Passing judgement is easy

woman-caught-in-adultery John Martin Borg 2002

This Easter weekend I’ve been reflecting on one of Jesus’s best known soundbites: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” [King James Version] Here it is with more context and a modern tongue; Matthew 7:1-5, New American Standard Bible:

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

We all know that we are living in a divided nation and you are probably sick of hearing about it but nothing is going to get any better if we don’t face this reality head on and ask, “What am I doing to fan the flames or allow them to burn brighter? Am I self-righteously obsessed with other people’s stumbles while failing to see that I am lying flat on my face?”

It was a small news story this past last week that got me thinking about our current judgmental divide and how fitting Jesus’s words still are. The partisan bomb throws on both sides are fundamentally the same. Both value allegiance to their own team far more than they care about honestly pursuing the truth and both condemn us all to a never-ending game of insults, gotcha moments, and hyperbolic overreach. Yet both are convinced that it is, “the other guy,” with the speck in his eye, who is the problem.

Jeff Sessions

On April 11, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a speech along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona where he went after MS-13 and other drug smuggling, human trafficking, extremely violent cartels. A copy of his prepared remarks was released beforehand which include this passage:

“Let’s stop here for a minute. When we talk about MS-13 and other cartels, what do we mean? We mean criminal organizations that turn cities and suburbs into warzones, that rape and kill innocent citizens and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders. Depravity and violence are their calling cards, including brutal machete attacks and beheadings.”

“It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth.”

Personally, and I’m sure I’m not alone on this, I don’t have a problem with extremely violent criminals such as these being referred to as, “filth,” but I can see where someone of Latin American heritage might ask the reasonable question, “Does Sessions refer to all organized crime figures as filth or just ones from south of the border?” Some people, however, went much further than this and assumed that Sessions was talking about immigrants in general. Professor of International Politics and book Author Daniel Drezner, who also writes for the Washington Post, tweeted:

daniel w drezner tweet1

Such a foul mouthed, kneejerk reaction from a presumably serious professional only serves to promote more extremism in others. Here’s one brief exchange out of the hundreds of comments under Drezner’s post:

comments to drezner

Presumably, the very unclassy, OAF, agrees that calling illegal immigrants filth (if that had happened) would be wrong. Yet s/he is fine passing the same blanket misjudgement on the majority of Republicans. Not to be outdone by this left wing idiocy, presumed right winger Alexis Pace goes into the standard, idiotic line, that all left-leaning Americans are in league with the enemies of America. But I only came across these remarks later, when I put some time into researching this story.

My first exposure to this matter was from a post on my LinkedIn newsfeed, which brought me to an article on the Yellowhammer website, written by Jacob Bunn. It was published on April 12 and titled, “Reporters are cleaning the egg off of their faces after pushing a FALSE accusation about Jeff Sessions.” I hadn’t heard of Yellowhammer before that but if this piece is any indication of the overall product, they are part of the reactionary right and very bias-driven. For starters, consider the title again. Is it necessary to put “FALSE” in capital letters, or to describe the reporters in question as, “pushing,” this falsehood? The impression readers are meant to form, even before they know anything about the facts, is that someone deliberately lied about Sessions and failed to get away with it.

Bunn begins his piece by asking, “Are accuracy and context not taught at journalism schools today?” and then goes on to be inaccurate, with questionable context. He complains that, “Drezner falsely accused Attorney General Jeff Sessions of calling illegal immigrants “filth.” And, Vox writer Matthew Yglesias tweeted that Sessions was talking about Latin-American immigrants.” I’m not sure what exactly Yglesias’ tweet said, since he seems to have later deleted it, but the overall speech was about criminal immigration from Latin-America (The Justice Department transcrip is titled, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions Delivers Remarks Announcing the Department of Justice’s Renewed Commitment to Criminal Immigration Enforcement”) so Yglesias may not have been completely off the mark to note, “that Sessions was talking about Latin-American immigrants,” in the speech.

Bunn invites his readers to look at “the actual transcript of the remarks prepared for Sessions,” but if you follow his, “actual,” link (preserved in the previous quote), you will end up at another tweeter exchange where people were debating what Sessions said and what he meant by it, in the overall context of immigration. Then Bunn makes the extraordinary claim that, “Nowhere in those prepared remarks does Sessions call immigrants or anyone else “filth.” How dare he actually want to put an end to all of those horrible, criminal activities?” Anyone familiar with proper English knows that criminal activities are not, “filth.” Murder is not filth. Rape is not filth. A murder is filth. A rapist is filth. The only way to reasonably interpret Sessions’ prepared remarks is to admit that criminals are being called filth; not crimes. Like his counterparts on the other side, who want to see racism in anything Sessions might say, Bunn wants to deny logic so he can pretend that the people he is critiquing are opposed to fighting crime.

As it turns out, Sessions chose not to deliver the “filth” line, which makes me think that he too understood it could be questionably interpreted. Bunn, however doesn’t see it that way. Instead, he says, “To add insult to injury for some overeager journos, the line that was so bothersome was in his prepared remarks but not actually spoken by Sessions, according to Buzzfeed’s Adrian Carrasquillo.” How does this, “add insult to injury?” How does it help Bunn’s case that Session chose to skip this bothersome line? I really don’t understand.

At the very end of the piece Bunn finally gets to the metaphorical, “egg,” that reports are presumed to be cleaning off their faces, noting that, “Drezner did return to apologize for having too quick of a trigger, so kudos to him, even though the damage has already been done. Still no apology or correction from Yglesias. Better luck next time, lamestreams.” Wow. Just, Wow. Drezner’s follow-up tweet was posted just under an hour and a half after he first made his mistaken claim. I don’t see how Bunn has proved that any level of damage was already done, nor has he proved that Drezner was actively pushing something he knew to be, “FALSE.”

daniel w drezner tweet2.png

As for Yglesias, he too made a follow-up tweet the next day, right around the same time that Bunn posted his article:

Matthew Yglesias tweet.png

Why Bunn could not find this tweet or update his own article since then to discuss it in anyway is debatable but I suspect that he wanted to paint Yglesias as unapologetic and thoughtless, so why bother to put any thought into it? I would even go so far as to conjecture that Bunn’s main objective in writing his misleading article was simply to use that childish closing line, taunting the, “lamestream,” media. Because this is the kind of red meat that his audience is hungry for. A fact reflected in the comments on Bunn’s piece:

yellowhammer comments

Lest I be accused of spending too much time focused on the overreaching right, let us return to the contorted left, where Gabe Ortiz wrote a piece entitled, “‘We take our stand against this filth:’ Sessions speech goes full-on white nationalist,” for the Daily Kos. That’s full-on demagoguery.

“Our side is good, just, noble, and true, while those people are enemies of America, no matter what the facts are.” This is the unspoken mantra I see playing out daily on the right and the left; thousands, tens of thousands, millions of times, over and over again. Judge, judge, judge the presumed guilty so that we might imagine we are innocent. Will we never learn?

Homeland’s Alt-Right Season

SPOILER ALERT: If you plan on watching the latest season of Homeland (2011-) and don’t want to know anything about what happened, don’t read this.

homeland out is back in

Homeland just finished its sixth season and has already be renewed for a seventh and eighth, with a planned end to the storyline there. When the show began it was sold as the story of Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a U.S. Marine presumed to have been lost in action until he is found during a raid on a terrorist compound, after several years of brutal captivity. But the central character of the show has always been Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a C.I.A. intelligence genius who suffers from psychotic episodes. Carrie is the only one who suspects that Brody may have been compromised by the enemy, which turns out to be true. This doesn’t stop her from falling in love (lust, then love) with him, breaking up his marriage, and ultimately getting him killed. There are plenty more dramatic twists and turns, along with emotionally satisfying moments in the first three seasons, both realistic and unrealistic, but the Carrie-Brody love affair is the main throughline.

Season four was set in Pakistan, where we learned that the Pakistanis aren’t really our friends, and five was primarily in Berlin, where we learn that the sneaky Russians are still our enemies. Now, in season six, Carrie has come home to New York. No longer with, “The Agency,” she is a secret advisor to President Elect Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), who is opposed by some key players in the National Security establishment and elsewhere, who are will to do anything, including murder, to stop her. There is also a blow-hard, conspiracy theorist, compulsive liar of a talk show host, Brett O’Keefe (Jake Weber), endlessly complaining on his, “Real Truth,” program about how America is lost and Keane will destroy the Republic.

homeland real truth

My first reaction to the O’Keefe character was to recall Glenn Beck at his chalkboard, when he was still ranting on Fox News. But Beck now claims to regret the divisions he helped create in the American Electorate and he did not support The Donald, so he has fallen out of favor with much of the reactionary crowd he helped cultivate.

glenn beck chalkboard

Most people seem to see O’Keefe as an Alex Jones parody, though he never gets as loud and childishly angry as Jones does – and Jones’s Disinformation War followers were offended by this perceived attack on their phony hero from the get go. They, specifically, Paul Joseph Watson, writing on Jones’s website, laments the “fact” that:

The plots of earlier Homeland seasons were usually focused around Islamic terrorism, but in later series the show has kowtowed to political correctness and allowed social justice narratives to ruin the dynamism of what was once an enjoyable watch.

In truth, Homeland has always raised questions about the justness of American actions and the handling of the War on Terror (or whatever you want to call it). If that is something you want to lump under the all-purpose, and often meaningless phrase, “politically correctness,” so be it, but it’s nothing new. I have no idea what Watson thinks a, “social justice narrative,” is, since he gives no examples and puts no thought into that charge either, but I don’t see it anywhere in the show.

Watson, and many of the fans commenting on his article, also believe that the choice of a female President Elect proves, “how out of touch the producers [of Homeland] are with reality” (as if Trump won the popular vote or was somehow inevitable).

I think their real problem with the O’Keefe character is that he is too close to the real thing; a man willing to say and do anything to whip up the mob and murder truth for his own ends and perverted sense of self-importance. [Note: You can see more about Jones in my documentary, Conspiracy Theorists Lie (2015).]

alex jones on air

What I find disheartening is how much Homeland feeds into Alt-Right, conspiracy theorist paranoia; this season more than ever. By the end of the finale it is unclear who was/is in league with whom and if anyone can be trusted, including the new President. What is the real plan and to what end? Like so many shows, which I generally like, as shows (House of Cards (2013-) and 24 (2001-2010) come readily to mind), Homeland paints a very unreal and frightening vision of our government officials at work that is closely akin to the, “Deep State,” rhetoric of conspiracy wingnuts. One in which large numbers of public servants are ruthless to a fault and disinterested in morality, the rule of law, or anything outside their personal ambitions and sinister plots. My tinfoil head wearing critics scoff at me when I point out facts like this and come back with retorts like, “You’re so naive (or stupid) to think that government officials are all good and honest.” But that not what I’m saying. Not at all. I’m simply trying to put the faults of our government officials into a reasonable perspective. If America were actually such a pathetic, backstabbing, literarily murderous, Banana Republic, where vast numbers of bureaucrats and officers are constantly scheming to commit horrendous crimes and trample our Constitutional structures to the ground, then we would not be making up wild TV fantasies to entertain ourselves because we would be too busy living miserable lives and dying horribly in the nightmare clutches of a Police State.

Homeland keeps bring two classic films to mind for me: The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). The first is about a communist plot to take over America, in which a soldier is brainwashed into becoming an assassin and the biggest anti-communist Senator turns out to be the real embodiment of the danger he has long been warning the people about. The second centers around a military coup, orchestrated by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who believes the President is a “weak sister” and the nation needs to be saved from. If you haven’t see them, you should.

Homeland clearly borrows elements from these two films but it lacks the Kennedy Era sense of patriotism they champion. Homeland, like too many other shows and movies today, rarely seems to believe that America is an idea worth fighting for. Carrie is simply trying to stop terrorists from killing innocent people or trying to stop her friends from getting killed, and we’re just in it to see what Carrie will do next.

Episode 612

Where is my mind?

One perk of getting up in the middle of the night to feed a new baby is that you get the opportunity to catch up on some of the shows you’ve been meaning to make time for. I recently finished the two seasons of Mr. Robot (2015-) and the one season of Legion (2017-) currently available (both have been renewed for an additional season and will be back in October 2017 and February 2018, respectively).

What these shows have in common is a reputation for innovation, some great characters/acting, and untrustworthy narratives. There have been plenty of shows that have dream sequences, hallucinations, or virtual reality excursions (I’m think of you, Star Trek: Next Generation (1987-1994) and your over-reliance on the holodeck) but these things are typically acknowledged quickly and explained away. There are also shows that fans imagine to be fundamentally dishonest, like the people who are convinced that Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) did not wake up from a coma to find himself in the Zombie Apocalypse on The Walking Dead (2010-) and the final episode will return to the hospital where he is still recovering from his gunshot wound. But that’s pure conjecture and unrelated to anything the show has done or implied. What Legion, and Mr. Robot in particular, are doing, is to repeatedly direct you down misleading paths and then change the rules of the road on you; making you wonder if you are ever getting a real answer or just another mirage.

Mr._Robot

Just for knowing, there are no robots in Mr. Robot. I spent most of the first season disappointed by this fact and hate for you to suffer the same fate. Basically, it’s the story of a socially awkward I.T. guy and his oddball, nerdy friends, who are try to make a better world by destroying E Corp (the Evil Corporation) that stands for everything they believe is wrong with the world. As one of the show’s diatribes puts it:

“Is any of it real? I mean, look at this, look at it! A world built on fantasy! Synthetic emotions in the form of pills! Psychological warfare in the form of advertising! Mind altering chemicals in the form of food! Brainwashing seminars in the form of media! Controlled isolated bubbles in the form of social networks. Real? You want to talk about reality? We haven’t lived in anything remotely close to it since the turn of the century! We turned it off, took out the batteries, snacked on a bag of GMOs, while we tossed the remnants into the ever expanding dumpster of the human condition. We live in branded houses, trademarked by corporations, built on bipolar numbers, jumping up and down on digital displays, hypnotizing us into the biggest slumber mankind has ever seen. You’d have to dig pretty deep, kiddo, before you can find anything real.”

Of course these sentiments have been around long before the turn of the Twenty-First Century (Malvina Reynolds’ 1962 song about the dull conformity of suburban life, “Little Boxes” is but one example that comes readily to mind). Mr. Robot is very reminiscent of Fight Club (1999), including the fact that the self-proclaimed heroes don’t have anything of substance to offer the world, they just want to rip it down and hope something better comes along. Of course that assumes that we know what the actual motives and thinking is behind these characters, particularly the mentally confused protagonist, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek).

As I said, the characters are great and one of the best parts is just how uncomfortable most of them seem to be in their own skin. The show isn’t afraid of awkward silences or holding on same one for what might seem “too long” by conventional standards. The stylized colors and framing also stand out. Where as a typical show might show you something like this:

mr robot screenshot prison2

Mr. Robot makes all the characters feel more isolated and unimportant. Lost in a world they don’t understand anymore than we do.

mr robot screenshot prison

Nearly everyone is dealing with issues that have left them severely damaged and trying their best to cope with reality by one dysfunctional means or another. Okay, so it’s not the happiest show (to say the least) but it does have moments of dark humor and a tense, anything could happen next, feeling that sucks you in. I just hope they know where they are headed. In the post-Breaking Bad (2008-2013) world it’s extremely difficult to be a truly great series – the kind that will end up in that Hall of Fame in the sky – without a strong endgame (nobody wants another Lost (2004-2010) situation).

Legion is more lighthearted than Mr. Robot. Sure, it deals with mental illness and it has a far greater death toll, but it’s a superhero show and the stakes just aren’t as high. It too leaves you guessing about how real each scene is (Are we in a character’s mind or the “astral plane” or something else?) but it gives you a fairly concrete explanation for everything by the end (in farfetched comic book speak).

legion

What I love about Legion is the way it handles life inside a person’s mind/dreams/subconscious (whatever it is). Particularly once you get into the later episodes and they return to the mental institution, “Clockworks” (Yes, there is a clear homage to Kubrick going on here). There are some well thought out details to the inner space of the mind that feel very fresh compared to hokier versions you’ve seen many times before. If you know the Legion character from X-Men comics you’ll find this version significantly different and perhaps a little less compelling. Even the “Legion” name doesn’t seem to make sense in this version. We’ll see where they go with that in season two.

The protagonist, David Haller (Dan Stevens) and his love interest, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) are fine but the most compelling character is Aubrey Plaza’s friend/enemy character, Lenny Busker. She’s funny, scary, crazy, sane, sexy, and repulsive – depending on the moment – and always spot on. It makes me wish it was Lenny’s show and not David’s. There is also a brilliant performance by Jemaine Clement, who plays Oliver Bird, a man dislocated from his body for twenty years. The quirky, inadvertent humor and touching moments his character brings to the production are unexpectedly charming. I look forward to seeing more of Oliver and Lenny on screen together next time around (hopefully).

I could go on but I don’t want to say anything that would spoil the twists, turns, or big reveals that these shows have to offer. I would, however, enjoy hearing what other people think of them, so leave a comment and let me know.

Liberty Talk Radio 4/6 @ 2pm CST

liberty talk radio

I’ll be appearing on Liberty Talk Radio, hosted by Joe Cristiano, tomorrow, April 6, 2017 at 2pm CST. You can tune in over the Internet on YouTube.

Joe comes from a libertarian perspective – a label I use to apply to myself and still respect – and he wants discuss my film, Conspiracy Theorists Lie (2015), along with my views on conspiracy theories in general. You can join in with your questions or comments by calling 646-652-4620.

UPDATE:

Here is recording of my appearance. There were audio problems at the start so I recommend jumping ahead to the 3 minute mark. The link below will begin at that point:

 

Portraits of Courage

portraits-of-courage-cover-george-w-bush

I mentioned the other week that I had pre-ordered President George W. Bush’s new book, Portraits of Courage, and now that I’ve finally devoted some time to it I can wholeheartedly endorse it. This compilation of more than ninety Wounded Warriors painted by their former Commander in Chief is very touching and well done. You will be inspired by their stories and you will gain a greater understanding of the painter/author through this work.

Most of the men and women in the book befriended Bush at one of the annual golf tournaments or mountain biking events he hosts for service personnel and it is clear that he is humbled and honored by their friendship. The more I look at the paintings he has done, the more I can see the time and effort Bush put into capturing each individual’s unique character, and the more I admire this greatly maligned and casually dismissed world leader.

The title, Portraits of Courage, is clearly a play on, or an homage to, Profiles in Courage, the 1957 Pulitzer Prize winning book by then Senator John Kennedy, which tells the stories of past senators who made unpopular decisions they believed to be right and suffered for it. I think it’s safe to suppose that Bush sees himself in the same vein as the politicians Kenney admired; as a man who will be vindicated by history. It is often said that history depends on who writes it but it is equally important who reads it and what they choose to focus on in the records.

For example, when assessing Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, will future generations recall comedian Bill Maher ridiculing the President for comparing Saddam to Hitler? “Saddam Hussein is Hitler like Oasis was The Beatles.” Or will they look to Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Elie Wiesel, who also compared Saddam’s brutality to the genocide of the Nazi’s and directly told Bush, “Mr. President, you have a moral obligation to act against evil.”

When parsing out blame for the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, will people fifty or a hundred years from now place more weight on the photo of Bush looking down on the disaster from Air Force One, allegedly detached and unsympathetic to the sorrow below:

Bush Katrina airforce one

Or will they find the sea of unused school buses to be more telling about the failure of local officials to act in the first place?

Katrina-school-buses

No one can be certain how these interpretations will play out but it does appear that Bush’s post-presidential years will play a large role in any final assessments. Only the most cynical and unrealistic critics can discount the level of commitment that Bush has demonstrated to the troops who sacrificed so much for his decisions. One does not spend hours, weeks, months, and years, getting to know people and painting their portraits as a PR stunt or a passing fancy. Clearly, Bush believes in the choices he made, yet he cares deeply about those who paid the price for them. And, unlike JFK, who merely supervised the writing of his book on courage – leaving the bulk of the text to be penned by his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen – W. has put his heart into every brush stroke and word of the courage he depicts.

Negative reviews of Bush’s book, or more so, complaints about his public, “rehabilitation,” thanks to the book and recent positive press, keep popping up in my Google newsfeed. For many left-leaning pundits the temptation to slip into the same old mantras (e.g. “Bush lied,” “Bush is stupid”) is simply too great. Thankfully, we need not follow their emotional lead.

president-bush-painting