Monday, August 18, 2014

The Wisdom of Harry Potter in Dark Times

Last month at their home in Texas, Stephen and Katie Stay and four of their five young children were executed in an h0rrific massacre at the hands of the ex-husband of Katie’s sister. The sole survivor of the family was 15-year-old Cassidy; incredibly, she not only survived being shot in the head by playing dead, but managed to call 911 after the incident and give details of the attack to the authorities. That led to the suspect’s capture later that day and also saved the lives of her grandparents, whom the murderer intended to target next. Cassidy is expected to make a full recovery.

During a press conference a few days afterward, the remarkable Cassidy quoted the wizard Dumbledore from the wildly popular fantasy series of Harry Potter books by author J.K. Rowling: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” That’s an extraordinary attitude to find in a teen who has lost her whole family.

The Dumbledore reference led to a woman named Michelle Boyer setting up a Facebook page in Cassidy’s honor, urging Rowling to meet with the teen. Though they didn’t meet, the author did indeed reach out to Cassidy. A representative for Rowling confirmed that she sent Cassidy a letter and package, but “the contents of the letter and how it came about are between her and Cassidy and will remain private.” Boyer’s Facebook page confirmed that the letter included a wand, an acceptance letter to the wizards’ school Hogwarts, and an autographed copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

A thoughtful gesture, but what really made the letter interesting is that Rowling apparently wrote it in the voice of Dumbledore. I think this demonstrates that the author either consciously or instinctively understood an important insight about fantasy. In a recent Atlantic article, novelist Lev Grossman, himself the author of a fantasy trilogy, wrote about an underappreciated aspect of that genre:

I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world.

Grossman goes on to cite the C.S. Lewis novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as “a powerful illustration of why fantasy matters in the first place.” In that beloved children’s classic, the young Lucy and her three siblings are evacuated to the countryside from London during World War II to escape the bombing. Lucy discovers in the wardrobe a mystical entrance to a realm called Narnia. Of the wartime horrors that loom outside in the real world, Grossman says, “You can feel [Lewis] telling you—I know it’s awful, truly terrible, but that’s not all there is. There’s another option. Lucy, as she enters the wardrobe, takes the other option.”

That other option isn’t escapism or denial. “When you go to Narnia your worries come with you,” Grossman writes. “Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them”:

In fantasy… the landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them. 

When Rowling wrote her a letter in Dumbledore’s voice, she may have been telling Cassidy that I know it’s awful, truly terrible, but that’s not all there is. There’s another option. She may have been reminding Cassidy that there is a place in which she can more easily come to grips with her awful, truly terrible reality. That’s a message Rowling could deliver more effectively in Dumbledore’s voice than her own.

People find many different ways to cope with terrible loss, and I can’t even imagine the loss that Cassidy Stay has suffered. But I hope it’s true what Michelle Boyer states on her Facebook page dedicated to Cassidy: “In my opinion, a letter from Dumbledore is better than an actual visit from J.K. This is something that she will be able to find comfort in forever.”

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/13/14)

Taking the Fight to Jihadists in a New Novel

For those who are frustrated by the unchecked spread of violent Islam and would like at least the vicarious satisfaction of reading about jihadists being taken down, my friend Lela Gilbert and W. Jack Buckner LTC (ret.), Special Forces, have written a very satisfying action thriller entitled The Levine Affair: Angel’s Flight.

Just published by Post Hill Press, The Levine Affair: Angel’s Flight is the gripping novel of an elite paramilitary unit put together by an Israeli philanthropist named David Levine to combat the global threat of jihad. Their mission in the book is to rescue a young Nigerian woman sentenced to be stoned to death, as well as a journalist and editor under assault by a mob of jihadis. Yes, it’s a fictional thriller with some edge-of-your-seat action sequences, but it’s hardly escapism, grounded as it is in the real-world persecution of Christian communities in Nigeria. The book is educational as well, and presents a confrontation of clearcut good and evil, happily devoid of the moral equivalence that spoils too much of today’s storytelling about Islamic terror (such as Showtime’s Homeland, for example).

Lela Gilbert knows this territory well. The author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion, and most recently Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel Through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner, Lela is a freelance writer and editor who has authored or co-authored a jaw-dropping 60+ books, and a contributor to The Jerusalem Post, The Weekly Standard, Jewish World Review, and National Review Online, among others. An adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, she lives in California and Jerusalem. I reached out to her with a few questions about the novel.

Mark Tapson:    Though you’ve written novels before, you’re known primarily for your ecumenical nonfiction like Saturday People, Sunday People. Why a novel about Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria, rather than nonfiction?

Lela Gilbert:            Jack Buckner and I actually started writing Angel’s Flight before I wrote Saturday People, Sunday People and Persecuted.  I was thinking of a way to tell a captivating, realistic up-to-date story that didn’t obscure the realities of life under the threat of Islamist terrorists. Nigeria has faced such dangers for more than a decade.

I also wanted to try and bring the reader into the terrible agony of a young woman sentenced to death by stoning, living out her days in a squalid prison cell with her very life dependent on the survival of her beloved but sickly baby. I wrote all this long before Meriam Ibrahim was imprisoned in Sudan; in some ways her story was eerily similar to this one as it unfolded. Meanwhile, I was longing for good-hearted heroes to enter the fray and defend the defenseless – so I invented some! Jack helped me arm them properly and prepare them for battle.

MT:     One of the main characters is a young publishing editor who is largely clueless about Islam. You also mention that Islamic atrocities in the 3rd world receive very little press coverage. Do you think this ignorance – or perhaps willful blindness – is still a widespread problem in the literary world and news media, and among our “intelligentsia” as a whole?

LG:     I think the events of recent days – both the horrors of ISIS in Iraq and the brutalities of Hamas – have awakened a few more journalists and “experts” to the deadly religious fanaticism of radical Islamists. But my sense is that these groups and their attacks are still viewed as isolated incidents, perpetrated by ragtag troublemakers here and there. Yes, they cause bloodshed, but the incidents are perceived as having nothing to do with each other as far as ideology and global ambition are concerned. There’s a huge disconnect between the lurid news reports and YouTube posts of beheadings, crucifixions, mass kidnappings etc. and westerners living in peace and prosperity. It’s kind of like watching reality TV – it’s “real,” but not really real.

Meanwhile, in both academic and journalistic circles, there is also a persistent prejudice against Americans and our Western allies – promoting the idea that we are really at fault for all the troubles of the world. We should call terrorists “freedom fighters” and stop criticizing their non-Western tactics – cruel though they may be. Instead we should be apologizing for our own record of crimes against humanity. We’ve learned to describe this kind of reasoning as “moral equivalency.”

MT:     One of your characters is critical of human rights organizations who are na├»ve about the threat of jihad and who believe only in “heart-to-heart dialogue” with the enemy. Another character asserts that there is no hope for the persecuted Nigerian Christians “unless good people take matters into their own hands.” Do you think we have reached the point where military action is the only solution for Christian communities in Africa and the Middle East that are facing violent extermination?

LG:     I don’t suppose there is ever a time when military action is the “only” solution. But when it comes to Islamist fanaticism, I’m skeptical about dialogue, because people who believe in coercing religious conversion through violence, or those who believe Islamists should rule over other religious minorities with an iron fist – these people are not open-minded. They claim to love death, not life, and declare that they intend to martyr themselves for the cause. They may agree to dialogue in order to divert attention from what’s happening on the ground, or to take a break in their assault long enough to rest and reload.

Meanwhile, there are two advantages to military action. One is, of course, to defeat the insurgents. The other is deterrence: massive casualties to troops and damage to infrastructure can cause terrorists to have second thoughts about their next plan of attack. “Talk softly but carry a big stick” was Teddy Roosevelt’s idea of foreign policy. America does a lot of soft talking these days – sometimes even tough talking – but the sticks all seem to be locked up in the State Department’s basement.

MT:     You’ve obviously set up the novel for a sequel or a second mission for your characters, protecting Christians at the Turkish-Syrian border. Do you envision a series of books in which your special operatives take on Islamists around the world?

LG:     I don’t know about a series. But there are some very dangerous places in the world that don’t get much attention in the media. It would be both informative and satisfying to focus the spotlight on a couple more of them. I hope Jack and I get a chance to do so.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 8/14/14)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Robin Williams’ Gift

Like everyone else, I was stunned yesterday to hear of the passing of comedian and actor Robin Williams, apparently by his own hand. A sad clown who brought gut-busting laughter to countless millions for over 35 years while simultaneously wrestling with dark personal demons, Williams was also an Oscar-caliber dramatic actor of such classics as Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. The world has lost a talent that arguably bore the gift of genius.

About that genius: among the outpouring of reactions on social media yesterday, I was struck by a keen observation on Facebook from political commentator Steve Hayward that Williams’ “zigzag streak of lightning in the brain” (a phrase once used to describe Winston Churchill’s greatness) was “palpable”: “He wasn’t a person of comic imagination who merely thought up jokes. He was way beyond that. You could see his wit (not even an adequate word) explode in his head right in front of you.” Very true, and I can confirm this from my own brief personal experience with Williams.

Back in the late ‘80s I worked in an independent bookstore in an upscale neighborhood of San Francisco. Williams, an avid reader, used to come in now and then to browse. I would just nod hello and leave him alone; he seemed to appreciate having some quiet time to himself and not being hassled because of his celebrity. But on at least a couple of occasions when I was present, when there was a small crowd of customers (perhaps 8-12 people) in the small checkout space at the front of the store, he couldn’t resist launching into an hilarious impromptu show for long minutes, riffing on anyone and anything in sight.

On these occasions, however, as we all laughed I kept thinking, “This isn’t normal somehow. It isn’t just improv. It’s like he’s channeling the comedy from somewhere, and he’s not in control of it – it’s in control of him.” This was more evident to me from being in his immediate presence than when I viewed him on television or onstage. I saw something literally pass over his face as he transformed from customer to performer, as if he were suddenly possessed.

The word “genius” originally referred to an external being, a sort of guardian or guiding spirit who accompanies a person from birth to death. Through the centuries that spirit was internalized and the word came to refer to a person who possesses extraordinary intelligence or talent. But I wonder though, after watching Robin Williams up close and personal, if it is not the extraordinary talent that possesses the person. Perhaps that’s why genius can be a curse as much as a gift.

In any case, Williams will go down in pop culture history for that genius. But he should also be celebrated for the reputation he earned as a kind, genuinely empathetic man who went above and beyond the call of duty for others. In the wake of his passing, people began posting online their personal experiences of the ways in which the big-hearted Williams privately offered help to others: a cancer sufferer, a teen Mrs. Doubtfire fan dying of a brain tumor, a former high school wrestling coach struggling with depression, to name a few – not to mention the troops he repeatedly traveled overseas to entertain (like his character in Good Morning, Vietnam), for which he was called the Bob Hope of our time.

In the end Robin Williams may not have been able to save himself, but the rest of us will always remember what he gave of himself.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/12/14

How Can Anyone Continue to Support Obama?

The left’s kneejerk propensity for blaming George W. Bush for every disaster, from the Lincoln assassination to a bad hair day, has long served as comedy fodder among conservatives. But the serious psychological disorder known as BDS – Bush Derangement Syndrome – is no joke among President Obama’s faithful, who six years later still cling to the notion that Bush is the reason Obama hasn’t yet shown us the promised land and healed the planet as he promised in his 2008 nomination speech.

Last Tuesday, a bipartisan poll found that Obama’s approval rating has hit an all-time (for him) low of 40%, with his handling of foreign policy at a dismal 36%. And yet, for those of us who consider his presidency to be an unmitigated disaster, it’s difficult to comprehend why his approval rating at this point isn’t at zero. In all seriousness, how is it possible that 40% of Americans can still be giving him a thumbs-up? Obviously there is a variety of explanations: low-information voters, willful blindness, progressive brainwashing, or just plain stubbornness among those who can’t admit that their Messiah is a false prophet. And of course there are those radicals who are simply in ideological lockstep with his agenda. But BDS threads throughout it all; “it’s Bush’s fault” remains an unassailable article of progressive faith – and a very convenient excuse.

In a Fox News segment recently on Obama’s leadership, pollster Frank Luntz spoke with about thirty average citizens, half of whom had been Obama voters, about the President’s sagging numbers in terms of favorability and job approval. The bloom was off the rose for some of the disillusioned participants who had previously supported him, but others among the studio audience still stood by their man. A hardcore supporter with the nametag “Shelton” said he believes Obama “is doing an excellent job, considering the circumstances in which he took the office, and all the things piled on his desk.” In other words, as Shelton put it later, “he’s cleaning up George Bush’s mess.”

Even conceding that GWB did leave behind some serious fires to put out, it’s unclear how creating entirely new conflagrations – encouraging a southern border invasion, imposing upon us a health care leviathan, directly contributing to the “Arab Spring” chaos, alienating our allies and empowering our enemies, exacerbating race relations, dismantling our military, turning the IRS into a political weapon, to name some (but by no means all) – can be considered “cleaning up.” Almost six years into the Obama era, he hasn’t even begun to fix “Bush’s mess” – if anything, he has exacerbated it by overloading our national debt and expanding the NSA surveillance state. Obama isn’t cleaning up the Bush legacy – he is burdening us with his own.

Shelton disagreed: “He’s keeping the country out of war, he’s keeping the economy stable –” At that point Luntz interrupted him to turn to another participant who had been shaking his head in disagreement. When that man pressed him to name even one Obama accomplishment, Shelton again responded, “He’s keeping us out of war! Isn’t that enough?” Well, no, especially considering that he hasn’t done even that. Obama didn’t end the war in Iraq – the troop drawdown was scheduled under Bush, although Obama took credit for ending it until he began to be blamed for leaving a vacuum there for ISIS to fill. And Obama increased the number of our troops in Afghanistan where they are still dying (including a brigadier general, the highest ranking officer to die there); as of last year, we still have nearly twice as many there as when he took office. This is to say nothing of the future wars Obama is courting because he has demonstrated to the world that America under him is weak. This has not gone unnoticed by an empowered, resurgent Russia, China, Iran, and our non-state Islamic enemies. But in Shelton’s mind, Obama ended Bush’s illegal wars and so now “war is over,” as John Lennon sang.

Then a woman in the group urged, “Let’s bring back George Bush. Let’s have a great leader.” The suggestion was like a bomb going off in the studio. “It’s George Bush’s fault!” shouted one man. Shelton jumped in with, “George Bush lied about the Iraq War. He lied, and Barack Obama is getting us out of a mess!” This was the same man who moments before had said that Obama hadn’t lied about Obamacare or Benghazi.

Another woman agreed with Shelton, claiming that “[Obama] can’t clean this up in 10 years, 12 years, 14 years. This takes time. He’s just prepping the next President.” One man who didn’t vote for Obama pointed out, however, that “when Reagan took over from Carter it took him three years, but he solved it. When Clinton took over, he took two years, but he solved it.” The Obama fans didn’t respond – evidently, rather than expect their man to solve problems, they just plan to keep blaming Bush indefinitely, or at least for the next 14 years.

In closing the segment, Luntz asked why we stop being civil with each other when Bush’s name comes up, and one gentleman complained that it’s because the left “keeps going back to Bush” instead of moving forward and taking responsibility for the current state of affairs. But of course that’s the whole point: without clinging to their delusional rationalization about Bush, how else could so many Americans convince themselves that nothing in the current state of affairs can possibly be Obama’s fault?

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 8/11/14)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Is ‘Sharknado 2’ the Future of Television?

Last week was the premiere of Sharknado 2: The Second One, the much-anticipated sequel to last summer’s campy hit TV movie Sharknado about a freak tornado sucking sharks out of the ocean and dropping them like kamikazes into Los Angeles. For those who found the popularity of both Syfy channel schlockfests to be a sign of the impending collapse of Western civilization, Brian Moylan at The Guardian poses an unsettling scenario: Sharknado is the future of television, and “we all better get used to it.”

Curiously, considering what a cult favorite it has become, Sharknado’s 2013 premiere was seen by even fewer viewers than is typical of a Syfy original movie, which usually consists of mega-creatures of one sort or another wreaking havoc or battling each other. But the movie’s popularity quickly developed as a trend on Twitter, so when Syfy aired another showing a week later, its viewership increased by 38%. A third airing a week after that garnered even more viewers and set a record for the most-watched original film encore in the network’s history, and so a sequel was born.

Sharknado 2: The Second One, what Brian Moylan calls “the schlocktacular sequal [sic] to the social media phenomenon” of its predecessor, has “an utter pop culture craziness that has fans snickering all the way to heaven with non-stop action and a plot that only makes a whiff of sense.” With a hyper-awareness of its own ridiculousness, the movie almost constantly winks at the audience; for example, it features prominent cameos by former pop culture stars (MTV’s Downtown Julie Brown, Miley Cyrus’s achy breaky dad Billy Ray, and Taxi’s Judd Hirsch, here playing a taxi driver) and current pop culture figures like Perez Hilton, Jared the Subway guy, and Kelly Osbourne. It is all designed to get viewers reacting on social media.

And it worked. Not only did this sequel become the channel’s most watched original movie ever, at one point it held all top 10 trending topics in the United States. There were more mentions of the sequel on Twitter than #MileyCyrus on the day of MTV’s 2013 VMAs, #kimye on Kim and Kanye’s wedding day and #transformers4, #thelegomovie, #godzillamovie and #22jumpstreet on each of those movies worldwide premiere days. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared it “the most social movie on TV ever,” more so than any episode of Game of Thrones, The Bachelorette or Survivor.

And therein lies its significance for the future of TV entertainment, according to Moylan: it’s enormously popular “not because it’s any good or anyone really likes it,” as he points out, “but because people will watch it live, along with all the commercials, to have the privilege of snarking about it in real time on their handheld device or laptop.”

Moylan notes that it is so much easier to get a 140-character rise out of people over bad TV like Sharknado than it is to ruminate at length about something of superior quality like Mad Men. “Just look at Scandal,” he writes. “It’s ridden people OMG-ing about presidential assassination attempts all the way to being one of TV’s biggest dramas.” I’m not sure Scandal proves his point; the same thing could be said of people OMG-ing on Twitter over which major characters get killed off each week on Game of Thrones, but neither show is of poor quality, much less Sharknado-caliber poor.

Yes, people enjoy the interactivity of tweeting about bad (and good) TV, just as they enjoy the interactivity of video games or voting for an American Idol; but is Sharknado really what television’s future looks like? I think not. Social media certainly help drive the success of a TV series or movie, but what people prefer even more than the social interactivity is variety. That has been the lesson of cable TV success.

Special “events” like Sharknado may create a record ratings spike here and there, but they are ultimately just temporary frenzies that aren’t going to replace Mad Men or Scandal or game shows or sitcoms or reality TV or any other genre. Besides, they are very difficult to duplicate; it’s rare to find a concept as brilliantly laughable as Sharknado’s.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/8/14

Clinton Admits He Passed on Killing Bin Laden

In a memorably explosive 2006 interview with Chris Wallace, former President Bill Clinton went off on a finger-wagging “tear,” as Wallace put it, when questioned about whether he had done enough during his terms in office to get Osama bin Laden. “I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since,” growled a furious Clinton. Now a recently-released audiotape confirms that Clinton did indeed have at least one clear opportunity to kill the world’s most wanted man in 1998 – and passed on it, allowing bin Laden to live to mastermind the 9/11 attacks.

Last week Australian Michael Kroger, the former head of the Liberal Party in the state of Victoria, unveiled on Australia’s Sky News a never-before-released audio of Clinton speaking to a group of businessmen in Melbourne on September 10, 2001, recorded a mere ten hours before the first plane hit the World Trade Center. In that recording, made with the former president’s knowledge according to Kroger, Clinton responded thusly in response to a question about international terrorism:

And I’m just saying, you know, if I were Osama bin Laden — he’s a very smart guy, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about him — and I nearly got him once. I nearly got him. And I could have killed him, but I would have to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children, and then I would have been no better than him. And so I didn’t do it.

Questioned by Fox News about the Clinton recording, Michael Scheuer, chief of the bin Laden unit from 1995 to 1999, replied that Clinton was a “disgrace” and a “monumental liar” for claiming that he didn’t kill bin Laden because of the collateral damage. He asserted that only Taliban and bin Laden and his crew would’ve died if Clinton had given the go-ahead for a missile strike on the region in December of 1998. But Clinton didn’t act, said Scheuer, because he’s a “coward morally” and because he’s “more concerned, like Obama, with what the world thinks about him.”

In the 2006 Wallace interview, Clinton referenced a wildly controversial ABC miniseries called The Path to 9/11*, which had aired a mere two weeks earlier and which Clinton angrily called part of a right-wing “disinformation” campaign against him. That docudrama, based in part on The 9/11 Commission Report, dramatized the historical thread connecting the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Islamic attacks on American interests throughout the Clinton era, the failure to connect the dots under Bush, and the attacks of that September morning in 2001.

Prior to its premiere, a false accusation of “conservative bias” on the part of the filmmakers quickly spun into leftist hysteria that the $30+ million miniseries was a “well-honed propaganda operation” on the part of a stealth cabal of conservatives. Clinton and his supporters, fearing the miniseries would tarnish his political legacy, claimed it was full of lies and pulled out all the stops to suppress it, including threats by the Senate Democratic leadership, led by Harry Reid, to pull ABC’s license if the miniseries aired. With a few very minor edits, the miniseries squeaked by and went on to high ratings; but it has not aired since and ABC-Disney refuses to release a DVD [check out John Ziegler’s riveting documentary Blocking the Path to 9/11 for the whole outrageous story].

The miniseries featured one particular scene vetted, as every scene was, by a battery of ABC lawyers, in which a CIA team and its Afghan allies have bin Laden in its sights, call the White House for approval to make the hit, and are denied the green light. Clinton and his people attacked this scene as an outrageous fabrication.

But in May 2012, CBS’ 60 Minutes broadcast a startling segment featuring former CIA officer Hank Crumpton, Deputy Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, who discussed with interviewer Lara Logan his participation in operations to capture and/or kill bin Laden well before 9/11. Crumpton complained about “the lack of response on the part of the administration” and described one incident in which his team sighted bin Laden. It sounds very similar to the dramatized scene from Path to 9/11:

Crumpton: Our human sources took us to a village uh, far, not far from Kandahar –
Logan: And what did you see there?
Crumpton: We saw a security detail, a convoy, and we saw bin Laden exit the vehicle.
Logan: Clearly.
Crumpton: Clearly. And we had – the optics were spot on, beaming back to us, CIA headquarters. We immediately alerted the White House, and the Clinton administration’s response was, “Well, it will take several hours for the TLAMs, the cruise missiles launched from submarines, to reach that objective. So you need to tell us where bin Laden will be five or six hours from now.” The frustration was enormous.
Logan: So at that moment you wanted to kill him.
Crumpton: Yes.
Logan: But you couldn’t get permission.
Crumpton: Correct.

Logan then narrates that Crumpton “couldn’t get permission to do anything, including allowing the CIA’s Afghan agents on the ground to attack bin Laden’s compound.”
Now the Clinton admission serves as further vindication for the Path to 9/11’s veracity; in fact, Scheuer also stated, as he has on numerous previous occasions, that the Clinton administration passed on as many as ten opportunities to nail bin Laden.

Imagine how different the world would be if President Clinton had pulled the trigger on bin Laden in 1998. There would have been no 9/11, says Michael Scheuer, and probably no Iraq war. “I worked hard to try to kill him,” Clinton insisted in the Wallace interview. “I authorized a finding for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since.” But when he could have, he didn’t. Even if it truly was out of concern for Kandahari civilians, this question posed rhetorically by Scheuer cuts to the heart of the matter: “Who was he elected to protect, Kandaharis or Americans?”

* Full disclosure: The Path to 9/11 was written and produced by my friend Cyrus Nowrasteh, whom I assisted on the project.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 8/5/14)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Does Art Matter Anymore?

This past spring, a nude performance artist made a minor media stir by publicly pushing paint-and-ink-filled eggs out of her vagina onto a canvas to make a profound statement – okay, perhaps not so much profound as profoundly messy. Around the same time, Lady Gaga, the music industry’s most self-consciously artsy star, incorporated a vomit performance artist into her show (it’s even more repulsive than it sounds). “That performance,” says Lady Gaga, “was art in its purest form.”

I’m not sure what “art in its purest form” means, but was it even art at all? Have we so degraded the definition of art that it includes whatever we decide to spew publicly from bodily orifices? As a critic for The Guardian correctly notes, much of the modern tradition of performance art “is an embarrassing revelation of the art world's distance from real aesthetic values or real human life.”

And that’s the problem. Such acts of disgusting fetishism, desperate self-promotion, and calculated shock value taint the endeavor of art itself as it has been understood around the world for many centuries. They make it difficult for the average person-on-the-street to understand, respect, and value art. They make it hard to remember that there was a time when creating art involved serious training, skill, and vision, and that it isn’t just about attention-seekers acting on their most idiotic or disturbed impulses.

In the past, creating art was the domain of a trained few, employed and appreciated by the moneyed elite. But with the rise of capitalism, gradual breakdown of the class structure, and the proliferation of museums, cheap reproductions, and art education, pretty much anyone could enjoy art. Eventually, access to affordable materials meant that anyone could also attempt to produce art. In time, this democratization downgraded our culture’s definition of art to mere personal expression, as if anything anyone does to express himself or herself rises to the level of art as long as a pretentious enough justification can be fashioned for it.

For example, last week Business Insider reported on photographer Jedediah Johnson, whose art consists of slathering on lipstick, making out with people, and taking pictures of the smeared results. His “Makeout Project” supposedly “attempts to change our preconceived notions about kissing,” which sounds like just the sort of postmodern bull that artists say to get girls – although in this case, he occasionally makes out with men too, and in at least one ultra-disturbing instance, with a baby (as an aside, what kind of parents allow this frankly twisted creep to smear lipstick on their child with his lips?).

It doesn’t help that such postmodern silliness earns insane valuations at art auctions and sales. In an article bluntly titled, “The Overpriced World of Bad Art,” the New York Post reports that collectors are increasingly “spending millions on artists still alive who are producing art that is less and less accessible... It’s a cynical attempt to be cool by consumption, and increasingly, the artists they collect create work for them that verges on contemptuous.”

Examples include “art” like light bulbs on a blank wall ($506,503), a dead tree ($468,000), and a dead shark in a tank ($12 million). “My Bed,” an installation consisting of cigarette butts, used condoms, and stained underwear piled adjacent to artist Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, sold at Christie’s last month for $4.25 million. In museums a hundred years from now, will frauds like this be representative of the best art of our time?

The dead shark went for spare change compared to a Francis Bacon triptych that sold for an auction record of $142 million at Sotheby’s last year. Also in 2013, a collector picked up a Picasso for $155 million in a private sale. Several years before that, a Jackson Pollack splatter-fest fetched $140 million. Now, unlike Tracey Emin’s rumpled sheets, those were exceptional works by recognized modern masters, but the point is that when a piece of art sells for such an astronomical sum, the money becomes the focal point. It distracts from the work itself and makes people view the art world as nothing a scam on obscenely wealthy collectors.

Is all this insanity conditioning people to dismiss art as silly and irrelevant in the real world? Are we becoming too cynical to grasp the power of truly profound art, or to find personal meaning in it? As a culture, we need to revive aesthetic standards that help people take art and artists seriously once more. We need to retrain ourselves to appreciate the visual arts, to feel their aesthetic impact in our lives. In short, art needs to matter again.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/4/14)

Jon Voight Rips Into Anti-Israel Celebs

Among the celebrities I wrote about last week who are speaking out for and (mostly) against Israel during the Gaza conflict were Spanish husband-and-wife actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. They, in addition to dozens of other Spanish artists, signed an open letter condemning Israel for its “genocide” of the so-called Palestinians. In response, Jon Voight, Hollywood’s most vocal conservative actor, penned a strong open letter of his own for The Hollywood Reporter, advising Cruz and Bardem to “hang your heads in shame.”

In a statement on Wednesday Penelope Cruz tried to walk back her denunciation of Israel. After prefacing her clarification with an acknowledgement that she is “not an expert on the situation,” Ms. Cruz explained that “My only wish and intention in signing that group letter is the hope that there will be peace in both Israel and Gaza.” Well, that’s what we all hope for, but some of us understand that peace is not going to come from the hatemongering terrorists of Hamas, and some of us, like Ms. Cruz and her husband, seem to believe that Israel is the problem.

Bardem released a statement as well, in which he tried to clarify his position and complained of the backlash against him and Cruz: “I am now being labeled by some as anti-Semitic, as is my wife — which is the antithesis of who we are as human beings. We detest anti-Semitism as much as we detest the horrible and painful consequences of war.” Bardem went on to try to make a distinction between his criticism of “the Israeli military response” and his “great respect for the people of Israel and deep compassion for their losses.”

As I wrote last week, that distinction would carry more weight if Bardem and others like him didn’t always direct their condemnation toward the one nation in the Middle East that holds the values which liberals like Bardem and Cruz claim to cherish: human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, equality between Jews and Arabs, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and all the rest.

Instead, in addition to his signature on the open letter, Bardem had also written an op-ed for a Spanish newspaper, in which he unjustly labeled Israel’s military operation “genocide” and “a war of extermination… where hospitals, ambulances, and children are targets and presumed to be terrorists.” “Right now,” Bardem wrote in the op-ed, “there is NO place for distance or neutrality.” He’s right about that, but unfortunately he chose to throw his support behind the terrorists.

In his more recent statement, Bardem noted that “Too many innocent Palestinian mothers have lost their children to this conflict. Too many innocent Israeli mothers share the same grief… There should not be any political reason that can justify such enormous pain on both sides.” But there is a reason for the enormous pain – the Palestinian leadership’s relentless determination to kill Jews and wipe Israel off the map. Any further pain would cease overnight if the terrorism ended and Palestinians demonstrated a willingness to coexist in peace.

Incensed by what Jon Voight calls their “ignorance,” he lashed out at the couple in defense of Israel. “I am more than angry,” his open letter began. “I am heartsick that people like Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem could incite anti-Semitism all over the world and are oblivious to the damage they have caused.”

Voight proceeded to deliver a thumbnail history of the Arab-Israeli hostilities and to remind his readers that the current conflict began after the “travesty” of Hamas kidnapping and murdering three Jewish teenagers. He concluded thusly:

After years of trying to make peace, the wars they had to fight, being attacked by their enemies, and still being attacked, and finally after years of running into bomb shelters and having hundreds of civilians killed by suicide bombers, civilians being killed in their sleep, stabbed to pieces, finding enough is enough and finally retaliating, instead of my peers sticking up for the only democratic country in that region, they go and take out poison letters against them.

Voight didn’t let his acting colleagues get away with claiming no ill will against the Jewish people, asking

all my peers who signed that poison letter against Israel to examine their motives. Can you take back the fire of anti-Semitism that is raging all over the world now?... You had a great responsibility to use your celebrity for good. Instead, you have defamed the only democratic country of goodwill in the Middle East: Israel.

The actor concluded by admonishing Bardem, Cruz, and the rest to “hang your heads in shame. You should all come forth with deep regrets for what you did, and ask forgiveness from the suffering people in Israel.”

As is typical of artists, Bardem and Cruz believe that violence is always wrong, that fighting back against terrorism only breeds more violence, that the Arab-Israeli conflict is a “cycle of violence” which it is incumbent upon Israel to end, that 1400 years of religious enmity can somehow be erased by a simple plea for coexistence, and that Israel is an oppressive occupier and the Palestinians are helpless victims. “My signature [on the open letter] was solely meant as a plea for peace,” Bardem tried to explain. But Israel has tried such pleas for decades. The time for pleading for peace with an enemy who will not rest until you and all your kind are violently eradicated is over. Now the time has come for the extermination of the Jew-hating Palestinian leadership. That way lies peace.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 8/4/14)

Monday, August 4, 2014

Katy Perry and Cultural Appropriation

It’s getting tougher for pop stars to be politically correct these days, since the range of acceptable behavior keeps shrinking. White girls like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry can’t even twerk or do a geisha-inspired performance without self-appointed critics with too much time on their hands crying Racism! Cultural appropriation!

Perry has been suspected of racism also for her tour featuring dancing Egyptian mummies with exaggerated curves, which she claims had nothing to do with race: “I based it on plastic surgery,” Perry explained in the August 2014 Rolling Stone. “It’s actually a representation of our culture wanting to be plastic, and that’s why there’s bandages and it’s mummies.” As for accusations of cultural appropriation, Perry grumbled, “I guess I’ll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that’s it… [C]an’t you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane?”

Lauren Duca at Huffington Post thinks so. She asserts that there is “no room for argument” that Perry’s performance was a “definitive” example of cultural appropriation and arguably racist.

What is cultural appropriation, anyway? According to Duca, it refers to “picking and choosing elements of a culture by a member of another culture without permission. This includes traditional knowledge, religious symbols, artifacts or any other unauthorized use of cultural practice or ideation.”

The obvious question that leaps to mind is: who is “authorized” to give this cultural “permission”? Obviously there is no one who speaks for an entire culture, and never has been. “The only time it is OK,” Duca reiterates, “is with permission or authorization by the origin culture.” How does one get permission from an entire “culture”? The very concept is inane and illiberal. Should the Chinese cellist Yo-Yo Ma have sought permission to play Bach? Should the Mississippi-born Leontyne Price have sought permission to sing Verdi?

Duca continues: “In that it belittles a culture while using it for personal gain, cultural appropriation indirectly expresses racial superiority.” [Emphasis added] It is most problematic, she says, when someone “from a position of privilege” borrows from the culture of an exploited or oppressed minority group for that person’s “benefit.”

Her assumption seems to be that this so-called appropriation can never be an homage to, or a sincere affinity for, that cultural expression; it can only be exploitation. Even as playful kitsch, like Perry’s geisha outfit, is it really so offensive that she must be accused of “thoughtlessly Othering and objectifying” Asian culture, as a Jezebel writer phrased it? (I have no idea why “Othering” is capitalized, but I suppose it doesn’t matter since it isn’t even a word). Our obsession today with labeling such innocuous actions as racist and exploitative accomplishes nothing except to aggravate already raw race relations and to trivialize actual racism.

In a previous life I was a musician in San Francisco, where for years I was a percussionist in the thriving, local Afro-Brazilian dance scene. As a white man born and raised in Arkansas, my cultural origins couldn’t have been farther from those out of which that music bloomed, but so what? I learned to play it so well that I taught it to others, even to Brazilians. I was passionate about the music – an Africanized drumming tradition called samba-reggae – and even ultimately led an award-winning group of performers. That pursuit had nothing to do with belittling, exploiting, or “Othering” anything; it stemmed from my genuine appreciation of a musical form that I felt in my soul, regardless of the color of my skin.

The ironic problem with the theory behind cultural appropriation is that “borrowing” is actually one of the significant means by which cultures develop and assimilate; it breaks down barriers. But the divisive grievance-mongering behind the theory of cultural appropriation only perpetuates racial resentment and cultural barriers. It states that you are not allowed to step outside of your skin color or cultural heritage. You aren’t allowed to be an individual with a passion for cultural expressions and ideas that do not happen to stem from your background. We aren’t allowed to participate in our own human variety, embrace it, and find our shared humanity at the heart of it.

It is a way of demanding, as Katy Perry put it so simply, that you must stay in your lane – or be smeared as racist.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/1/14)

The Celebrities Who Get it Wrong – and Right – About Israel

Once Israel’s military operation got underway in Gaza, celebrity actors, who desperately want to be taken seriously, predictably took to social media to express their very special concern. An article in The Hollywood Reporter (THR) examined the differences between American and European celebrities’ positions on the conflict, and concluded, unsurprisingly, that European celebs are much harsher and more vocal about their opposition to Israel.

As partial evidence, the article noted that husband-and-wife stars Javier Bardem (in No Country for Old Men, most famously) and Penelope Cruz (The Counselor, most recently) joined more than 100 other Spanish actors and directors to issue a statement urging the European Union to formally condemn Israel for waging “genocide” in Gaza. THR reports that the letter essentially lays the blame for the entire conflict on Israel, because it “humiliates, detains, and tramples on the rights of the Palestinian population in all of the West Bank every day, also causing many deaths.”

In response to that statement, European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor criticized its “gratuitous use of the term ‘genocide’” and pointedly suggested that

Rather than outrageously attacking a fellow democracy for defending itself against radical terrorists, the time of Spanish public figures would be better put to use fighting against the rapidly growing hatred of Jews in their country, which according to recent surveys is one of the highest in Europe.

Bravo. He concluded that the statement “demonstrates grave ignorance or extreme malice.” I suspect it’s a combination of the two. When Bardem, for example, writes, “This is a war of occupation and extermination against a whole people without means, confined to a miniscule territory without water and where hospitals, ambulances, and children are targeted and presumed to be terrorists,” there is so much grave ignorance there that one must assume extreme malice as well.

After taking some heat for their position, Penelope Cruz followed up with a statement trying to walk it back a bit: “I’m not an expert on the situation and I’m aware of the complexity of it.” Well, kudos to her for that admission – it has to be the first time in Hollywood history that a celebrity has acknowledged his or her own ignorance about an issue. She went on to plead that

My only wish and intention in signing that group letter is the hope that there will be peace in both Israel and Gaza. I am hopeful all parties can agree to a cease fire and there are no more innocent victims on either side of the border. I wish for unity, and peace... I believe in a civilization that can be capable of bringing the courage to have a world where humans can live side by side.

That sounds nice, but if Mrs. Bardem really wishes for unity and peace, if she truly yearns for no more innocent victims on either side, if she really believes in a civilization capable of rising above this conflict, then her only logical choice is to support the civilized Israel unequivocally, because it is there and nowhere else in the Middle East that her dream of Jews and Arabs living and working side by side as equals exists.

They aren’t the only European celebrities to jump on the anti-Israel bandwagon. In May, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and Nick Mason sent an open letter to the Rolling Stones urging them not to perform in Israel:

Playing Israel now is the moral equivalent of playing Sun City at the height of South African apartheid; regardless of your intentions, crossing the picket line provides propaganda that the Israeli government will use in its attempts to whitewash the policies of its unjust and racist regime.

To their enormous credit, Jagger and the Stones ignored the boycott letter and went forward with their concert in Tel Aviv.

American celebs who have spoken out against Israel have been, as THR put it, “careful to note that their sympathy for the civilians should not be equated with anti-Jewish sentiment.” Thus former actress Mia Farrow tweeted: “We can passionately protest Israel’s assault upon Gaza without descending, even remotely, into the hideousness of anti-Semitism.” That would carry more weight if, among her dozens of tweets about the Gaza hostilities, Farrow ever tweeted about Hamas’ assaults on Israel. Later, she added: “To be clear I do not support Hamas. I care about children everywhere.”

If she and other celebrities care about children everywhere, why do they consistently reserve their condemnation for Israel and not tweet their outrage about Arab terrorists targeting Israeli children, the deaths of Syrian children, or the hundreds of poor Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram (not to mention the boys slaughtered by those savages) who merited only some temporary “hashtag diplomacy” and photos of posers with scribbled “Bring Back Our Girls” signs shared on Instagram?

Daily Show host Jon Stewart took a similar tack: “Just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.” Actually it is, if you’re not also condemning Hamas for brainwashing their children to become Jew-killers, for creating a culture of martyrdom, for purposefully incurring the deaths of their own civilians in order to smear Israel in the media war. If you’re not openly condemning them for that, if you’re condemning only Israel, then whatever your intentions, you are supporting Hamas.

Act0r Mark Ruffalo clung to the same excuse, tweeting a link to an article entitled, “Empathizing w/Gaza does NOT make me anti-Semitic, nor pro-Hamas or anti-Israel. It makes me human.” If you are an empathetic human, then your only rational choice is to support the Israelis, who love life, unlike the death cultists of Hamas.

It’s easy to dismiss celebrities who decide to weigh in on current events as uninformed and irrelevant, but unfortunately their opinions carry significant weight among their untold numbers of fans – not because those opinions are necessarily insightful or even correct, but because celebrities are cool, and fans don’t want to be uncool by having a different opinion.

And what about the celebs who do support Israel? Rosanne Barr, of all people, tweeted some stone cold truth about Hamas to her 250,000 followers: “They say they won’t stp fighting Israel til evry Jew there is dead. They say it everyday, repeatedly. If ur ignoring/excusing that-yr sick.” I can’t believe I’m saying this, but bravo, Rosanne.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 8/1/14)

Friday, August 1, 2014

Paul McCartney, Still on the Run at 72

I remember when rock was young, as Elton John sang, so young that no one could even imagine a rock star being over the age of 30. The very thought of someone that old still pumping out power chords onstage would have seemed ludicrous to my generation. Speaking of “My Generation,” the Who’s lyric “I hope I die before I get old” was our creed; and then, to the consternation of us all, we got older, and today some of those early rockers (at least those who didn’t die before they got old) are still playing sold-out tours – like Sir Paul McCartney.

Macca needs – or should need – no introduction to anyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the last fifty years. In an industry in which careers come and go like shooting stars, the 72-year-old has worked steadily for half a century and is currently on tour again, putting on a nearly three-hour, 38-song show that covers hits from his Beatles, Wings, and solo eras. What has sustained his success through those decades, and what keeps him recording and rocking out at an age at which many men are riding chair lifts, is his relentless work ethic and creative urge.

McCartney’s manager Scott Rodger has called him the hardest working artist he’s ever met, a  reputation Paul earned while still a Beatle. Journalist Rip Rense wrote, of the Beatles’ legendary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, that

absent McCartney’s obsessive work ethic, there would have been no Pepper at all. Paul was the guy pushing the others to come to the studio every day, especially John, who probably would otherwise have been content to stay home, tripping on LSD. Lennon acknowledged –complained, really – that Paul rang him up at home incessantly, exhorting him to come to the studio and compose, sing, record.

After the history-making group broke up, it would have been easy, or certainly tempting, for McCartney and his bandmates to sit back and rest on their laurels. Moving forward with solo projects must have been a daunting prospect; after all, how do you top being a Beatle? But Paul embraced the challenge and launched into solo work – a self-titled album for which he wrote all the songs and performed all the instruments and vocals (with some contributions from wife Linda), and which was released even before the Beatles’ final album.

As it happens, I recently finished reading Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s by Tom Doyle, published late last year. Numerous times throughout the book, Doyle notes how obsessively driven McCartney was/is to work, create, rehearse, move forward. He quotes session musician Laurence Juber as saying, “It was hard to get Paul not to work… It took a lot for Paul to call the session off and say, ‘I just don’t feel up to it.’” McCartney himself barely even views it as work: “I like to record and not have to feel like it’s too much work. I hate to think, ‘I’m going to work now… I’m going to grind out some music.’”

In a Japanese jail after Customs caught him entering the country with a bag of marijuana, Paul was still thinking about work, according to Doyle. Even the day of John Lennon’s murder, a shocked McCartney, never very good at openly expressing his emotions, went to the studio for a scheduled session, explaining later to the curious press that “I have hidden myself in my work today.” It was only afterward, at home, that Paul allowed himself to break down.

McCartney’s commitment to work and creativity led him to release two dozen post-Beatles pop-rock albums (among other musical projects) and to amass a jaw-dropping pile of awards and achievements best summed up by his Guinness World Records title, “the Most Successful Composer and Recording Artist of All Time.”

Now, after refusing to let a recent viral infection stop the show, McCartney is back on the road at 72, with no sign of slowing down. “Paul puts on a very strenuous show — he’s up there two and a half hours singing his heart out and playing his ass off," says an industry manager. Not bad for someone who once sang about a retirement of quiet domesticity in “When I’m Sixty-Four.”

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 7/31/14)