Thursday, January 29, 2015

American Sniper

I'll keep this reasonably short, since by now you have (a) seen the film, or (b) read and heard enough about it that your brain is ready to crash, or (c) both.

Let me get this out of the way: American Sniper is not a great movie. Some of it isn't even very good. 

But it is impressive, despite a few dead spots (most in the domestic scenes when Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is between his four tours of duty in Iraq). I didn't think anything new could be done showing lethal street fighting after all the movies Iraq has spawned. But while Kyle (Bradley Cooper) works with various teams in the urban killing grounds, the focus is definitely on him. And this is different, because what we experience most intensely is one-on-one, not opposing armies tossed into a blender.

"Experience" isn't too strong a word for the battle scenes. And one surprise for me was that director Clint Eastwood showed himself capable of imagination in supervising camera placement, cutting, and atmosphere in those scenes. The sound design is so extraordinary it adds a scary additional dimension. I was lucky enough to catch American Sniper in the Cinerama Dome at the Arclight Hollywood, with a state-of-the-art sound system. But in any reasonably up-to-date theater, the soundtrack should be startlingly effective.

I wouldn't have thought Eastwood had it in him. He has been constantly hyped as a brilliant director, for reasons I could not understand; at most he seemed an efficient professional who avoided big mistakes. But in American Sniper he has stepped out of the conventional often enough.

Another virtue of the film is that it seems to have no agenda. The anguish of war is convincingly demonstrated (although with no more gore than necessary), but nothing types it as an "anti-war" film. Yet Kyle has an outburst of patriotism when watching the 9/11 attack on television with his family.

For a movie about a recent and ultra-controversial war, it's even-handed. It doesn't ask us to admire Kyle for defending the country. It doesn't make him out to be a sentimentally naive flag waver. It says, this is one man of our time, what he felt, what he did.

People at various points of the political compass can argue about its political message, but I doubt it intends to have one, and is all the better for that. Still, Sniper's overwhelming attendance figures suggest it connects with deep values and convictions that many moviegoers have been starved for. It is shaped by an outlook no movie has delivered in a long time. 

This isn't a story driven by plot points (the script is no great shakes) or acting (strong from Bradley Cooper, with the other players mostly reduced to scenery around Cooper). It's about the Code of Heroism that, for good or ill, dominated human values until the past century and for many continues to cast a spell. After 2,800 years, we read The Iliad for its poetry but also because we're drawn to characters whose lives are meaningless without heroism, risking all for honor. Achilles, Agamemnon, Hektor tell us about a way of life that exists today -- insofar as it exists at all -- mostly in the military. The Iliad also shows the tragic cost to others involved with heroes, like Hektor's wife, Andromache. 

It doesn't reach the heights of The Iliad, but if American Sniper has a "message," it's one that resonates with a long history.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Good to go

Putting up this entry has been delayed. The jet lag from flying coast-to-coast is fierce. No, I'm kidding, of course. I managed to snag nonstop flights both directions. For all the boredom and sometimes discomforts of cattle class, they aren't a patch on traveling by stage coach in the 19th century.

I've been on much longer flights (I think New York to Bucharest set personal record), but it still astonishes me that I can be in California looking at olive trees, date palms, and bougainvillea and a few hours later back in Virginia with its skeletal deciduous trees. 

Lots of people seem to find it weird to take a brief vacation in Los Angeles. But flying to summer south of the equator was unaffordable; I wouldn't go to Mexico to win a bet; and my wife and I wanted a break from the cold temperatures and 50 shades of gray skies.

It helps if you know the area. I say area because, as many have remarked, LA isn't a city in the traditional sense but a conglomeration of vastly distinct districts. There are plenty of parts I don't want to know, but am familiar with most of the good ones. They can be quite enjoyable.

We stayed on the affluent West Side. (The well-off have a few other enclaves, such as San Marino and parts of Pasadena.) Not out of snobbery but because it's relatively safe and pleasant. In fact, there is probably no lovelier residential area in the U.S. than around Sunset from the 405 freeway to the ocean. The landscaping and endless variations of housing styles, the hills and mountains in the background, can't help giving you a boost. 

Traffic (lots of Mercedes-Benzes, Lexuses, BMWs, etc.) can be a right bitch -- although it's no worse than in Washington and its burbs and probably many other cities. Parking is a form of abuse. Despite the widespread loathing of freeways, they are jammed mainly at rush hours; other times they are an efficient way to get around LA's galactic distances.

Social class divisions, as evident in for instance West Hollywood versus eastern Hollywood (central Hollywood is a catchment area for tourists), are glaringly obvious. There are clear borders between  haves and have-nots, although maybe no more so than in today's America generally. Ethnicity doesn't seem to have changed much since my last visit: Anglos, Hispanics, Asians are the dominant populations. There are more openly gay couples of both sexes than I remember.

One perhaps trivial but striking trend: the bumper stickers that used to be almost ubiquitous are now rare. Maybe Los Angelenos have decided it's too tacky to decorate their vehicles with culturally Marxist messages. Or maybe they're confident that the media and school systems are fully up to the job.

Even more trivial, but possibly signifying something, the huge billboards that used to pitch upcoming movies now seem mostly to tout television series.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Don't fight Muslim terrorists

Matthew Continetti offers his thoughts on defeating Muslim terrorism in the Washington Free Beacon. The gist of his wisdom: whack the jihadists on their turf, not ours (meaning Western countries, which some terrorists have the legal right to call "home").

He presents a reasonable history of the dopey responses that have been tried over the years. First there was the law enforcement method: treat them like Mafiosi or tax evaders. Various other strategies, from bombing to invasion to nation building, followed.

Our president in absentia introduced the latest phase:
With the election of President Obama, however, the conflict between Islamism and America entered a third phase. Our troops were removed from the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving Special Forces and drone pilots to do most of the fighting. The defense budget was cut. Harsh interrogation was curtailed, and Guantanamo Bay slowly emptied. Surveillance practices were disrupted. The words “Islamic terrorism” would not be uttered, for that somehow legitimized extremists. As for the terrorists themselves, they were once again treated like criminals.
This naughty-but-nice policy has been another dud.
What has resulted is a dramatic uptick in Islamic radicalism. In January 2014 the RAND Corporation found that “the number of Salafi-jihadist groups and fighters increased after 2010, as well as the number of attacks perpetrated by Al Qaeda and its affiliates.” Attacks including the Ft. Hood massacre; the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi; the Boston Marathon bombing whose victims included an 8-year-old boy; and the public beheading of British Fusilier Lee Rigby.
Continetti pitches a new strategy, which sounds suspiciously like one of the old ones:
And there is really only one way America can respond to this challenge. We need to kill them first. We need to kill them on a field of battle whose contours are determined not by the terrorists but by us. We need to kill them over there—in the Middle East—before they reach the West. ... 

The number of U.S. ground forces in Iraq must be dramatically increased, and America seriously must work to remove the cause of the Syrian civil war: the mass murderer Bashar al-Assad, who continues to use chemical weapons, has entered into a de facto alliance with our terrorist adversary, and is reconstituting his nuclear weapons program.
There "is really only one way America can respond" -- but it's not Iraq War 2.0. To eliminate, or at least marginalize, terror attacks we shouldn't fight IS, Al Qaeda, et al. 

We should keep them the hell out of our countries. No more Muslim immigration, period. If some of them feel a need to spray Americans and Europeans with automatic rifle rounds, they face an extra dimension of difficulty if they are busy swatting flies in Syria or Iraq.

Encourage all Muslims to return to the failed states from which they came to enjoy the privileges of big-hearted tolerance in the United States, Europe, and Australia. If they want to play with AK-47s and explosives, they can do so against each other in the territories the Prophet dealt them.

Of course such an idea violates our religion of multi-culturalism. But even religions change. I'd rather switch than fight.

* * * * *

My wife and I are flying to Los Angeles tomorrow for a few days of -- we hope -- sunshine and warm temperatures. Even if the weather lets us down we will have plenty to do. 

Posting, if any, will be light for the next week. As always, thanks for stopping by.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Je suis Charlie." Really?

No doubt about it: seeing photos of large crowds with their "Je suis Charlie" signs brought emotions I never thought I'd feel again, especially hope for resistance to Islamization of the West. Whatever else you might say about these demos, they were for once active, not defensive and half-apologetic. Many people of all kinds were not prepared to understand or forgive cold-blooded murder on behalf of a vicious ideology hitched to a religion.

For the moment at least, the pleas of the can't-we-all-get-along weenies were drowned out.

Gates of Vienna published an account of an interview with English journalist Douglas Murray. What Murray said wasn't bad, but Gates of Vienna publisher Baron Bodissey went further:
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Mr. Murray was discussing the sham nature of all the candle-lit vigils for “free speech” that were then taking place. Well-meaning, well-heeled people stood with pens held high and tears running down their cheeks, holding signs that read “Je suis Charlie”. But in all likelihood none of them — especially those associated with Big Media — will do what Charlie Hebdo did: lampoon Islam with unbridled ferocity. ...

These heartfelt demonstrations are no more than beautiful lies. This is all theater — public posturing that makes ordinary middle-class people feel good about themselves. Full of sound and tear-drenched sentiment, but signifying nothing.
I'm glad Bodissy wrote this, and it may be a fair point. But while I normally lead the parade of Cynics United, twirling my baton, it remains to be seen if most of the demonstrators are quite the moral exhibitionists he thinks. Of course it takes no courage to hold up a sign or a pencil in the midst of thousands of other protesters; it's about as risky as putting a "Coexist" bumper sticker on your car in Berkeley.

Yet ... while individuals can sometimes convert seemingly in a flash because of views that have been slowly building unconsciously (William James has a striking chapter about the phenomenon in The Varieties of Religious Experience), societies don't work that way. Big turnarounds are accretive, tentative at first, then gathering strength and speed. People who wouldn't dare take an uncompromising stand against quasi-religious totalitarianism look around, see a huge gathering of people speaking out, and realize they have allies. It's not the end of the road toward reclaiming freedom of speech and thought, but it's an important step.

Can the leopard change his spots? Can the New York Times change its template for every article about ethnic and religious divisions? I'm more certain of the answer to the second question. Here's the usual fill-in-the-blanks "backlash" story from the Times:
PARIS — Last week’s terrorist attacks without doubt set all of France on edge, but the sense of wariness, even siege, has grown increasingly profound among France’s Muslim population — the largest in Europe — which seems braced for a potential backlash, both political and personal.

Since the attack Wednesday on the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, several mosques across France have been hit by bullets or small explosive devices. Many more have been tagged by racist graffiti. In Corsica, a severed pig’s head was hung on the door of a prayer hall, the police reported. 

Those actions followed weekly marches by tens of thousands in Germany, demonstrating against what they call the Islamization of Europe, the firebombing of a mosque in Sweden and warnings by British officials about a rise in Islamophobia.
"Bullets or small explosive devices ... racist graffiti ... pig's head ... ." These things may be bad form, but you have to expect a few hotheads are going to get carried away after something like the Charlie Hebdo massacre. 

What else does this backlash involve? Peaceful marches in some German cities. The firebombing of a mosque (three, actually: inexcusable but not exactly Kristallnacht). Warnings by British officials, who are indoctrinated down to their toenails to cater to the Muslim population, about a rise in "Islamophobia." Some backlash.
Amid the rising suspicions and animus, and louder calls from the French right for stricter measures against Muslim radicals and immigration in the wake of the attacks, a broader question is emerging as to how France can close the breach. For the time being, the answer may be a retreat to the corners by the mainstream Muslim community, even as prominent voices urge moderation from extremist imams and disenfranchised Muslim youth.
Okay, you extremist imams and youth. Cool it for now while we look for a way to outlaw the National Front and keep Marine Le Pen from speaking in public. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Enablers of Islamization: This policeman died for your sins

... as did the artist and staff member victims at Charlie Hebdo.

But this shocking, point-blank assassination could well signal a turn in French society.

From now on, every policeman and policewoman in France will have no, zero, compassion for any Muslim with the slightest tinge of sudden jihad syndrome or even routine criminality. Someone who kills a flic while nearby cameras record it -- or is even suspiciously associated with the deed -- can expect no mercy or "justice." 

French police, I have heard, are as tough as they come. They are very high on the list of those you don't want for an enemy, which everyone who planned and carried out this atrocity will learn.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Archives of Psychical Research: I

William Faulkner famously said, "The past is never dead. It’s not even past." It would be satisfying to believe so concerning the vast collection of research, accounts of personal experience, and theories about psychical phenomena. Unfortunately, most books and articles on psychical research have a brief shelf life. Some deserve to, but others have a claim on our attention.

This series offers brief reviews and discussions of a few explorations of paranormal mental phenomena that have been all but forgotten.

Apparitions and Survival of Death by Raymond Bayless. New Hyde Park: University Books, 1973.

If you don't believe studies of psychical research are writ in water, consider the case of Raymond Bayless, author of seven books about the subject from various angles. They were mainly published in the 1970s, are already out of print and rarely discussed. He lived till 2004.

Bayless called himself a researcher, legitimately I think. But he lacked a string of academic degrees after his name, which won't do these days. Nevertheless, his book reads well although it could stand better organization -- he tends to mention the same subject at scattered locations.

Apparitions and Survival of Death examines one of the key phenomena said to provide evidence that the deceased continue in spirit form after the body is dead and gone. Literally thousands of well-researched cases are on record, plus others that are anecdotal and not fully meeting criteria for acceptance -- but their sheer numbers add a further suggestion that post-mortem survival is real.

It's a complicated and puzzling subject, like everything paranormal. For one thing, apparitions (appearances of someone not physically present) often involve seeing the image of someone alive, and even in slapping good health, at the time. One of the earliest scientific surveys -- possibly the most thorough ever done -- is titled Phantasms of the Living. Another category is so-called "crisis apparitions" of people who are dying, but show up while the ill or injured person is still breathing.

As if that's not enough, apparitions have various degrees of physical solidity, from faint and wispy to others that look like ordinary people and can physically affect objects, such as by turning lights on and off, or making footstep-like sounds as they move around. Some apparitions are seen by several people at the same time, in the proper perspective for each viewer.

Ironically, those most determined to dismiss apparitions as spirits are as likely to be parapsychologists as scientific materialists. The academic instinct is to avoid metaphysical explanations or to be associated with séances and such questionable practices. From the very founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, some of its most prominent researchers including Frederic Myers and Edmund Gurney shied away from the spirit hypothesis.

Most alternative theories up to the present involve some version of telepathy. Bayless says:
In 1888 F.W.H. Myers theorized that phantoms, representing both the living and the dead, were telepathic in origin. Simply put, this theory suggests that a person involved in some type of crisis (the agent) broadcasts a telepathic message to the receiver (the percipient) who in turn casts the impulse into tangible form. That is, his mind turns the original telepathic impulse into a visually perceived but hallucinatory phantasm; or into a sound such as a voice, footsteps, a touch of a hand; or into the form of a significant odor.
Myers's colleague, Edmund Gurney, was troubled by the problem of collectively perceived apparitions. Unwilling to allow any physical reality to an apparition, he tried to rescue the telepathic idea by claiming that "after the original 'broadcast' was received by the primary percipient, this receiver in turn emitted another telepathic transmission, which was then picked up by still another percipient. In the case of multiple percipients the telepathic 'infection,' as Gurney termed it, became quite complex, unwieldy, and very improbable!"

The telepathic-perception hypothesis was shaped into its modern and most famous form by G.N.M. Tyrrell in a lecture and later a book, Apparitions. Bayless:
Professor Hornell Hart briefly defines Tyrrell's supposition by stating that a ghost is the result of a mingling of the subconscious minds of both agent and percipient, and that the actual apparition is a kind of three-dimensional picture in motion. Tyrrell refers to "the stage carpenter" (meaning, I believe, [the percipient's] ability to create illusion) and other subtleties which have provided much bewilderment among parapsychologists. In essence, after trimming away certain verbal foliage, I fail to see that he said anything drastically different from what Edmund Gurney postulated.
Clearly, Bayless isn't having it that all apparitions are generated in one or more living minds. In my view, the different editions of the telepathy explanation are theoretically possible in paranormal appearances of the living. But as a general proposition they fall wide of the mark.

What about apparitions of people who are verifiably deceased? Who is then the "sender" of the impression that the receiver, or receivers collectively, see or hear or both? 

Bayless includes chapters on related phenomena, which he examines with his commonsense approach: poltergeists, out-of-the-body experiences, ectoplasmic figures, &c. Partial materialization of apparitions through ectoplasm is absurd, of course, but casts have been made from ectoplasmic hands pressed into wax. The casts have been photographed. Perhaps they were perceived by the camera's internal stage carpenter.

Considering all the different forms taken by apparitions and the circumstances under which they make themselves known, it's reasonable to suppose that they consist not just of one class of psychical phenomena, but several, or maybe many. Given the cloud under which apparitions remain in an increasingly material-minded world, it will be a long time before the mystery reveals its secrets.