Friday, December 10, 2004

Che and Kinsey: Revolutionary Understanding

I just saw "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2nd time) and "Kinsey", both great flicks. The former shows what 23 year-old Ernesto Guevara saw traveling across South America in the 1950's that inspired him to become the martyr "Che"; the latter deals with what pioneering sex-researcher Alfred Kinsey saw in his travels across America doing the first scientific investigation of sex. I'm not an expert, but in my confident opinion both couldn't stand to see people suffer, both desperately wanted to help in their respective fashions, and both were savaged in many circles as their flaws were held closer to the light than their virtues.

A couple of observations on a couple of observations:

1) The Motorcycle Diaries

I've met people who liked the story, acting, cinematography... basically everything, and still dislike the movie. Why?

After cutting through some b.s., I narrowed it down to just one scene: on his birthday, a young asthmatic Che leaves his party of fellow doctors to swim across the deadly critter-infested Amazon towards a leper colony to join them in celebration too. People say "I don't believe it" or "it was over the top", etc., despite the fact that it was handled with a tasteful minimum of slo-mo and other Hollywood tricks, and seen by dozens of witnesses who even if exaggerating, probably got the basic story right. It was also consistent with his compassionate evolution as related in the film, and serves as a climax by showing the depth of his commitment to the least fortunate.

So, you tell me: does the true story of dangerous night-swim by an asthmatic future revolutionary across the Amazon to join a group of deformed pariahs, really merit less celebration than a 15-foot jump shot in Hoosiers? A home-run in The Natural? A punch in the head in Raging Bull or Rocky? I'm not trying to disparage the latter films, but merely to suggest some level-headed context when criticizing.

Even Roger Ebert's review, while lauding many elements, ultimately dismissed the movie for not attacking the man he became, a terrible example of political correctness since it also works as a simple road-trip movie with a heart as well. The politics of "Che" can be hotly debated, but as the story of a 23 year-old rich kid nicknamed "Fuser" discovering beauty, poverty and empathy across South America, it's pretty weak to raise the Red flag in a McCarthy-esque way, and worry that telling good stories about (future) communists even if they're true is a bad idea for all those young Che-wear idealists out there.

So go on, dispense with dime-store knee-jerk group-think cynicism, and try to enjoy this movie for what it is. And frankly, try to enjoy more things more often, it's simply a better use of your time.

2) Kinsey

Ahhh sex. An objectively indefinable variable in human relations, and yet one that is constantly evolving as sexual mores and freedoms become more socially acceptable with the passage of time.

Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe we've been freaky for a thousand years. Maybe not. Still, the evidence certainly suggests we have, which upsets a lot of closet-masturbators and bitter souls trapped in loveless marriages seeking revenge on fun itself.

One thesis the movie explores is that religion is the sworn enemy of sex. Today with dueling TIME and Newsweek covers featuring the latest news on Jesus ("btw: nothing new to report" - Jon Stewart), the political climate suggests that even with a solid cast and a truly fascinating story in an era of popular bio-pics, it's barely scraping by at the box office. Are we too embarrassed to see it? Not interested in the most interesting, timeless, and titillating topic in history?

Even religion uses sex, albeit to condemn it, but if you see the film you'll see heartbreaking tales of unusual sexual awakenings discussed from the scientific perspective, and seen as part of a species diversity consistent within "God's kingdom" and found among many animals. And, examples of homosexuality and masturbation existing throught the animal kingdom, from bugs to beasties, while the closer they are biologically to humans the freakier they are (i.e. the bonobo monkey). Imagine what these freakin' pervs would be up to with free will?


A second thesis is that religion does not reflect the will of the people, as the more people clamoured to know (his first book on male sexuality was a huge bestseller,) the more religious groups clamped down on Kinsey's research. I am not anti-religion, and it is clear to me that even in the 1950's religion could have been used as an honest check and balance on Kinsey's work, a means of healing tortured souls who revealed their true selves in realizing they were not alone, and a means of punishing those who hurt others in their pursuit of sexual gratification. In all the hysteria it's too bad it wasn't, and it seems like 50 years later it's still too bad it won't.

Finally, we haven't given a crap about "math" since we watched "A Beautiful Mind" win the 2001 Oscar for Best Picture, but I guarantee you we'll be thinking about sex for a while... possibily several times a day...

in fact...

(excuse me :)

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Jihad vs. Journalism

On Sundays, The Toronto Star newspaper has an excellent World section, offering depth unseen in daily reporting (as more history and geography are discussed for context), and relevant Op/Ed pieces from around the world. An interesting juxtaposition of the two happened on December 5th, 2004, and it is one that is happening in papers and magazines worldwide as they discuss the War in Iraq.

On the cover was the story "Inside Fallujah" by Anthony Shadid from The Washington Post, focusing on Abu Mohammed, a 39 year-old Iraqi insurgent fighting for what he clearly sees as liberating his homeland, and whose 13-year old son Ahmed was recently killed in battle. On page three, an Op/Ed piece ironically titled "Troops Must Stay To Protect Iraqi Children" from Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times, who suggests that while attacking Iraq was certainly a mistake, the U.S. has to stay as long as possible to ensure the safety of the Iraqi children.

So: Page 1 vs. Page 3. The Insurgent vs. The Columnist. The Iraqi vs.The American. The Mujahideen vs. The NY Times.

Both sides want peace, both are willing to kill for it, one is willing to die for it, but who's right? Today, it is both common practice and incredibly dangerous to reflexively say both positions are equal, as that thinking is now being used to neutralize harsh criticism of any actions, and in alarming cases, facts. It is also mind-numblingly lazy to dismiss analysis and opinions as simply from the "left" or "right", and to avoid searching for a moral hierarchy especially in matters of life and death. Judged closer from any angle, we can see traces of arrogance in dismissing the immediate Iraqi bodycount as irrelevant to long-term planning, and we have to recognize the biggest danger to the immediate security of the Iraqi people is American soldier. In fact, one probably killed Ahmed Mohammed. This is not to say that American soldiers are bad people - they're merely doing what they are trained to do, or that pulling out immediately is the right answer. But, this does own up to the stark reality that more Iraqi's are being killed by American actions than by anything else, and as the insurgency grows this will continue.

So, what to do?

It seems all we have to do is whisper "a future breeding ground for terrorists" and people will start screaming "we have to stay!" However, I have seen no proof that current actions are achieving better results, nor that they are increasing the desire of moderate Arabs to turn against extremists. It seems the whole world is now a much larger breeding ground for terrorists, and I haven't seen any analysis guaranteeing changing course would fail beyond histrionics that maintain the status quo. In recognizing this, we can see that quickly validating a long-term solution only entrenches the idea that everyone (save perhaps for those profiting from the war) hates the most: America occupying Iraq for a long, long time. Before accepting this, aren't we smart enough to think of any other solutions? Can't we challenge our leaders to be?

As both sides settle in for an increasingly bloody conflict, the moral lapses accepted to fight an increasingly difficult war will haunt the world for generations (see: Guantanamo Bay), and destroy lives on both sides. The costs to the Iraqi people in general are brushed over in broadstrokes, and while liberty, freedom, and democracy are great, if you tell that to people while destroying their country, don't be surprised when they bristle at the hypocrisy of you caring more about their future than their present. For America to make this democratic omelette they are more than breaking a few eggs, they are taking a few lives.

Mr. Kristof in his first point quotes a study in the respected British medical journal, The Lancet, that suggests 100,000 Iraqi's have been killed so far, and incredibly, in the same short section details some of the awful conditions Iraqi's face as a result of looters stealing air-conditioners from hospitals, among other lawless Iraqi actions. He conveniently avoids American involvement in the deaths of 100,000 Iraqi's in suggesting them as a saviour, and is being dishonest in quoting that study and then only listing Iraqi threats to the safety of the Iraqi people.

His second point lists the humanitarian crisis with respect to water, food, and child mortality rates, stirring stuff, but also completely ignoring the biggest cause of the deaths of Iraqi children. All that tugging at my heartstrings had them frayed, but when they finally snapped, I got it: I can be sold anything if you tell me children are suffering, tell me you'll fix it, and tell me to look the other way as the tragedy is too great to bear witness. Sure, I'll allow for the possibility that tripling the number of American troops will save more Iraqi children, but if we look at every other "hot war" in history, adding more troops only adds more people trained to kill, leading to more killing. Rocket science this ain't. Finally, if you look at the most recent and analogous precedent of people defending their country against perceived U.S. aggression, over time you can foreshadow a similar bodycount: 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese.

So, it seems that conventional wisdom, or the most sensible "middle" position in a time of extremes, is: "we broke it, we'll fix it!" It sounds perfectly reasonable in the abstract, and shows taking responsibility for the mess caused. However, much like fixing up a house, if you see the builders have done a shoddy job (do I have to list the mistakes made even the Pentagon agrees with?) then you don't give them carte blanche to continue unquestioned until they get it right. You demand to see a revised plan, and you demand to know exactly what they will do to fix the problems caused and ensure they don't happen again. Before glossing over the occupation as a necessary evil fo the next few years, we need to see that mistakes will not be repeated, and that actions will truly reflect sentiments like "Troops Must Stay To Protect Iraqi Children". A continuation of the same course will only worsen anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, and attract others including more children to the insurgency. The idea that America has to stay for as long as possible specifically for the benefit of the Iraqi people is not a conclusion one should arrive at lightly, and as badly damaged as their houses are, I'm sure many Iraqi's like Abu Mohammed just want to go home.