Tuesday, December 31, 2013

How Not to Recommend Books

My friend behind the always witty, thought-provoking, and iconoclastic Prototrype blog alerted me to a list by pop science fixture Neil deGrasse Tyson of 8 books that every intelligent person should read. It’s two years old but seems to have been given new life as end-of-the-year book recommendations circulate on the internet. Tyson’s intriguing angle is that he recommends them on the basis of their impact on civilization; read them all, he writes, and “you will glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.” Unfortunately, Tyson’s commentary doesn’t so much inspire you to read some of these works as it does prejudice you against them.

Here are his book recommendations and one-line descriptions of their cultural influence:

1) The Bible - “to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself.”

2) The System of the World by Isaac Newton – “to learn that the universe is a knowable place.”

3) On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin - “to learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth.”

4) Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift – “to learn, among other satirical lessons, that most of the time humans are Yahoos.”

5) The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine – “to learn how the power of rational thought is the primary source of freedom in the world.”

6) The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith - “to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself.”

7) The Art of War by Sun Tsu - “to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art.”

8) The Prince by Machiavelli - “to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it.”

Admittedly, narrowing any one of these books down to a single sentence description of its influence is a daunting task. But when Tyson says, for example, that reading the Bible teaches you that “it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself,” this is not a description but a complete dismissal. He has reduced the entirety of the Bible’s incalculable impact on the world to a single sneering comment which in fact does precisely what he accuses the Bible of – it tells you what to think. Tyson is not recommending it in the neutral way that he does the Newton book (“to learn that the universe is a knowable place”); he is in fact telling you to reject it as mere brainwashing. You don’t have to be a believer to give the Bible’s impact a fairer assessment than that condescending jab.

A New “Animal Farm” Targets Capitalism

Actor Andy Serkis is set to direct an upcoming movie adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel Animal Farm. But there will be a slight deviation from the story’s original focus: rather than serve as a cautionary tale about Communist totalitarianism, this updated version will address Hollywood’s predictable, go-to embodiment of evil, the Darth Vader of our time: corporate greed.

Orwell’s brilliant allegory Animal Farm was written during World War II as a satire on Soviet Communism (and very nearly wasn’t published, critical as it was of our Russian ally). It has since been adapted to film twice, a British animated version in the mid-1950s, in which the ending was altered to be more upbeat for its young audience, and a “live-action” take in 1999 featuring talking animals with the voices of an all-star cast including Kelsey Grammer, Ian Holm, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Patrick Stewart.

Serkis, known primarily for his role as Golem in the epic Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and as the ape Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboots, announced that his version would address the political aspects of the novella, but not as overtly as the previous films: “First and foremost, we are not making a film about Communism and Stalinism because if Orwell was writing the story today, he would be talking about other relevant topics like globalization and corporate greed,” he explained.

Well, first and foremost, Serkis is not making a film about Communism because if he were, the project probably wouldn’t get a green light from the studio. Hollywood eschews making films about Communism’s ugly reality, and prefers to focus instead on ones about anti-Communist “paranoia,” about the witch hunts led by such easily-demonized caricatures as Joseph McCarthy against courageous Hollywood martyrs like devoted Stalinist Dalton Trumbo. George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck is a prominent recent example.

If Hollywood features Communists at all, it tends to paint them as beautiful idealists like Warren Beatty in Reds. The result is that Hollywood is leaving untouched a wealth of powerful true dramas that could be mined from the history of cruel and oppressive Soviet Communism, because at heart the wealthy capitalists of Hollywood (such as Howard Zinn fanboy Matt Damon, whose recently released Elysium is a blatant class warfare propaganda) lament the collapse of that utopian vision. But they have kept it alive by rebranding it as progressivism – and Hollywood is not about to make a movie critical of the progressive dream.

(A notable exception is last year’s TV series The Americans, about a husband-and-wife team of Soviet agents undercover in Reagan-era Washington D.C. I have written here about how that show, at least in its first season, showed American society positively, depicted the FBI as unequivocal good guys, and betrayed not a hint of sympathy for the protagonists’ ideology. That may change in the upcoming new season – and if so, I will report on that – but for now, The Americans is a lonely rarity among Hollywood’s output in its willingness to paint Communists as ruthless, subversive ideologues, and America as a land of freedom and prosperity.)

As for Serkis’ assertion that today the iconoclastic Orwell would be writing about globalization and corporate greed: I think it more likely that Orwell would still be writing about the issues that preoccupied him then, because those issues are still as relevant as ever: the conflict between liberty and oppression and the critical role of language in that clash (his essay “Politics and the English Language”  is a must-read). “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936,” Orwell wrote ten years later, “has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” Socialist though he was, rather than take to the streets with the violent Occupy Wall Street movement, he might be taking up his pen against the abuses of government surveillance, the left’s alliance with the creeping totalitarianism of Islamic theocracy, and the oppression inherent in the left’s shrewd manipulation of political language, such as its relentless push for submission to speech codes and its intolerance of politically incorrect expression.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

More Books We Love – Just in Time for Christmas

Inspired by my friend and Acculturated colleague R.J. Moeller, who recently  suggested a list of novels for your reading pleasure in 2014, and by the always thought-provoking  journalist and blogger Rod Dreher, who just posted his own handful of book recommendations in time for Christmas, I hereby submit four nonfiction books for readers in search of last-minute Christmas gifts for others (or themselves). In between making your way through R.J.’s novel-a-month reading schedule, you can’t go wrong by interspersing these entertaining, edifying titles among them. Not in any particular order:

In his recent What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House, Tevi Troy examines how presidents have interacted with pop culture from our nation’s beginning to today, from the Founding Father bibliophiles to our own pop culture-savvy president, Barack Obama. Why should this matter to anyone? Because “how a president engages popular culture,” Troy writes, “tells us about the people who elected him, the changing nature of American politics and society, and the tension between high-, low- and middle-brow pursuits.” The book “is an exploration of how presidents have made use of a multiplicity of cultural pursuits… and how those pursuits have in turn shaped them and the nation.” Acculturated’s own Abby W. Schachter actually wrote about it here, and I reviewed it elsewhere, calling it a fun, light read, and eye-opening for anyone who dismisses the significance of pop culture in the grand political scheme of things.

Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas addresses what it means (or should mean) to be a man today, in our era in which manhood is under siege. Written in a clear and engaging style, Metaxas asks what it takes to be an exemplary father, brother, husband, son. What does it mean to stand for values like honesty, courage, and charity, in a world that constantly tests your commitment to those values? Rather than lecture us directly, Metaxas profiles seven men whose lives serve as inspirational examples: George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, John Paul II, and Charles Colson, who share one noble quality: “that of surrendering themselves to a higher purpose, of giving away something that they might have kept.” Yes, the book is about manhood but women too will benefit enormously from it, even if only by sharing it with the men in their lives. And yes, as you might expect from Metaxas, the book is infused with a Christian perspective, but not in a proselytizing way.

For a radical change of tone, if you’re not already a fan of Greg Gutfeld, host of Fox’s late night show Red Eye, you will be after reading his hilarious attack on political correctness titled The Joy of Hate: How to Triumph Over Whiners in the Age of Phony Outrage. “I see our country under attack,” says Gutfeld. “Not by offensive people like me, but by people who claim to be offended. By people like me.” He despises the hypocrisy of what he calls “artificial tolerance,” and urges that we “replace the idiocy of open-mindedness with a shrewd judgmentalism” [read: common sense] that rejects stupidity. In his aggressively sarcastic style, Gutfeld cuts through the nonsense and makes the truth laugh-out-loud entertaining.

(I’m looking forward as well to his new book coming out in March, Not Cool: The Hipster Elite and Their War on You, Gutfeld’s battle plan for “reclaiming the real American ideal of cool”: building businesses, protecting freedom, taking personal responsibility, and leaving other people to live “as they damn well please.”)

Last but certainly not least comes The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by the aforementioned Rod Dreher. It’s about his late sister, a small-town Louisiana schoolteacher who was fatally stricken with cancer at the age of 42. Rod, the “city mouse” to Ruthie’s “country mouse,” describes this beautiful book best himself: “The luminous courage with which she met her death, and the way the people of my hometown walked with her until the very end, caused me to rethink the value of the life I left behind—and to return to raise my own children.” For a preview of that moving book, check out Acculturated’s podcast with Rod here.

If chosen from the heart, books make meaningful, sometimes life-changing gifts. Feel free to offer any nonfiction book recommendations of your own below…

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 12/24/13)

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas

“America is a country that is now utterly divided when it comes to its society, its economy, its politics,” wrote David Simon, author and creator of the gritty television crime drama The Wire, in a recent article in the UK Guardian. “There are definitely two Americas.” Indeed there are, although Simon blames this chasm not on the political momentum of the radical left, who are hell-bent on leading us into a post-American future, but on the failure of a Reagan-era capitalism to build “a just society.”

Simon’s article is an extract of his presentation at this year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, which ran for two days last month. The Festival of Dangerous Ideas saw Simon join a range of “notable thinkers” in discussion and debate “about all sorts of ideas that are dangerous in different ways,” said the festival’s curator Ann Mossop. “Dangerous can be that kind of dangerous that gets you killed, or it can be the kind that means you have to rethink your opinion on something. But it can also be something that is quite fun, that takes a lighter view of the kind of dangerous ideas of everyday life.” Of course, it’s one thing for ideas to be provocative, and another for them to actually be any good, but I digress.

The event’s thinkers included anti-bullying flagbearer, anti-Christian bully Dan Savage, who was on hand to promote open marriages, which he claims save more relationships than destroy them; web theorist Evgeny Morozov, who has criticized the United States government’s “Internet Freedom Agenda” for convincing our enemies abroad “that Internet freedom is another Trojan horse for American imperialism”; Hanna Rosin, a Slate and Atlantic writer whose book The End of Men: And the Rise of Women posits that the patriarchy is dead; anti-globalist ecofeminist Vandana Shiva, whose presentation was called “Growth = Poverty”; and Guardian writer Erwin James, a convicted double-murderer who now advocates for prison reform. His presentation was entitled “A Killer Can Be a Good Neighbor.”

(In the future, if the Festival of Dangerous Ideas organizers want to broaden the event’s range of “notable thinkers” and present some really shocking ideas that run counter to the orthodoxy of the self-congratulatory liberal elite, concepts that might challenge their rigid worldview, perhaps they could consider inviting such notables as Thomas Sowell, Mark Steyn, and David Horowitz, for some really eye-opening balance. Just a suggestion.)

Simon’s show The Wire, , in which his marginalized and “economically irrelevant” characters on the streets of Baltimore butted up against government and bureaucratic forces beyond their control, ran from 2002-2008 and was known for addressing sociopolitical themes like the drug war and poverty. Today Simon confronts those issues more directly in such venues as last month’s Festival or in the Guardian.

In his address, entitled “Some People Are More Equal Than Others,” Simon excoriated capitalism’s inability to correct America’s income inequality, solve environmental problems, and heal the racial divide. He argues that since 1980 – the beginning of the Reagan era, though he doesn’t refer to it – we have increasingly embraced a profit-obsessed capitalism that has severed itself from “the social compact.” We have abandoned an American dream that was accessible to all and that gave us “the American century,” “all because of our inability to basically share, to even contemplate a socialist impulse.”

The result is that America has become “a horror show” in which family income is declining, basic services such as public education are “abandoned,” and the underclass is “hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor.” He also claims that “capital” has bought the electoral process, effectively shutting down the popular will and crushing hope. Actually, what has shut down the popular will at the voting booth is rampant voter fraud, but again I digress.

Justine Sacco: Convicted in the Kangaroo Court of Social Media

Last week when Justine Sacco boarded a plane in London and made a joke in poor taste on her personal Twitter account, she had no clue that by the time her flight landed in South Africa, that tweet would have ruined her reputation very publicly, cost her her job, and made her a pariah not only in the social media world, but probably to many in the real one as well. Such is the power of the internet lynch mob.

Sacco is, or was, a communications executive at InterActiveCorp (IAC), a media company whose dozens of clients include The Daily Beast,, and On Friday, she tweeted to her (at the time) fewer than 200 followers, “Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!” Apparently Valleywag (a Gawker site) somehow came across it, commented upon it, and then, like Frankenstein’s monster, the tweet took on an ugly life of its own.

Within hours, unbeknownst to the in-transit Sacco herself, she became a Twitter trend and Photoshop meme among many thousands of gleeful bullies who puff themselves up over politically incorrect offenses and reveled in her public immolation. The original tweet came to the attention of IAC, and while Sacco was still in the air and unreachable, the company groused that “This is an outrageous, offensive comment that does not reflect the views and values of IAC… this is a very serious matter, and we are taking appropriate action.”

Take action they did, firing her apparently before they even bothered to discuss the matter with her and almost certainly get an apology (as of this writing, Sacco has not commented publicly). Their statement read, in part: “There is no excuse for the hateful statements that have been made and we condemn them unequivocally.” Then, hypocritically, it went on to say: “We hope, however, that time and action, and the forgiving human spirit, will not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core.”

So instead of defending this employee whom they declared to be a decent person, or at the very least reserving both judgment and action until communicating with her, they publicly threw her under the bus and then had the gall to urge the mob to forgive and not condemn her.

Was her tweet racist? Was it “hateful”? Maybe she was poking fun at white privilege. No one bothered to find out her intent before the internet lynch mob went into action. Frankly, she didn’t say anything that superstar comics like Seth MacFarlane or Louis CK or Sarah Silverman aren’t rewarded for with hysterical applause and fat paychecks. In fact, check out this clip of a Louis CK routine about the advantage of being white. His audience was in stitches. By contrast, an unknown private citizen with a miniscule Twitter audience was attacked ruthlessly and her life effectively left in shambles.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Jennifer Lawrence, Fat Actress

In the first grade I had a crush on a girl named Patty and decided to let her know it in true grade school fashion: by pretending not to like her. I shouted “Hey, Fatty!” at her across the classroom, in what seemed at the time to be a clever play on her name, even though Patty was not fat. Shockingly, this failed to win her over, and it was the dawning of my realization that women don’t respond favorably to criticism of their weight. The entertainment media seem not to have learned the lesson I did at six years old.

In a TV interview with Barbara Walters this week, Jennifer Lawrence, the wildly popular 23-year-old, Oscar-winning star of The Silver Linings Playbook, Hunger Games and American Hustle, responded to a question about her criticism of the media for exacerbating women’s body image issues, saying,

I think when it comes to the media, the media needs to take responsibility for the effect that it has on our younger generation, on these girls that are watching these television shows, and picking up how to talk and how to be cool…

And the word fat. I just think it should be illegal to call somebody fat on TV. If we’re regulating cigarettes and sex and cuss words because of the effect it has on our younger generation, why aren’t we regulating things like calling people fat?

Well, we shouldn’t be regulating that because saying hurtful things shouldn’t be illegal. I think, however, that most people understand and don’t disagree with her point that the media are cruelly obsessed with the physical appearance of female celebrities, and the celebs themselves do not bear the impact alone. An entire generation or two or three of female fans also absorb the media’s lesson that women must meet a faultless standard in order to be considered beautiful.

Lawrence has often been outspoken on this subject. Last year, for example, she told Elle magazine: “In Hollywood, I’m obese. I’m considered a fat actress.” In November during a live interview, she responded forcefully to an audience question about how young girls can deal with the pressure to look perfect: “Screw those people,” she said, meaning the critics:

The world has a certain ideal – we see this airbrushed perfect model image … you just have to look past it. You look how you look and be comfortable. What are you gonna do, be hungry every single day to make other people happy? That’s just dumb.

She has called out shows like E! Fashion Police, in which the horrid Joan Rivers and her catty cohorts, for whom no woman can be skinny enough, ruthlessly dissect actresses’ red carpet appearance: “There are shows like The Fashion Police,” Lawrence said, “that are just showing these generations of young people to judge people based on all the wrong values and that it's okay to point at people and call them ugly or fat.” Rivers shot back impotently on Twitter that Lawrence was arrogant, a charge that applies to no one in Hollywood less than the unpretentious JLaw.

As if to prove Lawrence’s point, a controversial gif has been making the rounds of the internet, showing a startling degree of airbrushing used on the already gorgeous actress for a 2011 cover photo of fashion magazine Flare. In addition to the usual and unobjectionable alteration of color tones and lighting, the magazine inexplicably trimmed Lawrence’s waist, thighs, and arms; elongated her neck; added contour to her cleavage and cheekbones; and flattened her belly. The effect was to chisel JLaw’s hotness down, unnecessarily, to a cold, bony, misogynistic ideal. Such image manipulation is no surprise to anyone; the process has been common in the fashion biz and media for decades. But if her healthy, natural curves couldn’t make the grade on a magazine cover, what woman’s can?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Nothing Succeeds Like Humility

In a society noisy with trash-talking and self-hype, humility doesn’t seem to have much to offer people. It doesn’t get you talk show invitations, YouTube views, Twitter followers, or album sales. And yet a recent article at Fast Company calls this unsung virtue “the super-achiever’s secret power.”

The authors of The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It Well interviewed celebrities, businesspeople, and other achievers, from Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan to Funk Whisperer George Clinton to Tennis Ball Whisperer Martina Navratilova, as well as many lesser-known figures, about how they reached the top of their chosen fields. A common thread is that the subjects consider true humility to have been integral to their success.

The article quotes June Price Tangney, a psychology professor and researcher of moral emotions, who defines true humility this way: “Having the ability to acknowledge our mistakes and limitations, having an openness to new ideas, and being able to maintain a realistic perspective of our place in the larger world.” By avoiding the constraints of their own biases, the book’s interviewees were able to process information in a way that led to better decisions and outcomes.

Despite decades of experience handling the high-pressure duty of hostage negotiations, for example, former FBI chief negotiator Gary Noesner insisted on the input of his less-experienced team in order to get fresh perspectives on situations that often required making life or death decisions.

Tony Hsieh, the CEO of shoe and clothing company Zappos, also readily acknowledges his limitations as a leader: “My goal as CEO is to make as few decisions as possible. The best decisions are made from the ground up.”

Opera soprano Anna Netrebko points out that great performances don’t blossom from playing the diva backstage. From the beginning of each new production, Netrebko keeps her ego in check and strives to foster an atmosphere of cooperation among the cast and crew: “You have to be attuned to your fellow performers to hold it together for each other.”

Whatever personal issues he may have off the set, actor Alec Baldwin, another of the book’s subjects, credits the success of his show 30 Rock to a “vital interdependence” between him and the show’s writers. He compared their relationship to a “singer/songwriter kind of thing,” and said, “I’m just getting up there and saying the lines they write and giving them everything I got.”

“When people in an organization, family, or group practice a truth-seeking humility,” the authors conclude, “the better the chances of their shared endeavor being a smash success.”

Monday, December 16, 2013

Bob Dylan and Hate Speech

It’s been a big month for legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. The electric guitar he played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival sold at auction in New York for a record $965,000. A London gallery hosted an exhibition of seven wrought-iron gates that he sculpted. He was awarded France’s highest cultural award, the Légion d’Honneur, which puts him in the company of honorees such as Victor Hugo and Steven Spielberg. And to top it off, he found himself hit with criminal charges in that country for racial hate speech.

Just two days prior to France’s culture minister presenting Dylan, 72, with the Légion medal and calling him “a hero for young people hungry for justice and independence,” French magistrates pressed preliminary charges of public insult and provocation to racial or ethnic hatred against Dylan. The allegations stem from a complaint by a Croatian organization in France, which objected to comments by the singer in a 2012 Rolling Stone magazine interview.

According to an attorney quoted in the Wall Street Journal, convictions for such charges usually amount to fines of a few thousand euros, so Dylan’s not going to be guillotined for this; but nonetheless, it’s a serious and unsettling accusation for someone who was an iconic figure in America’s civil rights movement in the 1960s. In fact, he was discussing race relations in America in the Rolling Stone interview when he uttered the offending comment: “If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that,” he had said. “That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood.”

Oops. This rather unflattering comparison of all Croatians to Nazis and the KKK didn’t sit well with Vlatko Maric, general secretary of the Council of Croats in France, who filed charges. “I am surprised a man like Bob Dylan would make such comments,” he said, adding that his group would withdraw the complaint if Dylan apologizes (as of this writing, Dylan has made no public statement about it).

The demand for an apology is rather bold considering that Croatia has never to my knowledge offered an apology for massacring hundreds of thousands (the figure is disputed) of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and others while allied with Nazi Germany during World War II. Rather than acknowledge that responsibility, they simply sought to punish Dylan for bringing it up.

It’s easy for Americans to take our freedom of speech for granted. We forget that the latitude we have to spout even our stupidest and most hateful opinions is greater than anywhere else in the world, and thank God for that. In many places, openly expressing yourself can lead to a midnight visit from the secret police. We’re accustomed to expressing what we think, no matter how offensive, without legal consequences – social consequences perhaps, but not legal ones.

Violent Feminists Attack Argentinian Cathedral

If you missed the workshops, discussions, and spontaneous guitar circles of last month’s National Women’s Encounter in Argentina, you missed out on some real pro-abortion positivity and women’s empowerment. Among the issues tackled at this feminist Mecca last year were the legalization of abortion and problems of gender violence; this year, however, the participants apparently decided to focus on waging some gender violence of their own.

A glowing writeup in The Argentina Independent explains that the annual Encounter brings together thousands of feminists from Argentina and elsewhere in South America (the Independent estimates 25,000 in attendance in 2012). The event is “based on a premise of democracy and horizontal organization, [whose] aim is to provide a pluralist space to debate issues specific to women and the feminist movement.” These issues include human trafficking, domestic violence, and – unsurprisingly, somehow – “the defense of the rights of the earth.” It’s unclear how the latter qualifies as a woman’s issue, but the earth’s rights are apparently more valued than those of the human unborn, who probably don’t even get mentioned, much less defended, in all the Encounter’s “pluralist” debates.

Just to clarify: “horizontal organization” is essentially a euphemism for “mob,” which explains why these radicals are so fond of the concept (and of euphemisms). It deemphasizes such qualities as leadership and personal responsibility while empowering anarchic criminals like the Occupy Wall Street movement to run rampant. And besides, “vertical organizations” are so patriarchal and obsolete, like men themselves.

Each year the Encounter takes place in a different city; this November the city of San Juan was the unlucky winner. Knowing that this event tends to end in vandalism and graffiti, and having received threats of such against the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, as many as 1500 rosary-praying Catholic men formed a human shield to peacefully protect it (700 more people of both sexes were inside, praying with their bishop). The men found themselves beset by a raging, Christian-hating, “horizontal organization” from the National Women’s Encounter that reportedly numbered about 7000.

If you want to see the true face of hateful bigotry, you would be hard-pressed to find a better current example than this disturbing video footage of radical feminists savagely attacking and even sexually molesting the cathedral’s peaceful guardians. The women, many of them topless, descended like a pack of rabid animals (and if you think that is an offensive comparison, check out the video and judge for yourself whether these women deserve more respect). They spray-painted the men’s crotches and eyes, painting swastikas on their chests and foreheads and Hitler moustaches on their faces. They performed obscene sexual acts in front of them and pushed their breasts into the men’s faces, all the while shouting “get your rosaries out of our ovaries,” a catchy slogan for which the subtext is “We demand the right to murder our own children.” Reports from young Catholics present at the cathedral gave the impression that it was a “satanic attack” with “demonic figures.”

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why Britain Has Bond and America Has Bourne

In the wake of disturbing revelations from Wikileaks and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden about widespread government spying, the British public appeared to be unruffled by a controversy that sparked heated debate in the United States. Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland says “Americans are outraged to discover they are being spied on and watched. Britons give a kind of polite shrug of the shoulders and say, ‘So what?’” What accounts for this disparity of attitudes? Apparently the answer is Bond. James Bond.

To begin with, a recent article at Public Radio International argued, the British are already much more accustomed than Americans to living under perpetual government surveillance. Nick Pickles (can that really be his name?) of Big Brother Watch estimates there are as many as four million surveillance cameras focusing their unblinking eyes on a country of just over 60 million people.

Freedland points out an even bigger difference between the two countries: unlike American populists, British society “still bears the imprint of its monarchical origins,” which means that power flows from the government to the people, not the other way around. Britons, he says, are “subjects rather than citizens,” more inclined to submit to being spied upon than Americans, who tend to strongly resent government invasion of privacy.

Also unlike Americans, the British by and large inherently trust their government and its spy agencies. Why? Curiously, research shows that secret agent icon 007, fictional though he may be, has deeply influenced that perception.

James Bond is an unabashed patriot, essentially a civil servant (albeit one with a license to kill) putting his life on the line on behalf of Queen and Country. He trusts his government support team implicitly, from gadget master “Q” all the way up to his superior “M.”

At one point in the most recent Bond blockbuster movie Skyfall, for example, Bond is a captive of the creepy Silva, once an agent like Bond but who has turned on his former masters. “Just look at you,” Silva muses about Bond, who is recovering from a gunshot wound. “Barely held together by your pills and your drink –”

“Don’t forget my pathetic love of country,” Bond finishes for him.

“You’re still clinging to your faith in that old woman,” says Silva, referring to the unwavering patriot M, who keeps on her desk a Union Jacked ceramic bulldog, symbol of British fighting determination. That trust in government authority has influenced British audiences over the decades since Ian Fleming introduced Bond in the 1950s.

Now contrast Bond with his American movie counterpart Jason Bourne, portrayed by Matt Damon (in The Bourne Legacy, the latest installment, Jeremy Renner takes over the lead from Damon, but as a different character). The distinction between Britons’ and Americans’ worldviews quickly becomes apparent.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Last Regrets of the Dying

As we enter the holiday season and approach a New Year, it’s important to get our perspective straight on what is truly meaningful – before it’s too late.

Recently the Huffington Post reposted an article that has made the rounds of the internet for a couple of years, “The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.An Australian nurse named Bronnie Ware spent years assisting seriously ill patients in the last few weeks of their lives, and compiled their most common regrets in a blog post that went viral, then into a book of the same title. Below is that list and some of her comments, as well as thoughts of my own.

1) I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

The most common regret of all. Ware: “When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled… due to choices they had made, or not made.”

Most of us live in blissful denial of our own mortality until it’s staring us in the face. Especially when we’re young, life stretches before us seemingly without end, and we assume we have both world enough and time. And then suddenly, our time is up, many of our dreams lie half-finished or not even begun, and we wish we’d lived our lives more fully.

But it’s important to cut ourselves some slack and realize that we’re all fallibly human and our time is finite. Not all of our dreams were meant to be, regardless of our choices. When we enter some doors, others close, and life throws us all unexpected curveballs – sometimes real game-changers.

2) I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

This is primarily, but no longer exclusively, a male regret. Every male patient that Ware nursed “deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.”

This is perfectly understandable – on our deathbed, who wouldn’t look back and wish we’d spent less time at the office and more time enjoying life with our loved ones? But it’s unrealistic as well – unless we’ve inherited a fortune, working hard is what enables us to afford to have those families in the first place, to provide for them and take them to Disneyland now and then. We have to do what we have to do. But granted, it’s important to calibrate our priorities and find the best balance.

3) I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming.”

I suspect this is less of a problem for younger generations than for Ms. Ware’s aged patients, since we live in an age in which outspokenness to the point of offense is encouraged. But it’s true that suppressing your feelings leads to the twin cancers of bitterness and regret.

Monday, December 9, 2013

It’s Go Time for Van Damme

Jean-Claude Van Damme is back.

His heyday of the 90s far behind him, the former “Muscles from Brussels,” Bloodsport kickboxer, and mulleted action star with the odd forehead lump recently began popping up in GoDaddy commercials, beating bongos and shaking maracas while doing the splits, leering at small business owners and yet inspiring them with a husky “It’s go time.” At the American Film Market trade show last week, his not-yet-released action flick Swelter scored pretty big, selling in multiple territories around the world. But what has really propelled him back into the public eye is his extraordinary, commanding appearance in an epic new Volvo commercial.

Unlike the whimsical, frenetic GoDaddy ads, the Volvo spot has a tranquil, ethereal beauty about it. It features Van Damme staring impassively at the camera with the focus of a Zen master, while the two semis beneath his feat carry him backwards, ever so carefully and precisely diverging – in reverse – until his split legs are parallel to the highway streaming underneath. Not bad for a 53-year-old. Van Damme and the trucks continue into the sunrise to the accompaniment of Enya’s lush “Only Time.” Meanwhile his voiceover proclaims in his famous accent, “I’ve had my ups and downs, my fair share of bumpy roads and heavy winds.” Indeed he has. “That’s what made me what I am today.”

What he is today is a survivor – of poverty, bipolar disorder, drug addiction, and fame – and one of Hollywood’s most unique personalities. Obsessed with stardom, the young martial artist hit Los Angeles in 1982 and struggled through a period of homelessness looking for his big break, which came six long years later in Bloodsport. The superfit actor was at the top through the early 90s until his films gradually declined at the box office, and Van Damme himself declined emotionally and physically. At one point he was blowing through $10,000 a week on cocaine.

“It became a point where I wanted to die. I didn't have any reasons to live,” he confessed. “Then you have to find back your self-esteem. And then, slowly, every piece of yourself becomes precious again... It’s not the drugs. It’s a problem with yourself, which you have to cure.”

And so Van Damme worked his way back to personal and professional respect. For those who don’t take him seriously as an actor, check out his stunning turn in JCVD from 2008, in which he plays himself as a down-on-his-luck actor: broke, unable to get work, embroiled in a custody battle for his daughter, and suddenly at the center of a hostage situation in his hometown Brussels.

At one point in this underappreciated drama, Van Damme and the camera rise above the set, and he addresses the viewer directly in a riveting, emotional, six-minute monologue* in which he rambles about his fame, numerous marriages (five times to four different women), and drug abuse. It is nakedly personal, compelling, and honest, and it garnered him newfound and hard-earned respect. Time rated his performance the second best of the year, after Heath Ledger’s unforgettable Joker in The Dark Knight. Not bad for a down-and-out former action star everyone had written off.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Stop Calling Superheroes Fascist

My good friend Chris Yogerst has a quick but interesting read in The Atlantic with the above title. An excerpt:
Indeed, superhero tales are full of subplots about how heroes limit their own power: hibernating once the big bad guy has been defeated, wearing disguises to live ordinary lives, choosing not to give into the temptation to ally with the villain or use their powers for profit or even civilizational progress. That’s because the creators of some of the most foundational superhero tales weren’t writing solely out of a power fantasy. They were writing out of a fantasy that a truly good people who find themselves with power might use that power only for good—and only in the face of extreme evil.
Read it all here.

A Walk on The Dark Side with Kira Davis

Had a fun and interesting chat tonight about actor Paul Walker and pop culture with my friend Kira Davis, on her show The Dark Side. She's very good - check her out. We may do a year-end entertainment wrap-up soon....

What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted

Though we might think that the President of the United States should have the gravitas and proper sense of priorities to operate above the triviality of the entertainment biz, Barack Obama has won two elections in no small measure because of his shrewd understanding of, and engagement with, pop culture. He chats on late night talk shows, hangs with today’s biggest recording artists, and jets out to Hollywood periodically for fundraisers – it’s a wonder he has time for all the golfing required of the Leader of the Free World. But he’s not the first president to exploit that arena – only the savviest.

In the recent book What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House, Tevi Troy examines how presidents have interacted with pop culture from our nation’s beginning to today. Why should this matter? Because “how a president engages popular culture,” Troy writes, “tells us about the people who elected him, the changing nature of American politics and society, and the tension between high-, low- and middle-brow pursuits.” The book “is an exploration of how presidents have made use of a multiplicity of cultural pursuits… and how those pursuits have in turn shaped them and the nation.”

The Founding Fathers, for example, were extraordinary bibliophiles even in a time when reading was already a widespread pursuit, at least in the upper classes. “I cannot live without books,” Jefferson said, and John Adams’ library exceeded even his. They weren’t just indulging in beach reads, however; they were soaking up philosophy and Enlightenment ideas that helped them shape the American Experiment.

Besides books, the Founders also eventually acquired an appreciation for theater, the primary form of non-reading entertainment at the time, and not the highbrow pursuit it is today. Our early presidents used this common appreciation for the theater to connect with the people. Tyler, for example, “could quote Othello in a political speech because even his most simply educated countrymen were taught Shakespeare and because so many people went to the theater.”

Andrew Jackson, on the other hand, was badly educated and poorly-read, but connected easily with the common people; after him, “presidents wouldn’t have to be well-read or well-educated, but they would need to have the common touch.” And that touch depended heavily on presidents’ connection – or lack thereof – with popular culture.

It is a commonplace now that American pop culture, for better or worse, has become the world’s pop culture, but until the mid-19th century America wasn’t even considered to have a culture. In 1820 a European writer observed, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” But President McKinley’s childhood affinity for the Atlantic Monthly indicated the rising importance of a literary American culture. By the end of the 19th century, there would be no one in Europe who didn’t read American books. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the bestselling novel of the century and second overall only to the Bible, broke down those international barriers.

What We Lost When We Lost Paul Walker

The entertainment world was stunned Saturday evening to learn of the untimely death of actor Paul Walker, only 40 years old, of the phenomenally successful Fast and Furious movie franchise. Ironically, the car enthusiast Walker and his racer friend Roger Rodas both perished when the red Porsche Carrera GT Rodas was driving lost control on a Southern California road, struck a tree, and burst into flames.

In response to the outpouring of shock and sadness from fans, Erin Gloria Ryan, news editor at Jezebel, thought she was making an insightful point about celebrity worship when she cynically tweeted, “None of you really love Paul Walker. You just love the IDEA of Paul Walker.” She is very wrong about that.

First of all, while I’m as critical as anyone of our sometimes irrational relationship with the famous, people often forget that celebrities are human beings too. Many of them are horrible human beings, it’s true, and that’s often how they got to be celebrities in the first place – not merely because they are talented but because they are almost maniacally self-centered as well, as opposed to talents who don’t have that obsessive drive to “make it” no matter how many little people they crush underfoot along the way.

Not all celebrities are monsters or mere carefully constructed media images. By all accounts, everyone who knew and worked with Paul Walker (including personal friends of mine) declare him to be a decent, good-hearted guy unaffected by the warping seduction of fame and fortune. He never misbehaved in the tabloids or starred in his own reality show train wreck. On his IMDb page, Walker is quoted as saying,

Some people say that you should go to all the parties, to the nightclubs, the Viper Room, and make contacts, and I look at them and say, “You don't want to have contacts with those people.” Look at what happened to River Phoenix [who died in 1993 of a drug overdose outside the Viper Room]. If you get caught up in that, it ruins you. Hollywood is garbage.

When entertainment figures die, studios typically release a standard, glowing official statement, but I believe Universal (the Fast and Furious studio) is not exaggerating when they say, “Paul was truly one of the most beloved and respected members of our studio family for 14 years.”

UCLA Accused of Racial “Micro-Aggression”

About 25 graduate students “of color” staged a sit-in in professor Val Rust’s UCLA classroom recently, alleging that there is a “toxic” racial climate in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. As partial evidence of that poisonous climate, they complained that the grammar and spelling corrections he made on their dissertation proposals are a form of racial “micro-aggression.”

The demonstration stemmed from a new report stating that UCLA’s policies and procedures don’t sufficiently address racial discrimination among the university’s faculty. The organizers alleged several examples, unspecified in the Daily Bruin article, in which minority students faced challenges and “micro-aggressions” from professors. Nora Cisneros, one of the sit-in participants, said they chose to protest Rust’s class because he doesn’t encourage “a climate where students of color can discuss issues of race openly.”

This seems a curious accusation, since one of his areas of teaching expertise is “ethnic issues in international perspective.” Several of Rust’s current and former students said they thought it was unfair to target him, because he is a supporter of intercultural learning, whatever that is, and that he was being used “as a scapegoat for much larger issues.” Grad student Emily Le said, “It is disturbing that students would make such unfounded accusations based on misperceptions of what they believe as racism.” Disturbing perhaps, but unsurprising considering that racism today exists wherever it suits anyone to see it.

Rust himself believes that the demonstrators have legitimate concerns and that the department should organize a town hall meeting “to begin a dialogue.” Perhaps that dialogue could begin by addressing why graduate students at a major university – in the Department of Education and Information Studies, remember – need to have their grammar and spelling corrected, and why that correction constitutes racism. Rust said, “I have attempted to be rather thorough on the papers and am particularly concerned that they do a good job with their bibliographies and citations, and these students apparently don’t feel that is appropriate.” They don’t feel it’s “appropriate” because they are exploiting their self-designated victim status as an excuse to avoid being held to the department’s stated high academic standard.

In case you’ve been blissfully ignorant until now of this term “micro-aggression,” the UCLA report defines it as “subtle verbal and nonverbal insults directed toward non-whites, often done automatically and unconsciously. They are layered insults based on one’s race, gender, class, sexuality, language, immigration status, phenotype, accent, or surname.” It was coined in 1970 by a psychiatrist to describe acts of racism so subtle that neither the “perpetrator” nor the “victim” is even fully conscious of what is happening. “The invisibility of racial microaggressions may be more harmful to people of color than hate crimes or the overt and deliberate acts of White supremacists such as the Klan and Skinheads,” writes Dr. Derald Wing Sue, author of the influential Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation.

So, unconscious racism that goes unnoticed by both parties is more of a danger than actual lynching – got that? (If you want to see to what ludicrous degree this phantom threat can be carried, check out this McGill University op-ed  by the school paper’s Health and Education editor, Ralph Haddad. He accuses “Movember,” the annual month-long campaign in which men raise awareness of, and funds for, men’s health issues by growing mustaches, of “racist, sexist, and transphobic” micro-aggression.)

Apparently such micro-aggression is a greater concern among the race-obsessed left than the macro-aggression of, say, the “knockout game,” currently a trend among roving gangs of black youth who target random, unsuspecting whites or Jews with sometimes murderous violence. But never mind that; the outrage of these racist spelling corrections must be addressed.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Death of Creativity

To look at the shelves of bookstores these days (if any still exist in your neighborhood), one might think that this is a time in which creativity is hot. Titles about creativity – explaining it, unleashing it, using it to galvanize artistic fulfillment and business success – abound. But is this trend evidence that we are living in an age of unprecedented innovation? Is any meaningful, transformative creativity actually taking place, or is it all just hype and buzzphrases like “thinking outside the box”?

Amid this celebration of creativity, it’s easy to forget that for most of history, creativity has been resisted, not encouraged. In past eras people clung to received wisdom and tended initially to reject, often violently, new concepts and creative leaps forward, not embrace them. Christ, as an obvious example, was crucified for ideas that threatened the reigning political and religious authorities of the time; I hardly need to point out what a far-reaching impact those ideas went on to have. Galileo’s sun-centered astronomical views earned him censorship and imprisonment from the Church Inquisition in his own day; but he is now considered by many to be the father of modern astronomy. When the Impressionists dared to debut their (at that time) startling vision at an 1874 Paris exhibition, they were universally reviled and ridiculed by critics and the public alike; today the movement is considered the genesis of modern art.

Visionary creativity – disorienting breakthroughs like the ones above – is generated by outsiders, rebels, bold individuals who dare to turn conventional wisdom on its head and face the consequences. Creation is a radical act, and society can handle only so much “shock of the new,” as art critic Robert Hughes titled his excellent 1980 documentary series. So rebels very often pay a steep price for their daring.

But the new literature of creativity seems to be less about rebellion than convention. Salon recently reposted a Harper’s magazine article by Thomas Frank which examined the popularity of books about creativity. The more books about it Frank read, the more conventional and repetitive and, well, uncreative they all sounded, until he realized that the genre was less about creativity than “superstition, in which everything always worked out and the good guys always triumphed and the right inventions always came along in the nick of time”:

What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise… [F]or all its reverential talk about the rebel and the box breaker, society had no interest in new ideas at all unless they reinforced favorite theories or could be monetized in some obvious way.

Where creativity used to be the domain of the genius, the seer, the artist, the inventor, Frank claims that the new “creativity promoting sector” targets “the professional-managerial audience itself, whose members… think they’re in the presence of something profound when they watch some billionaire give a TED talk. And what this complacent literature purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue.”