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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger Remembrance of an Historic Night. Not What You'd Expect Me To Say


Town Hall 



My parents were peasant immigrants from Eastern Europe. My mother cleaned houses and worked in factories. My dad mined coal as a child and did manual labor as an adult.

My mother was very bright. She was certainly one of the best writers I've ever read. There was no chance that she'd ever be anything but a cleaning woman. Her father, my grandfather, had contracted emphysema in the coal mine. My mom had to quit school and support her younger siblings. She cooked and clean and worked as a nanny for a Jewish family. She learned some Yiddish and introduced us to the Jewish foods she used to cook.

My dad also had to quit school young. His dad had had to fight to pay back his passage from Poland. The "Johnny Bulls" – Americans of English, Irish, Scotch and Welsh ancestry – thought that they could beat my grandfather as he was a small man, a "little Polak." But he beat them. They bushwhacked him one night. Eventually, he died, and my dad, speaking Polish as a first language and only eleven years old, hit the rails during the Depression, trying to find work to support the family. Underage, he joined the Army under false papers and served as "Stanley" though his name was Tony. When he came of age he re-enlisted under his real name. He fought in New Guinea and the Philippines.

I grew up knowing we were different but not sure how or why. My parents regarded our Bohunk identity as shameful, and as trouble. American culture communicated to us that we were the bad guys: people with names and accents like ours fought James Bond and even Rocky and Bullwinkle. Boris Badenov and Natasha were baby boomer's famous cartoon enemies.

As I moved beyond my working class hometown I discovered that many American elites were convinced that we were the world's worst anti-Semites.  

This confused me. One thing I knew for sure was that my mother embraced Jews as "us" not "them." One of her warmest friendships was with a traveling salesman named Dave. Dave and my mother would sit around the kitchen table and exchange stories from the Old Country. I would sit in on these sessions just to enjoy the warmth and sense of home I got from no other visitor to my mother's kitchen. She had other Jewish friends, and the one time she fixed me up with a blind date, it was with the son of another Jewish friend.

In any case, my exploration of why elites label Bohunks as the world's worst anti-Semites would become, one day, my prize-winning scholarly book "Bieganski."

So, we Bohunks were America's Cold War nemesis. We were stigmatized as anti-Semites. Other than that, though, we had no identity. There were no books in the town library about Poles or Slovaks. I know because I looked, obsessively. My teachers could tell me nothing. Unlike Italians, with their Godfather movies, we did not appear in the popular culture. The only really noticeable Poles in popular culture were the "meathead" on "All in the Family" and Stanley Kowalski, a crude, foul rapist, in "Streetcar Named Desire."

We also appeared in America's humor. We were the funny ethnicity, the ethnicity with the word "joke" after it: "Polak joke." You could tell jokes about Polaks that you wouldn't tell about other ethnicities. Johnny Carson, America's favorite humorist, told these jokes.

"How can you tell if your house was robbed by a Polak? The dog is pregnant and the garbage can is empty" gives you the sense of these jokes.

Some thirty years ago an amazing thing happened. The very people who used to despise Bohunks like my parents and me began to show admiration for people like my parents and me. Why? One word: Solidarnosc. The labor union in Poland inspired the world. Us – manual laborers, Catholics, Jews, people with difficult-to-spell names – we were inspiring the world.

I was living in New York City when Jaruzelski cracked down on Solidarity. I hit the streets with my comrades. I was a fellow traveler in those days. Steve Rabinowitz, my boyfriend was a true believer. And Jewish, by the way. Town Hall, a legendary meeting space, hosted an event expressing American Solidarity with Polish Solidarnosc members.

I was more thrilled than I can say. For once in my life it would be cool to be a Bohunk. For once in my life the people around me cared about what I cared about.

I had traveled to my mother's natal village in Slovakia and to Poland and I had seen the horrors of the Soviet Empire with my own eyes. Finally the Americans around me CARED. I felt like electricity was running through me. I felt the world expand in a profound and beautiful way.

Now, thirty years later, that night of support for Solidarnosc at Town Hall is a chapter in history books. Then I was just a kid, with wide, dewy eyes. I knew the people on the stage were celebrities; I could tell from audience reaction to them. I really didn't know who they were, though.

Susan Sontag was there. I had probably not heard of her before that night. She said something I've never forgotten, because I thought it was such a brilliant way for her to get her point across. She said, if one person read nothing but Reader's Digest, and another person read nothing but – and she named some leftie publication with which I was totally unfamiliar – I've since forgotten the name – which person would know more about the failings of the Soviet system?

She was making a point. Mainstream America was telling the truth about how bad Communism was, while American leftists were not.

I was, of course, at the time, an American leftist. Some decades would pass before I would put two together with two and realize that the left was not for me.

I'm learning just now, through Google, that Sontag's comments that Solidarnosc night at Town Hall were reported in the New York Times, TIME, The Washington Post, the New York Post, The LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, the Nation, and the New Republic. Of course I didn't know that at the time. I just thought that that one lady said something neat.

Pete Seeger took the stage. My image of him was positive. He was a kindly folksinger. He was way more of a celebrity than Susan Sontag. I was thrilled and moved that he was on our team. He was a real, live Americans – no hyphen, no last name ending in a vowel, no grandparents who couldn't speak English, no parents who did the work no one else wanted to do, no relatives in the Old Country who lived under the boot. Pete Seeger was one of the real, live Americans who suddenly was not only seeing us, the Bohunks, but respecting us. Joining in our cause! Helping us to come out from under the boot!

Pete Seeger took the stage.

Now, see, what I am about to type is so horrible, so much not what you want to hear about this kindly folksinger, I want to stop my narrative right here. I want to fast forward to the present day and tell you that I just listened to a slew of encomiums for Pete Seeger on NPR, his natural habitat.

Prof. Alan Chartock, a friend of Pete Seeger's, was just on NPR talking about what a great guy Seeger was. Chartock says that Burl Ives testified against Pete Seeger to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Seeger eventually forgave Ives for this. I greatly admire forgiveness and it touches me no end that Seeger forgave Burl Ives. Chartock also talked about Seeger's environmental activism and I admire that, too. I'm also an environmentalist. It's the cause I donate money to the most regularly.

I know it. Pete Seeger. Great guy.

I hate Pete Seeger. Mere mention of his name makes me angry and sad.

Let's go back to that night at Town Hall, where the idealistic daughter of a Bohunk coal miner and house cleaner, there with her date Steve Rabinowitz, is thrilled finally to feel part of a group in the country she was born in.

Pete Seeger took the stage.

And he trashed us all. He dumped the sticky, ugly substance of hate on us. He did it because he hated us. And his hate was okay.

Seeger, instead of voicing support for Solidarity, delivered a self-righteous lecture about how Poles oppress Jews.

If you haven't read "Bieganski," I can't begin to explain to you here how wrong this was. Because you don't really think about us – Bohunks – in any serious way. We are the joke ethnicity. We are the bete noir. We are the prototype of the brutish hater.

Solidarity thrilled and inspired the world, and your image of us began to raise its head up above the mud.

Seeger's speech, on that night, at that moment, pushed us back down into the mud again.

Since Bohunks aren't taken seriously, let me try this.

Suppose, on the night that Barak Obama was inaugurated, Pete Seeger stood up at a celebration in a legendary public space and said, "Let us never forget that black people beat and torture white people. Remember Reginald Denny?"

That's how bad what Seeger did that night was.

Great guy. Great guy.

He's gone now, so I can't wait for him to ask me for my forgiveness.

***


There's a short film, Marcel Lozinski's 80 MM Od Europy. Eleven minutes. A salute to Bohunks. Watch it here

We are not beasts.
Still of Bohunk workers from one of my favorite films, Marcel Lozinski's 89 mm Od Europy 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Pope Francis' Doves of Peace Attacked by Gull and Crow at Vatican

Source The Mirror 
Source: The Mirror 
Source: The Independent
Pope Francis and two children, a boy and a girl, released two white doves of peace in St Peter's Square at the Vatican on Sunday, January 26th, 2014.

The doves were immediately attacked. Photos show what appear to be a hooded crow and a yellow-legged gull.

I'm shocked by these photos. I've never seen a crow or a gull attack a song bird in flight and attempt to eat it. I've seen accipiters, a rapid species of hawk, do this. I've seen small birds "mob" or pester crows.

Compare an accipiter, with its talons and hooked beak, to a gull with its webbed feet and heavy beak. You can see that the accipiter is built to kill other birds in flight, while the gull is not.

I talked about this with other birdwatchers, and they say that it happens, but I've never seen it.

Robert Spencer reads this as an omen here. I think he's reading too much into the event.

Two accipiters, a sharp shinned hawk and a Cooper's hawk, face off and show off their talons.
Photo by Jay MacGowan.
Source

Saturday, January 25, 2014

"Charlie Argues Religion" A Poem about Movies, Internet Love, Suicide, the Afterlife, and Hope

Source
The Popcorn Farm is a new literary journal dedicated to writing about movies. It's a lot of fun. In the inaugural issue, there is a poem about 1940s film star John Garfield, and another about watching Bruce Willis get dressed to fight crime, and a really moving poem about a woman who discovers she is a lesbian and wants to hold hands with another woman at the movies in spite of her husband's presence. There's an essay by an author who liked monster movies as a kid because the author is transgendered.

My favorite poem is by Penelope Scambly Schott and it is entitled "I'm Just Not a Movie Person":

"…I file out of the cinema to where tree tops
tremble against the wide screen of the sky.
then the music comes up and the credits: my parents,
my children, my first husband, my next poem even
the childhood cat…"

There's a poem by me, as well, entitled "Charlie Argues Religion." It's below.

***

Charlie Argues Religion

with thanks to Charlie "Fabrizio" Ryan

Charlie and I used to argue religion.
Charlie was gay and a smoker and he lived in LA.
I was marooned in the Midwest, Catholic, a spinster,
the type that nags strangers,
"The Single Worst Thing you can do to your body,"
while pointing to the cigarette in their hands.
We argued online. Hair pulling; death threats: there were no holds barred.
But we shared a love, in a word: movies.
"I want to rub against your calves and purr," he mused,
after reading my review of "Cluny Brown."
After reading one of his, I blurted – typed – "I love you," and did not delete.
Still surprised by that. Haven't said it to any of my lovers.
Not in English, anyway.
But – my church-going, his atheism – believe me, it got ugly.

One winter day I was inhabiting an oasis of triumph;
today would be my dissertation defense.
For once in her life this geek could afford glee.
I knew this shit inside out.
The little voice interjected: "Check e-mail."
There it was. A member of our invisible audience, who had seen Charlie and me spat and make up and roll around in film, wrote:
"Last night … Charlie couldn't breathe …
house-mates intervened …
an ambulance … a hospital … a death."
The Single Worst Thing you can do to your body!Oh, Charlie.
This was the first day in ten years my dissertation topic
was the last thing on my mind.
Still aced the damn thing.
"It's called 'acting'" as Charlie was wont to say.

Summer. Long-gone Charlie was the last thing on my mind.
I was homeless.
Couldn't find a job. A bad economy for new PhDs
from the wrong side of the tracks
with a history of illness.
Sleeping here and there.
My life a film noir.
From a previous surgery,
a stockpile of morphine:
small, round, maroon, nauseating –
I'd take Dramamine first.
Then, just, swallow them all.
"I'll do it tomorrow."

I lay, diagonal, across a borrowed bed.
And there was Charlie –
just so happy – the imprimatur.
No earthbound mind could fabricate that pure pitch of joy.
He pulled me into his store. He's got a bookstore, now. Rare books.
Which is just so very Charlie.
At first, discretely, as if we were just chatting,
and then, with urgency, like an older brother's,
his words found me and soothed me. They lifted me; I could take flight. They slid muscles back through sleeves of skin. Let me know I could go on. Let me know it would be beautiful. And mean something as fine as the very best movie.
In a word: God.
If I could, gentle reader, I would type here
what Charlie revealed
and then you'd know, too.
But then this happened.
I was limp on a dock.
The place I'd met Charlie was far across water.

An angel, officious, as these creatures can be, tapped my shoulder.
"You have to go inland."
"No … Charlie … there."
"You have to go."
Soft with gratitude, I obeyed;
as if I were swallowing,
with each step
all the things Charlie taught me
sank deep
so I cannot articulate,
or even remember them.
By the time my feet came to fall on land
I was awake on a borrowed bed,
But to this I can testify:
First thing I did –
not knowing, that night, where I'd find sleep
or if I'd ever land a job
or if I could ever replace the gift that was Charlie in my spinster's life –
was sprinkle maroon pills
into a dumpster.


***

Please consider reading the rest of The Popcorn Farm. You can find it here.

The Popcorn Farm's facebook page is here
.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

New Atheists, Rape Accusations, Feminism, and Rand's Identity in "Save Send Delete."

Edgar Degas "Interior" aka "The Rape" Source

The other day I received an intriguing email from my friend and colleague Dr. Linda Kornasky. Linda is a feminist and free thinker. Linda alerted me to a conversation Atheists and feminists are having about gender relations in the New Atheist movement. She informed me that there has been an accusation of rape against a high profile American Atheist, and much discussion of other harassment of women Atheists by male Atheists.

By the way, I'm capitalizing "Atheist" here. I'm not talking about all those who don't believe in God, but, rather, a subset of atheists who are organized and who devote time and energy to being part of the New Atheist movement.

Linda suggested something to me. Would I publicly announce the identity of Rand, the pseudonymous Atheist in my book "Save Send Delete"? Linda had read the book and was certain that discussion of it could make significant contributions to the conversation Atheist feminists had been having about gender relations.

I agreed with Linda. I would LOVE to be part of any such discussion. I read the links Linda sent.

***

Linda sent me a link to a post by Jennifer McCreight, who blogs under the handle "Blag Hag." McCreight's blog post entitled "How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy's Club & Why It's Time for a New Wave of Atheism" included a critique of New Atheism that I agree with 100 percent. This critique was written by Natalie Reed, and it is brilliant – and devastating.

Reed suddenly had a realization. She realized that the New Atheists were often economically elite, white, heterosexual men. She realized that they were "activists" around Atheism, and only Atheism, because they had never experienced misogyny or poverty or racism. The only "enemy" these New Atheist men had ever fought was Christianity – a relatively easy target. In fighting Christianity, they suddenly were able to depict themselves as heroic champions. They could do this without ever looking in any critical way at their own economic, color, and gender privilege.

Reed reported suddenly having "the creepy thought that the reason a lot of outspoken, committed, passionate atheists are choosing [New Atheism] as their arena is because they're too selfish, too entitled, or too sheltered to allow any other issues to really matter to them…

There's some kind of weird psychological need that a lot of people, perhaps in response to feelings that their belief of their privileges being earned is under threat, to valorize and mythologize themselves as valiant Robin Hoods…

What atheism is offering so many middle-class, white, heterosexual, able-bodied men is the capacity to see themselves as these savvy, smart, daring, controversial rogues who are standing up against an oppressive dogma in order to liberate the deluded sheeple…they get to be the heroes of their own narratives, instead of a passive passenger adrift on social forces more or less beyond their control… social forces that happened to guide them into a relatively safe and comfy position.

No matter how limited your views, no matter how much privilege you have, when you prop yourself up against Christianity, you get to be clever, and you get to be the rebel."

Brava, Natalie Reed, brava!

Oh, gosh, my friend Linda Kornasky was so right! I did so want to be part of this conversation Atheist feminists are having! And yes, "Save Send Delete" could contribute to it!

I kept reading.

Again, on Jennifer McCreight's Blag Hag blog, I found one prominent Atheist's reply to a woman critic. I quote it, below. Fair warning. This is a vile piece of writing, purposely written to provoke pain in the reader.

"I will make you a rape victim if you don't fuck off...I think we should give the guy who raped you a medal. I hope you fucking drown in rape semen, you ugly, mean-spirited cow…Is that kind of like the way that rapists dick went in your pussy? Or did he use your asshole…I'm going to rape you with my fist."

There's a lot more to this, but this excerpt gives you the main idea of the whole paragraph.

Shocked, shocked
Atheist feminists are shocked, shocked to discover the worst kinds of misogyny in their ranks.

Their shock is symptomatic of their movement.

Look. Isn't it just a little bit disingenuous for New Atheist feminist to be troubled that New Atheist men speak badly to them and sexually harass them?

Look at their heroes. New Atheist Richard Dawkins compares religion to smallpox. New Atheist Sam Harris suggests that people should be killed for religious belief. New Atheist Christopher Hitchens smeared Mother Teresa. Scientist Pim van Lommel accused New Atheist Michael Shermer of using his column in Scientific American to misrepresent van Lommel's near-death research. New Atheist Daniel Dennett says that Atheists should be called "Brights" because they are smarter than non-Atheists.

Bill Maher's hateful comments about people of faith are too many to quote here. In internet discussions, Atheists frequently refer to Jesus as a "dead Jew on a stick" and communion as "dead Jew zombie cannibalism and vampirism." There's a reason why there is a spate of articles denouncing the New Atheists with one certain adjective: "obnoxious."

New Atheist feminists are shocked, shocked to discover that a community built on hate, unearned privilege, denial of responsibility for others, and violation turns its hate, privilege, irresponsibility and violation on its own.

We've seen this movie before. "Meet the new boss; same as the old boss." It's the repeat of a predictable pattern. The New Atheist movement has the exact same, shopworn and tired flaws that all Utopian movements have.

Utopian movements announce: "The past was really bad! The present status quo is corrupt and flawed! We will create a pristine, flawless future!"

As long as you announce yourself as capable of perfecting the world, the ends justifies the means. You are the savior of humanity, and in the course of that salvation, you allow yourself the right to destroy. You are the iconoclast. "I am become Shiva, the destroyer of worlds." As Maximilian Robespierre said, "You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs." You can't bring on the New Atheist utopia without raping a few naïve followers. Small price to pay!

Nazism, Communism, France's Revolutionary Terror, and various notorious communes, like the Westboro Baptist Church, were and are utopian.

The perfect is the enemy of the good. As long as you insist on perfection, the only reward real life offers – just good enough – forever eludes you. The revolution eats its young. Maximilian Robespierre, known as "The Incorruptible One," was decapitated by his own purifying machine – the guillotine.

I am a Catholic. My church is deeply flawed. New Atheists understand my membership in, and support for, a deeply flawed church as a sign that I am a corrupt fool. They think this because they are intellectually and ethically immature. They don't realize that my membership in the publicly-confessed-as-flawed, trying-to-be-less-flawed Catholic Church is a sign that I am in the exact right church.

A prominent New Atheist has been publicly accused of rape and serial sexual harassment.

How did the New Atheist community respond?

Some women blogged about it. These whistle-blowers have received rape and death threats. At least two found the experience so daunting they publicly announced that they would retire from blogging, or retire from blogging about misogyny among New Atheists.

New Atheist acolytes set up a "defense fund" for the alleged rapist, an economically comfortable minor celebrity who gives no sign of needing extra cash. The fund collected thousands of dollars, in spite of there being no clear immediate need or purpose for the donations that came pouring in, exceeding the fundraisers' target.

I visited the Facebook page of the New Atheist in question. He was ranting about … sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Yes. Really.

Let me make this clear. A New Atheist accused of rape and sexual harassment was publicly excoriating the Catholic Church for sex abuse.

And his devoted little New Atheist acolytes were taking his bait, following along as robotically as a parody of a religious congregation emptily mouthing words in some arcane sacred tongue that in fact is completely void of meaning. "Oh yes," they chanted. "Catholic clerics are so bad because they sexually abuse their blinded and helpless followers," they insisted. "Catholics are such sheep because they don't turn in the alleged rapists."

How do you spell "irony"? I'm dyslexic. I think it's spelled N - E - W -- A - T - H - E - I - S - T.

As a Catholic, I wake up every day knowing that there is mud on my dress. And I know I have to deal with that mud.

I need to be a better person. I need to be more aware of what's going on around me. I need to speak up when I see injustice.

I do that because I live in an imperfect world that I can never perfect. I do that because I want to live up to the foundational documents and example of my faith. Those documents offer us our best map to a better world. We believe that we are all part of God, and all worthy of dignity and respect. We believe in confession and renewal. We are working on it. We are working very hard on what we did wrong and what we can do to make it right.

What are the foundational documents and doctrines of the New Atheists? "We're perfect; you're scum." See where that gets you.

There's something else that the hardcore New Atheist utopians miss. Not-perfectible humans, no matter who they are and what they believe, all share fundamental flaws. Those flaws are not rooted in religion that is something you can eliminate with your guillotines of perfection. Those flaws are rooted in human nature which you can never escape.

You are a charismatic leader who believes in God? You will be tempted to sexually abuse followers.

You are a charismatic leader who doesn't believe in God? You will be tempted to sexually abuse your followers.

Jettison belief in God and you will still burp and fart and your feet will still stink. The hardcore New Atheists really don't get that. No utopians do. That is why they are so dangerous, and so wrong.

So, for today, I will decline Linda's intriguing invitation, and I won't reveal, not in this blog post anyway, Rand's identity. Speaking is good, but being heard is necessary for dialogue, and I'm not confident that New Atheists can hear a Catholic, even if we are all feminists. And, yes, I acknowledge that I am not a name, and my book is not a bestseller, and probably most people don't really care who Rand is.

***

Natalie Reed's blog post entitled "All In," which included the above-quoted critic of the New Atheist movement can be found here.

Jennifer McCreight's blog entitled "How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy's Club & Why It's Time for a New Wave of Atheism" can be found here.

Jennifer McCreight's blog entitled "Scratch the Amazing Atheist Off Your List, Too," which included the Atheist's ugly response to a woman, can be found here.

Source

Saturday, January 18, 2014

"Saving Mr Banks" It Can Be Feminist to Depict a Witch as a Witch

"Savings Mr. Banks" is worth seeing for Emma Thompson's peerless performance as "Mary Poppins" author PL Travers. That Thompson was not nominated for a best actor Academy Award is a crime. Thompson's performance is one of the most compelling and convincing performances I've ever seen.

Thompson plays PL Travers as a witch, and I'm using the nice version of the word. You know what word I really mean. Thompson's Travers is thoroughly believable. This isn't a cartoon villainess. This isn't Cruella DaVille or Maleficent. This is a woman you could imagine having as a boss or a neighbor. You'd do everything you could to avoid her. She doesn't learn any lesson. She doesn't reveal that we are all warm and fuzzy if you just get close enough.

Some have criticized "Saving Mr. Banks" for this reason. They say that it's sexist to depict a successful woman author as being a witch. Baloney. It would be sexist to depict her as warm and cuddly. Women can be unpleasant. I know plenty of women like Travers. It isn't liberated to insist that all women are nice. Plenty of women are not nice at all.

I found Thompson's depiction of Travers to be so powerful that the rest of the film didn't measure up, for me. Part of the film takes place in 1961. Travers is in Hollywood, working with Disney studios on their film adaptation of her book "Mary Poppins." Part of the film is a series of flashbacks to Travers' childhood in Australia. In the flashbacks, Colin Farrell plays Travers' alcoholic father. The flashbacks didn't work for me. They had the feel of an afterschool special. Everyone was so good looking, especially Colin Farrell, even while suffering the health effects of alcoholism. Annie Rose Buckley, who plays the author as a child, is cherubically beautiful. The scenes depicting the alcoholic father disappointing and humiliating his daughter, and breaking her heart, did not affect me at all. They felt paint-by-numbers – oh, this is the predictable scene where the little girl realizes her father is a loser.

The 1961 scenes in Hollywood worked much better. Paul Giamatti is amazing in the small part of Travers' limo driver. He brings a wallop of humanity and poignancy to his role that really swept me off my feet. The two develop a real rapport, and they could have taken up much more of the film. Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak are also brilliant as Robert and Richard Sherman, who wrote the songs for Mary Poppins. In one scene, Travers objects to Robert Sherman's walking with a cane. The film doesn't mention this; I wish it had. Sherman was only 19 or 20 years old when he participated in the liberation of Dachau. He was shot during the war. That's why he walked with a cane.

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney didn't really work for me. Walt Disney was a totemic figure from my childhood. I remember him, in his TV appearances, as rather godlike – avuncular and yet distant, impenetrable. While watching Emma Thompson as PL Travers, I got the sense that I was watching something like the real PL Travers – a real, complex, human being. While watching Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, I got the sense that I was watching Tom Hanks play a sanitized version of Walt Disney. "Saving Mr. Banks" was very brave in its depiction of Travers, but very vanilla in its depiction of Walt. Giamatti as the fictional limo driver had more depth and complexity.

The movie is most valuable as a character piece. It tries to say some big things about how people live through sorrow, like Travers' childhood, and survive that sorrow by creating art about it, like "Mary Poppins." That big idea really didn't wash for me. I know it's possibly true, but that message just didn't grab me, so the movie was not a ten, but it's certainly worth viewing for Thompson's performance, for her interplay with Giamatti and the Sherman brothers as played by Schwartzman and Novak.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On Meeting the Prominent Atheist Who Inspired "Save Send Delete"

Paul Henreid, Bette Davis, "Now Voyager." 
"Save Send Delete" tells the true story of my long distance, email relationship with a prominent atheist. We debated whether or not God exists, and we had a romantic relationship – all via email.

People sometimes ask me whether or not "Rand" – his pseudonym – and I actually ever met. Yes, we did. This blog post tells that story.

It was a very, very weird night.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

"Her" 2013 So Bad It Strains Language to Describe


"Her" 2013 is so bad communicating how bad it is strains my abilities as a reviewer. Sometimes we say, "If you've seen the trailer, you've seen the best bits of the movie." With "Her," if you've seen the movie's poster, you've seen the movie. "Her" consists of shots of Joaquin Phoenix's face as he talks to "Samantha," the operating system of his computer, and Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, responds.

Theodore (Phoenix) is a mopey guy. His marriage failed. He is lonely. He plays video games but appears to have no other interest or activity. His computer's new operating system has a sexy voice. He has a relationship with this voice. The relationship consists of him chatting with the computer about how sad and lonely he feels and how he wishes he were in love and in a relationship. Theodore reminisces about his marriage. In flashbacks, he is shown cavorting and scampering with his picture-perfect, and much younger, ex-wife as if they were the models in an ad for Viagra or feminine protection. Theodore occasionally chats with real life people, including neighbor Amy Adams, a fine actress who is criminally underused – at the very least dress her in some jodhpurs! And that's it. Nothing else happens.

The movie is inert. It sits on the screen like a boring houseguest who won't leave and who refuses to do anything excitingly offensive enough for his host to phone the police and have him thrown out. Nothing funny or challenging or profound or original or intriguing or witty or daring is said or done. There's no development of the idea. The movie's end could just as well have been the movie's middle or even its beginning. There is so much inept nothing up on the screen I'm astounded that this movie was even released. It genuinely frightens me that the scriptwriter and the director are convinced that they created something worthy of viewers' time. Hubris at this level should be actionable in a court of law.


There is one thing – and one thing only – in "Her" that shows some creativity, intelligence and originality and sparks some interest. "Her" is meant to be set in the not-too-distant future. Casey Storm, "Her"'s costume designer, avoids the temptation to create futuristic costumes such as are found in Flash Gordon, Star Trek, or Star Wars. No one wears wings or anything metallic. Everyone dresses as if they shop at Salvation Army and purchase the most drab, frumpy clothes available. Collars are narrow. Pants are high-waisted. Color combinations are soporific. Theodore wears a lot of pumpkin orange. The clothes are just bad enough to be entirely believable as a fashion trend. 

"Lone Survivor" 2013: What Are We Doing in Afghanistan?


"Lone Survivor" is a brutal, graphic, combat movie. It depicts US Navy SEALs fighting against Taliban in Afghanistan in 2007. It is based on Marcus Luttrell's book of the same title. There is very little plot. The movie opens with scenes of Navy SEALs undergoing rigorous training. Trainees are shown lying down under oncoming ocean waves, being dunked in water so that they cannot breathe, doing pushups, etc. 

After this brief segment, the film sets up each SEAL team member. They are shown to be lovable guys who have families back home whom they cherish and who cherish them. One SEAL wants to buy his fiancée an Arabian horse. Another is concerned about his wife's redecorating in a color called "honeydew." Given Marcus Luttrell's fame and the title of the movie, most people will know how this movie ends. That knowledge gives these scenes that much more poignancy, but also a sense of the director manipulating the audience. We know what's coming, and we know why the director included these scenes.

The SEALs are assigned to assassinate Taliban commander Ahmad Shah. They are shown with all their gear, penetrating a steep mountain covered with pines and strewn with boulders. They see their target, and are ready to carry out their mission. They are discovered by three Afghan goat herders. They consider killing the goat herders, but Luttrell advises against it. If they kill the goat herders, they will be condemned on CNN as bestial Americans who assassinate Afghan civilians. Immediately after the soldiers release the goat herders, the goat herders inform the Taliban of their location. They Taliban quickly surround, outnumber, and begin firing on the four SEALs.

The firefight is depicted in graphic, brutal, realistic images. A SEAL is shown aiming his weapon, firing, and a Taliban's turbaned head explodes into a squirting fountain of red liquid. Bullets penetrate flesh and blood and gore ooze out. This gunfight is lengthy and tense. I have to ask how it will affect viewers. Will viewers want to get a gun and make someone's head explode? Yes, our media is saturated with violence. Is that a good thing? Have we given up even asking this question?

The film never addresses the larger questions at play, and by not addressing them, they become all the louder. What are we doing in Afghanistan? How do we win in Afghanistan? Are we wasting the lives of fine, patriotic Americans and other allied men and women in uniform? Not to mention the polio workers, doctors and other aid workers the Taliban murders in Afghanistan?

How about the rules of engagement? If we are at war in Afghanistan, then why aren't we acting as if we are at war? Should the goat herders not have been immediately killed, thus possibly saving many soldiers' lives and leading to a successful mission – the death or capture of Ahmad Shah? If soldiers are forced to conduct a war while wearing kid gloves, how can they be expected to win? What if we had imposed these rules of engagement on our soldiers during WW II? Would they have been able to win that war? Would the swastika not still be flying in Europe as we engaged in endless talks with our "partners for peace"?

Again, none of this is discussed in the film, making the discussion all the louder inside the viewer's head. In fact there was some controversy when CNN's Jake Tapper asked Marcus Luttrell about the "Senseless" deaths depicted in the film. Marcus Luttrell asserted that no, the deaths depicted in the film were not senseless. Americans are asking this, though. What are we doing in Afghanistan?

Friday, January 10, 2014

"Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church" by Lauren Drain: Book Review

"Banished, A Memoir: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church" by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer is a disturbing book. Part of what makes it so disturbing is the pettiness of the abuse it describes. An all-American family turned its picture-perfect life into hell, for no good reason. "Hell is other people," Jean-Paul Sartre famously said. That's certainly the case in "Banished."

The book is written in a very flat, "and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened" style. There is little dialogue or and no vivid description. Literature's power to illuminate dark corners is ignored. Basic facts are presented in simple words and short sentences, with no attempt at interpretation.

"Banished" invites readers to question religion and homophobia. Why do the members of Westboro Baptist Church hate homosexuals, as well as Catholics, Jews, and the US military? The book suggests that all the frenzied hatred that this tiny cult manages to stir up is the result of a bad experience that founder and patriarch Fred Phelps had during a brief visit to West Point. Further, one suspects that Fred Phelps' crazed hatred of homosexuals, Catholics, Jews, and the US military is used by the cult as a bonding tactic. They give themselves a common enemy, and feel closer to each other.

Reporters and others who hoped to challenge the Westboro Baptist Church completely missed the boat. Critics try to fault Westboro on the Bible. This cult is not about the Bible. It's about lonely, marginal, not very intelligent people following Fred Phelps and trying to give meaning to their lives thereby. Phelps is comparable to Charles Manson or any other cult leader. God has nothing to do with Westboro's homophobia. Westboro's members go along with Phelps' monomania because they hunger for a leader, a sense of being involved in something larger than themselves, and a sense of belonging.

The book further invites readers to contemplate how cults differ from religions. Make no doubt about it; Westboro is definitely a cult. Westboro Baptist Church's tax exempt status should be revoked. "Banished" also demands that we consider where the dividing line is between religion and madness.

Lauren Drain is a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church. When she was in her early twenties, the church banished her. She tells her story in "Banished."

Steve Drain was a handsome young man in love with a very pretty woman, Luci. Steve Drain was domineering and needed control. Luci was a doormat, allowing Steve to walk all over her, and dominate her. Steve gave every appearance of cheating on his wife, spending time and energy with other women. Luci protested, but never made her protests stick. Steve was also unstable, moving from job to job, enthusiasm to enthusiasm. Steve was looking for something. He wanted to feel that he was part of something larger than himself. Steve stumbled across the Westboro Baptist Church and it gave him the sense of meaning that his life lacked.

Steve picked up his family, his wife, Luci, his daughters Lauren and Taylor, and moved them to live at the Westboro Baptist Church compound.

Lauren describes life within the cult. Members jockey for position in the church. Being a member of the Phelps family is required for highest membership. Members debase themselves and tear each other down in order to get close to Fred Phelps and his daughter Shirley Phelps Roper. Fred Phelps hands down arbitrary rules about what members can and cannot do. At one point women were allowed to cut their hair; later, that permission was revoked, and women had to forgo any haircuts. Women are urged to dress modestly, but the higher up one is in the hierarchy, the lower cut blouse one is allowed to wear.

Lauren describes Westboro's members as believing that they alone will go to Heaven. In Heaven, they will observe sinners suffering in Hell. They will mock those suffering in Hell, and Hell's sinners will hear their mocking comments. They adhere to an interpretation of Calvinism that informs them that God has chosen to save only them, and no one else on earth can be saved, even if they try to be saved. Reporters should have investigated the mind control and bizarre workings of this cult, and exposed all that, rather than focusing on debates about what the Bible says about homosexuality.

Again, the Westboro Baptist Church is a cult based on power, not Christianity. Members must submit to Fred Phelps and his daughter, Shirley Phelps Roper, in her every whim. At one point, Shirley decides to tear some of the church members out of their homes. This couple had been church members since 1955. Without warning, Shirley reports to this couple's home and begins to place their possessions into a hired dumpster. Shirley receives no permission to do this. It's her whim. She must be obeyed. The elderly couple's belongings are half in, half out of their house, when the old couple protests and resists this massive theft. Shirley, annoyed, announces that she is excommunicating the elderly couple from the WBC. This behavior is criminal, controlling, and heartless. It has nothing to do with Christianity. It's all about raw power and the members' desperate, fear-based need to belong, at any cost.

Lauren's home-life is pettily perverse. Though "Banished" never uses the word "incest," it's clear that her father, Steve Drain, has an incestuous attachment to his own daughter. He reacts with rage to her blossoming womanhood and interest in any male other than himself. He monopolizes Lauren's time and encourages her hero worship of him. When Lauren spends any time with a boy, Steve screams at her, "How could you prefer him to me?" Most disgustingly, Steve takes money from Lauren. In just one instance, when Lauren gets a full time job as an RN at a hospital, Steve takes her entire five thousand dollar signing bonus to pay for his brand new Ford truck.

Luci, Steve's wife and Lauren's mother, is jealous of Lauren and undercuts Lauren in the household. When Steve turns on Lauren and abuses her, Luci, her own mother, refuses to come to Lauren's aid.

Lauren Drain was ejected from the church as an adult. She was ejected because she was pretty and attractive to men. This caused tension. She had to leave within moments of learning she was ejected. She had time to pack only a few items. She was forbidden to have contact with her parents or her three younger siblings, whom she helped raise. Lauren repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to re-enter the church, and to make contact and reconciliation with her family.


Lauren's book contains no serious, thorough repudiation of the hateful stances she voiced when she was a WBC member. For this reason, I think it is unfortunate that Lauren will keep all the profits from her book. It would be right if some of the profits went to homosexuals, Catholics, Jews, and the US military. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"Bhutto" 2010 Maybe Benazir Was on a Doomed Mission

"Bhutto" 2010 directed by Duane Baughman and Johnny O'Hara. "Bhutto" is a fast-paced, colorful, tear-jerking treatment of the life of Benazir Bhutto, one of the most charismatic and tragic politicians of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I found this documentary more entertaining than many recent feature films.

I've always been fascinated by Benazir Bhutto. It's hard not to be. She was certainly stunningly beautiful. But it's more than that with Bhutto. She was a woman who was elected prime minister of an officially Islamic nation. You could read her calculating intelligence and her steely determination on her exquisitely beautiful face. You can also read there the great tragedy that stalked her family, and her nation.

Bhutto also gave off an air of idealism. Bhutto believed in something bigger than herself, something for which she was willing to sacrifice her life. Sacrifice she did – Bhutto endured prison, and returned to Pakistan from exile knowing the nation she loved so much would probably kill her. It did. But there's great complexity in Bhutto's life, as well. She did some things that were not at all admirable. Her own niece accuses her of murder.

The talking heads in this documentary compare the Bhutto family saga to a Shakespearean plot or a Greek tragedy. It's actually more high opera. Benazir Bhutto was a great beauty who renounced a personal life so she could pursue politics. She realized she would need a man to get over in a Muslim country, so she submitted to an arranged marriage with a very handsome playboy polo player. Bhutto stated publicly that were she not a woman politician in a Muslim country, she would not have submitted to an arranged marriage. Muslim norms prevented her from meeting a man she might fall in love with on her own. As in an opera, she fell in love with the husband her mother picked out for her. Some say he betrayed her by accepting graft; others say this is a political smear.

"Bhutto" the documentary certainly presents the drama of Bhutto's life. Talking heads include her personal friends, her husband, her children, her sister, and her niece. Her friends speak of Bhutto in the most glowing of terms. Exactly because this is the realm of politics, one cannot take anything that anyone onscreen says at face value. One thing I wish this documentary had offered was a reliable navigator, an authoritative voice helping me to sort politically expedient comments from solid facts.

The film does provide contradictory voices on the question of corruption. A New York Times reporter insists on the accuracy of the Times' charges of the Bhutto family's corruption. Bhutto's friend insists that her lifestyle was not that of someone with the alleged unlimited funds. Another friend points out that Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's husband, was kept in prison but never convicted.

There's a lot of tragic and regrettable history up on the screen. Pakistan gets a nuclear bomb, fights wars with Bangladesh and India, supports the Taliban, hosts Osama bin Laden. The Bhutto family is depleted by one assassination after another. Benazir keeps trying to get and keep power in Pakistan. Her friends insist that this is so she can build schools, end polio, and provide clean water. Bhutto had other noble goals. She wanted to avenge her father's assassination. She stated that "Democracy is the best revenge." She wanted to serve as a liberatory example to women and girls – while maintaining a public, feminine, nurturing face. She wanted to reconcile Islam and the West, to prove that Islam and democracy are compatible.

Whenever the documentary reports negative events, somehow the United States is ultimately responsible, even for Bhutto's assassination. Talking head Tariq Ali, an imperious, aristocratic atheist with flowing, noblesse-oblige hand gestures, insists on this. This constant citing of the US as the bad guy in Pakistan is infantile, inaccurate, and symptomatic of the problem at the heart of the film.

Pakistan is frequently cited as the most dangerous nation on earth. The Indian-Pakistan conflict is cited as the world's most likely cause of a nuclear war. We need to be able to speak clearly about Pakistan's problems.

The documentary does not linger on horrific aspects of the Bhutto legacy. The Bhuttos, father and daughter, made sure Pakistan developed nuclear weapons and shared that technology with North Korea. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was president of Pakistan during the war with Bangladesh, a war that included massive human rights violations so severe some labeled them "genocide." Bhutto declared Ahmadis "non-Muslims." There was deadly persecution of Ahmadis in 1974, under Bhutto. Benazir Bhutto recognized the Taliban in Afghanistan. She didn't repeal the hudood ordinances.

Pakistan has lots of problems, problems the United States didn't cause. The talking heads in "Bhutto" insist that America's eagerness to stem the spread of communism screwed up Pakistan. But the US was involved in Poland during the Cold War, and Poland did not turn into a country where any prominent person, from Benazir Bhutto to a schoolgirl who just wants to learn to read – Malala Yousafzai – risks assassination.

America didn't cause the huge gap in literacy in Pakistan between women and men. It doesn't promote child marriage or hatred of Ahmadis and Christians. Benazir Bhutto tried to open schools and end polio. Pakistan's schools are now "ghosts" that take government funds and education no one. Polio workers are shot by Muslims who insist that the polio vaccine is an American plot to sterilize Muslims.

Concerned observers often point out that India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were all created at the same time from the same raw material: the former British subcontinental empire. India is doing relatively well. Pakistan is floundering. Why? One possible explanation frequently offered by geopolitical observers. Pakistan was founded as an Islamic state. Bhutto is shown taking the oath of office; she must swear that she is a Muslim in order to do so. Maybe Pakistan would be better off if it had not been founded on Islam. Maybe Pakistan would be better off if it were a secular state.


Maybe Benazir Bhutto, for all her intelligence, was on a doomed mission. Maybe Pakistan as it exists today is not reformable. Maybe it would take an Ataturk, a Mao, or an Ann Coulter (invade their countries, kill their leaders, convert them) to make Pakistan a place where democratically elected leaders who improve their citizens' lives can peacefully hand over power to a succession of other democratically elected leaders, all of whom die peacefully in their sleep. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

"American Hustle" Funny, Clever, Shallow, Gimmicky


"American Hustle" is a laugh-out-loud funny, very clever, well-produced, well-acted movie about conmen, crooked politicians, and an FBI sting operation. I enjoyed it while I was watching it but it left me empty. I didn't care about any of the characters or the plot points. I wasn't rooting for anybody and I wasn't involved in anything. Ultimately "American Hustle" felt been-there-done-that to me, and gimmicky and shallow. It reminded me of a lot of previous films about lovable gangsters and conmen, like "Goodfellas," "The Sting," and "Guys and Dolls." Christian Bale as petty conman Irving Rosenfeld reminded me of Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit.

The gimmicks begin as the movie opens. It opens on a shot of Christian Bale's fat and bloated stomach. Bale is famous for losing weight for his role in "The Machinist." Then he became buff and muscular for "Batman." For "American Hustle" Christian Bale gave himself a fat gut. His fat gut takes up about thirty seconds of screen time and Bale could have played the role without it. His gut took me out of the movie. I started thinking, not about the character or the plot, but about Bale's tendency to gain or lose weight for roles. I assume he's pushing for an Oscar. I felt manipulated.

The plot is pretty pointless. A small time conman, Irving (Christian Bale) and his conwoman girlfriend Sydney / Edith (Amy Adams) are recruited by FBI agent Richie (Bradley Cooper) to snag crooked politicians, including the mayor of Camden Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Irving's wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) gets in the way and causes some comic mayhem. Robert DeNiro shows up as a dangerous Mafioso.

The production values are very high. The costumes are outrageous: velvet tuxedos and open shirts revealing hairy chests and gold chains. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence are all decked out and paraded like models. In "Night at the Museum 2" Amy Adams wore tight, flesh-colored jodhpurs. Everyone talks about her butt in that movie. In "American Hustle" she wears plunging necklines and slit skirts. Everyone will be talking about her breasts and legs.

The direction is fluid and musical – you feel like you're on an amusing ride. 1970s pop hits make up the soundtrack and action is choreographed to fit the music.

The movie is laugh-out-loud funny, funnier than some films billed as comedies. It's hard to tell what genre the film is meant to be, because there are scenes where characters are obviously in pain.

The audience is conned as well as the characters onscreen. There is a surprise. The surprise felt pretty cheap to me. The surprise was executed not by cleverness, but simply by hiding information from the audience.

The performances are all fun to watch and very strong. Problem for me was that each performance seemed to exist in its own world. Christian Bale is doing comedy and parody. He is mocking the character he plays, and low class conmen in general. Jennifer Lawrence is weak. She is pretty, pouty, and young, but I didn't catch any acting talent. Bradley Cooper, as the FBI agent, is intense and grating in his hyper ambition and lack of smarts and caution. His character never came together for me, never achieved any coherence.

Amy Adams is the heart of the movie. She is fiercely intelligent, deadly, really, in her amorality and her love for her man. The real standout is Jeremy Renner as Camden, NJ, mayor Carmine Polito. Renner is from a completely straight, serious movie. He comes across not as an actor playing a role, but as the "real" Carmine Polito, though Polito is a fictional character based on former Camden mayor Angelo Errichetti.

"American Hustle" depicts conflict between straight, square people who tell the truth and con artists who lie, cheat and steal. As is often the case in Hollywood films, "American Hustle" comes down firmly on the side of con artists. "Everybody's a con artist!" the film wants you to believe. "Everybody lies, cheats, and steals!" Hollywood would take this stance because Hollywood manufactures illusions.

"American Hustle" alters history to make this position believable. "American Hustle" becomes heavy-handed in its insistence on manipulating its audience into liking two characters and disliking a third. Camden's mayor was not the saint the film wants you to think he was, and the real Irving didn't do the kindly things the film depicts him as doing. Camden, NJ, is a horrible place to live. Its population is shrinking. It ranks first in violent crime. Political corruption is rampant. In making a saint out of the mayor of Camden, David O. Russell sticks his Hollywood finger in the eye of New Jersey's poor and crime victims.



Thursday, January 2, 2014

"Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism" by Karima Bennoune. Book Review


At first glance, Karima Bennoune's "Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight against Muslim Fundamentalism" might look, to the naïve reader, like the statement all America has been waiting for since September 11, 2001. Finally, a "moderate Muslim" speaks out against Muslim terrorism.

Bennoune grew up in Algeria and the US. She identifies with Muslim culture, though she is an agnostic. She condemns Al Qaeda unequivocally: "I hate Al Qaeda" (267). She condemns Muslims for "whitewashing" their message by saying one thing in English and another in Arabic (17). She despises "left-wingers who have been drinking a certain kind of multicultural Kool-Aid" who "tell us how great … Sharia really is or can be if you just reinterpret it a little" (19-20). She critiques CAIR (221). She sneers at Pakistani conspiracy theories that attribute Taliban atrocities to Americans, Hindus, and Jews (243). She insists that US drone attacks do not justify Taliban killings (247). She sniffs at invocations of Edward Said's concept of "orientalism" to muffle criticism of terrorism (249). She rejects the idea that Islamic supremacists should be invited to participate in national life on the basis of tolerance and diversity, since they reject tolerance and diversity, and their inclusion would result in "One man, one vote, one time" (294-5). "'Compromise with Political Islam is Impossible,'" she quotes, approvingly (341). She records in heart-wrenching detail the hideous, massive, and inexcusable suffering Muslim terror has wreaked on the lives of Muslims from North Africa to South Asia.

"Fatwa" is published by WW Norton, a respected academic and popular publisher. The book is endorsed by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and UN Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson. What's not to like?

There are three problems with the book. Bennoune all too often identifies the US as the root cause of terrorism. She never refers to a single Koranic verse or Islamic historic precedent for terror. Finally, she engages in a downright silly, and morally reprehensible, cultural relativism that places Muslim terrorism in the same category with Christian fundamentalists and alleged American anti-Arab racists. Her book is valuable and should be read, but read thoughtfully.

"Fatwa" is the most devastating indictment of the suffering Muslim terrorism causes Muslims that most America readers are likely to access. Bennoune travels to Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Egypt, Somalia, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, or visits with refugees from those countries who are now living in exile. Her interlocutors are activists for women's rights, journalists, artists, politicians, museum employees, or just average people caught up in terror. The book consists largely of two to five page vignettes of these visits. For that reason, the book is a bit of a disjointed read. There is no overall plot or trajectory. It sometimes becomes difficult to differentiate between one account and the next. Bennoune's pressing mission is to bear witness to horrendous injustice and heroic courage.

There are descriptions of terror in this book I won't soon forget. In one account, an Algerian mother is at home at night when armed men come and take her six children. She grabs a captor's leg and begs that her children be released. The man threatens her and she backs off. She later goes out to search for her children. She finds their bodies in a riverbed, their throats cut. They were killed because the woman's daughter was a teacher – or maybe for some other infraction against the terrorists' take on Islam.

A man from Mali talks about how demoralizing it is to watch public amputations. A museum director describes the methodical destruction of Afghanistan's cultural heritage. Muslim peasants sleep with grease on their necks to deflect blades (168). Iran's penal code requires that punishments be delivered in the order of harm they do, so that a prisoner cannot be offered the release of death before a given sadistic punishment is complete – flogging must precede hanging, for example (213). There is a gut-churning description of gang rape (135).

Again and again, from North Africa to South Asia, this perverse motif recurs: terrorists announce that they are taking over in order to restore Islamic modesty and protection to women. They then strip, torture, and murder women in public, in floggings and stonings, and gang rape little girls. The descriptions in Bennoune's book are graphic, brutal, and depressing.

Bennoune focuses on heroic courage. She highlights the persistent and hopeful action of feminists, artists, journalists and activists who are struggling for open, secular societies, even as they receive death threats.

The reader witnesses, in Bennoune's pages, the same vile process described in "I Am Malala." People are living more or less peacefully. Muslim terrorists move in. In Islam's name, they begin to terrorize the population. Select targets are publicly murdered. Women are accosted. The populace is too frightened to respond. One survivor of this process describes hearing the screams of raped and tortured women, screams silenced only by gunshots. No one who heard those screams, or the women's families' calls for help, did anything to confront the terrorists. "'There was silence, darkness, fear, and nothing else'" (257). Before you know it, women cannot leave their homes; men cannot shave; music is banned.

This process is familiar to anyone who has watched many Western films like "Shane," or "On the Waterfront" about mob infiltration of dock workers. Violent thugs terrorize a population into submission.

The problem is, these violent thugs are empowered by the religion the population says they adhere to. Both Malala and Bennoune describe victims reporting that members of their own families support this or that aspect of extremism. In Egypt, an anti-Muslim Brotherhood activist must confess that her family members like the idea of eliminating the Christian presence from Egypt (293). Pious Muslims find it hard to refute extremist messages like this one, "'Democracy is an impious concept because its principles include the right not to believe in God, which is punishable by death in Islam…How can we think an unbeliever can be the equal of a Muslim, or that a woman can be the equal of a man?'" (294)

In both Malala's and Bennoune's accounts, Muslim victims of Muslim terrorism report, paraphrase, "We approved of Islamization at first because we thought the religious people would clean up this or that problem of irreligion, crime, or the infiltration of aspects of Western culture that we don't like. As time went by, we realized that we were the next target, because we smoke, or read, or worship at the tomb of Sufi saints, or send our daughters to school. By then it was too late to resist. In any case, we can't criticize anything that is labeled 'Islam.'"

"Madame you cannot argue with God" (88) one Muslim tells Bennoune, when she attempts to argue inheritance rules that shortchange female heirs and reward male ones. "I am a Muslim, I cannot criticize" is a general attitude (94). Journalists fear "crossing their profession's red line" by criticizing religion (144).

The case studies of terrorism's victims that Bennoune presents are priceless and should be read. Bennoune's interpretation of her extensive data presents problems. For example, Bennoune never speaks of Muslim terrorism. For her, the problem is "fundamentalism." For Bennoune, "fundamentalism" is as much a Christian problem as a Muslim one.

Bennoune announces herself as being concerned about American "fundamentalism and increasing discrimination against Muslims" (3). She rejects any "so-called clash of civilizations" (3). Because of American anti-Arab racism, "writing about Muslim fundamentalism in this era for an American audience feels like dancing on a minefield" (3). "Places such as Oklahoma" reveal their anti-Arab racism by voting against application of Sharia in the US (4). Pam Geller is dismissed as a "right wing anti-Muslim demagogue" (5). Congressman Peter King's motivations for investigating terror are "unfortunate" and "right-wing" (219).

The "clash" between the Muslim and non-Muslim world "is a clash of right wings … [Americans] call their congressman demanding to know when we were going to invade somewhere" (6). "The two Far Rights – the Western one and the Muslims one – play off each other" (21). "Right-wing hysterics are putting up billboards…decrying Sharia in America" (19). Those who protested the Ground Zero mosque "loathe … all Muslims" and "froth" against a Muslim "monkey god" (20). Americans are united in "a love of torture" of terrorists (20). "This open embrace of hate" this "anti-Arab racism in the United States" "make me want to build the [Ground Zero] mosque with my bare hands" Bennoune vows (20).

"Islam and Islamism are not the same thing. The three extra letters make a huge difference" (9) Bennoune insists. Islam's greatest values are "mercy, compassion, peace, tolerance, study, creativity, openness" (9) "Muslim fundamentalism is not essentially a security question for Westerners. At its very core, it is a basic question of human rights for" Muslims (13).

Bennoune believes that Christianity is just as likely to produce dangerous "fundamentalists" as Islam (14). Muslim fundamentalists are comparable to Christian activist Anita Bryant (15). Muslim terror is just like the Christian radicals depicted in the documentary "Jesus Camp" (232). "Far Right" Americans deliver a "diatribe" insisting that "there is something wrong with this religion and this religion only. Such views contravene basic tenets of humanism and decency" (21).

What causes Muslim terror? According to Bennoune, the causes include "past colonialism and current military occupation" (25). America supported terrorists in order to defeat Communism (e.g. 26). Western debt restructuring is responsible for Islamic extremism in Nigeria (92). Other causes: George Bush and Christian influence on American politics (105), terrorists who take Koran verses "out of context" (137), and, of course, the Jews (e.g. 26). In some cases, all of the above are responsible (108).

America is blamed so often, and in so many guises, that it would be tedious to supply each mention of blame. Just one example: America is to blame for terrorism in Afghanistan and "Americans must 'pressure their government to pay its debt to the Afghan people, to help Afghans get rid of the fundamentalist groups'" (264).

There are many important realities reported in Bennoune's book to which she appears to be oblivious. Perhaps all of the activists she talks to are rooted more in the West, in Western ideals, languages, and sources of funding, than in the Muslim worlds that surround them. Women's equality, a free press, art that does not serve religion, freedom of conscience, separation of church and state – these are all Western concepts from the Judeo-Christian tradition and/or the Enlightenment. Bennoune's activists pursue these ideals in capital cities formed by Western colonialism and exposure to Western cultural products, while their countries' heartlands and villages are very different places.

Bennoune's heroes seek funding from Western agencies, agencies that receive the bulk of their cash, ultimately, from the very United States Bennoune blames. When things become dangerous, these activists decamp to the United States, as the Algerian Bennoune herself has done. There they are funded by more Western agencies and universities. They often speak in English or French, not Arabic. They wear baseball caps and short skirts. Bennoune's extensive travels were funded by the academia that employs her and the publisher who funds her – the West she disparages (9). Bennoune reports all these realities in a parenthetical manner. She never connects the dots and has an Aha moment where she thanks the West for giving her worthy ideals to fight for, and the financial means to conduct that fight. She certainly never acknowledges that American soldiers sacrificed for the geographic safety zones she inhabits.

Bennoune doesn't just refuse to acknowledge the debt she and other Muslims who reject jihad owe to the West. She demonizes and caricatures Americans as racist yokels and relativizes them – Anita Bryant is just like Osama bin Laden.

Bennoune's willful blindness does not speak well for the success of her project. The chances of a blind runner reaching a goal he half envies and half hates are very low.

Bennoune works hard to wish into being an Islam that is tolerant, diverse, respectful, and good for women. She never cites any scripture or precedent for this Islam. Bennoune perhaps inadvertently reveals a frightening reality. Once one declares someone a non-Muslim, that person becomes "an acceptable target" (161). Even Bennoune, champion of a moderate Islam, describes it as a religion that renders non-Muslims "targets."

Again, oblivious – reporting facts without any apparent awareness of what the facts she reports imply – she describes her informants as not only culturally not representational of their societies, but also not numerically representational. She mentions that one counter jihad café in Pakistan has twenty patrons (69). She mentions Islamic movements that can muster "ominously huge" street demonstrations (45). She reports how even those not involved in violent jihad cover up for, and give aid and shelter to, Muslim terrorists. One reason the victims she mourns never find justice, and the activists she celebrates never find success, is that the Muslim societies that surround them deny them both.

Bennoune insists repeatedly that the countries that currently suffer under Muslim terrorists were tolerant and peaceful in the past. America, Israel, the Cold War, and colonialism affected these countries negatively and Muslim terror was unleashed. Saudi Arabia, for example, before American meddling, was "liberal" (106). It became "Wahhabist" after the American lead Gulf War (107). This is bizarre whitewashing of history. In obedience to Mohammed, the territory of Saudi Arabia exiled its Christians and Jews 1400 years ago and they've never been able to return. This is hardly tolerant. And slavery was legal in Saudi Arabia until 1962. "We have not seen" veiling in Iraq before the US invasion, one of her informants claims (123). This would surprise anthropologist Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, who wrote of veiling in Iraq in the 1950s. Muslims and Christians used to live in peace in Africa, she reports. In fact the Muslim slave trade was a huge source of conflict for centuries.


Bennoune whines that Western critics of Islam make demands of Islam that they make of no other faith. In fact Islam is inoculated against criticism by Politically Correct guardians of speech codes. One can criticize Christianity and Judaism; one is rewarded for doing so with academic awards and appointments. Bennoune demonstrates what happens to critics of Islam – they are demonized and trivialized. Nowhere in her text does Bennoune take on the critique of Islam presented by thinkers like Robert Spencer. Bennoune owes that to her readers, and to her heroes. Do Koranic verses calling for jihad and terror contribute to terrorism or not? If not, why not? Bennoune excuses herself from ever addressing that argument. It's a cowardly omission for a woman who is otherwise genuinely brave.