Bobby Sands: 66 Days

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Bobby Sands: 66 Days

***1/2

 

Northern Ireland could have been a lovely place to live in the 1960s and 70s. It enjoyed relative peace and prosperity. It didn’t have any problems that cooperation and togetherness couldn’t solve.

But no such luck. Of all the many virtues of the Irish people, togetherness has never been one of them. This was the time of the Troubles.

The Troubles began when gangs of young Protestant men began fighting similar gangs of Catholic men. Officially, the local police and the federal government in London was neutral in the conflict. As time passed, however, it became increasingly clear to the Catholics that the Establishment was against them. In the face of oppression, the IRA became more militant.

Though the Catholic Irish Republicans were right to think of the British as colonial oppressors, it was the British who were winning the propaganda war. Most people – even most Irish – viewed the IRA as a terrorist organization. Most people didn’t see them as revolutionary heroes; they saw the Republicans as cowards who sent letter bombs and blew up cars by remote.

If the Republicans were to accomplish anything positive, they needed to flip the script. That’s where Bobby Sands came in.

 

In 1972, Bobby Sands was a teen IRA soldier serving his first prison term. While his fellow revolutionaries were reading about Mao Zedong and Che Guevara, Sands was studying Terence MacSwiney.

Terence MacSwiney was the Lord Mayor of Cork during the Irish Revolution. He had a powerful new theory about warfare. He argued that the winner is not the side that inflicts the most violence, but the side that is willing to endure the most suffering.

MacSwiney practiced what he preached. He starved himself to death in a British prison in 1920. A year later, Ireland won its independence.

During his early years behind bars, Bobby Sands was treated well. Irish revolutionaries were treated like respectable political prisoners. Suddenly, the British government decided to strip the IRA prisoners of their political status and treat them like common criminals.

Now 27 year old Bobby Sands had a cause to fight for. And he had a tactic with which to fight. On March 1, 1981, Bobby Sands began a hunger strike, demanding that the UK recognize that his men are political prisoners. Several other young men joined the Fast.

“Bobby Sands: 66 Days” does a magnificent job of teaching us about Irish history while also helping the viewer understand Bobby Sands, the brave young man who altered the fate of Northern Ireland with his martyrdom.

Republican propagandists ran Bobby Sands for Parliament to spread the word of his hunger strike. When a dying Sands won, he became a household name from Montpelier to Melbourne.

Sands’s demands were modest, but London never gave in. Unfortunately for the Fasters, Britain’s Prime Minister wasn’t known as the Empathetic Pushover Lady; she was the Iron Lady. Bobby Sands died; as did nine of his fellow Fasters.

Finally, the IRA called off the Hunger Strike.

But in death and defeat, the Republicans had learned a surprising lesson. If they could get an emaciated felon elected to Parliament, it was clear that serious political power was within their grasp. Sinn Fein began its evolution from Extreme Left mischief-makers to serious British politicians.

Replacing bombs with bon mots and Molotov Cocktails with cocktail parties led organically to The Good Friday Agreement, which finally granted Northern Ireland dignity, equality, and self-rule.

 

“Bobby Sands: 66 Days” has a happy ending, as the violence finally ended. But I don’t understand why all that that killing and bombing and maiming was necessary to begin with.

Looking back, the differences between the Catholics and Protestants were not so great as to explain or justify murderous hatred and revolutionary war.

Thank goodness we live in a country where we don’t let relatively minor difference lead us to divide ourselves and hate each other. Right?

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Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

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Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

***1/2

 

The official textbook version of the Civil Rights Movement goes something like this: Dr. King led a movement of non-violence in the South. This inspired enlightened white politicians to force naughty racists to enforce integration. And we all lived happily ever after.

I have three big problems with this official narrative.

First, it has an unearned spirit of triumphalism. It doesn’t leave room for the question of whether black Americans are truly better off now than in 1965. Today, 1 black man in 3 will serve time in prison during his lifetime. And most black children have never lived with both of their parents.

Second, the official narrative doesn’t leave any room to question whether integration was truly good for the black community. While it is clearly true that black schools in the early 20th Century were not given fair funding, they produced great doctors, towering intellectuals, and future leaders.

In many schools today, black students aren’t treated like young community leaders, chemical engineers, and CEOs. They are treated like potential threats who have to walk through metal detectors

Third, and worst of all, the official narrative gives much of the credit to white people and the government. This attitude is patronizing, paternalistic and preposterous. White America couldn’t empower black people even if it wanted to. And it has never wanted to. Only the black community has ever had the power to do that.

The Black Panthers almost succeeded.

 

About fifty years ago, a group of guys in Oakland decided that they had enough of police harassment in their neighborhood. They grabbed some guns and hit the streets. They followed police around and simply stood near them – guns drawn.

The first Black Panthers were right. By standing ominously near traffic stops, cops were far less likely to get physical. And they were right that as long as their weapons were not concealed, they were not breaking any laws.

Naturally, the laws had to be changed.

There is an amazing scene in 1967 where a bipartisan team of legislators and Gov. Reagan publicly and proudly passed a gun control bill aimed at the Panthers. Meanwhile, the Panthers themselves were there at the Capitol to stand up for the Second Amendment.

The sight of young black men proudly packing in broad daylight was striking enough to make the nightly news. Overnight, the Black Panthers were a national sensation.

While the guns grabbed headlines, the Black Panthers did a lot more charity work than killing. The organization founded neighborhood-based health clinics and soup kitchens that gave out free breakfasts to schoolkids. The Panthers were bringing black communities together just as the Welfare State and Prison Industrial Complex were beginning to tear them apart.

Apparently, the sight of empowered black men and nourished black schoolchildren infuriated J. Edgar Hoover. He concluded that the Black Panthers were the greatest threat to American order and he conceived of a plan to destroy them.

The FBI coerced vulnerable federal prisoners into joining the Panthers and spying for the government. Government agents raided Panther headquarters in city after city, arresting the rank and file while assassinating leaders.

Hoover and his G-Men stamped out a thriving organization in just a few years. Today, the Black Panthers are known for their signature style but not for their black power philosophy or their tangible accomplishments.

 

History is written by the winners. And, accordingly, history is sometimes little more than triumphalist propaganda.

The official history of the Civil Rights Movement urges us to rejoice because White America and the government did the right thing. I’m not buying it. Believing that white people and the government teamed up to liberate Black America is like believing that the fox and the farmer teamed up to free the chickens from the Hen House.

 

I don’t know what it will take to bring equality to the races. But I’m sure it will look less like the Civil Rights Movement and more like the Black Panthers.

What the Health 

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What the Health

***1/2

 

Everybody has an opinion about which foods are good for you and which are bad. Most people will claim that their diet is healthy and they’ll urge you to try eating like them.

I listen to what people say. But I don’t believe them. When it comes to food, people are passionate and biased. And no one really knows for sure what the perfect diet consists of. If a really old skinny person is telling me what she eats, I’ll listen up. But, in the end, we’re all just eating what we want and hoping for the best.

 

Kip Anderson, the star of “What the Health,” isn’t just hoping for the best. He believes that he has found the perfect diet: veganism.

“What the Health” is an entertaining, relentless documentary. With a passionate fury, Kip Anderson tries to convince the world that a plant-based diet is a cure-all and that all animal-based food is poison.

 

Anderson comes right out with guns blazing: he states that virtually all illness is due to meat consumption. If you have cancer, it was due to meat. If you have diabetes, it was due to meat (not sugar. Meat). Bad bones? Meat. Bad joints? Meat. Asthma? Meat. Lack of energy? Meat.

Meat is bad due to the fat and cholesterol, due to the hormones and antibiotics, and due to the fact that piling up protein in our body does more harm than good.

How about milk, cheese, eggs, and fish? According to “What the Health,” they are just as bad. Dairy is fuel for baby cows but poison to us. Eggs are cholesterol-filled death bombs that are unsafe even in small quantities. Fish is loaded with industrial toxins and frightening levels of mercury.

 

“What the Health” does a laughably bad job of convincing us that every animal product is terrible for you. It does a disturbingly good job of convincing us that mass-produced meat is disgusting.

Factory farm animals live their miserable lives in dark, over-crowded pens. Disease is rampant. Anderson states that pigs and cows suffer from infections, inflamed abscesses, and pus-filled sores. Then he shows us the video proof that these diseased animal corpses fire right through the assembly line and into our food. It is nauseating.

 

Anderson concludes that a serious environmentalist cannot eat meat. At the very least, it is a natural fact that raising animals is an inefficient use of arable land and water resources.

“What the Health” also exposes the fact that factory farms systematically destroy rural communities wherever they can get away with it. Kip Anderson takes us to a mostly black county of North Carolina, where the unending mountains of pig poo have poisoned the air, the soil, and the waterways.

 

Okay. I’m convinced. Meat is the worst. Going vegan is the right thing to do.

“What the Health” goes from powerful to absurd in the final act. Kip Anderson goes from muckraker to evangelist and makes a series of impossible claims about the health benefits of veganism.

He says that going vegan will turn you into a superhuman athlete. He says that vegan blood kills cancers cell just by touching them. He claims to have proof that a vegan, high-sugar diet cures diabetes.

Anderson meets a 61-year-old lady who limps around her house with a walker because her bones and joints are so brittle. Then, after just a few weeks of eating vegan, she tosses aside her walker and strolls happily around her neighborhood.

This isn’t science, obviously; it is faith-healing fanaticism. It’s like they are filming the movie version of the 9th Chapter of Matthew, with a stalk of broccoli playing the role of Jesus.

 

“What the Health”’s heart is in the right place. Even though its scientific compass is all over the place. I don’t believe half of it, but I’m still glad that I watched it.

silence

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Silence

***1/2

 

The history of religion during the past 1000 years is the story of Islam and Christianity.

Muslim and Christian missionaries have tirelessly spread their faiths to all corners of the earth. Indonesia is 87% Muslim. There are more ethnic Indians who are Muslim than there are total people in North America. 30% of South Koreans are Christians. There are even 50 million Christians in Red China.

There is exactly one civilized country on the planet that has not been touched by the cross or the crescent: Japan.

From business suits to central banking to baseball, Japan has often been eager to adopt Western customs. But when it comes to Western Gods, Japan has always said “no” harder than a three year old listening to Amy Winehouse.

The question is why.

My theory is that the Japanese commitment to Family Unity is not consistent with religious conversion.

In America, if your brother has a religious conversion and is happy with his new faith, you are probably going to be happy for him. In Japan, if your brother has a personal religious conversion unrelated to the family, he is a traitor who has betrayed his father and his ancestors.

In Japan, the social necessity to get along with your group is more important than religion, faith, and truth.

Anyway, that’s just my theory as to why Japan never became Christian. Martin Scorsese has a different theory.

“Silence” tells the story of two Jesuit Priests – Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) – who make a perilous journey to 17th Century Japan. They know full well that Christianity is punishable by death in Japan. But there is a rumor that their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced the faith, and the young priests are driven by the need to save him.

In Japan, the Priests meet two types of people: Desperate Christian peasants who are brave but ignorant. And the Japanese authorities, who are smart, civilized, philosophical, and focused on their task of ridding their homeland of outside influences.

“Silence” is a long, harrowing movie. It’s a personal story of faith that is clearly meaningful to writer/director Scorsese. As a young man, Martin Scorsese almost became a Priest. And you can feel his love of Christ mixed with anguish and doubt as expressed through poor Rodrigues.

But though Scorsese’s heart is with the Christians, his mind is with the Japanese. When the Inquisitor engages Rodrigues, he tries to gently help the Priest understand how unwise it would be for him to let Westerners have too much influence over his subjects. Rodrigues sounds like a selfish simpleton, speaking only in theological dogmas and ignoring the Inquisitor’s concerns.

Perhaps my theory that Christianity is inconsistent with Japanese culture is nonsense. “Silence” makes a stronger argument about why Western religion never took hold in Japan.

In the end: the Japanese aren’t Christian because their leaders didn’t want them to be. And they had the organization and strength of will to stomp out Western influences in a way that no one else could.

The Wizard of Lies

 

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The Wizard of Lies

***1/2

 

I have discovered the most suspicious sentence in the English language:

“I am a Money Manager; give me your money.”

Money Managers are charlatans.

“I am an expert at investing,” he says. Of course he isn’t, though.

You already know for certain that the Money Manager isn’t actually great at investing. If he was, he would be wealthy already and wouldn’t need to be wasting his time conning you.

“The stock market is complicated,” he says. “You can’t do it yourself!” Of course you can, though.

I have a brief project for you: Go to www.cnbc.com and search for three companies. Any three…I’ll give you a few minutes…

Welcome back. Did you notice how those random companies have gone up during the past year? And during the past 5 years. And 10 years.

Stocks go up. People in the market make money. It’s pretty sweet. You don’t need a snake oil salesman in a suit to make your money grow. You can do it yourself.

 

In the end, a person who is thinking of giving her life savings to a Money Manager needs to ask herself one question: who does she trust more: herself? Or the Money Manager?

“The Wizard of Lies” answers that question emphatically.

 

The HBO film chronicles one gut-wrenching year in the life America’s most famous Money Manager: Bernie Madoff.

Thousands of people trusted Madoff (Robert DeNiro) with their life savings. These people thought they were wealthy and smart. It turns out they were only wealthy. Soon they were neither.

Bernie Madoff conned chumps into giving him $65 billion. They thought that Madoff was a master investor who had figured out how make double digit gains even during Bear Markets.

Madoff was a master of the Ponzi scheme. He made rich dupes eager to fork over their fortune. And instead of investing the money, he just kept it. He sent his clients statements showing how much profit Madoff had made them. But the financial statements were lies. They really had nothing.

Director Barry Levinson argues that Bernie Madoff had nothing, too. Sure, he had piles of other people’s money. But the cost of his wealth was a gigantic secret that he had to keep from his family.

Lying was Bernie Madoff’s greatest skill. By systemically lying to his wife and children to keep them from being accessories to his crimes, lying became Madoff’s greatest virtue. Ultimately, he succeeded.

It can be argued that Bernie Madoff was a good father. He provided for his family. His sons weren’t arrested after the Ponzi scheme was uncovered, even though they had been working in Madoff’s firm for decades.

Bernie Madoff saved his sons from prison. He couldn’t protect them from the Media, however. The horror of “The Wizard of Lies” isn’t the many super wealthy people who messed up and became less wealthy; it is the one American family that got torn apart by scandal.

De Niro’s Bernie Madoff says that it is no coincidence that he was arrested just as the 2008 financial meltdown hit. He claims that he is just a scapegoat for a broken system.

And he has a point. In the end, what did Madoff really accomplish? He took wealth from millionaires and billionaires and redistributed it – not unlike that other old guy named Bernie wants to do.

Meanwhile, what were Madoff’s clients expecting? They were looking for him to pick stocks in a rigged market where the investor always wins and the American worker always loses.

“The Wizard of Lies” dares to ask the question. Was Bernie Madoff a thieving sociopath? Or was he a Money Manager?

New York Doll

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 New York Doll

                                               ***1/2

     When I was a young man, I decided that my life would be easier if I didn’t have children. So I never did.

     Now, twenty years later, I have learned the truth: my decision to abstain from reproduction was even more wise than I had even imagined.

     People without children have more freedom, more money, more options, more time, and more sleep.

     People without children have less stress and less worry.

     Seemingly, the only advantage that people with kids have is that their lives have built-in meaning. Childless adults have far less responsibility, but we have one big challenge: find meaning to our lives.

     “New York Doll” is an open-minded documentary about one man’s search for meaning during his last days.

     The story begins back in 1973. In the early 70s, American rock and roll was at its lowest point. Boring Prog rock and heavy metal ruled the airwaves.

     Into this artistic void stormed The New York Dolls. Musically, they were an amalgamation of the Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones that had just passed and the punk rock that was to come. But it was their public persona that made them infamous and influential.

     The New York Dolls dressed in women’s clothing.

     They dressed in women’s clothing, but they weren’t drag queens. And they weren’t cross-dressers in any conventional sense. They dressed like drugged-up, poorly made-up prostitutes.

Their look was too weird for the American top-40. But they inspired a generation of punks, hair metal bands, and brave weirdos. Mick Jones of the Clash sings their praises. Morrissey was the President of the New York Dolls UK fan club.

       You’d think that being part of a legendary rock band would be enough to give a man meaning to his life. Well: yes and no.

     Arthur “Killer” Kane was the bassist for the New York Dolls and the subject of this documentary.

     The memory of the New York Dolls is always fighting a war inside Arthur Kane’s head, with pride in constant battle with regret. As Kane succumbed to obscurity and poverty, he saw his old friend David Johansen (the Dolls’ lead singer) become rich and famous.

                      While watching “Scrooged” (in which Johansen plays the Ghost of Christmas Past), the former rocker hit rock bottom. He drank so much that his wife left him for good and he jumped out his third story window.

                  During his long hospital stay, Killer Kane turned to Mormonism. Yes, Mormonism. “New York Doll” wasn’t produced by VH-1. It was directed by Kane’s Mormon friend Greg Whiteley.

                  The Mormon Church saved Kane’s life and gave him a much-needed job away from the music industry. It is funny to see how well the former hedonist Kane got along with the innocent old ladies at the Family Research Library where he worked.

                  It would have been easy for Greg Whiteley to say that the Mormon Church saved Arthur Kane and leave it at that. But, to the filmmaker’s credit, “New York Doll” shows that the Church gave Kane stability – but not meaning.

                  Jesus is going to save his soul, Whiteley concludes. But for peace in this life, Kane needed rock and roll redemption. “New York Doll” goes from mundane to magical when Kane gets a call from Morrissey.

                 55 year old Killer Kane was invited to reunite with The Dolls for Morrissey’s Meltdown Festival in London. The final act of “New York Doll” is bittersweet and life-affirming.

                 “New York Doll” shows that it is possible for a childless man to find meaning in this crazy world. But it definitely isn’t easy. I’m not sure I’ve found meaning just yet. But getting to write for this wonderful newspaper is good start. Plus I’ve never changed a baby’s diaper. Not once.

The Most Hated Woman in America

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Netflix Original Movie

The Most Hated Woman in America

***1/2

 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

-The Bill of Rights

 

That phrase. That phrase you keep using. I don’t think that phrase means what you think it means.

Somewhere in our history, the meaning of the First Amendment got flipped around.

The Founding Fathers were looking to differentiate their new country from Great Britain. In the United States, there would be no state religion. Back in Britain, the state religion was the Church of England the King was its leader. The founders wanted to make it clear that there would be no Church of America with the President as the national holy man.

That was a darn good idea. Can you imagine if the religious leader of our country was the President? Head of Church Calvin Coolidge? Okay, I’ll buy that. Head of Church Bill Clinton? Uh oh.

The Founders were trying to keep the State’s grubby paws out of religion. They were not trying to completely remove God from public life.

Oaths in courtrooms have invoked God from the beginning. Several Chaplains were on the very first Federal payroll. George Washington mentioned God in his Inaugural Address. So has every President since.

Thomas Jefferson was the most religiously progressive of our Founding Fathers. But even Jefferson, a Deist, cited God four times in the Declaration of Independence. The notion that the Founders wanted to protect Americans from ever hearing a prayer in public is comically absurd.

Where the heck did people get the idea that church and state must be completely separate?

Apparently, it was Baltimore, 1963. And Madalyn Murray O’Hair was to thank. Or blame.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair is a great hero and a great villain of atheist history.

On one hand, she bravely went on talk shows and wrote articles in the 60s that educated people about what atheism is and demonstrated that atheists are regular Americans as opposed to Communist infiltrators.

On the other hand, O’Hair made atheists look like jerks with her obnoxious crusades to try to remove “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” from the currency.

In my ideal world, atheists would be seen as normal folks who just happen to know that there is nothing supernatural in the universe. Due to O’Hair, atheists have an unfortunate reputation as malcontents who want to be a thorn in the side of Christians.

O’Hair founded an activist organization called American Atheists in 1963. The Netflix original film “The Most Hated Woman in America” shows how O’Hair (played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo) quietly transformed American Atheists into her own personal cash machine, taking the donated estates of like-minded atheists and squirreling away the money in overseas accounts.

In the 60s, O’Hair ticked off a whole lot of Christians. But her real mistake was that she trusted one shady co-worker with her financial secrets. The film’s drama comes from the 1995 incident where a former office manager of American Atheists kidnapped O’Hair and held the feisty old lady hostage until she paid him $1 million.

“The Most Hated Woman in America” is educational, gripping, and sad.

In the end, Madalyn Murray O’Hair learned the truth the hard way. The truth is that people who believe in God are mistaken – nothing more, nothing less. Christians aren’t robbing anyone of their civil rights. And they aren’t defying the Constitution when they worship in public.

It is telling that Ms. O’Hair was done in not by the worship of God, but by the worship of money.

Fences

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Fences

***1/2

 

It seems like the polite thing to say to a young man is: “you’d make a great father.”

I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me.

And they are right. I can definitely see myself being a horrible father. Some men just aren’t built to be great parents.

I could see myself resenting my child because I am wasting my money and the last decent years of my life on him without getting enough gratitude in return.

I could see myself resenting my child because my years of opportunity have come and gone while his have just begun.

Worst of all, I could see myself not liking my child. I don’t like everyone I’m related to. What happens if I stop liking my kid? Do I ruin his life and my own?

I would never walk out on my child. No chance. I am above that. But I am not above being miserable and angry. And I am not above drinking myself to death.

Am I a bad person? Yeah, maybe. Am I alone? Heck no. “Fences” is a raw, honest drama that explores what happens when a guy like me has some children. Spoiler alert: it’s bad for everybody involved.

Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson: former Negro League baseball slugger and current jerk.

On paper, Troy has a sweet life. He has a solid career, a loyal wife, and two healthy sons who yearn for his approval. But Troy can’t stop obsessing over what he used to be, what he should have been, and what he wants but can’t have.

Denzel Washington has a special talent for playing foolish, self-destructive alpha-males. Troy is one of Denzel’s most memorable characters. Troy passionately rages against time, fate, reality, and sobriety even though we all know he is destined to lose.

The tragedy of Troy is that all he ever needed to do was learn to be content with his humble life.

The film contrasts Troy with his brother Gabriel. On paper, Gabriel has a terrible life. He was severely wounded in WWII and has a metal plate in his head. Gabriel will never be able to land a job or a wife, and he has the mental capacity of a seven year old.

But Gabriel is happy. He is obsessed with the afterlife and he believes that he will play a part in convincing St. Peter to open the gates of heaven to himself and the people he loves.

If only Troy had been able to learn something from his little brother. Or if only Troy had had the good sense to understand how selfish he is and just never have any children.

Don’t worry, World readers: I do understand how selfish I am. I don’t have any kids.