Book Review: Against Our Better Judgement

I picked up this book because I wanted to learn more about the history of the geopolitical clusterfuck that is the Israel/Palestine issue, but never did I expect to find a history so deep, so bloody, and so one-sided in the treatment it receives by the world as that of Israel. In my case, Weir did exactly what she set out to accomplish: she hit me over the head with a series of truth bombs and left me dumbfounded in stupid shock. Against Our Better Judgment is the abridged history of the Zionist movement, but don’t mistake its brevity for banality. In an exhaustively well-researched book whose footnotes section is twice as long as the actual text, Alison Weir will tell you things about Zionism that you won’t want to believe. It’s outstanding to me that so much knowledge could be so unknown. How, as a historian, have I never come across the history of Zionism before? This major movement, stretching back to the nineteenth century, which permeated American politics and managed to create a nation which now receives more funding from the U.S. than any other country on earth, is somehow never spoken of in classrooms (and certainly not in the media).

I don’t want to give too much away, because I think everyone ought to read this for him or herself. All I can say is: read it; it will challenge your view of the world. It’ll take about an hour to get through (unless of course you have to take a break between chapters to have an emotional reaction like I did). I highly suggest this for everyone, especially the citizens of America and Israel.


Book Review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Authors: Malcolm X and Alex Haley

I didn’t know much about Malcolm X before reading this book. After reading it, I honestly wonder if I knew much about anything before picking it up. That’s the kind of novel we’re dealing with here. Written in dictatorial style reminiscent of Comentarii De Bello Galicum, the great general of civil rights shares his beliefs, insights, fears, and regrets in what stands as the most honest and candid biography I’ve ever read.

Firstly, of course the FBI had something to do with the assassination of Malcolm X. The Nation of Islam, that spurned cult responsible for pulling the actual trigger, had information that they simply could not have been privy to. The number of Malcolm’s hotel room at the Audubon Hotel, for instance (who called him the morning before the assassination, said “wake up brother,” and hung up?). Besides, Malcolm suspected it himself. He told Alex Haley, ghost author of the book, that he was going to “stop saying it’s [the party making threats against his life] the black Muslims,” shortly before his death. Oddly enough, the events leading to his murder parallel Martin Luther King’s almost exactly: the harassment, the bugging and wiretapping, the stalking, the bombing of his home – all of these fear tactics leading to the final climax, the planned shooting in organized, summary execution style. I won’t say more about it here for the sake of brevity, but I’ll link to further reading at the end.

All I really knew about Malcolm X’s came from the short paragraph allotted to him in my AP American History textbook from high school. In the corner of the page, situated under the lengthy section on Martin Luther King Jr., I read that, once upon a time, there existed an angry black supremacist named Malcolm X, who hated white people and preached hatred and violent dissent. There was no mention of his past, no mention of his faith, no mention of the incredible hurdles he overcame to become one of the most eloquent and effective advocates of racial justice in America. I won’t go into detail, but nothing about the conditions of this man’s childhood and early life was conducive to survival, let alone greatness.

The fact that my textbook failed to mention Malcolm X’s Islamic faith perplexes me, because one cannot understand his life without it. Islam was Malcolm’s great catalyst; his conversion in prison proved the single most important event of his life. “Any wings I wore,” he wrote, “had been put on by the religion of Islam” (287). Reading his book, I’d say that it gave him few things in particular which contributed greatly to his success. Firstly, Islam demanded a high moral standard, which transformed his restless energy into formidable discipline. He quit drugs, gave up hustling, and got shit done, in no small part thanks to the rigorous standards of his newfound community and faith. Second, it gave him a family. It was through the NOI that Malcolm met his wife who (despite Malcolm’s somewhat personal prejudice against women that he carried to the end of his life), built him up and supported him with the unfailing constitution of a saint. Lastly, in religion Malcolm found redemption, which I understand as the courage to look backwards at his past mistakes, and the motivation to move forward. The twelve years Malcolm spent with the Nation of Islam was a second life for him. In his own words, he rose from the life of a beast, to that of a man. I’m no theologian, but I can recognize grace when I see it, and Malcolm X’s autobiography, for everything else it might be, reeks of redemption.

Despite his crimes, despite his sexism, and despite his racist views, which did not change until the last two years of his life, I cannot help but admire Malcolm X. As a leader, his transparency, his courage, and his determination make him worthy of admiration. As a human being, his insatiable curiosity and stoic self-discipline merit veneration. Today, I find great cause to lament his death. With everything that is going on in the year 2015, with the latest resurgence of old racial divisions in the form of protest and riot boiling over in Missouri and Baltimore (the old south and the old north, the same old battlegrounds as before), I can’t help but wonder what Malcolm X would do if he could see the scene. Strength like his might do us good today, and not just with racial issues. The voice of Islam is small in the West. Malcolm notes it himself in a side note made at the end of a chapter: “Elijah Muhammad’s tales…infuriated the Muslims of the East. While in Mecca, I reminded them that it was their fault, since they themselves hadn’t done enough to make real Islam known in the West. Their silence left a vacuum into which any religious faker could step and mislead our people” (168). Malcolm X’s voice was a force against Islamophobia, which has only grown since the 21st century, especially 9-11. Then, as now, Islam lacks leadership in America. Where is the Muslim voice who can dissipate American misconceptions and separate true Islam from the extremist groups who would make a mockery of a rich and complex faith? Forty years after his death, we still search for the heirs of Malcolm X.

Many champions of civil rights over the years have stressed the importance of education, but of course it was Malcolm X, the man who told truth at all cost, who put it in the bleakest, most realistic of terms: “The young whites and the young blacks are the only hope that America has. The rest of us have always been living in a lie.” For Malcolm, the present, not the past, is prologue. We as adults may be doomed to live among our prejudices and fears, which our ancestors have passed to us from an early age, but the future remains uncertain, and it is the children, not us, who will decide it.

Malcolm X, the self-made man. The rugged individual who overcame personal hardships to fight for justice in a corrupt and unjust society. Funnily enough, when put in these terms, Malcolm’s life sounds a lot like the American Dream.


Further reading:

Book Review of “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford

Author: Jack Weatherford

Publishing Date: 16 March 2004

The point of this book is to tell the story of Genghis Khan, fully and truly. Jack Weatherford covers the Khan’s life, his rise to power, his consolidation of the Mongolian tribes, his expansion of the Mongolian empire, the impact of his legacy (that being the rise of the modern world as we know it), and his often unfair remembrance in the centuries following his death. Weatherford travelled through the Khan’s homeland for over five years, travelling, researching, and translating The Secret History of the Mongols, a text which, like Genghis Khan’s place of birth, had been hidden from the world first by fierce Mongolian tradition and then by Soviet Russia.

Knowledge about Genghis Khan remained scarce in the centuries following his death; rumors, hearsay, and prejudiced opinion dominated the identity of a man who once united the largest empire in human history. Weatherford covers the rise of Genghis’ Mongolian empire, but his work is primarily an investigation into the man himself. What Weatherford found contrasted starkly with common knowledge: Genghis Khan was not the red-eyed, bloodthirsty overlord that popular culture painted him as. He was an outcast nomad with limited ambitions, driven throughout his life by the need to defend his family and an inherent inability to take orders from anyone. As a man, he was illiterate and uneducated. As a leader, he commanded fierce loyalty from his followers. As a general, he innovated military travel, developed a new hierarchical system of command, and established effective means of communication which put him one step ahead of his foes. Fiercely loyal and capable of holding a grudge over many years, Genghis Khan was a wonderful friend and a terrible enemy. Perhaps his most advantageous trait was his ability to delegate; he had a remarkable proclivity for recognizing and utilizing the talent around him, adopting new technologies, methods, and strategies and making them his own.

The Mongol empire under Genghis and his successors allowed complete religious freedom and unprecedented autonomy. Subordinates had only to recognize Mongolian rule and pay tax to the Khan. The alternative to this unprecedented mercy was swift and complete destruction, and though some vassals suffered this fate, most seemed content to live in peace under Mongol rule. By 1287, Mongolians had sent envoys as far as England and had established trade across Europe. Through an accurate portrayal of the Mongol empire’s rise and fall, Weatherford shows how Europeans did not always harbor animosity for the Mongolians. In fact, in the thirteenth century Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in praise of them, considering the Mongolian empire with admiration. By 1345, however, opinion shifted as the Black Plague gripped Europe. Frightened masses blamed foreign traders, and the Mongol’s extensive trade system broke down, followed by the empire itself. The Mongolian empire and its dynamic leader faded into legend, and by the eighteen hundreds Genghis Khan’s name synonymized death and brutality, an opinion which pervades in modern times. Nevertheless, the rise and fall of the Mongol empire remains one of the most remarkable chapters in world history. Mongolians today revere the great Khan, constructing monuments which rival the state of liberty in size and imposition. Whatever one’s opinion of the controversial figure and the empire he built, the scope and magnitude of his legacy cannot be put aside.

The Mongol empire began as a collection of incongruent tribes led by an ostentatious vagabond, and grew into a massive state which connected Europe and Asia, connected the east and west, and in so doing set the stage for the modern world.

Thoughts on “The Seven Samurai”

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Release date: 16 November 1956

I’m not calling this a review because I am not worthy of reviewing a masterpiece.

Or, while I’m at it, any Kurosawa film. The man is untouchable, at least by my amateur hands.

That said, here are some of the thoughts I had after having watched it for the second time:

“All a peasant knows is fear, all farmers ever do is worry.” This line comes not from a Samurai or Magistrate, but a peasant. Moreover, the speaker is the oldest and most respected man of his village. Sitting alone in his hut on the bank of a small river, he delivers this line to the samurai whom his village has hired to fend off a group of bandits. There is no rebellion in his voice, no hint of hatred nor hopefulness. The tone is simply resigned: his life is hard and predominantly unjust, and this frigid fate has, is, and forever will be so. Such is the life of a peasant, and Kurosawa gives us no sense that it will ever change. A tone of bitter acceptance overwhelms the entire film and truly, this is no a Cinderella story; there is no underdog who rises from an unjust world to save himself and his people form a corrupt system. Rather, The Seven Samurai operates within that system, examining its details and interstices from within. To expect a happy ending would be misguided.

This is not to say that the degradation of the peasant’s lives is entirely self-enforcing. the purported heros of the film, the seven samurai, at times behave in ways which eschew the white knight expectation. When training the peasants, the samurai boss the villagers around with force and shouting; the scene sometimes resembles herding sheep. They have no respect for their temporary employers. When Shichirōji asks Kambei Shimada which clan they will fight for, Shimada responds, “It shames me to tell you, but we are fighting for peasants.” The samurai’s treatment of Kikuchiyo exemplifies this best. Kikuchiyo is not a samurai in the proper sense; he was born a peasant. However, he found a sword and uses it, along with a stolen genealogical record and an inflated ego, to claim warrior status. The other samurai allow him into their midst because they need a seventh man, but they mock him consistently throughout the film and never let him forget that, although he has a place on their banner, he and they are not the same. The gap between samurai and peasant proves inseparable in other ways, as well. The doomed love affair between the youngest samurai and a peasant girl is condemned by the girl’s father, and eventually the samurai is rejected. Perhaps he has the option of giving up his samurai status for her, but she cannot become the wife of a samurai. This final rejection takes place at the end of the film, when the bandits have been eliminated. The peasants rejoice and begin planting rice for the coming season, but the remaining samurai do not join in the celebration. “This is the peasant’s victory, not ours,” says Shimada as he overlooks the scene with his two surviving companions. Why, then, did the seven samurai agree to risk their lives for the village? Perhaps their desperation for food overruled their pride, or perhaps a latent sense of honor compelled them to help anyone who asked. Certainly, each individual had a motive of his own. Kikuchiyo’s desire to prove himself is the most sympathetic, in part because of its innocence, and in part due to its futility: nothing will change his parentage. The Seven Samurai explores many themes and asks many questions in over three hours of scene time, but Kikuchiyo’s story persists most strongly in my mind. His narrative typifies the insurmountability of class in  Warring States Period Japan, and with his death dies the hope for any societal change, at least within the foreseeable future. Yet, his presence confuses the other samurai, and at least begs the question of what makes a true samurai, a true samurai.

Documentary Review : “The Cave of the Yellow Dog”

Director: Byambasuren Davaa

Release date: 12 May 2005

The Cave of the Yellow Dog is a difficult movie to classify. Rife with thematic content, it conveys the challenges of a nomadic Mongolian family in an increasingly sedentary world while somehow maintaining the day-in-a-life atmosphere of an educational documentary.

The plot revolves around Nansal, the fearless eldest daughter of the real life Batchuluun family, who is just as comfortable riding a fully grown horse as she is playing pretend with her brother and sister. While tending to the family sheep heard, Nansal discovers a small dog whom she quickly rescues and adopts, much to the chagrin of her father, whose inherent distrust of wolves leaves him disinclined towards his daughter’s new friend. The story-line is one of heartwarming friendship, compassion, and mercy in a harsh and sometimes unforgiving world.

The main plot, however, is only part of what the film offers. While Nansal dominates the screen, her adventures are broken by lengthy shots of her family’s everyday life. The audience sees her father skinning a sheep, her mother preparing milk, and her siblings getting ready for bed. These accurate portrayals of nomadic life on the Steppes blur the line between fiction and documentary, making it difficult to ascertain a the film’s true meaning, its singular “point.” Thematic content is a good place to start:

Urbanization plays an important role throughout the movie. Nansal’s father laments the increasing number of wolves in the area, a direct result of neighboring families abandoning their dogs to move to the city, leaving their hounds to go feral. In the final shot of the film, the Batchuluun family’s wagon train rolls off into the Steppes, but the pastoral image is broken by a car which careens down the road beseeching Mongolians via loudspeaker to vote in the upcoming election.

The implications of a dying rural existence and what that might mean for the Batchuluun family is left ambiguous, and certainly the film is not political in practice; in fact it devotes more time to religion. The Buddhist family discusses reincarnation on a few occasions. Nansal seems the most curious about past lives, seeking information from her parents and a somewhat mysterious elderly woman she encounters during a storm. If viewed as a theme, reincarnation reinforces Nansal and her dog’s friendship through the notion that two souls, even of different species, can find each other connected through disparate memories of other lifetimes. It also adds an air of continuity to the film, a reassurance to the cyclical nature of being, perhaps assuaging the apprehensions of urbanization’s political and social changes.

The themes of urbanization and reincarnation weave into the film’s fabric seamlessly, showing themselves not through purposeful metaphor or stylism, but through everyday life. While urbanization threatens Nansal and her dog’s nascent friendship, their curiously strong bond holds it fast. The themes are not weighed down by overdrawn symbolism and heavy-handed stylism. Rather, the film allows the major motifs to manifest themselves through the earnest and real lives of the Batchuluun family.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog is not quite a documentary and not quite a drama. The glimpse it gives into a real Mongolian nomadic family with the addition of a fictional plot and the spattering of snapshots from everyday life present a film that is as educational as it is heartwarming, as provocative as it is pure. Its candid nature makes it difficult to pin down, but perhaps this honesty is the point. It is as real as any film can be, and such unprecedented things often defy classification.