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Friday, November 21, 2014

A Colossal Mistake: Trivializing the Past

Yesterday, Acculturated’s own Abby W. Schachter reported on the dismantling of the “Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red” art installation in London, a flood of red ceramic poppies serving as a poignant memorial to the nearly 900,000 British lives lost in World War I. As it happens, I had just read about a sort of modern upgrading of the Colosseum in Rome. In their different ways, the two monuments reflect a vital connection between memory and history.

Even though the United States participated in the nightmarish conflict that Henry James called “this abyss of blood and darkness,” it’s very difficult for Americans today to grasp the impact that the Great War had on Europe. It marked, in an unprecedented way, a traumatic break with the world of the past and the beginning of our modern era. Artist Paul Cummins’ installation, a temporary sea of individually hand-crafted and -planted poppies filling the moat surrounding the Tower of London, conveys that bloody chasm probably more effectively than any fixed monument ever could.

Now it’s being taken down despite calls and petitions to extend, or even make permanent, the display. Cummins insists that the installation should be transient, like life itself and the lives of the War’s victims. Abby Schachter believes that this is an appropriate gesture, and I agree – with reservations.

Memory tends to be transient too. We are constantly rewriting the past, literally in our history books and mythically in our minds; it is human nature to be unreliable and self-serving narrators of our own stories. So we are constantly in danger of losing not only the past, but the meaning of the past in the fog of time. Monuments are sometimes all that keep our link to that meaning alive. By their permanent presence, they serve as powerfully impacting echoes of the past for forgetful future generations. The “Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red” installation has had such an effect on literally millions of visitors. Its impermanence has been part of its draw, but I would hate to see it gone forever. Perhaps it should be recreated – reincarnated, if you will – every decade.

Meanwhile in Rome, the Italian culture minister is backing a proposal to restore the floor of another testament to blood and darkness: the extraordinary, nearly 2,000-year-old partial ruins of the Colosseum where gladiators and animals once stalked each other to the death. This could lead to the building being used again as an arena – not for blood matches, of course, but for pop concerts.

An archaeologist suggested building a new stage to cover the ampitheater’s central section, which currently exposes the haunting subterranean tunnels and chambers where the gladiatorial participants waited. The point of the proposal is to encourage the public to help fund the ancient building’s substantial preservation costs with concerts and other performances. But as Daisy Dunn remarks in The Spectator, reviving it as a concert venue would be less like a restoration and “more like the beginning of the end.”

“To experience the contrast between the expectant [ancient Roman] spectators and the slaves summoned to ‘perform’,” she writes, “you need only cast your eye between the sun-bleached seats stretching into the sky, and the dark shadows in the arena’s bowels below.” Once a stage is constructed over it and you lose that view, warns Dunn, “you lose the view of the cross-sections which divided Roman society,” and our connection to the meaning of the Colosseum itself is broken. 
 
Attending a performance there by, say, Sting or Andrea Bocelli, would transform our experience of the building and with history itself. As respectable and sensitive as those performers might be to the venue, the ultimate effect would be no longer to memorialize the past but to trivialize it.

A new Colosseum stage should not be built, Dunn correctly urged, “at the expense of its spirit.” That spirit lives on in the echoes of cheers and screams from the arena, just as the horrors of war come alive again in a sea of red poppies in London. The former is an ancient edifice in the heart of the Eternal City, and the latter is a temporary, modern expression, but both are true to the spirit of the past that they honor.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/19/14)

Institution of Lower Learning: Sex Week at Harvard

If you couldn’t make Harvard University’s recent 4th annual Sex Week, you missed out on some stimulating fare. It boasted free seminars and workshops with titillating titles such as “What What in the Butt: Anal Sex 101,” “Fifty Shades of False: Kink 101,” and “Love @ First Swipe: Online Hookup Culture.” Yes, that Harvard.

Open to the public, Sex Week is coordinated each year by a student-run organization called Sexual Health Education & Advocacy Throughout Harvard College (SHEATH). Sex Week, the group’s website states, “intends to promote a week of programming that is interdisciplinary, thought-provoking, scholastic, innovative, and applicable to student experiences in order to promote a holistic understanding of sex and sexuality.” That’s their way of pretending that instructing students in the thought-provoking, holistic use of butt plugs and dental dams is academically legitimate.

Sexperts from a local adult toy shop led the anal sex seminar, which sought to “dispel myths about anal sex and give you insight into why people do it and how to do it well.” Parents shell out as much as $58,000 a year to Harvard to give their kids at least the aura of a top-shelf education; somehow I doubt that excelling in Anal Sex 101 is what they had in mind.

Also listed on the schedule, which is riddled with spelling and punctuation errors, was “Brown Girlz Do it Well: a Queer Diaspora Remix,” a workshop designed to “situate our personal narratives within broader systems of racism, casteism, classism, islamophobia, and imperialism.” Call me Old School, but what college students need is a lot less indulgence in their own personal narratives and a lot more immersion in the narratives of the great storytellers who shaped our civilization. They need a lot less indoctrination in grievances and victimization, and a lot more exposure to the sublime heights that the human spirit has attained in art, science, and philosophy. They need to stop ghettoizing themselves according to racial and gender categories and start identifying with our common humanity. That’s what a liberal arts education should be about.

Many Harvard students no doubt are getting an impressive education, but the university isn’t doing its reputation any favors with workshops like “Virginity & Abstinence,” which posed the burning question, “does viriginity [sic] exist?” or “Romance on the Rocks: Alochol [sic] and Consent.” Does one really need to take a seminar to grasp that drinking and sex go together like a horse and carriage?

To their credit, some at Harvard resisted the siren song of kink. Student Molly Wharton told The College Fix,

I do question the amount of time and resources that went into planning and funding these events, some of which are downright vulgar, at a place like Harvard. I can’t imagine that there are not more worthwhile educational programs and initiatives to which Harvard’s resources should be devoted.

Nailed it. But SHEATH's co-president Kirin Gupta defended the workshop this way: “Saying we don’t need it is like saying we don’t need sex education, or should have abstinence-only education, or that people should feel ashamed for doing whatever it is that’s part of their sexual practice.”

Not quite. There’s a difference between sex education and the promotion of a narcissistic obsession with sexuality. As for shaming anyone: frankly, our culture needs some shaming now and then – not for what we do in private, but for our increasingly perverse willingness to put our private lives on display in the public square.

Criticizing the program, however, gets you smeared as an unevolved bigot: “The conservative backlash speaks to the latent homophobia that society thinks so often it has gotten over, and has not,” says Gupta. “It speaks to these residual prejudices that people [have] when faced with a reality they’re not willing to acknowledge or respect.”

No, it doesn’t. Objecting to Sex Week is not about the fear and loathing of homosexuality or kinkiness; it is simply about questioning the program’s appropriateness and academic value, particularly at an institution of supposedly higher learning that began in 1636 as a seminary.

Harvard University doesn’t have a formal mission statement, but Harvard College, the undergraduate program, does. It is committed to, in part, “the advancement and education of youth in all manner of good literature, arts, and sciences.” Sorry, but S&M, “feminist porn,” and “queer spoken word groups” do not fall under that umbrella.

I’m no prude. I used to work in the porn industry. But when an institution as esteemed (rightly or wrongly) as Harvard offers a slate of workshops featuring, for example, “the demystification of sexual fetishes,” the school doesn’t merely look silly; it is giving its imprimatur to a cultural obsession with seeking personal identity in the shallows of our libido rather than in the depths of our soul.


(This article originally appeared here on The Federalist, 11/19/14)

We Land on a Comet, the Media Cry Sexism

Last Wednesday, the European Space Agency (ESA) landed a space probe on a 2.5-mile long comet over 300 million miles away. Let that extraordinary human achievement sink in for a moment. Now let this sink in: the bulk of the media attention for this historic event is centered on a garish bowling shirt worn by one of the scientists, which has become the target of feminist anger about pervasive misogyny in the scientific profession.

Matt Taylor, part of the team of scientists that landed a space probe on a comet over 300 million miles away, was interviewed briefly prior to the event. He seemed like an articulate, amiable guy who was passionate about his exciting work. Unfortunately, he was wearing something that resembled the side of a 1970s van: a retro Hawaiian shirt adorned with an illustrated bevy of provocatively dressed women posed amid sunbursts and ocean waves. It was made for him by a rockabilly model whose husband did Taylor’s sleeve tattoos.

So, instead of marveling at the fact that humans have landed a space probe on a comet over 300 million miles away, some zeroed in on Taylor’s shirt as evidence that the world of science is hostile to women. The Guardian, for example, huffed, “ESA can land their robot on a comet... But they still can’t see misogyny under their noses.” Verge’s unintentionally self-parodying headline was “I don't care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing.” The writers of that article asserted that

This is the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields. They see a guy like that on TV and they don't feel welcome... This is the climate women who dream of working at NASA or the ESA come up against, every single day. This shirt is representative of all of that, and the ESA has yet to issue a statement or apologize for that.

ESA has nothing to apologize for, but Taylor was so bowled over by the negative online response that he later humiliated himself by tearfully apologizing on camera – because no unintended, imagined slight is complete today without a groveling public apology to an internet full of total strangers. “I made a big mistake and I offended many people and I am very sorry about this,” he managed, sniffling. Too late; he’s forever branded as a misogynist who wants to boot women out of the old boys’ club of science – you know, macho sexists like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Was his shirt appropriate for a television broadcast? That depends on how uptight you are. It was initially distracting, but so what? Perhaps he didn’t know he was going to be on TV. Maybe he did know but thought the look would be a refreshing, colorful change from a lab coat and pocket protector. It’s not known whether his colleagues bothered to suggest a more media-friendly change of clothing; if they didn’t, perhaps it was because they were busy landing a space probe on a comet over 300 million miles away.

The real “casual sexism” here is not that Matt Taylor wore a shirt decorated with kitschy cartoons; at most he might be guilty of a crime of fashion, which is no one else’s business and no cause for a public apology (otherwise most of us would be apologizing daily). One gaudy, bawdy bowling shirt does not create a hostile work environment. The real sexism is the assumption that career-driven women are so sensitive that they must be shielded from an article of clothing which might intimidate them out of pursuing their chosen scientific or technical endeavor.

We have become a culture so obsessed with the hyper-sensitivity of officially designated victim classes that we police behavior to a degree verging on totalitarianism. We claim to be waging a war against bullying, but we bully public apologies out of people who don’t even know us and never intended offense. We are so threatened by heterosexual masculinity that we automatically equate it with misogyny. As a culture, let’s grow a sense of humor and put our energy toward something truly important, like boldly going where no man – or woman – has gone before.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/17/14)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Springsteen Hits a False Note at Veterans Day Concert

My Acculturated colleague Erin Vargo wrote a very nice reflection this week on the bipartisan values we share as Americans, and on the Veterans Day “Concert for Valor” at Washington, D.C.’s National Mall, a three-hour concert that included Rihanna, Carrie Underwood, Bruce Springsteen, and others. Vargo felt that the show depicted a “universality of America’s regard for our veterans” that crossed party lines. But some were less than thrilled about Springsteen’s choice of material for an event intended to honor our nation’s warriors.

Justin Moyer at the Washington Post wrote that Springsteen sparked social media unrest for playing – along with Zac Brown and Dave Grohl – Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Vietnam-era anti-war song, “Fortunate Son.” Some folks inherit star-spangled eyes, songwriter John Fogerty’s rock classic goes. They send you down to war/And when you ask them, “How much should we give?”/They only answer, more, more, more.

The Weekly Standard wasn’t too thrilled with the tone-deaf selection, either: “It was a particularly terrible choice given that Fortunate Son is, moreover, an anti-draft song, and this concert was largely organized to honor those who volunteered to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Springsteen went on to perform what Moyer called a “dirge-like version of ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’” a song often misinterpreted, by politicians who aren’t paying attention, as a patriotic anthem. Both that piece and “Fortunate Son” present the American soldier less as a hero than a victim of pointless, immoral wars and a pawn of greedy politicians who send him off to do their fighting for them, and who then cast him aside upon his return home.

The Post’s Moyer defended Springsteen, pointing out that both songs, “while they criticize the armed forces, aren’t anti-American in the sense that, for example, the Islamic State is anti-American. By offering a critique of our nation’s policies, they celebrate its promise.” His article prompted nearly 2700 heated responses from commenters, some of whom felt that it was perfectly appropriate and patriotic for Springsteen to raise the issue of the ugly reality for veterans. Better to spark a conversation about that than to bury it, they claimed.

And there certainly is a host of serious issues that our veterans face: unemployment, a shocking suicide rate, a Veterans Administration that has been revealed to be ignoring the vets who need its assistance and care. Had Springsteen raised some awareness about these problems, say, in between songs, that might have been more appropriate than anti-war anthems.

Veterans Day is not the time to critique the government’s policies. It’s a time for honoring the warriors who served their country, who did their duty at risk of life and limb, regardless of the rightness or wrongness of those policies. It’s a time for paying tribute to the sacrifice of our soldiers and their families, not for attacking politicians or questioning the motives for war. By performing songs about how those warriors fought in vain, and then were discarded and dishonored back home, Springsteen portrayed them as pitiable and their service as a futile waste. Regardless of whether there is any truth to that, it’s the wrong message to be sending on this particular holiday. That message, simply put, is one of respect and only respect.

There are others times and ways to protest wars: voting, protests, marches, contacting your political representatives, and yes, writing songs. Every other day of the year, we can put our backs into solving the serious problems our veterans face. But on Veterans Day, leave your protest signs in the garage, put your politics aside, and concentrate simply on saluting the men and women whose service deserves our gratitude and respect.


(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/14/14)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Want to Kick Street Harassment to the Curb? Promote Chivalry

If you were on the internet at all last week, then you almost certainly saw or read about the viral “catcalling video” that amassed an astounding 32 million views online and sparked a firestorm of discussion. But while it definitely raised awareness about the unwanted attention women endure when on the street, it sparked little sympathy, much less outrage.

The video was a hidden-camera recording of an attractive young woman walking the streets of New York for ten hours to document what the video’s sponsors described as “sustained catcalls and harassment” from men she passed. The video, edited down to a couple of minutes of highlights, claimed that the woman was on the receiving end of 100 instances of verbal harassment in those ten hours.

It was sponsored by Hollaback, “a movement to end street harassment powered by a network of local activists around the world.” Hollaback is vague about how exactly it will achieve the eradication of catcalling, apart from encouraging women to document their stories online, which might embarrass some guys. But the organization also hints at a more controversial solution when it describes street harassment as “one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against.” [emphasis added]

This suggests that they expect to curb the misbehavior by criminalizing it, which would be not only an infringement on free speech but also absurdly impractical. How would such legislation be enforced? Are cops going to write up or arrest losers merely for being desperate for female attention? And where is the line of verbal harassment drawn? Some of the men in the video simply wished her a nice day. Should that be a criminal offense?

For that reason and others, the video drew swift criticism from everyone from National Review to Slate. It was accused of racism for not featuring enough white men. It was accused of classism for not featuring enough affluent men. It was accused of ignoring the fact that such behavior is comparatively rare outside of bad neighborhoods in major urban areas. Perhaps most damning, it was accused of making a mountain out of a molehill.

It quickly spawned parodies. In one, a white man walks the streets of New York a là the original and is “accosted” by comments like “Hey, wanna network with me?” and “Want a Starbucks gift card? Yeah, you like that.” In another, a New York Jets fan walks the streets of Manhattan and gets berated for his Jets gear: “You should be ashamed.” Similar takeoffs feature, among others, a female character in the Skyrim video game, a drag queen in Los Angeles, a guy wearing a horse head mask, and my personal favorite, a hipster in Austin.

The fact that the original video has proven so ripe for ridicule and criticism says two important things: one, that America hasn’t entirely lost its sense of humor; and two, that the original video failed to prove its point. One hundred instances of verbal abuse and the worst they could present was guys mostly wishing the woman a nice day and calling her beautiful?

This is not to say that the video reveals no legitimate harassment. At one point for example, a man kept pace alongside the young woman for a full five minutes, which was at best creepy and at worst potentially threatening. And though some critics argued that most of the men in the video were simply being friendly, this is disingenuous; there’s no doubt that those men were hoping to strike up a conversation with a pretty girl who wouldn’t ordinarily give them the time of day. Had she given any of them an inch, they would have taken a mile.

No matter how legitimate a problem such harassment may be, though, it pales into insignificance in a world in which women get the worst of real horrors such as domestic violence, sexual assault, honor killings, sex trafficking and slavery, and forced abortions (in China and India). The video unfortunately made complaints about street harassment seem petty and insignificant by comparison.

Well-meaning though it might be, Hollaback’s vision of a world without street harassment is a utopian fantasy. This isn’t the same as ridding the workplace of sexual harassment; the streets cannot be policed in the same way. No amount of social condemnation or legislation will end all men acting unchivalrously. The rude, like the poor, will always be with us.

The best way to curb street harassment is by reviving the moribund ideal of chivalry and raising young men to treat women more honorably and courteously. Sadly, the feminists who now claim that men aren’t chivalrous enough on the streets are responsible for demonizing chivalry so thoroughly among both women and men that it’s comatose. They have very nearly snuffed out the one masculine ideal that is necessary to make the world a safer and more respectful place for women.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/11/14)

Inside ‘The Room’

If you haven’t seen the 2003 cult classic movie The Room, stop reading and come back after viewing it here. There is a reason it has attained the status of “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” – and that reason is a hilariously oddball writer/director/producer/star named Tommy Wiseau. But many of its fans are unaware of the surprisingly poignant backstory to both the movie and its creator. 

I was already aware of The Room and its awkward acting (“You are tearing me apaaart, Lisa!”), memorably weird dialogue (“Leave your stupid comments in your pocket!”), inconsistent character motivations, scenes that go nowhere, and inexplicable football motif. But I didn’t realize that the making of The Room was far more entertaining and intriguing than the film itself until I stumbled recently across a 2013 book called The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, written by Tommy’s longtime friend Greg Sestero, who also starred in and helped make the movie.

The book is an unexpectedly absorbing page-turner, not just for its behind-the-scenes look at the wacky incompetence of The Room, but because it also gradually revealed the secretive Tommy Wiseau to be a lonely figure whose obsessive need to express himself through this film masked an “immensely conflicted and complicated darkness.”

An aspiring actor, Sestero first encountered the defiantly eccentric Tommy, with his unidentifiable accent, distinctive hair, and refusal to discuss his past, in an acting class. Sestero, who found himself becoming Tommy’s best – and perhaps only – friend, slowly teased out the details of Tommy’s obscure origins and the dark life experiences that shaped him.

He lived on the street in Europe. He was wrongfully arrested and tortured by French police following a drug raid at a youth hostel, a traumatic experience that led him to move to America. He worked as a street vendor selling unique bird toys to tourists on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, acquiring the nickname “The Birdman,” after which he legally changed his name to Thomas Wiseau (a reworking of the French word for bird). He was involved in a near-fatal car crash, the turning point that led him to pursue his dream of becoming an actor and director.

Tommy threw himself into developing, producing, directing and starring in his own script called The Room despite having no knowledge of filmmaking (though he did have, strangely, a seemingly inexhaustible bank account which enabled him to sink a jaw-dropping $6 million into the making and marketing of this romantic drama). Sestero began as a curious crew member but found himself pushed into replacing a key actor – after filming had already begun.

It’s impossible to describe or summarize the degree of the dictatorial Tommy’s ineptitude as a would-be Orson Welles. He was unable to remember the simplest lines of his own dialogue, much less deliver them capably. He drove actors and crew members either out of their minds or out of the project altogether. He demanded that scenes be rewritten in the middle of filming them, that sets be broken down but rebuilt again the following day; that his muscular butt be prominently featured in his overlong sex scenes. The result is an hallucinatory comedy of technical and artistic errors.

This didn’t discourage Tommy from moving heaven and earth to promote The Room, including paying for a massive billboard on highly-trafficked Highland Avenue. The creepy billboard featuring a droopy-eyed, unintentionally menacing Tommy stayed up not for the usual couple of months or so, but inexplicably for a full five years, becoming a sort of Hollywood landmark.

Despite the comedy, one moment highlighted something for Sestero about his mysterious friend. After filming a party scene in which Tommy’s character is at the center of a room full of happy friends, Sestero realizes that the scene reflected the happiness, the friends, the life that Tommy would have wanted for himself but never had.

The book closes with Sestero attending Tommy’s “world premiere” of The Room. When Tommy stood to introduce the film to the crowd,

he was completely devoid of the bravado he’d always had in front of an audience. His hands trembled as he raised the microphone to his mouth. He paused for a moment, too overcome to speak… The audience became very still. Then, at last, Tommy managed to say something: “This. This is my movie. This is my life. I hope you learn something and discover yourself.”

Just before the house lights went down, Tommy turned in his seat to smile at Sestero behind him. There were tears in his eyes. Some at the premiere walked out demanding refunds, but the film went on to become an international midnight movie hit along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Sestero concludes with a musing about Tommy and the pursuit of dreams. At the risk of overreaching, I believe it is an epiphany that could be applied to grand dreamers everywhere – in other words, to all of us: “In the end, Tommy made me realize that you decide who you become. He also made me realize what a mixed blessing that can be.” [Emphasis added]

This past February, Seth Rogan and James Franco picked up the rights to The Disaster Artist and will be co-producing a movie based on the book, starring Franco as Tommy, whom the actor correctly describes as “part vampire, part Hollywood dreamer, part gangster, part Ed Wood, and super lonely.” I hope they can capture not only the unique hilarity of the book, but also the loneliness at the heart of Tommy’s dream.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/6/14)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Gene Simmons’ Feminist Advice to Women

Though I was raised on rock and roll, I was never a fan of the glam rockers of KISS. But in recent years I have come to admire the band’s driving force, former tongue-wagging bass player Gene Simmons, now an entrepreneur who has amassed a $300 million fortune through his music, a merchandising empire, reality TV shows, and other ventures. I also appreciate his blunt-spoken style (even when I don’t agree with him), though it gets him in hot water from time to time – as it did again recently.

Simmons was on FOX the other day promoting his new book, Me, Inc.: Build an Army of One, Unleash Your Inner Rock God, Win in Life and Business, which is divided into two sections: Me, about Simmons’ own background and path to success, and You, advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. During the FOX segment he offered some direct, no-nonsense business advice to young women. He urged them not to try to juggle family and career at once, but to focus on career first, and then – if they want children – to have them from a position of financial security. He noted that women, unlike men, have the option of taking care of themselves or being taken care of by a man, which he discouraged. The money quote: “Women, stop depending on men. It’s as simple as that. Imagine there are no men in life.”

This drew fire on the internet, where kneejerk outrage lies in wait for any excuse to pounce. Salon called Simmons’ comments “sexist.” Uproxx’s headline was “Gene Simmons Opens His Mouth Again to Give Women Some Tone-Deaf Career Advice.” Over at Jezebel, where profanity and bile substitute for thought, they spewed contempt at Simmons, deriding him as “the original Miley Cyrus” (for the tongue thing) and as an “old fart” (because how could anyone over 25 have anything worthwhile to say?). Sprinkled throughout the criticism was a lot of gratuitous hair-shaming of the sort usually reserved for Donald Trump.

And yet his advice – women, give up trying to have it all; put career first and become financially independent – is no different from Sheryl Sandberg’s business bestseller Lean In, a favorite of proud feminists. The only apparent reason some women found Simmons’ feminist advice offensive is that a man said it, even though those same women are always campaigning for men to call themselves feminists (hence slogans like #AllMenCan, “This is what a feminist looks like,” “I need feminism because…”). Perhaps his comments would have gone over better if he had said them while posing backlit by a giant neon “FEMINIST” sign.

It may not help that Simmons has unabashedly expressed some conservative – and thus uncool – political positions: he’s pro-America, pro-Israel, pro-capitalism, and pro-Romney in the last election (although he had previously voted for Obama, a decision he regrets). This does not earn him favorable press from outlets like Jezebel or Salon.

If the haters had bothered to look beyond his provocative soundbite and his ever-present dark shades to read his new book, they would have discovered that that old fart is a fascinating success story. He grew up dirt poor in Israel, the son of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. His father, the sole wage-earner, walked out on the family while Gene was still a boy, and his mother had to take up the slack; so Gene learned the hard way that women should be aware that men cannot, or at least should not, be depended upon.

When he came to America at the age of eight, it was the first time he had seen toilet paper, or a TV set, or supermarkets like “cities of food, their aisles like streets” of abundance. He took advantage of the land of opportunity to pursue and achieve the American dream in spades.

One chapter of the book is devoted to the special challenges that female entrepreneurs face in the male-dominated business arena. He doesn’t sugarcoat the obstacles, but he does encourage women to push beyond the sexism and traditional stereotypes to find success. It is a message that feminists would ordinarily embrace if it hadn’t come from a rock star who is unapologetic about his thousands of sexual conquests (because men who sleep around can be called pigs, but criticizing women who do the same is slut-shaming).

Simmons is an outspoken dude who knows that controversy sells, and he doesn’t care if anyone gets their knickers in a twist over his old-fashioned, pragmatic views. His female critics would be better off untwisting those knickers and picking up his book.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/3/14

Will UC Berkeley Nix Maher Commencement?

One has to appreciate the tragic irony that in the 50th anniversary year of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, a petition is being circulated there to disinvite the controversial Bill Maher as commencement speaker, because of his “racist and bigoted” views.

I am no fan of Bill Maher. He’s an Obama supporter who favors income redistribution, race preferences, abortion, tough gun control, and the outlawing of home schooling. He dismisses conservatives as racist, Christians as mental defectives, Americans as “stupid,” and the Second Amendment as “bullsh*t.” I believe university students deserve a prestigious, accomplished commencement speaker with more gravitas than a foul-mouthed standup comic whose days are spent hanging out in the Playboy mansion grotto (in fact, I don’t believe celebrities in general should be invited to speak at commencements).

But at least the atheist Maher has enough intellectual integrity to realize that not all religions are the same. He also has the courage to openly criticize Islam, something that a microscopically small number of public figures have the cojones to do. And let’s face it: it is his position on Islam that sparked the resistance of the UC Berkeley petition, because if Maher’s insults were limited to bashing Sarah Palin and Christians, no objection would have been raised. 

He recently had a notable dustup on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher with the self-appointed voice of Muslims everywhere, Ben Affleck. In it, Maher and guest Sam Harris tried to reason with an inflamed Affleck about the, shall we say, problematic nature of Islam, which Harris called “the mother lode of bad ideas.” Maher sided with Harris, and Affleck called their attitude “gross and racist,” despite the always-overlooked fact that – all together now – Islam is not a race. Mere days before that, Islamic dissembler Reza Aslan took Maher to task on CNN for his “facile arguments” about Islam.

That was three weeks ago. Shortly thereafter, a Change.org petition was initiated by Associated Students of the University of California Senator Marium Navid, who, according to the school’s Daily Californian, is backed by the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition, or MEMSA, and Khwaja Ahmed, an active MEMSA member. The petition asks UC Berkeley to stop him from speaking at the commencement ceremony. It has garnered 2,089 signatures as of this writing Tuesday night.

The petition claims that Maher “has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for.” I don’t know what those values are, but apparently a speaker who tests the boundaries of the comfort zone of sensitive Berkeley students, who uphold a selective “tolerance” as the highest of virtues, is intolerable. After all, “too many students are marginalized by his remarks and if the University were to bring this individual as a commencement speaker they would not be supporting these historically marginalized communities.” Heaven forbid that colleges might not make “historically marginalized communities” their focus, or that grown students might have to endure “remarks” that marginalize them.

As evidence that Maher is a “blatant” racist bigot who “perpetuates a dangerous learning environment,” the petition lists a few examples of his “hate speech.” They include: insults of religions in general (not only Islam); a shockingly racist assertion that Western values are better than non-Western ones; a smackdown of Hamas (because criticizing a terrorist organization is obviously racism); a statement that too much of the Muslim world shares the values of ISIS (no comment); and this truism, which not even Ben Affleck denied: “Islam is the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will f**king kill you if you say the wrong thing.”

“It’s not an issue of freedom of speech, it’s a matter of campus climate,” Navid said. “The First Amendment gives him the right to speak his mind, but it doesn’t give him the right to speak at such an elevated platform as the commencement. That’s a privilege his racist and bigoted remarks don’t give him.” While it is true that free speech doesn’t guarantee him a commencement speaker slot, what her argument masks is the sad fact that today’s university students are intolerant of anyone and anything that challenges their biases and makes them feel uncomfortable. Too many of them are not interested in testing received wisdom and expanding their horizons, but in protecting their favored illusions and wrapping themselves in the force-field of victim status.  

Claire Chiara, president of Berkeley College Republicans, also is no fan of Maher but said she has no issue with his confirmation as commencement speaker. “He’s a very prominent public figure, and I’m certain that he’s not going to treat a commencement speech at a prestigious university the way he treats his talk show.” Imagine that: Republican rationality and tolerance.

Navid, however, believes that Maher is beyond the pale. According to The Daily Californian, her office launched a campaign with the semi-oxymoronic name, “Free Speech, Not Hate Speech,” asking students to express their outrage to the Chancellor and the director of external relations. Of course, hate speech is quite simply speech you don’t agree with, so if you believe it must be suppressed, then you cannot claim to support free speech.

Again, I’m no fan of Maher, but I’m even less of a fan of the progressive/Islamist hypocrisy, intolerance, and smear tactics behind the petition to have him disinvited as speaker.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 10/30/14

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Mentoring Project

Esquire magazine isn’t a resource I would ordinarily go to for sagacity about manhood. For many years now, both it and its theoretically more mature competition GQ have, in their quest for a younger demographic, become only marginally more sophisticated versions of lads’ mags like Maxim. But I have to give Esquire credit for recently initiating The Mentoring Project, which encourages its male readership to seek out local mentoring organizations in order to help change the lives of kids who need role models and guidance.

For inspiration, the magazine posed the question “Who made you the man you are today?” and asked “fifty extraordinary men to tell us about the parents, coaches, teachers, troops leaders, religious leaders, and all-purpose mentors who helped them get to where they are today.” The list includes a range of famous figures from Chuck Norris and David Petraeus to Seth MacFarlane and Jimmy Kimmel.

Washington Redskins (is it still acceptable to call them that?) quarterback Robert Griffin III, for example, relates how “God put a lot of people in my life that have helped me… My dad sacrificed a lot for our family. He didn’t have shoes when he was growing up, so he couldn’t play basketball, and he made sure I had as many shoes as I needed to play sports.”

Actor Samuel L. Jackson talked about being shaped by the women who raised him, and by teachers as well: “I had English teachers in junior high and high school who encouraged me to read different things than I was reading—to read Shakespeare and Beowulf—and to expand my horizons in that particular way.”

Some of the respondents mentioned mentors who taught and inspired by example. Magician Penn Jillette, for example, spoke of his dad’s horrible job as a prison guard: “My dad would work all different hours and come home in his uniform. I didn't realize until I was probably thirty that my dad had never complained once. Never once. That attitude toward work, that attitude toward doing something you don’t want to do in order to serve your family and your community was very important to me.”

Senator Marco Rubio learned from his grandfather “to dream and aspire.” Actor Kevin Bacon credits his mother with teaching him and his brother compassion and honesty. Music powerhouse Quincy Jones is grateful to Count Basie for teaching him that you have to experience the valleys of failure – where you find out who you really are – to get to the mountaintop of success. Interestingly, country music star Dierks Bentley says that his wife and children made him the man he is today: “[Fatherhood] tears away the person you were before, builds you up to become the person you have to become, makes you learn a lot of skills—a lot of man skills.”

Some of the men learned from negative influences too, not just the positive ones. Skateboarding legend Tony Hawk remembers that “When I was growing up, there were these skaters who were revered, and I met a couple of them. And one or two of them were just outright assholes to me. It was so devastating to know that these guys I looked up to were jerks and weren't supportive. That had a huge impact on me. And I decided I never, ever wanted to be like that.”

To encourage readers to be proactive about mentoring, Esquire provides them with a mentor search page to find nearby organizations such as YouthBuild, Minds Matter, the U.S. Dream Academy, Youth Mentoring Connection, and Boys Hope Girls Hope, among many others, all across America from New York to Los Angeles.

Sadly, wisdom isn’t inherited; every generation has to learn life’s lessons from scratch, either through painful trial and error, or preferably from those who have gone before us and who are willing to share their experience, wisdom, support and inspiration.

It isn’t just boys and girls from troubled circumstances who need mentoring, although they certainly have special challenges to overcome. Every child needs role models to steer us in all facets of our lives, from morality to self-understanding to career. Without mentors, whether parents or teachers or the accomplished figures we admire, we simply drift, and usually far from shore. Good for Esquire for recognizing that and for launching the Mentoring Project.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/29/14)

Dracula and the Sultan

Always comfortable with Hollywood’s distortion of history as long as it suits their propagandistic motives, progressives and their Islamic allies are the first to try to discredit films that don’t fit their narrative. You can be sure that any film they attack on grounds of supposed “historical inaccuracy” must be uncomfortably close to the truth.

Writing in the New Statesman (and reprinted in the New Republic), Turkish writer Elest Ali asks the burning cinematic question, “Is Dracula Untold an Islamophobic movie?” She’s referring to the new Universal picture starring Luke Evans and Dominic Cooper, a fanciful epic about the actual historical source of the outlandish Dracula legend we all know and love: Vlad Tepes III, 15th century Romanian hero and legend who dared resist invasion by the feared Ottoman empire.

Elest Ali recently saw the film in Turkey with a friend who declared, “That film was very anti-Muslim.” “What else is new?” she replies – because we all know how openly bigoted Hollywood currently is toward Muslims, am I right? Ali decided to write about her issue with the movie’s “historical accuracy, and contemporary significance.” Non-spoiler alert: she denounces it as Islamophobic, the kneejerk, go-to accusation leveled at anything and anyone that doesn’t shine a flattering light on Islam or Muslims (see Affleck, Ben).

“Hollywood is no genius when it comes to accurate representation,” she begins, and I couldn’t agree more. From the “Bush lied, people died” message of Matt Damon’s The Green Zone, to the ahistorical moral equivalency of the Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven, to the lies about Ronald Reagan and race in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Hollywood rewrites history to ensure that its dramatic version becomes history in the popular imagination.

But Dracula Untold doesn’t suit Ali’s biases, so she casts the suspicion of bigotry over it. “In the current climate of global political tension and escalating Islamophobia,” she asks, without considering Islam’s responsibility for the former or providing any evidence of the latter, “what political statement does Dracula Untold make in pitting our vampire hero against the armies of Mehmet II?” Probably no political statement at all was intended by the filmmakers, but in any case it wasn’t the statement Ali wanted to see.

She suggests that in Vlad’s time (which she oddly labels “the Age of Enlightenment,” a period that was at least two centuries distant), Islam was an “appealing,” “fast-spreading faith” that was “glamorized” by “wealthy, cultivated Muslim travelers” in Europe, seducing large numbers of European converts. In fact, Islam has always spread not because its appeal is irresistible (except to barbarous killers like today’s ISIS sympathizers), but through the coercive power of the sword. She feels that the movie’s use of the word “Turk” to characterize the glamorous, cultivated, multicultural Ottomans is a subtle historical slur, “an attempt to tribalize the Islamic faith and associate it with foreign, potentially threatening powers, which were the common enemy.” Well, in the time and place in which the movie is set, the Islamic Ottoman empire was a threatening foreign power. For that matter, Turkey today is a threatening foreign power.

“I’ll fill you in on some more history,” Ali continues condescendingly before proceeding to whitewash the imperialist Sultan Mehmet II, while dismissing Vlad as “progenitor of the vampire myth.” She claims that Vlad’s father, the Prince of Wallachia (essentially present-day Romania), “willingly offered” the Sultan his two sons in return for helping him keep the throne against his enemies. This is laughably false. Vlad the elder was seized and his sons Vlad III and Radu the Handsome were taken as hostages to ensure the father’s fealty as a vassal of the Sultan. Young Vlad was a “guest” of the Sultan for six years; meanwhile, according to biographers Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally in Dracula: Prince of Many Faces, the beautiful young Radu initially did his best to resist Mehmet’s sexual advances before eventually succumbing and becoming his lover and a Janissary general. Ali doesn’t mention Mehmet’s bisexuality or Vlad’s fierce refusal to convert to Islam.

Ali continues in her imaginary take on history: When Vlad later “started wreaking carnage across the Balkans, Mehmet II dispatched Radu to quell his brother’s blood-thirst.” Wrong. Vlad was well aware that Mehmet fancied himself a conqueror on the scale of Caesar, Alexander, and Hannibal. Mehmet’s ambition was to bring all of Europe into his imperialistic fold, and Vlad was determined to make Wallachia the tip of the spear of Christian European resistance to Islam. He began by sending a very defiant message to the Sultan: he took Mehmet’s emissaries, who came demanding an overdue payment of the jizya, and nailed their turbans to their heads.

“Vlad’s insurrection was not dissimilar to the terror tactics of the so-called Islamic State,” Ali claims in her ongoing attempt to demonize him (as an aside, the Islamic State is not “so-called”; it is the name that those butchers have proudly given themselves). She is not at all incorrect about Vlad’s terror tactics – details of his widespread cruelty make your hair stand on end – but what she does not acknowledge is that Vlad learned such merciless tactics from the Ottomans while he was their hostage as a boy. He learned them well enough that when Mehmet himself marched upon Wallachia to seize it, he was so horrified to be greeted by a forest of 20,000 impaled Ottoman soldiers that he had to be talked out of turning tail back home.

Ali complains that Vlad waged a campaign of guerilla attacks against Mehmet’s larger army, including dressing his men in Ottoman uniforms and using his fluent Turkish to slip into the enemy’s camps. She says this as if unaware that the warlord prophet Muhammad himself taught that “war is deception.” Vlad would have made Muhammad proud.

Ultimately, his hated brother Radu was victorious and Vlad was offered sanctuary by his ally Matthew Corvinus and his clan. “But frankly,” writes Ali, “they’d also had enough of his grizzly antics, so they imprisoned him on charges of treason. True story,” she says, as if we should take her word for it. In fact, Vlad was falsely charged with treason for political reasons; Matthew later allied with Vlad to help him retrieve the Wallachian throne from a Turkish prince. True story.

“Vilification of Islam has reached such heights,” Elest Ali whines, without acknowledging the many obvious reasons why Islam itself might be to blame for that, “that even when the Sultan is cast opposite history’s bloodiest-psycho-tyrant, it’s Dracula who emerges as the tragic hero.” Vlad the Impaler – not the fictional Dracula – certainly earned his nickname, but he is by no means history’s “bloodiest-psycho-tyrant.” That honorific could go to any number of modern monsters such as, say, Ismail Enver Pasha, one of the principal architects of Turkey’s Armenian Genocide. But don’t hold your breath waiting for Hollywood to dramatize the truth about that.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 10/29/14)

The Management of Savagery

If there is a positive side to the rise of ISIS, it is that the West has had its head jerked from the sand and has been made to witness a bottomless, bloodthirsty evil: crucifixions, beheadings, enslavement of women, live burial of children, mass executions. Even John Kerry, a man not known for grasping (or admitting) the truth about jihad, acknowledges that this brutality “underscores the degree to which [ISIS] is so far beyond the pale with respect to any standard by which we judge even terrorist groups.” But as one analyst writes, this violence is not “whimsical, crazed fanaticism, but a very deliberate, considered strategy” – one that seems to derive in part from a book called The Management of Savagery.

In the spring of 2004 a strategist who called himself Abu Bakr Naji published online The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Ummah Will Pass (later translated from the Arabic by William McCants, a fellow at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center). The book – what the Washington Post calls the Mein Kampf of jihad – aimed to provide a strategy for al-Qaeda and other jihadists. “The ideal of this movement,” wrote Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker, “as its theorists saw it, was the establishment of a caliphate that would lead to the purification of the Muslim world.”

Naji believed that a civil war within Islam would lead to that Sunni caliphate, so he recommended a merciless campaign of violence in Muslim lands to polarize the population, expose the inability of the state to maintain control, attract followers, and create a spreading network of “regions of savagery.”

“The management of savagery” refers to controlling the chaos that results from that breakdown of order. The requirements for the administration of savagery are:

·         Establishing internal security
·         Providing food and medical treatment
·         Securing the borders against the invasion of enemies
·         Establishing Sharia law
·         Establishing a fighting society at all levels and among all individuals.

The manifesto proposes that the jihadists exhaust an overstretched America through a patient war of attrition and a manipulation of the media to dismantle the superpower’s “aura of invincibility.” It demands that the enemy be made to “pay the price” for any and all attacks carried out against the jihadists, even if the retribution takes years, in order to instill in the enemy “a sense of hopelessness that will cause him to seek reconciliation.” No mercy must be shown: “Our enemies will not be merciful to us if they seize us. Thus, it behooves us to make them think one thousand times before attacking us.”

Shocking violence is a key element of that strategy. “The beheadings and the violence practiced by [the Islamic State] are not whimsical, crazed fanaticism, but a very deliberate, considered strategy,” writes British analyst Alastair Crooke. “The seemingly random violence has a precise purpose: It’s [sic] aim is to strike huge fear; to break the psychology of a people.” For example, Naji recommends that in instances in which hostage demands are not met, “the hostages should be liquidated in a terrifying manner, which will send fear into the hearts of the enemy and his supporters.”

Naji believed that “we need to massacre” others as Muslims did after the death of Muhammad. “We must make this battle very violent,” the book says.  “If we are not violent in our jihad and if softness seizes us, that will be a major factor in the loss of the element of strength.”

But the violence isn’t intended merely to terrify, but to “drag the masses into battle.” Naji’s strategy requires polarizing the Muslim world and convincing any moderates who had hoped for U.S. protection that it is futile.

Paradoxically, this violence is actually a part of Allah’s mercy to all mankind. Putting apostates and infidels to the sword is merciful compared to the wrath that Allah himself would rain down:

Some may be surprised when we say that the religious practice of jihad despite the blood, corpses, and limbs which encompass it and the killing and fighting which its practice entails is among the most blessed acts of worship for the servants… Jihad is the most merciful of the methods for all created things and the most sparing of the spilling of blood.

Among those who are hostile to this mercy are “infidels among the Jews and the Christians and others who accused Islam of severity and mercilessness in all of its religious practices,” as well as “those who say that Islam is a religion of mercy and peace and that jihad is immoderate and excessive and that it has nothing to do with Islam!” Clearly Abu Bakr Naji is one of the many misunderstanders of Islam who didn’t get the memo about its peaceful nature.

In Naji’s conclusion, he stresses that “our battle is a battle of tawhid [the oneness of Allah] against unbelief and faith against polytheism. It is not an economic, political, or social battle.” [Emphasis added] The recent documentary feature released by ISIS called Flames of War, used as a recruiting tool for Muslim brethren in the West, confirms their religious aim and motivation. In addition to missing the memo about Islam meaning peace, apparently Naji also neglected to read all the memos from Western apologists about Islamic terrorism being spawned by poverty and Western oppression and exploitation.

Unfortunately, it seems that President Obama and Secretary Kerry, who continue to insist that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, never got Abu Bakr Naji’s memo either – the one entitled The Management of Savagery.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 10/27/14)