Friday, July 24, 2015
Chivalry may not be dead, but it says quite a bit about the status of its health when a public example of it draws such attention and inspires such polarized responses as one instance did last week.
Alt rock band 3 Doors Down was playing to a full house in Broomfield, Colorado, when something caught frontman Brad Arnold’s eye that incensed him. He abruptly stopped his bandmates in mid-song before addressing someone in the audience near the stage.
“Hey, hey, homie, you don’t hit a woman,” he said angrily as the stunned audience listened. “You just pushed a woman out of the way to get in a fight, you d*ck.” (Arnold later apologized to the crowd for his uncharacteristic profanity.)
When concertgoers realized he was calling out a man for abusing a woman, they erupted in cheers. But Arnold wasn’t done: “Get him the hell out of here,” he ordered security. He then said something else that was lost in the concert noise, before forcefully reminding the man in the audience: “You don't hit a woman, dude.”
The band’s guitarist Chris Henderson shared a video clip of the incident online – it’s been viewed well over 2.5 million times – and later released a statement to E! News, which read,
You see people fight in the crowd all the time. In the past Brad has said for people to calm down and love each other but this was ultra aggressive in our eyes. It was so aggressive that he stopped the show for the first time in 15 years to address it head on with the guy.
The reaction to Brad Arnold’s very public scolding was generally supportive, and rightfully so. After all, he had not only interrupted his own show to come to the defense of a woman who was being roughed up, but he had sent a loud and clear message to everyone in his audience – and to anyone who saw the video clip online or read about it – that it is simply wrong for men, who are generally bigger and stronger, to hit women. “That's why I posted [the video],” Henderson said. “I thought it was chivalry at its best."
But not everyone was impressed by Arnold’s honorable gesture. The commenters beneath online articles about the incident fall into three categories, as they always do when chivalry is the topic: those who cheered the fact that the rumors of chivalry’s death are greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Mark Twain; egalitarians, both male and female, who assert that no one should hit anyone, man or woman; and those who angrily reject the notion that a man should ever come to the defense of a woman.
That final category includes radical feminists but more often a subset of men’s rights activists who call themselves Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW). It’s impossible to know how large a community they are, but the more disturbingly angry and misogynistic members are becoming increasingly vocal on the internet, and their opposition to chivalry is positively rabid.
For example, one such commenter at Breitbart.com snarled about Brad Arnold, “What a pathetic white knight. Such woman protectors like him are the feminist filth that turned the country into the misandrist mess it is now.”
(In MGTOW terminology, the formerly heroic symbol of the “white knight” is now a contemptuous label for “beta males” who treat women with deference and respect. MGTOW blame white knights for aiding and abetting the feminism they so despise for ruining their world.)
That same commenter linked to an internet placard called Hurt Feminism by Doing Nothing, which is not an official MGTOW motto but pretty adequately sums up their attitude toward chivalry:
Don’t Help Women
Don’t Fix Things for Women
Don’t Support Women’s Issues
Don’t Come to Women’s Defense
Don’t Speak for Women
Don’t Value Women’s Feelings
Don’t Portray Women as Victims
Don’t Protect Women.
“Without White Knights,” it concludes, “Feminism Would End Today.”
To give you even more explicit evidence of the attitude of such self-proclaimed “alpha males”: on a Reddit thread about the 3 Doors Down incident, one commenter was even more obscenely incensed by Arnold’s actions than Arnold himself was about the guy he scolded:
Does no one realize sometimes a b*tch deserves it? F*ck these white knight pr*cks. I'm going to go [here he inserts a very colorful expression that describes using a woman for selfish sexual gratification and then dumping her] some slut at a bar this weekend just to balance the karma.
It would be easy to dismiss such viciousness as the bitter ravings of a few internet bullies who can’t get a date, except that these (admittedly extreme) examples are indicative of a broader male frustration, confusion, and resentment about what manhood means today and the role men should play in a world radically changed by feminism. The attitude that “chivalry is nothing but male stupidity,” as one MGTOW commenter asserted, has become tragically all-too-common.
In a culture that has bred such an attitude among too many men, the chivalry that Brad Arnold expressed instinctively is in diminishing supply. It is a quality of character that needs not just celebrating, but cultivating.
From Acculturated, 7/23/15
at 9:20 AM
Monday, July 20, 2015
Once upon a time in America, it was believed that the President of the United States should have the gravitas and proper sense of priorities to distance himself from the triviality of showbiz. Then along came television, and Nixon poked fun at himself on Laugh-In, Clinton played blues sax on The Arsenio Hall Show, and Obama slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon. Now anyone who aspires to occupy the White House is expected to show that he or she is just as comfortable hanging with celebs as mingling with heads of state. Welcome to the era of the pop culture presidency.
In his recent book Celebrity in Chief: A History of the Presidents and the Culture of Stardom, presidential historian Kenneth T. Walsh argues that celebrity is an indispensable part of the modern presidency, and that presidents who handle celebrity better are more successful. While what constitutes “successful” is arguable, it’s true that a comfortable engagement with pop culture has become an important selling point for presidential candidates.
Walsh’s book was reviewed recently by Tevi Troy, who traced the interaction (or lack thereof) between our presidents and the pop culture of their time in his own book on the topic, What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. Pop culture is the most influential arena, Troy notes, in which to connect with the American people – especially the politically coveted younger generations – and for capturing their imaginations. For example,
The most astute presidents of the cinematic era, such as Clinton and Reagan, have understood that movies tell stories about themselves and about the country that can reach voters with no interest in political speeches but who hold great interest in what is taking place on the silver screen.
There is an obvious political advantage for the President or candidate who not only has his finger on the pulse of the culture, but who can manipulate it through the gravitational pull of his own charm and charisma.
Troy believes that presidents who distance themselves from pop culture and focus on reading can show a seriousness of purpose that some voters appreciate. But the truth is that Americans have a healthy suspicion of bookish intellectuals as leaders – and rightly so. Leadership is primarily about vision and charisma, not intellect. Through our history it’s been more important to Americans for our presidents to have the common touch than to be well-read or well-educated, and today that means a president who understands pop culture.
And no president understands it like Barack Obama, a man “shaped by popular culture more thoroughly than any other president in our history,” says Troy. Obama has won two elections in no small measure because of his shrewd understanding of, and what Walsh calls “his constant and unusual” engagement with, pop culture. He chats on late night talk shows, hangs with Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and jets out to Hollywood periodically for fundraisers. He has successfully appropriated the hipness of movie stars and rappers, and raised the bar of presidential cool to heights Bill Clinton could only dream of.
Is that a problem, you might ask? What’s wrong with a President who “gets” young people, who is relatable and cool? In an era in which singer Bono is out there doing the work of a world leader himself, why install some boring old fart in the White House who probably doesn’t even listen to U2?
The harm is not in having a President with personality and a sense of humor, and it’s perfectly understandable that he or she would take advantage of the platforms pop culture offers to reach voters, including the vast swath of the American public that might not otherwise pay attention to politics.
The danger is that a President who takes time out to trade comic barbs with Zack Galifianakis on Funny or Die, or be interviewed by a YouTube star best-known for bathing in Fruit Loops, not only diminishes the dignity of the Presidency but unwisely gives both our allies and our enemies the impression that the American people and the Leader of the Free World are fundamentally unserious.
The danger comes when voters are seduced into the orbit of a leader or candidate not because of his or her character and positions on the issues, but because of a shallow aura of cool.
The danger comes when a President becomes a personality more outsized than the office of the Presidency itself, when he or she not only hangs with celebs, but becomes one.
We live in dangerous times. Nothing would make them worse quite like an American President empowered not by the trust and respect of what Jefferson called an informed electorate, but by a corrupting cult of celebrity.
From Acculturated, 7/20/15
at 8:02 PM
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Friday, July 10, 2015
Another day, another internet outrage.
Last Thursday Goldie Hawn and Michael Eisner were in conversation onstage at the Aspen Ideas Festival when the former Disney CEO went out on a very precarious limb as he mused about women and comedy:
From my position, the hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman. By far. They usually—boy am I going to get in trouble, I know this goes online—but usually, unbelievably beautiful women, you being an exception, are not funny.
Then he proceeded to saw off the limb he had crawled out on. Hawn responded that she owes her sense of humor to having been an “ugly duckling” growing up, and Eisner countered that “You didn’t think you were beautiful”:
I know women who have been told they're beautiful, they win Miss Arkansas, they don't ever have to get attention other than with their looks. So they don't tell a joke. In the history of the motion-picture business, the number of beautiful, really beautiful women—a Lucille Ball—that are funny, is impossible to find.
He was right, at least about the getting-in-trouble part. Internet umbrage predictably ensued. “Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner Tells Goldie Hawn 'Beautiful Women... Aren't Funny' (And The Internet Explodes),” read a misleading Huffington Post headline. He had accidentally reopened the wounds inflicted back in 2007 by Christopher Hitchens’ Vanity Fair essay, “Why Aren’t Women Funny?” That polemic had inflamed feminist ire at the time, much to the amusement of the gleefully controversial Hitchens, and Eisner had reignited it all over again.
“Whatever possessed Eisner, who is neither funny nor beautiful, to make these inane remarks is unknown,” Vulture sneered. Hypable dismissed Eisner as a desperate dinosaur terrified of change in a “post-patriarchal” world, whose statement “has no place in a civilized, post-invention of fire society.” Slate’s go-to feminist Amanda Marcotte called Eisner a “daft sexist” whose comments were classic “mansplaining” about women. For the final nail in his coffin, she even linked to scientific evidence suggesting that women are just as funny as men.
But Eisner never said they weren’t. There are plenty of examples of real sexism in the entertainment industry that warrant attention without getting lathered up over an imaginary or harmless offense. Eisner wasn’t trying to hold women up to a separate standard. Most comedians – male and female – are not extraordinarily attractive. Certainly there are examples of funny, attractive actresses – maybe even many, depending on how lax your standards are. But extraordinarily attractive and funny? Rare, by definition. Eisner didn’t mention men, because he was talking about women; it was in the context of complimenting Goldie Hawn by elevating her to the level of a Lucille Ball, who is sort of the gold standard of beautiful comediennes. Would it have been more acceptable if Eisner had told Hawn, “There are many, many beautiful comediennes, and you were merely one of them”?
Context is everything when quoting someone, but internet vigilantes often don’t even bother to look past the headline, much less read deeply enough to consider the context. All they needed to get fired up in this instance was Eisner’s comment that in his showbiz experience it is “impossible” to find really beautiful women who are also really funny. Should he have said “impossible”? No, because of course it’s not impossible. But that harmless exaggeration doesn’t warrant hanging him in effigy.
As comedians such as Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant have complained lately, we as a culture have become boringly prudish and hypersensitive to even the most innocuous violations of politically correct orthodoxy. No public or even private figure can speak casually anymore without risking triggering the tiresome Angry Villagers of the internet, whose torches and pitchforks are always at the ready.
As Jon Ronson notes in So You've Been Publicly Shamed, the internet has engendered “a great renaissance of public shaming… coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence.” It is “like the democratization of justice.” Except that this “justice” is actually the ruthless condemnation of the insatiable mob, for whom every careless phrasing, every off-color joke, every unintended offense is a felony, and the punishment is always personal destruction. Then the mob moves on to the next outrage and the next target.
at 9:00 PM
Sunday, July 5, 2015
This Tuesday marked the anniversary of the 1936 publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-era epic Gone with the Wind, one of the bestselling novels of all time, which also became one of the most beloved movies of all time. But in light of its nostalgic view of Southern slave-owning society, has this classic become a racist relic that must be shunned in our time?
Gone with the Wind has sold tens of millions of copies. Its author Mitchell won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the David O. Selznick-produced film starring Vivien Leigh as tenacious Atlanta belle Scarlett O’Hara and dashing Clark Gable won eight Oscars (out of 13 nominations) and is still the most successful film in box office history (when adjusted for inflation). It was number six on the American Film Institute’s 10th Anniversary Top 100 American Movies of All Time in 2007. Up until a week or so ago, few people would have denied it that celebrated place in history and in the hearts of movie lovers everywhere.
But that was before the shocking massacre of nine members of an historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, at the hands of a white supremacist. In the wake of that atrocity, public revulsion for the Confederate battle flag, with which the murderer had posed in personal photos, led to hysteria about banishing that symbol of American slavery from view – no matter where or in what context it was found.
Not only were there calls to remove it from government building flagpoles across the South, but Amazon, eBay, and retailers from Sears to Walmart banned merchandise with its image. Apple withdrew historical video games and apps featuring the image from circulation. Even more irrationally, TV Land pulled reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard from its lineup, and the replica iconic car from that 1980s show, with a Confederate symbol on its hood, will no longer be sold.
The rush to put a “banned-aid” on America’s re-opened racial wounds didn’t end there. The New York Post’s Lou Lumenick wrote an op-ed last week titled, “‘Gone with the Wind’ should go the way of the Confederate flag,” in which he argued that,
If the Confederate flag is finally going to be consigned to museums as an ugly symbol of racism, what about the beloved film offering the most iconic glimpse of that flag in American culture?
While not “as blatantly and virulently racist as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation,’’ Lumenick wrote, Gone with the Wind’s “more subtle racism’’ is even “more insidious,” romanticizing as the movie does the institution of slavery, and painting the Civil War as a noble lost cause.
Lumenick acknowledges the great qualities about GWTW, including “its gorgeous Technicolor photography and its unforgettable performances” not only by Leigh and Gable but by Hattie McDaniel, the first black performer to win an Oscar. But he wonders, “[W]hat does it say about us as a nation if we continue to embrace a movie that, in the final analysis, stands for many of the same things as the Confederate flag..?”
While not calling for an outright ban on the film, he concludes that this “undeniably racist artifact” should be consigned to the dust heap of history along with the Confederate flag. I’m reminded of efforts to do the same with the novels of Mark Twain because they feature characters who casually use the N-word, which was in common use at the time but which virtually everyone but the rap industry and marginalized pockets of white trash finds abhorrent today.
Thankfully, Lumenick’s argument and such extreme examples of excising the Confederate battle flag from history were met largely with cries of disapproval, and even with accusations that they resembled Orwellian-style revisions of history.
History is what it is – or rather, what it was. We cannot change it, obviously, but neither should we deny it, rewrite it, or delete “unacceptable” aspects of it from our cultural consciousness. Even as just a symbolic response, condemning educational Civil War games, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Gone with the Wind in response to the Charleston shooting was a childish and pointless gesture.
This is not to say that each of us shouldn’t be allowed to make our own moral judgments of art, as well as aesthetic ones. But there is a danger in banishing works of art of which ruling elites have capriciously declared that we should no longer approve. We must have the sense and sensibility to recognize that historical novels or movies are born of their time and place.
To expect works of art to conform to politically correct sensibilities, and to remove them from sight when they do not, is a cowardly and even totalitarian act which also exposes a fear and incomprehension of art. To allow shifting socio-political blind spots to obscure our vision leaves us all less enlightened about not only the past, but ourselves.
From Acculturated, 7/2/15
at 1:51 AM
Monday, June 29, 2015
Prior to the premiere of HBO’s Ballers last Sunday, the new show was being touted everywhere as “Entourage with football players” instead of movie stars. And there certainly are superficial similarities: superstars and their hangers-on, glamorous clubs, and an easy abundance of babes, money, and drugs – not to mention the same team of producers and filmmakers (Mark Wahlberg and Stephen Levinson) behind both series. But on a more substantial level, the two shows are in stark contrast to one another.
While Entourage features an ensemble of leads, Ballers centers on big-screen action star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Spencer Strasmore, a former pro football “Golden Boy” whose promising career was sidelined early by an injury that shattered not just his knees but his dream of sports glory. Now munching painkillers like Tic Tacs, Spence is trying to move forward with his life as an investment counselor, working for a very unsentimental boss played by the scenery-chewing Rob Corddry, who is constantly pressuring Spence to “monetize his friendships.”
In Entourage, Vince and his boys are living the dream – or at least, working toward it. In Ballers, Spence’s dream is already over. In the pilot’s opening scene, for example, Spence literally dreams that he’s back on the field, the roar of the crowd in his ears – and then his eyes snap open to hard reality.
That reality requires him, as an investment counselor, to try to knock some maturity into other players who are still living the dream but are too shortsighted and immature to grasp that one day – any day – theirs too will be over, leaving them forgotten, unemployed, and without any job skills. Much of the tension in the show stems from Spence’s efforts to instill in these players the need to live with more thrift, common sense, and thoughtfulness about their futures.
The half-hour pilot is loaded with examples of such players with too much money and too little sense. An NFL superstar crashes his Maserati with his mistress inside, killing them both and leaving none of his assets to his wife. A rookie player has already spent his $12 million signing bonus and needs to borrow three hundred grand from Spence to keep his hangers-on – some of whom he doesn’t even know – afloat. One former player whose life no longer has any purpose is reduced to applying for work at a car dealership, where he isn’t even remembered as a player. Hot shot wide receiver Ricky, played by Denzel Washington’s son John David, is an impulsive bad boy whose behavior is ruining his all-star career. All in all, a rather unsettling premiere for a show ostensibly categorized as a comedy in the vein of the lighthearted Entourage.
In a quiet monologue that shows the charismatic Johnson has real acting chops and is more than just a million-dollar smile, Spence tells the arrogant young Ricky,
You better wise the f*ck up, ‘cause you got one contract left and when it’s done you’ll be out on the streets with the rest of us. You keep f*cking up like this, you keep acting like a little kid, when it’s done – and you’re done – you’re gonna be broke and miserable.
“And you wanna know what the worst part about it is?” Spence continues. “Nobody will give a f*ck about you. I been there.” He pauses and sighs, and you do indeed believe that Spence has been there. “You need to grow up.” The twist is – minor spoiler alert – Spence himself is still learning that lesson. The $300,000 he loans to the rookie he wants to sign as a client leaves Spence himself broke.
In future episodes things may change, including the tone, which is only occasionally and mildly humorous. But so far Ballers is getting mixed reviews because it isn’t quite the amusing, hedonistic joyride fans of Entourage were expecting. In fact, Ballers is the anti-Entourage. It’s not about living the dream; it’s about waking up and growing up before the dream becomes a nightmare of purposelessness and wasted lives. And in that important respect, Ballers may surprise its critics with real depth, and may disappoint those looking only for an Entourage-style fantasy.
That’s a good thing.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/25/15)
at 8:07 AM
Saturday, June 20, 2015
Premiering this Friday is The Wolfpack, a documentary about six brothers who grew up almost entirely isolated from the world in a Lower East Side apartment in New York City. Most of what the Angulo boys did know of life beyond those walls came from the family’s collection of thousands of VHS tapes and DVDs. Their real lives were strictly circumscribed by a father who feared the city’s crime and corrupting influence, but “as far as movies went,” said one of the boys, “we had all the freedom in the world.”
So movies became their world — or at least, the world as filtered through the lenses of visionaries like Quentin Tarantino, Terrence Malick, Francis Ford Coppola and Christopher Nolan. The brothers, now ages 16 to 23, became passionate movie lovers and even made home movies in which they re-created scenes from favorites like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and The Dark Knight. Now two of the boys are starting their own film production company, Wolfpack Pictures. The documentary explores what happens when our worldview is shaped entirely by the dreamscape, the larger-than-life characters, the self-consciously crafted dialogue, and the soundtrack of film.
But in fact, Americans today aren’t much different from that “wolfpack,” as the Angulo brothers were nicknamed. In the last hundred years, Hollywood has increasingly served as our teacher. Yes, unlike the sheltered Angulo brothers, we all have our own personal experiences of the world beyond the big screen, but most of us aren’t aware of the extent to which movies have become our shared experiences, and have molded our cultural worldview.
We largely get our history through movies, for example: from Birth of a Nation to Selma, from Spartacus to Lincoln, from Lawrence of Arabia to Argo, our understanding of the past resembles less of what we may have read (or more likely haven’t read) than of what we have seen and heard onscreen. Biopics like Ali, Ray, and The Aviator change the way we perceive famous figures – and the way we literally see them. When asked to picture General George Patton, for example, it’s difficult not to see George C. Scott, or to imagine Elizabeth Taylor when we think of Cleopatra.
The problem with this is that movies are more myth than truth. Historical dramas, for example, are rarely accurate except in the broad strokes, and sometimes not even then. This is not to say that filmmakers are purposefully rewriting the past (although many are); it’s just that screenwriters inescapably have to reshape history to fit the structure and dramatic arcs of effective storytelling.
As a result, a decent amount of what we see onscreen is made up or perhaps even contradicts the historical truth. And studies have shown that unless viewers are told specifically which elements of an historical flick are not factual, they tend to absorb the false equally with the true. This is why film makes such successful propaganda – more so than any other art form. “For us,” Lenin once said of his Communist brethren, “cinema is the most important of the arts.” He didn’t mean aesthetically, of course; he was referring to its indoctrinating power.
More than any other art form, movies now bind us together culturally. Hollywood is democratizing all culture into pop culture. The touchstones of Shakespeare, the Bible, and Mark Twain are gradually being replaced by our shared references from Star Wars, The Godfather, and Titanic. Even on a personal level, people will claim that they understand movies are not real life, but in fact, we often internalize scenes from them more deeply than our own memories.
Twenty-five hundred years ago Plato told his allegory of the cave, in which people are like lifelong prisoners chained in a cavern, facing a blank wall. Their reality consists entirely of blurred shadows that dance on the wall, projected by things passing in front of a fire behind the prisoners. Plato argued that only the philosopher understands that these dim shadows are not the true, vivid forms of reality. Not too unlike his prisoners and the Angulo brothers, we have grown up with a fading ability to distinguish the forms dancing on cinema screens from the real world.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/18/15)
at 9:16 AM
Thursday, June 18, 2015
Many if not all FrontPage readers are no doubt familiar with the political/cultural commentary of writer Andrew Klavan that has appeared in City Journal, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and elsewhere. Many are familiar with his political videos and appearances on Glenn Beck, Hannity and Red Eye. Perhaps you even know that he has been tapped to script an upcoming movie about the Gosnell abortion horrors. But if you’re not familiar with his novels as well, don’t waste any more time reading this review. Go instead to the nearest bookstore, if you can find one anymore, and check the shelves between Stephen King and Dean Koontz; or go online to order his books. Either way, prepare to be entertained.
If you are familiar with Klavan’s internationally bestselling crime novels (for which he has been nominated for the Mystery Writers of America’s prestigious Edgar Award five times, winning twice), the films like True Crime and Don’t Say A Word that were made from them, and his Young Adult thrillers including the bestselling Homelanders series, then read on about his newest novel. [Full disclosure: he is also a friend of mine]
As I have written before about Klavan, he writes page-turners of unusually high literary quality, bursting with grand themes and big ideas but centered on sympathetic characters. He will carry you into dark depths but with a surprisingly comic touch, and the ride is always gripping and entertaining. And that has never been truer than with his latest book, Werewolf Cop.
Considering its title, I don’t think it requires a spoiler alert to reveal that the book is about a cop who becomes a werewolf. Zach Adams and his partner Martin Goulart are the chief detectives in an Extraordinary Crimes task force in pursuit of an international criminal mastermind – German-Russian billionaire Dominic Abend, who himself is in pursuit of a mysterious dagger of supernatural power. Zach is warned by creepy European Professor Dankl that if Abend finds the dagger before they do, the world is in deep, dark danger.
As one character tells Zach, “We ain’t fighting against flesh and blood no more. We’re fighting against principalities. And powers. Against spiritual forces in the heavenly places. This is a battle against good and evil, Agent Adams.”
Zach initially doesn’t buy all this weird nonsense, but he feels compelled to dig deeper. His meeting with Dankl turns into a terrifying and deadly confrontation with evil on a scale most people have never imagined, much less experienced – and he comes away infected with it. The book then goes into overdrive as Zach races against time to stop Dominic Abend while also wrestling with his moonlight transformation into a beast of ravenous fury – not to mention trying to keep his marriage intact.
As always in Klavan’s novels, there is more to the story than just the noir atmosphere, the sexual tension, and the twists and turns of the plot. His protagonists are up against not only their antagonists but their own humanity as well. His books aren’t simply about the good guys taking down the bad; they are about men who must come to terms with their own weakness and sin, and that spiritual depth is where Klavan excels and what gives his crime thrillers a unique dimension.
In Werewolf Cop, Zach’s struggle against the evil he has literally internalized is more than a matter of life and death. As another character tells Zach, “evil can only be thwarted where people are willing to sacrifice themselves to fight it – to sacrifice not only their lives but their very souls.” That’s a daunting prospect, but what Zach has in his corner is “the courage to do what had to be done” and “the mysterious force of human will, like a tiny rudder steering a great ship,” that he needs “to wake from the dream of the wolf’s desire.”
As if that epic contest weren’t enough, Zach has another battle on his hands: he is wracked with guilt for a lone affair he has kept secret from his wife and the mother of his children – a secret that is in imminent danger of being exposed. And yet in this conflict lies the seed of victory against the evil that possesses him. That seed is an even more powerful force than the human will: love.
Don’t make the mistake of passing on this book because you’re not into novels with an element of horror and the supernatural. Give it a chance – the mystery, the harrowing action, the fully-drawn characters, the sexual and spiritual tension, and the skillful prose will draw you in.
Klavan is politically conservative but not a politically conservative novelist, if I may make that distinction. He isn’t hurling ideological bricks thinly disguised as crime thrillers. He understands, as too many other conservative artists do not, that conveying conservative values is simply a matter of telling good stories that address very human themes: the courage of the individual against corruption and control; the very personal role of faith in a fallen world; the power of forgiveness and love; the existence of evil and its eternal conflict with good.
It isn’t necessary for a writer to be overtly political while trafficking in these themes, or to shoehorn in any heavy-handed messages. All the writer has to do is, like Klavan, be adept at keeping the reader turning the pages and caring about the characters. The values inherent in the tale will then resonate with the reader on their own.
(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 6/17/15)
Friday, June 12, 2015
Every culture ends up with a hero that defines it. From the trickster Odysseus of Homeric Greece to the chivalrous Lancelot of Arthurian romance to the lone lawman of Hollywood westerns, heroes reflect the values and ideals of their time and place. But who is the heroic icon of 21st century America? Who defines us?
Warner Bros. announced recently that Clint Eastwood’s next movie will be a biopic of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot whose US Airways flight collided with a flock of geese during takeoff in 2009 and he famously had to ditch it in the Hudson River. All 155 passengers survived. True to a selfless hero’s commitment to his duty, Sullenberger was the last to leave the plane, which he did only after personally inspecting it twice for any stragglers.
Sully was instantly hailed an American hero. “I don’t think there is any other pilot in the world that could have done what this guy did,” said one grateful passenger. “He’s the reason my wife has a husband and my daughter has a father,” said another. “I’m 56 now, thanks to Captain Sullenberger,” said a third.
But even Sully had his critics. Writer and pilot William Langewiesche, for example, carped that Sullenberger exhibited not heroism but merely calm skill: “His performance was a work of extraordinary concentration, which the public misread as coolness under fire,” he wrote, although I can’t fathom how extraordinary concentration, with your life and 155 others hanging in the balance, differs from coolness under fire.
Sully’s film will be Eastwood’s first after his Oscar-winning blockbuster American Sniper about another true-life hero, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Sniper raked in $543.4 million and became the top domestic release of 2014 – not because of spectacular special effects or fast and furious cars, but because after long years of anti-war box office duds, Hollywood finally served up an Iraq war film that celebrated an American hero.
But Kyle had his detractors as well. The most lethal sniper in American military history, he was glorified by many but vilified by others who saw him as a warmongering murderer.
And most recently, ESPN’s wildly controversial choice to honor Caitlin Jenner with its Arthur Ashe Courage Award for her gender transformation showed that, as a culture, we no longer even agree on the very definition of heroism. Is it sacrifice in service to others, as it has usually been understood, or is it now about a liberating celebration of the self?
Conflicted as we are as a culture about real-life heroes, pop culture seems to be the one arena where we can all consume heroic narratives, fictional though most may be, in something approximating cultural unity.
And by pop culture, I mean more specifically the movies. Television, even a big-screen TV, is too small to accommodate epic heroics. Indeed, the most memorable protagonists of TV dramas in recent years are anti-heroes: Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, Vic Mackey, Dexter, the entire casts of Game of Thrones, Vikings, and Sons of Anarchy, to name several of many that come to mind.
Anti-heroes may be guilty pleasures that keep us coming back week after week (or straight through the weekend, in the case of binge-viewers), but deep down, audiences don’t find them as compelling or satisfying as traditional heroes. The former don’t speak to our better nature like the latter. They don’t feed our age-old yearning for role models to elevate and inspire us.
For that we have to look to the big screen, which is the more suitable canvas for the heroic exploits of such larger-than-life icons as James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Frodo, a whole galaxy of superheroes like Captain America and Batman, even Sherlock Holmes. But all of those are classics from other eras, and it’s too soon to know if more contemporary hero(in)es like Katniss Everdeen and Harry Potter will have cultural staying power.
In any case, like the epic poetry of the distant past, the movies of today are where we commemorate the heroes who represent us, whether true-life or fictional. Let’s just hope we don’t end up being defined by our anti-heroes.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/12/15)
at 10:35 AM
Monday, June 8, 2015
Dave Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, died a month ago at the young age of 47 from blunt force trauma while exercising. Apparently he lost his grip on a gym treadmill, fell backward, and hit his head. He was the husband of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose bestselling book Lean In encouraged women to take control of their lives and careers. Suddenly she had to figure out how to take control of her life and two children after the shocking and unexpected loss of a husband and father in a strange accident which, as USA Today put it, mingled “senselessness” with tragedy.
The term “senseless tragedy” is so commonly heard today that it is applied to almost any dreadful, fatal circumstance. We reference it in relation to everything from murders to drunk driving deaths to terrorism. But what makes a tragedy senseless, and what does that mean for the survivors in terms of coping with it?
Simply put, tragedies are when terrible things happen to good people. All are by definition devastating, but a senseless tragedy is one that seems particularly purposeless, random, meaningless, premature, and unnecessary – like Dave Goldberg’s death. We are left with no one to blame except God or the Fates or bad luck. Heath Ledger’s death in 2008 from accidental prescription drug abuse, at the age of 28, tragically – and senselessly – cut short the talented young actor’s life. On a more personal level, a friend of mine – a decent, good-hearted, good-humored fellow nearly 20 years my junior – recently passed away from a brain tumor.
These examples seem like a meaningless waste, and meaninglessness doesn’t sit well with human beings. We are hard-wired to ask why, even of tragedies that have no apparent meaning. Answers give us closure; they enable us to make sense of the world, our place in it, and our passing from it. And so questions haunt us in the wake of a senseless tragedy: Why did it have to happen? Is there some lesson in it for us? As the survivors, coming to terms with a loss which seems to have no rhyme or reason behind it is an especially difficult struggle.
I’m not a psychologist, grief counselor, or theologian (I don’t even play one on TV), so I confess I don’t have consoling answers. And this is a book-length topic that involves a theological or metaphysical mystery which humans have been wrestling with since the origins of humankind. But it seems to me that there are only two choices for grappling with senseless tragedy, the same choices which Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius described almost two millennia ago: “Either this world is a chaos,” he mused, “or it is a work of beauty, and though seemingly trackless and confused, governed by a certain order.”
For those who don’t believe in a deity or afterlife, this world is a chaos (one ordered by natural law, but nonetheless without meaning or purpose), and therefore there is no meaning in senseless tragedy – shit just happens. They must derive their consolation, if any, from this resignation before an indifferent universe. For them, Dave Goldberg’s death was a tragic accident and nothing more – he simply stumbled and died, and that’s all there was to it.
Religious believers find, or at least seek, answers and consolation in the certainty that even senseless tragedies are part of a compassionate larger plan, a “certain order,” even if now we “see through a glass, darkly” and cannot comprehend what the plan may be or how this tragedy fits into it.
Either way, tragedy requires from us as survivors a bottomless reservoir of resilience.
In an incredibly eloquent, touching post on Facebook yesterday, Sheryl Sandberg herself mused about this choice and listed resilience among the lessons she learned about coping with grief in the thirty days since her husband’s death. “I have lived thirty years in these thirty days,” she shared “I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.” But “I have learned that resilience can be learned.”
“I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice,” she wrote:
You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.
But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.
Whether you believe this world is chaos or an ordered work of beauty, life is an extraordinary gift. But tragedy, senseless or otherwise, is inescapable, and nothing is ever the same afterward. The duty of the living, however, is to keep living, and so we must find the resilience to carry on in a way that honors both the gift of life and the memory of those whom tragedy takes from us.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/4/15)
at 12:34 PM
Friday, June 5, 2015
Recently a young woman named Ibi in Atlanta posted a picture on Twitter showing a couple walking side-by-side along a narrow city sidewalk, the man alongside a wall, the woman along the curb on the outside. “I'm sure half of you guys don't even know what's wrong with this picture,” Ibi wrote. “Smh [shaking my head].”
Her challenge helped propel the photo into viral status all over the internet. While many may have been searching in vain for the answer in some obscure detail (“Is she wearing white after Labor Day?”), the answer is much simpler and instantly recognizable to anyone raised to appreciate courtesy: the man in the picture is violating the rule that a gentleman should walk on the curb side when escorting a woman down the street.
According to etiquette maven Emily Post, writing in 1922 about the evolution of this practice:
It used to be that a man escorting a woman on the street walked on the inside so that if waste were thrown out a window it would hit him and not her. Then when sanitation became recognized as important and people stopped tossing their waste into the street, custom changed and a man escorting a woman walked on the street side to keep her from being splashed by mud thrown up by carriage wheels or horses’ hooves.
There are variations on this, however. Emily Post again:
Technology has paved our streets and replaced carriages as the primary source of travel, eliminating the danger of splashing on all but rainy, slushy days, so men once again might walk on the inside, particularly at night in dangerous neighborhoods.
Though she doesn’t mention it, perhaps because cars were relatively scarce in 1922, a man walking on the street side is also in a position to push the woman out of the way if a vehicle jumps the curb.
In any case, the issue boils down to this: the courtesy and protection offered by a gentleman to a lady. I confess I was pleasantly surprised by how many of Ibi’s respondents on Twitter did recognize what she was getting at with the photo and considered the proper behavior to be the right thing to do and the mark of a “real man,” as many put it: “The lady should never be on the street side,” tweeted one respondent. “She’s on the wrong side. He’s supposed to protect her,” wrote another. “My Mom used to smack me for this. ‘You walk on the outside to protect your sisters!’”
There were a few sarcastic comments (“The man is supposed to walk closest to the road because men are car-proof and will protect you”), while other respondents lamented that this kind of gentlemanly gesture is from “a different time.” “It’s an old school thing,” remarked one. “It's called chivalry and it's been dead for some time,” noted another.
Chivalry’s not dead, contrary to popular belief, but it is out of fashion, which is a kind of death. That’s why Ibi was skeptical that a lot of her followers would recognize what she was getting at with the photo, and that’s why it went viral: because there was once a time when such behavior was, at least in theory, culturally expected and unquestioned, but now we live in a post-feminist era in which millennials too often consider chivalrous behavior old-fashioned at best and at worst, insidiously sexist, classist, and even racist.
The good news is that, while Ibi’s photo is an anecdotal example and hardly a scientific poll, the rough majority of responses happily suggests that there are a surprising number of young people who still recognize and appreciate this “old school” social behavior. That’s an encouraging sign for the future, and a necessary step toward bridging the current alienation between men and women.
at 1:08 AM
Thursday, June 4, 2015
Recently I attended the Los Angeles premiere of a new documentary called Body and Soul: The State of the Jewish Nation. British journalist and political commentator Melanie Phillips, perhaps best-known to FrontPage readers for her book Londonistan, was on hand to deliver her remarks; she praised the documentary as an important step in educating audiences about Israel and the Jewish connection to it, and an important step in pushing back against the relentless disinformation and lies that are like a contemporary plague on the land of the Jews.
Body and Soul was produced and directed by Gloria Z. Greenfield, who was present at the premiere to introduce the film. Ms. Greenfield, whose previous work includes The Case for Israel – Democracy’s Outpost in 2008 and Unmasked Judeophobia in 2011, is the president of Doc Emet Productions, the motto of which is, fittingly, “Truth in film.”
At just over an hour in length, Body and Soul attempts an ambitious scope, sweeping over thousands of years of Jewish history in the land of Israel and across the Middle East, Europe, and Russia. It capably covers Biblical history, the origins of Zionism, the Holocaust, the Six-Day War, the creation of the modern state of Israel... pretty much every major historical era and high (or low) point of the Jewish people.
I was glad to see that the film did not overlook the important contribution of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Jewish thinker and warrior who emphasized that it was not enough to win the intellectual argument for Jews and Israel; it was also necessary that Jews learn to shoot, to defend themselves, and to be prepared to fight for their place in the world. His message is one that each new generation of Jews must take to heart – and that’s certainly true today in a climate of resurgent anti-Semitism and Israel-hatred.
The film features such notable, articulate commentators as Bret Stephens, Victor Davis Hanson, and Alan Dershowitz, as well as nearly three dozen other academics and experts in political science, archaeology, international law, and media (among them Prof. Robert Wistrich of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a leading scholar of the history of anti-Semitism, who passed away mere weeks after the film’s premiere). Together they assert the undeniable case for an historical connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, from at least 3000 years ago to our own time. “Jewish identity is born in a journey to the land of Israel,” begins Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “and ever since, to be a Jew has been to be on a journey to the Promised Land.”
Body and Soul also addresses the current media distortions, propaganda, and lies about Israel and the Jews, that have come to dominate public opinion about Israel thanks to the assiduous work of Israel’s enemies and a complicit news media. The commentators discuss, to name two examples, Yasser Arafat’s efforts to delegitimize Jewish links to the land of Israel, and Palestinian attempts to fabricate a history for themselves in that land which denies any Jewish connection, such as claiming Jesus for themselves as a Palestinian Muslim.
“The violent means [of extinguishing Israel] have failed – wars, military invasions, terrorism,” says former Knesset member Einat Wilf. “What we are witnessing is an intellectual assault on Zionism, which is not new but in many ways, I think, is unprecedented in how fierce it is.” Harvard’s Ruth Wisse concurs: The Jews of Israel “have done well on the military front, but how well have they done on the ideological front? How well have they done on the propaganda, on the diplomacy front? Very badly, because they’re fighting with their hands tied behind their backs.”
Historian Victor Davis Hanson speaks on the complicity of academics in assisting the fabrication of a Palestinian people and the delegitimization of Jewish history. Political pundit Bret Stephens discusses how the delegitimization efforts are at least as dangerous as the Iranian bid for nuclear weapons because those efforts have created the conditions in which Iran’s acquisition of those weapons is seen as “somehow acceptable.”
What must be done? “You have to change the popular culture,” Hanson noted. “You have to object, and object vehemently, when you see people distorting history.” Similarly, Ruth Wisse closes the film by asserting that Israel must do what it did in 1948: every hour of every day, “demand the right to be respected.”
“We can’t sacrifice who we are on the altar of political correctness,” declares Canadian Member of Parliament Irwin Cotler:
And if we speak directly, and if we speak in terms of who we are and where we’ve come from, what we aspire to be, then I think we will make a contribution not only that understanding internationally of who we are, but in affirming who we are, begin to give expression to it.
Because it never draws attention to itself, I must note that Body and Soul’s soundtrack is outstanding. Composed by the excellent Sharon Farber, an Israeli born film, television and concert music composer who has been twice nominated for an Emmy, the score is moody and subtle but powerful, and never overwhelms the film or its speakers.
The downsides: as much ground as the documentary covers, there is so much more to be said – an impossible amount, in fact – that Body and Soul’s length is inevitably inadequate, although it serves as an enlightening overview of digestible size. And as educational and professionally produced as the documentary is, the disappointing reality is that the people who most need to see this film and take its message to heart are the ones most resistant to facts and to truth, particularly where Israel is concerned.
But if enough supporters of Israel find opportunities to share Body and Soul with less informed friends and acquaintances; if, against all odds, it finds its way into high schools and colleges; if the supporters of the Jewish people take direct action to spread the truth and counter the lies, then perhaps enough eyes will be opened to begin to make a difference.
(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 6/2/15)
at 8:14 AM