Friday, September 22, 2006

Of Mountains and Planets

A couple of days ago I happened to watch the 1995 comedy The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, a film that naturally brings to mind a recent controversy. I'd intended to see this film for quite some time. I've long been an admirer of the actor Hugh Grant even though I have disliked many of his films, including the massively overrated Four Weddings and a Funeral. Only in recent years have I warmed up to his work, most notably with About a Boy and Love Actually. He has a particular presence that shines through even his lesser roles.

I got a little worried by the film's opening sequence depicting an old man telling a story to his grandson. Movies about adults telling stories to kids tend to have an artificial feel (though there are exceptions, like The Princess Bride). Fortunately, the film doesn't dwell on this contrived story device, and it quickly becomes an engaging British comedy that is hard to look at today without being reminded of the Pluto controversy.

The film takes place during World War I. Two English mapmakers (the younger one played by Grant) are sent to a Welsh village to survey a local mountain to see if it's really a mountain. Their readings show it to have only a 986-foot elevation, which means it has to be demoted to a hill, because it falls short of the 1,000-foot minimum needed to be considered a mountain. The villagers are tremendously upset by this revelation. As the grandfather narrator explains, "The Egyptians built pyramids, the Greeks built temples, but we did none of that, because we had mountains. Yes, the Welsh were created by mountains: where the mountain starts, there starts Wales. If this isn't a mountain...then [Grant's character] might just as well redraw the border and put us all in England, God forbid." (A great deal of the movie's humor comes from the cultural pride of the Welsh villagers and their antagonism toward these English outsiders.) Grant insists that he's only a scientist, out to discover the truth, and that the mountain, hill, or whatever is still a wonderful landmark regardless of its height. The villagers won't have any of it. They quickly craft a plan to fill in the missing 14 feet, while devising ways to keep the mapmakers from leaving town. The film manages to take this premise and stretch it to 90 minutes, with even a love story thrown in to boot.

For those who've been following recent news, does any of this sound awfully familiar? The film is from 1995. I've heard that the controversy over Pluto's status goes back to 1992, though I personally didn't hear about it until a few years ago. I doubt that the people who made this film had it in mind. But it's hard not to notice the parallels.

The controversy was provoked by the discovery that, well, Pluto is too small to be a planet. But what exactly defines a planet? Given that almost all our knowledge of planets comes from our solar system, there's very limited information to work with. You can call Pluto a planet, if you like. The problem is that, to be consistent you then have to include in your definition hundreds of other objects in the solar system that have not previously been considered planets. (Actually, they've previously been known as minor planets, or dwarf planets.) Not only are some of those objects larger than Pluto, but Pluto itself lacks many of the characteristics that the other "official" planets possess, such as a uniform orbit.

But the demotion of Pluto was met with outrage by some, depressed resignation by others. Part of the problem is that it's the only "planet" discovered by an American. When you listen to people's reaction to the demotion, you hear echoes of an emotional plea. As one curator of the American Museum of Natural History put it, "We had enormous numbers of telephone calls and I would say things that verged on hate mail from second-graders--very angry children who said, 'What have you done? This is the cutest, most Disney-esque of the planets. How could you possibly demote it?'"

Of course, unlike in the film, there isn't going to be any campaign to add piles of dirt to Pluto so that it qualifies as a planet once again. With no way to reach Pluto, much less change its appearance, the best we can do is argue about definitions. Still, the clash of science with culture must be something of a universal theme. Someone now ought to write a sci-fi parody titled The Astronaut Who Landed on a Planet But Left an Asteroid.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Religious tabloids

(Cross-posted at DovBear's blog.)

I see that Krum has posted about Yated Ne'eman's biases. I don't know if I've ever heard a bigger understatement. Yated Ne'eman doesn't just slant. It lies.

This became abundantly clear to me a few years ago when the paper did an article on Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. Rabbi Eckstein is controversial because of his attempts to build bridges between Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians. The Atlanta Jewish Times did a good profile of him in this article.

One day, Yated attacked Rabbi Eckstein. That in itself did not surprise me. It was the manner of the attack that caught my attention. According to Yated, Rabbi Eckstein had recently converted to Messianic Judaism:
In ads and books, [Eckstein's organization] has made numerous alarming remarks over the years, including Eckstein's declaration in one of his books that he had become a Jew for J. Eckstein has denied that he is a Jew for J.
Now, that's a pretty serious charge. But what was particularly confusing is that the two above sentences border on contradicting each other. One sentence says that R. Eckstein announced in a book that he'd become a Jew for Jesus, the next sentence claims that he has denied the charges. The conflation of the two sentences makes the paragraph come off rather like a Wikipedia article.

But this is one of the strange things I've noticed about Yated. It's not just that the paper lies. The paper lies, but unconvincingly. Even if I'd known nothing about R. Eckstein, I still would have been scratching my head after reading this article.

So, what is the truth of the matter? In 2001, R. Eckstein released a novel called The Journey Home. In that novel, a fictional version of R. Eckstein travels with a fictional version of a real-life Christian friend of his in the Holy Land. At one point, the rabbi says, "While I still don't believe in Jesus as the Christ as Jamie does, and view him instead as a Jew who brought salvation to the gentiles, in some respects, that is exactly what I have become--a Jew for Jesus."

Now, I can understand why some Orthodox Jews were alarmed by this statement. But that doesn't give anyone the right to lie about R. Eckstein. If Yated had clarified that this was a fictional story, and that even the fictional version of Eckstein was not embracing Messianic Judaism, the attack on Eckstein would have been more credible.

Of course, the article does quote someone defending R. Eckstein by pointing out that the claim against him was based on "words taken out of context from a story that was totally fictitious." But the article never explains what this remark means. It leaves readers with the impression that the rabbi really did become a Messianic Jew. Who cares if he claims that his comment was taken out of context? That's what they all say!

A couple of months ago, Rabbi Harry Maryles wrote on his blog about an article in Yated written by Dr. David Berger against Lubavitch. I objected to Harry's source, both because Dr. Berger is a known anti-Chabad zealot and because Yated is not a reliable source. Harry agreed with me, admitting that Yated was biased and even dishonest. But he insisted that they lie not overtly but "by omission." I remembered that Harry had on another occasion mentioned being friends with Rabbi Eckstein. Knowing this, I showed him the Yated article on Eckstein. This was Harry's response:
OK. I admit this stretches the outer reaches of truth, but although they are obviously wrong, I do not think they think they were deliberately lying. They were presenting the views of their misinformed Gedolim as fact. This is not the same as a deliberate lie.
I find the above statement disturbing to the max. So it's supposed to be better if Gedolim came up with the false information rather than the paper itself? And where did the Gedolim get the false information? At some point, somebody had to be lying--either that, or they were so careless they literally didn't care whether what they were writing was true or not. The article didn't just print a false rumor. It printed the rumor, but also printed the fact that R. Eckstein disputed the charges, and it vaguely hinted as to why the charges were disputed. But it still stated the false claim as fact.

Harry asked Dr. Berger, who is Modern Orthodox, why he had chosen to print his article in Yated. Dr. Berger contributed a lengthy explanation. He said that he was actually impressed by Yated's standards, because the editor censored a few sentences from his article. In Dr. Berger's words,
I argued that this additional information is critically important, but the editor felt that it was not important enough to overcome the larger editorial policy. I did not draw a line in the sand and allowed the deletion. While I think the editor's decision was mistaken, I admire the commitment to avoiding what he sees as unseemly content, a commitment that overrode any desire to add additional unfavorable information about Lubavitch. I ask myself if I can think of any other forum that would be so fastidious, and I come up empty.
Sarcastically, I replied, "Yeah, they think it's unseemly to mention Jesus by name, but they don't have a problem with falsely accusing someone of worshipping him."

Anyone familiar with Yated knows that distortions of this magnitude are hardly uncommon. The article on R. Eckstein appeared at least a year before the Slifkin controversy erupted, with all the lies and false rumors that went along with that account. Yated is essentially a mouthpiece for the forces responsible for the Slifkin fiasco.

Not too long ago, an article in the Baltimore Jewish News (the Orthodox spinoff of the Baltimore Jewish Times) talked about how Orthodox families in Baltimore handled exposure to secular media. A couple of the families interviewed were uncomfortable getting newspapers like The Baltimore Sun and The New York Times because of their perceived liberal and/or anti-Israel slant. One family preferred The Wall Street Journal, while another preferred, er, Yated Ne'eman.

There's nothing wrong with getting your news from the WSJ, because that publication, like The New York Times, is a legitimate newspaper, ideological slant or no. Sure, they may have occasional lapses from their fairly high standards, but at least they have standards. To prefer Yated, on the other hand, is laughable. Yated isn't a real newspaper; it's a frum tabloid rag. It's amazing to me that the same people who accuse others of being brainwashed are the most eager to brainwash themselves.

Bush is like Chauncey Gardiner

This is a post I wrote long ago, and recently posted to DovBear's blog.

Being There is one of the best films I have ever seen. It came out in 1979 but seems remarkably relevant today. I'm not the first person to have noticed similarities between President Bush and Chauncey Gardiner, but I did come to this conclusion independently.

Peter Sellers stars as a mentally retarded man, Chauncey, who, through a series of accidents, gets mistaken for a great thinker. His actual understanding of the world is so limited that he thinks a television set is people in a box. His only area of expertise is gardening. But nobody seems to notice this, and they interpret his literal statements about TV-watching and gardening (e.g., "As long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well, in the garden") as profound metaphors about the world. When he tells someone he can't read, the person thinks he means that he doesn't have the time in this busy world. (Sound familiar?) Gradually, he becomes famous, appearing on talk shows and meeting with public officials. All the while, nobody seems to notice that he doesn't have a clue what's going on! Everyone assumes he's this sophisticated, high-class thinker and misinterprets the simple, mundane things he says as brilliant kernels of wisdom. The film ends with the suggestion that the people around him might have him run for president.

None of this is meant to be taken literally, of course. The story is a satire designed to skewer the vapidity of television culture. I don't think the author of this tale, Jerzy Kosinski, ever foresaw that the situation he was describing would actually come true one day.

You might call me a Bush hater, but that would be a mistake. The Bush haters greatly overestimate Dubya's intelligence. Sure, they all say "Bush is a moron," reciting those words like a mantra, but they don't act like they really believe it. They give the man an awful lot of credit for the actions and policies of the Bush Administration, as though he's somehow in charge of everything rather than (as I see it) a puppet being controlled by others. When a reporter asked him for his opinion following the revelation of Deep Throat's identity, this was his response: "I don't have an opinion yet." Open-minded, huh? I'm sure that's how his admirers have spun it. I have a more sinister explanation: he hadn't yet discussed the matter with his advisors, who would tell him what his opinion should be.

He's like that a lot. You think he's the one who came up with those words about the sacrifice in Iraq being worth it? He never writes his speeches. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that; most politicians have speechwriters. But the thing about Bush is that, in everything he does, he seems to rely heavily on the efforts of other people--Dick Cheney, Karl Rove ("Bush's Brain"), Condaleeza Rice. Remember Fahrenheit 9/11 and all the vacation time he spends? It often seems like Cheney's really the acting president, while Bush goes off to play golf, or jog, or relax somewhere. He has had this reputation ever since he was governor of Texas, a position, I should point out, that has so little power it's almost symbolic.

But what's truly amazing is how little the public notices this, even when they disagree with him. Take the aftermath of 9/11. He looks noble, delivers a nice speech he didn't write, and suddenly he's the most popular president ever. His handling of 9/11 was no more impressive than I would expect from any other president. He was just fortunate enough to be around when this great tragedy happened, and he has continually exploited its political value ever since. When he arrives with Bin Laden in chains, I'll give him credit. Until then, he should shut his trap.

I may be making the same mistake I mentioned before, of crediting Bush with the actions of others in the administration. It's often hard to tell who's really making the decisions, since most of Bush's public appearances are scripted. When he's forced to make off-the-cuff remarks every now and then, he ends up saying stupid things that reveal a startling lack of understanding. Rove is actually on record having instructed Bush to make as few public appearances as possible during his 1998 gubernatorial run. They wanted to keep him out of the limelight as much as possible, otherwise people were bound to notice that the emperor has no clothes.

What about his handling of debates? Wasn't there a consensus that he won all those debates against Ann Richards and Al Gore? What we have to realize is that ever since the first televised presidential debate in 1960, the press has had a strange tendency to judge a candidate's performance based on criteria that have absolutely nothing to do with the content of what the person is saying. In 2000, Al Gore was said to have "lost" the debates because of his body language and subtle behavior--he rolled his eyes a lot, stepped into Bush's space--making him come off, supposedly, as arrogant and rude. Then there was the matter of Gore's alleged "exaggerations," like saying he went to a Texas fire site with James Lee Witt, when in reality he went with another official, and traveled with Witt during another incident. The press jumped on Gore for this minor blunder, acting like he was a liar, all the while ignoring Bush's misstatements during the same debates (and there were several). The emphasis on all this trivial stuff ended up overshadowing the fact that the polls taken right after two of the debates showed that the initial consensus was that Gore had won. Only after the press started focusing on these irrelevant details did people change their minds.

If you actually listen to what Bush says during the debates, a different picture emerges. He frequently doesn't answer the questions given to him, sometimes completely changing the subject to talk about something else (i.e., something he's rehearsed). When he does come up with answers of his own, they are startlingly simplistic. A lot of what he does is just repeat key themes over and over, a technique that has proven effective. And his admirers mistake the simplicity for clarity.

As Roger Ebert wrote in his book The Great Movies II, Bush has never said anything Chauncey Gardiner couldn't have said. This is not to suggest that Bush is actually retarded--I'm not prepared to back that up, and it isn't true. He seems to have certain kinds of smarts. But he's intellectually vapid, and proud of it. (He actually boasted to having been a C student.) He's like Chauncey in the sense that he's a know-nothing who's being controlled by the people around him.