Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

January 27, 2014

Review: Lone Survivor

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:03 am

“Lone Survivor,” written and directed by Peter Berg, is based on the 2007 book, “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10,” Marcus Luttrell’s account of the doomed mission Operation Red Wings, as told to novelist Patrick Robinson.

In June, 2005, four Navy SEALs embarked on a mission to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah in a village deep within the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. The mission went horribly wrong, Luttrell was the only survivor. Sixteen more Americans would die in the rescue attempt when the Chinook helicopter they were riding in was shot down.

The movie starts with archive footage of Navy SEAL training. Men are immersed in the cold sea shivering, exhausted beyond the limits of endurance while relief is just steps away. Ring a bell three times and put your helmet on the ground beneath it. The line of helmets grows longer, but a few endure to become SEALs.

Cut to Afghanistan and scenes of the daily life of elite troops in between missions. Men email home, joke, plan a wedding and haze newbies.

Then the briefing for the mission, identification of the target, and insertion into the mountains by helicopter.

The team: Lieutenant Michael P. “Murph” Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), team leader; Hospital Corpsman First Class Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), medic and sniper; Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), radio operator; Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), sniper.

The team reach a point in the mountains above the village and find out there are more Taliban than expected. Then an old man and two teenage boys herding goats stumble upon them.

The team realize there are only three alternatives for them, and two of them amount to killing the three Afghans. They elect to release them and abort the mission. The movie doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat the decision. It’s not only humanity, but fear of the consequences of violating the military’s rules of engagement.

The team attempts to retreat to high ground and radio for extraction, but quickly find communications equipment unreliable in the mountains. Worse, they find a deep ravine between them and the peak. Worst, within an hour the Taliban is on them.

After action reports, citations for the Navy Crosses awarded, and investigation by skeptical journalists arrive at different figures for the number of Taliban. Suffice it to say, there were more Taliban than SEALs on the mountain, and they were more heavily armed.

The rest of the film is an agonizing portrayal of the team making a fighting retreat, falling down the mountain and being shot to pieces.

Luttrell arrives alone at a water hole where he is found by Afghan villagers who persuade him with some difficulty to trust them, take him in, shelter him and protect him from the Taliban until help arrives.

To this day Mohammad Gulab (Ali Suliman) the Afghan who found and sheltered him according to the tribal code of Pushtunwali and Luttrell are fast friends. Gulab was brought to America to see the premier of “Lone Survivor.”

Berg put in a lot of work to make this movie as real as possible, and it shows, both on the screen and the unusual silence of the audience.

Luttrell moved in with Berg for a while to work on the script. Berg himself became the first civilian to embed with a SEAL team in Iraq and interviewed families of the dead SEALs.

Berg took the minimum salary allowed under Directors Guild of America rules and convinced a lot of the cast to lower their asking price to keep production costs down. Making this film meant a lot to a lot of people.

It’s doing well at the box office and has generally been a critical success.

But it’s also been called violence porn and light on character development,

Kyle Smith of the New York Times called it “a movie about an irrelevant skirmish that ended in near-total catastrophe, during a war we are not winning.”

Amy Nicholson of LA Weekly, evidently didn’t bother to stay till the end and distilled the message to “Brown people bad, American people good.”

No it’s violence, portrayed accurately. “Violence porn” is Hollywood sanitized violence where people shot just drop and go to sleep.

No, it’s an action driven movie where character is shown by how men act under extreme stress.

Yes, it ended in near-total catastrophe and we are not winning the war. Does it follow we have nothing to learn from why military operations end catastrophically in the Hindu Kush, “the graveyard of empires”?

Whatever you think of the war, the Taliban murder women who dress “immodestly” and shoot little girls in the head who want to go to school. The SEALs are the good guys. Enjoy the movie.

Note: This was published in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

January 18, 2014

Going Galt

Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 5:25 am

There is some good news and bad news about employment.

The good news is, that although employers created only an anemic 74,000 jobs in December, nevertheless the unemployment rate fell from 7 percent to 6.7 percent.

The bad news is, the reason unemployment has dropped appears to be because two-thirds of the adult, able-bodied unemployed aren’t looking for work at all.

That’s the lowest labor force participation since 1978.

There’s an expression that’s been gaining currency in the last few years, “Going Galt.”

The phrase comes from the book “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. Also know as “Atlas Shrugged and Shrugged and Shrugged…” by those who don’t fancy three-hour speeches dropped into the middle of the plot.

The theme of the book is that fed-up with an intrusive government destroying the economy the “men of the mind” go on strike. Some run off to a hidden valley in Colorado, while others take jobs that make them just enough to keep body and soul together.

One character goes off and becomes a pirate on the high seas, but we get to see disappointingly little of him.

In the course of the novel the economy grinds to a halt.

The durn thing is long, it’s annoyingly didactic and in some spots just downright weird. It’s also sold about seven million copies in English alone since its publication in 1957. Not counting foreign editions. I’ve met Ayn Rand fans from Russia, India, Bulgaria and Iran.

Part of the appeal is the gripping descriptive writing. From the first page you can see the palpable decay of society in the crumbling infrastructure and endless frustrating difficulties of bureaucracy strangling a civilization.

When I uprooted my life and moved to the former Soviet bloc shortly after the fall of communism I felt like everything I saw in the grim, grey, filthy cities was somehow familiar.

For another, Rand gave disaffected youth permission to be themselves, to seek out a destiny of their own choice. That’s considered more-or-less normal in these days of “follow your bliss” but back then it was heady stuff with a whiff of brimstone about it.

Ironically in her personal life Rand was a powerful and dominating personality who considered her personal tastes the norm of the universe. A circle of acolytes that gathered around her lived in mortal dread of not fitting in. Some people who knew her say it was best to admire her from a distance.

Rand grew up Jewish in Russia, and survived the revolution, the civil war, and the Great Terror just getting out and coming to America in 1925. Here she found intellectuals hailing the horror she’d escaped from as the first steps towards the utopian future.

Among conservative anti-communists National Review read her out of the movement entirely in a review by Whittaker Chambers.

Chambers called it a “remarkably silly book” and said, “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To the gas chambers — go!’”

Still it continues to sell, with sales doubling and tripling in recent years. A few conservatives have actually recommended it in public, causing great glee among Democrats who charge Republicans with being the party of Ayn Rand.

No such thing of course. Among other things, Rand was an outspoken atheist and not what you’d call a family values sort of person.

What she has given contemporary culture is that notion of “Going Galt.”

For me Rand’s central premise, that progress is the result of a few lonely geniuses dragging the world into the future kicking and screaming, just doesn’t work.

Even a cursory study of the history of industry and technology shows that while there are figures of towering genius, progress is driven by the efforts of a lot of people, mostly obscure.

But what happens when taxes and inflation grow to the point that the effort versus profit curve is so steep it just isn’t worth the bother?

What happens when running a business means all your decisions are subject to arbitrary review by bureaucrats who have to justify their salaries by sticking it to somebody every now and again?

What happens when expressing the wrong opinion, or just telling a tasteless joke can mean your job, your career?

What happens when you realize success depends on political connections, or promotion on being the right demographic regardless of merit?

What happens when you realize you could collect benefits equal to twice the entry-level salary in your job?

Could it be that a lot of people are just going to say, “The heck with it, I’m going to chuck it and spend time with my friends/children/books.”

And I hate to say it, but it’s looking better to me all the time.

January 15, 2014

Another roar from the Tiger Mother

Filed under: Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:41 am

Amy Chua, the famous or infamous “Tiger Mother” has a new book out, this time co-authored with her husband Jed Rubenfeld.

The book is titled “The Triple Package: Why Groups Rise and Fall in America” for the three characteristics that Chua claims makes some groups more successful on average than others.

The three are: a group superiority complex, combined with a sense of insecurity, and impulse control.

Chua and Rubenfeld name eight groups in America they deem most successful as measured by income, occupational status, and test scores among other factors. The groups are: Jews, Chinese, Indians, Lebanese-Americans, Iranians, Nigerians, Cuban exiles and Mormons.

Not surprisingly, and in spite of specific disavowal by the authors of hereditary factors, they’re being called racists. A fair amount of scornful note has been taken that they represent two of the groups in their own persons.

The fact is, what they’re saying is not all that controversial. But perhaps they have themselves to blame for a bit of the controversy.

Chua’s first book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” advocated disciplined child rearing rather than a permissive “follow your bliss” approach. Which shouldn’t have been too shocking except it was kind of over-the-top.

Some claim a lot of that was tongue-in-cheek shock-jock talk. And it’s hard to argue with success. Chua and her husband are Ivy League academics and their daughters won early admissions to Yale.

“But she threatened to give away her daughter’s beloved doll house!”

Well yes, and that does sound cruel. On the other hand I just threatened to sell my son’s Wii, so I’m not in a position to criticize.

I suppose I’m going to have to read the book. In the interim I have a few quibbles of my own.

China and India cover a lot of territory with many, many different cultures and language groups. Could we be more specific than “Indians” and “Chinese”?

Lebanese-Americans? Do they mean Christian Lebanese (like Danny Thomas) or Muslim Lebanese or both?

Same for Nigerians, lots of tribes there. Do they mean the often-persecuted Ibo tribe, sometimes referred to as “the Jews of West Africa”?

Cuban exiles, hard to argue with. They built the economy of Miami. Same with Mormons, they built a whole state in the desert.

The relative success of Jews is well-known, and my old Medieval Hebrew Civ professor was not shy about the reason. They teach their children to work hard and study. They value scholars, not athletes. They realized a long time ago that education is something they can’t take from you at the border when they kick you out of their country (that “insecurity” thing).

Same with Chinese. Strong work ethic and admiration of scholars.

Add to this that immigrants willing to settle in a radically different culture in search of opportunity are already a self-selected group.

Hard work, saving, investment, education and a strong belief in yourself as an individual or member of a group. There shouldn’t be anything controversial about that.

At least a mild anxiety about falling behind probably doesn’t hurt either. And need we point out that impulse control is probably going to have something to do with how often people get arrested?

The fact that some cultures inculcate these values in their children more than others is what’s making people nervous. But again, Chua and Rubenfeld are talking about culture, not heredity. And there are any number of examples of peoples with the same ethnic heritage going in different directions with different results for their future success.

The nation of Poland was partitioned by three occupying powers at the end of the 18th century: Prussia, Russia and Austro-Hungary. Poland ceased to exist as a nation for 135 years.

The results are still visible in Poland today. The former Russian lands are visibly poorer than the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian parts. And this was reflected in the relative success of Polish immigrants to America. Immigrants from the Russian partition arrived with less education and tended to remain poor, while immigrants from the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian partitions achieved much higher rates of success.

Three groups with vastly different rates of success, and in the case of the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian Poles, success in different fields. But still the same ethnicity.

Chua and Rubenfeld have raised some hackles with their talk of superior groups and market-dominant minorities, but they’re not saying anything that hasn’t been noticed a long time ago by anthropologists. And as they point out, there’s no need to bring in entirely unnecessary explanations of why some groups are more successful than others, when we already have perfectly adequate explanations.

Note: This is cross-posted from my professional blog at the Marshall Independent.

January 13, 2014

Review: The Tomorrow People

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:54 am

What if you could read minds, move objects with your mind, and move yourself anywhere you wanted to go in an instant?

These are the “three Ts”: telepathy, telekinesis and teleportation, of “The Tomorrow People,” a series which premiered last October on The CW Television Network.

Stephen Jameson (Robbie Amell) lives with his widowed mother (Sarah Clarke) and seems a normal enough teenager. Except he keeps waking up in places he didn’t go to sleep. Such as a neighbor’s bed in a locked apartment. The neighbors are perturbed.

A young woman Cara Coburn (Peyton List) contacts him telepathically and tells him he’s one of the Tomorrow People or Homo Superior, a genetically advanced human who is presumably the next step in evolution. To emphasize the point she and some friends teleport him to their secret HQ.

But all is not well for the new people. A secret organization Ultra wants to find them and neutralize their powers, or kill them if necessary. Stephen meets Jedikiah Price (Mark Pellegrino) who runs the organization who explains the people with the power are dangerous to humanity.

Oh yes, and Jedikiah is his uncle, the non-super powered brother of his father, who may be dead or may be in hiding. In spite of Jedikiah’s single-minded determination to find and neutralize all Homo Superior, Stephen agrees to work for Ultra in order to find his father.

The Tomorrow People would appear to have all the advantages except for one thing, they can’t kill. Well, except for some…

“The Tomorrow People” thus falls within the sub-genre of superman science fiction, and borrows liberally from its predecessors. It is a remake of a British series that ran from 1973 to 1979. The term homo superior was coined by Olaf Stapelton in “Odd John” (1935), one of the earliest superman novels.

A crucial plot element that showed up in episode 5, “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” that the founder of Ultra is himself a Tomorrow Person, is lifted right out of A.E. Van Vogt’s novel “Slan” (1940), considered the benchmark of the genre.

The social implications of teleportation as a psychic ability (rather than a technology) was first explored in Alfred Bester’s “The Stars My Destination” (1956). Teleporting humans hunted by an organization dedicated to their extermination was the theme of the movie “Jumper” (2008).

When Darwin published “The Origin of Species” in 1859, the question inevitably arose, “If we are the culmination of a long process of evolution, what might come after us? And if we gave rise to a new and superior species, would they dominate or destroy us?”

Consider that in the 19th century, many thought it was already happening. That the superior races of Europe were dominating the inferior races of the world, and that it was right a good this should be so.

Others took the history of colonialism as a cautionary tale and wondered if another race might do to Europeans what they were doing to others.

The culmination of this kind of thinking came during the 12-year reign of National Socialist Germany and their doctrine of the right of the master race to exterminate races of “untermenschen.”

However, novels such as “Slan” were parables of an advanced people persecuted for their superiority, a kind of uber-Jews.

There are a lot of really interesting and important questions here, but because of the history of eugenics ideologies such as Nazism, you can get called nasty names for bringing them up.

Today there are two broadly defined positions on the current state of human evolution. One holds that evolution basically stops with civilization. Because civilization makes life easy and eliminates selection pressure.

The other position holds that human evolution has continued and even accelerated. (See: “The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution” (2009) by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending.)

This makes people uneasy because it follows that evolution does not occur evenly across the human race because not everybody has been civilized for the same length of time. And because Europeans are not the oldest civilized people.

There is also a hot discussion on whether or not humans should take charge of their own evolution through selective breeding or genetic engineering.

These are hot button, career wrecking issues. The kind that can only be safely discussed in the context of science fiction.

The powers are silly. Telepathy is only barely possible, telekinesis and teleportation violate some pretty fundamental laws of physics.

The idea however is not.

So what if there were really superior humans? Would they be persecuted? Enslaved? Or would they dominate humanity?

It’s not that “The Tomorrow People” sets out to examine these issues, it’s not that high brow. It’s that it can’t help but make you think of them in the course of a reasonably entertaining action series.

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

January 7, 2014

Melissa’s apology

Filed under: Media bias,News commentary,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:35 am

MELISSA-HARRIS-PERRY
Well Melissa Harris-Perry has stepped in it and frantically tried to unstep in it with a public apology.

In the “Photos of the year” segment of her MSNBC show, Harris-Perry showed a photo of Mitt Romney’s large extended family that showed Romney holding his adopted African-American grandchild, Kieran on his knee.

Much hilarity ensued among her guests.

Actress Pia Glenn sang a song from Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just isn’t the same.”

Comedian Dean Obeidallah said, “It sums up the diversity of the Republican Party and the [Republican National Committee], where they have the whole convention and they find the one black person.”

Harris-Perry chimed in, wondering what it would look like if Kieran married North West, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s daughter.

The answer is, possibly a lot like Harris-Perry. She is the daughter of an African-American father and a white Mormon mother.

After a fair amount of indignation expressed by viewers, Harris-Perry apologized, visibly tearing-up on air.

“I intended to say positive and celebratory things about it, but Whatever the intent was, the reality is that the segment proceeded in a way that was offensive, and showing the photo in that context, that segment, was poor judgment,” Harris-Perry said. “So without reservation or qualification, I apologize to the Romney family.”

There has been a lot of cynical doubt expressed about Harris-Perry’s sincerity.

Noting the fate of Martin Bashir after he suggested someone ought to defecate in Sarah Palin’s mouth, or the hot water Paula Deen got into for admitting to using the N-word 27-years ago to describe an African-American gentleman who held a gun to her head, one might be forgiven for thinking Harris-Perry’s apology was driven by fear for her job.

I would rather be charitable and assume she was sincere.

Years ago Billy Graham was revealed to have engaged in some rather tasteless banter with then-President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office, including some anti-Semitic jokes.

Graham has regretted it ever since. Trying to explain it, he said there are times when the desire to fit in is just overwhelming, to the point it overrides taste and a sense of decency.

Well, in Harris-Perry’s circles taste and decency is not a primary consideration. The network wants “edgy“ commentary.

Harris-Perry once obliged by wearing a pair of homemade tampon earrings for a commentary on the abortion issue. (No, I don’t see the relevance either, but it’s edgy I guess.)

In terms of politics, Harris-Perry hangs out with people who believe those who disagree with them are not just wrong, but evil. If they do anything that seems to be worthy and good, it must be for ulterior motives. One need not demonstrate why or how, it just must. Because that’s the kind of people they are.

If that’s the case, you’ve got all kinds of latitude to be “edgy.”

The problem with feeding the edgy beast is, in this day and age where lines of polite behavior in public have been so blurred, it’s hard to know where that edge is, and very easy to go over it.

The network suits can’t tell you, because they don’t know. They gauge it by audience reaction. Go over that edge a little, get slapped down. Go far enough over, you’re toast.

It’s not fair and leaves the talking heads twisting in the wind. On the one hand there’s that demand for edgy commentary. On the other hand, there are no guidelines for how much is too much.

You skated too close to the edge and almost tumbled over Melissa. A quick apology saved you, this time.

Just remember, those suits you work for are merciless and will throw you to the wolves in a heartbeat if you slip over.

But by all means keep the edgy commentary coming.

January 6, 2014

Review: 47 Ronin

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:17 am

I did not want to like it, but I did.

On the night of the 14th day of the 12th month of the 15th year of the Genroku era (January 30, 1703), 47 ronin, disgraced and masterless samurai, attacked the castle of Lord Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka in Edo (modern Tokyo) intent on taking his head.

The 47 were former retainers of Lord Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, daimyo (feudal lord) of Ako, a minor holding in the country.

The ronin held Kira, an important official of the shogunate, responsible for their lord’s death. While on the obligatory visit every daimyo was required to make to the shogun’s capitol, Kira was charged with tutoring Asano in court etiquette.

Because he had not been offered sufficient bribes, Kira behaved insultingly towards Asano until enraged, Asano attacked Kira with a dagger and cut him on the head before he was restrained.

For the offense of drawing a weapon at court, Asano was condemned to commit sepukku, ritual suicide, his holding forfeit, his retainers made ronin – masterless.

Asano’s chief councilor Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio organized the 47 most loyal samurai. Watched closely by the shogun’s secret police they played the part of dissolutes and drunkards by day and secretly practiced martial arts and stragtegy by night.

One day while Oishi lay drunk in the street, a samurai kicked him in the face, spat on him and called him a disgrace.

When suspicion had been allayed the 47 struck. They found Asano hiding in a shed and offered him the chance to commit seppuku with Asano’s dagger. Trembling, Kira could not. They took his head, laid it on the grave of their lord, and surrendered to the shogun’s authority.

They had defied the shogun’s command, but obeyed the code of bushido, that no samurai may live under the same heaven as his lord’s murderer. The sentence was death, but death with honor. Forty-six commited seppuku and were buried with their lord. One was pardoned and buried with them after a long life.

There is a whole genre of plays, stories and movies about this one incident, called “chushingura” in Japan. Now “47 Ronin” has contributed to it with several new twists.

It’s a historical fantasy with magic, tengu (demons), monsters and a witch (Rinko Kikuchi) who can become a fox or a dragon.

There’s an entirely invented character, Kai (Keanu Reeves) a half-breed foundling. The relative ages of Asano (Min Tanaka) and Kira (Tadanobu Asano) are reversed. Asano is survived not by a wife but a beautiful daughter Mika (Kô Shibasaki), Kai’s forbidden love interest. Kira is not executed but killed after a slam-bang sword fight.

There is some serious messing around with history here. That’s why I didn’t want to like it.

However, there is also much they got right and great attention to detail.

When the samurai kneel before the shogun, they pull their swords out of their sashes and lay them either to their right side blade inward or in front of them handle facing leftward, a traditional manner that makes it difficult to draw quickly.

There are genuinely touching moments, as when Oichi (Hiroyuki Sanada) tells his wife he must divorce her for her own safety but assures her she is always the love of his life.

The fantasy elements, were-foxes and a warrior schooled by the tengu, are drawn from traditional Japanese mythology.

And in the end and in spite of the liberties it takes with history it is still the story of 47 men who embarked on a quest to set things right that they knew from the beginning would end in death for all of them.

I found it stirring, other critics have not. It has generally been panned and reportedly likely to be a huge financial loss.

In Japan the opening has been called “disappointing” in spite of a Japanese cast of popular actors.

If I had to guess I’d say it might be Japanese uneasiness with the love story of a Japanese noblewoman and a man described as the product of a one-night stand between an English sailor and a Japanese peasant girl. And I really wonder why they put that plot element in when anyone even superficially familiar with Japanese culture could have told them that would be shocking even today.

I still say go see it, and wait. This has the makings of a cult classic.

The last resting place of the loyal retainers and their lord is now the Sengaku Temple in Tokyo. Every December 14, many Japanese visit the temple to pay their respects at the graves of 47 ronin and one other who lies buried there. After their deaths the samurai who had spit on Oishi visited his grave, begged his forgiveness, and committed sepukku.

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

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