Friday, October 30, 2015

Best of Enemies: the Buckley-Vidal Debates

In the summer of 1968, ABC ranked so far behind NBC and CBS in the ratings that it was joked that the network came in fourth out of the three. It needed a gimmick to boost it out of the cellar. As the Democratic and Republican national conventions got underway, ABC hired two rapier-witted public intellectuals – William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal – to debate each other on live television. Their explosive sparring propelled ABC News past the competition and transformed public discourse in the process.

Magnolia Pictures has captured this historic showdown in a very entertaining 89-minute documentary called Best of Enemies, which is now available for digital download and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD November 3rd. Featuring some fascinating footage of Buckley and Vidal and interviews with Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, James Wolcott, and others, the movie is highly recommended.

Buckley, of course, was the preeminent conservative commentator, founder of National Review, host of Firing Line, and author of over fifty books including God and Man at Yale. The openly gay leftist polemicist Vidal was a celebrated novelist (Myra Breckenridge, Burr, Lincoln), playwright, essayist, and harsh critic of American foreign policy. Each of the two pugilistic pundits with their patrician accents and acid tongues saw the other as a threat to American values, and their seething enmity toward each other eventually boiled over shockingly in the course of the ABC debates.

“Buckley was the first modern conservative intellectual to see that ideological debates were cultural debates,” says his biographer Sam Tanenhaus. Vidal too acknowledged that “a cultural war has now joined the race war in the United States… This was the beginning of a war between an old order and what I hoped would be a new order.” In a way, the two men manifested the opposing cultural forces in 1960s American society, and the ABC debates shaped up as a way to determine in microcosm which way the country would turn.

Buckley came prepared to have fun debating the issues, but Vidal came prepared to demonize Buckley in the time-honored manner of leftists even today: as a heartless, greedy, racist, elitist bigot who despised the poor. Buckley was very familiar with this sort of attack, but Vidal knew how to get under his skin, and in the ABC debates he was relentless in creating for viewers a caricature of Buckley as a figure of moneyed white privilege (though Vidal certainly had no less privileged an upbringing himself). He lectured Buckley on the country’s income inequality, to which Buckley replied forcefully that “freedom breeds inequality.” Vidal, as if prescient about the Occupy Wall Street movement, warned his opponent that “you’re going to have a revolution if you don’t give people the things they want… They’re going to come and take it away from you.”

This prospect did unsettle Buckley some, because like all Americans in 1968, he saw cultural standards and traditions breaking down. He reviled what he called a mutinous element of society, and correctly predicted that the issue that would win the 1968 election was law and order.

That point could not have been made more starkly than at the Democratic convention in Chicago, where riot police and protesters clashed infamously. During the continuation of their ABC debates there, Vidal proclaimed the death knell of American empire, as evidenced by Vietnam and this unrest at home. “It’s like living under a Soviet regime here,” he said of the police brutality outside the convention theater. Buckley countered that “despicable” individual acts of police violence did not make a case for institutionalized fascism in America.

The argument escalated quickly into personal insults. Moderator Howard K. Smith tried to intervene and plead for civility, but it was too late. Vidal called his opponent a crypto-Nazi and Buckley lost it. “Now listen, you queer,” he shot back, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the Goddamned face and you’ll stay plastered.” A noticeably distressed Smith declared the segment out of time for the evening, and grumbled that “more heat had been shed than light” in the evening’s confrontation. “The network nearly shat” over it, recalled Dick Cavett.

Buckley agonized for months about losing control, asking himself if he could have handled the moment better. He wrote a lengthy self-defense for Esquire, and Vidal responded in kind, suggesting in the course of his piece that Buckley was a latent homosexual. The result was three years of litigation between the two, at the end of which Buckley simply declared victory in a press conference just before the pair actually went to court.

Vidal was wounded by it as well. A confidante comments in the film that Vidal’s obsession with his antagonist ultimately bordered on “Norma Desmond territory” (referring to the insane Sunset Boulevard character), particularly as the novelist’s career lost steam and relevance.

Best of Enemies winds down on a surprisingly poignant note: two brilliant men consumed to the very end with claiming final victory over each other. But the documentary then strays from its charismatic protagonists and tacks on a conclusion about the lamentable current state of televised political commentary. We’re not listening to each other, the movie asserts; each side of the country’s political divide is trapped in its own noisy echo chamber rather than debating and sharing ideas in a common forum like the Buckley-Vidal debates. This is true to some extent but a facile and uninteresting point, and the clip of Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart pleading for more debate and less theater is laugh-out-loud hypocritical – Stewart, the man more responsible than any other for draining intellectual balance from television news and turning it into entertainment.

In any case, both Buckley and Vidal understood, as other intellectuals of the time did not, the value of using television to advance political ideas and philosophies, not to mention their own public personae. And yet both men complained about the medium’s inherent antipathy to intellectualism. Buckley said that there is a conflict of interest between “that which is highly viewable, and that which is highly illuminating.” Vidal wondered aloud whether viewers ever really “heard” the nuances of what was said and if all they did was focus instead on image and impression.

Nonetheless, for better or worse the debates virtually created the familiar TV news model of pundits challenging each other acrimoniously on the hot topics of the day in segments such as 60 Minutes’ “Point/Counterpoint” (Saturday Night Live parodied this trend in a well-known ‘70s skit in which Dan Aykroyd addresses his political opponent Jane Curtin as “Jane, you ignorant slut.”). But hotheaded though they may be, the Geraldo Riveras and Eric Bollings of today are no match for yesterday’s best of enemies, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.

From FrontPage Mag, 10/29/15

Saturday, October 24, 2015

In Defense of Overprotective Dads

Recently 15-year-old Ricarra Schock in Bangor, Wisconsin posed with her equally young date for a homecoming dance photo taken by her mom Sharee. Ricarra’s father Benjamin then jokingly stepped in and clasped his arms around the boy in a similar pose for a pic which they later captioned, “Whatever you do to my daughter, I will do to you.”
Funny, right? Not if you are a humorless feminist who believes protective fathers shouldn’t stifle their daughters’ sexual autonomy.
The Shocks’ photo subsequently went viral, racking up nearly four million views on Imgur and receiving quite a bit of good-humored media attention. Buzzfeed, for example, found it “hilarious.” Sharee explained, “We hope that above anything else this picture shows the love and protective nature of a dad with his little girl, but in a playful and not-so intimidating manner.” Even Ricarra’s date appreciated the joke.
Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon was not amused. “Who wants to break it to dads that their teenage daughters are not their property?” she asked. “I’m sorry, does a girl get a vote in what happens in her romantic life? It’s called agency. It’s called bodily autonomy.”
Someone needs to break it to Ms. Williams that it isn’t a matter of treating daughters like property. It’s simply a matter of protecting your child – and a 15-year-old is still a child – from potential harm or the life-changing consequences of making an unwise choice, which teenagers have been known to do. It’s sad that this even needs explaining.
At least Williams understands, or at least pays lip service to, the notion that fathers are supposed to protect and love their children, and to guide them to become adults with the maturity to make their own decisions. But she couldn’t let the phrase “what you do to my daughter” go, because it “implies that what happens in dating is something that is done to girls, who are mere passive recipients. It depicts boys as inherently predatory — and even if it’s in a jokey way, that’s insulting to them too.”
Ms. Williams’ beef is not so much with the Schock family. She concedes that the “Overprotective Dad trope is a timeless punchline” and that “not every moment of joshing around is an act of oppression by the patriarchy.” And that is where she should have let it lie, but she couldn’t help herself; she had to “step in to play Humorless Feminist Mom to the Hands Off My Daughter Industrial Complex.”
Her complaint is primarily with the media, which she castigated for treating it as “cute when a father steps in to police a girl’s private life,” and for reinforcing and legitimizing “the old message that a girls’ sexuality is somehow a negotiation between her father and her boyfriend.” She found it “creepy and gross” that the media would endorse “the notion that adolescent female sexuality is something to be guarded by daddy from outside invaders.”
In fact, adolescent female sexuality should be guarded – the alternative is irresponsibly to allow a 15-year-old girl potentially to find herself in a situation for which she may not be mentally, emotionally, morally, or physically prepared (the same goes for a 15-year-old boy, but we’re focusing on daughters). How does that square with Williams’ acknowledgement that fathers should guard and guide their children?
Williams herself notes that the girl in question is 15 years old. Fifteen – the same age as her own daughter. Would she allow her own adolescent daughter unfettered “bodily autonomy” and consider that to be good parenting? Is she truly concerned about what’s best for her daughter, or is she willing to risk her child paying for the mother’s unrealistic ideological ideal?
A father’s protectiveness toward his daughter is grounded in love, not ownership, and it is not based on the assumption that boys are inherently predatory. It is based on the wise understanding that his daughter’s sexuality is not a matter to be left to teenage impetuousness and surging hormones. Pretending that teens can and should be trusted to make unsupervised decisions about their “bodily autonomy” could very well result in the girl’s emotional distress or possibly worse: sexual assault or an unwanted pregnancy.
I have three daughters myself, all too young to date. But when that time comes, you can bet that I will not blithely and irresponsibly send them on their bodily autonomous way. I will raise them to make smart, safe choices for themselves, but I will also be there to protect them from youthful naiveté, impulsiveness, and choices they may regret – for their sake, not mine, and not because they are my property, but because I am their father.
From Acculturated, 10/23/15

Friday, October 23, 2015

Forgiveness, Meaning, and Story: An Interview with Corban Addison

Corban Addison is an attorney, activist, world traveler, and the author of three powerful, lyrical, internationally bestselling novels: A Walk Across the SunThe Garden of Burning Sand, and the just-released The Tears of Dark Water. As novelist John Grisham, a fan of Corban’s, put it, Corban writes beautifully about some very ugly issues: violence, injustice, exploitation, evil.
In settings as varied as Washington D.C., France, India, Zambia, and Somalia, Addison’s characters wrestle with those dark forces as well as their own personal tragedies. The Tears of Dark Water, for example, centers principally on a father trying to bond with his son on a sailing trip that turns into a hostage crisis in Somalia. In A Walk Across the Sun, an American lawyer on sabbatical in India, dealing with the death of his baby daughter and the collapse of his marriage, takes on an international sex trafficking ring to save the lives of two Indian sisters after a tsunami destroys their home and family.
Bestselling author John Hart declared that “If you like stories of good people struggling to do right in the world's forgotten places, there is no one better suited than Corban Addison to take you on the ride of your life.”
I recently asked Corban about why such human rights issues are important to him, and about the values that are central to his work: forgiveness, purpose, meaning, and more.
Mark Tapson:         You are an activist for some very pressing humanitarian causes, including ending modern slavery, sex trafficking, and gender-based violence. But you are also a storyteller, and not many people can successfully meld the two. Why did you choose to dramatize these issues in novels rather than address them in nonfiction?
Corban Addison:   I write stories instead of non-fiction because I’m a storyteller by nature and because I believe in the power of story to shape and inform the moral imagination of readers.
There is a reason we use stories to teach the most impressionable people in our society—our children—the most important lessons in life—about good and evil, right and wrong. Story opens the heart. It gets past the architecture of bias and prejudice that so often chains our minds and limits our views. Story offers us a chance to walk a mile in the shoes of another. It teaches us about ourselves and the world in ways that we can’t ignore. It inspires empathy. It creates understanding. And it inspires action. In its best form, story can actually change the world.
MT:    Acculturated’s parent organization, the Templeton Foundation, promotes the virtues. More than any contemporary novelist I am aware of, you writes stories whose characters exhibit many of those virtues, including joy, forgiveness, kindness, humility, wisdom, gratitude, purpose, love, self-reliance, altruism, perseverance. Can you talk about how such virtues inform your work?
CA:     My goal in writing novels is to shine a light into some of the darkest places on earth, to humanize people (especially the poor and victims of violence) whom we might never have reason to think about otherwise, and to inspire my readers to care about injustice around the world.
This is not an easy task. Our culture, unfortunately, encourages us not to think too hard about the challenges facing us in society. Yet it is in the extreme places of human experience that the truth of a person’s character is revealed. I’m very interested in that truth—the truth that exists at the core of all of us, including myself. That is the truth I seek in the hearts of my characters.
I’m fascinated by moments when the best instincts in human beings triumph over the worst instincts, when people choose to sacrifice themselves to help someone else, when joy breaks through the storm clouds of sorrow, when people from very different worlds take the time to understand each other, and when people who have been wronged choose to forgive.
I’ve seen in my life and in my research how awful people can be to each other, but I’ve also seen how good we can be. When goodness rises above the fray (which it always does in various ways in my stories), it is truly beautiful to behold.
MT:    Forgiveness is a powerful theme in your books, particularly in The Tears of Dark Water. Can you talk a bit about how you see forgiveness as a way – perhaps the only way – for those victimized by some of the horrors we wrestle with in the world today to come to terms with it?
CA:     When other people hurt us, we have only two options. We can hold on to the pain and allow it to become bitterness, or we can chose to release the pain and find a way to forgive.
As you point out, the question of forgiveness is at the heart of The Tears of Dark Water. I thought a lot about it as I wrote the story. I asked myself if I could forgive in the way I was asking my characters to forgive. I don’t know the answer to that. But I’m convinced that finding a way to forgive is the only way to move past a life-altering injury into a place of peace and renewed productivity.
Bitterness paralyzes the heart. It binds a person to the past. Forgiveness releases the heart to live again. It’s not something that happens easily, or necessarily at one moment in time. Sometimes it takes years and multiple decisions to have its effect. But its power is unquestionable.
MT:    Your characters are sometimes victims who must reach down farther than most of us ever have to in order to overcome extreme situations: sex trafficking, Islamic fundamentalism, slavery. Then there are characters from the developed world, like the attorney in A Walk Across the Sun, who also must find the moral courage to come to the rescue of others, and who discover real purpose in their own lives as a consequence. Can you talk about purpose and serving others and finding meaning, and how they intersect for those characters and for you as well?
CA:     One of the reasons story is such a profound medium of communication is that all of us are living a story, whether or not we think about it in those terms. Our stories aren’t simple or linear. They wouldn’t fit easily into a novel. But they matter greatly to us, not just because we have an interest in their outcome, but also because we want to believe that our lives matter to the world. We want our lives to have meaning.
Unfortunately, the kind of meaning that our world encourages us to seek is so often self-serving. How can I get what I want? How can I advance my own objectives? How can I move up in my career? These goals can be powerful motivators, but they don’t actually leave a person satisfied. Satisfaction comes by using one’s gifts and talents to serve others. That’s a theme I explore in my stories.
Often the people who are most successful (in the traditional metrics, at least) are the most unhappy. Conversely, I’ve met people in the developing world who are incredibly poor and have achieved nothing of the kind of success that inspires Western culture but who are incredibly happy. They find their meaning in the faces of those they love. That’s the kind of life I’d like to live. And that’s the kind of life I think most of us would like to live. But we have to make it a priority. And we have to be willing to sacrifice.
From Acculturated, 10/20/15

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Playboy Sags in a Pornified World

It’s the end of an era. Playboy, the magazine that spearheaded the sexual revolution and became a worldwide cultural icon, has officially become an irrelevant relic. In a desperate move to salvage what he can of his brainchild, Hugh Hefner has decided to go PG-13 and end nudity in the mag’s pages.
Hef’s magazine burst onto the scene 62 years ago this month in a more reserved and innocent era; the nudes and centerfolds were unheard of in a mainstream publication. Controversy, forbidden flesh, and Hefner’s astute direction helped rocket Playboy to cultural prominence.
People joked about buying Playboy for the articles, but in fact it became a respected forum for noted writers of fiction and nonfiction from Vladimir Nabokov to Norman Mailer; it offered exclusive in-depth interviews of famous figures from John Lennon to Jimmy Carter; and it featured artists, photographers and cartoonists from Helmut Newton to Jules Feiffer.
But the magazine long ago lost its relevance and cultural power. When was the last time Playboy has been a party to – much less at the center of – any cultural conversation?
It paved the way for the pornification of American culture so successfully that for decades now it has been unable to keep up. It’s not even as titillating anymore as the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which runs during prime-time hours on TV. It’s less sexual than the latest Nicki Minaj music video. It is positively prudish by comparison to ubiquitous internet pornography.
As Playboy CEO Scott Flanders told The New York Times, “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so [Playboy] is just passé at this juncture.”
Its numbers reflect that decline. Circulation has dropped from 5.6 million in 1975 to about 800,000 today. The magazine loses $3 million a year domestically.
Most of the company’s profit now comes from licensing its famous brand and logo around the globe on merchandise from bath products to jewelry. Glossy pictorials of nude women in the magazine now threaten to alienate shoppers and diminish distribution.
And so Playboy editor Cory Jones presented a counterintuitive proposal to Hefner for the magazine’s survival: abandon the layouts of naked young women altogether and rebrand it as something akin to GQ.
The company had actually tested the changes in focus groups and ended nudity at its website over a year ago. As a result, the traffic boomed from about four million unique users per month to about 16 million, and the readership began to skew toward the coveted younger demographic, dropping from an average age of 47 to just over 30.
Hef agreed to the proposal, and the redesign will launch in March. But as Lifezette Editor-in-Chief Laura Ingraham noted on her syndicated radio show this week of Hef’s influence, “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
That genie-in-the-bottle has been more like the opening of a Pandora’s box. Pornography has always existed in one form or another, of course, but Playboy marked the beginning of the mainstreaming of it. Porn has gone from an outlying subculture to near-mainstream status, and the impact on men, women, and children alike has been devastating. Thanks to the internet, porn addiction has become a legitimate and widespread medical condition that heavily impacts marriages and relationships. The objectification of women and the obsession with the sexualized female body image is everywhere in pop culture.
Playboy as we once knew it may have flatlined, but its incalculable impact lives on.
From Popzette, 10/14/15

The Decline and Fall of ‘Gentlemen’s Quarterly’

GQ, the premier style magazine for the modern male metrosexual, just hit rock bottom.
The final straw in the magazine’s decade-long decline in quality came last week when a frequent contributor named Drew Magary wrote an absolutely shameful, hateful rant titled “Fuck Ben Carson.” Yes, that's the headline – in a major mainstream magazine – and the article itself is just as uncivil and devoid of intellectual depth as its title. 
Inexplicably incensed by the Republican presidential candidate Carson’s recent comments about fighting back in life-or-death situations such as the Oregon community college shooting, Magary complained that “the Good Doctor made it clear this week that he is not only willing to replicate [candidate Donald] Trump’s signature brand of hot-garbage-spewing, but he’ll say even DUMBER shit.”
Keep in mind that Carson is a world-renowned brain surgeon and arguably the most genuinely articulate and thoughtful of any would-be President on either side of the fence, while the considerably less accomplished Magary here exhibits all the profane vocabulary and intellectual horsepower of a junior high school student.
For the record, Ben Carson is not my choice for President; I would find the headline just as repellent if, say, Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton had been the target. And the issue isn’t about clutching one’s pearls over the use of profanity; there is a time and occasion for swearing heartily, but this level of hateful crudity has no place in a major mainstream publication, particularly one with the word “gentlemen” in the name.
GQ apparently disagrees; it proudly tweeted a link to the article, and Twitterers on both the left and right properly expressed disgust and disapproval:
Far from taking this criticism to heart and offering an apology/retraction, Magary and GQ doubled down two days later with this snarky, insulting attack on angry “Fox News viewers,” whom they derided as old and out-of-touch – as if the issue is age and hipness rather than civility and class. They doubled down on the profanity too: “Trust me,” Magary taunted,
“Fuck Ben Carson” will not be the last time this magazine shouts FUCK (Politician’s Name Here)! Because, for real, they can ALL get fucked eternally. We pride ourselves on thoroughly objective profane rants against terrible people. Like Ben Carson!”
For all his false claim to being fair and balanced, this is what the politicization of the magazine has led to: openly sneering at anyone who disagrees with GQ’s position and with the vile manner in which they expressed it. What was once a quality men’s style magazine has degenerated into just another celebrity-fetishizing, divisive, leftist mouthpiece in popular culture.
Gentlemen's Quarterly was launched under a different name in 1931 essentially as a men's fashion trade magazine, but by 1957 it had grown beyond industry insiders. It was renamed GQ in 1967 and grew to monthly publication in 1970. After Condé Nast bought the mag in 1980, it strove to compete with Esquire by introducing articles of general interest beyond fashion. For many years it flourished as a sort of more reputable alternative to Playboy as a lifestyle guide for adult men.
Then Jim Nelson was named editor-in-chief in February 2003, and the mag began to skew toward younger readers and to adopt a more casual tone. That tone turned increasingly profane and juvenile (as did the culture itself) and the writers’ voices began to sound like those of upscale frat boys, until hitting the nadir of Magary’s article.
Over that same time frame, GQ also went sharply political. Nelson, who is gay and progressive, made no bones in a 2004 interview about his aim of steering the magazine in that direction:
“When I got the job, right away… I was already thinking about how we could be a relevant magazine as a monthly and engage in political issues that I cared about in the months and the year leading up to the election. I wanted political stories—important political stories—in every single issue.”
Even if the magazine insists on promoting a strong political stance, at the very minimum the mature, gentlemanly thing to do is disagree respectfully with its opponents, instead of giving them the finger. And at the very minimum, a publication called Gentlemen’s Quarterly should strive to maintain a standard of manners and dignity in the face of our culture’s plunging trajectory into juvenility and profanity, instead of reveling in offensiveness with all the glee of a Beavis and/or Butthead. Sadly, Magary and Nelson would no doubt dismiss such an expectation as old and out-of-touch.
As for Ben Carson, what was his response to GQ’s and Magary’s attack? Ever the gentleman, Carson calmly told Fox News, “I think we should pray for them.”

From Acculturated, 10/13/15

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Masculinity Under Siege

Last Friday an article was posted in the New York Times Men’s Style section that I’m still desperately hoping is satire: “27 Ways to Be a Modern Man.” If it’s not, then the state of modern manliness is a sorry one indeed.
We’ll get to that article in a moment; it wasn’t the only recent commentary on contemporary manhood. Writing last week in the National Review, for example, David French expressed disgust with our “unmanly” “victim culture” that encourages us to cultivate “a sense of weakness and fragility.” It is a mindset that is “killing manhood,” he warns.
The College Fix reported this week that Vanderbilt University recently held a “Healthy Masculinities Week” (who knew there’s more than one masculinity?) featuring programs that helpfully deconstruct America’s “narrow definition of masculinity” for impressionable students.
A short video from Huffpost Women that openly equates masculinity with sexism (tagline: “Because sexism hurts men too”) has been making the internet rounds again. In it, a handful of rather effeminate hipsters suffering from vocal fry struggle to answer the question, “What does masculinity mean?” One of them comically posits that, “historically,” masculinity has been “a way to differentiate yourself from women.” Well, duh.
The video pushes the concept that masculinity is entirely an artificial social construct, an unnatural façade, a learned set of aggressive, domineering attitudes that prevents men from fully accessing and expressing the full range of their gender fluidity. The men in the video complain that society’s expectations of masculinity suppress them emotionally and prevent them from being who they really are. In a perfect world, they claim, masculinity wouldn’t even exist. “Ideally, there would be no such thing as masculinity or femininity,” theorizes one man, who describes himself as LGBT and says masculinity is “irrelevant” to him. “We would all just be people.” I was reminded of the title of comedian Adam Carolla’s book, In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks. If this Huffpost video is any indication, Carolla’s vision of the future is already upon us.
But the pinnacle – or rather, the nadir – of all this recent musing about manhood was the aforementioned New York Times piece. It begins by stating that being a modern man is all about adhering to principle – so far, so good. Then it quickly degenerates into a whimsical list of behaviors ranging from polite to pathetic, that supposedly define modern masculinity. Here’s a sampling:
#17: “Does the modern man have a melon baller? What do you think? How else would the cantaloupe, watermelon and honeydew he serves be so uniformly shaped?”
#18: “The modern man has thought seriously about buying a shoehorn.”
#20: “On occasion, the modern man is the little spoon. Some nights, when he is feeling down or vulnerable, he needs an emotional and physical shield.” I’m willing to bet that if modern man needs to be “the little spoon” on too many occasions, he’ll end up the only spoon in the drawer.
#24: “The modern man doesn’t get hung up on his phone’s battery percentage. If it needs to run flat, so be it.” Now that’s living on the edge.
#25: “The modern man has no use for a gun. He doesn’t own one, and he never will.” And yet, according to #16, the unarmed modern man is also expected to fend off an intruder in the bedroom to enable his wife to get away. He’d better hope the intruder is an unarmed modern man too.
#26: “The modern man cries. He cries often.”
If this list is so off-base, you ask, then what does masculinity mean today? For thousands of years it has boiled down to three essentials: procreating, protecting, and providing. But the modern American lives in an age of comfort, prosperity, and peace unparalleled in human history, so all three roles are less critical today for the average man – particularly that of protector, which has been outsourced to a (diminishing) warrior class.
One of the items on the NY Times list perfectly exemplifies this. Whereas there was once a time when a man did not sleep before securing his family against wild animals, the elements, and human enemies, the modern man retires to bed only after he “makes sure his spouse’s phone and his kids’ electronic devices are charging for the night.” Is this what modern man has been reduced to – not a protector, but a mere butler?
There is a broader, more complex discussion to be had about exactly what constitutes “manly” characteristics and virtues, and how modern man can reverse his slide into gender confusion and irrelevance, but the essential takeaway here is that traditional, universal standards of manhood are under cultural assault today by radical feminists and gender activists to redefine masculinity out of existence, or at the very least to marginalize it. This effort to blur gender lines has been in progress for decades, but seems to be accelerating thanks to its very active movement on college campuses.
The good news is that I predict it will lead to a massive pushback from the silent majority of American men and women who accept and prefer their different but complementary roles, and who don’t want to see masculinity, well, emasculated.
From Acculturated, 10/6/15

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

New Bond Song Swaps Virility for Vulnerability

As James Bond fans everywhere are keenly aware, the latest installment of the half-century-old film franchise, Spectre, opens in the United States this November 6. And that means the debut of a new Bond theme song as well – always an eagerly anticipated event in itself. But Spectre’s just-released song “Writing’s on the Wall” is leaving many fans more perplexed than thrilled – it swaps Bond’s legendary virility for vulnerability, causing some to wonder if it is heralding a hero who is beginning to reflect our cultural unease with traditional masculinity.
Performed by Grammy-winning English singer Sam Smith, “Writing’s on the Wall” just made history by becoming the first Bond theme ever to hit number one on the charts, and yet it is receiving decidedly mixed reviews. Rolling Stone calls it “a grand accomplishment,” but one fan captured the opinion of many when he tweeted, “I hope #SPECTRE is far more exciting than that Sam Smith snorefest I just listened to.” The Atlantic had a more insightful gripe: it complained that the song is so “radically wimpy” it constitutes a heretical subversion of Bond’s masculinity.
Smith chose to depart radically from the bold, brassy, ballsy Bond themes sung by bold, brassy, ballsy vocalists such as Tom Jones (Thunderball), Tina Turner (Goldeneye), Shirley Manson of Garbage (The World is Not Enough), and of course, Shirley Bassey, the queen of Bond songs (Goldfinger, Moonraker, and Diamonds Are Forever).
By contrast, Smith falsettos his way through a yearning piano piece accompanied by swelling strings but almost devoid of the exciting horns, percussion, and Bond’s signature surf guitar riff. The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber describes Smith’s vocals as “self-consciously pathetic and pining” at a “cartoonishly high register.” More disconcertingly, the song lacks the propulsive currents of sex and danger that animate most Bond themes. Instead, it wallows in emotional desperation.
“I wanted a touch of vulnerability from Bond,” Smith told NPR, “where you see into his heart a little bit.” That touch may have been too heavy-handed. When the lyric begs, “I want to feel love run through my blood,” it feels off-putting and needy from the agent who famously carries a license to spill someone else’s blood.
Presumably the Broccoli family, who owns the franchise, approved Smith’s more romantic take on Bond. If so, is the song indicative of the man we will see in the newest film? Is the fictional icon Kornhaber calls “arguably the most aggressively heterosexual hero that Western society has” going soft on us?
If so, perhaps it is because we have gone soft. We live in a time of cultural confusion over masculinity and gender roles. Last week, for example, the National Review decried the unmanliness of our “victim culture” in which people are encouraged to cultivate a sense of weakness and fragility. Also last week, the New York Times posted “27 Ways to Be a Modern Man,” a list that included such traditionally unmanly virtues as this: “The modern man cries. He cries often.” And this: “The modern man has no use for a gun. He doesn’t own one, and he never will.”
Where does that leave Bond? Is he becoming anachronistic as an icon of masculinity – a sexist dinosaur, as Judi Dench’s “M” once told him? Has the Bond we could always count on to risk it all for Queen and Country devolved into a man who, as Sam Smith sings, asks instead if he should risk it all for love?
If so, then Spectre will suffer for it. Audiences have always responded to James Bond’s unapologetic manliness, all the more so as traditional masculinity becomes an endangered species. Lose that, and the Bond films will be just another big-budget action franchise but lose their cultural power. If Sam Smith’s song portends a Bond more vulnerable than virile, then for the franchise as a whole, the writing is indeed on the wall.
Published in a different form here at Popzette, 10/6/15

Do Boys Need a New Kind of Hero?

Crissi and Ed Boland decided they weren’t happy with the toys and comics available for their two young sons. They were tired of the cynical merchandising of decades-old superheroes, the dark and violent comic books, and the “narcissism and a win-at-all-cost approach” that they feel pervade our culture. They want their sons to have meaningful toys that promote the classic values Ed had learned as a boy: honesty, humility, loyalty, compassion, and diligence.
So Crissi and Ed created HeroBoys, a line of action figures and accompanying comic books, “meant to celebrate the adventure, imagination, and limitless potential inherent in boys, while reinforcing positive values.” The HeroBoys are a seemingly ordinary group – a hothead struggling with his emotions, a physically disabled thinker, an insecure boy who has to awaken his ability to lead, and a painfully shy boy trying to access his inner strength – who come together to do good and whose adventures are teachable moments. “We want our boys to know it’s OK to be themselves,” the Bolands declare. “Just like our HeroBoys – they don’t have to be perfect.”
It’s telling that the Bolands even felt that such a project to inculcate old-fashioned values in their boys is necessary. It speaks to the concerns of many parents who may see limited choices for their children’s moral guidance in a pop culture that sends too many questionable and mixed messages to kids. Contemporary comic books, for example, too often depict superheroes not so much as role models for conveying traditional moral values, but as morally muddled vehicles for pushing a politically correct racial and gender agenda.
But in fact there is a wide range of choices for finding positive values and moral instruction in children’s literature (classic and modern, from Aesop to Harry Potter), in tales of real-life heroes and role models (both ancient and contemporary), and in Bible stories, among other options. Children’s television, for example, abounds with shows that address virtues like compassion and honesty (the same goes for kids’ movies), and that’s not just a recent development. Fred Rogers’ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood guided whole generations of children through the kinds of fears and insecurities that the HeroBoys wrestle with (and Rogers’ legacy lives on in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a favorite of my kids).
Granted, Ed and Crissi Boland are focusing on superheroes because they are such compelling ideals for boys. Superheroes do indeed serve an important function for developing a moral imagination in boys. They are valuable personae for preparing boys, through play and fantasy, to choose good over evil and to one day stand courageously against evil in the real world. The Bolands clearly understand this – but do boys really need a new kind of superhero? The Bolands claim that so far (their business is still getting off the ground), kids love the flawed and relatable HeroBoys, but my suspicion is that boys under the age of ten, like the Bolands’, prefer heavily-muscled, magically-powered supermen precisely because they are not so grounded in reality.
This is not to dismiss Ed and Crissi’s admirable desire to give their kids the right kinds of role models, and more power to them for their creative efforts. But whatever choices parents make to supplement their own moral guidance, the critical point to remember is that a boy’s first hero and role model is, or should be, his dad. That’s where a son witnesses courage and values in action: from the everyday, real world examples set by his father. Ed Boland even acknowledges that he got his own values from his dad.
True, Ed has a very valid point when he says that as a working dad he’s lucky to get two hours a day with his boys; he and countless fathers like him can’t be there all the time to counteract the subversive messages of a decadent culture and to steer their sons straight. But dads are the foundation. The values the Bolands are so keen to pass down to their boys – honesty, courage, humility, loyalty, compassion, diligence, and more – are most influential when they are rooted at home. The HeroBoys tagline – “There is a hero inside every boy” – is a very empowering insight, but that spark first takes hold when the boy sees that there is a hero inside his own father.
From Acculturated, 10/2/15

Friday, October 2, 2015

Hollywood Turns on PC?

After recent complaints from Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Stephen Merchant that political correctness has infected college audiences and turned them into humorless prudes, Sarah Silverman replied that such comedians need to get with the times or risk becoming irrelevant. But if a couple of recent Hollywood examples of anti-PC backlash are any indication, it may be Silverman who is on the way to becoming irrelevant.
First, the fearless, equal-opportunity offenders at South Park set their sights on the PC “language police” in their season opener last weekend. Then, this Friday is the premiere of The Green Inferno, the latest from torture porn auteur Eli Roth, in which a planeload of naïve Social Justice Warriors ventures into the rainforest to save an endangered tribe, only to become victims of cannibalism and their own self-righteousness – or as the Los Angeles Times puts it, “kids who head into the jungle to do good, and end up good eats.”
Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) are progressive crusaders hellbent on eradicating racial and economic injustice, real or imaginary, through bullying and “a fixation on identity and privilege,” as Cathy Young wrote in The Observer. “SJW” is actually a pejorative label, but SJWs themselves proudly embrace it. As a Columbia student and former SJW wrote in July in the New York Post, the first time someone hurled the term at her as an insult, “I was elated. I considered myself a superhero, fighting one stigma at a time until the United States became a land of truly equal opportunity.”
But in South Park’s season premiere, SJWs are portrayed not as superheroes but as a bullying, intolerant fraternity, one of whom – “PC Principal” – takes over the South Park kids’ school and sets out to abolish sexist microaggressions and gender bigotry. One character utters the forbidden opinion, “I don’t think Caitlyn Jenner is a hero,” and PC Principal decries it as “transphobic and bigoted hate speech.”
Real-world SJWs were not amused. As the New York Post points out, culture site Bustle complained the episode made it “seem like a bad thing to strive for correct language around transgender issues,” and film critic Bob Chipman sniffed that the show’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have “morphed into the Trump of TV comedy.”
Admittedly, Stone and Parker don’t represent mainstream Hollywood – they’re much too fair and balanced and edgy for that – but they’re not alone in declaring open season on SJWs. Eli Roth recently told the Los Angeles Times that the smug hashtag activists who share handwritten slogans on Twitter were his inspiration for The Green Inferno. “I wanted to write a movie,” he said,
that was about modern activism. I see that a lot of people want to care and want to help, but in general I feel like people don’t really want to inconvenience their own lives. And I saw a lot of people just reacting to things on social media. These social justice warriors. ‘This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong.’ And they’re just tweeting and retweeting. They’re not actually doing anything.
“The SJW culture has gotten so out of control,” he continued, and Inferno is his way of addressing it. Like the South Park episode, the movie has already struck a nerve with actual SJWs such as the tribal rights attorney at Huffington Post who finds it an “incredibly offensive depiction of indigenous people.”
The more self-congratulatory and self-serious SJWs become, the more they become parodies of themselves – holier-than-thou, irrational, and ragingly uptight – and the more tempting it becomes to poke fun at them. Political correctness still reigns on campuses across America, and in Hollywood as well, but no totalitarian ideology can long withstand ridicule.
From Popzette, 9/28/15