Beware the ideas of Clooney

MOVIES: George Clooney’s quest to save the world one crappy movie at a time continues. A Spanish horror plays with light and dark with unsettling results. Ed Miliband turns his hand to secret agentry. And we learn that torture can be dull when the instrument is Woody Allen’s pontificating dialogue and much more fun when it’s a chainsaw.

The Ides of March

The Ides of March sees an atheist, anti-war liberal politician impregnate an intern and pay for her abortion out of campaign funds. In other words, the Democrat Party finally turned its policy platform into a movie. And what a tedious little film it is, as Clooney runs the presidential campaign he dreams of running in real life but can’t because in real life, unlike in the movies, people in Kentucky are allowed to vote.

‘I don’t give a shit about the polling,’ his handsome presidential candidate Mike Morris barks early on. The outburst is supposed to tell us two things: 1) He’s not a sissy-boy Democrat who won’t raise his voice, and 2) He’s an idealist. In the moral universe of the Left, idealism excuses all sins; intentions trump consequences; the cause is greater than the cost. That’s why, when Morris’s press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) discovers his boss has used and abused a 20-year-old intern – the movie leaves open the question of whether these liaisons occurred in a consent-at-21 state – and left her pregnant, Meyers reacts with fury… towards the intern. She has compromised the governor and could help the Republicans tear down a good man with good politics. (The film doesn’t claim any real-life provenance but Morris’s antics are so sleazy Bill Clinton could sue for copyright infringement.)

The Ides of March is nothing but good politics. Morris advocates mandatory public service, opposes the death penalty, and compares people who oppose same-sex marriage to segregationists (or ‘Democrats’ as they used to be called). He intones in prose so precious it would make a Mills and Boon novelist – nay, a West Wing writer – crack up. Morris trounces a stodgy moderate Democrat primary opponent with this: ‘I’m not a Christian. I’m not an atheist. I’m not Jewish. I’m not Muslim. My religion, what I believe in, is called the Constitution of the United States of America.’ (The Constitution is a religion for liberals in the sense that the appearance of new rights with each Supreme Court decision does qualify as a miracle.) Incidentally, if Morris’s line sounds familiar, it’s not Barack Obama but Madonna: ‘I’d like to express my extreme point of view/ I’m not a Christian and I’m not a Jew/ I’m just living out the American dream/ And I just realized that nothing is what it seems.’

Of course, where there is Camelot, there is also Maleagant. Gosling’s boyish hatchet-man Meyers places Morris’s skirt-chasing in the proper context of Republican malevolence: ‘You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country, but you can’t fuck the interns. They get you for that.’ Democrats done down is a popular theme in Hollywood movies and TV shows about politics from The American President and The Manchurian Candidate to Bob Roberts and the West Wing. As in those and other productions, Democrats are decent, patriotic populists whose only flaw is their high-minded refusal to lower themselves to the base tactics of the slimy, elitist Republicans. As campaign strategist Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) pronounces in a key scene:

‘This is the kind of shit the Republicans pull. And it’s about time we learned from them. They’re meaner, they’re tougher, they’re more disciplined than we are. I’ve been in this business 25 years and I’ve seen way too many Democrats bite the dust because they wouldn’t get down in the mud with the fucking elephants.’

This is the bedtime story liberals tell themselves every night: Republicans, who are in politics to serve Corporate America, win by dirty tricks while Democrats, in it for the little guy, are noble losers done down by right-wing smears. These are myths of such simplicity they could be believed only by children or fanatics. ‘Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt,’ said the emperor whose betrayal the movie’s title references, and who are we to disturb the comforts of self-delusion. Writer and director Clooney, like so many in Hollywood, is a poolside radical angered by what he sees as the gutlessness of Democrats who should pursue any means necessary to achieve their lofty ambitions. He wants to campaign in prose and govern in poetry.

Now for the good stuff. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Morris’s campaign manager, confirms his place as the finest character actor in contemporary American cinema. Paul Giamatti is impeccable as the chipped-shoulder manager of a rival campaign and Clooney can make his next project a tribute to the life and works of Karl Marx as long as he gives the underused Marisa Tomei another role like the cynical but committed New York Times reporter she plays here. Gosling, who combines good looks and interpretive nous like no one since the young Clooney himself, again proves himself worthy of the celebratory press he attracts. In the end, however, The Ides of March is a string of strong performances in search of a worthwhile script.

*****

Los Ojos de Julia

A woman suffering from a degenerative sight condition becomes convinced that her sister’s suicide was murder in this disturbing Catalan horror from Guillem Morales, director of 2004’s El Habitante Incierto.

Julia (Belén Rueda) and her husband Isaac (Lluís Homar) visit her reclusive twin sister Sara (also played by Rueda) only to find the blind woman hanging from the ceiling of her basement. The police suspect suicide but Julia is not convinced; Sara was awaiting the results of an operation to restore her sight and had displayed no suicidal tendencies. As Julia retraces her sister’s last moves, she is stalked by a mysterious stranger and comes to suspect the man had a hand in Sara’s death. But her own eyesight begins to fail and Julia searches frantically to unmask the killer before she too is consumed by darkness.

The first two acts of Los Ojos de Julia play out as a thriller, with a heavy roomnote of the supernatural, before shifting into psychological horror for a third act soaked in tension. While the identity of the killer can be mined from a close inspection of small details, the reveal is nonetheless stunning in its framing and the actor’s performance. The movie is one of the most deftly-crafted horrors of recent years and because it never confuses grandiosity with intensity its lean direction and sparse plotting create raw, naturalistic suspense. Guillermo del Toro’s influence is less accented than in his other productions; El Orfanato, which also starred Rueda, tried too hard to be a ‘Guillermo del Toro movie’ and ended up overwrought and insensitive. The breathing space he affords here allows Morales to fashion a more distinctive work and one that draws from the strikingly beautiful Rueda her most affecting performance since Alejandro Amenábar’s Mar Adentro.

Los Ojos de Julia explores the intimacy between light and dark and although it ends on an uplifting, almost spiritual note, it casts a dark unsettling pall that remains with the moviegoer long after the final credits roll.

*****

Johnny English Reborn

Rowan Atkinson’s day job as leader of the Labour Party keeps him occupied but he’s found time to make a sequel to 2003’s Johnny English, the broad-strokes Bond parody about a pompously incompetent secret agent who ‘kicks some bottom’ – usually, inadvertently, his own – for Queen and country. The shtick that made that film a dumb-but-fun confection is revived faithfully in Johnny English Reborn, which sees the bumbling operative – booted out of ‘MI7’ after a botched mission in Mozambique – brought out of exile to foil a plot to assassinate the Chinese premier. (Since Mark Steyn can’t be with us tonight, I’ll field this one for him: This is the ultimate symbol of American decline; spy movie villains are no longer interested in offing the US commander-in-chief and instead gun for the real global power in Beijing.) English gets a green partner (the invariably sweet Daniel Kaluuya), a paramour in the form of Rosamund Pike’s behavioural psychologist, and Dominic West’s double-agent as his nemesis. The plot’s as ridiculous as the gadgets – a rocket-launching umbrella – and the humour a little more tepid than the original’s gleeful absurdity but the comedically undercut action scenes confirm that the appeal lies in watching Atkinson embarrass himself with a never-ending parade of self-inflicted mishaps. Come to think of it, the movie’s not so different from his day job after all.

*****

Midnight in Paris

It’s Woody Allen so this will either do it for you or it won’t. Owen Wilson’s hacky screenwriter Gil wants to become a literary novelist so he moves to Paris, dons a Tweed jacket, and makes fashionable noises about the war in Iraq and the ‘lunatic’ supporters of ‘the right wing of the Republican Party’. His wife Inez’s (Rachel McAdams) tendency to ditch him to spend time with people who are (marginally) less tedious and self-regarding sees him fall in with a sparkling set of young writers with very familiar names. I’ve never ‘got’ Woody Allen but I suspect with this movie there’s less to get than usual.

*****

Hostel Part III

Eli Roth is absent from the third instalment in his torture-porn franchise, and it shows, as a bachelor party in Las Vegas gets all face-slicey. Wrenched from the (admittedly xenophobic) setting of Slovakia, Hostel Part III loses the atmosphere lent by the backdrop of post-Communist despair – or at least Eli Roth’s limited understanding of post-Communism. That said, there’s a decent opening twist and enough fans of the set-up for a few more entries in the series.

God, guns, and ghosts

MOVIES: A left-wing porno, secular superstitions, and a scrapyard slasher.

Red State

Red State is a seedy little porno set in a Middle America that exists solely in the minds of MSNBC producers; an intellectually barren land of churches and gun stores and people who voted for McCain. For people who seldom set foot outside the secular Green Zones of the two coasts, Hollywood liberals are obsessed with the ‘flyover states’ and their latent American Talibanism. Movies like Jesus Camp, Saved!, and Dogma (directed by Kevin Smith, who also directs here) document the Bible Belt like a snarky anthropologist coming across a remote tribe for the first time and failing to conceal his disdain. The New Yorker‘s David Denby, whom it’s safe to assume has never lived more than five minutes from a sushi bar, sums up this prejudice best in his review of Young Adult, a dreary observational comedy in the vein of The Good Girl. This ‘piece of Hollywood hipster social criticism,’ he notes, is ‘driven by… a vivid loathing of American mediocrity’.

The fear and loathing would be tolerable were it not allied to howling ignorance of Christianity and conservatism. Everyone has their favourite story of cultural elite cluelessness towards religion but Jeff Sharlet’s all-too-brief career as a theologian must be the most entertainingly knuckleheaded. Sharlet, a Rolling Stone hack (or ‘hack’ for short), had a conniption after interviewing then-Senator Sam Brownback on his socially conservative views, which included opposition to abortion, pornography, and same-sex marriage. In explaining what he considered the deleterious effects of liberal social policies on the nation, Brownback pointed out: ‘You’ll know them by their fruits’. Sharlet was incensed by this clear anti-gay slur and his scripturally illiterate colleagues in the mainstream media soon piled in with denunciations of Brownback’s ‘homophobia’. What none of them had grasped but was obvious to anyone with a vague knowledge of the Bible – or ‘Americans’, as they’re known outside the Rolling Stone newsroom – was that Brownback’s ‘homophobic slur’ was in fact a scriptural quotation having nothing to do with homosexuality. Matthew 7:16: ‘You will know them by their fruits’, an injunction from Christ to his followers, drawing on the metaphor of the good tree and the bad tree, to beware false prophets whose deeds (their ‘fruits’) will lay bare their wicked intentions. Thank God no one mentioned the commandment against coveting your neighbour’s ass.

Being patronised is bad enough but when it’s by people who think Acts of the Apostles was an off-Broadway show, it gets a little tiresome. Red State is patronising and tiresome and so clueless it could have been written by Jeff Sharlet. Three hormone-pumped teenagers – Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner), and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) – arrange an orgy with the older but beer-distributing Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo). Two bottles of hops later and the boys are out cold, presumably poisoned, and wake up stripped and locked in animal cages. They have been ensnared by the worshippers at Five Points Trinity Church, a Christian fundamentalist gaggle led by Paster Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) whose philosophy of punishing sin is less six-with-the-rosary-beads and more tie-to-a-cross-and-shoot-in-the-head. After Cooper kills a snooping sheriff’s deputy, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is called in, led by Special  Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), and a ferocious gun fight breaks out between the federal agents and the machine gun-packing Old Testamenters.

The movie’s message is unambiguous: Small-town America is a land of trailer-occupying Jesus nuts who spend their spare time protesting the funerals of gay teenagers with signs that read ‘Anal penetration = eternal damnation’. This would work as a satire of the genetically-challenged Westboro Baptist Church, who picket soldiers’ funerals chanting ‘God hates fags’, but the Five Points fundies are the only game in town. No alternative view of Christianity is offered in the movie and one suspects that’s because Smith considers the sect’s fulminations about abortion, homosexuality, and ‘the Zionist media’ representative of mainstream Protestantism. And how brave, in contemporary America, to produce a movie about ‘Zionist’-hating fundamentalists who kidnap, torture, and kill non-believers and make them Christian in orientation.

Leftism, as a worldview contingent on the twin pleasures of victimhood and imagined courage, has a strong masochistic streak that seeks out vilification to feed its appetite for noble suffering and the righteousness of the oppressed. Those who disagree are not simply people who think differently but fascist boogeymen never more than two steps to the left of book-burning and dawn raids. Red State, a left-wing fantasy of right-wing violence, offers liberals an orgiastic realisation of their cultural prejudices. The pleasures of persecution are many and satisfying and when shot in pornographic close-up they serve dark, unspoken fetishes. Kyle Gallner and Melissa Leo give gusto performances and I’d happily watch John Goodman eating cheeseburgers for three hours straight, but their talents are wasted on a slight and transient effort.

Smith’s film is not satire, or even broad comedy. It’s a whack-off movie for New York Times readers.

*****

Insidious

We are all parapsychologists now.

Where once a belief in ghosts was confined to children, campfire stories, and people who push shopping carts, spook-hunting has become a growth industry. Nearly one-in-five Americans claims to have seen a spectre and the number rises to one-in-four when you ask Britons. The paranormal is steadily gaining ground as a respectable subject for academic enquiry and there is a (peer-reviewed!) Journal of Parapsychology, where one can presumably hope to be published after completing the PhD in the subject offered by a university in Scotland. Television series like Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters, in which self-credentialled ‘paranormal investigators’ spend the night in supposedly haunted locations and try to document spectral activity, pull in audiences in the millions. And, proving that ‘let your fingers do the walking’ doesn’t just refer to Ouija boards, ghost-busters now advertise in the Yellow Pages.

This makes no sense and perfect sense. What used to be called ‘God’ but what secularists have successfully rebranded ‘organised religion’ has declined in social and cultural standing. Faith is increasingly absent from the public sphere and blasphemy, once taboo, is now considered plain good manners – and repercussion-free, provided you don’t offend the wrong strain of believer. What has replaced it is not the sweet reason longed for by rationalists but a mush-headed relativism that, having thrown off the restrictive doctrines of ‘hierarchical’ religions, now celebrates every coven of crystal-clutchers calling itself a ‘faith group’. This is not so much scepticism as nihilism: We’ve become so cynical we’ll believe anything.

Hollywood, having surveyed the success of paranormal reality shows, rushed out The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity, and now Insidious. A low-budget family-in-supernatural-peril offering, Insidious tells the story of the Lamberts, an all-American suburban family tormented by a clutch of demons. After Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai’s (Rose Byrne) son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into a mysterious coma, all manner of sinister entities descend upon their home, going bump in the night, tipping over furniture, and threatening the family, like a particularly violent episode of Extreme Makeover. When a change of location fails to quell the odd goings-on, Josh and Renai realise the demonic activity is focussed on their dormant child and they call in a team of ghost-hunters led by a sexagenarian psychic (Lin Shaye). A séance soon reveals the boy’s coma to be a prolonged bout of astral projection that has left his vacant soul at risk from demonic squatters led by a fearsome cloven-hoofed creature which, if not stopped, will take up permanent residence in the boy’s body.

Insidious doesn’t sit on the fence like Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch Project, which allow their audience to decide for themselves whether supernatural forces are at play or just overactive imaginations. Insidious says that demons are real, psychics can see them, and bearded men with stop-motion cameras can record them. It thinks itself so sophisticated for rejecting obscurantism – a priest is called in but is unable to help – when it is merely offering a new brand of obscurantism. The Exorcist was an unabashed appeal to superstition. Insidious gussies up superstition as New Age pseudoscience. Spook-detection gadgets have replaced crucifixes, though one dreads to think what Linda Blair would’ve done with a Geiger counter. The psychic conducts a séance while wearing a gas mask and the filmmakers expect us not to laugh even though she looks like a gimp at a demonic fetish party for kinky grannies.

The movie is an ill-fitting hybrid of the haunted house and possession sub-genres and since it can’t decide which it wants to be it ends up doing neither very well. The two houses featured lack the character and atmosphere central to a haunting movie and since we spend little time with the troubled boy before his coma there’s no emotional connection with him once he’s at risk. The parents are similarly distant. Audience sympathy for their plight is precluded by unmoving performances and pathological smugness – if you’re going to name your children Dalton, Foster, and Kali you deserve to be haunted – and you wonder why the ghouls would want to hang around such a clan of prisses.

Its appeal to audiences – and it’s made almost $100m – lies in its hacky but effective scares rather than any engaging narrative or character development. Jumps without story, without character are just physiological excitations. You could stick your finger in a socket every ten minutes and achieve the same effect. If you’re one of those people who likes to commune with ‘the other side’, you probably should.

*****

Wreckage

Wreckage breaks one of the enduring conventions of the slasher movie: A killer who guns down his victims.

The modern horror film has been taken every which way. Satire, irony, parody; gender-indeterminate killers, Indian burial grounds, murder sprees on trains and down mines and aboard spaceships; low-budget, high-budget, remakes, reimaginings, crossovers, and rip-offs. We even tolerated Jennifer Love Hewitt for a while.

But the gun taboo has remained. Chase a babysitter with any number of household implements just as long as you don’t pull a piece. The killers in the Scream series – to which there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod in Wreckage – tend to produce handguns in the final showdown (usually, Glock 17s; these are serial killers with money to burn) yet never think to blast away their early victims.

A firearm allows distance while a butcher knife demands intimacy – and splatter movies, odd though it may seem, are deeply intimate affairs. We should probably figure in the feminists and the Freudians; sometimes a knife is more than a knife (though bullets are surely the ultimate in phallus substitution). Film theorist Carol Clover suggests some other rationales:

In the hands of the killer, at least, guns have no place in slasher films. Victims sometimes avail themselves of firearms, but like telephones, fire alarms, elevators, doorbells, and car engines, guns fail in the squeeze. In some basic sense, the emotional terrain of the slasher film is pretechnological. The preferred weapons of the killer are knives, hammers, axes, icepicks, hypodermic needles, red hot pokers, pitchforks, and the like. Such implements serve well a plot predicated on stealth, the unawareness of later victims that the bodies of their friends are accumulating just yards away. But the use of noisy chainsaws and power drills and the nonuse of such relatively silent means as bow and arrow, spear, catapult, and even swords, would seem to suggest that closeness and tactility are also at issue. The sense is clearer if we include marginal examples like Jaws and The Birds, as well as related werewolf and vampire genres. Knives and needles, like teeth, beaks, fangs, and claws, are personal, extensions of the body that bring attacker and attacked into primitive, animalistic embrace.

That said, it’s doubtful the makers of Wreckage had psychoanalytic film theory in mind. The movie sees a group of friends hunted down in a local scrapyard after a murderer escapes from a nearby prison. Handgun aside, the conventions are honoured: past event, evil returns home, car breaks down on lonely road, cops are useless, ‘hey everyone, let’s split up!’, and a lame twist.

Wreckage is cheap but inoffensive.

Feature image © Georges Biard by Creative Commons 3.0

The chutzpah industry

People with ‘#justice’, ‘#humanrights’ and ‘#TeamHamas’ in their Twitter bios are furious right now.

It’s not because of the Israeli doctors who in January saved the life of 12-year-old Palestinian girl Aya Almasal after her heart stopped en route from Gaza to Haifa for (free) treatment for a cardiovascular condition. Nor is it Israel’s new initiative of helping Gazan farmers export their tomatoes to Saudi Arabia and Jordan. You might think it’s the recent breakthrough on Crohn’s disease at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot but you’d be wrong.

No, the anti-Israel mob is beside itself after one of its own stood up and told the truth. Actually, Norman Finkelstein didn’t stand up. He sat down for a 30-minute interview with a student activist from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, the campaign to isolate Israel internationally by boycotting Israeli goods, denying employment to Israeli academics, and encouraging others to do the same. Finkelstein, a political scientist and author by profession, was – at least until this video appeared on YouTube – the pre-eminent anti-Zionist academic. It would be no exaggeration to call him the dean of anti-Israel studies. His style is less that of a pipe-puffing professor and more akin to a pugilist. He is the author of The Holocaust Industry (thesis: the ‘Jewish establishment’ exploits guilt over the Holocaust for financial gain and to promote Israel’s interests) and Beyond Chutzpah (Israel and its partisans consistently level the charge of antisemitism against Israel’s critics to silence them) and, in addition to lecturing in politics in various universities, travels the world giving speeches denouncing Israel in the most belligerent language he can muster.

Which is why this interview, filmed at Imperial College London on February 9th 2012, is astonishing. Finkelstein calls out the man behind the curtain in the anti-Israel movement. In an exasperated tone, he denounces BDS as a ‘cult’ that takes its orders from ‘the gurus in Ramallah’ and enjoins it to stop trying to fool people and admit it ‘wants to destroy Israel’. He accuses pro-Palestinian campaigners of ‘hypocrisy’ for seeking to use international law against Israel but refusing to recognise Israel’s right to exist within what he calls the internationally recognised June 1967 borders. Growing angrier, he compares the BDS movement to Maoism, noting that he was a Maoist in his youth but as a 58-year-old has no interest in being part of another ‘Maoist cult’. Finkelstein, while never rejecting his critique of Israel’s culpability in the dispossession of the Palestinians, debunks the extreme thinking that has come to dominate what calls itself the ‘pro-Palestinian movement’ but what increasingly resembles a campaign to delegitimise and destroy the State of Israel – and the Palestinians can take a number. That Finkelstein until now has been the high priest of this cult only makes his apostasy all the more shocking.

Of course, his comrades have responded with typical equanimity and civility. Nah, just kidding. They said stuff like this:

From Media Matters, the people who brought you ‘Israel-firsters’, ‘dual loyalty’, and other antisemitic canards, comes Max Blumenthal, a far-left pamphleteer and champion of the BDS movement. Blumenthal, perhaps channelling fears for his future employment given Media Matters’ current troubles, unleashed his fury on Finkelstein:

Finkelstein’s analysis is not rebutted and instead he is drenched in abuse. He is called a ‘Zionist’ – the worst accusation one can level in the pro-Palestinian lexicon. He promotes ‘zionist holocaust propaganda’ and is in turn promoted by ‘terrorists’. And in case ‘Zionist’ is too subtle, it’s helpfully explained that Finkelstein is a ‘sectarian’ Jew. It’s educational to contrast what Finkelstein said with the belligerence of the language used in these tweets. He didn’t call for the annexation of Judea and Samaria. He didn’t pull on a ‘Rak ha Likud yachol’ t-shirt. He didn’t even treat the interviewer to a rousing chorus of ‘Shtei gadot la Yarden – zo shelanu, zo gam ken’. He merely said: Israel has a right to exist within its UN-recognised borders as a matter of international law and pro-Palestinian campaigners do their cause no justice when they champion the rights of Palestinians while seeking to deny the rights of Israelis. This includes, he says, the dishonest promotion of a Palestinian ‘right of return’ which would overnight tip Israel from Jewish-majority to Arab-majority status. Activists are ‘fooling no one’, according to Finkelstein, because everyone knows that changing the demographics of Israel ends its existence as a Jewish state or a national homeland of the Jewish people. A two-state solution, with Israel returned to its pre-1967 boundaries and a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, is the solution. It is not perfect or ideal but it is a peace everyone can live with.

This is hardly the stuff of a Moshe Feiglin speech. However, as his erstwhile followers openly admit, they have no interest in recognising the right of any Israeli state to exist between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea:

Group think. Rationalising away unhelpful facts. Orwellian inversions of language, history, and truth. Worshipping gurus. Demonising your opponents. Denouncing traitors from within who offer the mildest of criticisms. Marinating in an ever-simmering stew of violent rhetoric and hatred. The BDS mob displays all the tell-tale signifiers of cult-like behaviour. For evidence of this, look no further than their ridiculous leader Omar Barghouti, who experiences no cognitive dissonance in chairing the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel Campaign while studying for his PhD at Tel Aviv University.

Finkelstein isn’t ‘doing a Benny Morris’. He remains a left-wing critic of Israel and I see no reason to assume he will drop the outrageous and provocative language he uses to attack Israel and its supporters. He also fails to recognise that UNSCR 242 guaranteed Israel’s ‘right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force’ but did not define those boundaries. The word ‘boundaries’ is significant. Any other resolution would talk about ‘borders’ but there were no borders in 1967 – only the armistice line from the 1948-49 war in which the Arab countries attacked and tried to destroy Israel (for the first time) the day after its creation. The Oslo Accords did not outline permanent status arrangements with regards to borders and in fact said these had to be decided via negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, negotiations which Israel has repeatedly offered to enter into with no preconditions only to be rebuffed by Ramallah or have the Palestinian leadership renege on draft peace agreements at the eleventh hour. Until Barack Obama, the US government, while pushing for a resolution to the conflict, has agreed that the pre-1967 borders are unworkable and has asserted that Israel is entitled to new ‘defensible borders’.

So Finkelstein’s remarks are hardly ‘pro-Israel’; they are merely a plea from a lifelong radical that his fellow campaigners not sacrifice a just cause (peaceful coexistence) on the altar of deception and rejectionism. The BDS movement is a chutzpah industry, demanding justice for Palestinians while campaigning for discrimination against Israeli goods, services, and people. With exquisite hypocrisy, it organises boycotts of Israeli wine and mineral water and hummus using laptops and tablets and mobile devices designed and programmed by Israeli software engineers. The tone of BDS is not justice but hypocrisy and its symbol is not a Palestinian flag but a Judenstern.

There is a progressive pro-Palestinianism out there somewhere but it continues to remain elusive, shouted down by the hardliners who are driven by a hatred that calls itself ‘justice’ and a tolerance of violence that masquerades as ‘peace’.

Feature image © Takver by Creative Commons 2.0

Tiresome idealism

The Debt

John Madden, 2010

Miramax/Marv Films/Pioneer Pictures

USA/UK/Hungary/Israel

113 mins

Shark Night 3D

David R. Ellis, 2011

Incentive Filmed Entertainment/Next Films/Sierra-Affinity/Silverwood Films

USA

90 mins

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2011

Carousel Productions

USA

118 mins

*****

The Debt

Liberalism is naiveté convinced of its own sophistication and The Debt, director John Madden’s remake of the 2007 Israeli film HaChov, groans with a brand of idealism better suited to a worthy social movie about capital punishment or abortion. The leads, aged Mossad operatives who years before covered up a botched assignment, pronounce breathlessly about ‘The Truth’ (you can hear the capitals in the delivery) and the moral burden of ‘living with a lie’. Nothing is allowed to happen; it must have meaning – and if that meaning is not prepared to come quietly, it will be dragged out kicking and screaming. Madden is not a guy you’d invite to a party: he’d find significance in the cocktail napkins.

Helen Mirren, the game old bird of British cinema, leads a cast of relative unknowns. Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington), and Stephan (Marton Csokas) are Mossad assets dispatched to mid-Sixties East Berlin in pursuit of ‘the Surgeon of Birkenau’, a Mengele cipher named Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) who experimented on Jews in the concentration camps. Vogel is captured in an elaborate plot and held in a safe house until he can be transported to Israel to stand trial for his part in the Holocaust. However, he escapes and the spies, concerned for their careers and their country’s reputation, concoct a story in which Rachel managed to shoot Vogel as he fled. This suffices for their bosses but the charade is threatened decades later when Rachel’s daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulafia) writes a book about the mission. As new evidence emerges that Vogel is still alive and living in a Ukranian nursing home, and in talks with a journalist to tell his story, an older Rachel (Mirren) sets off on one final mission: to eliminate the target she let slip from her grasp 30 years before.

The movie works as a conventional spy thriller complete with heart-pulsing scenes of derring-do and the obligatory love triangle. Chastain, Worthington, and Csokas handily pass for Israelis, with their striking beauty and convincing accents, although none of them is actually from Israel. Their performances stand out especially in modest but pregnant scenes, including the rehearsal of their cover stories during krav maga training and a chilling musical interlude in which Stephan sings ‘Deutschlandlied’ at a bound and gagged Vogel. The scenes of Vogel’s capture are expertly handled and convey a sense of the high-skill, low-cunning, and sheer luck upon which intelligence operatives must rely. Vogel is a suitably loathsome villain, though never a caricature Nazi, and the audience periodically lapses into the belief that he is in fact Mengele. The star, of course, is Helen Mirren and her retired katsa exudes a guilt suppressed by reticence and duty that is credible and compelling.

Beyond the stylish fulfilment of genre specifications, there is the politics. Madden hasn’t made an ideological film – maybe that’s the problem – but he’s made an idealistic one. Years after their cover-up, David and Rachel argue the merits of confessing the lie. While David’s pleas for The Truth (those capitals again) to be told at first go unheard by Rachel, by the end of the movie she has conceded the morality of his point. Her staunch talk of protecting Israeli pride is left behind on a blood-spattered floor in the Ukrainian hospital and she reveals all in a note to the investigative journalist. The outcome, the movie implies, is absolution from guilt and the liberation brought by honesty.

If The Debt were a true story, the Ukrainian journalist who discovered Vogel would be a campaigning (read: leftist) reporter with an animus against Israel. His aim wouldn’t be a human interest piece on a once-fearsome Nazi war criminal spending his final days in a scuzzy east European care home; he’d be out to expose Israeli intelligence as both ruthless kidnappers and laughable klutzes. (The trio of katsas are young and inexperienced, perhaps a knowing play on the old Mossad motto, borrowed from Proverbs 24:6, ‘For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war’.) In the real world Rachel’s confession would be seized as a stick, to condemn and to embarrass Israel.

The Debt excels on the level of a spy thriller but its tikkun olam romanticism is wearying. Madden makes a philosophy out of innocence and a movie that’s bursting over with emptiness.

*****

Shark Night

Shark Night is the latest and most entertaining in the recent tide of movies about obnoxiously attractive boat-trippers being chomped on by improbably-sized CGI water creatures.

A boatload of central casting college friends heads to an idyllic lake – in genre movies, college students spend most of their time shtuping, getting stoned, and blowing off finals to spend the weekend at the lake (no wonder universities have a surfeit of applications) – unaware that the shimmering waters are home to sharks intent on snacking. One by one the friends, none of whom appears to own a shirt, are gobbled up by the finned fiends in a series of set-piece kills (stunt coordinator Jeff Dashnaw earned his money), culminating in a smartly-paced finale.

Sharks leap ten feet out of the water with no warning and our heroes perform the kind of water-skiing feats one suspects are more the preserve of professional sportspeople than weekending psychology majors goofing around with a speedboat. All of this is interspersed with sped-up montages of the female leads changing into their bikinis and lounging poolside. Everyone is ridiculously pretty and the camera gets its money’s worth of hulking pecs and fulsome breasts before their owners become shark chump. At times, it plays like America’s Next Top Model with a more exciting elimination process.

The twist is more transparent than the water being splashed around but no one will watch Shark Night for the plotting. Genre fans will recognise Joel David Moore from Hatchet. The pleasure, as in all these movies, is in the gruesome and inventive death scenes: They make a fun movie out of a derivative script.

*****

Crazy, Stupid Love

Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, and Ryan Gosling star in this complicated comedy of errors about the criss-crossing love lives of suburban professionals and angsty teenagers.

Taken by a dashing accountant (Kevin Bacon), Emily (Moore) wants a divorce from her dull husband Cal (Carell) whose starchy personality inexplicably attracts the advances of their teenage babysitter (Analeigh Tipton) much to the dismay of their pubescent son (Jonah Bobo), whose hormones, and bodily fluids, are directed at the geeky-cute girl. Cal turns to Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a slick womaniser whose Dirty Dancing-inspired foreplay never fails to charm the ladies, to help him man-up and find a woman – their jumpily-cut makeover montages interrupted when Jacob falls in love with Hannah (Emma Stone), who turns out to have more in common with Jacob than he realises.

For the record: That is the most simplified rendering of the plot I could manage. If you can get your head around the intersecting sexcapades – there are Kama Sutra positions less complicated – it’s a witty, faux-cynical romcom with a winning balance of physical comedy and snappy one-liners.

Gosling has the sexy-suave confidence of a pre-Lehman hedge fund manager and continues to cement his reputation as the most compelling young actor working in American cinema today.

Romney wins endorsement, loses credibility

The mood over at Democrat National Committee headquarters might best be characterised as ‘yippeeeeeeeeee!’

First, Mitt Romney volunteered to CNN that ‘I’m not concerned with the very poor‘. Now he has accepted the endorsement of Donald Trump, loon, for the Republican nomination for President.

Reports that Debbie Wasserman Schultz was spotted doing the macarena atop her desk while Donna Brazile necked Mojitos are at this stage unconfirmed.

Romney’s ill-phrased remarks the morning after his Florida primary win – actually a comment about the relative cushion afforded the very poor by the welfare system, as opposed to the middle classes who are hemmed in on all fronts by taxes, small business regulation, rising mortgage payments, and middle-management layoffs – will become a staple of Obama campaign attack ads should the former Massachusetts governor secure the Republican nomination. Taken out of context, it’s a killer line, reinforcing the caricature of Republicans as heartless and Romney as an asset-stripping corporate scuzzball (his ‘I like being able to fire people‘ will help too). It will get a lot of airplay and in tough economic times might resonate with hard-pressed middle-income voters in key states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina.

But gaffes are headaches. Some half-decent opposition research would turn up dozens of similarly unhelpful statements from President Obama and senior Democrats. What has really wounded Romney – fatally, I fear – is his acceptance of Donald Trump’s endorsement.

And it wasn’t a quick grip-and-grin for some photographers. This was maximum suckage in an upwards direction. Romney, grinning like the dickweed kid who finally got picked for the football team, gushed: ‘There are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life. This is one of them. Being in Donald Trump’s magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight.’

Sluuuurrrrrpppppp!

Then: ‘Donald Trump has shown an extraordinary ability to understand how our economy works to create jobs for the American people. He’s done it here in Nevada, he’s done it across the country. He understands our economy is facing threats from abroad. He’s one of the few people who’s stood up and said, you know what, China has been cheating. They’ve taken jobs from Americans; they haven’t played fair.’

Someone make it stop.

But no; there was one last indignity (for now).

Quoth Mitt: ‘I spent my life in the private sector [turning to Trump] not quite as successful as this guy.’

By this point, it appeared Romney was there to endorse Trump.

The images of Romney making puppy dog eyes at the harebrained hairpiece will vie for airtime with the ‘very poor’ line. Why? Because this is the man Romney just shackled himself to:

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in January 2011, Trump dogwhistled: ‘Our current president came out of nowhere. Came out of nowhere. In fact, I’ll go a step further: the people that went to school with him, they never saw him; they don’t know who he is. Crazy!’ He pushed the meme a little further in a March interview with ABC News, saying: ‘[Obama] grew up and nobody knew him. You know? When you interview people, if ever I got the nomination, if I ever decide to run, you may go back and interview people from my kindergarten. They’ll remember me. Nobody ever comes forward. Nobody knows who he is until later in his life. It’s very strange. The whole thing is very strange.’

A few days later, on The View, he just came out with it: ‘Why doesn’t he show his birth certificate? … I wish he would because I think it’s a terrible pall that’s hanging over him,’ he told a confounded Joy Behar. An interview on Fox News put Bill O’Reilly in the novel position of defending Obama after Trump spitballed possible reasons for the President’s withholding of the birth certificate: ‘People have birth certificates. He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one but there’s something on that, maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim. I don’t know.’

‘The grandmother in Kenya is on record saying he was born in Kenya,’ he told MSNBC’s Morning Joe, which was not just crazy but a fib – a whopper, an East-African-nation sized whopper. Not content with barfly bloviating, Trump turned his loud mouth into a crusade, dispatching private investigators to Hawaii – Obama’s non-Kenyan place of birth – to uncover the truth about Obama’s citizenship. The White House finally released the longform birth certificate in the hope of putting an end to the conspiracy theories. Not so much. Trump began questioning the authenticity of the document and is on record as recently as December 5, 2011 calling it ‘a violation of the law’.

Mitt Romney’s new best friend is a conspiracy crank who believes the President of the United States concocted a phoney birth certificate to conceal his Kenyan nationality and Muslim faith. Why on Earth did a guy as starch-collar straight as Romney get on a stage with a travelling sideshow act? Publicity? Maybe. Poll boost? Who knows. Money? Very likely. But those benefits are fleeting and will not carry half the impact of the chiller-scored thirty-second ad that opens ‘Does Mitt Romney believe the President was born in Kenya?’

I like Romney and I think he’d make a good president but this was a mistake – a terrible one – and I’m left to ask: Has Mitt Romney thrown away his shot at the White House for the warm words of a crackpot and a fool?

Feature image © Gage Skidmore by Creative Commons 2.0.  

Democrats and selective memory

First we had Bush Derangement Syndrome; now it’s Bush Derangement Amnesia.

Democrat National Committee flack Brad Woodhouse appeared on Martin Bashir’s show on MSNBC, where ratings are counted in gender studies graduates, to complain Republicans are mean to President Obama.

Not like Democrats. They were inviting President Bush out to dinner and a movie every other night, sending flowers to the White House. Do you have any idea how many boxes of Knipschildt’s truffles Nency Pelosi charged to her credit card?

Woodhouse told Bashir:

I don’t remember anything that equates from official Democratic Party. I mean, of course there are interest groups and people have their say, but I don’t remember anything coming from Democratic Party about George W. Bush being equated to a terrorist or George W. Bush being equated to somebody who has been accused of manslaughter. I don’t remember anybody questioning some of the things about George W. Bush that have been questioned about the president. I don’t remember an opposing Governor wagging his or her finger in president George W. Bush’s face. The truth is, is that the Republican Party starts from a core of extreme positions and it seems that leads to extreme rhetoric when things don’t work out for them with the voters.

The Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway pointed out this was manure of the equine variety.

Charles Krauthammer coined the term ‘Bush Derangement Syndrome’ to describe ‘the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency – nay – the very existence of George W. Bush.’ BDS saw liberals sob hysterically about fascism, Hitler, and impeach-ashcroftnazi-patriotact-cheneyhalliburton-foxnews-bushstoletheelection-moronmoronmoron-nowarforoil-bushliedkidsdied.

This took the form of an endless stream of placards calling for Bush’s assassination at anti-war protests (this was before the Tea Party and the advent of the Senior Deconstructing-Signs-at-Rallies-Critical-of-the-President Correspondent on the nightly news broadcasts); the proliferation of ‘assassination porn’ (Slate magazine’s term, not mine) like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint, Gabriel Range’s Death of a President, or a Guardian columnist’s plaintive cry ‘John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr – where are you now that we need you?’; and the slew of books, movies, and websites dedicated to the President’s malapropisms, his plan to turn America fascist, and conspiracies about his foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks.

Of course, none of these people were from what Woodhouse calls the ‘official Democratic Party’. True enough. So let’s have a look at what the official Democratic Party did say about Bush.

John Kerry

Appearing on Bill Maher’s show in October 2006, the senior Senator from Massachusetts told the host he’d taken his wife on a trip to Vermont for her birthday. Then the following exchange took place:

MAHER: You could have went to New Hampshire and killed two birds with one stone.

KERRY:  Or, I could have gone to 1600 Pennsylvania and killed the real bird with one stone.

Remember kids, if you study hard and you do your homework, you won’t end up telling crass jokes like that.

Howard Dean

The Democrat presidential candidate appeared on the The Diane Rehm Show on public radio station WAMU on December 1, 2003. In response to a caller asking if a President Dean would ensure a ‘thorough investigation of 9/11’, Dean responded thus:

DEAN: There is a report which the president is suppressing evidence for which is a thorough investigation of 9/11.

REHM: Why do you think he’s suppressing that report?

DEAN: I don’t know. There are many theories about it. The most interesting theory that I’ve heard so far, which is nothing more than a theory, I can’t—think it can’t be proved, is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis. Now, who knows what the real situation is, but the trouble is that by suppressing that kind of information, you lead to those kinds of theories, whether they have any truth to them or not, and then eventually they get repeated as fact. So I think the president is taking a great risk by suppressing the clear, the key information that needs to go to the Kean commission.

Dean’s conspiracy-mongering about the worst terrorist attack in American history might not have helped his presidential bid but it didn’t prevent his later appointment as chair of the Democrat National Committee.

Keith Ellison

The Congressman for the Minnesota fifth district gave a speech to Atheists for Human Rights in July 2007 in which he compared President Bush’s response to 9/11 to Hitler’s exploitation of the Reichstag fire – an even more sinister dimension added by the widespread, though disputed, belief that the Nazis started the fire as a pretext to impose tyranny. Ellison said:

9/11 explains why we’re in this war. We could never be in this war but for 9/11. We could never be tolerating torture but for 9/11. Because when they argued for torture they said, ‘Well, if you know that somebody could stop a bomb if you torture them, would you go for it, man, because remember 9/11’. Right? You would never have all this discrimination against religious minorities but for 9/11. You had it but you didn’t have it to the degree we have it now. 9/11 is this juggernaut event in American history and it allows—I mean, it’s almost like the Reichstag fire; it kind of reminds me of that. Does everybody know what I’m talking about? Well, I mean, you and I both know but—but the thing is—is that, you know, after the Reichstag was burned, they blamed the Communists for it and it put the leader of that country in a position where he could basically have authority to do whatever he wanted.

For good measure, in the same speech Ellison also accused Dick Cheney of ‘totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and dictatorship’.

Charlie Rangel

In June 2005, Congressman Charlie Rangel (D-NY 15) appeared on WWRL-AM radio to put President Bush’s decision to intervene in Iraq into perspective. The war was, for Rangel, ‘the biggest fraud ever committed on the people of this country… This is just as bad as the six million Jews being killed’.

Cynthia McKinney

The former Congresswoman for the Georgia eleventh and later fourth district is so crazy her fellow Democrats primaried her – twice – just to get her out of Congress. She made a name for herself with her hardline anti-Israel views and her handlers made a name for themselves with their antisemitic outbursts.

But most of her ire was reserved for President Bush. In a 2002 radio interview, Congresswoman McKinney said:

We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11th… What did this administration know and when did it know it, about the events of September 11th? Who else knew, and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered? … What do they have to hide?

In an article for a Georgia newspaper, she added: 

It is known that President Bush’s father, through the Carlyle Group, had – at the time of the attacks – joint business interests with the bin Laden family’s construction company and many defense industry holdings, the stocks of which have soared since Sept 11.

McKinney also laid articles of impeachment against Bush (and Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice) charging the President with ‘high crimes against the United States of America’ by ‘actively manipulating the intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons programs’.

Dennis Kucinich

The pint-sized leftist from the Ohio tenth introduced his own articles of impeachment against the President citing a roster of bizarre charges. These included: ‘Creating a Secret Propaganda Campaign to Manufacture a False Case for War Against Iraq’; ‘Falsifying Accounts of US Troop Deaths and Injuries for Political Purposes’; ‘Initiating a War Against Iraq for Control of That Nation’s Natural Resources’; ‘Tampering with Free and Fair Elections, Corruption of the Administration of Justice’; ‘Conspiracy to Violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965’; and ‘Obstruction of the Investigation into the Attacks of September 11, 2001’.

Al Franken

The former Saturday Night Live comedian engaged in the following exchange during an October 2005 episode of the Late Show with David Letterman:

FRANKEN: I think, by the way, that we should never ever, ever, ever execute a sitting President.

LETTERMAN: It makes us look bad around the world, I think.

FRANKEN: It would. It would be heartbreaking, I think, and I think that we should have a constitutional amendment.

LETTERMAN: I see, yeah. Have we ever come close in the history to executing a seated President?

FRANKEN: No, this will be the closest.

LETTERMAN: This will be the closest, yeah.

FRANKEN: Unless we get that amendment passed now.

Joking about executing the President of the United States did nothing to harm Franken’s career – a few years later he was a Democrat Senator from Minnesota.

Michael Moore

The baseball-capped Bolshevik might not be ‘official Democratic Party’ but the official Democrat Party was happy to endorse his conspiracy theories about the Bush administration when it suited Democrat electoral needs. In its report on the Washington D.C. premiere of Fahrenheit 9/11, the New Republic noted:

Packing the Uptown Theater to the rafters, about 800 people — including South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, Florida Senator Bob Graham, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, to name just a few of the prominent Democrats in attendance — took in Moore’s two-plus hours of Bush-bashing, applauding throughout and giving Moore a standing ovation when it was over. Even Moore seemed a bit taken aback by the Democratic establishment’s effusive embrace.

McAuliffe shilled for the movie in interviews with reporters after the screening. He explicitly tied the film to John Kerry’s campaign for the White House:

I think anyone who sees this movie will come out en masse to make sure John Kerry is elected president this November.

Asked to comment on one of Moore’s theories – that Bush invaded Afghanistan to secure an oil pipeline for the Unocal corporation – McAuliffe responded: ‘I will check into a lot of the issues myself about the pipeline and others. But he raises a lot of very legitimate questions.’

*****

The Democrats are right to challenge some of the vicious rhetoric directed at President Obama. And not just the birth certificate and religion conspiracy theories – though those are particularly obnoxious and stupid-crazy. The tone of American politics seems to be growing more embittered, more shrill. There is nothing wrong with partisanship – the Constitution is designed to disburse power by pitting faction against faction – but the rhetoric could do with a dial-down.

There are nuts on the Right. There are nuts on the Left. To pretend one side has a monopoly on unhinged pronouncements is to excuse derangement by feigning amnesia.

Feature image © DonkeyHotey by Creative Commons 2.0.  

Redeeming the promise of ‘Never Again’


Concentration camp survivors sing Hatikvah (The Hope) inside the newly-liberated Bergen-Belsen, April 20, 1945

‘I was in Dachau and Belsen. I saw chambers where hundreds of Jews were put to death every day. … I saw the gallows in Belsen where Jews were hanged each Jewish holy day, while the rest were paraded to witness the ghastly punishments of men who had perhaps come a few minutes late to their daily grind… It is beyond mortal power to bring back to life six million who were burned, asphyxiated and buried alive by the Nazis. But our six million brothers and sisters who went to their deaths have bequeathed us a sacred injunction: to prevent such a disaster overtaking the Jewish peoples in the future and to do so by the Jewish people being an independent people in its own land, capable of resisting any foe or enemy by its own strength.’

David Ben-Gurion

Holocaust Memorial Day is the day our political leaders come together and say ‘never again’. They spout pieties and pabulum: evil, humanity, darkness, hope, we must learn the lessons of history or we are doomed to repeat them.

‘Never again’ is easy to say. It’s harder to honour. Learning lessons also takes effort, courage, and moral clarity. You might have noticed that these are in short order today. When we think about the six million Jews gassed and thrown in ovens by the National Socialists, we shake our heads and ask: Why? How? But when we encounter antisemitism in our daily lives and in our political discourse, we overlook it, deliberately ignore it, or attack those who raise concerns as ‘over-sensitive’ or ‘trying to stifle debate’.

Elie Wiesel called the Shoah ‘the kingdom of night’. But kingdoms are not single events; we can see them building up. We choose whether to serve as subjects or rebel against the crown. A new report from the German government finds that one in five Germans is antisemitic, and identifies an ad hoc alliance between the traditional Jew-haters of the far-Right and those on the modern Left who have allowed their hatred of Israel to be subsumed by antisemitic prejudices and rhetoric. Respondents to a 2003 European Commission poll cited Israel as the greatest threat to world peace, the tiny nation – smaller than the state of New Jersey – was the malefactor behind the world’s ills for 59% of Europeans. Antisemitism is in vogue again, with film directors, fashion designers, and movie stars professing their love of Hitler and hatred of Jews, and Nazi books, Nazi films, and Nazi t-shirts are best-sellers.

In the UK, we see the Left abandoning its commitment to reason, equality, and human rights in favour of the crippling self-hatred of Chomskyite anti-Westernism and the epistemic dead end of postmodernism. Nowhere does this manifest more sharply than in relation to Israel and Islamist terrorism. We are a country where ‘liberals’ take to the streets waving placards bearing the suicidal slogan ‘We are all Hezbollah’. Where hate speech about Jews, Zionism, and Israel permeates the comments – and sometimes the commentary – of a leading national newspaper website. Where a Labour MP calls on Jews to be barred from becoming ambassador to Israel because they have ‘Jewish loyalties’ – and the national news media doesn’t bother to report it. Still other MPs invite antisemitic preachers to London. Peers talk about ‘Holocaust Guilt‘ and ‘the strength of the Israel Lobby’ as the reasons ‘no-one takes action against them’. A council in Scotland has banned its librarians from buying Israeli books in protest at Operation Cast Lead (no books produced in Gaza, from which Hamas has been firing rockets on Israeli civilians, have been proscribed).

The FBI reports that almost two-thirds of religious hate crimes committed in the United States in 2010 were against Jews. In the last two months alone (December 2011 and January 2012), two synagogues were firebombed in New Jersey, singer Katy Perry’s preacher father gave an antisemitic sermon in Ohio, a Jewish resident of Long Island woke up to find the Chanukkah menorah on his lawn smashed to pieces, and (again in New Jersey) two synagogues were daubed with swastikas and the graffiti ‘Jews did 9/11’. Political discourse is also becoming more poisonous. Two leading Democrat campaign groups, the Center for American Progress and Media Matters for America, regularly offer up contempt for Israel and its supporters. American Jews who support the Jewish state are accused of ‘dual loyalty‘ and being ‘Israel-firsters‘ (a neo-Nazi term happily embraced by radical and ascendant elements in the American Left), while the Simon Wiesenthal Center is labelled ‘far-right‘.

For many on the Left, Israelophobia has reached pathological heights where reason offers no ballast. Israel – a democracy with free enterprise, the rule of law, and equal rights for Arabs, women, gays, religious and other minorities – is cast as a pariah state. Israel’s defamers cite the Palestinians in defence of their bigotry but these same people do not obsess about Russia and its slaughter of the Chechens, the massacres in Darfur, the Chinese oppression of Tibet or Taiwan, or the millions of serf-slaves imprisoned in the world’s waking nightmare, North Korea. What is it about Israel that stirs a special fury? What drives ‘progressives’ to describe a country with an exemplary human rights record given the conflict it finds itself in as imperialist, colonialist, racist, apartheid, and even Nazi?

Criticism of Israel is not and never should be labelled antisemitic. But criticism is disputing a policy or decrying a politician or calling for negotiations or landswaps or withdrawals. Criticism is not demonising a whole nation with the most inflammatory language at your disposal. Criticism is not calling for the destruction of a state or boycotts of its people and products. Criticism is not the criminalisation of an entire people, the most consistently and cruelly persecuted people in history, for simply returning to their ancient homeland and building one of the most scientifically, technologically, and medically advanced countries in the world. When Israel is singled out for unique and coruscating opprobrium, when the mere mention of its name can drive otherwise rational-seeming people to fits of apoplexy and outbursts about ‘Zionists’, ‘blood-thirsty warmongers’, and ‘Nazis’, we are not dealing with political debate but a verbal pogrom against the Jewish state.

Today, 67 years after the end of World War II and the liberation of the surviving Jews from the camps, antisemitism has not gone away but returned in the cloak of politics, and progressive politics at that. Holocaust Memorial Day is a fitting opportunity to redeem the promise of ‘never again’ before the kingdom of night sets in upon us once more.

Feature image © Maria Carmen by Creative Commons 3.0.  

Newt changes name to ‘Reagan’, GOP changes name to ‘lemmings’

Newt Gingrich is a historian.

An historian, as they say in the historian trade. Which only historians are allowed to join. But not you. You are not an historian. In fact, you are probably a Saul Alinsky radical or a member of the liberal news media. Nor did you work with Ronald Reagan. Newt worked with Ronald Reagan. He’s too modest to tell anyone but Newt was the driving force behind all of Reagan’s successes, like tax cuts, military build-up, and the Strategic Defence Initiative. Also: Berlin Wall? That was Newt. Knocked it down with a hardback copy of one of his bestselling books. Yes, Ronald Reagan was a valued member of the Gingrich administration.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Newt wants to make history. To be sure, he’s already the first Speaker of the House of Representatives to be censured for an ethics violation. The first to pay a $300,000 fine for said violation. The first Speaker to have forced the resignation of a predecessor over (trumped up) ethics charges only to have his own resignation forced upon him by exasperated colleagues. But he’s set his heart on becoming the first censured, first fined, first ousted Speaker to be elected President of the United States.

And Republican voters seem to be going along with it. Gingrich won the South Carolina primary handsomely and, according to Rasmussen, he has overturned Mitt Romney’s 22-point lead in Florida and now outpolls the former Massachusetts governor by seven points. Although his muted performance in Tuesday night’s debate – on NBC, where the commercial breaks are known as ‘mercy interludes’ – might narrow his lead, he’s in a strong position to win the Florida primary on January 31. At which point the Romney campaign freaks out and Gingrich gains momentum.

Conservative and Tea Party Republicans, who consider Romney’s healthcare reform in Massachusetts to have been the blueprint for Obamacare and its author therefore candidatus non grata, welcome the Gingrich surge as their last chance to nominate a right-winger. The fact that Gingrich isn’t right-wing has escaped their notice. Newt’s reputation as a reactionary is based on his (failed, disastrous, wildly unpopular; I could go on…) impeachment of Bill Clinton and his tendency to issue crazy pronouncements like suggesting children get jobs as school janitors or that the Palestinians don’t exist. Newt talks the language of the conservative movement; he pushes the right buttons. He tells grassroots activists: ‘I was with you in the trenches in the 80s’, and it sounds right so it doesn’t matter that he was most likely in Tiffany’s while they were pounding lawn signs for the Gipper.

His record as a conservative is somewhat more prosaic and points to Jack Kemp-style ‘big government conservatism’. He boasts about volunteering for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign but fails to mention his work for liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller. He endorsed liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava in the 2009 New York special election, from which she promptly dropped out, before endorsing Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, who promptly lost. He has supported ethanol subsidies, cap and trade, the Fairness Doctrine, Medicare Part D, and an individual mandate in healthcare. When Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Wis) offered a plan to reform Medicare to make it more market-oriented, Newt condemned it as ‘right-wing social engineering’. Mr Washington Outsider raked in $1.6m in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, the failed federal mortgage provider which pumped billions of taxpayer dollars into untenable mortgages and helped precipitate the sub-prime lending crisis. He cut a commercial with Nancy Pelosi urging action on climate change, hardly a hanging offence in the eyes of the reality-based but tantamount to eco-Bolshevism for the Glenn Beck crowd. This ‘Beltway-consensus influence-peddler’, writes libertarian columnist Gene Healy, ‘does a great impression of a red-state firebrand, but when it comes to policy, “the color is blue”.’

It’s not that Gingrich is a liberal; he just wants an open marriage with conservatism.

Then again, it’s difficult to gauge what Newt stands for since he claims credit for every policy decision since the Cleveland administration. He has the courage of other people’s convictions. This ‘one-man think-tank’ seems to have a lot of freelancers working for him, particularly the 40th president. So far Newt has declared himself the originator of supply-side economics, Reagan’s 1980 victory, Reagan’s tax cuts, and the jobs created under Reagan. He continues to do this even after Romney pointed out that Reagan barely knew who Gingrich was. According to the New York Times, Gingrich has invoked Reagan’s name 55 times across 17 debates, compared to 14 for Santorum, and six apiece for Romney and Paul. (Perry also mentioned it six times but it gets counted twice because he managed to remember it at all.)

There are necrophiliacs who feel more shame about wearing dead people’s clothes.

Of course, it’s no wonder Newt tries to pinch other politicians’ policy ideas: his own are fairly demented. At a town hall meeting in 2011, he proposed building a lunar colony to explore the Moon’s mineral resources. In an effort to address the lighting of highways at night, Newt recommended building a series of giant space mirrors and positioning them to illuminate America’s roads. In the early 1990s, he floated the idea of placing the children of single mothers in orphanages to allow the government to end their welfare payments. He authored a bill to impose the death penalty on anyone caught importing more than two ounces of marijuana into the United States. And, while most candidates spout pabulum about ‘appointing judges who will uphold the Constitution’, Newt explained his plan to dispatch federal marshals to arrest activist judges, which conjures up the image of Ruth Bader Ginsburg wielding a bust of Bill Brennan in the direction of police and refusing to come quietly.

Conservatives react to Mitt Romney like Linda Blair to holy water yet, inexplicably, buy Newt as the brave new dawn of the American Right. His personal life is of no interest to me. It will be, however, to the Democrats, the media, and some Americans. Everyone in the field has their drawbacks but Newt could down a 747 with the excess baggage he carries. That baggage – personal, professional, and political – will take centre stage if he becomes the Republican nominee. Barack Obama, who has overseen a disastrous economy, high unemployment, and a spike in the number of Americans relying on welfare, will face his dream opponent.

Obama’s re-election is all but guaranteed – people rely on government more in tough times and Obama is Mr Big Government – but Romney is the only candidate who can prevent a complete collapse of the Republican vote. But the diehards don’t want him. Bombast sways the minds of the converted in a way nuance never can but Newt’s happy warrior rhetoric is a façade for opportunism and political timidity. JS Mill once called the British Tories ‘the stupid party’. If Republicans throw in their lot with Newt Gingrich, they will inherit that mantle – and lose on it.

Feature image © Gage Skidmore by Creative Commons 3.0.  

Suppressed TV

Be careful what you wish for.

Press TV, the demented Iranian propaganda outlet, has had its licence revoked for violating UK broadcasting regulations. Media regulator Ofcom found the channel was in breach of the Communications Act, which permits only editorial decision-makers to hold licences, after it emerged its London bureau (which was licensed by Ofcom) was in fact managed from Tehran (which was not). Ofcom’s request that the channel transfer editorial oversight to London or transfer its licence to Tehran was ignored by the network and so Press TV can no longer be broadcast in the UK. This coincided with the revelation that the channel had failed to pay a £100,000 fine for broadcasting a segment in which Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari, then being held captive by the Iranian government, was interviewed under duress.

The decision to revoke Press TV’s licence has been welcomed by critics of this mouthpiece for the Iranian regime. Ever since I discovered the existence of Press TV, I have been deeply troubled by its odious output and objectionable agenda. There is not a single occasion on which I watched it that I didn’t recoil and wish it out of existence. So I should be elated at this decision. However, I’m not and I’ll explain why later but first I want to outline what kind of channel we’re dealing with.

Press TV’s editorial output is a melange of pro-Ahmadinejad propaganda, antisemitic fulminating, Israel-abusing, anti-Western sabre-rattling, and any number of unhinged conspiracy theories. It warns that ‘a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities will be practically the same as the evaporation of the Zionist entity’ – the channel’s preferred term when discussing (which is to say calling for the destruction of) the State of Israel – and marked Israel’s 63rd Yom Ha’atzmaut as ‘the 63rd anniversary of the occupation of Palestine’. Needless to say, 9/11 was perpetrated by ‘world Zionism’ rather than al-Qaeda, ‘a fairytale terrorist group made up by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Israeli spy agency, Mossad’.

The channel’s website republished ‘The Walls of Auschwitz’, a pseudo-scholarly account of the scientific impossibility of the gas chambers, by Holocaust ‘revisionist’ and former UCL academic Dr Nicholas Kollerstrom. The network describes convicted Holocaust-deniers as people who ‘simply dared question the veracity of Holocaust accounts as described by the Jewish and Zionist historians’ and warns that such people ‘are spending their life in the underground jails and prisons of the European countries’.

Professional American crackpot Mark Dankof has graced Press TV’s website with his musings on the historical accuracy of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and his theory that the US recession was caused by:

‘Jewish control of the news media, Jewish control of the American political process, disproportionate Jewish control of the international banking system through the Federal Reserve Board and an Israeli-driven American foreign policy’.

Raed Salah, an antisemitic Palestinian preacher, convicted terrorism funder, and convicted police officer assaulter, was invited on Press TV to repeat his inflammatory lie that Israel was planning to demolish the Al Aqsa mosque and build the Third Temple upon its remains.

While being generally antagonistic towards Britain, Press TV has managed to find some Brits it likes. Amongst the British far-rightists/far-leftists/who-can-tell-the-difference-any-more to feature on Press TV is regular commentator Peter Rushton. Rushton is an editor at Heritage and Destiny, journal of the neo-fascist England First Party (slogan: ‘Faith. Folk. Family.’), which campaigns for repatriation of ‘non-European immigrants back to their lands of ancestral origin’, the ‘teaching of healthy moral values’, a ban on Shechita and Halal slaughter methods, and the restoration of capital and corporal punishment. The channel also reported on Paul Flynn, the Labour MP who said Jews shouldn’t be allowed to serve as UK ambassador to Israel because they have ‘Jewish loyalties’, under the headline ‘UK MP faces quit calls for telling truth’, and quoted approvingly Flynn’s claim that ‘Israel demands full submission’.

Sometimes its conspiracies can be too delicious for words. Responding to the withdrawal of its licence, Press TV claimed that it was the victim of a plot orchestrated by the Queen in revenge for the channel’s negative coverage of the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. (It still has some way to go to best the market leader in Elizabeth II conspiracy theories, Lyndon LaRouche, a frequent American presidential candidate who believes the international narcotics trade is run by Her Majesty with the assistance of William Rees-Mogg, whom she also dispatched to carry out the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.)

Naturally, Press TV attracts all the usual suspects in the desiccated traditions of Western liberalism and radicalism, who tune into the channel for its more politically palatable rendering of reality; a world in which America is on the brink of collapse as a punishment for its hubris and imperialism, where Israel is wicked beyond description and terrorism against its citizens is justified, and where Iran and Islamist terrorists are not a threat to be fought but innocent victims of Western media misrepresentations. Press TV – like RT, Vladimir Putin’s televised insane asylum – is a laudable, if sometimes disagreeable, ‘counter-hegemonic’ ‘alternative’ news source seeking to balance the neoliberal militarism of what they darkly refer to as the ‘mainstream media’. This is the same Left that denounces chalkboard-botherer Glenn Beck for his conspiracist televangelism all the while embracing a channel whose anchors and correspondents make Beck sound like Saney McSane, Mayor of Sanetown.

Reality-based leftists concerned about the cranks in their ranks are relieved that there is one fewer tempter of the British Left. That’s nice for them but not so profitable for freedom of speech. Speech is one of the few areas in which I come close to being an absolutist libertarian. I echo Professor Alan Dershowitz’s dictum that the answer to bad speech is not less speech (censorship) but more and better speech. This is even more pressing in the case of extreme and hateful speech like that featured on Press TV. As Mill puts it: ‘Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free speech but object to their being “pushed to an extreme”, not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.’ While Press TV was shuttered for its violation of broadcasting law, its critics are crowing not at the upholding of an obscure provision of the Communications Act but at the silencing of a channel of which they disapprove politically. That these critics include amongst their number writers otherwise known for their ardent defence of free speech is all the more disturbing.

‘Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it,’ said Thomas Jefferson, a man who knew a thing or two about freedom of speech and censorship. And the withdrawal of Press TV’s licence is censorship. Not because Ofcom acted with political motivation or because the government leant on the regulator or because Her Majesty gave the signal. Censorship is not just the silencing of unpopular or extreme opinions but a structure of control that exerts the unwarranted authority of the state into matters that ought by right to be left to the marketplace and the realm of individual choice. Ofcom reached its decision fairly, independently, and in line with the law. But that law is wrong. The state has no business dictating the editorial policies of media outlets foreign or domestic – except, perhaps, in extreme cases during a time of war.

Nor should a regulator be empowered to fine a broadcaster for objectionable content. Press TV’s treatment of Mr Bahari was despicable and an affront to every ethic of journalism; it speaks to the channel’s rock-bottom standards and the Tehran regime’s contempt not merely for human rights but for human beings. But as a free speech libertarian, I cannot countenance the notion that such behaviour warrants a government-imposed financial penalty. The correct approach – the one in keeping with Western values of freedom and open debate – is to criticise, condemn, and deride the channel. Protest satellite companies that carry it in their ‘news’ packages. Journalists should refuse to attend press conferences to which Press TV is also invited. They should report on it, debunk it, and counter its propaganda by telling the truth about the Iranian regime and its malevolent agenda.

Iran’s opponents will chalk this up as a victory. It is no such thing. While we celebrate the bureaucratic smothering of a nasty little hate platform, Iran continues its march towards attaining nuclear weapons. Its Holocaust-denying president has repeatedly declared his intention to wipe Israel off the map (note: leftists say he was mistranslated; he was actually inviting Bibi Netanyahu out to ice cream and a movie but it got lost in translation) so we can make a rough guess of where his first warhead will be aimed. The international community should act now – not later, now – to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme – and, while they’re at it, a little dose of regime change wouldn’t go amiss.

Press TV should still be on the air. The UK government should pay for it to be in every house in Britain. Then perhaps a nation grown weary and cynical by Iraq will wake up to the threat of this regime – and the necessity of military action to topple it.

Feature image © Carlos Delgado; CC-BY-SA.  

I’m a John Carpenter fan, or ‘masochist’ for short

To be a John Carpenter fan is to submit oneself to perpetual disappointment.

Every few years a new movie will come out, aficionados of Carpenter’s early work will convince themselves, in defiance of both good sense and experience, that this is it; The One; the film that will reverse his artistic decline and restore ‘The Maestro’ (as we still call him) to former glory. Every single time – Every. Single. Time. – our false hopes are dashed. It’s another dud, another flop, another Big Trouble in Little China.

Carpenter hasn’t made a good movie since Prince of Darkness and he hasn’t made a great one since Escape from New York. The cause of this decline is a puzzle that’s never quite fit together for his fans. This is Carpenter, the man who gave us (and they really were gifts) Assault on Precinct 13Halloween, and The Fog. Even his student thesis film, Dark Star, is a work of art – a cynical essay on the human condition’s essential impenetrability to reason. How could early potential, rooted in talent and proved by accomplishment, decline to the point not merely of mediocrity but of embarrassment?

These thoughts arose, unbidden, when I was channel-surfing a few nights ago and stopped on a cable network airing Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter’s 2001 science fiction thriller pitching futuristic space cops against a spectral alien tribe – essentially an other-planetary reimagining of both Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York. It’s a terrible movie. Not in the sense that it’s poorly plotted or the performances are substandard; those are two areas where the film is mildly respectable. Rather, it’s flat, sterile, almost a dead movie. It doesn’t connect. It doesn’t feel.

Why is this? An important factor is money. Carpenter was at his best as a low-budget film-maker. When he was working with $60,000 for Dark Star, $100,000 for Assault on Precinct 13, and $325,000 for Halloween – nickels and dimes in Hollywood terms – he excelled by using ‘poor man’s process’, those low-budget tricks that lend authenticity to even the most outlandish plots and scenarios. Fast forward to Big Trouble in Little China (budget: $25,000,000), Ghosts of Mars ($28,000,000), and Escape from LA ($50,000,000) and Carpenter is working with vastly larger sums of money but turning in vastly inferior movies. Necessity is the mother of invention and, although there might be a little misty-eyed romanticism to this, in movie production penury often inspires originality.

Psychology might have something to do with it too. If the past is a foreign country, the 1970s is Jupiter. Francis Wheen has written evocatively about the paranoid style of the decade and Adam Simon’s The American Nightmare documents how horror cinema reflected the fear, suspicion, and simmering hysteria of the time. Vietnam, Cambodia, Watergate, and political and social upheaval inspired a convulsive paranoia that, for a time, seemed to take hold as the national mood in the US, Britain, and much of the Western world. As Simon shows, this atmosphere proved ripe for horror movies. Carpenter, like Romero, Hooper, and Craven, reflected this in movies about the underlying violence of American society. It’s America that is under siege, not just a police station (one that’s shutting down, metaphor-hunters), in Assault on Precinct 13 and only through violence can the established order be upheld. The little boy down the street who stabs his sister to death in Halloween is the return of the repressed, the mundane evil that might very well lie behind any white picket fence in suburban America. And don’t be fooled by the atmospheric mist and ghostly mariners; The Fog is about the sins of colonialism and the foundational myths of pioneer societies. Carpenter, an essayist of subterranean America, worked in an aesthetic of despondency that matched his time.

But isn’t that our time too? You want despondency? The decline of the West and the ascendency of China (and the emerging economies of Latin America). Global economic turmoil. An asymmetrical conflict with Islamist terrorism. Tumult in the Arab autocracies. Things are falling apart; the centre isn’t holding. Carpenter should be thriving artistically in these circumstances. Yet his most recent offering The Ward, a sub-TV movie effort about a disturbed woman tormented by a ghost that stalks the halls of a mental asylum, is culturally insular to the point of insipidity. Surveying this world of material, Carpenter has nothing to offer. In fairness, contemporary American horror cinema as a whole would appear to have nothing to offer, except remakes, retreads, and reimaginings. The hyper-stylised torture porn, ‘found footage’, and Paranormal Activity subgenres – best understood as horror movies for people who don’t like horror movies – are the only game in town, a low-investment, high-return, quality-be-damned game.

We tell ourselves: If anyone can lead a renaissance in the art of horror, surely it is Carpenter. The Maestro will rise again. One day soon. When the right script comes along. And the money’s there. And the stars align. And… and…

This is this masochism of self-delusion. It’s over. Carpenter’s best days are behind him. His fans continue to watch his movies not because they expect a masterpiece but because the man has served his dues to those fans and the movie industry. He once was great and should be accorded the quiet respect once-great men deserve, for his talent, his films, and for turning on millions of moviegoers around the world to the pleasures of paranoia.

Feature image © Nathan Hartley Maas by Creative Commons 3.0.