Sunday, February 28, 2010
Newshound that I am, I have found this event inescapable. There it has been, on nearly every news home page I have bookmarked. I am not sure why it is of any conceivable interest to anyone, but, then, I consider an afternoon of golf to rank alongside an afternoon of root canal on the desirability index. My interest in the sordid details of the personal life a professional golfer diminishes proportionately.
At any rate, from what I’ve gathered the Woods business has followed the usual parabola of celebrity meltdowns: the embarrassing event exposed, followed by seclusion, rehab, religion, and then re-emergence, before televised audiences, while all the while asking for the press to “respect my privacy at this difficult time.” (And if you wish to learn more about the “privacy at this difficult time” policy, please contact my press agent, or tune in to see me on Oprah next week.)
I feel queasy even taking this amount of time to write about it. But there are some lessons to be learned here. First, some newspaper editors seem determined to incite a worldwide peasant revolt. Page One: “The World Stops for 13 Minutes.” Page Two: “Let Them Eat Cake.” Second, and perhaps more importantly, this case reinforces my belief that there’s no particular evidence to support the claim that is repeated ad infinitum in our schools: that playing sports promotes moral character.
Or do we think of character when the likes of Mike Tyson, Tonya Harding, Jose Canseco, Michael Vick, and O.J. Simpson are mentioned? Do we even need to raise the fact that it is by now established beyond all doubt that the overwhelming majority of professional athletes and, indeed, amateurs at high levels of competitive play, routinely use banned and often illegal performance-enhancing drugs? The website “Cheat or Beat” used to maintain a week-by-week “roundup” of drug-related infractions in competitive sports. One can understand why they stopped. After about a month or so, the point was made. Check out this list of a five-day period in October 2008.
I know, I know. I’m being unfair. Many people find watching and playing sports to be harmless fun, and sports can, I am willing to concede, teach young people important lessons for the larger game of life when the games are well conducted and properly supervised. (I just never experienced this myself.) And let’s not forget, too, that some athletes are authentic humanitarians who will hit home runs for orphans, and we'll overlook the fact that there are a few "bad apples" who would hit orphans for home runs.
Take, for instance, a certain recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a figure lauded in his own six-story museum in Louisville, Kentucky, as having the core values of "respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, charity, and spirituality", a man once described in a documentary series as “the foremost citizen on planet earth” and who was the subject of an adoring Hollywood bio-pic, the much-beloved “Greatest” himself, Muhammad Ali. In a 1975 interview with Playboy, the resurgent champ, fresh from his victory over George Foreman, made the following remarks, which to my knowledge he has never retracted:
Ali: “A black man should be killed if he’s messing with a white woman.”
Playboy Interviewer: “And if a Muslim woman wants to go out with a non-Muslim blacks, or white men, for that matter?”
Ali: “Then she dies. Kill her, too.”
The fact that an athlete can make racist, misogynistic, and homicidal remarks in a single sentence and still come off as a “hero” is indicative, perhaps, of how low we set the threshold of acceptable behavior for our athletes, and serves as yet another reminder that Orwell was right when he said that we should judge saints guilty until they are proven innocent.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
The column is available on the London Free Press website and also appears below.
This weekend marks the 65th anniversary of the Allied firebombing of Dresden, a horrific raid that killed 30,000 civilians and left much of the city a smoldering ruin. With the exception of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski, no action by the Allies in the Second World War has generated so much moral condemnation. Ever since, critics have charged that the city was defenseless and of no military value. Neither of these claims is entirely true, but even Winston Churchill conceded that the attack represented a serious “query” against the moral conduct of Allies.
Area bombing — the indiscriminate targeting of enemy cities rather than specific war-related industries and military targets — was a tactic adopted by the RAF’s Bomber Command in 1941. It was a sensible decision at the time. The British were without major allies and confronted by a totalitarian enemy that had conquered all of western Europe. Without the technological means to target war industries precisely, Bomber Command aimed at what it couldn’t miss: whole towns and cities. By late 1944, however, area bombing had taken on an enormous inertia of its own, and Bomber Command continued to reduce towns and cities to rubble and ash long after there was any prospect of German victory.
Major anniversaries of this kind always stir up a brouhaha, but the controversy over the strategic bombing offensive has been simmering away for decades now. Historians and military men of unimpeachable patriotic credentials have been raising serious questions about the campaign’s efficacy and morality ever since the first bomb fell. Today, most scholars agree that the Anglo-American bomber offensive cracked German morale, destroyed the Luftwaffe, and dealt heavy blows to Hitler’s war industry.
But were the attacks moral? This is a different question entirely. Historians tread lightly here, for we are wary travelers in the realm of moral philosophy. Some people would argue that historians have no business making moral judgments at all, but clearly this will not do. Surely no one would deny us the right to condemn Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao. Nor should we submit to the temptation of moral relativism, for we cannot judge monsters by their own monstrous standards. By what standard can we judge, then? Certainly not our own. What about judging by the moral standards of the time? Again, we must be cautious. There was no consensus about the morality of killing enemy civilians at the time, as evidenced by the fact that Allied propaganda consistently downplayed or even covered up the fact that British, Canadian, and American bombers were killing women and children. These are difficult matters. But where the moral debate over the bombing of Dresden goes awry, in my opinion, is in focusing too much on the actions of the Allies, and not enough on the war guilt of the enemy.
In about sixty days in the late spring and early summer of 1943, the Second World War turned decisively against the Germans. In May 1943, they effectively conceded defeat in the Battle of Atlantic by withdrawing their U-Boats from convoy routes. Then, in July, a succession of haymakers sent the Axis reeling: the German offensive against the Soviets at Kursk was repulsed with catastrophic losses; the Allies invaded Sicily and Mussolini’s government fell; and a dreadful firestorm immolated Hamburg and perhaps 40,000 of its people following a heavy raid by Bomber Command. After that summer of 1943, and certainly no later the D-Day, a year later, it was no longer possible for any rational person to doubt what the eventual outcome of the war would be. The Nazis’ continued resistance was explicable only in light of their pathological addiction to redrawing the racial map of Europe through murder. Fighting on served no purpose except to continue the bloodletting for its own sake. Too often, we forget this, and instead chastise the Allies for their heavy handed prosecution of a war that the Nazis started in the first place and then refused to end. After the Holocaust itself, this is the worst of the atrocities that the Nazis committed: their refusal to surrender unconditionally, even long after it was clear that unconditional surrender would be eventual outcome anyway. How many millions died, in the final months of the war, to satiate the Nazis’ insatiable bloodlust?
We cannot know, for certain. But we can certainly add the dead at Dresden to their numbers. The thousands who died by fire and asphyxiation at Dresden were victims not just of the remorseless logic of Allied area bombing, but also the death fetishism of a government which many of them had once cheered onwards to victory.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
It might have been different. Longtime friends can confirm the following facts. Aged 16, in the 11th grade, I wrote a full-blown novel: 120 single-spaced pages. A sequel followed that summer (90 single-spaced pages). I have retained a hard copy of them but have not looked at them in years. The first novel concerned a high school girl who discovers that she’s a wizard. Or whatever a female wizard is called. The geekiest guy in school turns out to be a great warrior (ahem) and the two of them set off to foil the plans of an evil Dark Lord who killed the girl’s ancestors and who has now returned for her. I kid you not. And there was a giant named Hagrid. Okay, now I’m kidding you. Anyway, the sequel involves the girl falling in love with a boy at school who turns out to be a vampire. I also kid you not. His name was Edward. I am still not kidding you. The main difference is that my Edward was evil, whereas Meyer’s is merely boring. In fact, you could have a more interesting time having a conversation with his plastic doppelganger, pictured above.
Yes, I actually read Twilight. I did. There it was, staring at me in the used bookstore and I decided that it was time. Bearing in mind, once again, that I would never begrudge Stephanie Meyer for her success, allow me to say the following: Twilight is a piece of crap. It is not so much a work of literature as it is a work of typing. The plot is unoriginal; the writing is banal; the dialogue never rises above cliche; the characters, even the vampires, are entirely uninteresting; and nothing happens. The book goes on and on and nothing happens. Chapter One: nothing. Chapter Two: nothing. Chapter Three: nothing. (I think you see where I'm going with this.) Even the climactic fight scene doesn’t happen, because the central character mercifully loses consciousness (I was tempted to myself, at that point), thus sparing everyone the agony of reading Meyer, who has probably never even hit a golf ball, trying to write action. And the most preposterous thing about the book is not that there are teenage vampires, but that these teenage vampires spend decade after decade in high school without ever once deciding that, that’s it, I can’t take this crap anymore, I’m sucking this place dry.
Why is it popular with certain audiences? Why have millions and millions of young people fallen in love with it? I’ve heard all kinds of psychological gobbledygook about this (e.g. “At this point in their lives blah blah blah when they are exploring their blah blah blah teenage girls especially need blah blah blah and to vicariously resolve the tension that blah blah blah” - thanks, doc, where did you mail order your PhD from?) but the bottom line is this: if you’ve only ever eaten at McDonald’s, you’ll hate the first real food you eat. In short, teens eat it up because they don’t know any better.
And this, in turn, leads me to the point that I want to make. Schooling is only part of a young person’s education, and is not, in the overall scheme of things, the most significant one. University professors argue about students today – whether the student body as a whole is getting better or getting worse and others arguing you can't compare apples to oranges. Whatever the case may be, it is demonstrably true that many university students in arts and social science programs today read less than they did in past generations. Nothing is more detrimental to their education than this, and, in all likelihood, it’s too late to do much about it once they’ve reached second or third year university. We create lifelong readers — and hence lifelong learners — from a young age or probably not at all.
I count myself as fortunate (and I know that at least one of my readers was similarly blessed), to have had parents who took the time to read to me, and later to encourage me to read by furnishing me with books by the likes of Roald Dahl and C.S. Forrester and Jules Verne. Some people say that Stephanie Meyer and her ilk are “at least getting kids to read” as if Twlight were some sort of gateway drug. Today, teenage vampires; tomorrow, Anna Karenina. Maybe. Or it might be that the opposite is true: that people raised on salt and grease and Coca Cola will just seek out more of the same and get fatter and lazier as life goes on.
Any professor will confirm that the most common criticism we receive from students is this one: “It’s boring.” The readings, the lectures, the discussions, the professor him or herself. Boring. No wonder. If Stephanie Meyer is the extent of your literary horizon; if your idea of a great film is anything starring Adam Sandler; if your musical tastes extend no further than Susan Boyle; if your most significant artistic experience to date was winning Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, it will be difficult to understand that many of the cultural experiences worth having in life are not always or immediately gratifying. On the contrary: they are supposed to difficult, they are supposed to demand something of us, and they are supposed to change us by destabilizing our worldview.
Oh, we all need diverting entertainment, of course. It helps, though, if the entertainment is actually diverting, as opposed to time-wasting. And my comparison between Twilight and McDonald’s was not entirely fair. McDonald’s serves reliable french-fries. Twilight has nothing to recommend it except to serve as a rare example of a case where the movie, dreadful though it was, was actually far better than the book.