Monday, February 27, 2006

This Old Man

Old man in Tel Aviv

The doctor came to talk to John
His only visitor in the two days
That I shared a room with him

He had been admitted
The night before
Moaning and complaining
Confused and nearly deaf

He'd told the nurses
That he was going to
Call the cops and tell them
How these people were
Mistreating him

A feeble and helpless protest
By a feeble and helpless man
Who couldn't understand where he was

I never got a clear look at him
The occasional parting of curtains
Revealed only glimpses

Hunched over, and balding
Slack skinned
Paper thin and pallid

He wanted something to eat
But his intestines were twisted up
And they couldn't let him

He wanted to smoke
But you can't do that in a hospital
And he didn't have the strength to walk
To the smoking area

He wanted a whirlpool bath
But all they had were showers

He wanted some dignity
But time had already taken
That least, last commodity

He begged
He threatened
And he complained
Endlessly and pathetically

He used to be a Marine, you know

I could imagine him
Fighting for pride and country
On some hostile, distant shore

But this was a battle
That he couldn't win
Wouldn't win

The doctor spoke to him
Without having to shout

Unlike the nurses,
Who had to say everything
Three times and again

Authority has its own volume

"You will die if we don't operate
And it will be a painful death"

Even if they operated
His chances were only 1 in 5
And getting worse by the hour

In the end, he agreed
To that calm, fatalistic voice
And he was taken away to surgery

Later that day
His name was erased
From the whiteboard in the room

Photo courtesy of Giara

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Some Brief Thoughts on the Current Cartoon Controversy

Those who have been reading this blog know that I am both a liberal as well as an ex-Muslim and I want to address this current controversy from both perspectives. Some will look at the "ex-" prefix and assume that I must be hostile towards Islam, so I think that I should first clarify my stance on the religion.

I do, in fact, have quite a few issues with the core scriptures of Islam, by which I mean the Qu'ran and the Hadiths (which are the sayings of Muhammad). There is a lot in there that should be offensive to any advocate of civilized society. However, there is a difference between the scriptures of a religion and the practice of that religion.

Objectively, Islamic scripture isn't any worse than Jewish scripture (and, thus, by extension, Christian Scripture). If you actually read through the Torah, it would be hard to find a document that is a better example of bloody-minded xenophobia, misogyny, and barbarism. One can, of course, take the detached stance that the books of the Torah were written by a primitive people who lived in a world where these traits were the norm -- and that is so -- but the fact remains that many people consider them to have modern relevance.

If I only looked at Jewish scripture, I would presume that Judaism is an abominable religion. This would be very short sighted, however. The vast majority of modern Jews don't adhere to a strict practice or interpretation of their scriptures. It would be hard to find many rabbis who would suggest, for instance, that a disobedient child should be stoned to death, or that woman should be considered taboo during their menses. In fact, over the millennia, Judaism has liberalized. To be sure, there are still conservative pockets of orthodoxy and ultra-orthodoxy, which I would say need to be judged independently, but the religion, as a whole, no longer reflects the literal mind-set of its scriptures.

My point is that the practice of a religion is far more important that the strict content of the religion. You can find examples of this in any religious tradition. It would be foolish to suppose that modern, post Vatican II, Catholicism is the same thing as the Catholicism of the 12th century. It's would be foolish to think that 21st century Mormons are cut from the same cloth at their 19th century counterparts. The Buddhism of a modern adherent of Zen is not the same thing as the Buddhism practiced by the Buddha, himself.

Religions change and evolve. Unfortunately, just as in biology, not all evolution is progressive. Islam has a marvelous history. This is one of the things that attracted me to the religion. During its golden era, Islam represented the pinnacle of scientific, mathematical, and philosophic inquiry in the world. It was contact with the Islamic world (as well as compulsive archiving by Catholic monks) that helped to lift us out of our own dark ages. It was this era of Islam that produced the remarkable scientist-philosopher-poet-theologian, Omar Khayyám who wrote one of the most amazing works of literature the world has ever seen, The Rubáiyát.

Even in Khayyám's own era, however, there was a politically influential orthodoxy. That orthodox movement, however, was largely kept in check. That is no longer the case. Modern Islam has become a radicalized religion. Before someone accuses me of generalizing, I will acknowledge that there are moderate and even liberal movements within Islam. Indeed, if you follow Islam far enough to the left you end up at Sufism which is, in many ways, comparable to modern Buddhism in terms of tolerance and overall progressiveness. These cases not withstanding, though, it is accurate to say that the modern Islamic zeitgeist is anything but progressive. In fact, what passes for moderation in Islam would be considered very reactionary by western standards.

Allow me to frame this in terms that are personally meaningful to me. I am an Islamic apostate. Islamic law (a.k.a., Sharia) has some sections that pertain to apostates. Many Islamic clerics would argue that I should be put to death for leaving the religion. This is the general conservative stance. A few conservatives would argue that the fact that I am living outside of Dar-al-Islam (meaning the Islamic world) provides an extenuating circumstance that may justify the sparing of my life so long as I live in exile from that world (which, I confess, isn't much of a burden to me). The moderate stance is that I deserve punishment, but that punishment should be reserved to Allah who will, justifiably, throw me in the worst sections of hellfire. Since I'm not particularly concerned about going to Hell, I'm more than willing to accept the moderate stance but it is critical to understand that this stance isn't driven by any sense of mercy or civilized restraint. They simply don't think that my punishment should be part of their jurisdiction. I would have to go very far to the left of mainstream Islam before I found a scholar who would dare to suggest that renouncing my religion was my right as well as my conscientious duty given that I could no longer sustain rational belief in it.

The bottom line is that I don't hate Islam. Islam, like any other religion, boils down to how it's practiced. What I do hate is how Islam is being practiced by the bulk of its modern adherents. Fundamentalism has become the norm in the Islamic world. Strict interpretations of Sharia are the official practice of too many countries. It is a system of law that is, literally, medieval. Under Sharia people can, and are, killed in barbaric ways for offenses that civilized countries wouldn't even consider crimes, anymore (such as adultery). It is a system that makes it easy for women to be raped (because it requires multiple witnesses to the actual event) but extremely difficult for them to establish a right to their property or the custody of their children. It is a system where a man can divorce his wife simply by saying "I divorce you" three times in a row. (There was a recent debate as to whether this could be done via instant messaging!)

Many liberals have embraced what I consider to be a naive multiculturalism. I want to emphasize that I think that a limited multicultural world-view can be a healthy thing. Many of the western excesses and atrocities of the 19th and earlt-20th century were driven by a strict euro-centrism that failed to accept that any other cultural model could have any validity what so ever. It is a good thing to, at least, try to understand why other cultures are the way that they are and to carry a default presumption of respect for divergent cultural standards. Where multiculturalism fails is when it takes that default presumption as a mandate to respect other culture's practices no matter what.

I have written an extensive essay on the subject of relativism vs. absolutism. To quickly summarize it, while I reject the stance that there is a single, absolute moral template that applies to all cultures at all times, I do believe that different moral standards can be assessed on the basis of objective criteria. To give an extreme example, a culture that allows its citizens to freely kill one another would quickly collapse into anarchy. As such, murder is objectively wrong for a civilization because it would quickly lead to anarchy. When I wrote the essay I deliberately didn't go into detail on what criteria I would use. I merely wanted to establish that the idea of objectively evaluating cultures didn't require one to embrace a theory of absolute morality and conduct.

I would like to now suggest that two such measures should be the happiness and prosperity of a culture. I submit that a culture whose citizens are happy is more stable than a culture whose citizens are miserable and that the more happiness enjoyed by the overall population, the more stable it is. In like measure, I would suggest that prosperity serves a similar function. It is necessary to note that happiness and prosperity are not the same thing and that a country can have an abundance of one while having a deficit of the other. I would, finally, suggest that the abstract goal of freedom is a meta-philosophy that tends to increase both happiness and prosperity and, thus, one that can be objectively supported.

There are many people on the left who are defending the outrage of the Islamic world over the cartoons of Muhammad published by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten. They argue that even though they support the notion of freedom, in the abstract, they feel that the paper acted inappropriately and irresponsibly because the cartoons are culturally offensive. One claim that I've seen made, again and again, is that freedom carries with it responsibilities and that someone who can't use their freedoms responsibly should not have them. I believe that this is a dangerous stance.

It is, essentially, a variation of the argument that one's freedom of speech does not permit one to shout fire in a crowded theater. The theory is that publishing these cartoons is a deliberate act of provocation that is intended to incite violence and, thus, morally equivalent to the aforementioned act of fire-shouting.

I do not accept this interpretation. When someone shouts fire in a crowded theater, the resulting panic is caused by a rational response to disinformation. It is a fabrication that denies other people the freedom to make a rational decision as to whether to stay seated or to rush to the exits. A more appropriate expression of the theory, I believe, is that you may not exercise your freedom in such a way as to fundamentally curtail the freedoms of others.

I believe that the current crisis is disanalogous. The rioters are not rioting because their freedoms are being hampered. They are rioting because their sensibilities are being hampered. Rather than shouting fire, it's more like shouting tuna with a resulting vegetarian rampage. I believe that this is where naive multiculturalism comes into play. Those multiculturalists who believe that all cultures are equally valid and equally good are compelled, by their own philosophy, to assert that the rioting Muslims are justified in their actions because their culture forbids depictions of the prophet. They believe that our own culture's love of free speech isn't any more important than their culture's religious teachings.

Of course, a consistent application of this view would imply that both parties are equally justified. Jyllands-Posten is right to publish offensive cartoons, and the Islamic world is justified to throw a world-scale hissy-fit over it. Curiously, naive multiculturalists are rarely consistent when evaluating their own culture. Since this version of multiculturalism is largely Western, they tend to hold the West to a higher standard than the rest of the world, insisting that we embrace a meta-philosophy of tolerance towards other cultures. I suspect that this inconsistent stance is ultimately rooted in guilt over the West's (objectively atrocious) history of imperialism and cultural suppression.

While I agree that tolerance is, in general, a good thing, I also think that it is easily misapplied. It is one thing (and a good thing) to tolerate a difference of religious belief. It is, however, not a good thing to allow that tolerance to extend to the point where one is compromising one's own freedoms in the name of said tolerance. More to the point, I will submit that freedom of expression is better than respecting the icons of various religions. The reason for this is that there are no end to the things that people consider iconic, but there are definite ends to our ability to say what we believe to be true.

Here is the real danger of imposing restrictions on religious expression in the name of cultural sensitivity and "responsibility". If we condemn Jyllands-Posten for these publications and if we pass rules and regulations to prevent this from happening again, we set a precedent. We would send a message to the world that says that, although we embrace freedom of speech, we'll limit it if you get sufficiently offended. This tells everyone who has a belief that they hold dear (and there are no end to them) that if they act belligerently enough to defend that belief we will, of our own free will, muzzle ourselves so as to prevent offense. In other words, we will be providing an incentive to all the fundamentalists of the world (religious and otherwise) to take up arms whenever we tread on doctrines that they consider dear. The end result will be that, for the sake of sensitivity and responsible expression, we will allow ourselves to be silenced by degrees until we reach a point where we can say nothing at all for fear of offending anyone at all. In the end, we will allow ourselves to be deprived of a commodity that I believe has much more objective value than any of the dogmas that we would be supposedly respecting.

I do not believe that we can let this happen no matter how outraged the Islamic (or any other segment of the) world becomes at our expressions. The question should not be whether Jyllands-Posten was deliberately offensive, nor should it be whether Jyllands-Posten was acting responsibly. The question should be whether or not we consider the right to offend to be something worth defending. Those who think it isn't should be aware that the right to offend is nothing less than a synonym for the right to speak out at all.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Quick Update

As Natalie has reported, I've returned from the hospital. What was supposed to be outpatient surgery ended up as a very unpleasant two day stay. Fortunately, it looks like the worst is past (and I will spare everyone the unpleasant details -- suffice it to say that bladder and kidney issues can be rather messy and undignified).

I'm going to be staying mainly in bed until I feel better; however, there's only so much of that a body can take so I might be online now and again. If I do, I'll try to spare the time to keep everyone updated on my condition.

Sweet Relief

Natalie here -- I just spoke with Andrew and got his approval to put up a note, so that (a) no one will worry and (b) he won't personally have to do it...

His procedure on Friday had some unexpected complications. He was admitted to the hospital, and was discharged just now. He said he feels "like I just went five rounds with a bunch of angry bikers," and apparently he's been prescribed a veritable cornucopia of medications, but at least he'll be able to be home.

Get well soon, friend.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


I was hoping to have the evaluation of Munich up, tonight, but I'm just not feeling well enough to focus on that so, instead, here's a link to a funny song/slide-show about llamas. Enjoy.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Health Update

Some of you have been expressing an interest (and concern) for my health, so I thought I'd offer a quick update.

The bad news is that I still have stones that need to be passed. According to the latest imaging, some of them are over a centimeter in length. My urologist has made it very clear that I do not want to attempt to pass those unassisted. Towards that end I'm scheduled for lithotripsy this Friday.

Lithotripsy is a technique where they use sound waves to break up the stones while the patient is submerged in water. I was somewhat hopeful that this would involve a hot tub and some Enya but it is, apparently, a rather intense experience, which is why I shall be going under general anesthetic (as opposed to being generally unaesthetic) during the process. The good news is that it is an outpatient procedure so I will be able to limp home to recover. Because I'm working for the government, I'll get a three-day weekend to recover (although I may go in to work a few hours to make up for lost time).

Do wish me luck.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Oscar Evaluation: Good Night, and Good Luck

Awhile back, Ann Coulter, the unofficial fluffer for the neo-conservative movement, started arguing that history had mistreated poor Joseph McCarthy who, she claims, was actually a true patriot doing his level best to fight an actual menace.

While I don’t think that anyone would deny that Communism was a genuine threat to the free world, and I don’t think that many would deny that there was a legitimate concern with regards to Communist agents trying to infiltrate the government, it astonishes me that anyone would insist that McCarthy’s tactics were anything less than a politically motivated witch hunt of the first order.

Good Night, and Good Luck is not the first movie to address the McCarthy era, nor is it the best (I would suggest that The Crucible deserves that honor, in spite of its careful obliqueness), but the simple fact that there are those who would try to portray McCarthyism as a good thing does indicate that it is a necessary movie. Beyond that, there are strong resonances between the days of the HUAC and our own times when people are -- to my utter horror and astonishment -- insisting that there are merits to domestic spying, detention without trial and, even, torture as a legitimate tool of interrogation; facts which I am certain influenced the production of Good Night, and Good Luck.

The film details the very public battle between legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow and McCarthy. In a stroke of absolute genius, McCarthy isn’t played by an actor. Instead, they use actual footage of McCarthy, including his infamous on-air rebuttal to Murrow. An interesting film anecdote is that studio executives who saw an early screening were concerned that the guy playing McCarthy was a bit too over the top.

Murrow is played by David Strathairn. It is said that a great actor can so perfectly assume a character that you don’t question the reality of the character. If this is a valid standard, then Strathairn is, indeed, one of the best actors I’ve had the joy of witnessing. He doesn’t look anything like Murrow but he so perfectly captures the mannerisms -- vocal and characteristic -- of Murrow that it didn’t even occur to me that he looked like anyone else but Murrow. To put this into context, it is as if a 5 foot 10 actor managed to not only play Abraham Lincoln, but also managed to convince the audience that he was actually 6 foot 6.

It is a stark movie. The sets are stark. The acting is stark. The dialog is stark. It is shot in a stark version of black and white that makes a typical Noir film seem downright cheerful by comparison. It is the starkness of the film, in fact, that ultimate ends up detracting from it. The film strives for an austere rationalism which it does achieve, but at the expense of emotional involvement. A friend of mine says that it’s almost as if the film has intimacy issues. While I can appreciate the fact that the film is making a strong case for reason in public debate, and showing the power of reason when it comes to dealing with tyrants, the fact remains that the film doesn’t engage the audience as much as it should.

I do believe that it is an Oscar Worthy pick. Indeed, I liked it better than Capote, which is a film that can’t be faulted for a lack of emotion. Never the less, I do wish that the direction was just a bit more emotive and a bit less stark. Creatures like McCarthy should, I think, evoke some emotion. One can rationally condemn monsters while, at the same time, being disgusted as mad as hell at them, too.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Oscar Evaluation: Capote

The first we see of Truman Capote is him at a party of some sort. He's sharing an anecdote with several people who are laughing and, more importantly, focused on him. We quickly learn that this is precisely where Capote wants to be: at the center of everyone's attention.

As the film begins, Truman is already an established member of New York's literary cognoscenti. He's published a number of successful novels including Breakfast and Tiffany's which has already been made into a movie, meaning that he's not only well connected in the writing establishment but he also has in-roads into the world of Hollywood which, in that era, was a still considered a thing of glamour. His best friend is Harper Lee who would eventually become famous in her own right for "To Kill a Mockingbird" (someone asks her about "that bird book" she's working on and asks if it's a children's story).

Our first impression of him is of a small, wispish man with a manner of speech that is so odd that it seems like it must be affected (although, later, he does claim that people used to make fun of the way he talks). He is gay in an era well before even the idea of gay liberation was on the horizon, but he travels through circles where no one gives a damned about that. Indeed, he lives in a rather rarefied world. In some ways, he reminds me of a rare tropical plant. Not a beautiful Polynesian flower, but something that would seem uninteresting and even ugly if it simply weren't so far out of the ordinary.

A pivotal moment comes when he reads about a multiple murder in a small Kansas town. He quickly informs his publisher of his plans and drags his friend Harper out to the middle of nowhere so that she can help him interact with the natives. (Ultimately, Harper will get a credit in the resulting book – as his secretary). His initial plan is to write a story on the impact of the violence. He really doesn't care whether or not the people who did it are caught; a fact that he shares with the sheriff of the town while asking him when he can arrange a personal interview with him. The sheriff acidly informs Truman that, even though Truman doesn't care, he cares quite a bit whether they get caught. Truman is forced to accept mere attendance at a press conference.

Eventually Harper manages to smooth some ruffled feathers and get Truman access to the Sheriff via the Sheriffs wife, who's a fan of Truman's and, more importantly, dazzled by his fame. Once again, Truman finds himself at the focus of someone's attention and he's able to use that focus to his advantage to charm the sheriff's wife and even to put the sheriff, himself, at enough ease that he let's Truman see the crime photos. Up to this point, the audience could be forgiven for wondering whether there was anything that actually made Capote special but, in this scene, we see that behind the affectations and preening, there is a genuinely brilliant mind. He wonders why the killer took the time to wrap a blanket around on the victims, and to put a pillow under the head of the other. Even the sheriff seems impressed by these insights.

Ultimately, two men are caught. One seems to be something or an artist while the other is more eloquent. Truman sits through the initial trial and manages to get some slight contact with the more eloquent of the duo via his association with the Sheriff's wife. He becomes intrigued by them. They are quickly found guilty, not least because their public defender doesn't do a very competent job of defending them. Capote quickly arranges to get them a better lawyer who launches an appeal based upon the incompetence of their original defense.

It's important to take a moment to understand why he does this. If this were an ordinary movie, it would be because the protagonist is offended at the lack of good due process. It would have been very easy to make this a movie about civil rights and the ethics of capital punishment. Truman, however, isn't really interested in such things. In these men he sees a story and he needs the time to properly research and write it. He simply doesn't want them to get killed too quickly.

The remainder of the movie Truman develops a closer relationship with the killers (there really isn't any question that they committed the crime), but it is a complex relationship. His closest contact is with Perry Smith, the more eloquent of the two. It's a relationship ship built on hesitant trusts and mutual manipulation. Perry is a smart but largely amoral person who, never the less, as intriguing depths. Indeed, the very same can be said of Capote.

His initial idea was simply a magazine article but he sees, in these two, the potential for an entirely new form of writing: the non-fiction novel. Indeed, when he gives an initial reading (once again displaying actual genius), he is met to thunderous applause (to his immense delight). The assignment, however, becomes complicated. In spite of himself, he begins to experience genuine feelings of sympathy and even empathy towards Perry. Harper tells him that he's falling in love (which isn't fair given that he already has a lover).

These feelings make Truman very uncomfortable, not because of who they are directed towards but because he's having them at all. Actual love is something alien to him. It's also frightening because love demands a shift in focus away from ourselves and towards the ones we love. Truman's position in his own private spot-light is jeopardized by these feelings, which terrifies him and compels him to do some rather despicable things.

Good biographies, of course, won't try to whitewash their subjects, but it’s typical, and not surprising, that they do tend to celebrate them. Capote is a rather unusual biopic. It's less of a celebration than a study. In is, I believe, the story of a flawed, emotionally stunted man who is forced, against his will, to experience moral growth. In a typical movie, such characters eventually achieve a breakthrough that lets to achieve maturity. Truman Capote does not. In fact, the effort and strain breaks him. In the end he is left saddened, confused, and worse off than before precisely because he only ever manages to grow half of a soul – enough to feel guilt and shame, but not enough to achieve epiphany.

Of the five nominees, Capote is my least favorite. It is important that I qualify that, however, by pointing out that this year's nominees represent a season of giants. It is a brilliant, challenging and remarkable film and well worth seeing. Part of the reason I liked it less than the others is that it has those precise qualities. It it is more difficult to love a movie where the main character is so utterly unlikable, so thoroughly pitiable, and so perfectly frustrating. The effort, never the less, is worth it.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Oscar Evaluation: 2006

I have not forgotten that I have to complete my last essay, nor have I decided to ignore that duty. Time and circumstance have, however, considered to make it difficult for me to get down to the task... that and a morbid sense of procrastination coupled with guilt that makes it difficult to start up again.

I think I need a diversion. Fortunately, Oscar season offers me the perfect distraction, and I can even legitimize it by noting that I did capsule reviews of the best picture nominees last year and that I'd like to make it an annual tradition.

That said, this is a very remarkable year. Last year I complained about the presence of undeserving fluff (read: Neverland) whose presence was all the worse because legitimately deserving pictures such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind didn't get nominated. I have no such complaint this year. All of the nominees are deep and serious films. I am, in fact, surprised that there are absolutely no blockbuster nominees -- a situation that I have simply not seen since I've been tracking the nominees. The closet we have to a popular film, this year, is Brokeback Mountain which is a film that most people are aware of but which relatively few people have seen. There are certainly no feel-good movies, and nothing that strikes me as being either lightweight or pretentious.

I am, in fact, so impressed with the nominations that I'm going to be giving each their own individual post over the next several days. Expect the first review by no later than this Friday.

Scout's honor.

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