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Book Review

Tolstoy: A Russian Life, and Myth

February 6th 2011

Book Covers - Tolstoy: a Russian Life

Tolstoy: A Russian Life. Rosamund Bartlett. Profile Books. 2010. 352 pages.

The dust-jacket of this weighty book (it is hardly possible to do justice to the life of someone like Tolstoy in less than 400 pages) shows the elderly writer in 1908, standing in peasant attire, with a stick and a pet dog, in a snow-covered avenue at Yasnaya Polyana, his country estate. The photo captures everything the author means by her sub-title: “Only Russia could have produced a writer like Tolstoy” she comments.

Indeed, to understand him and the forces that furiously propelled him in different, sometimes contradictory, directions during his long career, Rosamund Bartlett needed to master the complexities of Russian political, social and religious life in order to produce this comprehensive and readable book. If the reader does not learn anything new about this extraordinary figure, he will at the very least have entered anew into Tolstoy’s world with its vivid evocation of Russian aristocratic life lived before the Revolution.

Of course, Tolstoy was much more than merely a great novelist and social thinker from a noble background. The trajectory traced by Bartlett shows him as a profligate aristocrat, an army officer in the Caucasus, an educational and agrarian reformer, a famous writer, a Christian (but only at home in a faith refashioned by him) and the founder of a cult of “Tolstoyans.” Read more ..

Book Review

The Closing of the Muslim Mind Probed with Understanding

January 30th 2011

Book Covers - Closing of the Muslim Mind 2

The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. Robert R. Reilly. ISI Books. 2010. 244 pages. 

Robert R. Reilly has written a book that may offer the key to both understanding and perhaps defeating the ongoing war of terror against the West. The book is entitled The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. As Angelo Codevilla's jacket blurb puts it: "Reilly shows what happens to a civilization when it fails to give reason its due. This book teaches and warns. Read it." Paul Eidelberg describes it as "a book surpassing in depth even the best efforts of Bernard Lewis. You will not only be enlightened, but you may also see how the West might prevent a new Dark Ages."

Reilly is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and a well-published writer with substantial government service, including a stint as Director of the Voice of America and senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Information in 2003. As a sideline, he is also one of our finest classical music critics. In this book Reilly explains "why the restoration of reason to Islam is the only antidote to the spiritual pathology driving young men to attempted terrorist acts." Read more ..

Authors on the Road

Edwin Black Speaks on Farhud before American Sephardi Federation in New York

January 24th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black
Edwin Black

Author Edwin Black, author of the recently released bestseller The Farhud: Roots of The Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust, will present his findings directly to the Sephardic community of New York in a much-anticipated appearance before the American Sephardi Federation at 6:30 p.m. on January 31, 2011. Black appears in the auditorium of the Center for Jewish History, co-sponsored by the Federation and a coalition of social justice groups.

"Although I have addressed Holocaust and survivor groups across the United States about this painful topic," said Black, "I have been waiting to deliver this history to the one group of Americans most affected by the tragic alliance of Nazis and Arabs. That group is the Sephardic Jewish community, the Jews descended from communities in Arab countries."

A venue source said hundreds were expected to fill the auditorium and advance reservations were streaming in.

Black's book described the 1,400 year legacy of hate behind the refusal of Arabs to co-exist with Jews in Palestine during the 1920s. The Farhud shows the 1920s decade of extreme anti-Jewish violence was followed in the 1930s by an ever-tightening alliance between Arabs and Muslims worldwide and the Nazis. This alliance led to an abortive attempt by Arab-Nazis to exterminate the Jews of Baghdad. In the wake of that failed genocide, hundreds of Iraqi civilians, police, and military staged a two-day orgy of violence against the Jews of Baghdad, the book chronicles. Hundreds of Jews were murdered, maimed and raped. The pogrom was termed Farhud, which in Arabic means "violent dispossession." The Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, was the central figure behind the anti-Jewish events. Read more ..

Film Review

'The Next Three Days' is Almost Believable

January 24th 2011

Film - The Next Three Days

The Next Three Days. Director: Paul Haggis
Starring: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde Length: 122 minutes  

Back in June of 2009, the French thriller, Anything for Her, was reviewed as a ripping, action-packed (and basically unbelievable) crime-drama about a literature teacher who takes to extreme measures in an attempt to liberate his (apparently) unjustly-convicted wife from jail. In Fred Cavayé’s film the teacher was a determined, practical man, who got entangled in the dark world of Paris’ banlieue, of illegal immigrants, forged passports, drug deals and messy deaths. This is the milieu of the legendary, appallingly shocking Irréversible. 

Anything for Her has recently been remade for English language audiences as The Next Three Days by Paul Haggis with Russell Crowe in the lead. It is currently on general release, and has been running fifth in the UK box office, having been similarly successful in the USA last autumn.

If you saw the original, Haggis’ version at first seems like a frame-for frame remake: it includes the same homages to Irréversible, with the back-to-front story-telling, and the same references to the violent possibilities of fire-extinguishers. However, it becomes a bit more than just a pedestrian re-make for an audience who can’t read subtitles: Haggis twists the screenplay keeping the interest of those who know the story, and drawing out some of the themes that are of characteristic interest to him, not least disappointment and cynicism. Read more ..

Book Review

Apocalypse Never: A Spirited Call to Forge a World Free of Nuclear Weapons

January 18th 2011

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Apocalyse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World. Tad Daley. Rutgers. 2010. 288 pages. 

Tad Daley's Apocalypse Never is a spirited, ringing call for nuclear weapons abolition -- including why it is imperative and how it can be achieved.

According to Daley -- a former member of the International Policy Department of the Rand Corporation, as well as a former speechwriter and policywriter for members of Congress -- he did not "intend to create an academic work for scholars, nuclear experts, and policy wonks." Instead, he sought to "write a book for ordinary folks," people who would come away ready and willing to bring an end to the danger of nuclear annihilation. Through colorful writing and a convincing argument, Daley accomplishes this task quite nicely.

If nuclear weapons are not abolished in the near future, Daley contends, nuclear catastrophes are likely to erupt in any (or all) of the following ways.

Nuclear terrorism, he argues, provides the likeliest of the forthcoming disasters. Although unscrupulous U.S. politicians have inflated the dangers of terrorism to further their own political careers, there is nevertheless a genuine danger of terrorist attack. And there remains little doubt that terrorists have attempted (and continue to attempt) to obtain nuclear weapons and weapons grade material to implement such an assault. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, if a single nuclear weapon of the Hiroshima type were exploded in Los Angeles, more than 117,000 people would perish instantly and another 111,000 would die sooner or later from radiation exposure. Moreover, that is a small nuclear weapon by today's standards. The U.S. government has a nuclear warhead with nearly a hundred times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb. As long as nuclear weapons and weapons grade material exist in national arsenals, terrorists and other madmen will have the opportunity to obtain them through theft, black market operations, or bribery. Read more ..

Authors on the Road

Author Edwin Black Embarks Upon Whirlwind South Florida Book Tour

January 10th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black

Award-winning author and journalist, Edwin Black, is embarking upon a whirlwind tour of Florida as part of his latest multi-city book tour, this one mainly focusing on two books just released, The Farhud: The Roots of The Arab-Nazi Alliance During the Holocaust and British Petroleum and the Redline Agreement. Both books have been published in the past 60 days to international praise.

Farhud—a word that in Arabic signifies “violent dispossession,” describes an Arab-Nazi pogrom in Iraq. It was on June 1, 1941 that Arab mobs swept through the streets of Baghdad raping, burning, and killing in what Black describes as a “burning madhouse.” The Farhud culminated years of machinations involving Adolf Hitler and Hajj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and leader of the region’s Muslims. After the Farhud, an international Arab-Nazi alliance emerged that saw Arabs by the tens of thousands fighting in Waffen SS units. Many also worked in concentration camps. The goal of this alliance was to hasten Hitler’s extermination of the Jews in exchange for recognition of an Arab nation in Palestine, asserts the author.

Black's book on British Petroleum and the Redline Agreement chronicles BP's role in inventing the modern Middle East and as the basis for decades of bloody wars in Iraq, Iran, and Israel. The body of research has been praised by critics and reviewers as “impressive” and “fascinating.”

Black launches his tour in South Palm Beach, where he will speak on January 12 and 13 regarding America’s oil addiction and his plan for an alternative energy future and a recovery in the event of an oil interruption. Those two events will feature his several bestselling books on oil and alternative fuel, including Internal CombustionThe Plan and Banking on Baghdad. Read more ..

Book Review

Student Atheletes Take More Battering

January 10th 2011

Book Covers - Pay for Play

Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform by Ronald A. Smith. (University of Illinois Press, 2011), 360 pages.

The already-battered image of the “student-athlete” took more hits in 2010. The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, Reggie Bush, returned his trophy when it came out that he had been on the take at the University of Southern California. This year’s Heisman winner, Auburn’s Cam Newton, is already under a cloud after stories surfaced that his father had solicited money from at least one school in return for his son’s services. In addition to these high-profile cases, there were the usual eligibility scandals, felony charges, over-the-line recruiting tactics, and the like. It was enough to make one wax nostalgic for the good old days, when athletes were students first and intercollegiate athletics were untainted by commercialism and professionalism.

Of course, as historian Ronald Smith of Penn State is quick to point out, those good old days never existed. The very first intercollegiate competition, an 1852 boat race on Lake Winnipesaukee between Harvard and Yale, was essentially a promotional scheme concocted by the Boston, Concord, and Montreal Railroad. By the end of the 19th century, as football was becoming the dominant collegiate sport, concern about who was actually playing the games and why led to an outcry against “tramp athletes,” who moved from school to school and played for pay. Read more ..

Book Review

Toward the Setting Sun: An Introduction to the Trail of Tears and American Tragedy

January 3rd 2011

Book Covers - Toward the setting sun

Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and the Trail of Tears. Brian Hicks. Grove/Atlantic. 2011. 416 pages.

The saga of the Cherokee in the first half of the nineteenth century, culminating in the Trail of Tears, is a vaguely familiar one to those with a survey of American history under their belts (or anyone lucky enough to see "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" on Broadway before its closing at the end of the 2010 holiday season). Certainly the behavior of the federal government in this sorry affair is among its very worst failures to follow its own laws. In Toward the Setting Sun, journalist and popular historian Brian Hicks—who, according to family lore, is descended from key Cherokee figures—synthesizes this story, gives it a clear narrative arc, and positions it as a literal and figurative family saga.

Though only the chief who presided over the Cherokee migration, John Ross, is named in the title, Toward the Setting Sun has three principal characters spanning three generations. The first is Major Ridge, often referred to as “The Ridge,” who rose to influence among the Cherokees on the basis of his firm resistance to land concessions to the United States, even as he fought alongside General Andrew Jackson in the Creek War of 1813-1814 and in the First Seminole War of 1817–18. The second is the Ridge's protégé, Ross, who was more of a financial and political leader. Ross was ultimately elected to leadership of the Cherokees on a platform of implacable opposition to concessions amid growing pressure from the state of Georgia and the federal government. Read more ..

Book Review

A World on Fire: Richly Detailed Work on British Role in the American Civil War

January 3rd 2011

Book Covers - A World on fire

A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War. Amanda Foreman. Random House. 2011. 704 pages.

Much has been said about the Anglo-French military treaty.  Historian Andrew Roberts, writing in the Wall Street Journal, called it the “Entente Suicidal.”  John Bolton went even further, warning David Cameron that London’s defense pact with Paris could undermine its relationship with Washington.  Speaking to the Daily Mail, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN said that the deal to share nuclear secrets as well as aircraft carriers—dubbed the Entente Frugale given its cost-saving measures—would lead to a cut in transatlantic intelligence sharing.  

Let us hope it does not come to this, though, and that diplomatic sense prevails, since, as Bolton stresses, the special relationship “relies on intelligence sharing”—much of which, needless to say, the United States does not “share with France.”  You need only refer to the recent Yemen bomb plot to appreciate this, however, as President Obama evidently does given the rapidity with which he expressed gratitude towards Prime Minister Cameron for his cooperation in helping to prevent U.S.-bound planes reaching its eastern shore with an explosive payload. Read more ..

Book Review

Edwin Black's 'The Farhud' Makes for Uncomfortable but Necessary Reading

December 27th 2010

Book Covers - Farhud book

The Farhud: Roots of the Arab Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust. Edwin Black. Dialog Press. 2010. 464 pages. Buy it here.

“This book is a nightmare... I regret that I was the one who had to write it. I hope it never becomes necessary to write another like this one.’ These are among the opening words to Edwin Black’s new book, Farhud.

Much of Farhud does not make for comfortable reading. The central event is the two days of rioting in June 1941, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Jews – the exact figure is not known - destruction of property, mass looting, rape and mutilation. Farhud is the Arabic name for ‘ violent dispossession’. The pro-Nazis who planned it, however, had a more ambitious and sinister objective in mind: the round-up, deportation and extermination in desert camps of the Jews of Baghdad.

The Farhud was the Iraqi Jews' Kristallnacht. Samuel Edelman, in an afterword to Black’s book, admits he had never heard of this terrible event until 2003. Yet, as Black shows, the Farhud cemented a wartime Arab-Nazi alliance designed to achieve a shared objective: to rid Palestine, and the world, of the Jews. The killing sprees by Arabs continued into North Africa and Balkans: the Germans raised five Arab batallions in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Bosnian Muslims, personally recruited into SS divisions by the pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, entered into a grisly and murderous partnership with the Ustasha Catholic Croat nationalists to wipe out 100,000 Gyspies and Jews in Yugoslavia. After the war was over, the legacy endured: The mass exodus of the 140,000 Jews of Iraq followed a Nazi pattern of victimisation – dismantlement, dispossession and expulsion. Read more ..

Movie Review

127 Hours: A Human Victory or the Chaos of Nature

December 27th 2010

Film - 127 Hours

127 Hours. Director: Danny Boyle. Starring: James Franco, Kate Mara, and Treat Williams. Length: 94 minutes

For his latest film, Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) has made the very odd choice of the true-life story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), the young engineer and outdoorsman who, in April, 2003, fell into a rock declivity in Blue John Canyon, Utah, where his arm was trapped by a fallen boulder. After five days of waiting and hoping in vain for help to arrive, he realized that he had to leave the arm behind or he would soon be dead. The result is probably the most fun you could have watching a representation of someone who cuts his own arm off, even though Mr. Ralston’s story—told in his memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, on which the film is based—provides too slender a dramatic base to sustain a feature-length film. It’s a great news item or anecdote, of course, but there’s just not enough going on—or so, at any rate, it would seem—to fill more than ninety minutes of screen time.

That’s why it is stuffed with Danny Boyle-type technical wizardry. To break up the monotony, he resorts to much use of split-screen techniques, speeded up motion, hallucinatory dream sequences and, through it all, a lively pop musical sound-track to help make up for the lack of dialogue or movement in the story itself. The first and best of his tricks is that the title doesn’t come until a good quarter of an hour into the picture at the moment when, after its hero’s driving and biking and running and chatting up a couple of pretty fellow-hikers leads him to his fated encounter with the boulder—whereupon we see written on the screen “127 Hours.” Read more ..

Book Essay

Yehuda Avner Takes a Close Look at Israel’s Leaders

December 27th 2010

Book Covers - Prime Ministers

The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership. The Toby Press. 2010. 715 pages.

The Prime Ministers, Yehuda Avner’s riveting chronicle of the country’s diplomacy through the eyes of an aide and adviser to successive leaders, has now become an international bestseller.

Based on the copious notes and records Avner retained from the countless meetings he attended, observing firsthand the momentous events of that period, the book provides an unprecedented and fascinating insight into the thinking of the inner circles of the leaders of the day as they grappled with the burning issues confronting them. It enables a reader to become a fly on the wall, witnessing the most stirring discussions and negotiations related to the crucial decisions made during tumultuous times. The authenticity of the conversations and the prevailing atmosphere conveyed were endorsed by leading Israeli and foreign diplomats who had been participants.

Although it is a massive tome comprising more than 700 pages, Avner’s eloquent style and wry wit, with which Jerusalem Post readers have become acquainted through his columns, make it eminently readable for laymen no less than scholars, who I predict will all read it from cover to cover. Read more ..

Book Review

Churchill's Secret War: Revisionism for the Sake of Humanity

December 27th 2010

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Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II. Madhusree Mukerjee. Basic Books. 2010. 368 pages.

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality”, T.S. Eliot wrote in "Four Quartets." But only reality, however bleak, dignifies humankind. That is why we need revisionist historians who keep correcting our consoling and self-justifying narratives.

Two recent books have aroused controversy precisely because they set out to challenge versions of reality which have been the conventional wisdom for the past 50 or so years. One recounts how the man who has been acclaimed as the “Greatest Briton” who ever lived, carelessly sacrificed the lives of over one million Indians in the pursuit of victory in World War II. The book is Churchill’s Secret War by Madhusree Mukerjee.

Publishers Weekly describes this book as an important correction of the common picture of India as a “placid imperial bastion during WWII.” Rather, India was in fact racked by famine and insurrection, according to this searching history. Mukerjee surveys a country seething with violence, as Congress Party militants agitating for independence turned to rioting and assassination campaigns after bloody police crackdowns, and an army of Indian guerrillas fought alongside the Japanese against the British. Read more ..

Film Review

Cool It: A Movie that Sheds more Light on Audiences than the Environment

December 21st 2010

Film - Cool It

As I did with Davis Guggenheim's recently-released Waiting for Superman, I found that Ondi Timoner's Cool It tempted me to say that the movie is more revealing of the character and thought of the movie-going audience today than it is about its ostensible subject. That may be a bit of an overstatement, but not much. For both films are clearly designed to present to the hard core liberals and progressives who they (rightly) assume make up the overwhelming majority of those who will see or are ever likely to see them, what the film-makers hope will be the acceptable face of certain conservative ideas that otherwise they would never be willing to consider.

Thus Mr. Bjorn Lomborg, the hero of Cool It, believes devoutly, almost passionately in man-caused global-warming - even as he trashes both the Al Gore movie on the subject, An Inconvenient Truth, and the Al Gore approach to a remedy for global apocalypse through cap and trade legislation and other measures to reduce carbon emissions and wreck Western industrial economies. That's rather a lot for a liberal audience accustomed to idolizing Mr. Gore to take on board. It is also the reason, as I take it, for occasional human interest passages and excursuses by Miss Timoner.

In one such, Mr, Lomborg engages in a bit of self-psychoanalysis by positing that he is not a victim, like Mr. Gore, of global-warming hysteria because "I feel secure in the world; I know I am loved. That's my mom." Read more ..

Book Review

Jews & Money: Putting to Rest a Pernicious Stereotype

December 21st 2010

Book Covers - Jews and Money 2

Jews & Money: The Story of a Stereotype. Palgrave Macmillan. 2010. 256 pages.

Stereotypes about Jews and money—the notions that Jews are cheap and miserly, or that they hoard money, or control the banks and levers of international finance—have endured through the centuries and thrive even today.

The pernicious stereotype about an alleged connection of Jews to money is one of the main pillars of anti-Semitism, and one of the reasons that hatred of Jews has endured through the centuries and into modern times, according to a new book from Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Jews & Money: The Story of a Stereotype was released by Palgrave Macmillan this November, and examines the alleged connection between Jews and money and shows how the stereotype has been used from the Middle Ages into modern times to scapegoat and stigmatize the Jewish people. In the book, Foxman debunks the idea of cheap and miserly Jews, showing that philanthropy and social justice are at the core of Jewish values, tradition and practice. Jews & Money also looks at how recent events in the news, including the Bernie Madoff scandal and the recession, have unleashed a flood of anti-Semitic invective on the Internet, and how a conspiracy theory suggesting that “400 billion in funds were secretly transferred to Israeli banks” just prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers in late 2008 spread like wildfire across the Internet and was reported as fact across much of the Middle East. Read more ..

Authors on the Road

Edwin Black to Speak in New York City on 'The Farhud' and the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust

December 13th 2010

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black
Edwin Black

Award-winning author and journalist Edwin Black is scheduled to speak in New York City on his latest book, The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust, a book that adds to his body of work which includes volumes such as Banking on Baghdad and Internal Combustion that chronicle the intertwining of petroleum in the Holocaust. The Farhud  has been hailed as "monumental and exhaustively documented" by Mideast scholar Walid Phares, and "profound and insightful" by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Black is also the author of the award-winning international bestsellers IBM and the Holocaust and War Against the Weak, the latter now a film showing in film festivals around the world.

Sponsored by the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors (NAHOS), Black's talk on The Farhud is scheduled for December 19 at 2 PM at the Park East Synagogue at 164 East 68th Street, New York NY. In its newsletter, NAHOS stated, "Black is a fascinating speaker and lecturer who keeps his audiences spellbound. His detailed knowledge of the topics he presents is unsurpassed." The December 19 event is also sponsored by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, the State of California Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance, Spero Forum, Jewish Virtual Library, and History Network News among others.

The Farhud was a failed Nazi-Arab attempt to completely exterminate the Jews of Baghdad June 1-2, 1941. While total extermination failed, hundreds were massacred, raped, and pillaged in the streets. In Arabic, Farhud means "violent dispossession." His book traces the centuries-long “legacy of hate.” Ultimately, tens of thousands of Arabs and Muslims fought shoulder-to- shoulder with the Nazis, from Paris to Palestine, creating three military divisions in Europe and manning concentration camps. Paratroopers, artillery brigades, espionage, infantry battalions, machine gun units, camp guards—it was all to help Hitler win the war and finish the job by exterminating the Jews in Palestine. In Yugoslavia, Arabs and Muslims comprised much of the monstrous Ustasha regime which committed the most heinous atrocities of the entire Holocaust. Read more ..

Author's Own Story

Why I wrote "Jews and Money"

December 13th 2010

Book Covers - Jews and Money 2

It wasn’t any particular comment during the financial crisis that led me to write “Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype.” Rather it was the cumulative effect of a host of anti-Semitic statements focusing on money matters together with the uncertain environment in which Jews were living that provided the imperative for me to return to the world of authorship, my vow never to return notwithstanding.

 Still, a number of the comments made a deep impression on me. One was the claim that Lehman Brothers, immediately before its collapse, transferred $400 billion to Israeli banks. It reminded me of the Hezbollah charge soon after 9/11 that they had “learned” that 4,000 Israelis did not show up for work at the World Trade Center that day.  These conspiracy theories are so outlandish that one is tempted to ignore them. But, as absurd as they are, they do take hold. There’s no room for complacency.

 Then there was a comment on an online news site: “Ho hum, another Crooked Wall Street Jew. Find a Jew who isn’t Crooked. Now that would be a story.”

 Or, “Just another Jew money changer thief.  It’s been happening for 3,000 years. Trust a Jew and this is what will happen. History has proven it over and over. Jews have only one god --money.”

 And so I embarked on this project to tell the story of how the stereotype about Jews and money came into being, what were its consequences through the centuries, and the impact and danger that it presents in our own time. Read more ..

Film Review

The American: Richly Filmed and Poorly Directed

December 13th 2010

Film - The American

The American. Director: Anton Corbijn. Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Irina Bjorklund. Length: 105 mins. 

As a boy I marveled at the atmospheric album covers designed by Anton Corbijn the photographer. At a time when carrying albums to school was deemed cool it was Corbijn’s images that would stand out from the crowd. Corbijn used black and white to create ghosted edges of the bands he was promoting. U2 were defined as much for their haunting photos full of foreboding and introspection as they were for their music.

Now Corbijn has honed his photographic skills to sharpen their impact on the silver screen. His latest offering, following the critically acclaimed Control, a film about the life of Ian Curtis the lead singer of Joy Division, is called The American. It will divide joy in equal measure for all cinema goers wanting to get a glimpse of George Clooney’s starring role. It’s a very thought provoking film that makes the viewer think rather than relax as the story unfolds. It is uncomfortable and yet stimulating at the same time. It is billed as an action thriller and that is misleading. It does not sit comfortably in any genre and is as difficult to pin down as the moods conveyed all those years ago on fading album covers. Read more ..

Book Review

Standing Bear is a Person: A Parable of Courage and Peace in the Face of Injustice

December 6th 2010

Book Covers - Standing Bear is a Person

Standing Bear is a Person. Stephen Dando-Collins. Da Capo Press. 2005. 288 pages.

The Ponca Indians were agrarian, peaceful, self-sufficient and taught their children to speak English. But in the eyes of the law, none of them were "persons".  Standing Bear is a Person is the true story of the one Ponca man who challenged the federal government on behalf of his people.

Explorers Lewis and Clark met the Poncas as early as 1804, and even then found them friendly and well-settled in permanent houses. When the Poncas were rounded up in 1877, they numbered less than 1,000 people in three settlements in Dakota territory (later within Nebraska's boundaries), clustered around a Bureau of Indian Affairs government outpost. The outpost was commanded by General George Crook, one of the army's most successful Indian fighters.

In June of 1876, at Montana's Little Big Horn River, George Armstrong Custer and 266 soldiers of the 7th Calvary were killed in battle against the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. The Poncas had absolutely no part in this bloodbath. In fact, for years the Poncas themselves had been victims of Sioux aggression, a dispute created by the federal government in the 1860s when it drafted conflicting legal descriptions into separate treaties with the two peoples. Read more ..

Book Excerpt

The Arab Lobby: How Oil Riches Influence US Policy in Foreign Affairs and Energy

December 6th 2010

Book Covers - The Arab Lobby

Excerpt from The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance that Undermines America's Interests in the Middle East.

"That is the best-organized lobby; you shouldn't underestimate the grip it has on American politics-no matter whether it's Republicans or Democrats." This recent comment by the European Union trade commissioner and former Belgian foreign minister, Karel de Gucht, epitomizes the pervasive belief that a Jewish-Zionist-Israel lobby has undue influence on U.S. Middle East policy.

This idea predates the establishment of the state of Israel. For the most part, the discussion was kept behind closed doors and limited primarily to State Department Arabists, but it gradually became popular among those who held a grudge (such as Congressman Paul Findley, who blamed his defeat in a reelection bid in 1982 on the lobby) or who were open enemies of Israel (e.g., Pat Buchanan). The recent publication of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer's The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, however, gave a patina of academic legitimacy to the long whispered complaints of the anti-Israel establishment.

Walt and Mearsheimer cavalierly dismissed the possibility that U.S. policy might be subject to countervailing influences by those who believe the national interest is best served by distancing the United States from Israel and cultivating ties with the Arab states. They are not alone. Many analysts have ignored or belittled the notion that an Arab lobby exists or has any influence. Read more ..

Book Review

Understanding The American South Since World War II

November 29th 2010

Book Covers - The South and America since WWII

The South and America Since World War II. James C. Cobb. Oxford University Press. 2010. 392 pages.

Is the South—still—a place apart? Thirty years ago, in Place Over Time, Carl Degler argued for the persistence of a distinctive regional identity notwithstanding the successive waves of modernity that followed the “New South” of the post-Civil War era. Earlier in this decade, in Still Fighting the Civil War, David Goldfield argued that many Southerners insisted on seeing themselves as apart from the of the Union. Meanwhile, an array of scholars from Bruce Schulman to Michael Lind see recent American history as essentially a process of Southernization. In this ably written synthetic account of the region, veteran University of Georgia professor James C. Cobb shows how all these views can be seen as credible in a narrative trajectory that moves from that of a backward, isolated region to an assertive national presence. But for Cobb, the region and the nation have always been deeply intertwined.

The first half of The South and America moves at a brisk pace, describing the quickening effect of the Second World War on the region, the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, and the emergence of a steady—and increasingly sophisticated—strategy of resistance to it. We meet a familiar gallery of characters, from Gunnar Myrdal to Emmett Till, and a political spectrum that runs from the daring novels of Lilian Smith to the whites who said of their returning veterans, “Our heroes didn't die in Europe to give Negroes the right to marry our wives.” (Those Negroes, for their part, had their own ideas about what they were fighting for.) Read more ..

Book Review

Are You the Driver or the Passenger?

November 29th 2010

Art Topics - Rushkoff Book

Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. Douglas Rushkoff. OR Books. 140 pages.

Having read and reviewed Rushkoff’s previous books, Think Outside The Box, which was good, and Life Inc., which was nothing less than brilliant, I wondered what was next for the media maven. This new one is short and concise, but a highly worthy successor. His mission is to raise awareness of the human implications of our technologies — the context (if you will) of our actions.

The author’s Decalogue here is a set of rules of conduct. To wit: Do Not Be ‘Always On;’ Live in Person; You May Always Choose ‘None of the Above;’ You Are Never Completely Right; One Size Does Not Fit All; Be Yourself; Do Not Sell Your Friends; Tell the Truth; Share, Don’t Steal; and Program or Be Programmed.” Each of the command(ments) comprise a chapter.

On the surface they seem pretty obvious, but like their Biblical counterparts, they add up to a wise and ethical way to conducts oneself, in this case, mostly within the online and virtual worlds. After all, many of us blithely mouse over, click and agree to website terms we’re asked to give our assent to, with little thought to the implications or the consequences, and whatever rights and responsibilities we may shed as we do. Beyond that, there’s an insidious role reversal, says Rushkoff, whereby the supposed programmer becomes the programmed. Our tools define us, whether we like it or not. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Read more ..

Movie Review

Movie Project Recounts Tragedy and Horrors of Migrants Passing through Mexico to the U.S.

November 22nd 2010

Film - The Invisibles

The Invisibles. Directed by Marc Silver and Gael Garcia Bernal. Distributed by Amnesty International.

Lucia Elizabeth Contreras watched as her brother Salomon set out for Mexico en route to the United States. The young man from El Salvador never made it to the destination of his dreams. Instead, his sister was later horrified to see pictures of her ill-fated brother tortured and murdered, recovered from a Mexican grave along with three other victims. The Contreras family's saga is among several personal stories showcased in a new Amnesty International (AI) campaign aimed at defending the human rights of the estimated 400,000-500,000 Central American and other migrants who travel across Mexico every year in an often tragic attempt to reach the Promised Land on the other side of the Rio Grande.

Organized around the theme of "The Invisible Ones," the campaign was strategically timed to kick-off during the Fourth Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) held November 8-11 in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. As part of the campaign, a photo essay and documentary directed by Marc Silver and prominent Mexican actor/director Gael Garcia Bernal will be shown in at least 9 Mexican cities in the coming weeks. Read more ..

Film Review

Client 9: The Fall of Eliot Spitzer and America’s Lack of Politicians of Good Character

November 22nd 2010

Film - Client 9

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. Director: Alex Gibney. Length: 117 minutes.

Alex Gibney’s Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer begins with a portentous saying about how mankind occupies the middle ground between angel and animal. This is the movie’s way of suggesting that its subject, the disgraced former governor of New York who got caught patronizing a high-priced “escort” agency, was, or is, a little of both himself. This, of course, meshes nicely with Mr Spitzer’s own rather comical self-importance in speaking of his downfall as “a Greek tragedy” and comparing himself to Icarus who, flying too near the sun, was brought down by “hubris.” This might have sounded a bit better coming from someone else, but not a lot. Either way, the hyperbole is a smoke-screen of attempted human interest to mask an underlying political purpose: namely, the rehabilitation of Mr. Spitzer, who is now co-hosting a talk-show on CNN with Kathleen Parker, by casting him as the victim of a conspiracy to effect his ruin by Wall Street fat cats and Republican dirty tricksters. Read more ..

Film Review

Filmmaker Justin Strawhand Tackles Eugenics in ‘War Against the Weak’

November 18th 2010

Film - WarAgainsttheWeakFilmReview

Jersey City filmmaker Justin Strawhand explores eugenics in America in his latest film, War Against the Weak. Strawhand directed the film, which outlines the connection between the United States’ push to create a master race by eliminating the “unfit” and the Holocaust.

We caught up with Strawhand in advance of the film’s Thursday night screening at New Jersey City University, his alma mater.

Could you give us a quick primer on eugenics in America — how it started and how it ultimately ended?

The American eugenics movement really starts at the beginning of the 20th century on Long Island, in Cold Spring Harbor. It’s funded by some of the wealthiest families in the country, Rockefeller and Carnegie, and it really takes off like wildfire. Eugenics becomes taught in schools, it’s legislated all over the country, and the Supreme Court decides that eugenics sterilization is okay in 1927.

There’s really two things that kill American eugenics. One is that as the atrocities in Germany [are uncovered] — and more specifically, as America goes to war with Germany — eugenics gets a really bad name. Secondly, the very people that eugenicists were so terrified of, which were the waves of immigrants who were coming in from all over the place, but specifically from Eastern Europe, become a very powerful voting bloc, and so the politicians who had supported eugenics really run scared from it. That isn’t to say the ideas of eugenics don’t transform after the war because I think that they do, but they change names and they change tactics.

How did you become interested in this topic?

I had become aware of eugenics as a historical concept in 2001 or 2002. It just struck me, the idea that people in America were trying to breed a master race … how it seemed so similar to what was happening in Germany. I began doing research with a friend of mine and then a few years later I read Edwin Black’s book War Against the Weak. Read more ..

Confronting the Farhud

When Arabs Massacred Jews Because they Sat While Praying

November 15th 2010

Book Covers - Farhud book

Edwin Black is the author of IBM and the Holocaust. This article is drawn from his just released book, The Farhud, Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance During the Holocaust (Dialog 2010). Buy it here

As Israelis and Palestinians struggle with a twenty-first century peace process, the world must face the forgotten history that was so pivotal in determining the present crisis. In many ways, a turning point was the day Arabs massacred Jews because they dared to sit at the Wailing Wall while praying. This simple act of prayer was so unacceptable to Arabs that it helped launch a worldwide crisis of hate that provoked a global Islamic jihad, forged an Arab-Nazi alliance during the Holocaust, and still echoes today.

The year was 1929. Jewish Palestine was still being settled by torrents of eastern European refugees. The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine included the provision for a Jewish Homeland. The Balfour Declaration, widely endorsed by many nations, was a matter of international law. But the Arabs in Palestine refused to co-exist with Jews in any way except as second-class dhimmis.

Islam had been at war with the Jewish people since its defining inception in 627 when Mohammad exterminated the Jews of Mecca and launched the Islamic Conquest that swept north and subsumed Syria-Palestina. For centuries, Jews and Christians in Arab lands were allowed to exist as dhimmis, second-class citizens with limited religious rights. These restrictions were enforced by the Turks who, until World War I, ruled the geographically undetermined region known as Palestine, which included Jerusalem.

When the Ottoman Empire fell, after World War I ended in 1918, the British were obligated by the Mandate to maintain the Turkish status quo at the Wailing Wall. Read more ..

Book Review

Decision Points of George W. Bush Leaves a Lot to Be Desired

November 15th 2010

Book Covers - Decision Points

Decision Points. George W. Bush. Crown. 2010. 512 pages.

The newly released autobiography of former U.S. President George W. Bush makes for an intriguing read -- not least because of what it leaves out.

It’s a surprisingly good read, punchy and direct. He even admits a few mistakes -- something he was notably reluctant to do during his time in office. But if you’re looking for substantive second thoughts about the legacy for which he will be most remembered around the world -- his administration’s controversial conduct of the United States’s war against jihadi terrorists after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- you won’t find them here.

No question -- every political memoir offers a selective reading of events. Few politicians get where they are by constantly questioning their own beliefs; monumental self-confidence is a prerequisite for the job. So if it’s a balanced and objective account you’re looking for, you’re probably better off waiting for the historians to come out with their version.

Take the war in Iraq, for example. “I strongly believe that removing Saddam [Hussein] from power was the right decision,” writes Bush -- even though he admits that the U.S. invasion in 2003 revealed that the Iraqi dictator had no weapons of mass destruction, the reason for declaring war in the first place.


He defends his support for the waterboarding of captured Al-Qaeda operatives as a necessary tool to prevent attacks against the American homeland: “To suggest that our intelligence personnel violated the law by following the legal guidance they received is insulting and wrong.” That conclusion is likely to remain unpersuasive to many of his critics, who note that the U.S. soldiers were court-martialed for waterboarding prisoners during the Vietnam War, or that a Texas sheriff and three of his deputies were sentenced to jail terms for using this “enhanced interrogation technique” (i.e. torture) in 1983. Read more ..

Book Review

The World Turned Inside Out Will Keep People Arguing

November 15th 2010

Book Covers - World Turned Upside Down

The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century. James Livingston. (Rowman and Littlefield. 2010.

“Keep arguing.” James Livingston, 2010

Professor Livingston needn’t worry. His new book will keep people arguing. For The World Turned Inside Out is nothing if not maddeningly counterintuitive. Some of my friends and colleagues who have read it inform me that they agree with nothing in it. Of course, these same friends and colleagues also tell me they have never agreed with a single word Livingston has written. And yet, they keep reading. And they keep arguing.

In his first major contribution to intellectual history, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940 (1994), Livingston argued against historians who made the Populists out to be history’s tragic, if fallen heroes, celebrated for their resistance to the corporate order. In contrast, Livingston marveled at the material surpluses offered by the new corporate order and, furthermore, contended that the emergence of corporations merited intellectual innovation in the eyes of pragmatists, especially John Dewey. “In the narrative form of pragmatism,” Livingston wrote, “the decline of proprietary capitalism loses its pathos, and the triumph of corporate capitalism appears as the first act of an unfinished comedy, not the residue of tragedy.”Livingston thus inverted the historical trajectory posited by Christopher Lasch in his 1991 The True and Only Heaven: whereas Lasch understood “progress” to be mere ideological cover for the bureaucratic and technocratic constraints of the corporate order, Livingston pointed to the newfound freedoms made possible by that order. Unfortunately for us all, Lasch died in 1994, unable to respond to Livingston’s provocations. Read more ..

Book Review

Cleopatra: A Life as Mythical Feminist Icon and Politician

November 8th 2010

Book Covers - Cleopatra: a life

Cleopatra: A Life. Stacy Schiff. Little, Brown. 2010. 384 pages.

Over the course of the past fifteen years, Stacy Schiff has emerged as one of the nation's most esteemed biographers. With France as a geographic crossroad, her subjects have ranged widely: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Vera Nabokov (a portrait that won her the 2000 Pulitzer Prize), and Benjamin Franklin. But Schiff's latest book takes her far afield in time and place. It's an audacious move, and as such is a form of fidelity to the life she limns.

In a way, Schiff's body of work is less a set of individual lives than an extended exercise in different kinds of biographical problem-solving. Saint-Exupéry was a shrewd choice of subject in that he's both famous and little-known to the general reading public that is Schiff's chosen domain; Vera is a foray into the fascinating life lived in the shadow of a powerful mate. Benjamin Franklin, by contrast, is almost too well-known (an issue Schiff finessed by focusing on his diplomatic career). So is Cleopatra; but while the problem for Franklin is essentially one of too much documentation, that of Cleopatra is a matter of having so little.

But of course this is also an opportunity, because the ambiguities surrounding Cleopatra's life give a biographer lots of license for informed speculation, a stratagem Schiff seizes frequently and boldly. (Was Caesarion really Julius Caesar's biological child by Cleopatria? Schiff acknowledges this long-running controversy in a footnote, but considers the child his and moves on.) In an important sense, the facts are really beside the point anyway; if ever there were a case where the truth resides in legend, this would be it. Read more ..

Film Review

Inside Job: A Film that Fails to Focus

November 8th 2010

Film - Inside Job

Inside Job. Director: Charles Ferguson. Narrator: Matt Damon Length: 120 minutes

There he goes again. Charles Ferguson, the software developer who made the documentary No End In Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq (2007) just as the end was coming into sight, has now, and with equal perspicacity, taken on the task of explaining, cinematically, the crash of 2008. With Inside Job, however, his political targets aren’t limited to the hapless George W. Bush and the Cheneys and Rumsfelds of his administration but include every president since (and including) Ronald Reagan. All are guilty, it seems, of contributing to the economic crisis — though the second President Bush is guiltier than the rest, naturally — through not being left wing in their economic views. Even President Obama is guilty for not being left wing enough. Also, and not coincidentally, for putting such other guilty parties as Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner on his economic team.

Apart from anything else, you’ve got to think that this is bad tactics, politically speaking. If everybody is guilty, then nobody is guilty. Much better to demonize only one or two or a handful of guys, as he did in his previous movie. But Hollywood political types have never been reluctant to spread the blame around pretty widely — probably because no administration has ever been left wing enough to suit them.

Mr. Ferguson’s film also loses focus toward the end when it takes up a whole litany of lefty complaints that have been outstanding for years, if not generations, beginning with excessive executive compensation, which at least might have some connection with his ostensible subject, and moving on to the decline in America’s manufacturing base, cuts in funding for public universities leading to higher tuition fees for students, the fact that (allegedly) for the first time the rising generation of Americans will be less well off than their parents and, inevitably, a federal tax policy which is said to favor the wealthy. Now where have we heard that before? Read more ..

Books and Authors

Humanist Mario Vargas Llosa: A Literary and Political Visionary of Latin America

November 8th 2010

Book Topics - Mario Vargas Llosa

Upon granting Mario Vargas Llosa (b. 1936, Peru) the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy declared that he deserved the prize “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.

What is that all about?

Well, gringos who live in well-educated, law-abiding, democratic, human rights-respecting countries north of the Rio Grande may have a right to be puzzled. But for Latin Americans, who know all too well the dark cruelties and cruel rages of dictatorships, it means a lot. Vargas Llosa is that rare specimen who is both an academic and a man of action, an artist and an activist, a complex, passionate personality and a hard-headed politician. In the dark days of tyranny, he stood for democracy; when the literary world was agog over the post-modern dissolution of the person, he stood for humanity. Vargas Llosa is above all a humanist.

Many novels from his voluminous corpus have been popular successes: The Time of the Hero (1963), Conversation in “The Cathedral” (1969), The War of the End of the World (1981), The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1984), Who Killed Palomino Molero (1986), Death in the Andes (1993) and Feast of the Goat (2000). But he has also written significant literary criticism, including Garcia Marquez: Story of a Deicide (1971), The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and “Madame Bovary” (1975), A Writer’s Reality (1990), The Language of Passion (2001) and The Temptation of the Impossible (2004), as well as his memoir, A Fish in the Water (1993). Read more ..

Book Review

Grant Wood: A Life, is American Gothic at Its Best

November 1st 2010

Book Covers - Grant Wood

Grant Wood: A Life. R. Tripp Evans. Alfred Knopf. 2010. 432 pages.

Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is the most recognizable American painting.

Of all the paintings in the world, only the Mona Lisa has been more parodied. As Tripp Evans notes in his groundbreaking new biography of the artist, when it was first exhibited in Chicago in 1930, it made an instant global celebrity out of Wood:  “Never in the history of American art had a single work captured such immediate and international recognition; by the end of 1930, the painting had been reproduced in newspapers around the globe… Never before, either, had a painting generated such widespread curiosity about its artist.”

“American Gothic” was considered by most critics of that day as something of a national self-portrait, and it made Wood the icon of a new native American, regionalist art. The New Yorker wrote at the time, “As a symbol Wood stands for the corn-fed Middle West against the anemic East, starving aesthetically upon warmed-over entrées dished up by Spanish chefs in Paris kitchens. He stands for an independent American art against the colonialism and cosmopolitanism of New York.”

Wood, who was born in the small town of Anamosa, Iowa, in 1898 and spent nearly all his life painting in the Hawkeye State, depicting its countryside and inhabitants, was said to stand for the flinty, manly virtues of heartland America. The New York Times proclaimed that Wood, who styled himself a “farmer-painter,” had earned his “toga virilis” for, as Evans summarizes it, “ending Americans’ perilous fascination with impressionism.” Read more ..

Movie Review

Conviction: A Tangled Web Ensnares a Pursuit of Justice

November 1st 2010

Film - Conviction

Conviction. Director: Tony Goldwyn. Starring: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Peter Gallagher, Juliette Lewis. Runtime: 107 minutes

Conviction lies in the middle of the tangled web that any film weaves for itself when it claims to be based on a true story. The true story in this case is that of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) who, following what she believed to be the wrong conviction of her brother, Kenneth ‘Muddy’ Waters (Sam Rockwell) for a murder in 1980, devoted the subsequent 20 years to putting herself through college and law school, becoming an attorney and taking on his case to prove his innocence.

The tag ‘Based on a True Story’, whenever it is attached to a film, is both a blessing and a curse in equal measure. On the one hand, it magnifies the emotional response of the viewer, who will take more delight in the happy moments or cry that little bit more at the moments of tragedy, because they really happened; who will lose or gain more faith in humanity based on the achievements or mistakes of the protagonist, because someone really reached those heights or depths.

The authenticity that the tag grants to the plot is obvious, and there are still other perks to the genre: to some extent, when the tale is one of suffering, any criticism thrown at the telling of it seems pedantic and unnecessary – not a watertight excuse on the part of the filmmakers when they come under fire, but something that might be at the forefront of a would-be critical reviewer’s mind. The grounding in reality also grants something of a carte blanche to gloss over the more mundane parts of a story – ‘we don’t need to bother factoring the logistics into the plot too much, everyone knows this must have been able to happen because it did happen.' Read more ..

Movie Review

Armadillo: A Documentary of a Pointless War on Real Victims

October 27th 2010

Film - Armadillo

Armadillo. Director: Janus Metz Pedersen. Cinematographer: Lars Skree. Runtime: 100 minutes.

It’s unlikely that you’ll want to watch Armadillo for kicks, but in future years it might be one of the films we look back on to help us remember that we lived in a time of war. The war in Afghanistan, to those of us who have no emotional ties to the people on either side, probably flickers in and out of our consciousness – the artificial seriousness at the start of Prime Minister’s Questions when the litany of the dead soldiers is read out, or the news that one of Alan Sugar’s potential apprentices has quit the show to be with his wounded brother in hospital. Armadillo is a documentary story that may, alongside films like Restrepo and The Hurt Locker, remain untouched by the fluctuations of more transient media and be regarded as a contemporary reflection on the wars that our governments have fought on our behalf.

Janus Metz Pedersen and his cameraman Lars Skree spent six months with a platoon of young Danish soldiers in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The access they were given was at times so intimate that I had to re-check that this was a documentary: not only do they accompany the young men on their patrols and on a dawn assault against Taliban fighters, but they have captured footage of the men as they wash, party, are shot, wounded, and eventually reunited with their families. As a database of life for foreign soldiers in Afghanistan it may well be invaluable, simply in its capturing of data that is unavailable to civilians: the processes and weapons involved in a war, the boredom and the terror, the total uncertainty until shots are fired of who is an enemy and who is a civilian. If nothing else, watching the film can only serve to educate those who watch it. Read more ..

Book Review

Pornland: How Porn Hijacked Sex and Our Lives

October 27th 2010

Book Covers - Pornland 2

Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality. Gail Dines. Beacon Press. 2010. 256 pages.

It’s a nasty job, but somebody had to show us just how powerful and destructive the porn industry is.

The Playboy bunny is the symbol, par excellence, of how the porn industry has co-opted mainstream culture. I will always remember the day I jumped into my friend’s car, only to realize that I was about to sit on a seat plastered with that insidious little rabbit. After a mild interrogation, my friend revealed that it was not the only piece of Playboy apparel she owned; a pencil case, t-shirt, and earrings were among her prized Playboy possessions. Without much thought, she had supported the porn industry via her purchasing power and by the fact that she was willing to be a walking advertisement for the porn world’s top brand. With countless naïve consumers doing the same thing as my friend, Hugh Hefner is laughing all the way to his Playboy mansion.

It is hard to believe that a mere fifty years ago Hefner had to fight for this sort of publicity. Nowadays, most of the soft-porn used by Playboy magazine in its embryonic years, can be easily accessed with a mere flick of the television remote; no longer is it considered risqué to plaster half naked women on billboards, in magazines, or on prime time television. Understandably, the porn industry has had to adapt also – porn, as a “genre”, is now characterized by sadism and outright abuse of women. Hard-core pornography is what keeps producers’ bank balances booming and their patrons engaged. Read more ..

Book Review

"The Chosen Peoples" Chooses Well on America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election

October 23rd 2010

Book Covers - Chosen Peoples

The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election. Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz. Simon & Schuster. 2010. 192 pages.

My initial reaction to encountering a book with this title was to be be reminded of Randy Newman's camp-classic song "It's Lonely at the Top": a smug alert went off in my head. Turns out, however, that it's a deft little (192-page) piece of scholarship that takes up resonant questions in a notably fair-minded way. The book deserves wide consideration in a variety of contexts, and I will not be surprised if it becomes a fixture of undergraduate syllabi for many years to come.

After a brief -- and necessary -- introduction that notes many people throughout history have considered themselves chosen, the authors perform an elegantly simple piece of exegesis on the Book of Genesis, in which they tease out the many ambiguities that lurk in the covenants God made with Abraham and Moses. This analysis includes discussions of the repeated failures on the part of the Israelites to keep up their part of the deal, as well as the burdens, psychological as well as political, that being a chosen people imposed on them. Gitlin and Leibowitz note that Zionism emerged both as an ethnic alternative to the assimilationist thrust of post-Napoleonic emancipation as well as a secular alternative to diaspora Judaism. But the post-1948 fusion of people, faith and land created a spiritual cocktail that even the most hard-bitten pragmatists found impossible to resist after the Israel's territorial gains in 1967. The authors consider this a bad bargain, and criticize those who unstintingly embrace it as indulging in worship of "a golden calf," though they do not repudiate the idea of a Jewish homeland. Read more ..

Film Review

The Social Network: Unbelievable but True

October 21st 2010

Film - The Social Network

The Social Network. Director: David Fincher  Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Rooney Mara

The story of Facebook would be unbelievable if it wasn’t true. The social networking website conceived of just seven years ago by Mark Zuckerberg has altered the way in which people communicate irrevocably. Following in the footsteps of developments like the telephone system and air travel, Facebook has made the concept of distance still more insignificant and has again redefined, or at least re-qualified, isolation. Someone can take a photograph in Nepal and, via Facebook, it can be seen immediately by their friends. Equally, a Facebook user can at any time check up on their friends, be checked up on by their friends, and communicate directly with them.

The human crusade against loneliness and isolation has found a new weapon. The lure of these powers has proven powerful. In the seven years since Facebook was born it has accumulated over 500 million users (1 in 14 of the Earth’s population) and is worth an estimated $25 billion. The Social Network takes us back to the days and months leading up to the creation of Facebook, and undertakes the age-old task of telling the story of beginnings. Read more ..

Book Review

Looking at Lincoln and Darwin's Differences—And Commonalities

October 18th 2010

Book Covers - lincoln and darwin

James Lander. Lincoln and Darwin: Shared Visions of Race, Science, and Religion. Southern Illinois University Press, 2010. 384pp.

“Seek and ye shall find.”
Matthew 7: 7

The bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s and Abraham Lincoln’s births on February 12, 1809 has prompted a flurry of comparisons in the lives of two men who on the surface would not seem to have much in common, notwithstanding the fact that Darwin certainly knew of Lincoln and Lincoln, we can safely extrapolate, knew of (but probably didn’t read) Darwin. Perhaps the best of the lot is Adam Gopnik’s Angels and Ages, recently published in paperback. Gopnik’s book was a marvelously evocative meditation on how the power of good writing allowed both men to achieve gigantic aims. But if your interest lies in more systematically tracing the similar, and even shared, frames of reference that shaped the lives of the two men, James Lander’s deeply researched and elegantly executed study will likely become the standard work.

At the core of Lander’s study, as with many who have studied the two men separately and together, is a shared dilemma. Lincoln and Darwin were two men who almost miraculously rejected the racial prejudices of their time as well as conventional ideas about religion, and yet practiced a savvy pragmatism in remaining as diffident as possible on their personal feelings even as they advanced public discourse in terms of principle. Read more ..

Film Review

A Few Films Salvaged an Otherwise Dreary Summer

October 18th 2010

Film - Cairo Time

In a disappointing summer in which there were few really notable films, even among those meant solely for seasonal entertainment, there was one especially bright spot: an ever-increasing number of motion pictures—indie and mainstream—directed by women. Though male directors still far outnumber the women, the gap is narrowing.

Some women directors have already achieved well-earned reputations and power-status in a highly uncertain big-business industry that is also an art form. Most prominent is Nancy Myers, whose huge box-office successes include "It's Complicated" (2010) and "Something's Gotta Give" (2003). Myers wields unusual clout in Hollywood as a writer-director whose screen narratives are about single middle-age, middle-class women whose contented lives are altered by sudden, unexpected relationships with men.

Most honored, of course, is Kathryn Bigelow, whose 2009 Iraq War verite-drama "The Hurt Locker" won both the Best Picture award at the 2010 Oscars and at the U.K. Bafta awards ceremony this year in London.

Kimberly Pierce is another established director who, like Bigelow, takes on serious challenging subjects. Pierce's work has centered on psychologically distressed characters, as in "Boys Don't Cry" (2009) and "Stop-Loss" (2008); the former offers a poignant inquiry into the life of a Nebraska girl who convincingly poses as a boy, and the latter explores the personal trauma experienced by American soldiers forced into multiple deployments to Iraq. Read more ..

Authors on Tour

Edwin Black Launches East Coast Leg of 'The Farhud' Book Tour

October 15th 2010

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black

Renowned investigative writer and journalist, Edwin Black, the author of numerous books and investigations including War Against the Weak, is on the East Coast leg of a his multi-city book tour to launch his latest work: The Farhud: The Roots of The Arab-Nazi Alliance During the Holocaust, which promises to rock the world with its account of the collaboration of Nazis and Muslim leadership to exterminate Jews long before the foundation of the modern state of Israel. The book is due to hit store shelves at the end of October.

Black will speak in the Washington DC area on Sunday October 17 at the Congregation Tikvat Israel in Rockville MD. Sponsored by the Greater Washington Area Chapter of Hadassah and Tikvat Israel, Black promises to elaborate on a series of lectures and film showings already held in Minnesota, Ohio, and North Carolina in recent days.

Farhud—a word that in Arabic signifies “violent dispossession,” describes an event in World War II Iraq that culminated years of machinations involving Adolf Hitler and Hajj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and leader of the region’s Muslims.

It was on June 1, 1941 that Iraqi Arab mobs swept through the streets of Baghdad raping, burning, and killing in what Black describes as a “burning madhouse.” Based on research conducted in libraries and archives around the world and in consultation with renowned experts, The Farhud: The Roots of Arab-Nazi Alliance During the Holocaust offers insights into the geopolitical and genocidal underpinnings of conflicts in the Mideast and much of the world’s terrorism today. Read more ..

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