Archive for March 2007

Being Gay is Like Eating Ham

March 30, 2007

David Gelernter has been the topic of discussion on these pages before. And the subject matter is always a bit of inside Jewish baseball that is probably a bit tedious to most — even me, who has some bizarre affinity for Jewish topics. But I could not resist pointing out the shameful and slipshod op-ed column Gelernter published today in The New York Sun. He writes in response to a decision this week by the Jewish Theological Seminary to accept openly gay and lesbian students into its rabbinical and cantorial schools. Gelernter thinks this is an affront to the role of a Rabbi, who should serve as a beacon of sorts to his congregation as a they strive to be the best Jews they can be. “A rabbi is like an officer in the Israeli army — he is expected to lead his men into battle and to say, ‘Follow me!'”

Gelernter then asks, quite ridiculously, whether we would think it alright if a certain Rabbinical student has a real persistent penchant for ham and caves in to those desire. “The Jew who publicly proclaims his love for ham sandwiches might be a wonderful person; might be a much better man than I. But he is the wrong man to be the rabbi at any kind of synagogue — Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform,” Gelernter reasons. So being gay is akin to eating ham?

But the lunacy reaches astonishing heights when Gelernter then proceeds to compare homosexual urges to heterosexual urges to commit adultery, both of which – to his mind – disqualify someone from the ranks of the rabbinate. This is really a grotesque comparison. The whole piece reads like a facile attempt to reconcile his own personal aversion to homosexuality with his equal personal – and constrained – reading of the Jewish tradition. It is pathetic.

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Strapping on a Pair

March 29, 2007

Robin Toner has a useful news analysis piece in today’s Times on the emerging consensus among Democrats to press for a troop pullout from Iraq by 2008. The unity of the new congress on the issue is indeed surprising, given the long-standing tendency of Democrats  to act like a squealing Victorian lady standing on a chair with skirts bunched to her petticoat as the question of Iraq scurried around the room. (To be fair, they weren’t in power for any of that time, and you don’t get to be in power, pace the left-wing of the party, by proposing withdrawal early and often, at a time when the American people aren’t willing to admit America has lost and when there was a still a chance it might achieve at least some of its objectives.) But then again the Democrats would have been crazy to try and side-step the issue given that frustration over the war is what brought them to power.

For his part, President Bush, in his customary manner of running the executive like a cocky rich-kid at the wheel of his daddy’s fancy car, is essentially daring the Democrats to a game of political chicken (or should that be chicken-hawk?), promising to veto any troop pullout. That would leave the Democrats with only one other option: cut off the money for the American military effort. This, obviously, would put the Dems in a rather uncomfortable position. They have no desire to be pegged as the party that failed the troops in the field and lost the war by pulling back on the purse-strings. It’s much the same myth that allowed the Republicans to cast Democrats as pinko pansies who cut and run from Vietnam, thereby betraying our boys and spitting on mom’s apple pie. (Then again, some of that was warranted given what huge pussies the Democrats became over nuclear disarmament and any use of force whatsoever.)

But there isn’t a snowflake’s chance in hell – the place Iraq is coming most closely to resemble – that Bush is going to pull out before his term ends. He has no political incentive to do so and his pride would not allow it. More American soldiers are going to die for his pride, and they will die for political calculation and cowardice too unless the Democrats decide not to dither, or to bide their time in the hopes of seizing the White House in the next election.

America is losing the Iraq war. Short of deploying hundreds of thousands more troops that it doesn’t have and occupying the country under martial law for the next decade or longer, there is nothing its military can do to create a unified, democratic Iraq or even provide a modicum of order and security that would be worth the sacrifice of American lives. Avoiding the humiliation of withdrawal is not worth the daily humiliations of being exposed as hapless against suicide bombings, roadside ambushes, and death-squad rampages, nor is securing the oil supply from which America should be doing everything it can to ween itself worth the cost in blood and treasure. America should make provision for the security of the Kurds and the safe passage of those who have helped the coalition or feel their lives are in danger, and leave.

“Many strategists are already warning that over the long haul, it is not enough to be antiwar: the Democrats need a strong, affirmative vision of foreign policy,” writes Toner. And they’re absolutely right. But what’s needed now is for the Democrats to force this debate and see it through. In this game of chicken, flinching will be the death of more brave Americans.

A Veritable Orgy of Shameless Self Promotion

March 28, 2007

And by orgy, I mean two recent columns: here and here.

I Like Big Shields and I Cannot Lie

March 27, 2007

“300” is the most brainless, blood-sodden, blatantly racist, fascistic-wet-dream-like atrocity to have emerged from the bowels of Hollywood in a long, long time. And god was it awesome!!!

After much hacking at Gordian schedules, your mindless-violence-loving correspondent finally had a chance to see said grisly gore-fest last night, forming a phalanx with my compatriots Faith Accompli and Unsuspecting Wallaby and trekking to an IMAX screen at my insistence – if I’m going to see Persian intestines fly, I want it to be at maximum magnification. And I was certainly not disappointed – the balletic slow-motion flight of severed limbs was worth the price of admission alone. If you see one film this year about the bat-shit insane stand of a psychotic crew of Spartans against the mincing minions of Persia at the Battle of Thermopylae, make it this one.

I myself found the proceedings quite enlightening. While this period in ancient history was apparently not short on Ab Rollers and multiple cheek piercings, the following had clearly not been yet been invented: all clothing other than Speedo-tight loin-cloths, gyrating child courtesans free of multiple amputations, nipple pasties for ecstatic teenage oracles, and foresight. The Spartans could really have used some of the latter. Here’s a few tips: if you’re a Spartan queen desperate to convince a reluctant Spartan government to send reinforcements to your warrior king in the field, don’t accede to the sexual demands of the corrupt, slimy politician played by Dominic West in the hopes that he’ll keep his end of the bargain and support your motion in the senate (rather than calling you out as a royal slut). The man has an English accent for Christ’s sake! This is Hollywood – he can’t be trusted.

Second, if you’re a loyal Spartan captain going off with aforementioned warrior king to fight the Persians at the pass, don’t bring your young son – the one you haven’t yet had a chance to tell how much you love – along with you. And for god’s sake don’t point him out to the audience in the mustering scene beforehand. His ass is going to get decapitated as a result (well, actually I guess his head is going to get decapitated, but you get the idea). Those are the rules.

Third, if you are the aforementioned Spartan warrior king, the one thing you most definitely should not do is humiliate and reject the grotesquely deformed Spartan cast-off who wants to fight with you – the poor man’s Gollum who only wants to give his wretched life for precious glory and happens to know the location of the one slender goat-herding path that would allow the Persian hordes to surround you. (And when I say grotesquely deformed I mean that this dude makes the Elephant man look like Ricardo Montalbán. Baby got hunchback.) Letting him become disgruntled is a bad idea, especially when Xerxes has gyrating multiple-amputee child courtesans to offer in return for his treachery.

As to the, uh, more controversial aspects of the film it’s hard not to notice that all the Spartans are white and everyone else is, well, not. Swarthiness, rather than fighting skill, appears to be the prerequisite for service in Xerxes’ armies. Granted, the Persian empire was indeed a multi-ethnic entity, I’m just not sure whether its officer corps consisted entirely of Little Richard’s ancestors.

Which brings us to the gay issue. Never mind the fact that the Spartans in this film deride the Athenians as boy-fuckers (which is rather rich coming from a nation known historically to be pretty boy-fuck-happy itself), the fact is that ‘300’ could well be simultaneously the most homophobic and homoerotic motion picture of all time.

Between portraying Xerxes as a nine-foot drag queen with eye-shade so thick it could blot out the sun and filming King Leonidas contemplating his impending death in full monty, his buttocks shimmering in the moonlight, the gayness quotient is so high only massive slaughter on an epic scale could nudge the dial back toward hetero. Thankfully, we get plenty of same but the hysterical homophobia is a little troubling to say the least.

Troubling too is the film’s resemblance to a black-shirt recruiting party. Death for the nation, glory in killing, blood superiority over the Asiatic scum – it’s all here. But then again, many ancient societies were pretty fascistic. And the forebears of ‘300’ don’t end with Leni Riefenstahl. More than “Triumph of the Will,” the film brought to mind good King Hal and his frog-wrecking crew in Henry V. We happy few, we band of brothers and all that. Reading Shakespeare’s work, it’s striking how attractive a concept the Bard (or his audience) found glory in slaughter and militarism for its own sake. This isn’t unfamiliar territory, however uncomfortable it might make one feel.

And yes, there’s a lot of Bush “Freedom isn’t free” crap in there too. In fact the words “freedom is not free” are uttered verbatim by that same Spartan queen. Like her, that ideology has ended up getting us fucked. But the film’s ideology is so convoluted, self-contradictory and downright cheesy only a moron could take it seriously, which I suppose is the problem. Leonidas turns down a pretty generous deal from Xerxes to accept formal submission and a tax but to otherwise basically be left alone, thereby jeopardizing the survival of his entire people. And all this apparently for the sake of pride.

There’s a great deal of talk about safeguarding “freedom” but it’s never made clear what that freedom really consists of or why it’s worth dying for. Leonidas rants about dying according to Spartan law but he defies the law to wage battle. Anyone who counsels against violence or bloodshed is portrayed as a lying rapist or a corrupt, hideously inbred, irrational fool, and while Leonidas proclaims Spartan superiority based on enlightenment and reason, in practice this just seems to mean chopping a lot of heads off.

None of this, however, changes the fact that this movie was awesome. Really friggin’ awesome. I look forward to the sequel in which Xerxes and Leonidas take jobs as sheepherders on a remote Wyoming mountain, sparking a passionate life-long love affair that dare not speak its name.

“Northern Ireland Rivals Reach Deal”

March 26, 2007

Except they didn’t.

A textbook example of the perils in reading only the headline, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Ulster Democratic Unionist head, the Rev. Ian Paisley (the first is Catholic, the second Protestant, which, if you haven’t got time to read much more than headlines, is about all you need to know about the conflict in Northern Ireland) did not in fact reach a deal. That is unless you count an agreement to maybe agree (about power sharing and forever ending centuries of sectarian strife) in a few weeks time (with terms to be spelled out anytime but now) as some kind of conclusive “deal.”

There have been many such deals, going all the way back to the 1998 Good Friday Agreements and before. Announcements of deals in international diplomacy are often as not acts of political theatre or negotiating tactics themselves. It’s best to stay skeptical. Witness how many “deals” have been struck with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, only to see our hopes dashed when Kim Jong Il demands yet more go-go girls to devour with his silver chopsticks as a condition of putting away his rather piddling atomic tackle.

That said, as someone whose commuting was often disturbed by IRA bomb scares and who has followed the Rev. Paisley’s unhinged demagogic rejectionism since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, I concede that this is no doubt progress. Halting, fragile progress, yes – but progress nonetheless.

Mr. Ban Goes to Cairo

March 24, 2007

Darfur is tragic and Darfur is very complex. So complex that I do not even begin to grasp the multi-faceted nuance of the conflict. That said, it seems to me that when you shave away all the (admittedly important) details, you are left with a basic, unavoidable story line: The government in Khartoum implemented a policy of counter-insurgency by arming a band of nomadic ranchers, even providing them air support, and a green light to run wild in Darfur – raping, pillaging, murdering to their heart’s delight. Yes, the insurgents have done bad things. We should not be blind to that. This is not a morality play. This is reality, and as such it is drenched in gray. But again, there is a fundamental storyline and it is important not to lose sight of it the more complex all these diplomatic machinations become.

My brother asks the vital question: Where is the outrage from the rest of the world? The silence is vital because it lays bare an important truth. For all the deafening griping about American heavy handedness, and interventionism, and unilateralism, and all the related crap heard in various precincts in America but even more predominantly in Europe and beyond (Moscow) about America being uncouth (for lack of a better term), let it be remembered that virtually NOTHING GETS DONE WITHOUT AMERICAN LEADERSHIP. When it comes to all the accusations about the (troubling) US Human Rights record during the War on Terror, let it be acknowledged that for all their elevated talk, the European Union is punching well below its weight when it comes to human rights issues (and this criticism is not limited to Darfur). UN Sec-General Ban Ki-moon’s recent trip to Cairo perfectly exemplifies how the UN has no power.

And there is this: For all of those who counsel a more modest role for the United States in the world. I understand the argument. It makes sense on a lot of levels. But those that make that case, that resort to endless chatter about multilateralism and the UN, must acknowledge the consequences of such an approach: Issues like Darfur will simply never be addressed. There is no constituency agitating on these issues and no military powers willing to expend resources rectifying them (or at least ameliorating them). For instance, Mr. Ban is in the region for the forthcoming Arab League Summit. The Arab League is a deeply cynical outfit, a deliberative body that can do nothing unless the culprit they wish to call to account is Israeli. (In this it shares its predilection with the UN Human Rights Commission.)

A chastened, humble, modest (choose your adjective) American foreign policy? Sure. But let us at least be honest about the consequences.

America’s Moral Shame

March 21, 2007

When it comes to a story as massively multi-faceted as the Iraq War it is inherently difficult to stay on top of the daily drip of news – for reasons both of complexity and endurance. One opens their morning paper (or, as the case may be, browses the pixelated pages of their morning paper) and unless they are blessed with an abundance of time and an insatiable appetite for detail, stories must be skipped. Then every once in a while a story comes along that brilliantly captures the zeitgeist, providing the reader with a sense of the big picture, the broad trends, that are unlikely to change on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. Over the course of the four year Iraq War many of these pieces have been reported by George Packer of The New Yorker (much of it distilled in The Assassin’s Gate).

He has done it again. His very lengthy article graces the current issue of the magazine and it deftly captures the plight of those Iraqis who threw in their lot (and their lives) with the Americans. It simply must be read in full. It is the most substantial and moving piece of reporting from Iraq I have read in recent memory.

To pull but one of the many intricately woven narrative threads in the piece, Packer tells the story of Yaghdan, an Iraqi official who took a job with USAID. After a threatening note and the severed upper half of a small dog was left at his home, Yaghdan (after receiving no concrete assistance – especially a transfer outside the country – from his American employers) fled to Dubai with his young wife. Once in Dubai he sent his resume to several companies thinking his many years experience working with USAID would be an asset. I quote from Packer:

He got a call from a legal office that needed an administrative assistant. “Did you work in the U.S.?” the interviewer asked him. Yaghdan said that his work had been in Iraq. “Oh, in Iraq . . .” He could feel the interviewer pulling back. A man at another office said, “Oh, you worked against Saddam? You betrayed Saddam? The American people are stealing Iraq.” Yaghdan, who is not given to bitterness, finally lost his cool: “No, the Arab people are stealing Iraq!” He didn’t get the job. He was amazed—even in cosmopolitan Dubai, people loved Saddam, especially after his botched execution, in late December. Yaghdan’s résumé was an encumbrance. Iraqis were considered bad Arabs, and Iraqis who worked with the Americans were traitors. The slogans and illusions of Arab nationalism, which had seemed to collapse with the regime of Saddam, were being given a second life by the American failure in Iraq. What hurt Yaghdan most was the looks that said, “You trusted the Americans—and see what happened to you.”

The only job Yaghdan could obtain (after never procuring an interview with American companies) was as a gofer in the office of a cleaning company. After several months Yaghdan and his wife had to return to Jordan to renew their visas. After a week of expensive haggling in Amman the visas came through but after returning to Dubai, Yaghdan learned that the Emirates would no longer extend the visas of Iraqis.

A job offer as an administrative assistant came from a university in Qatar, but the Qataris wouldn’t grant him a visa without a security clearance from the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which was in the hands of the Shia party whose militia had sent him the death threat. He couldn’t even become a refugee, which would have given him some protection against deportation, because the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had closed its Emirates office years ago. Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer—nearly impossible to obtain—or by marrying an American, so he didn’t bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. “It’s like taking the decision to commit suicide,” he said.

The article is riddled with compelling, jaw-dropping, heartbreaking, enraging, and stupdefiying scenarios like this – much of it caused by American callousness, incompetence, and ignorance. Hopefully it is being read in precincts of the American government where concrete action can be taken to honor the sacrifice and the courage of those Iraqis who stood with us. To paraphrase Gerald Ford’s explanation for his decision to admit a hundred and thirty thousand Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon: To do any less would add moral shame to our humiliation.