Saturday, November 29, 2014

Is Football Immoral?

Football has taken some hard hits in the news recently, from domestic violence scandals to revelations about brain damage. It has also become the gridiron for a culture war – on one side, traditionalists who defend the game’s character-building values, and on the other, a swelling tide of moral revulsion. Is football good for us? Or is it just plain immoral?

Critics of the dehumanizing aspect of the sport go back at least as far as the book Out of Their League in 1971, by a former NFL linebacker. Today bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell arguably leads the charge to marginalize the sport, having penned a 2009 article for The New Yorker in which he equated football with dogfighting. More recently, he dismissed the game in an interview as “a moral abomination” that is “fundamentally out of touch with the rest of us.”

Gladwell is not alone. Former fan Steve Almond, author of the bluntly-titled Against Football, judged in the Washington Post that “Football Has Proven its Moral Vacancy.” He too complained about the game’s “extreme and inherent violence” and “horrifying health risks.” Basketball great LeBron James said recently that he doesn’t let his two sons play football for those same reasons. Even President Obama told The New Republic, “If I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”

In football’s corner are authors such as Daniel Flynn (The War on Football), who lists the game’s benefits for young men: competition and camaraderie, direction and discipline, male role models, and fun. Mark Edmundson (Why Football Matters) concurs with Flynn but acknowledges that the sport is punishing and can encourage darker behavior in some players.

Critics claim that that darker behavior, like Ray Rice cold-cocking his fiancée in an elevator, proves that football encourages a culture of violence for players which bleeds over (literally) into their relationships and everyday lives. But the percentage of NFL players arrested in any given year is actually lower than the national average for men of the same age. Far and away the most common crime NFL players are charged with is not domestic violence but driving under the influence, and despite the recent bad publicity, this year is on track to be the least criminal on record.

It’s easy to point to sensationalized incidents like the Ray Rice videotape and say that football creates a culture of violence. What doesn’t make the news is the positive effect that football has had on countless kids in shaping their character and teaching life lessons. Says New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, in an article defending male aggression:

Football channels boys’ chauvinistic belligerence into supervised forms, shapes them within boundaries, and gives them positive meaning. These virtues, like those often attributed to the military, can feel like clichés imported from an earlier era — and yet discipline and directed ambition are, as every social scientist knows, the bedrock of success in adulthood.

However, the physical risks, especially at the professional level, are undeniable. The NFL recently revealed that nearly a third of retired players develop long-term cognitive issues much earlier than people in general. “The idea that we are paying people to engage in a sport for our own entertainment that causes irreparable damage to themselves is appalling,” said a disgusted Gladwell.

He believes that one day we’ll look back on football as reprehensibly savage, like we now view the gladiatorial battles of ancient Rome. But we haven’t distanced ourselves all that much from those bloody bouts: this summer the New York Times reported on the rising popularity today of medieval jousting – yes, jousting. In that piece, the writer described the crowd reaction at the moment when one participant strikes the other squarely in the torso with his lance, sending him flying: “It was as if someone had sent an electric current through the arena’s aluminum bleachers. Men leapt to their feet with their fists in the air. Teenage girls clutched one another’s arms.”

Gladwell would no doubt find that reaction revolting, but it speaks to the fact that humanity, generally speaking, has a violent streak. Look at the burgeoning popularity of mixed martial arts; cage fighting is more brutal than boxing or football. Gladwell believes we are evolving away from that propensity, but I am skeptical not only that we can, but that we should.

Blood sports are a useful way for a select few of us to channel that violence relatively safely, while the audience experiences it cathartically. Football is mock warfare that fulfills a primal need. Professional football players accept and even embrace the violence and its punishing consequences in return not only for the glory and/or money, but for the opportunity to test themselves and others in ritualized battle.

Is that immoral? I think only where the combatants have no choice in the matter, as in dogfighting or the gladiatorial arena, and only if you believe that violence is immoral under any circumstances. Yes, we have a responsibility to lessen the injurious consequences to the players; fans love hard-hitting football, but they don’t love watching players get carted off the field. To call the game “a moral abomination” and do away with it altogether, however, is to be “fundamentally out of touch” with the positives it offers – the competition and camaraderie, direction and discipline – and with the primal function it serves.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/26/14)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Does This Christmas Ad Trivialize War?

One thing most everyone agrees on about Christmas is that it is over-commercialized. But a new long-form ad from a United Kingdom supermarket chain has sharply divided those who find it a moving expression of the true Christmas spirit from those who declare it crass exploitation.

On Christmas Eve 1914, the year World War One broke out, German and Allied troops alike climbed out of the muddy trenches along parts of the Western front, met their enemies in the devastation of no man’s land, chatted and sang together, traded gifts, and were even rumored to have competed in a soccer match. The famed “Christmas truce” stood as a remarkable testament to the best of humanity in the midst of what was, up to that time, man’s worst inhumanity to man.

Coincidentally, as research for another project, I am currently reading Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins, which goes into some detail about the Christmas truce. As a British rifleman wrote:

On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us “Cigarettes,” “Pudding,” “A Happy Christmas” and “English – means good,” so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played “God Save the King” on a mouth organ.

It’s important to keep in mind what a ghastly conflict WWI was. Trench warfare was a living nightmare that reduced men to either emotional wrecks or fatalistic automatons. The war introduced new technologies that killed and wounded men in unprecedented numbers: airplanes, tanks, and ugliest of all, chemical warfare in the form of mustard gas. The Great War is generally considered the traumatic beginning of our modern era. It changed the Western world forever.

That hellish reality makes the Christmas truce all the more extraordinary and uplifting. On that day, amid fears of a possible surprise attack, the Christmas spirit “simply conquered the battlefield,” as Eksteins put it: “What had been isolated incidents of fraternization the night before blossomed… into wholesale camaraderie.”

Now Sainsbury’s, the second largest supermarket chain in the UK, has released an emotional three-minute holiday advertisement dramatizing that truce. called it “a well-produced… exceedingly effective ad—one that might even cause you to shed a tear.”

The commercial centers on a young British soldier who dares to step out of the trench with hands raised. The Germans respond in kind and the sworn enemies lose themselves in impromptu friendship as described by the British rifleman quoted above. This makes it all the more poignant when they must return to their opposing sides to take up arms against each other again. The video ends with the men cherishing their gifts, and with the message that “Christmas is for sharing.”

Many viewers were moved, but critics were swift and harsh. The Guardian accused Sainsbury of “co-opting the events for a purpose as crass as flogging groceries.” One campaigner against the company said: “Sainsbury's advert is slick, manipulative, artful filmmaking – and also a tawdry, tasteless and inappropriate use of WWI sacrifices and memories.” Another critic added: “If there’s anything more tasteless and cynical than the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert, I’ve yet to see it.” A third tweeted, “Companies using the First World War as an effort to boost sales is disgusting and disrespectful to the fallen.”

But the ad is anything but cynical and disrespectful to the fallen; it touchingly brings them to life again for us. Those who believe that capitalism is always about greed may be dismissive of Sainsbury’s motives, but those who see no inherent conflict between economic interests and our higher nature understand that the ad is about the true meaning of Christmas.

Even Slate reluctantly recognized this, concluding that “this specific moment in time is worth celebrating... And maybe that’s enough to allow the ad’s (and the truce’s) overall message to triumph over its commercial nature.​” That message is the one that filled the soldiers’ hearts that Christmas Day, the same one the angels proclaimed to the awe-struck shepherds: “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/24/14)

Deliver Us from Evil: A Horror Film Worth Watching

The best horror films aren’t the remakes of Japanese ghost stories, the torture porn franchises, or the ones in which someone knows what you did last summer. They aren’t the ones in which scream queens are stalked by zombies or masked psychos or homicidal dolls. They are the ones that illuminate the human condition and the spiritual nature of evil. And the best one of those I’ve seen in a long time – in fact, the best demonic possession movie I’ve seen in the four decades since The Exorcist – is Deliver Us from Evil, now out on DVD.

From the writer/director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, another well-done possession flick, Deliver Us from Evil is based on the real-life supernatural experiences of New York police sergeant Ralph Sarchie, played by Eric Bana. Sarchie grew up Catholic but abandoned religion at the age of twelve, so when he is confronted not only by a freaky mystery man committing shocking crimes, but also by auditory hallucinations linked to those crimes, he is in denial about the true nature of the darkness that he’s facing – until he meets Father Mendoza, a drug addict-turned priest, played by the criminally underappreciated actor Edgar Ramirez.

Sarchie initially would have agreed with Joseph Conrad, who wrote that “the belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” There was a time when Mendoza too didn’t believe in possession, until a personal experience opened his eyes to the nature of, as he calls it, “primary evil.” Now he ministers to the victims of demonic possession, and he and Sarchie end up working together.

Sarchie uncovers increasingly bizarre layers to the case, and baffling violence. “That’s the mystery of primary evil,” Mendoza explains. “Its destructiveness makes no sense. Not to us.”

While sharing drinks in a bar, the skeptic cop challenges the priest about his faith: “You see, Father, as we speak, every day out there, someone’s getting’ hurt, ripped off, murdered, raped. Where’s God when all that’s happening?”

“In the hearts of people like you who put a stop to it,” Mendoza replies evenly. “I mean, we can talk all night about the problem of evil, but what about the problem of good?” If there is no God, he says, if the world is just survival of the fittest, then why are men willing to lay down their lives for total strangers?

Kudos to writer/director Scott Derrickson for creating in Mendoza a priest who isn’t the usual one-dimensional stereotype but a fully realized – and deeply human – character. Mendoza doesn’t seem the saintly type, Sarchie observes, and Mendoza agrees. The priest has struggled with the evil inside himself, and hasn’t always won. But, as he says, “A saint is not a moral exemplar. A saint is a life-giver.” Mendoza confesses to Sarchie a moral failure in his past, after which he had “committed to walking the path of grace.”

Now, Mendoza tells him, it is Sarchie who must confess the darkness in his own soul before he can successfully grapple with the primary evil that they’re up against – otherwise the demon will exploit it. It is a profound acknowledgement: that we are all flawed and vulnerable to evil, and what empowers us to combat it is seeking God’s forgiveness for our sinful debt.


As you might expect, the film builds to a lengthy, intense exorcism scene. The demon targets and nearly conquers the vulnerable Father Mendoza before finally being cast out of its human host, played by Sean Harris, through the invocation of Jesus Christ. Harris does an incredible job of conveying, in one stricken facial expression, the horror of his character’s experience under possession, and his gratitude and relief for being rescued from it. It’s a masterfully directed and emotionally convincing climax.

Deliver Us from Evil offers not only plenty of chills and action sequences, but also the kind of human and spiritual insights that elevate this among the best examples of its genre.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/21/14)

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Colossal Mistake: Trivializing the Past

Yesterday, Acculturated’s own Abby W. Schachter reported on the dismantling of the “Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red” art installation in London, a flood of red ceramic poppies serving as a poignant memorial to the nearly 900,000 British lives lost in World War I. As it happens, I had just read about a sort of modern upgrading of the Colosseum in Rome. In their different ways, the two monuments reflect a vital connection between memory and history.

Even though the United States participated in the nightmarish conflict that Henry James called “this abyss of blood and darkness,” it’s very difficult for Americans today to grasp the impact that the Great War had on Europe. It marked, in an unprecedented way, a traumatic break with the world of the past and the beginning of our modern era. Artist Paul Cummins’ installation, a temporary sea of individually hand-crafted and -planted poppies filling the moat surrounding the Tower of London, conveys that bloody chasm probably more effectively than any fixed monument ever could.

Now it’s being taken down despite calls and petitions to extend, or even make permanent, the display. Cummins insists that the installation should be transient, like life itself and the lives of the War’s victims. Abby Schachter believes that this is an appropriate gesture, and I agree – with reservations.

Memory tends to be transient too. We are constantly rewriting the past, literally in our history books and mythically in our minds; it is human nature to be unreliable and self-serving narrators of our own stories. So we are constantly in danger of losing not only the past, but the meaning of the past in the fog of time. Monuments are sometimes all that keep our link to that meaning alive. By their permanent presence, they serve as powerfully impacting echoes of the past for forgetful future generations. The “Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red” installation has had such an effect on literally millions of visitors. Its impermanence has been part of its draw, but I would hate to see it gone forever. Perhaps it should be recreated – reincarnated, if you will – every decade.

Meanwhile in Rome, the Italian culture minister is backing a proposal to restore the floor of another testament to blood and darkness: the extraordinary, nearly 2,000-year-old partial ruins of the Colosseum where gladiators and animals once stalked each other to the death. This could lead to the building being used again as an arena – not for blood matches, of course, but for pop concerts.

An archaeologist suggested building a new stage to cover the ampitheater’s central section, which currently exposes the haunting subterranean tunnels and chambers where the gladiatorial participants waited. The point of the proposal is to encourage the public to help fund the ancient building’s substantial preservation costs with concerts and other performances. But as Daisy Dunn remarks in The Spectator, reviving it as a concert venue would be less like a restoration and “more like the beginning of the end.”

“To experience the contrast between the expectant [ancient Roman] spectators and the slaves summoned to ‘perform’,” she writes, “you need only cast your eye between the sun-bleached seats stretching into the sky, and the dark shadows in the arena’s bowels below.” Once a stage is constructed over it and you lose that view, warns Dunn, “you lose the view of the cross-sections which divided Roman society,” and our connection to the meaning of the Colosseum itself is broken. 
Attending a performance there by, say, Sting or Andrea Bocelli, would transform our experience of the building and with history itself. As respectable and sensitive as those performers might be to the venue, the ultimate effect would be no longer to memorialize the past but to trivialize it.

A new Colosseum stage should not be built, Dunn correctly urged, “at the expense of its spirit.” That spirit lives on in the echoes of cheers and screams from the arena, just as the horrors of war come alive again in a sea of red poppies in London. The former is an ancient edifice in the heart of the Eternal City, and the latter is a temporary, modern expression, but both are true to the spirit of the past that they honor.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/19/14)

Institution of Lower Learning: Sex Week at Harvard

If you couldn’t make Harvard University’s recent 4th annual Sex Week, you missed out on some stimulating fare. It boasted free seminars and workshops with titillating titles such as “What What in the Butt: Anal Sex 101,” “Fifty Shades of False: Kink 101,” and “Love @ First Swipe: Online Hookup Culture.” Yes, that Harvard.

Open to the public, Sex Week is coordinated each year by a student-run organization called Sexual Health Education & Advocacy Throughout Harvard College (SHEATH). Sex Week, the group’s website states, “intends to promote a week of programming that is interdisciplinary, thought-provoking, scholastic, innovative, and applicable to student experiences in order to promote a holistic understanding of sex and sexuality.” That’s their way of pretending that instructing students in the thought-provoking, holistic use of butt plugs and dental dams is academically legitimate.

Sexperts from a local adult toy shop led the anal sex seminar, which sought to “dispel myths about anal sex and give you insight into why people do it and how to do it well.” Parents shell out as much as $58,000 a year to Harvard to give their kids at least the aura of a top-shelf education; somehow I doubt that excelling in Anal Sex 101 is what they had in mind.

Also listed on the schedule, which is riddled with spelling and punctuation errors, was “Brown Girlz Do it Well: a Queer Diaspora Remix,” a workshop designed to “situate our personal narratives within broader systems of racism, casteism, classism, islamophobia, and imperialism.” Call me Old School, but what college students need is a lot less indulgence in their own personal narratives and a lot more immersion in the narratives of the great storytellers who shaped our civilization. They need a lot less indoctrination in grievances and victimization, and a lot more exposure to the sublime heights that the human spirit has attained in art, science, and philosophy. They need to stop ghettoizing themselves according to racial and gender categories and start identifying with our common humanity. That’s what a liberal arts education should be about.

Many Harvard students no doubt are getting an impressive education, but the university isn’t doing its reputation any favors with workshops like “Virginity & Abstinence,” which posed the burning question, “does viriginity [sic] exist?” or “Romance on the Rocks: Alochol [sic] and Consent.” Does one really need to take a seminar to grasp that drinking and sex go together like a horse and carriage?

To their credit, some at Harvard resisted the siren song of kink. Student Molly Wharton told The College Fix,

I do question the amount of time and resources that went into planning and funding these events, some of which are downright vulgar, at a place like Harvard. I can’t imagine that there are not more worthwhile educational programs and initiatives to which Harvard’s resources should be devoted.

Nailed it. But SHEATH's co-president Kirin Gupta defended the workshop this way: “Saying we don’t need it is like saying we don’t need sex education, or should have abstinence-only education, or that people should feel ashamed for doing whatever it is that’s part of their sexual practice.”

Not quite. There’s a difference between sex education and the promotion of a narcissistic obsession with sexuality. As for shaming anyone: frankly, our culture needs some shaming now and then – not for what we do in private, but for our increasingly perverse willingness to put our private lives on display in the public square.

Criticizing the program, however, gets you smeared as an unevolved bigot: “The conservative backlash speaks to the latent homophobia that society thinks so often it has gotten over, and has not,” says Gupta. “It speaks to these residual prejudices that people [have] when faced with a reality they’re not willing to acknowledge or respect.”

No, it doesn’t. Objecting to Sex Week is not about the fear and loathing of homosexuality or kinkiness; it is simply about questioning the program’s appropriateness and academic value, particularly at an institution of supposedly higher learning that began in 1636 as a seminary.

Harvard University doesn’t have a formal mission statement, but Harvard College, the undergraduate program, does. It is committed to, in part, “the advancement and education of youth in all manner of good literature, arts, and sciences.” Sorry, but S&M, “feminist porn,” and “queer spoken word groups” do not fall under that umbrella.

I’m no prude. I used to work in the porn industry. But when an institution as esteemed (rightly or wrongly) as Harvard offers a slate of workshops featuring, for example, “the demystification of sexual fetishes,” the school doesn’t merely look silly; it is giving its imprimatur to a cultural obsession with seeking personal identity in the shallows of our libido rather than in the depths of our soul.

(This article originally appeared here on The Federalist, 11/19/14)

We Land on a Comet, the Media Cry Sexism

Last Wednesday, the European Space Agency (ESA) landed a space probe on a 2.5-mile long comet over 300 million miles away. Let that extraordinary human achievement sink in for a moment. Now let this sink in: the bulk of the media attention for this historic event is centered on a garish bowling shirt worn by one of the scientists, which has become the target of feminist anger about pervasive misogyny in the scientific profession.

Matt Taylor, part of the team of scientists that landed a space probe on a comet over 300 million miles away, was interviewed briefly prior to the event. He seemed like an articulate, amiable guy who was passionate about his exciting work. Unfortunately, he was wearing something that resembled the side of a 1970s van: a retro Hawaiian shirt adorned with an illustrated bevy of provocatively dressed women posed amid sunbursts and ocean waves. It was made for him by a rockabilly model whose husband did Taylor’s sleeve tattoos.

So, instead of marveling at the fact that humans have landed a space probe on a comet over 300 million miles away, some zeroed in on Taylor’s shirt as evidence that the world of science is hostile to women. The Guardian, for example, huffed, “ESA can land their robot on a comet... But they still can’t see misogyny under their noses.” Verge’s unintentionally self-parodying headline was “I don't care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing.” The writers of that article asserted that

This is the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields. They see a guy like that on TV and they don't feel welcome... This is the climate women who dream of working at NASA or the ESA come up against, every single day. This shirt is representative of all of that, and the ESA has yet to issue a statement or apologize for that.

ESA has nothing to apologize for, but Taylor was so bowled over by the negative online response that he later humiliated himself by tearfully apologizing on camera – because no unintended, imagined slight is complete today without a groveling public apology to an internet full of total strangers. “I made a big mistake and I offended many people and I am very sorry about this,” he managed, sniffling. Too late; he’s forever branded as a misogynist who wants to boot women out of the old boys’ club of science – you know, macho sexists like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Was his shirt appropriate for a television broadcast? That depends on how uptight you are. It was initially distracting, but so what? Perhaps he didn’t know he was going to be on TV. Maybe he did know but thought the look would be a refreshing, colorful change from a lab coat and pocket protector. It’s not known whether his colleagues bothered to suggest a more media-friendly change of clothing; if they didn’t, perhaps it was because they were busy landing a space probe on a comet over 300 million miles away.

The real “casual sexism” here is not that Matt Taylor wore a shirt decorated with kitschy cartoons; at most he might be guilty of a crime of fashion, which is no one else’s business and no cause for a public apology (otherwise most of us would be apologizing daily). One gaudy, bawdy bowling shirt does not create a hostile work environment. The real sexism is the assumption that career-driven women are so sensitive that they must be shielded from an article of clothing which might intimidate them out of pursuing their chosen scientific or technical endeavor.

We have become a culture so obsessed with the hyper-sensitivity of officially designated victim classes that we police behavior to a degree verging on totalitarianism. We claim to be waging a war against bullying, but we bully public apologies out of people who don’t even know us and never intended offense. We are so threatened by heterosexual masculinity that we automatically equate it with misogyny. As a culture, let’s grow a sense of humor and put our energy toward something truly important, like boldly going where no man – or woman – has gone before.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/17/14)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Springsteen Hits a False Note at Veterans Day Concert

My Acculturated colleague Erin Vargo wrote a very nice reflection this week on the bipartisan values we share as Americans, and on the Veterans Day “Concert for Valor” at Washington, D.C.’s National Mall, a three-hour concert that included Rihanna, Carrie Underwood, Bruce Springsteen, and others. Vargo felt that the show depicted a “universality of America’s regard for our veterans” that crossed party lines. But some were less than thrilled about Springsteen’s choice of material for an event intended to honor our nation’s warriors.

Justin Moyer at the Washington Post wrote that Springsteen sparked social media unrest for playing – along with Zac Brown and Dave Grohl – Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Vietnam-era anti-war song, “Fortunate Son.” Some folks inherit star-spangled eyes, songwriter John Fogerty’s rock classic goes. They send you down to war/And when you ask them, “How much should we give?”/They only answer, more, more, more.

The Weekly Standard wasn’t too thrilled with the tone-deaf selection, either: “It was a particularly terrible choice given that Fortunate Son is, moreover, an anti-draft song, and this concert was largely organized to honor those who volunteered to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Springsteen went on to perform what Moyer called a “dirge-like version of ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’” a song often misinterpreted, by politicians who aren’t paying attention, as a patriotic anthem. Both that piece and “Fortunate Son” present the American soldier less as a hero than a victim of pointless, immoral wars and a pawn of greedy politicians who send him off to do their fighting for them, and who then cast him aside upon his return home.

The Post’s Moyer defended Springsteen, pointing out that both songs, “while they criticize the armed forces, aren’t anti-American in the sense that, for example, the Islamic State is anti-American. By offering a critique of our nation’s policies, they celebrate its promise.” His article prompted nearly 2700 heated responses from commenters, some of whom felt that it was perfectly appropriate and patriotic for Springsteen to raise the issue of the ugly reality for veterans. Better to spark a conversation about that than to bury it, they claimed.

And there certainly is a host of serious issues that our veterans face: unemployment, a shocking suicide rate, a Veterans Administration that has been revealed to be ignoring the vets who need its assistance and care. Had Springsteen raised some awareness about these problems, say, in between songs, that might have been more appropriate than anti-war anthems.

Veterans Day is not the time to critique the government’s policies. It’s a time for honoring the warriors who served their country, who did their duty at risk of life and limb, regardless of the rightness or wrongness of those policies. It’s a time for paying tribute to the sacrifice of our soldiers and their families, not for attacking politicians or questioning the motives for war. By performing songs about how those warriors fought in vain, and then were discarded and dishonored back home, Springsteen portrayed them as pitiable and their service as a futile waste. Regardless of whether there is any truth to that, it’s the wrong message to be sending on this particular holiday. That message, simply put, is one of respect and only respect.

There are others times and ways to protest wars: voting, protests, marches, contacting your political representatives, and yes, writing songs. Every other day of the year, we can put our backs into solving the serious problems our veterans face. But on Veterans Day, leave your protest signs in the garage, put your politics aside, and concentrate simply on saluting the men and women whose service deserves our gratitude and respect.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/14/14)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Want to Kick Street Harassment to the Curb? Promote Chivalry

If you were on the internet at all last week, then you almost certainly saw or read about the viral “catcalling video” that amassed an astounding 32 million views online and sparked a firestorm of discussion. But while it definitely raised awareness about the unwanted attention women endure when on the street, it sparked little sympathy, much less outrage.

The video was a hidden-camera recording of an attractive young woman walking the streets of New York for ten hours to document what the video’s sponsors described as “sustained catcalls and harassment” from men she passed. The video, edited down to a couple of minutes of highlights, claimed that the woman was on the receiving end of 100 instances of verbal harassment in those ten hours.

It was sponsored by Hollaback, “a movement to end street harassment powered by a network of local activists around the world.” Hollaback is vague about how exactly it will achieve the eradication of catcalling, apart from encouraging women to document their stories online, which might embarrass some guys. But the organization also hints at a more controversial solution when it describes street harassment as “one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against.” [emphasis added]

This suggests that they expect to curb the misbehavior by criminalizing it, which would be not only an infringement on free speech but also absurdly impractical. How would such legislation be enforced? Are cops going to write up or arrest losers merely for being desperate for female attention? And where is the line of verbal harassment drawn? Some of the men in the video simply wished her a nice day. Should that be a criminal offense?

For that reason and others, the video drew swift criticism from everyone from National Review to Slate. It was accused of racism for not featuring enough white men. It was accused of classism for not featuring enough affluent men. It was accused of ignoring the fact that such behavior is comparatively rare outside of bad neighborhoods in major urban areas. Perhaps most damning, it was accused of making a mountain out of a molehill.

It quickly spawned parodies. In one, a white man walks the streets of New York a là the original and is “accosted” by comments like “Hey, wanna network with me?” and “Want a Starbucks gift card? Yeah, you like that.” In another, a New York Jets fan walks the streets of Manhattan and gets berated for his Jets gear: “You should be ashamed.” Similar takeoffs feature, among others, a female character in the Skyrim video game, a drag queen in Los Angeles, a guy wearing a horse head mask, and my personal favorite, a hipster in Austin.

The fact that the original video has proven so ripe for ridicule and criticism says two important things: one, that America hasn’t entirely lost its sense of humor; and two, that the original video failed to prove its point. One hundred instances of verbal abuse and the worst they could present was guys mostly wishing the woman a nice day and calling her beautiful?

This is not to say that the video reveals no legitimate harassment. At one point for example, a man kept pace alongside the young woman for a full five minutes, which was at best creepy and at worst potentially threatening. And though some critics argued that most of the men in the video were simply being friendly, this is disingenuous; there’s no doubt that those men were hoping to strike up a conversation with a pretty girl who wouldn’t ordinarily give them the time of day. Had she given any of them an inch, they would have taken a mile.

No matter how legitimate a problem such harassment may be, though, it pales into insignificance in a world in which women get the worst of real horrors such as domestic violence, sexual assault, honor killings, sex trafficking and slavery, and forced abortions (in China and India). The video unfortunately made complaints about street harassment seem petty and insignificant by comparison.

Well-meaning though it might be, Hollaback’s vision of a world without street harassment is a utopian fantasy. This isn’t the same as ridding the workplace of sexual harassment; the streets cannot be policed in the same way. No amount of social condemnation or legislation will end all men acting unchivalrously. The rude, like the poor, will always be with us.

The best way to curb street harassment is by reviving the moribund ideal of chivalry and raising young men to treat women more honorably and courteously. Sadly, the feminists who now claim that men aren’t chivalrous enough on the streets are responsible for demonizing chivalry so thoroughly among both women and men that it’s comatose. They have very nearly snuffed out the one masculine ideal that is necessary to make the world a safer and more respectful place for women.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/11/14)

Inside ‘The Room’

If you haven’t seen the 2003 cult classic movie The Room, stop reading and come back after viewing it here. There is a reason it has attained the status of “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” – and that reason is a hilariously oddball writer/director/producer/star named Tommy Wiseau. But many of its fans are unaware of the surprisingly poignant backstory to both the movie and its creator. 

I was already aware of The Room and its awkward acting (“You are tearing me apaaart, Lisa!”), memorably weird dialogue (“Leave your stupid comments in your pocket!”), inconsistent character motivations, scenes that go nowhere, and inexplicable football motif. But I didn’t realize that the making of The Room was far more entertaining and intriguing than the film itself until I stumbled recently across a 2013 book called The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, written by Tommy’s longtime friend Greg Sestero, who also starred in and helped make the movie.

The book is an unexpectedly absorbing page-turner, not just for its behind-the-scenes look at the wacky incompetence of The Room, but because it also gradually revealed the secretive Tommy Wiseau to be a lonely figure whose obsessive need to express himself through this film masked an “immensely conflicted and complicated darkness.”

An aspiring actor, Sestero first encountered the defiantly eccentric Tommy, with his unidentifiable accent, distinctive hair, and refusal to discuss his past, in an acting class. Sestero, who found himself becoming Tommy’s best – and perhaps only – friend, slowly teased out the details of Tommy’s obscure origins and the dark life experiences that shaped him.

He lived on the street in Europe. He was wrongfully arrested and tortured by French police following a drug raid at a youth hostel, a traumatic experience that led him to move to America. He worked as a street vendor selling unique bird toys to tourists on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, acquiring the nickname “The Birdman,” after which he legally changed his name to Thomas Wiseau (a reworking of the French word for bird). He was involved in a near-fatal car crash, the turning point that led him to pursue his dream of becoming an actor and director.

Tommy threw himself into developing, producing, directing and starring in his own script called The Room despite having no knowledge of filmmaking (though he did have, strangely, a seemingly inexhaustible bank account which enabled him to sink a jaw-dropping $6 million into the making and marketing of this romantic drama). Sestero began as a curious crew member but found himself pushed into replacing a key actor – after filming had already begun.

It’s impossible to describe or summarize the degree of the dictatorial Tommy’s ineptitude as a would-be Orson Welles. He was unable to remember the simplest lines of his own dialogue, much less deliver them capably. He drove actors and crew members either out of their minds or out of the project altogether. He demanded that scenes be rewritten in the middle of filming them, that sets be broken down but rebuilt again the following day; that his muscular butt be prominently featured in his overlong sex scenes. The result is an hallucinatory comedy of technical and artistic errors.

This didn’t discourage Tommy from moving heaven and earth to promote The Room, including paying for a massive billboard on highly-trafficked Highland Avenue. The creepy billboard featuring a droopy-eyed, unintentionally menacing Tommy stayed up not for the usual couple of months or so, but inexplicably for a full five years, becoming a sort of Hollywood landmark.

Despite the comedy, one moment highlighted something for Sestero about his mysterious friend. After filming a party scene in which Tommy’s character is at the center of a room full of happy friends, Sestero realizes that the scene reflected the happiness, the friends, the life that Tommy would have wanted for himself but never had.

The book closes with Sestero attending Tommy’s “world premiere” of The Room. When Tommy stood to introduce the film to the crowd,

he was completely devoid of the bravado he’d always had in front of an audience. His hands trembled as he raised the microphone to his mouth. He paused for a moment, too overcome to speak… The audience became very still. Then, at last, Tommy managed to say something: “This. This is my movie. This is my life. I hope you learn something and discover yourself.”

Just before the house lights went down, Tommy turned in his seat to smile at Sestero behind him. There were tears in his eyes. Some at the premiere walked out demanding refunds, but the film went on to become an international midnight movie hit along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Sestero concludes with a musing about Tommy and the pursuit of dreams. At the risk of overreaching, I believe it is an epiphany that could be applied to grand dreamers everywhere – in other words, to all of us: “In the end, Tommy made me realize that you decide who you become. He also made me realize what a mixed blessing that can be.” [Emphasis added]

This past February, Seth Rogan and James Franco picked up the rights to The Disaster Artist and will be co-producing a movie based on the book, starring Franco as Tommy, whom the actor correctly describes as “part vampire, part Hollywood dreamer, part gangster, part Ed Wood, and super lonely.” I hope they can capture not only the unique hilarity of the book, but also the loneliness at the heart of Tommy’s dream.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/6/14)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Gene Simmons’ Feminist Advice to Women

Though I was raised on rock and roll, I was never a fan of the glam rockers of KISS. But in recent years I have come to admire the band’s driving force, former tongue-wagging bass player Gene Simmons, now an entrepreneur who has amassed a $300 million fortune through his music, a merchandising empire, reality TV shows, and other ventures. I also appreciate his blunt-spoken style (even when I don’t agree with him), though it gets him in hot water from time to time – as it did again recently.

Simmons was on FOX the other day promoting his new book, Me, Inc.: Build an Army of One, Unleash Your Inner Rock God, Win in Life and Business, which is divided into two sections: Me, about Simmons’ own background and path to success, and You, advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. During the FOX segment he offered some direct, no-nonsense business advice to young women. He urged them not to try to juggle family and career at once, but to focus on career first, and then – if they want children – to have them from a position of financial security. He noted that women, unlike men, have the option of taking care of themselves or being taken care of by a man, which he discouraged. The money quote: “Women, stop depending on men. It’s as simple as that. Imagine there are no men in life.”

This drew fire on the internet, where kneejerk outrage lies in wait for any excuse to pounce. Salon called Simmons’ comments “sexist.” Uproxx’s headline was “Gene Simmons Opens His Mouth Again to Give Women Some Tone-Deaf Career Advice.” Over at Jezebel, where profanity and bile substitute for thought, they spewed contempt at Simmons, deriding him as “the original Miley Cyrus” (for the tongue thing) and as an “old fart” (because how could anyone over 25 have anything worthwhile to say?). Sprinkled throughout the criticism was a lot of gratuitous hair-shaming of the sort usually reserved for Donald Trump.

And yet his advice – women, give up trying to have it all; put career first and become financially independent – is no different from Sheryl Sandberg’s business bestseller Lean In, a favorite of proud feminists. The only apparent reason some women found Simmons’ feminist advice offensive is that a man said it, even though those same women are always campaigning for men to call themselves feminists (hence slogans like #AllMenCan, “This is what a feminist looks like,” “I need feminism because…”). Perhaps his comments would have gone over better if he had said them while posing backlit by a giant neon “FEMINIST” sign.

It may not help that Simmons has unabashedly expressed some conservative – and thus uncool – political positions: he’s pro-America, pro-Israel, pro-capitalism, and pro-Romney in the last election (although he had previously voted for Obama, a decision he regrets). This does not earn him favorable press from outlets like Jezebel or Salon.

If the haters had bothered to look beyond his provocative soundbite and his ever-present dark shades to read his new book, they would have discovered that that old fart is a fascinating success story. He grew up dirt poor in Israel, the son of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. His father, the sole wage-earner, walked out on the family while Gene was still a boy, and his mother had to take up the slack; so Gene learned the hard way that women should be aware that men cannot, or at least should not, be depended upon.

When he came to America at the age of eight, it was the first time he had seen toilet paper, or a TV set, or supermarkets like “cities of food, their aisles like streets” of abundance. He took advantage of the land of opportunity to pursue and achieve the American dream in spades.

One chapter of the book is devoted to the special challenges that female entrepreneurs face in the male-dominated business arena. He doesn’t sugarcoat the obstacles, but he does encourage women to push beyond the sexism and traditional stereotypes to find success. It is a message that feminists would ordinarily embrace if it hadn’t come from a rock star who is unapologetic about his thousands of sexual conquests (because men who sleep around can be called pigs, but criticizing women who do the same is slut-shaming).

Simmons is an outspoken dude who knows that controversy sells, and he doesn’t care if anyone gets their knickers in a twist over his old-fashioned, pragmatic views. His female critics would be better off untwisting those knickers and picking up his book.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/3/14

Will UC Berkeley Nix Maher Commencement?

One has to appreciate the tragic irony that in the 50th anniversary year of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, a petition is being circulated there to disinvite the controversial Bill Maher as commencement speaker, because of his “racist and bigoted” views.

I am no fan of Bill Maher. He’s an Obama supporter who favors income redistribution, race preferences, abortion, tough gun control, and the outlawing of home schooling. He dismisses conservatives as racist, Christians as mental defectives, Americans as “stupid,” and the Second Amendment as “bullsh*t.” I believe university students deserve a prestigious, accomplished commencement speaker with more gravitas than a foul-mouthed standup comic whose days are spent hanging out in the Playboy mansion grotto (in fact, I don’t believe celebrities in general should be invited to speak at commencements).

But at least the atheist Maher has enough intellectual integrity to realize that not all religions are the same. He also has the courage to openly criticize Islam, something that a microscopically small number of public figures have the cojones to do. And let’s face it: it is his position on Islam that sparked the resistance of the UC Berkeley petition, because if Maher’s insults were limited to bashing Sarah Palin and Christians, no objection would have been raised. 

He recently had a notable dustup on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher with the self-appointed voice of Muslims everywhere, Ben Affleck. In it, Maher and guest Sam Harris tried to reason with an inflamed Affleck about the, shall we say, problematic nature of Islam, which Harris called “the mother lode of bad ideas.” Maher sided with Harris, and Affleck called their attitude “gross and racist,” despite the always-overlooked fact that – all together now – Islam is not a race. Mere days before that, Islamic dissembler Reza Aslan took Maher to task on CNN for his “facile arguments” about Islam.

That was three weeks ago. Shortly thereafter, a petition was initiated by Associated Students of the University of California Senator Marium Navid, who, according to the school’s Daily Californian, is backed by the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition, or MEMSA, and Khwaja Ahmed, an active MEMSA member. The petition asks UC Berkeley to stop him from speaking at the commencement ceremony. It has garnered 2,089 signatures as of this writing Tuesday night.

The petition claims that Maher “has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for.” I don’t know what those values are, but apparently a speaker who tests the boundaries of the comfort zone of sensitive Berkeley students, who uphold a selective “tolerance” as the highest of virtues, is intolerable. After all, “too many students are marginalized by his remarks and if the University were to bring this individual as a commencement speaker they would not be supporting these historically marginalized communities.” Heaven forbid that colleges might not make “historically marginalized communities” their focus, or that grown students might have to endure “remarks” that marginalize them.

As evidence that Maher is a “blatant” racist bigot who “perpetuates a dangerous learning environment,” the petition lists a few examples of his “hate speech.” They include: insults of religions in general (not only Islam); a shockingly racist assertion that Western values are better than non-Western ones; a smackdown of Hamas (because criticizing a terrorist organization is obviously racism); a statement that too much of the Muslim world shares the values of ISIS (no comment); and this truism, which not even Ben Affleck denied: “Islam is the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will f**king kill you if you say the wrong thing.”

“It’s not an issue of freedom of speech, it’s a matter of campus climate,” Navid said. “The First Amendment gives him the right to speak his mind, but it doesn’t give him the right to speak at such an elevated platform as the commencement. That’s a privilege his racist and bigoted remarks don’t give him.” While it is true that free speech doesn’t guarantee him a commencement speaker slot, what her argument masks is the sad fact that today’s university students are intolerant of anyone and anything that challenges their biases and makes them feel uncomfortable. Too many of them are not interested in testing received wisdom and expanding their horizons, but in protecting their favored illusions and wrapping themselves in the force-field of victim status.  

Claire Chiara, president of Berkeley College Republicans, also is no fan of Maher but said she has no issue with his confirmation as commencement speaker. “He’s a very prominent public figure, and I’m certain that he’s not going to treat a commencement speech at a prestigious university the way he treats his talk show.” Imagine that: Republican rationality and tolerance.

Navid, however, believes that Maher is beyond the pale. According to The Daily Californian, her office launched a campaign with the semi-oxymoronic name, “Free Speech, Not Hate Speech,” asking students to express their outrage to the Chancellor and the director of external relations. Of course, hate speech is quite simply speech you don’t agree with, so if you believe it must be suppressed, then you cannot claim to support free speech.

Again, I’m no fan of Maher, but I’m even less of a fan of the progressive/Islamist hypocrisy, intolerance, and smear tactics behind the petition to have him disinvited as speaker.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 10/30/14