kind of violence… What is true is that you have to be pretty well-trained in order to fire a weapon against someone who is assaulting you and catches you by surprise. What is also true is always that possibility that firearm in the home leads to a tragic accident.
Translation: unless you’re a Navy SEAL, you can’t be trusted with a handgun to protect yourself. You’ll just end up hurting yourself or a loved one.
In any case, our Constitutional right to own firearms ultimately isn’t about self-defense, or even hunting; it’s about Americans defending ourselves against a tyrannical government. The fact that gun and ammunition sales as well as NRA memberships have soared since Obama took office is a clear indication of just how concerned Americans are that we are potentially facing just such a threat from the Obama administration and a possible future Clinton administration.
Candidate Hillary Clinton is, if anything, prepared as President to go even further to remove guns from American society. She has spoken favorably of the possibility of initiating something here like the Australian mandatory gun buyback program. And yet she has ridiculed the NRA for believing that the gun rights organization is the only thing keeping “the black helicopters from landing in the front yard and people’s guns being seized.”
Hillary, who travels with a phalanx of armed guards, can mock all she likes, but if she, Obama, and the radical left continue pushing this issue, they will discover that, like Brooke Shields and her Calvin Klein jeans, Americans won’t let anything come between them and their guns. If it comes to a showdown over gun confiscation, American gun owners will have a firm answer for the government: Molon labe.
From FrontPage Mag, 1/24/16

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Heroism, Not Politics, is the Message of ’13 Hours’

Michael Bay, like Rodney Dangerfield, don’t get no respect. Despite his movies raking in nearly six billion dollars worldwide, he is often dismissed as the man responsible for the cartoonish Transformers franchise and the legendary debacle that is Pearl Harbor. But with the just-released 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Bay has transcended himself with an emotionally wrenching but inspirational action movie that honors the brotherhood of warriors and American heroism.
The movie is based on the true story 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi by writer Mitchell Zuckoff and the security team who were present at Ground Zero of the Islamist attack in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. That attack resulted in the deaths of four Americans, and the movie has been greatly anticipated by political conservatives as the film that will put the nail in the coffin of candidate Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, over her alleged inaction as Secretary of State during the assault, and the subsequent cover-up.
But like the book itself, the movie is apolitical. Hillary, mentioned barely at all in the book, is completely absent in the film. The focus is the firsthand experience of the warriors at the center of the storm – “when bullets flew, buildings burned, and mortars rained,” as Zuckoff writes. Brothers-in-arms Jack Silva, Tyrone Woods, D.B. Benton, Mark Geist, John Tiegen, and Kris Paronto – all former Navy SEALS or Marines – had no direct knowledge of the politics in the background that abandoned them to their fate; they knew only that it was up to them to stave off enemy forces swarming the diplomatic compound in which they, a handful of State Department civilians, and Ambassador Chris Stevens – ultimately one of the four casualties – were holed up.
Bay told Fox News, “The politics got in the way of this great human story that happened, and this is really to honor these type of men that do this every day — that put themselves in harm’s way — that’s what this movie is about.” He continued:
“I’ve been friends with many, many SEALs, and they’re an extraordinary group of people. They’re very selfless, and this is a very tragic story. It avoids the politics. It gives you the facts, but in the end of the day it’s an inspirational story.”
While it avoids an overt political statement, it nevertheless serves as a clear indictment of a political class that is often unappreciative of those selfless men of action who willingly put themselves in harm’s way. That class is represented in the movie by the CIA station chief, a by-the-book bureaucrat dripping with contempt for the security team’s absence of diplomatic tact and lack of Ivy League credentials. He is repulsed by their hyper-masculine physicality and ever-present weaponry.
But when things get real, and the outpost is overrun by Islamists who care nothing for diplomacy or an Ivy League education, the station chief is paralyzed by his inability to grasp the life-or-death nature of the emergency. Tyrone Woods takes the wheel: “You’re not giving orders anymore, you’re taking them,” Woods tells him. “You’re in my world now.”
That world is the arena of violence and action, not diplomacy and politics. It is an atavistic, uncivilized realm in which heroes thrive. One is reminded of the familiar adage, not quite correctly attributed to George Orwell, that people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. Or of the military drama A Few Good Men, in which Jack Nicholson’s hardcore Colonel Jessup barks that “We live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns.” The warriors in 13 Hours were the rough men with guns in Benghazi.
But they are not mere action flick caricatures. Director Bay effectively brings these men to life, drawing us into their personal lives as fathers and husbands eager to reunite with their families but compelled to stay in Godforsaken hellholes, because that’s where heroes are needed. Bay also captures the emotional toll it takes on those extraordinary men to fight from dusk to dawn, all the while only a bullet away from leaving their kids to be raised by another man, as Woods puts it.
These men accept that toll because they value service over self. They are the sheepdogs protecting their flock from the wolves. In the movie, when Woods reminds his crew that they are not obligated to risk their lives by rushing in where angels fear to tread, not a man among them hesitates to commit. Heroism is the ultimate altruism. By the end of the movie, the humbled CIA station chief confesses to Jack Silva (played by a buffed-up John Krasinski, better-known as The Office’s goofy romantic Jim Halpert), “I’m proud to know Americans like you.”
13 Hours is the latest in a line of recent films –Lone Survivor, Act of Valor, American Sniper – which prove that, after a string of anti-war flicks that portrayed our soldiers as PTSD-addled victims, Hollywood has a renewed respect for American heroes. But some reviewers will have contempt for the values on display in the movie. They will roll their eyes over its lack of “nuance” and its pro-Americanism. They will dismiss it for its perceived political subtext. Those reviewers sadly will miss the point that heroes like Silva, Woods, Benton, Geist, Tiegen, and Paronto are a breed apart, and because of rough men like them, the rest of us can sleep easier.
From Acculturated, 1/22/16

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The P.C. Casting Call

From Shakespeare to James Bond to Nancy Drew, non-traditional casting choices in the film and stage worlds are in the news lately. Producers seem eager to play with the traditional gender and ethnicity of white and/or male characters – unfortunately not so much to further an artistic vision as to push for politically correct gender and racial equality. Here’s why that is wrongheaded.
Take Emma Rice, for example. Rice is the newest artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, and she is troubled by the facts that only 16% of Shakespeare’s characters are women and most of the memorable lines are spoken by men. She is on a mission to get “a much greater proportion of women on the stage” at the Globe. “[Y]es, it is a target,” she declares. “How can we get the female voices through? How can we change the mold?”
Rice quotes actress Geena Davis, who has said that the way to get more women acting in film and TV is for directors simply to “change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names.” But this is not what Rice is aiming for. Davis is suggesting writing more female characters into leading roles that ordinarily would go to male characters; Rice wants to cast existing male characters with actresses.
For example, “[t]here is no reason why [the Earl of] Gloucester can’t be a woman,” said Rice, who admits to being no Shakespeare expert, having directed only one of his plays and having read only a few others. “If anybody bended [sic] gender it was Shakespeare, so I think it just takes a change of mindset.”
But there already have been examples of such gender-bending casting in recent Shakespearean adaptations, with all-female casts and a female Hamlet, for example. None of it elevates the plays above the level of a self-conscious casting stunt. None of it really “changes the mindset” of the audience.
Similar efforts are being made in Hollywood, where TV producers who are adapting the popular Nancy Drew novels into a TV series want to reimagine the teen sleuth as a woman in her 30s and “any ethnicity but white.” CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller told The Hollywood Reporter that, for Nancy Drew and other series in development, “We’re not casting color-blind, we’re casting color-conscious.” But color-blindness should be the goal; color-consciousness is by definition racism.
As another example, there has been a recent surge of interest in casting the extraordinarily talented Idris Elba, a black actor, as James Bond now that the term of the iconic spy’s current incarnation, Daniel Craig, is drawing to a close. And why not? After all, Bond – like Nancy Drew – is a fictional character, not a real-life historical figure, so why can’t there be a black Bond, many ask? Or a gay Bond, for that matter, or Latino, or Muslim, or even female? Wouldn’t that be a huge leap forward for gender and racial equality?
No, and here’s why not: first, James Bond is not black or gay or Latino or Muslim, and I believe in maintaining the integrity of even fictional characters in their universe. More importantly, if the aim is gender- and color-blindness, then the only solution is to find a hitherto unknown literary character or create an all-new fictional character who is the equivalent to Bond, and who simply happens to be black (or gay, Asian, etc.).
All of the politically-driven efforts to replace existing white or male characters with non-whites or females are merely gimmicks and quota-filling, and they don’t ultimately serve the purpose of racial or gender equality in entertainment. Idris Elba playing Bond is still just a black Bond; what’s better is an original black superspy character as an alternative to Bond. A female lead in Hamlet comes off as just a marketing ploy; what’s more effective is a brilliant play that elevates a female protagonist to the culturally iconic level of a Hamlet. A 30-year-old Asian or Latina Nancy Drew is no longer the Nancy Drew of the novels; why not find or create a new equivalent? Again, gimmicks and quotas will not “change the mindset” and achieve real equality; original fictional creations will.
Of course, notoriously risk-averse Hollywood’s chief reason for rejecting that solution is economic: famous fictional characters are proven properties with very valuable name recognition and built-in audiences. But here is an example of a step in the right direction: the producers of the thriller series 24, featuring anti-terrorist scourge Jack Bauer, are rebooting the show with a black actor in the lead. The key is that the actor will not be playing a black Bauer; the producers are simply starting from scratch with a new hero, who happens to be black.
Granted, what I’m recommending requires taking a chance on creativity. It requires writers who can invent memorable characters that grab the cultural imagination and stand the test of time like Hamlet, James Bond, and Nancy Drew. That is no mean feat. But as long as the so-called creatives in the entertainment industry are fixated on simply plugging different ethnicities and genders into existing characters, their attempts to force more inclusion will never rise above politically correct gimmicks.
From Acculturated, 1/18/16

Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq’ Tells Black Community to ‘Wake Up’

From the opening image of Spike Lee’s new movie Chi-Raq – a red, white, and blue map of the United States composed entirely of the silhouettes of a variety of guns – it is clear that the filmmaker intends to take on the volatile issue of blacks and gun violence in war-torn Chicago, nicknamed Chi-Raq by its black inhabitants after the Middle Eastern war zone. Lee has a habit of provoking racial controversy, and that is no less true of this darkly humorous satire (“not a comedy,” he insists) set in the murder capital of the United States. True to the director’s form, Chi-Raq provokes and dissatisfies those on both sides of the debate.
Spike Lee has attacked both white and black fellow filmmakers in the past for reasons related to race. As noted in his profile at the Freedom Center’s Discover the Networks resource site, Lee excoriated Tyler Perry for the stereotyped depictions of black characters in his hugely popular comedies, and Woody Allen for not featuring enough black characters in his movies set in Manhattan. From his perspective that racism is deeply entrenched in American culture, the enormously wealthy Lee has railed against such issues as interracial couples, Charlton Heston and the NRA, NASCAR, the war in Iraq, the shooting of Michael Brown, and the gentrification of New York. He suspects the government of having engineered the AIDS epidemic and the Hurricane Katrina disaster. He has supported Barack Obama and convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. He has stated that blacks can’t be racist, because they don’t have the political power to impose racism.
But interestingly, Chi-Raq doesn’t take an entirely expected position about blacks and gun violence. Lee could have made a movie about a white cop shooting an unarmed black man, which is the supposed epidemic ravaging the black American community; instead, he made a film that lays the responsibility for the high rate of black deaths annually from gun violence largely on the black community itself. Unlike the Black Lives Matter movement, Lee is willing to face the harsh reality of young black males perpetrating violence against other blacks.
That message didn’t go over well with many blacks. The film’s trailer alone, featuring some comedic moments that some took as making light of the topic, was enough to cause a backlash against Lee. Grammy-award winning rapper Rhymefest even demanded that the director issue an apology to the city of Chicago.
The template for the movie’s style is classical Greek theater – more specifically, Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, in which the titular heroine attempted to force an end to the Peloponnesian War by persuading the women of Greece to withhold sex from their men until those warriors lay down their arms. Lee’s protagonist is also named Lysistrata, and the script is even written mostly in verse and utilizes the ancient Greek technique of a chorus that provides background information and commentary – here in the form of a scene-stealing Samuel L. Jackson.
In Chi-Raq, Lysistrata is the girlfriend of up-and-coming rapper and gangbanger Chi-Raq of the Spartan gang, which is waging a turf war against the Trojans (another nod to the story’s ancient Greek roots). After a black child dies in the street from a stray bullet fired by Chi-Raq, Lysistrata decides to do something about the perpetual violence. Inspired by video footage of the activist Leymah Gbowee’s sex strike in Liberia, Lysistrata decides to organize all the women from both gangs to dedicate themselves to “total abstinence from knockin’ the boots” until the men give up their guns and cease the endless killing.
“Everybody here got a man in the orange and purple colors, banging and slanging, fightin’ for the flag / riskin’ that long zip of the cadaver bag,” she implores the Trojan women.
“It’s how we live,” argues one.
“It’s how we die,” Lysistrata counters. “You wanna lose your man to a driveby?”
Uniting behind the slogan, “No peace, no pussy,” the women lock it up and leave their macho men high and dry. The community impact is immediate and dramatic: “Even the hoes are no-shows,” one man complains, and the local strip club owner laments that “This famine affects the lower regions, where all you young Trojans do most of your thinkin’.”
Noted lefty actor John Cusack plays Father Mike Corridan, a clear representation of real-life radical leftist Chicago priest Father Michael Pfleger, who is a longtime friend and supporter of Barrack Obama, Jeremiah Wright, and Louis Farrakhan. Cusack’s character delivers a fiery sermon to a packed African-American church mourning the death of another child, in which he pushes the predictable leftist line: children die because politicians are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association; gun shows provide buyers a loophole to avoid gun control laws; crime will end when young blacks are guaranteed jobs (“and I don’t mean at minimum wage!”); Jesus was a social justice warrior (“He rolled with the poor”).
Meanwhile, in the film’s least bombastic and most effective plea for blacks to take charge of ending the culture of violence, a young gangbanger crippled for life by a bullet tells the stubborn Chi-Raq that the thug life is no life at all: “This ain’t livin’. This ain’t life. We gotta do somethin’ different, bro.”
Lysistrata’s movement quickly goes national, then international, as women from places as far-flung as India and Brazil get behind the “No peace, no pussy” commitment. Back home, her next step is to seize the Chicago Armory (under the command, bizarrely, of a caricatured, openly racist, Southern white general whose office is adorned with a huge Confederate flag). This prompts the riot police and even the Army to step in for a standoff. The police commissioner, a black man, argues with Lysistrata that thuggish behavior isn’t winning her side any sympathy. She finishes with a pro-Black Lives Matter speech and expresses contempt for “you and your Ben Carson sort.”
In “Spike Lee's Troublesome Chi-Raq Does Not Have the Answers,” a reviewer at the radical feminist site Jezebel called complains that the director muddied his message by incorporating “too many” points of view – by which she probably means anything other than the Black Lives Matter perspective. She resents that he puts “a large onus on black people to, in Lee’s words, ‘Wake up’ and search inward.” She’s frustrated that he said in an interview, “We cannot be out there [protesting] and then when it comes to young brothers killing themselves, then mum’s the word… You can’t ignore that we are killing ourselves, too.” Who exactly is ignoring it? the reviewer wonders.
Who is ignoring it? Too many young blacks. Chicago in 2016 is well on its way to setting a record pace for gun violence: in the first eleven days of the year, at least 120 victims have been either killed or wounded by gunfire, mostly from gang rivalries. Lee couldn’t have predicted that the timing of his movie (it opened in limited release in December) would be so tragically perfect.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Is Gratitude Selfish?

As parents tasked with civilizing three very young children, my wife and I make a daily effort to instill in them an abiding sense of gratitude. We consider it a virtue critical to fashioning their character, particularly as 21st century middle-class Americans, who are more materially blessed than probably 99% of all humans who have ever lived. My wife and I want our kids never to take that for granted, especially amid the material frenzy of the Christmas holiday.
Thus I found it strange that Barbara Ehrenreich rang in the new year with a New York Times opinion piece recently in which she actually complained that the holidays reeked inescapably of thankfulness, and that it signaled an “onanistic” degree of self-centeredness.
In “The Selfish Side of Gratitude,” the author of such bestselling social studies as Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream acknowledges that “[i]t’s good to express our thanks, of course, to those who deserve recognition.” Gratitude is at least somewhat “prosocial,” she concedes, in the sense that “[y]ou have to be grateful to someone, who could be an invisible God, but might as well be a friend, mentor or family member.”
But Ehrenreich laments that the self-improvement industry has warped this potentiality into something “all about you, and how you can feel better.” “Gratitude gurus” like Oprah Winfrey and other motivational figures have hyped the physical and spiritual benefits of expressing gratitude, such as a stronger immune system, increased joy, and boosted self-esteem, all of which has been legitimized by scientific researchers like Martin Seligman, “the father of positive psychology.”
The result is that the emphasis has shifted from gratitude as “the moral memory of mankind” to gratitude as “a surefire ticket to happiness and even better health,” as Ehrenreich puts it. She finds this inward development contemptible:
All you have to do is to generate, within yourself, the good feelings associated with gratitude, and then bask in its warm, comforting glow. If there is any loving involved in this, it is self-love, and the current hoopla around gratitude is a celebration of onanism.
Wow. Granted, there is a danger of excess in this rise of gratitude to “self-help celebrity status,” and she may have a point with such examples as the Harvard Mental Health Letter suggesting you “thank someone mentally,” or the CNN yoga instructor encouraging students to write in “gratitude journals.” But it’s an overreaction to get worked up over such seemingly narcissistic techniques which nevertheless can foster a deeper sense of gratitude, and it’s hard to see how a happier, healthier, more self-aware, and more altruistic society is a bad thing.
Ehrenreich’s contempt stems from her passion for social justice. For her, “[s]aying grace to an abstract God is an evasion”; gratitude is wasted on an invisible God and should be reserved for the “whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible”: “Who picked the lettuce in the fields, processed the standing rib roast, drove these products to the stores, stacked them on the supermarket shelves and, of course, prepared them and brought them to the table?”
Her version of meaningful gratitude is social justice “solidarity” – by which she means actively supporting economic equality to bridge “the wealth gap” in “our divided society.” We need, she asserts, “a more vigorous and inclusive sort of gratitude than what is being urged on us now” – in other words, less spiritually and psychologically transformative, more outwardly engaged in class warfare.
She cites the theoretical example of a lowly Walmart employee who gets a raise, and asks if that employee should “be grateful to the Waltons, who are the richest family in America?” For Ehrenreich, the employee grateful for a steady job and a raise is a “chump” as long as the family that employs him and is wealthy. Well then, at what point should the employee feel gratitude? How much of the Walton family wealth should be divvied up among their over 2 million employees worldwide before Ehrenreich believes gratitude is appropriate?
One gets the feeling that Ehrenreich believes that until economic parity is fully achieved, gratitude to God and man is for chumps. But thankfulness is about acknowledging our blessings, not coveting the blessings of others. It is about personal humility, not societal equality; contentment, not resentment. This is by no means to say that we should not strive to better the material lives of all, only that gratitude is not entirely dependent on our material circumstances.
Yes, of course gratitude is, as Ehrenreich notes, to some degree “prosocial.” Yes, of course it should result, whenever appropriate and possible, in a repayment of debt to others, or an act of paying it forward. But by diminishing the meaningful spiritual and psychological dimensions of gratitude, and reducing it to a measure of social justice, Ehrenreich is distorting and devaluing it as much as the self-help gurus.
From Acculturated, 1/8/16

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Community Cost of NOT Reading ‘Huck Finn’

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported recently that school administrators at a Quaker school in Pennsylvania removed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum to placate students who complained that racial elements in the book made them feel uncomfortable. The administrators concluded that the “costs” to the community of assigning the book outweighed its literary value. On the contrary, by coddling the students and declaring literature less important than their sensitivity, the school did both the students and the community a serious disservice. 
Published in 1885 with the Civil War still in living memory, Mark Twain’s classic novel about a white boy traveling down the Mississippi River with an escaped slave remains one of our nation’s most controversial books even 130 years later. It was the 14th most “challenged” book in the country during the 2000s, according to the American Library Association, and it still faces occasional bans and boycotts in schools due to its notorious abundance of N-words and politically incorrect depictions of black characters.
In 2011, in a well-meaning attempt to soften the book’s tone for a modern audience, a publisher released an edition of Huck Finn with all 219 instances of the racial slur replaced by the word “slave,” a pale synonym that guts Twain’s original language and lacks the abhorrent impact of the N-word (as does the euphemism “N-word” itself).
But students (and adults too, for that matter) deserve the unvarnished reality of art, not a revisionist attempt to sand down its rough edges. After all, we don’t drape the nude loins of Michelangelo’s David with Hanes boxers just because the sight of the statue’s penis might make some tourists feel awkward.
The administrators of the aforementioned Friends’ Central School in Pennsylvania apparently feel otherwise. Some students complained that by foisting Huck Finn onto them, the school was not being inclusive of those who might be “triggered” by a story about slavery with the N-word sprinkled liberally throughout. After holding a forum for students and faculty, administrators decided to pull the book from the 11th-grade American literature class. Principal Art Hall declared in a letter to parents that the book will remain in the school library, but its place on the reading list will be given over to The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The autobiography of a black man who rose above slavery to become a social reformer and statesman is certainly a worthwhile read, but so is Twain’s novel – perhaps all the more so because its controversial nature deserves to be confronted and explored, not swept under the carpet.
“We have all come to the conclusion that the community costs of reading this book in 11th grade outweigh the literary benefits,” Hall explained in his letter. What a disappointing conclusion. Principal Hall seems to believe, as many today do, that students – indeed, whole “communities” – must be protected from the emotional discomfort that art and/or history sometimes provokes. He seems to be saying that the study of any work of literature that runs against the grain of acceptable (i.e., politically correct) positions on socially sensitive issues should be avoided to prevent community discord.
Thanks to the divisive rise of identity politics, racial and gender sensitivity on our high school and college campuses has been ratcheted up to a tragicomic degree. Teachers and administrators now tiptoe through a minefield of microaggressions, while hyper-sensitive students aggressively demand that educational institutions be remade into “safe homes.” Feelings are more valued than education or even the freedom of speech; protecting students from offense has become more important than preparing them for the world beyond the bubble of their safe space.
Hall declared that the decision would empower his students, and was proud of the school’s sensitivity to their concerns: “I do not believe that we're censoring. I really do believe that this is an opportunity for the school to step forward and listen to the students,” he said.
You don’t empower students by coddling them from historical reality and sheltering them from works of art that might cause emotional discomfort or challenge the students’ worldview. Nor is it a good idea for educators to cede their authority to anti-intellectual students who then will simply expect, if not demand, to be granted more accommodations whenever a book or subject “offends” them – in other words, whenever they disagree with it.
The proper attitude is demonstrated by Jim Miller, an English teacher and dean at another local school, who said, “We don’t shy away from teaching [the book]. We see it as a very important opportunity to educate kids further about the use of language, especially the use of the N-word.” Miller said that the English classes teaching Huck Finn encourage students to think critically about history and language – and that is as it should be.
The benefits of literature absolutely do outweigh “the community costs” of reading it. Studies show that reading literary fiction encourages creativity and individualism, fosters critical thinking (as Principal Miller noted), expands an understanding of the past and the present, and even makes people more empathetic. Rejecting that to protect students’ feelings means a generation of students who are emotionally stunted, close-minded, insular, conformist, and uneducated, among whom individuality is feared, suppressed and subordinated to a mob mentality. That’s the real community cost.
From Acculturated, 12/31/15

Children of Monsters

Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators by Jay Nordlinger, offers a fascinating and unusual question for consideration: “What is it like to be the son or daughter of a dictator?” And not just any old authoritarian, but the worst of the worst? “You have to be very bad indeed – drenched in blood,” Nordlinger writes, “to qualify for my book. Sorry to be ghoulish about it, but body count mattered.”
Nordlinger, a senior editor of National Review, music critic for The New Criterion, and author of Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, presents sketches of the children of 20 dictators who reigned in the 20th century and into the 21st. The rogues’ gallery features Stalin, Mussolini, Castro, Kim, Duvalier, Qaddafi, Khomeini, Amin, Pol Pot and others, as well as a few whose infamy did not quite reach household name status: the Albanian Communist Enver Hoxha, for example, and the Ethiopian Mengistu, known as “the Stalin of Africa.”
The book even includes a chapter on a “son” of Hitler, even though Hitler had no children, technically speaking. But a French woman claimed that during World War I she and the 28-year-old soldier Hitler conceived a child who grew up unaware of his father’s identity. Historians doubt the truth of her claim, but her Hitler-lookalike son apparently never did; upon learning the identity of his notorious father after the Fuhrer’s suicide, he proudly embraced his supposed heritage and even sported the iconic Hitler mustache.
The offspring of these monsters were dealt a very unusual hand in life, to put it mildly, and they responded to that challenge in various ways. Some admired their totalitarian fathers; some even succeeded them, as in Syria, Haiti, and North Korea. A few comparatively normal children went their own way; some tried to distance themselves from the bloody legacy bequeathed them, and some even disowned and actively resisted their fathers.
The promiscuous Italian fascist Benito Mussolini had five children, officially speaking; as with some of the other tyrants in the book, the unofficial count of his children is unknown (Bokassa, president-for-life of the Central African Republic, reportedly had hundreds, as did North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung). Il Duce adored his firstborn daughter Edda, and she him: “I have always loved and admired my father more than anyone else in the world,” she once wrote. Until, that is, her husband participated in an attempted power play against Mussolini. Despite her passionate pleas, Edda’s father had the perceived traitor executed, and Edda renounced her father and even the Mussolini name. The whole operatic tragedy was devastating for both; Mussolini never got over it. In her memoir decades later, however, Edda seemed to have relented, making excuse after excuse for her father.
Others had less complex, less conflicted relationships with their fathers, like Pol Pot’s daughter and Ceausescu’s son, who revered their father but lived relatively normal, blameless lives within the dictatorial orbit. Some openly rejected their fathers’ evil: a daughter of Ceausescu said that she considered her last name a “dirty word”; Qaddafi’s son Saif, one of eight children, so embraced Westernization and liberal values that the New York Times called him the “un-Qaddafi” – until the Arab Spring threatened his father and Saif returned to defend him and the regime “to the last bullet.”
Other children of tyrants didn’t fall from far from the tree, if at all. Kim Il-Sung from North Korea, the “psychotic state” (as Jeanne Kirkpatrick called it), had six legitimate children. Among them, basketball fanatic Kim Jong-Il rose to succeed his father in 1994, and his successor, the current Dear Leader, is of course Kim Jong-Un, also a basketball nut. All three men ruthlessly murdered family members and any other inconvenient people when necessary. Jong-Il, for example, had a child with a mistress; to keep the affair an absolute secret, he had all of her friends sent to a concentration camp, where almost none survived.
In another example of filial succession, Haiti’s Baby Doc Duvalier, at nineteen the youngest national leader in the world, perpetuated his father’s cruel reign of terror until being forced into exile. Afterward he deluded himself that he was no dictator but a beloved president burdened with his father’s legacy. “I have absolutely no sense of guilt, no reproach whatsoever to myself,” he declared in a Barbara Walters interview. Referring to himself in the third person, like Caesar, he complained that “It’s crazy how Baby Doc has to pay for his father Papa Doc’s reputation.”
Nordlinger notes that denialism is common to these offspring of dictators, perhaps a necessary coping mechanism. Surrounded by a core of supporters and collaborators into their adulthood, many of them remembered their childhood, their fathers, and the regimes the way they needed to in order to justify it to themselves. Many now are dead, of course, and most of the living were reluctant to open up about their experiences to the writer of a book which labels their fathers “dictators.” Some, however, were forthcoming with Nordlinger, like one of the sons of Uganda’s Idi “Big Daddy” Amin; some, like Alina Fernandez, one of Castro’s daughters, have written blisteringly honest memoirs.
As for what the tyrants themselves have in common, Nordlinger points out that, “consumed by their colossal egos and busy smothering a country,” they were largely indifferent fathers who barely knew their children, with a couple of surprise exceptions like Amin and the Japanese emperor Tojo.
Nordlinger rounds out this psychological study by musing upon who were the best and worst of the fathers and the children. Franco wins Best Father, no doubt because he was “a picture of normality by comparison to the others,” while China’s Chairman Mao “stands out in his utter lack of human feeling” toward his ten offspring. Among the children, Nordlinger understandably favors the “defectors” such as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (“My father would have shot me for what I have done’), and it probably will come as no surprise that the monstrous Uday Hussein ranks at the bottom alongside other cruel successors such as Kim Jong-Il.
“We are not the sons and daughters of dictators, you and I,” Jay Nordlinger concludes, and Children of Monsters is a sobering, albeit relentlessly fascinating and entertaining, reminder of our good fortune.
From Frontpage Mag, 12/30/15

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Can Rock Defeat Terrorism?

One month ago, Eagles of Death Metal were in mid-performance at the Bataclan Theater in Paris when their show was interrupted by a terrorist attack that left 89 dead there (and 130 total in coordinated attacks elsewhere in the region). All the members of the rock band survived and were understandably traumatized, but they swiftly determined to return to Paris to perform as an act of defiance against the jihadists who targeted cultural expression as well as a hall full of innocent concertgoers. The band instinctively understood the power of rock music as a force for rebellion and liberation.
With its power to inspire hope and a yearning for personal freedom, rock’s barely restrained energy has always been a raucous threat to repressive governments and cultural totalitarians around the world. Islamists in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been known to blow up CD shops to silence the music. Che Guevara and the Castro regime in Cuba despised rock and persecuted musicians. A documentary called Rockin’ the Wall, narrated by my friend the actor Adam Baldwin, charts the role of rock in bringing down the Berlin Wall.
As recently as 2010, Iran’s Ayatollah Khameinei declared that music is incompatible with Islamic values, particularly music from what the fundamentalists deem to be a decadent Western culture. Khameinei banned Western music in his country, forcing many musicians into exile or underground. A thriving heavy metal scene, for example, now serves as a voice of resistance against the theocratic regime.
Western musicians and audiences aren’t accustomed to this kind of oppression. Living in the land of freedom and prosperity as we do, it’s easy for us to take that for granted until something like the Bataclan atrocity opens our eyes – and prompts us to rally in defense of freedom. “So much that was taken from Paris on the tragic night of November 13th is irreplaceable,” U2’s Bono said about the attack. “For one night, the killers took lives, took music, took peace of mind – but they couldn't steal the spirit of that city.” In an open letter to his friends, Eagles of Death Metal drummer Josh Homme wrote, “We dare not give another second of precious time to those who have tried to steal our freedoms and take away our power.”
Other musicians responded with a similar determination not to be cowed. Singer Josh Groban told the hosts of The View that he and his crew agreed music would help restore some healing normalcy, so they decided not to cancel his performance in Paris shortly after the attacks. “Music heals. It brings people together and we're real proud of that,” said Groban. “With music, with art, we’re in a privileged position that we have a chance to bring people together for all the right reasons.”
Boston-based musician Will Dailey and his band were on tour through the northwest of France when the attacks happened. Their next show was cancelled for safety concerns, so Daily and crew set up shop in a community center to play before a small audience and stream the show online. “They attacked music,” Dailey says of the jihadists. “Music is unity, universal communication, therapy, safe expression. [Our show] was a counter-attack in a way. It is freedom. Folk music, Rock and Roll, hip hop – they have always been about freedom.”
Less than a month after the attacks, U2 invited Eagles of Death Metal back onstage in Paris for the Irish band’s final show of their Innocence + Experience 2015 world tour. “They were robbed of their stage three weeks ago, so we'd like to offer them ours tonight,” Bono told the crowd. The bands played a cover of Patti Smith's “People Have the Power” together before U2 left the stage so Eagles of Death Metal could play their own “I Love You All the Time.”
In a Facebook post about their emotional return to Paris, Eagles of Death Metal addressed “the healing, defiant power of rock ‘n roll”: “The bad guys never take a day off, and therefore we rock ‘n rollers cannot either... and we never will.” The note concluded by thanking U2, the people of France, and “everyone in the world who continues to prove that love, joy, and music will always overcome terror and evil.”
It may take more military firepower than love, joy, and music to overcome terrorists like ISIS, but our freedom of expression and rock’s subversive power are indispensable defenses against totalitarian aggression. As Paul McCartney put it in his song “Freedom,” written in response to the terror attacks on September 11, 2001:
This is my right, a right given by God
To live a free life, to live in freedom
Anyone who wants to take it away
Will have to answer, ‘cause this is my right.

From Acculturated, 12/14/15