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Book Review: The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany

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In The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by Thomas Childers, on sale in early October, a historian tracks the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Unfortunately, this massive volume lacks philosophical perspective. It’s as though war and history professor and author Childers, who recently retired from University of Pennsylvania and has researched his topic, is overwhelmed by the scope, impairing his ability to select the subject’s essentials for a cohesive theme. But, while this massive book, with maps, notes, photographs and an index, is overstuffed with information and certain assertions, it is also packed with history.

In The Third Reich, Childers starts with compelling prose, tracing young Adolf Hitler’s rise from activist community organizer to the raging racist-nationalist-socialist who would become Germany’s dictator. The Third Reich includes the familiar catalysts such as the Versailles Treaty. Childers accounts for how Hitler organized the Nazi party. From the failed Munich putsch in 1923 to Hitler becoming chancellor in 1933, the reader gets what amounts to a condensed biography and facts about World War 2 in Europe and the systematic mass murder of six million Jews in what became known as the Holocaust.

Using German documents rarely used by previous historians, The Third Reich strives to be as comprehensive and accessible as William Shirer’s epic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. With more dates, names and events than demonstrated links, contextualization and examined causes, however, The Third Reich is at best an additional volume in one’s library of books about Nazi Germany. Like The History of the Holocaust and other scholarly Nazi-themed non-fiction, it is useful especially as a reference.

Childers tells compelling stories throughout the book, such as Hitler’s response in 1908 when an arts school rejected his drawings for a second time: “The whole academy ought to be blown up,” Hitler said. As most readers probably know, he neither smoked nor drank. He rarely ate meat. Adolf Hitler, the author writes, appreciated Puccini and Verdi. But he was “utterly enthralled” by Wagner’s operas.

Spurned by intellectuals and sponsored by society matrons taken with his charisma, Adolf Hitler crafted his persona. Hearing him speak in Munich, one observer gave what Childers reports was a common response: “I do not know how to describe the emotions that swept over me as I listened to this man…the gospel he preached a sacred truth. He seemed another [Martin] Luther…his magnetism was holding these thousands as one…I experienced an exaltation that could be likened only to religious conversion.”

As he perfected his oratory appeal, Hitler also grasped the ease with which pictures can comfort the masses. Childers writes that

a black swastika emblazoned in the center of a stark white circle on a background of bright red was the design Hitler hit upon. The red, he reasoned, would appeal to workers, while the combination of black, white, and red, [Germany’s] old imperial colors, would reassure nationalists and others on the right. The [National Socialist] party also adopted a handful of short pithy slogans—”the common good before the individual good” (Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigenutz)…”

In stump speeches, pamphlets (and later in Mein Kampf), Hitler called for nationalization of trusts, enactment of cooperatives, profit-sharing, the “breaking of interest slavery” (“whatever that means,” Childers writes), German socialism, a classless, people’s community and the ennoblement of the German worker. All of this only makes Childers’ insistence that the Nazis were right-wing, even placed far to the extreme right on a chart at the book’s beginning, in case you miss his points, more bizarre. Childers writes that Nazis, sounding like socialist American Sen. Bernie Sanders, blamed “kings of finance”, “International bank and stock-market capital” and Jews for Germany’s ills.

With the New York Times proving to be as wrong and unreliable then as it is now, reporting after the Nazis’ 1924 electoral loss that Hitler “looked a much sadder and wiser man” who “was no longer to be feared”, the Times forecast that Hitler would “retire to private life and return to Austria.”

But the Nazis pressed on, making their case to the German people. One Nazi explained in 1925 that “We want in place of an exploitative capitalist economic system a real socialism, maintained not by a soulless Jewish-materialist outlook but by the believing, sacrificial, and unselfish old German community sentiment, community purpose and community feeling. We want the social revolution in order to bring about the national revolution.” So, despite the author’s thesis, it is impossible not to notice that the Nazi philosophy resembles the collectivist anti-capitalism of America’s New Left.

It is equally impossible not to notice in this laborious account the Nazi parallels to the nation’s solid, currently 30 percent-ish, core of heel-clicking support for America’s new president, Donald Trump. For example, one of the men who would become one of Germany’s top Nazis appraises the rising Nazi leader, gushing that Hitler is

a mixture of collectivism and individualism. Land to the people. Corporations, trusts, finished goods, transportation, etc. socialized…Hitler has thought everything through [and]…always sees the big picture.”

The man making this observation became the Third Reich’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.

Propaganda is crucial to the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Childers asserts. “[H]ere Hitler had quite specific ideas. Propaganda, he argued, ‘must be aimed at the emotions and only to a very limited degree at the so-called intellect.” Hitler regarded Germans as “feminine by nature”. By feminine, he meant prone to persuasion by emotion more than reason. This doesn’t mean he didn’t have diversity in Nazi ranks. Inspired by Communist cells, according to Childers, who again refuses to reconcile this with his conclusion that Nazis are spawned strictly from the right, not the left, the Nazis sought to broaden propaganda by enlisting women to serve in one third of the cells.

The primary Nazi propaganda model was the public mass meeting, which started with a major speech and resulting discussion, continuing with recruitment and climaxing in “catcalls, insults, threats, and finally bottle-throwing melees” as part of the fun, which was part of the Nazis’ goal to present a “rough form of entertainment.”

Does any of this sound eerily familiar?

If it does, the Nazi means achieved familiar ends, culminating — like Trump’s 2016 election as president of the United States — in “stunning” electoral totals in leftist strongholds, such as Saxony, echoing the Obama voter’s switch to Trump in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that stunned pundits last November. A Nazi newspaper established in 1927 printed attacks on “the bosses of capitalism” which were, in the author’s words, indistinguishable from anti-capitalist attacks by Communists. Reminding readers of Communist Korea’s threat to launch a 9/11 type attack on U.S. movie theaters when the Obama administration refused to defend Sony Pictures and its targeted film The Interview, Nazi stormtroopers attacked a movie theater in 1930 for showing All Quiet on the Western Front, rampaging through the Berlin theater, releasing stink bombs and mice and assaulting anyone they suspected of being Jewish. The film, like The Interview, was withdrawn from distribution. The 1930 Nazis, like the 21st century Communists, were emboldened.

Titling a chapter “Making Germany Great Again”, Childers makes a partially warranted reference to Trump’s (and, before Trump, Reagan’s 1980) campaign slogan. After all, aside from policy parallels, the name Hitler, like the name Trump, conveyed a one-word strongman sensibility during the campaign. Hitler, Germany’s first politician to campaign by airplane, uniquely used modern means, like Trump using Twitter, to spread his message. And, as did Trump, at “each stop on Hitler’s speaking tour, they peddled photographs of Hitler, Goebbels, Strasser and other top party leaders; they hawked swastika-crested pens, scarves, pendants, bookmarks, and copies of Mein Kampf.”

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The Third Reich is too focused on Nazi politics and not enough on Nazi philosophy, leaving Childers’ assertion that the Nazis “were charting a radically new course” largely unsubstantiated as the reader wonders: toward what? Why? New as against what previously accepted ideas? He tracks details without supplying reasons (for those, and for an essential and proper philosophical grasp of Nazi Germany, the definitive source is Leonard Peikoff’s penetrating 1982 analysis, The Ominous Parallels).

Childers does get at the core of the Nazi philosophy, if circuitously, in the book’s second half, beginning with his chapter, “The People’s Community” (again, glaringly ignoring any parallels to Hillary Clinton‘s and Barack Obama‘s community organizer-Saul Alinsky influenced mentality). He begins the section with an exposition on the Nazis’ requisite faith in the state, the collective and the race. Goebbels, who’d previously been quoted as admiringly cast under Hitler’s spell for what he (wrongly) ascribed to individualism was by 1933 actively putting such ideals in their place. The Nazi propaganda minister rails to an audience of artists:

Individualism will be conquered and in place of the individual and its deification, the Volk [people] will emerge. The Volk stands in the center of all things. The [Nazi] revolution is conquering the Volk and public life, imprinting its stamp on culture, economy, politics and private life. It would be naive to believe that art could remain exempt from this.”

By the end of this chapter, Thomas Childers finally starts offering a fuller account of what the rise of National Socialism means in theory and in practice:

By mid-1934 it was obvious to all that this was no ordinary authoritarian dictatorship but a regime with totalitarian aspirations, a regime that sought to dominate not only the individual’s public behavior, but his private life, his thoughts…[wiping out] the distinction between public and private life. ‘The revolution that we have made is a total revolution,’ Goebbels stated in November 1933. ‘It encompasses every aspect of public life from the bottom up….It has completely altered relations between individuals and utterly transformed the relationship between the individual and the state.’ The Nazi goal was to ‘replace individuality with collective racial consciousness and the individual with the community.’ In the Third Reich, Goebbels bluntly proclaimed, there would ‘no longer [be] any free realms in which the individual belongs to himself…the time for personal happiness is over.”

Not that Nazi Germany, foreshadowing Obama, Trump and Black Lives Matter, didn’t have what most intellectuals today would call an upside. Hitler was a health and nature enthusiast and, while Childers plays down the Nazi belief that nature has intrinsic value, he notes that Nazi scientists declared a war on cancer, studying the link between diet and cancer and “endorsing the consumption of fresh, organically grown vegetables and whole wheat bread”. Nazi medical scientists were the world’s first to establish the link between tobacco and cancer. The Nazi gains are depicted too, for those who favor state-sponsored roads and infrastructure, with Adolf Hitler breaking ground on the German autobahn.

That these supposed gains came under compulsion comes through if not in explicit terms, with doctors being forced by the state to no longer tend to the individual … but to the Volk. “There was no higher moral obligation,” Childers writes, echoing the morality of Obama, McCain, Bush, Clinton, Trump and almost every leading government authority in the West. This duty of the individual to serve the state, the race or collective provides the perfect transition to the Reich Flag Law or the Reich Citizenship Law stripping Jews of German citizenship, rendering Jews as alien “subjects” in their own country.

Accordingly, Jews were choked from their productiveness, banned from practicing medicine, law and dentistry and numerous other work and professions, prohibited by law from distributing stamps. Childers follows with descriptions of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when Nazis smashed Jews’ glass windows, crystal and mirrors and then forced them to pay for the damages. Then comes the “Aryanization”, the “Jew tax” and the death and concentration camps, a horror which is fully detailed, except for any mention of the historic revolt by Jews imprisoned at Sobibor. As always for this reader and student of history, these stories are both gripping and horrifying.

Thomas Childers offers good insights on key, isolated parts of Nazi Germany’s history, such as the 1936 Berlin Olympics and American athlete Jesse Owens. In a brief section, Childers describes the Nazi conspiracy to cover up from visitors Nazi plans, laws and atrocities during the Olympics. But he also concludes in one of the few value judgments that the Olympics provided a triumph for Hitler and the Nazis, putting Jesse Owens’ celebrated victory as an American Negro in Berlin in its proper context. Other interesting tales, though they are short bits, include the stories of the Christian White Rose movement, with its heroine Sophie Scholl, who with her brother and comrades opposed the Nazis, and the Valkyrie conspiracy to assassinate Hitler (both depicted in decent movies) in which the assassination conspirators were hanged by piano wire from meat hooks in slow executions that Hitler ordered to be filmed. The related story of Erwin Rommel’s suicide is included, too.

Hitler’s own cowardly suicide is recounted in detail, with Childers concluding by quoting Nazi architect Albert Speer, who remarked that the dictator had “reached the last stage in his flight from reality, a reality he had refused to acknowledge since his youth.”

Hitler as basically anti-reality and anti-reason comes through in an evaluation by one of his field marshals, who observed that “Will, his Will, Hitler believed, ‘had only to be translated into faith down to the youngest private soldier for the correctness of his decisions to be confirmed and the success of his order ensured…[leaving Hitler, the field marshal concludes] impervious to reason [and leading Hitler] to think that his own will can operate even beyond the limits of hard reality.”

That Hitler’s delusional power-lust, combined with his insatiable desire to serve in duty to the race, tribe and state, could result in diabolically coordinated mass death is likely to be puzzling or inexplicable to the typical American reader. The mass murder of Jews known as the Holocaust is wrongly, tragically known as a causeless horror rather than as the ultimate application of an evil philosophy. “The dead stand like basalt pillars…” one conscripted Jew who survived wrote about the routine of cleaning up after a mass murder, “and even in death one can tell which are the families. They are holding hands in death and it is difficult to tear them apart in order to empty the [gas] chambers for the next batch.”

So, the author’s gravest error is in ending his lengthy and extensive book on Nazi Germany with the term (“moral imperative”) created by the philosophical father of the Nazi German state, Immanuel Kant, whose name is inexcusably absent in The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. Can one write Nazi Germany’s history without naming and addressing the ideas that made it possible?

Not in terms of fundamentals (and, again, for a history of the Nazis in terms of essentials, read Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels). But it’s not as though a compilation of facts about one of the world’s most monstrous regimes is often published in today’s culture of memes, blurbs, Tweets, jabs and pics. Thomas Childers has devoted his career to studying war and Germany and there is value in his The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. He notes that SS chief Heinrich Himmler told a gathering of SS men in 1943 — on the mass murder of millions of Jews: “This is a glorious page in our history and one that has never been written and can never be written.” Though it lacks context and what I think are clear and evident causal connections, Thomas Childers proves Himmler and the Nazis wrong as he adds to the written histories of an evil that civilized man should learn, know and never forget.

Capitalism on Chicagoland’s North Shore

Spending my youth in the suburbs north of Chicago often made me curious about its origins. There were exotic American Indian names, mysterious trails, woods and tales of corruption, scandal and murder amid the lush, green bluffs and flat, fertile soil, not to mention the lakefront, the railroad and the industry. I know I’m scratching the surface, but I’m enjoying writing about the towns, villages and enclaves north of Chicago in a newspaper history series I conceived and developed with my editor, David Sweet, earlier this year.

The theme is capitalism—the entrepreneurial spirit—on Chicagoland’s North Shore.

Glencoe, Illinois waiting station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Talking with local and regional historians, curators and scholars, my research yields new takes on local myths and legends, facts about iconic names, dates and places and, above all, clarity about the men who forged new paths, pioneered Northern Illinois, fought for the Union during the Civil War and settled some of the nation’s most creative, productive and wealthiest towns. These men were largely men of vision and reason and they were farmers, frontiersmen, traders, industrialists and, mostly, individualists. Telling their stories, including notorious facts in the history of these towns, is more rewarding than I had thought possible when I first offered to write the articles.

These front page and cover story articles, which include bits on America’s first recorded serial killer, the only bridge ever designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright and the invention of Christmas bubble lights, Girl Scout cookies and Frenchmens’, Indians’ and religionists’ plans for the area near and along Lake Michigan north of Chicago, are currently available online for free. Read about Glenview, Wilmette and Glencoe. Know that there are more stories to come.


Related

Murder in Kenilworth

Feature: Teen Depression and Suicide on Chicago’s North Shore

Sheridan Road: My First Intellectual Activism

Sheridan Road: Former State Senator Roger Keats

Sheridan Road: Interview with Kathryn Cameron Porter

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave

MV5BMjExMTEzODkyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTU4NTc4OQ@@._V1_SX214_Written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave, based on the book by Solomon Northrup, deposits us into slavery in the 19th century’s American South. It is an excellent example of the best type of cinematic naturalism, delivering characters to care about in an intricate and layered plot that offers much more to think about than whatever superficial slop Oprah‘s serving up. More than anything else, and there’s a lot of else with this Brad Pitt (World War Z) co-produced film, the movie takes ideas seriously and depicts slavery with honesty and candor.

Foremost, it is the story of Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I first noticed in a 2005 Woody Allen picture), a free black man in the North. We see Solomon when he’s free in New York in 1841, a musician, husband and father. The driving force of 12 Years a Slave is not exactly the actor’s performance as Solomon, though it is very good. It is the undercurrent of life versus death – freedom versus slavery – in every frame, closeup and scene. The film, like its title, suggests both the injustice of slavery and the fact of its ultimate metaphysical insignificance in a thinking man’s life. By reducing slavery to its essentials, in shackles, chains and whiplashes, 12 Years a Slave captures its proper place in history and dramatizes it in the life of an individual.

The result is unforgettable. Tricked by a couple of dandies in Washington, DC, and illegally, subversively sold into slavery (by a cruel beast played by Paul Giamatti), Solomon wakes up in chains only to be confronted by a foul, backward creature who regards blacks as subhuman, a commonly held viewpoint in the South and much of the country at that time, drawn partly from erroneous biology. He is quickly warned by a fellow slave that “once in a slave state, there is only one outcome.” The wisdom of those words cashes in later, much later, when the chronic and constant fact of Solomon’s enslavement becomes clear in a long, gradual drain on his soul.

“Help me,” he whimpers out the window early upon enslavement. But he’s encased in brick and chains and there’s no one to listen or care. He’s imprisoned in the South, a wicked part of the world ruled by religion, tradition and stubborn hatred for progress, capitalism and industrialization. 12 Years a Slave does not frame the issue in those terms but it’s there in every scene of the South; the slow-minded, spewing contempt for any small step toward advancement of self-interest. The greasy-haired, toothless malcontents and overseers, the frigid bun-haired belles, even kind, gentle masters such as a man of ability (Benedict Cumberbatch) who praise the exceptional while adding that they suspect “no good will come of it.” They are each oppressors of man. In this case, Solomon.

12 Years a Slave grants no reprieve to evil, unlike Munich, Life is Beautiful and other appeasement and apologia in film. Solomon is traded, unloaded and enslaved over and over, from master to master, ending up with a drunk who alternates between Christianity and hedonism, played by Michael Fassbender. And, unlike Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the oppressed are treated and depicted with clarity as individuals, not as a collective. Their faces mark their time: the striking Patsy who serves her master and enrages his wife; each field slave – this is not about house slaves, represented by a fright of a person portrayed by Alfre Woodard – who look down and hope they don’t get noticed; the woman who stops to ponder a loss before drawing strength from singing about the river Jordan.

We see the roots of her sense of soul and how they spread out to reach and anchor other wounded men and women so they, too, can draw from what’s divine and instill in themselves a sense of life, not death. Death looms everywhere around them and it is not overdone or overstated, though certain scenes are of course by necessity graphic. Negro spirituals fuel the yearning for freedom that lies beneath slave scars inside their minds. That’s part of Solomon’s story, too. When one of the slaves drops dead in the fields, he is suddenly aware of the years – lost, irreplaceable time – and he feels it deeply, groaning along for the first time, a free man Northerner who’s become a slave down South knowing that his life is not his own and his time is expiring. Soon, he’s walking slower, less proudly, and he reaches the point any man would: hurt and broken and deprived of what he loves: the freedom to create and make his music. 12 Years a Slave dramatizes how we are enslaved by our slavemasters above all in what we love. How the masters take the good – the stroke of a finger on flesh, or a pen on paper, or a bow against a string – and turn it against the good and into something ugly, dark and monstrous.

“Let me weep for my children,” says one slave who’s been ripped from the arms of her family in a lesson Solomon must learn for himself. Whether he does makes 12 Years meaningful as well as powerful. The first emotion we witness Solomon feeling is anger in the form of frustration. Whether enslavement is caused by irrational views of blacks, whites, men, women, gays, straights, the wealthy, middle class or poor and especially the individual, the West needs more anger at enslavement. The companion emotion here is sadness, and the black men making this film finally have given us a character who’s a black man that experiences grief and anger in the proper context so we can see that real heroes express emotion based on reason. This is rarely grasped let alone depicted. Solomon is pre-judged for the color of his skin. He is envied for being intelligent. He is hated for being good. This is what makes 12 Years a Slave universal.

What happens when one is free before being enslaved? This is the question, similar to the question of being born sighted then blinded versus being born blind, at the movie’s core. Who can’t relate to being taken from liberty into some type of slave state? 12 Years a Slave shows us a man as he comes to slavery in its most brutal form, how he struggles, chokes and breaks, and, facing a bearded, Bible-thumping monster similar to Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, flinches in pain and does not submit. Part of this movie’s achievement is its subtlety in dramatizing slavery’s insidiousness: you are not in charge of yourself; you are owned yet you are human so you cannot in reality be owned.

The contradiction between living under dictatorship and man’s essential nature powers each major scene. For example, when left dangling from a tree with barely any breath for life, one man’s toes clutching at the mud are all that supports his life while no one – black or white, slave or master – dares to break tradition, speak, step forward and liberate the man from bondage. This scene dramatizes that slavery puts one at the mercy of depending on others, while alienating the others from helping the one who stands – or hangs – alone. There are other scenes. They remind the 21st century audience that, as life hangs in the balance, brutes, slaves and mobs think nothing of it.

When one slave begs another for euthanasia, and is refused on the grounds that an act of mercy is undue its intended recipient, the act of mercy which results has the film’s most profound effect. Men and their spirits can be broken. 12 Years a Slave shows us why. When man is no longer free to act, his innermost thoughts can turn to nothing so they are broken and unrealized. Instead, idle thoughts turn to cynicism, which is its own kind of death. 12 Years a Slave, praised as a book by the great republican abolitionist Frederick Douglass, referenced and credited as great in the studio’s press notes, dramatizes one who refuses to submit to death. He doesn’t do it by prayer. He doesn’t do it by brute force. He does it by realizing the meaning and power of two words – I want – in pursuit of his own life. That which awaits him after 12 years as a slave, and how he purges himself of agony and injustice, is the moral of this remarkable tale.

Fox Searchlight’s 12 Years a Slave is being released in theaters on October 18th. The picture also features Brad Pitt as a freethinker, Paul Dano as one that lurks out there still in the life of every black man, and, in one of the movie’s best performances, Sarah Paulson as a slavemistress who pre-figures the 20th century’s archetypical feminist. Yes, you will know why the caged bird sings, to paraphrase poet Maya Angelou, after seeing this movie. You will also see and hear (in piercing sound effects) a more realistic depiction of the history of America’s black people. By recreating the truth about one who was ripped from liberty and stolen into enslavement, filmmakers made a movie which honors its freethinking author and should be seen by any one who’s free to think.

 

 

The Ethics of War with Syria

America is not the world’s police and it ought to be unnecessary to have to declare let alone debate that an attack by the U.S. on Syria would be an outrage.

But the Obama administration, backed by every major Democrat and Republican and largely by the press, too, is on the verge of taking the U.S. to war with Syria. It’s bad enough that Obama is proposing to align with rebels that by credible accounts are allied with the Islamic terrorists who attacked the U.S. on 9/11, and it is monstrous to subject this nation – having already been subjected to the longest war in our history – to another war with no purpose other than helping others. But the U.S. government has, to my knowledge for the first time, explicitly rejected U.S. self-interest as the cause for initiating the use of force against another country. Obama’s stated purpose for going to war is pure altruism – the morality of helping others for the sake of helping others – to the exclusion of self-interest and the fact that both sides of Syria’s civil war are jihadists for Islam. The altruism is the point, its proponents agree.

This war, currently being debated by Congress, is a crucially climactic, possibly ultimate, test in our lifetimes between the ethics of egoism and the ethics of altruism or between good and evil. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is right that the United States is “not Al Qaeda’s air force” when he argues that we should not go to war with Syria. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is right to declare as he did in Time that he refuses to “vote to send our nation’s best and brightest to fight for anything less than victory.” But these are deeply flawed Christian politicians who can go bad – and, on crucial issues, they have – because they have no moral defense for acting in our own self-interest. A nation hurling itself into war in solidarity with victims of chemical weapons won’t be stopped on practical, even Constitutional, grounds.

The ethics of self-sacrifice must be challenged, rejected and replaced with the ethics of self-interest, which ought to be our sole criteria for foreign intervention, as the Founding Fathers, who warned against foreign entanglements, understood.

The opponents and proponents of war with Syria are proving philosopher Onkar Ghate right that the fundamental political conflict of our time is not between left and right. The conflict is between the rational and the irrational, between reason vs. faith, with leftists and conservatives converging into a single, dangerous pre-dictatorship based on faith in the state – the NSA, TSA, ObamaCare, anything dictated by government – with Obama, McCain and Fox News leading us into submission. President Obama, a pure nihilist whom I’ve called the Nothing Man, openly expresses disdain and outright contempt for having to communicate anything about the issue of going to war with anyone for any reason. He embodies the nil, the nothing, in this sense; a kind of walking (or in his case loping) Grim Reaper.

Two years ago, I had a long discussion about war with John Lewis months before he died. I had studied under his instruction in war history and read his book, Nothing Less Than Victory, and Dr. Lewis was the best war historian I knew. We talked about 9/11, the jihad, Syria as a flashpoint, the prospect of Obama as a warmonger and the people treating someone like Obama as a deity in total faith. He warned against all-out world war born of our refusal to identify, name, confront, kill and wipe out Islamic jihad.

Attacking Syria brings America closer to total, nonstop world war and destruction of western civilization. Some Americans, including war veterans and other individualists, are awakened and emboldened by Michigan Rep. Justin Amash’s efforts and Edward Snowden’s heroic whistleblowing and they reject the emerging government-controlled society by speaking up against war with Syria. In ethical terms, the debate over Syria separates the selfish from the selfless. The question demanding to be answered right now is: which one are you?

Interview: Alejandro Amenabar on Agora (2009)

Filmed in Malta between March and June 2008, Agora, co-written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar (The Sea Inside), takes place in ancient Alexandria, Egypt.

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The story concerns the rise of religious fundamentalism through the lives of three individuals: astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), whose father Theon (Michael Lonsdale) is the last director of the surviving library in Alexandria, and two young men in love with her: a bright, willful student named Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and her equally intelligent slave, Davus (Max Minghella). The motion picture will be playing in both New York and Los Angeles by June 4, 2010.

Director Amenabar, whom I first met and interviewed at the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard to discuss his haunting, Oscar-winning The Sea Inside in 2004, talked briefly with me about Agora from Spain during an interview by telephone. The South American-born composer, writer and director, who speaks in a thick Spanish accent, talked about Agora’s ideas.


Scott Holleran: Is Hypatia an agnostic or an atheist?

Alejandro Amenabar: She is obviously looking for something [meaningful] but she doesn’t believe in God. I don’t think the word atheist even existed in that time, but she is fed up with all these [moral] codes that get people to kill each other.

Scott Holleran: Yet you told the New York Times that Agora is “a very Christian film.” Why?

Alejandro Amenabar: It all depends on what we consider by being Christian. We see Hypatia being merciful and we see [the Christians] torturing her and [wanting to] skin her alive so in that sense I found that the character Hypatia is more Christian than those killing people. The movie’s not against Christians and Jews; it’s against fanatics. I don’t think Christians should be offended and I would feel ashamed if that happened. There were Christians and Moslems and Jews [working on the film’s production] and we insisted on that idea because offending them isn’t my intention. Some of the actors are very strong Christians and we openly discussed ideas while we were on the set. The problem is when people of faith start killing people who don’t have faith. Personally, I lost my faith when I did The Others [in 2001] and at the time I considered myself an agnostic. Now, I consider myself an atheist. That doesn’t mean I don’t identify with taking care of the people nobody wanted. So [in Agora] I tried to show that side of Christians—as good people.

Scott Holleran: What was the turning point?

Alejandro Amenabar: When I was doing The Sea Inside, I became aware [lead character] Ramon Sampedro [played by Javier Bardem] was an atheist. It’s not that I don’t want to believe and it’s not that I don’t want to believe in something superior or that I didn’t read the Old Testament or something. I prefer to call it nature. When Einstein was studying the theory of relativity, he was looking for something higher—but he was using reason. I try to do things from a humanistic approach. I do have a moral code but I know that you don’t have to live by the Ten Commandments to be a good person.

Scott Holleran: Is Hypatia a martyr?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. Again, I found links to her story and to the story of Jesus Christ. They were dragged through the streets, tortured and killed. We don’t know if she knew what was coming. The fact is that she was a woman who wanted to be treated as an equal to a man. She was very prominent in the city.

Scott Holleran: Agora’s marketing has been underwhelming; the film isn’t indexed on major online movie resources. Why isn’t Agora being promoted in the United States?

Alejandro Amenabar: It’s not an easy film. It looks like an epic film but it’s not a traditional epic. It’s about astronomy and it’s also this weird mixture of history and science—and you expect her to have an affair.

Scott Holleran: Have there been any threats from religious fundamentalists?

Alejandro Amenabar: No.

Scott Holleran: Is Agora making money?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes, though it hasn’t made all the money that it should. In Spain, it’s done very well and in Italy it’s doing very well but I don’t think it’s going to be a hit in the United States. We made the movie just before the financial crisis and in these times people just want comedy or horror or action. Agora is not that movie.

Scott Holleran: Some critics have said your film is strident. How do you respond?

I understand the criticism. It’s a movie that challenges the audience in terms of reasoning and trying to get into the story. I kept saying the movie is about astronomy and I wanted to express concepts that we study in school—science, mathematics—that don’t show how fascinating the topic is [the way the subjects are taught in modern education]. I wanted to translate [man’s] fascination with the pursuit of knowledge. I wanted to show astronomy and those who study it in the most appealing way. Those are the real heroes of the movie.

Scott Holleran: Has Agora been screened at the Vatican?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. From what I have heard, no one said anything. I think there were some priests and journalists there and there was no reaction at all.

Scott Holleran: Why was Agora submitted to the Vatican in the first place?

Alejandro Amenabar: It was the distribution company—I think they wanted to check the reaction of the Vatican and also for the translation into Italian [from English]. There’s one scene in which Cyril reads from St. Paul and [the Vatican] tried to look for the softest version. In the English version, it’s taken from the King James version of the Bible. But I don’t think there is a softer way of saying that women should shut up.

Scott Holleran: Do you think fundamentalists are corrupting Judeo-Christianity?

Alejandro Amenabar: I consider myself a moderate. I think Hypatia was a moderate. I don’t like big revolutions with a lot of blood and violence. I don’t like extremism.

Scott Holleran: If a philosophy is good, shouldn’t it strive to be consistent?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. But [a good] philosophy has one principle and that’s that you can refute what your master taught you. Einstein’s biggest idol was Isaac Newton and he dared to refute Newton—he was able to come up with improved theories. Sometimes, you have to play against what your masters taught. Ptolemy was saying one thing [about astronomy] and Copernicus was brave enough to challenge him.

Scott Holleran: What is the theme of Agora?

Alejandro Amenabar: To me, it’s a difficult question. I always say it’s a story of a woman, a civilization, and a planet. I tried to see the earth in perspective. I tried to look at the earth as small—as small as possible.

Scott Holleran: Yes, you frequently pull the camera back to emphasize man’s smallness. Do you see man as small and insignificant?

Yes and, at the same time, as great—you see these highly developed people as small as ants knowing so much about the universe. So the movie shows man at his best and at his worst.

Scott Holleran: What is your personal favorite scene, as seen within the context of the final picture?

Alejandro Amenabar: There’s one shot that I love, when we see the earth as very, very little and you hear the screaming of the women and children—and we’re lost.

Scott Holleran: Which scene was hardest to shoot?

Alejandro Amenabar: The destruction of the library.

Scott Holleran: Why is it called Agora as against Hypatia?

Alejandro Amenabar: We thought about calling it Hypatia but people have problems with pronunciation [it’s pronounced hy-pay-shuh]. It’s probably different in every place and it’s not a beautiful name. That was one of the trickiest things. So, we said let’s call it the place where the old Greeks met and discussed ideas—this changed the world. Agora is the place where we all have to live.

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