ISIS As The Old You

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ISIS Flag

Image via PRI.org.

A few weeks ago, a silly, overlong article made the rounds, angering quite a few people before the predictable quiet. No, it’s not the terrible, bigoted, poorly-researched piece it was said to be, but amidst all its details, the political suggestions (many of them quite solid), the REAL issue was still obscured, and Islam — a 1500 year-old phenomenon — was still left blurred by mystique. The problem is that Graeme Wood’s essay has everything you’ve come to expect of political backtalk: trite observations, vague yet over-the-hill fear-mongering (apparently, ISIS controls a region ‘larger than the United Kingdom’; much as, using similar logic, a band of sea-lions might control half of Antarctica), accusations re: American tolerance of such, and, of course, the requisite contradictions, such as when the author calls the group ‘dystopian’ in one breath and ‘medieval’ in the next. Yet despite the 10,000+ words spilled on the subject, the key to understanding ISIS is not to be found in a bulleted look at Islam, but somewhere in the past, wherein today’s bullshit tends to linger, if only so that it’s mistaken for something else — something harder to explain — tomorrow.

In other words, for all of the books on Islam, for all of the articles, the fear, the PoMo-level analysis on both sides, the beheadings, ISIS (and everything else like it) is little more than the old you. Now, just stop and think what this entails. There was a time, recall, when you — assuming you’re a white Christian in America — put on a stinky old vest, smeared your face with mud, recited a few nonsensical sermons, and still won your converts. This was when things were good. In more difficult times, you’d swap your vest for armor, find a horse, and lance a few skulls in Jerusalem. A century or two later, in Constantinople, you’d pillage, rape, and even destroy your Lord’s churches — for what’s a vow, really, when you know what’s best in your heart of hearts? And this was Christianity in power, at a time when amusements were at a minimum. There were no other outlets, and little else that could be called ‘purpose’. Sometimes there’d be war, and sometimes there was peace, but peace — you’d come to understand — was merely preparation. You never quite knew what for, exactly, but such is faith, and God’s love is narrow and stippled with requirements.

But perhaps you’re neither Christian, nor white. Let’s assume you’re, oh, I don’t know, a Chinese Buddhist. If lucky, you might have seen yourself in a Chinese king — Taizong, say — who felt the need to send his armies where they did not belong, partly for reasons of empire, and partly to help Buddhism as a kind of ‘charity’. Sure, you might have railed against superstition here or there, but given the nature of your era, you couldn’t help but replace one superstition with another, and even adopt that condescending smirk as … Continue reading →

BlueInk Review: Unprofessional, Dishonest, (A)pathetic

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BlueInk Review Scam[UPDATE 11/11/2015: I have just received a phone call from Patti Thorn, owner of BlueInk, indicating that she has refunded my money. She has apologized for the review, apologized for the way BlueInk handled my complaint, and admitted the review should have been handed over to another staff member and re-written. I am thankful for her honesty and willingness to admit error, even as I indicated that, out of fairness, I cannot take down this post, only amend it with this note. To BlueInk’s credit, they did not ask me to alter this article in any way, nor guilt, manipulate, or entice me with any promises.]

A couple of months ago, I submitted my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, to a popular pay-for-review site called BlueInk Review. Now, I knew the risks, for I’d seen the complaints against Kirkus and other ignoble book-review services; I smirked at BlueInk’s poor website design which accosts you with its ‘legitimacy’ as opposed to a sampling of good writing that can speak for itself; I saw the 300 word-limit rule for reviews, an obvious labor-saving measure dishonestly presented as some sort of charity to “busy readers” and “industry professionals”; the Google searches which turned up nothing — nothing — except de facto ads written by its own staff, rather than any real analysis of the service and its benefits; as well as the reality that most of the books they’d push as ‘good’ were actually selling fewer copies than my own — with many not having had a sale in months — despite Reel To Real getting almost no press upon release. This last fact, especially, alerted me to the true extent of BlueInk’s pull, for if I could make something out of nothing, purely on the strength of reputation, and personal outreach, what’s preventing BlueInk from forging their own reputations, and minting new ‘names’ as per their stated goals? At any rate, I didn’t have to wonder very long.

My review came back on time, but anonymously written. People, as a rule, do not wish to attach their names to garbage, and this was no exception. Jesus, I thought; where does one even begin? I mean, I had to proofread the thing, myself, pointing out obvious errors in everything from pagination (they printed out a 12-pt, Times New Roman MS Word document and counted that as the completed work, reducing the true page count by half!), to the odd misuse of universally-understood phrases, to the reviewer’s allusions to things that simply never occur in the book, to the fact that I was continuously quoted out of context to argue against ‘points’ I’d never made. Ridiculously, I was openly accused of everything from ad hominem to refusing to provide evidence for claims, despite that the book — this not an opinion, now — gives a scene-by-scene evaluation of many films, provides hundreds of references to 50+ years of Woody-related writing, and responds to dozens of critics virtually … Continue reading →

Review Of Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known”

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Errol Morris Donald Rumsfeld The Unknown KnownErrol Morris’s excellent 2013 film, The Unknown Known, will indubitably be compared to 2003’s The Fog Of War, and many — for reasons irrelevant to the films themselves — will not like this. They’ll point to how ‘slippery’ Donald Rumsfeld is, vis-a-vis Robert S. McNamara, and how difficult it was for Morris to tease out the answers that he (and his audience) wanted. They’ll point to the facade that Rumsfeld erects, and use that impenetrability as a means of keeping the film from greater company. And, of course, they’ll note that Rumsfeld’s charisma — at least here — and his well-placed pauses, the odd philosophical quips, the memorable phrasings, are quite at odds with the man’s total lack of integrity. In fact, they will probably hate him (and the film by proxy) for it, since Rumsfeld is unwilling to provide the sort of resolutions that they, as beings with moral biases, absolutely need. If un-exacted, there is a feeling that something is, for lack of a better phrase, not quite ‘whole’. And given that we’re dealing with a film — that is, a work of art — it’s all too easy to extrapolate this lack of ‘wholeness’ with an aesthetic one, for while The Fog Of War is clearly a superior film, it is superior for reasons almost 100% contrary to those typically given, even as both films are far more alike than not.

The short answer is that The Unknown Known does less with more, and while it is an error to merely expect answers from an art-work, the answers that Morris’s latest film provides are not only more tame (which is forgivable), but often limited to base political queries that have already been much dissected elsewhere, as opposed to Fog Of War’s more transcendent ones. In the earlier film, for instance, Errol Morris extrapolates “11 Lessons” from McNamara’s life, thus allowing the former Secretary Of Defense to opine on things beyond war or the details of some now-hazy political event. By contrast, The Unknown Known has a stellar first half — as good as anything Morris has ever done, really — with great poetic visuals, memorable little quips from Rumsfeld that get polished and inverted at the narrative unfolds, and a controlling metaphor that subtly posits his tens of thousands of internal memos as pointless, even duplicitous exercises forced upon the White House staff over many decades. The image of “snowflakes” (Rumsfeld’s affectionate term for these documents) only adds to this effect by twisting our normal associations with snow into something altogether different — sinister, even — as the film moves through wintry scenes. But while Fog Of War keeps this sort of thrust for the entirety of its 107 minutes, The Unknown Known’s second half devolves into a far more ‘informational’ film that, ironically, doesn’t offer any more information than we’ve already learned in the past decade, making its utter dependence upon context (as opposed to what’s on the screen) frustrating. Yes, … Continue reading →

Perils In Palacio: On R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder”

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R.J. Palacio Wonder

R.J. Palacio. Image via The Telegraph.

Near the end of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, an interesting — nay, emblematic — thing starts to happen. Just when Auggie, the book’s friendless, deformed, 5th-grade hero gets all the abuse that he could possibly stand, a mildness comes over the other children. Perhaps this is because Auggie finally stands up for himself. Perhaps it is because the popular girl befriends him, then ‘risks all’ to stand by him. Or perhaps it is something altogether stranger, less definable, in the way that a mob might rise and go despite still suckling at their accumulated aims. Yet none of this matters, really, for Auggie gets friends, a possible romantic interest, and even receives the school’s most prestigious award for — well, for survival, I guess, despite not doing much to earn it. He gets, in short, the sort of rich fantasy life that every bullied ‘loser’ must on some level entertain. The only difference, here, is that nothing is imagined, for there are just too many hands (of adults, kids, God) laying it all out on a platter.

Now, I’ve wondered how this could be; how a children’s book that purports to teach kids about life prepares them for nothing but its bowdlerization. There are, I suppose, many answers to this, but the short one is that condescension, for all intents and purposes, is dead. No one cares to talk ‘up’ to anyone, for everyone, we are reminded, is corralled into ghettos of both mind and place. No one really understands dilution (of compliments, emotion), for what was once an end, and very much ‘the’ end, is now a means to something vaguely therapeutic. No one wants to hear of inborn talent unless it is doled out and democratized for all. Yes, this is pure condescension — all of it — but when few care about the word and how it applies to things, when it ceases to be something that is feared, defended against, rebuked — then it is dead, for it has entered into the body as an autonomic impulse rather than a choice.

Of course, Palacio’s badly written, badly edited, tin-eared, and poorly thought-out book is not the problem. The real problem is that someone decided to bring this book into schools, and schools, always so very sensitive to trends, decided to teach it, and teachers, wanting to believe the best of their kids, simply bought it, and kids, being kids, nodded their heads at the book’s various ‘lessons,’ and went back to a far more bitter reality — often with glee. In fact, Wonder’s peculiar brand of irreality has been making inroads for decades, now, as people were slowly brought in from the margins (into schools, jobs, relationships) and, lacking skills or any way to make their worth tangible to the real world, they were simplified rather than dealt with, to the point that our innate differences were quietly erased. In this arrangement, human nature … Continue reading →

When Google Met WikiLeaks: Julian Assange & The Making Of A Live-Long Pattern

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When Google Met WikiLeaks Julian Assange

Image via WikiLeaks.

Some time ago — oh, say, on the order of 40,000 years — a few tribesmen shored onto New Guinea, and were puzzled to find the place quite empty. Sun, highlands, and the moon’s egress, mid-day and night; things, all, no doubt, big things, even, but without the confluence of people to make it real. In short, the tribesmen were too used to activity, not quiet, analyzing others’ body language and being analyzed in turn, at every turn, for everything was violence and negotiation for as long as they could remember. Yet they were only a few families, still, with an immediate environment that was quite easy to control. So, they’d let the generations pass, until, one day, they woke up to clamor.

It wasn’t war, exactly. It was, in fact, mere over-crowdedness, and each person — not used to crowds after all these years of re-adapting — could no longer sense what the other was thinking. In time, something big will happen, something new, wherein people could finally organize themselves, find new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking, and open long-closed doors to productivity. Except there will be one problem: not everyone’s on board. And, whenever there are folks on the margins, there’s always the threat (or so the thinking goes) of a new and better, perhaps endless order.

No, I can’t know these things, as facts, but I know (or think I know) people, and the ruts they inevitably fall to. Thus, in reading Julian Assange’s When Google Met WikiLeaks, on Google’s Eric Schmidt’s meeting with Assange in 2011, I was reminded of the above precepts. They are not, to be sure, value judgments per se, but simply an admission that as the world grows more complex, the human tendency is fear, and that fear leads to paranoia, and paranoia leads to irrational and presumptive behavior — Assange’s real critique of government secrecy, both in the book and elsewhere, whether or not he realizes this, for the issue is not so much the desire to pry data, or hide bad behavior (human constants, all), but the particulars of this arrangement, and especially when the balance starts to favor the powerful.

In fact, as I’ve argued elsewhere, far too much has been made of, say, the legality of Edward Snowden’s leaks, despite the fact that pure legalism is a rustic way of viewing far deeper ethical dilemmas. I mean, just think of it: Jim Crow was a legal fact once. So is Monsanto’s bio-piracy, and bank policies that — unless immediately curtailed — will lead to financial chaos once more. Such things are outside of the scope of ethics, however, for when they’re ensconced in mere legalese, as pundits and laypeople so often do, they refer strictly to contracts: what people agree to do or not do, NOT the immanent justice of such contracts, which is the deeper and more relevant discussion.

Eric Schmidt Julian Assange When Google Met WikiLeaks

Eric Schmidt: “‘If you have something that you

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