Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween 2011

This Halloween I find myself watching the spirit of revolution emanating across the United States (and across the globe) and wondering how my favorite holiday fits into it. At first it would seem not at all; the current obsessions with economic and social justice and demands for civic consciousness seem at odds with a holiday that unapologetically embraces materialism and carnal distractions. But this fall, Halloween comes as a necessary relief and a reminder of what we really strive for.

I like to think of Halloween as America’s counter cultural holiday. Most holidays, by their very nature, celebrate a specific tradition or event. But there isn’t a single meaning to Halloween. In fact, there is no specific meaning to the holiday at all. Halloween is not attached to a national or religious mythology, it has no pure “spirit” to appeal to, and because of that the holiday has been able to survive integration into a capitalist system without losing its integrity. Because Halloween has no pretensions to profundity, it is an opportunity for celebrants to have fun without the guilt associated with other holidays. There is no demand that we think about the less fortunate, reflect on dead soldiers, or give thanks for our luck. This is the holiday that allows people to literally have their candy corn and eat it too. And that isn’t something to bemoan; it is something to celebrate.

Halloween is like New Year’s Eve in that it commemorates both the ending and the beginning. On December 31st we celebrate the conclusion of one calendar year and the start of another; on October 31st we celebrate the dance of Thanatos and Eros—the death force and the life force—and the way their desires and motivations intertwine like the limbs of lovers on a fall evening. While picking their costumes, men (who are the more fearful of the sexes, although they will rarely admit to it) may adopt an identity linked to death, whether it is a ghost, a vampire, a warrior, or a zombie, and proclaim their mastery of it. Women, on the other hand, often select a sexualized version of just about anything and thereby make an unapologetic display of their own sexuality. In both cases a taboo is turned into an outfit and by wearing it we are able to claim it as a part of ourselves and overcome our fear of it, if only for an evening. That mingling of characters symbolizing death and life, whether they gather at a polite party or grind against one another on a dark dance floor, is a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

Halloween is important because it celebrates life in ways that no other holiday can, without the distractions that cultural traditions and narratives often create. Life is embedded in flesh and blood and its highest expression is not found in illusory transcendence of the physical but our immersion within it. A full appreciation of life requires an acknowledgement of death and the dramatic interplay between them. Halloween reminds us, whatever our broader political and social agendas, of what we are fighting for. At its best, the holiday reinvigorates our lust for life.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

9/11 Film Series Articles

Last week I coordinated a week-long 9/11 Film Series on the Winona State University campus. After the screenings I wrote posts for the Sounds of Cinema blog, reflecting on each picture. You can find links to those below:

United 93
"United 93 is not the only film dramatization about the attack. In fact, there have been at least nine films dramatizing the events of September 11th and of those, four have focused on the events aboard United Airlines Flight 93. Yet, United 93 is distinct among them. Although it is a dramatization, the film has a great deal of detail that makes it a mergence of dramatic and documentary filmmaking."

Osama
"When a group of people are attacked, they tend to circle the wagons and everyone inside the circle is considered an ally, no matter what divisions and rivalries existed previously, and those outside the circle are viewed with suspicion if not outright antagonism. That has serious consequences because the wartime mentality makes empathy for those outside of our circle increasingly difficult. After 9/11, this dualistic mind set took hold among the general American public who were traumatized by the attack but it also threatens to characterize the Muslim community if they feel persecuted and ostracized. And in that case dialogue goes down and tension goes up. This is where a film like Osama becomes so important."

Restrepo
"Restrepo is bookended by testimonies of the soldiers in charge at the post. In the pre-title sequence, Captain Dan Kearney admits that he did not do any research on the Korengal Valley before arriving there but that he was determined to go into the area and, in his words, "fix it." In the film's final sequence, as the soldier's vacate the valley, First Sergeant LaMonta Caldwell says "We've done our job. We did what we were supposed to be doing. And we're out of here." It is in the juxtaposition of those statements with what happens in between them that Restrepo is most revealing."

Taxi to the Dark Side
"There is a key image presented early on in Taxi to the Dark Side that sets up everything that that is to follow. The voice over explains that Abu Ghraib prison was notorious under Saddam Hussein's regime as a place for torture and the disposal of political enemies. This information is presented simultaneously with the image of a mural inside the prison depicting Saddam. The former Iraqi leader's face has been scratched off the wall and all that remains is his general visage. The mural looks very much like the stand-ups of famous characters often seen at theme parks and tourist traps, in which the head has been cut out and visitors stick their own faces inside for a photo. Later, as Taxi to the Dark Side features pictures of abused prisoners and American soldiers posing with them as though in a petting zoo or a frat party, the parallel is clear. Americans entered an atmosphere of abuse and became the new face of oppression."

The Messenger
"[The Messenger] continues the search for meaning in the post-9/11 (and post-Abu Ghraib) era and it dramatizes that search in the lives of the soldiers on a Casualty Notification Team and a widow of a recent casualty in the war. In The Messenger, that search is defined by the characters' interactions with each other and their gradual shift from isolation to companionship." 

Four Lions
"In the context of this film series, United 93 showed us the devastation of terrorism, Osama frightened us with religion inspired oppression, and Taxi to the Dark Side startled us with its depiction of institutionalized torture. Four Lions invites us to laugh at this horror."

I have also written a reflection on the series that has been published at Winona360:
"Part of the reason I do this show is that I think movies are important. And not just high class Hollywood Oscar bait or prestigious art films but the cumulative effects of cinema from family films to grindhouse movies. It is important to remember that cinema can have consequences. We know, for example, that Joseph Goebbels used motion pictures as one of the primary tools of the Nazi propaganda campaign, especially in driving and shaping anti-Semitic attitudes that paved the way for the Final Solution. But we can also look at a film like Schindler’s List and appreciate filmmakers exposing the horrors of the Holocaust and coping with its legacy."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bachmann, Sanity, and the 2012 Race

Matt Taibbi has written a piece for Rolling Stone magazine on Michelle Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who has recently catapulted to the national scene based on her popularity with the Tea Party movement. Although she has been around for a while, the crescendo in her popularity has hit a new peak as she began an official run for the presidency. In many respects she is emblematic of current trends not just in politics but in the culture at large.

Taibbi writes:
In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.
That last bit of that paragraph is important. Bachmann comes from the evangelical movement and like many in that movement, from the leaders down to the mega-church goers, she sees the entire world as a cosmic conflict between good and evil. There is no room for equivocation or subtlety; everything is black and white and all conflicts are part of a life and death struggle between the saved and the fallen. This is why otherwise mundane debates about taxes and health care take on such a vicious tone; in the mind of this segment of the public, these debates are really about America's soul.

In the current cultural environment, this kind of thinking has been enabled. The right wing in particular (although the left wing is guilty of this as well) are able to bathe in information streams that are made only of things they want to hear. Facts and opinions are interchangeable. And this provides the raw material for constructing a house and even a village of alternate reality where outside input is viewed as extraneous. In an abundant marketplace of ideas the rants of a person like Bachmann are forced to compete with more sophisicated ideas backed by research and facts. But when Bachmann and people like her are able to create their own space where no outside ideas are allowed in, those ideas live on, they thrive, and they even create their own reality. And subscribing to an alternate understanding of reality is essentially what it is to be crazy.

I'm no fan of Bachmann but it is dismissive and dangerous to call her crazy, even if she is. When we label a movement, an organization, or one of its adherents as crazy (I mean that in parlance, not as a psychological or psychiatric diagnosis), we mean that the group or individual's ideas are so far beyond what is considered normal that they do not deserve to be treated with any kind of credibility. Given some of her statements about economics, sexuality, and anti-American conspiracies, it's easy to label her as insane, crazy, a fruitcake, batshit, et cetera. And even though that dismissive response may be the appropriate retort when identical ideas are uttered by a drunk on a street corner or a patient in a mental institution, when these same ideas come from a politician running for president in this environment, our dismissal plays right into her hands.

As Taibbi indicates, a certain kind of crazy is appealing to voters. Bachmann's rejection by the mainstream is proof of her authenticity in the eyes of her fans, who are similarly suspicious about the broader world. And as her allies grow, Bachmann does not really qualify as crazy. The "right wing nut job" label is only meaningful if she is isolated on the fringe. But she isn't and  even if she does not make the 2012 presidential ticket, her presence in the race and in American culture will shift the conversation enough that the ideas she represents will have to be taken seriously.

Sanity is a democratic process and crazy is a minority opinion. But if we do not take the ideas of Bachmann and her ilk seriously, we may wake one day to find that madness has recruited enough of the gullible and the disillusioned to establish its own reality and those of us who had been dozing comfortably in our sanity are outnumbered and labeled and crazy, insane, or even dangerous.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Freedom is Free, Civilization Costs Money

Today is the Fourth of July, a day in which Americans commemorate the birth of their country and celebrate an abstract value that we like to call “freedom.” This year’s holiday celebration is tinted by recent events that have highlighted the limits to which the public at large have seriously considered what “freedom” actually means. Economic disputes among pundits and politicians, the labor protests in Wisconsin, and the shutdown of the state government of Minnesota have converged this July 4th in a nearly perfect parade of self-righteousness and absurdity. As is usual in the public discourse, the primary issues being discussed are a hustle for the more serious philosophical ideas underneath. At issue here is not really tax increases or spending caps. It is freedom – a word that Americans love to use but seldom understand.

Jean-Jacque Rousseau wrote, “Man is born free and he is everywhere in chains.” By this, Rousseau meant that man, free of society and in his natural state, has no moral or ethical obligations and he is not bound to follow any rule, edict, law, or principal. According to Rousseau, man gives up a degree of freedom for the benefits of living in society. This kind of thinking was radical at Rousseau’s time (in many ways it still is) and it led to theories of freedom by other thinkers such as John Locke, Henry David Thoreau, and Thomas Jefferson who provide the basis for the American conception of freedom.

But Americans’ contemporary ideas about freedom are oversimplified and undereducated. We idealize freedom as a concept, embodied by country western songs and bumper sticker slogans like “Freedom isn’t’ free,” as opposed to understanding or practicing it as a way of life. In American fantasies, freedom entails the ability of an individual to rise to great success and fame without the encumbrance of government or other social interference. Lurking unspoken in the background of that fantasy is the darker side of freedom. Often imagined as the pinnacle of personal responsibility, the more extreme or “pure” the conception of freedom, the closer it represents a state of amorality. The freest man on earth has no debts and no obligations. He is also free of morality or ethics, which are imposed on him by society. He is, in essence, what civilized people would call a psychopath.

In Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm wrote that there are two kinds of freedom: “Freedom from,” as in freedom from oppression, and “freedom to,” as in freedom to vote. Importantly, Fromm noted that one kind of freedom cannot exist without the other and if one of these forms of freedom is missing, its absence ensures the destruction or surrender of the other. For instance, if citizens do not have the ability to feed themselves (freedom to self-sufficiency) they might well surrender other social privileges (freedom from oppression) to a dictator; this is essentially what happened in Germany during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. If citizens have a great deal of wealth and comfort (freedom from poverty), they might surrender privacy or personal liberty (freedom to autonomy); this is an apt description of the culture in China.

Our lack of understanding of freedom has serious implications. The administration of George W. Bush failed to prepare for the rebuilding of Iraq after Saddam Hussein was deposed. Why? Because high ranking government officials believed that all that was necessary for a functioning democracy in Iraq was to “free” the people from a dictator and that a civil society would organically and instantaneously spring up. This is a mistake as was proven by the civil war that broke out in that country in the years following the invasion. A civil, peaceful, democratic society requires, among other things, a culture that values and protects freedom of speech and allows for public dissent without fear of retaliation. This cannot be built overnight.

A functioning society also requires a government that is stable and credible. The riots and other violence that occurred in Baghdad after the invasion were committed by people whose social grid had been smashed. The insurgency was not made of Islamic fundamentalists. It was made of disaffected and disenfranchised Iraqis who were out of work and unable to house, cloth, or feed themselves or their families due to the nonexistent rebuilding plan after the American invasion. The ideas of Rousseau and Fromm were at work right before our eyes.

These ideas can be applied to Iraq but if certain trends continue they could be applied right here in America as well. The right wing, informed by a half-assed understanding of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ideology, have begun an assault on the social safety net but frame the issue in terms of increasing freedom or staving off un-freedom. This is a smoke screen designed to get the masses behind policies that enrich the powerful at the expense of the weak. The powerful cannot and should not be blamed for that priority any more than a great white shark should be blamed for trying to kill and eat as many sea lions as it can. Powerful is what powerful does.

In the face of superior power there are two options: submit to it or try to take it for yourself. How we decide between those options is complicated and involves weighing many factors, both personal and social. But a man is only bound to submit to society’s laws if he receives the benefits of its protection. As those benefits erode away, so do our links to one another. While a totalitarian society degrades our individuality and turns us into one digit among many, a similarly nihilistic idealization of freedom degrades our community by turning each individual into the only number that counts.

And as the social contract erodes, those who have built cathedrals of power on the foundation of society’s stability will find cement turning into sand. The mobs of the hungry and the homeless will not stay confined to the alley forever. The underlying social pact that some of society’s most powerful individuals are attempting to subvert is the very thing keeping them in power. As they continue to subvert it, they weaken the very shield of law and order--and indeed the illusion of morality--that protects them.

And so this is the fundamental choice: what kind of society do we want to live in? Taken to the extreme in one direction is the society that the right wing claims to fear, in which personal liberty is completely overtaken by government. The other extreme is a non-society in which there is no government whatsoever and personal liberty is absolute. This is the freedom of which right wingers and the tea partiers sing. But, knowingly or not, the anthem for this brand of freedom was sung by school children in the pages of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, as they danced around a fire and pledged to kill the pig.

As tonight’s fireworks explode and local bands serenade audiences with patriotic tunes let’s all remember that freedom is free but civilization requires investment. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we surrender freedom on a regular basis for the benefit of security. The ongoing question is how much of one are we willing to give for the maintenance of the other.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Thoughts on Rapture Hysteria

Today is May 22, 2011, the day after what was, according to a small but well publicized group of Christians, supposed to be the rapture. This non-event is evidently a disappointment to the faithful, but I believe the failure of the end times to begin presents a great opportunity for the saner among us and for our culture.

A curious feature about the popular discussion of the rapture over the past few weeks was referring to it as “the end of the world.” However, that is not really what the rapture represents in Christian mythology. It is, if anything, the beginning of the end, in which the Christian god ushers his faithful into heaven. At some point after this, the people left behind either repent or perish in Armageddon. Belief in the rapture is taken most seriously by fundamentalist Christians although among them there are a variety of opinions about the order of anticipated end time events. The lack of a coherent or correct understanding of the event, paired with the derisive regard for the belief is encouraging, especially when compared to the Y2K scare or the Jim Jones cult, because it indicates that the majority did not take it seriously. We’ll see how this apparent sanity fares in December 2012.

But the failure of the rapture to occur creates an important, but time-limited, opportunity to really talk some sense into the public. To use a pair of popular clichés, it is both a teachable moment and a useful crisis.

One of the attractions of religious belief, even for people who ought to know better, is that it provides a sense of order and understanding in a world that generally seems disordered and unpredictable. Watching the television news, reading the newspaper, or just observing daily life makes the world’s problems seem big and unsolvable. And learning more about them is usually not helpful because it reveals those problems to be ever more complex and difficult to grasp. Religious faith, particularly of the Abrahamic variety, tells the believer that there is a plan, that there is a way to understand it all, and in the end everything will be fine, provided you follow the rules. It’s an attractive sales pitch that has served religion well for centuries.

Religion and faith have historically been tough competitors with reason because the latter cannot use those appeals to market itself. Philosophy and science also tell us that the world is understandable but with the caveat that the world is not created with individuals, or group of people, or even a particular species in mind. Although that is the intellectually sound argument, it is emotionally dissatisfying and emotional appeals are almost always more persuasive.

Reason also requires study and effort. Part of the allure of faith, especially in common practice, is abandoning or ignoring our critical faculties. And even if we do adopt the intellectual rigor required by reason, what we might find is that everything we believe about the world is wrong. It’s a tough sell.

The Achilles’ heel of faith is that is has to be right. That’s why it is usually applied to things that can’t be proven or it is claimed to be proven in hindsight by retrofitting our understanding of past events to fit faith’s narrative. But when faith tries to play in the sandbox of reason, it has to play by reason’s rules. And this is where it all falls apart.

The belief that the rapture was going to occur on May 21, 2011 was a matter of faith masquerading as reason. The slogan and web domain for the believers was “We can know” and the date was pinpointed based upon pseudo-mathematical drivel. This façade of reason is easily punctured; the belief that there would be a rapture at all or at any time is a matter of faith and rooted in superstitious traditions. The attempt to pinpoint a date and time is just a bastardization of reason. But by attempting to adopt reason’s methods, the rapture claim was held to reason’s standards and like many matters of reason, it was proven wrong by observable data, as May 21, 2011 came and went without a mass resurrection.

On the day after the day that was supposed to herald the end of the world, the faith of many of these believers must be shaken. For those who bought into the nonsense of a spring 2011 rapture, May 22 and the days and weeks to follow will be a period of reorienting themselves to a new reality caused by the head-on collision of superstition and reality. This can create a fissure in a person’s armor of faith. It is into that opening that reason can enter. It is a narrow space of time; it won’t be long before the very people who predicted a spring 2011 apocalypse will announce some mathematical error and begin all over again. After all, the most recent hysteria about the rapture was instigated by Harold Camping, a preacher who had previously predicted that the rapture would occur in September 1994 (Note: He was wrong then, too).

I do not generally advocate proselytization. But for those of you who have loved ones who suffer from this abuse (and that is exactly what it is) from figures like Camping, this is an opportunity to stage something along the lines of an intervention. I am in no position to offer advice on how; that is for you to figure out based on the specifics of the case. But I can say this: if I had a close friend or loved one who was involved in stories like this one in which believers did damage not only to themselves and their finances but also to their family, a confrontation in the aftermath of their complete and unequivocal defeat would be a first priority. I don’t say that as an opportunity to sneer in ridicule but as someone who holds intellectual inquiry in the highest regard.

But there is another, and broader, element to the rapture story that applies to all believers in supernatural hokum. It is easy, especially now, to point and laugh at a group of people who thought that the rapture was going to happen yesterday. But a belief in Armageddon is an essential part of the Christian argument and there is little or no dispute among believers that it will happen one day. What separates the believers being ridiculed and the believers doing the ridiculing is a matter of timing. To call one’s self a Christian and to claim a belief in the Bible, and specifically the prophecy of the Book of Revelation, requires it.

This may be the most difficult thing for people to learn from this event but it is the most essential lesson if we hope to break out of this superstitious rut. The non-event that was the rapture of 2011 is fundamentally no different from the belief that the world will end in the distant future. For that matter, believing that the image of Mary the Virgin appears in a burned piece of toast is no different from believing that bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ. If, in the aftermath of the tension and hysteria of the past few weeks, we can look back and see illusions and wishful thinking—in a word, faith—for what they are, then we stand a chance of emancipating ourselves from doctrines and traditions that have retarded our ability to think critically about the world and about ourselves and finally achieve the kind of enlightenment and higher consciousness that religion has always advertised but never delivered.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Steve Simon on Gay Marriage

As you may have heard, an amendment to the constitution of Minnesota banning gay marriage will appear on the 2012 ballot. State representative Steve Simon (DFL-St. Louis Park) gave the following testimony against the amendment.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Essay on 'Lake of Fire' at Winona360

As a follow up to the screening of the abortion documentary Lake of Fire, I have published an essay at Winona360 reflecting on the film. Here is an excerpt:
Before screening Lake of Fire at Winona State, I introduced the film to the audience and read a short excerpt from The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer. He writes, “The true believer is everywhere on the march, and both by converting and antagonizing he is shaping the world in his own image.” This quote could well play as an epigraph to Lake of Fire as it encapsulates the underlying theme of the film. It also answers one of the main criticisms of the film: that it focuses on the extremists, particularly on the anti-abortion side of the debate.

It may be true that most people who hold opinions about abortion one way or the other (which accounts for the majority of Americans) are not violent nor do they approve of violence toward those who hold opposing viewpoints. But the loudest voices have been those who have declared the abortion debate a holy war and their battle cries drown out the rational or moderate voices. In that respect, the extremists are setting the tone. Because the moderate voices cannot get a word in, they are like a television program that no one watches or a blog that no one reads. This source may have the best material or the most accurate information but if no one receives it, then it may as well not exist at all. Perception is reality and the extremists, by dominating the discussion, are in the process of reshaping reality, for themselves and for the rest of us, to fit this holy war perspective.
You can find out more about the film here.

Monday, April 04, 2011

'Lake of Fire' Screening on April 5th

The abortion documentary Lake of Fire will be showing on the Winona State University campus on Tuesday, April 5th at 7pm in the Somsen Auditorium. The event is open to the public and admission is free. The film is not rated but viewer discretion is advised.

This screening of Lake of Fire is sponsored by Sounds of Cinema. Find out more about the film here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

O'Donnell: "Many of the things [Bachmann] says are truly breathtaking demonstrations of ignorance levels previously unimaginable in a member of congress or a graduate of an American elementary school."

Watch Lawrence O'Donnell attempt to explain the stupidity of Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, and try to account explain her pattern of ignorant statements. He looks to the people of her staff, who ought to protect her, and the voters who elected her for some kind of answer but finds none.



Despite O'Donnell's tendency to indulge a condescending tone, he is right to point a finger at the voters of Minnesota. This woman is an embarrassment to the state and her supporters confirm the most damning criticisms of democracy: that it is an organized version of mob rule and that it rewards mediocrity.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mr. Ellison Goes to Washington

There is a lot going on in the world (as there always is) and lately I've been struggling to keep up with all of it. Over the next week or so I plan to publish some comments about the various stories that have been occupying my thoughts.

But for now I wanted to draw attention to the Homeland Security Committee's hearings on radicalization in the American Muslim community. Minnesota representative (and the first Muslim to be elected to congress) Keith Ellison made a statement to the committee, which can be read in full here.

Here is Ellison's thesis, and probably the most important point of his testimony:
Today’s hearing is entitled, “The extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s response.”

It is true that specific individuals, including some who are Muslims, are violent extremists. However, these are individuals – but not entire communities. Individuals like Anwar Al-Aulaqi, Faisel Shazad, and Nidal Hasan do not represent the Muslim American community. When their violent actions are associated with an entire community, then blame is assigned to a whole group. This is the very heart of stereotyping and scapegoating, which is counter-productive.

This point is at the heart of my testimony today. Ascribing the evil acts of a few individuals to an entire community is wrong; it is ineffective; and it risks making our country less secure.

Solutions to the scourge of domestic terrorism often emerge from individuals within the Muslim community—a point I address later in my testimony. However, demanding a “community response” (as the title of this hearing suggests) asserts that the entire community bears responsibility for the violent acts of individuals. Targeting the Muslim American community for the actions of a few is unjust. Actually all of us—all communities—are responsible for combating violent extremism. Singling out one community focuses our analysis in the wrong direction.
There are many reasons to criticize Islam. For that matter, there are many reasons to criticize Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and all other religions. Religion--as an ideology--is a poisonous influence on contemporary society as it retards culture, encourages anti-intellectualism, and promotes violence against those who do not share identical beliefs.

However, there is a distinction to be made between between Christianity and Christians, just is there is a difference between Islam and Muslims. One identifies a belief system and the other identifies a group of people. We should--and we must--be critical of the former. But we must also take care not to turn that criticism of dogma and ideology into an excuse for the persecution of an entire community, especially when that community is made of individuals with a wide range of opinions about their shared ideology.

These congressional hearings are being held as a result of institutionalized fears of Muslims in particular and of foreigners more broadly. This fear is understandable. As Ellison readily admits, there have been acts of violence committed by members of the Muslim community. And the impact of these events has been amplified by sensational news coverage that characterizes Muslims as a homogeneous group of barbarians intending to overrun western civilization.

But there has also been a great deal of violence committed against members of the Muslim community and yet congress has not conducted hearings about the religious and ethnic identities of those offenders. And that may be the biggest misstep of the committee's hearings. There was actually a golden opportunity here to make inroads of support for law enforcement and encourage interfaith and interracial cooperation by highlighting the differences between various Muslim groups and the ways members of the community have stepped forward to foil terrorist plots. There was also an opportunity to show how the actions of terrorists have caused difficulty for the Muslim community at large by staining their image.

But that was not the goal of today's hearings. Instead, congress went the route of lumping the many peaceful Muslims in with the few violent individuals. And this just makes things worse. Among the causes of radicalization is the perception of marginalization and persecution. These hearings, by their very design, alienate the community, isolate them as a villainous other, and accuse all members of sharing responsibility for the acts of a few. And as an ultimate result, these hearings may actually encourage those few who are on the fringes of radicalization to abandon hope for being a part of American society and attack it as though it were an enemy.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Best and Worst Films of 2010

On today's episode of Sounds of Cinema I listed my picks of the best and worst films of the past year.

Here are my picks of the 10 best films of 2010:
  1. Black Swan
  2. The Social Network
  3. Creation
  4. Restrepo
  5. The Kids Are All Right
  6. The Town
  7. Toy Story 3
  8. Easy A
  9. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
  10. Inception
And here are the 10 worst films of 2010:
  1. The Last Airbender
  2. My Soul to Take
  3. Cop Out
  4. Grown Ups
  5. Killers
  6. The Other Guys
  7. Skyline
  8. Devil
  9. The Switch
  10. Legion
You can find arguments for each film plus lists of honorable mentions and trends from the past year by clicking here.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Today in Censorship

Last night two of MSNBC's prime time programs ran stories about censorship.

First, Countdown ran a story about a new version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited by a professor at Auburn University at Montgomery, in which the "n-word" (I'm self censoring out of respect for the sensitivities of potential blog readers) is replaced with the word "slave." MSNBC calls in Melissa Harris-Perry to discuss the foolishness of this revision.



Second, The Last Word featured this story about a court decision that has overturned a fine that the FCC imposed on ABC affiliates for a nude scene on NYPD Blue in 2003. This is an exciting and interesting development because it may well set a prescedent for the dissolution of the FCC's ability to censor anything on television. The clip includes the offending footage.