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September 11 and Saudi Arabia

salargeLast night’s discussion at LA’s Hammer Museum, a Hammer Forum program titled “9/11: the Saudi Connection”, brought an invigorating exchange of ideas and projections and a powerful call to action.

The program, moderated by local public radio’s Ian Masters, who rightly pointed out in his introduction that Islam is not the exclusive source of religious fundamentalism, featured former CIA operative and CNN security analyst Robert Baer and former U.S. Senator and 9/11 Commission member Bob Graham. Baer and Graham have written books about Islamic terrorism, the September 11, 2001 attack and Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of acts of war against the West.

Baer, who has been to Saudi Arabia, called the dictatorship—which everyone kept calling a “kingdom”—”a country in peril.” As he does on cable news shows, Baer sees Saudi Arabia’s demise as imminent due to a “herd mentality” which has become embedded in the country, which, he added and emphasized, “cannot stand for long”. In a short speech, Baer made reference to the fact that, for all practical purposes, Syria and Iraq no longer exist as functional states run by governments (as I recognized about Iraq earlier this year). For the same reasons, he explained, Saudi Arabia’s origins as an artificial country formed in tribes in 1932 preclude its continued existence.

Baer contends that the Middle East is driven by tribalism, not ideology. He sees tribalism as the larger threat to the West. In the contest between Shiite and Sunni Moslems, Baer counts four Sunni-dominated Mideast capitals which have recently been lost to Shiite Moslems: Baghdad, Beirut, Sunna and Damascus, which he sees as fueling discord and war in the region, leading to the fall of Saudi Arabia and displacement of as many as 120 million Arabs fleeing into the West.

Baer’s assessment is sobering. But Baer adds that he thinks Islamic terrorists are neither evil—he thinks modern Middle East problems are caused by Western “imperialism”—nor moved by ideology, i.e., fundamentalist, radical or jihadist Islam, terms he declined to use throughout the evening. In fact, he kept insisting that he’s not an apologist for Islamic jihad but, by denying the role of ideas and rationalizing Islamic terrorism, he is.

Despite this moral error, Baer’s practical and historical observations, forecasts and accounts should be taken seriously. He argues that, because Saudi Arabia depends on subsidies and being the West’s sole, main supplier of oil, the dictatorship wants the oil industry’s fracking to stop. His comments on how fracking has hurt Saudi Arabia did not go over well with the left-wing, west Los Angeles audience, but he explained why fracking—and America’s decreased dependency on Saudi oil—is relevant to the region’s stability. Additionally, during Q & A, Baer added when asked that he regards Edward Snowden as an annoyance, though he admits that indiscriminate mass surveillance does not protect the United States. In short, Baer’s projection that Saudi Arabia’s days are numbered is cogent where his causal connection is not.

On the other hand, Florida’s former Sen. Bob Graham displayed full moral clarity.

Sen. Graham, acting in this capacity as an American statesman in the best sense, called upon his memory of the 9/11 Commission’s first witness, a woman named Kristen Breitweiser, who had lost her husband Bob in the attack. He reminded the audience that Americans have an obligation to answer why? And: Did the hijackers act alone? He told the Los Angeles audience that the first two hijackers entered the United States through Los Angeles International Airport and detailed specific meetings implicating Saudi Arabia (as does my own research, first posted here). He spoke about the San Diego connection and how $50,000 for the hijackers was dispatched from the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC to a woman. He mentioned the prominent Sarasota, Florida, family and their connection to three Florida-based 9/11 hijackers and explained how the family returned to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Graham spoke of discrepancies in the FBI investigation and, once again, urged the audience to press the U.S. government to declassify and release the 9/11 report’s 28 classified pages (which he has read) detailing the attack’s financing by Saudi Arabia.

Sen. Graham named President Lincoln as a great president for insisting upon transparency in government during the Civil War, knowing it would make U.S. allies look bad and he praised Lincoln for putting the enlightenment of the American people above sparing an ally’s embarrassment. The Democrat singled out the Obama administration for criticism. He denounced American “passivity” about this 14-year-old Islamic act of war. When asked to name the best presidential candidate in terms of disclosure about the attack on September 11, 2001, Graham answered succinctly and without pause: “Rand Paul”, who supports releasing the 28 classified pages.

In a moment of rare, bipartisan unity around an intelligent idea to advance national defense, Baer agreed with Rand Paul and Bob Graham about declassifying the 28 pages and said that he, too, thinks the pages should be released. Judging by audience response, by the program’s end, most in the audience seemed to agree. Finally, Baer, whatever his flaws, expressed the perfect afterthought to Sen. Graham’s crusade to illuminate the facts of the September 11, 2001 mass murder: “Rational people must [be free to] make up their minds.”

With Saudi Arabia proposing to build 200 mosques in Germany as a “response” to the exodus from Arab states to Western Europe (reported here during the presentation), let me add: rational people haven’t much time.

Movie & Blu-Ray Review: Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (1997)


Click to Buy

Strand Releasing’s 1997 documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, is, in retrospect, a cinematic achievement. The 143-minute movie debuts on Blu-Ray on July 28.

Other than a new trailer and enhanced English SHD sound, this is the same product as the Collector’s DVD edition several years ago. But Objectivists, Ayn Rand fans and those who recognize the power and relevance of her novels We the Living (1936), Anthem (1938), The Fountainhead (1943) and, in particular, her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (1957), and her books and other writings, should invest in owning this film if they don’t already have it.

Given the historic events since writer and director Michael Paxton‘s Oscar-nominated movie was released in movie theaters, the reasons to see it have multiplied.

In silent movie clips, letters, pictures, drawings, paintings, interviews, dramatization and animation, Paxton pieces together the ideas, stories and events in Rand’s life in chronological order. This approach allows the viewer to discover, rediscover and appreciate her life, career and philosophy. It is factual, thoughtful and respectful, even reverential, without being overloaded, dense or dogmatic. Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life depicts Ayn Rand (1905-1982) as the heroic figure she was.

Backed by documentary evidence, from her original name on a ship’s passenger manifest during her escape from Soviet Russia to highlighted stills with Rand as an extra on Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings, Paxton presents Ayn Rand’s life in terms of essentials. For example, he integrates a movie diary entry and early clip of the silent film era’s Gish sisters with their later intersection in Ayn Rand’s life. This theme of realizing heroic ideals and goals recurs throughout the faded photograph-styled motion picture, with movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper. Aided by actress Sharon Gless (Burn Notice), who narrates the film with grace, and Jeff Britting’s correspondingly ascendant score, segmented snippets, scenes and stories converge as a whole picture. Among those interviewed are Objectivist intellectuals who knew Rand, including her heir and Ayn Rand Institute founder Leonard Peikoff (for full disclosure, I am an Objectivist and I’ve met and studied, worked or become friends with some of those involved or who appear, including Paxton and Peikoff). The late CBS News journalist Mike Wallace is also interviewed.

Accordingly, one gets a strong sense of a personal life, including the affair with psychologist Nathaniel Branden, which is telescoped here for practical purposes, and her friends, associates and preferences. Ayn Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor, is a steady yet elusive figure.

But the focus is on her intellectual development as a philosopher and progression as a writer, from childhood and studies in St. Petersburg and witnessing the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to her brief time in Berlin, on the trans-Atlantic voyage to New York City, months in Chicago, Hollywood years and on lecture tour. Finally, Ayn Rand triumphs in New York City, where she creates Objectivism and writes Atlas Shrugged. The movie deposits each part of her life into the big picture. Of course, it is larger than life.

Asked to write a screenplay for DeMille called “The Skyscraper”, selling an adaptation of her story Red Pawn, seeing her play, Penthouse Legend, morphed into something else, one sees the challenge, effort and struggle of the young writer Ayn Rand. The initial allure of a screen version of her anti-dictatorship novel We the Living, which was published in Hollywood’s Red Decade, draws attention from Bette Davis, who apparently indicated that she wanted to portray the heroine, Kira, until she was advised that doing so might hurt her career. A pirate film version was made in fascist Italy (the best movie based on an Ayn Rand novel; read my review here) in 1942. A Sense of Life recalls Ayn Rand meeting the only actress to portray Kira on screen, Alida Valli, who tried to persuade David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind) to make We the Living in Hollywood.

The nation’s decline permeates the film. Ayn Rand begins life as an eager newcomer, distressed to have missed a sight of the Statue of Liberty while entering New York, where her life ends after it seems as if almost everyone in America missed the point of her novels and philosophy. Part of what makes A Sense of Life an accomplishment is its objectivity with regard to her legacy. Ayn Rand’s answers, estimates and explanations, presented in quotations, papers and audio-visual excerpts, speak volumes.

“If anyone destroys this country,” Ayn Rand says at one point in a late night interview with Tom Snyder on NBC in the 1970s, “it will be the conservatives. Because they’re all altruists.”

Whether appearing on the Today Show, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or Snyder’s Tomorrow Show, Ayn Rand was extremely clear and concise. Those familiar with her books will find much to think about. Even those who are agnostic or hostile to her philosophy may gain from seeing her in action through archival material. Those who are new to Ayn Rand will learn about the philosophy in a general, not pedantic, sense. Each viewer will learn more about what moved her to create a system of thought so radical, controversial and enduring. Everyone watching the movie can judge Ayn Rand as she thought, wrote and lived.

This includes her relationship with her husband, whom she apparently adored, and her professional connections with those who advocated for the publication and adaptation of her books, including Warner Bros.’ advocate for making The Fountainhead, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ayn Rand’s family. Whether in a movie clip of Ayn Rand at her Richard Neutra-designed home in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley or footage of her congressional testimony against Communist infiltration of Hollywood studios, Paxton ranges over the sweep of her private and professional life.

However, this is earned in steps, not lobbed as a propaganda piece (such as 2012’s Ayn Rand and the Prophecy of Altas Shrugged), and Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is gentle, not overbearing.

There is an emphasis on Hollywood, which deals in pictures, and the film regards her foremost as an artist who is a philosopher, not the reverse. Pictures evolve into its progression and vice versa: Ayn Rand meets legendary movie producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca), for whom she wrote Love Letters with Jennifer Jones and You Came Along with Lizabeth Scott, writes Anthem, campaigns for Wendell Willkie’s 1940 presidential candidacy, is deemed “too harsh” by Hollywood conservatives and suggests Garbo, with whom The Fountainhead director King Vidor subsequently met, to portray Dominique Francon on screen (which did not happen; the part went to Patricia Neal).

That’s merely when she was young. If Ayn Rand’s life is like something out of Ayn Rand’s fiction—meeting DeMille on the movie studio lot, meeting her future husband by chance in a Hollywood library, being invited to dine at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright—it is because she chose to pursue happiness. As she might have put it, she wanted to be selfish.

Ayn Rand’s selfishness, the highest Objectivist virtue by this admiring account, was consciously practiced. Again and again, with New York City as the pinnacle of man’s achievement and the Empire State Building as a visual focal point, unfolding from an artist’s portrait of Ayn Rand to the crowning achievement which is Atlas Shrugged, the woman at the center of A Sense of Life lived by the exalted ideals she identified, explained and dramatized. She visited steel mills in California, Chicago and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and rode on trains and studied architecture as research for her work. She gave herself a renewed sense of purpose in adapting Atlas Shrugged as an NBC miniseries after her husband died in November of 1979, when it became abundantly evident that America was falling apart.

As her career winds down and Ayn Rand is seen seated at an intellectuals’ round table surrounded by men, she had been invited to the Apollo 11 rocket launch putting man on the moon, an event which she attended, denounced racism—appropriately, a sign held by a somber-looking black woman reads “Integration”—and attended an invitation-only dinner at the White House with President Gerald R. Ford and the First Lady, Mrs. Betty Ford.

Before social media, proving that she grasped what most did not about objective communication, Ayn Rand had created courses, conferences, lectures, discussions and publications emanating her philosophy, Objectivism, and disseminating her ideas across multiple media platforms, from radio and television (Today, Tonight, Tomorrow) and theater and movies to an interview in Playboy and other print media. She even wrote a column for the stagnant Los Angeles Times. It’s all here. The evidence of her genius but also her strength is plain; she never lets up, she does not stop acting to advance her values, she never lets what matters go.

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life positions TV’s talk show pioneer Phil Donahue as a proxy for the general public with regard to understanding Ayn Rand and Objectivism. In her two Donahue appearances, one sees his evolution as a host, as the powerful pair discuss God, altruism and the death of her husband. Relentlessly clarifying confusions, Ayn Rand acts as a springboard to an entire examination of one’s deeply held premises.

Donahue challenges. Rand responds. Donahue reflects. The viewer thinks.

This is the effect of the film. I have seen it several times since I attended advance screenings and the premier in 1997. Whether on a home theater screen or a movie theater screen, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life plays like the absorbing, accessible and enlightening movie it is. It prompts the viewer to think—about her comments, ideas and books and her stories, heroes and themes—about whether and how these apply to one’s life. The film is a solid cinematic introduction to and retrospective of Ayn Rand, Objectivism and her books.

In it, one also learns the early history and first stage of a movement made by her philosophy. It’s not flawless—occasionally, musical cues are distracting and Anthem gets short shrift—and moviemakers should continue to explore her life. But, unlike her detractors’ psychologizing, almost everything asserted here derives from the facts of reality or conclusions based on the firsthand observation of its fascinating subject, Ayn Rand.

If you’re up to it, to paraphrase Objectivism’s creator, check those premises; Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is a good place to start.

The Blu-Ray Edition

As I wrote, this is the same two-disc edition as the earlier release, a DVD Collector’s edition, with a couple of additions and enhancements other than the film’s transfer to the crisp, higher-definition Blu-Ray format. Chapter selections are clearly marked.

The extras include a new trailer, which was not on the DVD, a rare photograph gallery, a deleted dance sequence evoking Ayn Rand’s unpublished work in progress “To Lorne Dieterling”, the complete filmed version of scenes from Ayn Rand’s play, Ideal, and more. Cast and crew bios, an interview with writer and director Michael Paxton, (whom I interviewed for the movie’s release; read the archived newspaper article here), stills, bonus footage and additional information are all included. Fans and Objectivists should not skip the additional interviews with Ayn Rand’s friends, scholars and associates, including Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff, as they have more to say about her than is contained in the 143-minute movie.

In a July 2015 statement accompanying press materials, director Michael Paxton says that “telling stories about independent and heroic women have always been and continue to be a theme in my work as a filmmaker.” He should be proud that Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, which continues to earn interest in the themes, books and philosophy of Ayn Rand, is a heroic story well shown and told.

Click to Buy Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life Blu-Ray edition


Movie Review: The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

SophieTuckerPosteWith commentary by Barbara Walters, among others, including Tony Bennett, Michael Feinstein and the late Mickey Rooney, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker diligently retraces her career in cleverly pictured (and occasionally animated) scrapbook clippings and interviews to rediscover an influential American performer.

Sophie Tucker, in case you haven’t heard of her, was a fat, Jewish singer, actress and comedienne, as the co-producers affectionately describe her in this 2014 documentary, scheduled for theatrical release next week. After her parents came from the Ukraine to America in 1886 and settled in Hartford, Connecticut, where they opened a kosher restaurant, Sophie was dispatched to hustle predominantly Jewish actors at a local theater’s stage door into patronizing the restaurant. It’s in this endeavor that Sophie, raised as an orthodox Jew, apparently became hooked on burlesque or Vaudeville—brash and unsophisticated—a type of live theater experience popular through the 1930s.

Without sugarcoating her early career, when Tucker did blackface on stage as a “coon shouter”, a term which Michael Feinstein thoughtfully puts into context, the filmmakers make it clear that this bawdy woman earned her reputation as a pathbreaking performer who legitimized this type of broad humor. Paving the way for Bette Midler, Melissa Manchester and Cher, not to discredit Mae West and other bossy dames of the day, Sophie Tucker, who took her name from one of three ex-husbands, broke big first in Ziegfeld’s Follies. She worked with an unknown Irving Berlin and other legendary musical and comedy acts. William Morris, whom she met before he was the owner of the famous artist agency when he was still known as a theater owner, represented her for 60 years.

Sophie Tucker was a star.

As The Outrageous Sophie Tucker demonstrates, her singing technique involved calculated hesitation and Feinstein points out that in developing her distinctive vocal style, Tucker rarely gets the credit she deserves, which usually goes to black singers such as Bessie Smith. Tony Bennett (Amy) calls her the most underrated jazz singer that ever lived. Part of what makes her worth examining as a mainstream, popular performer is her endurance. Like Bob Hope, she succeeded in a variety of show formats.

The movie sheds light on the reasons. During Prohibition, for example, she allied with criminal mobs to play in their now-illegal clubs, she was pals with Al Capone—she was pals with J. Edgar Hoover, too—and she didn’t seem ashamed to be arrested in Portland, Oregon for a show in which she implied that women crave sex as much as men. In fact, she started commissioning songs about sex after the arrest and she crowned herself the headmistress of the school of “red hot mamas” that could teach girls about sex.

Several scrapbook items and interviews show her shrewd use of publicity and knack for salesmanship. As early as 1909, Tucker took out ads in newspapers saying Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings to her fans, which was unheard of, in a kind of pre-social media grasp of the long-term value of relationship building with a fan base. She earned (and hustled herself into) numerous endorsements, was asked by Warner Bros. to be the first female lead to make a talking motion picture and kept company with her co-stars and peers such as Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Robert Taylor, Jerry Lewis, Carol Channing and Danny Kaye, each of whom is interviewed or chronicled here. The woman, who worked rhyming into her routines with banter, including her television debut in 1951 on Jimmy Durante’s show, was like a constantly running motor.

Sophie had standards. She didn’t like TV’s censors, for instance, though she liked doing Ed Sullivan’s show. Even this late in her career, Sophie Tucker appeared at ease integrating business with the show, timing her bi-annual appearances on Ed Sullivan with revamped routines to foster demand for her stage act. More than outrageousness, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker shows her business savvy as the key to her sustained popularity throughout her 60-year career. She knew what people expected from, and liked about, her and she knew her limitations.

Along the way, she played poker, gin and pinochle—her father had sneaked young Sophie out for gambling as a girl—dabbling in solitaire to calm her nerves, according to scholar Jan Lewis, PhD. Sophie’s three husbands, a man named Tuck, Frank Westphal and Al Lackey, are covered as is her only child, Bert, whom she showered with gifts including the failed Robert E. Lee hotel in Miami, which finally seemed to disabuse her of the delusion that he could make something of his life. Also featured is her longtime pianist, Ted Shapiro, who was loyal to the end. The movie suggests that she later held exclusively gay relationships such as an intimate relationship with a doctor named Margaret Chung.

Whatever personal details, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker shows that Tucker’s professional legacy is strong and lasting. Sophie Tucker appears on the cover of Ebony with Josephine Baker, whom she introduced at a Miami nightclub following racist death threats. American soldiers entering Nazi Berlin defiantly played her song about a “Yiddishe Momme” as a triumphant tribute to a fallen American Jewish soldier who loved and played her records. Perhaps the best measure of what makes Sophie Tucker outrageous is that Judy Garland said Sophie, with whom Garland co-starred in Broadway Melody of 1938, taught her “how to put a song over”. This 90-minute documentary, which is endearing by today’s depraved standards, demonstrates how Sophie Tucker taught herself and Americans how to put brassy over without going over the top.

Defending Bob Hope

BobHopeAirportAfter I read that the local government is considering removing Bob Hope’s name from Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport, I wrote an op-ed for the local newspaper (read my article here). My theme is that Bob Hope Airport is a name that honors the city, the man and the airport. Citing history, I explain that each has similarly capitalist origins which ought to be properly named, recognized and revered. My article caught the attention of a local news producer for an L.A. NBC News affiliate, who wanted to interview me for the evening telecast, though I was unable to do so. But I’m glad the op-ed was noticed and I hope that my activism helps Bob Hope Airport retain its rightful name.

Obama’s Death Pact

IranFlagToday’s historic accord in Vienna between Iran and the West makes the West’s submission to Islamic fascism official government policy. The agreement, which trades lifting Western sanctions against Iran for United Nations-supervised nuclear advancement, creates a new alliance between America and Iran. It is in this sense that leftists and the Obama administration are correct that the Iran deal is a major advancement in complicity between these historic enemies.

I am not convinced that Barack Obama’s deal with the Islamic dictatorship makes Iran’s nuclear weapons development and acquisition easier. This is because I think nuclear proliferation by Iran is already extremely easy and a lot depends on Iran’s ability as a military dictatorship to make, maintain and use nuclear weaponry. But neither America nor Israel chooses to end the nuclear program which should have been decimated long ago. The only hope for termination of Iran’s nuclear program may come from France, which should have learned its lesson in the perils of appeasement the hard way when it was occupied by the Nazis and once stood for reason against an appeasing America over the Arab seizure of the Suez Canal. On this grim Bastille Day, France, which suffered a major assault by Moslem terrorists early this year in Paris at Charlie Hebdo, ought to be motivated to act in defense of liberty and Western civilization.

Motives are what this bad deal makes clear. With sanctions lifted, Islamic fascist Iran, which seeks total annihilation of the West, is free to expand banking into Europe and continue to sponsor and wage its terrorism with new power, yielding jihadist infiltration and domination of the West. Nuclearization ought to be obvious—Obama’s deal is a deal with a barbaric regime and thus contains no real safeguards for anything but the totally catastrophic prospect of Islamic nuclear attack—and there is every reason to think Iran will seek, make and use nuclear weapons against the West.

However, as this map illustrates, Iran’s new power hikes the potential for catastrophic war between Islamic factions of fundamentalists, as John Lewis warned in my exclusive 2011 interview, and threats or instances of nuclear strikes against America and the West in the region. Coupled with Obama’s deal’s explicit approval of Islamic economic influence and infiltration in the West, this agreement, even if stopped by a unanimous act of Congress and override of an Obama veto, may preclude the necessity of an Iranian nuclear act of war. Such an attack may not, given U.S. submission to Islam, be necessary.

Obama’s deal means the U.S.A.’s endorsement of Iranian nuclear proliferation and thus may or may not make nuclear holocaust on the West likely or all but certain. These monstrous years of Obama’s presidency make the end of America more realistic in either case. Obama’s evil deal makes official America’s submission to the world’s predominant faith-based barbarism and marks a change from a nation based on the enlightenment to a country kneeling to the looming, foreign threat of savagery and mass death. Netanyahu calls the Iran deal a “mistake” but will probably do nothing about it. Hillary Clinton says she concurs with Barack Obama that this is a good deal.

Ominously, Iran’s president pledges that Obama’s deal opens “new horizons”—as NASA’s New Horizons space probe climaxes with the best view of Pluto known to man, thanks to men of aerospace, science and reason—in an interesting and contrasting choice of words. By the time the West awakens to the reality of Iran’s new horizons—fanatical religious delusions by mystics inciting mobs to bring “Death to America!”—it will be too late.

Obama’s deal with Iran is a pact for mass suicide.