Thursday, May 13, 2004

Coming Out Conservative: A Confession

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to learn that my most recent post to generate interest, let alone traffic, was a brief account of how and why I became a conservative. The post was difficult to write, because I don't usually talk about myself, and the mostly kind reactions have convinced me that I should try this sort of thing more often.

One loyal reader even offered to buy me lunch, should I find myself in the Raleigh-Durham area. There are no free lunches, only lunches that other people pay for -- but as long as they pay voluntarily, I have no real problem with it. Chalk this up as yet another example of how downright neighborly my fellow conservatives can be.

It doesn't hurt that when I wrote about being Gay and conservative, I spoke from what I've come to call my "place of power." I don't quite know how to describe that place, other than to say it's located just above my stomach, and all roads meet there: experience, intellect, emotion, reason. When I find that particular spot (and it isn't often, gentle reader) I can almost feel electric waves shooting from the top of my head, out the tips of my fingers, over the roof of my mouth. It's an uncanny feeling, as near to transcendence as I've ever been. Most of my writing can and probably should be construed as a search for that single point of connection. Maybe at bottom, that's what personal writing is, period.

Like most leftists-turned-conservatives, September 11th was something of a turning point for me, though the turn was far from immediate. At the time, I taught writing at University of Virginia, as a grad student in the English Department. In the aftermath most of my literary-minded colleagues devoted their classes to long lectures in which they informed their students why America shouldn't seek bloody-minded revenge, and why humanistic values demanded we mourn the dead while doing nothing to prevent future atrocities. Some of them went several steps further, though not necessarily at the podium. Complacent Americans, they claimed, must be held responsible for the misery and inequality of the Third World, especially now that it had turned and bit us in the ass. The collapse of the Twin Towers would prove a great leap forward for humanity: Now, truly, Americans and the rest of the world were all in the same boat. (In this at least they were correct, though not quite in the way they anticipated.)

I had a class to teach the day after the attacks, and that day I let my students do most of the talking, at least during the first half of class. For the second half, I resumed my original lesson plan to remind them (and myself) that even in the midst of horror and atrocity Life Must Go On. (If it worked for Londoners during the Blitz, I reasoned, it would surely work for us.) My students were reading the papers and watching CNN -- we all were -- and they had absorbed at least as much as I had. So that awful, sunny Wednesday afternoon, instead of my students' taking notes on what I said, I took notes on what they said. My only stipulation was that we all talk rationally and reasonably, giving evidence for any claims we made, examining everything we read, saw and heard, and admitting freely what we didn't yet know.

One of my students in this class hailed from Pakistan, and 9/11 had put him in an awkward position with his colleagues and our government. (I do not know if he was allowed to remain a student here, though I hope so.) He told the class that he had encountered some prejudice shortly after the attacks: A few UVA students had shouted "Arab, go home!" at him on two or three occasions, and the insults stung his pride a bit. One of my students replied, "But that's not rational." I didn't chime in to agree with her, because the entire class joined in agreement. I don't think this was just a "politically correct" reaction, either: These students had become neighbors in the classroom, and they were pitching in to comfort one of their own. Their condemnation of ethnic prejudice was the only conclusion arrived at during the discussion.

"You could have dismissed the class, right on that remark," a colleague told me. "You did well."

"I did nothing," I replied, still a bit stunned. "My students managed that one on their own."

I had been trained to believe that most Americans were bigoted and jingoistic by nature, and the only way to snap them out of it was by educating them to an enlightened, ultra-left point of view. Yet here were these first-year American kids, fresh out of high school, some of whom (gasp! shock!) still loved their country and believed that when the chips were down we generally tried to do the right thing. A few kids were avowedly conservative, even religious -- and as any good left-liberal knows, the American Right is a soul-killing cocktail of ignorance, prejudice, and Christian fundamentalism. If anyone would show intolerance and hatred, these little patriots would, and they had just "showed me up."

The following semester I had another class of writing students -- most from Virginia, and none (alas) from Pakistan. These students were in their second semester of university education, and the anti-American rhetoric spewed by their teachers was starting to take hold. Among these anti-American teachers I include myself: I think some part of me still believed, despite first-hand evidence to the contrary, that Americans were a prejudiced lot, and that they had to be take heaping doses of left-wing dogma to counterbalance their dominant right-wing perspective. I offer no excuse for my recalcitrance other than the adage, "Old habits die hard."

Even the smartest conservatives gradually bent under the pressure. One day, as we held class in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda, a clever fellow named Will who had heretofore passionately defended America against all attacks, threw up his hands and gave up the fight. He was licked. "I guess America really is just for old, white, bigoted males after all," he said, dejected.

Would it surprise you to know that I nearly cried? It certainly surprised me then. Like a freight train at full throttle, the final lines of Pope's Dunciad clattered through my brain:

Lo! thy dread empire, CHAOS! is restor'd;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries all.

It was the triumph of the Adversary: As an emissary of left-wing academia I had won, and I did not want to win. Now I can see that though part of me thought my students needed a left-wing, anti-American viewpoint, another part of me propagated it because I wanted them to prove me wrong and take their rightful place as American free-thinkers. (Students, if you can't agree with your professors' leftist boilerplate, take heart: Chances are good they don't really agree with it, either.) Of course, this was about as thoroughly wrong-headed as wrong-headed folk pedagogy could get: A teacher should never deliberately present falsehood so his students can discover the truth on their own.

It took me years to figure that one out; I didn't realize any of it then, or at best realized it very dimly. (For a former teacher, I can be a pretty slow learner.) I only knew that I had committed a great wrong, that some reparation had to be made, and that -- since there were about two minutes left in the class period -- I would have to make amends very soon, and quickly. I spoke up as soon as Will finished, and it was with an unexpected tongue of flame:

"No. Not you, Will. If anyone else gave up on America I could accept it. But not you.

"Yes, America has injustice. Every country does. Yes, UVA's founder Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. But he also wrote that 'All men are created equal.' Slavery lost that fight, equality won. That's because America belongs to people like Jefferson who criticize injustice and work to change it, even if they can't always understand what their words and actions truly mean.

"When America sees it's in the wrong it changes for the better. Thirty-three years ago, we didn't have any Black students at UVA. Now we do, and everybody is better off for the change. What's more, our students aren't just Black, but every race and ethnicity imaginable, and they come here from all over the globe. Even Gay students like me have found a place at the table, when thirty years ago or even fifteen, we'd have been unthinkable.

"In other countries, people who speak out against the government are executed. They get lined up against a wall and shot. Gay people like me fare even worse -- we get stoned to death. But here, we've made a national holiday to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, our greatest gadfly. Ronald Reagan even signed the bill! So Will, don't let your professors hand this country's legacy over to bigots. These people lost the fight over what America is; they're dead, buried and forgotten. The country we have now is something to be proud of, something to defend, something to bring to others who don't have ... this ...."

And I stopped cold. I was running late, unconscionably late; I would make my students late for their next class. Yet none of them had left, and what's more, other students walking past the Rotunda had stopped to listen to me. I had drawn a small crowd unawares. And I recognized the look on their faces, because I had seen it during my Gay-activist days, when I delivered news and information each month to Gays and Lesbians all over Virginia. These students were curious, fascinated, perhaps even hungry. They were listening -- and, unaccustomed to this situation, I didn't know what to do or where to go next. I mumbled an apology for keeping them too long and for making a spectacle of myself, then dismissed the class, a bit ashamed.

"It's okay, Tim," one student said. "You did well."

I'd done a lot more than that, I found. I had just spoken of American freedom as a moral good, worth defending and preserving. I had spoken of it as something worth sharing with other cultures. And I had spoken of this thing not as a contemporary aberration, but as a guiding theme of our nation's history -- a theme without which, perhaps, our nation wouldn't have a history, or at least not one worth owning up to. I had just come out to my students ... as a neoconservative.

That semester, someone nominated me for student teacher of the year. I don't know who put me up for the honor or why. Still, with my checkered reputation -- along with my year-in, year-out position at the bottom tier of grad instructors -- most of my colleagues were shocked to hear I had been mentioned at all. As one old friend told me, "I guess it had to happen sometime."

I'm no longer a teacher: I chose to quit the classroom not long afterward. But every once in a while, I speak or write from the same "place of power" I discovered back then. And though I'm not entirely sure what it is or how it formed, I think in some circles it might be known as passion.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The Unofficial Dogville Drinking Game!

If Lars von Trier's opus Dogville can't quite make an impression, at least it leaves a nasty red welt. The film is basically a pissed-off version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town (though like an artful thief, von Trier denies any connection), and takes place on a large, mostly bare soundstage. Chalky outlines and stenciled letters on the floor suggest buildings and their inhabitants, and there's even a bit of scenery for those who must have it. As for the plot, let's just say that von Trier openly vents the curdled condescension that Wilder kept (barely) concealed, without any trace of the playwright's deeper affection or empathy for his characters. Our Town is a love-hate play; Dogville is hateful to the core. To call the movie anti-American doesn't go far enough: It is just plain anti-human.

But enough with the filmchat: The only way to make Dogville bearable, if not quite enjoyable, is to keep the booze flowing as freely as possible. So as a service to our loyal readers, My Stupid Dog humbly presents The Unofficial Dogville Drinking Game!

I realize that those who see Dogville are probably unaccustomed to drinking games, and those accustomed to drinking games probably will never see Dogville. (Chronic alcoholism never looked so good.) So, by way of background for the cultural elite: To play a proper drinking game, you will need beer -- preferably the cheapest you can find, because everyone will be drinking a great deal of it. A keg should prove useful for groups of, say, five or more people; multiple kegs may be necessary for larger groups.

Since this is a drinking game, you must drink only when "the rules" tell you to drink. Don't fret, gentle reader -- you'll have plenty of opportunities. Of course, once your glass goes empty, you must order another round and press on. Repeat this process until fully anesthetized and/or unable to play further. The last person standing wins, but don't ask me what.

Ready? Here are "the rules."

1. Take a drink of beer:

- When an actor accidentally walks through one of the set's chalk outlines (which are supposed to indicate solid walls).
- When a prop (such as as chain) crosses chalk outlines, thus "phasing" through objects on a sub-atomic quantum level.
- When an actor opens an invisible door and forgets to close it behind him.
- When two actors can't agree on the height and location of an invisible doorknob.
- When the film's loquacious narrator helpfully explains something you already figured out for yourself.

2. Take a longer drink (two swallows is the recommended dose):

- The first time you hear a completely bone-headed character name with obvious symbolic significance (like "Thomas Edison Sr.," "Grace," or "Ma Ginger"). Children's names don't count.
- Whenever Paul Bettany (a.k.a. "Tom Edison Jr.") mentions either the "human soul" or the novel he's writing.
- Every time Nicole Kidman uses the word "arrogant" in a sentence.
- Every time Kidman tells someone he/she has "nothing to be ashamed of."
- Every time Kidman apologizes for herself, or claims she has done something bad.

3. Take two drinks:

- When any character refers to Dogville or its inhabitants as "good."
- When you hear an ironic pro-American reference. (Hint: In this film, any pro-American reference is ironic.)
- When the Black cleaning lady addresses or refers to a White man as "Marse" or "Massa."
- When Stellan Skarsgard, a von Trier regular, shows his wang.

4. Down the full glass:

- Every time Nicole Kidman gets raped.

Dogville is three hours long. All players of the Dogville Drinking Game should be woozy within an hour, and completely unconscious after two. Oddly enough, the same thing happens to sober people who try to watch this film.

Disclaimer: My Stupid Dog is not responsible for any harmful, unwise or irresponsible behavior that may occur as a consequence of the Dogville Drinking Game -- including, but not limited to, seeing the film itself.

You Heard It Here First ...

The formidable Walter Olson of has a new post on the newly ratified HB 751, which purports to void any "civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage." For more info on HB 751, click here, or here.

I've claimed that this law could allow Virginia courts to invalidate private contracts willy-nilly, thereby throwing our commonwealth's legal system into utter chaos. But Olson, who knows the effect of poorly written legislation far better than I, claims instead that it will instigate "a prolonged guessing game as to whether or not [private contracts], singly or in combination, are or are not too 'marriage-like' to be upheld as valid -- and that guessing game is likely to impose significant costs on hapless persons caught up in the Virginia legal system even if the law is eventually construed narrowly or struck down."

A couple of Seattlites have proposed a boycott of Virginia businesses until HB 751 is struck down or repealed. Unfortunately, they're going after J. Crew, which is ... kind of stupid, since J. Crew doesn't employ very many people in our fair commonwealth. A tourism boycott would be far more effective, and relatively easy to uphold.

Let's see if the idea catches on.

Terry Teachout is a brave man

Terry Teachout, who knows more about the arts than I could ever hope to learn, has just seen Tony Kushner's two-ply play Homebody/Kabul in New York. The production I saw two months ago in DC ran three-and-a-half hours, counting intermissions; the production Teachout viewed ran just shy of four. Four hours is longer than the entirety of Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen saga, and only a few minutes shorter than Kill Bill volumes 1 and 2. I suspect major problems with pacing.

Then again, in DC the actors had an excellent reason to keep the play moving: The city was in the middle of an unseasonable heat wave, and the theater, a small auditorium in the middle of a Jewish community center, had no air conditioning that night. The audience, mostly Gay men and the elderly, fidgeted and fussed under the stifling heat, and left a great deal of litter behind. For my part, I was ushering for the theater (a terrific gig for a drama queen with lots of time but no money), so I gladly directed disgruntled patrons to the house manager. She patiently explained to each suffering soul that because it was still March, the building's managers had not yet thought to activate the central air-conditioning units. The auditorium got hotter and hotter as the performance ground on. I sat near several open windows -- the position was noisy and not especially comfortable, but at least there was no shortage of fresh air. It feels wrong to complain about hot, noisy theaters when you've basically been let in on a freebie.

My other duties, in case you're wondering, were selling refreshments at intermission, and telling people how to find the soda machines and restrooms. I didn't do much of the former, but I did a lot of the latter: I still remember where all the drink machines and bathrooms are inside that building. Candy sales were good during the first intermission, when the audience was still in fairly good spirits, but by the second intermission no one was buying anything. One sensed that the patrons had given up trying to enjoy the evening and now were simply determined to survive it. I heard lots of scathing comments about the play after the show, as the people filed past me: "You know, I thought I'd like it more than I did." "A lot of good dialogue there." "Too much, if you ask me." "Where's that bathroom again?" "Oh God, I thought I'd never get out of there ..."

At any rate, if you want to hear a professional's opinion, buy a copy of the Wall Street Journal this Friday (or maybe next Friday -- I'm not sure what their publishing schedule is) and watch Teachout whomp on Kushner yet again. If you want to read my thoughts on the play, just click here.

Oh, and by the way: For anyone who wants to learn what Afghanistan was really like under the Taliban regime (the setting, if not quite the subject, of Homebody/Kabul), I recommend Siddiq Barmak's Osama, now available on DVD. It runs eighty minutes, almost as long as the first act of Homebody/Kabul, and it makes Kushner look like an unbelievable shill for Islamofascist mullahs and thugs. Gentle reader, if your neighborhood video store doesn't have a copy of this humane and timely film, demand that it get one as soon as possible. This is required viewing.

More on Barmak's Osama here.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Topsy Turvy: Abu Ghraib

In the topsy-turvy calculus of Middle Eastern politics, respect often breeds atrocity while atrocities breed respect. Take the case of Israel: Whenever it attempts to placate Palestinian Arabs, terrorist attacks grow more frequent, but when it humiliates Palestinian leaders with overpowering military force, things simmer down for a while.

Something similar may be occurring with the US occupation of Iraq: Apparently, attacks on US troops have dropped since the Abu Ghraib photos were published. Might these two phenomena be somehow related? At the moment, the evidence is strictly circumstantial -- a case of post hoc, ergo proper hoc. Still, it's worth further investigation.

Granted, the dark cloud of prison abuse cannot be explained away or justified. Yet it may have a silver lining.

Hat tip: Alan Sullivan (no relation to Andrew).

Sunday, May 09, 2004

True Stories: Osama, My Architect, Touching the Void

These three films have one thing in common: All are based on true stories. Of course, each one takes a slightly different approach to its respective truth. Siddiq Barmak's Osama, now on DVD, is an ostensibly fictional film based on eyewitness accounts of the Taliban. Kevin MacDonald's Touching the Void reenacts a harrowing mountain-climbing accident in the mid-1980s. Only Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect qualifies as a straightforward documentary: It's a pretty standard, somber Ken Burns affair, though it features some unexpected irreverence.

Osama. Siddiq Barmak's debut feature, an inside glimpse into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, is required viewing for anyone who wishes to see Islamic theocracy in action. Most people who have seen this film walked away with the unshakable impression that the US didn't overthrow the Taliban soon enough. Compared to Osama, Western depictions of Afghanistan (such as Tony Kushner's play Homebody/Kabul) are a whitewash -- and yet Barmak's depiction of Taliban horrors is quite restrained, judging by what Barmak actually puts on the screen. The rape, murder, child abuse and violent oppression are unmistakable, but implicit: In some ways, the non-exploitative approach increases the horror, rather than diminishing it.

The plot is simple: A widow loses her job when the Taliban closes the hospital where she works. Since she is not permitted to work out of doors, and has no living male relatives to support her, she clips her prepubescent daughter's hair and tries to pass her off as a boy. Now disguised as "Osama," the daughter is allowed to work at a menial job -- but before long the local authorities force her to attend a Taliban "school." (The film implies that this institution is a recruiting camp for future terrorists.) Immediately, the boys at the school torment Osama by claiming that "he" is in fact a girl; eventually, the authorities punish this insufficiently masculine student by lowering her halfway into a well and leaving her there. Once Osama's true gender is determined, she is threatened with death at an elaborate show trial. But at the last minute, an aged, perverse mullah who spends his time at the Taliban school, teaching young boys how to wash their naked bodies, claims the girl for marriage. The film ends with the young girl trapped in the old mullah's harem -- for life, it would seem. She does not see her mother again.

Osama gives the sense of a powerful oral tradition, one that creates and shapes a unique cultural identity. Even minor characters have stories to tell: A grandmother begins an ancient myth about a gender-bending hero, though she never finishes her tale. A young boy offers half-remembered incantations to protect his charge (a Western reporter) from "evil eyes." Toward the end of the film, the old mullah's many wives describe his cruelty and barbarism -- reinforced when he holds a number of iron padlocks as though they were jewels, and requests the young girl to "choose" the one for her door. That scene, too, shows oral tradition at work: In an interview on the recently released DVD, Barmak claims that each episode in the screenplay derives from individual testimony, or from multiple testimonies. One is reminded of the old formula, "It was so, it was not, in a time long forgot" -- a near-Eastern equivalent of the West's "Once upon a time" -- except that in this case, the stories are all just so, and the time is too near for anyone to forget them.

Barmak is a Soviet-trained filmmaker: On the DVD he addresses his ambivalence over studying film in the USSR while Russians destroyed his homeland. That said, the style and tone of Osama belong more to 1990s Iranian cinema than to anything the Soviet film industry concocted. Barmak's filmmaking methods are similar to Italian neorealism -- not exactly surprising, since the Italian neorealists showed that cinema could be produced with few resources, no studio or governmental infrastructure, and a miniscule budget (presumably the circumstances under which Barmak created his film). The shaky handheld camera in the opening scene offers a touch of cinema verite, but it contrasts sharply with the steady, deliberate camerawork throughout the rest of the film. Barmak uses nonprofessional actors -- he found several of his leads on the streets of Kabul -- and directs them well, so that they add to the sense of authenticity. Aside from one crane shot near the end (the sole instance when Barmak resorts to filmic cliche), most of the camerawork is at or near eye level; Barmak uses high or low angles when the story demands it, but generally keeps his shots simple and well-composed. Camera movement, where used, is fluid and expressive, and Ebrahim Gharfui's cinematography is surprisingly lush. The sound, however, is garbled and out of sync, which is in keeping with the production's severe budgetary constraints.

Barmak claims that Osama is very popular with Afghani audiences, and it's not hard to see why: Barmak displays clear affection for his devastated country, and his film is structured around stories that would have been depressingly familiar to these viewers. I imagine Afghanis found this film profoundly moving. You should see it, too.

Touching the Void. In 1985, two mountain climbers attempted to scale one of the most remote, difficult peaks in the Andes Mountains. They returned alive -- but barely, and not at the same time. This film tells their story, reenacting each harrowing event according to the participants' own words. The result reminded me of one of Arnold Fanck's bergfilme, a series of mountain-climbing pictures which enjoyed a considerable vogue in Germany prior to the Third Reich. For its astonishing beauty, the camerawork matches that of The White Hell of Piz Palu (one of my own nominees for great titles, by the way). Add to that the British penchant for stiff-upper-lip endurance, and the result is irresistable.

The film alternates between static, talking-head interviews of the two climbers (and, occasionally, of their greenhorn campmate), and the reenactment itself. Fortunately, the interviews don't narrate the action: Instead, they provide psychological context for the climbers' actions. They become not redundant, but supplementary, and they provide a necessary human element in situations where dialogue is impossible. In the interviews, we learn how the characters react to death -- possibly the ultimate void. These climbers don't walk away with renewed spirituality, or find faith in God, as characters in other movies do. Instead of praying to a god, they simply accept the idea of nothingness and determine to press on, inch by excruciating inch. The conclusion is grim, yet perfectly in keeping with the film's overall tone.

Director Kevin MacDonald proved he could edit a compelling narrative out of news footage with the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September (about the 1972 Munich Olympics). This film shows that he can shoot and edit a compelling story on his own. I've been told that this film was originally considered as a Tom Cruise vehicle, but abandoned. Perhaps the story, with its long stretches of solitude, was too difficult to adapt as a straightforwardly fictional film. But as a hybrid of fiction and documentary, Touching the Void is top-notch.

My Architect: A Son's Journey. Here's a great premise for a "women's picture": A famous architect keeps three distinct families, all of whom live within a few miles of each other, yet none of whom know about each other. Such was the twisted personal life of modernist architectural giant Louis Kahn. Unfortunately, his son Nathaniel proceeds to tell this can't-miss story in the style of a Ken Burns documentary. All the formal characteristics are in place: Chapter headings, archival footage, talking-head interviews, still photographs with camera pans and zooms, point-by-point biographical narration.

The problem with this film is that Louis Kahn is not a particularly interesting subject for a documentary, and his architecture comes across as cold, sterile and manipulative. His buildings are stark, gray monoliths on the outside; on the inside, they're depersonalized, geometric nightmares. By the time Nathaniel visits his father's alleged masterpiece, the Bangladesh Houses of Parliament, we know the pattern all too well. The building looks like an agglomeration of grain silos; it is monumentally gray and depressing on the outside and the inside. It's hard not to laugh when a Bangladeshi architect crows over how Kahn gave his country democracy. Anyone who has visited Washington DC can tell you what the architecture of democracy looks like, and it's not what Kahn dreamed up.

However, Kahn's various families offer more promising material. If nothing else, they show the trail of wounded hearts and crushed lives this celebrated man left behind. My Architect remains fascinating as long as it focuses on these secondary figures -- which, alas, isn't quite long enough for me to recommend it. Although Nathaniel offers several tantalizing glimpses of personal, intimate stories, he's both too close and not close enough to capture them well or thoroughly.

The film also draws a blank when it comes to Nathaniel himself: One wonders about his own childhood, what his adult life has been like, and whether he's managed -- against all odds -- to marry and have children of his own. A more experienced documentarian could have turned this story alone into a crackerjack film. As it stands, My Architect is a missed opportunity.

Still, Nathaniel Kahn's filmmaking doesn't always play by PBS rules: A few scenes show him romping mischievously through his father's austere spaces, and admitting that he really doesn't like them very much. One shot of the thirtysomething filmmaker rollerblading through the concrete courtyard of the Salk Institute is almost worth the price of admission. Almost.

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