A Muslim’s Journey: Islam, Freedom, White Privilege, and other reflections

bookIn his new book Ali Rizvi advocates for both secularism and Islamic reform, around reflections on his personal life experiences from the Middle-East to Canada. It’s the best account I’ve read that shows, from the inside, how to criticize Islam without demonizing or hurting Muslim people in the process.

In his chapter on “letting go” he makes the helpful point that it’s one thing to grasp, on an intellectual level, the difference between criticizing a religion and being bigoted to a group of people, while quite another to “let go” of that guilty feeling that comes with taking a razor to religion for fear that you are doing the other.

“An attack on a religion — which is not a person but simply a set of ideas like any other [existentialism, structuralism, capitalism, communism, fascism, etc.] — comes across to people as a personal attack. When you put their religious beliefs under scrutiny, you’re prodding at their entire sense of being. You’re rocking the boat, criticizing and satirizing that one thing they need to cling to in order to keep their lives intact, their families together, and — in some cases — their heads attached to their bodies. Does this mean you should not criticize or satirize religious beliefs? No, quite the opposite — it’s the only way to break the spell. But in order to do it effectively, it is important to first acknowledge what you’re dealing with.” (p 67)

Religious ideas are precious in ways that other ideas aren’t, and striking at those ideas can be easily misconstrued as disrespecting people. However, that’s usually not an obstacle these days with Christianity. When an artist submerged a crucifix in a jar of urine, photographed it and showed it in New York, it was praised and given a cash award and commendations from the National Endowment of the Arts. Christians who were offended by the urine-soaked crucifix were censured for being narrow-minded and against free speech, and rightly so. American culture has reinforced the right to criticize and ridicule religions, and if people’s feelings are hurt by it, then too bad.

Except when it comes to Islam, in which case Rizvi’s above statements take full force. When artists draw cartoons of Muhammad, they are attacked by the same western media that praises artists who defile crucifixes. Cartoonists of Muhammad are, we are told, bigoted and racist. What makes this doubly offensive is that unlike the adherents of other religions, religious Muslims kill cartoonists for engaging in artistic blasphemy. In a perverse moral backwardness, leftists align themselves with jihadists by unwittingly enforcing Islamic blasphemy laws instead of the First Amendment.

More generally, people shield Islam from criticism by claiming that the doctrines of jihad, sharia, and subjugation of non-Muslims are distortions — or hijackings, or politicizations, or fringe-interpretations — of Islam, even though people like Rizvi know they are integral to Islamic faith, just as the resurrection is to Christianity. The desire to protect Muslim feelings is understandable, but as Rizvi says, this sort of strategy only ends up perverting the message of multiculturalism. By all means we must stand up for Muslim people and fight bigotry, but not by patronizing the religion of Islam.

“Widely cited as the foundational element of secularism in America, Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli was a direct result of the United States’ first-ever brush with Islamic jihadists.”

Rizvi considers Thomas Jefferson, who eventually launched the first U.S. international war against jihadists in 1801. The origin of that conflict was sixteen years prior, at the end of the Revolutionary War, when American trade ships sailing into the Mediterranean no longer had the protection of the British navy and were suddenly assaulted by Muslim pirates. Those taken hostage were tortured and wrote letters home begging the U.S. government and family members to pay the ransoms.

barbary-coast-piratesJefferson (at that time a delegate to Europe, before his presidency) was flabbergasted at the unprovoked attacks, and wanted to know why the Barbary States were doing this. Tripoli’s (Libya’s) response came from Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja in 1786, when he met with Jefferson and Adams in London. Adja said that they were doing as Muhammad commanded; that it was the Muslim right to wage war on all nations who didn’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners; and that every Muslim who died in battle for this cause would go to paradise. All of those reasons sound like modern ISIS or Al-Qaeda manifestos, but as Rizvi points out, this was over two centuries ago — long before ISIS or Al-Qaeda, long before the creation of Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict, long before Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian revolution, long before Saudi Arabia and Taliban drone strikes and the Cold War and — most importantly — long before any established “U.S. foreign policy”.

The common claim that Islamists are motivated by political grievances is meaningless in any case, for as Rizvi says, Islam is inherently political. Warfare (jihad), terms of law and order (sharia), and territorial claims (to subjugate the world and bring all nations under Islamic rule) are at the root of what makes something political (p 42). By definition, groups like ISIS cry out against foreign policies, but those grievances, however sincerely articulated, have nothing to do with things like enslaving underage Yazidi girls, killing Turkmen Shias, throwing gays off rooftops, and executing Muslim apostates. It’s not even necessarily the case that Islamic governments want their grievances solved. Rizvi knows this firsthand from living in the Muslim world (p 137): Islamic supremacists use leftist narratives about oppression to their advantage, to deflect criticism and to further justify oppressing their own people. They thrive on grievances, which embolden them, open more avenues to paradise, and provide their raison d’etre.

“Saying that culture is the problem and not religion is like saying, ‘It’s not falling out of the airplane that kills you, it’s the ground.'”

When a Saudi court in 2008 refused to grant an eight-year old girl a divorce from her fifty-eight-year old husband, the leftist apologetics were predictable: this was simply a horrible cultural practice that had nothing to do with Islam. Except that it has everything to do with Islam. It’s grounded in the highest authoritative example of Muhammad, who married Aisha when she was six, and had sex with her when she was nine. As Rizvi says, this isn’t depicted in a one-off hadith. There are over twenty references to Muhammad’s pedophilia, in both the Qur’an and hadiths, and with further instructions on how to divorce women who have not yet menstruated. This is precisely why Saudi Arabia has no formal age limit on marriages, and why the Ayatollah lowered the age of marriage for girls from eighteen to nine when he reinstated Islamic law in Iran. Religion has everything to do with issues like this. They are inseparable from culture, indeed as Rizvi says, the separation between religion and culture is even more spurious than between religion and politics (p 48).

Rizvi also puts to bed claims about poverty and lack of education (p 91). The American-based terrorists — the 9/11 airplane hijackers, the Boston Marathon bombers, the San Bernardino shooters, Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, American born Al-Qaeda mastermind Anwar Al-Awlaki, and the list goes on and on — were all well-off people, with no lack of opportunity. Some of them left prestigious careers for jihadist glory. Some had doctorates. In Europe too, many jihadists come from comfortable lives, decent jobs and middle-class incomes. It’s true that American income inequality and French unemployment are serious problems that are only getting worse, but one thing they are not responsible for is creating jihadists.

“What makes the Qur’an so dangerous is that it combines the worldly violence of the Old Testament with the afterlife violence of the New.”

It’s well known that Islam borrowed heavily from Judaism and Christianity, but how precisely Islam originated remains controversial. The proto-Islam movement may have been a sect of Judaism, a Jewish sect of Christianity, or some kind of umbrella monotheistic group which saw itself as encompassing true forms of the two monotheistic movements. Whatever the case, certain ideas from both religions became relevant as Muhammad legitimated his holy wars: the militarism and warmongering of the (pre-exilic) Israelite period; the abstract New Testament ideas like submission (being slaves to Christ) and martyrdom (dying with Christ, who in turn died for one’s sins), and the promises and threats of eternal salvation and damnation. Combined, says Rizvi, they all yield the concept of jihad.

The militarism of the Hebrew Bible isn’t expansionist like it is in the Qur’an; it’s confined to keeping the land of Israel free of pagans and idolatry. But Jesus’ pacifistic commands to proselytize beyond Israel into the Gentile world certainly are expansionist. Nowhere in the Old Testament are believers told to subjugate unbelievers and force Judaism on pagans. But the messages of Jesus and Paul are strongly evangelical. There’s not much about the afterlife in the Old Testament, aside from the book of Daniel. But the New Testament is replete with ideas of suffering for the cross of Christ, and the necessity of being tribulated — persecuted, oppressed, robbed, starved, slaughtered — to have one’s faith put to the test in horrendous ways and be compensated in the hereafter. (The rapture was never understood to avoid this; it was the reward that came after.) Combine the worst elements from the two parts of the Bible, and there you have Islam, with a uniquely deadly means of propagating the faith (p 85).

“I grew up in countries where simply speaking our mind could get you sent to prison, flogged, or even executed. Early on, I promised myself that when I got to a place where I had the freedom to speak, I would. And I wouldn’t take my freedom of speech for granted, for even a day. But when I finally arrived in North America, I saw that things weren’t that simple.”

Rizvi’s chapter defending free speech is one of the best I’ve read, and I’ve read many. Against objections that “freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to offend”, he counters that is exactly what freedom of speech is, and always has been. Without the freedom too offend, there’s no point to free speech, and the most reformative revolutionaries throughout history could never have achieved the progress they did. Against claims that hate speech should be excluded, he points out the impossibility of letting the government determine what is hateful, let alone apply the standard objectively or consistently.

It has reached the (frankly unbelievable) point where human rights activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and religious reformers like Maajid Nawaz, are being branded hateful, instead of being given the medals of honor they deserve. That’s beyond outrageous, and it’s all the proof anyone should need to oppose hate speech laws. But you can even throw all that out. There’s a more basic point relating to academic integrity, as Rizvi says. Criminalizing any speech infantalizes people: “It doesn’t just take away someone’s right to speak; it takes away your right to form your own opinions and response to them. By supporting a ban on hate speech, you’re allowing your government to regulate not just what someone an say, but what you can hear” (p 132).

Perhaps even more obviously: if we were to ban hate speech on the criteria urged by today’s leftists, the Qur’an, and for that matter the Bible, as Rizvi points out, would have to be the first to go. They are responsible for far more damage and suffering than crackpot theories like Holocaust denial (which is criminalized in places like Canada and Europe). Name the last time Jews suffered in any way because a book was published “proving” that the Holocaust never happened. Then think of the hundreds of jihad murders committed every day because the Qur’an requires it, or the entrenched homophobia in western culture on account of attitudes channeled by Leviticus and Romans. Seriously.

“If Obama had addressed the problem of Islamic terrorism honestly, from a position of moral strength, the likes of Donald Trump and Marie Le Pen would have been less able to jump in and channel it from a position of xenophobic bigotry.”

Rizvi wrote this book before the election and so he only touches on this point. Like the rest of us presumably, he assumed that Trump wouldn’t ultimately win. But now that Trump has taken the presidency, it’s worth lingering on the failures of the left, and the failures of the more centrist Democrats like Obama who have pandered to the left with their obscurantism.

Trump got one third of the Hispanic vote, and that’s a serious a wake-up call. It’s not just rural uneducated white men who were willing to overlook Trump’s bigotry. Even the feminist Muslim reformer Asra Nomani, whom I have always admired, voted for Trump, and this is one of her stated reasons:

“As a liberal Muslim who has experienced, first-hand, Islamic extremism in this world, I have been opposed to the decision by President Obama and the Democratic Party to tap dance around the ‘Islam’ in Islamic State. Of course, Trump’s rhetoric has been far more than indelicate and folks can have policy differences with his recommendations, but, to me, it has been exaggerated and demonized by the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, their media channels, such as Al Jazeera, and their proxies in the West, in a convenient distraction from the issue that most worries me: Islamists.” (Asra Nomani: A liberal Muslim immigrant who voted for Trump)

Rizvi is right, and this is a point Sam Harris made about Brexit: that when we stop listening to truth and go out of our way to excuse the inexcusable, people retaliate in the voting booth — including the very minorities disrespected by Trump. Plenty of those minorities see him as the lesser evil, and I’m afraid we as liberals have largely ourselves to blame for this.

That damned Richard Dawkins. Checking our white privilege.

I confess I can’t stand Dawkins. Whenever I see a news piece about him online or in my Facebook feed, I ignore it as clickbait. It’s not that what Dawkins says is necessarily wrong; it’s that he goes out of his way to be inflammatory and contemptuous of those who dare disagree with him. Rizvi, however, makes a point I have to acknowledge. The aggressive in-your-face approaches of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens are applauded by many Muslims who can only dream of speaking in this way. They are silenced in the oppression they receive at the hands of their governments and communities, and even families, all in the name of Islam. They are angry — and they are even more angry at the conciliatory and “respectful” approach that our leftists take towards an inherently oppressive religion.

Put bluntly, the patronizing respect for Islam is a luxury affordable only to those of us who live in free open societies. Liberals like to talk about white people “checking their privilege”, but that’s actually what they need to start doing — to stop patronizing Islam in the name of cultural tolerance. It may make us feel good or alleviate our white guilt complexes, or make us feel like we’re actually doing something good when we’re not. The real heavy-lifting is coming from people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz, Asra Nomani, Sam Harris, Robert Spencer — and yes, even odious personalities like Richard Dawkins — who speak against Islam itself on behalf of those who know too well what it does to people.


A solid 9/10, this book is entirely a pleasure to read. I would recommend it for anyone who wants a critique of Islam that upholds the importance of the dignity of Muslim people. It also has sections explaining why Rizvi became an atheist, which were less interesting to me, but will be of value to others.

Doctor Who’s Companion Departures

Rewatching Hell Bent got me thinking about the Doctor’s companion exits. Companions who die, but not really, are like resets. They work with the right payoff and betray us when there’s no cost. No one complains about the reset in Father’s Day, because it’s so tragic the reset is invisible. Last of the Time Lords is another story. Of the six companion departures, four of them involve deaths-but-not, and you’d think the formula would have worn out its welcome by now. But three of them work very well, including Clara’s in the most recent Hell Bent.

Here’s my survey of the six departures. It’s worth noting how Moffat’s three repeated those of Davies. The God Complex, like Last of the Time Lords, was the unassuming farewell, not to mention a loose one, as Amy returned next season like Martha did. Angels Take Manhattan replayed the Doomsday tearjerker, with Amy banished to die in the past like Rose in her alternate universe. Journey’s End and Hell Bent involved quasi-Time Lord identities on the parts of Donna and Clara, necessitating memory wipes. The first two are the affectionate separations; the other four are the epics in which the companion dies but not really. Here’s how they all rank.

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Rose. Doomsday, Season 2, 2006. 5 stars. If someone spoiled the ending of Doomsday for you in advance, you’d probably cry foul. The first scene announces that Rose is supposed to die. Getting trapped in a parallel world sounds like an egregious cop-out, especially when she gets to live comfortably ever after with her parents and boyfriend. Yet even after a decade, Rose’s departure remains the best and most tragic companion departure of all time. Partly because Billie Piper is Billie Piper — her ability to channel emotional devastation could make a robot break down in tears — but also because of the way the Doctor breaks his season-long promise that she will be different and he will never abandon her like the previous companions. His plan to defeat the Daleks and Cybermen involves, rather heartlessly, sealing off Rose forever in the parallel world. Granted this pains him, but he does so resolutely true to his alien identity. Rose has learned all she can from him and needs to get on without him. Rose’s dying but not doesn’t feel like a cheat at all; it’s far more upsetting than her actual death could have been.

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Martha. Last of the Time Lords, Season 3, 2007. 3 stars. Poor Martha gets a bad rap and she frankly deserves it. She’s the least distinguished of the five companions. Her apologists try hard, but no matter how you spin her, she’s little more than an educated version of Rose, and her unrequited love for the Doctor threatened to turn the Time Lord-companion dynamic into an ongoing soap opera. When she finally gets a proactive role of leadership, it’s unimpressive because Last of the Time Lords is such a horrible episode, serving a cheap reset and pious nonsense. The Doctor becomes his own deus ex machina by repelling laser blasts and levitating like a god, all on the strength of humanity, yes, praying to him. All things considered, Martha’s understated departure was the only sensible option. She wasn’t her own character enough to warrant a grand exit. Her farewell is the best thing about the finale, and she tells the Doctor what we want to hear. If he won’t hop in the sack with her (he won’t), she’s leaving (which is just as well).

Donna. Journey’s End, Season 4, 2008. 2 stars. It’s difficult to give Donna’s departure a fair shake since it comes in the worst Doctor Who story of all time. Journey’s End offends in every frame. The return of Rose makes an unforgivable mockery of her own departure in Doomsday. The Doctor double is twice as bad, and the fact that’s he’s half human horribly contrived to provide the cheap fairy tale ending at Bad Wolf Bay. Rose gets her Time Lord lover after all, in an outrageous undoing of the season-two finale. The Doctor’s regeneration is bogus. The Daleks don’t even kill anyone. Finally there is the Doctor-Donna — an absurd concept on every level that makes me want to kick her motormouth right in. I completely lost the empathy I’d built up for her over season four; from Fires of Pompeii to Turn Left she truly shined. All of that accepted, Donna’s fate is rather tragic. Her memory is wiped, and the final scene in her parents’ house is quite sad: she wakes unable to recognize the Doctor or remember anything about her adventures with him. Thus my departure rating of 2 for a story that on whole I give absolutely 0 stars.

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Amy (I). The God Complex, Season 6, 2011. 4 ½ stars. Even if this is a pseudo-departure, it’s the best of its kind since Sarah’s in The Hand of Fear. The Doctor and Amy deliver so much in simple gestures and looks that speak volumes. There’s a real feel that they have have become great friends and find it enormously painful to part company — just like the final scene between Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen back in 1976. And I don’t even consider it a false departure, because it’s less the farewell to Amy and more to “Amelia”, her innocent self who until this point couldn’t let go of her childlike faith in the Doctor. The God Complex crushes that childlike faith by the brilliant device of a haunted hotel. A minotaur-beast stalks the corridors and feeds off the corrupted faith of intruders; when Amy and the Doctor see what’s inside her room of horrors, the Doctor destroys her faith in him, which saves her from the beast and herself. The farewell is metaphorical more than literal, and genuinely affecting. I almost even prefer it to…

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Amy (II). The Angels Take Manhattan, Season 7, 2012. 4 stars. … Amy’s actual departure. This one is a full-blown tragedy like Doomsday, with a notable inversion. Rose was stranded in an alternate world against her will. Amy chooses to be stranded in the past against the Doctor’s will, committing a form of retro-suicide. It really is the suitable ending for Amy Pond, since the weeping angels have been her nemesis from the start. The only weakness is the double climax: the graveyard scene comes on top of Amy’s first “suicide” attempt when she jumps from the top of the building, and it’s feels abrupt and hyper-dramatized. There’s also a slightly desperate feel of trying to copy the tearjerk factor of Doomsday, which it succeeds in doing but in a competitive way. On whole it’s still very good. The Angels Take Manhattan has a bleak atmosphere and reeks of preordained disaster. Not even the Doctor can work around the fixed point of Amy’s “death” from blinking, and though I had become tired of Matt Smith by season seven, he really pulled out the stops in conveying anguish for this terrific companion he had come so far with.

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Clara. Hell Bent, Season 9, 2015. 4 ½ stars. By now the formula of “dying but not” had worn out its welcome. It worked in Doomsday and The Angels Take Manhattan, fell on its face in Journey’s End, and by God it was time for another Adric. Time to let the companion die for real, and to let the more juvenile constituents of the fanbase grow up. All the more astonishing then, that Clara’s fate works not only well, but comes close to rivaling Rose’s. First because of the amazing performances of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. Second because their emotions are communicated through the concept of the Hybrid, which is not, it turns out, some mythical half-Dalek/half-Time Lord, but the Doctor and Clara themselves. Their friendship has created a risk addiction that spurs each other toward disaster, with the entire universe being the collateral. This necessitates a memory wipe: one of them must forget the other so their friendship can end. It’s genuinely heartbreaking — even the scenes in the diner with the Doctor playing sad melodies on the guitar — and a vast improvement on the memory wipe theme which didn’t make sense in Donna’s case. The result is that, yes, Hell Bent reverses Clara’s death (for a time), but without undoing any pain and grief. Clara, like Rose and Amy, earns her death by the longer road.

Asra Nomani: A liberal Muslim immigrant voted for Trump, and explains why

asraI’ve respected Asra Nomani for a long time. She’s a liberal Muslim reformer who has spoken about Islam as a toxic religion, and like her fellow activists and reformers, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz, has taken heaps of leftist abuse for her efforts. We need many more like her.

She voted for Donald Trump. I think that’s a terribly bad choice, but I respect her reasons published in The Washington Post, which are a further wake-up call to understanding why not only rural minorities, but educated ones like Nomani, voted for Trump.

A lot is being said now about the “silent secret Trump supporters.”

This is my confession — and explanation: I — a 51-year-old, a Muslim, an immigrant woman “of color” — am one of those silent voters for Donald Trump. And I’m not a “bigot,” “racist,” “chauvinist” or “white supremacist,” as Trump voters are being called, nor part of some “whitelash.”

In the winter of 2008, as a lifelong liberal and proud daughter of West Virginia, a state born on the correct side of history on slavery, I moved to historically conservative Virginia only because the state had helped elect Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States.

But, then, for much of this past year, I have kept my electoral preference secret: I was leaning toward Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Tuesday evening, just minutes before the polls closed at Forestville Elementary School in mostly Democratic Fairfax County, I slipped between the cardboard partitions in the polling booth, a pen balanced carefully between my fingers, to mark my ballot for president, coloring in the circle beside the names of Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence.

After Hillary Clinton called Trump to concede, making him America’s president-elect, a friend on Twitter wrote a message of apology to the world, saying there are millions of Americans who don’t share Trump’s “hatred/division/ignorance.” She ended: “Ashamed of millions that do.”

That would presumably include me — but it doesn’t, and that is where the dismissal of voter concerns about Clinton led to her defeat. I most certainly reject the trifecta of “hatred/division/ignorance.” I support the Democratic Party’s position on abortion, same-sex marriage and climate change.

But I am a single mother who can’t afford health insurance under Obamacare. The president’s mortgage-loan modification program, “HOPE NOW,” didn’t help me. Tuesday, I drove into Virginia from my hometown of Morgantown, W.Va., where I see rural America and ordinary Americans, like me, still struggling to make ends meet, after eight years of the Obama administration.

Finally, as a liberal Muslim who has experienced, first-hand, Islamic extremism in this world, I have been opposed to the decision by President Obama and the Democratic Party to tap dance around the “Islam” in Islamic State. Of course, Trump’s rhetoric has been far more than indelicate and folks can have policy differences with his recommendations, but, to me, it has been exaggerated and demonized by the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, their media channels, such as Al Jazeera, and their proxies in the West, in a convenient distraction from the issue that most worries me as a human being on this earth: extremist Islam of the kind that has spilled blood from the hallways of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai to the dance floor of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

In mid-June, after the tragic shooting at Pulse, Trump tweeted out a message, delivered in his typical subtle style: “Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn’t he should immediately resign in disgrace!”

Around then, on CNN’s “New Day,” Democratic candidate Clinton seemed to do the Obama dance, saying, “From my perspective, it matters what we do more than what we say. And it mattered we got bin Laden, not what name we called him. I have clearly said we — whether you call it radical jihadism or radical Islamism, I’m happy to say either. I think they mean the same thing.”

By mid-October, it was one Aug. 17, 2014, email from the WikiLeaks treasure trove of Clinton emails that poisoned the well for me. In it, Clinton told aide John Podesta: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL,” the politically correct name for the Islamic State, “and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

The revelations of multimillion-dollar donations to the Clinton Foundation from Qatar and Saudi Arabia killed my support for Clinton. Yes, I want equal pay. No, I reject Trump’s “locker room” banter, the idea of a “wall” between the United States and Mexico and a plan to “ban” Muslims. But I trust the United States and don’t buy the political hyperbole — agenda-driven identity politics of its own — that demonized Trump and his supporters.

I gently tried to express my thoughts on Twitter but the “Pantsuit revolution” was like a steamroller to any nuanced discourse. If you supported Trump, you had to be a redneck.

Days before the election, a journalist from India emailed me, asking: What are your thoughts being a Muslim in “Trump’s America”?

I wrote that as a child of India, arriving in the United States at the age of 4 in the summer of 1969, I have absolutely no fears about being a Muslim in a “Trump America.” The checks and balances in America and our rich history of social justice and civil rights will never allow the fear-mongering that has been attached to candidate Trump’s rhetoric to come to fruition.

What worried me the most were my concerns about the influence of theocratic Muslim dictatorships, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in a Hillary Clinton America. These dictatorships are no shining examples of progressive society with their failure to offer fundamental human rights and pathways to citizenship to immigrants from India, refugees from Syria and the entire class of de facto slaves that live in those dictatorships.

We have to stand up with moral courage against not just hate against Muslims, but hate by Muslims, so that everyone can live with sukhun, or peace of mind, I finished in my reflections to the journalist in India.

He didn’t get the email. I didn’t resend it, afraid of the wrath I’d receive. But, then, I voted.

We’d better start listening to people like Nomani, and to each other. Stop unfriending people on Facebook whose views you can’t handle. Stop reading news from your safety bubbles that only confirm what you already believe. I always make a point to check into sites like Fox news and Salon, at least occasionally, so I can know what right-wingers and the regressive left are actually saying. If you’re on the far left, get out of your Salon-net and feed your mind. Stop smearing people like Steve Bannon as anti-Semites; they’re bad enough without the supplements of bogus charges. A degenerate Republican party made someone like Trump possible. A deafened Democratic party, and toxic agendas on the far left, helped ensure his victory.

Little Men: A Much-Needed Catharsis after the Election

little_menLittle Men was just the film I needed after the election. I’m usually good at not letting politics depress me, but Trump’s victory was a toxic pill to swallow. If the escapist Arrival soothed other Americans, I required something more cathartic. Little Men‘s low-key realism elevates the uplifting parts and then magnifies them when the heartbreak finally comes.

The film is a social parable refracted through the friendship of two boys. Jake is shy and genteel, Tony is bold and uninhibited; one Caucasian and middle-class, the other Chilean and poor. Different in every way, save for their shared love of art and theater (and videogames), they dream of attending LaGuardia High School together, until the evils of gentrification crush their friendship. Jake’s parents are landlords trying to evict Tony’s mother who can’t keep up with rising rents. For a while the boys’ friendship grows stronger the more the parents become enemies — they go so far as to boycott their parents by refusing to speak to them — but in the end, Tony and his mother are kicked out.

We glimpse a purity of spirit in this friendship. Some of the most affecting scenes show Tony scootering and Jake rollerblading down the sidewalks of Brooklyn together, as the score supplies musical notes suggesting, I don’t know… freedom? escape? a soulmate relationship hard to define? The relationship is ultimately torpedoed by the parental need to “take care of one’s own”. It’s not that Jake’s parents are bad people. Their self-interest is more pragmatic and survivalist; they have financial problems of their own. And it’s certainly not that Tony’s victimized mother is beyond criticism herself. She has a rather malicious and passive-aggressive streak. The only evil in the drama is the systematic one of income inequality mixed with urban revival projects and a vanishing middle class. I think of how Donald Trump got one third of the Hispanic vote. That’s right. People like Tony’s mother actually voted for their persecutor thinking he would be their savior from these kind of economic hardships.

On rare occasion I find that a review in pictures conveys the essence of a film better than a standard review, and so I will let the following images speak for themselves. The last three are the epilogue a year later, with Jake having made it into LaGuardia High School. He spies Tony (who of course did not get in) at a distance, on a class tour of the school. They haven’t seen or spoken to each other since their separation… nor do they speak to each other now. I broke down and wept for them, and for things no doubt to come.



















Beren and Luthien: “The Sorrow of the Elves and the Grief of Men”

beren-and-luthienIf the story of Turin is Tolkien’s most bleak and unflinching, Beren and Luthien’s is his most celebrated, and we’re finally getting the whole thing next year. The novella Beren and Lúthien (2017) will be published exactly 100 years since Tolkien’s wife Edith danced for him in a woodland glade in East Yorkshire (1917), inspiring a tale that meant so much to him that he had the names Beren and Luthien engraved on his headstone. It’s the romance between mortal man and immortal elf — the precedent for Aragorn and Arwen in Lord of the Rings — in which Lúthien’s father, the elvish King, opposes their relationship to the extent that he gives Beren a suicidal task to perform if he wants to marry her. Beren fulfills the task against every appalling odd, but dies for his efforts, and though granted a comeback by the Valar, prompts Luthien to give up her immortality in order to share some years with him before they both pay the price of a final death. It’s one of the best fantasy tales of all time, but like the Grey Havens in The Lord of the Rings, the epilogue is sometimes passed over in favor of thrilling perils on the isle of Sauron and in the throne hall of Morgoth. The fate of Beren and Luthien says a lot about how Tolkien felt about death and what comes after.

The story begins about 20 years before Turin’s does, and is prefaced before that by the Dagor Bragollach (“The Battle of Sudden Flame”) in the same way that Turin’s is by the Nírnaeth Arnoediad (“Battle of Unnumbered Tears”). Both battles are dire. Morgoth decimates the elves and men at every turn, which is foreordained since evil is mightier than good in pagan Middle-Earth, and the elves “did not understand that their war upon Morgoth was without final hope”. In the case of the Dagor Bragollach, its aftermath is even more cruel. The elvish high king Fingolfin, enraged at the devastating slaughter of his people, goes to Angband alone and demands Morgoth face him in single combat (see image, below left). He gives a good fight but is crushed in one of The Silmarillion’s most dramatic passages — a scene I hope to see filmed someday.


Fingolfin takes on Morgoth

This sets the stage for Beren. With the house of Beor (the first house of men) annihilated, only a dozen outlaws remain to harry Morgoth’s agents in the Dorthonian mountains. Their hideout is Tarn Aeluin (see image, below right), a clear blue mountain lake that has holy power tracing back to elder days. Not that it does them any good. One of the men is captured by Sauron, who promises to reunite him with his wife if he reveals the hideout’s location. The man tells him in desperation, to which Sauron laughs and says he can indeed join his wife in death, for he had actually killed her, and so kills him too. The outlaws are then routed and slaughtered, except for Beren who happens to be away.


The hideout at Tarn Aeluin (Ted Nasmith)

What follows is The Silmarillion’s most precious story: Beren flees the mountains and enters the enchanted forest of Doriath. He comes upon the elven princess Luthien dancing in the glade (see image, below left). They fall in love — the first romance ever between elf and man — and plea their union to Luthien’s father, King Thingol, who is enraged at Beren’s presumption, and so gives him the impossible task of bearding Morgoth in his den and stealing one of the three Silmaril gems. This is a task he willingly takes on, enlisting the help of Finrod Felagund (the elf king of Nargothrond), who famously tries to sing down Sauron at the haunted isle of Tol Sirion. But Sauron’s songs have the deadlier power, and both Finrod and Beren are thrown into a pit. Luthien, meanwhile, chases after them on the back of Huan the Hound, who kills all of Sauron’s wolves and then defeats Sauron himself in wolf form, liberating the isle of Tol Sirion, while Sauron flees in the form of a vampire. The rescue operation isn’t in time to save Finrod, who has died from torture in the pit. Eventually, Beren and Luthien continue alone to Angband, the most perilous hell on earth, and in Morgoth’s throne room Luthien paralyzes him by enchantments, while Beren pries a Silmaril from his crown. They flee the hall, but are confronted by the werewolf Caracharoth (see image, below right) who bites off Beren’s hand and swallows the Silmaril gem — driving the werewolf ferociously insane and making him go on a killing rampage: “he slew all living things that stood in his path, and burst from the North with ruin upon the world”. Caracharoth finally ends up in Doriath forest; the elves of Thingol, with Beren’s help and Huan the Hound’s, bring him down, and cut the Silmaril from the beast’s stomach. Quest achieved, but Beren dies from fatal wounds (see image at the very bottom).


Beren sees Luthien (Helen Kei)

It’s a dark romance that few fantasies have rivaled, and the final two pages up the ante even more. Here Luthien allows her spirit to fade so that she can plea to the Valar for Beren’s return to life. In Valinor she sings for high stakes, “weaving two themes of words, of the sorrow of the elves and the grief of men,” begging Mandos to be reunited with him. In an unprecedented move, Manwe grants Beren a second chance, and also gives her a choice — between living for eternity in the gods’ city of Valimar, or returning to Beleriand to live with Beren, but as a mortal subject to the same death he will receive. She opts for the latter, and in so doing trades the sorrow of the elves for the grief of men. We should consider what Tolkien meant by those phrases.


Beren and Luthien in Angband (Justin Gerard)

The grief of men is that they die, but the sorrow of the elves is just as tragic, because they live beyond their time. Rereading Tolkien’s story put me in mind of Dale Allison’s Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things (2016), published this year. The first chapter of the book is a meditation on the fear of death, where Allison discusses how our increased longevity has effected our perception of death. In the days of Jesus, for example, life must have looked considerably different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. Imagine how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far. One reason divorce rates have skyrocketed in the past century is longevity. It’s just statistics: fewer people are willing commit themselves to a single matrimonial adventure if life is going to keep us around longer. There’s more to get out of life; more experiences to savor. Yet one must wonder, says Allison, “whether protracted life might not, after a certain point, become tedious. We’re already, without radical life extension, fighting boredom.” If science can prolong us to hundreds of years (and it will probably happen some day), it could be that we will become literally bored to death. Which is the exact sense, I would argue, that one gets of Tolkien’s elves. They’ve seen too much. The gift of immortality loses its luster, and I would imagine rather quickly. Even the incredible paradises the elves built for themselves — Gondolin, Doriath, and the Falas in the First Age; Rivendell, Lothlorien, and the Grey Havens in the Second and Third Ages — seem boring to them.

Elvish sorrow is depicted extremely well in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. A director like Spielberg would have probably given us the gleeful sprites of other fairy tales and fantasies. Jackson captured their sad dignity in the characters of Cate Blanchet’s Galadriel, Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, and Liv Tyler’s Arwen. Even Orlando Bloom’s Legolas managed to convey a morose loftiness around his silly ninja acrobatics. What many readers of Tolkien miss is that for all their special favor as Eru’s immortal children, the elves are essentially on the same footing as men. Their sorrow matches men’s grief. Men resist death to experience all they can. Elves soon realize that the best of life’s experiences offer transitory pleasures at best, and the more you experience them, the more they depreciate in value.


Death of Beren (Anke Eißmann)

So what happened to Beren and Luthien? Tolkien never spelled out their fate, or the fate of any mortal. What happens to the elves is clear: if they happen to be slain, they go to the Halls of Mandos, and after a time can re-assume bodily form. Men also go to the Halls of Mandos when they die, but their souls are thereafter suspended to an unknown place, which for Tolkien would be the in-between state before the final judgment and resurrection — in the long distant future after the Judeo-Christian revelations. Allison is a Christian who doesn’t accept all the handed-down dogmas, but feels he must believe in an afterlife:

“Anyone’s death diminishes God unless there is something more than this vale of tears. If the brooding grave is everyone’s finale, if existence runs into pitiless nothing, then the forgotten and marginalized will remain marginalized and forgotten for all time. What good is God to them? I at least need a God whose love and rule don’t leave us alone with our greatest existential evil, a God who descends into hell to rescue the dead. I need a God who places heavenly crowns on the heads of the slaughtered infants of Bethlehem. I need the God of the old Roman catacombs, which are full of scenes representing delivery from death — Noah’s ark, the sacrifice of Isaac, Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, the three youths in the furnace, the raising of Lazarus.” (p 17)

I’m more schizophrenic on the subject. The skeptic in me dismisses notions of an afterlife while my intuitions suggest otherwise depending on the day. Middle-Earth lets me think seriously about the theme in its cycle of bittersweet tragedies. Like Frodo’s departure at the Grey Havens, Luthien’s song laments sorrow and grief impartially. Tolkien took the song literally to his grave, for reasons that I suspect went beyond nostalgic romance.

The Best Films of 2016

I usually do my pick list at the end of the year, but there’s been already so much good and I’m not expecting anything great in December. If something else does emerge, I’ll update the list by the new year. Films you will not see on this list include Arrival (which everyone loves but which I found to be as banal as Interstellar), The Legend of Tarzan (cheesy action adventure), X-Men: Day of the Apocalypse (the most surprising disappointment of them all), and Hacksaw Ridge (which was actually okay but weighed down by a few problems). Here are the real gems of 2016.

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1. Little Men. 5 stars. I’ve seen it three times and may double that figure before the year’s end. Little Men explores a close friendship in a social parable about gentrification. Jake’s parents are new landlords who threaten to evict Tony’s mother who can’t keep up with rising rents, but the boys’ friendship only grows the more the parents become enemies. The film doesn’t demonize the landlords (who are decent enough people and have their own financial problems) or over-extend sympathy for the poor Chilean tenant, but rather holds the adults at arms length so we can latch on to the boys and see things through their eyes. Jake is the shy introvert, Tony the bold extrovert (take a wild guess who’s who from the above picture), and it may even be that Jake is smitten by Tony. Their final scene together makes me cry every time, with Jake, who futilely begs his father not to go through with the eviction, and the epilogue is even more heartbreaking, showing there is no way back to recover the most intimate friendships. It’s a critical masterpiece (98% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences love it too, for every good reason. Reviewed fully here.

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2. Silence. 5 stars. Scorsese’s occasional forays into religion — The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) — have been so bad that I set my expectations low for this one, but he finally hit a home run. Silence is as brilliant as his gangster films, and a special treat for someone like myself who loves Shogun. That novel is set in 1600, in the middle of Japan’s “Christian century” (1543-1635), and portrays the complex history of the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Oda Nobunaga had welcomed them in 1568 in order to obtain guns and cannons for his military campaigns (though he was also genuinely impressed by the rigors of Jesuit life, while despising the hypocrisies of the Buddhist clergy); Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the next unifier who loathed Christians, issuing an edict to expel them in 1587, and then crucifying a whole bunch of them in 1597; with the ascension of Ieysu Tokugawa and the establishment of his shogunate in 1600 (to last until 1868), attitudes towards Christians became ambivalent, until finally in 1635 Christianity was banned and inquisitorial methods were devised to root out practicing Catholics. It is this “post-Christian” period in the late 1630s that Silence draws us into, and Scorsese is just as good as Clavell in resisting sides. The film is no more a liberal critique of western colonial power than it is a Mel-Gibson-like glorification of Christian martyrdom. The priests are decent and have treated the peasants with dignity in a feudal state that was hostile to the poor; yet their work for God incited massacre. Like Clavell, Scorsese shows courageous people going under the sword of honor and shame — and essentially reaped what they sowed.

3. The Witch. 4 ½ stars. It’s loved by critics and hated by audiences, and you need to trust the former. It was misleadingly marketed to give the impression of horror movie with loud bangs and cheap thrills, instead of a period piece. Kubrick could have easily scored this, Bergman could have shaped the characters, and either could have landed the cinematography that captures stunning wide shots. But the director owns his unique narrative about a Puritan family who leave their plantation and settle miles away in isolation from the rest of Colonial America. This forest border happens to be the home of a witch, who wastes no time lashing out at her new “neighbors”, first by snatching their newborn infant under a game of peek-a-boo and stabbing it to death, and eventually by possessing the 11-year old son who dies screaming a prayer in near orgasmic ecstasy. The film doesn’t exactly choose sides between Christian zeal and pagan blood rites. If there’s any moral contrast, it’s between the misery and liberation of the eldest daughter, who is falsely accused by her family for being a witch, and then in the end becomes one. Reviewed fully here.

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4. The Exorcist: Legion (The Director’s Cut). 4 ½ stars. This wasn’t released in the theaters, but I’m including it anyway. The original cut of The Exorcist III: Legion (1990) was famously reworked against Blatty’s desires, most notably to include an exorcism which made no sense. The original cut followed his novel Legion to a tee, and as such was a true writer’s sequel. Fans have wanted to see this lost version for years. But the news is good and bad. Good in that the Legion cut is definitely worth seeing. It’s more cerebral. The ending is more abrupt, but makes more sense, as the story doesn’t really demand an exorcism. The bad news isn’t really bad, just deflating: the theatrical version actually turns out to be superior after all. It’s true that the exorcism of the theatrical version happens out of the blue, but it has aged rather well. It’s stylish and creepy and not at all cheap, and it really does work for all its conceptual problems. Most important to me is the critical appearance of Jason Miller, absent in the new director’s cut. As brilliant as Brad Dourif is in both roles, it’s far more scary when Patient X changes from Jason Miller (Father Karras) to Brad Dourif (the Gemini Killer); when I saw the film in the theater back in 1990, I remember being so terrified by Lieutenant Kinderman’s first sight of Patient X that I was panic stricken. We see the wasted figure of Jason Miller (Father Karras) who we know from the first film should be dead; the sight of the possessed priest is a horrifying revelation. But in the director’s cut, it’s all Brad Dourif, and we don’t register that Karras’ body has been taken over, except on an abstract level. In any case, both versions are worth having, and both are excellent.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) directed by Gareth Edwards • Reviews, film + cast • Letterboxd
5. Rogue One. 4 ½ stars. You can make a case for this being the best entry in the Star Wars franchise, but I have to stick with Empire Strikes Back for its dramatic success on so many levels (and not least the character of Yoda). Rogue One is a close second though. It’s Star Wars for adults, and how I wish the franchise had been done from the start. The third act is a whopper, unquestionably the best battle of the franchise, and ends on the appropriate tragedy of all the Rogue One crew dying for their efforts. Had Disney not given the green light for all the heroes to die, this would have been a wasted film and insincere. It’s the foreordained conclusion that makes us appreciate what the rebels went through to get those Death Star plans. And, as if Jyn dying wasn’t a perfect enough ending, it’s improved on with the surprise “second ending” of Darth Vader kicking ass with his lightsaber and telekinetic abilities on the rebels escaping with the plans, seguing perfectly into the very first scenes of A New Hope. Here’s how I rank all the films.

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6. Hell or High Water. 4 stars. Like Little Men this film is a socio-economic parable filtered through the close relationship of two men. This time it’s two brothers, one of whom (Toby) is divorced and dirt poor, the other (Tanner) a veteran criminal who just got out of jail. They begin a series of bank heists, not because they’re greedy assholes but because they’re desperate to save their family ranch, and are furious at the predatory banks who benefit from the misfortunes of homeowners. Their plan is cautious, as they rob branches in small increments so as not to attract federal attention, launder the money through a nearby casino, and then use the funds to pay off their mortgage to the very bank they are stealing from. This is all so that Toby can leave the property to his ex-wife and sons. Ultimately, Hell or High Water is a story of brotherhood that shows right and wrong to be relative concepts at every turn, even when Tanner ends up cornered and unloading gun fire on everyone.

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7. Don’t Breathe. 4 stars. This acclaimed home invasion manages to terrorize with a claustrophobic setting and limited choices of its characters. The story is simple: three kids break into a blind man’s home in order to rob him of his reportedly huge stash of cash. The blind man turns out to be a punishing adversary and a psychopath, and in short space traps the kids inside the house. How many of them survive I won’t say, but it’s not pretty. Don’t Breathe has been well received for good reason. It’s incredibly ruthless and the kids manage to keep your sympathy; they are jerks, but likeable enough jerks, and they follow an intelligent script that doesn’t have them making stupid decisions so they can be cheaply punished. I was glad I saw this on big screen.

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8. In a Valley of Violence. 3 ½ stars. I usually deplore the plot device of bullies who kill a protagonist’s pet dog. It’s a cheap way of sending the audience on a moral holiday (I’m looking at you, Dance with Wolves) so we can cheer on the hero as he brings everyone down in bloody vengeance. But it works in In a Valley of Violence, because the film is making fun of itself half the time, almost in a Tarantino sort of way. Ethan Hawke plays an army deserter who has killed too many Indians in the Kansas area for his liking, and is now trying to get to Mexico. He comes across an uncouth Irish priest who goes from town to town saving souls, but robs people as it suits him, and this sets the tone right away for a western in which any semblance of morality is a farce. There is indeed a town in the Texas valley where sin and lawlessness reigns, and is run by a marshal played by John Travolta — an honorable enough man who does his damnedest to keep his henchmen in check, but to no avail, and Hawke’s character brings them all down in the inevitable shootout.

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9. Neon Demon. 3 ½ stars. Depending on the reviews you read, The Neon Demon is either a brilliant avant garde experiment or pretentious porn, and I’m with the former. It’s about a sixteen-year-old, Jesse, who moves to LA from a small town with naive dreams of stardom, and because of her beauty lands instant success as a model. Agents and designers love her, while her newfound “friends” seethe with jealousy over her effortless success in a career that they have sweat bullets for. They exploit her insecurities with backbiting venom, and one of them, a girl named Ruby, is in love with her but spurned, which drives Ruby to have sex with a female corpse to relieve her frustrations. Things deteriorate to gang revenge, murder and cannibalism — shocksploitation, to be sure, but gorgeously handled. The director (Nicolas Winding Refn) said he wanted to explore female violence after his three films about male violence (Bronson, Drive, Only God Forgives). Honestly those other films didn’t do much for me, but Neon Demon works for the reasons many critics dislike it, by use of a hyper-stylized approach that makes the whole thing feel like a hypnotic fever dream.

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10. Eye in the Sky. 3 ½ stars. This thriller is an exercise in collective buck passing. Military combatants, lawyers and politicians are involved in assassinating a well-known terrorist who now resides in a “friendly” country not at war. Right as they’re about to launch a missile, a little girl appears on the street corner of the hit site to sell bread, but they have to launch now or never, lest the terrorist get away. Everyone starts arguing the moral, legal, and political merits of firing the missile which would likely kill the girl: in London, the general finally loses patience with bureaucrats who seem more concerned with saving face than saving lives; in Nevada, the drone pilot agonizes over pulling the trigger from the safety of his airbase thousands of miles away from the combat zone; and in the target area of Nairobi, a military agent gets dangerously close to the terrorist’s hideaway using flying bug cameras. Seldom are thrillers this nail-biting when carried almost entirely on the suspense of postponed action and heated arguments.

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11. Green Room. 3 ½ stars. This horror flick deserves a rewatch after Trump’s victory. In the above scene, our heroes antagonize a skinhead crowd with a lively performance of the Dead Kennedys’ classic song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”. After the concert they retreat backstage and stumble on a crime scene, and from that point the “Nazi punks” want them dead and silenced. The kids lock themselves in a room, and the white supremacists (led by a terrifying incarnation of Patrick Stewart) seal off the escape routes, which is essentially the plot device of Don’t Breathe — kids trying to escape the domain of a man hell-bent on murdering them.

12. Into the Forest. 3 ½ stars. Finally, a post-apocalyptic film that isn’t an action, suspense, or horror thriller, but a character drama and feminist piece. It’s adapted from Jean Hegland’s 1996 novel of the same name, and examines two sisters played by Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood. They live in northern California, in a secluded glass house with their father, when an unknown global catastrophe hits out of the blue, and kills the electric power, and isolates everyone from communication and resources. The best part are the performances of Page and Wood, and it’s best to take the film on that merit alone. As a post-apocalyptic tale, the film seems to forget its own genre half the time — it just doesn’t do much meaningful with the theme. But I always like watching Ellen Page, and this a solid enough piece about feminine bonds in isolation.



(See also: The Best Films of 2006 The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2017, The Best Films of 2018.)

The Children of Hurin: Tolkien’s Bleakest Story

children-of-hurinTurin’s chapter in The Silmarillion has always been my favorite, and I had an orgasm when Christopher Tolkien published the expanded story in the novella The Children of Hurin (2007). Others have a hard time with Turin. His tragedy is bad enough to make Hamlet’s enviable. The whole Silmarillion is a tragedy, to be sure, but Turin’s is off the scales. Ruin follows him wherever he goes; he kills people who don’t deserve it, purposely and accidentally, including his best friend; he marries his sister not knowing who she is, gets her pregnant, and when they learn they are siblings they kill themselves. Their mother dies in grief, and their father rages against the world before killing himself too.

And yet, accepting its heavy-handed tribulations, Turin’s story is really nothing more than a microcosm of the history of the elves. Morgoth’s curse echoes the doom of Mandos, who damned the Noldor for rebelling against the Valar. When Morgoth captures and chains Hurin to the stone chair (see image, below left), he curses the man’s children for refusing to reveal the hidden city of Gondolin. I doubt it’s any accident that Turin was called Adanedhel (“Man-Elf”) by some; Tolkien was probably signalling something beyond a physical likeness, perhaps suggesting that Turin’s miseries amplified the doom of the elves on a more intimate level.


Morgoth curses Hurin (Ted Nasmith)

The way I see it, the four stages of Turin’s exile from Doriath mirror the four phases of the Noldor’s hopeless war on Morgoth. (There were five battles of Beleriand, but the first was fought by the Sindar.) After being fostered by Thingol in the relative paradise of Doriath forest, he goes out to make a legend of himself, and is dealt tragedy in all four stages: (1) as an outlaw in the woods south of Brethil, under the name of Neithan (“the Wronged”), killing and preying on innocents; (2) as a scourge on the hill of Amon Rudh, under the name of Gorthol (“Dread-helm”), until he is captured by orcs, rescued by his elf-friend Beleg whom he then kills; (3) as the commander of the armies of Nargothrond, under the name of Mormegil (“Black Sword”), until the forces of Morgoth led by Glaurung the dragon wipe out Nargothrond and bring the kingdom to an end; (4) among the men of Brethil Forest, taking the name Turambar (“Master of Doom”) in an act of bravado, deciding that his curse is now finally over, only to receive the worst of it, as he marries his own sister Nienor (who he never met, and whose own memory was wiped by Glaurung’s enchantments), who becomes pregnant with his child, and then kills herself when Glaurung invades Brethil forest and breaks her spell of forgetfulness; Turin then kills himself in horror after slaying Glaurung.


Turin chases Saeros to his death (Ted Nasmith)

Even without the curse to drive his misfortunes, Turin is unpleasant by nature. What causes him to flee Doriath is the result of his overreaction to Saeros, who insults him at the royal dinner table, saying, “If the men of Hithlum are so wild and fell, of what sort are the women of that land? Do they run like deer clad only in their hair?” Turin responds by hurling a cup at Saeros’ head, and the next day making him run naked through the forest, which ends in Saeros falling to his death into a chasm (see right image). Despite the fact that King Thingol is willing to forgive him, Turin spurns the elven king’s grace in a pride that recalls Feanor’s rebellion against the Valar: “I will not go back to Menegroth and suffer looks of pity and pardon, as for a wayward boy amended. I should give pardon, not receive it.” This attitude seems his by nature, and independent of the curse which simply accentuates calamity to the worst results possible (like Saeros’ fall). Indeed, departing Doriath, he joins an outlaw band who do more to terrorize their fellow men and women instead of protecting them against orcs, and taking the aggrieved name of Neithan (“the Wronged”), he finds the life of amoral banditry easy enough to embrace: “He did little to restrain their evil deeds and soon became hardened to a mean and often cruel life.”

The text of The Children of Hurin clearly entertains a possibility, however small, that Turin could rise above the curse. As his fame and power increases throughout the four stages of his life, Morgoth begins to fear “that the curse that he had laid upon him would become void, and Turin would escape the doom that had been designed for him”. Turin could evade Morgoth’s wrathful design, but his pride (the oldest adage) guarantees his fall. He is doomed to the warped perception of “seeing with Morgoth’s eyes”, meaning that constant mistrust and fear of treachery makes him unable to receive (or return) good will and wise counsel. Turin alienates his friends in cycles, for example, Gwindor at Nargothrond, whose counsel of secrecy (along with messengers from Cirdan), Turin rejects in favor of immediate open warfare with Morgoth, which causes Nargothrond to fall.


Nienor in Brethil Forest (Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien said that Turin’s story was derived from elements in Sigurd the Volsung, Kullervo, and Oedipus, but I think Oedipus resonates most deeply of the three, for reasons argued by Soham Ganguly. A lot of the Sigurd and Kullervo parallels are superficial by comparison. For example, although Sigurd and Turin both slay dragons, Glaurung is more like the Sphinx whom Oedipus must defeat in a battle of wits; Glaurung delivers similar conundrums in the form of mental taunts. The lives of Oedipus and Turin are obviously similar: both are separated from their family and end up in royal houses in distant kingdoms; both, also, manage to establish stable kingdoms and bring about peace and prosperity for a time; Oedipus marries his mother, and Turin marries his sister, both ignorant of who these women are.

The incest theme pushes everything to a nihilistic climax in Brethil Forest. Years before Glaurung had given Nienor a complete memory wipe and he now removes the spell of her forgetfulness in a final stroke of malice (see image, below right): “Hail, Nienor, daughter of Hurin. We meet again ere we end. I give you joy that you have found your brother at last.And now you too shall know him: a stabber in the dark, treacherous to foes, faithless to friends and a curse unto his kin, Turin son of Hurin. But the worst of all his deeds you shall feel in yourself.” Glauring then dies from the wound Turin gave him — but so does Nienor. Aghast by the awful truth of what dragon has just said, and flooded with returning memories, she hurls herself off the cliff into the river below, killing herself and her unborn child. Turin, appalled, follows suit by skewering himself on his own blade.


Glaurung’s final malice (C.K. Goksoy)

It’s interesting that Glaurung’s first assault in The Silmarillion occurs in the Noldor’s third battle (the fourth Beleriand battle), the Dagor Bragollach (“Battle of Sudden Flame”), just as his first conflict with Turin occurs in Turin’s own third stage, at Nargothrond. The dragon then wreaks even more devastation in the Noldor’s fourth battle (the fifth of Beleriand), the Nirnaeth Arnoediad (“Battle of Unumbered Tears”), just as in Turin’s fourth stage, the dragon causes Turin and Nienor to kill themselves. Tolkien crafted parallels like this deliberately, and I’m increasingly convinced that he was using Turin’s story to amplify the theme of hopelessness that pervades Middle-Earth on account of the elves’ fall and rebellion.


Hurin and Morwen’s grief (Alan Lee)

The epilogue chokes me up, where after 28 years of captivity and torment, Hurin is released by Morgoth just so that his heart can be broken even more in the wake of his children’s suicides. Hurin finds his wife Morwen, who grieving dies in his arms (see left image). He is so bitter that he blames King Thingol for not watching over his family closely enough. He goes to Menegroth and throws the Nauglamir at Thingol’s feet: “Receive thou thy fee for thy fair keeping of my children and my wife!” To which Melian replies, “Hurin, Morgoth hath bewitched thee; for he that seeth through Morgoth’s eyes, willing or unwilling, seeth all things crooked. Long was Turin thy son fostered in the halls of Menegroth, and shown love and honour as the son of the King. With the voice of Morgoth thou dost now upbraid thy friends.” To which Hurin replies by bowing his head, walking out of Doriath, and killing himself.

Needless to say, many readers don’t care for this bleak and suffocating story, preferring Beren’s quest for the Silmaril, or Tuor fighting in the fall of Gondolin — which are tragedies, to be sure, like all the Silmarillion tales, but tempered by bittersweet moments and small reprieves. From the lines of Beren and Luthien, and of Tuor and Idril, will come Aragorn and Arwen, and temporary holding actions that postpone the inevitable day when evil has the final say. From Turin comes nothing positive at all. But for my money, Turin’s story is best precisely for the reasons people hate it. It’s literature at its finest, tragedy as it deserves to be told, and its nihilism aligns with the worldview of Middle-Earth more than most people realize.

Next up: Beren and Luthien: “The Sorrow of the Elves and the Grief of Men”.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Blacklist


Robert Spencer and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch is a bit sore over the fact that Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz are getting loads of sympathy while he and others are not. He writes:

“Some supporters of Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have started a petition at Change.org, ‘Remove Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)’s list of anti-Muslim extremists.’ The clear implication of this petition is that Nawaz and Hirsi Ali are unjustly maligned by their inclusion on the list with ‘real bigots,’ and that the rest of us [13 others] deserve to be on the list. That not only unfairly maligns those who are on the list with Nawaz and Hirsi Ali, but is self-defeating in granting the SPLC a legitimacy that it neither has nor deserves.”

To a large extent I agree with Spencer. The Southern Poverty Law Center has flipped 180 degrees from its days of the 70s-80s, when it used to go after violent supremacists like neo-Nazis. Today they blacklist those who speak out against violent supremacists (if the supremacists are Muslims, that is), and it’s just as wrong to smear conservatives in this regard as it is liberals.

On the other hand, Spencer should have the grace to acknowledge that condemnations of Hirsi Ali and Nawaz are especially egregious. We’re talking about an ex-Muslim who speaks from experience (and for the experience of vast numbers of Muslims), and a Muslim reformer who still prays to Allah. When people like myself get especially indignant on behalf of these two, it’s not because we think the 13 conservative Caucasians deserve to be smeared (and for myself, I’ve spoken out for Spencer in the past). It’s that human rights activists (like Hirsi Ali) and reformers (like Nawaz) have felt the toxic pain of Islam from the inside and have come a long way.

This is the current SPLC blacklist of “anti-Muslim extremists”.

Ann Corcoran
Steven Emerson
Brigitte Gabriel
Frank Gaffney
Pamela Geller
John Guandolo
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
David Horowitz
Ryan Mauro
Robert Muise
Maajid Nawaz
Daniel Pipes
Walid Shoebat
Robert Spencer
David Yerushalmi

Let’s be clear that none of these people deserves to be ranked along groups like white supremacists who advocate or use violence. (Jihad terrorists deserve to be, but the SPLC is far more interested in prosecuting the above individuals who speak out against jihad terrorists.) Now, there are many on this list whose right-wing politics I don’t identify with (like David Horowitz and Robert Spencer), but that doesn’t make them hateful or bigoted; certainly they are not. Spencer in particular is to be commended for many of his writings and books on Islam, and I have defended him in the past on this blog. Others on this list are sometimes factually challenged (like Steven Emerson and Ryan Mauro); others need an image consultant (like Pamela Geller) because their public personas are so obnoxious and coarse that no one wants to give them the time of day, whatever their merits.

There are a few on this list who could be genuine bigots and probably are. For example, if Ann Corcoran “routinely links to white nationalists like Jared Taylor, who once said black people are incapable of sustaining civilization” (per the SPLC report), then that’s a sign her criticisms of Islamic extremists may be fueled by anti-Muslim bigotry. If Robert Muise defended the owners of a Florida gun shop and an Oklahoma gun range who refused to serve Muslims — on grounds that “the law does not require a gun shop or gun range owner to equip or train the next jihadist” — then Muise is guilty of discrimination against Muslims; you can’t have a blanket policy against Muslims for fear that you might be serving a terrorist. If David Yerushalmi claimed that black people are “the most murderous of peoples”, and that “most of the fundamental differences between the races are genetic”, and that “there is a reason the founding fathers did not give women or black slaves the right to vote”, then he is obviously an odious person. I didn’t bother fact-checking these citations, and I don’t trust that the SPLC necessarily quotes reliably, but if they are accurate as cited then people like Corcoran, Muise, and Yerushalmi are bigots. Even so, they do not advocate/incite to/use violence in the manner of the hate groups which used to be targeted by the SPLC back in the days of yore.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz are the lone liberals on the list who are getting at least some support against the SPLC, and Spencer is right to condemn the hypocrisy. Hirsi Ali has argued that Islam is a religion of violence and intolerance just as Spencer has. Each has written books on the subject displaying enviable critical acumen. Hirsi Ali and Nawaz have been targeted for a long time by the regressive left for their critiques of Islam: Hirsi Ali was protested by college students for being “hateful”, and Nawaz can only get air time, practically, on Fox news. Honest discussions about Islam have been a long-standing problem. Nawaz says that the left is less interested in advancing progressive values and more concerned about tribal identities. Spencer would certainly agree with that.