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An Examination of Extremism

Courtesy leadershipdynamics.wordpress.com

We live in an increasingly interconnected world. It is not difficult to access information that can inform you of all sorts of points of view. It does, however, take time. And time is a precious thing when events are unfolding regarding a controversy or an otherwise unfortunate event. Snap judgements and knee-jerk reactions make for more inflammatory headlines – and more exciting reading.

The problem is that this leads to extremist thinking. Be a person firmly entrenched in one side of an issue, or the other, such entrenchment leads to antagonistic stances. Now, it’s easy to cast people who are using violence, intimidation, or group-based fear tactics as nothing but villainous thugs, and such methods of persuasion are always unnecessary, and any rational human being would agree to that. That is an easy admission to make, given the circumstances, and a lot of extremists have played lip service to that idea, but it is a lot more difficult to admit that extremism, even in opposition to terror, is wrong.

I’ve commented on the nature of polities before. It is actually somewhat rare for an entire polity to be monolithic in its composition. For the most part, people who have a similar viewpoint on an issue can and do vary wildly in how to approach that viewpoint and the best way to express it. On top of that, there are those who take up the banner of the polity in question but are in reality using it for entirely different goals than the polity’s leaders or expressed core values. Suffice it to say that once a movement begins, without strong leadership and defined goals, things can get very confused very quickly.

This is to be expected. We are, after all, talking about people.

People have hopes and dreams. They have fears and desires. They need food and water. They crave sex and sweets. They have passions they long to share, and embarrassing moments they long to forget. They’ll laugh and cry. They’ll argue and concede. They will get sick, bleed, grow old, and eventually die. And so will you.

I have a difficult time understanding how people can become involved with extremist points of view. Be it one extreme of a debate or the other, I find it a very bad idea to assume that everyone on the other side of the debate is either an absolutely deplorable creature or a total ignoramus. I find myself questioning why people, living breathing human beings with at least a measure of literacy and self-awareness, put themselves in positions that are entirely intractable. The best answer I can come up with – and I have no idea if this is the most accurate one or not – is laziness. They are just too lazy to imagine the other complexly. And I can understand that – I’ve withdrawn from arguments, myself, too exhausted or frustrated or confused to invest the time and energy to follow a logical line of thought. I think it happens to the best of us.

If I were able to give advice to people involved in a debate that I knew would be taken seriously and to heart, it would be this: Stop. Breathe. Think.

You can’t hear what the other person is saying if you keep talking. Taking a deep breath clears your head and opens your ears, allowing you the chance to process what you’re hearing. And once you process the words, you can try to discern meaning, and find ways to bridge the gap towards understanding. Even if you still disagree with what’s being said, you may have a better chance to find the means to express your disagreement without attacking the person with whom you disagree. Because that way lies ire, anger, bile, hatred, and even threats.

Too many people take the lazy shortcut to that end step. Don’t do that. The shortcuts lead nowhere constructive. To make the world a better place, to ensure change that matters, we have to take the long way. The higher road. And when you take those steps, it’s important to take your time. Stop. Breathe. Think.

Not only will you not come across as a lazy extremist douchebag, you just might understand another person’s point of view a bit more completely. And if more of us can do that, the world will be a better place for everyone – every human being – to live.

Movie Review: Casablanca

There are some iconic scenes in fiction, and a lot of them happen in watering holes and cosmopolitan places where people gather. The Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars, Knowhere of Guardians of the Galaxy, The Prancing Pony in Bree from Lord of the Rings… the list is extremely long. When it comes to films, there are few taverns that have had quite as much influence on the tone, composition, and nature of goings-on within such places as Rick’s Cafe Americain. After all, everybody comes to Rick’s. That is the name of the play upon which the unquestionably classic film, Casablanca, is based.

Courtesy Warner Bros

The year is 1941, and it is early December. The city of Casablanca is relatively neutral territory, even if it is controlled by Vichy France and the oversight of the German Reich. It is a hotbed of clandestine activity, from smuggling to gambling and even the sale of exit visas, which desperate refugees require to flee Europe for the promise of freedom and opportunity in America. Many of these sales happen at Rick’s, where the proprietor is surprisingly neutral and reserved, conveying only quiet bitterness and healthy scepticism towards both starry-eyed freedom-fighters and ironclad fascists. All of that changes, however, when the one woman who has ever truly captured Rick’s affections walks into his cafe, asking the piano player to play the one song Rick insists he never plays, and changes things in Casablanca forever.

It is pretty clear that Casablanca is adapted from a stage play. The settings, dialog, and even the lighting of the scenes could easily be recreated by a savvy director and a good stage crew. In the 1940s, many films were produced in this way, opting for a faster route from script to screen rather than saddling the production with glitz and glamour. In fact, when it was released, a lot of people didn’t expect anything groundbreaking from Casablanca; it was just another of the hundreds of films being produced by the studios. But even as it was being made, those directly involved with its creation knew that it was something special.

Courtesy Warner Bros
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…”

A big reason for this is the talented, international cast. Only Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Dooley Wilson (Sam), and a minor role or two were American actors. The woman in question, Ilsa Lund, was played by luminous Norwegian actress Ingrid Bergman. Paul Henreid, Ilsa’s husband and a reknown freedom fighter named Victor Lazlo, was Austrian. Many actual refugees played roles of all types in the film, including the main antagonist, Major Strausser, who was portrayed by Conrad Veidt, a German who had himself fled from the Nazis. This gives the entire production of Casablanca a palpable sense of authenticity and earnestness. In one of its most famous scenes, Lazlo leads the people in Rick’s in a rendition of “La Marseilles”, and during the scene, many of the actors burst into tears on set. The nature of this cast is one of the things that makes Casablanca singularly special.

There’s also the fact that every single leading role is brilliantly executed. Bogart hadn’t done any romantic work before Casablanca, but watching Rick’s carefully crafted demeanor crack under the pressure of Ilsa’s presence is clear evidence of the actor’s talent. Bergman smolders, and the two have electric chemistry. Just as good is the interplay between Bogart and the inimitable Claude Rains, who plays Casablanca’s prefect of police Louis Renault with equal parts legitimate sleaze and good-natured humor. Henreid is compelling as a man who has witnessed horrid injustice first-hand and will stop at nothing to combat it, and Veidt gives Strausser real menace barely contained by the sort of impersonal, surface-level diplomacy that villains use just long enough to get what they want. Even smaller roles have real talent and nuance behind them, from Wilson’s unflappable and loyal Sam to Sydney Greenstreet’s unabashedly profit-minded underworld magnate. The performances in Casablanca are more than enough to keep an audience riveted to the screen, far moreso than any amount of modern special effects or computer-generated gimmickery.

Courtesy Warner Bros
The 40s were a great time for hats.

Full of classic quotes, unforgettable scenes, scintillating performances, and a true time-capsule of the atmosphere of its day, Casablanca has a lot to offer an audience even in the 21st century. What was once anti-Nazi propoganda now plays as dramatic historical fiction, as uniformed German officers never occupied Morocco and the MacGuffin of the film, the “letters of transit”, never existed. Still, as a setting for intrigue, drama, romance, and suspense, Casablanca and Rick’s are the foundation upon which many future tales were built. It is film noir at its finest, a shining example of a tightly-produced character-driven story, and one of the best films ever made.

Flash Fiction: Closed Casket

Chuck challenged us to use one of these stock photos that BuzzFeed claims nobody could ever use. I picked #4, and pulled this out of my brain. Enjoy!


Courtesy BuzzFeed

“I really appreciate you doing this, padre.”

Father Pryce still looked a bit skeptical. He shook the offered hand, for certain, and the money Timothy had given him was a welcome contribution to the church. Still, it was something Pryce had never done before. Tim handed the priest a case containing a syringe, shrugging out of his coat once Pryce took it. As the priest lifted the device, the man in the casket rolled up his left sleeve and turned his arm over. Shaking his head, Pryce watched as Timothy prodded the inner surface of his arm, up by his elbow, and his finger stopped on a prominent vein.

“You know I’m not a doctor or a nurse, Timothy.”

“I’ve had training, and I can walk you through it. Just place the tip of the needle just under my finger.”

Pryce obeyed. “Like this?”

Timothy nodded. “Good. Now, tell me there will be a slight pinch, and gently apply pressure with the needle, without pressing the plunger.”

“Um. There will be a slight pinch.”

Timothy chuckled. “Great bedside manner, Father.” He didn’t wince when the needle pierced his skin, but nodded after a moment. “Okay. It’s in. Push the plunger.”

The translucent, green fluid disappeared down the needle as Pryce pressed the plunger. Once it was gone, Timothy talked him through removing the needle and applying a bandage. He rolled his sleeve back down and put his jacket back on. He relaxed, laying back in the casket, his eyelids already heavy. Pryce gently closed the casket, turned to his pulpit, and went over his notes and words.

Family walked in, paying the respects. Friends kept towards the back. Finally, three men entered. Two were very tall and broad, not removing their sunglasses as they flanked the shorter, older man in the middle. The old man smiled beatifically at Father Pryce.

“I understand that the deceased met with a very violent end,” the newcomer said.

“That’s right,” Father Pryce replied.

“May I see him?”

The priest blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“Got a hearin’ problem, padre?” This came from one of the older man’s… well, “goons” was the word that came to Father Pryce’s mind.

“Do you know who this is?” The other one took a step towards him. The old man held up his hand.

“I’m Antonio Firenze. This man was one of my employees. He also was endebted to me. I have encountered situations where people in Timothy’s position have done elaborate things to avoid my ire. I can make a significant donation to your church if you just open the casket for a moment. I would rather not make things uncomfortable on the off chance you make the other choice.”

Father Pryce swallowed. He did, indeed, know who Antonio Firenze happened to be. He looked out over the family and friends in the pews, mostly talking to one another and listening to the organist, then turned towards the casket, blocking the view from the pews to the sanctuary. He gently lifted the lid of the casket, turning slightly to let Antonio approach.

“Ah. There you are, Timmy.”

Timothy was completely still, and unnaturally pale. There was an odd, jagged wound on his forehead, over his left eye, stitched shut with what looked to be a fair degree of difficulty. Father Pryce swallowed.

“The undertaker tried to make him presentable. When I showed his mother, she asked for a closed casket.”

“Hmm. I can see why.” Antonio leaned down and pushed on Timothy’s shoulder. When there was no response, he did it again. Finally, after a moment, he reached back and slapped Timothy across the face. Timothy didn’t move, but revealed some blood and gore spattered on the pillow holding his head. The goons stepped back.

“So. He does seem dead.” Pryce lowered the lid as Antonio reached into his suit coat for his handkerchief and wiped his hands. “I apologize, Father. Thank you for indulging me.”

The men retreated from the altar, and Father Pryce got the service going in short order after that. The pallbearers took the casket out of the church and into the hearse. The procession to the graveyard was slow, often interrupted by cross traffic, and it was late afternoon by the time Father Pryce supervised the lowering of the casket into Timothy’s grave, with Antonio Firenze and his goons looking on.

Following the service, Pryce retired to his rooms in the rectory. It was the dead of night, half past midnight, when he took Timothy’s cellular phone out of his desk and used an application to summon a car. He wasn’t entirely sure how it worked, only that there would be no record of his phone or the land line from the rectory calling a taxi service.

From the back of the car, Pryce kept glancing over his shoulder to make sure they weren’t being followed before the car left him at the gate. The grave was far back from the road, and the earth was fresh. Pryce left the car, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and picked up one of the shovels the groundskeeper had left behind. It was long, grueling work, and he still was on the lookout for anyone approaching. But, knowing what was at stake, he persevered, until his shovel hit wood.

He placed the shove out of the grave and opened it. Timothy removed his oxygen mask and smiled, taking the hand offered to help him out of the casket. He removed the makeup from his head and tossed it into the casket. Pryce did the same with Timothy’s phone. Together, they re-filled the grave.

“Will you be all right?”

Timothy walked with Pryce towards the gate. “Yeah. I have a locker at the train station with a change of clothes, some cash, and documentation. The Feds will be contacted once I’m safely away. What about you?”

Pryce shrugged. “Public transit. I don’t mind riding the bus home.”

They shook hands, and Timothy walked away into the night.

Movie Review: Interstellar

There is a sense of awe and wonder that comes over a lot of people when they behold images from deep space. Astronomers and physicists have long theorized about what awaits us in the void: new habitable worlds, wormholes, distortions of time, and so on. When filmmakers turn their eyes to this material, to what the future might actually hold, their visions take the form of films like 2001:A Space Odyssey and Moon, exploring not only science, but human nature and evolution. Now, Christopher Nolan has taken an exploratory flight into this rich and textured material with Interstellar.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Environmental damage has lead mankind to the point that food is becoming scarce and the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is depleting at an alarming rate. In survival mode, most humans have turned inward, eschewing science and engineering for farming. One obstinate man, test-pilot-turned-farmer Cooper, struggles to both make a living for his family and teach his daughter, Murphy, the truth. A phenomenon in Murphy’s room points Cooper in the direction of a hidden silo, where the remains of NASA have undertaken a daring, last-ditch effort to save humanity by relocating it to another world. The task of finding that world falls to Cooper and NASA’s scientists, but the means of getting to our potential new home will mean that he may not return until Murphy is much older… if she’s alive at all.

Christopher Nolan, as a filmmaker, has a proven record for the correct means to frame and present a shot. The depictions of cosmic phenomena in Interstellar are clear, intriguing, and at times, breathtaking. Nolan has also proven that his films ply towards fidelity for the real and the scientifically possible. One of the hallmarks of his Dark Knight trilogy, for better or for worse, places the world, villains, and gadgetry of Batman squarely in the realm of the feasible. Interstellar‘s physics and science, while at least partially theoretical, are presented with as much fact and fidelity as possible. Between these two aspects, Interstellar has elements that could have lead it to be this generation’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Courtesy Warner Bros.
Believe it or not, folks, space has three dimensions! Maybe more!

However, Christopher Nolan struggles with one of the most vital aspects of effective filmmaking: the human factor. The moments of awe-inspiring visuals, impressive and breathtaking all on their own, are often interrupted with a scientific explanation or an oppressive orchestral sting from Hans Zimmer’s bombastic, grandiose score. A great deal of this film’s significant run-time is occupied with in-depth scientific explanations of this or that portion of the goings-on, and while the film never makes the mistake of talking down to its audience, it does seem to have trouble properly conveying human emotion in the same way it does theoretical extra-dimensional concepts. This is a stumbling block Nolan has run into before, and he’s still not quite at a level of showing humans being human as, say Steven Speilberg, who was originally slated to direct Interstellar.

Thankfully, Nolan has the good sense to line up a well-rounded cast of excellent actors. It’s unfortunate that he has to make them work so hard to squeeze the right amount of emotional complexity out of his surface-level script, but these are masters of their craft. Matthew McConaughey, who has been enjoying a bit of a revival in his career, is completely comfortable and incredibly adept at conveying everyman pathos that makes scenes with his daughter deeply effective and puts his point of view squarely in line with that of the audience. Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain do the bulk of the non-main-character heavy lifting, every bit as effective and engaging as Matthew, bridging the gap between Nolan’s clinical, distant perspective on the human experience, and the realities of our everyday lives. It’s hard work, and the strain shows in places, but gets the job done.

Courtesy Warner Bros
When you’re not sure how to do the human thing, get the most human actors you can. This is one of them.

That is actually an apt description for the experience of Interstellar as a whole. In terms of a hard sci-fi epic that pushes the boundaries of our notions of what is possible in space exploration, it gets the job done. It’s very well constructed, and definitely takes the audience on a worthwhile journey, but the experience could have been tightened, the moments of wonder more awe-inspiring. There is a moment in Inception where the film stops explaining itself, and lets its story and drama unfold without further comment or pretense. That moment never comes in Interstellar. Its “twists” being either predictable or superfluous and its science suffering from nigh-constant in-universe fact-checking undercut what would have otherwise been a very effective storytelling experience. Interstellar could have been a breathtaking epic of proportions not seen since the days of Kubrick, and clearly had that ambition. The fact that it falls short of that mark just means that its flaws are all the more glaring, at least to someone like myself. It’s quite good, and worth seeing on the big screen, but I sadly doubt it has the kind of staying power we’ve seen with some of Nolan’s other work. What Interstellar does, it does well, but it could have done more.

Lest We Forget

American flag

I know this is a rehash of a previous post. I’m not altering a word in or after the block quote. I believe that these ideas are worth repeating, because we’re talking about people who voluntarily walk into warzones and don’t necessarily walk back out; if they do, chances are, they will never be the same.

I tend to run a post that reads like this when a posting date falls on Memorial Day:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

We have the country we have today because people got pissed off enough to fight for it.

America’s military is based entirely on volunteer service. People enlist for various reasons, from pure-hearted desire to serve the country to paying for a college education. And those who can already afford college can embark upon a career as an officer right from the start. The important fact, though, is that none of it is compulsory. Nobody is making these young men and women sign up for service that could ultimately mean they’re going to die far from home, in some foreign land, possibly alone with no one to remember them save for a line item in a report listing them as “Missing In Action”.

Other countries compel their citizens to join the military from an early age. There’s no choice in the matter. Regardless of how you feel about your country, you’re going to be serving in its military. As much as I admire Heinlein, the idea of compulsory military service being the only route to citizenship is a pretty scary one. But unless I’m mistaken, no country has gone completely that far yet.

Here, though, every person who puts on that uniform, male or female, young or old, gay or straight, left or right, does so for the same reason. They want to serve. They chose to answer the call to duty. Nobody made them.
And if they died on a foreign shore, they did so as the ultimate result of that choice. As lonely, painful, cold and dark as it might have been for them, it is a deep hope of mine that they do not consider themselves forgotten.

We have not forgotten.

Read the rest here

It may seem we have forgotten to some veterans, though. If they make it home, they tend to bear scars, and not always obvious ones. It’s shamefully easier to sympathize with a soldier who’s lost a limb or suffered major facial trauma than it is one who seems intact in body but says nothing about what’s going on in his or her mind.

These are people who, because of a choice they made, have stared death in the face, and been told, ordered, demanded not to flinch.

We hold soldiers in high esteem. Most see them as brave or even fearless. But they’re human beings, just like you and me. They have our doubts, our fears, our weaknesses. They, like us, are mortal. They’re going to die, and some die on foreign shores because they’re told to be there.

They fight for us anyway, and that’s what makes them great, and worth remembering.

I don’t have any particular charity or cause to champion here, nor do I know how easily one can get to some place like Walter Reed to see what becomes of those who only partially make it home. All I ask is that you remember them, not just today, but every day.