Wednesday, March 25, 2015

New Study Reveals that Nice Guys Are Manipulative Jerks

Recently a new study about so-called “benevolent sexism” stirred up internet indignation with its provocative conclusion that “Being Nice to Women Is a Sign of Sexism,” as one headline put it. “Men who hold doors open and smile may actually be sexist, study claims,” said another headline. “It turns out chivalrous men are actually just benevolently sexist,” read a third. That sound you hear is the collective groan of decent men everywhere giving up.
Jin X. Goh and Judith A. Hall, researchers in the Department of Psychology at Northeastern University, published the study with the dryly academic title, “Nonverbal and Verbal Expressions of Men’s Sexism in Mixed-Gender Interactions.” It is described as “the first to examine how men’s hostile sexist and benevolent sexist beliefs are differentially expressed, nonverbally and verbally, during actual social interactions with women.” The study concluded that “benevolent sexism is expressed differently than hostile sexism” and “was associated with more patience, more smiling… and more usage of positive emotion words.” Simply put, benevolent sexists seem nice but are manipulative jerks.
The concept of “benevolent sexism,” or B.S. as I like to call it, didn’t begin with this study. It’s been around since a similar study nearly 20 years ago. It refers to a deference accorded to women that seems gentlemanly and flattering on the surface, but which feminists perceive as paternalistic and condescending—in other words,chivalry. It’s contrasted with “hostile sexism,” which is just what it sounds like: overtly sexist beliefs, expressions or actions, from considering women inherently incapable of running a business, to stoning them for adultery.
Benevolent sexism, such as holding a door for a woman or helping her change a flat tire, may seem like just the opposite of the hostile sort, but in fact it is merely at the other end of the same spectrum of misogyny; in fact, B.S. is actually considered evenmore oppressive because it supposedly flatters a woman into embracing her inferior position in a gender-unequal society, whereas the hostile sort engenders resistance from women. B.S. is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The recent study calls it “the more covert and hard to resist form of sexism.”
“Unless sexism is understood as having both hostile and benevolent properties,” Goh and Hall warn, “the insidious nature of benevolent sexism will continue to be one of the driving forces behind gender inequality in our society.” So the next time a man helps a woman get her heavy luggage off the airport carousel and gets a tight-lipped glare rather than a “thank you,” he’ll know it’s because she has been indoctrinated to believe that his gentlemanly gesture was insidiously oppressive.
At the fashion and style website Refinery29, the study’s implications were labeled, “The Dark Side Of Chivalry.” The writer there expressed a common misunderstanding of chivalry: that it’s reserved for women who “deserve” it:
[It is] not necessarily based in a belief that all women are deserving of politeness and respect; rather, it implies that a “good woman” is. Should a woman step outside of the “pure and warm” profile benevolent sexists assign to her, well, then she’s on her own. For benevolent sexists, chivalry is not for women—it’s only for women who “deserve it,” and who know their place.
This is nonsense. A man about to open a door for a woman doesn’t stop to assess whether she “deserves” such consideration. How would he even be able to determine such a thing? Holding a door is not a subtle power play to keep a woman in her “place,” nor does it stem from the ridiculous assumption that a woman is incapable of opening her own door. Chivalry is a demonstration of respect for a woman, and an implied offer that the man stands ready at her service, if she needs it.
What studies like these accomplish is quite simply to discourage men from acting like gentlemen. Men today feel they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t: if they behave like gentlemen, they’re bashed as “insidious” sexists; if they refrain from acting like gentlemen in order to avoid offending women, they’re castigated for, well, not being gentlemen. The net effect of the theory of benevolent sexism is to frustrate and anger men, sow suspicion and resentment in women, and drive an even larger wedge between the two.
To begin chipping away at that wedge, we must begin by asking ourselves if radical feminism’s intentional destruction of traditional roles in America has improved relations between the sexes and made women and men any happier. Unmoored from their natures, confused young men no longer know what it means to be a man, and confused young women think that equality means becoming the worst kinds of men—promiscuous, crude, domineering.
We must also ask what kind of society we want: one in which men are held to a higher, chivalrous standard of behavior, and men and women embrace our complementary differences with mutual respect, or what we have now: a society in which young men and women drift farther and farther apart as bitter, mistrustful antagonists.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/24/15)

To Kill Without a Trace

On July 18, 1994, a van loaded with explosives destroyed the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), murdering 85 innocents and injuring over 300. The government accused Hezbollah, but it was not until 2006 that sufficient legal evidence was gathered to request warrants for the arrest of those allegedly responsible.

On January 19, 2015, the chief investigator of the case, prosecutor Alberto Nisman, was found murdered (though it had been made to look like a suicide). Nisman had been on the verge of delivering warrants for the arrest of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, which would have exposed the Argentine government’s complicity in a coverup.

On Thursday, March 26, at the Luxe Hotel in Los Angeles, the Horowitz Freedom Center and Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors will present Gustavo Perednik, the author of fifteen books, who will be discussing his latest, To Kill Without a Trace, a novelization of the AIMA bombing and subsequent investigation. Based on reported facts and legal documents put at the author’s disposal by Nisman himself, the book recounts the events leading up to the bombing and beyond, exploring the implications both for Argentina and the world.

I recently posed to Mr. Perednik some questions about his book, the bombing, the investigation, and Nisman’s assassination.

Mark Tapson: You’ve written both novels and works of nonfiction. Why did you choose a fictional framework for this story?

Gustavo Perednik:            Sabra is my last novel, coauthored with Marcos Aguinis and published four months ago. I believe that the reason for which it became a bestseller straight away is that   it is written as historical fiction. It tells the real story of the First Aliyah and the Jewish history during World War I, as well as the biography of Absalom Feinberg, “the first Sabra.” Although it is entirely factual, it is told as a novel because in this way it can appeal a broader audience. One can add more suspense and literary creativity in blending the fiction and non-fiction styles.

The same can be said of To Kill Without a Trace. I reveal Alberto Nisman’s investigation and his work, but instead of a dry narrative I can delve into the psychology of the character and include some philosophical insights. I believe it is more compelling and it does not sacrifice even one bit of historical truth.

MT:     How did you come to know and work with Alberto Nisman, and whom do you believe is responsible for his murder?

GP:     About ten years ago I published an article on terrorism and I got an approving email from Nisman with the suggestion that we meet. He was the Prosecutor of the AMIA case. At the beginning I thought someone was kidding me, but he insisted and the following day we met at the Prosecution Unit. He then told me that he knew me because as a teenager he had heard my speeches at the Jewish institution which I had headed in Buenos Aires. The chemistry between us was immediate and we became good friends. I frequently brought to him my students to listen to his explanations about the AMIA case, and after some months I decided to write a book about it. He agreed and we started meeting at cafés or at my home. At the end of 2007 I brought him to Israel for the first time. I organized his scheduled that included lectures, interviews and meetings with Israeli personalities. He became quite well-known in Israel.

He was assassinated by his enemies. Firstly, the Iranian government whose terrorism he exposed in several countries; also by Iran’s allies in Argentina – violent gangs that are active with impunity, close to the government.

MT:     At the risk of giving away spoilers from your book, can you elaborate a bit on what Nisman had discovered about Iran’s responsibility for the bombing and the Argentine government’s nuclear collusion with Iran?

GP:     Firstly, Nisman attained all the evidence to prove that Iran perpetrated the terror attack. He showed that the dates on which the Iranian “diplomats” flew time and again close to the attack, the money transfers to a terror account in the Deutsche Bank, the phone calls before and after the attack – every single piece matched the big puzzle. We must remember that at the beginning a few Argentine policemen had been incriminated in the attack; therefore Nisman’s exposure of Iran came as a turning point.

On a second stage of his investigation, Nisman demonstrated that the State of Iran was not only the perpetrator of the attack on the Argentine Jewish community, but also the head of a world terror network that still has dormant cells in several countries. These cells are not operating precisely thanks to Nisman’s success in exposing Iran.

In the third and last stage of his investigation he focused on how the Argentine government colluded with the terrorists by whitewashing the ayatollahs in exchange for huge business. This stage was the most dangerous, and tragically his enemies prevailed.

MT:     Do I understand correctly that your book was first published in Argentina? What sort of impact did it have there among readers?

GP:     Indeed, it was published in Buenos Aires in 2009. At that time it was quite successful because people started to understand the true nature of the Iranian aggression. But as soon as Nisman was assassinated the book became an instant bestseller; it is considered foretelling since it refers several times to the life threats on Nisman. Even its title became premonitory.

MT:     What are the lessons for us of the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires? Apart from the terrible loss of life, why is it important to us today?

GP:     The main lesson is that terrorism has to be exposed and fought, not appeased. That with the Iranian regime that exports terror to the world, you don’t negotiate. You defeat its methods and its aim to destroy Israel and to impose on the world the worst face of Islam.

MT:     Countless thousands of Argentine citizens took to the streets to protest the murder of Nisman. Does this encourage you to believe that the government will not be able to suppress the truth, that justice will indeed prevail?

GP:     It was heartening to see almost half a million people under heavy rain under the motto “We are Nisman.” However, I don’t think there is any chance that justice will triumph under the current government. At least we see that people are more and more appreciative that Nisman was a true hero, and that we should emulate his passion, perseverance and courage in the struggle against Islamist terrorism.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 3/24/15)

A “Shark” Adrift Finds His Way Again

Shark Tank star Robert Herjavec is arguably one of television’s most likeable personalities. He is the elegant, gentleman investor audiences love, the counterpoint to gleefully greedy co-star Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary—the business shark whom audiences love to hate. But being a good guy and wildly successful (the tech mogul Herjavec is worth an estimated $100 million) are no insulation against personal pain and despair.
I’ve praised Herjavec on Acculturated before. The 51-year-old is no pushover in the shark tank, but he unfailingly exhibits a class, politeness, and respectfulness that are out-of-sync with the melodrama, selfishness, and immaturity that dominate reality TV. But last year he struggled with his own drama behind the scenes: a divorce from his wife of 24 years. “We were great parents and a great team,” he says, “but over time we drifted apart.”
He recently revealed to People magazine that the breakup hit him hard, and also apparently created a painful rift between him and his three high school- and college-age kids as well. “Everyone has their kryptonite,” Herjavec says. “For me, it was my kids. It took me to a place I never thought I would go.”
That place was the balcony of his hotel room last July, shortly after he and his wife filed for separation, where he claims that late one night he considered jumping. “I just wanted to end it,” he told People. Thankfully, he contacted his pastor John McAuley instead. McAuley’s advice was, “Go to work”—not back at the office, but at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, a shelter that provides “emergency care and long-term recovery services to hurting and homeless people.”
The pastor knew that when you’re wrestling with emotional pain, busying yourself with real purpose helps to drag you out of the echo chamber of self-pity. And no purpose gives you a less self-centered perspective and gets the healing started quite like committing yourself to serving the less fortunate.
Herjavec spent the next two and a half weeks at the downtown Mission. He served food in the soup kitchen (“Nobody knew who I was. People thought I was a recovering addict.”) and went out at night delivering food and other essentials to “this whole world of people living beneath underpasses and under trees, who aren’t well enough to make it into the shelter.” People reports that he even bought out all of a local Walmart’s inventory of socks and passed them out to the homeless. “I think I’ve donated around 100,000 pairs,” he says.
The “suffering and hopelessness” that Herjavec witnessed among the men and women he met in the shelter quickly dwarfed his own. “What was the purpose of all this pain?” he asked himself. In the end, he concluded that his time at the Mission gave him “the opportunity to reconnect with God and to help others.”
“I always used to think that if you are compassionate, you are weak. You see that on our show. This place saved me,” said Herjavec, who reportedly still volunteers at the Union Gospel Mission when he can and helps support it financially. “I was hollow and broken and these people saved my life. And for that I’ll always be grateful.”
It’s easy, and not always wrong, to view pop culture with a cynical eye. Now that Herjavec seems to be dating again, some aren’t buying his suicidal distress and they see his saintly work at the shelter as a PR move. But cynicism has a way of closing you off to real miracles of transformation in people. So until proven otherwise, I accept that the Shark Tank star’s humble gratitude is sincere, and that service to others helped him rediscover purpose.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/23/15)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Starbucks and the State of Our Disunion

It’s admirable when successful business leaders like, say, The Body Shop’s Anita Roddick or Virgin’s Richard Branson place as much emphasis on changing the world as on profits. But Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz may have come up with a socially responsible idea that is likely to fall flat on both scores. Sure, he has good intentions, but we all know where the road paved with those leads.

Schultz has used the company previously as a platform to address marriage equality and gun control. Now he is launching a new campaign at his coffee chain to defuse the powder keg of racial tensions in America by sparking that “national conversation about race” we’ve been hearing about ever since former Attorney General Eric Holder called us “a nation of cowards” for not talking about it. Schultz hopes that this conversation will begin between his baristas and their customers.

“What if we were to write ‘Race Together’ on every Starbucks cup, and that facilitated a conversation between you and our customers?” he explained in a painfully earnest video message to employees and partners. “And what if our customers as a result of that had a renewed level of understanding and sensitivity about the issue, and they themselves would spread that to their own sphere of influence?”

Worthy intentions aside, there are so many things wrong with the mechanics of this initiative that I don’t know where to begin. Who pops into Starbucks with enough time on his or her hands to chat up a barista about what is possibly the most tangled and emotional topic that we wrestle with as a nation? Doesn’t the barista have work to do, other customers to serve? Likewise, doesn’t the customer have a job to get to or a screenplay to write? Aren’t there people waiting in line who are hurrying to work as well?

Even assuming both parties have nothing better to do, how is the employee expected to engage a customer who asks about the “#RaceTogether” hashtag scrawled on his tiramisu frappuccino? What could any barista say that isn’t the most awkward convo-starter ever between strangers at a place of business? “Well sir, we at Starbucks would like to raise your awareness about your unconscious racism.” “Here’s your venti caramel flan latte, ma’am. That ‘#RaceTogether’ on your cup is a reminder to have more empathy for the Ferguson rioters.”

If the ice does get broken, what do we then discuss? Can we talk about black-on-white crime? About the political agendas of those who have a vested interest in inflaming racial tensions? Or is this national conversation going to be limited to lectures about white privilege and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”? It’s an impossibly sensitive and complex subject to broach with a total stranger in the span of a couple of minutes.

The initiative is not mandatory for employees, or I imagine that there would be mass resignations, but I actually pity the coffee-pourer who nonetheless probably feels pressured to have the special insight or moral authority to hold forth with strangers on race relations. It doesn’t help that, in the-customer-is-always-right America, the barista isn’t on equal footing.

Many responded to this business-stifling idea by promising to “race together” to a competitor’s coffee shop from now on. It prompted such a backlash of ridicule on social media that the company’s senior vice president of communications temporarily deleted his Twitter account. That response isn’t because people want to avoid facing the problem; it’s because Americans don’t need or want their coffee cashiers to enlighten them about race, empathy, and tolerance.

Does this country have a racism problem? Yes and no. America is the most inclusive and diverse country on the planet, and too many people forget that or don’t want to acknowledge it. And yet race relations presently seem worse than at any time since the 1960s. There can’t be any adult in the country who isn’t already painfully aware of this and doesn’t have strong opinions about it. As a writer at Fast Company put it, presenting people with the opportunity doesn't necessarily raise awareness of the matter; “it just raises awareness of Starbucks’s awareness.”

Years ago in an interview with Mike Wallace, actor Morgan Freeman was asked how we could solve racism in America. His answer – “Stop talking about it” – is arguably the most insightful advice that has ever been offered about race in America. Freeman wasn’t suggesting that we sweep racism under the rug, but that we quit picking at our racial resentment and simply move forward treating each other as equals.

That’s easier said than done, and it’s a process that will take a generation or two or three of the hard work of rejecting the race-baiters, putting things in the past, and learning to see ourselves as Americans first. In all fairness to Howard Schultz, honest discussion is never a bad thing – just not when a line of customers is behind you itching for their caffeine fix.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/20/15)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Robert Downey Jr., Superhero

Robert Downey Jr. won the internet last Thursday, posting on his Facebook page a touching video of his presentation of an Iron Man-style robotic limb to a young Florida boy born with an underdeveloped arm.

The previous weekend, first-grader Alex Pring, whose right arm ends just above his elbow, was ushered by his parents into an Atlanta hotel room where his mom had told him they would meet with Albert Manero and another specialist working on an upgraded robotic arm for the boy. Manero is a University of Central Florida engineering PhD student who started the volunteer group Limbitless Solutions to make free bionic arms for kids through 3-D printing technology (is there nothing 3-D printing can’t do?). Alex had received his first robotic arm last summer, then later had it upgraded to resemble a Transformers arm.

Alex’s mom wanted to get him one of the bionic limbs because of all the teasing and awkward attention he suffered. “Whenever people saw him, they’d say, ‘What’s wrong with your arm?’” she said. “Now it’s, ‘Your arm is amazing, you’re so cool... It helps educate people to maybe think twice before saying something like, ‘Why are you like that’?”

Albert Manero is something of a superhero himself, considering the life-changing work he is giving to the world for free, but Alex was taken aback to be greeted in the hotel room by his hero Iron Man – or at least, Downey Jr. slipping into his Tony Stark persona. The actor’s subsequent short video captured their meeting. 

In the video we see Downey greet Alex and present him with matching cases marked “Stark Industries” (specially made for the event by the Marvel movie prop master). Downey opens them to reveal identical Iron Man arms, one for Downey from the movies and a working robotic arm for Alex. The boy’s barely suppressed smile is heartwarming.

They try on their arms. “This is even cooler than I thought,” says the star. At the end of the video they fist bump with their mechanical limbs. Afterward, Downey reportedly invited Alex to hang out with him in Atlanta this summer while he films the new Captain America movie, an awesome experience that would make Alex the envy of everyone who might once have teased him.

But Downey came away equally impressed: “Had the absolute privilege of presenting a brand spanking new 3D-printed bionic Iron Man arm to Alex, the most dapper 7-year-old I’ve ever met,” the actor commented on his video, referring to Alex’s red bow tie. “Special thanks to Albert Manero, OneNote, and #‎CollectiveProject for their work making artificial limbs like this more affordable for families with kids who want to show the playground how badass they are,” he continued. “Check out to learn more about this incredible project. #‎goodcause

As of this writing, less than 1o hours after the video was posted, it has accumulated nearly 14 million views. It was also posted by Microsoft, which arranged the meeting as part of its Collective Project campaign, celebrating students working to change the world through technology.

While Manero and his team are the real heroes behind Alex’s arm, it is Downey’s fame that drew attention to the project. This is what superheroes are for: not just saving the world from fictional galactic evil on the big screen, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars for the movie studios, but serving as real world role models and inspiration for their fans. Not coincidentally, this is also what celebrity should be for. Downey’s simple act of kindness to Alex is the sort of gesture that does more good in the world than Iron Man taking out any number of movie villains.

Downey is an inspiration in other ways, too. He has a notoriously troubled past – years of substance abuse, arrests, prison, rehab, and relapse that derailed his first marriage and nearly derailed his career – but he has also worked hard to rise above those troubles, with the help of his current wife Susan, with whom he is, by all reports, happily married and has two children.

Getting his life and career together is an inspirational tale of redemption, but even more inspiring is Downey’s willingness to use his real-world superpower – celebrity – for good.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/19/15)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Dolce & Gabbana under Fire for Defending the Traditional Family

The fashion community and its celebrity devotees see themselves as free-thinking, liberal-minded individuals, but in fact, artistic types tend to cling to politically correct groupthink. So when one of their number goes against the grain on a particular issue, the others often unite in disproportionate outrage.

In a recent interview with the Italian magazine Panorama, designer icons Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana drew protests from the gay community with their declaration that “the only family is the traditional one.” Children born through artificial insemination or egg donors are “children of chemistry, synthetic children,” said Dolce. “Uteruses for rent, semen chosen from a catalog.” Procreation “must be an act of love.”

“The family is not a fad,” Gabbana told the interviewer. “In it there is a supernatural sense of belonging… Life has its natural course, there are things that must not be changed. And one of these is the family.”

This outspoken defense of the traditional family unit sparked swift disapproval. In an article entitled, “Dolce and Gabbana Launch Tirade Against ‘Nontraditional Families’,” the gay news magazine The Advocate condemned the designers for this “salvo against equality… a rant against so-called nontraditional families.” Of course, the interview comments were neither a tirade nor a rant, but labeling them as such, and as a “salvo against equality,” helped pump up the outrage in its readers.

Things escalated from there. The website LGBT News Italia called for a boycott of D&G. Sir Elton John, who has two children with partner David Furnish, called for one as well on Instagram:

How dare you refer to my beautiful children as “synthetic.” And shame on you for wagging your judgmental little fingers at IVF – a miracle that has allowed legions of loving people, both straight and gay, to fulfil their dream of having children. Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions. I shall never wear Dolce and Gabbana ever again. #BoycottDolceGabbana”

Other celebs jumped on the bandwagon. Ricky Martin accused the pair of “spreading H8.” Courtney Love tweeted that she was “beyond words and emotions” and planned to burn her D&G collection. Glee creator Ryan Murphy, declared of D&G that “Their clothes are as ugly as their hate.”

That’s all just a bit too harsh. Dolce and Gabbana have the right to express their opinion and others have the right to disagree. But dismissing that opinion as “ugly hate” is nothing but a smear tactic to end debate and to demonize one’s opponent (as Gabbana said of Elton’s comment, “this is the real respect for a different opinion????”).

D&G could have chosen their wording more carefully – the phrase “synthetic children,” for example, was bound to inspire offense in parents who are unable to conceive naturally. And raising children – biological or otherwise – is the real act of love, not procreation. But it isn’t as if the designers are anti-gay or ant-IVF activists. They were simply expressing their personal viewpoint in the course of an interview, and things got blown out of proportion from there.

It’s not the first time that the torches-and-pitchforks crowd has targeted D&G. Back in 2006, Gabbana caused a similar stir by announcing to the Daily Mail that “I am opposed to the idea of a child growing up with two gay parents. A child needs a mother and a father.”

This more recent controversy came on the heels of D&G’s presentation of their fall/winter line at Milan Fashion Week, in which they celebrated pregnancy and motherhood. The show was called “Viva la mamma!” and featured runway models – at least one of which was pregnant –with young children, toddlers, and babies, to the accompaniment of the Spice Girls’ ballad “Mama.” The designers’ unabashed respect for motherhood and their joyful inclusion of children was a refreshing change from the usual dour parades of self-absorbed, hipper-than-thou models.

In response to the boycott threats, Dolce tried to make peace: “I am very well aware of the fact that there are other types of families and they are as legitimate as the one I’ve known,” he wrote. In his own statement, Gabbana said that “it was never our intention to judge other people’s choices.”

A boycott likely would be short-lived and have little financial impact on the iconoclastic billionaires. Nonetheless, Dolce and Gabbana aren’t prescribing their beliefs for others; they shouldn’t have to be ostracized or demonized for their right to prefer the traditional family unit like the ones they grew up among in heavily Catholic Italy. Surely they and Elton John can agree on the importance of a two-parent household and that the children’s best interests come first.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/18/15)

Forgiveness for a Fashion Faux Pas

There is arguably no group of people on earth more tone-deaf about their own privilege and wealth than the denizens of the high fashion world. They often can’t comprehend the disconnect of highly-paid models in impossibly expensive designer wear posing in slums, or runway shows featuring homeless chic, or poverty-stricken people in exotic locales serving as props or ambience in photo shoots. The cluelessness is painful to witness.

Enter 32-year-old German princess Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis, Vogue’s style editor-at-large. TNT, as she is called, exposed herself as seriously out-of-touch with the commoners last weekend by posting an Instagram pic of a homeless woman surrounded by her bagged possessions, sitting under a dirty blanket on the street before a metal-shuttered storefront – and reading Vogue.

Von Thurn und Taxis, who was in the City of Lights for fashion week, blithely commented on the pic, “Paris is full of surprises. . . and @voguemagazine readers even in unexpected corners!” Needless to say, this failed to amuse some Instagram followers. “I think this comment was made in poor taste. Shame on you,” wrote one. “This photo is cruel,” added another.

Hard to imagine that TNT couldn’t see for herself how insensitive it was, especially once her followers began calling her out on it; nevertheless, her initial response to the criticism was to double down on her ugly snobbishness on Instagram: “OMG calm down. Even the homeless are allowed to have good taste.” Wow., which has been critical of the princess’ “veritable treasure trove of absurdly elitist quotes” on social media, shared the (now-deleted) photo and observed, “The things she writes, both in Vogue and on social media, often straddle the line between entertaining/aspirational and disturbingly out of touch. On Saturday she crossed that line.” Indeed.

Finally the burgeoning bad press spurred the fox-hunting socialite to do some damage control. The following day she seemed to seek forgiveness on Instagram: “I wanted to extend my sincerest apologies for the offense my post has caused. Yours truly, Elisabeth.”

Now, I don’t subscribe to our politically correct cultural expectation that the rich and famous who have been caught shaming themselves automatically owe groveling mea culpae to strangers on the internet. Though their behavior may have been offensive, it wasn’t directed at us and we wouldn’t even know about it if it weren’t for our obsession with the inconsequential daily comings and goings of celebrities that we’ve never met.

But depending on the nature of their “offense,” public figures can serve as positive role models in terms of rectifying their public blunders and displaying qualities like humility, gratitude, and service to others. I have no problem with the fact that Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis enjoys a life of luxury, but sometimes people who are born into that, as she was, take their good fortune for granted and are in serious need of some perspective.

I don’t know what is in TNT’s heart. Perhaps her reputation as “disturbingly out of touch” is undeserved. Perhaps it is deserved, but the pushback she has received about her insensitivity prompted her to do some soul-searching. I am skeptical though; her brief and formal apology strikes me as more of a perfunctory attempt at a PR fix than a sincere request for forgiveness.

It is less important that the princess apologizes for “offending” her Instagram followers than that she acknowledges that her remark was demeaning to the poor, that it was thoughtless at best and mean-spirited at worst, and that it reflected badly on her, her employers at Vogue, and on the industry itself. If she really wanted to display some newfound compassion and set a dramatic example, she could try to locate the homeless woman in the photo and get her some assistance, or in some other way use her position and influence to draw attention to the issues of poverty and homelessness – addressing the problem of abusive sweatshops, for example.

That might be too much to expect, but she would be earning forgiveness and perhaps giving her cohorts in the fashion biz some much-needed perspective in the process.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/16/15)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Spock and the Return to Paradise

In a scene from the 1991 movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, a character asks the Vulcan science officer Spock about a painting on the wall of his living quarters. “It’s a depiction from ancient Earth mythology,” he explains, “‘The Expulsion from Paradise.’” Why does he keep it? “As a reminder to me,” Spock replies, “that all things end.”
Recently the life of Leonard Nimoy, the 83-year-old actor behind the pop culture icon Spock, came to an end. Nimoy, who did indeed live long and prosper, was a film director, poet, singer, photographer, and of course, actor; but it is the pointy-eared, Vulcan apotheosis of logic with whom he will forever be associated. Fans who grew up with the original Star Trek television series, as I did, or who came to know him through the show’s movie franchise, all felt the loss of one of the familiar touchstones of our youth.
“The Expulsion from Paradise,” or “Adam et Eve chassés du Paradis,” may hang on a Star Fleet officer’s wall in the distant future, but it currently resides in a museum in Nice. It is a beautiful image by painter Marc Chagall, the prolific French Jew whose work is shot through with joyful mysticism and Biblical imagery. The half-century-old painting is a dreamlike vision of the first man and woman being banished from the Garden of Eden. For Spock, this image of the end of the original paradise serves as amemento mori, a humbling reminder of the transience of all things, including us.
Coming to terms with the inevitability of our own death is, as philosopher Roger Scruton says, the most difficult trial human beings face. The end will come no matter how—or even whether—we choose to face it; our only freedom lies in finding serenity about it beforehand, says Scruton. Spock seems to have dealt with it by cultivating a certain detachment about death, which the Chagall helped him keep foremost in mind.
Whether or not Leonard Nimoy managed a similarly detached calm about his mortality, I don’t know. Like Chagall, Nimoy was powerfully influenced by Judaism (the famous split-fingered Vulcan salute, for example, derives from his Jewish origins). Like Spock, Nimoy’s rational and mystical sides wrestled. Although the title of volume one of his autobiography—I Am Not Spock—mistakenly led people to believe that he resented being associated with the Star Trek character, he actually had a deep identification with Spock, and he attempted to correct the misunderstanding surrounding the first book with volume two entitled, I Am Spock. So the dialogue quoted above may be as much a reflection of Nimoy’s attitude as of Spock’s.
But do all things come to an end, as Spock said? Perhaps it is truer to say that all thingschange. Death is a change, not an end—or as Scruton puts it, death is a return, a “transcendental homecoming” to the paradise to which we long to return.
Leonard Nimoy died at home. I hope that he departed on his transcendental homecoming with the same peace and equanimity with which his character contemplated the Chagall on his wall.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/9/15)

Tsarnaev’s Lawyers Will Paint Him as Victim

Nearly two years after three people were murdered and over 260 injured by a pair of pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line, the accused Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will go on trial for his life. His guilt is not in question but his attorneys will try to depict the (then) 19-year-old as the victim of his older brother Tamerlan’s influence.

Tsarnaev faces 30 charges in the bombings and the assassination days later of a police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Seventeen of the charges carry the possibility of the death penalty. His older brother Tamerlan died in a shootout with the police.

The Boston Herald reports that, in a sideshow bid for sympathy from the jury, Tsarnaev’s legal team plans to tow into court the entire 24-foot boat in which the fugitive was captured, so that the jury can appreciate the “context” of that April night in 2013. His attorneys want them to picture their poor client fearing for his life inside its blood-stained, bullet-riddled hull as the target of an intense manhunt. “You can imagine Mr. Tsarnaev lying in the boat as one might lie in a crypt,” said defense attorney William Fick.

What the jurors should imagine is Tsarnaev’s victims lying in crypts while their surviving family members grieve. “The bomb tore large chunks of flesh out of [8-year-old] Martin Richard,” said the prosecutor in his opening statement today, and the boy bled to death on the sidewalk as his mother looked on helplessly. Martin’s 7-year-old sister lost her leg. His father has significant hearing loss (many of the victims have perforated eardrums), and his mother lost vision in one eye. A close friend of the family stated that “the loss of Martin for the Richards is heartbreaking, and it leaves scars that will absolutely never heal. It tears their heart out, and nothing is ever going to make it right.”

Perhaps the jurors should imagine what that’s like instead of taking pity on the 19-year-old jihadist who planted one of the bombs mere feet away from the Richards family, and then, as the prosecutor told the jury today, stayed to watch the carnage, then calmly bought milk at a nearby Whole Foods, went back to school, and played video games.

Or perhaps the jurors could consider 29-year-old Krystle Campbell, who was also killed in the bombing. A friend who lost her leg that day tearfully testified today that she remembers being hoisted into the air and thrown back by the bomb blast. When she looked down at her leg, “my bones were literally laying next to me on the sidewalk.” Her friend Krystle “very slowly said that her legs hurt,” and the two held hands. “Shortly after that, her hand went limp in mine, and she never spoke again.”

Perhaps the jurors could reserve a little sympathy too for Krystle’s mother and father, who clung to hope for 15 hours that their daughter might be saved in surgery, only to discover that that patient was not Krystle, who had already died. “A parent should never have to bury a child because the hardest thing any parent has to go through is to lose a child,” said the father. “I don’t care if it’s newborn, 6 years, 30 years or 40 years. It’s very difficult.”

The jurors might also consider 23-year-old grad student Linzi Lu, whose life was also cut short by the Tsarnaev brothers. Her family still struggles with the grief. “Even little things can bring it all back,” her aunt said. “It’s been very hard, very emotional.”

MIT police officer Sean Collier, 27, was ambushed and shot in cold blood for his gun a few days later by the Tsarnaevs. “Sean was taken from us in a moment of extreme evil,” said a friend, “but that instant has never defined how we remember him on this campus.” 

Here is a list of the severe injuries suffered by the 264 wounded in the blasts, whose lives also will never be the same. Sixteen people lost limbs and at least 3 more lost multiple limbs. And yet Tsarnaev’s defense team wants the jurors to take pity on the poor fugitive who helped wreak that havoc.

Defense attorney David Bruck said the team intends to show that the younger brother’s motive “may well have been the defendant’s domination by, love for, adoration of, submissiveness to… his older brother.” Hopefully the jury understands that children often adore their older siblings but stop short of setting off bombs full of ball bearings and carpenter’s nails at crowded events in a bid for their love and attention. Also, the younger Tsarnaev was not a child. He was 19, and if you’re old enough to do the crime, you’re old enough to do the time.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Weinreb of the prosecution noted that the defense team’s boat sideshow is a naked plea for sympathy and a suggestion that law enforcement went after the poor boy with unnecessary force: “It’s fair to say what the defense really wants is for the jury to see a boat riddled with bullets,” he said.

But the prosecution would like the jurors to see the boat as well, or at least the jihadist messages Tsarnaev scrawled inside the boat in his own blood: “Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.” “We Muslims are one body. You kill one of us, you hurt us all.” Not to mention the references to Allah and martyrdom.

As the trial’s opening statements got underway today, Weinreb described Tsarnaev as “a soldier in a holy war against Americans” who was radicalized over a two-year period and believed that the U.S. was an enemy of Muslims. “He also believed that by winning that victory, he had taken a step toward reaching paradise. That was his motive for committing these crimes.”

In her opening statement today, defense attorney Judy Clarke said that her team will not “sidestep” her client’s responsibility, but they plan to portray Tamerlan as the mastermind. She showed the jury a younger photo of Dzhokhar and claimed that she will show how he went “from this to this.”

“The evidence will not establish and we will not argue that Tamerlan put a gun to Dzhokhar's head or that he forced him to join in the plan,” she said, “but you will hear evidence about the kind of influence that this older brother had.”

Clarke has saved a number of high-profile clients from the death penalty, including Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and Gabrielle Giffords shooter Jared Loughner. But perhaps this time the jury will recognize her client’s evil for what it is, and do the right thing.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Magazine, 3/5/15)

Sharyl Attkisson, author of 'Stonewalled'

I'll be introducing former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel this Thursday March 12th. She will be speaking about her book Stonewalled and the Obama administration's obstruction and intimidation of journalists.

See more about this David Horowitz Freedom Center event here.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

‘Cheers’ Actor: Bring Back Shop Class to Teach Self-Reliance

There was a time, before college became accessible to all and the computer revolution transformed our economy, when all American schoolboys were required to take shop class (the girls took home ec). But today, “shop class is dead,” declares Forbes, “and so are the potential tradespeople that would be born out of that early exposure to a tool or machine.” One celebrity understands how far-reaching is the impact of that loss, and he has undertaken to revive shop class and the spirit of self-reliance that it fostered.

Actor John Ratzenberger may not be a household name, but as Cliff Claven, the trivia buff mailman and Norm’s bar buddy on the long-running Cheers, he was a still-familiar face on one of the most-loved sitcoms in television history. That was just one role in Ratzenberger’s very lengthy acting résumé that more recently includes voiceover work in literally every Pixar animated film to date (Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, the Toy Story franchise, etc.).

In the real world, Ratzenberger is now behind an initiative to bring back shop class to middle schools and high schools across America. The aim is to re-instill the fading virtue of self-reliance to young students who have grown up at ease with the latest high-tech games and gadgets, but who are utterly helpless when faced with a common problem like a leaky pipe or electrical short.

On the Fox News Channel’s Your World last weekend, host Neil Cavuto introduced John Ratzenberger as a man who wants to get America “back to making things and not just buying things.” The actor told Cavuto that America was “built by people who knew how to use tools. That’s what brought us to the dance.” But “this is the first generation in the history of the world that has been raised not knowing how to use tools. So we’re in jeopardy.”

When Cavuto asked what was the use these days of taking shop, Ratzenberger replied that “It makes you a more well-rounded human being, more capable and self-reliant if you can fix your own screen door.” That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to make a career out of working with your hands, he adds, but the basic skills you develop in shop class are indispensable in our daily lives.

(As an aside, I was reminded of the dinner party scene in an episode of Mad Men in which 1960s ad man Don Draper strips off his dress shirt to deal with a spraying leak in the kitchen faucet. “Look, it’s Superman,” says one of the admiring wives. While fellow exec Pete is still digging around in the toolbox, Don reaches under the sink and fixes the leak, to the applause of all present. That scene perfectly reflects the manual competence and self-reliance that the man’s man Don acquired during a hard-luck youth, and that distinguish him from his less handy, more upper-crust colleagues.)

If you do choose to pursue a trade, Ratzenberger continued, “there’s a lot of jobs in manufacturing right now, a lot of jobs in construction, and there’s nobody to fill ‘em because we neglected to teach our children how to use tools and we’ve denigrated the image of manufacturing.”

Part of the problem is an increasing emphasis in recent decades on college and “knowledge jobs” over apprenticeship and manual labor. Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe – another celebrity who understands the value of skilled labor – once testified before the Senate Commerce Committee that “in a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a ‘good job’ into something that no longer looks like work.” And the result is an America that less and less resembles the self-reliant country that built itself into the world’s preeminent superpower.

To address this, Ratzenberger personally donated one million dollars to his project called the National Educational Initiative. The NEI promotes the joys of working with your hands to students who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity for hands-on experience, so to speak, making or repairing things. It recently kicked off in Georgia, and Ratzenberger hopes to take it state by state across the entire country.

The NEI is part of Ratzenberger’s Foundation for America, which “exists to educate and prepare American workers, manufacturers, educators, innovators and leaders for an American manufacturing renaissance.” Its goal is to help “put more Americans to work, produce more American-made products, spark innovation, grow the economy and re-establish America’s rightful place as the greatest producer of intellect, products and people the world has ever known.” Reinstating shop classes in our schools lays the groundwork for that.

In the compelling Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew B. Crawford writes about the dignity and satisfaction of manual work that actually produces something of worth, as opposed to an information economy job shuffling papers in a cubicle: “A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world.” At a time when many Americans are yearning for meaningful work but are beginning to question the necessity of a college education, John Ratzenberger’s campaign could help regenerate respect for the honest labor of skilled tradespeople, and reinvigorate this nation’s do-it-yourself spirit of old.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/3/15