Thursday, January 21, 2010


We went to see Avatar. The movie is about a soldier who is sent to conquer a non-hierarchical, non-aggressive indigenous people who live in perfect harmony with nature, but who ends up defending them against the evil forces of modernity and corporate greed. It’s a story we’ve seen before many, many times. South Park got it right when they called it “Dances with Smurfs”. And need I even point out that the movie wouldn’t even exist without the forces of modernity and corporate greed, since non-hierarchical, non-aggressive indigenous people who live in perfect harmony with nature don’t spend half a billion dollars making 3-D movies. They’re too busy dying before the age of 30 for that.

We had a rather more interesting movie-going experience the following week, however, when we went to see another Christmas blockbuster. The interest was in seeing the succession of trailers that preceded the movie itself.

In one, Denzel Washington plays the survivor of a nuclear holocaust, who is being pursued by an army of post-apocalyptic goons. He turns out to be a one-man killing machine, and the trailer contains one rapidly cut scene after another of him shooting, slashing, stabbing, punching, kicking, and blowing up waves of adversaries. There are also stupendous car crashes. Although it is not shown, this will probably culminate in him fighting the leader of baddies, played by Gary Oldman, while the life of Washington’s fish-out-of-water-but-learning-the-game female sidekick hangs in the balance. The bad guy will probably be killed by falling from a great height. I don’t recall the movie’s name.

The second trailer was for an action-buddy caper starring John Travolta and that British actor who is in everything these days but who is not Jude Law. You know the one. Anyway, they play spies or something, with the not-Jude Law as the fish-out-of-water-learning-the-game sidekick, while John Travolta, who turns out to be a killing machine, does much shooting, slashing, stabbing, punching, kicking, and blowing up waves of enemies. There are also stupendous car crashes. The sidekick has a wife. Although it’s not shown in the trailer, I predict that in the final act of the film the wife will be kidnapped and held hostage by the leader of bad guys, while Travolta and sidekick fight him and his minions in an abandoned warehouse or a factory at night. The factory’s machinery will be producing a great deal of steam and red and greenish lights will be on, even though there is nobody around. The leader of the bad guys will probably fall from a great height. I don’t recall the movie’s name.

The third trailer was for a revenge flick starring Mel Gibson, who plays a tough cop whose daughter is murdered in front of him on Christmas or something. He sets out to investigate her death and discovers a vast conspiracy. Waves of baddies are sent against him, and much shooting, slashing, stabbing, punching, kicking, and blowing up follows. There are also stupendous car crashes. Although it’s not shown in the trailer, I predict that Gibson’s character will be framed for a crime he didn’t commit at some point in the film, and will end up the run from the police and so on. I also predict that the final act of the film will involve Gibson fighting the main bad guy, possibly in an abandoned warehouse or in a factory at night. The leader of the bad guys will probably fall from a great height. I don’t recall the movie’s name.

The came the movie itself: Sherlock Holmes. As you probably know by now, in this movie, Holmes is re-invented as action hero, and it follows Holmes and Watson (played by the actual Jude Law) as they shoot, slash, stab, punch, kick, and, yes, blow up waves of enemies who are part of a vast conspiracy. There are no stupendous car crashes (it’s the 1880s, after all), but a ship does crash rather stupendously. In the end, Holmes fights the leader of the bad guys on London Bridge, still under construction, but with nary a construction worker in sight. Needless to say, the life of the female lead hangs in the balance. The leader of the bad guys falls to his death from a great height. Notice I do not say “spoiler alert!” above, as there’s nothing to spoil: anyone who has been watching movies for the past twenty years or so knows the formula.

A common criticism of movie critics is that they are out-of-touch with what the general public likes. But if you watched two hundred or more movies per year, and half of them were action films like these, and the other half were romantic comedies (and half of those starred the same half-dozen actors), you’d crave something different, too. I often hear people say, “But when I go to the movies, I don’t want a complex story or deep characters or a message. I just want to shut my brain off for a couple of hours and enjoy myself.” Uh-huh. May I suggest that the kinds of people who like movies such as Transformers 2 hardly need an excuse to shut their brain off? Turning it on, on the other hand...

Later that night we (legally) downloaded and watched a wry observation piece, Away We Go, about two 30-somethings, about to have a baby, who visit friends around the country in an effort to find a place they can call home. It was a good movie, not great, but worth the download, and it was nice to see something where nobody was shot, slashed, stabbed, punched, kicked, or blown up, and where every car survived the movie intact. And the female lead wasn’t held hostage while the boys fought it out in an abandoned but steam-producing factory.

They say that the Hollywood system is on its last legs. The media continues breathlessly to report the biggest opening day weekends year after year (have these people never heard of inflation?) but the actual number of tickets being sold is in decline as people abandon the monsto-plexes for increasingly affordable home movie theatres. For about $2000 now – relative to inflation, a fraction of what TVs cost thirty years ago — you can get a big screen, surround sound, high resolution movie players, and, of course the comforts of movies at home, including pause buttons and beer.

Is the Hollywood system on its last legs? I don’t know. I don’t fully understand the economics of it. If it is, good riddance. Because right now that system is creatively dead, holding audiences of hyper-hormonal late teenage males in their thrall while more discerning viewers are metaphorically shot, slashed, stabbed, punched, kicked, blown up, run over, and then pushed from high heights.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


On Tuesday, a catastrophe of almost unfathomable proportions struck Haiti. In the right wing (I won’t say “conservative”) press in the United States, the denunciations of the island nation and its people began at once. Screw ‘em, the message has been. Why should our socialist (or communist, depending on the commentator) President send even a dime of our hard-earned taxpayer dollars to Haiti? These same sorts of people — the predecessors of the hysterical Fox news types — were far less concerned in decades past when successive US administrations sent millions of dollars to provide economic and military assistance to Haiti’s hereditary dictatorship, the Duvalier crime family, whose human rights abuses were, by even the most favorable appraisals, far, far worse than those committed by Castro’s dictatorship in Cuba in the same period.

Anyone looking for evidence of a civilization in decline need only spend a few minutes reading the nearest message board on any given news website. There you will find legions of the unthinking and semi-literate, handed a megaphone. Right now they’re shouting that we shouldn’t be sending money to Haiti when there are problems right here at home. And, indeed, there are such problems. But what, you ask, are they doing to help solve those problems? No doubt they’re planning to get right on it after a six-pack of Coors and the football game. Harsh, you say? Unkind? Elitist? Perhaps. But read the message boards and ask yourself if you’re really that concerned about declining voter turnout. Perhaps it’s best if some people don’t vote.

One such example would be the people who consider themselves the “flock” (that is, the sheep) of the “Reverend” Pat Robertson. Yesterday, Robertson offered these words of wisdom and comfort to his viewers in order to explain the Haitian tragedy:

"They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.' True story. And so the devil said, 'Ok it's a deal.' And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another."

I won’t get into Robertson’s complete incomprehension of the history of the Haitian Revolution, a vast slave uprising which secured that nation’s independence from Napoleon Bonaparte’s France in 1804, and which did so on Jeffersonian principles. But this sort of thing is to be expected by now from Robertson, whose television program is watched daily by millions of American evangelicals and who has been kowtowed to by successive Republican presidents of the United States. I know that some among the faithful consider themselves subject to public ridicule for public expressions of their faith, but it is equally true there are priests, reverends, and imams who get away with saying the most hateful and even threatening things precisely because they claim and are granted a religious exemption from the requirement for public decency. If, for instance, I went about saying, as Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell did, that the September 11th attacks were God’s punishment for gay marriage and feminism and the separation of church and state, I would probably lose my job. Never mind that their position was essentially indistinguishable from those held by the people who planned and perpetrated the attacks, Robertson and Falwell, far from losing their jobs, gained millions of viewers.

Well, let us be clear. One of the most meaningful and practically important statements ever uttered in defense of the Haitian people was made in 1983 by the former Pope, when, on an official visit to the island nation, he said, “Something must change here.” Within three years the Duvalier dictatorship collapsed. And amongst the blood and mud and rubble of Port-Au-Prince right now are members of a dozen or more religious denominations who had devoted and ultimately gave their lives to help the people in this poorest of nations. What Robertson professes, by contrast, is not so much a religion as a political ideology he wields in the hopes of bringing about a theocracy, a kingdom of hell were Osama bin Laden would feel, in every significant aspect but one, perfectly at home.

Donations to the Canadian Red Cross can be made here.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


What do we want from our students? Like parents, teachers should want something better for their students - to want their students to exceed their own achievements, by whatever corresponding measure of success is applied along the path they choose. And we hope that, in choosing their path, we have helped to teach them how to think, to reflect, to find answers on their own, and to make moral and ethical decisions. That, above all, is important: we want our students to be decent people.

But education can sometimes result in conceit and arrogance. As a teacher, one’s heart sinks to find a student, possessed of a little learning, who thinks that he’s smarter than everyone else, or even that his superior education has endowed him with moral superiority. This quality isn’t confined to the educated, of course — there are droves of know-it-all drop outs — but, lest we forget, it was educated men who invented Auschwitz and the atomic bomb.

In the postmodern university, where a soft relativism is the order of the day, it is unfashionable to speak of teaching moral or ethical lessons to students, even though questions of how we ought to behave are central to whole fields such as literature, philosophy, and comparative religion. After all, the relativists insist, who is to say what is right or wrong? But allow me to say, once again, that to claim that there are no absolute moral standards is to make an absolute moral claim of the strongest kind. And, moreover, by their own standards the relativists must acknowledge that the opposing claim, that certain moral truths are timeless and unchanging, must be as valid as their own.

The suggestion is sometimes made that historians have no business asking moral questions about the past. But in what school of moral philosophy is the boundary between past and present also a barrier against moral judgment? If I committed murder yesterday, I can hardly defend myself today on the grounds that the murder is exempt from moral scrutiny because it happened in the past. A spurious argument, you say? Very well, then. At what point, then, does the past become such a barrier? After a week? A year? A decade? A century? Give me a number, fellow historians. At what point in the future will historians shrug and say, “Not for us, students, to judge the Holocaust, only to understand it.” One hopes that the answer is, “never.” Alas, in many classes it is already happening.