Seven Myths of the Crusades, and Parallel Myths in Biblical Studies

2745As I was reading the new book about crusade myths, I was thinking of “parallel” myths in biblical studies. Since the ’80s, Jonathan Riley-Smith has been the E.P. Sanders of crusades scholarship, doing for the crusaders what Sanders did for the Pharisees and rabbis. If there is a single “grand myth” of New Testament studies, it is that Pharisaic Judaism was a religion of perfectionist and hypocritical legalism, which Jesus and Paul opposed in the name of a higher “religion from the heart”, and of course no reputable scholar today believes this. Here is the grand myth of the medieval period: that the crusades were a a barbaric and unprovoked assault on a sophisticated and relatively tolerant Islamic world.

No crusades scholar takes that myth seriously anymore than biblical experts think ancient Judaism was legalistically decrepit, but in each case, the myth persists in the mainstream. In The Seven Myths of the Crusades, the authors attempt to communicate current crusade scholarship to a general reading public, to make the scholarship accessible and engaging in a way that many academic books are not. They do a good job of this. They address myths that are regularly repeated — whether in films and novels, political speeches and commentary, or even in the halls of undergraduates — and most of these seven are sub-myths of the grand myth I just stated. I thought it would be a fun exercise to come up with a list of parallel biblical-studies myths and run them alongside. Biblical experts can use my parallels to get a clearer sense of crusades scholarship, and vice-versa.

Myth (1): The crusades were an unprovoked military offense.

Fact: Offensive elements in crusading were subordinate to its defensive purpose. The First Crusade emerged as a response to the Islamic jihad, a hijacking of pacifist Christianity tailored for medieval knights whose profession didn’t allow for peace, and who could now channel their sinful aggression, as they had been taught, into a needed cause. Proactively (offensively), the crusades introduced the concept of sacred violence, effecting the remission of a knight’s sins for killing infidels. Reactively (defensively), they were a long overdue counter to 300 years of jihadist warfare which had ripped away two-thirds of the Christian world, and was still pushing deeper into Christian lands.

Parallel Biblical-Studies Myth (1): Judaism was a religion of merit-amassing observances which earned God’s favor.

Fact: Merit was subordinate to grace in the Jewish covenant. Reward was temporal and salvation eternal. Ideas of merit and justice are the appropriate ingredients of a conditional arrangement, which the Jewish covenant was. But salvation itself wasn’t earned. The covenant was given unconditionally in terms of election. That it had to be fulfilled by the law and atonement, and would likewise be evaluated at the judgment, doesn’t nullify the promise that a faithful Israelite could rely on in the end.

Myth (2): Crusaders were mad fanatics.

Fact: Religious zeal isn’t necessarily a sign of madness. While there were in the course of the crusades examples of religious mania, fanatical frenzy, and horrible behavior, there is no evidence that the vast majority of crusaders were mad or deluded. Rational people are capable of believing things which secular liberal thinkers consider crazy — beliefs about the afterlife and sacred violence.

Parallel Biblical-Studies Myth (2): Pharisees were cold legalists.

Fact: Law-based religion isn’t necessarily a sign of legalism, which is usually associated with perfectionism and hypocrisy. While in any religion there will always be morally superior hard-asses, on the one hand, and/or hypocrites on the other, there is no evidence that most Pharisees (or later Rabbis) were legalists in this sense. They taught what the law required, and they reinforced the Jewish people’s election as a given.

Myth (3): The crusades were anti-Jewish.

Fact: The church never proclaimed a crusade against the Jews, and when some crusaders attacked Jews on their way to battle Muslims in Palestine, they were roundly condemned by the pope and many church authorities. The anti-Jewish pogroms of the First and Second Crusades were not a product of crusade preaching, but of a society that had for centuries co-existed with Jews while preserving resentment for their (supposed) role in Christ’s crucifixion. During crusade marches, some warriors suddenly found it difficult to distinguish between Muslims and Jews: if they were being called upon to avenge the injury of Christ’s honor in the loss of his land to the Muslims, why should they not also avenge the injury to his person in the crucifixion? This anti-Semitism was seen as a perversion of the crusading movement.

Parallel Biblical-Studies Myth (3): Pharisaic Judaism was anti-Gentile.

Fact: That ancient Judaism was ethnically supremacist doesn’t mean it was Gentile-hating. It’s true that Abraham’s inheritance was understood to have passed to one son and one grandson (Isaac and Jacob) and not the others. He was the ancestor of this line by blood, the Jewish forefather by natural descent, and the Jewish people were his seed. The only way Gentiles could become part of this seed — and be saved on an equal basis — is to take on the Torah and become Jews. But if they chose not to, they could still be saved as sons of Noah; just not with the same privilege as the sons of Abraham. By ancient standards, this hierarchy of salvation wasn’t racist. Some Jews would have been hard-core racists (there are always such in any society), but this was neither the norm nor the usual teaching of Pharisaic Judaism.

Myth (4): The crusaders were greedy colonizers.

Fact: Most crusaders expected to return home, and indeed most who survived did. Many of them already enjoyed wealthy lordships in Europe, which they jeopardized by going on crusade. The cost of embarking on a crusade was lethally expensive: knights had to shell out anywhere between 2-5 times their annual income to afford equipment, supplies, horses, and servants. (Buying a horse back then was as fiscally intimidating as buying a house is for us today.) Simply put: those who were looking to improve their lot in life did not go on crusade. That the goal of the crusade was “materialistic” by definition — repossession of land — doesn’t mean that crusaders were driven by colonial or economic motives; they were not. The primary sources are clear in depicting warriors making harsh sacrifices, driven by sincere piety, a reverence for relics and holy places, and, above all, an insecurity about their moral standing.

A modern analogy that hits close to home: Muslim jihadists wage war for the religious and spiritual reasons they say they do. It is hard for us (secular liberals especially) to accept that religious zealots can be motivated by beliefs simply on the strength of those beliefs; that ideas about martyrdom and paradise can be in and of themselves psychologically rewarding. Jihadists are not necessarily maladjusted, poor, or politically angry. Many of them — we see example after example — come from well-integrated families and are as normal as we consider normal to be. This was true of the crusaders in the medieval period. Crusaders were not disenfranchised second-sons looking to carve out territory they couldn’t get at home (again, many crusaders were wealthy first-born), nor were they greedy colonizers in general.

Parallel Biblical-Studies Myth (4): Pharisees were cold legalists.

Fact: See Parallel Myth (2), above. (Crusaders as mad fanatical greedy colonizers are often subsumed under a single sub-myth.)

Myth (5): The Children’s Crusade.

Fact: According to legend, two boys (one in France, the other in Germany) had independent visions of leading “armies” of pacifist children to Palestine, and shaming the Muslims into giving up the holy lands. It supposedly took place in 1212, and after the dismal outcomes of recent crusades, this march of peace was to succeed where warfare had failed. It ended in tragedy, with the children either being captured en route to Palestine and sold into slavery, or simply returning home. Whether these kids were peasants seeking adventure, naive protestors, lower-class pacifist revolutionaries, hapless victims of churchmen, rootless shepherds, or if they existed at all, is hard to say.

Parallel Biblical-Studies Myth (5): ?

[I can’t think of an analogous Biblical-Studies myth for this one. It’s not as if texts like The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, for example, are widely assumed to have serious historical value.]

Myth (6): The Knights Templar were precursors to the Freemasons.

Fact: The Templar knights were never a secret society, nor guardians of esoteric knowledge. There is not a shred of evidence that Templars in the 14th-century fled to Ireland and then Scotland to reorganize and evolve into the later modern Freemasons. It’s a ridiculous conspiracy theory.

Parallel Biblical-Studies Myth (6): The historical Jesus married Mary Magdalene, and their sacred bloodline survived in the French monarchy.

Fact: Another crackpot theory popularized in The DaVinci Code. It’s silly, but many people still believe it.

Myth (7): Today’s western warfare in the Islamic world replays the medieval crusader conflict.

Fact: The Islamic world is still waging jihad, but western military responses are not analogous to the medieval crusades. Crusades were penitential wars of sacred violence authorized by the church alone. That George W. Bush called his military response to 9/11 a new crusade does not make it so. Today, a Muslim doesn’t have to be a jihadist, or even a jihadist sympathizer, to hold to the fantasy that the west is still engaging in crusades. They parrot this myth as much as westerns do, especially those on the extreme left. It’s a myth that remains as a reaction to modern imperialism, and helps people place “exploitation” (whether real or imagined) in a historical context and satisfy feelings of either Islamic superiority or western guilt.

Parallel Biblical-Studies Myth (7): The 16th-century Protestant-Catholic debate replays the first-century clash of faith and works.

Fact: The conflicts aren’t analogous. Martin Luther objected to the law because of human inadequacy. Paul objected to the law so that Gentiles could be saved without having to become Jews in the process. Luther objected to individual boasting. Paul objected to ethnic boasting. Luther came to grace through despair. Paul fulfilled the law fine as a Pharisee, and concluded that humanity was wretched and despairing only as a Christian, from the starting point of grace.

Further reading:

From Soldiers of Hell to Soldiers of Christ
From Just War to Holy War
The Use of Scripture During the Crusades

The Many Pranks of Bat Masterson

masterson_batRecently I have become aware that the famous Bat Masterson (1853-1921) is a distant limb on my family tree. He was apparently a cousin of my great-great grandmother, whose name was Rebecca Masterson before she married and became Rebecca Harscher. My father never spoke of this to me when he was alive, as he wasn’t pleased to be related to this “despicable” figure of wide renown. However, Bat’s notoriety has been put to bed, especially by the research of Robert DeArment. His 1979 biography proves that Bat was not the trigger-happy gunslinger of journalistic sensationalism, and this is now widely accepted. I’ll cover this in a later post.

On the other hand, Bat did enjoy outrageous pranks. If there was anything that made me believe I was related to this guy in reading DeArment’s biography, it was on this subject. Some of Bat’s pranks were quite dangerous. He would pull them on visitors to Dodge, in the years he served as the Sheriff of Ford County (1878-1879), with the help of accomplices like Wyatt Earp, Luke Short, Jack Bridges, and Dave Mather. Here are some notable examples:

  • Baby Contest. When Reverend O.W. Wright was in Dodge preaching the gospel, he announced a baby contest to raise a missionary fund. The contest raised $2000, but Bat pulled off a prank that ended in none of the mothers of the competing babies winning the prize. He arranged the winner to be the baby of a black woman from an African-American dancehall on the south-side of town. Bat and Wyatt Earp marched the black woman and her baby down to receive the prize, to the embarrassment of the black woman and the fury of competing mothers.
  • Science Lecture. Dr. Meredith, a phrenologist and venereal disease specialist, was in Dodge giving a lecture. Bat arranged for people in the audience to suddenly yell out insults at the doctor, as Bat pretended to be indignant and told the audience to keep quiet. Insults escalated, and Bat drew his pistol and threatened to shoot the offending audience members, terrifying the poor doctor.
  • Indian Act. This was Bat’s favorite prank, and a dangerous one that backfired on him in one instance. Whenever new arrivals in Dodge bragged too much about their Indian-fighting abilities, Bat and his accomplices would stage “Indian attacks” in the city, with a handful of people dressing up as Indians, war paint and all, and “killing” others in the streets, before screaming and charging the new arrival. At the last second, the “Indians” would stop the charade and reveal themselves. The time this prank backfired when they pulled it on a man named Harris. As a precautionary measure, the pranksters would always be sure the victim’s rifle was either unloaded or filled with blanks, and they did this with Harris’ rifle. But Harris also had a pistol that he kept concealed in his boot, and when the “Indians” attacked, he shot one of them.

As I was telling a friend tongue-in-cheek, I suspect that Bat’s gene pool is responsible for my own relentless pranks, which (like Bat) I pulled mostly when I was in my 20s.

The Western Film Renaissance

westernI had a love-hate relationship with Westerns growing up in the ’80s. My father loved the John Wayne classics, and geniuses like Tarantino still do, but for me the mythology was too much: untainted cowboy honor; ridiculously unbelievable gun fights; the implied theme of manifest destiny; the moral superiority of a rugged outdoor life; cookie-cutter good guys and bad guys. The genre was hyper-romanticized and understandably declined after the ’60s. But I did love the atmosphere of the 1800s American frontier — ranch houses, homesteads, and saloons; lawless towns growing at the edge of civilization; nearby Indian sites; hanging trees, lassos, bandannas, canteens, and stagecoaches; gamblers and whores living recklessly by the day. It summoned a turbulent world I wanted to visit, but did so in a way I could never take seriously.

That changed when Clint Eastwood single-handedly revised the genre in the ’90s. The movie, of course, was Unforgiven: a Western that shat on all the silly conventions and took itself seriously. Sheriffs and deputies were suddenly portrayed negatively, incompetent, and even sadistic. Gunfight scenarios became realistic, messy, sometimes embarrassingly so. In the film, one of the protagonists shoots a completely defenseless man taking a shit in an outhouse. These “heroes” are appalled by their own violence, to the extent that one of them quits the mission after they kill the first villain, and the other breaks down crying after he shoots the guy on the commode. As for the lead hero himself, Will Munny (played by Eastwood), he is a sociopath whose legendary gun-skills come mostly by getting drunk. At the blistering climax, he blows away an unarmed barkeep before tearing up the whole saloon in a mass killing spree. Unforgiven was unprecedented, an instant classic, and proved to me that the Western could survive in an age of realist cinema.

The idea was slow catching on. There were a few ’90s efforts like Tombstone (1993), Wyatt Earp (1994), and The Quick and the Dead (1995), but in my view hardly inspired. The efforts in the 21st century, on the other hand, have been remarkable. In what follows I assess fourteen “modern” Western films, starting with Unforgiven. The first seven go up to the year 2010, and fall under the umbrella of “Revising the Genre”. They are typically revenge or outlaw films. The other seven come from the past few years under “Indie-fying the Genre”, and their sub-genres cover a wide range — spaghetti, romance, horror, wilderness survival, mystery. I’m convinced that we’re in the middle of an Indie-Western renaissance, especially after the flood of impressive films last year alone.

Stage One: Revising the Genre

Unforgiven (1992). Clint Eastwood. 5 stars. I already discussed this one above, but it deserves the extra commentary. I’m not sure what the Western would look like today, or even if it would exist much at all, without Eastwood’s revisionist reboot. The best character is Gene Hackman’s sheriff, a sadist who over-punishes people but for all his nastiness is rather endearing. All the characters are great — Eastwood’s Will Munny, the reformed alcoholic who is less a legendary gunslinger and more a mass killer when he gets drunk; Morgan Freeman’s Ned, Will’s old friend who is in a relationship with an Indian woman (the first time a Western depicted an African American in such a relationship); and the Schofield Kid, full of bluster and so blind he can barely shoot a target. These three leave their Kansas homes in 1881 for a town in Wyoming, when they hear of a bounty being offered by a group of whores, one of whom was maimed by a customer. They run afoul the sheriff, who won’t tolerate vigilantes, and while they succeed in killing the two villains, it comes at the price of Ned’s life, the Kid’s innocence, and Munny’s soul. Unforgiven is a pure masterpiece.

open-range-2003-26-gOpen Range (2003). Kevin Costner. 4 stars. The last time Kevin Costner directed himself in a Western was in the horrible Dances With Wolves (1990) which inspired countless “white savior” offshoots. Costner was never really good, but he did surprisingly well by Open Range, which brings considerable depth to the Western, and delivers the best gun fight sequence I’ve seen in the genre. It’s set on the grazing plains of Montana in 1882, when times are changing, ranching has settled in, and town residents are becoming increasingly hostile to free-range cattle raising. A greedy rancher sets his men to raid the free-ranger camp, killing and injuring the young hands, prompting the lead characters (played by Costner and Robert Duvall) to wreak vengeance in the rancher’s town. That final gunfight is tense and brutal and long, and the film’s unquestionable selling point. The only weakness is the romance between Costner’s character and the town doctor’s sister. It’s not bad, but it is a bit contrived. On whole this is an overlooked film that deserves more attention; a scenic gem and character focus that builds to inevitable bloodshed.

missingThe Missing (2003). Ron Howard. 2 ½ stars. The most pedestrian entry on this list comes from the director who gave us putrid films like Willow and The DaVinici Code, but also gems like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. The Missing falls somewhere in between. It caters to mainstream audiences, offering some enjoyable sequences but never taking any real risks. The story starts on a prairie land in New Mexico (1885), where white settlers maintain an uneasy truce with the neighboring Indians. When the daughter of a local healer (played by Cate Blanchett) is abducted by Indians to be sold down in Mexico, she enlists the help of her estranged father (played by Tommy Lee Jones), and it becomes a rather predictable kidnapping plot that allows a flawed man to reconcile himself with his family. The problem is that Howard doesn’t want to risk offending anyone. The best and boldest scene involves the Indian baddie casting a hideous curse on the Cate Blanchett character from miles away using a voodoo doll.

3-10-to-Yuma-logan-lerman-movies-25616132-660-2703:10 to Yuma (2007). James Mangold. 4 ½ stars. Of all the oldies to remake, 3:10 to Yuma is an excellent choice. It’s an outlaw story and Russell Crowe plays the lead bastard with relish. The plot is lean and straightforward and so effective it doesn’t need any complex supplements. In the 1880s an Arizona rancher (played by Christian Bale) is about to lose his land to the railroad company, and so for a reward volunteers to escort Ben Wade (the outlaw played by Crowe) to the town of Contention, where a train will transport Wade to the prison in Yuma. Along the way, Wade is able to kill two of his escorts; another is lost to Indians; yet another falls to people who want to kill Wade out of revenge for past grievances. By the end of the road Wade and the rancher have formed a strange respect for each other. As the train is about to arrive, Wade’s outlaw group descend on the town to rescue their boss — the tension is as nail-biting as the streets of Contention become a gunslinging bloodbath — and even after many viewings I’m always shocked by Wade’s last-minute turn and slaughter of his own gang.

The Assassination of Jesse James_00000The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Andrew Dominik. 3 stars. This one aspires to greatness but is a chore to get through in some parts, or at least for me, mostly because I can’t stand Casey Afleck (he’s even worse than brother Ben). The story is set in Missouri and Kentucky and tracks the final years (1881-82) of train robber Jesse James, played competently enough by Brad Pitt as a charming psychopath. His sidekick sycophant Robert Ford (Affleck) had wormed his way into Jesse’s favor, having worshiped him since childhood, but eventually assassinates him for the law. It’s a well made film in terms of aesthetic — the influence of Terrence Malick is in evidence — but I felt much as I did watching Spielberg’s Lincoln: not always caring about what I was seeing. It’s good with gang dynamics, for example in the way Jesse sees threats under every rock and murders those he slightly suspects of being traitors and moles. Shades of The Departed, but unfortunately not half as engaging, which is doubly unfortunate since the film is so long. The last half hour goes out strong.

appaloosaAppaloosa (2008). Ed Harris. 3 ½ stars. I like this one more than it deserves, because Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson make such a good team. (As an aside, they also make great enemies: witness History of Violence.) It’s the most traditional-feeling Western on this list — the classic lawman story. Harris and Mortenson play marshals who are hired by the officials of a New Mexico town (in 1882) being terrorized by a renegade rancher. They are straight-up good guys, and so Appaloosa lacks the cutting cynicism of the other entries. But it works, because the marshals lose; their moral compasses can’t prevail against a tyrant who happens to be friends with the 21st U.S. President Chester Arthur, who pardons the rancher after being convicted in court to hang. It deteriorates to the point of tragedy when the rancher sets up business in town and actually becomes friends with the city officials who first hired the marshals to bring him to justice. It’s a solid enough story, and the gun fights are impressive.

true305True Grit (2010). The Coen Brothers. 5 stars. My absolute favorite Western (aside from Tarantino’s two, which don’t really count being Tarantino), and I was surprised to love it since I’ve never been a huge fan of the Coen brothers. But they remade this ’60s classic dark, in the same vein of Unforgiven. The character of Mattie Ross is the film; Hailee Steinfeld’s performance is about the best 14-year old’s I’ve seen (second only to Ellen Page’s Hayley Stark in Hard Candy). I completely fell in love with this girl. She takes the law into her own hands after her father is murdered in 1878, and none of the Arkansas authorities are willing to go after the killer into Indian territory. She exudes a convincing steel for her age and a completely believable Presbyterian ethic. And Jeff Bridges, for my money, is far better than John Wayne (I know that doesn’t mean much since I hate the Duke). The final shoot-out in the open field is orgasmic; and Mattie’s loss of her arm to the rattlesnake bite the perfect ending which could never be happy anyway, given the revenge premise.

Stage Two: Indie-fying the Genre

Django-unchained-dicap-broomhildaDjango Unchained (2012). Quentin Tarantino. 5 stars. Tarantino was born to revive the spaghetti Western. I began this post by expressing my contempt for classic Westerns, but if I had seen more of the spaghetti breed, I might have watched more of them. The Italians who made spaghettis weren’t trying to glorify the American ethos, and so the civilizing forces were often portrayed as corrupt, and the American frontier a place of devastation and racism. Django Unchained harks back to this effort of destroying frontier myths, especially that of southern hospitality and the genteel antebellum. It’s set in the years of 1858-59, when Mississippi plantation owners never dreamed their world was about to end. Tarantino runs parallel the realistic violence done to slaves with the cathartic violence of overblown revenge, a dualism that he has tamed to near perfection. I honestly don’t know whose performance I like better, Leo DiCaprio as the despicable plantation owner or (as my gut tells me) Samuel Jackson as his collaborationist slave, a cranked up Uncle Tom. Then there’s Don Johnson (another plantation owner) who gets in some of the most amusing lines, as he waxes wroth over a black man who dares to ride a horse.

crazy_womenThe Homesman (2014). Tommy Lee Jones. 4 ½ stars. This is a road journey and spiritual odyssey that ends with a resourcefully independent woman killing herself and a useless man getting his second wind in life. They are transporting three crazy women from Nebraska to Iowa (it’s set in the 1850s, when the former was a territory and the latter a state), but really everyone is a bit crazy, to the extent that the mythic West feels like an alternate world where nothing really clicks. By far the strangest scene is the stop-over at a hotel in the middle of nowhere, run by an eccentric Irishman played by James Spader. For whatever reason, the Irishman uses this bastion of emptiness on the plains as a base for attracting business investors. The hotel is empty and chock full of gourmet food and drink, but he adamantly denies room and board to Briggs and the three women who are now starving (even though Briggs can pay) by making bullshit excuses that every single room is reserved. This weird Lynchian scene defines The Homesman for me. The West is portrayed as an unforgiving place with rare epiphanies; a horrible place for humanity to flourish, yet with the power to fire the soul — for better or worse.

lead_960Slow West (2015). John Maclean. 3 ½ stars. Here’s the first of five Westerns from last year. It’s a road journey in 1870, taking a young man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his bandit protector (Michael Fassbender) through Colorado and Indian territory. The youth is looking for a fugitive woman who was his girlfriend in Scotland, and has paid the bandit to protect him, but it turns out this bandit it looking for the same woman to kill her for a bounty. The way things turn out isn’t predictable. It’s a romance, but also an examination of manifest destiny and the way the American legacy has impacted natives and immigrants. It hardly qualifies as a thriller, and yet the final shoot-out is exactly that — a prairie barrage so tightly edited and savagely orchestrated that you find yourself ducking for cover as the bullets fly. This one flew under the radar and while not excellent by any means, deserves more attention.

The-Keeping-Room-Featurette-1-SD-GoldPosterThe Keeping Room (2015). Daniel Barber. 4 stars. You could call this a frontier feminist piece, and a terrifying home invasion set on a South Carolina farmstead in the last days of the Civil War (1865). The bad guys are two northern deserters who besiege three women: two sisters played by Brit Marling and an older Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit; their slave is played by Muna Otaru, and for me she is the understated star of The Keeping Room. The farmstead exists in a quiet dreamy aesthetic until shattered by the arrival of the union men, and what follows is a Western version of Straw Dogs. The younger sister is raped in her bedroom; the older sister mistakenly shoots the slave’s brother returning in the night, thinking him to be one of the union men; she is appalled by her error, and her slave forgives her in an emotional scene. There is paradox too, in the way one of the union men, fatally wounded, begs for a sort of understanding before dying.

boneBone Tomahawk (2015). S. Craig Zahlern. 4 ½ stars. The horror Western had been tried twice before, with Dead Birds (2004) and The Burrowers (2008), but with unimpressive results. Bone Tomahawk goes for the jugular and hits a home run. Not only is it savage and terrifying, it makes us care about the characters. As a result, the third act is extremely upsetting when we see people split down their middles and torn apart before being eaten by a clan of cannibal Indians. These Indians are so fearsome and obscene that they are hardly acknowledged as distant kin by other Indian groups. I imagine that S. Craig Zahlern was giving Ron Howard the finger, and saying this is what a film like The Missing should be like. It’s set in a frontier town in the 1890s, where a woman is abducted by the cannibals and taken away. Four men pursue — the sheriff, his deputy, the woman’s husband, and another man who feels responsible for making the abduction possible. When they get to the Indian caves, the face-off is like nothing you’ve ever seen in the Western genre.

the-revenant-vfx-bear-1296x729The Revenant (2015). Alejandro G. Iñárritu. 4 stars. On Christmas Day of last year, two extraordinary westerns hit the theaters. Each was over 2 ½ hours in length, and as a New Yorker critic put it, they would have made a suitable double-feature of “malice and mistrust, in which characters are trapped in extreme winter-weather conditions and settle their differences with extreme violence”. In the case of The Revenant, I can hardly think of another film that has made me grateful for my comforts in life. And yes, it’s like The Hateful Eight in many ways, especially in terms of a director’s nostalgia for the pre-digital era and a return to old-school reality. And like the other indie films above, it fuses the Western with other genres to produce something new. Revenge is on the menu, but it’s a wilderness survival tale above all, and explores the theme of rebirth against the savage backdrop of nature. Every step of Hugh Glass’s 200-mile trek back from the dead — he really covered this distance across South Dakota in 1823 — assaults us with nature’s cold disregard for human life. Yet it’s beautiful every step of the way.

The Hateful Eight_00003The Hateful Eight (2015). Quentin Tarantino. 5 stars. It’s only fitting this comes last on the list, as it’s my #1 favorite. It’s a bottle drama, slow burn, and murder mystery that explodes into Tarantino stew. Think Twelve Angry Men, except these eight angries will do exactly what Juror #3 pretended on Juror #8 with the knife. They are despicable killers, trapped together in a Wyoming roadhouse during a blizzard; only two are alive by the end, and even those two just barely. It’s certainly not a political film, but there is implied commentary on race relations after the Civil War (it’s set in the 1870s), and a shocking use of the female lead as a blood-drenched punching bag. At a certain point there is a shift from a heavy deployment of the word “nigger” to a vengeful use of the word “bitch”, the subtext being that while men may be divided by racism, they can at least bond over a shared contempt of a woman. Naysayers are calling it Tarantino’s most indulgent film, which it certainly is, but the indulgence works completely for it, and brings a near perfect nihilistic artistry to the Western.


Stage One: Revising the Genre

Unforgiven (1992). Revenge.
Open Range (2003). Revenge.
The Missing (2003). Rescue.
3:10 to Yuma (2007). Outlaw.
The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Outlaw.
Appaloosa (2008). Lawmen.
True Grit (2010). Revenge.

Stage Two: Indie-fying the Genre

Django Unchained (2012). Spaghetti.
The Homesman (2014). Odyssey.
Slow West (2015). Romance.
The Keeping Room (2015). Feminist/Home Invasion.
Bone Tomahawk (2015). Cannibalist/Horror.
The Revenant (2015). Wilderness Survival.
The Hateful Eight (2015). Murder Mystery.

Where to vote Third-Party, and where to (perhaps) vote Hillary

swing statesAs Facebook friend Chris Zeichmann put it, people who say that a vote for a third party is automatically a vote for Trump have a poor understanding of electoral politics. If you’re in a state where Hillary’s victory is near guaranteed, then voting third party doesn’t impact her victory. If I lived in Massachusetts, New York, California, Oregon, or any of the blue states on the map to the right (aside from perhaps Maine), I would vote third-party without question.

The problem is that I don’t have that luxury. I live in the swing-state of New Hampshire, where the difference between Clinton’s approval (43.6%) and Trump’s approval (39.0%) is quite narrow. If I vote for either Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, as I advocated yesterday, then that could effectively be a vote for Trump.

Those of us who live in the tan swing-states should at least consider biting the bullet and voting for Hillary. I don’t want to do that but it may be necessary. But if you live in a blue state there’s no excuse. Vote for either Johnson or Stein. I honestly don’t care which. (Johnson is a decent enough libertarian, and Stein a social leftist if a bit regressive). And remember: The point of voting third-party isn’t because candidates like Johnson or Stein stand a chance; they obviously don’t. It’s a protest vote when the other two are terrible, and is typically done to send a message to voters for the future.

Here are the 10 swing states (identified by Politico), where the difference between Clinton’s approval (the first figure) and Trump’s approval (the second) is less than 10%.

Ohio — 41.4%, 41.2% (0.2%)
Florida — 43.6%, 41.8% (1.8%)
Nevada — 44.5%, 42.5% (2.0%)
Iowa  — 43.2%, 39.6% (3.6%)
North Carolina  — 44.4%, 40.6% (4.0%)
New Hampshire — 43.6%, 39.0% (4.6%)
Virginia — 42.6%, 37.4% (5.2%)
Pennsylvania — 46.0%, 39.6% (6.4%)
Colorado — 44.0%, 36.2% (7.8%)
Wisconsin  — 43.8%, 35.4% (8.4%)

The Four Candidates

I’ve made it clear what I look for in a presidential candidate, and why Bernie Sanders was my man. Bernie is gone, however, and while I respect his reason for backing Hillary (to block Trump at all costs), that reason isn’t necessarily good enough for me. I may vote my conscience for either Johnson or Stein. The pros and cons of each are about a wash. Johnson speaks to my libertarian values but is too right-leaning, while Stein impresses on green and liberal issues but is too left, possibly even a regressive leftist. Here’s how the four candidates line up:

Gary Johnson: 6/10.

+  Like Sanders on social issues, marriage equality, women’s choice, ending the drug war, ending military intervention abroad, and even striking against at least some of crony capitalism. He supports citizenship for children of illegal immigrants born in America, and increasing immigrants’ access to temporary work visas. Notably, he supports limiting liability for gun sellers and manufacturers, which is impressive for a right-leaning libertarian. He calls out Islamic sharia law is antithetical to the U.S. Constitution and resists pandering to the left’s apologias and obscurantism on the subject of Islam.

–  While he commendably calls out Islam for inherent problems, he has also called for the odious measure of banning burqas before hastily retracting the statement (the fact that a libertarian would even conceive of approving governmental interference with how a woman chooses to dress isn’t encouraging). And while he rightly wants to minimize military activity abroad, he also minimizes the threat of global jihadism (to support his isolationist view), which is naive. Unlike Sanders, who favors tuition-free public colleges and universities, Johnson actually wants to eliminate the Department of Education because he thinks the federal government shouldn’t play a role in education. And although Johnson initially aligned with Sanders in rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, he now supports it.

steinJill Stein: 6/10.

+ Like Sanders on social issues, marriage equality, women’s choice, ending the drug war, wanting to break up big banks, jack up taxes on the 1 percent, raise the minimum wage, and implement mandatory single-payer health care and tuition-free higher education. They also share similar positions on most immigration and environmental issues, including pathways to citizenship and prioritizing a transition to green energy sources.

–  She’s a laughable anti-vaxxer, and while she has backpedaled from extreme anti-vax positions, it’s not enough. While rightfully pressing for gun control, she’s a bit too restrictive, for example in favoring the victims of gun violence to sue firearm sellers and manufacturers. Her call for ending military intervention abroad is of course good, but she’s hyper-pacifist to the point of delusion, and over-ambitious; beyond providing free college, Stein would cancel all existing student debt. Ultimately, she’s in the camp of the far left and would probably be a regressive leftist in patronizing illiberal principles for sake of multiculturalism.

clintonHillary Clinton: 2/10.

+ She supports women’s choice, and significantly that’s about all you can say for her.

–  Her negatives are legion: She’s a tool of Wall Street, and fossil-fuel owned; a war-monger and security surveillance hawk; an executive sovereign who will reign by fiat and make every effort to Ginsbergize the Supreme Court. Executive and judicial overreach will be the defining point of her administration. She pays lip-service to espousing the causes of minorities and the dispossessed, but there is little reason to believe she will do much for social justice causes. Nor does she hold any promise to end the drug war. The only reason to vote for a candidate like this is to smack down Trump, and even that reasoning only works if you live in a swing-state.

donald-trump-short-fingered-vulgarian-fingers-bruce-handy-ss13Donald Trump: 0/10.

Really, what needs saying?

Those evil moderates (Noam Chomsky, Pastor Anderson, Dr. King, and Revelation 3:15-16)

The theme of this post is “evil moderates”, and I’m drawing on radically different figures who have censured moderates as being worse than the real enemy: Noam Chomsky, Pastor Steven Anderson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the author of the Book of Revelation.

Consider the following description and citation of Noam Chomsky, written by Chris Hedges:

chomskyChomsky reserves his fiercest venom for the liberal elite in the press, the universities and the political system who serve as a smoke screen for the cruelty of unchecked capitalism and imperial war. He exposes their moral and intellectual posturing as a fraud. And this is why Chomsky is hated, and perhaps feared, more among liberal elites than among the right wing he also excoriates…

“‘I don’t bother writing about Fox News,’ Chomsky said. ‘It is too easy. What I talk about are the liberal intellectuals, the ones who portray themselves and perceive themselves as challenging power, as courageous, as standing up for truth and justice. They are basically the guardians of the faith. They set the limits. They tell us how far we can go. They say, ‘Look how courageous I am.’ But do not go one millimeter beyond that. At least for the educated sectors, they are the most dangerous in supporting power.'”

That’s the typical judgment of the regressive left — and why I take Noam Chomsky with a pound of salt — that one’s liberal cousins are more profoundly threatening than bigots, right-wingers and demagogues on the opposite side. There are many reasons why ideologues like Chomsky think this way, but the biggest one is our entrenched culture of self-loathing (on the extreme left) that denigrates anything and everything Anglo-American, and exalts western-haters as heroic underdogs struggling to defend other underdogs, whether or not they deserve a defense.

Take an example now who is opposite in every way from Chomsky. Pastor Steven Anderson is famous for his toxic sermons, especially the ones against gay people whom he considers beyond God’s forgiveness. He insists that all gays and lesbians are pedophiles, and if that’s your starting point (incredible as such a belief is), then gay people are as dangerous as it gets. But Anderson comes down harder on his fellow fundies for their moderate stance. He says, in a sermon delivered after the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage:

anderson“I never get mad when I get hate mail from the sodomites or mainstream Christians. The homos are just being the homos, and liberal Christians don’t even pretend to follow the Bible. But if you want to see me get mad, watch what happens when I get an email or call from a fellow fundamentalist or evangelical who tells me that I should tone it down against the sodomites. My wife will tell you, that’s when I start yelling at my iPhone.

“I’m not even so much preaching against the sodomites tonight. Because you know what the Bible says? ‘He that is filthy, let him be filthy still’ (Rev 22:11). That’s what the Bible says. But you know who I’m preaching against tonight? I’m preaching against my fellow independent fundamentalist Baptist pastors. Because the Supreme Court decision is their fault and they don’t even realize it. The battle wasn’t lost to a bunch of sodomites and perverts. No, the battle was lost in the hearts of fundamentalist preachers, who one day starting reading their Bibles, and got to Romans 1, and decided not to preach what it says. THAT is why our country is in the condition that it is.

“It’s my fellow fundamentalist preachers — I am blaming them for the Supreme Court’s decision; I am blaming them for our society accepting homos; I am blaming them for the homos coming out of the closet; and I am blaming them for the downfall of this country. They say ‘homosexuality is a sin” and ‘I’m against gay marriage’, but they WON’T USE THE WORDS THAT THE BIBLE USES! And they are trimming the message, and they’re preaching a tiny percentage of what needs to be preached. The Bible says that ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by EVERY word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’. And if they won’t use the words that God uses, then they are frauds and liars and compromisers. And what the Bible says is that homosexuals are reprobates beyond God’s salvation, and worthy of death. It does NOT say that we should ‘love the sinner and hate the sin’. It does NOT say that we should love the homos so that they can repent and be saved. It says ‘I hate them O Lord who hate thee’ (Prov 129:31), and that sodomites are haters of God (Rom 1:26-30).”

Moving now to the most admirable example: Martin Luther King, Jr. Unlike the examples of Chomsky (bad) and Anderson (off-the-scales), Dr. King’s sentiments were grounded in the best of reasons. From his Birmingham jail letter:

MLK“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.'”

Even our best leaders run with rhetoric, and Dr. King’s rhetoric implies that liberal sympathetic moderates are more dangerous, or more problematic — indeed “the great stumbling block” — than the actual racists who kill or vilely discriminate. That’s nonsense, of course, but we treat nonsense like wisdom when it grabs attention and fires our passions. If Dr. King had said that white moderates were a (not “the”) stumbling block, for the reasons he gives, and if he had removed his contrast with white supremacists groups (which implies that these groups are not a stumbling block at all to the black cause), his statement would have otherwise been fine. He was right that white moderates in the ’60s weren’t proactive enough — like today’s white moderates who aren’t assertive enough in addressing police brutality against blacks — and given the frustrated jail-cell context of his letter, Dr. King can probably be excused for his rhetorical excess.

Last is the classic example from the bible, Revelation 3:15-16:

lukewarm“You are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were one or the other. Because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

On the common reading of this passage, the author of Revelation prefers the “hot” who are zealous for God, and even the “cold” who are openly against God, over against the “lukewarm” who serve God out of half-hearted convictions.

It’s worth mentioning that this may not be what the author of Revelation meant to say. His nasty remark was addressed to the church of Laodicea, and it may have been intended to evoke the hot medicinal springs of Hierapolis, and the cold refreshing waters of Colossae. Laodicea’s aqueducts channeled both from afar in a lukewarm ooze. The passage could have been saying that the Laodicean Christians were neither therapeutic nor energizing — that they were neither like hot water in a soothing bath, nor like cold water in a refreshing drink; they were entirely useless. On this reading, it’s not that they lacked zeal in particular; they simply didn’t have a spiritual focus at all, especially being rich materialists (Rev 3:17-18). Craig Keener paraphrases the passage as saying, “I want water that will either heal me or refresh me, but you remind me instead of the water you always complain about in your city. You make me want to puke.”

But frankly the common reading — that the Lord prefers a (hot) zealous Christian or a (cold) godless heathen over against a (lukewarm) mainstream Christian — seems to me to be just as plausible. The other six churches addressed in Rev 2-3 faced opposition and/or persecution that calls forth zealotry, and it’s not unreasonable to suppose the Laodiceans faced the same problem even though it’s not explicitly mentioned. In any case, the idea that God hates mediocre believers even more than he hates infidels is often the litmus test of devotion among religious hard-liners, and for better or worse, Revelation has become the basis for this harsh view of moderates.

More moderation

I deliberately chose examples of people and writers who command different levels of respect according to one’s values, and the point is a common drive in our humanity. It’s easy for extremists and crusaders (even noble ones like King) to treat the real enemy like a sideshow while faulting those closer to home. The Chomskys of the world may hate the right-wing, and the Andersons the left, but the brunt of their ire falls on their moderate cousins who are in most cases more enlightened.

The Overnight Success of Stranger Things

Here are the 8 episodes of Stranger Things ranked (in my estimation) according to their dramatic power.

Episode 8: The Upside Down. 5 stars. This is everything a finale should be: scary and emotional, with the right payoff and unexpected surprises on all sides of the story. At the Byers’ house, Jonathan and Nancy bait the shadow beast with blood, and when it appears (on top of a sudden visit from Steve), hell breaks loose — gunshots from Nancy, morningstar beatings from Steve, a firebomb from Jonathan — in a furious strobe effect of blinking Christmas lights. At the Hawkins Institute, Hopper and Joyce enter the shadow realm and find Barbara’s corpse and Will barely preserved alive, facehugger-style out of Alien (above image). And at the school, the kids are apprehended by Hawkins goons after El goes bad-ass and kills some of them, and while Lucas stands up to the shadow beast impressively with the slingshot, it is El who vaporizes it, sacrificing herself to an emotionally devastated Mike.
Episode 3: Holly, Jolly. 5 stars. The end of this episode is my favorite scene of the series, when the kids see Will’s body dragged from the river. They have no reason to believe it’s a fake body, and Mike’s reaction in particular — yelling at El and running home enraged — had me in tears. The use of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes” over this tragedy is a genius piece of scoring. The whole episode builds to this climax in one strong scene after another: the opening sequence of Barbara assaulted in the shadow realm; the dreadful scene in which El relives her killing two guards at Hawkins Lab, when she was dragged back to her cell for refusing to kill a cat; Joyce’s powerhouse scene, as she communicates with Will through the use of Christmas-tree lights, and he tells her to get the hell out of the house as a creature suddenly bursts out of the living room wall.

Episode 6: The Monster. 5 stars. The title defines the episode in every frame, because the true monster isn’t what it seems. It’s neither the shadow creature (who just feeds according to its nature), nor even El (who opened the gate to the shadow world and let the creature through, in a terrifying flashback). The monsters, rather, are revealed to be people like Doctor Brenner, who recruits college kids for his nasty experiments which result in catatonic lives and child abductions. Or people like Steve, whose jealousy triggers life-threatening fist-fights. Or kids like Troy, whose bullying is carried to the extreme of forcing Mike to jump from the quarry’s cliff by by holding Dustin at knifepoint. All of these scenes are incredibly pulverizing to watch (I though Jonathan was going to literally beat Steve to death), but especially the last. Mike’s fall made my heart skip a beat, and El’s telekinetic rescue completely astonished me. And her reconciliation with Mike is simply sublime.

Episode 1: The Vanishing of Will Byers. 4 ½ stars. The opening D&D scene is my second favorite of the series (if you need to know my third and fourth, they would be El’s rescue of Mike from the cliff-fall in episode 6, and his emotional promise to make El his girlfriend in episode 8, which is thwarted as she sacrifices herself). The boy’s 10-hour campaign is a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and shows why the game was so fun in the early 80s. It establishes their amazing acting skills through great personas — Mike the group leader (and so of course the dungeon master), emotionally vulnerable, and the undeniable soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; Dustin ruled by his appetites and amusing in every frame; and Will the sensitive kid who won’t be getting much screen time. The chemistry between these kids is simply incredible, and the premiere sells their characters with ease.
Episode 4: The Body. 4 ½ stars. This is a chapter of slow-burns and stinging revelations, in which Hopper and Jonathan, along different paths, come to realize that Joyce isn’t crazy and that Will may still be alive. Hopper finds the fake body at the morgue, and Jonathan hooks up with Nancy, who has also seen the creature without a face in searching for Barbara. The kids also realize Will is alive (despite their tragic certainty at the end of episode 3), when El channels his voice over the radio. Three particular scenes stand out: (1) the gymnasium incident where El freezes Troy and makes him piss his pants; (2) the loss of Doctor Brenner’s son in the shadow realm — we don’t see anything, but his frantic cries to pull him out of the gate are terrifying and of course too late; (3) Joyce ripping down her wallpaper and seeing her terrified son shouting to her in a flesh-encased portion of the wall. That would be my fifth favorite scene of the series, and it gave me a goddamn nightmare.
Episode 5: The Flea and the Acrobat. 4 stars. In which the kids learn about the shadow realm, and others get a direct taste of it — Hopper at the Hawkins institute, and Nancy in “Mirkwood” forest. Now that everyone is on to the fact that Will is probably alive, they decide to take action, but things end badly for all involved. El sabotages the shadow gate’s magnetic field, ruining Dustin’s plan with the compasses, prompting a jealous fight between Mike and Lucas. She then smashes Lucas unconscious, driving a final wedge between them before running off. But the pivotal scene is at the end, with Jonathan and Nancy out in the woods, and Nancy enters the gate and gets her (and our) first full view of the shadow beast. There’s great exposition in this episode, as the science teacher answers the kids’ questions about parallel universes, and the kids do their own research on the shadow realm in a D&D manual.

Episode 2: The Weirdo on Maple Street. 4 stars. The kids’ most iconic scene may well be their prepubescent horror at a girl who almost gets naked in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are downright hilarious. (Lucas: “Do you think she slept naked??” Dustin: indignantly mimicks her taking off her dress.) The other thread to this episode is the party at Steve’s house, in which Nancy loses her virginity. I wasn’t a fan of Nancy at this stage, and certainly not Steve; their characters are annoying in the worst way of teens. But the later episodes pay this off incredibly well, so it turns out to be a good foundation. By the final episode, Nancy and Steve have become likeable precisely for how the horrific events force them to move beyond their hollow concerns for high school popularity and sexual esteem.

Episode 7: The Bathtub. 3 ½ stars. The weakest episode is still pretty good, especially the road chase where El flips a van. But there’s something about her use of the bathtub to find Barbara (dead) and Will (alive) in the shadow realm that while creepy left me underwhelmed. I think it’s the way all the characters — Hopper and Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy, the four kids — finally come together. These characters are at their best when they’re facing challenges on their own, especially the kids and teens who have to transcend their immaturity. Here they are all basically gathered around El so she can get the information they need. The Bathtub is good, but it’s basically a pause after the fury of The Monster and a calm before the storm of The Upside Down.