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

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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

 

We the Living in 2014

Ayn Rand was asked to adapt her first novel, We the Living, which was published 78 years ago this week and has sold 3 million copies since, for the theatre and I recently learned that two never-before published versions of her stage play will be published this fall.

UncconqueredPalMacmillanAccording to Amazon’s book page for The Unconquered: With Another, Earlier Adaptation of We the Living, the hardcover volume by Rand will feature “the first and last versions (the latter entitled The Unconquered)…[w]ith a preface that places the work in its historical and political context, an essay on the history of the theatrical adaptation … and two alternative endings…” The new work is edited by philosophy professor Robert Mayhew, whom I interviewed five years ago about the novel. He also teaches at OCON.

WetheLivingWe the Living is a bitter tale of a triangle in Soviet Russia and an epic story of ideas, love and life. The 1936 novel, which I wrote about for an article distributed by Scripps Howard and again in a review of the movie adaptation, is haunting, unforgettable and helpful to living everyday life.

OCON in Chicago

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Chicago at night, seen from the top of the John Hancock Tower. © Copyright 2013 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved.

Filling up on arts and philosophy at this year’s Objectivist Conference (OCON), I enrolled in courses and general lectures by favorite teachers and intellectuals and I attended a screening of Love Letters (1945) with commentary by one of my filmmaker friends, who, appropriately, wrote and directed an Academy Award-nominated movie about Objectivism’s fountainhead, Ayn Rand. This was the first OCON in Chicago, Illinois, near where I grew up, and I attended shortly after my article on Ayn Rand’s life in Chicago was published. Combined with visits to the John Hancock Building, The Drake Hotel and Taliesin, I enjoyed every minute.

Chicago Reach for the Stars: Milgram, Siek and Hoenig

OCON was held at the Westin Michigan Avenue across from a skyscraper, so my favorite general session, “Chicago Reach for the Stars,” turned out to be an appropriate title for what was an innovative approach to communicating to a general audience, though I have to admit I was skeptical of the title at first, despite being well acquainted with the session’s instructors, English professor and Ayn Rand biographer Shoshana Milgram, arts scholar Stephen Siek and hedge fund manager Jonathan Hoenig. They each valiantly and breathlessly presented a condensed series of what were really like vignettes – the session was too short and it felt rushed – and their trio of presentations were excellent.

Dr. Milgram, a friend whom I had interviewed for my article, explained in her instruction on Ayn Rand in Chicago that in the summer of 1926, the refugee from Soviet Russia was immersed in films, family and fiction. 21-year old Ayn, not yet known by that first name, kept a movie diary, had done some film writing and saw more movies per day in Chicago than at any other time in her life. We learned that she saw the 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney on March 26, 1926, at Chicago’s Roxy theater and that she’d rated it “not even zero”. I liked knowing of course that my favorite writer was reviewing movies before she was assigned to write movies – Dr. Milgram said that young Rand had especially liked The Volga Boatment (it earned a five plus rating), which she thought was a sexy melodrama directed by Cecil B. DeMille about an aristocratic heroine and princess who meets a strong, handsome peasant named Fyodor. They’re alone together and in conflict with their political loyalties, which sounds to me like a compelling plot premise, when they must take shelter as newlyweds, with the princess disguised as a peasant, because she is engaged to Prince Nikita. Things take a darker turn, and Dr. Milgram explained that the movie is neither political nor philosophical but it is dramatically tense. Young Ayn Rand saw the motion picture at Warner’s Orpheum theater in Chicago.

There was more, about three sisters – Anna, Sarah and Minnie – who sold dry goods, helped with Ayn Rand’s English skills and they all used to get together on weekends. Our teacher said that the future author of Atlas Shrugged would never forget what her relatives had done for her, inscribing a copy of her first published novel, We the Living, to one of them, and that while in Chicago she wrote four original screen treatments and a short story, “The Husband I Bought” (The Early Ayn Rand). Ayn Rand would soon be on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles, California, where she’d spot her future husband, Frank O’Connor, by chance on the set of a Cecil B. DeMille movie about Jesus Christ and, as we learned from Dr. Milgram, she’d soon meet DeMille himself by chance, too. She impressed The Ten Commandments filmmaker enough to spark his interest in her work but his story editor did not like young Ayn Rand’s stories – she denounced Rand’s story, “The Viking’s God”, as the work of “an erotic mind” who will “never become a writer of any ability.” DeMille hired Ayn Rand anyway as a junior screenwriter. Shoshana Milgram’s talk on the first part of Ayn Rand’s life in America was an exciting glimpse into the bustling city life of a vivacious young intellectual who became Ayn Rand, the person who made the books, movies and philosophy we were gathered to study and apply to our own lives.

Stephen Siek, a Frank Lloyd Wright scholar who recently wrote a biography of England’s piano sage Tobias Matthay, spoke eloquently about the Windy City as a magnificent treasure trove of architecture. Calling Chicago the “birthplace of distinctly American architecture” where some of the greatest architects trained, Dr. Siek took us swiftly and gracefully through the late 19th century, showing photographs on slides from 1858 and forward in time to the Great Chicago Fire, which he told us burned for 36 hours, melted sidewalks and destroyed 18,000 buildings, and taking us to the time when young Frank Lloyd Wright, apprentice to architect Louis Sullivan, said ‘we’re building on the prairie here’. Chicagoland was remade on soil which is very soft clay – even softer closer to the lake – that’s perfect for making buildings that stir the imagination, inspire the soul and make history. Tapping Chicago’s once indomitable spirit of strength, he told the powerful story of a Chicago real estate entrepreneur who had survived the great fire but lost his home. The real estate salesman was soon seen again offering to sell private property after the fire, Dr. Siek solemnly told us, posting a sign that read: “All gone, but wife, children, and energy.” No city, Siek explained, was more vital than Chicago.

Chicago had the first iron-framed or steel-framed skyscraper, he said, introducing us to Daniel Hudson Burnham, public face of an architectural firm (he got the clients), and to John Root, who, according to Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, is the engineering mastermind behind a building Wright loved, and later updated, named the Rookery (it’s still there; Siek urged everyone in the spellbound audience to visit). Taking one’s breath away with a picture of the Rookery’s lobby, which is Root’s design, I marveled at the cantilevered staircase, which Siek described as something out of a Jules Verne story. Wright later put his office at the Rookery. Dr. Siek, who is also a friend and an amazing artist in his own right – I enjoy listening to the beautiful music he plays which I have on my iTunes recordings – brought the lecture to a climax with tales of Sullivan and Wright, lumber magnates, debating architectural scholars and, finally, Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition, which hired the greatest architects in the world and gave us the only World’s Fair building that remains standing on earth: an art museum which is now Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, a place of reverence for me when I was a child. Siek closed his lecture – and promptly introduced the next speaker – with a word about Wright’s masterpiece, the prairie styled Robie house. The exhaustive talk concretized architecture’s abstractions, applying this fine art to reality, in a way that was made easier by Shoshana Milgram’s portrait of a relentless and ambitious young writer Ayn Rand. The final installment cashed in, giving everything a brash, Chicago touch.

The last talk, titled “Chicago: City of Traders”, was by Fox News guest and hedge fund (Capitalist Pig) manager Jonathan Hoenig. He reminded the Objectivist audience, which needs reminding despite loosening up over the years, that capitalism and freedom – and life – are not always tidy; like Dr. Siek’s story of the real estate salesman after the fire, and Dr. Milgram’s tales of Ayn Rand’s ruthless pursuit of happiness, the trader principle may be activated in blunt, abrasive action that requires people to get up and at ’em. Never has this message been more relevant than now, when Objectivists (and others who claim to want to live in freedom before we die) can and do tend to be rationalists, pretentious academics and ivory tower intellectuals.

Hoenig, donning a vest and explaining in often disjointed fragments how futures trading works in Chicago, demonstrated that Chicago is a financial center of the world; a bold city of big shoulders, as Carl Sandburg once wrote, that bought into the concept of an exchange before New York City (theirs came later after New York and Boston wanted nothing to do with commodities markets). Tellingly, in sync with Drs. Milgram’s and Siek’s themes of hardworking middle-class people, Chicago trading was made initially and primarily by producers who were booksellers, farmers, grocers, tanners, druggists and hardware merchants. Yelling and booming and gesturing in live action for the audience what it means to trade in raucous signals of buying and selling – the requisite being assertiveness, as in life – Hoenig quoted Ayn Rand from her essays in Philosophy: Who Needs It, observing that the Chicago Stock Exchange was founded in 1972 with influence by economist Milton Friedman – the exchange was created by a Nazi concentration camp survivor – and explaining speculation as essential to capitalism and, by implication, to life.

Ayn Rand’s O. Henry – and Ours: Ingenuity, Optimism and Warmth

Shoshana Milgram, Ph.D. taught a course (I’ve previously attended her courses on Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, Victor Hugo and Sinclair Lewis) on one of my favorite writers, O. Henry, and it is a personal conference highlight. Starting off with a reference to a line from one of O. Henry’s stories that neatly contains his trademark twist – “He is dead and I killed him …” – she offered insights into his work, which requires more than most short story writing that one check one’s premises, and she provided the life story of the man who’d once been William Sidney Porter. We learned, for instance, and with a bittersweet twist befitting one of his surprising tales, how becoming O. Henry was an ultimately painful, tragic journey (as a writer’s life often is) that began with his writing for the Houston Post, turned on a series of dark, mysterious choices relating to a criminal charge and time in prison and culminated in an extraordinary nine-year writing binge and exceptional career that leaves a legacy of stories based on a benevolent universe premise and O. Henry’s post-penitentiary view that disaster is not inevitable.

rgzpTZibContrasting Thomas Hardy’s Tess, in which people can’t change their stories (Tess is doomed), Milgram showed how O. Henry, whatever his crimes, created fiction that expresses the idea that what might be is what ought to be and that what ought to be is what might be. Citing a short poem as evidence that O. Henry held that happiness is possible here on earth, she noted that O. Henry also did not take domestic failings lightly; in more than a couple of stories, he writes about men who abuse their wives. And O. Henry’s fictional rich people are not automatically villainous – he “does not curse the dollar” – and the poor people are not automatically virtuous. At the time of her death in 1982, Milgram said, Rand owned 11 volumes of O. Henry’s works. Reading from another source, Milgram observed that his style and structure contain compactness and swiftness of resolution with a distinct ability to divert and amuse.

Shoshana Milgram suggested with good reason that, for young Rand in Communist Russia, O. Henry may have offered the hint of an un-Soviet world. Tracing Rand’s interest in his work to her writing, Milgram notes that two early Rand stories bear similarity to his work and may constitute an influence: The Night King and Escort. In Rand’s stories, as against O. Henry’s, people do not tend to get away with the crime. Neither did O. Henry, if in fact he did commit a crime as accused at the National Bank of Austin when he worked as a teller (it doesn’t help that he skipped town upon indictment). He’d been trying to launch a start-up publication called the Rolling Stone and the enterprise wasn’t going well, so he was working at the bank and he wound up in an Ohio prison after fleeing to Honduras (which had no extradition rules) and returning to the U.S. to visit his dying wife. One of his ideas before the legal trouble had been to move to Chicago for a writing job. Jumping bail when he was told to report for trial in Austin changed his life.

The class read and studied several stories, including Friends in San Rosario, The World and the Door, A Retrieved Reformation, which evokes Hugo’s Les Miserables, and, of course, Gift of the Magi about two “foolish children” who turn out to be newlyweds that are rather wise. It’s his most famous story, and Ayn Rand had a negative view of the tale, which she described as dramatizing “the futility of altruism.” Milgram wonders whether there might have been a problem in the Russian translation in some version that Ayn Rand might have read – certain Russian versions showed that the couple’s love is based on admiration and shared joy, not sacrifice, though both versions erroneously had gifts not gift in the title – and in any case Rand pegged it as a “sadistic horror story” in the December, 1976 Objectivist calendar. We discussed Gift of the Magi, which I liked, and other O. Henry stories such as An Unfinished Story, The Ransom of Mack and, briefly, Cabbages and Kings. Though it wasn’t assigned for class, I’d also read The Last Leaf at the suggestion of my mother, a retired English teacher who’d enjoyed the story as a girl, and it was pointed out to me that it seems clear in retrospect that O. Henry’s tale of a dying artist who might be saved by one, final masterpiece involves a same-sex couple.

O. Henry was probably an alcoholic. He died at the age of 47; he’d been drinking and had neglected his health and he was admitted to a hospital with cirrhosis of the liver and the most dilated heart his doctor had seen. O. Henry had diabetes, too. The writer known to his friends as Will Porter is said to have said “turn up the lights; I’m afraid to go home in the dark” before he died. Shoshana Milgram read from a play by Upton Sinclair in which a ghost character of Will Porter’s wife encourages us to remember O. Henry as a storyteller who was the voice of the forlorn.

Aristotle’s Poetics

Poetics-9780486295770Philosophy professor Robert Mayhew taught a course about one of the great works of literature, which has survived in fragments. Dr. Mayhew was emphatic that Aristotle’s Poetics be studied with caution, as book two is essentially lost and, as he put it, we are lucky for what we do possess. Even the one text that has survived, he instructed, is not all that it could be; it’s “the least well transmitted” and it’s in the worst shape – one has to fill in gaps – because Aristotle wrote these texts in the fourth century. That, he explained, complicates everything. So how what we have of Poetics is itself complicated, with scribes making copies of copies moving from magiscule to miniscule, raising problems (i.e., moving all CAPS to no punctuation, no accentuation, etc.) and this applies to any ancient work. These are textual corruption issues and Poetics was neglected in a way that most of Aristotle’s works were not. Also, there was a radical change from papyrus to codex manuscripts, so it’s likely that only a single copy of Poetics survived. The upshot: Poetics is an imperfect text.

We owe much to scholars, he said, explaining that Poetics likely consists of Aristotle’s lecture notes which are often elliptical. According to Dr. Mayhew, Aristotle’s Poetics are likely to mean literary creation, which includes epic, tragedy and comedy. So, the title really means something like expertise in literary creation and, while Poetics is broader than poetry, it does include poetry. The first part is a general introduction to literary creation as a kind of mimesis; a type of imitation, as a representation, and Dr. Mayhew suggests that Aristotle is talking about representational art, with detailed discussions of tragedy, epic and comedy that would have been handled in book 2. Again, he warned that the text is tough.

Yet, as one goes through the table of contents, one sees in Poetics the importance of plot and this – the primacy of plot in literature – is what Ayn Rand and Aristotle have in common.

On background, Dr. Mayhew (editor of Rand’s The Art of Non-Fiction and several studies of Rand’s fiction) said that there are two contexts important to understanding the meaning of Poetics: 1) Aristotle is not projecting all possibilities in literature, and 2) Plato had an extremely negative view of what we know as representational art. In Republic, for example, he sought to ban art. Plato argued that art is a product of inspiration and mania, not a rational skill, so it doesn’t involve knowledge and, since art is representational, it is twice removed from reality (remember, reality for Plato is the forms) and art is therefore a copy of a copy and thus worse, less significant, less a bearer of truths than physical concretes, Finally, Plato asserted that art is dangerous because it is emotion and emotion, he argued, must be repressed; in other words, art is emotionally evocative so art is dangerous. Plato also said that art is not conducive to proper moral development, so representational art should not exist; we should have only background music or Spartan marching tunes; Homer is acceptable only if heavily censored. Mayhew observed that this is why Friedrich Nietschze dubbed Plato an enemy of art.

Aristotle answers each of Plato’s points in Poetics, asserting that literature is a skill with certain principles which can be learned by reason; he proposed that literature is an imitation of reality but said it’s a useful one from which we can learn; it’s not removed from universals – in fact, it deals with essentials – and literature is more philosophy than history. It moves us closer to reality. Aristotle also responds to Plato with the view that literature does arouse emotions and there’s nothing wrong with that and he insists that literature can be and often is conducive to one’s proper moral development which is, in fact, necessary. So Poetics is in part a response to Plato and Aristotle thinks the ability to produce art is related to reason; it’s not something that comes from the outside with those consuming it as some type of passive vessel. Aristotle asserts that the ability to create literature, sculpture, architecture, etc. are the product of reason – not divine intervention or madness – and that there are good ways and bad ways of making art. Aristotle sees art as a body of knowledge and he says that there are limits and rational standards that art must live up to in order to be art. Furthermore, Dr. Mayhew explained, Aristotle held that poetry is not just meter; there is literature that doesn’t have meter and there are two main modes of literature: narration and dramatization. Aristotle, Mayhew maintains, holds like Ayn Rand that art is the product of reason, though he does not sufficiently stress the difference between fine art and utilitarian creation (Mayhew added that this is what Aristotle scholar John Herman Randall claims – that Aristotle makes no distinction at all).

When asked about recommending an English language translation of Aristotle’s Poetics, he said that he doesn’t have a favorite, but Richard Janko’s translation is good, and Penguin’s edition by Malcolm Heath is good, too. Mayhew concluded that Aristotle agreed with Ayn Rand that art is as rational as technology and that Aristotle would have disagreed with Rand that industry is as spiritual as art, though, to Aristotle’s credit, he regarded shipbuilding as similar to art. But it is clear that Aristotle holds that plot is the primary way in which the poet or fiction writer recreates reality; Aristotle thinks you can’t separate thought and character completely in a good play. Dr. Mayhew said that Aristotle wrote that literary structure is more important than what you’re structuring; that well-constructed plots should neither begin nor end from a random point and that the middle of the play is the intensification and climax and the end is its resolution. In fact, plot parts should be presented in order and in magnitude, neither too small nor too large. Length should make the work easy to remember. With regard to an artist being selective, Aristotle praises Homer for trying not to include the entire Trojan War in his epic. So it seems clear that the father of logic sees a plot as an integrated series of events – he criticizes episodic tragedies as events that do not follow logically – and Aristotle notes that nature is not merely a series of episodes like a bad tragedy. In chapters 10 and 11 of Poetics, Aristotle refers to the best kinds of plots, which “present a story in terms of action [which] means to present it in terms of events…”

On the last day of the course, Robert Mayhew brought Aristotle’s Poetics back to Ayn Rand, whose Atlas Shrugged is based on Aristotelian ideas, noting that she probably discovered that it was Aristotle’s principle that we should portray men “as they might be and ought to be” (which he said she referred to nine times) sometime between 1944 and 1945. Rand encountered this reference in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man by Albert Jay Nock. But does Aristotle think people should be portrayed as they ought to be as Ayn Rand means? Mayhew says the answer is a qualified Yes, though he said that he thinks she should have left off quotation marks which Mayhew says he thinks she included because she was relying on Nock’s translation. Certainly might be and ought to be are not the same to Ayn Rand as to Aristotle; she states her literary goal as the presentation of the ideal man; Aristotle says the tragic playwright should present a great person who is brought down by error or morality. To Aristotle, some breach or error brings down an otherwise good person (Aristotle describes this person as an intermediate of the good and the bad).

So, to Aristotle, we shouldn’t see wicked men going from bad to good – nor should we see great men becoming bad – because it doesn’t produce pity or fear and that is the purpose of tragedy. This way, Dr. Mayhew suggests, they’re not hit by a bus out the blue; their demise is based on a character flaw, like newspaper magnate Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead, whose ending is tragic, not caused by some accident, and Aristotle writes that the second best structure is that which some would say has a double structure like Homer’s The Odyssey, in which the suitors go from being good, to living it up, to ending up dead, while Penelope and Telemachus go from being virtuous to a good life. Aristotle’s purposes of literature are contained in two passages that give us a lead into his viewpoint: he says that music (which includes literature) should be part of an education which is appropriate to a free and noble man. There are three core, character requisites, according to Aristotle: education, catharsis and amusement or realization. These arc toward the child’s moral development.

Aristotle says the young are not yet ready for the study of ethics because they are still guided by feelings and require an education. So, he says, the young should not be exposed to malice and depravity. Most important with regard to education, Aristotle says, is education that can take on a certain quality, such as when we see a play or hear a piece of music and certain tunes evoke certain feelings. Mayhew said that Aristotle’s remarks on the role of art and moral development are good – he reminded the class that Ayn Rand wrote that “art is not the means to any didactic ends” – and Mayhew said that, while he used to think that Aristotle thought that art held a didactic function, he doesn’t think that anymore.

While it is not clear what Aristotle thinks is the purpose of art, moral education is certainly part of it, Mayhew argued, and we have more to learn about his views on catharsis. In Greek, catharsis means purgation, in a medical sense; a cleansing of disease and purification in a religious sense. There is one mention of catharsis in Poetics (so maybe Aristotle says more in book 2, which is lost) and Robert Mayhew suggests that this interpretation of catharsis – the moral development of children, with catharsis aiming at moral purification – might well be true: In other words, art can contribute to the habituation of moral virtue as a release and reduction of excessive emotion. Robert Mayhew’s thesis is something to think about, especially for and among those who choose to think.

Movie Review: Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged

Surprisingly, there’s a lot I don’t like about the new Ayn Rand documentary, which I watched with a sold-out audience, including friends who worked on the 84-minute film, at a special screening at the ArcLight Hollywood last night. Because I know many of those who appear in or worked on it, I wanted to like every second of Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged and there is much to like in this movie, which I enjoyed as an experience of seeing Ayn Rand on the big screen again. By the time we see what relevance Rand’s epic novel has to today’s dark times, there are many good points, read directly from her 1957 Random House bestseller and contrasted with well-chosen works of art depicting opposing ideas. But the good points get bogged down in an overbearing movie.

With a booming male narrative, breakneck pace and incessant score, the independent documentary is better suited to the intimacy and immediacy of television. Writer and director Chris Mortensen achieves amazing results given the ground he has to cover in this short time frame. There’s just too much material crammed into the movie, which covers the truly prophetic Atlas Shrugged, set in what novelist and philosopher Rand called the day after tomorrow and dramatizing America collapsing under a corrupt establishment of government regulators and their favored businessmen who prey on individual achievement. Nothing wrong with being ambitious, but the unfortunately named Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged, which at its worst plays like a bombastic infomercial, delves into the book’s history at the expense of explaining key connections to today’s events.

The film relies too heavily upon two discredited Rand biographers, Jennifer Burns and Anne Heller, both of whom wrote deeply flawed accounts of Rand’s life in 2009, though they don’t repeat their worst errors or transgressions here. Presumably, they’re included for balance, the lack of which was a criticism of Michael Paxton‘s excellent Oscar-nominated 1997 documentary, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, but this effort is best when it sticks to people who know and grasp Rand’s life, art and ideas, such as former Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) director Mike Berliner (editor of Rand’s Russian Writings on Hollywood and Letters of Ayn Rand) and current ARI President Yaron Brook. What most Atlas Shrugged readers know, that reading Ayn Rand makes you feel awake and alive and achieves a sense of weightlessness, is left to Burns for observation. But neither Burns nor Heller has much credibility on the subject.

A steady stream of scholars and students and businessmen capably discuss Rand’s ideas and the students’ insights are most effective in demonstrating the relevance of Atlas Shrugged. The most prophetic points are in abundant evidence and the discussion of the tunnel scene is particularly clear and compelling. However, Objectivists will want to know where is English literature professor Shoshana Milgram, who has lectured extensively on Rand and her greatest literary influence, Victor Hugo, or philosophy professor Robert Mayhew, who has edited several volumes on Rand’s courses and writings, or Rand’s heir, Leonard Peikoff? Each of them has produced outstanding material about Atlas Shrugged. General fans of the book may simply wonder at the absence of literary scholars in a film about the power of a novel.

As propaganda for an exceptional book that runs over a thousand pages, contains larger-than-life themes that challenge the dominant ideas of our times and tells the unforgettable story of the mind on strike, Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged partially succeeds. Among the assets are images of Ayn Rand in rare footage, including the author at a press conference with the film’s comic relief, a colorful movie producer named Al Ruddy (The Godfather), who pitched a movie version of Atlas Shrugged to her until she pitched it back (and did he drop the ball). Other footage includes scenes from the first cinematic adaptation of Rand’s novel, last year’s unsuccessful Atlas Shrugged, Part 1, and a rarely seen clip from President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech, in which Ike essentially warned about encroaching total government control of industry. So there is plenty of good, insightful material here, and Mortensen’s judgment can be impeccable, but there is too much of it, it is too imposing, and, as usual, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which has remained in print, sold over a million copies and should be read and studied by every rational man and woman, deserves better.

Interview with John David Lewis

The goal of a war is to defeat an enemy’s will to fight. So argues the author of Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History (Princeton University Press, 2010), who makes the case that a strong military offense can win a war and establish lasting peace while playing defense often leads to destruction. This study of six major wars, from the Second Punic War to World War 2, by historian John David Lewis, contrasts the use of overwhelming force, such as the Greek victory over Xerxes’ army and navy, with a lack of reason, purpose, and commitment to fight. On the eve of the 10th year since the worst attack in American history, I turned to my friend John Lewis, a visiting associate professor of philosophy, politics, and economics at Duke University and teacher at Objectivist Conferences (OCON), to discuss today’s war from a historical perspective. Dr. Lewis is the author of Solon the Thinker: Political Thought in Archaic Athens and Early Greek Lawgivers.

Scott Holleran: What is the theme of Nothing Less Than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History?

John David Lewis: That wars are driven and caused by people’s decisions to fight and that those decisions are based on the ideas they hold. This has enormous implications for what victory means, because it means discrediting the ideas we’re trying to defeat. For example, one could never explain Germany’s massive attacks [against other countries] or Japan’s massive attack on America, in which they launched into intercontinental warfare, without understanding the ideals that they held. The theme of Nothing Less Than Victory is that one must defeat the enemy by discrediting his ideas.

Scott Holleran: How was Nothing Less Than Victory suggested by your students?

John David Lewis: I was teaching a class on ancient and modern warfare and it became clear that a comparative history would be useful. My students posed good questions.

Scott Holleran: While writing about the rise of the Nazis, did The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America by Leonard Peikoff help your understanding?

John David Lewis: Yes, because it’s the only book I know of that places philosophical ideas as the lesson of history. It’s not only an explanation of Nazi Germany in terms of ideas but, much more deeply and widely, it demonstrates how ideas move history.

Scott Holleran: The current administration supports military involvements in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, as well as other underreported incursions in nations such as Yemen and Pakistan, with something other than, or less than, a purpose let alone a victory. The Oxford English Dictionary defines warmonger as “a person who seeks to bring about or promote war.” As a commander-in-chief who supports and initiates militarism with no purpose or end, is President Obama a warmonger?

John David Lewis: I think he’s incompetent but I don’t think Obama is a warmonger. He inherited those wars but he’s simply unable to bring those wars to a decisive end. His main goal is to bring about a fundamental restructuring of the relationship of every American to the government, which is why ObamaCare was among his top three initiatives, because there’s no better way to define that relationship than through health care. So, his major initiative is to change us from the inside out and I think foreign policy is a distraction to him. It’s a symptom of his incompetence, not warmongering. One other aspect of this is that, unlike Bush, with regard to rules of engagement, he generally lets the generals do as they want but this slight improvement [over Bush] is not because Obama is driven to victory.

Scott Holleran: Are the U.S. military interventions in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan properly described as wars?

John David Lewis: When you have combatants you have a war. As Ayn Rand said about the Vietnam War, and I’m paraphrasing, when foreign soldiers are killing Americans, it’s a war and nothing but a war. Certainly, these are wars, but they’re wars in which one side knows it’s fighting a war and the other side is desperately avoiding using that term.

Scott Holleran: You have publicly discussed your cancer diagnosis with regard to domestic health policy and compared your battle against cancer with the themes in Nothing Less Than Victory. Has your condition affected your thoughts on war?

John David Lewis: It has sharpened something—that my battle against cancer is a metaphor, not a war. There’s intelligence gathering in the first stage, nuclear warfare—chemicals and radiation—in the second stage and then we send in the Marines—with doctors and nurses. In a war, you’re dealing with other human beings, who have free will. With cancer, the disease does not have a mind of its own; beating it is a matter of biological causality.

Scott Holleran: Are you primarily a teacher, a writer or an historian?

John David Lewis: It depends on what day it is. Tomorrow, I start teaching two courses at Duke, so tomorrow I’m a teacher. I don’t see any kind of exclusivity—I think they’re mutually supportive. I would not want to be only a historian or writer, because I need the stimulation of teaching.

Scott Holleran: If the U.S. continues to deteriorate, with, for example, an economic collapse or major Islamic terrorist attack, historically speaking, which is more likely: anarchy, civil war, or religious dictatorship?

John David Lewis: Probably some form of religious dictatorship. The two events you name, economic collapse from inside and an attack from outside, are very different. In the case of an attack, I think the American people would look for a leader to unite them and the chances are much greater that they’ll look to a religious leader and we’ll end up with a fascist dictatorship. It depends on the attack, too; obviously, if there are 20 nuclear bombs detonated at once, we may lose our infrastructure and descend into some form of anarchy, but I think we’re more likely to have a single nuclear attack. With an economic collapse, the public would [be more likely to] look for a leader who would seek centralization of power. The infrastructure—the command structure—the equipment—for a police state is already in place at our airports with the TSA. The American people are already habituated to accept it.

Scott Holleran: What is your most controversial point in Nothing Less Than Victory?

John David Lewis: That ideas drive history. Two things are necessary in war; the capacity to fight and the will to fight. During the so-called Cold War, the two great powers were the Soviet Union and the United States, but a third power with capacity was England—and no one went after them because they posed no threat. So, in fact, the most controversial idea is the most obvious; that ideas are the drivers of history. Among readers, the most controversial idea is my point that it was moral to drop the atom bomb on Japan.

Scott Holleran: We now know that the Soviets had infiltrated the United States government and U.S. industries, including motion pictures, and society. Is jihadist Moslem infiltration—including takeover—of the U.S. government possible?

John David Lewis: I don’t think takeover was the kind of thing the Communists were after. What they were going to do is [try to] elect people who would be sympathetic to the Soviet cause. I think that, in a certain sense, there’s a strong parallel, because those who want a radical Islamic war culminating in a one-world government are just as overt in pursuing their goals as were the Communists. But the Soviets were less interested in a one-world government [than jihadists]. The Iranians may be less focused on one-world government than the Saudis. The Iranians act more like the Soviets—they want to have nukes to play like the big boys, whereas the Saudis are more like the Trotskyites. They want this worldwide evolution [toward Islamic statism] and are more patient about infiltrating [Western civilization]. The Saudis have built thousands of mosques and [radical Islamic group] CAIR has directly said that Sharia law imposed over the United States will come. To actually take over the U.S. government in the sense that they impose Sharia law? We’re a long way from that. But if you mean creating sympathies and bringing about a radical Islamic-influenced government…

Scott Holleran: Certain presidential candidates have recently been linked to campaign donors who may be connected, directly or indirectly, to groups that support Islamic jihadist aims. Are you concerned that the enemy could shape and influence American government through a Manchurian candidate?

John David Lewis: Yes. It’s part of the insidiousness of these groups. Today, any candidate knows that accepting money from jihadist groups for influence would kill the campaign—you can’t keep that kind of thing a secret. So that would be less likely than the threat of covert multiculturalist ideas being spread and accepted throughout the culture.

Scott Holleran: What is the central lesson of each war discussed in Nothing Less Than Victory as it relates to today’s war?

John David Lewis: The need to name the enemy, identify him as an enemy and develop a strategy that defeats him at his center—an elusive concept—or close to a center of gravity of economic, social, political support for the [jihadist] war [against the West]. [Carl von] Clausewitz writes about this—that Americans have a strong moral center, so that, by attacking our moral center, the enemy imposes guilt. We saw this in the Vietnam War when we were criticized for distinguishing between [Communist] North and [non-Communist] South Vietnam. After the war ended, one of our generals went to a former North Vietnamese military general and said, “you never defeated us in the battlefield.” And his North Vietnamese counterpart said that was irrelevant. You need to be right in what you’re doing and you need to know that you’re right in what you’re doing.

Scott Holleran: You write about the citizens of ancient Carthage and those in South Carolina and Georgia during the Civil War not facing the consequences of war. Are today’s Americans disconnected from war?

John David Lewis: Yes. In a certain sense, they’re very disconnected from the war because they’re not facing an attack on their soil right now, so I don’t think they know what’s going on. When I talk to soldiers, I get a very different sense about what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan than what I see in the media. But, in another sense, we are more connected because we live in the age of technology, and people can get news from the battlefield. What would Americans at home have said had images from Iwo Jima been sent back home?

Scott Holleran: You write about Union General Sherman’s remarkably low casualties during the Civil War. Why is that fact not widely taught or known?

John David Lewis: Because people today are caught up in the myth of Sherman as the Attila from the North. Southerners created that myth.

Scott Holleran: How did the myth become so widely accepted in the North?

John David Lewis: That’s a good question. The intellectuals, historians and the press are all complicit in this—it strikes their morality that Sherman specifically targeted civilians—and once they accept that that’s what Sherman did, they move on rather than examine the facts of what happened. Why are Hiroshima and Nagasaki held up as moral evils while failing to consider what alternatives the United States had? Facts are forgotten and subordinated for moral reasons.

Scott Holleran: You also write about Confederates hiding behind civilians like today’s Moslem jihadists. Are there other examples in history of using civilians as covers for combatants during war?

John David Lewis: That happens all the time in war. Any time an army backs up into a city and defends against its walls, the civilians are being held hostage in some way. So there’s certainly a precedent in history. I don’t think the Confederates were necessarily worse even than the Union. Palestinian snipers look for Israeli troops where they are facing civilians and what they want is to get the Israelis to return gunfire against civilians to get publicity—they want the enemy to kill civilians as a pretext. That’s worse.

Scott Holleran: Is the mass death of freed slaves at Ebeneezer Creek in any way indicative that the Union army was racist, too, and does the tragedy diminish the moral righteousness of the Union cause?

John David Lewis: Racist? Of course. Everyone was a racist back then. Does it diminish the moral status of the Union’s cause? Absolutely not! Many freed slaves wanted to be with Sherman’s army. As Union armies were moving ahead under Union General Jefferson C. Davis’s command, freed slaves followed. Coming to the creek, with Confederates behind them, Davis ordered pontoons brought up, leaving the freed slaves behind, and then they were attacked by Southern armies. Davis may have been racist but who caused the dangers to the freed slaves? It was the Southern army. Davis is given moral criticism for failing to rescue blacks from Southerners. But it’s the Southerners that were to blame. They were the ones attacking. They were ones who’d enslaved them.

Scott Holleran: Coming to the 20th century wars, you write that President Woodrow Wilson sought “peace without victors.” Who is the last president who didn’t?

John David Lewis: Franklin Roosevelt.

Scott Holleran: You trace President Wilson’s ideals to philosopher Thomas Hobbes and, centrally, to philosopher Immanuel Kant. Is Wilson America’s first Kantian president?

John David Lewis: I don’t know enough about the intellectual history of American presidents to say whether he’s the first but he’s heavily influenced by Kant because the basis of his education was German. It’s Kant’s 1795 essay on Perpetual Peace that calls for the establishment of a worldwide state. Kant calls for “a league of nations”. Kant directly influenced the League of Nations. People forget that Kant said that all nations of the world should be republics and he rejected democracy—but he blanked out the fact that all nations in the world are not republics. The influence of Kant in education that was German-based clearly influenced Woodrow Wilson.

Scott Holleran: Why do liberals condemn Nazi Germany but drop the context of the Nazis’ government-controlled economics?

John David Lewis: I don’t know. I think the inference takes them down a road that they don’t want to go. They don’t want to face the fact that being an advocate of a government-controlled economy makes them tyrannical. It’s forgotten that these fascist states were woefully inefficient. I have evidence that Mussolini did not make the trains run on time, yet this notion that fascism is efficient persists. Last night, I saw a Star Trek episode in which Spock tells Kirk that Nazi Germany was the world’s most efficient society. That’s not true.

Scott Holleran: You report that the media aided and abetted the rise of the Nazis. Is today’s press complicit in aiding the rise of fascism, too?

John David Lewis: Oh, sure, though they wouldn’t say it that way. The press itself is almost always solidly on the side of greater and bigger government programs, except for the Wall Street Journal and some conservative outlets. They don’t want to call themselves fascists but in effect that is what they are supporting.

Scott Holleran: Did the West drive Italian dictator Benito Mussolini into an alliance with Nazi Germany?

John David Lewis: I don’t know—I don’t have a good answer for that. If it’s true that Mussolini was afraid of Nazi Germany, there certainly were times, especially when the Germans moved into the Rhineland and Czechoslovakia, when all offers and opportunities might have stopped the Nazi flood. I think the West was instrumental—and complicit—in driving Mussolini into an alliance with Nazi Germany in the same way we did with [Cuban dictator] Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union, but I would never place primary blame or cause on the West because both probably would have happened anyway. They shared a basic philosophy.

Scott Holleran: Was Imperial Japan as racist as Nazi Germany?

John David Lewis: In its own way, yes. The more I read about Japan, the more I realize what a truly foreign nation it is—in their morals, in their writing, you see now that, when something goes wrong in a company, the executives have to bow down and apologize. Japan was as racist as Germany in the sense that they saw themselves as racially superior and destined to rule Asia.

Scott Holleran: Is General Douglas MacArthur underestimated as leader and thinker in occupied Japan?

John David Lewis: Yes. In terms of the occupation of Japan, which MacArthur was put in charge of, it resulted in zero deaths and there were no insurrections. What he did was a monumental task and it went as benevolently and well as any occupation in history. He is greatly underestimated.

Scott Holleran: Is it possible for the U.S. public to come to worship a leader, such as Texas Governor Perry, Minnesota Congresswoman Bachmann, or President Obama, as a deity as people did in Japan?

John David Lewis: We’re a long way from that, especially the way it was done in Japan. But the way people treat Barack Obama—as if he’s the divine one, his word is oracle and he can do everything—has parallels.

Scott Holleran: There are a number of war movies in recent years, from 300 and The Alamo remake to recent war-themed pictures such as Stop-Loss, Jarhead and The Lucky Ones—even The King’s Speech hinges upon an understanding of what’s at stake in war. Do you recommend any movies as effective dramatizations of war and/or a proper historical perspective?

John David Lewis: I don’t have a recommendation. I did see one war movie recently—Escape from Sobibor [British made for television, which aired on CBS in 1987] with Alan Arkin. It’s about a German concentration camp—a death camp—in Poland. Like all these camps, there were some prisoners who were not killed; they were out in barracks. Sobibor was where the only full-scale revolt by camp prisoners took place. They ran into the woods and escaped—it’s the one case where everyone, especially the Jews but also the Poles, fought back. They killed the Germans, and then they rushed the main gate and hundreds escaped. That’s worth seeing. I stopped seeing a lot of modern war movies. I have not seen 300. I’ve got the graphic novel and it looks awful. A much better movie about the historic battle is The 300 Spartans [starring Richard Egan, 1962].

Scott Holleran: Any other classic movie recommendations?

John David Lewis: I still like to see Battle of the Bulge [starring Robert Shaw, 1965], which is about reversing the wills to fight. In the beginning, the Americans are demoralized and the Germans are motivated. In the end it’s the opposite. There are some good classic war movies set in World War 2. Even a movie like A Bridge Too Far [1977] has a certain point to it.

Scott Holleran: You write that President Franklin Roosevelt wrote about “the destruction of a philosophy” in achieving victory in World War 2. Does the planned construction of an Islamic mosque near where the Twin Towers once stood—before Islamic jihadists destroyed them on 9/11—represent a victory to the enemy?

John David Lewis: I think it does. It’s not because the people who want to build the mosque are on the side of those who want to destroy the U.S. but they chose to build it near the World Trade Center site for sympathetic reasons and those reasons—for building a $100 million cultural center—are the same reasons that make me want to oppose it. In the plans, there are separate places for men and women, so it’s clearly a place to enforce certain political ideas, which are not consistent with the ideals of the United States. That they choose to build it there is why I oppose building it there.

Scott Holleran: You contrast the Japanese with the Americans in terms of motive, demonstrating that the Japanese, like today’s jihadists, were motivated by death while the Americans fighting in World War 2 were motivated by life. We have been fighting and appeasing jihadists for over 10 years with thousands of U.S. casualties and no progress toward victory. Are Americans losing the will to live?

John David Lewis: That’s a difficult question. If one sees an enemy as out to destroy you and does not act against him, and instead builds bridges to him, then certainly Americans are losing the will to live. Certainly, if we don’t demand a nation that defends itself, that’s true.

Scott Holleran: You write about dropping napalm and atom bombs, not food, on civilians during war. What is the primary reason why we drop food packages not bombs on our enemy?

John David Lewis: On one level, we don’t want to destroy and kill people that way—Americans are very benevolent—and we fail to make the connection between dropping bombs and saving our lives. American intelligence in Japan looked at what was happening inside the country of Japan—inside the houses. When they found out that civilians were being trained to kill Americans, they realized that within those houses were weapons and that civilians were an active part of the war effort and an American intelligence officer made a direct connection; he reported there were no civilians in Japan as far as the war effort was concerned. Recently, we saw a Navy SEAL team come across a group of shepherds that were hostile to the U.S.—and they let them go, knowing the shepherds would turn them over to the enemy if given a chance. It goes back to your question about the will to live, and, in that sense, it’s gone.

Scott Holleran: Which is the greater threat to the United States—Iran, which openly declares its intent to destroy America—or Saudi Arabia, which sponsors Islamic jihadism while claiming to do otherwise?

John David Lewis: They’re both threats. I can’t elevate one above the other.

Scott Holleran: The Nazis were appeased by the West and swept into power, exterminating millions of Jews. The Soviets were allied with and appeased by the West and subsequently conquered much of the civilized world, exterminating millions of people, enslaving tens of millions and fighting a proxy war with the U.S. that funded the forces that created jihadist Islam. Islamic jihadists, too, were allied with and appeased by the West and are fighting a proxy war with the U.S. through subversive terrorism. What horror awaits civilization should jihadists prevail?

John David Lewis: The first thing we would see is the entire Middle East given to Islamic government and all-out war—we would see Islamic rule in the south of France, Spain, and Indonesia, and the predominantly Islamic republics of the former Soviet Union. I do not think that we would see a single caliphate against the United States. I think we would see Iran and Syria against Saudi Arabia and Egypt and whatever would come out of that would push out against the West. European nations are already failing by internal rot. But how far are we from France becoming an Islamic state? Probably far off. The war would spread like a plague through Africa and South America, where they would come to regret the alliance that [Venezuelan dictator] Hugo Chavez made with Iran. And if Iran gets nuclear weapons—and then the Saudis do, too—that would be very bad for the rest of the world.

Scott Holleran: Is America’s current predicament with regard to the unacknowledged war with jihadist Islam fundamentally comparable to either the 300 Spartans or the Alamo?

John David Lewis: [Pauses] No. I don’t think so. In neither Greece nor the Alamo was it denied that there was a problem. Today, we are evading the fact that there’s a problem—that this politicized Islam [jihad, which means holy war] is what motivates the enemy. In that sense, it’s not comparable. The Greeks made a stand against the Persians and it became a rallying cry—the men at the Alamo made a stand against the Mexicans and it became a rallying cry—but when the passengers of United [Air Lines flight] 93 made a stand against the radical Moslems, there should have been a rallying cry, and there wasn’t. Throughout history, we’ve heard “Remember the 300 [Spartans]!” “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember the Maine!” No one cries “Let’s Roll” to remember United 93.

Scott Holleran: What’s your favorite war memorial?

John David Lewis: It makes me sad to think of that. [Pauses] There is one that comes to mind, though I haven’t been there—the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The [sunken] ship [destroyed with her 1,777 crewmen by the Japanese] was left there and a memorial was built over it. Some of the Confederate war memorials, such as the memorial at Shiloh, are very moving. But the one that seems most moving to me is the Arizona memorial. [Pauses] I do not think it’s time to build a memorial to the victims of 9/11. There’s a line about building a war memorial during a war that may be attributable to, of all people, Eleanor Roosevelt: We’ll win the war—then we’ll have a memorial.

Scott Holleran: What one idea, more than any other idea, must be accepted in our culture for the West to achieve victory over jihadist Islam?

John David Lewis: Knowledge of our own good. Most of all, we must realize that we stand for the values of freedom, the sanctity of the individual, and reason.