Divining the Truth about War


The scene opens on a man, Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe), traversing the hot arid plain of Australia’s Outback. The camera looks down from above, almost as if it were the face of God. He carries two small metal rods in front of him, holding them gently and respectfully, as he might hold the reins of a pair of fine horses, giving them their head. Suddenly the rods cross. X marks the spot. He throws down his tools and begins to dig.

It is backbreaking work. We know from the change in his clothing that it takes many days. But he never gives up. He knows the water is down there; the rods told him so. He just has to keep digging. And sure enough, the water finally begins to gush. He exults at the sky as the water reaches his face, almost as a baptism. He has found water in the midst of a vast desert, just by trusting his gift for divination.

Arriving home, he finds his wife Lizzie (Jacqueline McKenzie) busy cleaning the boots of one of their sons. “They’re waiting for their story,” she tells him, nodding toward the bedroom of their three boys. “Not tonight,” he pleads. “I’m bone tired.” But she insists. “It’s their favorite part of the day.” The camera stays on her as we hear him read a magical tale from the Arabian Nights. The camera peers over his shoulder at the story’s illustration, then pans out.

How could you send all your sons off to fight a war half a world away? For what? For honor? For nothing.

But the beds are empty. There are no blankets on the striped ticking of the mattresses. These boys have been gone for a long time. They fought at Gallipoli. “May you outlive your children” may sound like a blessing, but it is the greatest curse any parent can know.

Moments like this abound in Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner, his first film as a director and a stunning piece of work. It is a film so filled with passion and pathos, elegant cinematography and quotable lines, that you just know — this is the film Crowe has held in his heart through all the years of making other people’s films. It is his paean to the Aussies and Kiwis who joined the ANZAC forces to fight the Turks during World War I while simultaneously offering a heartbreaking protest against war. As we watch him send his fine sons off to war in a flashback scene, calling out to the oldest, “Keep your brothers safe!”, we can’t help of Wilfred Owen’s ironic and contemptuous poem about the sufferings of soldiers in WWI: “Dulce et Decorum Est” — “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.” No, it is neither sweet nor fitting. It is horrifying. How could you send all your sons off to fight a war half a world away? For what? For honor? For nothing.

“You can find water, but you can’t find your own sons,” Lizzie accuses Connor wretchedly, and so he heads off to Gallipoli to find his sons’ bodies and bring them home. Along the way he stays at the inn of a woman (Olga Kurylenko) whose Turkish husband was killed in the war and meets the Turkish commander (Yilmaz Erdogan) who oversaw the ANZAC defeat at Gallipoli — his sons’ defeat — and has now returned to help the victors find and bury their dead. One Turk says to a British soldier, when asked what he did before the war, “I was an architect.” The Brit replies, “I was a civil engineer.” Enmity turns to respect as they come to know each other, and aThomas Hardy poem comes to mind — “The Man He Killed”:

Had he and I but met
     By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
     Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
     And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
     And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because —
     Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
     That's clear enough; although

He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
     Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
     No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
     You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
     Or help to half-a-crown.

Despite the excruciating sadness of its subject, The Water Diviner is one of the most beautiful films I have seen in recent years. The powerful love of a father for his sons is demonstrated in the flashbacks and mingles with the terrible guilt he feels as he realizes what he has unwittingly done to them by proudly sending them off to war. The cinematography is lush and creative, the music poignant, and the script is so carefully crafted that it reminds me of an Oscar Wilde play, full of pithy, quotable truths. This a film you will be glad you saw.

Editor's Note: Review of "The Water Diviner," directed by Russell Crowe. Hopscotch Features, Fear of God Films, 2015, 111 minutes.

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Obama's ISIS Strategy: Death by Flatulence


The more the Obama administration talks about the war on terrorism, the less we know. What are we fighting? Is it violent extremism or radical Islam? OK, it's actually radical Islam (we only need to kill jihadists, not all Muslims); the term "violent extremism" is less offensive to violent Islamists and no one cares about its repugnance to non-Muslim violent extremists — a subset in the Venn diagram of terrorism that is imperceptible to all but a handful of White House officials.

But is it Sunni radical Muslims or Shiite radical Muslims that are the problem? Or both? (And who are we to make such judgments — after the Crusades and all?) Do we need to worry about Iran, with its expanding regional hegemony, soon to be bolstered by nuclear weapons? Or Iraq, which, having been abandoned by the US in 2010, has descended into barbaric chaos with the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) running amok throughout its north, and equally vicious Iranian militia groups running amok everywhere else? Or both?

And what about the original Syrian rebels, valiantly fighting Bashar Assad? When, in 2011, the civilian death toll from Assad's brutal regime had reached 2,000, a horrified Mr. Obama declared that Assad must step aside. Yet, after drawing his famous red line, it was Obama who stepped aside, allowing both ISIS and Iranian thugs to trespass into Syria. What are we to make of Obama's silence today, when the Syrian death toll exceeds 200,000? And, as Hezbollah fighters and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) creep into the Golan Heights and Hamas wages war in Gaza, why has Mr. Obama become displeased with Israeli president, Nethenyahu? Is it time to abandon Israel?

When it comes to facing ISIS on the ground, those with the most to lose have the greatest aversion to do so.

Some experts believe that if we (Western infidels) knew what radical Muslims wanted, then a reasonably peaceful coexistence agreement could be reached. But, as President Obama is discovering in his negotiations with Iran, even when we know what radical Muslims want, compromise is a charade, with reason playing, at best, a bit part to concession.

Despite his Herculean appeasement efforts, Obama has been unable to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. His support for President Nouri al-Maliki (a puppet of Iran ) and his (Maliki's) violent purge of Sunni participation in Iraqi government affairs; his hasty withdrawal of American military forces — just when the Bush-Petraeus surge had stabilized the country and Vice President Biden was gleefully declaring that Iraq was "going to be one of the great achievements of this administration"; his refusal to help the Kurds fight ISIS militants; his blind eye to the spread of Shiite terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Lebenon, Yemen, and Gaza — all has been for naught.

In 2012, Obama issued a crystal clear promise to "do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from producing an atomic bomb." That promise became nebulous with a November 2013 agreement to forge, within six months, a treaty to freeze or reverse progress at all of Iran’s major nuclear facilities. Today, as the delays (and the relaxation of economic sanctions against Iran) continue, Obama's promise is idle. The mullahs, who have been playing him for a sucker all along, will get their bomb. Obama can only hope for a toothless treaty that postpones Iran's acquisition of a functioning ICBM system — until after he leaves office, when nuclear proliferation in the Middle East will become his successor's problem.

As al Qaeda continues to be a grave threat, Mr. Obama has convinced himself that for ISIS — the now much larger threat — we can pretend that everything's going to be OK.

We also know what Sunni Muslim radical organizations such as ISIS want. They tell us, loudly and unequivocally: 7th-century Islam, a caliphate, with sharia law, and remorseless death to all who interfere. That they are pathologically indifferent to diplomacy, negotiation, or compromise is demonstrated in a relentless parade of choreographed atrocities: decapitation, crucifixion, immolation, torture, rape, slavery, and mass murder, to name a few. In his brilliant and disturbing exposé, What ISIS Really Wants, Graeme Wood elucidates,

We can gather that their state [ISIS] rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of — and headline player in — the imminent end of the world.

Wood suspects that, in the past year, president Obama's confusion over the nature of ISIS "may have contributed to significant strategic errors." The confusion extends much further back. As ISIS marauded into Iraq in late 2013, Obama may have believed that he could reason with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of what Obama perceived to be the al Qaeda JV team. However, already embroiled in the war against terrorism and fully aware of ISIS's fanatical designs on Iraq, he might have followed the advice of Benjamin Franklin, arguably the finest diplomat in US history, who knew that sometimes "force shites on the back of reason." Had Obama chosen this path, any time before January 3, 2014, the day when Fallujah fell to al-Baghdadi's brutal thugs, would have been a fine time for overwhelming military force to shit on the back of ISIS.

It did not. Unchallenged, ISIS continued its rapid expansion, conquering most of northern Iraq by early June, when it captured the city of Mosul. It wasn't until August, when American journalist James Foley was beheaded, that Obama sprang into action — in a press briefing, where the president announced, to the dismay of our allies in the Middle East and Europe, that he had no strategy.

By the following week, however, he had hastily cobbled together a plan to "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS. Enlisting the aid of allies (nine, initially), it would involve air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and not involve American "boots on the ground" anywhere. With Syria but a tattered impression in his entangled memory, Secretary of State John Kerry spouted, “Obviously I think that’s a red line for everybody here.” ISIS poses no existential threat to the US, yet. The immediate threat is to Iraq, the oil producing monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, and, to a lesser extent, Europe. When it comes to facing ISIS on the ground, those with the most to lose have the greatest aversion to do so.

Obama's goal may be to defeat ISIS, but his strategy is based on constraint.

Only the Kurds have been willing to face ISIS. Apart from Israel, they are our only true ally in the region. They struggle alone, except for sporadic US air support. Their weapons are obsolete. The ISIS attackers wield vastly superior American weapons, stolen from the Iraqi military. Kurdish pleas for such weapons have found nothing but Obama's shameless denial.

Our other Middle East allies meekly stand by, partly because of their reluctance to face any grueling warfare, but also, perhaps more significantly, because of their suspicions about Obama. They are Sunnis, who, while appreciating Obama's dilemma in Syria (where he can't bomb ISIS without helping Assad), are deeply troubled by his concessions to Iran — a Shiite juggernaut feared more than ISIS. Why should they follow a leader whose ultimate sympathies lie with their ultimate enemy?

President Obama entered office vowing to deliver on his campaign pledge to improve America's image in the Middle East. Apologizing for America's arrogance (including the War in Iraq, torture, Gitmo, and more), he did his best to ingratiate himself to the Muslim world. He did, however, warn that "al Qaeda is still a threat and that we cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as president suddenly everything's going to be OK."

But ending the Iraq War did not win the favor of Islam. Indeed, Obama's hasty withdrawal from Iraq (against the wishes of his military advisors) thrust that country into a violent chaos that destroyed what he himself called “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq" and touted as "an extraordinary achievement." It allowed ISIS to be created — reconstituted from the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) that had been defeated by the Bush-Petraeus surge. With his pre-announced 2016 exit, Afghanistan is likely to follow the same trajectory. And we were kicked out of Libya, Yemen, and Syria by Sunni Muslim terrorists, Shiite Muslim terrorists, and Vladimir Putin, respectively. So much for America's image.

As al Qaeda continues to be a grave threat, Mr. Obama has convinced himself that for ISIS — the now much larger threat — we can pretend that everything's going to be OK. In his recent Vox interview, he asserted that the media exaggerates terrorism and that climate change and epidemic disease may be more important issues. He concedes that it is legitimate for Americans to be concerned "when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris," fastidiously avoiding, of course, any association with radical Islam. We should not be alarmed by the organization that he once dismissed as a JV team, and now dismisses as a caliphate, believing that it will collapse under its own weight. Says Obama, "It [ISIS] can talk about setting up the new caliphate but nobody is under any illusions that they can actually, you know, sustain or feed people or educate people or organize a society that would work."

Nevertheless, with the gruesome ISIS murders, in early February, of a Japanese journalist (beheaded), a Jordanian pilot (burned alive in a cage), and 21 Egyptian Christians (beheaded), Obama was spurred to action. He convened a global summit, in Washington DC, where leaders from 60 countries came to combat "violent extremism” — by the surprising method of "empowering local communities" that can provide "economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity." Said the president, "We can help Muslim entrepreneurs and youths work with the private sector to develop social media tools to counter extremist narratives on the Internet." To that end, the State Department promptly opened 350 twitter accounts (designed, apparently, to deluge the violent extremists with clever anti-barbarism tweets) and a new web site: "The Solution to Violent Extremism Begins in your Community."

Strangely, they are serious. Violent extremism, says John Kerry, is "the defining fight of our generation." Back in the real world, however, it is quite astonishing that Obama has been unable to convince countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf states to join the fight against ISIS. These Sunni Muslim nations, having the most to lose, should be the most willing to put their own boots on the ground against ISIS. Nothing would please America more than to see Arab Muslim soldiers at the forefront of Obama's "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS’ campaign. Should this happen, I am sure that Christians, Jews, and those of other faiths would march together with Muslim Americans through the streets of America cheering for our president and praising his inspired leadership.

Hope could work. It has worked very well for Obama in the past. After all, it's how he was elected president.

But it's not likely. Obama's goal may be to defeat ISIS, but his strategy is based on constraint: can't bomb Syria, can't cross Kerry's redline, can't jeopardize negotiations with Iran, can't offend Islam, can't capture terrorists, and so forth. Such a strategy, together with his indecisiveness and distaste for military force, crowds out the possibility of victory. Besides, even if ISIS is defeated, al Qaeda and numerous other radical Muslim organizations remain — not to mention Iran, an immensely virulent, existing terrorist organization, on the fast track to obtain nuclear weapons.

President Obama, therefore, has retreated to his community organizer roots, where he finds, as chief weapons against Islamic terrorism: political rhetoric, social media, and hope — hope that ISIS self-destructs, that budding terrorists find jobs, that Iran abandons its nuclear ambitions, that pithy tweets will curb terrorist atrocities and stymie terrorist recruitment, and that the media stops exaggerating the barbarous acts committed, as Obama is careful to insist, by "individuals from various religions."

Hope could work. It has worked very well for Obama in the past. After all, it's how he was elected president. On the other hand, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin also warned, "He that lives upon Hope, dies farting."

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Job Faire


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Brilliant and Troubling


Unless you’ve had your head under a rock for the past month, you have heard the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Known as the deadliest sniper in American history, he served four tours of duty in Iraq, during which time he was credited with killing over 160 people (some say the actual number is twice that), was shot three times, endured multiple surgeries, and was awarded two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, and numerous other honors. After retiring from active duty, Kyle spent the rest of his short life working with disabled veterans to help them overcome their physical and psychological injuries.

American Sniper tells the Chris Kyle story. It has been nominated for six Academy Awards and has entered superhero territory at the box office, raking in over $100 million in its first wide-release weekend, more than the total combined earnings of the other nominees for Best Picture and likely enough to break director Clint Eastwood’s personal box office records. And with good reason: American Sniper is tight, intense, and emotionally disturbing, the way a war movie ought to be. It takes us into the fray with the soldiers, while also keeping us at home with the families who fear for their lives. In one memorable scene, Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller) listens in anguish to the battle exploding around her husband when his squad is caught in a street fight and he drops his phone without disconnecting it. In that same scene, an Iraqi family friendly to the Americans is caught in a terrifying standoff with a man known as “The Butcher.” The juxtaposition of two families on opposite sides of the globe vying for one man’s protection is emotionally overwhelming. I cried.

When Bradley Cooper bought the movie rights to Chris Kyle’s memoir, he intended to serve as producer with Chris Pratt in the title role. Pratt is the right build and look, and could have been a good choice. But Cooper is brilliant. I have often commented in these reviews on the intensity and clarity of Cooper’s eyes. He can communicate the thoughts, emotions, and complexity of a character without moving a muscle or uttering a word. Those eyes serve him superbly well in this role, in which, as a sniper, he often waits motionless, searching the distance, ready to squeeze the trigger. Through his eyes we see at various times cold determination, impassioned anguish, psychological uncertainty, and bitter defeat. Through those eyes we see a man who, like so many soldiers, returns home safe, but not sound.

When Iraqis see this film, will they want to send their best snipers to our rooftops to pick off our children and mothers and grandfathers?

Several cinematic nuances contribute to the brilliance of the film. At one point, the camera focuses in through the lens of Kyle’s rifle’s sights, magnifying his deadly eye. I was reminded of a scene from Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” when Farquhar, a condemned Confederate saboteur, looks up from the river toward the Union soldier who is trying to shoot him: “The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle.” An impossible feat, of course — just as impossible as Kyle’s ability to see a sniper 2,000 yards away. And yet, he does. In another scene, we see an homage to Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express as a dust storm swirls relentlessly around the soldiers. These subtle allusions magnify the emotion and intensity of the storytelling.

So what about the controversy swirling around this film? Much of it stems from the fact that Chris Kyle’s kills did not occur randomly in the heat of battle, but with deadly calm and careful aim taken from neighborhood rooftops. Somehow it is considered honorable and acceptable to kill hundreds of enemies on the battlefield with bombs and machine guns, but pick them off one by one — and admit that you love doing it — and you become a sadistic, calculating murderer.

Kyle is portrayed as a red-white-and-blue patriot who fights, as he often says, to protect Americans. But the film is far from jingoistic. It presents a balanced picture of the aftermath of war — honorable soldiers with doubts about America’s mission, other soldiers mangled and maimed from injuries, still others suffering from PTSD; children growing up without their fathers, and wives suffering from loneliness, fear, and anxiety. It even presents the fearful experience of the enemy, with scenes of Americans bursting into homes while screaming vulgarities and waving rifles in the faces of terrified women and children — hardly an image of patriotism or moral rectitude in the free world.

Watching these events, even from the perspective of a highly decorated Navy SEAL, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the Iraqis. Who do we think we are, rolling through their towns with tanks and jeeps, smashing up their roads, blowing up their buildings, and bursting into their homes with guns drawn and trigger-fingers itchy? And when Iraqis (and other Middle Easterners) see this film, how will they feel? Will they want to send their best snipers to our rooftops to pick off our children and mothers and grandfathers?

Through Cooper's eyes we see at various times cold determination, impassioned anguish, psychological uncertainty, and bitter defeat.

Traditionally, wars have been fought on battlefields, away from home and civilians. Soldiers die and resources are used up until, finally, one side surrenders, and the conflict ends. By contrast, this is a war fought not only on the home front, but also in it. Middle East soldiers live at home with their families, and they attack in packs. Kyle observed the worst of those “pack attacks” on September 11, 2001, when 19 warriors turned four passenger jets into weapons, killing 3,000 civilians (and some military personnel) as they were starting their work day. This, he says, was his motivation for enduring the grueling training required to become a SEAL and go to war. America had been attacked. But it’s hard to justify a war that goes on and on, where soldiers continue to die and resources continue to be used up, but no one seems ready to surrender.

Historically there have been four excuses for going to war: 1) to expand one’s borders; 2) to plunder resources; 3) to change a culture and belief system perceived as immoral; and 4) to defend oneself from aggressors. Only the final two are remotely justifiable, but in this war, none of these reasons is being observed. We aren’t enriching ourselves; we aren’t changing anything; and we wouldn’t need to defend ourselves if we weren’t there. And there are only two smart ways to deal with a hornet’s nest: either smash it entirely, or leave it alone. Unless we are willing to do the former, we ought to do the latter. The most dangerous approach is to poke at it but leave it intact.

American Sniper is stirring the conversation, and that’s a good thing. It’s also a brilliantly made film, better in many ways than Saving Private Ryan, and deserves the accolades it is receiving. No matter how you feel about war, this is a film worth seeing and discussing.

Editor's Note: Review of "American Sniper," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2014, 137 minutes.

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The Broken and the Unbroken


Despite our justifiable concerns regarding domestic surveillance (see my review of Citizenfour), electronic surveillance has served an important purpose during war time. Intercept the enemy’s plan of attack, and you can prevent that attack. During World War II, hundreds of Allied “ears” listened in on Axis radio communications, hoping to decode the embedded messages in time to thwart the Nazis’ plans.

However, this became nearly impossible after the Nazis developed a complex message-scrambling machine called Enigma. A group of genius linguists, logicians, and mathematicians was recruited to break the Enigma code, but the machine was so complex that it could generate an estimated 159 x 1018 possible codes. Making the task even more formidable was the fact that the code changed at midnight every day, giving the team approximately 18 hours from the time the first message was intercepted in the morning until they had to start over, searching for a completely new code. It would be easier for the miller’s daughter to spin flax into gold than for these geniuses to uncover the Enigma code. Meanwhile, soldiers and civilians were dying minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. Cracking the code could potentially end the war sooner and save hundreds of thousands of lives. They had to keep trying. Their story is told in an outstanding new film called The Imitation Game.

In The Imitation Game you notice Cumberbatch’s brilliance in his lack of brilliance — his lack of social sparkle.

The unlikely hero of our story is Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a socially inept, possibly autistic mathematical genius who can break traditional codes in a matter of minutes but can’t interpret ordinary social codes created through facial gestures and tone of voice. “People never say what they really mean,” Turing complains quizzically, “and you’re just supposed to know.” For example, at one point another decoder says, “We’re getting lunch,” and Turing doesn’t respond. What the decoder meant, of course, was “Do you want to come with us?” But Turing can’t crack this simple code on his own.

Turing realizes the folly of trying to break the Nazis’ code in traditional ways; it would take 20 million years to go through all the possibilities, and they have 18 hours a day. So he turns his efforts toward building a machine that can run through all the possibilities automatically, in milliseconds. The other decoders resent Turing’s obsession with the machine, because it takes him away from their traditional decoding. One member of the team, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) believes in him. Clarke is a bit of a misfit herself, as she is the only woman on the team, and math is considered a “manly” pursuit. She teaches Turing how to play the social game that will give him the time and support needed to develop his “imitation game” — the computer.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing is spot on. Admittedly, he has experience with characters who are emotionally detached — he played, for example, Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), the title character in the TV series Sherlock (2010), and the forlorn boy whose best friend is a horse in War Horse (2011). In The Imitation Game you notice Cumberbatch’s brilliance in his lack of brilliance — his lack of social sparkle. While the other characters lean into each other, eyes aglow, faces expressing sorrow or concern or cheerfulness as they speak, Turing’s face is blank. His eyes focus just in front of the person to whom he is speaking; his face remains placid, his forehead unfurled. He is different, and because he is different he is unliked. We see this especially in flashbacks to his school experience, where all but one of the boys treat him cruelly. He is used to it, but he doesn’t like it. And he struggles to break that social code.

Turing developed his “imitation intelligence” machine into a device that not only ended the war but has changed the way you and I create, communicate, live, and think.

But there is more to Turing’s “imitation game” than the computer he longs to build. He is hiding a secret that, if discovered, could destroy his career and land him in jail — or worse, as it turns out. Winston Churchill heralded him as the greatest hero of World War II — responsible for ending the war two years early and saving hundreds of thousands of lives — yet because of this secret in his personal life he was arrested, convicted, and punished in the cruelest and most shameful way. For as long as he could, Turing lived an imitation life, hiding his true self and pretending to be someone he was not.

Turing’s story is an important one. He was a genius and a hero, yet he was shunned, bullied, and punished simply for being different, first by his schoolmates, then by his decoding team, and finally by the government he helped to save. Through all of this Turing continued to develop his “imitation intelligence” machine into a device that not only ended the war but has changed the way you and I create, communicate, live, and think. As Joan Clarke says, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do things no one could imagine.” Understanding and assimilating this truth makes this film well worth watching.

Another film set in World War II also focuses on an unlikely hero. In this case his actions did not affect the outcome of the war, but his endurance, strength, and faith became an example to many who heard or read his story. Unbroken is based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand about Louis Zamperini, who spent 45 days in a life raft after his plane crashed at sea and then spent the final two years of the war in a Japanese prison camp. His ability to survive both experiences and buoy the courage of his fellow sufferers is an inspiring story of individual heroism.

Zamperini did not start out as a typical hero. He was a hooligan — often in trouble with the law for petty theft and just as likely to end up in a local prison as a Japanese one. The son of Italian immigrants, he, too, was bullied for being different. The local sheriff encouraged him to turn his swiftness at running from the cops to a more productive pursuit, and he joined the high school track team, eventually competing in the Berlin Olympics. Had the war not started, he would likely have gone to Tokyo as an Olympic competitor rather than a prisoner of war. These early experiences helped Zamperini develop survival instincts and endurance that served him well during his those brutal two years.

The film opens with a thrilling dogfight as Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) and his flight crew ward off incoming flak in order to drop bombs on a Japanese target. After some expositional flashbacks to his childhood, it continues with the harrowing crash into the sea and Zamperini’s heroic leadership as he kept the three survivors motivated to stay alive in the life raft for an astounding 45 days. These scenes are the best in the film, capturing the teamwork, loyalty, and danger that are integral to the story.

Zamperini and his flight mates are rescued from certain death at sea, only to land in worse conditions within a Japanese prison camp. There they are isolated, starved, beaten, and threatened with beheading. Pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) is pitifully emaciated, and his ribs and hipbones stick out as though they could poke right through his tissue-paper skin. (Gleeson lost so much weight for the role that even his contact lenses wouldn’t fit.)

As told by Jolie and the Coens, the story is an individual’s journey, just as track is an individual’s sport. It lacks the drama of universal conflict or import.

Camp Commander Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara) takes a particular dislike to Zamperini, shown by the almost psychotic cunning in his eyes. He is often filmed over the shoulders of an American soldier, staring menacingly into the camera, which gives the audience the eerie sensation of standing within the line of POWs. The actor, composer, and guitarist, known professionally in Japan as Miyavi, has a strangely androgynous look that adds to the unsettling effect of his character. First time director Angelina Jolie has a good eye for composition throughout the film (or perhaps the credit should go to seasoned cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is known for such outstanding films as Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, Prisoners, A Beautiful Mind, andTrue Grit [2010]).

Unbroken is a good film, but it is not a great film, and it certainly does not live up to the quality of the book on which it is based (but then, few films ever do). The audience suffers the torment of the main character, and we admire his triumphant victory over horrifying circumstances — his ability to take whatever unfair treatment is meted out to him. Jack O’Connell deserves the accolades he has been receiving as most promising new performer. But the film falls strangely flat, especially in comparison to The Imitation Game. The story has no central conflict outside of the beatings and torture, giving it an oddly plodding pace.

Moreover, as told by Jolie and the Coens (who wrote the screenplay), the story is an individual’s journey, just as track is an individual’s sport. It lacks the drama of universal conflict or import, and stops short of telling the lasting impact his experience had on others. While in the lifeboat, Zamperini made a vow to devote his life to God if he survived the experience, and he did — Zamperini joined Billy Graham’s crusade and told his inspirational story for many years as a way of encouraging people to face obstacles with courage and patience.

Unbroken had all the ingredients of an enduring film — outstanding, dedicated cast; seasoned, talented cinematographer; award-winning screenwriters; beautifully written book; and a heroic, uncompromising central character. It’s good. But it’s broken.

Editor's Note: Reviews of "The Imitation Game," directed by Morten Tyldum. Weinstein Company, 2014, 114 minutes; and "Unbroken," directed by Angelina Jolie. Universal Pictures, 2014, 137 minutes.

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What’s in a Cliché?


For a long time this column has been harping on the idea, or fact, that President Obama is a terrible speaker and writer. I have suggested that his style might improve if he tried reading books.

Back when this harper started harping on this harp, as the Bible puts it (Revelation 14:2), these ideas were radically revisionist. Even Obama’s opponents said such things as “Despite the president’s soaring rhetoric,” “Despite Obama’s eloquence,” “Despite President Obama’s gift for language,” “Despite the president’s professorial yet persuasive speeches . . . his programs stink. “ When the source of the smell was sought, no one considered the possibility that this president (as his professional fans often call him, as if he had to be carefully distinguished from the common run of presidents) had little talent and less learning.

Now, however, one seldom hears compliments either to his knowledge or to his literary ability. His best friends don’t speak in those terms. Even the theory that he authored his own books and speeches has evaporated. No one refers to his books as if they were useful in figuring him out, and his statements and attitudes are frequently attributed to “the White House.” And while this evaporation presents his defenders with the opportunity to separate the literary genius in the Oval Office from the literary hacks buried somewhere else in the West Wing, no one seems to be trying that means of excusing him. It seems to have occurred to others besides myself that a literary genius should, after all, be capable of detecting literary errors and absurdities in the words he recites from his teleprompters, and then firing the imbeciles and philistines who wrote that stuff. But Obama neither detects nor dismisses.

The literary problem may, in fact, be getting worse. In an attempt to mobilize liberal Christians in support of his pro-immigration program, the president has been going about citing Scripture, or what he thinks is Scripture. He has compared Mary and Joseph to illegal aliens, crudely half-modernized a familiar gospel verse (Matthew 7:3–5, Luke 6:41–42) by saying we should "make sure we're looking at the log in our eye before we are pointing out the mote in other folks' eyes," and claimed (folksier still) that "the good book says, don't throw stones in glass houses.” Please don’t ask me what that has to do with immigration. But I do know that “the good book” (now really, who calls it that?) doesn’t mention stones in glass houses.

It’s not a matter of the Bible’s “not exactly” saying that, as the Washington Post labored to show. It doesn’t say it at all. It couldn’t. There was no such thing as plate glass in the first century A.D. Like “cleanliness is next to godliness” and “Social Security is a great idea,” stones and glass houses are nowhere in the Bible.

Are we looking at invincible arrogance, the kind of self-pride that cannot imagine it might ever be wrong about anything? Probably.

Well, you don’t expect presidents to have a photographic memory for books, do you? No, I don’t. But I do expect them to have some memory of books, especially the books they want to quote. And if they don’t remember, they ought to know that they don’t remember, or (in this case) know that they never read those books in the first place. If you’re a literary genius, or a genius of any kind, or just a normal person, you know such things about yourself. And there’s a way of dealing with them. Should you wish to quote a passage, you look the passage up. With the Bible, this is extremely easy. Innumerable websites (try, for instance, this one) offer concordances to the Bible. And if you are a stranger to the word “concordance,” you can still search the Scriptures with some probability of finding what you want. Just google the phrase. This is another thing “the White House” seems incapable of doing.

Are we looking at invincible arrogance, the kind of self-pride that cannot imagine it might ever be wrong about anything? Probably. Try to think of an occasion on which Obama or his employees have betrayed the slightest skepticism about their own knowledge and judgment. Another, complementary, explanation is a total lack of curiosity about anything having to do with words — what words mean, where words come from, what words may suggest.

Consider Obama’s use of clichés. Now, without clichés we would not have politics. The great unwritten book is a study of the role of clichés in instigating, shaping, confusing, and sometimes destroying the political process. Alas, it is a book that may never be written, because anyone with the knowledge and taste to write it would be too disgusted to pursue the project. But if there were such a book, Obama would get one of the longest chapters. His entire career has been devoted to clichés (subspecies, buzzwords): change, community, middle class, race in this country, comprehensive reform, guilty of walking while black, transparency, facing broader challenges, people who want to shut down the government, draw a red line, draw a line in the sand, draw a red line in the sand . . . . They never stop. And without them he would have no career.

But often he can’t even get the clichés right. In the present instance, the cliché he was trying to use was, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” OK. Picture someone living in a glass house. Picture that person throwing a stone. What is the direction of the stone? Outward. He’s throwing the stone at a house inhabited by another person. The cliché implies that he should not do this, because that other person will then feel licensed to throw a stone back into the glass house.Now visualize this scene as Obama represented it when he said, “Don’t throw stones in glass houses.” What the hell does that mean? Don’t throw stones inside your own glass house? Well, no, I wouldn’t do that. But thanks for your advice — whatever it was. This kind of saying could never become a cliché. It isn’t even that good. In fact, it isn’t good for anything.

If you think none of this is significant, that’s your right. If so, however, I hope you weren’t one of those people who laughed themselves silly over the difficulties George Bush experienced with the pronunciation of “nuclear” (“newk-yoo-ler”) and thought that this kind of thing disqualified him from the presidency. Bush was, in my opinion, not a good president, at all; but he did read books. More importantly, he didn’t try to establish his intellectual credentials on the basis of stuff he had (supposedly) written.

The obvious question is: if it’s that “deeply rooted,” why should we care about it? Leave it alone. It’s a nasty, ugly thing.

But Obama’s way with a cliché becomes even more disturbing when he manages to quote a cliché correctly. In an interview released on December 7, he commented on the wave of protests over the deaths of two young black men, allegedly murdered by police, and he asserted that racism is “deeply rooted in our society.” The context made it clear that he was referring to white racism against black people. He was inviting the nation to participate in yet another spasm of soul-searching over “race in America,” with himself as priest and confessor. He was also trying to provide a rationale for people like Eric Holder to create new means of expanding the federal government’s mechanisms of control over thought and action throughout the country. From this point of view, protests are fine and useful, but only to soften up the territory for the federal police. If a problem is “deeply rooted,” then enormous power needs to be amassed to root it out, right? Obama’s cliché was an attempt to give a familiar, domestic tone, a tone of common sense, to new usurpations of power.

Very well. But when one looks at the other implications of the cliché, one soon sees meanings that were not in the president’s control. Why is white racism so “deeply rooted,” after so much effort to root it out? Perhaps because it’s in so deep that it’s hard to find the damn thing.

A story: I grew up a few miles from a small Midwestern industrial city with a sizable African-American population. I can tell you that in those times white racism was not deeply rooted — it was right on the surface. If an interracial couple dared to appear on a main street of town, everyone turned and noticed, and the mood was not friendly. There was a serious chance that violence would occur. The local paper ran wedding pictures of white brides but not of black brides. It called black preachers “reverend” and white preachers “the reverend.” But although I still spend quite a bit of time in small towns back in the Midwest, it has been years since I heard a racist comment of any kind.

A second story: a few years ago, a friend and I were eating ribs in one of those restaurants where the waitresses call you “hon.” This was in Southern California. Sitting in a booth near us was a pair of white guys. They were, I believe, construction guys, and they spoke with the volume and vocabulary appropriate to construction sites. They reviewed, in great, loud, and profane detail, the defects of their boss, their clients, and their associates, not to mention their ex-wives. No holds were barred (how’s that for a cliché?), and certainly there was no hesitation about the use of epithets. Then they turned to the behavior of a fellow worker who was African-American. They didn’t like him. They didn’t like anyone, and that included the black guy. But when they started in on him, they lowered their voices. Their noise dropped so low that my friend and I, suddenly interested, had to strain to listen. We expected to hear something really blistering. But what we heard was this. “I got nothin’ against his race,” one of them said; “I just got no respect for him.” “No,” the other one said, “not if he can’t come to work on time.” There followed a long discussion of punctuality.

You can say that “I got nothin’ against his race” is merely a clichéd cover-up for racism, but these weren’t guys who cared about covering things up. And anyone could see that at the moment there were no black people in the restaurant, so there was no need to conceal anything from them. The two guys might have worried that white people could take offense, but if so, they would just be recognizing the lack of racism among their fellow whites. Suppose, however, that these men were actually concealing something, if only from themselves. Suppose the something was their deeply rooted racism. The obvious question is: if it’s that deeply rooted, why should we care about it? Leave it alone. It’s a nasty, ugly thing. Leave it buried. Yet the president thinks that deeply rooted feelings are exactly what the government should be concerned with.

Government officials are always saying senseless things, but Hagel has the gift of perfect senselessness.

“Words are the tools of the thinker,” a wise woman said. “If you saw a man chopping wood with a hoe and mowing with a shovel, would you hire him as a foreman?” Words are the tools of thought, and there are cases in which incompetence with words reveals an incompetence to hold power. This is one of those cases.

Would you like another example of linguistic and political incompetence in high places? Yes? Then you shall have it.

As I write, the nation is saying a long good-bye to Secretary of Defense Charles Timothy (Chuck) Hagel, whose moronic use of language has long been a dependable source of entertainment. (Hagel resigned quite a while ago, but he hasn’t yet managed to find the door.) On November 24, Reid Cherlin, who knew Hagel well, published an eloquently mordant farewell in The New Republic. It describes the author’s arduous yet futile attempt to find anything sensible in anything that Hagel ever said. Among the remarks that Cherlin quotes is Hagel’s meditation on the situation in the Middle East:

Well, I just got off the phone with the defense minister of Israel. We have to stay very engaged with all of our allies and partners, specifically in the region. You know— I’ve said, and you know from President Obama and Secretary Kerry and others— we’ve been talking all the time with our allies and partners all over the world, but specifically in the Middle East. Any action carries with it risks and consequences. And as I said, inaction does, too. And so you have to assess all that, based on this scenario, based on this option, what might be a Syrian response or Iranian response or a Hezbollah response. Sure. That’s why allies are key to this. But as I’ve said, whatever action is taken, we feel very confident about that action…

Cherlin accurately characterizes this as “ragged chains of platitudes and caveats.” The Secretary of Defense (i.e., War) talked and talked, but Cherlin found it impossible to locate, in any of this babble, “his own philosophy about the use of force.” Of the proposed US attacks on Syria, Hagel said, “This is not going to war in another country, as defined probably by most wars.”

The more I look at that sentence, the sadder I am that Hagel will be leaving us. Government officials are always saying senseless things, but Hagel has the gift of perfect senselessness.

At this point in our experience as a people (now there’s a cliché that can be used in almost any sentence) I have a sense of anticlimax. We see, at the end of 2014, an apparently endless vista of small, dumpy, incoherent yet fanatically talkative figures, men and women who have never read a book or thought that they needed to, graduates (in the main) of elite schools in which social attitudes were the sole text requiring close attention, beneficiaries of a political process in which literacy carries no premium at all. Bill Clinton, sage of the Democratic Party, who studied memos but never books. His wife, Mrs. Clinton, who hired people to write her “highly personal” accounts of her own life. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, that grossly unworthy successor of Henry Clay, James K. Polk, James G. Blaine, John Carlisle, and Thomas Reed — all highly literate men, whatever you think of their politics, and some of them masters of the English language. Jeb Bush, the intellectual lumpenproletarian, with all the lumps showing. Elizabeth Warren, the brainless social worker, straight out of Sinclair Lewis. Nancy Pelosi, the unworthy successor of Apple Annie. And there are more, many more.

In future editions of this column, their linguistic adventures will be chronicled, as thoroughly as you or I can stand it. But right now — I want to thank all readers of Word Watch for their warm and continuous interest in its attempts to turn farce into comedy. I hope that this year ends happily for you, and that the next year renews and multiplies your happiness, so that there is neither climax nor anticlimax, but only the continuous joy of free people.

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Whatever Happened to His Nobel Prize?


I’ve been asking my friends a question. It’s a question that should have occurred to me before, but it hit me rather suddenly a few days ago, during President Obama’s fulminations about what he was going to do to ISIS (“ISIL,” in his chronic though unexplained vocabulary). I couldn’t answer the question, so I began asking other people.

The question is: whatever happened to Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize? I mean, when was the last time you heard anybody mention it?

I can only speculate about the last occasion when I heard of it. I imagine it was mentioned when Obama was destroying the government of Libya and replacing it with another one (and that turned out well, didn’t it?). But I don’t actually remember anybody bringing it up. I would also imagine that someone mentioned it when Obama was campaigning for reelection on the claim that he had killed Osama bin Laden. Again, however, I can’t specifically recall anyone drawing attention to the Nobel Prize. The Prize for Peace, remember.

I hope this means that the Nobel Prize has become irrelevant. I mean, Al Gore got one.

Then came the Drone Wars, with more brags from Obama about liquidating his enemies. Then his first attempt at invading Syria, with all those statements about drawing lines in the sand. I can’t remember any discussion, at the time, of the peculiar moral and intellectual evolution experienced by the Nobel laureate. Then came . . .

You get the picture. I can’t identify anyone who discussed that issue, ever. Of course, there must have been someone who did. I can’t read everything.

So when we got to Obama’s ISIS bombing campaign, I started asking other people. Nobody could remember any references, printed or televised, to a Nobel Prize for Peace. A few said they hoped that meant it was all a bad dream — Obama, the prize, everything. A few wanted to debate what Obama should have done about the prize in the first place. Some thought he should have refused it, saying he wanted to do something to deserve the honor, which he hadn’t had the opportunity to do as yet; or saying that as the president of a country that often needs to protect itself by engaging in military force, he would be hypocritical if he accepted a prize for Peace. I’d favor the first option, myself. I think it would have been the best public relations move a president ever made. But what’s obvious to me isn’t obvious to Obama.

Anyway, since my friends couldn’t remember any references to the irony of Obama the peace-prize man, I started monitoring my TV more closely. I have yet to encounter the faintest allusion to Obama’s Nobel Prize. Indeed, everyone seems to be studiously avoiding it. To specify just one example: Peter Baker, a big guy at the New York Times, prattling to CNN on Sept. 29. The subject was promising for a Peace Prize mention: Baker had been invited to discuss the president’s inability to describe his actions regarding ISIS as warfare, not just “being in a war environment” and so on. So now, I thought, Baker will certainly mention the Prize. Now he’ll have to mention the Prize. But no. He dished out the usual statements about Obama’s wanting to be “a peace president,” as his interviewer said, but he never even got close to a Nobel Prize.

I hope this means that the Nobel Prize has become irrelevant. I mean, Al Gore got one. I also hope that Obama is becoming irrelevant. But I’m afraid that what is now irrelevant is the human memory.

For memory’s sake, therefore, I wish to specify, for the record, that according to the Nobel Prize website, “the Nobel Peace Prize 2009 was awarded to Barack H. Obama ‘for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.’"

Well, that’s all right. They gave him the prize about one second after he became president. How did they know what would happen afterward?

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A Row of Ducks


Have you ever thought about joining the jihad? No? Neither have I, at least not in the sense that I might be the one doing the joining. I’ve thought about others joining, though. I’ve thought about privileged American white kids who convert to Islam and join the fight to reestablish the Caliphate.

I’m not that interested in the kids of Somali or Pakistani immigrants, or other kids raised as Muslims, or even African American kids who answer the call to jihad. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that’s already been started. But middle-to-upper class white kids who convert to Islam and become the foot soldiers of Allah? This, I am interested in.

In his book Pragmatics of Human Communication, Donald B. Jackson tells a story about Konrad Lorenz, the now-famous ethnologist. One morning, some tourists walking past his front yard saw him waddling through the grass on his haunches, making quacking sounds. They thought that he was mad. What they didn’t know was that he was trying to convince a trailing brood of ducklings, hidden by the grass, that he was their mother. What they didn’t know was that Dr. Lorenz was developing the concept of imprinting.

Of course, the tourists may have thought that he was mad even if they had seen the little ducks, but there are two points in this story that remain relevant here. The first is the one that interested Lorenz: if you can get to a duck at just the right age, you can fool it into thinking that an Austrian scientist is its mother. In fact, it will follow almost anything that waddles and quacks. It may even follow a waddling caliph. The second point is the one that interested Jackson: a behavior that looks crazy in isolation may seem less so when the wider behavioral context is seen. So, to a hockey mom, seeing some young white guy from San Diego — I’ll call him Connor — dressed up sort of like Zorro shouting “Death to the infidel” in Arabic may seem a lot like seeing Lorenz waddling around his front yard quacking. But suppose, just suppose, that there are little ducks in Connor’s yard, too.

Here I’ll use the concepts of imprinting and behavioral context to help understand why jihad might appeal to Connor. Put another way, we’re on a duck hunt.

“Give me the children until they are seven, and anyone may have them afterwards.” — Attributed to St. Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Society of Jesus

In The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer devotes a chapter to describing potential converts to mass movements in general. Two groups of likely recruits are of interest right now. The first comprises those who are “partially assimilated,” who “feel alienated from both their forebears and the mainstream culture.” (Hoffer assures us that those who live traditional lifestyles are usually too contented to be good candidates.) The second group comprises those who feel that their individual lives are “meaningless and worthless.” According to Hoffer, then, young people who have been successfully assimilated into a traditional belief system or the mainstream culture and see their lives as having meaning and purpose are less likely to answer the call to jihad. They have been, shall we say, inoculated.

American culture has changed slightly since Hoffer wrote his book in 1951. For example, according to the Gallup, the proportion of the population that considers religion “important” has fallen from 75 to 56%. (N.B., The 56% presumably includes jihadists.) The people who say they have no religion has grown from two to 16%. Generally, “faith tradition” and “traditional belief system” are today understood by those who use such terms to mean “archaic fictions.” In short, religious ardor has cooled. So, the program of inoculation by means of the traditional faith vaccine is not as widespread as it once was. This is our first little duck. Don’t worry, there are more.

“To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.” — “The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” Man of La Mancha, 1965

Efforts to assimilate the young into the evolving mainstream secular culture have changed, too. The melting pot has been moved to the back burner and the back burner has been put on simmer, to encourage diversity. The ranks of the Boy and Girl Scouts have been thinned and their once slightly grim mix of quasi-military discipline and Sunday school fun has been rendered more secular and humane. It’s been defrocked and declawed. In public schools, American history is now often taught as a litany of imperialism, racism, oppression, exploitation, and hypocrisy and, on the brighter side, as a continuing struggle against those persistent evils. Jingoism is just not happening.

Is it possible that a child who is asked to pledge allegiance to the flag of a country that, in his second period history class, is revealed to be vile might end up being less than completely assimilated into the mainstream culture of that country? I don’t see why not. Sure, America is ashamed of Wounded Knee, but should every non-American Indian be ashamed to be an American? Perhaps, but if Hoffer is right, failing to inculcate a modicum of patriotism in the minds of the young is a risky lapse in a program of mass-movement disease prevention, particularly in such a diverse society, where a little unifying vaccine may be just the thing to prevent an epidemic of say, jihaditis. Maybe St. Francis Xavier’s point was practical and secular as well: if children aren’t assimilated when small, anyone may have them afterwards, even the Islamic State. In any case, patriotic fervor seems to have faded. This is our second duck. Let’s keep looking.

Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Johnny: Whaddaya got? — “The Wild One,” starring Marlon Brando as Johnny,1953

Fish swim, birds fly, and young people rebel. In ’60s America, the young (mostly the white, middle-to-upper class young) rose up against crew cuts, cocktails, war, three-piece suits, button-down shirts, organized religion, and white bread, embracing instead long hair, drugs, peace, bell-bottom trousers, tie-dyed shirts, mysticism, and granola. As intended, parents were apoplectic.

Parents today are made of mellower stuff. Offspring who are agnostic, long-haired, peace-loving, marijuana-smoking, vegetarian, and sport casual, colorful clothes are often a source of parental pride. In a rhetorically tolerant world that adores diversity and is deeply reluctant to be seen as judgmental, it just isn’t as easy to raise parental hackles as it once was. And what’s a rebellion without raised hackles? Boring, that’s what.

What’s a rebellious young person of privilege to do? Occupy Wall Street? You’ll be seen as either an unemployed mercenary or a naïve Marxist. Live off the grid? For a few weeks, maybe, but you’ll be back, and probably be considered a malodorous loser who just couldn’t hack it. Save the Whales? That is so ’80s. Buddhism? You’ll be meditating between your parents. Yawn.

Yes, it’s tough to be a successful young rebel today, but not impossible. In a world of tolerance, cultural diversity, and non-judgmental relativism, here’s what you do: adopt a faith that both preaches and practices intolerance, that scorns cultural diversity and demands strict adherence to religious laws governing every aspect of daily life, and that embraces harsh judgment, severely punishing every forbidden or shameful act. Just do that, and there is a better-than-even chance that your parents, no matter how open-minded they think they are, will become apoplectic. Your dad will probably say a very bad word. Your mom may clutch the drapes. It may be hard to be a rebel today, but, if you want to stick it to the man, just tell him that you’re going to join up with the Caliph and help impose sharia. Clearly, this is our third duck.

“I want to be a vampire. They’re the coolest monsters.” — Gerard Way, co-founder of the band My Chemical Romance

Not only are the young prone to rebellion, but they want to be cool. Don’t scoff. It is a very big deal in American culture to be considered cool. Millions seek it. Trillions are spent each and every fiscal year trying to achieve it. Older people who dismiss it as unimportant have usually just forgotten.

A large part of the universe of cool consists of dark matter. Think of George Chakiris with his switchblade in West Side Story, or Marlon Brando on his hog in The Wild One, or Al Pacino with his “little friend” in Scarface. Think of heavy metal, gangsta rap, and the Twilight Saga. The dark side of cool is alluring, all right, but never forget that cool is a competitive sport. To stay ahead in the competition, sometimes a guy has to adopt a style that is just a bit darker than the next guy’s, with coarser speech, a more menacing look, and deadlier weapons. The competition can spiral out of control.

Consider: a twenty-something student who moonlights as a pizza guy is flopped on the sofa in his apartment in San Diego with his iPad. He is bored. Surfing aimlessly, he stumbles upon a video of a white Toyota pickup speeding across the desert. There’s a black banner covered with white Arabic script flapping over the bed of the truck. A guy wearing wild black pajamas and a big black turban is standing in the back with one hand braced on the top of the cab and the other clutching an AK-47 that he is brandishing in triumph. His tanned, bearded face is lit with a dazzling, slightly crazed smile. The pizza guy’s eyes squint as he studies the face, then open wide as he draws back slightly. After a pause, he whispers, “Connor?” In the Dark Cool Olympics of 2014, Connor has just scored a gold. Duck four and counting.

“Deus vult!” (“God wills it!”) Pope Urban II, declaring the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont, 1095

In “The Story of the Warrior and the Captive,” Jorge Luis Borges tells two tales. The first is about the Lombard barbarian, Droctulft, who, faced with the magnificence of 6th-century Ravenna, switches sides to become a defender of Rome. The second is about a Yorkshire woman who, captured by Indians on the pampas in 19th-century Argentina, spurns rescue and casually demonstrates her rejection of her English heritage by leaping from her horse, drinking the hot blood of a freshly slaughtered sheep, then remounting and galloping off.

The ways in which the human hunger for meaning and purpose can be satisfied can’t be spelled out on a simple, numbered list. Furthermore, loyalties and bonds can be strong or weak, flexible or brittle, but not immutable. As Hoffer said, people who see their lives as “meaningless and worthless” are ripe for conversion. We must find a duckling that tells us just what kind of meaning and purpose jihad offers Connor.

Connor submits to the will of Allah. He learns Arabic and reads the Holy Quran. He prays five times daily, facing Mecca. He fasts. He becomes a member of the global community of the faithful, the Ummah. All true Muslims become his brothers. He moves from the United States to the Islamic State, crossing over from Turkey. He works tirelessly to help reestablish the Caliphate, pulled down by nonbelievers in 1924. He becomes a soldier of Islam, fighting to convert or vanquish all nonbelievers and to spread the word of Allah as revealed by the prophet Mohammed. He fights to defend and expand the IS. He joins in the centuries-long struggle to let the entire world know and enjoy the peace of Islam. His life is filled with personal, cultural, political, military, philosophical, and religious meaning. And if he is martyred in this struggle, he knows he will live forever in paradise.

All of this is pretty heady stuff for a kid from the southern California suburbs who cut his religious and philosophical teeth on Harry Potter. In fact, his first, and unsuccessful, round of imprinting almost certainly happened quite by accident, as he followed the waddling footsteps of Master Yoda.

In his new identity as a salafist mujahid, Connor becomes Abdallah (“slave of Allah”). His new world is pure and clean. Alcohol is forbidden. Drugs are forbidden. Infidelity is forbidden. Immodesty is forbidden. Sexual perversion is forbidden. Pornography is nonexistent. Looking back on his old world, Abdallah realizes that it was corrupt and filthy. The people there lived like pigs (“zay khanzeer”). All the “whatevers” he has ever heard have been trumped by a single shout of “Allahu akbar.” He thanks Allah that he has been shown the way. And that is our fifth and final duck.

“And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid down to rest.”

— “The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” Man of La Mancha, 1965

For readers whose hearts have been stirred by the call to jihad, as Connor’s was, I have prepared for your consideration a list of five perfectly reasonable alternatives.

  1. Become a Red Cross Volunteer. Take the training to become an Emergency Response Vehicle driver. It’s the best.
  2. Go to Europe, buy a bicycle and some light camping gear, then explore for three months or so. Get a topographical map so you can avoid the really steep bits.
  3. Get a folk guitar, learn the basic chords, then learn to play and sing as many Bob Dylan songs as you can. Start with “Desolation Row.”
  4. Build a tandoor in your back yard. Learn to cook tandoori chicken and naan. You won’t regret it.
  5. Read everything that P.G. Wodehouse ever wrote. Though somewhat dated, it is still hilarious. Bertie Wooster is a hoot.

Maybe these suggestions leave you cold because they don’t address your spiritual needs, or your need to assimilate in the mainstream culture, or your need to rebel, or your need to be cool, or your need to have meaning and purpose in your life, or maybe because they simply sound totally boring.

If that’s how you feel, there is one more alternative. Before it is presented, I have a request. Please read the list above one more time, and this time notice that in all five of the alternatives, no one gets killed, and no one gets tracked by a Predator drone, armed with a Hellfire missile. Surely, these are the kinds of details that one must take into account when charting the course of one’s life journey, don’t you think?

You read the list again? Really? Still not convinced? You’re sure? OK, here goes: Connor? You’re on the wrong side, man! Join the Marines.

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Bringing the World under Its Domination?


A couple of new YouTube videos making the rounds talks about the Islamic strategy to take over the world. They talk about how over the last 1,400 years, Islam has spread its tentacles nearly everywhere, slowly increasing its political influence. Mullahs in these videos prophesy, while beating their chests, that Islam will take over Europe and fly its flag over the White House. Sharia will rule the world. It is assumed that Muslim men are forever ready to die and to claim their 72 virgins, once in heaven.

The horror of ISIS’s actions has been made palpable in its own videos. And it is understandable that non-Muslims should react viscerally to the actions of fanatical Muslims in the Near East and elsewhere. But some perspective is necessary. It is even possible to say that not all the bad news is real.

Recently news about ISIS demanding that all women between 11 and 46 years old undergo genital mutilation became the talk of the blogosphere and was widely reported in the international media. Female genital mutilation is mostly a problem in African countries, so the world would be right to pay attention to any news that shows wider enforcement of a horrible custom in an area already afflicted with religious fanaticism and tribalism. Even those who quite rightly don’t want to get their own military entangled in the internal issues of foreign countries would be justified in criticizing practices that are inhuman.

The result is a growing anti-Muslim mass hysteria and an intellectual climate that the military-industrial complex wants.

Alas, not many people paused to verify whether the news related to genital mutilation was authentic, or to check whether there was someone else apart from a lone UN official to support its validity. How easy or acceptable would it have been if the media had written a similar accusation, about some other group, without confirming the authenticity of the report?

But thirteen years after 9/11 — a period during which talking about Islam has been taken out of the realm of political correctness — one can expect to get away with saying the most outrageous things against Muslims without a need to verify the information, before critically examining it. As with several news items like that regarding genital mutilation, even if the news is eventually proven to be false, in the minds of those who accepted it first without critical examination, it will have left an undefined hatred and repulsion against Muslims.

The result is a growing anti-Muslim mass hysteria and an intellectual climate that the military-industrial complex wants. By compromising our capacity for critical examination, we make ourselves gullible and vulnerable to manipulation, sacrificing the very foundations of Western civilization. At the minimum our judgements of the risks we face and solutions we see are erroneous.

I am no fan of Islam. Neither am I a fan of Christianity, Hinduism, or Buddhism. Neither am I a fan of the tribal, narrow-mindedness and high time-preference lifestyle of a large proportion of many of those in the African continent. Neither am I a fan of nationalism, a new-age religion to which a large section of Americans is extremely prone.

* * *

I have nothing against “religions” as long as they attempt to explore the spiritual nature of life. But ritualistic religions based on a system of concrete beliefs are an antithesis of spirituality and discourage thinking.

* * *

As I write this, Muslims are being butchered in Myanmar and in Sri Lanka by the much-esteemed Buddhists, for no reason that a rational mind can understand. But isn’t Islam a more fanatical religion? In the sea of irrationality, it can be hard to know which of these formal religions has been worse. Only a century back the Christian nations were killing tens of millions of their own kind in two “great” wars, and even today African tribes kill hundreds of thousands for no good reason. Chinese killed tens of millions of their own. Cambodians killed 25% of their population. Massive killings and pain were suffered in South America and Russia. A few hundred thousand innocent people in Nagasaki and Hiroshima were incinerated by the US. And in suicide bombing those who have shown extraordinary performance are not Muslims but Japanese kamikaze pilots. In recent times the concept was revived by a Hindu organisation, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

What Islam suffers from is generally the reality of life in all poor societies: their irrationality, a cultural existence that has not gone through an age of reason and the age of enlightenment. I have no interest in defending Islam from its problems. It has its own, some very specific to it. But there are some that are taken out of context. So let’s get a perspective on some of those.

In my city in India, businesses complain that Muslims must go to pray twice during working hours. I ask them why they don’t hire Hindus instead. The response I get is that Hindus come drunk in the morning, if they come at all. Alcoholism is a massive problem in most of the poor parts of Eastern Europe and Africa. Drug addiction and alcoholism, albeit not yet officially recognized, are an increasing and major problem among Hindus in India. Ironically, in the popular culture, it is Muslims who have the bad name: for their prohibition against alcohol.

In some Islamic countries, women are not able to attend universities. They are not allowed to have sexual relations when they want, with whom they want, because many Muslim men are obsessed with virginity. Misogyny rules the roost. Men control what women wear. This is the commonly understood narrative in the West. But while men get all the blame, in reality much of the control over women in these societies is conducted by elder women. In the Western media such information is often expressed by using the passive form, perhaps to cater to the needs of those in the Western feminist movement who never want any blame to go expressly to women. Indeed, besides the military-industrial complex, a certain strand of the Western feminist movement takes pride in demonizing Muslims, perhaps because some people caught in that strand want to feel better about themselves. For some women in the West, casual sex, peer pressure that urges them to work even when they don’t want to, the routine of day care for children, and, very importantly, the need of western governments to collect taxes from more bodies have brought more burdens than happiness.

Virginity is indeed valued in poor societies, not just among Muslims. But in some communities in the US as many as 70% or more of babies are born out of wedlock, with the average being 40%. This is a major social problem leading to disintegration of families, which ironically Muslims rightly recognize, calling it “decadence.” In rich societies social welfare programs, albeit in a very corrupt way, take the place of the missing dads. In poor societies, women cannot afford to be single mothers. Parents of such girls are paranoid about their getting pregnant, because bringing up children is very expensive. But can they not use contraception? Contraception is expensive for those earning $1 a day, and still carries the risks of pregnancy and disease. For poor people this risk, however small, is simply not worth the fun — these societies are mostly attuned to survival, not happiness or pleasure, anyway. To put this in perspective: half of births in the US are unintended.

* * *

A deeper reflection on the above might show that examining an alien culture’s social problems without understanding the broader context can be grossly misleading. Should you work for “liberating” women in such societies? Are you more likely to destabilize their societies, making the situation of women worse? Do the problems of women exist in isolation from the problems of men, children, and the elderly? Or do they exist in a balance within their cultural and economic context? Should you shovel democracy and western institutions down their throat? Or would such imposition — if not preceded by an intellectual renaissance — only confuse them, killing their capacity to develop the cultural ingredients to develop such institutions on their own?

* * *

But isn’t what women wear in Islamic countries particularly restrictive?

Not only in Islamic countries but in many Western countries as well, women are expected to show a higher level of modesty. In most of the US, it is permissible for men to go topless but not for women. Depending on their society, people have different senses of shame. Not all forms of distinctive dress for women — or men — are necessarily signs of male domination. One might want to visit Turkey, Malaysia, and even Indonesia, to see whether Islam is necessarily in opposition to modern life.

We grow up with idiosyncrasies of our own culture and don’t see them as such. In India and China, both of which are considered to be on the front line in dealing with Islamic fanaticism, a very large proportion of women are missing: babies relegated to the dustbin, put under the leg of the bed soon after birth, buried alive, not looked after when sick, or aborted because they were female. Why isolate Muslims as particularly bad?

But what about chest thumping mullahs who want to bring the West under sharia law? Such people have existed in all religions and in all regions. Moreover, new immigrants to the West, particularly the so-called educated — from Mexico, Africa, China, India, and elsewhere, including Muslims — have a tendency to vote for collectivist public policies, ironically directing the politics of their new home toward what made their original country wretched. A majority of Western women, who mostly got the right to vote in the last century, have voted for collectivist policies, increased social welfare, police, and state control. The result is that the US has increasingly turned into a militarized police state. They achieved this without much “help” from Islam.

When you hear about mass killings, the reality is usually not that the society is murderous, but that it is just too sheepish and emotionally broken.

One does see armed gangs and in some cases real armies beheading people on TV in Iraq and elsewhere in that region. Such gangs succeed not because individuals and communities, despite the other sins and irrationalities that blossom in a tyrannical society, directly approve of such criminality. They happen because most of the society is so completely broken, superstitious, irrational, and sheepish that it does not resist or fight back. Yes, when you hear about mass killings, the reality is usually not that the society is murderous, but that it is just too sheepish and emotionally broken. The average Muslim, however irrational he might be, still cares for his family and has no interest in killing others.

The Middle East is dotted with American bases, where America has historically tried to influence the region’s culture and politics. What would Americans think if there were a Muslim army stationed outside New York? One might even ask if it is not the sign of sheepishness that some people in the Middle East don’t hate America.

Almost certainly such wretched societies seriously lack the organizational power to take over the world, if they can even conceptualize that. Were this not the case, Israel — a country of a mere 7 million people — would never have come into existence. Many people in the Islamic world have no clue about the US, apart from drones and occupying forces. But the same people have problems identifying major cities in their own neighbourhood. Mostly they don’t know what their neighboring countries are. They just don’t have the intellectual ingredients to imagine expanding Islam to take over the world.

Islamic societies’ biggest problem is not fanaticism but irrationality and superstitions. That is the reason they are poor. Thousands are killed in fights between Shia and Sunni. Some are killed because they refuse to change their religion. But torture, pain, wretchedness, and systemic corruption are a part of day-to-day, moment-to-moment life in most of the world outside the West. Most of these people are born in virtual slavery, wallowing in disease and tyranny. Might-is-right is the operating principle in most of the world, from Islamic countries to China, to Africa, to India. Millions of people in these regions die needlessly every year, their deaths unreported in the media. Why blame only Islam?

More than Islam, what the West should worry about is the increasing irrationalities in the West itself, loss of critical examination in the intellectual space, and an increasing influence of cultural Marxist values — values that are the antithesis of what made the West great but are today posing as what underpins Western civilization.

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ISIS and the Anarchists


Some of our best friends at Liberty are libertarian anarchists; others are libertarian supporters of minimal government. I’m in the second camp. (Long-suffering people can refer to my articles in the July 2013 and December 2013 issues of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.) So I wonder what anarchists think about the ISIS affair.

Here is a private religious organization that raised its own military force, and then devoted it to murdering and torturing all who failed to obey its creed. Such things are not unexampled in Islam; recall the great Mahdist revolt in 19th-century Africa. Some religions waited hundreds of years to take over a state; the original Muslim movement erected a state at once, and that is what ISIS has been doing — transforming itself from a private movement into “the caliphate.”

I imagine that in analyzing this metathesis of private organizations, anarchists will do what they usually do: retell the long story of state aggression, comparing its horrors to the benefits of private organizations that remain private. They will emphasize that ISIS intervened in a situation destabilized by the United States and other governments. They will observe that ISIS acquired its weapons from those left in Iraq by the United States government. So any way you look, it will just be state, state, state.

But that’s my own point. Even if a state is destabilized, other states will take its place, and its resources. Some of them (including once-private organizations, such as, for instance, the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, and the radical Islamists) may be shaped by the worst private emotions — intolerance, sadism, the desire to kill and torture. To a regrettable degree in human history, the gratification of these emotions has taken precedence over the libertarian desire to mind one’s own business, participate in trade, and learn interesting things from one’s neighbors. How do you protect yourself against such vicious but popular passions, except with your own state? Ask the Kurds.

Nevertheless, I’d like to know what anarchists really think about this ISIS thing.

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