Friday, May 29, 2015

Woody Allen’s Existential Void

While at the 68th annual Cannes film festival recently promoting his newest film, director Woody Allen took the opportunity in an interview to expound upon his personal philosophy. For those who still consider Allen a comedian and filmmaker of mostly comedies, his worldview will no doubt seem surprisingly grim.
Allen acknowledged that he “had to be a comic filmmaker because that’s where my gifts were,” but he “had always wanted to be a serious filmmaker” like Ingmar Bergman. And by serious he means depressing:
No matter how much the philosophers talk to you or the priests or the psychiatrists, the bottom line… is life has its own agenda and it runs right over you while you’re prattling. We’re all going to wind up in a very bad position someday. The same position, but a bad one.
No argument there. Life does have a habit of steamrolling over the best-laid plans of mice and men, and we are all going to end up dead. But for Allen, the bad news doesn’t stop there:
In the end it has no meaning. We live in a random universe and you’re living a meaningless life, and everything you create in your life or do is going to vanish, and the Earth will vanish and the sun will burn out and the universe will be gone.
All the great Western philosophers, he said, felt that “too much reality is too much to bear.” And so the way we bear it is, “you turn on a baseball game or you watch a Fred Astaire movie or you do something that distracts you” from this grim truth. “That’s what I do,” says Allen. “I distract myself. Making movies is a wonderful distraction.” Filmmaking, or even watching films, “is a nice thing to keep you busy. I’m not thinking about my death, the decaying of my body, that I will be old – one day – in the very distant future,” said the 79-year-old.
Similarly, for his actors, acting is their distraction:
They’re worried about their part. If they weren’t doing that they’d be home or sitting on a beach… and they’d be thinking, “My God, what is life about? I’m going to be alone, I’m going to die, my loved ones are going to die. Will I get Ebola?”
The problem with this perspective is that, in a universe devoid of meaning or consequences, it is all too easy to see oneself as the ultimate arbiter of morality, or to reject morality altogether.
One could speculate that this nihilistic worldview is the driving force behind some of Allen’s movies like Match Point and his latest, Irrational Man, in which his protagonists believe themselves to be above morality – beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche might say.
The “existential comedy-drama” Irrational Man, for example, is centered on a college philosophy professor (played by the brilliant but weird Joaquin Phoenix) who finds meaning in his bleak existence after eavesdropping on a conversation in a diner leads him to concoct the perfect crime. “This is the meaningful act I was searching for!” he passionately explains to his co-star Emma Stone.
I was reminded of the shocking film The Vanishing (the original Dutch-French film, not the Hollywood remake starring Jeff Bridges – neither directed by Allen), in which the lead character carries out a kidnapping and murder simply in order to feel the godlike power of life and death over his victim.
While this Nietzschean theme may make for a darkly chilling movie experience, it’s also a very empty, disturbing one. It’s certainly Woody Allen’s right as an artist to explore such a theme, but ultimately the result is not merely a failure as distraction, but a moral failure as well.
It’s also easy to speculate that his philosophy may be behind the disturbing sexual controversies in Allen’s own real life. After all, if there is no ultimate source of morality and no meaning to your existence or actions, if there is no point to our lives except to fill them with distractions to pass the time, if any consequences are eventually going to be obliterated by the sun swallowing the earth, then what’s the point of abiding by moral boundaries? It is then a very short step to the guilt-free pursuit of distractions that satisfy your worst impulses.
Perhaps it’s unfair to read that into Allen’s personal life. Perhaps not. But how different Allen’s life and work might have been if he had long ago rejected the nihilism that says we and the universe we inhabit are nothing but a void.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/26/15

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What Memorial Day is About

Last Friday, as the week downshifted into the Memorial Day three-day holiday, the official Twitter account of the Democratic Party wished the country a “Happy Memorial Day weekend, everyone!” and tweeted a pic of – whom else? – President Obama lapping at an ice cream cone while media lapdogs zoomed their cameras in to capture the photo op. CNN anchor Jake Tapper injected a note of perspective by tweeting back, “Respectfully, @TheDemocrats, this is not what Memorial Day weekend is about.”
Indeed it is not, but for Barack Obama, of course, everything is about Barack Obama. And for the Democratic party, everything is about selling the American people a crock of big-government idolatry, and so they followed up the Obama photo with tweets about a 15% off holiday sale at their website store – because nothing memorializes the men and women of our armed forces who paid the ultimate price for their country quite like a discounted “I Heart O’bama” Shamrock Lapel Sticker or a “Like a Boss” POTUS t-shirt.
This all came in the wake of the fall of Ramadi in Iraq to the demonic forces of ISIS – you know, the JV team that has absolutely nothing to do with Islam. In the early years of the war in Iraq, more American lives were lost in the intense fighting to secure the province of Anbar, which includes Ramadi and Fallujah, than anywhere else in the country.
Now our warriors who survived that fighting, and the families and friends of those who didn’t, are watching ISIS reclaim Iraq and are wondering what that sacrifice was for. It makes the loss of their loved ones and brothers-in-arms painful all over again. But not to worry – Obama has declared the fall of Ramadi a mere “minor setback”; meanwhile he and the Democratic party, who have worked assiduously to undermine America’s war efforts and to gut our military, urge you to celebrate a “Happy Memorial Day!” and enjoy your ice cream and BBQ.
In the very same month in 2004 when American warriors faced escalated attacks in Ramadi and Fallujah, my 81-year-old father Roger E. Tapson, a former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant and veteran of World War II, died in Sherman, Texas. He was buried near a small lake in the rolling, pastoral grounds of the Dallas-Ft. Worth National Cemetery alongside thousands of other veterans. There, those veterans, as poet Stephen Spender might say, are “feted by the waving grass, and by the streamers of white cloud, and whispers of wind in the listening sky.”
That cemetery is exactly the kind of place my dad would have described – without a hint of New Age devaluation of the word – as “spiritual.” It was the way I once heard him describe a still, brisk, early autumn morning on a gorgeously wooded golf course, his favorite place to be.
Spiritual indeed. To stand in a military cemetery among the unadorned, uniform white markers that stretch out in precise rows like an army-in-waiting, is to feel a spiritually heightened quality to your surroundings that demands humility, gratitude, and a more solemn reverence. You can feel that – to quote Spender once again – the fallen warriors have “left the vivid air signed with their honor.”
This is not to diminish the final resting place of anyone interred in civilian burial grounds, but the “vivid air” of a military cemetery is undeniably suffused with something extra, because it’s not merely a graveyard, but a memorial to qualities that constitute the best of humanity – honor, courage, dignity, service and sacrifice – and to warriors who once embodied them. Their grave markers stand as a challenge to those of us who remain.
Honor, courage, dignity, service, sacrifice – how many of us civilians can say that we commit to embodying those qualities in our daily lives? How many of us can say we are truly tested, body and soul, ever, much less on a daily basis, the way that the men and women of our military have been, and continue to be? How many of us can say we are ready and willing to do what is required for our country and our fellow Americans, even at the cost of our lives? Precious few if any, I would guess, and we civilians are all the lesser mortals for it.
That makes us all the more fortunate that there are Americans who can and do rise to that challenge on front lines around the world. It takes a special person to embrace that responsibility and earn a uniform of the United States armed forces, and it takes a special family – warriors too in their own way (“they also serve who only stand and wait,” as John Milton wrote) – to support their loved one from the home front.
That is why Memorial Day is not about ice cream and BBQs. It’s certainly not about Barack Obama, a man who has done more to diminish America’s standing, power, and military than any single figure in American history. It’s not a time to celebrate. It's a day to be humbled and grateful that the men and women of the United States military have the rare and noble qualities it takes to be a sword between us and America’s enemies – when our government officials let them. It’s a time to honor the warriors who have purchased our freedom and rights and prosperity with their lives.
And this year in particular, it’s a time to meditate on the challenge that those fallen veterans have left us civilians: the challenge to do our part, to earn what our veterans have handed us, and to be warriors ourselves on the home front, so that their hard-won victories and sacrifices were not for nothing.
(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 5/25/15)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Pulling the Plug on Revenge Porn

Revenge porn is one of the darker sides of our high-tech age. It’s the act of humiliating and extorting women, often former lovers (hence the “revenge” part) by stealing and posting their nude and/or sexually explicit photos and videos online. And it’s all over the news lately.
In the last week alone:
A judge ruled that New York Jets linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, charged with invasion of privacy for distributing naked photos of a woman, cannot enter a program that would allow for a conviction to be wiped from his record.
An Oklahoma man pleaded no contest to charges of extortion, attempted extortion and conspiracy that could net him six years in prison. He operated a website that encouraged visitors to post nude photos of “your ex-girlfriend, your current girlfriend, or any other girl that you might know.” He then charged the women to have the photos removed.
A New Hampshire man was sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison for posting sexually explicit photos of his ex-girlfriend.
Charlie Evens is facing criminal charges for hacking into women’s email accounts and stealing nude photos for Hunter Moore, the king of revenge porn and “the most hated man on the Internet.” Moore raked in upwards of $30,000 a month by posting the photos and information about the women in them on his website. Evens, who did it for the money, said “It was really sh*tty and really sick, and I felt horrible… It’s just scary how quickly I would drop my morals for so little.”
Lawmakers in Nevada, Vermont, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina are the latest of dozens of states that either have criminalized revenge porn, or are in the process of doing so.
The phrase “revenge porn” itself even earned a spot as one of the latest additions to’s lexicon.
This disturbed and hateful act has ruined the lives of many of its victims, who have lost jobs and families, money and reputations. The social and psychological cost is devastating. One woman now named Holly Jacobs, after having her world turned upside down for 3 ½ years, decided to fight back by creating a support and activism site called
What to do about revenge porn? While the growing criminalization of it sounds like a good start, legal remedies are problematic for a number of reasons; even calls them “a bad idea.” And legal recourse is useful only after the damage has been done.
For those who have already been victimized by it, Holly Jacobs encourages them to reclaim their dignity and power by speaking out about their experiences. But for those who haven’t yet been targeted, the best possible advice for women to avoid ending up in flagrante delicto all over the internet permanently is: don’t film yourself having sex.
But wait, you say – isn’t that essentially blaming the victim? Isn’t that like telling women to avoid rape by not dressing provocatively? Why should the burden be on the woman to protect herself? Shouldn’t we instead be teaching men not to abuse their former lovers’ privacy by posting intimate videos and pictures of them online, just as we should be teaching men not to rape? Why shouldn’t a woman have the right to film herself having sex free from any fear that it will someday be used against her?
Well, women do have that right, but in the real world, there is no guarantee that they can exercise that right consequence-free. There is no need to teach men that revenge porn is wrong (and increasingly illegal) – they already know it is, but some men will do it anyway, just as men know rape is wrong and illegal, but some men do it regardless. People should always do the right thing, but they don’t – particularly when consumed by anger, jealousy and the pain of rejection.
The cold, hard fact is that recording yourself naked and/or having sex leaves you vulnerable to being exposed to the public, no matter what lengths you go to to protect your images. Just as no form of birth control can absolutely guarantee that you won’t become pregnant, nothing can guarantee that you won’t be hacked or robbed or fall prey to a jilted lover who decides to get even by humiliating you and even ruining your life – nothing except not giving anyone the ammunition to use against you in the first place.
In the western world, sexuality and technology feed on each other and give rise to new extremes of narcissism and voyeurism that couldn’t have been imagined a generation ago, maybe even ten years ago. Porn has essentially gone mainstream thanks in large part to the internet. We share the intimate details of our lives on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on. We sext our lovers, record our sex on smartphones, store our intimate photos on laptops – all of which are vulnerable to being plucked from the virtual ether and distributed among strangers worldwide.
If you don’t want to be victimized in a very public way, protect your privacy by partially unplugging from this brave new world. Don’t surrender to the current of a culture that is becoming increasingly sexualized and decreasingly private. Technology and intimacy don’t mix. It’s time to reset the boundaries between our sex lives and the technology that has crept into bed with us.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/13/15)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

‘Unbroken’: Great Book, Morally Empty Movie

Last weekend I finally had the chance to see the Angelina Jolie-directed movie Unbroken, now out on DVD. I’ve been eager to see it ever since reading the inspirational bestselling book by Laura Hillenbrand on which it was based. But as most people will agree, a movie is almost never as good as its book, and unfortunately, that’s true of Unbroken as well.
Unbroken is about the extraordinary true life story of Louie Zamperini, an American Olympic runner whose bomber ditched in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, stranding him and a fellow flyer on a life raft for an astonishing 47 days. At one point during the ordeal he despairs so greatly that he promises to devote his life to God if only He will allow him to survive.
Finally the two flyboys, both on the verge of starvation, are “rescued” by the Japanese and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. There Louie becomes the obsession of a particularly sadistic camp guard named Watanabe, who is hell-bent on breaking the strong-willed American. He doesn’t, though he pushes Louie to the point of fantasizing about killing him. Eventually the war ends and Louie returns home to his loving family, unbowed and unbroken.
Moment by moment it’s a riveting film, but something feels missing overall. The movie’s theme – “if you can take it, you can make it” – is an encouraging catchphrase but not especially inspirational or uplifting. Louie certainly exhibits grit and defiance, but survival alone doesn’t seem like enough of a triumph to hang a $65 million movie on.
So what’s missing? The book Unbroken is subtitled “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption”; in the film, there most assuredly is a lot of survival and resilience – but where is the redemption? In title cards before the movie’s credits roll, the audience is told:
After years of severe post-traumatic stress, Louie made good on his promise to serve God, a decision he credits with saving his life. Motivated by his faith, Louie came to see that the way forward was not revenge, but forgiveness.
Wait, what? There sounds like a great deal more to Louie’s story than his relentless will to live that we saw onscreen. And if you read the book, then you know that there is a great deal more: Louie’s struggle with alcoholism, his murderous anger toward Watanabe, his Billy Graham-inspired conversion to Christianity (which you can read about here, although I highly recommend the whole book itself), and his ultimate epiphany that, as the title card says, forgiving his captors, even the vicious Watanabe, trumps killing them in revenge.
Disappointingly, none of that made the transition to the big screen version except in the brief mention prior to the credits. Granted, filmmakers can’t cram a whole book into a 2-hour movie, but Angelia Jolie’s choice to limit the story to Louie’s survival of external challenges misses an opportunity to depict what might have been his more compelling internal victories.
I was reminded of two similar films that are more complex and thought-provoking than Unbroken. The first is a fascinating little 1983 film called Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, starring singer David Bowie in another true-life adaptation as a WWII prisoner in a Japanese camp. Like Louie Zamperini, Bowie’s character was the focus of an obsessive officer named Yonoi (played by one of my favorite film composers, Oscar-winner Ryuichi Sakamoto, who won the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music for the film’s soundtrack).  But it’s less a film about survival than the clash of Eastern and Western concepts of honor and discipline.
Even better is To End All Wars, a 2001 movie written by my close friend Brian Godawa and starring Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Carlyle. This movie too was an adaptation of a true World War II story about Allied prisoners in a brutal Japanese work camp, but its spiritual insights transcend Unbroken’s more humanistic message. As Philip Yancey put it in Christianity Today,
To a man, the prisoners clung to the desperate hope that their life would not end in a jungle prison but would resume, after liberation, back in Scotland or London or wherever they called home. Yet, even if it did not, they would endeavor to build a community of faith and compassion in the days they had left. For them, God was more certain than death.
It’s an underappreciated but extraordinarily moving tale of sacrifice, redemption, hope and forgiveness whose emotional power utterly dwarfs that of the movie version of Unbroken. If you haven’t yet seen the latter, read the book instead and hunt down To End All Wars.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/5/15)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Bill Ayers and the Legacy of ‘60s Radicals in Education

On the evening of May 7 at the Luxe Hotel in Los Angeles, Dr. Mary Grabar, who taught college English for 20 years and has been writing about education for the last 10 years, will discuss the influence of 1960s radical Bill Ayers and his comrades, and offer strategies for fighting it.

Mary Grabar was born in Slovenia but her parents took her and fled the communist regime to Rochester, New York. She went on to teach in colleges and universities in Georgia for 20 years, earning a Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia in 2002.

Today she is a dissident to the reigning political correctness on our college campuses. She came to conservatism after witnessing the deliberate destruction of our literary heritage and our respect for the West and for the United States by radical professors in her graduate seminars. In 2011 she founded the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., dedicated to “resisting the re-education of America.”
I recently posed to Ms. Grabar some questions about her book and the upcoming presentation.

Mark Tapson: Tell us about your own experience as a professor surrounded by radical colleagues on campus.

Mary Grabar:          That’s the subject of another book I published under the Dissident Prof imprint called Exiled: Stories from Conservative and Moderate Professors Who Have Been Ridiculed, Ostracized, Marginalized, Demonized, and Frozen Out. I was inspired to start Dissident Prof after I came out as a conservative in graduate school (actually the disdain for literature that I saw in graduate school compelled my conversion). I started writing about my experiences, and getting emails from others who were in similar positions—others who had not been able to get tenure track jobs but were schlepping around from campus to campus as I was, and teaching the labor intensive introductory courses for a pittance.

In my field, English, it’s about impossible to keep your political views to yourself because in order to be considered for any tenure-track position you are required to do scholarship that denies any value in the study of literature other than as a tool to root out racism, sexism, able-ism, species-ism, and all the other categories that follow the Marxist line. In the offices, hallways, mailrooms, and parties, you’re expected to take the party line when the topic turns to politics. So if someone is singing the praises of Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren, your silence is taken as admission that you might be a Republican!

I’ve found myself suddenly without classes in an upcoming semester when one of my pieces of writing became known to a department chair or the college president. But it doesn’t seem that Bill Ayers or his Weatherman comrades had any trouble landing tenure-track jobs, does it?

I am fortunate. My last semester of teaching was in the spring of 2013, in the former privately-funded Program in American Citizenship and Democracy at Emory University.  I also taught at state universities and a community college. I am now a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.

MT:     What compelled you to write a book about Bill Ayers?

MG:    Back in 2009 Ayers and his wife (“partner” as he prefers to call her) Bernardine Dohrn came out with a book called Race Course against White Supremacy and I wrote about it. I vaguely knew about Ayers’ past with the Weather Underground, but then started looking into what are taken to be his scholarly books. I saw that he was doing the same thing to K-12 education through colleges of education that was being done to higher education. I wrote a couple of reports on him for America’s Survival. It was at one of their conferences that I met the late Larry Grathwohl, who infiltrated the Weather Underground as an FBI informant. He confirmed for me what a despicable, cowardly person Ayers is. 

I was reading news articles about Ayers’ talks at colleges and high schools and noticed that reporters never questioned his credentials. The line was always that Ayers went overboard in his youth protesting the Vietnam War but had settled down to a respectable career as an education professor. That line continues to this day. I flinched when Megyn Kelly kept referring to him as “professor” when she had him on her show on Fox News last year. And now Bryan Burrough, author of Days of Rage, continues this meme. 

I want to show that although Ayers was a failed bomber, he was successful in helping to transform and destroy education. And he did it at taxpayers’ expense. He has trained hundreds of teachers. He worked closely with Obama and [U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan in Chicago in funding programs aimed at radicalizing students. One of his closest colleagues, Linda Darling-Hammond, was on Obama’s education transition team, and was in charge of developing one of the two Common Core tests. And Bill Ayers has appeared at conferences with Duncan and other officials in organizations that devised Common Core.

Education has always been the gateway for the smart and ambitious to get into the middle class. Ayers aims to destroy that opportunity, especially in the “urban schools,” which is what the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Ayers taught, specializes in.

MT:     What are some of the ways in which his influence is felt in American schools?

MG:    Bill Ayers likens a traditional school to prison because it requires students adhere to dress codes, schedules, and rules of discipline. But he has had captive audiences and has used his power as a professor to indoctrinate future teachers. His education philosophy is based on anarchism, progressivism, and Marxism. It’s all about radicalizing children in social justice lessons, and making them see themselves as victims of an evil capitalistic system. 

It’s a toxic mixture, especially for the most vulnerable children who benefit the most from a traditional education, as studies show. His philosophy then filters down to practices and policies. Obama’s Justice Department order on racial quotas for school punishment parallels Ayers’ calls for eliminating discipline of inner-city students.  

The last thing that Ayers and his fellow Marxists want is for inner city boys to become middle class husbands and fathers. What they are producing is more Trayvon Martins, more rioters in the streets of Baltimore. The black community should be outraged that these upper-class white radicals are using their children in this way.

Sadly, Ayers’ books are among the most widely used in education schools. Future teachers study them. He speaks at education conferences, and as I saw in 2013 at one major conference, is revered as a legitimate academic and mentor. But his speeches are nonsensical hashed-over ruminations of stoned-out hippie. 

What Bill Ayers would have in the classroom extends the 1960s agenda of smashing monogamy, ending the bourgeois family and its values, destroying the work ethic, patriotism. So what we have is kids indoctrinated with lessons about the police—the 1960s narrative about the “pigs”—fatherless, rootless, joining gangs, and looting in the streets. It’s a Marxist’s dream come true. Those like Bill Ayers don’t have to do the dangerous work of setting bombs any more. They can watch the Crips and the Bloods unite against the police, as we’ve been seeing on the streets of Baltimore. They can watch from the comfort of their homes in nice gentrified neighborhoods, as they collect retirement checks and honoraria for speaking gigs.

MT:     What can we do to push back against the influence of Ayers and his fellow radicals in education?

MG:    I’m trying to make people aware. I’m trying to do it through Dissident Prof. After an almost two-year process, we won non-profit status from the IRS. 

Good, decent Americans are appalled whenever Bill Ayers is invited to a campus to give a talk because of his lack of repentance about his terroristic past. But there are other reasons to oppose such visits as well, such as his use of the educational system to promote the same ideas he held as his group was setting bombs.

And we also have to consider who it is that is inviting him, the groups that have sprung up on campuses, such as Penn State’s Law and Education Alliance, and the Pennsylvania Equity Project. Both of these groups invited Ayers to speak in March. The fact that Ayers would be considered someone worthy of listening to in an academic setting shows how rotten education has become.

I want to raise awareness among citizen groups and political leaders. I want those like Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly to know that Ayers and his comrades are academic frauds. It’s not a matter of censorship. It’s a matter of using our resources wisely so that colleges do not waste money on hosting Ayers or promoting his ideas.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A New Film Takes on the Armenian Genocide

This year marks the centennial anniversary of the Armenian genocide – or as President Obama euphemistically refers to it, a “dark moment of history.” Dark indeed – nearly 2.5 million Armenians dead at the hands of a Turkish government that sought their extermination.

Now 1915, a new feature film written, directed, and produced by Alec Mouhibian and Garin Hovannisian, has arrived in theaters to face that dark moment, and the continued denial of it, head on. “It is about denial,” the duo state on their movie’s website, “what happens when the past is ignored; what happens when it is confronted… With the centennial of the Armenian Genocide upon us, we are ready to face the past together.”

I recently posed to Mr. Mouhibian some questions about the film.
Mark Tapson:         This is essentially the first film for both you and Garin Hovannisian, so congratulations on pulling everything together and getting this film off the ground. How did the project come about? What drove you to take on this controversial topic, and why did you frame it as a psychological thriller as opposed to, say, a documentary?
Alec Mouhibian:     In 1915, under the cover of a world war, the Ottoman Turkish government orchestrated the efficient deportation and slaughter of its entire population of Armenian citizens, murdering not only millions of them but also erasing any trace that they had ever existed on their homeland of 3,000 years—dismantling their churches, extinguishing their entire culture, their ancient civilization.
By 1923, a nation of 2.5 million Armenians had been reduced to 200,000 orphans, many of them rescued by American missionaries. By miracle and charity and fortitude, these orphans survived. They were dispersed across the world. And once they found their footing in Boston or Fresno or Paris or Beirut, they were told that the annihilation of their families never happened. That their brothers and sisters and mothers and uncles, whose rape and slaughter they had witnessed, had in effect never existed. For modern Turkey has denied the genocide to this day, and conducted a century-long campaign to cover up the crime through which its state was formed.
A documentary can show you how this original crime was devised and carried out. It can even trace the precise ways in which the Armenian Genocide, closely observed by military officials of Ottoman Turkey’s ally, Germany, was a blueprint and inspiration for Hitler’s genocide of the Jews. But it can’t show you real 1915 is today, how it lives and breathes in so many people. It can’t show how 100 years of state-sponsored denial – bolstered by the indifference, amnesia, and diplomatic pragmatism of the civilized world – continues to affect the minds and souls of survivors and their descendants, whose memories alone have kept the Armenian story alive.
Recently, 130,000 people marched six miles on the streets of Los Angeles to commemorate the genocide’s centennial. It was the largest public demonstration in L.A. history. Hundreds of thousands in cities all across the world joined them in spiritual lockstep. They were not demanding a wage hike or boycotting a war. They were marching, crying, over something that happened 100 years ago – on the other side of the world. How is this possible? How can the past, be it hidden or overt, have such power over us in the present, and what are the secret ways in which we deal with it? What happens when the truth is denied, and what happens when it is confronted?
These are the mysteries at the heart of 1915. The story is set in 2015, on a day much like this one, exactly 100 years after the genocide. It is about a haunted man who stages a controversial play in a haunted theater – the historic Los Angeles Theatre in downtown, founded in part by Charlie Chaplin – to bring the ghosts of his past back to life, and to somehow change the course of history.
MT:     The Hollywood premiere of the film drew a large crowd. What kind of response is 1915 getting, pro and con, from audiences and the media? Is the movie meeting with any resistance or protest from the Turkish government or pro-Turkish elements?
AM:    The Los Angeles Times, in a very comprehending review, called the film “a creative way to do justice to such a monumental topic,” though of course justice through art is impossible. Some other reviewers have completely missed the themes and meanings of the film; for hipsters with no sense of historical stakes, Simon, the main character and mastermind of 1915, is a bit too strange to relate to, much as the Armenians have been for the last century.   
But real audience reaction has been overwhelming. This is a layered and provocative story; it is full of secrets and surprises and even humor. If it works, it should awaken something in you, a new way of thinking and feeling about your own past. I have seen 16-year-olds and 90-year-olds, people of all backgrounds, respond with such emotional depth and intellectual engagement to the complexities of the story. After some screenings, where I appeared for Q&As, debates broke out among the entire audience. I didn’t have to say a word.
Some people, seeing only the title and not the trailer of the film, and expecting a documentary or an Armenian Schindler’s List, have been confused by the unique nature of the story. But they are a minority so far. On its opening weekend, 1915 was the 2nd best performing new film in the U.S., in terms of per-theater box office. It is still playing in some theaters, and anyone in the U.S. or Canada can buy it in digital HD download from and iTunes.
Something called the “Turkey Cyber Army” hacked our website, and there has been a relentless campaign by Turkish elements to lower our rating on film websites.  We plan to bring the film to Turkey very soon.
MT:     In an open letter to Warner Bros. recently, you had harsh words regarding their new movie The Water Diviner, starring Russell Crowe and set in Turkey in 1915, which ignores the genocide altogether. You called it “the highest profile piece of propaganda ever produced in the service of genocide denial.” Can you talk about that? Did Crowe or Warner Bros. respond?
AM:    The Water Diviner is a standard, sentimental Hollywood war story that disguises its shallowness with a feel-good, love-thy-enemy-who-is-now-an-ally message. The problem is that the enemy being loved and glorified is a Turkish military that was busy executing the first genocide of modern history, against the Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontic Greeks, who are referred to in the film as “Satan’s Army.” And in a lovely touch, the film was released in the U.S. on April 24 – the very date on which the Armenian Genocide commenced and is commemorated around the world.
In our letter to Crowe, we had charitably assumed that he made this historically obscene tearjerker as a byproduct of Turkey’s successful campaign of denial, not as a tool for it. We figured that he developed a schoolboy crush on Turkish culture, and probably Turkish financing, and stepped into the project clueless to its sinister context. Perhaps we were too charitable. Neither he nor WB have responded directly to the letter, but since it went public countless outlets and critics have confronted him on the issue. His language has been evasive, and editorials from the film’s screenwriter have affirmed an intention to glorify the genocidal Turkish military of 1915.
Let’s put it this way. I’ll bet $10,000 cash that you will not hear the words “Armenian Genocide” come out of Russell Crowe’s mouth any time in the near future. If I had a gentler bookie, I’d bet even more.
MT:     What impact do you hope this movie will have, not only on audiences but in terms of official recognition for the Armenian genocide?
AM:   The target of 1915 is you, the viewer, whoever you are, whatever your background. Everyone who steps into the mystery will experience it in one’s own way. We hope you come out of it with a richer connection to your own past, and new way of feeling history.
When it comes to official recognition, the number one obstacle is the casual belief that this is an old, classroom, ethnic issue with no true relevance to actual lives today. We hope 1915 can prove otherwise. Denial has afflicted an ongoing psychic assault on 10 million Armenians – and an even deeper curse on all those in Turkey residing upon the ghostlands of 1915. Recognition alone will not restore the victims, or the lands, but it will introduce a measure of the humanity that has been deprived for one hundred years.
And that is at least a beginning.
(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 5/3/15)

The Imagination is the Ultimate Diversity

Earlier this month in Minneapolis, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs held the largest annual literary conference in North America, with more than 12,000 writers, teachers, students, editors, and publishers gathering for four days of networking, readings, panels, and lectures. The social news and entertainment website BuzzFeed decided this was a good opportunity to stir up antagonism and resentment toward the predominantly white publishing industry.
An annual salary survey by trade publication Publisher’s Weekly last summer quantified the lopsided racial numbers in publishing: of the 630 respondents who identified their race, 89% described themselves as white/Caucasian, 3% Asian, 3% Hispanic, and 1% African-American. Most seemed to agree that this near absence of minority employees directly affects the types of books that are published, and that more needs to be done to address the imbalance.
BuzzFeed asked conference participants if they had any messages for publishers in response to these numbers. The resulting article was titled “23 Writers with Messages for Straight White Male Publishers,” though it’s unclear why straight males were targeted. It featured photos of 23 participants (none of whom was a white male, straight or otherwise) holding up handwritten signs that ranged from the sensible (“Hire women. Diversity makes you strong”) to the belligerent (“Grow up”; “We owe you nothing”) to the illiterate (“Read less straight white men”; “Plz stop”) to the threatening (“Sit down and let us abolish you”). In one pic of a pair of female writers, one holds a sign that reads “She’s coming for you” while the other woman gives the viewer – straight white male publishers, presumably – a middle finger. Maybe not the best networking strategy.
The overall point seemed to be summed up in the top message on the list, which read, “Diversity is not publishing the one story. It’s publishing multiple stories from people of diverse backgrounds.” Come on. Granted, industry employees lack diversity, but one story? Are Buzzfeed and these writers seriously suggesting that the publishing biz promotes only a straight white male worldview, whatever that is? Are they denying that bookstore browsers and online shoppers have a dizzying, virtually limitless variety of authors and perspectives to choose from?
In terms of diversity of writing voices, one thing to consider is the demands of the marketplace. Publishers are perfectly happy to provide underserved audiences with tales from a diversity of writers as long as the writing is of worthy quality and, more importantly, the sales numbers justify it. If you are a minority writer and your work is amateurish and your readership is limited to friends and family, you can’t fault publishers for not welcoming you with open arms and a big book advance. The same goes for straight white male writers.
Sure, if there is enough demand, even books with no discernible literary quality can get published and become bestsellers. But the point is that publishing is a business. To turn one of the messages in the Buzzfeed article on its head, publishers owe you nothing. Whether you are talentless or brilliant, if there isn’t enough demand for your work, publishers don’t owe you a living, regardless of your color or sexual orientation.
But there is a larger and more critical point to address here than just getting published, and that is the right of writers to their own imagination and individuality, unbound by skin color, gender, or sexual preference. The article suggests that there should be fewer white male voices in publishing and more that are black, female, LGBT, etc. But what Buzzfeed and the writers with chips on their shoulders are getting wrong is that people are individuals. Their life experiences, perspectives, ideas, attitudes, and imaginations are not, or should not be, limited by whatever physical category they were born into. The assumption that, say, white male authors can or should speak only to the white male experience, or blacks only to the black experience, is the very definition of sexism/racism/bigotry. Do all Asian-American female authors share the same experiences and worldview? All lesbians? All Arab-Americans? What if the characters and themes of a book don’t conform to the author’s own demographic – does that de-legitimize him or her?
This Balkanization of writers according to such limiting categories underestimates the transcendent power of the imagination as well as the ability of good writers to empathize with those who aren’t like them. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” straight white male Flaubert said of his famous female heroine. Straight white male William Styron won a Pulitzer Prize writing as a black insurrectionist in The Confessions of Nat Turner. Straight Jewish-American novelist Michael Chabon is so successful at drawing three-dimensional gay characters that he is often assumed to be gay.
This is not to defend only the straight white males Buzzfeed picked on. Authors of other colors and orientations are successful at creating characters outside their own categories as well. The point is that all writers should be defined by their talent and creativity, not their demographic. The human imagination is the ultimate diversity.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/1/15)

Friday, May 1, 2015

TruthRevolt's New Editor-in-Chief

As of today, May 1, 2015, I am proud to be the new Editor-in-Chief of TruthRevolt following the departure of Ben Shapiro. Contrary to some media speculation, the David Horowitz Freedom Center is not "pulling the plug" on the site and TruthRevolt is not "in turmoil." Ben resigned in order to launch his own organization in anticipation of the 2016 election cycle, and we wish him the best.  
Ben left big shoes to fill, but TruthRevolt will carry on the fight with fresh ideas in the coming months and a renewed determination to fulfill the mission which Ben helped launch. Stand with us in that fight.

A Lesson for Faith-Based Filmmakers from 'The Book of Eli'

Last weekend I re-watched The Book of Eli starring Denzel Washington, one of my favorite action films – although lumping it into that genre doesn’t do it justice. Labelling it a “faith-based” movie isn’t quite right either, although it serves as a good model for how filmmakers dealing with Christian themes can reach a wide general audience rather than targeting believers.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, but hey, it’s a five-year-old movie.
In The Book of Eli, Denzel (can we agree that he’s iconic enough to go by one name?) plays a lone wanderer in a post-apocalyptic United States, heading west on foot with the sole remaining copy of the Bible, memorizing it at night. It is a mission he has been carrying out for thirty years, ever since a voice commanded him “to carry the book out west. Told me that a path would be laid out for me, that I’d be led to a place where the book was safe. Told me that I’d be protected against anything or anyone that stood in my path.”
And indeed he is occasionally miraculously protected from roving gangs of killers in this lawless landscape, whom he faces down without fear. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil,” he recites to the young woman Solara (Mila Kunis), after demonstrating a few times that evil has much more to fear from him. Solara has latched onto him to take her away from her hometown, which is in the grip of power-mad Carnegie (Gary Oldman) and his thugs.
Carnegie knows the power that the Bible’s words have over people, and he desperately wants a copy with which he can manipulate the spiritually hungry survivors of a devastated world to follow him as a religious leader. When he discovers that Eli owns the only Bible, he tries everything from temptations to threats, but Eli refuses to give up the book to this false prophet. Taking it west is his single-minded purpose, and nothing can deter him from fulfilling it.
Meanwhile, Eli returns to the Bible again and again for wisdom and strength. “Do you really read that same book every day?” Solara asks. “Without fail,” he replies (coincidentally, or perhaps not, Denzel told GQ back in 2012 that he reads the Bible every day).
Carnegie eventually manages to take the book by force and leave a wounded Eli to die in the desert. But he discovers too late that the Bible he took is useless to him – although I will spare you the spoiler about why not. Suffice it to say that Eli no longer has a need for the Bible himself, because over his thirty years’ wandering and nightly reading he has committed the entire King James Bible to memory.
Solara helps Eli get to a community in San Francisco where the process of rebuilding society has begun; part of that process involves collecting, preserving, and reproducing the remaining books, especially the classics of civilization. “We’re going to teach people about the world they lost,” the librarian explains to Eli. Together they undertake to recreate the Bible. Eli recites it verbatim to the librarian, who records it in a manuscript that is then sent to the printing press.
His mission completed, Eli offers up a grateful prayer to God for
giving me the strength and the conviction to complete the task you entrusted to me. Thank you for guiding me straight and true through the many obstacles in my path, and for keeping me resolute when all around seemed lost… I fought the good fight, I finished the race, I kept the faith.
Denzel may have deservedly won an Oscar for his turn as a charismatic villain in Training Day, but the man is at his most compelling in morality tales of justice, heroism, and moral struggle. In Flight he was Oscar-nominated as an alcoholic-in-denial whose conscience finally wouldn’t let him lie anymore about his part in a terrible tragedy. In The Equalizer, a top-notch action thriller which I wrote about for Acculturated here, he is a modern-day knight errant dispensing bloody justice to evil men.
In The Book of Eli, Denzel’s character is an uncompromising, unwavering moral force pushing through a landscape of violence, temptation, ignorance, and greed. The sheer commitment to his spiritual purpose, the moral strength he embodied, made for a refreshing change from the roguish anti-heroes so prevalent in today’s television shows and movies.
Released in 2010, the movie was slightly ahead of the curve in terms of its religious theme. “Faith-based” movies, ranging from the low-budget God is Not Dead to blockbusters such as Noah and Exodus, are hot now, although films like the former literally preach to the converted while the latter films, made by non-believers, disrespect the converted. The Book of Eli is more successful at delivering its message than all of them because it did so by captivating an unsuspecting audience with a great story and a riveting protagonist rather than by bludgeoning it with leaden preaching.
So The Book of Eli’s lesson for filmmakers who want to deliver a message (religious or otherwise) is challenging but simple: wrap the message in a great story with a compelling moral hero at the center of it.
Oh, and hire Denzel.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/29/15)