Film talk-3: The film ratings mystery

In watching Oh! Calcutta!, I started thinking about the effect on film quality of the abundance of sex, nudity, profanity, and violence in films that are released these days. I personally find violence the most distasteful of all of these things and will avoid films that are advertised to have excessive amounts of it. When judging a film, the question for me is always whether these elements are essential to the film or, if not and are just added to attract audiences, the film would still be worth watching without those elements, or at least a substantial part of them. A good judge of whether this is the case is what I remember about a film long after I have seen it. If I find it hard to remember if there was any sex or nudity or violence or profanity, it means that the film stands on its own.

This is one reason that I will not see another Quentin Tarantino film. Although Pulp Fiction was hailed by many as a masterpiece (which is why I watched it), all I can remember about it is the over-the-top gratuitous violence and profanity, and copious use of the n-word. That is reputed to be his trademark and it is enough for me to swear off watching any more of his output.

The ratings system also baffles me somewhat. I remember seeing a little gem of a film called The Castle, which had an R rating. This film is an absolutely delightful little low-budget comedy with an almost completely unknown cast from Australia. It features a slow-witted but earnest family that finds surprise and enjoyment in what the rest of us would consider mundane. They own a house right by the Melbourne airport, with the runway ending just across their garden fence. Unlike most people, this family sees this as a very desirable feature because they enjoy seeing planes taking off and landing and can walk to the airport when they need to take a flight or meet someone. When the airport wants to expand, they try to resist having their home taken by the state and that struggle forms the basis of the film.

So why did this film rate an R? There is absolutely no sex, nudity, or violence. As far as I can see, the only reason is because three times in the film, characters use the f-word. But even then they do not use it gratuitously or offensively out of anger, but out of frustration like when the photocopier gets jammed at a critical moment. This is exactly the kind of situation when most people swear, so it was perfectly understandable use. One character even apologizes for using it when he realizes that an elderly female neighbor is present. And yet this wonderful film gets the same rating as Pulp Fiction, which seems to glory in violence and profanity just for its own sake. It hardly seems fair. The Castle is a great film for family viewing but many people won’t watch it because of the rating.

I am looking forward to seeing on DVD the documentary This film is not yet rated, which is an expose of the secretive group that rates films in the US and the mysterious criteria used by them to classify films.

One of my other peeves about films deals with the way they begin. I notice when watching very old films how briskly they run through the opening credits, which is something I appreciate. In the old films from the1940s like Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, the film begins with the opening credits which are quickly got out of the way in about a minute with just the main people (actors, producer, director, screenwriter, music director, cinematographer) listed, leaving the more detailed credits to the end. And even then, the number of people are far fewer than nowadays. This is one of my favorite things about old films, the fact that they get down to the business of telling the story so quickly and without fuss and pretentiousness.

In the 1960s with films like Fail Safe, they sometimes had a brief opening sequence before going to the quick credits and then getting back to the film proper. This is fine too.

What I can’t stand nowadays are those films that drag out the opening credits interminably, interspersing each and every name (and there are many more names now) with a brief segment of the film, so that it seems as if by the time the director’s name mercifully comes on, we might be ten minutes into the film. I find this annoying and distracting and wish film makers would stop this practice.

On the other hand, there are some modern films that have no opening credits at all or just the title of the film, leaving all the credits to the end. I think that both the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series were like this. You might think I would prefer this, but I don’t. The reason is that I tend to remember actors’ faces and find it distracting when I see a character appear onscreen whom I know I have seen before somewhere and cannot remember the name. When I read the opening credits for actors and see a familiar name, that prepares me for when the actor appears and thus don’t get distracted trying to remember what his or her name is or previous films were.

Sometimes the opening credits are like a short film in its own right and this can work, especially for comedies. For example, the Pink Panther or the Ice Age series opening animations are like cartoon shorts, and that’s fine. My complaint is with what appears to be opening credits run amok, serving no purpose than to draw attention to the person creating the credits. The opening credits in Monty Python and the Holy Grail are a wonderful spoof of this mentality, where the credits creator inserts text about his sister being bitten by a moose, and gets fired.

I realize that not everyone will share my pet peeves but here is my appeal to film makers: Stop with the long and elaborate opening credit sequences that do not really add value to the film and get the main names out of the way as soon as possible. Thank you.

POST SCRIPT: Documentary on the dialogue about terrorism

What promises to be an intriguing documentary titled What is said about. . .Arabs and Terrorism is going to be shown in two parts on successive days at two different locations in Cleveland. Director Bassam Haddad will be available to answer questions after both screenings, which are free and open to the public.

Part I: Tuesday February 6th at 6:00pm in the Dively Community Seminar Room, Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, UR 112,Cleveland State University, 1717 Euclid Avenue.

Part II: Wednesday February 7th at 5:00pm
in Strosacker Auditorium, Case Western Reserve University, 2125 Adelbert Road.

Sponsoring organizations:

Case Western Reserve University: Center for Policy Studies, Share the Vision Committee, Case Democrats, Middle East Cultural Association, Muslim Student Association, Undergraduate Student Government,

Cleveland State University: Cultural Crossing, Dean of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences, Middle Eastern Studies Minor Program.

For more information, see the website for the film or contact Dr. Neda A. Zawahri 216-687-4544 or Dr. Pete Moore 216-368-5265.

Film talk-2: Beatty, Hitchcock, and Oh! Calcutta!

I have been using the Case film library to catch up on some old films that I had always meant to see but missed when they first came out, either because they were made before I was born or because they did not make it to Sri Lanka.

I saw two Warren Beatty films, the comedy Shampoo (1975) where he plays a Beverly Hills hairdresser who sleeps with all his clients, and the drama Reds (1981), based on the life of a radical and idealistic American journalist John Reed, whose eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution was told in the book Ten Days that Shook the World.

I like Warren Beatty and find his films always enjoyable, but as I watched these two older films it struck me that although the settings and stories of his films differ considerably, he is always pretty much playing the same character, an appealing and well-meaning person who is never quite in control of his own life’s direction but instead is buffeted by the events and people around him. This is true whether he is playing a gangster in the drama Bonnie and Clyde (1967), an old West entrepreneur in the drama McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), a football quarterback in the comedy Heaven Can Wait, a disillusioned politician in the comedy Bulworth (1998), a hairdresser in Shampoo, or a World War I-era radical journalist in Reds.

Perhaps he stepped outside these characterizations in the films I have not seen but since these are his best-known films, his cinematic persona seems pretty much set. Of all these films, Heaven Can Wait is my favorite, a very good comedy that has, as a bonus, a fine turn by one of the great actors, James Mason.

I also watched the Alfred Hitchcock film Foreign Correspondent (1940). Although I am a fan of Hitchcock and have seen nearly all of his directorial works, I did not think this one of his better films. It may be that I am not a fan of overtly propagandistic films and this film had elements of that. It was filmed in 1940, after World War II had started in Europe and prior to the US entering it. The film clearly aimed at getting Americans to be more alarmed about the state of affairs in Europe but the way it did this was a little too ham-handed. The opening scene which is a paean to the work of foreign correspondents and the closing scene in which the correspondent in London appeals to Americans for action while the lights around him go dark because of the bombing, were both too obvious for my taste. And even the closing credits just after that scene had the Star-Spangled Banner as the soundtrack.

There is nothing wrong with art having a political message and one could argue that all art is political. In fact, I like political films a lot and have already written about my enjoyment of The Manchurian Candidate (the original one, not the ghastly remake) and V for Vendetta. Reds is another political film that I found quite enjoyable,

But the problem I had with Foreign Correspondent is that the politics is not well done. To be fair, though, it was only at the very end that Hitchcock got preachy but that was enough to leave a sour aftertaste.

The final film I watched recently in my old-films binge was Oh! Calcutta! (1972). This was a filmed version of a musical comedy sketch revue that featured a lot of nudity and sexual content and created a sensation when it was first staged in the late 60s. Of course, such plays and films would never be shown in Sri Lanka, which created a great sense of curiosity there about it, so I finally decided to see it.

The film is awful. I found the music uninspiring (even though the credits included John Lennon and Peter (“PDQ Bach”) Schickele), the comedy was only mildly funny and that too in parts, and the dances were just ok. In short, it was clear to me that the claim to fame of this production was that it was pushing the envelope of sex and nudity of that time. Now, much of it comes off as just crude, and there is little sense of shock anymore.

POST SCRIPT: Battle in Najaf

The reports of the battle that took place over the weekend in Najaf have some strange aspects to it. Initial reports say that Iraqi forces supported by US tanks and helicopter gunships killed 250 militants in a fierce battle that lasted many hours. There seemed to be very few casualties on the US and Iraq side. Some Initial reports describe the dead as ‘militants’, members of a Sunni apocalyptic cult that was seeking to kill prominent Shiite clerics in that city. Others argue that it was a Shiite group. The invaluable Juan Cole tries to disentangle the conflicting narratives.

Why an armed militant group would take on the Iraqi military in a relatively open area as a date palm orchard where they could be easily picked off by the supporting helicopter gunships seems puzzling. There seems to be a whole lot of confusion about who the dead were and what they represented.

In any conflict, I tend to view with great suspicion any reports of ‘fierce’ long battles in which one side sustains huge numbers of casualties and the other side next to nothing. These kinds of lopsided death tolls usually are signs that the side with low casualties is hiding their losses or that mostly civilians were killed, even though there may have been actual militants also among them. Initial reports of battles almost always come from the official military, which has a vested interest in minimizing civilian deaths. I usually suspend judgment on such stories until reporters and medical personnel and human rights workers are able to reach the areas and provide independent and relatively unbiased reports.

Meanwhile, some idea of the methods used by the Iraqi security forces in patrolling Baghdad, and their relationship to the US forces, can be obtained from watching this British TV report. It contains some rough scenes but sadly we have become accustomed to seeing dead and wounded, and people being assaulted. (Thanks to Glenn Greenwald.)

Film talk-1: Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove

Despite the heading on this blog, I realized that I had not been writing about films for quite a while. The reason is simple: I had not been seeing films over the past few months. This was because I was reading a lot of books as part of serving on the Common Reading Book Selection Committee. This is Case’s committee to select the book that will be sent to all incoming students in the summer of 2007 and the selected book also forms part of the basis for orientation, fall convocation, and the First seminars.

This is a great committee to serve on because you get together with other students, staff, and faculty, all of whom love to read and talk about books. In serving on this committee over the past few years, I have been introduced to a lot of great books that I might not have read otherwise. This year saw a particularly good selection which I will write about once the final choice is made. But because the books were so good, I found it hard to tear myself away to my other love: films.

But in the last two weeks I watched some old films that were worth writing about.

Fail Safe is a great 1964 film based on a book of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. I have never understood how two people can collaborate on a novel because a novel seems like such a personal creation. But I digress.

I had read the book back in the 70’s but had never seen the film. Its premise is the same as that of the much-better known Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, which also came out the same year. I wonder how it came to be that two studios decided to make two films with such similar themes in the same year. It seems weird to me. But I digress again.

Both films deal with the situation that arises during the cold war when a US nuclear bomber squadron begins a mission to attack the Soviet Union. In Fail Safe the cause is malfunctioning equipment while in Dr. Strangelove the cause is a psychotic US General who wants to start a nuclear war. But in both cases, technical malfunctions and cold war paranoia (at least initially) between the US and Soviet political and military leaders hinder attempts to get the fleets called back, despite their joint frantic efforts once people realize the seriousness of what is going on.

They are both wonderful films, though quite different in their approach to the same scenario. Dr. Strangelove, which I have seen numerous times over many years, is the ultimate black comedy, getting laughs from a potential nuclear catastrophe, with director Stanley Kubrick getting brilliant performances out of Peter Sellers (in three roles, Dr. Strangelove being one), George C. Scott, and Sterling Hayden.

Fail Safe, on the other hand, plays it straight and there is not a laugh to be had in the whole film. Instead director Sidney Lumet, with a small cast, created a small, tight film that kept me completely absorbed throughout, even though I knew how it would end because I had heard that it was faithful to the novel. In the film, the US president (played by Henry Fonda) and his Soviet counterpart and their respective military and civilian advisors find that, even after overcoming their initial mutual suspicions and starting to cooperate, it is hard to reverse events that could lead to a nuclear catastrophe. Their machines of war have taken on a life of their own that relentlessly drives events.

Both films are anti-war in the best sense of the word. In Fail Safe, the US and Soviet leaders and most of their advisors are portrayed as thoughtful, humane, reasonable, and intelligent people, and yet they cannot control events. It made me think of the present. The current leadership in the US, Israel, Iraq and Iraq can none of them claim to have any of these desirable qualities and yet they are the ones we have to depend on to try and avert a catastrophe in the Middle East. It does not give one hope.

If any of you have not seen Fail Safe or Dr. Strangelove, you should check them out. They are true classics, in that they are timeless.

POST SCRIPT: The battle for Haifa Street

I wrote recently about how disturbing it was that nearly four years after the invasion of Iraq, US and Iraqi forces were still fighting pitched battles on a boulevard right in the capital Baghdad. According to Lara Logan of CBS News (who has done some terrific reporting), that battle raged for two weeks and may even still be going on. She appealed to her colleagues to spread the word about the video, which shows and important battle that is symptomatic of the stalemate that exists there. (You have to watch a commercial first.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. on Vietnam/Iraq

(Today Case has its annual Martin Luther King celebration ceremony. Joan Southgate will be the speaker at Amasa Stone Chapel at 12:30pm. See here for more details.)

I have written before about the disturbing similarities between current US actions in Iraq and past US actions in Vietnam. Recently I went back and read the transcript of Martin Luther King’s speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence delivered on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City
[Read more…]

Israel, US, and “the lobby”-4: A broader discussion needed about the Middle East

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

The media in the rest of the world, including Israel, have much more balanced coverage of Middle East politics that does the US media. The Tony Judt article I wrote about before, for example, appeared in Ha’aretz. News media in the US tiptoe around the Israel government, seemingly afraid to make any serious criticism of its policies. During the Israel-lobby debate, Judt said described how when he wrote an article about the lobby, the editors of a “well known North American newspaper” called him and said that they needed to know if he was Jewish before they published it. He also pointed out that debate itself was noteworthy for being sponsored in the US by a foreign publication, The London Review of Books. It was this same publication that published the Mearsheimer and Walt article after The Atlantic, that originally commissioned it, decided not to publish it.

As another example, Israel’s open defiance of UN resolutions are rarely mentioned in the media here while the US has argued that such defiance by other countries like Iraq is grounds for military action. And in July 2006, California state legislator Tom Hayden gave an example of the way the lobby works when he reflected on events in 1982 when he was influenced by “the lobby” to take a position on the previous Israeli invasion of Lebanon that he knew was wrong and now regrets. He said that the current debate on the role of the Israel lobby had persuaded him to reveal now what had happened to him then.

What is also interesting is that AIPAC boasts about its influence with the US government when it is fundraising but reacts angrily when others point to that same influence as an example of its power. But the sense that AIPAC speaks for all American Jews may be on the wane as some become more determined to stake their own ground in the debate. Philip Weiss, writing in the New York Observer in the wake of the furor over Jimmy Carter, says that progressive Jews are trying to break the stranglehold that AIPAC has had so far on discussions in the US about Israel and the situation in the Middle East. He talked about the New York visit of two people from that region who are trying to spread the word about the conditions in the occupied territories.

The situation these men describe is worse than apartheid. “Three and a half million people live without any rights,” said the Israeli, whose own sister was killed by a suicide bomber. “You want to stop these people [suicide bombers], you should give them a reason to live.”

The campaign by the U.S. Jewish leadership to smear Jimmy Carter will one day be taught in history books, as an effort by a privileged elite to suppress the truth. Slavery and segregation also had powerful defenders who misrepresented those conditions. Despite all their well-connected efforts, these people will lose for two simple reasons: the facts are against them, and a movement has begun to discover those facts. The progressive Jews jamming the temple last night are the evidence. (emphasis in original)

I have written before about how the US is really a one party state with a pro-war/pro-business platform, with two factions differing on some social issues. Its policy concerning Israel is part of that one-party consensus so one should not expect any changes when there are changes in the leadership in Congress as occurred in the last elections. Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco has looked at the positions on Israel and the Middle East of the top Democratic leadership and concluded that “The election of a Democratic majority in the House and Senate is unlikely to result in any serious challenge to the Bush administration’s support for Israeli attacks against the civilian populations of its Arab neighbors and the Israeli government’s ongoing violations of international humanitarian law.”

We already see examples of this with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards both trying to curry favor with AIPAC by refusing to criticize Israel in even the mildest way, and beating the drums for war against Iran, despite the lessons learned from what happened in Iraq. It will be interesting to see if any candidate for president in 2008 takes a stand that runs counter to AIPAC or to any of Israel’s current policies in the occupied territories.

The state of affairs of the Palestinians in Gaza right now is a scandal. The people there are essentially being punished for the crime of voting in a government that Israel and the US do not approve of. Reporter Gideon Levy writing for Ha’aretz says that Gaza is becoming like Darfur, with the exception that at least in the case of Darfur, at least some in the West are paying attention to their plight. Another Ha’aretz reporter Amira Hass lists all the mind-boggling restrictions that Palestinians currently experience on a day-to-day basis. It is not hard to imagine the humiliation that all these indignities must be causing each and every day.

Periodically, the US sends some envoy, such as the Secretary of State to the Middle East to “revive the peace process.” Condoleeza Rice made such a trip just last week and blathered on about getting the two sides to talk, etc. I rarely pay any attention to US government officials or the media references to the state of the “peace process.” Until such time as a real solution is proposed by the US for the Middle East, these trips should be viewed for what they are, just window dressing, to give the impression that something is being done while in reality the construction of more and more Israeli settlements in the occupied territories makes the possibility of a viable Palestinian state even more remote. I have written before about the way that by its existing settlements, Israel has already created a kind of Swiss-cheese like region in the West Bank, with settlements and roads carving out non-contiguous regions for the Palestinians to live in, so that they have to go through Israeli checkpoints to get from one region to another.

This issue goes well beyond the question of the role of AIPAC in American politics, although that is part of the problem. The real problem is that as long as the American mainstream media does not describe the situation in the occupied territories in a way that resembles reality, there will be no reason for the American public to demand of its government that it pursue policies that have a chance of bring peace to the Palestinian and Israeli people. And so the violence will continue, and even escalate, and the American public will continue to be baffled by the failure to find a solution.

A real solution would have to have the following features: (1) Withdrawal by Israel to the pre-1967 borders; (2) The currently occupied territories of the West bank and Gaza made into a fully autonomous state; (3) the internationalization of Jerusalem; (4) full recognition of the state of Israel; (5) security guarantees (with the stationing of international troops as buffers if necessary) for the Israeli and Palestinian states until the growth of bilateral trade and other links between the two states makes a peacekeeping force unnecessary.

Oddly enough, comedians like Jon Stewart seem to understand what it would take to get a solution in the Middle East. Why is it so hard for others?

I believe that there will never be peace in the Middle East until the Palestinians have their own viable state, something at least closely resembling what I have outlined above. Until those policies are implemented, all talk of a “peace process” is pure wind.

POST SCRIPT: Let there be light?

On Tuesday, Mr. Deity explained why evil and suffering is necessary, and yesterday he tried to explain to Jesus what the crucifixion was about. Today, Mr. Deity finds that creating special effects is not as easy as it looks in the movies.

Tomorrow: How Mr. Deity treats prayers.

Israel, US, and “the lobby”-3: The silence in the US

(See part 1 and part 2.)

It is undoubtedly the case that most Americans, especially those who are critical of Israeli government policies, find it difficult to discuss the US-Israel relationship in the same way that they might discuss, say, the US-Pakistan relationship. Ira Chernus writes about how non-Jews in the US are reluctant to talk about Israel-Palestine issues, and gives them advice in an article titled How to talk to your Jewish friends, an article that was triggered by the appalling lack of action by the US government when Israel unleashed its massive assault on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, and the silence of Americans who failed to demand that the US government call for an immediate ceasefire to stop the killing. Condoleeza Rice’s statement that the death and destruction caused by the fighting in Lebanon signaled the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” was as grotesque a statement in the midst of crisis as was Marie Antoinette’s reputed “Let them eat cake.”

Chernus says:

When one hears criticism of any action of Israel by elected officials and the mainstream media in the US, it is almost always very cautiously worded and qualified by saying that the other side is worse. It seems as if public officials and media personalities in the US are afraid that criticizing Israel government policies is to risk being called anti-Jewish, although Jews as people, the people of Israel, and the actions of the Israel government are three different things and one can criticize the third without inferences being drawn about the other two. One has to look to the peace movements in Israel (10,000 of whom marched in Tel Aviv against the invasion of Lebanon on August 5, 2006) for criticisms of the actions of the Israeli government.

This is not the case in the rest of the world. The Economist magazine gives two main reasons for the near-unanimity of almost unconditional support among US elites for anything that Israel does.

Why is America so much more pro-Israeli than Europe? The most obvious answer lies in the power of two very visible political forces: the Israeli lobby (AIPAC) and the religious right. AIPAC, which has an annual budget of almost $50m, a staff of 200, 100,000 grassroots members and a decades-long history of wielding influence, is arguably the most powerful lobby in Washington, mightier even than the National Rifle Association.

“Thank God we have AIPAC, the greatest supporter and friend we have in the whole world,” says Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister. The lobby, which is the centrepiece of a co-ordinated body that includes pressure groups, think-tanks and fund-raising operations, produces voting statistics on congressmen that are carefully scrutinised by political donors. It also organises regular trips to Israel for congressmen and their staffs.

What Chernus says is true. One is far more likely to find critiques of Israeli government actions in Israeli newspapers like Ha’aretz than in the mainstream US media. As another example, see this blistering critique titled Stop the Jewish Barbarians in Hebron of the way that Arabs are being treated in Hebron, that appeared in the Jerusalem Post by Yosef Lapid, a holocaust survivor and former Israeli justice minister.

When we decide, and rightly so, to never under any circumstances compare the behavior of Jews to that of Nazis, we are forgetting that anti-Semitism only reached its height at Auschwitz. It had existed, was active, frightening, harmful and disgusting. . .in the years that preceded Auschwitz too. And behind shuttered windows hid terrified Jewish women, exactly like the Arab woman of the Abu-Isha family in Hebron.

It is unthinkable that the memory of Auschwitz should serve as a pretext to ignore the fact that living here among us are Jews that behave toward Palestinians exactly the way that German, Hungarian, Polish and other anti-Semites behaved toward Jews.

I am not referring to crematoria or pogroms, but rather to the persecution, hounding, stone-throwing, undermining of livelihood, scare tactics, spitting and contempt.

It was all of these things that made our lives in the Diaspora so bitter and harrowing, even before they began the wholesale killing of Jews. I was afraid to go to school because little anti-Semites lay in wait on the way and beat us. In what way is a Palestinian child in Hebron any different?

This kind of article shows the wide range of discussion that exists in Israel, but one would be hard pressed to find its equivalent in the mainstream press in the US. Critics of the AIPAC lobby charge that it is responsible for stifling the debate in the US and as a result the search for meaningful solutions to the problems in the Middle East have been hindered, leading to the chronic instability and violence.

But the signs are that this situation is changing.

Next: How the Mearsheimer-Walt article and Carter book has broadened the discussion.

POST SCRIPT: What do you mean, three days on the cross?

Yesterday, Mr. Deity explained the reasons for allowing so much suffering. Today he asks Jesus for a really big favor.

Tomorrow: Mr. Deity has trouble turning on the light.

Israel, US, and “the lobby”-2: An old state with an adolescent mentality

(See part 1 here.)

Tony Judt, one of the panelists in the public debate I wrote about earlier, was himself the center of another furor concerning the Israel lobby. Judt had strongly criticized the American intelligentsia (including those who call themselves liberals) and the Bush administration for its failures in Middle East policy.

On October 3, 2006, Judt was scheduled to give a lecture titled “The Israel Lobby & US Foreign Policy” before a public audience at the Polish Consulate offices in New York, which often sponsors such kinds of forums. But according to reports, the event was cancelled after the consulate received a phone call from Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL. This led to many academics protesting at what they perceived as censorship, with over a hundred of them writing an open letter, suggesting that the ADL was trying to silence a critic of its lobbying efforts.

Judt has written before in The country that wouldn’t grow up that he sees part of the problem as that the Israeli political psyche has got stuck in what, for an individual, would be characterized as an adolescent phase.

By the age of 58 a country – like a man – should have achieved a certain maturity. After nearly six decades of existence we know, for good and for bad, who we are, what we have done and how we appear to others, warts and all. We acknowledge, however reluctantly and privately, our mistakes and our shortcomings. And though we still harbor the occasional illusion about ourselves and our prospects, we are wise enough to recognize that these are indeed for the most part just that: illusions. In short, we are adults.

But the State of Israel remains curiously (and among Western-style democracies, uniquely) immature. The social transformations of the country – and its many economic achievements – have not brought the political wisdom that usually accompanies age. Seen from the outside, Israel still comports itself like an adolescent: consumed by a brittle confidence in its own uniqueness; certain that no one “understands” it and everyone is “against” it; full of wounded self-esteem, quick to take offense and quick to give it. Like many adolescents Israel is convinced – and makes a point of aggressively and repeatedly asserting – that it can do as it wishes, that its actions carry no consequences and that it is immortal.

The kind of adolescent political thinking that Judt describes is familiar to me. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala community comprises 15 million people, a comfortable majority in a country of 20 million. The Tamils are only about 4 million. But a sizable group of the Sinhala people are constantly fearful that the ethnic Tamils of South India (who number about 60 million) will make common cause with their ethnic counterparts in Sri Lanka and march (or presumably swim) across the Palk Strait, the narrow strip of water that separates southern India from Sri Lanka, and take over their country and destroy the Sinhala people. Although this notion is quite preposterous, it is symptomatic of the adolescent sensibilities of this particular body politic that this fearful group of Sinhala people are easy prey for chauvinist politicians and can be easily riled up to take extreme measures against the indigenous Tamils under the flag of ‘saving’ the nation from the Tamil threat, and thus have prevented any meaningful peace moves in Sri Lanka.

Of course, to assume that the AIPAC (or the ADL) speaks for the entire American Jewish community is as false as assuming that the Bush/Cheney administration and their fundamentalist Christian base speaks for the entire American public. The reality is that AIPAC, like all lobbies, seeks first to increase perceptions of its own power and influence because that is what leads to greater fundraising success, while at the same time advancing the interests of a narrow slice of those people in America whose politics aligns with a narrow slice of the Israeli political spectrum, especially that associated with the hard-line politics of people like Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud. But the ability of lobbies like AIPAC to stifle criticisms of Israeli policies may be on the wane as more and more ‘mainstream’ people, like Jimmy Carter, are speaking out.

What the Carter and Mearsheimer and Walt and Judt episodes make increasingly clear is that while the ability of groups like AIPAC to limit debate within Washington and within the mainstream media remains strong, it is losing its ability to do so with the wider audience in the country as a whole. It used to be that the threat of being labeled an “anti-Semite” (if one was not Jewish) or “self-hating” (if one were Jewish) was enough to discourage many people from criticizing the actions of the Israeli government. For example, As Alexander Cockburn writes “Carter has been stigmatised as an anti-Semite, a Holocaust denier, a patron of former concentration camp killers, a Christian madman, a pawn of the Arabs, an advocate of terror.”

But such charges are not gaining much traction anymore. Cockburn thinks that this is due to a changing political landscape in the country, if not in Washington.

The Israel lobby retains its grip inside the Beltway, but it’s starting to lose its hold on the broader public debate. Why? You can’t brutalize the Palestinian people in the full light of day, decade after decade, without claims that Israel is a light among the nations getting more than a few serious dents. In the old days, Mearsheimer and Walt’s tract would have been deep-sixed by the University of Chicago and the Kennedy School long before it reached its final draft, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux wouldn’t have considered offering a six-figure advance for it. Simon & Schuster would have told President Carter that his manuscript had run into insurmountable objections from a distinguished board of internal reviewers. But once a book by a former president with weighty humanitarian credentials makes it into bookstores, it’s hard to shoot it down with volleys of wild abuse.

In this failure to stifle acceptance of Jimmy Carter’s book and the Mearsheimer and Walt paper, AIPAC is experiencing a fate similar to that other lobby that is constantly pushing for more and wider war in the Middle East, first in Iraq and next in Iran and Syria. This other lobby is led by so-called ‘think tanks’ like the American Enterprise Institute and its message is disseminated by ‘opinion journals’ like the Weekly Standard, National Review, and the New Republic, and picked up and amplified by the major news outlets. Although this group exerts a powerful influence on the White House and Congress, it is out of step with broader American public opinion on what to do about the war. This is why there is an increasing disconnect between what the US government and Congress is proposing to do about Iraq and what the general population is demanding. The pro-war lobby, like AIPAC, is finding that its reach is limited to an ever-shrinking circle centered around Washington, DC.

Next: The silence in the US

POST SCRIPT 1: Suffering explained

One of the most troubling questions for believers in a god is how to explain evil and suffering. Now Mr. Deity reveals the reasons. You really must see it. It’s a riot.

Tomorrow: Mr. Deity explains to Jesus the thinking behind that whole ‘dying on the cross’ thing.

POST SCRIPT 2: The Mamas and the Papas again

As another tribute to the late Denny Doherty, here’s The Mamas and the Papas singing the somewhat eccentric and self-referential song Creeque Alley.

Israel, US, and “the lobby”-1: Apartheid in the occupied territories?

The Washington Post had an interesting article that said how in 1941, David Ben-Gurion, one of the founders of Israel came to Washington DC and spent ten weeks in a hotel trying his best to get just a fifteen minute meeting with President Roosevelt to press the case for creating the state of Israel. He failed. The article used this to chart the steep rise of Israel’s influence in the US since then.

Discussions about the extent of this current influence, and whether it is a good thing for the US, Israel, or the Middle East in general was brought center stage in March 2006 by the article The Israel Lobby by academics John Mearsheimer of University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard. (I have written about this before here.)
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The Bible as history-6: The Bible as propaganda tool

(For the earlier posts in this series, see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.)

Few people read the Bible cover to cover. That is understandable. For one thing, it is very long. Second, the language is hard to follow. Third, it can be quite confusing with lots of characters and places involved, even more so than a Tolstoy novel. Fourth, interspersed with the stories are huge and boring chunks that are of two kinds: one consists of sequences of ‘begats’, which trace the genealogy of people, and the other consist of rules that god has said that people should live by.

So while the Bible is the best selling book of all time, it is also probably the least read. It is kind of like the religious equivalent of Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.
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Christians and Christianists

Many Christians have problems with people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, and resent their mixing up church and state, the spiritual and the secular. For example, in remarks on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on the August 22, 2005 broadcast of his TV show 700 Club, Robertson essentially called on the US government to murder Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, although he used the word “assassination” and the euphemism “take him out” instead of the more blunt but accurate word murder.

ROBERTSON: There was a popular coup that overthrew him [Chavez]. And what did the United States State Department do about it? Virtually nothing. And as a result, within about 48 hours that coup was broken; Chavez was back in power, but we had a chance to move in. He has destroyed the Venezuelan economy, and he’s going to make that a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent. You know, I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don’t think any oil shipments will stop. But this man is a terrific danger and the United … This is in our sphere of influence, so we can’t let this happen. We have the Monroe Doctrine, we have other doctrines that we have announced. And without question, this is a dangerous enemy to our south, controlling a huge pool of oil, that could hurt us very badly. We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don’t need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It’s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with. (my emphasis)

Basically, when Robertson says that “we” should kill Chavez, he is asking the US government to do it.

Many, if not most, Christians in the US were repulsed by Robertson’s comments and some were quick to say that he was not a Christian because of the actions he was advocating. But if we cannot pin the label “Christian” on him, what exactly is he? The label ‘radical cleric’ was tried for a while but did not catch on.

Way back in 2003, the blogger Tristero came up with a good name, suggesting that the term Christianist be used to describe people like Robertson and Falwell and Dobson.

Christianist and Christianism are best understood as being in parallel with Islamist and Islamism. We have all become familiar with the term Islamist which has to be distinguished from the label Muslim. The latter represents anyone who is an adherent of the religion of Islam. Islamism is a political movement inspired by the religion Islam and which seeks to make principles based on its interpretation of Islam the basis for the organizing of civil society. In this terminology, the Taliban are Islamists but most Muslims are not. As Tristero emphasizes, Islamists are not necessarily violent although some high profile Islamists like Osama bin Laden are.

So thus Christianism is a political movement inspired by the religion Christianity and which seeks to make principles based on its interpretation of Christianity the basis for the organizing of civil society, and Christianists are those who pursue such a policy.

The advantage of this kind of labeling is that is avoids having to make judgments about who is a true believer and who is not. Whether one has the right to adopt the label of Christian may be viewed by some as a moral issue, depending on whether one is living according to the principles of Christianity, which was why some people said that Robertson cannot be a Christian when he calls for the murder of foreign heads of state.

But applying Tristero’s system of labels removes this judgmental question. While there may be disagreements about whether Robertson is a “true” Christian or not depending on your tastes, he is definitely a Christianist since he clearly wants to run this country according his version of Christianity. Similarly while Muslims may debate whether Osama bin Laden is a “true” Muslim or not, it is pretty clear that he is an Islamist.

This seemed to me to be such a useful terminology that I was surprised that when Andrew Sullivan used it casually in this sense last November, it provoked angry charges in the blog world (from Glenn Reynolds and Ann Althouse and Hugh Hewitt) that it was insulting to Christians and even “hate speech” (although Sullivan himself is a practicing Catholic). Even more oddly, as Glenn Greenwald points out, these charges of bigotry against Sullivan came from the very people who routinely use the term ‘Islamist.’ Greenwald reminds us that:

Tristero made the same basic distinctions made by Sullivan, which Althouse, Reynolds and Hewitt are incapable of understanding (or unwilling to understand, though I think it’s the former) — namely, that Christians (like Muslims) can be divided into three groups: (1) those who believe in the religion (“Christians/Muslims”); (2) those who seek to have their religious beliefs dictate politics and law (“Christianists/Islamists”); and (3) those who are willing to use violence to enforce compliance with their religious beliefs (“Christian fascists/Islamofascists” – or “Christian terrorist”/”Muslim terrorist”).

This sounds like reasonable and neutral and useful language to me. And it looks like these labels are going mainstream. So we might soon see analogous words popping up for Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and people of other religions who similarly believe that their versions of their own religious beliefs should determine public policy for everyone, and thus control the nature of civic life.

POST SCRIPT: The Mac cult

It has been alleged that Mac users are like a cult, slavishly loyal to the brand and unthinkingly hostile to alternatives. I too use Mac computers and like them a lot. I cannot see myself ever switching to another operating system. But I do not quite see myself as a Mac cult member, mainly because I am not an avid adopter of new technology. I do not have an iPod or even a cell phone and only started using a (very basic) PDA because my work requires it.

So I was bemused at all the fuss about the announcement last week about Apple’s new iPhone which combines the features of a cell phone, iPod, and web browser. I saw the news items and kind of shrugged it off. But then I went to the Apple website and saw the presentation by Steve Jobs about the new device and understood the reasons for the hype. There is no doubt that Apple does three things very well. Its devices are undoubtedly pleasing to the eye, they are easy and intuitive to use, and they have very imaginative marketing. The iPhone really is a very cleverly designed device.

After watching Jobs talk about the iPhone and showing what it can do, even I thought it would be nice to have one. Of course, there is not a chance that I will spring $500 or so for it, because basically I do not want or need a cell phone or an iPod. But the fact that even someone like me was so drawn to the device says something about the power of Apple to make something that people feel they must have.

See Jobs’ introduction of the iPhone at MacWorld and judge for yourself. It is quite a show.