Wednesday, December 30, 2009

One year after Operation Cast Lead

An 85-year-old survivor of the Nazi holocaust has begun a hunger strike in response to the Israeli authorities' denial of human rights in Gaza.

Meanwhile, victims of the Israeli military offensive into Gaza that occured exactly a year ago are still living in horrific conditions and awaiting justice. This is despite the fact that the UN Human Rights Council, after investigating, issued a report in September 2009 which concluded that both the Israeli military forces and Palestinian armed groups committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.

Why do we as a nation continue to give billions of dollars each year to Israel (most in the form of Military aid) without requiring that they conform to the rules of human rights and civil rights that we claim to uphold?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Advent Conspiracy

Something to think about this Christmas...

Summer Rains

It's now officially Winter, but I'm thinking about Summer...

Monday, December 21, 2009

My review of Avatar (contains spoilers)

Well I just got home from seeing Avatar (in 3D!). It was an entertaining film, but it was also so much less than it could have been. Visually and technologically it was superb. The plot, however, was derivative and hackneyed. Overall, it was the movie equivalent of a Pop-Tart: colorful and yummy but lacking real substance.

But hey, sometimes I like a good Pop-Tart.

As I watched, I had a nagging feeling that it all seemed vaguely familiar. Then it hit me: Ferngully! This is Ferngully for grownups!

Although visually the film was in 3D, from a plot standpoint the characters were very two dimensional: The military guys are (with two exceptions) all stereotypical thugs. The scientists are all thoughtful and benevolent. The corporate guy is greedy and crass. The Na'vi (natives) are noble savages. All of the characters fit into simple and cartoon-like categories, so we know who to cheer for and who to boo at. The ending wraps up everything nice and neat and tidy for us.

The theological world of the noble Na'vi is one of insipid new-agey pantheism, which seemed to have been cribbed from Disney's 'Pocahontas'. The plants and animals and trees and Na'vi are all interconnected in an environmentally-friendly web of eco-consciousness. Or something like that. I half expected to hear Elton John singing "The Circle of Life." On the other hand, religion didn't even appear to be on the radar screen of the human characters. The concept of a personal, transcendent deity was nowhere in sight.

The MacGuffin of the film is a rare and valuable mineral called--I kid you not--"unobtainium." Other than being described as the motivator for the human's rapacious conquest of the Na'vi planet, it is given no further explanation. Why do the humans need unobtainium so badly? I assumed that, at some point, it would come into play--perhaps to provide a key twist or revelation--but it turned out to be nothing more than an element to drive the plot.

The most disappointing thing about Avatar was that Cameron relied on the tried and true mechanism of having the characters use violence to resolve the film's conflicts. Walter Wink, in his fantastic book 'The Powers That Be' calls this "the myth of redemptive violence." I was hoping for something more profound and thought-provoking, but ultimately it came down to guns and knives and rockets and arrows and grenades and spears and big explosions and various people dying in entertaining ways. Some have said that Avatar carries an anti-war message, yet it is war that was presented as the only solution to the conflict between the Na'vi and the humans. The underdog Na'vi win the battle, the humans go home, end of story. Of course, if they make a sequel and it follows the history of the American Indians (upon which the Na'vi are obviously based) the humans will just return with a larger army and finish the job. It would have been so much more interesting if the enlightened Na'vi and their spiritually intelligent planet could have come up with a more creative and redemptive way to teach us naughty humans a lesson.

So there you have it: Ferngully meets Pocahontas, but with more weaponry and a much bigger budget.

A movie with a very similar plotline, but better written and with a more satisfying ending, is the lovely animated film 'Battle for Terra'. If you liked Avatar, go rent 'Battle for Terra'.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Christmas Truce of 1914

(This is from an article that appeared in this month's Real Change magazine. It was originally printed in Ireland's Issues magazine. I have edited it slightly)

If there is one story that embodies the true spirit of Christmas, and--even in these cynical times--reminds us that humanity can exist even under the most horrendous circumstances, it is the story of true events that took place on the front lines in France on Christmas Day during World War I. On that day German, British, French and Belgian soldiers in the midst of a relentless bloody battle (which had already left hundreds of dead bodies littering their trenches) laid down their arms and called a truce in order to allow each other to celebrate Christmas. Not only did they stop fighting, but they sang hymns together, played soccer together, shared food and beer and even swapped photographs and stories of their wives and families back home.

By the end of November in 1914, although the war had only been raging for a little over four months, there were almost a million people dead as new weapons like machine guns turned the fields of France into blood soaked abattoirs. With the Germans moving swiftly through Europe, the allies were forced to build defensive trenches stretching almost 400 miles from the English Channel to Switzerland. The armies dug themselves in and tried to repel one another. Deadlocked only thirty feet apart, the two opposing armies attacked each other across a ‘no man’s land’ with barrages that would last for days on end.

The numbers of dead were mounting steadily and the harsh winter was quickly setting in, making life in the trenches unbearably grim for the enlisted men stranded there. That December it rained every single day so the troops would be sitting in trenches sometimes immersed in five feet of ice-cold rotting water. In those days people didn’t always die quickly from their wounds. They would often lie in agony for days, crying in terror as their comrades looked on, helpless to assist them, until blood poisoning or some other infection would finally put an end to their suffering. The ground was frozen, so these brave fallen comrades could not be buried. Disease was rampant. Rats and lice fought with the men for the meager space and the even sparser rations. ‘Trench Foot’, dysentery and gangrene were commonplace. If there was a hell on earth, this must surely have been it, but both sides continued to obey their superiors and fight on. By Christmas, millions of soldiers were entrenched in this dire situation, attacking each other with a grim futility as snow fell on the ground and the rest of the world looked on in horror.

But on December 24th, Christmas Eve, as temperatures dropped below freezing, something happened: The fighting stopped on both sides and the thousands of enlisted men forgot the bloody war they were waging against each other and instead joined in a celebration of Christmas. How it happened is uncertain, but records suggest that this ‘truce’ was initiated by the Germans. During the evening a chocolate cake was delivered to the British lines, with a note that proposed a cease-fire so that they (the Germans) could have a concert. The British accepted, and offered some tobacco as a return gift to their enemies. The guns fell silent and the British were treated to the beautiful sound of German soldiers singing ‘Stille Nacht’ (Silent Night), and the light of hundreds of small candles ‘like the footlights of a theatre' (as one British solider said afterwards) spread down the trenches. This goodwill soon spread down 27 miles of the front-line as soldiers from both sides put down their weapons and, shouting at each other not to shoot, began calling seasonal messages of goodwill to each across the front line; singing Christmas carols, exchanging gifts and even indulging in a game of soccer.

Frank Richards was one of the enlisted men in those trenches in 1914 and his eye-witness account was reported in his 1933 book ‘Old Soldiers Never Die’:

‘On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it, the enemy stuck up a similar one…two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped up on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two Germans did the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.’

Richards reports how his company commander tried to prevent this from happening, but he was too late: Before long the whole company had left the trenches to meet their German counterparts. Finally the Officers on both sides joined in.

‘We mucked about all day with them; some of them spoke English and said they were fed up to the neck with this damned war and would be glad when it was over. We told him he wasn’t the only one who was fed up. By the look of their trenches they were in as bad a state as ours were, through we did not allow them in ours or go into theirs.’

The men on both sides discovered that their so-called ‘enemies’ were just ordinary men like themselves, heartsick at the war and home-sick for wives and children and loved ones. They swapped photos of those they had left behind and chatted, using sign-language where there was no common tongue. ‘When they couldn’t talk with a language,’ recalled one soldier, Cpl John Ferguson of the Seaforth Highlanders, ‘they were making themselves understood by signs. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill.’

The German commanders then rolled over barrels of beer, promising not to get the men drunk (this was French beer, and was 'rotten stuff' according to Richards) and plum pudding was shared by the officers, who drank to each others health. One German participant commented afterwards: ‘It was a day of peace in war – it is only a pity it was not a decisive peace.’

Just before midnight on Christmas night, when offensives were due to be resumed, the enlisted men on the British side decided among themselves not to begin shooting until the Germans fired the first shot, but their enemies seemed just as reluctant to resume fighting. Alll during the night there was silence. Not a shot was fired by either side.

‘During the whole of Boxing day we never fired a shot,’ remembered Richards. ‘And they were the same - each side seemed to be waiting for the other to set the ball rolling. One man shouted over and asked us if we had enjoyed the beer – we shouted back and told them it was very weak but we were grateful for it. We were conversing on and off for the whole of Boxing Day.’

Sadly, of course, this truce was not to last. The High Commanders on all sides were not at all happy with the situation. On December 29th, a German Commander ordered that all fraternization with the enemy would be punished as ‘high treason.’ It is also reported that Ian Calhoun, one of the British Commanding officers involved in the Christmas Truce, was court-martialed for ‘consorting with the enemy’ and sentenced to death (he was later pardoned by King George V). By the time the war finally ended, over 15 million people had died, but--for that short time at least--these men were allowed to remember and celebrate the simple message of Christ’s birth: Peace and goodwill to all men. also has an excellent article about the 1914 Christmas Truce:

Paul McCartney made a lovely music video based on these events for his song "Pipes of Peace":

Friday, December 18, 2009

The "2009 Obama Republican Survey"

I must still be on the Republican Party's membership roles somewhere. Today I received a "2009 Obama Agenda Survey" from Michael Steele and the Republican National Committee. It is the most crass, disingenuous and intellectually insulting thing I've seen in a long time. If I hadn't already left the Republican Party, I certainly would after reading this "survey", which is actually a fundraising letter.

The bizarre "Obama Agenda Survey" includes questions such as, “Are you in favor of reinstituting the military draft, as Democrats in Congress have proposed?” (despite the fact that it's been three years since Democrat Representative Charles Rangel last introduced his bill to bring back the draft and the intention of Rangel's bill was to point out the absurdity of the Bush's war aspirations. As Rangel said at the time, "I don't expect my bill to pass; my purpose in introducing this legislation is for it to serve as a constant reminder that we have lost 2,200 of the best, brightest and bravest Americans, have had thousands more maimed, and countless Iraqi citizens killed.")

Ridiculous gimmicks like these "survey questions", which are used as a lead-in to asking for contributions, make it appear as if the Republican National Committee thinks their constituents are morons.

What on earth were they thinking? I can only conclude that it is desperation. Read it for yourself HERE.