Thursday, November 26, 2015

This Thanksgiving, Pass the Gratitude and Hold the Politics

During a recent White House press briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest suggested that gun control would make a great topic of conversation for families gathered for dinner this Thanksgiving: “As people sitting around the Thanksgiving table talking about these issues, as they should and I’m sure they will all across the country, I hope that’s a question that will be raised and asked by members around the table.”
This is as bad a suggestion as President Barack Obama’s tweet just before Thanksgiving two years ago, when he was trying to sell Obamacare to the American public: “When your loved ones get together this holiday season, remember to talk to them about health insurance.”
Um, no. Regardless of your position on health care, gun control, or any other political hot topic du jour, Thanksgiving dinner is arguably the worst hour or two of any given year to try to engage in a serious political discussion with loved ones, some of whom might have traveled from afar and whom you don’t even see the entire rest of the year. Don’t spend those precious hours potentially rubbing them the wrong way because the government wants you to take that opportunity to evangelize to them about gun control.
The one topic of conversation guaranteed to divide us is politics. Even religion generally isn’t as contentious or as common a subject. But even if every single person at the holiday gathering agrees on a given political issue, this is not the appropriate time to discuss it. Thanksgiving should be for the personal, not the political.
The cast members of Saturday Night Live apparently agree with me. Last weekend they put on “A Thanksgiving Miracle” skit in which family members preparing to break bread begin to share what they’re each thankful for, but they quickly begin quarreling about immigration, police brutality, and the presidential election. “Thanksgiving can be hard,” a title card reads. “Everyone has different opinions and beliefs. But there’s one thing that unites us all…” That thing is Adele’s new hit single “Hello,” the playing of which causes the SNL family instantly to throw aside their differences and lip-sync in full Adele-video mode – wind-blown blonde hair, lacquered nails, and all.
I’m skeptical that even group karaoke to Adele’s music can bring all Americans together, but the one thing that definitely can and should unite us all on this and every Thanksgiving is simple gratitude. Americans in the 21st century are like the lottery jackpot winners of history. Even in its current precarious state, America and its citizens are blessed beyond all reckoning, and Thanksgiving is a day to be humbled with gratitude for the peace and prosperity that, by and large, we enjoy.
It shouldn’t even be necessary to say this, but considering the heightened political tension these days and the fact that our government is actually nudging us to obsess over a political agenda at the dinner table, perhaps it bears emphasizing: This holiday, set aside any discussion of gun control, health care, the presidential campaigns, Black Lives Matter, terrorism, immigration, and all the rest for another day, and focus on thankfulness.
If you must debate something, make it no more serious than whether the Bears will be able to take down the Packers that afternoon (they won’t). If you’re a high school or college student, resist the urge to share with everyone what you were taught about the evil Puritans waging genocide against the noble Native Americans. If you’re the family vegan, resist the temptation to lecture everyone at the table piling their plates with turkey breast that “Meat is murder.”
Instead, be grateful that you and your loved ones are sharing each other’s presence. Take turns around the table expressing something personal for which you are grateful. Cultivate a habit of gratitude year-round. It will inspire you to help others who are less fortunate, for gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, wrote Cicero, “it is the parent of all the others.” You will be a happier, healthier, better person for it, and the world will be a better place.
And that’s good politics.
From Acculturated, 11/26/15

War, Forgiveness, and Hope in ‘Beasts of No Nation’

Despite all the recent talk in the news of the refugees from civil war-torn Syria, it’s easy to lose sight of the reality of war for those squeezed most helplessly in the vice of its implacable brutality: children. It sometimes takes art, not news reports, to convey the havoc that war can wreak on the stability of family, community, and faith, not to mention the innocence of childhood.
Last month Netflix premiered an extraordinary original film, Beasts of No Nation, from filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga and based on a book by young Nigerian novelist Uzodinma Iweala. It features stunning, Oscar-worthy performances by Abraham Attah as the preadolescent protagonist Agu, and by Idris Elba as a rebel warlord and the father figure to the boy soldiers in his charge. It also captures for an American audience a real-life tragedy that none of us can imagine: the horrific experiences of African child soldiers.
When war comes to an unnamed West African village, Agu’s father, a local teacher, is forced to separate the family: the boy’s mother, sister, and baby brother are sent away to the city, while the males in the family, including Agu, stay behind to defend the village. “Whatever happens, Agu,” his father tells him, “it is God testing us. We have to stay strong.”
But Agu is tested beyond what any human being, much less a child, should ever have to face. He barely escapes the army’s massacre of the villagers and flees into the bush, where he is taken prisoner by a battalion of the rebel army. He is coerced into fighting alongside the rebels, led by the charismatic but ruthless Commandant, who initiates Agu by forcing him to butcher an unarmed prisoner. By that point, the young Agu’s innocence and childhood are casualties as well.
He befriends another boy whose own war trauma has rendered him mute. As the rebel army ravages the land – looting, raping, and killing – Agu longs to be reunited with his mother and the rest of his family. The carefree life he once led – grounded in family, school, and church – in a small and impoverished but joyous and God-fearing community is over. “Nothing is ever for sure,” Agu muses, “and everything is always changing.”
Now he marches with an artificial community of young rebel killers under a leader whose depravity knows no bounds. His mother’s last words to him were, “Pray to God every day.” But he fears that God hates him for the merciless violence in which he participates.
When the Commandant breaks away from the main rebel force to pursue his own ambitions, it leads to Agu being taken prisoner once again, this time by the United Nations armed forces. He and other boys are placed in a rehabilitation sanctuary for child soldiers. There, Agu ignores his counselor’s pleas to open up about his experiences. She assumes that his refusal to speak is because he is unable to express himself, “like a baby”: “But I am not like baby,” he thinks. “I am like old man, because I am fighting in war and she’s not even knowing what war is.”
In a heartbreaking short monologue, he finally tells her, “I saw terrible things. And I did terrible things… If I am telling you this, you will think that I am some sort of beast, or devil. And I am all these things,” he confesses. “But I am also having a mother, father, brother and sister once. They loved me.”
In other words, he had once been human, but the savagery of tribal war had reduced him to something less than that. Now, after the surreal nightmare of war, he must find his way back to his humanity. He must begin the process of recovering his childhood and his faith, of finding forgiveness not only for the ones who slaughtered his family, but self-forgiveness for the evil in which he himself participated. The movie ends as it begins: on the hopeful note of a group of children playing.
War is sometimes necessary but always ugly, and some innocents are always caught between irresistible forces. In the worst instances, communities are destroyed, families are ripped apart, and children are at best traumatized, at worst killed or enslaved. People in wartime are sometimes lifted up in acts of glory and heroism, and sometimes degraded by ruthlessness and evil. In the end, sometimes there is no way out except through forgiveness and hope. Few, if any, movies capture that quite as powerfully as Beasts of No Nation.
From Acculturated, 11/25/15

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Is Kidz Bop Crypto-Conservative?

Billboard magazine just announced its first Greatest of All Time rankings, a collection of the bestselling songs, albums and artists in music history. Curiously, at number four of the Most Billboard 200 Top 10 Albums by Artist list – below the Rolling Stones, Barbra Streisand, and The Beatles, but ahead of Bob Dylan, Madonna, and Elton John – is Kidz Bop Kids, a group of, well, kids that has racked up 22 top 10 debuts since 2001. That is the fourth-highest rank of any artist in history. The group also holds the title for the most Top 10 debuts of any artist this century.
If you’re not the parent of a child under the age of 12, or under 12 yourself, you may be asking, who or what are the Kidz Bop Kids?
Kidz Bop is a brand of compilation albums – 30 thus far – featuring kids on the cusp of their teenage years performing kid-friendly versions of contemporary radio hits for a grade-school audience. Created in 2000 by a pair of record executives who realized the lucrative potential in providing music parents would approve for their children, Kidz Bop has snowballed into a pop force to be reckoned with, as its Billboard ranking attests. According to the brand’s website, for the last five consecutive years the Kidz Bop Kids have been the “#1 Kids’ Artist” in the U.S.
Kidz Bop achieves this not only by emphasizing bouncy, danceable fun, but by sanitizing the lyrics of popular music, which as any parent knows are rife today with sexually explicit and foul language inappropriate for anyone, much less children. Pop culture has become so sex-saturated that it’s a massive relief for concerned parents to find and feed their children the innocuous (albeit vacuous), clean-cut musical entertainment of Kidz Bop.
But in a Slate article titled “The Kidz Are All Right,” associate professor of communication Myles McNutt complains that the Kidz Bop music phenomenon is becoming “increasingly, oddly conservative,” by which he means the brand is not only cleaning up naughty lyrics but is also shying away from “addressing issues of identity and struggle in contemporary society.”
In 2011 Kidz Bop removed explicit references to issues of sexuality, race, and ethnicity from Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” While this may have pleased parents, McNutt complains that it is an example of Kidz Bop removing “any semblance of cultural meaning that disrupts the identity-free world” the company promises. He feels that
Kidz Bop is in a position to help introduce meaningful concerns regarding social and cultural identity to children, in a media space where these ideas could be raised productively, but doing so threatens their reputation as a safe space for even the most protective parents.
Call me conservative, but I don’t believe explicit song lyrics are an especially “productive” way to raise questions of social and cultural identity. I also don’t believe most kids younger than twelve – the Kidz Bop target audience – even need to be wrestling with what McNutt calls “issues of identity and struggle.” They need to be having fun and going to school (or better yet, being homeschooled) and allowing their childhood to develop naturally without having “meaningful concerns” introduced to them by pop stars who themselves are too young and immature to be charged with that responsibility.
McNutt and others like him who lament Kidz Bop “conservatism” seem to want to rush kids into some sort of social justice consciousness. There’s nothing wrong with a little innocence. I’m a father of three little girls, and I’m not looking forward to the time when they begin to lose their beautiful innocence. Of course, that’s an inevitable part of growing up, and one of my jobs as a parent is to guide them through that process in a way that allows them to adjust to that loss in an emotionally and intellectually healthy way – and that means doing so at an appropriate time in their lives, without having to compete along the way with the questionable messages in BeyoncĂ©’s or Katy Perry’s lyrics.
Kidz Bop may have conquered the pre-teen pop world, but McNutt states confidently that “No matter how conservative the brand’s lyric changes become, contemporary music will always contain deeper, richer cultural meaning.” Of course it will, but this begs the questions: What deeper, richer cultural meaning is being imparted, and is it appropriate for children? Considering the decadent state of contemporary American culture, I’d say the answer to the second part of that question is no.
Music certainly can be an empowering, even life-changing refuge for children and teens struggling with new emotions and self-discovery. But kids deserve better than to be guided through that self-discovery by the likes of Lady Gaga, Nikki Minaj, and Miley Cyrus. I’m not a fan of Kidz Bop – there are many great songs out there that don’t require editing for profanity and that don’t steer kids toward a premature obsession with identity politics. But for a few years before teenage angst kicks in, let kids be kids, and let them bop.
From Acculturated, 11/20/15 

Friday, November 20, 2015

‘Finding Home’: Poems in Search of a Lost America

With its websites FrontPage Mag, Jihad Watch, and TruthRevolt, the David Horowitz Freedom Center is home to some of the most prominent warriors in the fight against the unholy alliance of radical Islam and the radical left: Horowitz himself, Peter Collier, Robert Spencer, and Daniel Greenfield, to name a few. But the dynamo that powers the Freedom Center, the unsung beating heart of the organization, is its Chief Operating Officer Michael Finch. Finch – full disclosure – is also a friend of mine, and as such I am proud to introduce to FrontPage readers his first work of poetry, Finding Home.
Considering the Freedom Center’s aggressive political work, poetry may not be something one would expect to find as part of its intellectual arsenal. But as many conservative writers such as Andrew Klavan and myself have noted for years, reclaiming America means reclaiming the culture, and that means engaging in the arts. As Finch writes in his introduction, “[I]f as a people, and a nation, we can return to something lost, recovering something from our culture that has been torn, then it can only happen through art.” The art of Finding Home is Michael Finch’s deeply personal contribution to the culture war.
“I have spent my life searching for America,” he continues in his introduction, “for what we have lost. And always searching for home. We are a rootless people, a rootless nation, it is a great strength as we always strive and push out and go beyond all limits. But who can deny the void that it leaves?”
Over the course of nearly three dozen short nostalgic poems redolent of Finch’s literary influences Wendell Berry, Robert Penn Warren, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Finding Home takes us back across that void to the welcoming panoramas of his native Midwestern America in a simpler time. In the course of that journey he, like many of us, is a “Weary, rootless traveler in search of my past and of an America gone.” He asks “the breeze that blows / Upon my tired eyes; take me to your destination – / Home, take me where your peaceful mind lies.”
These poems – largely about home, nature, love, and an idyllic America – and are grouped into four sections: “Middle America”; “The Martyrs”; “Loves, New and Lost”; and “America.”
In “Middle America,” Finch brings to life the sights, sounds, and smells of the country of his youth. From “Prairie Day”:

My mind remembers a soft, warm wind,
Sweet earth scent, and billows of clouds
In a wide prairie sky of youth’s eternal hope.
Where have you gone?
From “My Wisconsin”:

Gentle glacier-cut valley, bluffs in beauty;
Below, the earth sleeps ahead of
Spring’s coming thaw and planters’ seed.
High upon the wide sky, geese come home, home again.
Living in the moderate climate of urban California now, Finch longs for the seasons of home. From “Note from California”:

I miss the smell of harvest corn,
Leaves burning sweet in autumn sky,
Long walks down your covered path.
I miss the sound of winter’s eve,
Howling winds from corners’ bend.
Soft falling snow covers the scar –
World gone mad so swift in time.
I miss the high sky.
I miss the fires burning.
O, sweet autumn,
Take me home in your wind.
“The Martyrs” section breaks from Finch’s personal reflections to consist of two historical poems – “To Constantinople Sailed” and “Plains of Ninevah Gone” – in which he hails “the last of the righteous Christians,” “the last of the great kings and knights on angel wings,” martyrs that may have since been forgotten by “the world and the ‘Church,’” but whose lives and deeds are written in The Book of Life for all time, and for whom there will one day be justice:

But be sure: Accounts are kept, mercy not spared for the
Murdering Umma or the self-righteous West.
Some of the titles from “Loves, New and Lost” hint at the more romantic, yearning mood in that section: “But a Dream,” “Passions Fleeting Time,” “Unrequited,” “Beyond Reach.” A particularly beautiful passage from “Tonight”:

Years from now when the winds blow again,
When you stare at the midnight’s blue of
The setting sun, lined mountains black against
A cobalt sky, do one thing for the one who loved you:
Think of me when your eyes gaze at the wondrous sky,
Your eyes searching the heavens for one,
When the breeze blows one last time through your hair,
Do one final thing. Think of me.
Seven poems of the section “America” round out the collection: a personal lament for the country that took a disastrous turn half a century ago. In a poem titled “The 1960’s,” Finch harkens back to boyhood in a time of American post-war glory, when the sun suddenly set on the “grand days of summer” and “the 60’s wrought destruction.” The sun then rose on an “America turned to storm, of innocence gone.” In “And Where Did Liberty Go?” Finch laments that the liberty our forefathers won at battle sites like Sharpsburg and Ticonderoga “died into a false god of equality and a radical / Creed that drove utopia hard and ended all free men.” Now Finch urges, “Pray, sweet America, for us all / We only caught a glimpse, now you’re gone.”
Finding Home is a personal volume to be sure, but make no mistake: it is more than a collection of one American’s wistful memories and road trips across Midwestern landscapes, though there can be immeasurable value in that for readers his poetry touches. It is also a call for restoration, for “remaking freedom,” for affirming the “endless and timeless / And tested truths that need be steadfast, held, tradition-true.” In addition to sparking in the reader his or her own memories of, and longing for, a better America, Finding Home is inspiration for us to strive to do just that –find home, return to something lost, recover what has been torn away, “turn on the path of our choosing.” It is not just a lament for a lost past, but inspiration for us to revive it.
From FrontPage Mag, 11/19/15

Should We Eradicate Manhood?

For all the ginned-up outrage in the news about a supposed “war on women,” there is a gender assault underway that elicits precious little media attention, much less outrage: a war on men – or more specifically, on masculinity itself.
The notion that manhood in a man’s world is threatened may seem laughable, but condemnations of it and calls for its elimination are plentiful in academic circles and the media, from where it filters out into the real world.
Recently, to focus on one example, The Guardian ran an op-ed by Zach Stafford called “It's time to do away with the concept of 'manhood' altogether.” Its premise is that “manhood isn’t IN crisis; it IS the crisis.” It begins from a very common presumption: that masculinity is the root of every evil from war to homophobia to manspreading, so it must be eradicated altogether.
“Men are pretty terrible people,” Stafford begins. They’re more violent than women. They commit more violent crimes, express anger more violently. They murder their transgendered lovers for fear of their masculinity being called into question, according to Stafford. They are behind an epidemic of campus rapes, but their violence is “polluting not just college campuses but the entire world.” Don’t even get him started about war. Men even “take up too much space on public transportation when ‘manspreading,’” Stafford concludes. “I could keep going.”
No need – his point is clear: men are a serious problem. Why is that? Stafford finds the source in men’s violent nature. He cites with approval sociologist Michael Kimmel’s argument that “Violence is often the single most evident marker of manhood. It is the willingness to fight, the desire to fight.” Stafford believes that masculinity is “primarily a rejection of everything feminine, the tool men use to measure and gauge their own self-worth to other men.” And “when they feel that their masculinity is in jeopardy, when they don’t feel man enough,” they turn to violence.
Stafford’s solution?
Instead of constantly putting manhood under perceived threat, we must rethink the concept entirely, and maybe – to be so daring – throw it out. Because we have centuries of war, of pillaging, of violence that show us that manhood was never in crisis, but always was central to this mayhem. So we may need to just rebuild everything with the whole concept of manhood excluded.
To suggest that all we need do is “just rebuild everything” without manhood is a utopian fantasy. Stafford doesn’t have a plan for carrying out this grand design. He doesn’t offer a single idea as to how to “rebuild everything” or how to eradicate manhood. He doesn’t even offer a vision of what a world without manhood would look like, except that presumably it would be a paradise that lacked the scourges of anger, violence, war, and manspreading.
First, manhood is not a “concept,” unless you believe that it is a purely societal construction with no biological basis. For those who do believe that, the answer seems simple: if it was socially constructed, it can simply be de-constructed. It’s just a matter of socializing boys to be more like girls (while we socialize girls to be more like boys). This process is already evident everywhere in our culture, but it is doomed to failure, though not without incurring a lot of irreparable damage first.
Second, Stafford never acknowledges that there might be any positive aspects of masculinity, much less that masculinity itself is good and that the bad behaviors he describes are perversions or failures of it. For him, it’s just, “Men do bad things and manhood is the cause, so manhood must go.” His article does not concede that most men are not “terrible people.” Most men never commit an act of violence beyond playing high school football, or going to war to defend the world against evil. Most men, like most women, are decent but flawed human beings who find the criminal behavior Stafford lists to be repulsive and immoral. Most men try to be good fathers and husbands and sons and brothers. You wouldn’t know any of this from reading the Guardian op-ed.
Third, it is true that violence is primarily (but not entirely) the domain of men. But it does not always stem from a wounded male ego, and like all utopians, Stafford doesn’t consider the possibility that violence itself is not necessarily bad. Righteous violence has saved innumerable lives. The key is not to pretend that we can ever achieve a violence-free world, but to channel violence into proper directions, to prepare men to employ it judiciously in defense of the good and the innocent.
The answer to the problematic behavior of men is not to eradicate manhood but to steer men toward their better nature. Foster a culture which doesn’t shun masculinity but celebrates the more honorable aspects of it. Raise boys to be not feminized men but strong, respectful, principled gentlemen. Unlike Zach Stafford’s utopianism, this is a solution that acknowledges human nature, that will bring our culture back into balance, and that is within our power to achieve.
From Acculturated, 11/16/15

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Monica Crowley on Today’s Totalitarian Left

On the Fox show Outnumbered Thursday, Newt Gingrich referred to liberals as “the totalitarian Left.” That same day, on Fox Business’s Varney & Co, political commentator Monica Crowley remarked that the Democrats of today, seeking a fundamental transformation of America, are not the classical liberals of the past.
Gingrich’s description of the Left’s totalitarianism dovetails directly into Crowley’s, since that fundamental transformation is a total one that necessarily must be coerced. Both their comments echo what the Horowitz Freedom Center has been declaring for twenty years: that “Inside every liberal is a totalitarian screaming to get out.”
I reached out to Monica Crowley for her further thoughts on the matter.
Mark Tapson:    Monica, on Varney & Co you commented that new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan may be under the illusion that he will be dealing with the Democratic party of old, but today’s Dems want to fundamentally transform America and can't be viewed as partners in restoring America. Could you elaborate on that a bit?
Monica Crowley:    We are in a war. It is a war for America – for the very nature of what America is and what it should be. It is not a war that we have sought, but like it or not, it is a war that has been brought to us by the Left. For decades, the Left has been waging a war for the future of the country. Their war is waged against the Constitution, free market economics, our social fabric and values – and they fight 24/7. They never rest. They never falter. And they rarely fail – and when they do fail, they pick up where they left off and begin the fight anew. 
Their objective is – as then-candidate Barack Obama called it in 2008 – the "fundamental transformation of the nation." We now have seven years of evidence as to what he meant: moving America away from a nation built on individual liberty, fiscal responsibility, strong national defense and economic freedom, and toward a European-style socialist state sapped of superpower strength and influence. Mr. Obama and the Left have largely succeeded in accomplishing that transition. They are winning the war – and the Republicans aren't even in the battle. Most of them simply don't get it.
With a few exceptions, such as Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and House members like Louis Gohmert, most Republicans simply don't understand what they’re up against. They don't understand – or they don't want to understand – that the Democrats of today are not the Democrats of the past. Mr. Obama is not John Kennedy or Bill Clinton or even Jimmy Carter. They were liberals in the classic sense – and mainstream Democrats. Mr. Obama is not a Democrat in that traditional sense. He is a leftist revolutionary. A completely different ball of wax – with a completely different set of objectives for the country. Objectives that involve uprooting our foundational principles and replacing them with socialist policies that will be exceedingly difficult if not impossible to reverse. This is their war. And most Republicans, certainly the Republican leadership, don't see it. And if they don't see it, they cannot wage an effective counteroffensive. That's why the Left continues to win elections and policy battles: because most conservatives and Republicans are playing the game by the traditional rules, and the Democrats are playing by a radically different set of rules – and they have their fellow leftists in the mainstream media serving as their wingmen. The two sides are aren't even on the same playing field.
MT:    What are the implications for the Republican party, and for this country, if Republicans don’t grasp this hard truth about their political opponents and instead continue to compromise and try to work with the Left as partners?
MC:    America as we have always known it will be lost – for good. Not only do Republicans such as Messrs. Bush and Ryan not see the true objectives and tactics of the Left, they continue to march forward oblivious, taking the Republican party and the country off the cliff, per the goal of the Left. They are unwitting collaborators.
Time and again, the GOP took Mr. Obama at his word that he wanted real fiscal responsibility, deficit reduction, spending cuts, cost-containing health care reform, job creation, and economic growth. Time and again, they believed him when he said he was interested in their ideas. And each time, he used them for photo ops, then blistered them publicly and returned to waging the Leftist war.
The perfect symbol of this disconnect between what the Leftists were actually doing and the Republicans' naive belief that they were to be included in policymaking was Mr. Ryan's budget presentation in the spring of 2011. Mr. Ryan, all boyish good looks and earnest demeanor, released the GOP budget and prepared for serious engagement from the White House. He accepted Mr. Obama's invitation to attend a major address by the president on spending and the deficit.
Mr. Ryan was seated front and center, perhaps expecting Mr. Obama to say he was prepared to meet the GOP halfway to solve the nation's fiscal problems. Instead, Mr. Ryan and his plan were met by a relentless barrage of partisan insults, policy attacks, and Mr. Obama's own budget proposal that was so ludicrously budget-busting that it was later defeated unanimously in the Senate 97-0. 
Mr. Ryan had been humiliated. Outplayed. But it was his own fault for not recognizing that the Democrats are playing for all the marbles: the transformation of the nation. And unless and until most of them wake up, America will slip under the waves of class warfare, radical wealth redistributionism, insolvency, weakness and irrelevancy – exactly how the Left wants her.
MT:   Your perception of today’s Democrats is just what David Horowitz has been hammering home for many years. How much of an influence have his writing and the work of the Horowitz Freedom Center been on you and others in this respect?

MC:    I have long been honored to know David – and to call him a friend. I was first drawn to his work years ago, when I began to become aware of the Leftist war on America. No one speaks to that war better than David. Having been a warrior among their ranks, he knows how they think, how they behave, their tactics and objectives – and he tirelessly, courageously, relentlessly exposes them. He is their worst nightmare – which makes him America's greatest friend.
From FrontPage Mag, 11/1/15

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Why We Love to Be Scared

Halloween is here again, a holiday that ranks above all others except Christmas and Thanksgiving in popularity. What is it about spooky Halloween that appeals to us more than, say, the conviviality of family and friends at an Independence Day cookout? More than the sense of renewal we feel on New Year’s Eve as we leave one year behind and face a fresh one? Surely it can’t be just the candy and the costumes (not even the ridiculously slutty ones). So what is it about an evening of ghosts, goblins, and ghouls that adults find so appealing? For that matter, why do we find scary movies and haunted houses in general so deliciously compelling?
First of all, there is a physical reason why we enjoy the cathartic thrill of being scared – at least, in a controlled, safe environment such as a movie theater. When we are frightened we have a physiological reaction, of course: increased heart rate, shallower breathing, perspiration, butterflies in our gut. It’s a stimulation of the “fight or flight” instinct, and the subsequent adrenaline rush supercharges us, making us feel more powerful and alive and emotionally intuitive, as a Today contributor wrote. That rush is so exciting it becomes an addiction for many.
Secondly, there is a psychological component. There is a powerful appeal to experiencing vicariously the forbidden, the strange, and the dark. Horror flicks, for example – so popular that they are the only movie genre practically guaranteed not to lose money for the filmmakers – allow us to safely experience, and even identify with, the dark side of human nature. Scary tales also help us to purge ourselves of strong emotions like terror.
But there is something more than just the physical and psychological. There is a spiritual element as well. We are drawn to tales of ghosts and vampires and other creepy mysteries that point beyond human nature because we crave a direct experience of the supernatural, especially in a world in which the ascendance of atheism and the hostility of some prominent scientists to the supernatural has diminished that experience. Because there is no proof of a realm beyond that of our senses, it is easy for many to ignore or dismiss it: ghosts don’t exist, for example. Demons don’t possess people.
But human beings are hard-wired to believe that there is more than just the limited world our senses can confirm, and we want – we need – to experience it. On one level, movies like The Sixth Sense and The Others are just Hollywood entertainment, but they affect us to the core at least in part because on a deeper level, they are also a chilling reminder of the ineffable veil that separates the living from the dead, the tangible from the intangible, the known from the unknown. We don’t know for certain what lies beyond that veil, but deep down we know it is there and the thought of breaking through that otherworldly plane and glimpsing “the sublime” simultaneously terrifies and thrills us.
The notion of the sublime is a rather complicated philosophical and literary one, but in the context in which I’m using it, it describes “the infinity of the sacred,” as a professor of mine once put it. It is beyond our understanding, so majestic as to inspire terror. In a 1757 treatise on aesthetics, Edmund Burke wrote, “Whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
Terrifying though it may be, experiencing the sublime, seeing past the boundaries of what is known, is also thrilling and liberating. “If the doors of perception were cleansed,” wrote the prophetic poet and mystical artist William Blake, “every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.” Perhaps ghosts do exist after all. Maybe demons do possess people.
Sure, Halloween means parties and fun costumes and kids scoring bagsful of treats. But on a deeper level Halloween and scary movies and haunted houses are a reflection of our fearful fascination with the forbidden unknown, our yearning to be embraced by the sublime.
From Acculturated, 10/30/15

Friday, October 30, 2015

Best of Enemies: the Buckley-Vidal Debates

In the summer of 1968, ABC ranked so far behind NBC and CBS in the ratings that it was joked that the network came in fourth out of the three. It needed a gimmick to boost it out of the cellar. As the Democratic and Republican national conventions got underway, ABC hired two rapier-witted public intellectuals – William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal – to debate each other on live television. Their explosive sparring propelled ABC News past the competition and transformed public discourse in the process.

Magnolia Pictures has captured this historic showdown in a very entertaining 89-minute documentary called Best of Enemies, which is now available for digital download and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD November 3rd. Featuring some fascinating footage of Buckley and Vidal and interviews with Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, James Wolcott, and others, the movie is highly recommended.

Buckley, of course, was the preeminent conservative commentator, founder of National Review, host of Firing Line, and author of over fifty books including God and Man at Yale. The openly gay leftist polemicist Vidal was a celebrated novelist (Myra Breckenridge, Burr, Lincoln), playwright, essayist, and harsh critic of American foreign policy. Each of the two pugilistic pundits with their patrician accents and acid tongues saw the other as a threat to American values, and their seething enmity toward each other eventually boiled over shockingly in the course of the ABC debates.

“Buckley was the first modern conservative intellectual to see that ideological debates were cultural debates,” says his biographer Sam Tanenhaus. Vidal too acknowledged that “a cultural war has now joined the race war in the United States… This was the beginning of a war between an old order and what I hoped would be a new order.” In a way, the two men manifested the opposing cultural forces in 1960s American society, and the ABC debates shaped up as a way to determine in microcosm which way the country would turn.

Buckley came prepared to have fun debating the issues, but Vidal came prepared to demonize Buckley in the time-honored manner of leftists even today: as a heartless, greedy, racist, elitist bigot who despised the poor. Buckley was very familiar with this sort of attack, but Vidal knew how to get under his skin, and in the ABC debates he was relentless in creating for viewers a caricature of Buckley as a figure of moneyed white privilege (though Vidal certainly had no less privileged an upbringing himself). He lectured Buckley on the country’s income inequality, to which Buckley replied forcefully that “freedom breeds inequality.” Vidal, as if prescient about the Occupy Wall Street movement, warned his opponent that “you’re going to have a revolution if you don’t give people the things they want… They’re going to come and take it away from you.”

This prospect did unsettle Buckley some, because like all Americans in 1968, he saw cultural standards and traditions breaking down. He reviled what he called a mutinous element of society, and correctly predicted that the issue that would win the 1968 election was law and order.

That point could not have been made more starkly than at the Democratic convention in Chicago, where riot police and protesters clashed infamously. During the continuation of their ABC debates there, Vidal proclaimed the death knell of American empire, as evidenced by Vietnam and this unrest at home. “It’s like living under a Soviet regime here,” he said of the police brutality outside the convention theater. Buckley countered that “despicable” individual acts of police violence did not make a case for institutionalized fascism in America.

The argument escalated quickly into personal insults. Moderator Howard K. Smith tried to intervene and plead for civility, but it was too late. Vidal called his opponent a crypto-Nazi and Buckley lost it. “Now listen, you queer,” he shot back, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the Goddamned face and you’ll stay plastered.” A noticeably distressed Smith declared the segment out of time for the evening, and grumbled that “more heat had been shed than light” in the evening’s confrontation. “The network nearly shat” over it, recalled Dick Cavett.

Buckley agonized for months about losing control, asking himself if he could have handled the moment better. He wrote a lengthy self-defense for Esquire, and Vidal responded in kind, suggesting in the course of his piece that Buckley was a latent homosexual. The result was three years of litigation between the two, at the end of which Buckley simply declared victory in a press conference just before the pair actually went to court.

Vidal was wounded by it as well. A confidante comments in the film that Vidal’s obsession with his antagonist ultimately bordered on “Norma Desmond territory” (referring to the insane Sunset Boulevard character), particularly as the novelist’s career lost steam and relevance.

Best of Enemies winds down on a surprisingly poignant note: two brilliant men consumed to the very end with claiming final victory over each other. But the documentary then strays from its charismatic protagonists and tacks on a conclusion about the lamentable current state of televised political commentary. We’re not listening to each other, the movie asserts; each side of the country’s political divide is trapped in its own noisy echo chamber rather than debating and sharing ideas in a common forum like the Buckley-Vidal debates. This is true to some extent but a facile and uninteresting point, and the clip of Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart pleading for more debate and less theater is laugh-out-loud hypocritical – Stewart, the man more responsible than any other for draining intellectual balance from television news and turning it into entertainment.

In any case, both Buckley and Vidal understood, as other intellectuals of the time did not, the value of using television to advance political ideas and philosophies, not to mention their own public personae. And yet both men complained about the medium’s inherent antipathy to intellectualism. Buckley said that there is a conflict of interest between “that which is highly viewable, and that which is highly illuminating.” Vidal wondered aloud whether viewers ever really “heard” the nuances of what was said and if all they did was focus instead on image and impression.

Nonetheless, for better or worse the debates virtually created the familiar TV news model of pundits challenging each other acrimoniously on the hot topics of the day in segments such as 60 Minutes’ “Point/Counterpoint” (Saturday Night Live parodied this trend in a well-known ‘70s skit in which Dan Aykroyd addresses his political opponent Jane Curtin as “Jane, you ignorant slut.”). But hotheaded though they may be, the Geraldo Riveras and Eric Bollings of today are no match for yesterday’s best of enemies, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.

From FrontPage Mag, 10/29/15

Saturday, October 24, 2015

In Defense of Overprotective Dads

Recently 15-year-old Ricarra Schock in Bangor, Wisconsin posed with her equally young date for a homecoming dance photo taken by her mom Sharee. Ricarra’s father Benjamin then jokingly stepped in and clasped his arms around the boy in a similar pose for a pic which they later captioned, “Whatever you do to my daughter, I will do to you.”
Funny, right? Not if you are a humorless feminist who believes protective fathers shouldn’t stifle their daughters’ sexual autonomy.
The Shocks’ photo subsequently went viral, racking up nearly four million views on Imgur and receiving quite a bit of good-humored media attention. Buzzfeed, for example, found it “hilarious.” Sharee explained, “We hope that above anything else this picture shows the love and protective nature of a dad with his little girl, but in a playful and not-so intimidating manner.” Even Ricarra’s date appreciated the joke.
Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon was not amused. “Who wants to break it to dads that their teenage daughters are not their property?” she asked. “I’m sorry, does a girl get a vote in what happens in her romantic life? It’s called agency. It’s called bodily autonomy.”
Someone needs to break it to Ms. Williams that it isn’t a matter of treating daughters like property. It’s simply a matter of protecting your child – and a 15-year-old is still a child – from potential harm or the life-changing consequences of making an unwise choice, which teenagers have been known to do. It’s sad that this even needs explaining.
At least Williams understands, or at least pays lip service to, the notion that fathers are supposed to protect and love their children, and to guide them to become adults with the maturity to make their own decisions. But she couldn’t let the phrase “what you do to my daughter” go, because it “implies that what happens in dating is something that is done to girls, who are mere passive recipients. It depicts boys as inherently predatory — and even if it’s in a jokey way, that’s insulting to them too.”
Ms. Williams’ beef is not so much with the Schock family. She concedes that the “Overprotective Dad trope is a timeless punchline” and that “not every moment of joshing around is an act of oppression by the patriarchy.” And that is where she should have let it lie, but she couldn’t help herself; she had to “step in to play Humorless Feminist Mom to the Hands Off My Daughter Industrial Complex.”
Her complaint is primarily with the media, which she castigated for treating it as “cute when a father steps in to police a girl’s private life,” and for reinforcing and legitimizing “the old message that a girls’ sexuality is somehow a negotiation between her father and her boyfriend.” She found it “creepy and gross” that the media would endorse “the notion that adolescent female sexuality is something to be guarded by daddy from outside invaders.”
In fact, adolescent female sexuality should be guarded – the alternative is irresponsibly to allow a 15-year-old girl potentially to find herself in a situation for which she may not be mentally, emotionally, morally, or physically prepared (the same goes for a 15-year-old boy, but we’re focusing on daughters). How does that square with Williams’ acknowledgement that fathers should guard and guide their children?
Williams herself notes that the girl in question is 15 years old. Fifteen – the same age as her own daughter. Would she allow her own adolescent daughter unfettered “bodily autonomy” and consider that to be good parenting? Is she truly concerned about what’s best for her daughter, or is she willing to risk her child paying for the mother’s unrealistic ideological ideal?
A father’s protectiveness toward his daughter is grounded in love, not ownership, and it is not based on the assumption that boys are inherently predatory. It is based on the wise understanding that his daughter’s sexuality is not a matter to be left to teenage impetuousness and surging hormones. Pretending that teens can and should be trusted to make unsupervised decisions about their “bodily autonomy” could very well result in the girl’s emotional distress or possibly worse: sexual assault or an unwanted pregnancy.
I have three daughters myself, all too young to date. But when that time comes, you can bet that I will not blithely and irresponsibly send them on their bodily autonomous way. I will raise them to make smart, safe choices for themselves, but I will also be there to protect them from youthful naivetĂ©, impulsiveness, and choices they may regret – for their sake, not mine, and not because they are my property, but because I am their father.
From Acculturated, 10/23/15

Friday, October 23, 2015

Forgiveness, Meaning, and Story: An Interview with Corban Addison

Corban Addison is an attorney, activist, world traveler, and the author of three powerful, lyrical, internationally bestselling novels: A Walk Across the SunThe Garden of Burning Sand, and the just-released The Tears of Dark Water. As novelist John Grisham, a fan of Corban’s, put it, Corban writes beautifully about some very ugly issues: violence, injustice, exploitation, evil.
In settings as varied as Washington D.C., France, India, Zambia, and Somalia, Addison’s characters wrestle with those dark forces as well as their own personal tragedies. The Tears of Dark Water, for example, centers principally on a father trying to bond with his son on a sailing trip that turns into a hostage crisis in Somalia. In A Walk Across the Sun, an American lawyer on sabbatical in India, dealing with the death of his baby daughter and the collapse of his marriage, takes on an international sex trafficking ring to save the lives of two Indian sisters after a tsunami destroys their home and family.
Bestselling author John Hart declared that “If you like stories of good people struggling to do right in the world's forgotten places, there is no one better suited than Corban Addison to take you on the ride of your life.”
I recently asked Corban about why such human rights issues are important to him, and about the values that are central to his work: forgiveness, purpose, meaning, and more.
Mark Tapson:         You are an activist for some very pressing humanitarian causes, including ending modern slavery, sex trafficking, and gender-based violence. But you are also a storyteller, and not many people can successfully meld the two. Why did you choose to dramatize these issues in novels rather than address them in nonfiction?
Corban Addison:   I write stories instead of non-fiction because I’m a storyteller by nature and because I believe in the power of story to shape and inform the moral imagination of readers.
There is a reason we use stories to teach the most impressionable people in our society—our children—the most important lessons in life—about good and evil, right and wrong. Story opens the heart. It gets past the architecture of bias and prejudice that so often chains our minds and limits our views. Story offers us a chance to walk a mile in the shoes of another. It teaches us about ourselves and the world in ways that we can’t ignore. It inspires empathy. It creates understanding. And it inspires action. In its best form, story can actually change the world.
MT:    Acculturated’s parent organization, the Templeton Foundation, promotes the virtues. More than any contemporary novelist I am aware of, you writes stories whose characters exhibit many of those virtues, including joy, forgiveness, kindness, humility, wisdom, gratitude, purpose, love, self-reliance, altruism, perseverance. Can you talk about how such virtues inform your work?
CA:     My goal in writing novels is to shine a light into some of the darkest places on earth, to humanize people (especially the poor and victims of violence) whom we might never have reason to think about otherwise, and to inspire my readers to care about injustice around the world.
This is not an easy task. Our culture, unfortunately, encourages us not to think too hard about the challenges facing us in society. Yet it is in the extreme places of human experience that the truth of a person’s character is revealed. I’m very interested in that truth—the truth that exists at the core of all of us, including myself. That is the truth I seek in the hearts of my characters.
I’m fascinated by moments when the best instincts in human beings triumph over the worst instincts, when people choose to sacrifice themselves to help someone else, when joy breaks through the storm clouds of sorrow, when people from very different worlds take the time to understand each other, and when people who have been wronged choose to forgive.
I’ve seen in my life and in my research how awful people can be to each other, but I’ve also seen how good we can be. When goodness rises above the fray (which it always does in various ways in my stories), it is truly beautiful to behold.
MT:    Forgiveness is a powerful theme in your books, particularly in The Tears of Dark Water. Can you talk a bit about how you see forgiveness as a way – perhaps the only way – for those victimized by some of the horrors we wrestle with in the world today to come to terms with it?
CA:     When other people hurt us, we have only two options. We can hold on to the pain and allow it to become bitterness, or we can chose to release the pain and find a way to forgive.
As you point out, the question of forgiveness is at the heart of The Tears of Dark Water. I thought a lot about it as I wrote the story. I asked myself if I could forgive in the way I was asking my characters to forgive. I don’t know the answer to that. But I’m convinced that finding a way to forgive is the only way to move past a life-altering injury into a place of peace and renewed productivity.
Bitterness paralyzes the heart. It binds a person to the past. Forgiveness releases the heart to live again. It’s not something that happens easily, or necessarily at one moment in time. Sometimes it takes years and multiple decisions to have its effect. But its power is unquestionable.
MT:    Your characters are sometimes victims who must reach down farther than most of us ever have to in order to overcome extreme situations: sex trafficking, Islamic fundamentalism, slavery. Then there are characters from the developed world, like the attorney in A Walk Across the Sun, who also must find the moral courage to come to the rescue of others, and who discover real purpose in their own lives as a consequence. Can you talk about purpose and serving others and finding meaning, and how they intersect for those characters and for you as well?
CA:     One of the reasons story is such a profound medium of communication is that all of us are living a story, whether or not we think about it in those terms. Our stories aren’t simple or linear. They wouldn’t fit easily into a novel. But they matter greatly to us, not just because we have an interest in their outcome, but also because we want to believe that our lives matter to the world. We want our lives to have meaning.
Unfortunately, the kind of meaning that our world encourages us to seek is so often self-serving. How can I get what I want? How can I advance my own objectives? How can I move up in my career? These goals can be powerful motivators, but they don’t actually leave a person satisfied. Satisfaction comes by using one’s gifts and talents to serve others. That’s a theme I explore in my stories.
Often the people who are most successful (in the traditional metrics, at least) are the most unhappy. Conversely, I’ve met people in the developing world who are incredibly poor and have achieved nothing of the kind of success that inspires Western culture but who are incredibly happy. They find their meaning in the faces of those they love. That’s the kind of life I’d like to live. And that’s the kind of life I think most of us would like to live. But we have to make it a priority. And we have to be willing to sacrifice.
From Acculturated, 10/20/15