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Monday, June 29, 2015

‘Ballers’ is the Anti-‘Entourage’

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)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Everything You Know About the World Comes from Movies

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 DogsPulp 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)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Werewolf Cop

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

Holding Out for a Hero

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)

Monday, June 8, 2015

How Sheryl Sandberg Faced Tragedy with Resilience

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

Friday, June 5, 2015

What's Wrong With This Picture?

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.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

‘Body and Soul’ Tells the Truth About Israel

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)

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Did Jessica Simpson’s Photo Sexualize Her Daughter?

Earlier this week, multi-hyphenate celebrity Jessica Simpson posted an Instagram pic for her 1.6 million followers of 3-year-old daughter Maxwell in a swimsuit. Most of the commenters declared it adorable, but some found Maxwell’s seemingly flirty pose inappropriate, even worryingly so, considering the presence of online (and real-world) pedophiles, not to mention our pop culture obsession with celebrity children.
It is a cute photo. Little Maxwell is seated in a very age-appropriate swimsuit with one hand on outthrust hip in a pose that might be considered sexy from a sexy adult – say, if the 34-year-old Jessica were doing it. But it’s unclear if Maxwell was posing at all or was simply caught by the camera in a casual moment that happens to look posed; if the former, then she was probably merely imitating what she has seen her mother do. In any case, a three-year-old has no idea what sexy even means.
But the showbiz site Closer blamed mother Jessica for causing a “controversy” and polled its readers, “Did you think Jessica’s picture was inappropriate?” Some certainly did. One Instagram follower wrote: “Wtf can our children just b children like why every little girl poses like a woman dont they know they're freakin pedophiles out there ?!!!!sh*t  what happen to a kid being a kid.” “Why would she have her posing like that?” commented another.
Seventy-two percent of Closer’s nearly 1500 poll respondents voted that the pic was adorable and that it was unnecessary to keep it off social media. A common reaction from that majority was along the lines of, “If you see this as sexual, then YOU’RE the problem.”
Not necessarily. It’s perfectly reasonable to see how a pic like this could be perceived inappropriately by pedophiles for whom pics like Maxwell’s provide a sexual allure. Some might consider this concern to be paranoid, but we live in a world in which we have surrendered more and more of our privacy to a technology that is increasingly out of our control, and we have a responsibility to take every precaution to prevent sick people from having easy access – like through social media – to photos of our children.
My friend Bob Hamer is now a novelist and screenwriter, but for 25 years he was an undercover FBI agent (you can check out his exploits in The Last Undercover). One of his longest and most successful assignments was infiltrating and ultimately bringing down a pedophile ring. Sadly, this made Bob an expert on what makes these predators tick. I asked him if pedophiles would swarm on celebrity children pics like Maxwell Simpson’s photo, and if the pose or dress made a difference. He replied,
The more provocative the better in the minds of these men, and provocative photos of youthful celebrities was a real plus. What we might deem “cute” would be viewed in a whole different light.
Little kids are hilarious and charming when they act like adults – shuffling around in mom’s high heels, for example, or posing hand-on-hip with a pout like a grown-up swimsuit model. But as Bob says, pedophiles see that behavior in a different light, and that’s what we must be aware of when we share pics of our children on social media.
As psychologist Sandra Wheatley told Closer:
Although getting  your toddler to pose in an adult way wearing a swimming costume may be fine if you're keeping the pictures within the family, sharing them on social media is not a good idea – whether you're a celebrity or not. As a parent you are taking responsibility for someone else's decisions until they are adult, and Jessica's daughter may not be happy with this image when she hits 18.
Was Maxwell Simpson’s photo inappropriately sexual? I and most others don’t think so, but what matters is that there are disturbed people who would find it sexual and be drawn to it precisely because it excites their perversity. You might argue that that’s their problem, not Maxwell’s – but as the father of three very young girls, I wouldn’t want pictures of them feeding the fantasies of sexual criminals.
It’s hard to fault Jessica Simpson. She’s just a proud parent with a parent’s impulse to share photos of her pride and joy. But for the sake of our children and our culture, all of us – celebrities and otherwise – need to be more conscious of the casual ways in which we unwittingly compromise the privacy and innocence of our daughters, and potentially even endanger them.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/29/15

Friday, May 29, 2015

Woody Allen’s Existential Void

While at the 68th annual Cannes film festival recently promoting his newest film, director Woody Allen took the opportunity in an interview to expound upon his personal philosophy. For those who still consider Allen a comedian and filmmaker of mostly comedies, his worldview will no doubt seem surprisingly grim.
Allen acknowledged that he “had to be a comic filmmaker because that’s where my gifts were,” but he “had always wanted to be a serious filmmaker” like Ingmar Bergman. And by serious he means depressing:
No matter how much the philosophers talk to you or the priests or the psychiatrists, the bottom line… is life has its own agenda and it runs right over you while you’re prattling. We’re all going to wind up in a very bad position someday. The same position, but a bad one.
No argument there. Life does have a habit of steamrolling over the best-laid plans of mice and men, and we are all going to end up dead. But for Allen, the bad news doesn’t stop there:
In the end it has no meaning. We live in a random universe and you’re living a meaningless life, and everything you create in your life or do is going to vanish, and the Earth will vanish and the sun will burn out and the universe will be gone.
All the great Western philosophers, he said, felt that “too much reality is too much to bear.” And so the way we bear it is, “you turn on a baseball game or you watch a Fred Astaire movie or you do something that distracts you” from this grim truth. “That’s what I do,” says Allen. “I distract myself. Making movies is a wonderful distraction.” Filmmaking, or even watching films, “is a nice thing to keep you busy. I’m not thinking about my death, the decaying of my body, that I will be old – one day – in the very distant future,” said the 79-year-old.
Similarly, for his actors, acting is their distraction:
They’re worried about their part. If they weren’t doing that they’d be home or sitting on a beach… and they’d be thinking, “My God, what is life about? I’m going to be alone, I’m going to die, my loved ones are going to die. Will I get Ebola?”
The problem with this perspective is that, in a universe devoid of meaning or consequences, it is all too easy to see oneself as the ultimate arbiter of morality, or to reject morality altogether.
One could speculate that this nihilistic worldview is the driving force behind some of Allen’s movies like Match Point and his latest, Irrational Man, in which his protagonists believe themselves to be above morality – beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche might say.
The “existential comedy-drama” Irrational Man, for example, is centered on a college philosophy professor (played by the brilliant but weird Joaquin Phoenix) who finds meaning in his bleak existence after eavesdropping on a conversation in a diner leads him to concoct the perfect crime. “This is the meaningful act I was searching for!” he passionately explains to his co-star Emma Stone.
I was reminded of the shocking film The Vanishing (the original Dutch-French film, not the Hollywood remake starring Jeff Bridges – neither directed by Allen), in which the lead character carries out a kidnapping and murder simply in order to feel the godlike power of life and death over his victim.
While this Nietzschean theme may make for a darkly chilling movie experience, it’s also a very empty, disturbing one. It’s certainly Woody Allen’s right as an artist to explore such a theme, but ultimately the result is not merely a failure as distraction, but a moral failure as well.
It’s also easy to speculate that his philosophy may be behind the disturbing sexual controversies in Allen’s own real life. After all, if there is no ultimate source of morality and no meaning to your existence or actions, if there is no point to our lives except to fill them with distractions to pass the time, if any consequences are eventually going to be obliterated by the sun swallowing the earth, then what’s the point of abiding by moral boundaries? It is then a very short step to the guilt-free pursuit of distractions that satisfy your worst impulses.
Perhaps it’s unfair to read that into Allen’s personal life. Perhaps not. But how different Allen’s life and work might have been if he had long ago rejected the nihilism that says we and the universe we inhabit are nothing but a void.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/26/15

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What Memorial Day is About

Last Friday, as the week downshifted into the Memorial Day three-day holiday, the official Twitter account of the Democratic Party wished the country a “Happy Memorial Day weekend, everyone!” and tweeted a pic of – whom else? – President Obama lapping at an ice cream cone while media lapdogs zoomed their cameras in to capture the photo op. CNN anchor Jake Tapper injected a note of perspective by tweeting back, “Respectfully, @TheDemocrats, this is not what Memorial Day weekend is about.”
Indeed it is not, but for Barack Obama, of course, everything is about Barack Obama. And for the Democratic party, everything is about selling the American people a crock of big-government idolatry, and so they followed up the Obama photo with tweets about a 15% off holiday sale at their website store – because nothing memorializes the men and women of our armed forces who paid the ultimate price for their country quite like a discounted “I Heart O’bama” Shamrock Lapel Sticker or a “Like a Boss” POTUS t-shirt.
This all came in the wake of the fall of Ramadi in Iraq to the demonic forces of ISIS – you know, the JV team that has absolutely nothing to do with Islam. In the early years of the war in Iraq, more American lives were lost in the intense fighting to secure the province of Anbar, which includes Ramadi and Fallujah, than anywhere else in the country.
Now our warriors who survived that fighting, and the families and friends of those who didn’t, are watching ISIS reclaim Iraq and are wondering what that sacrifice was for. It makes the loss of their loved ones and brothers-in-arms painful all over again. But not to worry – Obama has declared the fall of Ramadi a mere “minor setback”; meanwhile he and the Democratic party, who have worked assiduously to undermine America’s war efforts and to gut our military, urge you to celebrate a “Happy Memorial Day!” and enjoy your ice cream and BBQ.
In the very same month in 2004 when American warriors faced escalated attacks in Ramadi and Fallujah, my 81-year-old father Roger E. Tapson, a former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant and veteran of World War II, died in Sherman, Texas. He was buried near a small lake in the rolling, pastoral grounds of the Dallas-Ft. Worth National Cemetery alongside thousands of other veterans. There, those veterans, as poet Stephen Spender might say, are “feted by the waving grass, and by the streamers of white cloud, and whispers of wind in the listening sky.”
That cemetery is exactly the kind of place my dad would have described – without a hint of New Age devaluation of the word – as “spiritual.” It was the way I once heard him describe a still, brisk, early autumn morning on a gorgeously wooded golf course, his favorite place to be.
Spiritual indeed. To stand in a military cemetery among the unadorned, uniform white markers that stretch out in precise rows like an army-in-waiting, is to feel a spiritually heightened quality to your surroundings that demands humility, gratitude, and a more solemn reverence. You can feel that – to quote Spender once again – the fallen warriors have “left the vivid air signed with their honor.”
This is not to diminish the final resting place of anyone interred in civilian burial grounds, but the “vivid air” of a military cemetery is undeniably suffused with something extra, because it’s not merely a graveyard, but a memorial to qualities that constitute the best of humanity – honor, courage, dignity, service and sacrifice – and to warriors who once embodied them. Their grave markers stand as a challenge to those of us who remain.
Honor, courage, dignity, service, sacrifice – how many of us civilians can say that we commit to embodying those qualities in our daily lives? How many of us can say we are truly tested, body and soul, ever, much less on a daily basis, the way that the men and women of our military have been, and continue to be? How many of us can say we are ready and willing to do what is required for our country and our fellow Americans, even at the cost of our lives? Precious few if any, I would guess, and we civilians are all the lesser mortals for it.
That makes us all the more fortunate that there are Americans who can and do rise to that challenge on front lines around the world. It takes a special person to embrace that responsibility and earn a uniform of the United States armed forces, and it takes a special family – warriors too in their own way (“they also serve who only stand and wait,” as John Milton wrote) – to support their loved one from the home front.
That is why Memorial Day is not about ice cream and BBQs. It’s certainly not about Barack Obama, a man who has done more to diminish America’s standing, power, and military than any single figure in American history. It’s not a time to celebrate. It's a day to be humbled and grateful that the men and women of the United States military have the rare and noble qualities it takes to be a sword between us and America’s enemies – when our government officials let them. It’s a time to honor the warriors who have purchased our freedom and rights and prosperity with their lives.
And this year in particular, it’s a time to meditate on the challenge that those fallen veterans have left us civilians: the challenge to do our part, to earn what our veterans have handed us, and to be warriors ourselves on the home front, so that their hard-won victories and sacrifices were not for nothing.
(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 5/25/15)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Pulling the Plug on Revenge Porn

Revenge porn is one of the darker sides of our high-tech age. It’s the act of humiliating and extorting women, often former lovers (hence the “revenge” part) by stealing and posting their nude and/or sexually explicit photos and videos online. And it’s all over the news lately.
In the last week alone:
A judge ruled that New York Jets linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, charged with invasion of privacy for distributing naked photos of a woman, cannot enter a program that would allow for a conviction to be wiped from his record.
An Oklahoma man pleaded no contest to charges of extortion, attempted extortion and conspiracy that could net him six years in prison. He operated a website that encouraged visitors to post nude photos of “your ex-girlfriend, your current girlfriend, or any other girl that you might know.” He then charged the women to have the photos removed.
A New Hampshire man was sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison for posting sexually explicit photos of his ex-girlfriend.
Charlie Evens is facing criminal charges for hacking into women’s email accounts and stealing nude photos for Hunter Moore, the king of revenge porn and “the most hated man on the Internet.” Moore raked in upwards of $30,000 a month by posting the photos and information about the women in them on his website. Evens, who did it for the money, said “It was really sh*tty and really sick, and I felt horrible… It’s just scary how quickly I would drop my morals for so little.”
Lawmakers in Nevada, Vermont, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina are the latest of dozens of states that either have criminalized revenge porn, or are in the process of doing so.
The phrase “revenge porn” itself even earned a spot as one of the latest additions to Dictionary.com’s lexicon.
This disturbed and hateful act has ruined the lives of many of its victims, who have lost jobs and families, money and reputations. The social and psychological cost is devastating. One woman now named Holly Jacobs, after having her world turned upside down for 3 ½ years, decided to fight back by creating a support and activism site called endrevengeporn.org.
What to do about revenge porn? While the growing criminalization of it sounds like a good start, legal remedies are problematic for a number of reasons; Wired.com even calls them “a bad idea.” And legal recourse is useful only after the damage has been done.
For those who have already been victimized by it, Holly Jacobs encourages them to reclaim their dignity and power by speaking out about their experiences. But for those who haven’t yet been targeted, the best possible advice for women to avoid ending up in flagrante delicto all over the internet permanently is: don’t film yourself having sex.
But wait, you say – isn’t that essentially blaming the victim? Isn’t that like telling women to avoid rape by not dressing provocatively? Why should the burden be on the woman to protect herself? Shouldn’t we instead be teaching men not to abuse their former lovers’ privacy by posting intimate videos and pictures of them online, just as we should be teaching men not to rape? Why shouldn’t a woman have the right to film herself having sex free from any fear that it will someday be used against her?
Well, women do have that right, but in the real world, there is no guarantee that they can exercise that right consequence-free. There is no need to teach men that revenge porn is wrong (and increasingly illegal) – they already know it is, but some men will do it anyway, just as men know rape is wrong and illegal, but some men do it regardless. People should always do the right thing, but they don’t – particularly when consumed by anger, jealousy and the pain of rejection.
The cold, hard fact is that recording yourself naked and/or having sex leaves you vulnerable to being exposed to the public, no matter what lengths you go to to protect your images. Just as no form of birth control can absolutely guarantee that you won’t become pregnant, nothing can guarantee that you won’t be hacked or robbed or fall prey to a jilted lover who decides to get even by humiliating you and even ruining your life – nothing except not giving anyone the ammunition to use against you in the first place.
In the western world, sexuality and technology feed on each other and give rise to new extremes of narcissism and voyeurism that couldn’t have been imagined a generation ago, maybe even ten years ago. Porn has essentially gone mainstream thanks in large part to the internet. We share the intimate details of our lives on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on. We sext our lovers, record our sex on smartphones, store our intimate photos on laptops – all of which are vulnerable to being plucked from the virtual ether and distributed among strangers worldwide.
If you don’t want to be victimized in a very public way, protect your privacy by partially unplugging from this brave new world. Don’t surrender to the current of a culture that is becoming increasingly sexualized and decreasingly private. Technology and intimacy don’t mix. It’s time to reset the boundaries between our sex lives and the technology that has crept into bed with us.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/13/15)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

‘Unbroken’: Great Book, Morally Empty Movie

Last weekend I finally had the chance to see the Angelina Jolie-directed movie Unbroken, now out on DVD. I’ve been eager to see it ever since reading the inspirational bestselling book by Laura Hillenbrand on which it was based. But as most people will agree, a movie is almost never as good as its book, and unfortunately, that’s true of Unbroken as well.
MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
Unbroken is about the extraordinary true life story of Louie Zamperini, an American Olympic runner whose bomber ditched in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, stranding him and a fellow flyer on a life raft for an astonishing 47 days. At one point during the ordeal he despairs so greatly that he promises to devote his life to God if only He will allow him to survive.
Finally the two flyboys, both on the verge of starvation, are “rescued” by the Japanese and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. There Louie becomes the obsession of a particularly sadistic camp guard named Watanabe, who is hell-bent on breaking the strong-willed American. He doesn’t, though he pushes Louie to the point of fantasizing about killing him. Eventually the war ends and Louie returns home to his loving family, unbowed and unbroken.
Moment by moment it’s a riveting film, but something feels missing overall. The movie’s theme – “if you can take it, you can make it” – is an encouraging catchphrase but not especially inspirational or uplifting. Louie certainly exhibits grit and defiance, but survival alone doesn’t seem like enough of a triumph to hang a $65 million movie on.
So what’s missing? The book Unbroken is subtitled “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption”; in the film, there most assuredly is a lot of survival and resilience – but where is the redemption? In title cards before the movie’s credits roll, the audience is told:
After years of severe post-traumatic stress, Louie made good on his promise to serve God, a decision he credits with saving his life. Motivated by his faith, Louie came to see that the way forward was not revenge, but forgiveness.
Wait, what? There sounds like a great deal more to Louie’s story than his relentless will to live that we saw onscreen. And if you read the book, then you know that there is a great deal more: Louie’s struggle with alcoholism, his murderous anger toward Watanabe, his Billy Graham-inspired conversion to Christianity (which you can read about here, although I highly recommend the whole book itself), and his ultimate epiphany that, as the title card says, forgiving his captors, even the vicious Watanabe, trumps killing them in revenge.
Disappointingly, none of that made the transition to the big screen version except in the brief mention prior to the credits. Granted, filmmakers can’t cram a whole book into a 2-hour movie, but Angelia Jolie’s choice to limit the story to Louie’s survival of external challenges misses an opportunity to depict what might have been his more compelling internal victories.
I was reminded of two similar films that are more complex and thought-provoking than Unbroken. The first is a fascinating little 1983 film called Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, starring singer David Bowie in another true-life adaptation as a WWII prisoner in a Japanese camp. Like Louie Zamperini, Bowie’s character was the focus of an obsessive officer named Yonoi (played by one of my favorite film composers, Oscar-winner Ryuichi Sakamoto, who won the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music for the film’s soundtrack).  But it’s less a film about survival than the clash of Eastern and Western concepts of honor and discipline.
Even better is To End All Wars, a 2001 movie written by my close friend Brian Godawa and starring Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Carlyle. This movie too was an adaptation of a true World War II story about Allied prisoners in a brutal Japanese work camp, but its spiritual insights transcend Unbroken’s more humanistic message. As Philip Yancey put it in Christianity Today,
To a man, the prisoners clung to the desperate hope that their life would not end in a jungle prison but would resume, after liberation, back in Scotland or London or wherever they called home. Yet, even if it did not, they would endeavor to build a community of faith and compassion in the days they had left. For them, God was more certain than death.
It’s an underappreciated but extraordinarily moving tale of sacrifice, redemption, hope and forgiveness whose emotional power utterly dwarfs that of the movie version of Unbroken. If you haven’t yet seen the latter, read the book instead and hunt down To End All Wars.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/5/15)