Christians, Atheists, and Torture

Saint SebastianI have this tendency to be most critical of the groups that I’m part of. You see this a lot in terms of my thinking about the Democratic Party. But I dare say you see it most of all with my thinking about atheists. And there is a lot to dislike about the modern atheist movement. I am an atheist in the Arthur Schopenhauer tradition. Much of modern atheism is intellectually vacuous. But as popular movements go, it is still pretty good. There isn’t likely to be a mass movement that I have any less criticism of.

Probably the best aspect of modern atheism is that there is a strong current of humanism in it. I think it is the case that people like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are admired despite being torture proponents, not because of it. What’s more, I don’t so much see myself as part of the atheist community in the sense that I read atheist blogs and go to atheist conventions. I see myself as a member of the growing numbers of people who just aren’t religious. And by and large, this is a mighty fine group.

As regular readers know, I found the recent release of the torture report as upsetting as it was unsurprising. So I was somewhat pleased to read Steve Benen’s The Week in God today. It’s focus was on a new Washington Post/ABC News poll on attitudes about torture. It confirms the results of a 2009 poll by Pew. As you’ve probably heard, Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of torture. Of those polled, 59% were just peachy with what the CIA did; only 31% had a problem with it. Obviously, that was not what pleased me.

This poll subdivided people by their religious affiliations. So Benen put together the following graph that sums up the main categories:

Religion and Torture

Benen pointed out that people with “no religion” were pretty much the only group in the report that were against torture. I wish the numbers were better than they are, but they are far better than average. And the major Christian groups are all worse than average. It’s disgusting, but again, unsurprising. It goes along with my primary complaint against modern American Christians: their religion is all culture and no theology. The one thing they absolutely believe is that people like them are “good” and people not like them (eg, Muslims) are “bad.” Thus they don’t really care. After all, it’s not like anyone is suggesting burning the evildoers alive. (Not that they would be against that either.)

As much as I’m pleased that we non-believers demonstrate more humanity than average, this information is profoundly disturbing. We are, after all, an almost 80% Christian country. And the only takeaway from that is that Christianity is “right” and that Christians are oppressed whenever someone says “Happy holidays!” to them. We live in a sad world.

Reader Comments Are a Good Thing

No Comments!Over at The Monkey Cage, Elizabeth Suhay wrote some much needed perspective, Comment Threads Are Messy, but so Is Democracy. There has been a push in a lot of quarters to get rid of user comments. It is understandable. A lot of commenters are repellent. But I think it’s a major mistake. What’s more, I think it reflects a kind of desire on the part of content providers to go back to the old days when they could sift through the letters and publish the ones that they wanted. It’s about control, and it doesn’t speak well of those who push it.

Some time back, the excellent blog The Incidental Economist stopped allowing comments. Now they treat their users the same way that magazines used to. If you have a comment, email them and if they think you are worthy, they will add the comment. In addition to the “Moses coming down Mount Sinai” arrogance of such a policy, it just isn’t practical. A few years back, I emailed one of their writers about the statistics in one of his articles. He took over a month to get back to me. But even if the response was timely, it would take at least a day before such comments would be posted — long after most people had read the article.

This approach also eliminates the possibility of what I consider the best part of comments: conversations. Comments to articles often end up being even more interesting than the articles themselves. They also make the readers more engaged with the material. There is no doubt that The Incidental Economist is no longer as exciting as it was when it had comments. Look at Eschaton: it is little but comments and is one of the most vibrant websites around.

Getting rid of comments strikes me as an overreaction to a problem. Sure, there are jerks who post comments. But the numbers are small. Suhay reported on some of her own research that found that “clearly disrespectful” comments only made up 10% of those found on sites like Daily Kos and only 4% of comments on sites like The New York Times. And for that, people want to get rid of all the good that comes from comments? That strikes me as, “Letting the terrorists win!”

What I think is going on is that content providers are thinking of what they do from their own perspective and not from that of their users (ie, customers). In fact, another article in The Monkey Cage found that comments make people trust articles less. The article concluded “news outlets that care about their reputations (including The Monkey Cage) should shut down their comments sections.” That shocks me. That’s such an authoritarian thought. Obviously, when a bunch of people openly debate an article, it is going to make that article seem less authoritative. And by and large that’s a good thing!

Under most circumstances, I don’t read comment threads. I have my own blog; if I want to comment, I will write an article. But I do find comments useful. If an article strikes me as using questionable logic or facts, reading the comments can be really helpful in corroborating or diffusing the article. And that’s especially true in reading about specialized subjects like economics. The comments are often of shockingly high value.

But I get it. Before moving to WordPress, despite my automatic filtering, I still had to manually remove a great deal of spam. Also, I had to explicitly approve all comments — even people who had commented before. But given all that is done by using free software, I don’t have any sympathy for far more successful blogs on this issue. And it is annoying to get certain kinds of comments. Personally, I don’t mind people yelling at me. The one thing that does bug me is when someone yells at me without having read (or understood, at least) the article I wrote. (Here’s my favorite example: Two Thoughts on Lars and the Real Girl.)

Ultimately, the push to destroy comments is just about the desire to control. I do understand why the folks at The Incidental Economist and Hullabaloo just wouldn’t want to deal with it. They can be forgiven. I think it is wrong to even discuss it at The Washington Post. But above all, it is dismissive of your readership.

The Man Who Would Be King

The Man Who Would Be KingHaving watched Zulu recently, I decided to watch another film with red coats in it, The Man Who Would Be King. I’d never seen it before and I was interested — especially because it was directed by John Huston. And I can see why he wanted to make the film: it is epic. And it was a chance to make his generation’s Gunga Din. Just the same, I don’t really think the film works very well.

There are things to like about the film. The main thing is that it is a gorgeous film. That isn’t just because of all the beautiful locations. It is also despite all the beautiful locations. When movies started moving out to location shooting, it caused a problem. Movies began to present places like Egypt as they were instead of how they ought to have been. The Man Who Would Be King gets the best of both worlds with actual locations and wonderful sets. The designs by Alexandre Trauner and their implementation by Tony Inglis are stunning. The costumes by Edith Head are also great — simple but beautiful.

Also of note in the film is the vaudeville act that is Sean Connery and Michael Caine. They really are good as a couple of lovable rogues. And they are what give the film a feel of Gunga Din: Victor McLaglen and Cary Grant in color! The problem in this regard is that when they are not in the film, the entire experience seems hollow. And poor Christopher Plummer is so constrained in his part that he hardly leaves a mark. That’s saying something for one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. On the plus side, Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish is really good in the Gunga Din part.

What most fails in the film is the script. It is entirely too dependent upon narration. This isn’t just a problem with drawing attention to the fact that Peachy is telling the story, and thus taking the viewer out of the narrative. Even more, the entire story telling is dependent upon the narration. It is as though Huston and co-writer Gladys Hill never figured out how to translate Kipling’s novella to a visual framework. There is far too much inexplicable action followed by Peachy’s voice-over explaining what had happened. And when it isn’t done with narration, it is done with dialog as when Preachy explains that the avalanche has created a bridge for them to pass or when Danny explains that the arrow was stopped by his bandolier.

The bigger problem with the film is in stark contrast to Zulu. This film is racist. This is entirely due to the filmmakers’ decision to follow the novella so closely. Whereas the Zulu are portrayed from the outside and as the enemy, they are always rational. But the local people here are not. And the entire plot is dependent upon them not being rational or loyal. For example, at one point Preachy tells Danny that they must go to see the religious leader Kafu Selim, or else their own men will turn on them. Ultimately, the local people were not given the dignity of being anything but a plot device.

Still, the film is marginally worth watching. If it shows up on television, it is worth a look. As I said, it is wonderful to look at. And much of it does work rather well. But there are so many films that are more worth watching. Like Gunga Din.

Governmental Power in the Age of Corporations

Theodore RooseveltThere once was a time in history when the limitation of governmental power meant increasing liberty for the people. In the present day the limitation of governmental power, of governmental action, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations who can only be held in check through the extension of governmental power.

—Theodore Roosevelt
Limitations on Governmental Power (pdf) — 9 September 1912

George Roy Hill

George Roy HillOn this day in 1921, the great American film director George Roy Hill was born. I always associate him with William Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade. The entire chapter on directors consists of the following sentence, “Some of my best friends are directors.” This sentence did have a footnote where Goldman explained that directing was a hard job — not like a theoretical physicist’s job is hard, but like a coal miner’s job is hard. And he noted that directors help everyone involved in the production. His point was that we have mythologized directors and that given all the other creative minds on a film, the director is not that important. He has a vision of the film director that is more like that of a theater director: the person who manages all the creative activity. I agree with this vision to a large extent. And this is the kind of director that George Roy Hill was.

To a large extent, the film directors who are considered “auteurs” are generally the ones who talk a certain way. There is no doubt that someone like Jon Jost absolutely is the author of his own films. But it is hard to make that claim even for David Cronenberg, much less Martin Scorsese. This doesn’t say anything about the quality of the films these three men make — they all produce films that are without exception worth making and are sometimes great. But $100 million budgets are collaborations. Regardless, I don’t think that Scorsese has a more distinctive visual style than Hill does.

Of course, the thing is that Hill does have a distinctive style. Or rather: his films have a distinctive visual style. It is just that no one fetishizes that style. But as a result of that, Hill’s films tend to age better. I know for a lot of people, Goodfellas is a favorite film. To me, it is almost un-watchable; it is filled with tricks that Scorsese would (gratefully) eventually get over or refine. (I think Scorsese is at his best in films like The Age of Innocence and Bringing Out the Dead and Kundun.) Hill doesn’t have that problem.

So let’s look at a few of his classic films — and I will be ignoring a number of others! First is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — one of the greatest westerns ever made. (I want to say “the greatest” but that’s hard.) In a sense, that is William Goldman’s film, because it is drenched in his sensibility. Just the same, it looks and feels like a Hill film. It was a collaboration of a lot of great people, including Burt Bacharach. But Hill brought it all together in a film I still love watching.

Do I need to mention The Sting? Maybe we should just move on to The Great Waldo Pepper. When I was a kid, I didn’t much like it. But it ages well. Also: it helps to be an adult. This trailer makes it seem like it’s a comedy, but it really isn’t. It’s an interesting film about a man trying to find meaning in life. But it is done in a very Hollywood (false) way:

Other films that are well worth watching include: Slap Shot, A Little Romance, and The Little Drummer Girl. I will say nothing about the Chevy Chase film, because I haven’t seen it. But let’s take a look at The World According to Garp, which is still a joy to watch:

Happy birthday George Roy Hill!