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Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Rise of the Hollywood Nice Guy

Nice guys finish last, as Leo Durocher’s aphorism goes, and that may seem especially true in Hollywood, where the ruthlessly ambitious jockey for fame and fortune. But Jason Kennedy is proving that success in that world doesn’t necessarily require compromising one’s values.

Kennedy, the 33-year-old cohost of E! News and E! News Weekend, may be heralding the rise of the nice guy in Hollywood. As a Glamour profile notes, he is so cleancut that he drinks in moderation, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t frequent strip clubs. His dad is his hero. He apparently even told his E! producers that he refused to say “tit” on the air. “That’s just disrespectful to women,” he explained. “And my mom’s going to be watching!”

Hollywood isn’t known for having a Christian-friendly atmosphere, but that doesn’t faze Kennedy, who leads a weekly Bible study group – that’s right, a Bible study group in the belly of the secular beast – so large that it had to move from his Hollywood Hills living room, where it began two years ago as a monthly meeting of about 10 people, to a hotel ballroom (the Glamour writer claimed that the gathering she attended in March of last year numbered more than 600).

That gathering’s guests have included Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Justin Bieber, so it’s not just a bunch of networking wannabes. Admittedly, shallow celebrities are notorious for proclaiming themselves to be “spiritual, but not religious,” so some of the attendees may simply have latched onto the Bible study as another spiritual fad (see: “Madonna and Kabbalism”). But for Kennedy and no doubt most of the others, the group “is where I come to survive Hollywood,” as he told Glamour. “Being here reminds me of who I want to be—just a better man. It makes me a better boyfriend too.”

Striving to be a better man would seem to make Kennedy an oddity in a town that too often tolerates, if not actually rewards, outrageous and naughty behavior (think Charlie Sheen’s Winning! ways). But Jane Buckingham, founder of a trend-forecasting firm called Trendera, believes that bad boys are becoming culturally unfashionable and that nice guys are in. Women, she says, “are tired of the bad behavior, the men who cheat, the guys who go out and get drunk all the time... We want guys who make our lives better, not guys who are going to make our lives more chaotic.”

The gentlemanly Kennedy agrees. “Girls—if I’ve learned anything—want good guys,” he says. “I don’t think it pays off being the jerk anymore. Women, at least in my life, are getting tired of that. You can’t get away with that stuff today. Everyone’s paparazzi, and everyone’s on Twitter.” As for the bad boys of the sort that dominate reality shows and tabloids, he dismisses them with a simple, “I think we have moved on to a new era.”

Asked by Glamour if his squeaky-clean image isn’t cool enough for the town that is infinitely more popularity-conscious than any junior high school, he replies: “Not at all. Never entered my mind. I’ve never heard someone say, ‘He’s too nice. I don’t want to be around him.’ I mean, look at Tom Hanks. He’s like the male Oprah. Everybody loves Tom. He’s still going strong.” He continues:

And you know, when I sit down to interview the biggest actors in Hollywood, the true A-list guys like Matt Damon or a George Clooney, the most successful ones seem to be the nicest. I’ve met a lot of famous people, and douchebags out here are a dime a dozen. But those guys, they understand that being nice pays off. And I think that’s starting to spread.

Not only has his goody-goody reputation not hindered his opportunities, but “being a so-called good boy has paid off for me. I’ve got my dream job. And I’ve found my dream girl.” He was referring to fashion blogger and former model Lauren Scruggs, whom Kennedy wed last month. Scruggs had lost her left arm and eye in a ghastly plane propeller accident three years before; she has since said that Kennedy’s love and devotion made her feel beautiful again.

“What if we could get people to talk about guys for doing the right thing, for being gentlemen?” he says. If we could, that would be a much-needed course correction for a pop culture desperately in need of upstanding role models among its stars. The E! host denies that he is such a role model. “But guys need better influences today.” Indeed they do, and if Jason Kennedy can become a successful and highly visible symbol of that aim, then more power to him.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/28/15

‘American Sniper’ Under Fire

By the time you read this, director Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster about the late warrior Chris Kyle will have become the top-grossing war-themed film of all time in North America. And that box office success has exposed the stark contrast between an American audience starved for patriotic Hollywood fare on the one hand, and a radical left viciously trying to maintain control of their narrative on the other.

I wrote recently for FrontPage Mag about American Sniper and its leftist film critics, who don’t dispute the film’s artistic merits but are frustrated by this apolitical movie’s refusal to condemn both George Bush’s war and Chris Kyle’s role in it. As the film breaks box office records and shows little sign of slowing down (attendance dropped a mere 27% in the second weekend; it drops off at least twice that for most films), the left is ratcheting up its disgusting attacks, and a Muslim civil rights organization is joining in.

Always good for a despicable soundbite, Fahrenheit 9/11 filmmaker Michael Moore made a shameful accusation of snipers like Kyle as “cowards.” Professional provocateur Bill Maher, the man who once mistook the 9/11 hijackers’ fanaticism for courage, labeled Kyle a “psychopath patriot” for unapologetically taking out at least 160 of the enemy in Iraq. Smear merchant and Jew-hater Max Blumenthal dismissed Kyle as an “occupier [who] mows down faceless Iraqis” in Eastwood’s film.

A writer named John Wight, in a piece for Huffington Post that also ran in the Russian propagandist news network RT, where he is a regular contributor, declared the film to be American exceptionalism propaganda and evidence of our country’s “moral depravity.” Here is a sample of Wight’s own moral depravity:

Chris Kyle was not the warrior or hero portrayed in American Sniper. He was in fact a racist killer for whom the only good Iraqi was a dead Iraqi. He killed men, women, and children, just as his comrades did during the course of a brutal and barbaric war of aggression waged by the richest country in the world against one of the poorest.

To hear it from the left, you would think that we invaded Iraq simply for the fun of slaughtering impoverished Iraqi civilians. There is never any mention of al Qaeda, the international terrorism of Saddam Hussein, Iranian-backed militias, etc. – the actual barbarians with whom we were at war to secure freedom and democracy for those impoverished Iraqi civilians that the left claims we murdered by the hundreds of thousands. That’s because for the left – as usual – America is the bad guy, and thanks to the success of Eastwood’s movie, the left views Chris Kyle as the face of our racist imperialist aggression.

The BBC reported that the film has been criticized “for Kyle’s attitude towards his victims.” First, Kyle’s targets weren’t “victims”; they were terrorists who thought nothing of committing the heinous crimes which the radical left ascribes to our own soldiers instead. Second, the BBC is referring to a selective quotation from Kyle’s autobiography, on which the film was based, about Iraqis being “savages” who were better off dead. Here is a passage from an excerpt published at Huffington Post, of all places:

Savage, despicable evil. That's what we were fighting in Iraq. That’s why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemy ‘savages.’ There really was no other way to describe what we encountered there. I only wish I had killed more. Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives. Everyone I shot in Iraq was trying to harm Americans or Iraqis loyal to the new government.

He clearly was not referring to innocent Iraqi civilians but to the enemy. And his description of jihadists as savagely evil is accurate. It takes a real moral perversity to distort this passage in order to paint Kyle as a murdering bigot.

The BBC also noted that the George Soros-funded American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), which describes itself as the largest Arab civil rights organization in the U.S., has complained that “a majority of the violent threats we have seen over the past few days are result of how Arab and Muslims are depicted in American Sniper.”

The ADC reportedly has collected “hundreds of violent messages targeting Arab and Muslim Americans from moviegoers,” mostly from Facebook and Twitter. “American Sniper makes me wanna go shoot some f**kin Arabs,” read one tweet, dotted with emoticons of guns. Of course, threats of violence are unacceptable, but it’s easy to find innumerable examples of stupidity and hatefulness in every corner of the intellectual slums of social media. When has that ever translated into the overhyped anti-Muslim violence we’ve been told to expect ever since 9/11/2001? Never.

The ADC, which has a history of praising Hezbollah and Hamas, wrote to Clint Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper, who played Kyle, asking them to speak out in order to help “reduce the hateful rhetoric,” but to their credit, neither gentleman has yet responded. A spokesman for American Sniper’s studio did, however, release a statement denouncing “any violent, anti-Muslim rhetoric, including that which has been attributed to viewers” of the film. “Hate and bigotry have no place in the important dialogue that this picture has generated about the veteran experience.” True, and that should include hate and bigotry from the left.

The left and its Muslim allies like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee fear the record-breaking popularity of American Sniper because it doesn’t conform to the leftist narrative about the war or multiculturalism or America’s military imperialism. Hollywood is the pop culture tip of the spear for that narrative; if the left begins losing its monolithic grip on Hollywood – and American Sniper is evidence that it is – then their whole sham threatens to disintegrate.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 1/28/15)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Boy Who Didn’t Go To Heaven

Last April I wrote a review of the bestselling book Heaven is for Real for Acculturated, in which I kept an open mind about young Colton Burpo’s tale of visiting heaven during a life-threatening medical emergency. After all, though we should always be skeptical, his story was one in a thousand-year tradition of remarkably similar near-death experiences (and not only in the Christian tradition). And just as there is no physical proof that heaven exists, neither is there proof that it doesn’t. But another boy who claimed to have made a similar journey announced recently that the book based on his experience was spun out of lies.

The 6-year-old Alex Malarkey – incredibly, that’s his real name – and his father Kevin were in a terrible car crash in 2004. Alex wasn’t expected to survive, but after two months in a coma he woke to share a vision of the angels who took him through the gates of heaven itself. Though he was and remains paralyzed, his father helped Alex write and publish in 2010 The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels, and Life Beyond This World, touted on the cover as “a true story.” The book did brisk business for Christian publisher Tyndale House, selling over a million copies and spawning a TV movie.

But as far back as 2012, Alex and his mother Beth both began complaining that the book was a distortion and embellishment of Alex’s experience. Tyndale claims that Beth refused to meet with them and discuss her concern over the “inaccuracies,” and so they continued to publish the book.

Until last week, that is, when Alex, now a teenager, published a brief open letter in which he firmly renounced his “remarkable account,” saying,

I did not die. I did not go to Heaven. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth.

It’s hard to know what the full truth is here. Kevin and Beth have been estranged since the book’s publication – there are accusations that Kevin “neglected his duties” as husband and father – and Alex himself apparently has never received any royalties from the book despite being named as co-author. Despite Alex’s repudiation of his heavenly vision, it’s possible that he and his mother are simply fed up with how Alex has been treated by a too-adoring segment of the Christian community, by his own father, and by Tyndale.

Whatever the truth, what is the impact of Alex’s statement? What does this mean for believers and non-believers alike? What does it mean for other tales of near-death experiences?

First, it means that the lucrative publishing industry that has built up around such miraculous tales will take a big hit in credibility and sales. Tyndale House, for example, has announced that it is pulling Malarkey’s book from the shelves. Other such books may droop in sales as well, and any future ones may have difficulty finding a home with even Christian publishers, at least until the Malarkey controversy fades.

More importantly, it means that skeptics or outright atheists have been handed damaging ammunition for assaults against the very notion of an afterlife, certainly any that resembles the stereotypical vision of winged angels and Pearly Gates.

But does Malarkey’s malarkey prove or disprove anything about the afterlife? Apart from being a sad tale of exploitation (and possibly even fraud), public credulity, and family dysfunction, the answer is no. This is what I previously wrote about Heaven is for Real:

The fact is that all of us are ignorant of the realms beyond the narrow chinks of our caverns. To paraphrase Hamlet’s familiar lines, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in all our philosophies. Colton Burpo brought a childlike innocence to one of the most profound and mystical questions of our existence – is heaven real? Whether or not one believes his answer is real brings to mind the words of Thomas Aquinas: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”

While credulity is easy, so is disbelief. The trick is to balance skepticism with intellectual curiosity and the humility to know that “now we see through a glass, darkly.” Now we know only in part, but the time will come for each of us when we know the truth face to face.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/26/15)

‘Gender Justice’ Professors Urge Discrimination Against White Males

Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was recently the scene of a forum on misogyny titled “Transforming our campus and strengthening our community.” The discussion, hosted in part by the Canadian university’s Gender and Women’s Studies Program, and featuring a panel of professors and local “gender justice” activists, gave rise to solutions that are as sexist and racist as the problems they claim to be addressing.

What seems to have sparked the forum’s focus on misogyny is a scandal involving the Dalhousie dentistry school, whose Class of DDS 2015 Facebook page (which seems to have been taken down) reportedly featured sexually explicit posts from some male students, such as voting on which woman they'd like to have “hate sex” with and jokes about using chloroform on women. While this was highly inappropriate to say the least, the forum participants seemed oblivious to how inappropriate it would be to respond by punishing all male students at Dalhousie by essentially sending them to the back of the bus.

Jacqueline Warwick, professor of musicology and former coordinator of Dalhousie’s Gender and Women’s Studies Programs, offered up the not-so-subtle suggestion, for example, that teachers combat misogyny in the classroom by refusing to call on the male students first, thus encouraging more participation from the females. In other words, Warwick’s solution to misogyny is misandry.

“I do think, in general, there are a lot of studies that indicate women, girls are socialized not to speak first,” Warwick said. “And so to make a conscious rule, a deliberate rule that is explicit, that ‘no, men are not allowed to speak first,’ is certainly a strong way of addressing that issue, but one that will at least get people thinking about it,” she mused. “That’s already some progress, I believe.”

This is anything but progress, of course, but she is correct that it will get people thinking about it. What reasonable people will think is that treating men like second-class citizens in the classroom is discrimination and bigotry, and that it will exacerbate the widening gap between female academic achievement and male academic failure. But because it is directed at the perceived white male patriarchy, progressive academics firmly believe that this is acceptable gender justice in action, and a step closer to their dream of a utopia through totalitarian social engineering.

Jude Ashburn, who identifies as a “non-binary trans person” and is an outreach coordinator at a local gender and sexual resource center, said after the discussion that she (?) thinks black students should also be given similar priority in the classroom. “When I do activist circles or workshops, I often say, ‘OK, if you’re white and you look like me and you raise your hand, I’m not going to pick on you before someone of color,’” said Ashburn after the discussion. “So I do give little disclaimers, like people of color will have priority, or if you’re a person with a disability, you’re pushed to the front… I mean, you know, bros fall back,” she added with a laugh.

The fact that she can be so open and honest about her blatant racial discrimination speaks volumes about the agenda of such “gender justice” activists and the irrational atmosphere of political correctness that dominates universities today.

According to her, Dalhousie and other universities need to deal with the issue of misogyny on campus “within a trauma-informed, feminist, survivor-centered collaborative approach,” whatever that means. I suspect it means that Ashburn and her ilk believe that justice consists in keeping women in a state of perpetual victimhood, and delivering gender payback against all men.

Another of Ashburn’s preferred methods of reducing campus misogyny is to encourage students to abandon their “white privilege” (why associate whiteness with misogyny? Men of color aren’t misogynistic as well?). “[W]hite people need to start unlearning their privilege and challenging ourselves,” she said, adding that “anyone who holds privilege in this culture needs to seriously begin the work of giving up that privilege and learning how to live without it.”

Jacqueline Warwick seemed to agree but added, “That’ll be a difficult one for people to accept” – as it should be, because that suggestion, like the collectivist notion of white privilege itself – is racist, divisive, and punitive. But it’s an ingenious progressive weapon for inducing guilt in self-hating whites and for creating more social and racial conflict.

In response to a question that calling on women first in the classroom might engender discrimination against men, Judy Haiven, a management professor at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, responded casually that “I suppose at some point that could happen,” but apparently it’s a small price to pay for gender equality. “There has to be some type of affirmative action so that women, I hope, start to take more of an active role in the classroom.”

Ashburn said that this approach is difficult and upsetting to some people because they have to give up some “privilege.” She also said during the panel that she feels “burned out” when “What about the men?” is asked in “every conversation” about misogyny. Speaking of which, unsurprisingly, there were no male participants on the panel. Because why should anyone care about men being included in that conversation or in any proposed solutions?

In addition to the panel’s recommendations of preferential treatment for female and black students, some Dalhousie faculty members and students themselves recently proposed a mandatory “equity course” to explain to students “the root causes of gender-based violence and oppression.” This isn’t education, but indoctrination.

This sort of gender-obsessed totalitarianism is so blatantly discriminatory that it may be hard to take seriously, but it is increasingly becoming the norm in the politically correct setting of today’s universities, both here and in Canada, where young minds are propagandized to see everything reflected in the funhouse mirror of gender, race, and class. If Dalhousie University really wants to end gender discrimination, perhaps its first step should be to rid itself of gender justice activists.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 1/26/15)

Friday, January 23, 2015

Folks, please go here and vote for my celeb Kevin Durant, the nicest guy in the NBA, for Acculturated's Celebrities Behaving Well Award.

The link to my article about him is here if you need reminding why this humble, grateful, decent role model deserves it.

He's got tough competition - the Pope, for God's sake! And someone even more infallible, Angelina Jolie! Go Team Kevin! Go Team Kevin!

Zuckerberg’s Year of Reading Copiously

One of my New Year’s resolutions, besides resolving to actually commit to New Year’s resolutions, is to shift more of my media diet toward reading books. Imagine my surprise, then, when social media magnate Mark Zuckerberg himself began the New Year by announcing, “I'm looking forward to shifting more of my media diet toward reading books.”

My resolution stemmed from my growing dissatisfaction with myself for spending an inordinate amount of time scanning the internet for interesting reading, while leaving myself less and less time to settle down with interesting reading from a veritable skyscraper of unread books accumulating at home. It was adversely affecting my attention span, my patience, my capacity for self-reflection, my very sense of time and space, etc. – all the usual mental and psychological changes people experience who allow themselves to be caught in the gravitational pull of the black hole of the internet.

I don’t know whether Mark Zuckerberg came to a similar realization, but in any case, he explained that “I've found reading books very intellectually fulfilling. Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today.”

This isn’t exactly a revelation for those of us who have always found books fulfilling (and not only intellectually, but creatively, emotionally, and spiritually as well), but it may come as one for countless young people who admire Zuckerberg and who have grown up on social media and the internet, young people whose experience with books has been limited to uninspiring school assignments – that is, if schools actually assign books to be read anymore, and if students actually bother to finish them.

And so Zuckerberg posted a challenge that he plans to embrace in 2015 and in which he urges Facebook followers to join him: the creation of a book club community on a dedicated Facebook page called A Year of Books. “We will read a new book every two weeks and discuss it here,” he stated. “Our books will emphasize learning about new cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.”

His first selection was The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be by Moises Naim. With a title reminiscent of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (coincidentally, Fukuyama himself provided a blurb for Naim’s book), The End of Power explores the decay and dispersion of centralized power in the arenas of business, religion, education, family, “and in all matters of war and peace.”

The thesis of this book notwithstanding, Mark Zuckerberg’s own power – his power to influence – is far from being in decline. His recommendations could potentially steer hundreds of thousands of Facebookers toward any books and ideas he chooses to support and disseminate. This could make him the book guru that Oprah Winfrey used to be, when her television book club suggestions created instant bestsellers and national conversations about them.

Zuckerberg’s Year of Books page got off to a roaring start with a quarter of a million “likes,” and at least 50,000 people signed up to read The End of Power along with him. To give you some sense of comparison: by most estimates, it takes fewer than 10,000 copies of a book sold in the first week to guarantee a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Fifty thousand sales would make The End of Power a blockbuster.

But in what may have been a portent of disinterest to come, The End of Power sold only 13,000 copies after its selection. That was still enough to propel the book overnight into Amazon’s top 10 books from its previous rank of 45,140th. But the book club itself kicked off not with a bang but with a whimper: a Facebook Q&A with Zuckerberg and the author Naim that lured fewer than 200 participants into the online chat, and not all of those had even read the book. The Washington Post deemed it “a pretty lame start.”

What went wrong? The Post speculated that for technical reasons, ironically, Facebook isn’t the best venue for such a Q&A. It’s also difficult for the average Facebooker to keep up the biweekly pace, particularly with tomes that make for fairly heavy reading (Zuckerberg’s second selection, just announced, is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which weighs in at over 800 pages). 

It’s too early for a postmortem on A Year of Books, but Zuckerberg may have to find creative ways to keep the ambitious book club’s vital signs from flatlining. If he can pull that off – and I’m rooting for him, actually – while maintaining the intellectual quality of the selections, his project may have a significant influence on the reading habits of social media fans, many of whom might not otherwise come out of Facebook’s black hole long enough to sit down with an actual book.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/23/15)

Vanderbilt Professor Under Attack for Criticizing Islam

Last week, in response to the Paris massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Carol M. Swain, an openly conservative professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, wrote an op-ed for The Tennessean titled, “Charlie Hebdo attacks prove critics were right about Islam.” Naturally, any critique of Islam from our leftist-dominated campuses is going to be met with frothing outrage, and Professor Swain’s article was no exception.

“What would it take to make us admit we were wrong about Islam?” the professor began. “What horrendous attack would finally convince us that Islam is not like other religions in the United States, that it poses an absolute danger to us and our children unless it is monitored better than it has been under the Obama administration?” Good questions, and ones that those of us whose eyes have long been opened to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism have been asking ever since September 11, 2001, if not before.

But the fact that such questions were being put forth by a major university professor, even a conservative one (with a very impressive résumé, no less), was notable. Swain pulled no punches:

More and more members of the PC crowd now acknowledge that Islam has absolutely nothing in common with Christianity, nor is it a worthy part of the brotherhood of man I long felt was characteristic of the Abrahamic religions. A younger, more naive version of myself once believed in a world where the people of the Book could and would get along because they all claimed Abraham as their father. No more!

Those were strong, clear sentiments about Islam that one doesn’t often – or ever – hear from American academics. She concluded with a statement that dared to challenge the West’s false idol of multiculturalism: “It becomes clearer every day that Islam is not just another religion to be accorded the respect given to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Baha'i and other world religions.” The attack on Charlie Hebdo, she wrote, “once again illustrates that Islam is a dangerous set of beliefs totally incompatible with Western beliefs concerning freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association.”

Swain’s solutions included “remov[ing] the foxes from the henhouses,” “institut[ing] serious monitoring of Islamic organizations,” and expecting Muslim immigrants to assimilate culturally. “If we are to be safe,” she wrote, “then we must have ground rules that protect the people from those who disdain the freedoms that most of the world covets.”

Among those who took umbrage at this blunt op-ed and complained to the Vanderbilt Hustler, the school paper, were: an international student from Pakistan who felt mortified by the piece; an agnostic junior who condemned Swain as xenophobic, hateful, and intolerant; a sophomore who accused Swain of “logical leaps” and “casual bigotry”; a graduate who warned against “fear of the Other”; another who purported to “debunk” Swain’s claims about Islam; and a Muslim undergrad who declared the op-ed to be hate speech and wondered, “How could such an educated, informed woman, a professor at Vanderbilt in charge of educating our youth, publish such ignorance?”

That same student, Farishtay Yamin, happens to be the publicity chair for Vanderbilt’s branch of the Muslim Students Association. She organized a student protest of Swain, saying, with no apparent trace of irony, “What I’m really trying to show [Swain] is that she can’t continue to say these kinds of things on a campus that’s so liberal and diverse and tolerant.” So much for the campus being liberal and diverse and tolerant.

The Muslim Students Association, the Muslim Brotherhood’s oldest offshoot in America, issued a statement, offering Professor Swain “kindness and respect” and forgiveness, pointing out that “she has allowed the acts of people who have distorted Islam to shape her views on an entire community of 1.6 billion people who practice peacefully.” Vanderbilt’s MSA invited her and others to attend their Islamic Awareness Month event called “Terrorism: Who Is to Blame” on Feb. 8. “Please join us for the event so that misconceptions can be cleared,” they urged helpfully.

The Vanderbilt Hustler editorial team responded by defending Swain’s right to free speech but denouncing her “brand of conservatism” as “disgusting and disappointing.” She has “undoubtedly abused her position” by “perpetuating a myth that seeks to shut down debate and discourage the legitimacy of the place that Muslim individuals hold in American society... In fact, many feel that Swain’s actions have created an environment that feels unsafe to some of her students.”

It’s ironic that Islam has created unsafe environments all over the world for Jews, Christians, women, gays, cartoonists, and even Muslims themselves, but the Vanderbilt Hustler editors blame Professor Swain for creating an unsafe campus environment for pointing that out (the Dean of Students even felt it necessary to reassure Muslim students that they are still safe on campus). Ironic, too, that – in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo assault – the editors claim that it is Swain who is seeking to shut down debate about Islam.

Last Sunday Professor Swain released a statement acknowledging that her op-ed “could have been written with a milder tone.” But given a chance to clarify her position in an interview, Swain did not back down. She told the Vanderbilt Hustler that, “What we don’t want in the United States is a repeat of what has happened in Europe… It would be beneficial,” she said, “if more Muslims would stand up and condemn jihadic violence against Christians, Jews, homosexuals and others.”

Asked how she reconciles the First Amendment with her “obligation as a professor to maintain a safe and civil environment” for “students who might feel threatened by your speech,” Swain replied,

I feel no special obligation to engage in politically correct speech. I think it is unfortunate that hate speech has become whatever makes a non-Christian uncomfortable… Any student who is threatened by a discussion of ideas cannot fully benefit from a liberal arts education… If a student takes one of my courses, then he or she has entered a political correctness free zone tolerant of divergent views.

Bravo. Thanks to the mental straitjacket of political correctness, no one who took exception to Professor Swain’s op-ed seems capable of grasping – or willing to grasp – the distinction between the ideology of Islam and its adherents. Criticism of the former is not the same as bigotry toward the latter. We must not allow the conversation about the world’s undeniable Islam problem always to be derailed by kneejerk accusations of mythical Islamophobia and intolerance. Unfortunately, freeing university students from that mental straitjacket will require an army of Professor Swains.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 1/23/15)

‘Selma’ at the Center of Racial Controversies

With another Martin Luther King, Jr. Day behind us, and nearly a half century after his murder, MLK is again at the center of racial controversy. This time the uproar centers on the new film Selma, which has been accused of rewriting history to minimize or exclude white and Jewish partners in the civil rights movement, and whose black director and lead actor have themselves been excluded from Oscar consideration.

The critically acclaimed Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oleyowo in a star-making performance as MLK, focuses on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches for black voting rights. When the 2015 Oscar nominations were announced recently, Selma nabbed one for Best Picture, but all the individual nominees were revealed to be white, causing widespread media outrage about a lack of diversity, particularly in light of expectations about DuVernay and Oleyowo.

Racial ambulance-chaser Al Sharpton pushed his way to the front of the crowd, calling for an “emergency meeting” of his diversity task force to consider “action” against the predominately white voters of the Academy. He called the lack of nominations a “racial shutout” and declared that “the movie industry is like the Rocky Mountains – the higher you get, the whiter it gets.”

Sharpton was steamrolling right over the inconvenient truth that, as Breitbart.com’s John Nolte pointed out, ten black actors have been Oscar-nominated in the last five years, and three have won. Seven films focusing on race and racism have been nominated for Best Picture in that same time frame. Last year’s Best Picture – selected by the same predominately white Academy – was 12 Years a Slave. And then there is Selma’s nomination this year for Best Picture. In response to the outrage over Selma, the Academy’s President Cheryl Boone Isaacs – who is black – noted that the film’s Best Picture nod “showcases the talent of everyone involved in the production of the movie.”

But the Oscar brouhaha wasn’t the only Selma controversy. It has come under fire for depicting President Lyndon Johnson as a civil rights obstructionist, which Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library Director Mark Updegrove says “flies in the face of history.” LBJ and MLK had disagreements, Updegrove asserted, but were partners in the movement.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969, agrees, writing in the Washington Post that the film takes “trumped-up license” with the truth and should be “ruled out of awards season”: “Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.” Selma’s director DuVernay responded on Twitter that “LBJ's stall on voting in favor of War on Poverty isn't fantasy made up for a film.” She told Rolling Stone that the script originally was “much more slanted to Johnson,” but that “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.”

The portrayal of LBJ wasn’t the only cause for charges of inaccuracy against the film. Leida Snow at the Jewish Daily Forward pointed out that Selma “distorts history by airbrushing out” the Jewish contributions to civil rights. “The struggle for African-American civil rights was primarily one led and suffered by black Americans,” she wrote. “Nevertheless, white contributions to the ongoing war against discrimination should be noted.”

She stated that the Selma marches were “built on momentum generated by thousands of local efforts during the preceding months and years” – among them, the 1964 Freedom Rides, “in which well over a thousand volunteers, mostly white, and over half of them Jewish, risked their lives riding into Mississippi to face intimidation and harassment that included arrests, beatings, and murder.” And the 1964 murder of black Mississippian James Chaney and two Jewish New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, continued Snow, helped lead to passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Snow noted also that Jews assisted in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and more than 2,000 primary and secondary schools and twenty black colleges. They helped organize the 1963 March on Washington where Rabbi Uri Miller recited the opening prayer and Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke before MLK’s “I have a dream” speech. And MLK himself wrote from prison to his friend Rabbi Israel Dresner, urging him to recruit rabbis to come to his support, resulting in a huge mass arrest of the rabbis who responded. Snow concludes that “There were many Jewish and other white Americans who supported them before, during, and after the marches from Selma to Montgomery, and ‘Selma’ misses a great teaching moment by excluding them.”

My friend J.E. Dyer at the Liberty Unyielding blog wrote that Selma is unfortunately a “superficial morality play” that omits the prominent presence in the Selma marches of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the best-known rabbis of the 20th century, and a close friend of MLK. Dyer mentions that Heschel’s daughter “laments the film’s depiction of events as purely ‘political protest’ and not as a ‘profoundly religious moment: an extraordinary gathering of nuns, priests, rabbis, black and white, a range of political views, from all over the United States.’” By not showing her father marching, she said, the film “is depriving the viewers of that inspiration.”

All docudramas must, of necessity, make some concessions in historical accuracy to fit the requirements of storytelling: structure, pacing, invented dialogue, etc. None is going to be 100% factual. The problem is that Hollywood has always been the lens through which we all view and interpret not only the past, but current events, particularly in our time of propagandized education and increasing disconnect with our own history. The power of cinema is such that audiences tend to absorb uncritically the images and messages presented onscreen, and with them, the political perspective of the filmmakers.

Truth is the first casualty of war, it is said, and this is no less true of the culture war. A critically well-regarded film like Selma – especially in this current, racially charged atmosphere – will have more impact on how younger generations perceive the civil rights era than any number of textbooks, documentaries, memoirs, or articles pointing out historical inaccuracy. All of those are important and necessary weapons, but ultimately, the war for truth will be won or lost on the cultural battlefield, and the Selma filmmakers know this.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 1/21/15)

‘Slap Her’ Video Gets Domestic Violence All Wrong

As of this writing, a short video called “Slap her: children’s reactions” has accumulated well over 19 million views since going up on YouTube a mere week ago. Produced by an Italian company called Ciao People Media Group for the website Fanpage.it, it is presented as a social experiment to gauge the attitudes of little boys to the notion of violence against women, with a feel-good twist. Unfortunately, its viral message is confusing, disturbing, and worst of all, useless.

It begins with an overlay of gentle piano music as the voice of a male adult introduces us, one at a time, to a handful of charming Italian boys ranging in age from seven to eleven (it’s unclear whether the man is actually conducting the experiment or is simply a voiceover added later). They dream of becoming firemen, soccer players, policemen, pizza makers – nice, normal kids.

Then they are introduced to a pretty blonde named Martina who enters the camera frame. She wears a friendly smile but does not speak. The off-camera adult asks the boys what they like about her. “Her hair,” one says. “Everything!” says another. “I’d like to be your boyfriend,” says a third, with the adorable, uncomplicated openness of youth.

But the video suddenly shifts gears from amusing and cute to creepy and alarming. “Now, caress her,” the off-camera adult commands. Excuse me? He’s telling these boys to caress her? It occurs to me that perhaps the word doesn’t have the same connotation in Italian, but it’s still unsettling. One by one, the boys shyly brush her arm or cheek. “Make a funny face at her,” the man suggests. They do, and Martina reacts but continues to say nothing.

This time the video doesn’t just shift gears – it grinds them. The gentle music stops and the man orders sharply, “Slap her!” The boys’ smiles fade. “Slap her, hard!” Confusion sets in. The boys, like the viewer, wonder what the hell’s going on. “Slap her, come on!” the man insists.

One by one each boy shakes his head and tells him “no,” as the music returns with a sentimental swell. “Why not?” the adult asks. “She’s a girl,” one replies, “I can’t do it.” “You’re not supposed to hit girls,” says another. “I don’t want to hurt her.” “I’m against violence.” “Girls shouldn’t be hit, not even with a flower.” “Because I’m a man.”

The climactic message is obviously that even little boys know that it’s wrong for a male to hit a female. Whether by nature or nurture, this awareness is ingrained in them, and they know that striking a girl would constitute a serious breach of their manhood (many of the video’s commenters objected that striking anyone is wrong, but since this is about violence against women, we’ll set that aside).

It finishes with an attempt at a cute coda in which the adult tells one boy to kiss Martina. “Can I kiss her on the mouth or on the cheek?” the bold child asks. This too is creepy and inappropriate. The adult is urging the boys to kiss this strange girl? Was Martina herself ever asked permission for any of this? Certainly not on camera.

The video has been shared widely and approvingly on clickbait sites like aplus.com, which called the boys “little men with very big hearts.” “Don’t ever change, kiddos!” it applauded. The problem with such sites is that, like this video itself, they are long on emotional manipulation and short on rational thought – which is the secret of their success, of course.

This disturbing video was clearly intended to have a heartwarming impact, but my immediate response was revulsion at the filmmakers’ sexualized manipulation of children and confusion about the garbled message they are trying to send.

I wasn’t alone. Dr. Rebecca Hains – “author, professor and speaker on children’s media culture” – found the video “sickening” and “absolutely disgusting.” She posted a lengthy dissection of it which closely mirrors my own response. In it she explains why she believes it “objectifies girls, exploits boys, and trivializes domestic violence.” Although I don’t agree with every word, her argument is worth a read in full because it is so devastating, but I’ll sum up a couple of key points here.

First, Martina is objectified as “a prop—there to be seen, not heard”:

While the producers present the boys as interesting people, they present Martina not as a person in her own rights, but as a girl who is expected to be an object of boys’ desire. The producers are doing boys and girls everywhere a disservice by perpetuating the idea that girls’ appearance is of paramount importance.

Next, the “caress” sequence is very “unsettling.” “Given the problems with sexual assault and other forms of violence against women that pervade our world,” Dr. Hains writes,

one of our top priorities should be teaching boys to only touch girls who wish to be touched by them—girls they have a friendly relationship with, who don’t freeze up or flinch at their touch… Her silence and stiffness remind me of how many victims of molestation react to an abuser’s touch: by freezing up.

As a researcher who works with children, Hains worries that the video could be a harmful experience for the kids. In any case, “the conclusion of the video… betrays a complete lack of understanding of how domestic violence against women actually functions”:

The whole point was to shame men who engage in domestic violence by suggesting that these little boys are more manly than they are—even though this discourse is completely useless in actually reducing violence against women…

This is not how batterers operate: They don’t slap at first sight. Domestic abusers work their way towards physical abuse gradually, beginning with other forms of abuse first. As such, the boys’ predictable refusal to slap Martina, set against an emotionally manipulative soundtrack, doesn’t prove anything about domestic violence. In fact, it trivializes the matter.

As Dr. Hains notes, the video doesn’t even offer any resources for victims of domestic violence at its conclusion. It seems to be little more than a marketing gimmick for Fanpage.it which neither creates informative awareness about violence against women nor provides any help combating it. Now that’s a cynical slap in the face of women everywhere.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/20/15)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pakistan Gives ‘Homeland’ Two Thumbs Down

Season Four of the Showtime terrorism drama Homeland wrapped up its final episode recently, and the verdict is in – Pakistan, our purported ally against Islamic terrorism, is not pleased.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, it features actress Claire Danes in an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning role as bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison, whose beat is Islamic terrorism. In fact, in the most recent season she has been promoted – or condemned, depending on your viewpoint – to station chief in Islamabad.

I’ve written about Homeland before for FrontPage Mag, at the close of the critically acclaimed show’s first season. After an interesting premise and gripping start, the show disappointed me with its moral equivalence which the filmmakers drew between us and the Islamic terrorists. That’s par for the course from Hollywood, but disappointing nonetheless.

The next two seasons struggled to find its sea legs, but Season Four put Carrie front and center in the belly of the beast, in Pakistan. And that ultimately did not go over well with officials there, who complained about the depiction of Islamabad (although the show’s scenes of the capital were actually filmed in Cape Town, South Africa): “Maligning a country that has been a close partner and ally of the U.S.,” said Pakistan Embassy spokesman Nadeem Hotiana, “is a disservice not only to the security interests of the U.S. but also to the people of the U.S.”

“Islamabad is a quiet, picturesque city with beautiful mountains and lush greenery,” another source said. “In Homeland, it’s portrayed as a grimy hellhole and war zone where shootouts and bombs go off with dead bodies scattered around. Nothing is further from the truth.”

Methinks they doth protest too much. First of all, Homeland is a terrorism drama, not a tourist travelogue, so naturally it’s going to emphasize the dramatic over the picturesque. Second, it’s not that far from the truth. While Islamabad no doubt has some beautiful greenery, this list of terrorism-related incidents in Islamabad in 2014 alone suggests that the city is no sleepy vacation town. It includes dozens of deaths in explosions and militant attacks, hundreds of injuries in protest clashes and hundreds of arrests of terrorist plotters.

Pakistani diplomats also had a problem with the actors’ incorrect Urdu accents and other linguistic nitpicking, but their biggest irritation is that Homeland suggests that Pakistan may not be the trusted ally against the terrorists that its officials would like us to believe: “Repeated insinuations that an intelligence agency of Pakistan is complicit in protecting the terrorists at the expense of innocent Pakistani civilians,” said one source, “is not only absurd but also an insult to the ultimate sacrifices of the thousands of Pakistani security personnel in the war against terrorism... Homeland makes it seem that Pakistan has contempt for Americans and its values and principles. That is not true.”

Or maybe it is. The Freedom Center’s own Robert Spencer wrote last year that Pakistan is not our ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism: “The Pakistanis have been aiding the same jihadists that the U.S. government has been giving them billions of dollars to fight,” Spencer wrote. Not only did we learn, for example, that “the head of the Pakistani government’s spy service knew the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, but also that so did many other top officials in the Pakistani government” – just as they are aware that jihad terror leader Hafiz Saeed, on whom the U.S. has placed a $10 million bounty, lives openly and comfortably there. 

Spencer went on to relate how casually Pakistani officials took their role in the “war on terror” – until the U.S. successfully killed a Taliban leader with a drone. Then, “the Pakistani government was furious, and summoned the U.S. ambassador to protest. The Pakistani foreign minister… warned that ‘every aspect’ of Pakistan’s relationship with Washington would be reexamined.”

Additionally, Pakistan’s Abbottabad Commission denounced the United States as “arrogant” and said that the killing of bin Laden was the “greatest humiliation” Pakistan had suffered since the 1971 declaration of independence by what is now Bangladesh.

Last summer, Spencer continued, the Associated Press reported that “critics worry that [Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz] Sharif, who is known to be personally very religious, is soft on Islamic extremism and won’t crack down on militants that pose a serious threat to Pakistan and other countries — chief among them the Taliban and al-Qaida-linked groups.” So much for Pakistan having our back.

As for the show’s espionage authenticity: two former CIA agents, writing for the Daily Beast, assessed Homeland from a spy’s point of view and confirmed that it “rings true”; it correctly presents “the mission, intensity, pace, contradictions and complexity of a CIA station engaged in deadly battle with [an] implacable terrorist...” They praised the show also for shining an “uncomfortable and uncompromising light on the moral and practical dilemmas” faced by the CIA in the war on jihad.  

The agents pointed out several ways in which Carrie’s work accurately reflects what actual CIA station chiefs face:

1) Her attempts at dealing with a duplicitous host government and liaison service. “In reality, there is no such thing as a ‘friendly’ intelligence service. ISI, however, is the poster child for ‘duplicitous’”;

2) Her effort to turn an individual inside ISI against his own government. “This is the heart of the agent recruitment process that is the lifeblood of CIA today,” the agents wrote;

3) The show depicts the CIA officers as acutely aware of, and wrestling with, “the potential moral hazards of their work”;

4) One agent’s PTSD triggers an explosive overreaction that reflects the extreme stresses that can plague CIA officers after an overseas assignment;

5) Carrie’s concern about the reliability and accuracy of her sources.

Although Homeland doesn’t draw the moral lines in the “war on terror” as clearly as I would like, if it’s getting details like that correct, and irking our corrupt and questionable Pakistani “ally,” then the show must be doing something right.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 1/19/15)