Category Archives: History

Phyllis Schlafly: RIP

Phyllis Schlafly just passed away, at the age of 92. Every major news outlet eulogized her, as is appropriate. I am not a major news outlet, and rarely do obituaries. And of course, I did not know the woman. Still, Schlafly’s passing leads me to ask this: how do we memorialize the life of someone with whom we disagreed?

On the internet, when someone both prominent and controversial dies, memes begin to appear, presumably amusing expressions of schadenfreud. ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead,’ seems to have been the predominant sentiment this time around. That strikes me as unfortunate. Death is the ultimate leveler, and its majesty, its tragedy, its reality should overawe us, should lead to humility, should supercede parochial concerns.

I believe that Phyllis Schlafly’s legacy is an unfortunate one. I think she left the world an unhappier place. I also thought her political views were mistaken, retrograde, invalid. But it’s not my role to judge.

And, in fact, she was an extraordinary woman. She was an attorney, a political candidate, an activist, and an author. She liked to cultivate a particular image; ‘housewife/activist.’ In fact, that description sells her short. Her book, A Choice, Not an Echo challenged the Republican orthodoxy of her day, and sold three million copies. She developed considerable expertise in international armaments, and researched and wrote books about national defense, staunchly in opposition to arms control agreements. Her newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report, became a central text of the conservative movement. She founded the Eagle Forum, and was an activist, who led the opposition to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

I liked and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. I consider myself a feminist. I also like arms control agreements. But I am not blessed with omnipotence. I believe that the Equal Rights Amendment would have made life better for women; really, for everyone. She believed that it would make life worse. She won that political battle. Who knows whose views were right?

And she had a gay son. John Schlafly, her oldest son, came out in 1992. He nonetheless remained active in the leadership of the Eagle Forum. He ended up in a bitter dispute with his sister, Anne Cori, over the Forum’s enthusiastic support for Donald Trump; Cori thought they should endorse Ted Cruz instead. I understand bitterness over that controversy lingers still.

So, a bright, successful, accomplished woman. Devoted to her family, and to her favored political cause. Hers was an extraordinary life. For good? For ill? Let God decide.

Ben-Hur: Movie Review

There are essentially two ways a movie could be called a success. First, it could be a popular success, as measured by box office receipts.  Or it can be a critical success, the kind of movie people like me love, but that have a hard time finding their market. Well, the new Ben-Hur, directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Jack Huston, is neither a financial nor a critical success. It cost a hundred million dollars to make, and so far, has made around twelve million in box office, a dismal enough figure that it’s closing all across the country. Critics haven’t liked it. It’s around 29% on Rottentomatoes.com. By those criteria, it’s not a successful film.

And you can’t help but wonder why it was even made. The 1959 William Wyler film, with Charlton Heston, won eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (to Heston), and Best Director. I’m not sure how well it holds up anymore, but it’s certainly a classic, an important and memorable film. Why remake it? Why make a new version, directed by the guy who directed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and starring John Huston’s grandson? Why greenlight it, why fund this production, why market and distribute it? It’s seems like a peculiarly unnecessary venture.

I’m also aware that I have this fault as a critic; I like pretty much everything. I like movies; I like the experience of seeing movies, and my son teases me by saying that my one superpower is finding something positive in even quite wretched movies. So my positive comments here are easy to discount. I get that. I do.

The fact is, though, the new Ben-Hur isn’t terrible, and at times, it’s quite gripping. My wife and I were pleasantly surprised by it. Jack Huston’s not Charlton Heston, but he’s a fine actor, and makes a creditable Ben-Hur. The acting is generally just fine, and the story unfolds at a brisk pace (which can’t really be said about the four-hour-long ’59 classic).  And I don’t have much hesitation recommending it.

I’m sure you remember the essential story. Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince living in Jerusalem, has an adopted brother, Masala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman orphan his family took in.  The men grow up as brothers, and are inseparable. But Masala wants to advance in the Empire, and becomes a centurion. Eventually, he’s posted to Judea, working for the prefect, Pontius Pilate. When a Zealot assassin Ben-Hur has been protecting tries to kill Pilate, Masala has his brother arrested, and condemned to the slow, horrific death of a galley slave. But in a sea battle, Ben-Hur’s ship sinks, and he makes it safely to shore. He is rescued by Ildurim (Morgan Freeman), who trains horses and riders for chariot racing, a popular Roman sport. He trains Ben-Hur, setting up a big climactic chariot race between Masala and Ben-Hur.

In some respects, this new movie is kind of a Cliff Notes version of the ’59 classic. The movie is built around two big action set pieces–the sea battle between galley ships, and the chariot race. Both take up a lot of screen time, and both were well staged and filmed. I already knew perfectly well who was going to win the chariot race, but I still found it exciting and suspenseful.

The interstitial stuff between the big action scenes were less well handled. When Ben-Hur is arrested, his mother and sister are arrested too. He agonizes over that fact, assumes they’re dead, and wants, at least, to see them properly buried. Turns out they didn’t die, but the resolution of that plot point was perfunctory and unconvincing. Likewise, Ben-Hur’s marriage to Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) was rushed through, as were subsequent scenes showing their reunion, quarrel, and reconciliation.

But the film’s biggest failure, in my opinion, has to do with its handling of Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro). The Civil War General Lew Wallace, who wrote the novel all this is based on, titled it Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ben-Hur meets Jesus periodically throughout the movie, but is unpersuaded by His message. But (SPOILER ALERT), not entirely. Esther becomes a Christian, and Ben-Hur himself eventually comes around. The point of the movie, I think, is this; both Ben-Hur and Masala are men who are consumed with hatred and pain and anger and an insensate desire for revenge. Christ’s message is that those emotions are false, are temptations of the Adversary, and that instead, we need to embrace love and forgiveness. After seeing his brother badly injured in the chariot race, Ben-Hur, touched by Jesus’ teachings, reconciles with his brother, and the men embrace and forgive. Yay for them; closing credits.

It doesn’t really work, though. The resolution is much too perfunctory, and the scenes with Jesus were hampered, in my opinion, by Santoro’s limitations as an actor. And by Huston’s limitations as well; his ‘consumed with anger’ looks very much like his ‘desperate to forgive.’

(And I’m hardly an expert on this historical period, and would love to be corrected if it turns out I’m wrong, but I do not believe that Pilate’s Jerusalem ever featured a big Cirkus for chariot races. Also, I don’t think a Roman Centurion would have been a big name chariot racer. Wrong social class. Also, I’m not sure what caste Ben-Hur belonged to. A ‘Jewish Prince’ who is really wealthy and nonetheless charitable and kind and beloved in Jerusalem? A Herodian? Not sure that guy could have existed. But if I’m wrong, let me know).

If you want to see an exceptionally well-made and well acted movie, set in Palestine during Jesus’ ministry, see Risen, with Joseph Fiennes, a much better movie on the same subject, only without chariot races. Meanwhile, Ben-Hur really can’t be said to have succeeded, exactly. But it’s not half bad, and parts of it are very well done indeed. So I recommend it. And you’ll have to hurry; it’s leaving town soon.

The Underground Railroad: Book Review

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is one of those novels that you don’t want to read too quickly, lest you deprive yourself of any of its pleasures, lest it break your heart. It’s beautiful, lyrical, as intellectually engaging as it is powerful emotionally. I don’t know anything else like it. The cliché here would be that I ‘couldn’t put it down.’ In fact, I frequently put it down, because it so often overwhelmed me.

Its subject, is, obviously, slavery and the Underground Railroad that conveyed escaped slaves north to freedom. It’s an historical novel, with the most resolute of protagonists–an escaped slave named Cora. But I can’t help myself from calling it a kind of science fiction, or at least speculative fiction. It’s built on two conceits; that the Underground Railroad really was a railroad, a subterreanean network of tunnels and tracks, with trains that take desperate fugitives from state to state. And second, that the experience of African-Americans differed radically from state to state, with each place exploring a different American possibility. It’s somehow a fabulist novel that doesn’t feel fabricated, an alternate history that feels like the most exacting and ruthlessly honest commentary on the actual history of America and race.

Cora begins in Georgia, living on a plantation owned by the Randalls, ferocious and brutal and corrupt, the worst plantation owners imaginable. Cora’s mother, Mabel, escaped, when Cora was just a child, and she resents it, being abandoned  like that. But what’s remarkable is that Mabel really did escape; she wasn’t brought back in chains by the ruthless and brilliant slave catcher, Ridgeway, to be tormented and brutalized and murdered like all other Randall escapees. (Eventually, we learn Mabel’s story, and it’s heart-breaking).

And so, Cora grows up a loner, a watcher, a fierce defender of her meagre belongings, but friendless and gossiped-about in slavery’s traumatized and treacherous culture. Then one night, Caesar, newly arrived at the Randall plantation, approaches Cora, the only slave he can trust, he says, and tells her he intends to escape, and wants her to come with him. He knows, you see, a station master. He can find his way to the Railroad.

And so, to South Carolina, a bastion of racial enlightenment, a place where blacks are allowed jobs and wages and an education, and even something resembling freedom. A real home. A paradise, pretty much. Until Cora learns the truth behind the benevolence and the real purpose behind the free medical exams she’s treated to.

The reality of slavery is, of course, economic. In King Cotton, the South had the perfect cash crop, the key to ever-increasing prosperity. Cotten needs tending and picking, and profit margins are greater if you don’t intend to pay your workers. But they came to understand that while African blacks make good workers–and can always be bred, increasing the labor market supply–they couldn’t really be trusted, could they? To remain placid and pliable. And in some areas, they had begun to increase in numbers; to outnumber whites. This wouldn’t do. Steps needed to be taken. South Carolina, priding itself in its sophistication and erudition, made the scientific choice. Forced sterilization. And other medical experimentation, to learn about infectious diseases and further deplete black numbers.

And as Cora contemplates her situation in oh-so-benevolent South Carolina, the implacable Ridgeway shows up, captures Caesar. Cora barely escapes alive. And she’s not expected on the train, and has to go wherever it’s heading. And that, it turns out, is North Carolina.

North Carolina is cruder, more direct. Reluctantly, its white citizenry has decided to bite the bullet, and pay its cotton pickers; not the black ones, of course, but impoverished European imports. That, again, leads to a superfluity of blacks, and a final solution. Cora barely survives, hidden, like Anne Frank, in an abolitionist’s attic.

And so on. Each state confronts the same demographic/economic problem, and each state deals with it differently. South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana. Yes, even a Northern state like Indiana. And each solution, in each state, is horrifying. At one point, Cora discovers books, and sees her own situation as analogous to Gulliver, and I buy that; the places Gulliver visits are grotesque, but illustrative.

And Cora is extraordinary. She’s a practical young woman, a farmgirl, hard working and determined and strong. She loves to read, especially loving Farmer’s Almanacs, for their pragmatism. She’s not terrifically romantic, but does fall in love, twice, with both relationships ending in horror. She’s a survivor. She’s also completely unimpressed with white society, and its protestations of civilized sophistication. She learns the Declaration of Independence, and considers it vicious nonsense. She’s an astonishing creation, and when the book ended, I did cry out, vocally: ‘no!’ I so wanted to spend more time in her company.

And the book’s ferocious and philosophical villain, Ridgeway, the slave catcher, is an equally astonishing creation. He’s a murderer, of course, many times over. But he’s also, in his own way, a thoughtful man, a man who sees his society clearly, and sees as well the necessary function of someone like him. He holds the Randalls in utter contempt, but is content to work for them, because the pay is good, and the work essential. Slavery is the key to Southern society. Not allowing slaves their freedom is the key to making the peculiar institution work. He is the face of white slavery, with all its intellectual pretensions, and quite possibly the scariest character in any novel I’ve read, because he’s also rounded, nuanced, complex. Smart. Evil? Well, obviously, but then this book redefines evil. Slavery isn’t just one evil though. It’s manifestations are legion; it infests American history and promise like demons infesting the Gadarene swine.

I haven’t read Colson Whitehead before now, and now intend to buy all his books and read them straight through. What a remarkable talent. What a story! What a rich and powerful and strangely compelling novel.

 

Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party. Movie review

I just watched Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America film, so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

It’s a documentary, of the agit-prop variety, a ferocious assault on the Democratic party, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and any semblance of civil political discourse. Essentially, it’s an assortment of anti-Hillary conspiracy theories, tied together by one overarching über false narrative of breathtakingly ludicrous audacity; that the Democratic party is not now and never has been a legitimate political organization, but is now and always has been a vast, all encompassing criminal conspiracy.

You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. It’s that bad.

The film’s master narrative goes like this. Dinesh D’Souza goes to prison, ostensibly for violating campaign finance laws, actually because the Obama administration is out to get him.

Which I love, by the way. The totalitarian, tyrannical, anti-Democratic Obama administration is out to get him! So what do they do? Sentence him to . . .  8 months in prison, plus he had to do some community service. Obama’s got to be the wimpiest tyrant in history. (Dinesh, some advice: if you don’t like prison, don’t commit crimes).

So: prison. A scary place, filled with scary people (though as we see him wending his way through general population, with all these plug-uglies glaring menacingly, you think ‘he’s going to be okay; the cameraman shooting all this is his employee, and should be able to protect him.’ Anyway, while in prison, he learns about how con men work. He finishes his sentence, and goes to Democratic headquarters somewhere. He scouts around, goes places he shouldn’t, opens ‘no admittance doors,’ (kept conveniently unlocked), where they keep all the hidden portraits of Andrew Jackson and copies of Birth of a Nation, and ‘learns’ the whole sordid history of the Democrats–all of which I knew when I was ten–which he then recites in the most obvious and insultingly simple-minded way. To wit:

Andrew Jackson was the founder of the Democratic party. And he was the author of the Trail of Tears, a slave owner, and a strong supporter of slavery. All true, and not remotely secret–I don’t know a single Democrat who doesn’t know all about Andy Jackson. Also, of course, irrelevant to the Democratic party today.

The Republican party was anti-slavery, and Republicans voted for the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, all opposed by Democrats. And Lincoln was a really good President, and (prepared to be shocked by this revelation), a Republican. The Ku Klux Klan was founded by Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was a southern general and a Democratic congressman. All absolutely true. No question; I’d have totally been a Republican back then.

Woodrow Wilson was a Democrat, a racist, and a big fan of the pro-Klan film, Birth of a Nation. Again, nothing new there. I’ve even showed Birth of a Nation in classes I taught. It’s a historically significant film, but D. W. Griffith was a Kentucky boy, and boy is it racist. Hard film to teach anymore; it’s just so comically racist.

The New Deal had racist provisions regarding some of the benefits it offered. Absolutely true. Southern Democrats generally opposed civil rights; the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was passed by a majority of Republicans.

All this stuff is presented as a secret history, as the kind of thing Democrats are ashamed of and try to cover up. And maybe that happens; I don’t know. Some Democrats may not know much history, like some Republicans don’t. But it’s irrelevant. There’s since been a major party realignment. There was a time when Democrats went out of their way to prevent black voters from voting. That ended. Now, it’s Republicans who pass bills restricting African-American voting. ‘Republican’ doesn’t mean the same thing that it meant 50 years ago, and neither does ‘Democrat’.

In 1960, there were essentially four major political groupings. There were conservative Republicans (like Barry Goldwater), and liberal Republicans (like Nelson Rockefeller). There were conservative Dixiecrat Democrats (like Richard Russell), and there were liberal Democrats, like Hubert Humphrey. I remember when I first was hired at BYU, talking to one of my new faculty friends, who surprised me when he said he was a Republican. Not that that mattered, but he seemed really liberal. Then he said he leaned Republican because of civil rights. Made perfect sense. As we continued to talk, it turned out we didn’t disagree politically at all. About anything. He didn’t even like Reagan, much.

To me, as a Democrat, reading about Andrew Jackson or Woodrow Wilson is somewhat akin to doing my genealogy, and discovering I have a pirate ancestor. It’s disreputable and more than a little embarrassing, but it doesn’t matter–it doesn’t reflect on me at all. The political issues of the 1830s or 1870s or 1920s or 1960s are not the political issues of today. I’m a Democrat because I generally prefer Democratic policies today. I don’t give a crap about what John C. Calhoun thought politically, except as a matter of historical interest.

There’s a biggish chunk of D’Souza’s film where he talks about the journalist Ida B. Wells, who he clearly admires. As well he should–she was a remarkable woman, and a courageous one. I admire her too. The fact that she was a Republican doesn’t matter; in her day, it would have been remarkable if she weren’t. The Republicans were the party of civil rights back then. So would I have been, back then. So why put Ida Wells in the movie?

Okay. The last quarter of the film switches gears, from a ridiculous ahistorical assault on the Democratic party to an even more ridiculous attack on Hillary Clinton. It’s all there; Whitewater, Benghazi, the White House travel office thing, and, of course, the email scandal. Also, the Clinton Foundation. D’Souza insists that the Clinton Global Initiative is a massive money-laundering scheme, with very few of the funds raised used to do anything good at all. He particularly attacks the Clinton’s for their involvement with Haiti, and shows anti-Clinton protesters outside the CGI headquarters in the New York.

It’s all nonsense, of course. Hillary Clinton has been lied about more than any other public figure in US history; D’Souza just repackages those lies. Case in point: Bill and Hillary didn’t skim off donations intended for Haiti: the CGI raised and spent 4 billion dollars for Haitian relief. They provided housing for 300,000 people, built hundreds of schools, built and staffed medical clinics all across the country. They’ve been extensively audited, and can prove exactly what was done with donations intended for Haiti. It’s an impressive list. Money laundering? Get real.

For a lot of people I know, the thing that makes them most uncomfortable with Hillary is the way she’s attacked the various women Bill is alleged to have had affairs with. D’Souza spends a lot of time on that issue. The most serious charge is that of Juanita Broaddrick, who accused Bill Clinton of having raped her. There are good reasons to believe her accusation, and equally good reasons to not believe her. I wasn’t there; I don’t have any idea. Bill Clinton did have multiple affairs, but they were always consensual. I don’t think there’s much doubt that Hillary chose not to believe rumors of his infidelity, and yes, she did trash the women making those accusations. I’m not willing to judge her too harshly for it. An adulterous spouse would tend to bring out the worst in any of us.

So maybe those attacks are a little bit relevant. None of the others have any credibility, at all. So she met Saul Alinsky. Big deal. So she once said nice things about Margaret Sanger (a fascinating historical figure, who did much more good than evil, though she did have her blind spots). Big deal. So Hillary got lucky with an investment one time. Good for her, and big deal. And yes, people pay absurd amounts of money to hear people give speeches. She’s made a lot less than Mike Eruzione does.

Anyway, the real question this film raises for me is this: what did Hillary Clinton ever do to Dinesh D’Souza?  What would cause a man to expend this impressive amount of pure vitriol and bile and hatred towards someone? I don’t get it. Why does Hillary have to be some combination of Lady Macbeth, Lucrezia Borgia and Livia Drusilla Caesar? Why does she have to be this monster? Can’t you just say ‘I disagree with her on matters of policy. Here are some specifics.’ Make a sensible argument, for heaven’s sake. This vilifying of a fellow patriot is unseemly, unnecessary, and, frankly, nonsensical. Dinesh, you were wrong about Obama, and you’re wrong about Hillary. Get over it.

I do regret one thing. I saw an early matinee, with about twenty other people. When the film ended, they all applauded. I booed. Very loudly–I’m a big guy with a big voice, and I really shouted out my ‘boo.’ I projected, you know? And they stopped applauding, and glared at me balefully as they left the theater (I was sitting in the front row). So I’m sorry, folks, if I ruined your movie. And shame on you for liking it.

Trump’s appeal, and the white underclass

A conservative friend of mine sent me this article from American Conservative magazine. It’s an interview with J. D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Legacy, a recent memoir. Vance came from a dirt-poor Appalachian family, and eventually graduating from Yale Law School. Fascinating interview, and a must-read book. And an interesting look at the political phenomenon of our day, the Donald Trump candidacy.

Trump’s strongest demographic is white men, and especially white men without college educations. It’s a group of people easily demonized. I’ve been reading Nancy Isenberg’s terrific historical study, White Trash; when I finish, I’ll review it here. But in short, the history of our nation is the history of class tensions, and the wholesale denigration of poor white people. We know, of course, that America’s prosperity was built, in part, on the backs of slaves. But Isenberg makes a persuasive case for an equally insidious dynamic; the deliberate division of American whites into social classes. And that remains partly true today.

The Vance interview adds a fascinating perspective on class, as it played itself our in his life and career. And I was fascinated by his political insights. After some moving descriptions of the desperate circumstances poor whites face all over the country, Vance says that neither major party has anything to offer the rural poor. Democrats offer ‘smug condescension,’ exasperation over people voting against their own economic self-interests, plus some handouts, which folks don’t much want. Republicans, of course, offer deregulation, tax cuts, plus free trade. Then, this:

Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears.  He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas.  His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground.  He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.

I understand that. Trump’s candidacy resonates with a group of people who have been ignored, discounted and insulted. Trump’s rudeness, his thin-skinned inability to let any criticism go unchallenged, his willingness to break with what we have come to regard as the civilized norms for political discourse, all that makes him more, not less popular with his base. They share that sense of resentment, of having been put down and discounted. Trump speaks to them, precisely because he ‘tells it like it is.’ What strikes most of  us as rhetorical excesses resonate with his supporters.

Vance uses the word ‘elite’ a lot. And that’s become an important word in this election season.  It’s ‘the elites’ who rigged the election for Hillary Clinton and against Bernie Sanders, ‘the elites’ who negotiated terrible trade deals that hurt the Rust Belt, ‘elites’ who condescend to and put down everyone who is not ‘elite.’

Vance talks about people he knew at Yale, who had never met a member of the white underclass, a professor who said that Yale should never accept students from state universities. Trump, says Vance, is the one guy who actively seems to fight elite sensibilities.

I get that. I understand that resentment, that feeling that people look down on you, or put you down. And I certainly think that Democrats can seem condescending.

But the ‘elite’ tag is most often applied to Hillary Clinton in his campaign. And I don’t get it. Yes, she’s a former First Lady; yes, she graduated from Yale. But her family background was anything but elite. Hillary’s kin were Pennsylvania coal miners. Her Dad got a football scholarship to Penn State, and was able to get an education. He became a moderately successful businessman, but Hillary’s childhood was hardly one of luxury and privilege. Bill Clinton’s family was dirt-poor. Okay, through a combination of hard work, good grades and scholarships, both Bill and Hillary made it to Yale Law School. (As did Vance). I wouldn’t say either of them come from ‘elite’ backgrounds.

An elite background would look more like this: a millionaire father, elite prep schools, Wharton School of Finance, and then a million dollar loan to start his business. Like, say, Donald Trump.

So, this season, we seem to be inhabiting a topsy-turvy world in which the Clintons are ‘elite’ and Trump is ‘champion of the working man.’ How do we liberals, we Democrats, we progressives reach out to those voters? How do we begin a conversation with this group of fellow Americans?

And at this point, I start to feel pretty pessimistic. I can think of lots of strategies that won’t work; I can’t think of any that might. We could, for example, do a point by point comparison between Trump’s policies (to the extent that he has any), and those of Secretary Clinton. Hard to see how that wouldn’t come across as kind of smarty-pants, in a ‘if you were smarter, you’d realize how bad Trump’s policies are’ kind of way. Or we could carefully explain to folks how much we enlightened Democrats can do for them. Mansplainin’ works so well when it’s men talking down to women; I’m sure it’ll work just fine if it’s urbansplainin’ to rural voters.

If Trump wins, we’ll have a stronger case to make. His policies will be disastrous, especially for the working poor; once the economy collapses again, we’ll have a case to make to fix things. But if (as I hope) Hillary wins, it’ll be time to really show what we can do. How about a major jobs effort in economically depressed areas? We have to do something. Because the kind of poverty Vance grew up with is not acceptable.

The Legend of Tarzan: Movie Review

Let’s face it: the Tarzan tales, as created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, are fundamentally colonialist, ethnocentric, and racialist. They’re about a white man, an English aristocrat, who, though raised by apes, becomes an African leader, then eventually, a member of the House of Lords. Blue blood rules; blue blood, in fact, could be said to be divinely appointed to rule. Primitive African tribes survive thanks to his protection; animals, no matter what their genus or species, obey his commands. All of which make a modern movie treatment of Tarzan, uh, problematic.

The new Tarzan movie, The Legend of Tarzan, seems at least to have recognized that this is a problem, though its solutions are at best half-baked and at worst appalling. It tries three solutions. First, in structure and tone, this movie follows the template and structure of superhero movies. Second, Jane (Margot Robbie), Tarzan’s wife, isn’t so much an imperialist white woman, condescending in her treatment of natives. She’s an African–she was raised in an African village; the Africans she knows are dear friends, equals in every sense. And third, the movie puts Tarzan in a specific historical context. Every superhero needs a super villain, and we get a good one here, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), agent to loathsome Belgian King Leopold II.

In fact, the movie is set in the Belgian Congo, the private domain of Leopold, an area rich in minerals, including diamonds. It’s important to note that the Congo wasn’t colonized by Belgium, the nation. It was owned by Leopold, a private investment by a monarch. Anyway, in the movie’s version of events, in 1866, Leopold’s plans for the Congo have faltered, because he’s broke. So his henchman, Rom, works out an elaborate plan. Rom meets a Congolese chief, Mbonga (Djimoun Hounsou) who, he has learned, hates Tarzan. So Rom promises to capture Tarzan, and trade him for diamonds, which Mbonga’s tribe has in profusion. This will pay the salaries of the mercenary soldiers that Leopold has hired to serve as the Force Publique, his own private army. Thus allowing Leopold to control and exploit and enslave the native population.

But an American journalist, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) is suspicious of Leopold, and wants John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke (otherwise known as Tarzan, played here by Alexander Skarsgård) to bring him with him to Africa. And Jane, Tarzan’s wife, really wants them to go. She was raised in Africa, where her father taught English–her closest friends are African. She considers herself African. And, in the brief glimpses of Tarzan’s origin story the movie provides, we learn that she met Tarzan when she found him half-dead, nursed him back to health, and taught him English.

So Tarzan, Jane, and Williams return to her village, where Rom and his soldiers lie in wait. They nearly kidnap Tarzan, but do kidnap Jane. This works just as well for Rom’s purposes. His plan is to deliver Tarzan to Mbonga, and he knows that Tarzan will do anything to rescue his wife. So Rom and Jane (and many soldiers), sail down a river towards Mbonga’s camp, and Tarzan follows, making good time by swinging from tree vine to tree vine, and getting reacquainted with his ape family. And Williams follows along, with Jackson’s grumpy weariness providing comic relief.

Along the way, Williams learns all about Leopold’s plans. He’s built a series of forts in the Congo, and rail lines for transport, and he has recruited this fearsome private army of brutal mercenary thugs. Williams is able to document everything.

Mbongo and Tarzan finally do confront each other, in what I frankly thought was the best scene in the movie. Mbongo hates Tarzan, because he killed his teenaged son; Tarzan killed the kid, because the kid killed Tarzan’s beloved ape mother. The two men, as they fight, realize how similar they are, and how destructive and unworthy their enmity. And reconcile. The scene works because Hounsou is so terrific, and it plays to Skarsgård’s rather limited strengths as an actor. The movie could have ended then, and been quite satisfying, I think, if you could have included some way to rescue Jane.

But it’s a summer blockbuster. It’s a big budget superhero movie. It has to end in a big noisy fight. And so, we move on, to a big final set piece. Rom has to deliver a trunk full of diamonds to the mercenary captain, and Tarzan has to rescue Jane. And while we’re at it, the riverside town where the mercenaries are all going to land has to be destroyed. And so, Tarzan summons armies of lions, wildebeest, alligators and hippos which attack and destroy this Force Publique stronghold. Summoning animals to fight for him is Tarzan’s main superpower, you see. It’s a ridiculous scene, of course, though not badly staged or filmed or edited, and it culminates satisfactorily, with Jane getting rescued, Tarzan reunited with her, and Rom being eaten by alligators.

And finally, Williams issues his report of Leopold’s intended atrocities to the British authorities. I think we’re meant to see that report as putting an end to the worst of the King’s atrocities, though the British lords who receive the report seem, in the movie, to greet it with decided equivocation. Still, like any superhero movie, the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and moral justice prevails.

Except, of course, nothing like that occurred. First of all, Leon Rom wasn’t eaten by alligators in 1886; he decorated his house by Stanley Falls with the skulls of murdered Congolese, and died a wealthy man in Brussels in 1924. Williams did deliver a report of Force Publique atrocities, but it was widely ignored. And the nefarious plans for the brutal subjugation of the Congo that Williams discovers? The forts, the rail lines, the savagery of Leopold’s private army? All of that happened. Leopold grew fantastically wealthy (though mostly through rubber, not diamonds), while treating the native peoples in the region with unprecedented viciousness. Best estimate; 10 million murdered. Ten million people. That’s just an estimate; it might have been fifteen million.

(Things haven’t improved. The Congo has been, since 1998, the site of the bloodiest of civil wars, with millions dead. All unpleasant vestiges of colonialist exploitation and enslavement).

Tarzan, of course, is a fictional character, and this movie tells a fictional story. That’s fine, I don’t actually think Iron Man exists either. But this Tarzan ties itself into historical events, and employs historical characters; Leon Rom, George Washington Williams, King Leopold II. And it shows Tarzan defeating Rom, and Williams defeating Leopold. And those things never occurred. Which means I left the theater with a distinctly queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Tarzan is a problematic character nowadays. Making a straightforwardly Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan movie in 2016 would seem a bit like remaking one of those ’40s comedies in which husbands spanking their wives was treated as jolly fun. Uh, no, not anymore. But this movie strains at a colonialist gnat and swallows a genocide camel. It struck me as bizarrely ill conceived. It’s a movie that relies on its audience knowing absolutely nothing about African history. I found it insulting and infuriatingly obtuse. You can’t just do that, just sweep the wanton and brutal murder of fifteen million people under the carpet, because they get in the way of your big CGI movie climax.

It’s a shame, too, because it’s an attractive enough movie, and there are scenes that work well. Hounsou is terrific in too-small a role, and I can’t say enough about Margot Robbie’s sensational Jane. Robbie is the most open-hearted of actresses, absolute in her commitment to the role, and courageous in her acting choices. Sam Jackson does wonderful Sam Jackson things, and all the Tarzan stuff was well executed; the yell, the flying in trees, a scene where he rolls around felinely with lions. Through some combination of gym time, anabolic steroids and CGI, Skarsgård looks terrific, though his performance never quite grabbed me. And, as usual, Christoph Waltz was a sensational villain.

And I can understand the impulse to turn Tarzan into a superhero. But they placed him in a specific historical context, which they then got horribly, unforgivably wrong. As we left the theater, my wife and daughter gave it a B-minus. As a, you know, movie, I’d agree. But I’m not inclined to forgive it. F.

 

Mass shootings, and the limits of human kindness

I have been thinking about mass shootings, these recent, all too familiar horror shows, and the men who perpetuate them, and something about these shooters and their targets occurred to me. I haven’t seen this anywhere else, but that may just be my own ignorance. It’s quite possible that the phenomenon I describe has been broadly reported, and I just hadn’t previously noticed. I am not a journalist, and I am not a psychologist. But I thought I’d pass it on.

The more we read about the shooting in Orlando, the clearer it becomes that Omar Mateen, the shooter, had been to the Pulse nightclub many times before. At least four Pulse regulars told the Orlando Sentinel that Mateen was at least a semi-regular there. Said one, “Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself, and other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent.” Another said that he talked with Mateen, about his father and his wife. Pulse was itself more than a regular nightclub. Barbara Poma, the club’s owner, opened it as a place of refuge for the Orlando LGBT community, a place of acceptance and celebration. Mateen also was a regular on local gay dating websites. Was he a self-hating closeted gay? Was he punishing something in himself when he opened fire?Mateen’s home was in Port St. Lucie, some 125 miles from Orlando. He did not, in short, pick a place at random. He drove two hours to get there. He went to a nightclub that was particularly and uniquely accepting of gay people (people like him?), a place he had visited many times before.

It’s been just about a year since the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Dylan Roof, the 21-year old shooter, went to a Bible study session at the church, and joined in the Bible discussion before opening fire. That’s strange, isn’t it? He sat with a group of Christians, and spent an evening discussing the scriptures. And then he pulled out his gun.

In San Bernardino, California Syed Farook was an employee of the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. A few weeks before he opened fire, his co-workers had thrown a baby shower for Farook, his wife, and their new baby. He shot them at a Christmas party. Again, he knew the people he shot. They were at least co-workers, and could surely have been described as friends.

Adam Lanza, the shooter in Newtown, Connecticut, targeted his old elementary school. He was an awkward kid, struggling with diagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. His struggles, though, began in Jr. High. He liked grade school; it was high school that was a nightmare. But in grade school, he met teachers and administrators who were willing to give him the individual attention he needed. Is it fair to say that he may well have shot up the one place that had treated him with kindness?

When we talk about mass shootings, we talk about them as random events, as unpredictable as tornadoes. But that doesn’t seem to have been true. At least some shooters seem to be attacking places familiar to them, places where they were known. In fact, it seems to me that in at least these cases, the shooters went after places where they were particularly treated with kindness, places where they may have been accepted.

It’s been over fifteen years since the Columbine shooting, but it strikes me as relevant. Harris and Klebold, the two Columbine kids, didn’t attack a random public place; they attacked their high school. And it’s easy to see that in cliched terms–they were outsiders who went after their popular/jock tormentors. But they weren’t friendless losers.

When tragedies occur, it’s easy to jump to conclusions. It’s easy to tie these kinds of horrific events to our own ideologically predilections, or our pet political theories. So Mateen and Farook were both ‘terrorists,’ and much of the subsequent commentary have focused on their possible links to ISIS. And ideology may have played a part in their rampages. Or, we fight over mental illness. ‘You’d have to be crazy to do something like that,’ we say. And we liberals recoil, because ‘they’re mentally ill’ seems like code for ‘we’re not going to agree to any gun control legislation.’

Again, I’m not a psychologist. But consider this. Mass shooters target people they know, or at least some of them do, some of the time. They seem to target people who treated them kindly, or at least where they could have a reasonable expectation of acceptance and compassion. Maybe that didn’t happen. Maybe they grabbed their assault rifles because they were enraged because they expected kindness, and didn’t get it.

But I don’t think so. I think that for damaged people, kindness can be seen as imposing an obligation that cannot be repaid. I think it’s possible that being accepted, and treated warmly, may be resented, may add to an overwhelming burden of guilt and misery and pain. It may lead to the point of crisis.

Some of these killings had an ideological component. Mateen declared his allegiance to ISIS in a 9-1-1 call right before opening fire. Farook and his wife had ISIS connections. Roof was affiliated with white supremacist groups. Surely these radical ideologies were part of the mix. But to say ‘they were terrorists’ is a short-cut to an explanation, and an explanation that fits our existing preconceptions. Yes, Dylan Roof was a racist creep. He was also a human being, and a deeply troubled, damaged one. His racists beliefs may have provided him some tiny, false comfort. But something in his mind led him to violence. Something triggered it. And he didn’t choose a target at random. He chose, as targets, people who were nice to him. And I think it’s possible that their niceness, their humanity, is what drove him to commit acts of violence.

There’s a toxic mix of intentions and compulsions and pain that drives these guys. (And they’re all guys, pretty much all of them are men. Well, aside for Farook’s wife). Obviously, one part of the mix is easy access to weaponry. They shoot because getting guns is easy, and getting ammo, that’s easy, and pulling a trigger is ridiculously easy. The effort-to-mayhem ratio is preposterous. And yes, some mass killings were achieved with box cutters, and others with truckloads of fertilizer. But those sorts of events are rarer, because the effort-to-mayhem ratio is so much more balanced. It takes planning to buy a gun, of course, but shooting it can be much more a matter of impulse and caprice.

And I think kindness may be part of it. Kindness is the ultimate expression of humanity. Kindness requires that we see and acknowledge other people as our brothers and sisters on this planet. For someone in terrible psychic pain, it may impose an obligation they cannot abide. And then ideology provides a convenient, easy rationale for violence.

Or not. I may be completely wrong about all of this. I am not a psychologist; I have no training in this field, no expertise. I do think it’s interesting, though, that the San Bernardino ‘terrorist’ shooters did not target random strangers, but the people who had just thrown them a baby shower, that the Orlando shooter drove 125 miles to shoot up a nightclub built on the values of acceptance and refuge, that Roof shot up people with whom he had spent an evening talking scripture. Damaged, hurting, desperately unhappy people committed acts of terrible violence. Let’s acknowledge that as part of our shared human condition.

 

A look at Republican foreign policy

Donald Trump is going to be the Republican nominee for President, a job for which he is manifestly unqualified, and particularly when it comes to foreign policy. Last week, Hillary Clinton gave a big speech on foreign policy, which included her harshest criticisms yet of Mr. Trump’s positions. Secretary Clinton impressively pointed out not just where she disagreed with Mr. Trump’s positions, but how unpresidentially unjudicious is his basic temperment.

Every Sunday morning, I watch This Week with George Stephanopoulos, so that y’all don’t have to. Although This Week drives me crazy sometimes, I watch it just to get a sense of mainstream Beltway opinion, which is, of course, frustrating and empty-headed and political. But it can be amusing, too, the rehashing of that eternal human comedy: who’s up, who’s down, who’s winning, who’s losing, and what does it all portend?

Anyway, Stephanopoulos wanted a Republican response to Hillary’s Trump take-down, and so they got Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to provide it. Corker is, at least officially, a Trump supporter, though over the course of his interview with Stephanopoulos, it became clear that he disagrees with Trump on essentially everything. But he obviously couldn’t say that–he was on the show to support Trump. So he tap-danced, not very nimbly. It got pretty funny.

Did Corker, for example, agree with Trump’s recent comments about Judge Curiel?  “I think we need to move beyond that, and he has a tremendous opportunity to disrupt the direction Washington is moving in, and create tremendous opportunity.” That’s an actual quote: Trump has a ‘tremendous opportunity’ to ‘create a tremendous opportunity.’

Stephanopoulos: “can you make a positive case why Trump will make a good Commander-in-Chief?’

Corker: “Yeah.”

That’s it. That’s Bob Corker’s defense for the idea that Donald Trump is tempermentally qualified to be commander-in-chief. One word. ‘Yeah.’

Stephanopoulos didn’t let him off the hook. He bored in, asking again for Corker to make the case for Trump. Corker started off with another ‘yeah.’ Then this: “well, he has an opportunity to transition. He’s talking to people that I respect greatly: Secretary Baker, Dr. Kissinger. Two of the greatest foreign policy experts in our nation. So he’s talking to the right people. So he has an opportunity to transition. . . ”

In other words, Trump can become stronger on foreign policy, if he’s willing to change, and listen to Jim Baker and Henry Kissinger. Yikes.

But what got really interesting was when Corker pivoted to attacking Hillary Clinton. I think that’s why he was on the show, to savage her:

Look, I listened to the speech, and I think her team believes that her service as Secretary of State makes her vulnerable. . . if you think back to the decisions she made in 2011, they were really disastrous. She played a central role in really creating a home for where ISIS resides today. If you look at the Libya incursion, which I think will be a textbook case for what we ought not to do in making foreign policy decisions. And then if you look at the precipitous leaving of Iraq, and look at encouraging the moderate opposition in Syria, and never following through. I think they feel that she’s very vulnerable, and that’s why these attacks are being made.

When it was pointed out that attacking Hillary Clinton didn’t really constitute supporting Donald Trump, Corker danced some more.

So here’s what I have seen, in many of the statements that he’s made recently, it’s a degree of realism in our foreign policy. For years, we’ve had neo-cons on the one side, we’ve had liberal internationalists on the Democratic side, and I think that bringing that maturity back into our foreign policy is something that’s important. That doesn’t mean us being isolationist. But it does mean selective engagement. It’s bringing a maturity, looking at our US national interest, realizing who our friends are, things like throwing aside Mubarak so quickly, after decades of relationship, and not figuring out a better way for him to be eased out.”

All right. Sorry for the long block quotation. Anyway, according to Bob Corker (and, apparently, James Baker and Henry Kissinger), Donald Trump represents a ‘new maturity’ in our foreign policy. And as evidence of Secretary Clinton’s comparative immaturity, we have her ‘throwing aside’ Hosni Mubarak ‘so quickly,’ after ‘decades of a relationship.’

When Corker talks about the events of 2011, he’s referring to the Arab Spring uprisings, which began in December 2010 in Tunisia, and continued throughout the next year or so.

So, what caused the Arab Spring? Widespread dissatisfaction with local regimes, with their corruption and violence, with dictatorship as a way of life, and with horrific unemployment and poverty throughout the region. It went fast, driven in part by social media. By the end of February 2012, rulers had been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, with civil uprisings in Bahrain and Syria, and with major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Sudan. Such dictators as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Moummar Gadaffi in Libya, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt fell from power.

Essentially, Corker is saying that during Clinton’s tenure at State, the US mishandled the various opportunities and difficulties posed by the Arab Spring. Surely, though, Corker is aware of how limited our options were back then. These were exceptionally popular uprisings, against brutal and corrupt dictators. Really, the best the US could have done was see, in each case, if among the protestors, there were  pro-Western, pro-democracy elements, which we could aid and support. Those elements did exist, in each of those countries. But they were very much in the minority.

So, in Libya, the Gaddafi government was overthrown, with help from UN forces. But within a few months, a civil war broke out between pro-Western forces and Islamist groups. That civil war continues–Libya is today, essentially, a failed state. In Egypt, after Mubarak fell, the military took command. Elections were held, which were won by the Islamist Mohammed Morsi. After a year, Morsi was deposed by the military, leading to a military dictatorship today. Again, not a great outcome. What better outcome was available?

What would have been nice would have been for pro-democratic, pro-Western forces to have won in each of those countries, leading to non-violent Muslim governance akin, perhaps, to Turkey. But the US had very little ability to control events back in 2011.

So to take the preposterous scenario Corker outlines, in which the US was able to keep our old pal Mubarak in power a while longer, that was simply never possible. Mubarak was toxic; utterly loathed. Egypt was being run by Egyptians.

It is absolutely true that the West intervened militarily in Libya in 2011, that NATO’s intervention didn’t work very well, and that Libya is a failed state today. The point of that intervention was to protect civilian lives. In Oct. 2011, NATO withdrew. In retrospect, that may have been an error. But, of course, we wanted Libya to be governed by Libyans. The US had no desire to nation-build yet again. The attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi didn’t help. The fact is, we tried to intervene on humanitarian grounds, and the result was a humanitarian nightmare. It’s fair to criticize Secretary Clinton for the failures of policy in Libya. What isn’t clear is what policies might have worked better.

In making the case for Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy expertise, it’s not just that she was once Secretary of State. It’s that she was Secretary of State during the Arab Spring, when the Middle East exploded in a whole variety of revolutions, counter-revolutions, uprisings and civil wars. There was very little the United States could have done to direct or even influence the way those events played out. We did try to intervene when possible, with mixed results. She was the US main foreign policy official in the most complicated and difficult era the Middle East has seen in my lifetime. She tried to manage events. For the most part, those events proved unmanageable.

It’s fair to offer criticism of her record. But when Bob Corker offers as a counter-proposal something as ludicrous as propping up the dessicated remains of Hosni Mubarak for a few more days, it’s fair to dismiss his complaints entirely. If retaining dictators in power is what constitutes this new ‘maturity’ in foreign policy Corker claims to see in the proposals of Donald Trump, then, I’m sorry, but I’m not interested. Trump’s foreign policy, as he’s described it so far, would involve starting trade wars with China and Mexico, offending Muslims world-wide, and ending the US commitment to NATO. That’s not maturity–it’s infantile.

What Hillary Clinton will bring to the table is a maturity born of humility, a sense of just how limited America’s ability is to change the course of history. That seems like a valuable resource, her experience and maturity and habit of thoughtful reflection. Especially given the alternative.

 

 

 

Captain America: Civil War. Movie Review

Captain America: Civil War is generally being lauded as one of finest comic book movies, like, ever. It’s at 90% on Rottentomatoes.com, and not only have critics embraced it, but it’s become a big popular hit. Like the best of the Marvel movies, it combines humor and well executed action sequences. More than that, it’s smart. It’s not just escapist fare. Comic book characters can be ridiculous, of course, what with all the spandex and ridiculous names, but the fact is, they’re about violence, about warfare, about terror as a tactic; they have surprising contemporary relevance. And this movie deliberately plays on that awareness.

And that’s also why I found this movie so off-putting. It’s not that I’m opposed to comic book movies paralleling contemporary politics. I think that’s great. I just find the conclusions drawn by this movie to be facile and obvious. And I found the film unwilling to interrogate the darker implications of its own narrative.

All right. Let me explain where I’m coming from here. This Captain America picks up the Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) story thread from previous Avengers’ movies, and places that story at the center of a conflict between Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). It starts with a battle in Nigeria, between what appear to be terrorists and a team involving Captain America and several other Avengers–Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). As the battle progresses, a building explodes, killing a dozen civilians. Turns out, the UN and the US governments are both getting fed up with superhero battle collateral damage, as well they might. An international conference to decide what to do about it is convened, and is likewise attacked. A peace-making king is killed. And this attack appears to have been made by Captain America’s old friend Bucky.

At one level, it makes sense that Cap would be at odds with the other Avengers over Bucky. Captain America, remember, is really a character from the 1940s, as is Bucky. Somehow Cap was frozen, his body recovered and revived. By us, Americans, good guys. Bucky, though, was also saved, but by bad guys, Hydra. Cap and Bucky are childhood friends. Of course Cap feels a tremendous loyalty to Bucky.

But this isn’t the same Bucky that he remembers. Hydra gave him enhanced powers, and also a psychological trigger, a phrase which, when spoken, causes him to surrender his ability to make decisions. At one point, Tony Stark calls him the Manchurian candidate, and that’s dead-on. Bucky’s a decent, good guy. Also a time bomb. And the one thing Cap prizes the most–his freedom, his ability to choose–Bucky does not have.

So that’s one issue in the film: what do we do about Bucky? But it relates to another, more profound one. Oversight.

The Nigerian disaster clarifies how tired the world is getting of collateral damage caused by superheroes. So the United Nations decides to form a ‘superhero oversight committee.’ That committee will decide where and how the Avengers will be deployed, and to what end. It will hold them accountable for damage caused in battle. The committee will exercise some degree of political control over superhero actions.

Initially, it seemed odd to me that rugged libertarian individualist Tony Stark would agree to political oversight, and that supersoldier Captain America would not. But we need to remember Tony’s background. The United States of America has never experienced a military coup, and I think it’s unlikely we ever will. That’s how ingrained in our military culture the idea is of a civilian heading our chain of command. The President of the United States is an elected official, and also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Our military respects that.

Well, Tony Stark is a product of America’s military-industrial complex. That’s his background. And he’s a thoughtful and intelligent man. He recognizes how essential it is that the Avengers appear legitimate; that this issue of superhero collateral damage erodes that legitimacy. And so he signs on, and agrees to sell this oversight committee–the Tribunal– to the other Avengers.

Again, it seems initially strange that Steve Rogers, super-American-military-hero, a product of American military culture, would be the one who rejects the Tribunal. But here’s the thing; he’s Captain America. He is, quite literally, the embodiment of American exceptionalism. And Americans don’t take direction from international bodies.

We just don’t. Sure, we conduct diplomacy, and we make treaties, and try to live up to our international obligations. But allow a foreign body to dictate what our soldiers do? Never.

I think I can make a case for the idea that Steve Rogers, once he realizes just what his abilities can allow him to do, decides that he and only he can be allowed to decide what and who he’ll fight for. He’s only going to be morally accountable to himself, to his own conscience. But I think I can also make a case for Captain America, superhero, representing America, the world’s only superpower. And Americans don’t allow other nations to tell us what to do militarily. And that means that he will not surrender his autonomy to an international Tribunal.

Thinking about this movie, I was reminded that last Saturday, Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed by an American strike drone, in Pakistan. Mansour was unquestionably a bad guy. Still, that’s the world we live in, one in which an Afghani political leader can be killed by Americans, in Pakistan, and we Americans applaud. And President Obama announced the killing with some grim satisfaction for a job well done. We’re Americans. We get to do that; kill people in other countries without any accountability or oversight from anyone official. I don’t doubt that President Obama, if he was in fact involved in the decision, did not make it lightly. Still, we are America. We are exceptional, and we are the one nation on earth for whom killing a foreign leader in a foreign country is considered legitimate by much if not most of the rest of the world.

This film should, I suppose, be applauded for putting a political science debate, about oversight and accountability and violence and warfare and the legitimacy of the use of force at the center of a comic book action movie. I do not applaud it, though, for, in my mind, so unquestioningly putting American exceptionalism at the center of that debate. We’re Americans. We get to kill bad guys living in other countries. No due process, no trial, our President just gets to decide to do that; kill guys we designate as terrorists (no doubt legitimately), as worth killing. Yay for us. This movie took one of the most thoughtful and interesting characters in the Marvel universe, Steve Rogers, Cap, and use him to articulate a case for American exceptionalism–not just for America as exceptionally moral, but America as exceptionally empowered. Captain America is the living embodiment of American values. And this is a movie where Cap rejects oversight, and is applauded for it by the subsequent events of the movie.

I do think that the screenplay is trying for greater nuance and complexity than my admittedly simplistic explication allows it. Early in the movie, we see the way Hydra (who pretty much has to represent International Terrorism) mistreated Bucky and also five other enhanced baddies. The main bad guy, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), looks like he’s about to free those five supergoons. I thought the movie was setting up a final confrontation between the Avengers and the five Hydra super-villains. But Zemo just kills them off, instead choosing to use Bucky to instigate a final fight between Iron Man and Captain America. That’s actually a more interesting dramatic choice than the obvious one–Avengers vs. Hydra Creations. I do think it’s a film that tries to deal with the contemporary and political complexities the creation of this oversight body suggest.

To me, though, the film fails,and to at least some degree ends up letting Cap off the hook. I’ll grant that it doesn’t quite go as triumphalist as I feared. No flag waving, no final pro-American jingoism. It still does, ultimately, defend American exceptionalism. Couldn’t it deconstruct our own tortured politics just that tiny bit more thoughtfully? Couldn’t we leave the theater feeling just that tiny bit more conflicted?

The Heavy Water War: TV review

If you’re looking for some terrific television to Netflix, I have a recommendation for you. It’s called various things: The Heavy Water War, The Saboteurs, Kampen om Tungtvannet. It’s a six part miniseries, which also happens to be the most popular television program in Norwegian broadcast history. It was recommended to us by a friend, and my wife and I decided to watch the first episode. We found it so compelling, we ended up bingeing the whole thing. It’s in several languages, so you’ll have to read a certain amount of subtitles, but I promise you, it’s worth your attention. We were completely riveted.

It’s about the Allied effort to destroy a Norwegian factory that was the main European source for heavy water: deuterium oxide. Heavy water was, in the 1940s, a significant element in nuclear energy research, including nuclear reactors attempting to produce isotopes to use in building nuclear weapons. In short, heavy water was needed by the German nuclear program. There was only one place they could get it from: Norway. And so, for the Allied forces, it became a matter of some urgency to prevent the Germans from getting it.

So the series cuts back and forth between essentially four locations. First, Ryukan, a small town in Norway, built by a waterfall, next door to the Vemork power station, where the heavy water was produced. We primarily focus on Axel Aubert (Stein Winge), an executive with Norsk Hydro, the power company that owned the factory. Aubert was in charge of the Vemork plant, tasked with increasing production–this was a lucrative contract for the company. But his wife, Ellen (Maibritt Saerens), desperately lonely, is also deeply concerned that his professional actions might constitute collaboration with the German enemy. Which is a fair thing for her to worry about. And of course, everyone there is under constant Gestapo scrutiny.

Second, cut to England, where a Norwegian scientist, Leif Tronstad, the man who designed the Vemork facility, puts together his Norwegian team of saboteurs. Their training is supervised by Major Julie Smith (Anna Friel), a tough-as-nails military planner, who, over time, finds herself falling in love with Tronstad, and he with her (though both are married to long-absent spouses). They never act on their mutual attraction, but that tension underlies their scenes together. Third, we follow two teams of Norwegian saboteurs, code-named Operation Grouse, and then, when that failed, a second group, called Operation Gunnerside. The Norwegians in Grouse were meant to parachute into the bleak Northern mountains, then rendezvous with a British team coming in with gliders. But the gliders malfunctioned, and the captured British commandos were executed by the Gestapo. The Grouse men were able to ski clear, but had no supplies, and had to survive in some of the most desolate terrain on earth. At one point, they find some moss, boil it up, and choke it down; that’s all there is, until a lucky kill of a reindeer. Eventually, they did meet up with their Gunnerside colleagues; their combined teams skiied in, blew up the Vemork plant, then skiied 300 kilometers east to safe haven in Sweden.

The fourth main story the series follows takes place in Germany, and follows Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), as he attempts to unlock the secrets of the atom, and built a nuclear reactor. And, of course, Heisenberg’s work on the German atomic program is one of the central enigmas of the whole history of science and politics.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to direct Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s wonderful play about Heisenberg and a meeting in Copenhagen between him and Niels Bohr in 1941. (There’s also a 2002 film version, starring Daniel Craig and Stephen Rea). Directing that play was one of the great experiences of my professional life. Of course, if there’s one word that popularly captures Heisenberg more than any other, it would be ‘uncertainty.’ Did he, prior to 1945, solve the mystery of how to build a bomb? If he had made such a discovery, would he have shared it with the Nazi authorities who were so ubiquitous in his lab?

For what it’s worth, The Heavy Water War does include a shorter version of the meeting with Bohr. The suggestion is that Heisenberg wanted Bohr to know (and to pass on to the Allies) the fact that he was, in fact, working on building a reactor. The series goes on to further suggest that at one point, Heisenberg did have the creative and intellectual breakthrough he needed to figure out how to build an atomic bomb. And that he erased it. Loyal and patriotic German though he was, Werner Heisenberg was also a decent and loving human being. Eventually he could not bring himself to give Adolf Hitler the bomb.

If this is the case, then the Allied efforts to destroy the heavy water factory were not necessary. But there’s no way they could have known it. Certainly, from an Allied perspective, if there was any possibility that the Germans might be on the way to completing an atomic bomb, and if preventing them from getting heavy water might forestall that possibility, then their actions had to one of the war’s highest priorities. Norwegians are immensely proud of the fact that it was Norwegian saboteurs who destroyed the Vemork plant, and who sank the ferry that was shipping the last of its heavy water to Germany. They should be proud. And the story of those two great operations, Grouse and Gunnerside, is a powerful one, beautifully told in this series.

But did they prevent the Germans from building (and subsequently deploying) a nuclear device? This series should be applauded for suggesting that no, we don’t know the answer to that question, but probably not. Probably Heisenberg either couldn’t build it, or, more likely, decided not to.

In any event, this series does a tremendous job of telling a powerful and important historical story. And it does not shy from certain central moral ambiguities. Even after Vemork blew, a ferry full of heavy water was shipped out from Ryukan. The Allies knew that ferry needed to be destroyed. It was a passenger ferry, and carried a number of civilians, including families with small children. Nineteen civilians died. Those deaths, Julie Smith argues, were military necessities. Yes. But she’s crying when she makes that argument; not quite convinced.

And yes, it’s a very good thing that Hitler never had the Bomb. And a good thing that the Allies did have it. Hitler would have deployed it, over a civilian target. As we Americans did, over a civilian target. As President Obama just reminded us, speaking in Hiroshima.

I’m not going to re-litigate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But we must mourn. Our hearts must be filled with compassion, with humility, with a profound sense of loss. Maybe, strategically, the decision was inevitable. But as President Obama reminded us, sixty million people died in World War II. And that war made little distinction between civilian and military targets. Every one of those losses, every single one, diminishes us. Every life was precious, every one beloved. Surely, at least, our response must be ‘never again.’