Saturday, December 31, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Passing of -- Judy Lewis?

Judy Lewis died a few weeks ago at the age of 76.  Her death prompts a question I’ll get to in a moment.
You probably never heard of Judy Lewis.
She was a lovely young woman, and lovely as she aged.   

She had an off-and-on television acting career, her longest-lasting role being on the soap opera The Secret Storm in the late 60’s and early 70’s.  She had small roles in other series and occasionally guest-starred on others.  After leaving acting, she got a master’s degree in clinical psychology.  She became a licensed family and child counselor and eventually practiced as a psychotherapist specializing in foster care and marriage therapy. 
I don’t know whether she was a good actress, counselor, or psychotherapist.   I don’t recall ever having seen her perform. 
But I do know this:
Her mother was Loretta Young.

And her father was Clark Gable.


Which is more than Judy knew until she was 23.

Gable, 33, was married to someone.  Young was very young (22), and unmarried, and Catholic.  They were co-starring in “The Call of the Wild.”  Gable was the biggest star in Hollywood, and Young was already a star in her own right.  Both among the most beautiful people in the world.   

Clark Gable and Loretta Young in "Call of the Wild" (1935)
Abortion was out of the question for the (sometimes) devout and very public Catholic Loretta. 

But also out of the question for each of them and for Twentieth Century (this was the last film made at that studio before the merger with Fox) – in those days – was the ruination of both of their careers.   So here’s what happened:

Loretta traveled to Europe to hide the pregnancy.  She returned to California to give birth to Judy, who was immediately placed in a series of homes.  Then Loretta announced that she had fallen in love with an orphaned child and was going to “adopt” her – nineteenth months later.   Loretta later married producer Tom Lewis and Judy took that name. 

The little girl had very large ears.  To dampen speculation that Gable was Judy’s pop, Loretta had the child undergo an operation when she was seven to bring them closer to her head. 
Loretta frequently dressed little Judy in bonnets
to hide her Gable-like ears
She needn’t have bothered.  The cirumstances of Judy’s birth were an open secret in Hollywood.  But Loretta never told Judy, nor did anyone else.  Gable never acknowledged her (although he met her once when she was 15, spoke to her briefly, and kissed her on the forehead without admitting a thing) and never had another child until a son born after he died.  Judy didn’t discover the truth until her fiance told her when she was 23.   But Loretta refused to admit her father's identity until eight years later.  When Judy confronted her with a demand for the truth – when she was 31 -- Loretta threw up, asking tearfully how she could admit to a mortal sin.
As you might imagine, this was very traumatic to the young adult Judy.  She grew up  not knowing who her parents were, and worse, falsely believing they were some unknown couple.  She wrote a book about it called Uncommon Knowledge.  She became estranged from Loretta.  Loretta died in 2000 and in a posthumously published autobiography finally admitted that Gable was Judy’s father.
Now, as it turned out, Judy did all right for herself; no telling what it would have been like – in those days – had the truth been publicly acknowledged. 
But Judy Lewis’s story prompts a question.
One doesn’t have to approve of our times’ casual acceptance of out-of-wedlock births  to wonder which is better:   To have grown up like Judy Lewis in a time when the circumstances of her birth were regarded as scandalous, or to grow up knowing one’s parents, whether married or not, together or not?   To grow up the victim of a series of lies to protect public morality, or to redefine morality in a way that lets a child grow up without those lies?
I guess that’s two questions.
I’m not going to thrash you with my views on the sexual revolution.  OK, I’ll thrash you with them enough to say I don’t think it was a good thing.  Surely, though, a morality or a religious belief (however extreme or misguided) that results in what happened to Judy Lewis is in need of some adjustment.
Happy New Year to you all, and Judy Lewis, RIP.
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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Beware the Brilliant Fool

In prior articles, I have wrestled with how we regard the everyday concept of “intelligence” when a person who apparently has a lot of it makes terrible decisions. I have speculated that because a very prominent person – our President – fits this description, it might cause people to think about “intelligence” in a new way.   (See here and here.)
In one way it is a futile inquiry, because intelligence has many definitions. Can’t beat the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on the topic: “Intelligence has been defined in different ways, including the abilities for abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning, learning, planning, emotional intelligence and problem solving.”

Well, there’s one answer right there. A person may have vast capacity for abstract thought, but poor understanding. One can still fall within the definition because a crackerjack abstract thinker, but still be defective in understanding; that is, intelligent, but wrong.

I know this isn’t any brilliant insight. Think of any issue that divides large numbers of people – for example, whether there was a conspiracy to murder John Kennedy. There will be people on both sides that we would think of as highly “intelligent,” as we mean that word in daily use. But some of those very intelligent people have got to be wrong.

In the November 2011 issue of New English Review, British writer and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple published an essay about a prominent biographer, Isaac Deutscher, who was a Marxist. I was struck by this passage (emphases are mine):

"His language was clear, but his thought was not. He was what might be called a dialectical equivocator, made dishonest by his early religious vows to Marxism. This made him unable to see or judge things in a common-sense way. His unwavering attachment to his primordial philosophical standpoint, his irrational rationalism, turned him into that most curious (and sometimes dangerous, because intellectually charismatic) figure, the brilliant fool. He was the opposite of Dr Watson who saw but did not observe: he observed, but did not see. He was the archetype of the man, so common among intellectuals, who knows much but understands little."

I’m guessing that if any one of us spent an afternoon in the private company of Newt Gingrich, or Barack Obama, or Mitt Romney, or Nancy Pelosi, or Rush Limbaugh, or Al Franken, just shooting the breeze on topics unrelated to their public policy positions, we would come away thinking that we’d been in the company of a pretty smart person. Perhaps even brilliant.


The brilliant Junior Samples

So what? So . . . people can be brilliant but very wrong. Some of them have stupendous knowledge and experience but no judgment; some are subtle analysts but select incorrect or thin information; some, as Dalrymple suggests, are in the grip of ideology – they apply their brains to deceive others, but mainly themselves, in the service of what they regard as a higher truth.

Most of us, most of the time, can spot the unreliable smart person. The high-IQ person who you would not trust to advise you on your day to day choices, or to be a leader of any polity to which you belong. We generally get the leaders we deserve, although not enough people saw through the brilliant fool who’s running the show now. We can debate the reasons for that another time. (Hint: the usual culprits – media bias, liberal racial guilt, a deceptive campaign, class resentment, weak opposition, disgust with the incumbent, and, truth to tell, a magnetic persona and charming manner.)

And there’s the lesson: We encounter gifted minds throughout our lives. The first time many of us are overwhelmed with the brilliance of a particular individual is college, when our professors present an image of learnedness that is absolutely genuine. And yet, faculties are overwhelmingly liberal Democrats and worse.  Strongly redistributionist, politically correct, and believers in enforced equality of result. Theories that have never worked in the history of mankind, at least not in any free society (and the unfree societies that have enshrined them have declined and even failed, some very recently and very dramatically).

Most adults understand that many of these academics are brilliant fools, but the unformed barely-post-adolescent mind daily exposed to brilliantly foolish instruction does not, and so we end up with things like The Sixties, the McGovern candidacy, and MoveOn.org.

Some of us shake it off when we start working, raising families, and paying taxes.

Some of us don’t.

Some of us think we have done so, but can still be wowed by the singular, eloquent, attractive intellect without regard to whether he or she is selling something that simple observation of the world would tell us is quite unlikely to be correct. 

And brilliant fools are everywhere, wanting our votes, our investments, our time, and our hearts and minds.

Beware.

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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I Googled "Execrable" and "Paul Krugman" and Got 81,800 Hits

I’m in favor of civility in public discourse. We need more of it on both sides of the aisle.

It’s one of the reasons that as little as I care for President Obama, I always try to find a little something nice to say about him, and to avoid all name-calling and ad hominem characterizations except under the most extreme provocation.

In Paul Krugman’s case, I’ll make an exception.

Prof. Krugman is the Nobel Prize-winning economist and Princeton professor who contributes to the New York Times Op-Ed Page. He is very liberal; a leftist, I would judge. He does not believe government spends, or controls, nearly enough. He also holds forth, way left, on political and social matters, although to my knowledge he has not received any awards in this area. (His Nobel was awarded for his work in explaining patterns of international trade through consumers’ desire to chose from a variety of products, not a subject that will nourish a lot of Op-Ed pieces.)

He recently unburdened himself of some rather brief thoughts on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, in his New York Times column “The Conscience of a Liberal.” Here it is, in its entirety, clipped here without permission:

=======

The Years of Shame

Is it just me, or are the 9/11 commemorations oddly subdued?

Actually, I don’t think it’s me, and it’s not really that odd.

What happened after 9/11 — and I think even people on the right know this, whether they admit it or not — was deeply shameful. The atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons.

A lot of other people behaved badly. How many of our professional pundits — people who should have understood very well what was happening — took the easy way out, turning a blind eye to the corruption and lending their support to the hijacking of the atrocity?

The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it.

I’m not going to allow comments on this post, for obvious reasons.

=======

This brief insult is so full of nonsense that one hardly knows where to begin.

(1) “Are the 9/11 commemorations oddly subdued?” What could that question possibly mean? Of course they were subdued.  Thousands of people were horribly murdered and our nation was awakened to the threat to it from fanatic religious totalitarians. What did Krugman expect, so that it seemed “odd” when he observed how subdued it was? Celebration? Riots? Expressions of joy? Has he ever been to a memorial service? While there, did he perhaps observe that it was subdued?

(2) He immediately realizes how fatuous that question is, so he answers himself – but even his answer is gibberish. “I don’t think it’s me, and it’s not really that odd.” Now think about that. First he says “I don’t think it’s me,” which means that he believes that his observation that the commemorations were “oddly subdued” is shared by others, validating it. But in the second part of the sentence he says, “it’s really not that odd,” which can only mean that his observation that it was “oddly subdued” was really not that correct. This isn’t just bad thinking – it’s bad writing.

(3) He then proceeds to assign his belief in the reason for its lack of oddness: “What happened after 9/11 . . . was deeply shameful.” Where was Krugman living in the days following 9/11? The nation and its leaders were at some pains to ensure that this Islamist crime did not result in our own jihad against Islam. The public’s reaction was moderate, patient, and careful. The nation’s reaction, and that of its leaders, was measured outrage. It was a proud period for the United States, not a shameful one.

(4) But he goes on, explaining that leaders transformed it into a “wedge issue.” In what respect? When the source of the terror became apparent, there was enormous support for the punitive expedition to Afghanistan. The strategy eventually employed there and the subsequent invasion of Iraq can be and were vigorously debated, but even that debate was not motivated by any “shame” in the goals articulated. To the extent the public didn’t like what the Bush administration or “neocons” did, they made their feelings known on Election Day 2008.

But even that isn’t evidence of a 9/11-justified “wedge.” Just how little of a “wedge” was “what happened after 9/11” is demonstrated by the fact that the Obama administration, beloved of Krugman, has generally continued the policies of the Bush administration in these matters, has committed even more troops in Afghanistan, and, if anything, has pursued individual terrorists with even greater heat. (The President’s shutdown of military operations comes nearly at the end of his term – coincident with a the elections, can you believe it?) Candidate Obama repeatedly said that victory in Afghanistan was essential, and stated that his administration would reverse the gains of the Taliban insurgency. Corrupt?

No, the voices calling for decreased vigilance are few and faint. The most serious “wedge” Krugman has experienced since 9/11 is the one he probably experiences when they search him at LaGuardia.

(5) Finally: To what “corruption” did “professional pundits” turn a “blind eye”? Again, there are legitimate criticisms to be made about the conduct of the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars, and pundits have made them at length almost from the outset. But in what sense is any of what took place “corrupt”? The professional punditry in this country was overwhelmingly anti-Bush both before and after 9/11. If our leadership really used 9/11 as a mask for “corruption,” wouldn’t you think that these pundits, a large number of whom are Krugman’s colleagues at The New York Times, would have their Pulizter-hungry mitts all over it? No less a liberal than Robert Kerrey, in commenting on the intelligence documents on the runup to the Iraq invasion, said that while they did not show a significant al-Qaeda connection, they did show that Saddam was “a significant enemy of the United States.”

As you sit there now, can you think of a single instance of political corruption – which Wikipedia defines as “the use of legislated powers by government officials for illegitimate private gain”? What personal, or even political, gain did any of those individuals receive? Bernard Kerik, one-time New York City Police Commissioner? He was found to have violated various laws unrelated to 9/11 and went to jail. How did things work out for “fake hero” Rudy Giuliani? George Bush? The last was re-elected in 2004, but to call that a result of corruption is to rob the word of any meaning. And by 2008, he was so widely reviled that his party suffered one of its worst electoral defeats ever.

And let’s not forget that America’s reaction to 9/11 was largely mirrored in Congressional support for the 9/11-related foreign and domestic policies during a time when the Democrats had a narrow majority in the Senate. The most dramatic reaction to 9/11, the Patriot Act, was passed in 2001 – and President Obama and the Democratic Congress has supported an extension of its most controversial provisions, and many of its provisions have survived or been extended by other legislation.

* * *

No, The only credible syllables in that entire piece are those that concede that the reasons for disabling comments are “obvious.” I myself would like to stifle reaction when I broadcast something inane.

There is a place for the contrarian, for even the provocateur, in American opinion. But most writers of that ilk at least convey the impression that they believe what they write. Krugman does not, could not. No other American, no other human, could have experienced any of the 9/11 commemorations and concluded that the proceedings today are somber because we are ashamed of how we reacted ten years ago.   I’m proud of how America reacted. We have bent over backwards to give Islam the benefit of the doubt, possibly more than it deserves, while working diligently – and successfully – to keep domestic terrorism to near zero.

This column is academic elitism at its most odious. Krugman is jabbing a stick at through the cage bars at the lovers of freedom he scorns as unsophisticated yahoos imprisoned by their naivete and ignorance. He patronizes them -- us -- from his Princeton perch whenever he can. To him, average Americans with average reactions to murderous assaults on the very freedoms that the 9-11 Islamists cannot abide, the very freedoms that allow Krugman to make a jackass of himself, are reactionary rabble. He knew this column would anger those people on the very day of their saddest recollections, and it did. It was a small, mean, act by a small, mean man.

As I said, I’m in favor of civility. But Paul Krugman is a putz. When I read bilge like this, or listen to interviews with his oh-so-entitled philosophical children now “occupying” various patches of our fine cities, I think that we have less to fear from fake heroes than from fake intellectuals.



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Sunday, October 16, 2011

REVISIÓN DE TEATRO: "West Side Story"

The 2009 Broadway revival of "West Side Story" was a huge success.  I saw the roadshow last night with the Memsahib at the Dallas Musical Theater at Fair Park.  It had its moments, some very fine ones I'll get to, but I was disappointed. 

When they take Broadway musicals on the road, do they scale them down?  I thought the production seemed undernourished.  One of the most beautiful and exciting symphonic scores in American musical theater, with two gangs of male dancers and their girlfriends.  Man, with some of that music, I expected that stage to explode with the Latin-tinged rhythms and updated theatrical dance sensibilities.  The Fair Park stage isn't enormous, but for some reason, the production only rarely ignited. 

In fact, it is probably not possible to reduce the dancing cast of this show.  West Side Story is famous for giving many of the dancers speaking parts as gang members.  I have read that casting for the show is difficult because one has to find performers who can sing, dance, and act.  The show failed to take off for other reasons.

Bernardo and Anita:  "Mambo"

The acting is a problem, because the script was unrealistic even in 1957, when it opened on Broadway.  The "white" (actually, the children of European immigrants) Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks are supposed to be juvenile delinquent gangs, but in 1957 excessive vulgarity, explicit sexual references, and violent racial slurs were not permissible.  ("Spic" and "wop" were apparently exceptions.)    The result is a script (by Arthur Laurents) that invents a kind of beatnik patois that sounds very odd coming out of the mouths of actors who are supposed to be violent teenagers.  I've always had sympathy for actors struggling through some of these scenes, but a show that sounded unusual but fresh in 1957 sounds downright weird now. 

I'm not sure at whose door should be placed another of my complaints.  Amplification of musical productions is a mixed blessing.  On the other hand, you can hear everything.  On the other, if not correctly modulating, it's ear-splitting in every seat in the theater.  Perhaps generations of theatergoers since the sixties are accustomed to extremely loud musical performances, but this music -- much of which is pitched very high, including the parts sung by males -- was sometimes painful to listen to.  I assume that these shows either carry with them, or specify, their own sound engineering subject to the capabilities of the local venues.  All I can tell you is -- this show was really, really, loud.



But here is my major complaint:

Large chunks of dialogue among the Sharks were conducted in Spanish.  This was annoying enough, but someone had the bright idea of taking large chunks of Stephen Sondheim's classic lyrics and performing them in Spanish. 

Of course the Sharks were Puerto Rican.  Got it.  But the actors are not speaking for one another's benefit, you know?   Note to revival producers:  Those people on stage, they're not real people having real conversations -- they are actors speaking lines to entertain the audience.   There were probably patrons in the full house who knew what was being spoken, but if it exceeded five percent I would be surprised.  I would be surprised if that percentage were much exceeded in any city in which this was performed, including New York City.  And we're not talking about the occasional phrase -- we're talking about entire (although usuall brief) conversations that the audience could not understand.  (Most of the intra-Shark dialogue was spoken in accented English.)  Asking the audience to figure it out from the context is arrogant and presumptuous.   It sounded like what it probably was -- political correctness.  And like political correctness usually is, it was annoying and, most damaging to the production, a desperate lunge for verisimilitude that came across as fake, trying to make a point that the play itself was not interested in.

Too bad.  There were things to enjoy in this production.  The performers were talented, even though no one would mistake these fine dancers as 1950s ethnic gang members.  The leads handled the very difficult-to-sing score beautifully.  (The songs are very "rangy" -- you know, like the National Anthem, going from low to very high -- especially for the male singers, and feature Leonard Bernstein's characteristically jazzy intervals.)   Some parts of the dance numbers were striking. 

So while I enjoyed the show -- it is hard not to enjoy that music and orchestration -- I cannot recommend it whole-heartedly.  If you decide to see it, you might visit the Rosetta Stone kiosk at your local mall and see if they have an abridged course in Theatrical Spanish.

Friday, October 7, 2011

BREAKING NEWS -- New Evidence on the Catholic Church's Uneasy Relationship with Nazi Germany: The Swastika Blessing

Well, I suppose that depends on what you consider "news" and "breaking," since we're talking about a historical event here.   This article reports on information that was posted just a few hours ago (as of late Friday night, October 7), at http://www.theswastikablessing.com/.  Here's what it's all about:

Several months ago I was privileged to report an amazing discovery made by my Yale roommate, Steve Galebach.  You can find the earlier report here: "Was the the Vatican Soft on Nazism?"   It has lots of background you won't find here, so you may want to check it out.  In short:   In doing some archival research for a client, Steve found this photograph in Der Stürmer, a violently anti-Semitic Nazi newspaper (in fact, not a newspaper -- a wildly polemical propaganda rag) that was widely disseminated and influential in Germany.



Caption:  "An archbishop blesses the Nazi banner."
[Click on photo to enlarge.]
It reportedly shows Archbishop Santiago Luis Copello of Buenos Aires blessing the Nazi flag (not yet the German national flag) at the worldwide Eucharistic Congress held there in 1934.  Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933.

Is this a big deal?  Yes.  How big remains uncertain.

(1)  There are no other reports that anyone has been able to find that any senior Catholic priest ever blessed a swastika flag.  This photograph has never been noticed or reported on in any of the vast scholarship on the relationship between the Nazis and the Roman Catholic Church.   The RCC forbade blessing the Nazi symbol. 

So Steve's discovery is historic.   Future historians of Nazi-Roman Catholic relations will be required to account for it.

(2)  Second, the Vatican's emissary to the Eucharistic Congress, guest of Archbishop Copello, and the senior Catholic official present (not at this ceremony) was one Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican Secretary of State.  Cardinal Pacelli became Pope Pius XII in 1939.   There is a lively historiography as to Pacelli's attitude toward Nazi Germany.  While there is considerable evidence of Pacelli's disapproval of Nazism, there is enough uncertainty over what he knew and when he knew about the Holocaust to prompt one author to call him "Hitler's Pope."  (John Cornwell, Hitler's Pope, 1999; and there was also Rolf Hochhuth's play, The Deputy which was also highly critical of Pius XII on this score, later made into a movie called "Amen" by Costa-Gavras.)  Despite the controversy that continues regarding his attitude toward European Jewry, the Vatican is currently proceeding with the steps required to declare Pius XII a saint.

(3)  Copello himself was elevated to Cardinal months later, in 1935.

Archbishop, later Cardinal, Copello

(4)  The world -- including Argentina, and including in particular Catholics in Argentina -- knew quite a lot about Nazism in 1934.  Mein Kampf was widely known, as was the violent antisemitism of the Nazi Party.  The incredibly savage purge of the SA (Sturmabteilung), the Nazis' military arm, in which scores and probably hundreds were murdered (including some extremely prominent Germans outside of the military), received worldwide press and was heavily covered in Argentina.  (This "Night of the Long Knives" is one of the centerpiece events of of a current popular history by Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts.)  That slaughter took place in June 1934.  The swastika blessing was in October.  The Nazis' methods and motives were already viewed with alarm -- World War II, after all, was only five years off.   In the months before the blessing, official Catholic publications in Argentina condemned the Nazis for their anti-Catholic actions, among other things.  Could Copello possibly have been merely naive or uninformed?  And if he was not, does his decision to proceed reflect in any way on his superiors from Rome?

When I originally reported on this a year ago, Galebach, a staunch Roman Catholic, wasn't quite sure what to make of all this. 

Neither was I.  My initial concern was that Steve did not have any confirmation that the photograph was authentic.  It appeared nowhere (apparently) besides one of the least credible publications in history.  I had other questions, and still do, but that one was fundamental.

Well, there are two pieces of news hot off the Internet:

First, the authenticity of the photograph is no longer in doubt.  In searching through issues of the Buenos Aires newspaper La Prensa from 1934 earlier this year, Steve's wife Diane Galebach found a report of this ceremony and an explicit mention that among the flags Archbishop Copello blessed was the Nazi party flag.  Present were the German ambassador and a group of Catholic pilgrims from Germany visiting the Eucharistic Congress.  Although  not as dramatic as the photograph, this brief passage is every bit as significant -- more so, in fact, because it was not found in a scurrilous Nazi broadsheet like the photo but in a contemporaneous news account from the Eucharistic Congress itself in a legitimate newspaper.  In fact, the newspaper reported that the ceremony was a "consecration" -- a greater Catholic honor than a "blessing."  Thus, a Catholic archbishop blessed, or consecrated, a swastika on the eve of the visit to the Eucharistic Congress by the future Pius XII.  It happened.

Second, Steve and Diane have begun to publish their findings in an online book called The Swastika Blessing.  (http://www.theswastikablessing.com/)  You may download and read a free introduction that is pretty complete in itself, and for $12 you can download Volume 1, which contains much more detailed information and some fascinating background relating to the relationship between Roman Catholicism and National Socialism.  Three more volumes relating to Vatican policy towards Nazi Germany in 1934 and 1935, and additional "causes and context" research are scheduled for release before the end of the year.  For your $12 now, you get a 111-page PDF in a Power-Point-type format with lots of text and many photographs and documents, complete with translations.  Extremely interesting and clearly presented. 

[NOTE:  I reviewed and provided extensive comments and suggestions on early drafts of Steve's work on this, before Diane became more involved.  Steve's and Diane's project changed considerably in scope and presentation thereafter; I reviewed one early and very different draft of the present format, and the present incarnation not at all.  I am mentioned in their acknowledgements.]

The question before the house is:  Should this photograph -- rather, should the event it portrays -- provoke a re-examination of RCC-Nazi relations in the years leading up to World War II?  And, of more urgent current interest, should it provoke a re-examination of the attitude toward National Socialism of Cardinal Pacelli -- Pope Pius XII -- as the RCC moves ever closer to elevating him to sainthood?



Cardinal Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII
The latter is the question that exercises the Galebachs.  Both are devout Catholics.  They have chosen a somewhat unorthodox method of presenting what they've found, their book taking the form of a presentation of evidence both damaging and exculpatory to the hierarchy of the RCC in alternating sections presented by an "investigator" and "defense counsel."   I did not find this unusual approach distracting, and it has the merit of making room for a great deal of background information.   The free Introduction has quite a bit of information in summary form, it's much more than a tease.  Chapter I is a detailed overview of events at the Eucharistic Congress, including the blessing, the relationship between the major players (Pius XI, Pacelli/Pius XII, and Copello), and what was known about the Nazis' ideology and practices in Argentina in 1934.

Despite their scrupulousness in presenting evidence favorable to Pacelli/Pius XII, the overall impression the Galebachs leave is one of skepticism as to whether Pacelli's robes are entirely clean.  As a result, the reader is left with the further impression that the Galebachs believe that the episode may well be material to the ongoing beatification process for Pius XII -- and, presumably, adverse to the sainthood partisans -- although they are careful not to come right out and say it.  (Although their subheading promises "an "investigation into a photograph that changes history.") 

That's quite an impression to derive from one photograph and a confirmatory newspaper item.  I hope I am not being unfair in attributing it to them.   Is it justified?

It should be noted that no one took special note of this event at the time.  The photo appeared nowhere until it popped up some months later in Der Stürmer, but the contemporary newspaper account explicitly stated that the Archbishop had blessed the swastika flag -- it used the phrase "cruz gamada," which translates as "swastika."   Whatever this might mean to us now, it did not provoke any notice at the time that the Galebachs have been able to find.  (To my knowledge -- no idea what goodies they have in store for us in later installments.)   If, as the Galebachs have shown, the Nazis' virulent anti-Catholicism and violent suppression of religious freedom were known to Catholic officials, why not? 

The Galebachs have found themselves at the center of quite a mystery.

In the absence of direct evidence of either (1) Pacelli's complicity, or (2) Copello's intentions in blessing the Nazi banner, the Galebachs proceed in the only way available to them:  By examining the overall context of Nazi/Vatican relations in the mid-Thirties, in Argentina and Rome.  What they have produced so far, as investigators with a large family to care for and other jobs to do, is nothing short of astounding.   I don't know everything they've come up with or where their own thinking has settled, but I am looking forward to the remaining three installments.

Here's that link again:  http://www.theswastikablessing.com/

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Brief Rest on a Long Journey

It started a week or so ago.

Monarchs began appearing in the sky.  One at a time, flapping then coasting, flapping a little more and floating on what breeze there was.

I didn't think much about it.  Monarchs are large butterflies, but not uncommon.

I was pleased, though, to see a monarch visiting our vitex tree in the backyard one late afternoon a few days ago.  Vitex is a flowering tree, with clusters of small blue flowers at the tips of its branches.  It hails originally from the Mediterranean.  (It is also known as Chaste Tree, Chasteberry, Abraham's Balm, or Monk's Pepper.)  Ours only bloomed once last year, its first at our address, but this year it bloomed off and on all summer and at this writing is fully decked out in its autumn finery.  It is usually crowned with a nimbus of bumblebees and common honeybees.

Late Saturday afternoon, the scene changed.

I was out on the patio having a cigar and reading a crime novel, my back to the vitex.  I got up to get the grill heating for that evening's repast, when my eye was instantly drawn to motion at the vitex.

I couldn't count the monarchs.  I'll estimate two dozen, flying and lighting on the blooms.  When one would light, it would fold its wings behind it and set a spell.  When one shoved off, it would usually fly around the tree and find another spot to investigate.


Monarch on vitex (not ours)
After about an hour, I noticed that there was no more flying.  There were only these handfuls of monarchs hanging off of the bloom clusters.

So beautiful, so rare.  One of those moments where spectacle descends into your everyday life and makes you feel good about being alive.

One by one, the monarchs lifted off the vitex.  They flew around the yard for a bit, but each concluded its visit the same way.

It headed north. 

I thought well that's pretty cool, just like on the nature shows, they're flying about to orient themselves to the position of the sun, or the earth's magnetic field, or however it is they navigate, and, having done so, get going on their storied migration of thousands of miles to their overwintering grounds.

Which, uh, makes flying north in October a terrible mistake, since they're supposed to be flying south.

I considered the usual suspects for mass species-destructive behavior -- cell phone tower radiation (I was checking blog hits on my Droid); global warming (hard to be unseasonably warm in the summer, but DFW has managed it); deforestation (I'd pulled some weeds).

Seemed unlikely.

So what motivates living things?

Monarchs have little use for cash.

They'd just chowed down on vitex nectar.

That leaves  .  .  .

So, after pondering the gorgeous pastoral mystery in my own back yard, I'm going with my theory that some hot monarch butterfloozy headed north for reasons best known to monarchs if not lepidopterists, trailing a string of irresistible pheromones and ardent fluttering suitors behind her, and leaving it at that.


Mm-hmm:  monarchs breeding on vitex


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tuesday, September 11, 2001 -- Ten Years On

What I remember most is the blue.



The empty blue, and the quiet, of a sky with no jets, undivided by crisscrossing contrails, no engine noise of aircraft going and coming from Midway and O'Hare.

Nancy and I had been married only five months. We lived on the Northwest Side of Chicago just off Irving Park, under the O'Hare flight path. We might as well have been living a century earlier, for all the evidence of the skies.

I had just turned right off Irving Park onto the Kennedy Expressway onramp when the report of the first hit on the World Trade Center came on the radio. I do not have a note on this, but I surely was listening, as I did every morning, to sports-talk radio station WSCR The Score. My recollection is also a little dim on what I listened to the rest of the way downtown, although I think The Score switched its feed to an affiliated news-radio channel, or perhaps even TV audio. If not, then I surely switched over to NewsRadio WBBM 780. For some reason, even in spite of the earliest erroneous reports that it was a small plane or maybe a DC-3 that hit the first tower, I never thought it was an accident. Can’t tell you why, just a feeling.

I was driving south on the Kennedy and toward downtown when the second plane hit.

My eyes went immediately upward – to the Sears Tower, as it was then known, already visible in the distance. The Sears was at 233 South Wacker Drive. My office was in 300 South Wacker -- kitty-cornered from it. It stood with what seems, in retrospect, like a kind of innocence.

Nancy was the principal of an elementary school in a near-northern suburb, with charge of 600 children. I called her from the car and got her out of a meeting. It was the first notice to her school. She recalls that the day proceeded with great professionalism on the part of her staff. The children were not told; Nancy thought it best that the news be presented first by their parents. The most interesting datum: Only one parent asked to take her child out of the school that day.

I had the only TV in our office, a little JVC portable with rabbit ears that had awful reception in the Wacker Drive canyon. Attorneys and staff drifted in and out for updates, disbelieving and understanding at the same time.

I didn't get any work done that day. Out my window I looked directly across the street at the looming Sears. Of course, no one knew how many more symbols of American strength and success the enemy had targeted. Building management didn't mess around. They closed the place and shooed us all out of the place by late morning.

I was struck by how normal everything seemed on the street when I left the building. No obvious evacuations, even from the Sears, no crowds gathering, what seemed like normal traffic and people just walking about as one would see on any other normal workday. The wonder was dispelled when I arrived at the parking garage to find it nearly empty.

*    *    *

With nothing to do, with wanting to do nothing, but watch TV, I began to write. When I began, President Bush was located just a few miles from my childhood home in Bellevue, Nebraska, at the Strategic Air command Underground at Offutt Air Force Base, across the barbed-wire fence from my backyard. (I think SAC had actually been deactivated as a command by that time, but the Underground -- did you see Dr. Strangelove, or that original Star Trek where they had to go back in time and infiltrate the Air Force Base in "Omaha"? – remained a central and highly-secure command center.)

I've gone back for the first time in ten years to what I wrote on that day and in the day or two following. A lot of it was political, and I don’t want to spoil this essay with too much of that. Here’s a sample:

-- The first word that came to mind about the attacks was not "cowardly," it was "pathetic."   I thought the attacks were a spasm -- that was the word I used -- unlikely to be repeated in any form for quite some time.

-- I was prepared to believe that it was Osama bin Laden's cadres, but I also remembered Oklahoma City -- everyone assumed that was a foreign attack, but it turned out to be some white loser. What persuaded me in the short run that the rush to judgment was probably in the right direction was that the dozen-or-so attackers lost their own lives. Not your typical Western strategy.

-- I assumed that I would know some of the victims. I went to law school in New York City. Many of my friends went to work in the Financial District, and my first boss at Kirkland & Ellis had become a senior executive at Morgan Stanley in the WTC. After contacting my New York City friends, I was relieved that I was unable to identify any acquaintance who died in New York.

-- This will sound cold: I wasn't sad or horrified or excited. My primary thought was that we know much more about the world than we knew the day before. It was a supremely clarifying set of actions. “Barbarism will face challenges that it has avoided to date,” I wrote. “This is a good thing.”   (I was surprised then as now that there were some of the political class who found no instruction in 9/11 at all.)
-- “Afghanistan,” I wrote. “The 51st State.”

-- I remarked on the composure of Americans There was no public demand for immediate retaliation.

-- Hundreds of movies were instantly dated. Their New York panoramas included the World Trade Center.

-- As we are moved by the memorials this weekend, we forget – I forgot, anyway – how much brainless crap we had to endure from much of the international (and even some of the American) Left in the days following 9/11. There were those who truly thought that America deserved what it got. They’re still around, and not all of them are beyond our borders.

-- I understood the concern over “destabilization” of Middle Eastern regimes if we made war against the terrorist-sponsoring governments of Araby. But what ended up on the page was: “Well, who with any sense feels invested in the stability of their particular brand of evil?”

-- Something prompted me to write: “I am not ashamed to say that I have not the slightest interest in what teenagers have to say about this conflict.” Also: “I am reasonably certain that pop culture celebrities (Madonna holding forth today, I read, that ‘violence begets violence’) should shut their pieholes for the duration.”

-- I fretted over the Problem of Islam. On the one hand, our large Muslim population was not and had never been a threat. Just as obviously, worldwide (and now domestic) terror was authored almost exclusively by Islamofascists claiming authority through the religion itself.  I could only hope that extreme moral relativism took a hit that day – not all philosophies are created equal, and some of them should die.

*    *     *

My final memory is not a 9/11 memory at all.

It starts in September 1958 in Bellevue, Nebraska.

Nowadays when kids get to first grade, a lot of them can read. Back then, only I and one other kid had this skill when we arrived in Mrs. Duvall’s classroom at Belleaire Elementary School. We could read, if not understand, almost anything you put in front of us. Let me amend that – I’m sure I didn’t understand a lot of what I read, but the other kid – his name was Bryan Jack – probably did. Mrs. Duvall gave us a stack of books and sent us off to the corner to read them while she brought the other kids along. (Our classmates were divided into groups – the Redbirds, the Bluebirds, some Other-Color-birds. Bryan and I, for some reason, were the Snowbirds.)

Bryan was a true prodigy, brilliant even as a skinny little kid. High-strung but quite apparently a “brain,” as we called gifted kids back then. His family lived just a few doors down from us. Thrown together because we could read, we became best friends. His father, like the fathers of many of my friends, was in the Air Force, and after three or four years the Air Force transferred the Jacks to Texas and I had to say goodbye to my supersmart friend.

I kept in touch with Bryan for awhile, but adolescent boys are not good mail correspondents, and the relationship faded. Fortunately, my mother stayed in touch with his mother, so I always knew a little about what Bryan was up to.

He ended up at CalTech and Stanford with multiple degrees and a doctorate.

Eventually, I learned, he went to work at the Pentagon.

As the decades passed, I seldom thought of him.

Oddly, like me, he married for the first time very shortly before 9/11. His wife was New York City artist Barbara Rachko. On her website, she displays a striking, even startling painting of the two of them titled “Us and Them.” (Reproduction is without permission – Barbara, apologies and hoping for your pardon.)



If Bryan had been sitting in his chair at the Pentagon on 9/11, he would have lived through it. He wasn’t.

He was in the plane that hit it.



Wednesday, September 7, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: "The Help"

At first I did not care to see "The Help."  It was, I assumed, a "relationship movie," being a movie that doesn't have much comedy or killing or special effects or monsters or Western gunfighters. But my impression was that this one was all relationships, and all-female ones at that, with not much good to say about men.

In fact, I liked the movie. I can recommend it with almost no reservations. Relationships, after all, are important.

The movie is set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962-63. It explores the relationship between white Junior Leaguers and the black maids who raised them, and who now work for them -- a pattern that had held for generations but upon which the civil rights struggles of the Sixties were placing new and unaccustomed strains.

Emma Stone plays Skeeter Phelan, a young woman who aspires to a journalism career, and who was largely raised by a black maid (Constantine, played by Cicely Tyson in a small but memorable turn). She has the idea of writing a book (which becomes "The Help") about these relationships from the standpoint of the maids. She enlists her fellow Junior Leaguers' maids, the submissive but perceptive Aibileen (Viola Daivs) and, eventually, the much less pliable Minny (Octavia Spencer) to tell her their stories.  Skeeter's growing interest in the maids' stories places her in conflict with Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard, Ron Howard's daughter), the head of the Junior League, a woman dedicated to The Way Things Have Always Been between Southern whites and their servants.   Hilly fires Minny and blackballs her from getting any other maid positions among the society whites, but Minny eventually catches on with a cheerful wealthy outcast (Celia, played by Jessica Chastain) who does not have the proper Jackson pedigree, but who has had the good fortune to have married well and who seems to have very little racial consciousness in enlisting Minny to assist her (without her husband's knowledge) in managing the large estate that (until the end, unseen) husband has entrusted to her care.

Viola Davis
Skeeter's interest in the maids' histories is not entirely altruistic.  I mentioned her ambitions -- she wants to be published, and this motive is not glossed over in the movie.  Skeeter is in constant touch with a New York publisher (Jane Alexander).   As the film progresses, however, she identifies more closely with these tough, gifted women.  It is to the movie's credit that it does not focus overmuch on this transformation; yet we feel it through Ms. Stone's fine performance. 


Octavia Spencer
The movie is ultimately satisfying for reasons I cannot relate without spoiling it for you.  Suffice it to say that the ending, while not entirely satisfying, is far from tragic.  Hey, I cry for the neglected old toys in "Toy Story" -- I wasn't similarly moved at the conclusion of "The Help," and I got the same feeling from the attendees at the show I saw, but I count that as a good thing.  The movie doesn't overtly manipulate; it tells a story that makes sense on its own terms, with goodness being only ambiguously rewarded. 
The strength of this show is its performances.  Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are extraordinary, and Emma Stone holds her own with these two powerful black actresses.  Bryce Dallas Howard's Hilly is a formidable foil, alternately hateful and comic; her black, close-set eyes blaze with racial righteousness.  Sissy Spacek, as her mother, has too few moments onscreen, but enough to remind us that we don't see enough of this wonderful actress.  Allison Janney is also marvelous as Skeeter's mother, caught between her own social ambitions and the welfare of the woman who had served her household for decades.

Emma Stone

Bryce Dallas Howard
Go see it, especially if you lived through those times, and especially if you didn't.

I mentioned some reservations.

I agree with David Denby in his favorable review in The New Yorker that the flaws in the movie really don't seem to matter much, fading as the movie progresses.  I think this is because of the intrinsic drama of the material.  I also think the viewer may also be distracted by the thought that to some degree, the frictions that were life-and-death in the Sixties continue to linger, in a far less poisonous but uneasy social dialogue between monied people and those who mow their lawns, fix their media centers, and, yes, assist them with raising their children and maintaining their households.

So my reservations are mainly quibbles.  I did not entirely buy in to the shallowness of the Junior Leaguers or the sometimes unvarnished villainy of Hilly, although goodness knows there are villains abroad when a change that needs to happen is resisted by those whom the status quo favors.  And I thought that the maids' reactions when faced with the ladies' slights were more revealing than your average Southern maid would have exhibited.

Given the dramatic subject matter and the historical fulcrum upon which both the book and the movie balance, it is somewhat surprising that both are regarded as of interest primarily to women.  It must be because the men in the movie are almost invisible, mostly afterthoughts.  The show tries to gin up a romantic story for Skeeter, but it's slight and unconvincing.  Hilly's husband is like Hilly, bad.  Celia's husband, turns out, is good.  While the period clothing and hairstyles (worth the price of admission for those of us who lived through them) serve to highlight the individuality of the women, they tend to make the men unmemorable. 

Hey, I'm glad it wasn't a movie about the way men treated The Help.

Check it out, guys.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

You May Now Keep Up With Right Thinking by Following Your Cool Hot Center on Twitter

That would be:

@CoolHotCenter

Great Thoughts that are perhaps not great enough for a formal airing on this site.  Probably lots of gags and ad hominem attacks.

I'll tweet links all new articles.

Hope to see you there.

My thanks.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

County Road 26, July 23, 2011

On my old Schwinn trail bike
Mercury near the century
On County Road 26, gravel
Shooting out from under
My fat tires and the
Washboard road bouncing
My disgraceful love handles,
I steered off to the roadside
Into the smoother smashed-
Down brush and suddenly
Before me rose up dozens,
Hundreds of grasshoppers
Startled from their torpor
By my offroad detour.
They flew off before me
To the left and right and
As I split the frothy spray of 
Panicked flying yellow Orthoptera,
I felt like Leo DiCaprio
On the bow of the Titanic
Except that the phrase
I'm the king of the gravel roadside
Somehow lacked for grandness,
But at least I didn't drown
In the bitter North Atlantic
And was not required to appear
In "Shutter Island."





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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Harry Potter and "The Tempest": J.K. Rowling Says Good-Bye with a Nod to the Bard at the End of "Deathly Hallows"

[SPOILER ALERT:  This article reports on a brief moment near the  conclusion of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," currently in wide release.  It does not reveal any significant plot points along the way, but those who want to avoid any information about how the film ends should stop reading here.]

This is cool.

Here's an observation I haven't seen anywhere else -- I looked -- so I'm going to claim originality.  However, it is almost certainly not original, since I'll bet there are lots of others who noticed it.   If you know of anyone else who has published on this, please keep it to yourself.

I am not a profound scholar of Shakespeare, much less of the Harry Potter books or films.  However, I was struck by a moment at the end of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," that the Memsahib and I saw in a nearly-empty theater in downtown Fort Worth last Saturday night.  I throw it out there for you fans of either Shakespeare or Rowling to see what you think.  If you find it of merit, please pass it along to any Shakespearean scholars, Potter scholars, major film critics of your acquaintance, or J.K. Rowling.

[Capsule review:  The Mem and I both liked it.  We had both disliked "Deathly Hallows Part 1," which we found dreary, angst-filled, slow, and incomprehensible.    We were able to figure out what was going on in Part 2, and there was plenty of action, good monsters, and some surprises that wound up a coherent plot.   The 3D was good -- these movies are kind of dark and murky to begin with, so the marginal murk you get with 3D didn't get in the way.]

[MINOR SPOILERS START HERE] 

Why did Harry break the Elder Wand?  Did this act have some special significance to the story?   Harry Potter fans probably have many better answers to these questions, but here's mine:

Near the end of the movie, after Lord Voldemort has been vanquished (who made him a lord, exactly?), Harry succeeds to physical possession of the Elder Wand.   He is standing facing Ron and Hermione on a bridge outside Hogwarts.  He is holding the wand.  I wish I had written down the exact dialogue, but it isn't terribly important -- no big speeches.  Ron makes the observation that Harry's possession of the wand makes him the most powerful wizard in the world.   Harry holds the wand as if to snap it in two, and as Ron and Hermione start to object, Harry says something like it's been more trouble than it's worth, or we don't need it anymore.  He breaks the wand in two pieces and throws it into the bottomless chasm beneath the bridge.

What All the Fuss Is About:  The Elder Wand
Now consider a scene in Shakespeare's The Tempest. The play is set on an island ruled by Prospero, a powerful magician.   After he has used his magic to bring things to a suitable conclusion, he makes this speech in the final scene of the play, which gives our language the phrase "this rough magic":

     .  .  .  I have bedimm'd
     The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
     And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
     Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
     Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
     With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
     Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
     The pine and cedar: graves at my command
     Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
     By my so potent art. But this rough magic
     I here abjure, and, when I have required
     Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
     To work mine end upon their senses that
     This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
     Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
     And deeper than did ever plummet sound
     I'll drown my book.

            -- Act V, Scene 1, ll. 41-57

Prospero breaks his own wand ("staff") and buries it, and also destroys ("drown") his book of spells.

Christopher Plummer as Prospero in The Tempest
That may not seem like much of a reference by Harry/Rowling to Prospero, but consider:  It is the consensus of scholars that The Tempest is Shakespeare's final play; he may have written parts of Henry VIII but "The Tempest" is considered to be his last fully-realized work.  Prospero's staff-breaking is widely regarded as Shakespeare saying farewell to his audience and his art.  Announcing his retirement, as it were.  (By the way, for you "Maltese Falcon" fans:  In the previous act, Prospero says:  "We are such stuff as dreams are made of.")

Deathly Hallows is the last of the Harry Potter movies and J.K. Rowling has said there will be no more Harry Potter books.

Both scenes are at the end of the story; both involve the breaking of a magic stick; both involve casting or burying the pieces deep within the earth; both involve a wizard voluntarily giving up magical powers.   Prospero destroys his magic book; Rowling has ended the Harry Potter series of magic-impacted books. 

Ms. Rowling did not write the screenplay but I understand something like this scene is in the book.  I think it is at least possible, perhaps even likely, that Ms. Rowling is borrowing this powerful scene from The Tempest to say:  This is the end and I really, really mean it.

*     *     *

Finally:  In what I concede is only oblique support of this thesis:   Prospero performs some of his magic through the spirit Ariel who serves him, and to whom Prospero has promised freedom if Ariel performs certain final magical tasks; in the end he does free Ariel.  Ariel frequently acts by creating deceptive images for mortals to react to.  This power was also practiced on Muggles by Dobby the house-elf -- who Harry freed from the Malfoys, and who thereafter faithfully served Harry until his death.  OK, it's a stretch, but it suggests that perhaps serious Potter scholars may want to have a closer look at The Tempest.


Dobby the Magical House-Elf (as Himself)

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

"Super _________ 8": A Flashy Disappointment

[NO SPOILERS]

The Memsahib and I had a lovely dinner last night and then went to see "Super 8," written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg.   Kids.  An alien presence of some sort.  A middle-class family setting in a small Middle America town.  Sound familiar?  "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"; "E.T."; "Goonies" (Spielberg story and co-executive producer [no aliens but a menacing disfigured guy]); "Gremlins" (Spielberg produced).

Uh, this movie isn't like those.


It isn't necessary for a Spielberg-influenced film to be like earlier, beloved Spielberg-influenced films for it to be a good film.  A good film can be violent, lots more violent than those earlier films.  Lots more.  I like violent action movies where stuff gets blown up and the alien presence isn't a positive thing for the population.  And I liked this movie.  I didn't get bored.  There was a chuckle or two. 

But I didn't like it a lot, and neither did the Mem.   Tell me true:  When you turn on the TV and see that "Close Encounters" or "E.T." is on, don't you linger?  I can't imagine I will do so when I stumble over this one a few years from now. 

"Super 8" has received sensational reviews.  Part of this is Spielberg.  Part of it is J.J. Abrams being the flavor of the month.  Part of it is the charm of the child actors who carry the film.  The story, such as it is, moves along smartly.   The effects are terrific, if somewhat overdone (no train in the history of trainwrecks wrecks ever wrecked like this train wrecked, or for as long). 

But the movie has three problems:

First:  The plot was full, and I mean full all the way up to the chock, of holes.  Huge.  I can't tell you what they are without spoiling the film.  Drop me an email if you don't care about spoilers and I'll tick off a few.  When I say "plot holes" I don't mean things like "there's no such things as aliens"; I mean plot elements that don't make any sense even after you have suspended disbelief and are willing to listen to a story about kids tracking down some malignant presence in their town. 

So what? you say.  It's a sci-fi thing, it doesn't all have to make sense.  Oh, but it does, after a point:  Once you have the illogical menace (a nasty alien presence) established, everything else has to be dramatically consistent.  Reality has to be the stick in the ground that creates the tension when the menace comes up against it.  This movie violates this principle that I just made up time after time with the result that the ending is so dopey that Abrams has no idea what to do with it when it arrives.   The film just ends abruptly, as though the director is fearful that the whole thing would fall apart if anyone thought about the final scene too closely.  (It would.)  The upshot, for me, was that I felt kind of taken when the screen went dark at the end.  (I note that people in the theater just sat there, not stunned by the denouement, but thinking there had to be more.)

Is this just me being too persnickity and logical?   The nonsense of the plot doesn't seem to bother the critics.  Answer:  No.  More people should think like me.  Everyone, in fact.   Seriously, I was still able to enjoy the show even while shaking my head.   The point I want to make here is that this carelessness (and the next two points) are serious flaws that keep a pretty good movie from being a great one, or even a memorable one.

Second:   I mentioned the charm of the young actors.  They are charming and mostly skillful (standout:  Elle Fanning), and at the outset of the movie you think that you will come to care about them in the same way that you cared about Eliot in "E.T." and some of the characters in the other Spielberg products mentioned above.  But while this movie seems to feature interpersonal drama and feelings and stuff that should cause the audience to identify with these characters, Abrams's heart is not in it.   There are a couple of parent/child conflicts, and a family tragedy, but they seem pasted on to the roaring action and explosive, mass-destruction, ear-shattering effects that dominate the picture.  It's nice that they tried to make a special-effects blockbuster with a heart, but its beating is drowned out by heavy things crashing to earth after flying improbably through the air, incredibly destructive attacks, mass hysteria, and, yes, explosions.

Finally:   Twice now I've said that the kids are charming.  This is a credit to their personal charisma and their acting skills.  Unfortunately, Abrams seriously, seriously attacks their natural appeal by making them incredibly foul-mouthed.  These are supposed to be 14- and 15-year-old boys (and a 15-year-old girl) who are somewhat precocious.  The year is 1979.  I don't have the research on the speech habits of kids of that age at that time, but I had a hard time believing that these kids, who are ambitious and bright (although apparently not the best students), would speak with the casual vulgarity Abrams has assigned to them.   Whether or not kids like this spoke like this in 1979:   Irrespective of verisimilitude, the profanity transformed them from people we are attracted to into somewhat thuggish twerps.   Used skillfully, the rare instance of cuss words coming from the mouth of a child can be funny or dramatic; but here, the profanity was way overemployed and did absolutely nothing to establish a rooting interest of the audience in these teenagers.   When the film was over, a disapproving remark was the first thing out of the mouth of a parent sitting next to us who had brought her child (it's PG-13).

So if you plan to see "Super 8," leave the kids at home.  

And don't take the train.

*     *     *

Note on our filmgoing experience:  Among the unusual things that happen in the movie as the result of the escape of the alien presence is that the town's power flickers and sometimes goes out altogether.  When the Memsahib and I arrived home, our garage door would not open with the built-in opener, and we soon learned that our side of the street had been without power for close to four hours.   In the movie, a utility worker trying to fix a power line meets a predictable fate, but CoServ managed to hook our block back up without any of the local malignant presences taking notice.

[SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER]   In what can only be seen as an homage to the very first "Star Trek" teevee series, every black character in this movie with a speaking part is killed.   Even casual fans of that series know that on the rare occasions when a black crew member would appear (Lt. Uhura aside, probably spared because she was doing series creator/producer Gene Roddenberry), he was a goner.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What a Long, Strange Loop It's Been

Review of I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter

Some years ago, Douglas Hofstadter published a large book called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. It won a Pulitzer Prize. It sold many, many copies. I have one. I am convinced that few people actually finished it, or even got far into it. It was unquestionably the product of a brilliant mind. But man, reading it was work, lots of little exercises to work through, lots of symbolic logic to learn, but worst, the goal of all that work was unclear. I like a challenging read, so I’m not proud to say I didn’t get far before I put it back on the shelf, where it reposes to this day. The fact is, I just didn’t get it, and I’ll bet not many people did.



I think I will win that bet, because no less an authority than Douglas Hofstadter himself has expressed his disappointment that not many people got it. I quote from Wikipedia: “In the preface to the twentieth-anniversary edition [of GEB], Hofstadter laments that his book has been misperceived as a hodge-podge of neat things with no central theme. He states: ‘GEB is a very personal attempt to say how it is that animate beings can come out of inanimate matter. What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle?’”


To remedy this, he says, he wrote I Am a Strange Loop – to make the point that apparently eluded readers of GEB. It was published in 2007. It had been sitting on my to-be-read shelf, in hardcover, since then. It is almost 450 pages long. I read it to the end.


Capsule review: Looks like he’s going to have to write another book.




Its goal is to – well, now there’s the first puzzle. Recall that he says he wants to explore “what is a self,” and there is a lot of talk about self-ness in the book. Also consciousness; also possession of a human soul; also what it is that distinguishes humans from other animals.  But there is next to no explanation of what he means by these concepts, which question (if any) he is trying to answer.  I am very tempted to say that he would say that these questions are all essentially the same thing, which launches us into a muddle right at the outset.   

Which is too bad.  I'm interested in these things, and Hofstadter is really a fine writer and a brilliant man with some interesting things to say, so this volume should have been right in my wheelhouse.   But I can tell you very succinctly why this is not a good book: Hofstadter not only doesn’t get to the point, his thesis is all but invisible. If you handed him the book and asked him to find a paragraph, or even a page or two, clearly describing (1) the question he is trying to resolve (i.e., “what is a self,” “what distinguishes humans from lower animals,” “what is the nature of consciousness” “what do we mean when we talk about having a soul” – am I close on any of those?), and (2) his resolution of it, he might be able to do it. Personally, I never stumbled across it. I can’t tell you how his belief that humans are like what he calls “strange loops” gets him much of anywhere.


Why is this? The cheap answer is “because he had a lazy editor, or maybe an intimidated one,” but the real answer is that Hofstadter just may not have a clear answer to any of these questions.  If he does, it gets lost among the analogies and metaphors and stories and personal anecdotes he loves.  Nothing wrong with those strategies.  But after (actually, before) one employs them, one must articulate the idea the technique is employed to illuminate. The book is so thick with explanatory symbol-filled vignettes that they crowd out a simple, clear statement of his belief respecting these issues (and what he believes those issues to be).


The problem is illustrated right on the cover, which is a stylized representation of “video loop.”  Much of the first part of the book is devoted to a description of images Hofstadter created by pointing a video camera at a teevee that was displaying what the video camera was receiving – that is, displaying itself over and over and over.  Moving the camera distorts the image in interesting ways. You’ve seen the effect if you stand in front of a mirror with another mirror behind you – you see yourself receding into infinity. This is a purely mechanical phenomenon that has absolutely nothing to do with consciousness, but Hofstadter goes on and on and on about it, even including a number of useless color plates of his teevee images, as though it tells us something profound about ourselves as human beings. It doesn’t, and if there is a useful analogy to the way humans perceive the world and re-transmit it, I missed it.


Of potentially greater interest might have been his analysis of Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (1931) and its undermining of Bertrand Russell’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s “Principia Mathematica” (1910-13).  His explanation – which is very lengthy and punctuated with fictional dialogues and analogical fables – isn’t bad, but would it be asking too much for a simple statement, or even a complex or subtle statement, of what these abstract mathematical theories have to do with “I-ness,” or “soul,” or “consciousness,” or “self”?


Let’s return to his central simile. A “strange loop” is a self-referential system (that’s reductive but saying any more would not illuminate this discussion). I have called this Hofstadter’s simile, but I can’t even report that with any confidence – are we “strange loops” in the way that is understood in topology, logic, and mathematical systems, or is he only saying we’re like them in some way that is meaningful to his theory? I went in search of what other people think Hofstadter is trying to say when he says argues that human beings sorta have this characteristic and that it somehow relates to their essential humanity. What I discovered is that no one else knows, either, and those who purport to know sort of skip over what the hell they – and he – think any of this has to do with a unique human nature.


There’s a lesson here.  We see it around us every day, in government, in the workplace, on Wall Street, in the academy, in science:  Brains aren’t enough.  Learnedness isn’t enough.  Opinion leaders, all kinds of leaders, have an obligation to be clear.  Heck,we all have an obligation to be clear with one another.  I don’t care how complex the subject matter is – if you’re writing a nonfiction book for a general audience, especially one that purports to solve a problem or take a position, you have a sacred duty to state your position early and clearly. If you can’t or won’t, you probably haven’t really figured it out for yourself.


With over a thousand pages of closely-printed text sitting on my bookshelf, I don’t know if Douglas Hofstadter is a strange loop. I can say that he is damned near an endless one.