Confessions of an Islamophobe

“No one has upset the Islamophobia cabal more than Robert Spencer. First, he knows more about Islamic doctrine than they do. Next, he has outed all the tricks they use in their taqiyyah bag to disinform the public. Finally, and most importantly, Robert will not be cowed. Please read this important book and make sure you share it with as many people as possible.” (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, human rights activist)

Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I have liberal politics, but it’s rare to find liberals like us who commend the work of Robert Spencer. He’s a political conservative who runs the Jihad Watch blog, has written numerous publications, and is viewed by some as an Islamophobe. The problem with that word is that it conflates bigotry with any examination of how jihadis use the texts and teachings of Islam to justify violence, recruit among peaceful Muslims, and advocate for oppression by sharia law. Spencer is no bigot; and so it is somewhat surprising that in his latest book, Confessions of an Islamophobe, he has decided to wear the label his critics have foisted on him.

“Good” Islamophobia?

Spencer wants to make a distinction between good and bad Islamophobia. He says the bad version certainly exists, is never justified, and people have no reason to be afraid of all Muslims. Yet there is plenty of reason to be concerned about the disproportionate number of Muslims who embrace a commitment to reestablishing the caliphate, on the basis of normative Islam. He writes:

“I am not an Islamophobe within the meaning of those who have affixed this label on me. In other words, I am not the ‘bad’ kind of Islamophobe who wants any innocent people, Muslim or otherwise, to be victimized. Instead I am what I would call the ‘good’ kind of Islamophobe, someone who is honest enough to call a problem a problem, even when the whole world wishes to ignore or deny its existence.”

But that’s redefining phobia itself. Phobia is commonly understood as an irrational fear of something, and Spencer’s concerns about Islam (as he would obviously agree) are not irrational — any more than Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s or Sam Harris’s are. I’m not sure why he wants to co-opt the idea of phobia in a positive way like this. It will doubtfully catch on.

I believe that Islamophobia is a propagandist term, as people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris have always said, and as Spencer used to say. It’s propagandist because what people really mean when they call people “Islamophobes” is that they are bigots. But any religion is fair game for the razor, and harsh critics of Islam are not necessarily intolerant of Muslims as people; certainly Robert Spencer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz, and Sam Harris aren’t. There are genuine bigots — like Terry Jones — and for them, the proper term to use is exactly that: anti-Muslim bigotry. We don’t call people who are prejudiced against Jews “Jewaphobes”; we call them anti-Semites. Someone who is “honest enough to call a problem a problem”, as Spencer says, is not phobic, and to redefine it this way is really a form of double-speak.

Aside from his willingness to wear a label that doesn’t apply to him, Spencer is in fine form in his latest book, and I’ll review some of the issues he brings up. Starting with pussy-grabbing.

Pussy-Grabbing and Linda Sarsour

The rise of Linda Sarsour as a national feminist leader shows how far feminists have fallen. Sarsour’s offenses are legion, but perhaps she’s most infamous for painting sharia law as benign for its provision of interest-free loans. Seriously. At her most vicious, if you can believe the irony, she outdid President Trump’s “pussy-grabbing” remark. That a boor like Trump would broadcast his impulses to grab women’s genitalia is no surprise, but who would have guessed that he would be trumped (sorry) by his own arch-enemy. Linda Sarsour — that wonderful feminist hero — declared that human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali deserved to have her pussy removed, and on top of that to be violently attacked. Back in March 2011, she said that she wished she could remove Hirsi Ali’s vagina, as she (Hirsi Ali) “does not deserve to be a woman”. Hirsi Ali also needed an “ass-whipping”, according to Sarsour.

It’s hard to imagine a more Orwellian ass-backwards view of feminism than Sarsour’s. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a victim of female genital mutilation, and Sarsour was obviously implying that she “deserved what she got”. Incredibly, Hirsi Ali is hated by many leftists like Sarsour, and has been banned from speaking at college universities. And why? Because she has called for a reform within Islam. Because she is honest about Islam. Because she cares about the millions of Muslims, not least women, who suffer under sharia law. For all of this she has been branded a hateful “Islamophobe”, while mean-spirited liars like Linda Sarsour are considered feminist heroes.

It gets worse. As Spencer points out, Sarsour doesn’t just endorse sharia, but also a rhetorical form of jihad. Last summer she denounced the Trump administration saying, “A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad,” and, “I hope that when we stand up to those [like Trump] who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts that from us as a form of jihad.” Her statements were controversial, since jihad means (and has always meant) violent warfare in all schools of Sunni and Shia Islam. Sarsour quickly protested that she meant a non-violent standing up — a metaphorical jihad — and she was probably being honest on that point. But as Spencer says, Linda Sarsour isn’t stupid. Even though she herself may mean a non-violent standing up, she obviously knows that when other Muslims who know the real meaning of jihad in Islam hear that, they will hear it as a call to violence. Speaking “words of truth to a tyrant” isn’t mutually exclusive with violent uprisings; they’ve gone hand in hand throughout history. And as much as I despise Trump, if any Muslims were to try assassinating him on the inspiration of Sarsour’s rhetoric, she could (and should) be held legally accountable for incitement to violence, exactly as Spencer says.

Is Female Circumcision a Religious Practice in Islam?

Yes, it is. The Reliance of the Traveler is a manual of Islamic law (the Shafi’i school) from al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious institution of Sunni Islam. (Al-Azhar is Islam’s closest equivalent to the Vatican.) The Reliance says:

“Circumcision is obligatory (for every male and female) by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr ‘clitoris’ (this is called khufaaddh, ‘female circumcision’).” (e4.3)

It’s worth noting, though Spencer does not, that Nuh Hah Mim Keller’s Translation of The Reliance “corrects” the above understanding, implying that female circumcision is simply removing the skin around the clitoris instead of the clitoris itself. Keller’s translation is an apologetic for Western consumption. In Shafi’i jurisprudence, circumcision of girls as traditionally understood — by removing the clitoris — is mandatory. There is a close correlation between the Shafi’i school of Islam and the pervasiveness of female genital mutilation. Regions where the Shafi’i school dominates also just happen to be the places where clit-cutting is more frequent: Egypt, southern Arabia, Bahrain, Kurdistan, Somalia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The practice, moreover, was introduced into Southeast Asia at the same time with Shafi’i Islam, and this was a part of the world where female circumcision had previously been unknown. Obviously the Shafi’is have not been interpreting Islamic law in Keller’s “corrective” manner.

Spencer does note the other apologetic tactics used by Muslim leaders who deny that clit-cutting has religious sanction. For example, Imam Afroz Ali, president of the Al-Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences and Human Development in Australia, insists that female circumcision is not the same thing as female genital mutilation. The former, he says, is simply removing the uppermost extra skin at the top of the clitoral glans. As Spencer notes, this is a distinction without a difference, since most who perform the procedure go well beyond removing some “extra skin”. The World Health Organization reports that this “benign” version of female circumcision happens only in rare cases. Far more frequent is the removal of the clitoris itself, whether partial or total.

Female circumcision — that is, female genital mutilation — is indeed sanctioned in Islamic Law. It is recommended on religious grounds by the Maliki and Hanbali law schools and is considered obligatory by the Shafi’i school. It is a religious practice as much as a cultural one in these three schools. (Only in Hanafi regions is it “purely” a cultural issue; the Hanafis allow female genital mutilation but do not consider it a religious virtue.) But it is “Islamophobic” to point this out. Unless, that is, you happen to be a lawyer defending clients who are being prosecuted for clit-cutting. Spencer notes the case of two Muslim doctors from Detroit who were charged this year (in April 2017) for mutilating the genitals of two seven-year old girls. Attorney Mary Chartier said of the defendants: “They have a religious belief to practice their religion. And they are Muslims and they’re being under attack for it. I believe that they are being persecuted because of their religious beliefs.” In reality, says Spencer, the doctors were under attack for mutilating girl’s genitals, not for “being Muslims”. But Chartier did get one thing right: female genital mutilation is prescribed in Islam, as I just explained. No western liberal or media outlet likes to admit that, but Chartier has to concede the truth in order to make a case for religious freedom for her clients.

If the court rules in Chartier’s favor, that would set a disastrous precedent for creeping sharia. I don’t see it happening (most legal experts think the defendants will lose), but the fact that the argument is being taken seriously is too much.

The plight of gays, near and far

What is morally repugnant ( “racist”, “Islamophobic”) to many people is calling attention to the plight of women under Islamic law, not the actual mistreatment of women under Islamic law. The same is true for the plight of gays. Islam has a death penalty for gays based on its religious writings, and that penalty is enforced in many Muslim countries. But calling attention to this is considered by many LGBT activists more offensive than the Islamic killing of gays itself.

So for example, the transgendered Theresa Sparks, Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, objected to bus ads that were run in 2013. The ads highlighted the mistreatment of gays in Islamic law. “Posting those ads,” she claimed, “suggested that all Muslims hate gays.” Spencer (who is vice-president of the organization that ran the bus ads) rightly notes that the ads neither stated nor suggested that all Muslims hate gays. Sparks had nothing to say at all about the practice of killing gays where Islam is the rule of law. You can bet her reaction would have been different had the bus ads cited Leviticus and Romans in order to call attention to homophobic elements in Christianity. I guarantee you she wouldn’t have objected that such ads “tar Christians with too big a brush”; and I’m sure she would have had plenty to say about the influence of the apostle Paul on those who regard LGBTs as deviant.

Then there is Chris Stedman, Executive Director of the Yale Humanist Community, who is gay, and who writes for He too objected to the bus ads, and wrote an article called “Stop Trying to Split Gays and Muslims”, which is conceptually absurd. Stedman is surely aware that gays like him in other parts of the world suffer far worse for their orientation — especially gay Muslims. How can he be so clueless to think the bus ads were trying to “split gays and Muslims”?

Sparks and Stedman aren’t alone. Many LGBTs — the same folks who cry foul when you use the wrong pronoun to refer to a transgendered person — fall utterly silent when it comes to Islamic crimes against gays, which are by far the worst. While this is baffling, Spencer suggests two reasons:

“It is likely attributable at least in part to the common human tendency to find the near enemy more urgently to be fought than the far enemy, even if the far enemy is, in the long run, more lethal. Sparks, Stedman, and others like them have experienced opposition from conservatives for the choices they have made in life about aspects of their core identity. It is unlikely, however, that they have encountered Islamic jihadis or even sharia supremacists who are willing to confront them openly. The Islamic disapproval of gays and the sharia death penalty remain abstractions for them. Conservative Christians, by contrast, are all too real.”

The second reason:

“There is a deeper reason, however, that is related to that one. Gay and transgender activists may be aware of the sharia mistreatment of gays, but they don’t say anything about it, and disapprove of those who do, because of ‘Islamophobia’. Opposition to jihad terror and to sharia oppression of gays and others is identified in the United States and Europe of the 21st century as a conservative ‘right-wing’ issue. And there is that near enemy again. Should gays in the west today join conservatives, including Christian conservatives, in standing against Islamic oppression of gays and its call for violence against them? To do so would not only mean uniting with the enemy they hate the most, but it would also mean ostracism and villification from the members of their community who refused to go along with them.”

I think he’s right on both counts. I’m a left-leaning liberal and member of the LGBT community, but I can say I’ve never had these problems. Part of it is that I have no use for identity politics, and I avoid the “guilt by association” trap. I care about what someone is saying more than who is saying it. Robert Spencer may be worlds apart from me politically, but I’m happy to join his hands when I agree with him on a critical issue like Islam.

Covering up Orlando

The code of silence helps make sense of the FBI cover up of the jihad attack on the gay club in Orlando. On June 12 2016, Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people in the club, and injured 53 more. I remember the days that followed. My Facebook feed was full of screeds written by liberal friends who blasted conservatives for saying this was a jihad attack or had anything to do with Islam. I went on record saying the opposite: that Omar Mateen was more than likely inspired for religious reasons, and I put those odds at about 85%. Sure enough, it came out that he was inspired by the Boston Marathon bomber, and had pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State over phone calls that he made right before walking into the club and opening fire.

But as Spencer says, in this case the LGBT activists can be partially excused, because Omar Mateen’s jihad attack was covered up at the highest levels. A day after the attacks, in a sanctimonious speech, Barack Obama dismissed the evidence of Mateen’s phone calls to 911, saying that fears of jihad were groundless. A week after the attacks, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that the FBI would release transcripts of Mateen’s phone calls, but that the transcripts would omit Mateen’s pledges of allegiance to terrorist groups. “We are not going to further his propaganda,” she said, then adding — wait for it — that they were still trying to “get as much information as possible” about why Mateen did what he did.

That’s right. She dismissed the explanation right under her nose — that Mateen killed gays in line with his holy duty as an adherent of the Islamic State — and called that explanation “propaganda”. Lynch and the Justice Department were pounced on for this blatant cover up, and they did backpedal a bit, and later released the full transcripts. But as Spencer says, the damage had been done.

Bacon Patrol

All of the craziness described above — Linda Sarsour being hailed as a national feminist, an American lawyer willing to defend clit-cutting on grounds of religious freedom, social activists speaking loudly against sexism and homophobia unless it’s the Islamic kind, law officials covering up jihad attacks — derives, in part, from worries about “anti-Muslim backlash”. It’s a backlash that almost never occurs. As Spencer points out, since 9/11 (2001) there have been over 30,000 jihad attacks worldwide. Until the Finsbury Mosque attack in June of this year (2017), by contrast, there have been no Muslims killed by bigoted “Islamophobes”. 30,000+ jihad attacks vs. a single hate-crime attack is a sad excuse for moral equivalence, but there you have it.

Spencer describes events occurring in the wake of the jihad attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester England (May 22, 2017). The Muslim attackers killed 29 people and injured many more, and there came a later attack at the London Bridge (June 3) killing 7 people and injuring more. For a long while after the attacks, England was on high alert, but the police were as much worried about backlash. They increased their patrols at mosques in Cambridge when strips of bacon were left on car windshields to insult Muslims. This is how the British police were allocating their resources in the wake of jihad massacres: bacon patrols. Says Spencer:

“Not that any such hate crimes, whenever they actually occur, are ever justified. But the proportions were off. Twenty-two people were dead in Manchester and seven in London at the hands of Islamic jihadists. One would have thought that in light of that, the Cambridge police would have laughed off a few strips of bacon in front of a mosque, and told the mosque leaders to direct their attention to more important matters, such as working to root out jihad terror sympathizers and plotters from their communities.”

To be fair, backlash concerns are more legitimate in a United States where Donald Trump is president. But not nearly to the extent we grant it. In the wake of jihad attacks, the proper response of Muslim leaders is to work against jihadis and Islamists in their own community instead of constantly playing the victim card. It’s not just conservatives like Spencer who say this. The liberal Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz is equally fed up with the lack of perspective, and has held up the example of the American civil rights movement, where people like Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders took responsibility for their communities and acted in positively empowering ways, rather than playing the victim card and/or rioting in the streets.


Confessions of an Islamophobe is vintage Robert Spencer. The man has been hated on for bad reasons. He has been accused of cherry-picking violent verses out of the Qur’an and ignoring peaceful ones, but in reality the verses of warfare have been interpreted by Islamic authorities throughout history as being normative for all time, while the peaceful passages are not only fewer in number, they are conditional, and superseded (in the Qur’an itself) by the warfare passages on the basis of their status as later revelations.

He has right-wing politics, but he does not believe that most Muslims are terrorists or bad people. He has never stated that the United States is in danger of being taken over by Muslims and transformed into a sharia-based caliphate. (I don’t think that’s a danger in America either; Europe may be another story.) It’s true that Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have articulated goals to take over the U.S., and it’s true that spokespeople for the Council on American-Islamic Relations have let it slip that sharia rule in the U.S. is their objective. But their chances of success are almost zero, and Spencer acknowledges that. He is no more an irrational alarmist than he is a bigot.

What could happen, however, and probably will, according to Spencer, is that organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood will continue to undermine counter-terror efforts. There will be increasing challenges to our way of life — the kind we see in Europe all the time. There will be more jihad massacres, more assaults on women and gays, and other threats. For these reasons, Spencer calls himself a “good Islamophobe”, someone concerned about the harm and devastation Islam brings into everyone’s lives. I don’t think co-opting that problematic term is particularly helpful here, but he’s substantively right. There is much to ponder in his new book, and I’ve only scratched a few chapters in this review. Read it all, and reflect on what it really means to be a humanitarian.

The Best Films of 2017

This wasn’t a good year for movies. I can only recommend six. The worst film I saw was the over-hyped It, and I didn’t even bother with the Flatliners remake, which had a whopping 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes during its first week of release. Blade Runner 2049 was the masterpiece, and mother! the hidden gem.

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1. Blade Runner 2049. 5 stars. I was worried this would be another Mad Max: Fury Road, but not only does Blade Runner 2049 live up to its predecessor, it supersedes it. It’s a stunning visual aesthetic, and has the ambitious concepts of the original, taking them at the slow pace they deserve, so patiently that it feels like a ’70s film. I’m not surprised it bombed at the box office. Few people these days have the wherewithal — and by that I mean the intellectual wherewithal from above, and the physical fortitude from below — to sit still on their sweet asses for 2-3 hours and enjoy good artistry. The only problem are certain plot holes which leave coincidences unexplained. For example, from the start K is investigating the farmer replicant whose home supplies the clues for Rachael, while K already has memories implanted in him that relate to those very clues. But even here the plot holes seem more part of the overarching Blade Runner mystique. The best character is the hologram Joi, and she serves an oblique existential function: if software can fall in love and fear death, then the objection to replicants having these soul-like traits becomes even more strained. Her merging with the woman for K’s sexual pleasure is an incredible piece of choreography, as is virtually every other scene in this masterpiece.

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2. mother! 5 stars. The reason people hate it isn’t because it’s a bad film, but because it was deceitfully marketed. Like last year’s The Witch, the trailer implied a more mainstream thriller. If you don’t like indie horror films that offend on the deepest levels, then avoid mother! at all costs. It’s about a man and woman in a countryside home, where the woman suffers intrusions from guests who gratify her husband’s ego. The intrusions get increasingly outrageous, until hell breaks loose — quite literally — and one critic has made an analogy with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which suffocates the audience in torture to capture the immensity of Jesus’ sacrifice. mother! does a similar sort of thing to convey the “passion” of womankind, and the things they tolerate for the sake of men’s vanity. The indoor house becomes a battlefield of crazed strangers who commit unspeakable acts, and in the end seize the woman’s newborn infant, rip it apart into dozens of pieces, and eat it as if it were a sacrificial lamb. This is Aronofsky at his most audacious, but also at his best, and it helps that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is so visceral and sympathetic.

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3. Logan. 4 ½ stars. Like The Dark Knight this is a rare superhero film that’s excellent, which is a way of saying that it’s not really a superhero film. Logan is more like a post-apocalyptic western, inspired by the X-Men series rather than a part of it. The year is 2029, and Logan is trying to live a normal life in Mexico as a limo driver while taking care of Charles Xavier. Then a young girl shows up brandishing adamantium claws, evidently created to be a soldier like he was. She’s being hunted and Logan naturally wants no part of her until his heart wins out. (Heavy shades of Leon the Professional here.) The two of them proceed to slice and dice the baddies on a level of ultra-violence which has never been seen before in a superhero film. Logan is a masterpiece and the perfect farewell to this iconic X-Men character.

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4. Detroit. 4 ½ stars. When Hollywood goes after racism and injustice, the end product is usually ruined by overblown sanctimony and high-horse preaching and mawkish conclusions. Kathryn Bigelow is a gifted director who eschews that nonsense, and — as in her Middle-East masterpieces The Hurt Locker ans Zero Dark Thirty — delivers a drama so unpleasantly real it needs no leftist screeds. The film is about the Detroit riots that took place in 1967, and focuses on an awful night during which innocent African Americans were terrorized in a hotel. The cops rounded them up and lined them against the wall, yelling at them, humiliating them, pretending to shoot some of them, really shooting others; all because someone in the hotel fired a toy gun out a window. The actor in the above photo does a particularly good job of portraying a security guard caught between his ethnicity and his job, as he tries mediating between the police and the suspects, and, predictably, earning hate from both sides for his efforts. True to life, the film ends on the court trial in which the racist cops were acquitted. I always look forward to Bigelow’s films, and her documentary-style realism is searing as ever.
5. Call Me By Your Name. 4 ½ stars. I wanted to rank this higher, to spite the idiots who are unable to handle eroticism between a 17-year-old and a 24-year-old. Some have actually accused this film of promoting pedophilia, which is not only nonsense but grossly irresponsible. You don’t have to be a troll like Milo Yiannopoulos to accept the huge difference between ephebophilia (sex with teens, which may be illegal, though not necessarily immoral, even when it violates age of consent laws) and pedophilia (sex with prepubescent children, which is plainly wrong). What happens between Elio and Oliver is neither illegal (the age of consent in the film’s setting is 16) nor immoral (since there is no manipulation or abuse of any power on the part of Oliver, the 24-year old). Sexual relationships that are outside societal comfort zones aren’t necessarily abusive — especially in our overprotective zones these days which condescend to 15-17 year olds as if they’re 10-12. Critics have praised Call Me By Your Name for every good reason. As a sexual coming of age story, it’s one of the most moving I’ve seen of its kind.

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6. Get Out. 4 stars. As a rule I avoid comedy-based horror films, and I was even more wary of Get Out when I heard comparisons to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Horror isn’t the place to preach about racism any more than it is to crack jokes. I was surprised on both counts. Not only does the humor work, the portrayal of racial tensions feeds directly into the plot — and that plot is a whopper — without sermonizing. A black college student visits the parents of his white girlfriend, who are liberal racists, the well-meaning kind who only think they’re colorblind. (Practically the first line out of the father’s mouth is a patronizing assurance that he “would have voted for Obama a third time”.) It turns out this family loves black people in a seriously wrong way: they have been kidnapping and lobotomizing African Americans out of “reverence” for them — turning them into household slaves, and even sex slaves. Get Out is a brutal satire on liberals who fetishize that which they admire, and is the film this year I was most pleasantly surprised by.

(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 2016, The Best Films of 2018.)

Reading Radar Recommendations

Over on the Nashua Public Library website, I have a list of book recommendations. Someone asked that I write blurbs for the books, which is a good idea, though that’s not the format we’re currently using on the library site. I have produced the blurbs below, for both my fiction and non-fiction picks.


Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. You’ll love this novel if you grew up in the ’80s playing Dungeons & Dragons and primitive computer games, but even aside from this it has a wide range of appeal. For all the obscure pop-culture references, the plot isn’t confusing and the narrative moves like a bullet while leaving just the right breathing space for its characters. Their friendships in the virtual world feel real, because in some ways the OASIS is just as real. It’s where kids attend school online, where everyone plays games and retreats from the misery of the real world. That reality is the setting of the 2040s, a future in which the earth’s energy resources and economy have all but collapsed, the vast majority of Americans are poor and live in “stacks”, vertical trailer parks where mobile homes are piled on top of each other. The quest for a Easter-Egg inside the galaxy of the OASIS carries the reward of a billionaire’s legacy, including complete control of that virtual reality. A corrupt corporation wants the control, to charge for access, and prevent people from using it anonymously, and in the race for the Egg they locate and kill others — not just avatars, but the people hiding behind them in the real world. I know many people who love this book, even if they don’t normally read science fiction.

Ubik, by Philip Dick. The story is set in a future where some people have a natural ability to read minds or choose the future (psychics), and others are able to thwart those telepathic or precognitive powers (anti-psis). Security firms hire the latter to protect people’s privacy, and the plot involves one of these firms coming under attack. Its CEO is killed in a bomb explosion, and his employees store his corpse in a half-life mortuary so that his consciousness can live on. The employees then start to experience bizarre shifts in reality as the world regresses back in time to the year 1939. Maybe they are the ones who actually died in the explosion and got stored into half-life, and are now dreaming terrible events as their boss tries to reach them from the real world. Or maybe both died and are feeding off each others dreams. Adding to the tension is that one of the employees has a unique anti-psi talent that doesn’t just cause psychics to choose a different future; she can actually change the future by resetting the past. Is the time regression somehow on account of her? There doesn’t seem to be a coherent explanation that accounts for any one theory, but enough patterns to make any explanation plausible until you look real closely. Ubik may not be Dick’s most popular novel, I think he outdid himself here.

The Five, by Robert McCammon. If you like suspense and music, then this book is for you. A dirt-poor indie rock band (called The Five, three men and two women), drive around in a van and play gigs across the southwestern U.S., chasing dreams of success. They finally get that, but at a nasty price when a crazy ex-Marine sniper starts picking them off for comments made by the lead singer about soldiers in Iraq. Suddenly the band’s concerts swell in proportion to the media vultures, and with the fame comes devastation. It’s a nail-biter punctuated with slow pauses and soul-searching, both parts just as hard to put down. The narrative is also saturated with the author’s love for rock n roll. It’s no mean feat to make a reader “hear” music off the page, yet that’s what I was doing — crafting my own mental jams and drawing on textures from favorite bands. (You’ll make your own associations, but I imagined The Five as sounding grungy like The Smashing Pumpkins and searing like The Walkmen.) This was especially true for the signature song written by all of the band members instead of the usual two: it takes on a curious life throughout the story, as it’s born of harrowing events and each band member finds his or her muse at the oddest, eeriest moments.

Song of Kali, by Dan Simmons. I consider this the best novel Simmons ever wrote. Critics say that first novels often show authors at their most honest, writing without regard for anyone’s expectations, and Song of Kali fits that profile. It’s about the Kali cult in India, and forget the cartoonish portrayal in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The cult depicted here is foul beyond words. They run Calcutta like the Mafia runs American cities. Businessmen by day, killers by night, they sacrifice people (including their own members) to make their goddess manifest on earth. Their evil seems to have somehow infected the stones and air of Calcutta; pain and hurt are the only language people understand. The story involves a magazine writer who is sent to Calcutta to obtain poetry supposedly written by a man who was thought to be long dead. He takes his wife and infant child (bad move) and becomes entangled with the cult. What happens is vile and depressing, but in an understated way that makes everything seem too real to be fictitious. There are no cheap thrills or victories against the Kali cult; no one is brought to justice; the cult goes on; the city of Calcutta sweats poverty, despair, and anger in endless cycles.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl, by Peter Straub. There’s a scene from this book burned in my psyche: It’s evening. Jimbo creeps onto the front porch. From the lawn Mark shines a flashlight into the window. Jimbo is so shocked by what he sees that he leaps backwards and passes out before Mark revives him and they run for their lives. Pages later we find out what he saw: “A guy was hiding way back in the room. He was looking right at me. It was like he stepped forward, like he deliberately moved into the light, and I saw his eyes. Looking at me.” That may fall flat in the retelling, but in context it terrified me. It appears that Jimbo has seen the ghost of a serial killer who used to live in the house and customized it to facilitate his murders. (The killer had used secret passageways to spy on his terrified captives, torment them on beds of pain, and do all sorts of hideous stuff.) But it turns out the ghost isn’t the only entity inside the house; there’s something or someone even worse, and this mixture of terrors is handled so brilliantly we’re never sure what’s going on. Soon after, one of the boys disappears, and the question is whether he was abducted by a pedophile or snatched into a spiritual world by the ghost of the serial killer’s daughter. How you answer determines your reaction when you turn the final terrible page.

Sword of the North, by Richard White. It’s hard to believe that Columbus ever got the credit for discovering America. Leif Erickson beat him by five centuries, and Henry Sinclair probably beat him by one. This novel is Sinclair’s story. He was Baron of Rosslyn in southern Scotland and also Jarl of the Orkney Islands, and as White portrays him a fair but firm ruler who went at heads with corrupt bishops and venal noblemen. He got around plenty before embarking on his voyage to North America — to Norway, the Faroe Islands — and there’s even an amusing scene where visiting England he bumps into that father of literature, Geoffrey Chaucer. The dialogue is superb, lyrical and almost poetic without sounding aloof. There’s striking humor on display, and whether or not it represents 14th-century thought, it’s the book’s clear signature which sets it above the mainstream. It’s long out of print and almost unheard of, which is a shame. The author was a teacher at my high-school back in the ’80s, and he went on to write the smashing western Mister Grey; more recently he finally published his scholarly research on Sinclair’s expeditions, These Stones Bear Witness.

The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks. Whether you love or hate this novel will depend on how flexible you are with genre. It’s the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day (1572) as Quentin Tarantino might envision it — pulp historical fiction at its most graphic and obscene. The violent content was judged so extreme that it couldn’t even be published in the U.S. The hero’s slaughter-fests make him as bad as the villains. Most of the opposition he faces are poorly trained city militia, everyday thugs, and politically appointed “knights” hardly worthy of the title. He kills out of simple revenge for his wife, hardly caring who. The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre began as a royal stab against the Huguenot elite but degenerated into a full-blown extermination of unarmed Protestant civilians by the Paris militia. Tannhauser’s personal degeneration matches the city’s; there’s backstabbing everywhere, and a kingdom of beggars and thieves shunned by everyone. Those dark alleys are Tannhauser’s ultimate destination, and where an unexpected salvation is found. There, and in the souls of raped and dispossessed children he rescues along the way. The cloak-and-dagger intrigue is crisp, and the mystery of who wanted Tannhauser’s wife dead and why unfolds at the right moments. It’s an unusual novel that indulges hyper-elements to explore the consequences of hurt, and the inability to transcend monstrosity.


Free Will, by Sam Harris. The idea that we don’t have free will seems to defy common sense, but more scientists are coming to that conclusion. The idea of free will implies two things. (1) That we were free to think and act differently than we did. We did something but could have done otherwise. For example, I raised my right hand but could have raised my left; I went to see a movie, but could have visited a friend; I decided to join the Peace Corps, but could have gotten a job; I thought about cooking dinner, but could have considered ordering pizza. (2) That we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions. Our consciousness is the author of our inner lives and subsequent behaviors — the thinker of our thoughts, and the intender of our intentions. For example, I feel that I want to rise from a chair, and so I rise. I experience the desire to marry my girlfriend, so I propose to her. Sam Harris says that both of these assumptions are false. Read this persuasive book to find out why.

Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, by John Meier. The author believes that of the 32 parables attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, only four are historically reliable: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in human activity, and however small that seemed now, it would bear fruit on a huge scale in the end), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing God’s demands contained in his gifts), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either show signs of being written after Jesus, or can at best be judged unclear. It’s worth noting that Meier is a conservative Catholic and not predisposed to being so skeptical about accounts in the Bible. His historical methodology pushed him to the conclusion.

Night Comes, by Dale Allison. Here’s a meditation on death and how we cope with the idea of it. There’s a chapter on the fear of death, how we push for longevity, and how our increased longevity has effected our perception. In the days of Jesus, for example, life would have looked different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. Imagine, says Allison, how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far. There’s a chapter on the resurrection, suggesting that no matter how physical (like the Gospels) or spiritual (like Paul) we favor the idea, there’s no neat answer to the objections against both, though Allison leans more in favor of Paul’s idea of a discontinuity between the old and new bodies. Modern cremation and organ donation, not to mention our increased detachment to the physical remains of loved ones, means that corpse-like resurrection becomes less important to modern Christians. There’s a chapter about judgment, with a fascinating discussion of near death experiences and “life reviews”, which according to survivors forced them to watch the replay of their entire lives in an instant. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Dale Allison’s books, Night Comes succeeds in unnerving you no matter what you believe.

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, by Dario Fernandez-Morera. This book is a milestone in putting to rest the biggest academic myth of our time, and what’s amazing is that the author is a scholar from Harvard — the last place you’d expect on this subject. We’ve been taught that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony in medieval Spain, where the reality is the opposite. Christians and Jews were treated horribly under Islam. They were subject to degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. Medieval Spain was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. None of this should be controversial, but university presses are a bit paralyzed; they want to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia” and so present Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as relatively benign. The idea of Christians being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks being happy slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. This books shows that had there been no Islamic conquest, and Visigoth Spain was left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner.

Recarving Rushmore, by Ivan Eland. This is unlike any other ranking of the U.S. presidents. Most historians, regardless of their political bias, tend to grade presidents on the basis of their management style and charisma. Eland points out that effective presidents may be successful at accomplishing their goals, but those goals could be bad and often are. Charismatic leaders may inspire us with speeches, but that’s meaningless; some of the worst leaders in history have been charismatics. Eland ranks the presidents based on a threefold criteria — what they did for causes of “peace”, “prosperity”, and “liberty”. After all, these were the prime objectives of the American founders, and most people when asked say they want to live safe lives, be able to provide for themselves, and enjoy freedom. This is the book I’d been awaiting for many years. Even where I disagree with some of Eland’s assessments, I respect the reasoning he uses. His rankings tend to turn the common wisdom upside down. For example, in his judgment, Jimmy Carter (a Democrat) and Warren Harding (a Republican) were the two best presidents of the 20th century, while many historians consider them among the worst. As for the presidents we carved on Mount Rushmore, says Eland, three of the four don’t deserve the honor of being there.

The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Free Speech, by Robert Spencer. Anyone who cherishes the First Amendment should read this book. Our right to free speech and expression may not last. People are increasingly unable to listen to and engage with views they are offended by, resulting in safe spaces on college campuses, shout-down strategies against invited speakers, and the advocacy for “hate speech” laws that criminalize bigoted opinions (or those that are deemed such). Spencer reminds us that free speech is offensive speech, and that has always been its point. Inoffensive speech doesn’t need the protection of a First Amendment. Liberals are the worst threat to free speech these days, and a conservative like Spencer is a breath of fresh air. In this book he describes how social media like Facebook and Twitter, as well as student groups on American college campuses, are doing the bidding of anti-First Amendment activists; how American representatives at the United Nations have already agreed to limit free speech in certain ways; how people have lost their jobs for criticizing the doctrine of Islam; how European “hate speech” laws are used to prosecute and harass people who are not hateful — and how this could become the way of America. As a liberal, I stand with Spencer against my own leftist tribe on this issue.


Call Me By Your Name

Some people are upset about Call Me By Your Name. It has a critical approval rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, but the fact that it portrays an erotic relationship between a 17-year-old teen and a 24-year-old man has ignited the inevitable controversy. Some — many actually — have accused the film of promoting pedophilia. I’m not kidding.

It would be laughable if not so sad. You don’t have to be a troll like Milo Yiannopoulos to know there is a huge difference between ephebophilia (sex with teens, which may be illegal, though not necessarily immoral, even when it violates age of consent laws) and pedophilia (sex with prepubescent children, which is plainly wrong). What happens between Elio and Oliver is neither illegal (the age of consent in the film’s setting is 16) nor immoral (since there is nothing predatory on the part of Oliver, the 24-year old). Sexual relationships that are outside societal comfort zones aren’t necessarily abusive — especially in our overprotective zones these days which condescend to 15-17 year olds as if they’re 10-12.

As a sexual coming of age story, Call Me By Your Name is one of the most moving I’ve seen of its kind. It’s probably my second favorite after Blue is the Warmest Color, which told of a high school girl and a college woman falling in lust and love. Both films capture what it’s like to be a teenager living in many worlds at once. Like Adele in Blue, Elio interacts with his friends on one level, his parents on another, while something more primal is happening to him on another front. Before meeting Emma, Adele lost her virginity to a classmate; before becoming entangled with Oliver, Elio loses his virginity to a local girl. Those disappointing initiations are soon forgotten when the teens find a better match in someone older and more intellectually rewarding. Both films end on heart-ache (Emma finds another woman; Oliver gets married), and the romance is handled so well that the ache lasts long after you’ve left the theater.

The critical acclaim for Call Me By Your Name is well earned. It’s one of the best films of 2017. Don’t let any moral tight-asses tell you otherwise.

Rating: 4 ½ stars.

Comparing Lies

I’m not one to jump to Obama’s defense, but how easy it is to look good when compared to the current Supreme Leader. Obama told 18 bald-faced lies over his entire eight-year term. Trump was on his 18th lie in his third week of office. Obama averaged about two lies a year. Trump, so far, is swinging 124 lies a year.

(Source: NY Times.)

Darren Aronofsky Ranked

Here’s a new installment in the favorite director’s blogathon: Darren Aronofsky. I finally saw mother!, which I consider his best, though I understand why it’s so polarizing.

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1. mother! 2017. 5 stars. The reason people hate it isn’t because it’s a bad film, but because it was deceitfully marketed. Like last year’s The Witch, the trailer implied a more mainstream thriller. If you don’t like indie horror films that offend on the deepest levels, then avoid mother! at all costs. It’s about a man and woman in a countryside home, where the woman suffers intrusions from guests who gratify her husband’s ego. The intrusions get increasingly outrageous, until hell breaks loose (quite literally), and one critic has made an analogy with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which drowns the audience in torture to capture the immensity of Jesus’ sacrifice. mother! does a similar sort of thing to convey the “passion” of Mother Nature, who does nothing but love and give until people provoke her wrath by messing everything up. By the end, the indoor house has become a battlefield of crazed strangers who commit unspeakable acts, and in the end seize mother’s newborn infant, rip it apart into dozens of pieces, and eat it as if it were a sacrificial lamb. This is Aronofsky at his most audacious, but also at his best, and it helps that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is so visceral and sympathetic.

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2. Requiem for a Dream. 2000. 5 stars. Considered by most to be Aronofsky’s best, and for obvious reasons. The performances are staggering. I’ve worshiped Ellen Burstyn ever since The Exorcist, but she completely outdoes herself here, playing an unhappy widow (Sara) who gets swallowed by the forces of drug addiction. Sara sits alone in her apartment and does little more than fantasize about being a guest on talk-show TV. Obsessed with her figure, she become addicted to weight-loss amphetamines, and descends into a spiral of psychosis. Meanwhile her son (Harry) and his girlfriend (Marion) become heroin addicts as they chase the unrealistic dreams of youth. All are crushed in the end, with Sara becoming a near vegetable from electroshock therapy, Harry getting his needle-infected arm is amputated; and Marion becoming a sex slave to make ends meet. The film itself is a bad drug trip, and one I find myself revisiting almost against my will.

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3. Noah. 2014. 4 ½ stars. Widely dismissed as Aronofsky’s most commercial effort, I find it a fascinating work for the way it marries gnostic myths with the biblical accounts. It’s the story of the flood in a Lord of the Rings style, and it works since the first eleven chapters of Genesis are myth, the same sort of mythic pre-history that Tolkien intended by Middle-Earth. So when we see giant rock creatures (the Watchers) and bits of magic here and there, it somehow makes the story of Gen 6-9 seem as it should. But it’s also a very serious film that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide, and it has the balls to portray Noah as a merciless figure when he seeks to carry out the Creator’s will (as he sees it) by intending to kill his daughter’s babies. Noah is far better than cinephiles would have you believe, and it has plenty to say along with other great religious films.

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4. The Fountain. 2006. 4 ½ stars. This is one of those box-office bombs that later acquired a cult following — like Blade Runner and Event Horizon. It meditates on love and death, and speaks to mortality better than most films that dare try. The narrative follows three stories set in different timelines: in 1500, a conquistador (Tomas) during the Inquisition searches for the Tree of Life in the Mayan jungle for his queen (Isabel); in 2000, a neuroscientist (Tom Creo) studies brain tumors and tries to save his dying wife (Izzi); and in 2500, an astronaut (Tommy) drifts through space to a dying star. Hugh Jackman plays all three “Tom” roles, and Rachel Weisz takes on the role of Queen Isabel and Izzy. Through these threads, what emerges is that acceptance is the only way to defeat death, and fighting to keep that which you love does more harm than good.

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5. The Wrestler. 2008. 4 stars. The mundane style of this film is unique in the otherwise surreal Aronofsky canon, and some consider it his best effort after Requiem for a Dream. I don’t think it’s that good, but I will say that Mickey Rourke’s performance is extraordinary. He plays a professional wrestler deteriorating in health (thanks to body-building drugs), losing his fan base, and who must work in a supermarket to supplement his income. On top of this he is hated by his daughter who he can’t ever make time for, and Rachel Evans’ performance is as good as Rourke’s. The film treats the subject of wrestling and all its absurd fake elements in the honest way that makes you actually appreciate the sport and the toll taken on professional wrestlers. If I find it slightly overrated, I can’t deny I end up caring deeply for Rourke’s character.

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6. Black Swan. 2010. 3 ½ stars. I adored Black Swan when it first came out but it hasn’t aged well on me. Like The Wrestler it takes a subject I’m uninterested in (ballet) and half-succeeds in drawing me into its subculture, showing an individual who is willing to die for sport or athletic art. But where The Wrestler was grounded in gritty realism, Black Swan revels in hallucinations and Jungian archetypes, and sometimes too much for its own good. On repeat viewings these elements seem less profound. Natalie Portman’s performance is impressive, however: Nina’s metamorphosis into the White Swan’s evil twin is realized as her nightmare world gradually tugs her down, and she discovers the impulses of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” mirrored in her own life. It’s a forceful look at a damaged woman, but not one of my Aronofsky favorites.

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7. Pi. 1998. 3 stars. First efforts are often amateurish, and Pi is no exception. It’s the film that Aronofsky needed to build experience on for his later gems. The editing is rough, and the performances are entirely forgettable. It succeeds more by its concepts though not entirely. If math is the language of the universe, Pi suggests, then nature can be expressed in numbers and mathematical patterns, which could be used to predict almost anything (such as the stock market). Ideas like that were too grand for Aronofsky’s limited skills at this point in his career. His reach exceeded his grasp.

Trump and Jerusalem

Trump has decided to uphold the law passed by Congress in 1995, which stated that Jerusalem “should be recognized as the capital of the state of Israel” and the US embassy be moved there, by no later than May 31, 1999. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama invoked waivers to this law every six months, postponing the move on grounds of “national security”, which means the law has never taken effect. Trump also signed a waiver in June 2017, but has now decided to end the stalling. Predictably, everyone and their mother is going ape shit. Perhaps a bit foolishly.

I am no big friend of Israel. The state should not have been created in the first place. The Jewish people deserve a homeland, but what the Allies should have done was carve out a section of Germany (the nation responsible for the Holocaust), instead of uprooting Arabs for sake of a religiously inspired “Promised Land”. Many Jews hadn’t lived in Palestine for two millennia, and they didn’t have a rightful claim on it after all this time. But for better or worse, the Jewish state does exist now in Israel (since 1948), has controlled the entire city of Jerusalem (since 1967), and they have the right to decide their own capital (which they did in 1980). The spoils of war go to the victors. That’s been the way of the world forever.

Trump is saying that it’s foolish to think that repeating failed solutions will suddenly bring peaceful results in the Middle-East, and he’s obviously right. To object, as Turkey’s president does, that affirming the Congressional law of 1995 “will only play into the hands of terror groups,” is just kowtowing to thuggery. Hamas has threatened to launch a new intifada, and no surprise there. Trump shouldn’t be criticized for standing up to jihadist intimidation.

So while I’m not a particular fan of Israel and I loathe Trump, I can’t say I object to the executive decision. Every other country has their capital of choice recognized, and Trump is simply eliminating two decades of repeated executive overreach. More than enough time has elapsed since 1995 to show how silly the every-six-month waiver policy is, and that jihadists will never be satisfied or agree to work towards a peaceful goal as long as the state of Israel exists at all.

The Venkman Argument: The Hierarchies of our Prejudices

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Stranger Things has allowed me to relive my ’80s childhood in many ways, and one of the more amusing examples is the Venkman argument between Mike and Lucas. In episode 2 the kids dress up as the Ghostbusters: Mike is Venkman, Dustin is Stantz, Will is (Egon) Spengler, and Lucas is Venkman too, instead of Winston as previously “agreed” upon. Mike is indignant about this, but Lucas says he never agreed to being Winston, who is neither funny nor even a scientist. When Mike insists that Winston is “still cool”, Lucas suggests that he be Winston, to which Mike protests that he can’t, obviously thinking that only Lucas should be the black character.

This is practically a script out of my own childhood. One of my favorite shows as a kid was The Mod Squad, a crime drama from the late ’60s which played on reruns. The series was about three criminals who worked for the police as unarmed undercover detectives instead of serving prison time. I used to play out fantasies of the Mod Squad with my sister, my friend next door, and my cousin. I usually assumed the role of Captain Greer, who supervised the three outcasts; my sister was Julie, my friend next door was Pete, and my cousin — who is African American — was Linc.

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It was the natural fit we all agreed to, but one day my cousin wanted to be Captain Greer, and suggested that I play Linc for a change. Now this was fine by me, as Linc was my favorite Mod Squad character, but my next-door friend balked at this, insisting that my cousin had to play the black character. My friend was no more a racist than Mike Wheeler of Stranger Things, but like anyone subject to the categorical ways we tend to think about people. Eventually he relented, and we has fun playing as always.

These days roles are even more malleable, particularly with gender. None of us boys would have conceived of playing Julie (nor my sister, I think, any of the Mod Squad men), but in many circles today that idea is less controversial. Perhaps about as much a white person playing a black character in the ’80s. It raises interesting questions about the hierarchies of our prejudices.