mardi 19 janvier 2016

The P.C. Casting Call

From Shakespeare to James Bond to Nancy Drew, non-traditional casting choices in the film and stage worlds are in the news lately. Producers seem eager to play with the traditional gender and ethnicity of white and/or male characters – unfortunately not so much to further an artistic vision as to push for politically correct gender and racial equality. Here’s why that is wrongheaded.
Take Emma Rice, for example. Rice is the newest artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, and she is troubled by the facts that only 16% of Shakespeare’s characters are women and most of the memorable lines are spoken by men. She is on a mission to get “a much greater proportion of women on the stage” at the Globe. “[Y]es, it is a target,” she declares. “How can we get the female voices through? How can we change the mold?”
Rice quotes actress Geena Davis, who has said that the way to get more women acting in film and TV is for directors simply to “change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names.” But this is not what Rice is aiming for. Davis is suggesting writing more female characters into leading roles that ordinarily would go to male characters; Rice wants to cast existing male characters with actresses.
For example, “[t]here is no reason why [the Earl of] Gloucester can’t be a woman,” said Rice, who admits to being no Shakespeare expert, having directed only one of his plays and having read only a few others. “If anybody bended [sic] gender it was Shakespeare, so I think it just takes a change of mindset.”
But there already have been examples of such gender-bending casting in recent Shakespearean adaptations, with all-female casts and a female Hamlet, for example. None of it elevates the plays above the level of a self-conscious casting stunt. None of it really “changes the mindset” of the audience.
Similar efforts are being made in Hollywood, where TV producers who are adapting the popular Nancy Drew novels into a TV series want to reimagine the teen sleuth as a woman in her 30s and “any ethnicity but white.” CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller told The Hollywood Reporter that, for Nancy Drew and other series in development, “We’re not casting color-blind, we’re casting color-conscious.” But color-blindness should be the goal; color-consciousness is by definition racism.
As another example, there has been a recent surge of interest in casting the extraordinarily talented Idris Elba, a black actor, as James Bond now that the term of the iconic spy’s current incarnation, Daniel Craig, is drawing to a close. And why not? After all, Bond – like Nancy Drew – is a fictional character, not a real-life historical figure, so why can’t there be a black Bond, many ask? Or a gay Bond, for that matter, or Latino, or Muslim, or even female? Wouldn’t that be a huge leap forward for gender and racial equality?
No, and here’s why not: first, James Bond is not black or gay or Latino or Muslim, and I believe in maintaining the integrity of even fictional characters in their universe. More importantly, if the aim is gender- and color-blindness, then the only solution is to find a hitherto unknown literary character or create an all-new fictional character who is the equivalent to Bond, and who simply happens to be black (or gay, Asian, etc.).
All of the politically-driven efforts to replace existing white or male characters with non-whites or females are merely gimmicks and quota-filling, and they don’t ultimately serve the purpose of racial or gender equality in entertainment. Idris Elba playing Bond is still just a black Bond; what’s better is an original black superspy character as an alternative to Bond. A female lead in Hamletcomes off as just a marketing ploy; what’s more effective is a brilliant play that elevates a female protagonist to the culturally iconic level of a Hamlet. A 30-year-old Asian or Latina Nancy Drew is no longer the Nancy Drew of the novels; why not find or create a new equivalent? Again, gimmicks and quotas will not “change the mindset” and achieve real equality; original fictional creations will.
Of course, notoriously risk-averse Hollywood’s chief reason for rejecting that solution is economic: famous fictional characters are proven properties with very valuable name recognition and built-in audiences. But here is an example of a step in the right direction: the producers of the thriller series 24, featuring anti-terrorist scourge Jack Bauer, are rebooting the show with a black actor in the lead. The key is that the actor will not be playing a black Bauer; the producers are simply starting from scratch with a new hero, who happens to be black.
Granted, what I’m recommending requires taking a chance on creativity. It requires writers who can invent memorable characters that grab the cultural imagination and stand the test of time like Hamlet, James Bond, and Nancy Drew. That is no mean feat. But as long as the so-called creatives in the entertainment industry are fixated on simply plugging different ethnicities and genders into existing characters, their attempts to force more inclusion will never rise above politically correct gimmicks.
From Acculturated, 1/18/16

Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq’ Tells Black Community to ‘Wake Up’

From the opening image of Spike Lee’s new movie Chi-Raq – a red, white, and blue map of the United States composed entirely of the silhouettes of a variety of guns – it is clear that the filmmaker intends to take on the volatile issue of blacks and gun violence in war-torn Chicago, nicknamed Chi-Raq by its black inhabitants after the Middle Eastern war zone. Lee has a habit of provoking racial controversy, and that is no less true of this darkly humorous satire (“nota comedy,” he insists) set in the murder capital of the United States. True to the director’s form, Chi-Raq provokes and dissatisfies those on both sides of the debate.
Spike Lee has attacked both white and black fellow filmmakers in the past for reasons related to race. As noted in his profile at the Freedom Center’s Discover the Networks resource site, Lee excoriated Tyler Perry for the stereotyped depictions of black characters in his hugely popular comedies, and Woody Allen for not featuring enough black characters in his movies set in Manhattan. From his perspective that racism is deeply entrenched in American culture, the enormously wealthy Lee has railed against such issues as interracial couples, Charlton Heston and the NRA, NASCAR, the war in Iraq, the shooting of Michael Brown, and the gentrification of New York. He suspects the government of having engineered the AIDS epidemic and the Hurricane Katrina disaster. He has supported Barack Obama and convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. He has stated that blacks can’t be racist, because they don’t have the political power to impose racism.
But interestingly, Chi-Raq doesn’t take an entirely expected position about blacks and gun violence. Lee could have made a movie about a white cop shooting an unarmed black man, which is the supposed epidemic ravaging the black American community; instead, he made a film that lays the responsibility for the high rate of black deaths annually from gun violence largely on the black community itself. Unlike the Black Lives Matter movement, Lee is willing to face the harsh reality of young black males perpetrating violence against other blacks.
That message didn’t go over well with many blacks. The film’s trailer alone, featuring some comedic moments that some took as making light of the topic, was enough to cause a backlash against Lee. Grammy-award winning rapper Rhymefest even demanded that the director issue an apology to the city of Chicago.
The template for the movie’s style is classical Greek theater – more specifically, Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, in which the titular heroine attempted to force an end to the Peloponnesian War by persuading the women of Greece to withhold sex from their men until those warriors lay down their arms. Lee’s protagonist is also named Lysistrata, and the script is even written mostly in verse and utilizes the ancient Greek technique of a chorus that provides background information and commentary – here in the form of a scene-stealing Samuel L. Jackson.
In Chi-Raq, Lysistrata is the girlfriend of up-and-coming rapper and gangbanger Chi-Raq of the Spartan gang, which is waging a turf war against the Trojans (another nod to the story’s ancient Greek roots). After a black child dies in the street from a stray bullet fired by Chi-Raq, Lysistrata decides to do something about the perpetual violence. Inspired by video footage of the activist Leymah Gbowee’s sex strike in Liberia, Lysistrata decides to organize all the women from both gangs to dedicate themselves to “total abstinence from knockin’ the boots” until the men give up their guns and cease the endless killing.
“Everybody here got a man in the orange and purple colors, banging and slanging, fightin’ for the flag / riskin’ that long zip of the cadaver bag,” she implores the Trojan women.
“It’s how we live,” argues one.
“It’s how we die,” Lysistrata counters. “You wanna lose your man to a driveby?”
Uniting behind the slogan, “No peace, no pussy,” the women lock it up and leave their macho men high and dry. The community impact is immediate and dramatic: “Even the hoes are no-shows,” one man complains, and the local strip club owner laments that “This famine affects the lower regions, where all you young Trojans do most of your thinkin’.”
Noted lefty actor John Cusack plays Father Mike Corridan, a clear representation of real-life radical leftist Chicago priest Father Michael Pfleger, who is a longtime friend and supporter of Barrack Obama, Jeremiah Wright, and Louis Farrakhan. Cusack’s character delivers a fiery sermon to a packed African-American church mourning the death of another child, in which he pushes the predictable leftist line: children die because politicians are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association; gun shows provide buyers a loophole to avoid gun control laws; crime will end when young blacks are guaranteed jobs (“and I don’t mean at minimum wage!”); Jesus was a social justice warrior (“He rolled with the poor”).
Meanwhile, in the film’s least bombastic and most effective plea for blacks to take charge of ending the culture of violence, a young gangbanger crippled for life by a bullet tells the stubborn Chi-Raq that the thug life is no life at all: “This ain’t livin’. This ain’t life. We gotta do somethin’ different, bro.”
Lysistrata’s movement quickly goes national, then international, as women from places as far-flung as India and Brazil get behind the “No peace, no pussy” commitment. Back home, her next step is to seize the Chicago Armory (under the command, bizarrely, of a caricatured, openly racist, Southern white general whose office is adorned with a huge Confederate flag). This prompts the riot police and even the Army to step in for a standoff. The police commissioner, a black man, argues with Lysistrata that thuggish behavior isn’t winning her side any sympathy. She finishes with a pro-Black Lives Matter speech and expresses contempt for “you and your Ben Carson sort.”
In “Spike Lee's Troublesome Chi-Raq Does Not Have the Answers,” a reviewer at the radical feminist site Jezebel called complains that the director muddied his message by incorporating “too many” points of view – by which she probably means anything other than the Black Lives Matter perspective. She resents that he puts “a large onus on black people to, in Lee’s words, ‘Wake up’ and search inward.” She’s frustrated that he said in an interview, “We cannot be out there [protesting] and then when it comes to young brothers killing themselves, then mum’s the word… You can’t ignore that we are killing ourselves, too.” Who exactly is ignoring it? the reviewer wonders.
Who is ignoring it? Too many young blacks. Chicago in 2016 is well on its way to setting a record pace for gun violence: in the first eleven days of the year, at least 120 victims have been either killed or wounded by gunfire, mostly from gang rivalries. Lee couldn’t have predicted that the timing of his movie (it opened in limited release in December) would be so tragically perfect.

dimanche 10 janvier 2016

Is Gratitude Selfish?

As parents tasked with civilizing three very young children, my wife and I make a daily effort to instill in them an abiding sense of gratitude. We consider it a virtue critical to fashioning their character, particularly as 21st century middle-class Americans, who are more materially blessed than probably 99% of all humans who have ever lived. My wife and I want our kids never to take that for granted, especially amid the material frenzy of the Christmas holiday.
Thus I found it strange that Barbara Ehrenreich rang in the new year with a New York Times opinion piece recently in which she actually complained that the holidays reeked inescapably of thankfulness, and that it signaled an “onanistic” degree of self-centeredness.
In “The Selfish Side of Gratitude,” the author of such bestselling social studies as Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream acknowledges that “[i]t’s good to express our thanks, of course, to those who deserve recognition.” Gratitude is at least somewhat “prosocial,” she concedes, in the sense that “[y]ou have to be grateful to someone, who could be an invisible God, but might as well be a friend, mentor or family member.”
But Ehrenreich laments that the self-improvement industry has warped this potentiality into something “all about you, and how you can feel better.” “Gratitude gurus” like Oprah Winfrey and other motivational figures have hyped the physical and spiritual benefits of expressing gratitude, such as a stronger immune system, increased joy, and boosted self-esteem, all of which has been legitimized by scientific researchers like Martin Seligman, “the father of positive psychology.”
The result is that the emphasis has shifted from gratitude as “the moral memory of mankind” to gratitude as “a surefire ticket to happiness and even better health,” as Ehrenreich puts it. She finds this inward development contemptible:
All you have to do is to generate, within yourself, the good feelings associated with gratitude, and then bask in its warm, comforting glow. If there is any loving involved in this, it is self-love, and the current hoopla around gratitude is a celebration of onanism.
Wow. Granted, there is a danger of excess in this rise of gratitude to “self-help celebrity status,” and she may have a point with such examples as the Harvard Mental Health Letter suggesting you “thank someone mentally,” or the CNN yoga instructor encouraging students to write in “gratitude journals.” But it’s an overreaction to get worked up over such seemingly narcissistic techniques which nevertheless can foster a deeper sense of gratitude, and it’s hard to see how a happier, healthier, more self-aware, and more altruistic society is a bad thing.
Ehrenreich’s contempt stems from her passion for social justice. For her, “[s]aying grace to an abstract God is an evasion”; gratitude is wasted on an invisible God and should be reserved for the “whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible”: “Who picked the lettuce in the fields, processed the standing rib roast, drove these products to the stores, stacked them on the supermarket shelves and, of course, prepared them and brought them to the table?”
Her version of meaningful gratitude is social justice “solidarity” – by which she means actively supporting economic equality to bridge “the wealth gap” in “our divided society.” We need, she asserts, “a more vigorous and inclusive sort of gratitude than what is being urged on us now” – in other words, less spiritually and psychologically transformative, more outwardly engaged in class warfare.
She cites the theoretical example of a lowly Walmart employee who gets a raise, and asks if that employee should “be grateful to the Waltons, who are the richest family in America?” For Ehrenreich, the employee grateful for a steady job and a raise is a “chump” as long as the family that employs him and is wealthy. Well then, at what point should the employee feel gratitude? How much of the Walton family wealth should be divvied up among their over 2 million employees worldwide before Ehrenreich believes gratitude is appropriate?
One gets the feeling that Ehrenreich believes that until economic parity is fully achieved, gratitude to God and man is for chumps. But thankfulness is about acknowledging our blessings, not coveting the blessings of others. It is about personal humility, not societal equality; contentment, not resentment. This is by no means to say that we should not strive to better the material lives of all, only that gratitude is not entirely dependent on our material circumstances.
Yes, of course gratitude is, as Ehrenreich notes, to some degree “prosocial.” Yes, of course it should result, whenever appropriate and possible, in a repayment of debt to others, or an act of paying it forward. But by diminishing the meaningful spiritual and psychological dimensions of gratitude, and reducing it to a measure of social justice, Ehrenreich is distorting and devaluing it as much as the self-help gurus.
From Acculturated, 1/8/16

lundi 4 janvier 2016

Children of Monsters

Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators by Jay Nordlinger, offers a fascinating and unusual question for consideration: “What is it like to be the son or daughter of a dictator?” And not just any old authoritarian, but the worst of the worst? “You have to be very bad indeed – drenched in blood,” Nordlinger writes, “to qualify for my book. Sorry to be ghoulish about it, but body count mattered.”
Nordlinger, a senior editor of National Review, music critic for The New Criterion, and author of Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, presents sketches of the children of 20 dictators who reigned in the 20thcentury and into the 21st. The rogues’ gallery features Stalin, Mussolini, Castro, Kim, Duvalier, Qaddafi, Khomeini, Amin, Pol Pot and others, as well as a few whose infamy did not quite reach household name status: the Albanian Communist Enver Hoxha, for example, and the Ethiopian Mengistu, known as “the Stalin of Africa.”
The book even includes a chapter on a “son” of Hitler, even though Hitler had no children, technically speaking. But a French woman claimed that during World War I she and the 28-year-old soldier Hitler conceived a child who grew up unaware of his father’s identity. Historians doubt the truth of her claim, but her Hitler-lookalike son apparently never did; upon learning the identity of his notorious father after the Fuhrer’s suicide, he proudly embraced his supposed heritage and even sported the iconic Hitler mustache.
The offspring of these monsters were dealt a very unusual hand in life, to put it mildly, and they responded to that challenge in various ways. Some admired their totalitarian fathers; some even succeeded them, as in Syria, Haiti, and North Korea. A few comparatively normal children went their own way; some tried to distance themselves from the bloody legacy bequeathed them, and some even disowned and actively resisted their fathers.
The promiscuous Italian fascist Benito Mussolini had five children, officially speaking; as with some of the other tyrants in the book, the unofficial count of his children is unknown (Bokassa, president-for-life of the Central African Republic, reportedly had hundreds, as did North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung). Il Duce adored his firstborn daughter Edda, and she him: “I have always loved and admired my father more than anyone else in the world,” she once wrote. Until, that is, her husband participated in an attempted power play against Mussolini. Despite her passionate pleas, Edda’s father had the perceived traitor executed, and Edda renounced her father and even the Mussolini name. The whole operatic tragedy was devastating for both; Mussolini never got over it. In her memoir decades later, however, Edda seemed to have relented, making excuse after excuse for her father.
Others had less complex, less conflicted relationships with their fathers, like Pol Pot’s daughter and Ceausescu’s son, who revered their father but lived relatively normal, blameless lives within the dictatorial orbit. Some openly rejected their fathers’ evil: a daughter of Ceausescu said that she considered her last name a “dirty word”; Qaddafi’s son Saif, one of eight children, so embraced Westernization and liberal values that the New York Times called him the “un-Qaddafi” – until the Arab Spring threatened his father and Saif returned to defend him and the regime “to the last bullet.”
Other children of tyrants didn’t fall from far from the tree, if at all. Kim Il-Sung from North Korea, the “psychotic state” (as Jeanne Kirkpatrick called it), had six legitimate children. Among them, basketball fanatic Kim Jong-Il rose to succeed his father in 1994, and his successor, the current Dear Leader, is of course Kim Jong-Un, also a basketball nut. All three men ruthlessly murdered family members and any other inconvenient people when necessary. Jong-Il, for example, had a child with a mistress; to keep the affair an absolute secret, he had all of her friends sent to a concentration camp, where almost none survived.
In another example of filial succession, Haiti’s Baby Doc Duvalier, at nineteen the youngest national leader in the world, perpetuated his father’s cruel reign of terror until being forced into exile. Afterward he deluded himself that he was no dictator but a beloved president burdened with his father’s legacy. “I have absolutely no sense of guilt, no reproach whatsoever to myself,” he declared in a Barbara Walters interview. Referring to himself in the third person, like Caesar, he complained that “It’s crazy how Baby Doc has to pay for his father Papa Doc’s reputation.”
Nordlinger notes that denialism is common to these offspring of dictators, perhaps a necessary coping mechanism. Surrounded by a core of supporters and collaborators into their adulthood, many of them remembered their childhood, their fathers, and the regimes the way they needed to in order to justify it to themselves. Many now are dead, of course, and most of the living were reluctant to open up about their experiences to the writer of a book which labels their fathers “dictators.” Some, however, were forthcoming with Nordlinger, like one of the sons of Uganda’s Idi “Big Daddy” Amin; some, like Alina Fernandez, one of Castro’s daughters, have written blisteringly honest memoirs.
As for what the tyrants themselves have in common, Nordlinger points out that, “consumed by their colossal egos and busy smothering a country,” they were largely indifferent fathers who barely knew their children, with a couple of surprise exceptions like Amin and the Japanese emperor Tojo.
Nordlinger rounds out this psychological study by musing upon who were the best and worst of the fathers and the children. Franco wins Best Father, no doubt because he was “a picture of normality by comparison to the others,” while China’s Chairman Mao “stands out in his utter lack of human feeling” toward his ten offspring. Among the children, Nordlinger understandably favors the “defectors” such as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (“My father would have shot me for what I have done’), and it probably will come as no surprise that the monstrous Uday Hussein ranks at the bottom alongside other cruel successors such as Kim Jong-Il.
“We are not the sons and daughters of dictators, you and I,” Jay Nordlinger concludes, and Children of Monsters is a sobering, albeit relentlessly fascinating and entertaining, reminder of our good fortune.
From Frontpage Mag, 12/30/15

The Community Cost of NOT Reading ‘Huck Finn’

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported recently that school administrators at a Quaker school in Pennsylvania removed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum to placate students who complained that racial elements in the book made them feel uncomfortable. The administrators concluded that the “costs” to the community of assigning the book outweighed its literary value. On the contrary, by coddling the students and declaring literature less important than their sensitivity, the school did both the students and the community a serious disservice. 
Published in 1885 with the Civil War still in living memory, Mark Twain’s classic novel about a white boy traveling down the Mississippi River with an escaped slave remains one of our nation’s most controversial books even 130 years later. It was the 14th most “challenged” book in the country during the 2000s, according to the American Library Association, and it still faces occasional bans and boycotts in schools due to its notorious abundance of N-words and politically incorrect depictions of black characters.
In 2011, in a well-meaning attempt to soften the book’s tone for a modern audience, a publisher released an edition of Huck Finn with all 219 instances of the racial slur replaced by the word “slave,” a pale synonym that guts Twain’s original language and lacks the abhorrent impact of the N-word (as does the euphemism “N-word” itself).
But students (and adults too, for that matter) deserve the unvarnished reality of art, not a revisionist attempt to sand down its rough edges. After all, we don’t drape the nude loins of Michelangelo’s David with Hanes boxers just because the sight of the statue’s penis might make some tourists feel awkward.
The administrators of the aforementioned Friends’ Central School in Pennsylvania apparently feel otherwise. Some students complained that by foisting Huck Finnonto them, the school was not being inclusive of those who might be “triggered” by a story about slavery with the N-word sprinkled liberally throughout. After holding a forum for students and faculty, administrators decided to pull the book from the 11th-grade American literature class. Principal Art Hall declared in a letter to parents that the book will remain in the school library, but its place on the reading list will be given over to The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The autobiography of a black man who rose above slavery to become a social reformer and statesman is certainly a worthwhile read, but so is Twain’s novel – perhaps all the more so because its controversial nature deserves to be confronted and explored, not swept under the carpet.
“We have all come to the conclusion that the community costs of reading this book in 11th grade outweigh the literary benefits,” Hall explained in his letter. What a disappointing conclusion. Principal Hall seems to believe, as many today do, that students – indeed, whole “communities” – must be protected from the emotional discomfort that art and/or history sometimes provokes. He seems to be saying that the study of any work of literature that runs against the grain of acceptable (i.e., politically correct) positions on socially sensitive issues should be avoided to prevent community discord.
Thanks to the divisive rise of identity politics, racial and gender sensitivity on our high school and college campuses has been ratcheted up to a tragicomic degree. Teachers and administrators now tiptoe through a minefield of microaggressions, while hyper-sensitive students aggressively demand that educational institutions be remade into “safe homes.” Feelings are more valued than education or even the freedom of speech; protecting students from offense has become more important than preparing them for the world beyond the bubble of their safe space.
Hall declared that the decision would empower his students, and was proud of the school’s sensitivity to their concerns: “I do not believe that we're censoring. I really do believe that this is an opportunity for the school to step forward and listen to the students,” he said.
You don’t empower students by coddling them from historical reality and sheltering them from works of art that might cause emotional discomfort or challenge the students’ worldview. Nor is it a good idea for educators to cede their authority to anti-intellectual students who then will simply expect, if not demand, to be granted more accommodations whenever a book or subject “offends” them – in other words, whenever they disagree with it.
The proper attitude is demonstrated by Jim Miller, an English teacher and dean at another local school, who said, “We don’t shy away from teaching [the book]. We see it as a very important opportunity to educate kids further about the use of language, especially the use of the N-word.” Miller said that the English classes teaching Huck Finn encourage students to think critically about history and language – and that is as it should be.
The benefits of literature absolutely do outweigh “the community costs” of reading it. Studies show that reading literary fiction encourages creativity and individualism, fosters critical thinking (as Principal Miller noted), expands an understanding of the past and the present, and even makes people more empathetic. Rejecting that to protect students’ feelings means a generation of students who are emotionally stunted, close-minded, insular, conformist, and uneducated, among whom individuality is feared, suppressed and subordinated to a mob mentality. That’s the real community cost.
From Acculturated, 12/31/15