Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

triggersThe recent statement from The University of Chicago is long overdue:

“In a welcome letter to the incoming Class of 2020, Dean of Students John Ellison gives students the truth: there will be no quarter from controversial ideas on campus. U of C has made an ironclad commitment to the First Amendment, and will not abide safe spaces, trigger warnings, and other kinds of limitations on what is considered acceptable discourse:

‘Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.’

Ellison pulls no punches. ‘Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship,’ he writes. ‘At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.’ “

Plain common sense, and this isn’t just a reaction to extreme cases like the Yale and Mizzou protests last year (over “insensitive” Halloween costumes and other ridiculous furies). It’s embarrassing that we live in a time when courageous thinkers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Bill Maher are petitioned to have their speaking invitations cancelled because they are deemed bigots by students who have a poor understanding of the term. Or when genuinely funny comedians won’t bother performing at college campuses because humor can’t offend as it should. Even in my undergrad days at Lewis & Clark (’89-’91), I was cognizant of the growing narratives on liberal arts campuses which made “everything” offensive. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are very real problems, and those issues are trivialized by the hyper-sensitive who protest infringements on their “safe spaces” and misguided narratives. Grow up.

Whether material might offend or trigger trauma isn’t for college instructors to worry about in any case, beyond the common sense used in prefacing their courses. For examples:

  • In both my Hebrew Bible and New Testament classes in ’90-’91, my professor (Richard Rohrbaugh) outlined historical criticism and the kind of thinking we would be expected to engage in, and warned us that as long as he had been teaching intro bible classes, there are always some students who become very upset throughout the coursework (confronted by sudden chasms separating what the bible meant and what it means to believers today). He said, “My answer to that is tough rocks; let the chips fall where they may; I’m not here to offend anyone, but some of you will naturally be offended.” Again, common sense, and this is a perfect heads-up warning to quit the class on day one if you don’t think you can handle it.
  • Over a decade ago a friend of mine took a film class and one of the required films to watch was Irreversible, which depicts an extremely long and upsetting rape scene. Again, on the first day of class, the professor warned about transgressive content like this in some of the films. Now, at the other end of the spectrum, a rape scene like that in Pulp Fiction is universally seen as hilarious, though it could potentially upset a rape victim. But we can’t police the species and worry about every possible trigger. That’s up to the student. As someone on Facebook put it the other day, college professors aren’t counselors and it’s not their responsibility to pander to recovery needs.

So whether we’re dealing with material that may be offensive to some or triggering trauma in others, that is adequately covered in a first-day preface, which has been the professorial norm for ages. Students shouldn’t be mollycoddled beyond this. It’s not serving them at all, and it’s certainly not preparing them for the real world, which is the goal of an institution of higher learning.

The Burqa-Bikini Analogy and Burqa Ban: Confusion on Both Sides

burqaOn Facebook, Heina Dadabhoy links to a helpful article, “The Burkini-Bikini False Equivalence and Your Disproportionate Outrage”. It targets the moral confusion on both sides of the issue, and can basically be summed up as follows:

1. Left-wingers and liberals should stop making the comparison in the image to the right. It’s irresponsible and grossly insulting to women in the Muslim world. If you’re stupid enough to think the bikini is an appropriate analogy to the burqa, you need lessons in analogies. As the author says:

“When a woman’s acceptance, respect, dignity, employability, marriagiability, physical safety, enfranchisement, social mobility, access to social institutions, freedom, and autonomy hinge upon her daily, unwavering, public adherence to the bikini, then we can make this comparison.”

“When a woman cannot leave her home in anything other than a bikini without being deemed immoral and her human worth and family’s honor compromised, then we can make this comparison.”

“When there are severe legal, social, and extrajudicial forces holding a woman’s safety, wellbeing, and livelihood hostage to her adherence to the bikini, then we can make this comparison.”

2. Right-wingers, conservatives, and fringe feminists are wrong to advocate a burqa ban. It’s true that the burqa represents oppression, but you don’t fight oppression by oppressively taking away someone’s First Amendment right. People dress in crazy outfits all the time, for any number of reasons, and they can and should have the right to do so. If the government wants to send a message to a religious community that it is not acceptable to oppress women, that is to be applauded. But the government needs to find a way of doing that which doesn’t involve (a) criminalizing the victim, and (b) taking away her autonomy as a matter of principle.

Inside Higher Ed’s “Case for Religious Studies”

Yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed made a good Case for Religious Studies:

“If the only people who understand Christianity are Christian, or Islam are Muslims, or Hinduism are Hindus, we are condemned to a world of misunderstanding, conflict and sectarianism. If we cede understanding of religious ideas to religious individuals, we lose the capacity to comprehend the motivations behind the thoughts and actions of anyone beyond our own religious tradition… For those aspiring to leadership in the 21st century, knowledge of the religions of the world from a nonconfessional perspective is not a luxury but a necessity. Study of the variety of religious traditions around the world makes it abundantly clear that different people operate under different assumptions about the way the world works. To understand their actions, we must also understand their motivations.”

By whatever laws of serendipity obtain, on the same day I ran parallels between popular perceptions of crusaders and Pharisees. In the medieval and ancient periods, arguably none have been more misunderstood in terms of beliefs and motivations.

In discussing this and the Inside Higher Ed piece with someone else, I speculated two reasons why people are predisposed to accept patently false things about religious groups or religious phenomena. One is that people tend not to take the field of religious studies seriously like they do other fields. Sometimes you can’t blame them. When an evangelical like Tom Wright argues to wide acclaim that Jesus’ resurrection happened as a historical event, it’s rather strange to see this happen in a professional field. Historians usually don’t make ontological claims about supernatural events, even if they personally believe them. While any historian can be bias-blind for any number of reasons, I think it’s fair to say that biblical scholars get a disproportionate number of free passes with their intruding ideological commitments. That casts a shadow on the field, and probably suggests in the minds of many that the experts can be taken with a pound of salt.

A second reason, I think, has to with our collective moral outrage against organized religion, especially Christianity. If Jesus married Mary Magdalene along with other wild DaVinci Code elements (and it’s astonishing how many intelligent people believe this stuff), then that sticks it to the mother church where it hurts. If Pharisees were cold legalists, then they’re a timeless foil for spiritual supremacists. If crusaders were offensive boors, they represent all that’s wrong with western Christianity, not to mention western foreign policy, and serve as a foil for a fictionally benign Islam. While evangelicals use religious studies as an apologetic playground, our liberal theologians dig for nuggets, including false gold, to fire at the orthodox and western powers.

I have nothing personal at stake in defending Jesus’ prophetic celibacy, Pharisaism, or medieval crusading. (The values implied by all of these are alien to my libertine secular pacifism.) I want to understand the beliefs and motives of anyone, past and present, on their own terms, as reliably as possible, for reasons explained by the Inside Higher Ed. We can’t understand people without understanding what drives them; we can’t fix problems that are falsely diagnosed; and we certainly can’t build bridges without seeing clearly what’s on the other side.

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 defensive cause. Proactively (offensively), the crusades introduced the concept of sacred violence, effecting the remission of a knight’s sins for killing infidels, and their wide appeal allowed the pope to wrest control from the Holy Roman Emperor and his anti-pope. Reactively (defensively), the crusades 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?