Thursday, December 8, 2011

Musings on "The Whistle Blower"

It's always a pleasant surprise when separate spheres of one's own interests overlap. This happened for me the other night when I watched a British political thriller called The Whistle Blower which was suggested to me by that quasi entity known as Netflix based on a recent interest I've taken in a TV show called Burn Notice (A friend gave me some of the episodes to watch while in Afghanistan but under the mistaken notion that the USA network ceased long ago producing quality original programming I kept putting off trying the show out until a few weeks ago and now Burn Notice is quickly becoming one of my favorite TV shows. Bravo, USA Network).

I was about to ignore the suggestion when I noticed that the movie starred a favorite actor of mine, Sir Michael Caine. So I thought why not go ahead and give it a go. Forty-five minutes in I almost gave up on it because the pacing was excruciatingly slow (even by 80's film standards), Michael Caine was so far barely in it, and I was getting aggravated at how I perceived the plot to be unfolding, namely, toward the revelation of a secret cabal composed of elderly white men influencing and directing world affairs, a trite plot device of political thrillers used and abused many times over (A good exception was the unfortunately short lived AMC show, Rubicon, which gave that worn plot device a fresh and unique spin.). But I decided to give it a stay of execution and continued on.

I guess I should try to convey as best I can the plot. The movie (based on a book of the same name) is about Michael Caine's character, Frank Jones, a Royal Navy veteran who gets caught up in a potential government cover up relating to the possible existence of a top level Russian spy in the British government. Frank's son, a linguist who works for one of the British intelligence agencies, through a series of events including the mysterious deaths of two of his colleagues begins to suspect that the British government is sinisterly involved in some secret affair. He makes these concerns known to his father who doesn't take them seriously, believing his son's paranoia to be related to his voracious interest in spy novels and all things clandestine.

But then his son suddenly dies. The police rule it an unfortunate accident but given what his son had just expressed to him the day before about a possible government conspiracy Frank refuses to accept their conclusion. From then on the film centers on Frank's tortured quest to find out the truth about his son's death. And it was here that I became hooked, mostly because Caine's acting was, as usual, phenomenal, his anguish and determination compelling you to see how his quest ends. Eventually he does sort things out, learning that there is indeed a turncoat in the British government and that the government has been aware of this for some time. However, they have yet to act, deciding instead to take some time to assess the damage the spy has done. Furthermore, the British fear that the United States will find out about this and then refuse the British access to their CIA spy network, something the powers that be in Whitehall deem necessary for the national security of the country. And thus they have "dealt with" those who have come close to revealing the Russian spy, including Frank's son. In short, Frank's son was deemed expendable for reasons of national security.

It is with considerable angst that Frank uncovers this truth. Intriguingly, though, he seems to accept the necessity of his son's death, albeit with grave agony. Yet, what he founds unacceptable is that the government has, for the time being, decided to let the spy remain as he is. This Frank simply cannot abide and upon learning the identity of the traitor seeks him out in order to try and force a confession from him. But in addition to extracting a confession from the man, Frank wants to know why he betrayed his country. The spy explains that his actions were the result of a resentment he had been cultivating ever since WWII when the former British empire became a subordinate power to the United States and the Soviet Union, citing events such as the Suez Affair as a prime indicator of this new reality. Britain, he goes on to assert, is slowly being squeezed out by the two new superpowers. Furthermore, he views the United States as the bully who has been forcing British interests to fall in line with its own policy and so decided to cast his support to the Russians. Frank finds this explanation incredulous, prompting him to ask: "Well, why don't you just live in Russia then?" to which the turncoat has no reply. From there the movie ends the only way it can and since I don't want to divulge everything about the movie I'll cease here with the plot description.

This movie really surprised me and in a good way. It has to be one of the more realistic political thrillers that I have seen. Everything makes sense in it: from the actions of the lay characters to the motivations of the government officials. It is all quite sensible, especially the rational basis the traitor gives for why he decided to betray his own country. In short, the movie is, well, believable. A trait I think of the utmost importance for spy thrillers.

Ok, I know that's not a profound assessment of the value of this movie but it is true and rings true to me especially. This is because for the past several months I've been studying British history (specifically their side of the American Revolution) as well as Anglo-American relations since WWII. And so the actions and grievances of the major players in this movie is an interesting reflection of some of my current interests. In sum, my love of movies and my current research interests fortuitously overlapped in a most pleasant manner. And it's always a great joy to me when that happens. Thank you, Netflix, for the excellent suggestion. You chose....wisely.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Reflections on "Lost", Romans 9, and Purpose

I have been working on getting my second video review done so I don't have a new post available this week so I'm going to post something I wrote in my journal several years ago about the TV show "Lost" and Romans chapter 9. Note, it was written when "Lost" was still in its first season and fresh (I was ultimately let down by the conclusion of that otherwise entertaining show) and during a time of personal anguish which accounts for some of the emotional under current of the journal entry.

One of the few television shows that I keep up with is "Lost". So far this show has many of the elements that I enjoy in a TV series. The thrust of the show is this: Oceanic Flight 815 has crashed on an unknown and mysterious island. The survivors of the crash are ultimately trying to find a way off the island but at the same time are trying to uncover some of its mysteries. Now this premise is in no way unique but the creators of the show, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, added one interesting feature to this often used plot device which, in my opinion, gives it a fresh spin. In short, they gave the island a personality. And it's this "personality" that in some manner, I suspect, is the source for many of the oddities of the island such as polar bears, an invisible monster that devours people, the miraculous healing of a former paraplegic, just to name a few.

Now this former paraplegic is one of the central characters of the show. He is John Locke, named after the famous philosopher who developed a theory of epistemology which argued that humans were not born with innate ideas. Instead they come into the world with a tabula resa or blank slate in which knowledge and, ultimately, experiences are "chiseled" into over time. In other words, Locke squarely came down on the side of nurture in the seemingly interminable "nature vs nuture" debate. Incidentally, one of the episodes in season 1 is named "Tabula Resa".

Obviously, because of his seemingly supernatural healing, Locke is the most driven of the survivors to unlocking the secrets of the island. It is Locke who constantly refers to the island as an entity. Furthermore, it is Locke who sees purpose in everything that has been happening on the island summed up when he tells one of the other characters that "it is the Island that brought us here." Ultimately, Locke is the man of faith who sees purpose and destiny in everything that has happened to the survivors. And if Locke is the man of faith on the island then without a doubt Jack Shepherd, the surgeon, is the man of doubt. In fact, in a heated argument between the two concerning the island Jack explicitly tells Locke that he doesn't believe in purpose or fate and vehemently argues that everything that has happened can be ascribed to a series of coincidences.

Maybe it is too much of a generalization but it seems to me that these two types of characters represent the divide that most people fall into when it comes to questions of fate and randomness. Some are inclined to see purpose in everything while others are satisfied to relegate everything to the workings of chance. I guess I have grown up being one of the former. Some of which surely stems from my love of certain movies like Star Wars that heavily involve a motif of destiny in their plots. But mostly this comes from my Christian heritage. You see when you grow up in a Christian atmosphere you are constantly told that God has a purpose for your life. Indeed, the preferred text cited in support of this notion is almost always Jeremiah 29:11 which states, "For I know the plans I have for you, declares YHWH, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future."

But the older I get the less sense this viewpoint of "God having a purpose for everyone" makes. To be honest, I'm inclined towards the negative of that statement which, incidentally, seems to be supported by the texts deemed in some sense sacred and divine by Christians. One need look no further than Romans chapter 9. Now I've stated before that I don't think the Calvinist interpretation of this chapter, i.e., that it is concerned with God's right to predestine some to eternal salvation and, at least passively, the rest to eternal damnation. But one thing is clear to me now: this passage is definitely about God's sovereignty in election to promise (purpose).

The problem that Paul is exploring in this chapter is the seemingly apparent rejection of the Jews in favor of the Gentiles displayed in the fact that so few Jews are accepting the gospel message. If this is the case then it would seem, Paul implies, that God's promises have failed. But Paul of course immediately rejects this implication with a hefty, "God forbid!".

Yet through all of Rom 9-11 Paul fails to give us a clear solution to this problem. But what he does say is nevertheless important, namely, that God's choice of receives promise (purpose) has always began with his election and mercy, and therefore not based on anything in man or of man. To support this Paul cites the example of God's choice of Jacob over Esau: "Before they had been born and before they had done anything evil or good, so that God's purpose in election might stand not on man who wills but on he who shows mercy, it was told to Sarah that the 'elder shall serve the younger'". Then Paul quotes from Malachi to further strengthen his argument: "For it is written, 'Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.'" Though most scholars understand this harsh saying to be a Hebrew idiom meaning simply "Jacob I have chosen, Esau I have rejected" we should not let this detract from the harshness of the saying. The impact is the same: God's purpose for people begins solely from His own purposes. For no reason but his own, God chose Jacob over Esau to be the child of promise, through whom would emerge Israel, his chosen people. This is reinforced by the fact that by birthright Esau should have been the chosen because he was the first born but God upended this traditional mode of election by choosing the second born. In short, God gives purpose to some and not to others.

Now though I've rejected the traditional Calvinist interpretation of this chapter which Calvin himself called "The Terrible Decree" that sees this as about predestination, I wonder if my interpretation is not at least as terrible? Indeed, God choosing only some for purpose seems a hair's breadth from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.

But some might try to reply to my argument by quoting Romans 8:28 which states that "God works all things for good." But in reality, that passage has some restrictions that many miss. You have to love God and more importantly you have to be called according to His purpose. For this is what the passage actually says: "For God works all things for good to those who love him and who are called according to his purpose."

What can be inferred except that not all are called according to purpose? And again, if this is the case, is this not just as terrible an implication as Calvin's "terrible decree"? I guess then it is God who decides who will be the John Lockes and Jack Shepherds.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Very Muppets Post

Well, I'm sure that most of you are aware that I'm a Muppets' fan and so in honor of the latest Muppets' movie release I give you ten great Muppet moments. Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving.

10.) It only seems right to start with the classic opening theme to the original show:

9.) Muppets Bohemian Rhapsody:

8.) Koozebanian Mating Ritual:

7.) Veterinarian's Hospital-Bread:

6.) Treasure Island Roll Call:

5.) Muppet's Christmas Carol Scrooge Song:

4.) Muppets try out for Star Wars:

3.) Muppets Take Manhattan Wedding Song:

2.) Great Muppet Caper: Happiness Hotel Song:

1.) And of course the classic Manamana:

And since it is Thanksgiving here's a bonus video from the Swedish Chef:

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Eclipse of World War I

Several days ago the nation celebrated Veteran's Day. I had planned to write on that day but it coincided with the day of my grandmother's funeral. Now even before I became a veteran I've always been uneasy with the fact that this country celebrates its war veterans annually on Nov. 11th. Originally, this day marked Armistice Day, the day in which WWI unofficially came to an end with a cease fire between the Allied and Central Powers. My concern is that by celebrating all veterans of every US war on this single day risks obscuring the memory and significance of what once was universally called "The Great War".

To a large degree this has already happened. The relegation, indeed subordination, of WWI to other events of the 20th century, specifically of course WWII, can be readily observed by visiting your conventional US bookstore. On average there are only a handful of books on WWI compared to dozens of books on WWII and the Vietnam War (As an aside I should note that the Korean War gets the shortest shrift of all with at most two or three books on that often neglected conflict.) Moreover, there is only one memorial in D.C. dedicated to the fallen soldiers of WWI and it is in a state of disrepair.

Why the neglect? Well, there are many reasons but only a few worth mentioning here. For one, it must be recalled that though the US was an eventual participant in the "Great War" it was so only very belatedly. WWI began in August of 1914, the US did not declare war on Germany until April of 1917, and even then didn't actually start contributing troops to Europe until May of 1918. The war was then mercifully over about 6 months later. Thus compared to the horrible costs paid by Britain and France after four years of a literal hell on earth in the trenches, the material and spiritual investment of the United States to that war was nearly negligible. This lack of comparative sacrifice was then exacerbated by the combined naivete and idealism of Woodrow Wilson's preachy diplomacy during the peace process with the other three principal world leaders (Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Orlando). In short, aside from the late and brief role played by the US, WWI was essentially from beginning to end a European war. And except for the inculcation of an unfortunate isolationist mindset, the Great War left very little of an impression on the minds of the American people partially reflected in the eventual refusal of the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.

Another factor, related to the previous point above, in the eclipse of WWI has to do with the relationship often assigned to that war vis a vis WWII. Often, WWI is seen, at best, as the prequel, or, at worst, as the prologue to WWII. Indeed, most interpreters of WWII believe that in many significant ways WWI was the cause of WWII. Largely this has to do with the causal value given to the peace treaty that officially ended WWI, namely, The Treaty of Versailles. Subsequent Germans, most notoriously Adolf Hitler, often cited the "cruel and harsh" peace inflicted on them by the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles (specifically concerning the so-called "war guilt clause" which supposedly forced the Germans to accept full blame for causing the Great War) as justification for their grievances against the other powers of Europe. (Many historians have bought into this argument. I for one am skeptical of this view....a post for another time though.)

Also, WWII is a war that's a bit easier for people to understand both in terms of the causes of the war and the cast of colorful characters that were involved: Hitler, Stalin, FDR, Churchill, etc (Yes, Churchill was involved in WWI but not as centrally.). In contrast, apart from Woodrow Wilson, most people wouldn't be able to tell you whom the world leaders were during WWI. Additionally on this score, the "evil" of WWII was something much clearer from a moral perspective. Nazi Germany and Japanese aggression were lucid factors that led to WWII and therefore easier to grasp as opposed to the myriad of components (secret alliances, foolish treaty obligations, naval arms race, Prussian militarism, Austria-Hungarian designs on the Balkans, Russian concern for the Slavic races, etc) traditionally said to have created the conditions for WWI.

Lastly, though I've already hit on this point, WWII unlike WWI featured the US prominently, decisively even (though it didn't officially enter until late 1941 when the war began in September of 1939). Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Yalta, Iwo Jima, etc. were all major events which involved the United States. In most every way then WWII was demonstrably a United States war whereas WWI was essentially a peripheral conflict that the US only very lately contributed to.

And for all of these reasons WWI becomes eclipsed by WWII and later US events of the 20th century. For my part I think this is most unfortunate. WWI in my opinion still deserves, as the British and other Europeans continue to call it, to be known as the Great War. Its significance should not be understated and in a future post I will seek to lay out just how important of an event WWI really was for the 20th century and not just in the limited sense that it was the cause for what most people see as the greater of the two world wars.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

RIP Grandma

Typically, I try not to write about personal events on this blog but I want to make an exception for this post. Today, I lost my last grandparent, Grandma Elder, my maternal grandmother. It wasn't a huge surprise since she had been in the hospital for about a month fighting an infection. Still, I think we are all experiencing grief...especially those who were holding out hope that she might recover. I will miss her greatly....and not just because of the excellent home cooked meals that I would receive when visiting her or staying the night. She was a very generous person who lived a very difficult life. Nevertheless, she was always willing to help out her kids and grandkids. This included me. Before I deployed to Afghanistan I was in a bad financial position because I had left my job in Chattanooga at the time to come home to get ready for mobilization. But, as is the Army way, they kept delaying my mobilization which squeezed my finances. It was my grandmother who loaned me some money that enabled me to get through until I did finally leave the country. I will never forget that.

Another thing I will always remember about Grandma Elder is her sharp mind. Everyday that I was there she would be working on crossword puzzles and usually finished them completely. And though her memory often failed her towards the end of her life she still knew if the slightest thing in her kitchen was out of place! I have no doubt that had she been born in a later time period where women had more opportunities to advance that she would have gone on to great things. Wait...that's not fair. Raising six kids and many, many grandkids is a testament to the fact that she did do great things in her life.

Over the last several years my religious worldview has gone through some drastic changes...."refinement" is the way I like to phrase it, though that's probably a bit disingenuous. But I'm still a theist who believes in a just universe and therefore a just creator. And if I believe such then it seems to follow (though not necessarily) that there will be an "afterlife" of some kind...though I intensely dislike that word. I care not really to fruitlessly speculate on what it might be like but I do hope that it would be something akin to the classic Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) belief in the resurrection of the dead (Yes, I know those choice of words conjure images of zombies stumbling out of their graves to walk the earth. Still...) and redemption of the created order....much more appealing than the now popular (among modern day evangelical Christians at least) conception of an eternity floating about "heaven" as disembodied souls.

Nonetheless, if my vestigial Christian belief turns out to be well founded then I truly look forward to the day when I see my grandmother again at the Day of the Resurrection. I will severely miss you, Grandma. Rest in peace...for now.

"In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall all be changed." (I Cor 15:52 KJV)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

And Now for Something Completely Different...

I have been a viewer of a website called which is basically a place where many different kinds of personalities do reviews of their genre of choice. Most of them are reviews of bad films and games which is where it is easiest to extract humor. For years I've had a passion for two things: video editing (that I've been doing since VHS days) and Martial Arts films. I've combined the two in the past but I wanted to try and do something akin to those reviewers that I watch. So for the past month I've been working on my first video. I don't really know if this is the kind of forum for presenting this project and it is doubtful that I will continue to link to these reviews if I should decide to do more of them because this blog is meant to be my sort of intellectual sphere. I have a lot still to work on, principally learning to be more natural and casual with the narration and not so "professorial" or stolid. Anyways, here are the links to my first video. Hopefully, those of you who choose to watch it will be at least moderately entertained.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

My Job in Afghanistan

Except for a brief explanation in one of my earliest posts I haven't really tried to describe what my job was in Afghanistan. This is in part because of the difficulty involved in doing so. My official MOS (military occupational speciality) is 12B or combat engineer. Historically, combat engineers have been mostly involved in the use of demolitions and/or area clearance (e.g., mine detection and removal) but with the proliferation of IEDs as a favorite tactic of insurgents combat engineers have mostly been involved in "route clearance" which is not as benign as it sounds. In a nutshell, combat engineers attempt to clear routes for infantry, supply lines, special forces, et al by finding and neutralizing IEDs. That sounds a lot like what EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) does which is what people most confuse combat engineers with.

But a crucial difference between a combat engineer and EOD is that the former is actually a combat MOS whereas the latter is only combat support. This is an essential distinction because it means that EOD is not permitted to engage in active combat situations and so only to be employed in a supportive role. Usually they sit around on the base until they are called out to neutralize an IED. This renders films like The Hurt Locker wholly inaccurate which is why, even with the critical acclaim it received, I did not care for that movie because an EOD unit would not have found itself in 90 percent of the situations depicted in that movie. The other chief difference between the two is that EOD is qualified to BIP (blow in place) and/or neutralize more types of IEDs than are combat engineers which is why they are equipped with a bomb suit and robotic investigative unit.

A friend of mine the other day pointed out to me a documentary that National Geographic did on combat engineers called Bomb Hunters. I've watched some of it and it is pretty accurate in terms of what I did in Afghanistan. For those interested more specifically in the day to day operations of a Route Clearance unit I suggest watching this documentary. Here's the link to the first part (embed doesn't work):

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Revisiting the Female Orgasm

Sometime ago now I wrote a tongue in cheek post about the evolution of the clitoris relying heavily on the conclusions of the late paleo-evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould that sought to provide a structural as opposed to adaptive explanation for the evolution of the clitoris. The conclusion reached there was that the penis and clitoris are homologous and that it is only through embyronic sexual differentiation that the two become "distinct" parts of their respective genitalia. Now in that post I did not treat the various adaptive explanations that many have proposed for the clitoris such as that a clitoral orgasm might help "draw up" sperm further into the reproductive tract thus increasing the chances of propagation or that it is a part of "bond pairing", the idea being that a female is more likely to stay and therefore continue to reproduce with a male that is able to fulfill her sexually via clitoral stimulation. There are many others and I chose not to engage with these adaptive theories because, again, that post was meant primarily to be humorous and entertaining.

Why am I then revisiting that post? Well, I came across an article on CNN that deals with exactly this issue and, interestingly enough, cites a recent study from Animal Behavior which questions the validity of the byproduct theory of the evolution of the clitoris:

Yet a study of twins and siblings published recently in the journal Animal Behavior questions the byproduct theory of female orgasm. Researchers looked for similarities in orgasm function between 10,000 Finnish female and male twins. And although there were significant similarities between same-sex twins, the researchers found no such correlation in orgasm function between opposite-sex twins, a correlation one would expect if female orgasm is a byproduct of male orgasm.

I'm not going to debate the findings of this recent research because I'm simply not qualified to do so though I do think it is flawed. And though I wrote about this with considerable levity in that earlier post this is actually an important issue when it comes to female sexuality. As the CNN article states we tend to reflexively value things that we hold as being more natural. But the female clitoris has historically been viewed as less than natural because of the (seemingly) lack of a role it plays in the reproduction of the species. Because of this it was seen as unnatural and hence improper for a woman to experience an orgasm other than through sexual intercourse. Sigmund Freud for example noted that it was fine for a young girl to experience an orgasm through self stimulation of her clitoris but that when she got married she should put away such childish behavior and thereon only attempt to achieve orgasm through intercourse thereby consigning an untold number of married women to sexual oblivion because as I noted in that earlier post the majority of women cannot achieve orgasm except through direct or at least indirect stimulation of their clitoris.

I suppose this is why I am attracted to the "byproduct" theory of the evolution of the clitoris because it easily disarms those who may be tempted to argue that stimulation of the clitoris is unnatural or unwarranted. And though I joked about it in that earlier post, the subject of the evolution of the female orgasm really is no laughing matter since at stake here is the justified sexual satisfaction of millions of women.

Friday, September 30, 2011

An Unexpected Value From Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations"

I mentioned quite a while back my intentions on getting through the unabridged version of Adam Smith's famous The Wealth of Nations before the year was out. I have been steadily chipping away at the book over the last several months and have finally made it to the halfway point (603 pages!). It's truly been a love/hate affair. Because of this I've only been able to dabble in the book from time to time; sustained readings of this book are, for me at any rate, quite difficult to maintain. Now there have been many parts of the book that I've found stimulating and quite refreshing, especially Smith's chapters detailing the origins of commerce and the development of specie as the preferred instrument of commerce. But there have been others, particularly a plethora of chapters detailing certain elements of an 18th century economy that simply don't apply to the 21st century (a lengthy discussion about ship insurance comes to mind as one example).

But Smith's loquacious discussion concerning entails (kind of like inheritances but to a much more legal complex degree) was one of the harder sections to endure. However, entails were a major part of English society for several centuries and so I knew I would later be burdened by a major defeciency in my understanding if I skipped that discussion (which I certainly was tempted to do) so I bravely carried on.

And I'm definitely glad I did because the value of that section recently came to light from an unexpected source: TV, specifically, a Masterpiece Theatre TV series called Downton Abbey that I've come to enjoy very much. It was created and written by Julian Fellowes who won best original screenplay for the likewise enjoyable Gosford Park. The show is basically a replica of that movie except a couple of decades removed from that film's time period. Like Gosford Park, Downton Abbey deals with the upstairs lives of the British upper class with the downstairs lives of their various assorted servants and the occassional overlaps between the two groups, minus the mystery murder subplot. The show is very well done but I don't want to say too much about it because I want to give it a proper review at some point on this blog.

But the chief story arc in the show pivots around the problems of an entail. The great thing is that because of my perseverance in sticking with Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations I have been able to understand fully the problems surrounding the entail in the TV show. In short, that lengthy section in Smith's work on entails has enhanced my understanding of this pivotal plot point in the show which in turn has enriched my experience of Downton Abbey as a whole. This unexpected value from laboring through Smith's book has made all the hard work of reading the unabridged version thus far worth it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Conan the Disappointment

(Sorry for the white boxes; blogger is acting up and I wasn't able to fix it.)

Yesterday I finally got a chance to go see the remake of Conan the Barbarian. I had been anticipating seeing the movie for quite some time knowing full well that it would probably be a disappointment partly because probability dictates that the majority of remakes will suck and partly because I read many of the reviews before seeing the film. (Yes, I'm one of
those people who look over critic reviews of movies before going to see them.) While the movie has some highlights, notably Jason Momoa performing remarkably well as the titular character, overall it is fairly insipid and banal; related in name only to the original Conan the Cimmerian as created and developed by Robert E. Howard. (To be fair, though, the original movie was mostly related to the Howard Conan in name only as well.)

Recently, I began reading the original Conan stories which has been an absolutely delightful experience. And one thing that I've come to realize about the Conan character created by Howard is the lack of motivation that Conan has for doing the things he does. Well, that's not quite correct. He does have a reason for what he does but it's fairly base. Basically, Conan acts in the manner he does (i.e., like a barbarian) in the stories simply because he likes it, simply because he's a Cimmerian, simply because he's a barbarian. And that's what barbarians do; act like barbarians! Consider the following discussion Conan has with the Pirate Queen in the story Queen of the Black Coast. The context has to do with a discussion about the larger purpose of living and, especially, the afterlife:

I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.

Now any other time I would probably complain about the lack of depth in a character but in this case it makes sense for Conan to be the way he is. He does not need any further motivation to act in a barbarian manner. Yet, one of the things that this film gets wrong, as well as the original Schwarzenegger film, is to ascribe an unnecessary layer to the motivation of Conan’s character, namely, revenge. Why can’t it be enough to read a story in which a barbarian does barbarian things principally because he is a barbarian! I hope subsequent adaptations of the original Howard concept eventually get this but that's doubtful. Oddly enough, the film Conan the Destroyer which most lambaste as a terrible film actually comes closer to capturing the true essence of Conan the Cimmerian as created by Robert E. Howard. So, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, if you don’t have time to read the original short stories then watch Conan the Destroyer for a more accurate portrayl of the Conan character. On the other hand if you want to see a better film that involves Arnold Schwarzenegger beating up people then watch the original Conan the Barbarian and stay clear from this film which should have been titled Conan the Disappointment.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Just How Transformative was 9/11 of US Foreign Policy?

Several days ago the nation commemorated the ten year "anniversary" of the 9/11 attacks. On that day I was stuck in Orlando International Airport awaiting my flight back after having finished my third, and thankfully last, Army Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program. And as I do from time to time I purchased the New York Times Sunday weekender chiefly for the NTY Bookreview and magazine but this edition also included a lengthy special insert assessing the impact of 9/11 after ten years. Not surprisingly the bulk of this section concentrated on the Iraq war. In fact out of the twelve sections or so more than half dealt with the Iraq war and its consequences. By comparison only a few sections reflected on the conflict in Afghanistan. Again, this isn't all that baffling since when most consider the impact that 9/11 has had on the world they think specifically in terms of the misguided and bungled invasion of Iraq.

But a partial result of this narrow reflection on the consequences of 9/11 has been the development of the fashionable claim among historians of American foreign policy, IR theorists, political scientists, foreign journalists, et al that 9/11 caused a fundamental shift in how the United States now conducts its foreign policy by turning from the astute and calculating realism of the 80's and 90's to the heavy handed, highly ideological and unilateralist foreign policy of the Bush administration and its, mostly, neoconservative policy advisers. As I've briefly touched on before this kind of thinking is typical of those who study American foreign policy in one degree or another, i.e., it's illustrative of a broader attempt by that establishment to isolate specific "hinge" moments in American history that changed and/or altered the direction of then US foreign relations.( Even Henry Kissinger, a former diplomat I admire, is guilty of this in his otherwise excellent monograph Diplomacy).

I think this is a deeply flawed analysis of the history of American foreign policy. For my own part I'm inclined to allot a lot more continuity in the how the US has conducted foreign policy since its inception. Additionally, I would argue that Bush's so called "preemptive" war against Saddam Hussain makes much more sense within this paradigm of thinking or rather fits squarely with how the US has acted against "perceived" national security threats before. In this sense then I don't think that 9/11 was all that transformative in regards to American foreign policy. Thankfully, I'm not alone in this belief as I discovered when I read Melvyn Leffler's excellent essay in the most recent edition of Foreign Affairs where he asserts the same idea. Since he argues his position much better than I feel I can at the moment it's worth quoting from at length to close out this post:

"Preemptive and preventive actions were not invented by Bush; his vice president, Dick Cheney; and Rumsfeld; they have a long history in the annals of US foreign policy. A century earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt's "corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine was a policy of preventive intervention in the Americas, as were the subsequent US military occupations of countries such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Later, President Franklin Roosevelt justified his resort to anticipatory self-defense against German ships in the Atlantic prior to the United States' entry in World War II by saying, 'When you see a ratlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.' Some 20 years on, President John F. Kennedy determined that he could not allow a Soviet deployment of offensive weapons about 90 miles from US shores, and he unilaterally imposed a quarantine-essentially a blockade and an act of belligerency-around Cuba during the missle crisis...Responding to the threat of terrorism in the mid-1990's, President Bill Clinton signed a national security directive declaring that 'the United States shall pursue vigorously efforts to deter and preempt, apprehend and prosecute...individuals who perpetrate or plan to perpetrate such attacks'...The long term significance of 9/11 for US foreign policy should not be overestimated." (pp. 40, 42)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Jesus of History, Christ of Faith

(I've been away for an Army thing so I haven't had time to compose anything this week so I'm going to post something I wrote a few years ago.)

Who do men say that I am?

There are two images of the figure of Jesus which I have chosen that exhibit the distinction between traditional conceptions of Jesus as the Christ of faith and the more modern notions concerning the historical Jesus or Jesus of history.

The first is a painting done by Coppo di Marcavaldo around 1261 titled simply “Crucifix” which presents Jesus in the more traditional vein. His body is contorted in a slightly unrealistic manner in that his arms are too long and his torso is stretched too far. The face lacks any kind of definite emotion and behind his head appears the typical halo-like piece that can be seen in many of the representations of Jesus during this time period. Moreover, the crucifix is surrounded by well known images from the narratives of the four Gospels and the cross itself is “topped off” with a picture representing the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. In short this is a portrayal of Jesus that bears many of the hallmarks of traditional Christian thinking about Jesus at this time in history.

The second image is radically different and is the work of forensic scientist Richard Nieve. In 2001 the BBC ran a documentary on the historical Jesus and asked Nieve, via the appropriation of forensic tools, to form a hypothetical reconstruction of what the historical Jesus might have looked like. The result is strikingly non-fantastic. Nieve’s Jesus appears as a rather common looking Middle Eastern. His face is bearded, round-shaped, dark eyed, and olive-skinned. Also, Nieve’s reconstruction has none of the accompanying traditional material of the Maravaldo piece such as the Gospel narratives. Indeed, Nieve’s Jesus is amazingly plain. But this is precisely the point for Nieve was asked to reconstruct a portrait of the historical Jesus and not a traditional conception of the Christ of faith the assumption being that the two are in some manner distinct.

And it is precisely this (perceived) dichotomy between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith and its assumption that the two are not completely one and the same that is the point at issue with which we have been dealing with in this class. As we have learned, prior to the Enlightenment no distinction within the Church between a Jesus of history and a Christ of faith existed since the two were believed (and assumed) to be one and the same, i.e., the Jesus of history was/is the Christ of faith. But the Enlightenment and its emphasis on empirical rationalism caused a shift in thinking which emphasized to various levels of degree that the two could, indeed should, be separated. And the task that has essentially been assigned to us is to ask whether or not the separation is truly possible or, for that matter, even desirable.

Now there can be no doubt that the figure of Jesus has exerted a powerful influence in the world since Late Antiquity. And regardless of whether one is a believer or not our culture (i.e., Western culture) is permeated with this figure and the culture that was established in his name, namely, Christendom. Thus, I am appreciative of Dr. Pacini’s point that even our discourse about Jesus has become grammatically saturated by notions of the Christ of faith such that a separation of the two might not be possible.

My concern, though, is that this notion might be used as means of declaring the entire scholarly pursuit of the historical Jesus as a non-legitimate task precisely because the Christ of faith cannot be separated from the Jesus of history. My reflex as a historian and as someone who has spent the last several years engaged in such a task is to shout from the top of my lungs that the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith can be separated and that it is incumbent upon the historian and scholar to force that separation. Thus, my own bias in favor of historical research may be preventing me from seeing the impossibility of separating the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.

Nevertheless, I believe that there are a few “reasoned” observations that can be made in favor of separating these two conceptions of the figure of Jesus. First, it appears that this unique problem only has the force it potentially has in that it serves more of a difficulty for those who are committed to some sort of “confessional” stance vis a vis the figure of Jesus. Now by confessional I do not necessarily mean “denominational”, rather, my usage of “confessional” here denotes anyone who believes that the figure of Jesus is somehow determinatively significant or important for their lives. In other words, those who have some sort of investment in a particular construction of the identity of Jesus as they believe it bears on their spiritual lives will inevitably reconstruct an historical Jesus which conforms to their conception of the Christ of faith. Therefore, the “confessional” individual will find it immensely difficult, and, in agreement with Dr. Pacini, probably impossible to separate the two conceptions of Jesus.[1]

It is then the individual who does not believe that Jesus has any significance for them in a “confessional” sense as defined above that I believe stands in a better position to separate the two. However, one could riposte with the assertion that anyone who deals with the figure of Jesus, whether a believer or not, does so with some sort of self-interest or stake in their particular conception or reconstruction of Jesus so that the non-confessional pursuer of a historical Jesus stands in no better relation in regards to the problem of separating the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.[2] Furthermore, one could also retort that no individual who engages in attempting to reconstruct the Jesus of history does so from a dispassionate or disinterested perspective (otherwise why would they be attempting the task in the first place?) and thus can never achieve true objectivity with their subject matter.

I admit that these arguments have a certain powerful force to them. But they are problems that occur not just in regards to the question of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith but are problems that take place within the larger philosophical discourse/debate concerning epistemology and its relation to history. It has become fashionable these days to take up the mantle of post-modernism with its emphasis on relativism, deconstructionism, structuralism, “new historicism”, and all the other “isms”, to conclude that there really is no “truth” out there or if there is it cannot be known in and of itself and that when one engages in an attempt to write history all they truly are doing is writing “fiction”. For my own part I am a bit old-fashioned in that I still adhere to a form of 18th century positive historicism which believes there is a “truth” out there and that even though one can never completely ascertain it the historian can at the least come damn close. Therefore, granting that the believer and the non-believer both have problems when it comes to objectively studying the Jesus of history it is still my judgment that the latter has a better shot at separating the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith.

Secondly, even granting that separating the Christ of faith from the Jesus of history is an impossible task or at least extremely difficult I would still argue that attempting to do so is not only viable but a noble goal as well. In fact, the spirit of scholarship, which is ultimately concerned with the advancement of knowledge, demands it. To engage in history is to level the playing field in that whatever the subject matter is that is under scrutiny has to be treated in equal manner to every other subject matter that comes under investigation, no matter its significance or importance in the course of history.[3]

Therefore, just because the figure of Jesus cannot be easily separated from the Christ of faith (due to the massive permeation of Christendom in Western culture) does not give the Jesus of history a “get out of jail free” card. In other words, objective history (or at least the attempt at objective history) must attempt to “get at” the Jesus of history with little regard for the way he has been conceptualized by subsequent Christians. And perhaps in light of the very fact that this figure has exerted such a powerful influence over Western culture the task of separating the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith becomes all the more urgent. Indeed, history and the spirit of scholarship demand no less.

Lastly, I have been writing chiefly from the perspective of a historian and not that of a theologian and so my assessment of this question is admittedly prejudiced. My beginning point or axiom is “reason”. I am truly a (proud) child of the Enlightenment. And this gets to what I think is the heart of the matter in discussions about the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Essentially, the sticking point is epistemological. In attempting to assess the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith one has to have a beginning point: either revelation or reason. If one takes revelation as axiomatic then the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history will be impossible to separate and probably not even desired. Yet, if reason is one’s foundation then necessarily an attempt will be made to separate the two because, I would argue, reason has to assume at least the possibility that the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are distinct.

To sum up, though I believe that Dr. Pacini is correct to say that the Jesus of history can never be completely separated from the Christ of faith this should not be construed as a theological mandate that would prohibit any attempt to engage in the reconstruction of the historical Jesus. Just because the two are so intertwined within our culture (and our way of thinking and discoursing) does not take Jesus off the hook, so to speak, when it comes to critical, historical investigation. Therefore, speaking as a historian, I believe it is both possible and desirable to at the very least make an attempt to separate the two even if, in the end, one can never force a complete separation of the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.

[1] There are to my knowledge at least three possible exceptions to this observation: John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991, 1994, 2001) series who is a Catholic priest; E.P. Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism 1985), and his more popular work The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993); Dale Allison’s Jesus the Millenarian Prophet (1997). The latter two describe themselves as liberal Protestants. However, I would probably hesitate in labeling E.P. Sanders a “Christian”. For example, see his intellectual autobiography at

[2] The Jesus seminar could be adduced as a supporting example. However, most of the members of the Jesus seminar still believe themselves to be “Christian” in some sense and therefore, in my judgment, still engage in their scholarship from a particular “confessional” perspective.

[3] This of course forms part of Ernst Troeltsch’s famous tripartite method of historical reasoning.