Friday, October 31, 2014

The Mentoring Project

Esquire magazine isn’t a resource I would ordinarily go to for sagacity about manhood. For many years now, both it and its theoretically more mature competition GQ have, in their quest for a younger demographic, become only marginally more sophisticated versions of lads’ mags like Maxim. But I have to give Esquire credit for recently initiating The Mentoring Project, which encourages its male readership to seek out local mentoring organizations in order to help change the lives of kids who need role models and guidance.

For inspiration, the magazine posed the question “Who made you the man you are today?” and asked “fifty extraordinary men to tell us about the parents, coaches, teachers, troops leaders, religious leaders, and all-purpose mentors who helped them get to where they are today.” The list includes a range of famous figures from Chuck Norris and David Petraeus to Seth MacFarlane and Jimmy Kimmel.

Washington Redskins (is it still acceptable to call them that?) quarterback Robert Griffin III, for example, relates how “God put a lot of people in my life that have helped me… My dad sacrificed a lot for our family. He didn’t have shoes when he was growing up, so he couldn’t play basketball, and he made sure I had as many shoes as I needed to play sports.”

Actor Samuel L. Jackson talked about being shaped by the women who raised him, and by teachers as well: “I had English teachers in junior high and high school who encouraged me to read different things than I was reading—to read Shakespeare and Beowulf—and to expand my horizons in that particular way.”

Some of the respondents mentioned mentors who taught and inspired by example. Magician Penn Jillette, for example, spoke of his dad’s horrible job as a prison guard: “My dad would work all different hours and come home in his uniform. I didn't realize until I was probably thirty that my dad had never complained once. Never once. That attitude toward work, that attitude toward doing something you don’t want to do in order to serve your family and your community was very important to me.”

Senator Marco Rubio learned from his grandfather “to dream and aspire.” Actor Kevin Bacon credits his mother with teaching him and his brother compassion and honesty. Music powerhouse Quincy Jones is grateful to Count Basie for teaching him that you have to experience the valleys of failure – where you find out who you really are – to get to the mountaintop of success. Interestingly, country music star Dierks Bentley says that his wife and children made him the man he is today: “[Fatherhood] tears away the person you were before, builds you up to become the person you have to become, makes you learn a lot of skills—a lot of man skills.”

Some of the men learned from negative influences too, not just the positive ones. Skateboarding legend Tony Hawk remembers that “When I was growing up, there were these skaters who were revered, and I met a couple of them. And one or two of them were just outright assholes to me. It was so devastating to know that these guys I looked up to were jerks and weren't supportive. That had a huge impact on me. And I decided I never, ever wanted to be like that.”

To encourage readers to be proactive about mentoring, Esquire provides them with a mentor search page to find nearby organizations such as YouthBuild, Minds Matter, the U.S. Dream Academy, Youth Mentoring Connection, and Boys Hope Girls Hope, among many others, all across America from New York to Los Angeles.

Sadly, wisdom isn’t inherited; every generation has to learn life’s lessons from scratch, either through painful trial and error, or preferably from those who have gone before us and who are willing to share their experience, wisdom, support and inspiration.

It isn’t just boys and girls from troubled circumstances who need mentoring, although they certainly have special challenges to overcome. Every child needs role models to steer us in all facets of our lives, from morality to self-understanding to career. Without mentors, whether parents or teachers or the accomplished figures we admire, we simply drift, and usually far from shore. Good for Esquire for recognizing that and for launching the Mentoring Project.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/29/14)

Dracula and the Sultan

Always comfortable with Hollywood’s distortion of history as long as it suits their propagandistic motives, progressives and their Islamic allies are the first to try to discredit films that don’t fit their narrative. You can be sure that any film they attack on grounds of supposed “historical inaccuracy” must be uncomfortably close to the truth.

Writing in the New Statesman (and reprinted in the New Republic), Turkish writer Elest Ali asks the burning cinematic question, “Is Dracula Untold an Islamophobic movie?” She’s referring to the new Universal picture starring Luke Evans and Dominic Cooper, a fanciful epic about the actual historical source of the outlandish Dracula legend we all know and love: Vlad Tepes III, 15th century Romanian hero and legend who dared resist invasion by the feared Ottoman empire.

Elest Ali recently saw the film in Turkey with a friend who declared, “That film was very anti-Muslim.” “What else is new?” she replies – because we all know how openly bigoted Hollywood currently is toward Muslims, am I right? Ali decided to write about her issue with the movie’s “historical accuracy, and contemporary significance.” Non-spoiler alert: she denounces it as Islamophobic, the kneejerk, go-to accusation leveled at anything and anyone that doesn’t shine a flattering light on Islam or Muslims (see Affleck, Ben).

“Hollywood is no genius when it comes to accurate representation,” she begins, and I couldn’t agree more. From the “Bush lied, people died” message of Matt Damon’s The Green Zone, to the ahistorical moral equivalency of the Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven, to the lies about Ronald Reagan and race in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Hollywood rewrites history to ensure that its dramatic version becomes history in the popular imagination.

But Dracula Untold doesn’t suit Ali’s biases, so she casts the suspicion of bigotry over it. “In the current climate of global political tension and escalating Islamophobia,” she asks, without considering Islam’s responsibility for the former or providing any evidence of the latter, “what political statement does Dracula Untold make in pitting our vampire hero against the armies of Mehmet II?” Probably no political statement at all was intended by the filmmakers, but in any case it wasn’t the statement Ali wanted to see.

She suggests that in Vlad’s time (which she oddly labels “the Age of Enlightenment,” a period that was at least two centuries distant), Islam was an “appealing,” “fast-spreading faith” that was “glamorized” by “wealthy, cultivated Muslim travelers” in Europe, seducing large numbers of European converts. In fact, Islam has always spread not because its appeal is irresistible (except to barbarous killers like today’s ISIS sympathizers), but through the coercive power of the sword. She feels that the movie’s use of the word “Turk” to characterize the glamorous, cultivated, multicultural Ottomans is a subtle historical slur, “an attempt to tribalize the Islamic faith and associate it with foreign, potentially threatening powers, which were the common enemy.” Well, in the time and place in which the movie is set, the Islamic Ottoman empire was a threatening foreign power. For that matter, Turkey today is a threatening foreign power.

“I’ll fill you in on some more history,” Ali continues condescendingly before proceeding to whitewash the imperialist Sultan Mehmet II, while dismissing Vlad as “progenitor of the vampire myth.” She claims that Vlad’s father, the Prince of Wallachia (essentially present-day Romania), “willingly offered” the Sultan his two sons in return for helping him keep the throne against his enemies. This is laughably false. Vlad the elder was seized and his sons Vlad III and Radu the Handsome were taken as hostages to ensure the father’s fealty as a vassal of the Sultan. Young Vlad was a “guest” of the Sultan for six years; meanwhile, according to biographers Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally in Dracula: Prince of Many Faces, the beautiful young Radu initially did his best to resist Mehmet’s sexual advances before eventually succumbing and becoming his lover and a Janissary general. Ali doesn’t mention Mehmet’s bisexuality or Vlad’s fierce refusal to convert to Islam.

Ali continues in her imaginary take on history: When Vlad later “started wreaking carnage across the Balkans, Mehmet II dispatched Radu to quell his brother’s blood-thirst.” Wrong. Vlad was well aware that Mehmet fancied himself a conqueror on the scale of Caesar, Alexander, and Hannibal. Mehmet’s ambition was to bring all of Europe into his imperialistic fold, and Vlad was determined to make Wallachia the tip of the spear of Christian European resistance to Islam. He began by sending a very defiant message to the Sultan: he took Mehmet’s emissaries, who came demanding an overdue payment of the jizya, and nailed their turbans to their heads.

“Vlad’s insurrection was not dissimilar to the terror tactics of the so-called Islamic State,” Ali claims in her ongoing attempt to demonize him (as an aside, the Islamic State is not “so-called”; it is the name that those butchers have proudly given themselves). She is not at all incorrect about Vlad’s terror tactics – details of his widespread cruelty make your hair stand on end – but what she does not acknowledge is that Vlad learned such merciless tactics from the Ottomans while he was their hostage as a boy. He learned them well enough that when Mehmet himself marched upon Wallachia to seize it, he was so horrified to be greeted by a forest of 20,000 impaled Ottoman soldiers that he had to be talked out of turning tail back home.

Ali complains that Vlad waged a campaign of guerilla attacks against Mehmet’s larger army, including dressing his men in Ottoman uniforms and using his fluent Turkish to slip into the enemy’s camps. She says this as if unaware that the warlord prophet Muhammad himself taught that “war is deception.” Vlad would have made Muhammad proud.

Ultimately, his hated brother Radu was victorious and Vlad was offered sanctuary by his ally Matthew Corvinus and his clan. “But frankly,” writes Ali, “they’d also had enough of his grizzly antics, so they imprisoned him on charges of treason. True story,” she says, as if we should take her word for it. In fact, Vlad was falsely charged with treason for political reasons; Matthew later allied with Vlad to help him retrieve the Wallachian throne from a Turkish prince. True story.

“Vilification of Islam has reached such heights,” Elest Ali whines, without acknowledging the many obvious reasons why Islam itself might be to blame for that, “that even when the Sultan is cast opposite history’s bloodiest-psycho-tyrant, it’s Dracula who emerges as the tragic hero.” Vlad the Impaler – not the fictional Dracula – certainly earned his nickname, but he is by no means history’s “bloodiest-psycho-tyrant.” That honorific could go to any number of modern monsters such as, say, Ismail Enver Pasha, one of the principal architects of Turkey’s Armenian Genocide. But don’t hold your breath waiting for Hollywood to dramatize the truth about that.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 10/29/14)

The Management of Savagery

If there is a positive side to the rise of ISIS, it is that the West has had its head jerked from the sand and has been made to witness a bottomless, bloodthirsty evil: crucifixions, beheadings, enslavement of women, live burial of children, mass executions. Even John Kerry, a man not known for grasping (or admitting) the truth about jihad, acknowledges that this brutality “underscores the degree to which [ISIS] is so far beyond the pale with respect to any standard by which we judge even terrorist groups.” But as one analyst writes, this violence is not “whimsical, crazed fanaticism, but a very deliberate, considered strategy” – one that seems to derive in part from a book called The Management of Savagery.

In the spring of 2004 a strategist who called himself Abu Bakr Naji published online The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Ummah Will Pass (later translated from the Arabic by William McCants, a fellow at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center). The book – what the Washington Post calls the Mein Kampf of jihad – aimed to provide a strategy for al-Qaeda and other jihadists. “The ideal of this movement,” wrote Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker, “as its theorists saw it, was the establishment of a caliphate that would lead to the purification of the Muslim world.”

Naji believed that a civil war within Islam would lead to that Sunni caliphate, so he recommended a merciless campaign of violence in Muslim lands to polarize the population, expose the inability of the state to maintain control, attract followers, and create a spreading network of “regions of savagery.”

“The management of savagery” refers to controlling the chaos that results from that breakdown of order. The requirements for the administration of savagery are:

·         Establishing internal security
·         Providing food and medical treatment
·         Securing the borders against the invasion of enemies
·         Establishing Sharia law
·         Establishing a fighting society at all levels and among all individuals.

The manifesto proposes that the jihadists exhaust an overstretched America through a patient war of attrition and a manipulation of the media to dismantle the superpower’s “aura of invincibility.” It demands that the enemy be made to “pay the price” for any and all attacks carried out against the jihadists, even if the retribution takes years, in order to instill in the enemy “a sense of hopelessness that will cause him to seek reconciliation.” No mercy must be shown: “Our enemies will not be merciful to us if they seize us. Thus, it behooves us to make them think one thousand times before attacking us.”

Shocking violence is a key element of that strategy. “The beheadings and the violence practiced by [the Islamic State] are not whimsical, crazed fanaticism, but a very deliberate, considered strategy,” writes British analyst Alastair Crooke. “The seemingly random violence has a precise purpose: It’s [sic] aim is to strike huge fear; to break the psychology of a people.” For example, Naji recommends that in instances in which hostage demands are not met, “the hostages should be liquidated in a terrifying manner, which will send fear into the hearts of the enemy and his supporters.”

Naji believed that “we need to massacre” others as Muslims did after the death of Muhammad. “We must make this battle very violent,” the book says.  “If we are not violent in our jihad and if softness seizes us, that will be a major factor in the loss of the element of strength.”

But the violence isn’t intended merely to terrify, but to “drag the masses into battle.” Naji’s strategy requires polarizing the Muslim world and convincing any moderates who had hoped for U.S. protection that it is futile.

Paradoxically, this violence is actually a part of Allah’s mercy to all mankind. Putting apostates and infidels to the sword is merciful compared to the wrath that Allah himself would rain down:

Some may be surprised when we say that the religious practice of jihad despite the blood, corpses, and limbs which encompass it and the killing and fighting which its practice entails is among the most blessed acts of worship for the servants… Jihad is the most merciful of the methods for all created things and the most sparing of the spilling of blood.

Among those who are hostile to this mercy are “infidels among the Jews and the Christians and others who accused Islam of severity and mercilessness in all of its religious practices,” as well as “those who say that Islam is a religion of mercy and peace and that jihad is immoderate and excessive and that it has nothing to do with Islam!” Clearly Abu Bakr Naji is one of the many misunderstanders of Islam who didn’t get the memo about its peaceful nature.

In Naji’s conclusion, he stresses that “our battle is a battle of tawhid [the oneness of Allah] against unbelief and faith against polytheism. It is not an economic, political, or social battle.” [Emphasis added] The recent documentary feature released by ISIS called Flames of War, used as a recruiting tool for Muslim brethren in the West, confirms their religious aim and motivation. In addition to missing the memo about Islam meaning peace, apparently Naji also neglected to read all the memos from Western apologists about Islamic terrorism being spawned by poverty and Western oppression and exploitation.

Unfortunately, it seems that President Obama and Secretary Kerry, who continue to insist that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, never got Abu Bakr Naji’s memo either – the one entitled The Management of Savagery.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 10/27/14)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Facing Death with Dignity

On New Year’s Day, at the age of 29 and married for only a year, Brittany Maynard was diagnosed with brain cancer and given only a few years to live. By April, she learned she had the worst and most aggressive form of brain cancer, and this time doctors gave her six months. No treatment could save her, and it wouldn’t be an easy end. “I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it,” she says, “and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die.”

Facing this, as well as the pain of putting her family through her decay, Maynard chose “death with dignity,” an end-of-life option for terminally ill patients. A physician has prescribed a medication she can self-ingest to end her suffering at her discretion, and in fact, she has settled on a date to do so: this November 1, just beyond her husband’s birthday.

She and her family moved from California to Oregon, one of only five states where death with dignity is authorized, and she is living her remaining days to the fullest. When she recently explained her decision in an essay called “My Right to Death with Dignity at 29,” it went viral. In it, Maynard defended herself against accusations that she was committing suicide:

I am not suicidal. If I were, I would have consumed that medication long ago. I do not want to die. But I am dying. And I want to die on my own terms… Who has the right to tell me that I don't deserve this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain? Why should anyone have the right to make that choice for me?

This power to choose how and when to end her life has given her a sense of control and peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty and pain. “Being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying,” Maynard explains. Less terrifying for her family too, who have an unusual opportunity to work through the grieving process on their own terms as well. “I will die upstairs in my bedroom with my husband, mother, stepfather and best friend by my side and pass peacefully,” says Maynard. “I can't imagine trying to rob anyone else of that choice.”

Her poignant story raises difficult and uncomfortable questions about an issue most of us prefer not to think about at all – our own passing. We naturally wonder, “What would I do?” and it’s hard not to agree with her decision. Facing a certain, torturous end, the thought of being able to control how and when one passes from this world has undeniable appeal. Who wouldn’t want that power and that right, to ease oneself gently into that good night?

Then along came Maggie Karner, who answered Maynard with her own essay at The Federalist entitled “Brain Cancer Will Likely Kill Me, But There’s No Way I’ll Kill Myself.” Karner was diagnosed this spring, at age 51, with the same stage-4 glioblastoma tumor as Maynard. As her title suggests, Karner is critical of Maynard’s choice. She embraces Thomas Aquinas’ determination that “it belongs to God alone to pronounce the sentence of death and life”:

God wants me to be comfortable in my dependence on Him and others, to live with Him in peace and comfort no matter what comes my way. As for my cancer journey, circumstances out of my control are not the worst thing that can happen to me. The worst thing would be losing faith, refusing to trust in God’s purpose in my life and trying to grab that control myself.

Ever since St. Augustine in the 6th century, Christianity has viewed suicide as a sinful loss of faith and a usurpation of God’s judgment. It irks Karner that “assisted suicide” has been given the more palatable euphemism, “death with dignity,” which she considers less about dignity than it is about seizing a power which should be God’s alone.

I am a Christian too, but I don’t subscribe to a blanket condemnation of suicide. I remember once when I was a boy, there was news of a local teen’s suicide. My mother, a Sunday School teacher, chided a fellow Christian who disapproved of the boy’s lack of faith. “No one knows what passed between that boy and God in his final moments,” my mother said, and her compassion stuck with me.

Enter Heather Knies. In 2005, at the age of 24, Knies too was given six months to live. She battled not one, but two brain tumors – one of them the same kind as Maynard and Karner. But,

I wanted to defy [the doctor] and the medical world and show that no one is a statistic. I was immediately defiant. I never once thought it would be the death of me… The mind is so much more powerful than anyone can imagine. People believe that when they get cancer, it will kill them. But I never once thought that.

And she was right. Today, at 33, she is married, a mother, and cancer-free – and her doctors at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix cannot explain why. Her surgeon states that in his 35 years in practice he has never seen anything like this. “It’s one of the most malignant tumors there is,” he said. “It’s not unheard of that a few survive – it’s a bell curve and there are outliers. But in her case, not only has she survived, but she is perfectly normal and there is absolutely no evidence of a tumor on her MRI scan.” He isn’t comfortable thinking of it as a “cure,” but “her survival is remarkable.”

Knies attributes the miraculous healing not only to “a great team of doctors and wonderful family and friends with a positive attitude,” but also to her certainty that “God had a plan for me… As my dad said, so many angels must be sitting on my shoulders.”

Divine intervention or not, in light of the fact that a few grade 4 glioblastoma sufferers have beaten the odds, does Brittany Maynard’s willing surrender now seem premature? Should she cling to hope?

Not facing a terminal prognosis, it’s impossible for me to truly put myself in Maynard’s shoes and answer for her. But I can’t help thinking that I would rage against the dying of the light and hold fast to any thread of hope that I might be among those few “outliers” who survive, like Heather Knies – not so much for myself, but for my wife and children. After all, even if the possibility of a miracle is infinitesimally slim, it’s not impossible.

But that is my choice. Like Maynard, I would not want to deny anyone else in similar circumstances the right to take control of their passing. Philosophers and physicians have debated the complex ethical dilemmas of assisted death for many centuries; but those philosophers and physicians won’t be taking Maynard’s journey (or Maggie Karner’s) with her. Her choice should be respected because when Death comes for Brittany Maynard, the carriage will hold just themselves and Immortality, as Emily Dickinson put it. That will be true for each of us as well, so that moment – perhaps more so than any other in our lives – belongs to us.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/23/14)

Rescuing Boys from Disney Princesses

One of feminism’s favorite targets is the Disney princess films which, it is widely assumed, implant passivity and helplessness in young girls and perpetuate damaging gender stereotypes. I have to wonder if the critics of these princess films have seen one since Cinderella in 1950, because the Disney heroines haven’t been passive and helpless in a long, long time, while the male characters have become more companions than saviors. But that stereotype persists.
In The New York Times’ “Motherlode” blog last week, Zsofia McMullin wrote about how the “save the princess” theme of fairy tales like that found in some Disney movies was destructive not only to girls but to boys as well. She has a 5-year-old son and “a complicated relationship with fairy tales and the princes and princesses who live in them.”
That relationship seems more fearful than complicated, and what she apparently fears is her son’s masculine nature. McMullin writes that she “loves it when my son decides to play princess.” She and he “break out the nail polish and the sparkly eye shadow” together and watch Sophia the First, the animated TV series about a princess-in-training—a choice that hints at where she is steering him. “I am excited,” she admits, “when he wants to explore a different part of himself.”
But she is not so excited about him exploring his masculine side. Once, they were playing together and her son told her that “princesses don’t know how to use swords,” so they need to stay in the castle and wait for him to come to the rescue. McMullin found this chivalrous attitude disturbing:
I really don’t want my son to grow up with the perception that girls are princesses. I don’t want him to expect women to be passive, weak, waiting at home to be rescued and incapable of rescuing themselves… I don’t want him to think for one moment that women are not as strong and smart as he is. I don’t want him to want women like that. I want him to know women who can wield swords and drive fast cars and scale castle walls. Because we can. And we do.
She needn’t worry, because he’ll discover all that as he grows up. Like every other little girl and boy, he’ll learn that reality is more complicated than fairy tales, and that people are more multi-dimensional than morality tale archetypes—although that does not necessarily invalidate archetypal truths.
But “what if [boys] are not the rescuing type? What if they are scared of the dragon?” McMullin worries. “I don’t want my son to think that he himself can’t be a princess. I want to tell him—and I do—that it’s O.K. for boys not to be the rescuers.”
I’m sorry, but by definition a boy can’t be a princess. As for absolving him from coming to someone’s rescue because he’s “not the rescuing type” or he’s too afraid, that’s a worrying message to inculcate in boys. As the saying goes, courage isn’t the absence of fear—it’s the judgment that something else is more important than fear. If someone needs rescuing, your son needs to put aside any feminized insecurities and rise to the occasion, because that someone is depending on him.
McMullin wants to reassure her son that “it’s O.K. to not know how to use a weapon.” This also is odd advice. It’s wise and honorable and reasonable to know how to protect yourself and your loved ones. If you—male or female—don’t know how to use a weapon, then you and your loved ones are at greater risk of being victimized by someone who does.
“I want him to know that women—real women—will not expect him to be a rescuer and so he does not need to pretend to be that if it doesn’t come naturally.” As much as McMullin, in her feminist naiveté, would like to believe otherwise, women in the real world don’t respect men who aren’t prepared to protect them or to step up and handle an emergency.
But McMullin believes it is “necessary” for her son “to have some of that princess softness inside of him.” I seriously doubt McMullin would be so quick to encourage such weakness and passivity and softness in a daughter. What women like McMullin are really fashioning in their gender-erasing zeal is a world full of strong princesses and weak princes. This is at least as socially and culturally problematic as the reverse.
Ironically, McMullin ultimately faults herself more than Disney, because her own life—cooking dinner, shopping, letting her husband fix things around the house—reinforces the traditional gender roles that she fears are warping her boy. But if those traditional roles work for her and her husband, then what’s wrong with them? Absolutely nothing.
“I hope that with time,” she concludes, her son “will discover both a prince and a princess in himself.” My hope for him is that he grows to become a chivalrous prince, not a damsel in distress.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/21/14)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

'The Equalizer': Hero in a World Without Knights

Action flicks these days aren’t solely the domain anymore of chiseled, one-note actors like Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Statham (although those icons have found a home in The Expendables series). Now the leading men of the best “actioners,” as they’re known in Variety-speak, are heavy-hitting thespians like Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington, whose acting chops elevate the genre to a whole new level. In The Equalizer, for example – his newest – Denzel brings compelling depth to a character that might be one-dimensional in lesser hands: a chivalric hero in a world without knights.


Denzel (and let’s face it, he has reached the stratosphere of one-name celebrity now, like Sting or Madonna) plays Robert McCall, a quiet, mysterious loner whose unassuming demeanor belies his devastatingly bloody special ops training. Living like a monk while working at a Home Depot-type store, the widowed McCall flies under everyone’s radar.

McCall confesses that he had once done bad things that he wasn’t proud of, but he promised his now-deceased wife that “I would never go back to being that person.” And indeed, he now lives by such an honorable code that he chides acquaintances about things like swearing and eating junk food. But he is supportive and inspiring as well: he helps coach a hapless coworker to become a security guard, for example, and he encourages the dream of a singing career for a young Russian call girl he has befriended at the local coffee shop, where he hangs out during sleepless nights. Coming to the aid of this damsel in distress brings down the wrath of the ruthless Russian mafia – but they, like everyone else, underestimate McCall.

McCall is also a big reader, working his way through a list of the 100 Best Books. At one point the call girl sees him with a new book and asks what it’s about. “It is about a guy who is a knight in shining armor,” McCall replies, “except he lives in a world where knights don’t exist anymore.”

Though the title is never mentioned, it’s clear even from this short description that the classic he is reading is Don Quixote, the massive novel by Miguel de Cervantes published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615. The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (its full title) is considered the grandest monument of literature in Spanish and an extraordinarily influential work of modern Western literature. In 2002, 100 major writers from 54 countries voted Don Quixote the best work of fiction in the world. It has been translated into more languages than any book but the Bible.

The book was written and set in an era after the high point of chivalry in the Middle Ages; the knightly class in which that ideal flourished had essentially died out, and the world moved on. But Don Quixote was a man so obsessed with tales of knightly heroism that he made it his mission to “travel the four corners of the earth in search of adventures on behalf of those in need, this being the office of chivalry and of knights errant.” Through him, he felt, chivalry would be reborn.

The point of the Don Quixote reference in the movie, of course, is that McCall is himself a knight in shining armor, in a world in which chivalry is scorned by men and women alike and knights are in short supply. Even the cops in this flick are corrupt, which infuriates McCall; after delivering a serious beatdown, he lectures them about having dishonored their badge and having failed “to protect and to serve” – a motto which could easily have been derived from the medieval chivalric code. That code emphasized service, the defense of the defenseless, and – as one 19th century writer put it – “always and everywhere to be right and good against evil and injustice.”

Don Quixote may have been tilting insanely at windmills, imagining them to be dragons, but Robert McCall puts himself between very real evil and the innocents he feels compelled to defend. He does it because “to protect and to serve” is in his nature, and because it’s the right thing to do. At least one critic complained that the movie’s “sense of good and evil is a little too clear cut,” but in a jaded world too often awash in moral ambiguity, it’s refreshing to see a character who harks back to the uncompromising, selfless heroism of an earlier time.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/20/14)

The Death of Adulthood Means the Death of Culture

Recently A.O. Scott posted a piece in the New York Times entitled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” which stirred up online discussion about whether our grownup culture has shifted into a protracted childhood. What was largely absent from the observations is where this arrested development is taking us.

Scott argued that in doing away with certain iconic TV characters of the last decade – Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper – we have “killed off all the grown-ups.” Meanwhile Hollywood cultivates movie franchises that promote “an essentially juvenile vision of the world.” The same complaint goes for literature, Scott says; American fiction, which introduced “a new crop of semi-antiheroes in flight from convention, propriety, authority,” is all young-adult fiction now. He concludes that we now perceive adulthood as “the state of being forever young.”

Vulture’s Adam Sternbergh admired Scott’s piece and responded with “The Death of Adulthood and the Rise of Pleasure, or Why Seth Rogen Is More Serious Than Woody Allen,” in which he states that what Scott is really lamenting is “the death of seriousness.” Sternbergh sees no problem in being unserious and believes that nothing is more grownup than rejecting “a bunch of inherited precepts about cultural seriousness” from the previous generation.

The death of adulthood/seriousness came over us swiftly, historically speaking. Childhood, as a cocoon of maturation distinct from adulthood, is a fairly recent cultural development. Prior to the 17th century, children were essentially little adults; life was nasty, brutish, and short, as Hobbes put it, and didn’t afford them the luxury of a period of protected innocence.

But philosophers like Rousseau and Romantic poets like Wordsworth thereafter helped spark the relatively new notion that childhood was an important stage in its own right, and children needed sheltering before taking on the demands of adulthood. American peace and prosperity in the 1950s enabled us to establish permanently this phase of childhood as we know it today: a period of sustained innocence, play, and freedom from responsibility.

But over the course of the few decades since, we have witnessed the prolongation of childhood and, as A.O. Scott wrote, “the erosion of traditional adulthood in any form.” This development has found cultural expression in the accelerated ascent of our youth-obsessed pop culture and a concomitant decline of “high” culture (some would argue that there is no longer a distinction, but that’s a topic for another day).

Scott himself isn’t even sure that we should bemoan this death of adulthood; after all, it can be a lot of fun: “The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight,” he says. “I’m all for it.” Sternbergh believes that seriousness is overrated and we should just kick back and enjoy “the rise of pleasure.” Neither one addresses what this means in the long run. If they’re correct that adulthood has morphed into a childhood without end, then how long can that be sustained? What’s next?

In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the 19th century protagonist travels hundreds of thousands of years into the future and discovers that humankind has evolved, or more correctly devolved, into a childlike race called the Eloi living in a seemingly peaceful paradise. Facing no dangers or challenges, the Eloi have become artistically and intellectually apathetic, as well as physical atrophied. But their Eden is an illusion; the Eloi’s fate is that they exist only as food for the bestial race of Morlocks.

Our lack of seriousness, our comfort zone of perpetual childhood, is the death of culture. As rapidly as we have come to this point, it won’t take us hundreds of thousands more years to become Eloi. That may be a rather extreme example to make my point, but eternal youth, while very tempting, is not growth, either biological or cultural. Refusing to venture beyond the safe shallows of childhood kills our creative and intellectual and spiritual hunger. It leaves us passively captivated by a culture that increasingly produces more kinetic spectacle than meaningful art. This apathy marks the end of curiosity, of aspiration, of change; it leaves us vulnerable to being overtaken, perhaps even literally, by cultures that do embrace adulthood and seriousness.

Sternbergh, and possibly Scott (who joked, “Get off my lawn!”), might dismiss me as being hung up on “propriety” and a “suspicion of cultural pleasure,” but I’m a child of pop culture. I was raised on The Beatles and Bewitched, not Beethoven and Bellini, but now I can appreciate both. An adult doesn’t have to put away the things of childhood forever, only know their place and limitations. But a child who resists adulthood too long risks becoming, as Scott puts it, an irrelevant loser. And that’s where the rise of pleasure will leave us.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/16/14)

Is Virginity Making a Comeback?

Last month an Arkansas high school student caused a stir when she was asked to change her t-shirt, which read “Virginity Rocks!”, because the message was potentially provocative to the other students. But what’s more interesting than the free speech brouhaha it raised is that the message represents one more sign that virginity is making a comeback among American teens.

Losing one’s virginity is a profound rite of passage not to be treated lightly. Since the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s, though, it hasn’t been especially prized in American culture. It’s viewed as an embarrassing condition, like acne, to get rid of as soon as legally possible or be marked a loser. I suppose it has never really been valued highly for males – losing it is a badge of honor for them – but there used to be the shared cultural assumption that saving oneself for marriage, unrealistic though that may be, was an ideal for girls.

It doesn’t help that American pop culture is relentlessly sexualized. The media have elevated as our young daughters’ most influential role models – you know who they are – celebs who pose before giant neon signs proclaiming them “FEMINIST,” but are really poster models for rampant sluttiness.

Yet despite (or perhaps because of) the best efforts of the entertainment biz to put sex front and center in our children’s consciousness, evidence seems to point to a newfound appreciation for virginity. Teens seem to be waiting longer to have sex than they did in the recent past, for example. Thanks in part to a handful of non-conforming celebrities like Jessica Simpson, Adriana Lima, and the Jonas Brothers, taking pride in preserving oneself for marriage has gained acceptance, and public expressions like purity rings have boomed in popularity. This is contributing, thankfully, to sharply declining teen birth and teen pregnancy rates. All of which suggests that American girls are increasingly rejecting the sex-soaked Siren of popular culture and embracing the notion that virginity is to be guarded until the right moment and given for the right reasons.

In China recently, a court ruled that the “right to virginity” should be protected by law, as it is a moral right related to “sexual freedom, sexual safety and sexual purity.” A woman identified only as “Chen” (her age is unreported) had taken a man to court for violating her right to virginity. The two had been dating since 2013 after meeting online in 2009. He promised to marry her, but after a romantic trip to Singapore where they consummated their relationship, the man – identified only as “Li” – suddenly stopped calling. The woman broke into his home seeking an explanation and discovered, to the awkwardness of Mr. Li, no doubt, that there already was a Mrs. Li.

Chen sued Li for more than $81,000 in psychological damages, plus medical costs of $250, accusing him of violating her rights to virginity and health. The court felt the amount was excessive, awarding her less than $5,000, but sided with her and concluded that “violating the right to virginity might lead to harm to a person’s body, health, freedom and reputation. It ought to be compensated.”

The notion that a woman might take a man to court for defrauding her of her “sexual purity” sounds quaintly Victorian to us, but perhaps Chen and her judge are on to something – not with the lawsuit (because it shouldn’t be illegal to take a woman’s virginity in consensual sex, even if tricked into it like Chen), but with the public recognition that giving up one’s virginity is a powerful, once-in-a-lifetime act, and a young woman has the “moral right” to lose it at her discretion, when she has the maturity to know when she’s ready, and for her right to be held in serious regard by society. That seems more like true sexual freedom and feminist achievement than reveling onstage in your own sexual objectification.

Apparently, American girls are increasingly viewing their virginity as such a right, and they are resisting cultural pressure to give it up at the earliest opportunity and for the wrong reasons. In that respect, that Arkansas teen’s t-shirt bears a proud message that deserves to be seen and discussed openly with her classmates and teachers as well. Virginity rocks, indeed.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/17/14)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Would a Curfew for Men Curb Violence Against Women?

This week the Colombian city of Bucaramanga began experimenting with its first “women-only” night, an effort launched by the state governor’s office to stem a tide of sexual assaults against women. Is there a workable, partial solution here for dealing with violence against women in other cities, even in America?

As reported at, bars and clubs in Bucaramanga are being encouraged to host women-only events on this evening. Men out after the curfew (it’s unclear exactly what the curfew time is) must present a safe-conduct permit issued by the mayor's office or be fined (also unclear: what’s to prevent someone with a safe-conduct permit from committing sexual assault?).

Bucaramanga – with a population of just under 600,000 – is no small village. It’s hard to imagine how such a curfew could be enforced effectively; and indeed, Juan Camilo Beltrán, president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce and a proponent of the curfew, said that it is essentially symbolic. “We can only hope men accept the challenge [to stay at home],” he said, making the curfew seem more like a plea than a law.

Its real purpose is largely as an awareness-raising tool and a means to drive discussion about the issue of sexual assaults in a city apparently plagued by them. But similar curfews have been attempted elsewhere, including the Colombian capital Bogota, and so far none has made a noticeable difference in preventing sexual violence. As Suzanne Clisby, the director of postgraduate studies at Hull University's School of Social Sciences, puts it,

The best a formal curfew could hope to do is send a message from the state that violence against women is seen as unacceptable and will be taken seriously, but unless this were followed through in a whole range of other ways, it is fairly pointless.

A men-only curfew could never, and should never, be implemented in a free society like the United States. First of all, it infringes on the freedom of half the population, the vast majority of whom are not sex criminals. Second, even if it does keep some bad men off the street at night, it also clears the street of far more good men who might be able to prevent sexual assaults by their mere presence, if not through actual intervention. And again, it would quite simply be impossible to enforce effectively.

Another down side: since sexual assaults are usually perpetrated not by strangers in nightclub alleys but at home or the workplace by men known to the victims, Clisby warns that such curfews “could perpetuate the myth that violence against women happens only at night by strangers.”

Alison Phipps, director of gender studies at the University of Sussex, argues that awareness isn’t enough – moral education is necessary: “The message we need to convey is that men need to behave differently, rather than women and men being separated—in whatever way—for women's protection.” Clisby concurs – or at least seems to, in academic, gender studies jargon:

We need to look at and challenge the ways boys can be gendered into particular forms of hegemonic masculinities that can be damaging for themselves, as well as for women and other people around them. Also, we need to look at the ways girls may learn normative constructions of femininities that can leave them vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

If these women are saying that men need to be taught not to rape, we already do that, which is one reason I insist that we don’t live in a “rape culture.” Rapists commit their crimes not because they’re unaware it’s wrong and a heinous crime, but in spite of our society’s clear condemnation of it.

If, by complaining that “normative constructions of femininities… leave [women] vulnerable to sexual exploitation,” Clisby is saying women need to learn to defend themselves (and I doubt she is), then I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly. However, suggesting self-defense gets one irrationally condemned these days as being “pro-rape” by those who think the answer is not to empower women but to “gender boys out of their hegemonic masculinities.”

A curfew is not the answer, even as a teachable moment. Sex criminals will always be with us. If you want women to be less vulnerable, teach them to fight back. If you want men to behave more honorably toward women and further marginalize the rapists, teach boys chivalry, a male code of behavior that radical feminism has driven from our culture. Don’t “gender” boys out of their masculinity – encourage them to exemplify the best of it.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/15/14)

Purple Penguins and the Radical Gender Agenda

Just when you think you’ve heard the most outrageous example of progressive irrationality in our public schools – usually something to do with anti-gun hysteria – along comes word that a school district in Nebraska is training teachers to abandon “gendered expressions” such as “boys and girls” in favor of “gender inclusive” euphemisms like “purple penguins” instead. You read that right.

“Don’t use phrases such as ‘boys and girls,’ ‘you guys,’ ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ and similarly gendered expressions to get kids’ attention,” instructs a training document given out by a staffer on a “district equity team” to middle-school teachers at Lincoln public schools. Instead, say “hey campers” or “create classroom names and then ask all of the ‘purple penguins’ to meet on the rug,” it advises.

“When I read about this,” said a friend of mine, “I was sure it was satire.” Well, we inhabit a satirical world now, and our children inhabit an educational culture perverted and dumbed-down over the last several decades by political correctness and social justice progressives. Our schools are no longer focused on educational standards that will make us competitive in the real world; instead, they are obsessed with pushing social justice – and that includes a radical agenda to indoctrinate kids as early as kindergarten about sex. Its ultimate goal is the promotion of promiscuity and the dissolution of the very concept of gender, thereby destroying “patriarchal” culture, delegitimizing parental authority, and dismantling the family unit.

The instructions distributed to Lincoln teachers are part of a list called “12 steps on the way to gender inclusiveness” developed by Gender Spectrum, an organization that “provides education, training and support to help create a gender sensitive and inclusive environment for children of all ages.” All ages. The document warns against asking students to “line up as boys or girls,” and suggests organizing them instead by whether they prefer “skateboards or bikes/milk or juice/dogs or cats/summer or winter/talking or listening… Always ask yourself,” the document says, “‘Will this configuration create a gendered space?’” Actually, what teachers should always be asking themselves is, “Are my students learning?”

Also on the list? Decorating the classroom with “all genders welcome” door hangers and asking all students about their preferred pronouns – because the gender spectrum is apparently so broad now that our current set of pronouns is insufficient. If teachers absolutely have to mention that genders exist at all, the document advises that they be listed as “boy, girl, both or neither.” Both? Neither?

“Avoid using ‘normal’ to define any behaviors,” the document urges. By all means, children should be taught to tolerate others who are different; but eradicating the very notion that normal behavior even exists is not tolerance – it is a denial of reality and an irrational reorienting of children’s understanding of themselves and the natural order.

Speaking of tolerance, the training materials instruct teachers to be intolerant of anyone who references gender “in a binary manner… Provide counter-narratives that challenge students to think more expansively about their notions of gender.” It’s unclear how teachers are supposed to find so much time to discuss gender with students without cutting back on their readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic.

The teachers were also given a handout created by the ironically-named Center for Gender Sanity which explains to them that “gender identity... can’t be observed or measured, only reported by the individual.” And they received an infographic called “The Genderbread Person” produced by Sam Killermann, who describes himself as “a social justice comedian” and is the author of The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender.

Al Riskowski, executive director of the Nebraska Family Alliance, said his group has supported legislation to combat bullying, but that these training materials go “way beyond trying to teach someone how to respect another individual” to a “whole new idea of boy-girl.” The idea that “your biology at birth doesn’t designate who you are” is at odds with the beliefs of “almost everyone in the community.” He said that the school district shouldn’t have to re-educate the 99% who aren’t transgender. Clearly Riskowski must be re-educated to understand that there is no such thing as normal behavior.

He noted correctly that the materials seemed geared to children younger than those in middle school. A sister organization that works on such issues nationwide told Riskowski that it’s “some of the most radical material we’ve ever seen.”

Lincoln Superintendent Steve Joel noted that the training documents are not intended as hard-and-fast rules, only recommendations, and he has declared that he is “happy” and “pleased” with them. As for the controversy those documents have engendered (pun intended), he explains that “We don’t get involved with politics… We don’t get involved with gender preferences. We’re educating all kids... and we can’t be judgmental,” he said.

But by sitting back and letting these gender radicals insert their indoctrinating materials into the classroom, Mr. Joel is caving in to people who are consumed with politics and gender preferences. That’s the problem with not being “judgmental” – moral neutrality equals moral impotence.

These are our schools now. Our educational system, in the grip of social justice missionaries, is hopelessly broken. Homeschooling is increasingly becoming the best option for raising educated, free children with actual critical thinking skills instead of progressive brainwashing. So of course, the progressives are beginning to target homeschooling – as in Connecticut, where the state intends to increase its oversight of homeschooled children, purportedly because they are considered to be potential Adam Lanzas.

The truth is that they are a threat not to other students but to the state’s authority. As National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson put it in his forceful article, “They Are Coming for Your Children”:

Home-schooling isn’t for everyone, but every home-school student, like every firearm in private hands, is a quiet little declaration of independence. It’s no accident that the people who want to seize your guns are also the ones who want to seize your children.

It’s also no accident that the people who want to indoctrinate your children about sex want them too.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 10/15/14)