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Book Review

An Empire's Story

December 24th 2013

Rome

Rome. Greg Woolf. Oxford University Press. 2012. 384 pp.

It seems fitting that a short book about the rise and fall of the Roman empire is a triumph of engineering. Greg Woolf distills 1500 years of history, bisected by the birth of Jesus Christ, into exactly 300 pages of main text, cased with a robust editorial apparatus. He accomplishes this with eighteen chapters that alternate between narrative history and a thematic overviews that include the ecology of the Mediterranean basin, the role of slavery, Roman religion, and other topics. (Oddly, one omission is a chapter on Roman engineering, a surprising oversight given the magnitude and durability of its accomplishments.) The effect of this book is a squared circle: Woolf surveys a history that is very difficult to grasp as a whole, and yet also manages to suggest a sense of texture and continuity in the values, institutions, and practices that stitched together a world for a remarkably long time.

With a similar sense of economy and leverage, Woolf endows his narrative with an interpretive dimension that rests on the indefinite article of its subtitle: an Empire's story. When it comes to the Romans, Woolf is not an exceptionalist. He is able to repeatedly and convincingly juxtapose any number of practices -- tax policy, war-making, identity formation -- with reference to earlier and later empires around the globe, both contemporary to Rome and those temporally on either side of it. He sees the key of Rome's success is the way in which the ad-hoc conquests of the late Republic, culminating in the career of Julius Caesar, gave way to the tributary empire of Augustus, in which an army loyal to the emperor maintained civil as well as military stability. This stability was severely tested in the third century CE, but successfully reorganized before a series of waves eroded and finally broke it down, a gradual process culminating with the the rise of Islam in the seventh century. This is not an original argument, of course, as Woolf, a professor of Ancient History at St. Andrews and the editor of The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Roman World, readily makes clear. Indeed, his masterful sense of historiography suggests a lifetime of learning worn lightly. But his assertion that it's Rome survival, not its fall, that's hardest to explain is a point worth remembering. Read more ..


The Edge of Painting

Ndebele Artist Popularizes Traditional Technique

December 21st 2013

South Africa Flag

Esther Mahlangu is almost 80 but she's still going strong. For decades, she has practiced the traditional art of her tribe, the Ndebele, located in northeastern South Africa.  

"This was the old way of doing it, when it was done with black and white soil mixed with powder," Mahlangu said, "and you would draw the pattern with your fingers."

Today Ndebele art is colorful with symmetrical patterns. Mahlangu learned to paint from the elders in her home town when she was a little girl. Soon, people realized she was talented. She could draw straight lines without rulers and mastered the colors.

"We mix soil and water to make the pigment," she said. "And we use chicken feathers to paint. We Ndebele don't use rulers.Rulers are in our mind."  One day in the late 1980s, two French researchers came to the village. They noticed her paintings and asked her to travel to France to display her art. That marked the beginning of travels that took Mahlangu to more than 20 countries to exhibit her work.  Read more ..


The Edge of Music

San Francisco Musicians Create 'New' Classical Music

December 19th 2013

Nashville Symphony

California has long been seen as the place in the U.S. where new ideas are tested.  A group of young artists in San Francisco are continuing that trend, giving new life to an old field: opera and European classical music.

There’s a well-worn path that conservatory students take after graduation.  Amy Foote, a newly minted opera singer, says normally it was expected that…“I would perform in community opera productions and that I would audition for young artists programs and getting a church gig.  Also, for instrumentalists, I think it is expected that you would take orchestral excerpt auditions.”

But like most artists, Foote had bigger dreams. “I wanted to perform new classical chamber music, so I made sure that I could,” she said.

Foote is not alone, either in her drive or in her desire to seek a new way to make a career in the field of European classical music.  In fact, she’s part of a trend among her former classmates at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  Read more ..


Film Review

Philomena: Facile Moralizing

December 18th 2013

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You may find that you have, as I do, a slight problem with Stephen Frears's Philomena, which is in many ways - chief among them the fine performance of Dame Judi Dench in the title role - a lovely and a touching film about a mother's search for her lost child 50 years after being forced to give him up for adoption by the sisters of an Irish convent who had taken her in. The problem can be summed up in the words of Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the true-life "human interest" tale on which it was based at the urging of the true-life Philomena.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, he notes that her secret, kept from even those closest to her until she finally decided to reveal it, was that she "had been a teenage single mother in Ireland at a time when sex outside marriage was considered a sin." Believe it or not, Martin, it still is considered a sin. It's just that, nowadays, neither the Church nor anybody else appears to think that this particular sin is anything to get very upset about.

Obviously, that was not the case in 1952, but the change in social norms flatters Mr Sixsmith's unconscious assumption of moral superiority. That is, like most progressive-minded folk, he assumes that, as time has gone by, we have learned that right and wrong are not what we thought they were a generation or two ago. In many cases they are the opposite of what we thought they were. And those who lived in those benighted days can only be condemned for their failure to be as virtuous and enlightened as we are.

Mr Frears and the other film-makers behind Philomena - including Mr Sixsmith and Steve Coogan, who plays him in the film and who co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope - thus align themselves with the kind of secular moralists of today who are outraged by the treatment the Catholic Church once gave to single mothers and their babies but are entirely unperturbed by the millions of abortions that are our own way of dealing with the same problem. Read more ..


Book Review

Examining Hezbollah’s Reach

December 17th 2013

Levitt: Hezbollah

Matthew Levitt. Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God. Georgetown University Press, 2013. 426 pages.

In the Fall of 2002, as the Bush administration was focused overwhelmingly on pursuing al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in response to the September 11th attacks, no less senior an official than then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage suggested that the attention of the United States might actually be misplaced. “Hezbollah may be the ‘A team’ of terrorism,” Armitage told a conference in Washington at the time. “Maybe al-Qaeda is actually the ‘B team.’”

Armitage’s assessment, it turns out, was well-deserved. The Shi’ite militia sustained by Iran and supported by Syria has become a terrorist powerhouse since its inception in Lebanon in 1982. Over the past three decades, it has transformed itself into a sophisticated international army of mercenaries while exporting Iran’s revolutionary Islamist ideology abroad and claiming political hegemony in southern Lebanon. It likewise has mastered the art of media warfare, utilizing social media and a dedicated television station, Al-Manar (literally, “the Beacon”) to spread its corrosive ideological message throughout the Arab world, and beyond. And while Coalition operations over the past decade have eroded at least some of al-Qaeda’s capabilities (although exactly how much is a matter of some dispute), Hezbollah has reclaimed international notoriety as a terrorist actor par excellence.

No one understands this better than Matthew Levitt, author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God. Levitt, a senior fellow and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the prestigious Washington Institute for Near East Policy, previously served as the deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Treasury Department, and before that as a counterterrorism analyst for the FBI. He now puts this extensive professional know-how to good use in his analysis of the terror group. Read more ..


Film Review

Nebraska: Touched by Grace

December 15th 2013

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Nebraska. Director: Alexander Payne. Starring: Bruce Dern, Stacie Keach, June Squibb, Will Forte. 90 mins.

Everybody’s second favorite quotation from the great 20th-century British poet Philip Larkin — the favorite is obviously "They f*** you up, your mum and dad" — is the final line of "An Arundel Tomb," and it is almost invariably quoted out of context. "What will survive of us is love" is placed in its emphatic, concluding position, I think, just in order that we may forget, for the moment, the severe, heart-breaking qualifications of the penultimate line: "Our almost-instinct almost-true."

In other words, it feels like an instinct, but it isn’t; and, in any case, it isn’t true. This is a revealing and typical rhetorical trick on Larkin’s part, but I wonder if a better, though a more banal truth doesn’t lie in a different qualification: what will survive of us is (at least some of) our "loved ones" — assuming that we have any, and that the term is understood in its fully euphemistic, funeral-directorish sense.

Love is certainly not the first word that springs to mind to describe the relationships explored in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, but in this extended sense of loved ones as the people we are closest to in our lives — whether by choice or by accident, whether we love them, tolerate them or hate them — they and whatever it is they preserve of us are what the movie elucidates. Most of what they preserve is of course memory, which is as unreliable as people are, as love is, and the movie’s comedy depends on this unreliability of memory — both, that is, the fading memory of its verging-on-senile hero, Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern, and the hardly less dubious memories of his family and those who knew him long ago in his home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska. But if everybody’s memories are nearly as evanescent as Woody’s, they are all anybody has. Read more ..


Book Review

Paying for Conflict -- Not Peace

December 11th 2013

Financing the Flames

Financing the Flames: How Tax-exempt and Public Money Fuel a Culture of Confrontation and Terror in Israel. Edwin Black. Dialog Press, 2013. 288 pp.

Americans tend to think of a 501(c)(3) tax exemption as a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" from the U.S. Government, indicating that the organization does work of which the government approves. Not necessarily.

In Financing the Flames, Edwin Black reveals his meticulous research on "human rights" organizations that use charitable funds for distinctly non-charitable purposes. Incitement, promotion of boycotts, lobbying, and the delegitimization of the IDF and the state of Israel among both Israelis and the international community are their common characteristics. B'Tselem and the New Israel Fund (NIF) are thoroughly dissected financially and ideologically; NIF's open political lobbying in the U.S. is particularly well documented and should call its tax-exempt status into question.

At bottom, these organizations are part of a broader effort to undermine Israel. The most fascinating types of cases in Financing the Flames are frequently reported without elaboration in the Western press: the uprooting of "Palestinian" olive trees and the apparent abuse of Palestinian women and children, both by the IDF.

There is a Talmudic prohibition against destroying fruit trees during war, based on a verse in Deuteronomy, so images of the IDF uprooting hundreds, of not thousands, of trees make people who are otherwise sympathetic to Israel just a little bit uncomfortable -- actually, a lot uncomfortable. The violation of a Talmudic principle is enough to nurture seeds of doubt about the IDF even in non-religious Jews.

But from "Rami," a Palestinian in Deir Istiya, Black discovers the image manipulation of left-wing foreign organizations who are planting olive trees in a nature preserve, "which is not allowed just because it is a nature reserve. So these trees would have to be taken out -- uprooted by the Israelis … So why do they do it? They are encouraged to make trouble." Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

Pro-Lesbian Super PAC Founder and Obama Bundler to Top Arts Post

December 11th 2013

Obama with baseball bat

President Barack Obama has named Laura Ricketts, a major Democratic Party donor and one of the his top campaign fundraisers, to be a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., the White House announced Thursday.

Records released by the Obama campaign last year indicate that Ricketts, a co-owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, raised at least $500,000 for the president’s re-election efforts. Internal campaign documents published by the New York Times put that figure at more than $750,000.

Ahead of the 2012 election, Ricketts, who is openly gay, also helped launch a hybrid super PAC called LPAC dedicated to “making a true impact for lesbians in politics.” As a hybrid super PAC, LPAC can collect unlimited donations to produce political advertisements. It can also accept limited donations to directly donate to federal candidates. Read more ..


The Way We Are

Researchers: Films with Gun Violence Have "Weapons Effect" on Kids, Teens

December 11th 2013

Ammo

With incidents of mass shootings taking center stage in the news media, a group of researchers released a study on the subject of youths being exposed to gun violence in their choice of motion picture entertainment which they call the "weapons effect."

The journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that violence in motion pictures that are rated PG-13 has more than tripled, especially violent scenes involving guns in a study titled, "Gun Violence Trends in Movies," which was released on Veterans Day.

According to the team of researchers -- Brad J. Bushman, Patrick E. Jamieson, Ilana Weitz and Daniel Romer -- several academic studies have suggested that just the presence of "guns can increase aggression, an effect they dubbed the 'weapons effect.'" Read more ..


The Holiday Edge

Chinese Sculptors Bring Their Talent to US Holiday Ice Show

December 10th 2013

Glaciers

No matter what the thermometer shows about the weather in your neighborhood - this next story will keep you cool.  For the Christmas holiday, a huge attraction at the Marriott Gaylord National hotel near Washington, DC is made entirely of ice.  Actually, more than 900,000 kilograms of ice! 

Walk inside a massive white tent and the noise hits you first, followed by the brisk air. You're hearing the sounds of forklifts and chainsaws, slicing through ice. 

The temperature is minus 12 degrees Celsius....the air turns a smoky color when someone exhales. But it must be this cold to preserve the 6,000 massive blocks of ice. Carvers are chipping the blocks into life-sized characters from a children's Christmas storybook. The carvers only speak Mandarin, like Xu Rui who is the art director of the exhibit. “We learn it since we were really young," said Xu Rui. Read more ..


Book Review

In Schooling, Context Matters--and Larry Cuban Provides It

December 9th 2013

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Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education. Larry Cuban. Harvard Education Press. 2013.

Larry Cuban has been a voice of reason during the past thirty years of stormy debates over school reform. A former high school teacher, district superintendent, and now professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, he takes quantitative data into account without being hypnotized by it, doesn’t tie himself into knots with pedagogical ideology, and never confuses with policy with practice.

The titles of his books over the years tell you where his research has taken him. When the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report sounded its alarm and inspired yet another round of reform-through-technology panaceas, Cuban added a cautionary note with Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920 (1986)—and when the drumbeat for computers in the classroom continued, he added Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom in 2003. My own favorites include How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1990 (1993), The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses (2007), and (with historian David Tyack) Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (1997), a remarkably precise, concise, and evenhanded overview of what the efforts to improve K-12 education have and haven’t changed. Today, in the age of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, and now the Common Core, advocates of top-down reform (I’m looking at you, Arne Duncan, and you, too, Bill Gates) could still benefit enormously just from reading the chapter in Tinkering called “How Schools Change Reform.” Read more ..


Book Review

Financing the Flames: Documenting How Terrorists Undermine Israel and America

December 7th 2013

Financing the Flames: How Tax-Exempt and Public Money Fuel a Culture of Confrontation and Terrorism in Israel. Edwin Black. Dialog Press. 2013

In preparation for a performance of The Defiant Requiem, a somewhat dramatized version of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem Mass, a video is shown months earlier to prospective donors. The video documents the heroic work of Rafael Schachter, a young Jewish composer incarcerated in the Nazi concentration camp of Terezin, outside Prague during the early 1940s.

Schachter, who was murdered along with millions of other Jews, used his years at Terezin to teach fellow inmates to sing this monumental piece of Catholic music as an act of hope and warning: there is a God and, while His mercy is great, He also promises a day of just judgment.

Edwin Black, a New York Times bestselling international investigative author, has spent a good part of his life’s work explaining human rights abuses that saw one of its most horrifying and efficient realizations at places like Terezin and Auschwitz but neither began nor ended there.

Black’s focus is forward as well as back. There can be no understanding of what happened to the Jews in Europe during the 20th century without appreciating the diabolical history of eugenics, which he wrote about in War against the Weak (2012). There can be no understanding of how a petty dictator like Hitler could achieve such power without appreciating his powerful allies, which he covers in Nazi Nexus: America’s Corporate Connections to Hitler’s Holocaust (2009) and IBM and the Holocaust (2001).

And there can be no understanding of the current Middle East madness, spilling out over the entire world, without appreciating contemporary Israel’s extraordinary formation (The Transfer Agreement: The Dramatic Story of the Pact Between the Third Reich and Jewish Palestine, 1984), the tremendous wealth to be had keeping the turmoil of the Middle East inflamed (Internal Combustion: How Corporations and World Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives, 2006; Banking on Bagdad: Inside Iraq’s 7000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict, 2004), and a cabal of parties who fancy themselves doing “good.” Read more ..


Iran on Edge

Art and Sanctions

December 7th 2013

picasso show on the road

Iranian culture is tremendously rich. Art museums dot central Tehran, prominent Iranian universities teach art, and Iranians have traditionally been fierce patrons and collectors of fine art. Decades of economic mismanagement coupled with sanctions have eroded the Iranian middle class. Iranian society today is increasingly divided into super wealthy and poor.

Against this backdrop, the Iranian approach toward Christie's Auction serves several purposes. Christie's has 32 offices and salesrooms across the world, but only two in the Middle East: in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The Iranian Ministry of Culture's attempt, however futile, to convince Christie's to open an office in Iran would, in its mind restore, Iran to its rightful place in the world's cultural landscape. While Kish Island might sound like a random location, the Iranian government has developed it as an outlet to the outside world, the only location in Iran where no visa is required and anyone is welcome, except Israelis. Many Iranians visit Kish for its duty-free shopping and, during the winter, for its beach resorts. Read more ..


The Edge of Music

Gospel Music Restoration Project to Add Flavor to New Museum

December 6th 2013

Bible

Through Baylor University’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project a remarkable collection of music that’s been housed in Texas is poised to add flavor to a new museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. 

Today, Bob Darden is a college professor in Waco, Texas.  But in 1960, he was a small child whose father had just brought home the family’s first three LP phonograph records.  Two of them, he didn’t care about.

“The third was Mahalia Jackson’s Christmas album," he said.  "And my parents say that at about age six or so,  that I played Mahalia’s album over and over.”

Darden’s fascination lasted throughout his life.  He eventually became gospel music editor for Billboard magazine.  Then in 2005, Darden - frustrated that it was getting harder to find this music that he loved -- wrote a letter to The New York Times complaining that black gospel was disappearing.  A man named Charles Royce read the letter “and called that day and said, ‘Tell me what we need to do and I’ll help fund it.’” Read more ..


Book Review

Front Porch Politics: A Long Overdue Revisionist History of Politically-Engaged Americans

November 30th 2013

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Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s. Michael Stewart Foley. Hill and Wang (2013)

Most Americans tell an identical story of the last decades of the twentieth century: Around 1968 the heightened political activism we call “the Sixties” began to overreach itself. Unreasonable, utopian demands replaced the practical, reasonable goals that had driven the civil rights and student movements of the previous decade. Those excesses, found especially in the rhetoric of “black power,” multiculturalism and universal equality, reportedly provoked a “backlash” of conservative politics. Around 1979 or 1980 that surge of right-wing reaction took over national government, first in the White House and then in Congress. Meanwhile, frustrated with a decade of social and political turmoil, Americans retreated from civic engagement. The “Age of Reagan” thus began.

A good story perhaps, but not one fully supported by the historical record. Using that record, Michael Stewart Foley offers, in this very readable and adept book, an alternative account of the era, one that discards the “two now-tired tales” of rising conservatism and declining civic engagement at the heart of the Reagan-era myth.

Such tales are believable, Foley argues, only if we focus on the period’s electoral and party politics and if we fail to take a closer look at what was happening in America’s neighborhoods, on its city streets, and across its backyard fences as the millennium came to a close. Instead, Foley urges us to turn our gaze downward and outward in order to look more closely at "another kind of political experience,' one that was 'much more likely to propel Americans into action' and one that has had a much greater impact on our political life than generally assumed. Read more ..


Film Review

Blue is the Warmest Color: Nothing to See Here, Folks

November 26th 2013

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Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d'Adèle). Director: Abdellatif Kechiche. Starring: Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. Length: 90 mins.

One of my favorite recent Guardian headlines — right up there alongside "Why do normal men turn sexist when they get in front of a barbecue?" or "Snowden's revelations must not blind us to government as a force for good" — is this one, to an article by Nick Dastoor: "A single man's guide to seeing Blue Is the Warmest Color." As self-parody, that could have topped even Julie Bindel’s "What straight men don’t understand about lesbians" of a couple of years previous except that, unlike her piece, Mr Dastoor’s turned out to have been a deliberate self-parody. I find that a hopeful sign. If even the unfailingly p.c. Guardian can recognize something of the absurdity in the political controversy surrounding Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winning movie — which, by the way, the Guardian’s critic absolutely loved — then maybe the islands of sanity in the sea of Media Madness are larger and more accommodating than I have hitherto supposed.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we can quite ignore the controversy or the politics in order to look at this very pretty and well-made movie as "just" a movie. No more can Mr Kechiche successfully renounce his or his camera’s "male gaze" at the naked bodies of two remarkably attractive young women who are apparently not lesbians in real life but are pretending to be lesbians in the movie. Or, rather, they are pretending to be what he, or they, or even certain authoritative lesbians themselves must imagine "authentic" lesbians to be.

A certain uneasiness on this point was doubtless what led the jury at Cannes, presided over by Steven Spielberg, to award the top prize not just to the director but also to the two young women in question, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, both of whom have since criticized Mr Kechiche for mistreating or exploiting them. That criticism is also, I suspect, at least partly politically motivated, since it forestalls any censure of themselves for acting like sexual performing seals at the bidding of a man with a camera. Read more ..


Financing the Flames

Confronting the New Israel Fund

November 23rd 2013

Edwin Black

At a time of ceaseless budget crises, it may astound many that American taxpayers are deploying their precious dollars not to pay for peace in Israel, but to achieve the exact opposite: confrontation.

Each year, American aid, taxpayer subsidies of 501(c)(3) organizations, and other financial programs richly support political confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis, vocal critics say. Tax experts estimate that for every one million dollars in donations received by a 501(c)(3), US taxpayers must subsidize approximately $440,000.

Buy Financing the Flames
Learn More About Financing the Flames
see The Edwin Black Show

Tax-exempt charitable organizations are supposed to be just that: charitable. But prominent Israeli critics claim that highly politicized American charitable organizations, including several operated by some of America’s most prominent Jewish personalities, are actually working hard to destabilize the Israel Defense Forces and erase Israel’s identity as a Jewish State. Rather than engaging in charitable programs, outspoken critics say, these charitable groups are focused on massive political lobbying and fomenting internal political upheaval that make peace between Arab and Jew seemingly impossible. Not a few of these critics point to the prestigious New Israel Fund (NIF) as the chief culprit.

NIF grants steer millions of US dollars to scores of confrontation-oriented Israeli NGOs. Among the controversial NGOs is one called B’Tselem, which circulates video cameras to Arab villages that are hotbeds for confrontation. Israeli military officials assure that they rely upon B'Tselem’s help to document IDF infractions. But many critics in the ranks charge the cameras are calculated to capture the scene after soldiers are taunted into finally reacting.

One such critic is Colonel Benny Yanay, who represents Consensus, an organization of several hundred IDF officers. "The New Israel Fund,” insists Yanay, “acts against Israel—against the soldiers of our country. It is important to me that people recognize the New Israel Fund for what it is. It is supported by foreign governments and organizations so that Israeli soldiers will be weakened." Yanay adds, "Their budget is more than anything we have—so it is not a fair fight. We are not a political organization. They are political." Read more ..


Film Review

Enough Said: Who Needs Good and Evil?

November 22nd 2013

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Enough Said. Writer and Director: Nicole Holofcener. Starring: James Gandolfini, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Catherine Keener. Length: 90 minutes.

Nicole Holofcener makes little movies about "relationships" and the anxieties of young to middle-aged women in a post-feminist, upper-middle class world where sex-defined social roles have become more or less impermissible. Her heroines must therefore live with a constant sense of anxiety that they are not living up to their lightly held feminist principles by continuing to look for love, to worry about their looks and by not being sufficiently self-defining. In such earlier pictures as Lovely and Amazing (2001) Friends with Money (2006) and Please Give (2010) she managed to tell funny and often charming stories of such women with few hints of any ambition to make a larger statement, either about feminism, its impact on society or the human condition generally — or at least not more than could be contained in one of the TV sit-coms she sometimes writes or directs in between movies. In her latest film, however, and even though she is ostensibly sticking pretty close to her formula and to female troubles, there are signs that she may be reaching for something bigger and more mythic.

In fact, the new picture, Enough Said, could be seen as a hip, updated version of the Adam and Eve story. You remember, the one in the Bible? Book of Genesis? Ring any bells? Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Eve (or Eva as she is called here), an itinerant masseuse in Los Angeles. Divorced with a daughter, Ellen (Tracey Fairaway), about to go off to college, this Eva meets her Adam in the hulking shape of Albert, played by James Gandolfini in one of his last screen roles. At the same party she meets a new client, Marianne (Catherine Keener), who turns out to be the serpent in their garden, tempting her with something which is much more irresistible than a piece of fruit but which has definitely come straight off the tree of Forbidden Knowledge. And, like her namesake, Eva falls. Read more ..


Book Review

Lawrence in Arabia: A Biography of the Man who Made the Modern Mideast

November 22nd 2013

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Scott Anderson. Doubleday Publishers. 2013.

Lawrence in Arabia is not a traditional biography of the enigmatic T. E. Lawrence; instead, the story of Lawrence’s exploits in Arabia is rendered in great detail by veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson, who proves to be an excellent storyteller. While the book concentrates upon Lawrence, Anderson also examines the impact of Western imperialism on the Middle East through German academic and diplomat Curt Pruűffer, American Standard Oil representative and later diplomat turned scholar William Yale, and Jewish agronomist and Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn. This biographical approach makes for interesting reading and also includes, among others, in-depth portraits of British diplomat Mark Sykes and Arab leader Emir Hussein and his son Faisal ibn Hussein.

But the core of the book remains Lawrence’s adventures in Arabia in which the British soldier often found himself in conflict with the policies of his government. The British in an effort to tie down Turkish troops encouraged an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. The leader of this revolt was the respected religious figure Emir Hussein from Mecca, who was promised an Arab nation which would include Syria and Palestine.

Yet unknown to the Arabs, in 1916 the French and British negotiated the Sykes-Picot agreement which placed limitations upon any future Arab state by reserving Palestine and Iraq for the British, while the French, despite their lack of a significant military presence on the Middle Eastern front, were to be awarded the primary role in Syria and Lebanon. In addition, the 1917 Balfour Declaration committed the British to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In seeking to explain the double dealing of the European governments toward the Arabs, Anderson writes, “For many Europeans, steeped in the condescension of the late imperial age, independence didn’t mean letting native peoples actually govern themselves, but something far more paternalistic: a new round of the ‘white man’s burden,’ the tutoring -- and, of course, the exploiting -- of native peoples until they might sufficiently grasp the ways of modern civilization to stand on their own at some indeterminate point in the future” (183). Read more ..


Film Review

Captain Phillips: A Victim Hero and a Political Fable

November 21st 2013

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Captain Phillips. Director: Paul Greenglass. Starring: Tom Hanks

Somebody had to write it, of course. In the event it turned out to be Christopher Orr of the Atlantic, though any number of critics these days might have done the same. Here’s the lead of Mr Orr’s piece about Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass’s true-life tale of piracy in the treacherous waters of the Arabian Sea off the coast of Somalia in 2009:

A tiny cohort of poorly organized insurgents, in a feat of terrible miscalculation, hijack an enterprise vastly larger than themselves, demanding a large and implausible ransom. Outnumbered and surrounded, they soon begin bickering with one another, their plans changing by the hour. Although repeatedly offered an out if they will simply release their hostage, they find themselves too deeply wedded to the self-destructive course they’ve charted. "I came too far," their leader explains. "I can’t give up." Is Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips the most inadvertently resonant movie of the year?

Oh, I get it. He means that those Wascally Wepublicans who are (or were when the piece appeared) brutalizing and holding hostage President Obama and his pathetic band of defenseless Democrats are just like the Somali pirates in Mr Greengrass’s film — except that the film feels a great deal more sympathy toward the gun-toting pirates than Mr Orr or his fellow partisans have shown any signs of toward the Republicans or tea-partiers. Here’s yet more redundant proof that movie criticism and left-wing idiocy go together like a horse and carriage. Or a vast container ship and piracy. Read more ..


Financing the Flames

Author Edwin Black Reveals Latest Terrorism Funding at IBC-TV Special Event at Beverly Hills City Council

November 20th 2013

Edwin Black

New York Times bestselling author Edwin Black will be the featured speaker at the IBC-TV Special Event being hosted in the Beverly Hills City Council Chambers by the Beverly Hills Forum November 25, 2013. He will reveal new information from his latest investigative book, Financing the Flames: How Tax-Exempt and Public Money Fuel a Culture of Confrontation and Terror in Israel. The IBC-TV Special Event accompanies a special 10-part broadcast series on Financing the Flames produced as part of the Edwin Black Show on the IBC-TV network.

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Financing the Flames pulls the cover off the robust use of US tax-exempt, tax-subsidized, and public monies to foment agitation, systematically destabilize the Israel Defense Forces, and finance terrorists in Israel. In a far-flung investigation in the United States, Israel, and the West Bank, human-rights investigative reporter Edwin Black documents that it is actually the highly politicized human rights organizations and NGOs themselves—all American taxpayer supported—which are financing the flames that make peace in Israel difficult if not impossible.

Black spotlights key charitable organizations such as the Ford Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, the New Israel Fund, and many others, as well as American taxpayers as a group. Instead of promoting peace and reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis, he writes, a variety of taxpayer-subsidized organizations have funded a culture where peace does not pay, but warfare and confrontation do.

Financing the Flames has received a cascade of accolades since it was unleashed upon the public last month. Rick Halperin director of Southern Methodist University Embrey Human Rights Program and former chairman of the board of Amnesty International USA called the book “a jolt.” Halperin wrote, “Most people should and will be appalled to read the revelations in Financing the Flames. It is a jolt!” Read more ..


Book Review

What Price Gilad?

November 20th 2013

Gilad Shalit after Release

Gershon Baskin. The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas. The Toby Press, 2013. 283 pages.

It all began in June 2006 when a nineteen year old Israeli army conscript, Gilad Schalit, was kidnapped by Hamas loyalists -- “rogue groups” Gershon Baskin calls them -- in the continuing tit-for-tat violence between Israeli occupiers and occupied Palestinians. The Israelis have imprisoned thousands of Palestinians, some of whom committed heinous crimes and many others whose nonviolent challenges to their subjugators ended up in a prison cell, much to the dismay of their families and supporters. Schalit, nineteen, was only one Israeli Jew, but in Israel his capture was taken personally. To set the stage, Baskin tells us that one year earlier, his wife’s cousin was murdered in Ramallah by a Hamas member.

Enter Baskin, an American-Israeli, who has spent virtually his entire professional life in Israel working with other peaceniks for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, having co-founded with a Palestinian ally a public-policy think tank and where he now writes a column, “Encountering Peace” in the Jerusalem Post.

When he first heard of Schalit’s abduction he had what can best described as a revelation. He possessed one thing Israel’s spymasters and officials didn’t have, namely extensive contacts with Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, which he had developed over the years in his peace work. Seated on the shores of the Dead Sea in neighboring Jordan, learning of the abduction, he reflected on the kidnapping’s possible consequences, asking himself, “How many innocent Israelis and Palestinians would be killed as a result of this attack?” -- retaliation being the name of the game. Read more ..


Book Review

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide

November 19th 2013

Blood Telegram

In The Blood Telegram, Gary J. Bass, a former journalist who is currently a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, describes the 1971 bloodbath which destroyed East Pakistan and gave birth to the nation of Bangladesh – a series of events which Bass argues culminated in “a forgotten genocide,” overshadowed by events in Vietnam and Cambodia along with the opening of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Bass asserts that the United States must bear responsibility for the Pakistani army’s violent response to calls for autonomy following the electoral victory of Mujib-ur-Rahman in East Pakistan.

The violence, which left at least a quarter million Bengalis dead and millions more refugees, was carried out with weapons supplied by the United States to its Pakistan military ally, while President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger refused to reign in their client General Ayha Muhammad Yahya Khan despite the fact that the U.S. consulate in Dacca provided detailed intelligence to the State Department and White House of the atrocities taking place in East Pakistan.

The chief protagonist of this story is career Foreign Service officer Archer Blood, who as head of the consulate at Dacca sacrificed his career to assure that the true story of the massacre in East Pakistan was communicated to Washington. Nixon and Kissinger were infuriated with the so-called “Blood Telegram,” and the career diplomat was recalled from his post. Bass also reserves praise for former New York Republican Senator Kenneth Keating, who served as Ambassador to India during the crisis and failed to share the animosities of Nixon and Kissinger toward Indian democracy. Read more ..


Book Review

Families and Faith: America and the Faith of Our Fathers

November 18th 2013

Click to select Image

Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations. Vern L. Bengtson Oxford University Press. 2013.

One of the major findings of Robert Putnam and David Campbell's important 2011 study American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us is the rise of what scholars of religion call "the nones": a rising tide of religiously unaffiliated Americans, which is now in the neighborhood of 20% of the U.S. population. Such a statistic is often cited as an example of how, amid the prominence and evident power of evangelical Christians in U.S. society (who, by the way, tend to see themselves as beleaguered), the nation is becoming increasingly secular. But in Families and Faith, sociologist Vern Bengtson and collaborators Norella Putney and Susan Harris report that the picture is somewhat more complicated. To be sure, they say, there has been significant churn in religious identity since 1970. But there's also been a lot more continuity than you might think.

Families and Faith is a brief distillation of The Longitudinal Study of Generations (LSOG), a 35-year project begun by Bengtson in 1970 drawing on over 2,000 respondents in over 350 multi-generational families. The goal of the study was to analyze patterns of religious transmission, or lack thereof, across four generations. In the broadest sense, what Bengtson found is that about six in ten children kept to the religious tradition of their parents -- more for Mormons and Jews, less for Catholics and mainline Protestants.

You can interpret that as a glass that's a little more than half full or almost half-empty, depending on your predilections. But Bergston leans toward the former, for a number of reasons. One is that many of those who have not maintained faith traditions in any formal sense nevertheless profess loyalty to them and eventually return to them (the so-called prodigals). Another is that non-religious affiliation is itself significantly a matter of generational transmission. Read more ..


Book Review

Extinguishing the Fires of Anti-Israel Agitation

November 17th 2013

Financing the Flames

“Financing the Flames” is very troubling, but then that’s nothing new for an Edwin Black book since all of his works studiously reveal facts and unknown information that shocks and disrupts historical conventions. What is different about this undertaking as compared to his previous treatises is that it deals with contemporary events, events that are literally ripped from today’s headlines. Financing the Flames exposes the greatest threat to Israel’s existence since 1948, but this time the threat may succeed – because it emanates from enemies within Israel and the Jewish world.

These enemies are borne from the almost innate, often misplaced, Jewish sense of responsibility for others (misplaced, since the frequent goal of the others is to destroy Judaism itself).

Over the last decade or so, a question has been repeatedly asked and debated: “Why is Israel so successful on the military battlefield yet so unsuccessful when it comes to winning the public relations war?” This question has been especially puzzling since there are so many Jews working in the news media. The mystery intensifies when one considers the extensive care taken by the Israelis to protect uninvolved civilians and not overreact to provocations, even severe ones.

Usually the answer revolves around the vast sums of money paid by oil-rich Arab nations to anti-Israel PR efforts. Unquestionably, this wealth of funds and the media’s never ending hunger to gobble it up has played a big part in unbalancing the field. However, as it turns out, there is more to the story.

In Financing the Flames, we finally get the real answer to the question, as Edwin Black meticulously details how anti-Israel efforts are being funded by non-Arab nations (such as the United States and Great Britain) and by presumably non-aligned, well-intentioned private donor groups – some Jewish, which are then implemented by misguided Jews and Jewish organizations. In other words, the Jewish gifts for socially-conscious fund raising and media wizardry, if indeed such things exist, are ironically being used against Israel. Read more ..


Jihad in Music

Crooner Sir Tom Jones Condemns Boycotts of Israel by Musicians After Playing Tel Aviv

November 16th 2013

Israel-Center

British crooner Sir Tom Jones condemned boycotts of Israel by musicians after playing two sold out shows in Tel Aviv last month, the UK Jewish News reported. “I was in Israel two weeks ago where a lot of singers won’t go (because of the boycott campaign). I don’t agree with that. I think entertainers should entertain. They should go wherever, there shouldn’t be any restrictions. That’s why I went there. I did two shows in Tel Aviv and it was fantastic,” he told the Jewish News.

In August, Israel’s Consul for Public Affairs in New York, Gil Lainer, said the Welsh singer had become “the latest victim of a fringe campaign pushing for a boycott of Israel, which bullies artists and academics from coming to Israel,” and encouraged Israel supporters to contact him via Twitter (@RealSirTomJones) with positive messages. Lainer credited the activism of online supporters of Israel as the reason why “artists like Alicia Keys stood up to online bullying, and had an amazing time in Israel this July in a pair of sold out shows.” Read more ..


Book Review

The Most Important Election of Our Lives

November 11th 2013

Rossevelt's Second Act

Roosevelt's Second Act. Richard Moe. Ox ford University Press. 2013. 392 pp.

Can anything new be written about Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Yes, most certainly.

Ever since I can remember, presidential candidates have called the upcoming vote “the most important election of our lives.” The phrase has become a staple of political rhetoric. In an extraordinary new book, Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War, Richard Moe convincingly demonstrated why the contest that elected FDR to a third term might well have been the most important election in American history, rivaling that of 1864.

The author of several books, Moe served as Vice President Walter Mondale’s chief of staff and as a senior advisor to President Jimmy Carter and later served for 17 years as president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Moe’s government experience is a tremendous asset, as the author displays a highly sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the many forces at work behind the curtain in the Roosevelt Administration. He writes with real insight about the key players of the time, and helps the reader to understand the competing forces at play in the political process.

The 1940 campaign is fascinating on many levels, not least the fact that 1940 would be not only the first, but also the last time, due to the 22nd Amendment (proposed in 1947 and ratified in 1951), that a candidate would be nominated for a third term. Moe has chosen a truly unique moment in American history, one that will never be repeated again. Surprisingly, FDR’s decision is the subject of little scholarship.

Woven throughout is how Roosevelt kept one eye on developments overseas in Europe and the other on the 1940 election, and his commitment both to stopping the spread of fascism abroad and preserving his reform programs at home. Neither was a given. In fact, each of FDR’s desires faced tough odds: America did not have the military means to enforce the former, and a slew of conservative opposition among not only Republicans but also among Democrats threatened the legacy of the New Deal. Read more ..


Financing the Flames

Financing the Flames from a Mobile Home in Florida

November 4th 2013

Financing the Flames

A regular feature of West Bank confrontation between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians seems to be a corps of intrepid young women that villagers call “internationals.” They specialize in upfront and personal, in-your-face, and often nose-to-nose verbal taunting hoping to provoke a reaction that video cameras can record. If and when soldiers finally do react, these incidents are then uploaded to the Internet to prove “the brutality of the IDF.” These “internationals” often seem to appear out of nowhere at a village flashpoint. Just as suddenly, they melt into the background.

Using false names and seemingly untrackable movements, the skilled and stealthy internationals have managed to inspire and encourage videographed confrontation far beyond their numbers. Who are they? What is the font of their financial wherewithal? Who is financing these flames?

Searching for answers, one night in early May 2013, I traveled to the tiny West Bank town of Deir Itsiya where the internationals quietly maintain a base of operations. The women are known to many in that local Arab community, where they are provided logistical assistance and deferential hospitality. They receive many European guests. When I asked my taxi driver, "Do you know where the house is?" he answered, "Yes, Sheik Haider (neighborhood)." He took me there.

At an elbow in a dusty road, I found their compound behind long, ornate iron fencing. I knocked on all the doors, the ones with knockers and the ones without. No answer. I called out for anyone who was home. A neighbor strolled by to remark. The driver translated: "He said the European girls are not sleeping in town tonight. But he knows how to reach them. I will take you where he said." Read more ..


Book Review

The Rise of an American Reform Movement,

November 4th 2013

The Vegetarian Crusade

The Vegetarian Crusade. Adam D. Shprintzen. U of North Carolina Press. 2013. 336 pp.

When at age 17 I decided not to eat meat or fish my alarmed mother asked our family doctor if I would die. Reassured I would live, I fed stray animals and birds and on occasional Saturdays visited the bookstore of Simon Gould, a Manhattan bookseller who had run for the presidency as a write-in candidate on a ticket called The Vegetarian Party. I doubt he received many votes but he was kind and once gave me a piece of advice. Best to remain a vegetarian for life for humane reasons, the better to resist future pressures to regress into eating meat. Health was important, but secondary to preserving all life.. He also presented  me with a book published in 1892,  Animal Rights, by  Henry Salt, a British  polymath.  Peter Singer, who wrote the indispensable Animal Liberation said it “remains among my most treasured books.”   The word vegetarian itself derives from the Latin “vigitore,” or “giving strength and health” but was more appropriately defined by the long-defunct American Vegetarian Society as  “a diet free of flesh products produced by violence and  suffering.”

Vegetarianism, once derided and ignored is now accepted by millions of Americans,  had its beginnings in Great Britain and  was brought to the United States by the Bible Christian Church. Because it is rarely scrutinized seriously by historians, Adam D. Shprintzen’s illuminating study, The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement 1817-1921 (University of North Carolina Press) is more than welcome because it tells its fascinating if often eccentric history in the context of momentous societal changes.

When the British-based Bible Christian Church members immigrated to Philadelphia in 1817 they came with the blessing of its founder William Cowherd, a good-looking Lancashire man and devotee of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish philosopher and theologian who preached the virtues of a meatless diet though there is some doubt that he was always faithful to the ideal. Cowherd remained behind in Britain but was said to have been the only man brave enough to read through the complete works of Swedenborg in Latin. Read more ..


The Music Edge

Taylor Swift Opens Nashville Education Center

November 4th 2013

Music

On November 6, Taylor Swift became only the second person ever to be awarded the Country Music Association’s Pinnacle Award. That honor is given to an artist who’s achieved the highest degree of worldwide success and recognition. The other recipient?  Garth Brooks in 2005. The singer-songwriter recently opened the new Taylor Swift Education Center at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

When Swift was growing up, she took music classes at her school. But when she wanted to take more advanced lessons, her parents were able to provide them for her.

"A lot of my music education happened outside of school," she explained. "It happened because my parents were willing to drive me to countless children’s theater, local theater productions or take me to guitar lessons.” Swift has credited both her wide ranging musical education and being exposed to all kinds of music as a child as important to her development as a songwriter and performer. Read more ..


Book Review

Documented at Last: How The U.S. Finances Confrontation in Israel

November 4th 2013

Financing the Flames

Financing the Flames. Edwin Black. Dialog Press, 2013. 288 pp.

Financing the Flames could not have been written by any journalist other than Edwin Black—and even Black could not have written it 10 years ago. Ten years ago, this attempt would likely have seen him end up as just another casualty in the treacherously dangerous politics of the Middle East. However, Black's well-earned reputation as a tenacious and hard-hitting, but fair and accurate investigative author gave him the unique ability to obtain unprecedented access and cooperation from normally suspicious participants involved in a deadly political war.

At its core, Financing the Flames documents Black's attempt to bring sense to the apparent disconnect between the allegedly documented civil rights abuses by the Israeli Defense Forces on powerless Palestinians, and the Israelis, a people with a history of suffering great hardship, pain, and unspeakable acts at the hands of would-be exterminators. Black also harkens to a favorite exhortation of mine from Exodus 22: "Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger in your midst, for you were strangers in Egypt." In typical Black style, he went straight to the source, talking to the key players on both sides of the conflict, from the highest military authorities to the common factory worker and senior executives from human rights organizations. Black witnessed for himself the regular demonstrations that provide the fodder for many of the allegations, interviewing both Israelis and Palestinians in those conflicts, firsthand. From the finest hotels to the most dangerous bad alleys, Black brings the reader along.

Also typically, Black followed the money.

The result is a compelling and stunning exposé of how American taxpayers are literally financing the flames of confrontation in Israel, with U.S. tax-exempt organizations paying for training, participation, and organizing a dangerous street theater in the Middle East. Not only paying for it, but these “human-rights organizations” are providing the directors, the producers, the scripts, and the marketing campaigns. And yes, some of the actors are Americans and others from the Western world. Black even documents how these dramas become well-scheduled performances. Unfortunately, all the actors do not go out for a drink afterwards. Some are injured. Some die. Read more ..


The Edge of Poetry

Texas Poet Finds Inspiration in Police Work

November 1st 2013

Police Running

Police are not generally known for their genteel manners and skill at creating metaphors.  But many cops, as  police officers are known, have written books influenced by their law enforcement work.  Still, you don't find many award-winning poets among them and not all that many females.  A woman in Houston, Texas has made her way both as a cop and a lyric poet.

Sarah Cortez draws a crowd to hear poems that touch on everything from sex, love and food to dating fellow police officers.

"Your first cop boyfriend, your first handgun.  No one else believed in your calling to wear a badge and police the streets," said Sarah Cortez. Sarah Cortez had her law-enforcement calling 20 years ago.  And she still works in uniform as a part-time reserve officer at the Harris County constable's precinct four office. Her experience as a cop is often reflected in her books of poetry and the anthologies she has edited. Read more ..


The Edge of Diplomacy

Iraqi Dancers in US on First Hip Hop Diplomacy Tour

October 31st 2013

Iraq Election 2010

A group of Iraqi urban dancers is visiting major U.S. cities this month as part of a first-ever Iraqi hip hop diplomacy tour of the United States. The U.S. government-sponsored tour is the culmination of years of training inside Iraq, where the Kurdish and Arab dancers face tougher conditions to develop their skills than their American counterparts.

Husain Simko is one of the six Iraqi breakdancers bringing their interpretation of the American-originated art of hip hop to U.S. audiences. The tour already has taken them to the cities of Dearborn, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, and ends in Boston on October 23-24. Twenty-year-old Husain, who is from the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil, showed off some impressive moves when the group performed at Washington D.C.'s Dance Place theater on Saturday.
 
Hip hop beginnings
 
Husain said he first discovered breakdance from U.S. soldiers stationed in Irbil in 2004.
 
"One of the soldiers, he was standing on the car - between all of the kids, he calls me, and says, 'come here, and do the wave move,'" he said. "And I was like, how did this [arm] bone go up?  It was something I didn't know about.  So I just went home and practiced and practiced until 2005," said Husain.
 
Husain joined fellow Kurdish hip hop enthusiast Shalaw in signing up for an Iraqi dance academy launched by U.S. non-profit group American Voices in 2007. Led by executive director John Ferguson, it is the only group coaching Iraq's aspiring hip hop artists. "We put them through a long series of auditions and chose six of the best and most dedicated and most talented dancers to participate in this tour to the United States," said Ferguson.  "It's the very first time any of them have been to America, and the very first time they've participated in a full-length hip hop dance show." Read more ..


Book Review

A Comprehensive Surveys of Films About War in the Post-Vietnam Era

October 28th 2013

American War Cinema & Media Scince Vietnam

American War Cinema and Media Since Vietnam. Patrica Keeton and Peter Scheckner. Palgrave Macmillian. 2013. 276 pp.

In this first comprehensive survey of films about war in the post-Vietnam era, Patricia Keeton and Peter Scheckner identify a significant shift in Hollywood away from the celebration of military prowess and pseudo-democratic values.  No longer do films simply embrace the familiar combat stories of the “band of brothers” triumphing against arrogant and authoritarian enemies. American cinema instead has begun to treat war more critically, incorporating the perspectives of the poor and marginalized, who in the era of the volunteer army increasingly fight our wars of choice.  Since the strategic, political and social catastrophe of Vietnam, Keeton and Scheckner tell us, “American war cinema has changed, possibly forever, from mindless flag waving to juggling and making sense of a complex patchwork of social and political contradictions.”

Yet, as the authors also argue, Hollywood has hardly taken a radical left turn, especially when it comes to connecting foreign policy failures to the structural inequities of American empire building.  Although it has become “nearly impossible…not to see the worker behind the warrior” in American film narratives, Hollywood’s class perspective is still rather limited. No surprise.  Little has changed in the relationships of power and authority that, on the one hand, send working-class Americans to fight overseas and, on the other, control the production and distribution of the war films that show that fighting to the rest of us.

At best, contemporary films merely displace “class tensions and doubts about contemporary wars” onto stories of past conflicts or into futuristic narratives of interstellar strife.  Thus, Steven Spielberg can give a “nod to the worker behind the warrior” in a World War II flick like Saving Private Ryan (1998), but such class identities largely would be avoided in films about contemporary conflicts such as the war in Iraq.  Or James Cameron can pay tribute in Avatar (2009) to anti-imperialist rebellion, so long as it is by the inhabitants of a moon light-years distant.  Moreover, when Hollywood cinema of the post-Vietnam era occasionally questions the motives and competence of specific American foreign policies, as do films like The Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010) and Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999), it generally has avoided addressing the corporate empire-building that the authors argue lies behind the United States’ seemingly endless drive toward war.  Hollywood can indeed tolerate some level of dissent about the “military-industrial complex,” however it cannot see through mere political malfeasance (lying to the public about WMDs for instance) to the larger questions of who rules that system and why they need ordinary Americans to fight and die for it. Read more ..


Book Review

The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

October 25th 2013

Zealot

Zealot. Reza Aslan. Random House. 336 pp.

I'm one of those people who was prompted to read this book after I saw, live, the author's interview on FOX News where his interlocutor insinuated that Aslan, as a Muslim, had ulterior motives in writing about Christianity other than that of a historian. (The anti-intellectual subtext was as strong as the implied invitation to religious bigotry). The exchange, which went viral, launched Zealot onto the New York Times bestseller list, something unlikely to have happened without out it, notwithstanding Aslan's previous well regarded book on Islam, No God but God. So it is that FOX demonstrates its perverse market power.

In terms of the book's argument, Zealot rests on a syllogism that goes something like this:

Jesus of Nazareth was born into a time and place of extraordinary political instability stemming from the seething religious and social tensions in Jewish Palestine.

After the death of Jesus, these tensions, which had periodically erupted into insurrection under Roman rule, finally provoked an overwhelming military response in 70 CE that discredited militant Judaism in the eyes of followers and outsiders alike.

Jesus therefore had to be sanded down for mass consumption, his sharp political edges softened as part of a larger process of transforming him from a Jewish messiah to a universal savior.

As Aslan acknowledges, calling Jesus a Zealot (capital Z) is anachronistic, a little like titling a biography of Abigail Adams Feminist. The Zealots as a discrete political faction only arose after the death of Jesus, and while there were people with that designation in his lifetime (lower-case z), he was not commonly associated with them. Aslan, however, feels that there's enough evidence of militancy in the gospels to suggest his affinity for them. Read more ..


Theater on the Edge

Broadway Revives Tennessee Williams' 'Glass Menagerie'

October 22nd 2013

Off Broadway

Theater audiences first met the dysfunctional Wingfield family nearly 70 years ago in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.

His tale of heartbreak and faded dreams, inspired partly by the playwright's own family dynamics, has resonated powerfully with audiences through the decades.

The latest revival of this classic is on Broadway, where audiences enter the Booth Theater to find a simple, but striking vision.

Onstage, there’s the scantest representation of a cramped apartment, but there are no walls, just a sofa, dining room table and a couple of other pieces of furniture, with a long tilted fire escape reaching upward. Other than that, everything’s black. The whole set seems to be floating in a void.  Read more ..


Book Review

Adventures in the Jungles of Crime, Politics, and Journalism

October 18th 2013

Confessions of a Guerrilla Writer

Confessions of Guerrilla Writer. Dan E. Moldea. Moldea.com. 2013. 700 pp.

After following Dan Moldea’s career for over thirty years I have concluded he is one of America's best investigative reporters. That judgment has not diminished after reading his memoirs Confessions of a Guerrilla Writer.

Throughout his books the old maxim, Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall is clearly evident. A specialist on organized-crime investigations since 1974, he has widened his brief to cover everything from Mafia hit men to political scandal. Working out of Washington DC, but at times living in cities across America during his periods of research, Moldea was on first name basis with beat cops and organized crime members, from corporate leaders to community activists. For his troubles he has escaped being killed six times.

Moldea’s highly acclaimed works investigating the power of the mafia include The Hoffa Wars: Teamsters, Rebels, Politicians and the Mob (1978), Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA, and the Mob (1986) and Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football (1989).

Moldea also took it upon himself to investigate crimes which were either unsolved or the investigations created numerous unanswered questions. The resulting published works of these cases include The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy: An Investigation of Motive, Means, and Opportunity (1995); Evidence Dismissed: The Inside Story of the Police Investigation of O.J. Simpson (with Tom Lange and Philip Vannatter, 1997); and A Washington Tragedy: How the Death of Vincent Foster Ignited a Political Firestorm (1998).

For his reporting Moldea has won acclaim from numerous newspapers and magazines including Newsweek and the New York Times. And for good reason. Some of his writing has altered history especially his work on the disappearance of Teamster Boss Jimmy Hoffa, the RFK assassination and the alleged ‘murder’ of Clinton White House aide Vince Foster. Read more ..


The Edge of Life

In Valerie Plame's 'Blowback,' Reality Grittier than Fiction

October 17th 2013

Nuclear Bomb MK17

The 2010 drama "Fair Game," starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, catapulted the 2003 leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame onto the silver screen.

Plame's life took an unexpected turn after having her cover blown by Bush administration officials, shortly after her husband, former U.S. diplomat Joe Wilson, refuted government claims that Iraq's Saddam Hussein was trying to buy enriched uranium from Niger.

Ten years after the scandal, Plame has returned to the world of espionage — this time as a novelist.

In a pop-cultural medium where female agents are often stereotyped as femme fatales, Plame says Vanessa Pierson, the main character of her new novel, "Blowback," is a woman trying to balance personal life with career, very much like herself. “They are either over sexualized, or [there is] heavy reliance on physicality, or they are victims," says Plame. "Or basically I think of them as paper dolls.” Read more ..


America and Iran

Art Forgery Complicates U.S. Relations with Iran

October 15th 2013

When Iran's President Hassan Rohani came home from his charm offensive in New York last month, he arrived bearing a "special gift" from the United States.

But any resulting goodwill may be short-lived, with art experts now saying the 2,700-year-old Persian artifact that was returned to the Iranian people is a fake. The piece, a silver chalice in the shape of a winged griffin, was thought to have originated from the Kalmakarra cave in western Iran and was estimated to be worth about $1 million.

U.S. Customs officials seized the artifact from an Iranian art dealer who was attempting to smuggle it into the country in 2003. The griffin sat in storage in a New York warehouse for more than a decade until Rohani's first presidential trip to the United Nations in September provided an opportunity for the United States to hand it over to Rohani's delegation. Read more ..


Book Review

Getting an Education is a Serious Quest

October 12th 2013

The Smartest Kids in the World

The Smartest Kids in the World. Amanda Ripley. Simon & Schuster. 2013. 320 pp.

History is not destiny: this is the message of journalist Amanda Ripley in her foray into secondary education. We all know that the United States has been struggling comparatively in international rankings of academic performance as measured by standardized tests -- and has been for some time. Most of us are also aware that the reigning educational superpowers are Finland and South Korea. We tend to assume the reasons for a nation's place in the academic world are relatively static: material prosperity, cultural values, ethnic homogeneity (or lack thereof). But, Ripley argues, global performance has in fact been quite fluid. South Korea and Finland were educational backwaters until relatively recently -- as was Poland until even more recently. But, showing more confidence in the efficacy of government than Americans have been able to do, each of these nations has taken proactive steps that have made a difference (even as other nations, among them Italy and Norway, have slipped, for some of the same reasons the U.S. has lagged).

Ripley rests her case on two foundations. The first is empirical: her standard of measurement is the Program for International Assessment Exam (PISA), a standardized test developed at the turn of this century by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an NGO based in Paris. Though PISA is subject to the same skepticism and limits of many standardized tests, it is more analytical and real-world based than most, particularly those administered in the United States. But the bulk of Ripley's analysis is anecdotal: she follows three American students as they journey to rural Finland, urban South Korea, and western Poland, contextualizing accounts of their experiences with thick descriptions of the political, social, and cultural milieu in each. Read more ..



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