Dragons and their Riders: The Rape-Premise of Mating Flights in Pern

dragons-mateI’m rereading the Dragonriders of Pern and realize that I’d forgotten some of the details about the telepathic bonds between dragons and their riders. I remembered that the dragons communicate fluently in human language but only telepathically, and only with the rider they bonded with after hatching. And also that they can teleport instantly over long distances that would otherwise take days or weeks of flight, which allows them to burn Thread out of the sky in many places at once. And that they can time travel — though that’s extremely dangerous.

I also vaguely remembered the way the dragonriders succumb to sex with each other during the mating flights of their dragons: The riders of the mating pair are overcome with sexual desire for each other, often against their will, sometimes hardly aware of what they’re doing. When it’s bronze on gold, it’s rather “standard” because gold dragons are queens, bronzes are males, the gold dragonrider is always a woman, and the bronze rider a male. But when it comes to the “lesser colors” — browns or blues mating with greens — it’s a bit murky and only hinted at in the early novels. Green dragons are females like the golds, but their riders are male. (The only female dragonrider is the one who rides the gold queen.) Which means that the human riders of the green dragons succumb to homosexual sex with the other dragonrider (regardless of their actual orientation) when their green dragon is being mated by a brown or blue. I’d missed this before, because it’s hardly evident. Green and blue dragonriders are regulated to lesser background characters, and I suspect that McCaffrey didn’t want to underscore the theme of homo-eroticism in any case. Back in my day homophobia was pretty strong.

The way it works is this. In the communities of dragonriders (the weyrs), it’s understood and accepted that sex during mating flights is not an option. Anne McCaffrey has said, “the dragon decides, the rider complies.” Dragons mate when they need to, irrespective of their riders’ wishes or sexual orientation, and the riders are overcome by urges they can’t physically control. In other words, the dragon-mating ritual is based on a rape premise (for the human riders), albeit one that is socially accepted. There is “consent” of sorts, in advance, but most people today would consider this the equivalent of something like marital rape.

pernese_dragon_sizes_by_sporelettMcCaffrey has also said that when they hatch, the dragons at least try to bond with a rider of “appropriate” orientation. So in other words, green dragons (which are female) will at least try to bond with a gay man. Blue dragons (which are male, but mate only with greens, never golds) try to bond with gay or bisexual men. Brown dragons (which are male, and usually mate with greens, but sometimes golds if they are big enough) try to bond with heterosexual or bisexual men. Bronze dragons (males) bond exclusively with heterosexual men, and the gold dragon (the queen) bonds exclusively with heterosexual women.

As she wrote more books for the series, McCaffrey fleshed out the history of why green dragons choose male riders. Originally that wasn’t the case. Green dragons used to bond mostly with females, until the practice was stopped because of the way dragon teleporting induces miscarriage in human riders — i.e. fetuses in the human womb can’t handle the “between” interval in teleporting. Given that green dragons are 50% the dragon population (blues are 30%, browns are 15%, bronzes 5%, and there is one gold per weyr), that’s half the fighting force required to burn Thread out of the sky. So the green dragons began bonding with males instead — gay if possible to make the mating rituals more tolerable.

I find all of this to be more fascinating than I remember as a kid, probably because at the age of 11 or 12, most of the character psychology, sexual tensions, and other adult themes went over my head. Let it not be said that homosexuality isn’t present in any classic fantasies from the 60s and 70s. And if at least 50% of the dragonriders are gay/bisexual, that’s not even a minority!

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“The Five Ways Donald Trump is Wrong about Islam”

Foreign Policy magazine has an article called The Five Ways Donald Trump is Wrong about Islam. Granting that Trump is awful on the subject, this article has a few problems of its own. Let’s go through the five points, all of which are aimed at refuting the idea that the Muslim world poses a threat to the United States.

(1) The Balance of Power is Overwhelmingly in Our Favor. The Muslim world is weaker than we are. This is why foreign powers have intervened in Muslim-majority countries repeatedly over the past couple of centuries, while the reverse hasn’t occurred since the siege of Vienna in 1529. Not once.

Agreed. No problem here.

(2) Islam is Deeply Divided. The Islamic world is more disunited today than at any time in recent memory. It is divided among many different states, and many of those states (e.g., Iran and Saudi Arabia, or Turkey and Syria) don’t get along. There are vast geographic and cultural differences between Indonesia and countries like Yemen or Morocco or Saudi Arabia. There’s also the core division between the Sunnis and the Shiites, not to mention a number of other minor schisms between various Islamic offshoots.

This is mostly a non-sequitur. Islam has been deeply divided since time immemorial, and even in times of fragmentation the Islamic world has waged war abroad as they carry out sectarian strife. So no, this isn’t really a good argument.

(3) Terrorism is not that Big a Threat. We live in a world where lots of bad things can happen. You might get into a car accident. You could get cancer. You could mishandle a power tool and injure yourself severely. You may fall off a ladder, slip in a bathtub, or be in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up stopping a stray bullet. Or maybe, just maybe, you might find yourself imperiled by a radical Islamic extremist. You wouldn’t know it if you listened to Trump, to CNN, to Fox News, or to most of our politicians, but that last danger is miniscule. Not zero, but really, really small. We’ve been obsessed with terrorism ever since 9/11 but the reality is that the risk it poses is way, way, way down the list of possible harms that might befall us.

Agreed. Or as I said in last year’s post, “Even though I am more likely to get killed by a jihadist than a Christian extremist, I am still, for example, 1904 times more likely to get killed in a car accident driving to work in the morning, 452 times more likely to die from risky sexual behavior, and just as likely to be crushed to death by moving heavy furniture around my home.” Risk is built into our everyday lives. It’s true that jihad terrorists exist in numbers that are more disproportionate than Leftists acknowledge, and they are routinely active by the thousands on a daily basis. But your odds of being nailed by a jihadist (in America) are still woefully slim. From that perspective, Trump and Bannon are fear-mongers.

(4) “Creeping Sharia” is a Fairy Tale. The supposed danger is the slow infiltration of our society by foreigners who refuse to assimilate and who will eventually try to impose their alien values on us. If we’re not ceaselessly vigilant, we are told, someday our daughters will be wearing hijabs and we’ll all be praying to Mecca. This anxiety almost sounds right out of Dr. Strangelove. There is simply no evidence of “creeping Sharia” here in the United States, and no risk of it occurring in the future.

Creeping sharia is actually quite real, as the case of Europe has been proving, and there could be a risk of the U.S. becoming more problematic as time goes on. Admittedly I don’t see this happening in the near future, so I can concede the point. But this is a poorly stated opinion.

(5) The “Clash of Civilizations” is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. The final reason to reject Bannon and company’s depiction of a vast and looming Muslim threat to us is that this worldview encourages us to act in ways that make the problem worse instead of better. If U.S. leaders keep (a) demonizing an entire religion, (b) impose ill-considered bans on Muslim refugees, and most important of all, (c) continue to intervene throughout the Arab and Islamic world with military force, they will convince more and more people that Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were right when they claimed the West had “declared war” on their religion. The mountain of evidence shows that anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is overwhelmingly a response to U.S. policy, and not because they “hate our freedoms”.

This statement is true and false. Let’s break it down into the three parts:

(a) First is the question of Islam as a religion, which this article gets wrong. It’s not the religion of Islam that we should be trying to protect from being demonized. No idea or philosophy or religion is beyond being put through the shredder if it deserves to be. It is Muslim people, rather, whom we should not demonize. (That’s why “Islamophobia” is a propagandist term; the proper term is anti-Muslim bigotry.) We should be criticizing Islam with integrity and without apology, as Muslim reformers like Maajid Nawaz and Asra Nomani are doing. It is Leftists and members of the Muslim community who demonize these proactive heroes who belong in the hall of shame.

(b) Second is the question of the Muslim bans, which this article gets right. Trump’s moratoriums (“bans”) are ill-considered, counter-productive, and not justifiable in the interest of security. He should never have signed them.

(c) Third is the question of our military interventions, which this article gets half-right and half-wrong. It’s true that our war-mongering in the Middle-East is much to blame in exacerbating the problem of jihad terror and turning the jihadist ire on us. In that sense, the anti-Americanism in the Muslim world owes to our interventionist policies. Unfortunately this fuels the myth that jihadist terror wouldn’t exist if not for western war-mongering and/or imperialism. That’s not true. The Islamic world has been expansionist and war-driven since the seventh century, and Muhammad is the jihad exemplar. Thomas Jefferson found this out when the Barbary States attacked innocent American ships and took slaves — in the days long before “American foreign policy” existed. When he asked the Muslims why they attacked, the response of the Barbary pirates was the same as that of al-Qaeda leaders today: Muhammad’s eternal command is to wage war on infidels, and to bring them under caliphate rule. In other words, while our misadventures in the Muslim world have made us a hot target for jihad — and irresponsibly so — the jihad imperative exists regardless of what any nation does to provoke it. The command for Muslims to wage war remains mandatory in all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and that’s why Islam needs a reform.

President’s Day Special: From Nixon to Obama

bush-obamaI would say “Happy President’s Day”, except the presidency right now isn’t cause for joy. No matter, we’ll celebrate in a special look-back. Even the worst presidents are saints compared to Donald Trump.

In this post I rank the presidents who served during my lifetime according to their record. That’s eight presidents — from Nixon to Obama — and when I say “according to their record”, I mean for what they did for causes of peace, fiscal security, and a free society, not on the basis of their charisma or reputation. In Recarving Rushmore Ivan Eland has criticized the bizarre logic that leads historians to favor charismatic heroes who give great speeches and/or happen to serve in times of crisis, even when not for the better. He scores each president, from George Washington to Barack Obama, on a 60-point system as follows:

53-60 = Excellent
43-52 = Good
35-42 = Average
25-34 = Poor
9-24 = Bad
1-8 = Atrocious

To see his rankings of all the presidents since Washington, see my earlier post. These are my revised rankings of Eland for the last eight presidents:

1. Jimmy Carter (Good) — Peace (17), Prosperity (18), Liberty (14); Total score = 49
2. Bill Clinton (Average) — Peace (14), Prosperity (15), Liberty (12); Total score = 41
3. Gerald Ford (Average) — Peace (15), Prosperity (11), Liberty (12); Total score = 38
4. Richard Nixon (Poor) — Peace (8), Prosperity (14), Liberty (6); Total score = 28
5. Barack Obama (Bad) — Peace (4), Prosperity (10), Liberty (6); Total score = 20
6. Ronald Reagan (Bad) — Peace (2), Prosperity (5), Liberty (6); Total score = 13
7. George H.W. Bush (Bad) — Peace (3), Prosperity (1), Liberty (8); Total score = 12
8. George W. Bush (Atrocious) — Peace (0), Prosperity (1), Liberty (3); Total score = 4

I agree with Eland that Carter was the best (and only good) president in my lifetime and George W. the worst. My surprise came with Nixon. An examination of his record doesn’t show him to be quite as bad as I’d always thought. Eland has George H.W. above Obama and Reagan, whereas I rank him the worst of the “Bad’s”. Otherwise our hierarchies are the same. My individual scores are either the same or close to Eland’s, the two exceptions being the “prosperity” categories for Nixon and Obama, which I award much higher. I explain everything in the commentaries below.

richard-nixonRichard Nixon, 1969-1974. Peace (8), Prosperity (14), Liberty (6); Total score = 28/60 = Poor.

Peace (8/20): Nixon was a beast in Southeast Asia. He should have ended the Vietnam War right away, but spent four years and 22,000 additional American lives (out of the 58,000 total between 1961-75) to get a peace settlement. Even as he winded down in Vietnam, he escalated the war in other ways — by bombing Cambodia and supporting a Vietnamese invasion of Laos, each without Congressional approval. On the plus side, Nixon had an otherwise humble and commendable foreign policy. His visit to China not only resulted in improved relations with that country, but made the Soviets want friendly and peaceful relations with America. To his serious credit, he ended the draft, which had been in place since 1940, thereby removing the stain on a free society that requires people of a certain age and gender to be forced to enter a dangerous occupation for little pay. Also, he agreed to destroy U.S. biological and chemical weapons.

Prosperity (14/20): Eland gives Nixon only 4 points in this category, but as a fiscal moderate I see the good as much as the bad, and so jack him up 10 points. He’s known as the “last liberal president” (until Obama), despite his conservative image, for his spending on social programs. He gave elderly people an increase on social security benefits, and proposed universal medical insurance that provided even stronger coverage than Obama’s later Affordable Health Care Act. He created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the war on cancer, and a federal subsidization of the arts — all big pluses. He forced car makers to reduce emissions under the Clean Air Act, signed the Endangered Species Act, and expanded national parks. That adds up to a very progressive track record, brought down only by the fact that some of Nixon’s federal spending was too unrestrained and ended up contributing to a problematic economy.

Liberty (6/20): Watergate has defined Nixon and that’s not unfair. Spying on his enemies (or perceived enemies) was a serious offense because it undermined American liberty through the use of illegal tricks, misuse of security agencies, and obstruction of justice in trying to cover up crimes. But even worse than Watergate, in my view, is the war that Nixon launched on drugs. It’s still with us today, and obscenely criminalizes non-violent addicts (who need help, not jail) while causing violent criminals to go on parole in order to make room in prison for the drug offenders. Eland gives Nixon only 4 points in the liberty category, and that is just, but I have to bump him up 2 extra points for his treatment of Native American Indians. He endorsed a self-determination plan for the Indian tribes, and because of his activism Congress passed laws including the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act. More than any modern president, Nixon changed the course that had driven vast numbers of Indians into poverty. It’s worth bearing in mind that as Nixon was being kicked out of the White House, the Native Americans were singing his praises.

gerald_ford_official_presidential_photoGerald Ford, 1974-1977. Peace (15), Prosperity (11), Liberty (12); Total score = 38/60 = Average.

Peace (15/20): Ford had one of the most commendably restrained foreign policies of any modern president. He engaged militarily overseas only a few times in minor ways, and for the most part resisted the counsel of his hawkish advisors — Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Kissinger, all of whom would later advise George W. Bush, who unlike Ford would follow their atrocious advice. He maintained Nixon’s detente policy with China and the Soviet Union, and he removed American support from the racist governments of South Africa and Rhodesia. On the downside, he increased defense spending, despite the end of the Vietnam War, and briefly attempted to get America re-involved in helping South Vietnam.

Prosperity (11/20): Ford inherited the mess of the Vietnam War which had dragged for eternity. Like all wars it caused inflation since it was funded by taxes, borrowing money, and printing money, and Ford did about as much good as harm in trying to alleviate the bad economy. He created government jobs to help the unemployment problem, arguably for better and worse. He kept most of Nixon’s programs going (which I consider mostly good), but used his veto power to stop the creation of more given the bad economy (which is reasonable). Some of his vetoes were overridden, but on whole they did have the result of the lowest annual spending increases since Eisenhower.

Liberty (12/20): Eland gives Ford only 8 points in this category, docking him a monster 12 solely on the basis of his pardon of Nixon. That’s too harsh. Many historians actually commend Ford for pardoning Nixon in the interest of American morale, and you can make a case for the lesson cutting both ways. I see no reason to dock Ford more than 8 points in the liberty category, and so I score him 12.

jimmycarterportrait2Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981. Peace (17), Prosperity (18), Liberty (14); Total score = 49/60 = Good.

Peace (17/20): Carter believed that America shouldn’t police the globe, showing rare wisdom for a president in the post World-War II era. He avoided war in the Horn of Africa. He refused to support Somali aggression against the Soviets, thus avoiding confrontation with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. He got Congress to ratify an end to the neocolonial U.S. occupation of the Canal Zone in Panama. He criticized both sides in the Nicaraguan civil war and stopped U.S. aid to the right-wing dictatorship. He scaled back involvement in this region (unlike Reagan who would zealously support a covert war favoring the right-wingers against the left). He finished normalizing relations with China, and terminated the U.S.-Taiwanese defense alliance (unlike George W. Bush who would later recklessly pledge to defend Taiwan from a nuclear attack, thereby putting American cities at risk). On the downside, Carter failed to successfully negotiate for the release of American hostages in Iran, though without negative long-term effects (U.S. policy in Iran was doomed to failure before Carter took office). His biggest blunder was overreacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and allowing his National Security Advisor to initiate the campaign which supported the mujaheddin in both Afghanistan and Pakistan — promoting, in other words, Islamism to fight Communist forces. Reagan would increase support for these jihadists on an insane level, but it began with Carter, and these U.S. funded Islamists would go on to spawn al-Qaeda. On whole, this record is extremely impressive for a president in the 20th century.

Prosperity (18/20): If Nixon was the last liberal president (until Obama), then Carter was the first conservative president (since Coolidge). This despite the fact that Nixon has the conservative image, and Carter the liberal one. In fact, Carter was a monetary tight-ass in a climate of concern. He promoted individuals taking responsibility for themselves, pushed for reducing the federal deficit, advocated the deregulation of industries, and believed that welfare was bad for the family and work ethic. Ford left him a rather stagnate economy; Carter’s conservative policies led to the prosperity of the Reagan years (not Reagan’s policies, on which see below), and they would set the precedent for later tight-money policies that led to prosperity in the Clinton years. Carter’s principled stand as a budget-hawk (his priority was lowering inflation, not reducing unemployment) would cost him the support of many Democrats, which is why he didn’t get reelected. In this sense he was a lot like the tenth U.S. president John Tyler, a Whig who stood courageously alone against his fellow Whigs and lost support. Carter also created the Department of Education, for which Eland downgrades him (for governmental expansion and intrusion), but which I strongly endorse and thus award Carter 3 extra prosperity points for a total of 18.

Liberty (14/20): Carter was near perfect on liberty issues and by rights deserves a score of 20. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which aimed to ensure that women were treated equally in society. He avoided the tendency of post World War II presidents to support communist-hating dictatorships that committed human rights violations. But sometimes Carter’s criticisms of other nations did harm. For example, his blasting of South Africa’s racist policies caused its white supremacists to persecute blacks even more, and their fury at Carter is precisely what caused the election of Prime Minister John Vorster, who believed in apartheid. If Carter showed military and economic restraint, he didn’t always show restraint as a spokesman. For the most part, however, he has a good liberty record.

official_portrait_of_president_reagan_1981Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989. Peace (2), Prosperity (5), Liberty (6); Total score = 13/60 = Bad.

Peace (2/20): Eland’s chapter on Reagan should be required reading for those who treat him like a demigod. He was a terrible president. His anti-Soviet policies and massive defense buildup reversed Nixon’s friendly detente policy with the Soviets, and raised the specter of nuclear war. For all his swaggering anticommunist rhetoric, Reagan didn’t even win the Cold War. The Soviet empire collapsed because of its poor economic performance and over-extending itself in other countries. And as the Soviets were in decline, Reagan launched needless and harmful missions elsewhere. He sent forces to Lebanon. He invaded Grenada. He attacked Libya. All without congressional approval as required by the Constitution. In Lebanon, he actually cut and ran after Shi’ite jihadists killed hundreds of American troops (Osama Bin Laden would remember the way western leaders, even macho-men like Reagan, tend to beat a hasty retreat.) He then went to Grenada in a silly “rescue” of medical students from a supposed Cuban takeover; in fact there was no viable threat in that region at all. Then he picked the fight with Gaddafi in Libya, creating a new enemy for no good reason. Gaddafi was a tyrant, to be sure, but not nearly as bad as the Islamic jihadists whom Reagan zealously supported so that they would fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Out of that manipulative mess would step a very pissed-off Osama Bin Laden. In sum, Reagan was an incompetent, leftist-hating, war-hungry failure. And he was the first of a new dynasty of Republicans that began a long slide to where the GOP is today: in shambles.

Prosperity (5/20): Reagan’s conservative fiscal image is a myth, and one that I once believed. He was more fiscally liberal than Carter and Clinton, and spent loads, not least on defense and his ridiculous Star Wars program. He gave the largest tax cut in American history, but his tax cuts were fake since they weren’t accompanied by spending cuts. As Eland points out time and again, tax cuts without spending reductions mean nothing, because either the taxes have to be raised at a later date (which they were), government borrowing has to increase, or the government has to print money to cause inflation. (Because of bracket creep and inflation, Reagan’s tax reductions ended up benefiting only the rich.) Reagan was not responsible for ’80s prosperity in any case. The ones responsible were the heads of the Federal Reserve System — Paul Volcker under Carter, and Alan Greenspan under Reagan — who sucked inflation out of the system with tight-ass money policies. Greenspan was appointed by Reagan but didn’t follow his lead; he followed the tight policies of Volcker his predecessor. The prosperity of the Reagan years came not from Reagan himself but despite Reagan and his heavy spending and fake tax cuts, and this is lost on devotees who actually believe he was a fiscal conservative.

Liberty (6/20): The Iran-Contra scandal was as bad as Watergate. In return for the release of hostages, Reagan sold heavy weapons to Iran (a state sponsor of Islamic terrorism) and used the profits to fund the Contras in Nicaragua (in their war against the Marxist Sandinista government). First of all, this was in violation of the arms embargo against Iran and the Arms Export Control Act which carried criminal penalties. Second, only Congress can appropriate money for government activities; Reagan’s short-cut was as much a Constitutional violation as Nixon’s misuse of security agencies. Even worse than Nixon, Reagan escalated the war on drugs. He attempted to stack the Supreme Court with justices who were less committed to interpreting the Constitution than in legislating conservative mores from the bench. On the other hand, he also appointed Antonin Scalia, and as a result citizens retained the right to burn the American flag, not to mention other liberties. It’s difficult to say whether or not Scalia was a misfire on Reagan’s part, but because Scalia ended up being an important champion of Constitutional liberties, I’m awarding Reagan 6 liberty points instead of 4.

220px-george_h-_w-_bush_president_of_the_united_states_1989_official_portraitGeorge H.W. Bush, 1989-1993. Peace (3), Prosperity (1), Liberty (8); Total score = 12/60 = Bad.

Peace (3/20): Bush’s colossal failure was that he didn’t return to a policy of military restraint when the opportunity presented itself (like Ford did considerably after Vietnam, and as Carter did especially after him). There was no great power to take the place of the communist threat (when the Berlin Wall fell in ’89 and the Soviet Union dissolved in ’91), but Bush kept on with aggressive overseas policies. He invaded Panama for little reason. He went to war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, worried that Saddam might invade Saudi Arabia (and threaten the oil supply), even though there was no evidence indicating Saddam had such designs. After the Gulf War he left behind an unneeded military presence in the Persian Gulf, which infuriated Osama Bin Laden (on his return home to Saudi Arabia after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan). We’re still today reaping the consequences of the elder Bush’s pointless excursions in the Middle-East.

Prosperity (1/20): Eland gives Bush a putrid score of 1, for the terrible recession Bush presided over, for ballooning the federal budget deficit, and for doing nothing constructive to alleviate the problem.

Liberty (8/20): To Bush’s credit, he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. But on his watch the FBI covered up federal misconduct when residents were shot at the Ruby Ridge property in Idaho; the residents were acquitted of all crimes, and the FBI snipers had been given illegal shoot-to-kill orders, and yet of the shooters was promoted to the #2 job in the FBI hierarchy. Bush also pardoned high-ranking officials who were involved in Reagan’s nefarious Iran-Contra scandal. His choice of the unqualified Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court is one of the worst appointments in the cause of liberty, and clearly intended as a “token African American” to replace Thurgood Marshall. On the other hand, he appointed David Souter, who turned out to be one of the best justices of the post World-War II era.

800px-44_bill_clinton_3x4 Bill Clinton, 1993-2001. Peace (14), Prosperity (15), Liberty (12); Total score = 41/60 = Average.

Peace (14/20): Clinton usually kept military efforts under control and was reluctant to use ground troops after the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia. In the case of Somalia (Clinton’s first overseas involvement), Eland calls it the one legitimately humanitarian U.S. military intervention in the last century, and he’s probably right. Clinton also intervened in Bosnia, and while that was partly on humanitarian grounds there were political reasons too, as there were for the subsequent bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. Clinton got somewhat lucky with Kosovo, when Serbian forces were withdrawn because the Russians suddenly stopped supporting Serbia. Clinton also got lucky with North Korea, when he threatened war against Kim Il Sung. Fortunately Jimmy Carter had been invited by Kim to North Korea, and the former president was able to smooth things over and get Kim to freeze his nuclear program. When al Qaeda bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton replied with cruise missiles, pounding al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, taking steps to kill Osama Bin Laden but not persisting enough (though doing more than George W. Bush later did).

Prosperity (15/20): Clinton took office during the recession which resulted from the sins of Reagan and Bush, who gave fake tax cuts to benefit their rich Republican constituents without meaningful spending cuts. Clinton immediately reigned in government spending and became a budget hawk in the mold of Eisenhower and Carter (and the previous heads of the Federal Reserve System, Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan), to produce the prosperity of the mid to late ’90s. He worked with Republicans to curb welfare and converted a permanent underclass into temporary aid recipients who had to work while getting assistance. He expanded the Earned Income tax Credit, which lowered taxes for people just above poverty line which encouraged them to keep working instead of going on welfare. He created the World Trade Organization which on whole increased world trade flows.

Liberty (12/20): The David Koresh incident is a blight on Clinton’s administration; many of the Branch Davidians were killed in the standoff, some of them children. To Clinton’s credit, he wanted to lift the ban on gays in the military, but had to compromise with the silly “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevented the military from rooting out gays but required gays to stay in the closet. Worse was his signing the Defense of Marriage Act, which stalled progress on gay marriage. To be fair, he was boxed in by his opponents on this issue, but in recent years Clinton has admitted that he was simply wrong to sign DOMA. In general his liberty record is okay.

george-w-bushGeorge W. Bush, 2001-2009. Peace (0), Prosperity (1), Liberty (3); Total score = 4/60 = Atrocious.

Peace (0/20): George W. was not only the worst president in my lifetime, he was one of the worst in history. If I were put in charge of building an “anti-Mount Rushmore”, I would carve his face on it, next to those of Lincoln, McKinley, and Wilson. (Trump will likely oust one of these four.) Bush invaded Iraq for no legitimate reason at all, and bogged America down in a new Vietnam. Scholars are in wide agreement that the Iraq War was one of the hugest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. Not only was it a distraction from the critical task of focusing on the 9/11 attackers, it was based purely on Bush’s need to settle old scores with Saddam, and justified by manufactured evidence. He demanded that his advisors come up with proof that Saddam and al Qaeda were linked in cause, and that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — neither of which was remotely true — and when they couldn’t, he sent them back to the drawing board, saying “Wrong answer.” The biggest anti-war protests in history broke out across the globe. By removing Saddam, moreover, Bush empowered Islamists and jihadists to fill the power void, who are far worse than Saddam. (In Saddam’s Iraq you were at least mostly safe if you stayed out of politics and played by Saddam’s rules.) Eland’s indictment of George W. is a zinger: “If Bush had been president when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the U.S., he probably would have gone to war against Argentina instead of Japan or Germany.” He earns a goose-egg in the peace category.

Prosperity (1/20): Bush’s economic and spending policies were hideous and the cause of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Like Reagan he gave fake tax cuts while letting federal spending spiral out of control. He used the 9/11 attacks to dramatically escalate the defense budget, and most of this money didn’t even go towards fighting terrorism. On top of that, he used a bailout which killed the economy worse in the longer run.

Liberty (3/20): Bush tried expanding the powers of the presidency in ways that make the Caesar-presidents of the 20th century (esp. McKinley and Wilson) look benign. He (and Dick Cheney) disdained Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as war commander in chief he was not subject to the constraints of the Constitution’s separation of powers. Like Abraham Lincoln (and no other president), Bush claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. Also like Lincoln, he suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. According to the Constitution only Congress can suspend this right, and only in times of invasion or rebellion. For the first time in U.S. history, Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war don’t apply to terror suspects, and it took years for the Supreme Court to overrule him on this. Most notoriously, he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture in overseas detention centers. Meanwhile on the domestic front, Bush signed three bills that restricted abortions.

440px-official_portrait_of_barack_obamaBarack Obama, 2009-2017. Peace (4), Prosperity (10), Liberty (6); Total score = 20/60 = Bad.

Peace (4/20): Eland calls Obama a “slightly improved version of George W. Bush”, and that’s pretty much right. Both presidents attacked countries for no good reason, escalated needless wars, and got vast numbers of American soldiers and indigenous peoples killed for little gain. Like Bush, Obama waged these wars under the illusion that America could bring democracy to the Middle East by removing dictators and encouraging their opponents to work for elections and peaceful change. Bush thought this in toppling Saddam, and Obama thought it when he helped bring down Mubarak in Egypt, and Gaddafi in Syria, and then Assad. The result was anarchy in Libya, instability in Egypt, and the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups who are much worse than the supplanted dictators. Obama was even worse than Bush on the subject of Islamism, for he outrageously ordered the removal of all mention of Islam from counter-terror training, and refused to allow high-ranking law enforcement and intelligence officials to study the religious ideology of the terrorists, which is necessary to understand and counter them. He also expanded, rather than reduced, Bush’s 9/11 drone wars, ramping them up in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. On the plus side he succeeded in killing Osama Bin Laden, but what he should have done at that point was declare the war on terror over, end the drone wars, and return America to a long-overdue policy of restraint and normalcy. Obama did none of these things. He deserves credit, however, for resisting strong pressures from American war hawks, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to pursue aggressive policies with Iran and Syria. Thus his score of 4 over Bush’s rotten goose-egg.

Prosperity (10/20): Eland gives Obama a score of 3, but I disagree for the same reasons I hold Nixon in higher esteem. As a left-libertarian I don’t share Eland’s hyper-hostility to government spending, and certainly not towards universal health care reform. So first I have to multiply Eland’s score by four to a score of 12, since I consider the Affordable Health Care Act a huge positive achievement. Then I have to downgrade Obama 4 points (and that’s being charitable) for his complete failure over two terms to address the plight of the middle class (for which reason we now have Donald Trump). That brings the score to 8. I add another 2 points though, because while Obama’s stimulus package was a fiscal monster, it did reduce unemployment and prevent a significant increase in poverty, at least in the short term. (George W., on the other hand, receives no positive adjustments from me for his liberal bailout program, since the recession was triggered by his own disastrous policies. You don’t get points for trashy bailout emergencies when you’re fixing your own mess.) So I say 10 prosperity points for Obama, though I admit that’s rather generous.

Liberty (6/20): Obama didn’t fulfill his promise to close Guantanamo, but Congress is to blame for that. On the other hand, Obama can’t blame anyone but himself for continuing Bush’s policies of indefinite detentions without trial, and watered-down kangaroo military commissions. He has been just as bad as Bush in killing people overseas without Congressional approval of hostilities, and in using domestic surveillance of American citizens without warrants. He did however stop the use of torture and overseas detention centers run by the CIA. On the domestic front, he got the military to stop the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, just as he ordered Justice Department lawyers to stop supporting the Defense of Marriage Act in courts, both of which had treated gays as second-class citizens. In view of his progress on torture and gay rights — and that he at least tried to close Guantanamo — Eland’s liberty score of 4 seems rather stingy. I’d be more inclined to say 9, except that I have to apply an automatic -3 penalty for a cause not mentioned by Eland: the drug war. It’s beyond reprehensible that an African American president did nothing for the drug war, given that (1) African Americans are the ones who suffer most from this obscene policy, and (2) increasing numbers of American citizens have been vocally demanding that drugs be legalized. My liberty score for Obama is thus a 6.

Democracy vs. Liberty

libertyAre the principles of democracy and liberty self-reinforcing, or do they stand in tension? Should the U.S. president be chosen by the people, or by a professional Constitutional-geared search committee?

In the original vision for America it was the latter. We often forget that the American Founders believed democracy could be as big a threat to liberty as governmental tyranny, and so they designed only one sixth of the federal government — half of the legislative branch, namely the House of Representatives — to be voted in democratically. Senators were chosen by their state legislatures (until 1913), Supreme Court justices were appointed by the president (and still are today), and the president was chosen by an electoral college (or by the House of Representatives if no candidate got votes from a majority of the electors). In the Founders’ vision only Representatives (Congressmen) were chosen by popular elections.

In the case of presidential elections, the Founders intended the electoral college to function essentially as a search committee that would forward a list of their top candidates for the presidency to the House. The Congressmen would then choose the president except in cases where there was a consensus among electors. The system never ended up working that way, but that was the original vision. In the nation’s first decades, the methods used by states to select their electors kept changing so that rather than having state legislatures choose them, they were chosen by the people directly. So in effect there was popular voting for the president despite the process outlined in the Constitution.

It was the seventh president Andrew Jackson (1829-37) who did the most by far to make presidential elections democratic in the way we think of them today. He is usually praised for this, but the catch is that popular opinion can be as treacherous as governmental tyranny. This has obviously been proven in the recent Brexit and Trump votes. (In America’s case, Trump lost the true popular vote, but the point is that in the hands of an electoral college operating in a manner envisioned by the Founders, someone like Trump would have never been nominated let alone win an election.) Jackson was a rather terrible president himself, though chosen and loved by “the masses”. It’s the story as old as Rome: democracy is a poisoned chalice. The historian Randall Holcombe says:

“What Andrew Jackson did not anticipate was that by making government officials more accountable to the general public, they would be more inclined to make decisions that pandered to popular opinion rather than sticking to the guidelines of the Constitution. The Founders had good reason for trying to insulate the actions of the federal government from the demands of popular opinion, but Jackson wanted to remove that insulation, making the federal government more accountable to the electorate. Jackson was successful, and his most lasting legacy is that he made the federal government more democratic and thus more oriented toward satisfying the demands of the voters than protecting their liberty.

“Jackson believed that liberty could be protected only by allowing the people to govern through majority rule. He saw democracy and liberty as self-reinforcing, because democratic oversight of the government would guard against its being taken over by a political elite and would prevent the elite government from pursuing policies that would benefit the elite few at the expense of the masses. The Founders felt otherwise, for two reasons. First, they did not believe that most people had the capacity to make thoughtful and informed decisions about their government. Second, they believed that rule by majority could be just as tyrannical as rule by a king, or rule by any elite group. Thus, they designed the government to be run by a political elite, constrained in its actions by the limiting powers of the Constitution.”

This cuts to the heart of my own duality. On the one hand I have a misanthropic streak favoring elitism. It may be a contemptuous thing to say, but people by and large are stupid and poorly informed and can be counted on to give up their liberties and/or vote against their own interests without realizing it. On the other hand I cherish the idea that every individual, no matter how ignorant, should have a say in who governs and leads them, and that they should participate in the voting process accordingly.

“With little imagination,” says Holcombe, “one can envision how American politics would be different today if the president were chosen by a search committee of knowledgeable electors not committed to any candidate, rather than by popular voting.” Certainly we wouldn’t have a disastrous Trump presidency. In any case, Andrew Jackson is the one largely to thank for the double-edged sword of our democratic presidential elections.

Quiz: Which President was most like Donald Trump?

Which president is MOST comparable to Donald Trump? No peeking at the answers below, until you choose.

(A) John Adams (2nd president)
(B) John Quincy Adams (6th president)
(C) Andrew Jackson (7th president)
(D) John Tyler (10th president)

 

joh(A) John Adams (2nd president, 1797-1801)

John Adams may be the last who comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump. He has a generally favorable image among most historians, but is rightfully censured by others. I consider him a terrible president. Like Trump he had a volcanic temper, exploding with little provocation. Many of Adams’ colleagues believed he was too unstable to be a leader, and that’s how many people feel about Trump.

The crucial commonality is tyranny, with respect to foreigners and also citizens who speak against the president and his policies. Adams used the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 with zeal. These four acts made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen (Naturalization Act); allowed the president to imprison and deport any foreigners who were considered dangerous during peacetime (Alien Friends Act), or to imprison and deport any foreigners who had ties to a hostile nation (Alien Enemies Act); and then criminalized anyone, citizens included, who spoke out against the federal government (Sedition Act) — an egregious violation of free speech. One might wonder how these odious laws were even possible at such an early stage of American history. Supposedly they were “security” measures” because the nation was engaged in a semi-naval war with France, but in reality they were all domestic measures. Adams was just trying to insulate his Federalist Party and crush all opposition from the Democratic-Republicans. He punished journalists and others who spoke out against the government with huge fines and prison sentences.

Most of these laws, thankfully, were abolished when Jefferson took office in 1801 (though one of them, the Alien Enemies Act, is still on the books today, and was used by FDR in World War II). They were the worst assaults on civil liberties in all of American history (aside perhaps from Woodrow Wilson’s crackdowns during World War I). If Trump could get away with using laws like these today, he surely would, and he is already following their spirit. His hostility to immigrants and foreigners is beyond dispute, and he has openly disdained free speech and threatened to sue journalists and media figures (like Bill Maher) who “slander” him.

Award yourself 5 out of 5 points if you chose Adams. I believe he is the closest presidential analogy to Donald Trump.

j_quincy_adams__original(B) John Quincy Adams (6th president, 1825-1829)

Quincy-Adams and Trump share the commonality of pure self-allegiance — loyal to themselves and no one else or any party. Quincy-Adams was a Federalist who repeatedly sided with the Democratic-Republicans when it suited his purposes. Trump was once a Democrat but now a Republican; he was once pro-choice and now an anti-abortionist; etc.

But this is a rather superficial comparison. Quincy Adams was an average president, in Ivan Eland’s judgment for example, “never doing anything spectacularly good or spectacularly awful”. That description doesn’t fit the profile of Trump, who is spectacularly awful in every way.

Award yourself 2 out of 5 points if you chose Quincy Adams.

andrew-jackson-600(C) Andrew Jackson (7th president, 1829-1837)

Andrew Jackson will be the most obvious answer to many, and it’s even Trump’s own choice. It’s disturbing that he chose Jackson as “his” president to hang in the Oval Office. Perhaps he fancies himself a populist and champion of the common man, as Jackson was. Or maybe he emulates Jackson’s nasty temper; Jackson repeatedly got his way by intimidation, his opponents were terrified to cross him, and one biographer said that Jackson “hated with a Biblical fury and resorted to petty and vindictive acts to nurture his hatred”. Or it might be that Trump feels bonded to Jackson by voter-fraud paranoia; Jackson had claimed that the system was rigged after losing the first presidential bid in 1824. (Trump goes Jackson one better: he’s been bitching about the “rigged system” even after he won.)

But it could also well be that Trump feels inspired by Jackson’s worst claim to fame — the outrageous treatment of the Native American Indians, which aligns in some ways with his pernicious views of Hispanics and Muslims. Thomas Jefferson had set the precedent for ethnic cleansing over 20 years before Jackson, arguing that if the Indians would not assimilate into white society, then they had to be removed from their ancestral homelands and relocated to less desirable land further west. But Jackson was the president responsible for implementing Jefferson’s ethnic-cleansing policy on a grand scale. In 1830 he got Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act, driving Indians off lands that had been guaranteed to them by more than ninety treaties, using state militia to evict them from their homes, and sending them out on the infamous Trail of Tears, to die by the thousands en route to their new homes in the west. Incredibly, Jackson justified all this by saying that whites had left their homes to travel to new far-flung destinations, and the Indians were only being asked to do the same. This obviously ignores that (1) whites did this willingly, while the Indians were coerced and terrorized into doing so; and (2) whites were seeking advancement and better opportunities in the west, while Indians were being downgraded as they had to give up their homelands for poorer land in Oklahoma. One thing can certainly be said: Trump is just as anti-intellectual in rationalizing his bigoted policies for the Mexican wall and the moratoriums on Muslim countries.

Most of the similarities between Jackson and Trump are more apparent than real. When Trump entered the White House his approval rating was awful; it’s becoming clear to even those who voted for him that he is actually the opposite of a populist — a business man for the rich. Jackson was a populist in every way and revered by the people. Trump’s nastiness is that of a boor and a blowhard and a narcissist, and it’s unpredictably volcanic in the manner of someone like John Adams. Jackson’s temper was rooted in a genteel code of chauvinistic honor, that thoroughly disdained Trump-like vulgarity. He was a gentleman, in other words, when it came to women, and constantly fought hot-headed duels to protect their honor. If he had ever heard remarks about “pussy-grabbing”, he would have given Trump a thrashing without second thought. That leaves the Indian outrage as the only substantive point of contact — though that is an admittedly huge issue, as the bigotries of both presidents impact huge amounts of non-white peoples in ways that oppose what free societies stand for.

Award yourself 4 out of 5 points if you chose Jackson.

john-tyler(D) John Tyler (10th president, 1841-1845)

John Tyler and Donald Trump were belligerent kids: as a ten-year old, Tyler bound and gagged his schoolmaster and left him for dead; as a seven-year old, Trump punched his music teacher and gave him a black eye. In adulthood they became sexually coarse: as a 26-year old congressman, Tyler flung around lewd innuendos left and right, and when he took a second wife (who was 30 years younger than he), he openly bragged about his sexual prowess. Trump, of course, has become infamous for his “pussy-grabbing” statements.

But as with John Quincy Adams, the comparisons are superficial. On whole John Tyler was not only an excellent president, and vastly underrated, but in the judgment of a historian like Ivan Eland he was the #1 president of all time! He was cautious and restrained in his approaches to governing, and he courageously stood up to members of his own party (the Whigs) to preserve those ideals, which ruined his chances for a second term. He ended the longest Indian War in American history, and allowed the Seminoles to stay on their reservation in Florida rather than continue the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian ethnic-cleansing policy of sending them west of the Mississippi. He reduced troops in the U.S. army by 33%. And as a man with southern sympathies, he remarkably reached an agreement with Britain to jointly enforce a ban on the slave trade. If I were to rank the U.S. presidents, Tyler would easily make my top five.

Award yourself 2 out of 5 points if you chose Tyler, then dock yourself a point since Tyler was one of the best presidents of all time, if not the best (Trump will be one of the worst presidents of all time, if not the worst), for a total of 1 out of 5 points.

“Donald Adams Trump”?

In my opinion, Donald Trump is most like John Adams. Like the 2nd president, Trump has a dangerously unstable temperament, is hostile to immigrants and foreigners, and has no respect for free speech when he is the one being criticized. From here on, I’m calling him President Donald Adams Trump.

Cinematic Milestones: From Childhood to the Present

This is a personal chronicle of films that had the strongest impact on me, going back to my early childhood. It’s not necessarily a list of “favorite” films, though most of them obviously are. It’s more a reflection of what changed me — my approach to film and sometimes even life itself.

Childhood/Teen Years (Age 8-17)

I saw my first three films when I was eight: Across the Great Divide (1977), a family western about two orphans trying to get to Oregon in 1876 with the help of a shady gambler; The Rescuers (1977) a Disney animation about which I forget almost everything except for Evinrude the dragonfly, who transported people by pushing them in river-boats to the point of exhaustion (my family and I got endless mileage out of Evinrude); and then Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), which blew everyone’s mind it seems except mine. These were my cinematic foundations — narratives of adventure, hope, and the triumph of good will — and I would see many more like them in my years growing up. But they were never my thing. I was drawn to darker and tragic material from a very early point.

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1. The Exorcist, in 1979. I saw this unspeakable movie on TV, and it devastated my 11-year-old psyche. Groomed on family films like Across the Great Divide, I was unprepared for the most terrifying movie of all time — even the censored version for TV is the scariest thing you could ask for — and it’s a good thing I was staying over my best friend’s house that night. There’s no way I could have slept alone in a room right after watching The Exorcist, and I remember waking up and walking down the stairs in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and then walking back up — it was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do in life up to that point. For years afterwards, images from The Exorcist would assault me at unexpected moments, the worst being at night, leaving me paralyzed and terrified of my own existence. It was a shameful, hideous secret I spoke to no one about because I couldn’t give it voice. Just thinking of The Exorcist upset me. Movies weren’t supposed to violate you like this. For the first time I felt the real power a film could have on its viewer (with a vengeance), and while it would eventually become my favorite film of all time, it left scars that I carry to this day.

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2. Conan the Barbarian, in 1982. The film that made me fall in love with film was my first R-rated theatrical outing, and it did a number on my 13 year-old sensibilities. Between scenes of graphic sex — especially Conan’s coupling with a vampire who goes rabid on him at the moment of orgasm — and a deluge of blood and gore, I was for the first time immersed in the world of cinematic adulthood. (Not counting The Exorcist, which I was still trying to suppress memory of.) But Conan also felt like a real-life Dungeons and Dragons game come to life. This was high adventure in which thieves robbed the temples of evil priests, rescued their victims, battled giant snakes, and stumbled on forgotten swords held in the clutches of cobwebbed skeletons. I was seeing the hobby that defined my life, come to life. The score showed me how important music is in film. Thundering brass and Latin chants roll over grim battle sequences, while variations of the main theme play at just the right moments; and the waltz for the orgy scene fits perfectly over the sex and cannibalism. By this point in my life, the first two Star Wars and Jaws films, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, had wowed most of the kids my age. Not me. Conan was my movie, and it holds up incredibly well today unlike other ’80s fantasies.

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3. Revenge of the Ninja, in 1983. Laugh it up. Yes, the ninja flicks of the ’80s haven’t aged well, and many of them were pretty bad to begin with. But Revenge of the Ninja was the godfather of ninja films, and despite the cheesy elements (which my 14-year old self was blind to), I would sooner watch it today than any of the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, and Jaws movies that were cherished back in the day. Not only are the martial-arts fight sequences amazing by ’80s standards, they are worked into a powerful story of redemption. Sho Kosugi plays a warrior who has come to America and given up fighting, but takes it up again of necessity when his mother is killed and his son’s life threatened. The street fight/road chase, and final duel between the two ninjas on top of the skyscraper — using every martial arts stunt in the book — blew my mind and set the bar for what I looked for in fights and showdowns. Not until the martial arts battle in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill would these scenes be surpassed. When I bought the VHS I got more re-watch out of it than any other film. It also caused my long obsession with ninja weapons: my best friend and I bought stars, throwing knives, numbchucks, swords, climbing spikes, and yes, the ninja costumes too.

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4. The Shining, in 1984. The reason I could survive The Exorcist and stay sane was my love for all things scary: Halloween dress-up, Edgar Allen Poe, and TV movies like This House Possessed. When I saw The Shining, my psyche was again put to the test. I was too young to critically analyze what made Kubrick’s film an effective piece of terror. On some level I took in the one-point perspectives gliding the viewer through hotel halls, around hedge-maze paths, and over mountain roads; Jack Nicholson’s ferocious performances, Shelly Duvall’s hysterical ones, and Danny Lloyd’s incredibly believable reactions as a child; the nihilistic tone that (unlike Stephen King’s novel) didn’t allow that things would turn out okay. My heart stopped at many points: Danny’s vision of the hacked-up girls in the hallway, the look on Wendy’s face when she discovers Jack has been typing the same sentence over and over for weeks, and — especially this one — Jack’s face in the hotel painting at the end. That last frame is far more scary than King’s explosive climax. The film leaves no doubt that the “Caretaker” Jack Torrence lives on as the Overlook does. The Shining spoiled me (The Exorcist went beyond that; it nearly broke me), and since then I’ve waited years for another film to come along and affect me on that level. In vain.

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5. Crossroads, in 1986. I was a high school senior when this came out, and I remember it bombing at the box office. In hindsight I’m not surprised. It was a very unusual film for the ’80s, and not uplifting like most efforts of that decade. You could call it a mainstream effort that dealt in issues outside the mainstream. I became obsessed with its theme of bargains with the Devil in order to achieve fame, and was drawn into the world of blues subculture of the deep south, even though I never liked blues music. The final guitar showdown in hell holds up after all these years; the guitars of Eugene and Butler seem weaponized as they alternate their riffs, then play at the same time, get in each others faces, and desperately try to one-up the others notes. Eugene finally wins by falling back on his classical training — blending classic and blues in a way that Butler can’t outmatch. With the challenges of portraying music as a dangerous force, the Devil as a southern black, and an unbalanced friendship that ends with appropriate payoff, Crossroads does far a remarkable job than its reputation suggests, and I still adore it. For me, it’s the Huckleberry Finn of films.

Early Adulthood (Age 18-30)

When I entered college in the fall of ’87, I thought that films like Scarface, The Terminator, and The Fly were top of the line. How naive. There was a whole world of film I would soon be exposed to, not least classics from the ’70s Golden Age, like The Godfather, Chinatown, and Taxi Driver. But it was the following six that were my epiphanies in my early adulthood years.

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6. Blue Velvet, in 1987. I didn’t see this on big screen, but even on VCR Blue Velvet was nothing less than a conversion experience. Until this point I watched movies mostly to be thrilled. Now I saw that I could be thrilled, stimulated, provoked, and awed on multiple levels. It was the critical controversy that drew me into it. Roger Ebert’s nasty review is still talked about today and contrasted with other critics proclaiming it one of the best films of all time. My best friend was firmly on Ebert’s side, so we experienced the joy of controversy in our own disagreements. I started to understand what critical analysis was, and the power of the independent film. Blue Velvet assaulted me with sadism, sadomasochism, and full-blown lunacy, but around all the depravity is worked a stunning beauty, and like all of David Lynch’s films (as I would later discover) made me feel like I was inside a dream. It’s not even my favorite Lynch film (Fire Walk With Me and Mulholland Drive are the superior masterpieces), but it’s the one that most impacted me, and of all the milestones on this list it’s one of the most important. It showed me film’s almost limitless potential.

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7. Pulp Fiction, in 1994. When I returned from Peace Corps service in Africa, I was starving to catch up on all the great cinema I’d missed since November ’91 — Unforgiven, Fire Walk With Me, Last of the Mohicans, to name a few gems. Then came this landmine no one expected, which my friend and I saw on a whim. I laughed so hard in the theater that day I was choking, hardly able to believe what Pulp Fiction‘s characters were saying and doing. Hilarious bickering sessions accompanied acts of overblown violence, scenes that were instant classics — the pounding of the adrenaline needle into Mia’s heart (image above); Vince accidentally blowing Marvin’s brains out in the car, which he and Jules proceed to argue about as if they’d just been inconvenienced by spilling milk; and the infamous Ezekiel 25:17 killing. Pulp Fiction taught me many things: that absurdist theater works in the hands of a good director; that non-linear storytelling can be a great technique; that anything can be funny (even rape) if handled right; and above all, that writer-directors like Tarantino have an easier time pushing envelopes and upping the ante without going off the cliff. Tarantino has done even better since Pulp Fiction, but this is his film that educated me and then some.

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8. Seven, in 1995. Sue me for heresy, but I believe that Silence of the Lambs is overrated. (Especially compared to brilliant TV series Hannibal.) Seven is the serial-killer masterpiece which continues to impress me at the level it did at age twenty-seven. I felt like the film was written for me, as it fed my fascination with the seven deadly sins and the contrapasso punishments of Dante’s Inferno. What elevates Fincher’s film above greatness to masterpiece is the way John Doe wins in the end — “the box” has become an icon of our collective mindset like “Rosebud”. And even if the comparison seems absurd, Seven is pretty much perfect like Citizen Kane. There’s nothing to fault here: the atmosphere (always either dark or raining), the scoring (the prologue’s Nine Inch Nails song, and the library scene’s Air on the G-String in particular), the casting (I say Morgan Freeman’s and Kevin Spacey’s best roles), and above all for its dramatic tunnel into the depths of hell and the meticulously crafted climax, all of which combine to suggest a hopeless world, an ugly humanity, but with enough heroes like Somerset and Mills who for their flaws are willing to fight on regardless.

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9. From Dusk Till Dawn, in 1996. This one caught me off guard as it should, and remains the greatest example of how to switch genres mid-film. In that sense it taught me how bold filmmakers should be in breaking rules, just like Pulp Fiction, which is no surprise given that Tarantino wrote the script (besides co-starring in it). When that stripper finishes her table dance, From Dusk Till Dawn turns from a nasty hostage thriller into a vampire slaughter-fest — a hellish outpouring of exploding eyeballs, spraying guts, and stakes being pounded seven ways to Sunday through the beasts while every human being dies under their onslaught save two. I literally had no idea what this film was about — I just grabbed it off the rental shelf because it looked interesting — and as a result, I got the full gratification that comes with the switch of genre. And after all the rewatches I still can’t decide which half is better, which completely vindicates the gear-shifting. I wish more films would mess with audiences expectations like this. It’s a vicious piece of work, about a couple of psycho killers on the run from the law, and who abduct a man and his two kids, terrorize them, force them to drive over the border to Mexico, where at the Titty Twister bar, vampire hell breaks loose. It sounds insane and it is in the best ways.

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10. Rope, in 1997. This was the year I went on a Hitchcock craze. Vertigo is easily his most cinematic effort, his ultimate masterpiece, and certainly my favorite. Rope, however, left a deeper imprint. Some have called it a dark mirror to Rear Window, which also features Jimmy Stewart in a city apartment, but instead of being a spying outsider, he’s an insider to the crime scene. For me it’s the reason I fell in love with bottle dramas. It’s set in real time and uses incredibly long (10 minute) camera takes, and milks all its tension from the hideous secret lying in the chest on which dinner is being served. Two college students have killed a classmate for the sheer thrill of it, and are hosting a party to celebrate their act while the corpse lies hidden under everyone’s noses. We feel its crushing presence every moment, especially when conversations turn morbid, and Brandon and Rupert espouse theories of intellectual superiority and the killing of stupid people, to the astonishment of the other guests. Rope is based on the Leopold and Loeb case of 1924, and it was ballsy of Hitchcock to portray a gay couple as lead characters in the ’40s, and make one of them sympathetic to boot. Jimmy Stewart’s final thundering indictment comes as nighttime descends, neon lights flash in from the outside, and makes me want to punch the air every time.

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11. Eyes Wide Shut, in 1999. Kubrick’s final work proved to me that a snails-paced film could carry excitement in every frame, and it completed the process started by Blue Velvet twelve years before in turning me from a casual moviegoer into a cinephile. I can’t stress enough how it effected me and made me query my deepest, wildest desires. If David Lynch made me feel like I was inside a dream, Eyes Wide Shut accomplished the more ambitious task of making life itself seem like a dream. Every weird thing that happens to Dr. Bill on his night out — professions of love next to a patient’s corpse, a young girl’s seductions at a costume shop, and finally the orgy of masked performers — is real but hardly feels it. It struck me as an oblique Christmas Carol spin-off, as Dr. Bill wanders around New York encountering “ghosts” of sexual temptation, barely avoiding one disaster after the next, weighing the value of what he lusts for against the wedge that has come between him and his wife. (She had described a fantasy of cheating on him and he can’t stop imagining her fucking the man’s brains out.) There’s a Christmas tree in every other scene, and the aesthetic is staggering. But there’s not a slice of artistic pretension, unlike the Kubrick copycats who have so desperately tried to crack his code to cinematic purity.

The New Millenium (Age 31-40)

By the turn of the millenium I had given up on blockbusters and was shunning mainstream films with a snobby superiority that I didn’t have much right to. I’d be reversing myself in short order. The Fellowship of the Ring came out in Christmas of 2001, and for the next three years I was consumed by everything Lord of the Rings. I reread Tolkien, dug out my Middle-Earth RPG modules, and saw each of Peter Jackson’s films in the theaters over ten times. When the extended DVD versions were released the following years, I obsessed those too, as well as the DVD extras and audio commentaries. By around 2005 I came up for air again. But before all of that came another stage of my childhood nightmare.

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12. The Exorcist (Revisited), in 2000. News of the theatrical re-release made me wary. Of course, I had seen The Exorcist on VCR many times by now; I’d worked up the courage to tame my trauma back in ’85 when I was 16. But even at age 31, seeing this in a huge theater with deafening surround sound diminished me. I sat in my seat (all alone; I had the theater to myself, which was both good and bad) utterly petrified. In fact, I remember becoming so panic-stricken when the priests went up the stairs to begin the exorcism that I actually cried out. But while The Exorcist still scared the shit out of me, I could also process it as a film deserves and be awed by Friedkin’s flawless direction. It’s an artistic masterpiece in the style of an induced documentary, and a searing examination of the mystery of faith. It remains the mother of horror films because it presents exactly what you imagine a demon to be as it destroys a girl from the inside out. Regan is saved in the end, but at the expense of the priests, and the power of good over evil isn’t clear. I came out of the theater visibly shaken. Before going to my car I just stood for a minute and soaked in the sun, acutely aware of my limitations, grateful for my sanity.

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13. The Fellowship of the Ring, in 2001. When I heard that my favorite story was being adapted for a blockbuster, I cursed Peter Jackson, whoever he was, sure that he would massacre Tolkien beyond repair. Five minutes into The Fellowship of the Ring I was eating crow and spellbound, and for the next three hours I forgot everything about my life as I was swept into this spectacular incarnation of Middle-Earth. The Shire, Rivendell, and Lothlorien were all perfectly realized. The Nazgul were fearsome in the extreme, and I was blown away by their assault on Weathertop and ferocious chase of Arwen — my adrenaline rush matched the flood she unleashed on them. I cried with Frodo when Gandalf fell to the Balrog, and shared his awe of Galadriel’s ethereal might. I thought Boromir’s death and the breaking of the fellowship were so moving that they surpassed the book. This is the film that taught me blockbusters can have soul when in good hands. I have never been so alive in a theater as when watching The Fellowship of the Ring (twelve times throughout Dec ’01 and Jan ’02) and for that reason I consider it the most profound cinematic experience of my life. Though the next one is mighty close…

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14. The Return of the King, in 2003. This is an even better film than Fellowship, because it’s tragic on a biblical level and so emotional that I cried through the last 45 minutes — from the point of Frodo’s collapse on Mount Doom (“Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo?”), to Aragorn leading the hopeless charge on the Black Gate, to Frodo and Sam resigned to dying before the eagles come, to the hobbit reunion in the Houses of Healing, to finally the aching departure at the Grey Havens. Even before all of this, The Return of the King is on another scale from the previous two films. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields remains the best war sequence ever filmed, and though it lasts for about an hour, it never fatigues (unlike Helm’s Deep), with catapult stones that look like they’re about to fly out of the screen and pulverize you, winged Nazgul swooping down and snatching people up, the charge of Theoden’s Rohirrim, and the incredible Oliphant attack. It’s really close as to whether Fellowship or Return is more precious to me, though I give the slight edge to Fellowship for the sheer wonder I wasn’t prepared for. Return of the King is the miracle that does lasting justice to Tolkien’s heroes, who are noble failures and inspire for that reason.

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15. Sunshine, in 2007. After seeing Sunshine I bought another ticket and saw it again right away, which is something I’ve never done with any other film. The visuals and punishing sound blew me right back in my seat. It’s strange that of the zillions of outer-space films, none besides Sunshine have bothered to focus on the sun, which is the most important and dangerous body in our solar system. Here the sun is dying, and so a space crew embarks on a mission to drop a nuclear bomb into the core of the sun, which will hopefully reignite it. Right from the start the mission becomes one calamity after the next, and the crew members have to sacrifice themselves, even to the point of contemplating murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. There is also the subplot of a hideously disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die, and does everything he can to slaughter the crew. There are homages to Alien and outer space claustrophobia, but for my money, Sunshine is even better than Alien, and I adore that masterpiece to begin with.


16. Juno, in 2007. This one might cause a double-take. It should be obvious by now that I’m no fan of comedies. But Juno is so good that I watched it three times when I rented it, and then bought the DVD the next day. I had a crush on Ellen Page anyway, and she was born to play this snarky teen who contemplates abortion but decides to have the baby despite her take-it-for-granted feminism, and give it to a wealthy couple. It’s not only the best comedy I’ve seen, but also the best film involving the abortion question, for the way it has confounded and misled people who think it promotes an anti-abortion agenda. It does nothing of the sort. Against the pro-choice objectors, Juno doesn’t glorify teen pregnancy; against the pro-life crowd it doesn’t present an exemplar in its lead character. It’s about a particular girl’s choice, clearly established, and how that choice affects others for better and worse. You can watch the film many times; there’s none of the cheesy sentimentality that mars most comedies like this. Even supporting characters like the stepmother (stepmothers are usually unsympathetic and awfully stereotyped) are genuinely likeable. It showed me that comedies can be endearing when they don’t try so damn hard.

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17. Doubt, in 2008. When a film refuses certainty about anything and everything it runs the risk of copping out, but Doubt gains conviction the more it pushes its theme to every possible extreme. We never find out for sure if the priest had an affair with his altar boy. When things point alarmingly in that direction, we get smacked with a mother who thinks that isn’t so bad: through tears she insists to an inquisitorial nun that Father Flynn is a good refuge for her probably gay son, who is beaten at home by an abusive father. Scenes like that are upsetting and test hard ideas in a world that pathologizes eroticism between adults and youths. And we’re never sure what to believe or how to feel, because the evidence is murky and the priest is a sympathetic character. He’s a progressive Vatican II thinker (the film is set in 1964), while the nun who thinks he’s a predator is antiquated and feared by the students for her disciplinary methods. The four pivotal scenes of extended dialogue are brilliant; every line of that dialogue earns its keep; and Doubt shows that a stage-play based film can produce more searing tension than the best action thrillers.

Midlife (Age 41+)

The current decade has been excellent for film. To name a few gems, the Coen Brothers remade True Grit; Quentin Tarantino gave the awesome westerns Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight (both of which surpass even Pulp Fiction, in my opinion); Abdellatif Kechiche portrayed a powerful love story between two girls in Blue is the Warmest Color; and Robert Zemeckis managed a visceral re-enactment of Philippe Petit’s wire-walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in The Walk. The following four, however, were the milestones for me, two of which are older films.

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18. Cries and Whispers, in 2010. Soon after my father died I began obsessing the films of Ingmar Bergman. They made me confront the worst in myself, but especially Cries and Whispers. It’s about a woman dying of cancer in her home, tended to by her maid and two sisters who loathe each other. When I saw it I was struck by two things. First is that I’ve never found a movie so painful to watch. The hurt on display is relentless; facial contortions, gasps, and screams so awful it doesn’t seem like acting. The use of red color permeates everything and accentuates the world of hurt. And there’s plenty of emotional trauma to match the physical assault of Agnes’ cancer: the sisters feed off each others faults with raging insecurity. Second is that this film is basically The Exorcist — it was released only a year before, and its influence on that film is hardly subtle — except the demon is the disease of cancer from which there is no liberation; Agnes dies in the end. You can see how clearly Friedkin was inspired by Bergman — the clock imagery, house atmosphere, bed agony, and self-harm. Cries and Whispers resonated for me on these levels and helped me face my mortality for the first time.

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19. The Tree of Life, in 2011. For years I’d wanted to see a cinematic meditation on the book of Job, and The Tree of Life gave me more than I bargained for. The 20-minute cosmos sequence accomplished what the text of Job 38:4 tried. I felt truly humbled by celestial mysteries. It didn’t exactly make me feel better about the problem of theodicy (why the innocent suffer), but the visual canvass with Lacrimosa playing over it triggers a perspective: our tragedies look admittedly small in the grand scheme of things. The film examines an American family of the ’50s within this macrocosm of evolution, and also within a dialectic of nature vs. grace: “Grace doesn’t try to please itself,” comes the mother’s voice-over at crucial juncture: “It accepts being slighted, insults, and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, and to get others to please it.” And yet graces emerges not as something which contradicts nature (even if it is its conceptual opposite), but rather something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. The final sequence is an afterlife vision — something that wasn’t available to Job’s author — a fantasy we cling to in order to cope with our losses, though not necessarily an unhealthy one. I felt God’s breath in The Tree of Life, and that’s no light praise from a secular agnostic.

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20. Little Men, in 2016. Along with the TV series Stranger Things, this film was a salute to the freedom of youth. Stranger Things did this in a science-fiction/horror context; Little Men did it in a social parable. I have a strong attachment to Jake because he reminds me of my own friendship at that age with an uninhibited extrovert like Tony. When I moved out of town I never really saw him again, so the unpleasant separation of these two at the end hit close to home. Also, I watched Little Men the day after the election (Nov 9), when I was feeling rather suicidal over Donald Trump’s victory. This was the movie I needed to see: a film that celebrates difference despite the avalanche of parental roadblocks. Jake is Caucasian and middle-class, Tony is Chilean and poor, and their friendship grows the more their parents become enemies. In the end Tony and his mother are evicted for not being able to keep up with rising rents, and I cried with Jake; after election day this film was a serious trigger for me in light of Trump’s screeds against Hispanic people. Taplitz and Barbieri are allowed to play their roles with simple and understated tones that makes you feel you’re watching the everyday lives of real people, and for me it’s a very special film.

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21. Leon the Professional, in 2017. This was actually released in the ’90s, but I’m glad that for whatever reason I missed it in the theaters. It took the child sidekick trope and had the nerve to turn it into a love story, but the American version removed the love-story part — 25 minutes worth of scenes that show a 12-year old girl lusting for a guy in his 40s — which is the whole damn point. The international version was later made available on DVD, and it’s an uncensored masterpiece. Obviously a film like this stands or falls on the child, and Natalie Portman nailed it in what I consider the best kid performance of all time. Her character, Mathilda, is a girl whose family gets gunned down by corrupt DEA agents, and so she hooks up with the hitman Leon in her distress. She gets an instant crush on him and he doesn’t know how to handle it, but before long, he’s training her how to kill and taking her along on his hit jobs, while she takes every blatant opportunity to hit on him. This film showed me that even the wildest ideas can succeed under a good script and amazing acting talent. I love Leon to pieces.
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22. Blade Runner 2049, in 2017. My latest milestone left me spellbound from start to finish, and despite the long length I could have sat through double that. Blade Runner 2049 not only lives up to its predecessor, it supersedes it, and that’s pretty amazing given that the first Blade Runner film practically redefined the sci-fic genre. The sequel has the same ambitious concepts, filtered through a visual aesthetic that it absolutely stunning. The story proceeds at a pacing so at odds with the quickfire bombardments of modern blockbusters that it feels like a ’70s film processed through 21st-century production values. I called Tree of Life my most sacred cinematic experience, but oddly enough, this film fits that bill too. Like Tree of Life, it wrestles with what it means to be human (or close to it) in the cosmos, as for example when K is against giant statues and questioning his place in the world, or when a hologram steps off a billboard to remind him of what he has lost, or when his software-constructed girlfriend evinces empathy, love, and fear of death. Like the best films of this nature, it asks timeless questions while refusing to supply answers, and is a masterpience that I will be revisiting many, many times.

In short, these films are milestones because…

The Exorcist, for its complete hold on me.
Conan the Barbarian, for making me love movies.
Revenge of the Ninja, for incredible rewatch value.
The Shining, for what true terror looks like.
Crossroads, for its near-impossible feat of portraying music as a weapon.
Blue Velvet, for awakening me to film’s potential.
Pulp Fiction, for breaking all the rules.
Seven, for the most merciless film in the Hollywood mainstream.
From Dusk Till Dawn, for changing genre halfway through.
Rope, for the power of bottle drama.
Eyes Wide Shut, for pure undistilled artistry.
The Exorcist, for continuing to impact me like no other film.
Fellowship of the Ring, for making me feel alive and the magic real.
Return of the King, for tragedy and emotional transcendence.
Sunshine, for the best examination of the human condition in an apocalyptic framework.
Juno, for redeeming the comedy genre.
Doubt, for blasting the unholy trio of righteousness, gossip, and certainty.
Cries and Whispers, for helping me face my mortality.
Tree of Life, for my most sacred cinematic experience.
Little Men, for channeling my youth as I near 50.
Leon the Professional, for proving there are no limits to wild ideas.
Blade Runner 2049, for my second-most sacred cinematic experience.