Archive for the ‘Music and Cultural Criticism’ Category

Stop Donald Trump from Colonizing Your Brain

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

Originally published on on May 21 2017:

Like a Libyan dictator of old, the leader is everywhere, including inside your head
By Ann Marlowe
May 21, 2017 • 10:00 PM

I keep trying to finish this essay, but every six three hours or so there’s a major new Trump scandal to react to.

It reminds me of a remark in the German filmmaker Wim Wenders’ 1976 movie Kings of the Road. A German character says that Americans have “colonized our subconscious.” He means the music, the movies, the blue jeans that formed hipster identity in 1970s Germany.

Trump has colonized our subconscious—in fact, he was succeeding at that even during the campaign. (Too many were ready to embrace a psychopath who had no internal censor because a decade of stultifying political correctness had led to a craving for something that felt like truth-telling, even if it wasn’t.) And now a fevered fixation on Trump, Trump, Trump is playing into his hands.

Usually, you have to be a dictator to accomplish this. What’s happening here reminds me of visiting Libya in the first heady days of its freedom from Gadhafi.

I spent about six weeks in eastern Libya in spring 2011, when a million people woke from a 42-year-long nightmare and dipped their toes into ordinary life again. The most emblematic story I heard in Benghazi was told to me by someone who, even more than today’s citizen activists, dropped everything to do what she thought was right. She was a dental professor who, on Feb. 17, 2011, walked out of the classroom where she was grading exam papers and didn’t go back for seven months. It was more important to help make a new society.

This brilliant woman, Iman Bugaighis, eventually did go back to teaching. She also spoke repeatedly of the need to root out the “little Gadhafi in our heads.” Without doing that, she said, there would be no real democracy in Libya. (Today, there’s too much democracy in Libya. But that’s another story.)

From what Iman and many other Libyans told me, Gadhafi’s regime was omnipresent. The TV, the radio, the posters in the street, and the photos in government offices: Gadhafi, Gadhafi, Gadhafi. You were never able to get him out of your head.

Another Libyan spoke of the regime’s “organized confusion,” a deliberate effort to govern by impulse so that no one could think straight and organize to resist. The regime did crazy things to make sure you paid attention. One day, the school curriculum might be totally changed, or the military academy moved hundreds of miles, or English and French books banned, or any madness you can imagine.

Once your life revolves around hating someone, you’re finished as a thinker, artist, human
Starting to sound familiar? In totalitarian societies, the need to focus obsessively on the regime helps grow a little Leader inside one’s head. Even in opposition, there’s no escape. And once your life revolves around hating someone, you’re finished as a thinker, artist, human.

Since Trump’s election, friends of mine who had no prior interest in politics, people who never even voted most of the time, have been marching, Tweeting obsessively, talking about getting involved with “the resistance.” Some are arty people who are far to the left, others are rentiers, bon vivants. Before the election, some were spending money and enjoying life. Others were involved with Mandarin art activities, pursuits that no longer seem urgent.

Meanwhile, I’ve met other people from a wide range of professions who have been doing anti-Trump research, often very good research, as citizen journalists. Twitter is full of their work, even though it’s the shrill simplifiers who get most of the attention.

It’s like what happened to many Americans after Sept. 11. Some joined the military or got a degree in Middle Eastern studies. More eccentrically, I learned Farsi and went to write about Afghanistan.

Is this drastic change in interests healthy? Yes and no. Yes to the point where it corrects an unhealthy ignorance of political matters and isolated self-absorption. But no, when you stop producing or consuming culture or art. No, when you can’t get Trump out of your head.

I force myself to stop checking Twitter and read a book instead, preferably one written a long time ago and in a foreign language. Go to a museum now and then. An opening. Moderation. Balance. Pick a piece of the work and do it, steadily and surely. I think of an almost 2,000-year-old rabbinical edict: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

Some Deep Thoughts on “War Dogs”

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

(originally published on Aug 31 2016 on

“People pay money to see others believe in themselves,” the rock musician Kim Gordon has said. More accurate to unpack the thought into two related ideas: first, that people pay money to see others engaged in the struggle to believe in themselves. (Whether it’s a rock star or an athlete, the possibility of failure is part of what draws us in.) And second, that people pay money to see others enjoying themselves—probably because the secret of how to do that becomes elusive after childhood.

This is part of Donald Trump’s popularity. He loves what he does, which is being in the public gaze. Even if that shouldn’t be the president’s main job description, and even from the perspective of a Trump hater, compared with Trump’s enjoyment of the spotlight, all of his competitors for the Republican nomination paled. People simply enjoy seeing him enjoy himself.

War Dogs shows work as fun, and as such, it’s much more subversive than director Todd Phillips’ earlier comedies, like Starsky & Hutch and the Hangover trilogy (none of which I’ve seen). War Dogs is about two 20-something losers who dream big, and what’s riveting is their struggle to believe in themselves, and their pleasure in what they do. (The book on which the movie was based actually features three, not two, main characters.) It’s a feel-good movie for defiant people and outsiders. Yes, it’s about selling weapons, but more about the selling than the weapons, and more still about work in general—a topic perennially underserved by novelists, but given more of its due by TV and movies, as New York Times film critic A.O. Scott recently noted. And as many people know, even the most mundane, unglamorous businesses can be absolutely gripping and full of drama, when they’re yours and there’s a chance to hit big. Think 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross (based on the David Mamet play) or David Russell’s fine 2015 movie Joy, about a woman whose mission in life was to invent a better mop. Or, for that matter, The Social Network.

Silicon Valley is all about what you do for fun becoming what makes you a fortune; that’s why it’s subversive—mainstream American culture still separates fun and fortune, weekday and weekend. I happened to see War Dogs for the first time on a Friday at 8 p.m., and on the way to the theater I was thinking how much I hate the phrase “have a good weekend!”—a phrase I associate with people doing work they don’t like, living for the Saturday-Sunday respite, and thinking everyone else lives like that too. Whereas I believe the goal in life is to find something you want to do seven days a week, whether it’s trade stocks or write poetry or raise kids or grow organic vegetables. Or be an arms dealer. Something that pleases and drives you so much that you don’t need or want time off.

And Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) the literally oversize protagonist of War Dogs, spends seven days a week selling weapons because it’s what he was born to do; his borderline sociopathy makes him a great salesman and he loves the details of the arms trade, the opportunity for hustling, and the guns themselves. He’s also scabrously un-PC in a way that also calls Trump to mind; he tells a translator to “say that in gibberish” and shoves past the crowd at Amman’s airport saying he’s American, he has to go first. His handsome but bland Jewish grade-school buddy, David Packouz (Miles Teller), with fewer obvious business skills and no love of guns, comes along for the ride. It beats his other job, giving massages (we see him with an older male client who “accidentally” drops his ass-covering towel to the floor).

As we’ll learn, Efraim is a shadow of a human being, without the ability to connect to others through friendship, love, or family. Yet he’s also charismatic because he is someone who loves how he spends his time. We’re supposed to identify with David, an attractive nebbish in a pink polo shirt carting a massage table around, but we’re mesmerized by Efraim, loud, crude and one-dimensional though he is.

Efraim and David spend almost all their waking hours in an office that’s basically a desk and a Scarface poster, staring at a U.S. government defense-procurement website and trying to figure out a way for their tiny firm, AEY Inc., to fulfill the contracts too small for established businesses to want to bid on. The movie makes it look like enormous fun. Because their business day begins again at midnight Miami time, morning in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the boundaries of work and play are diffuse. Because of this, and because these guys are in their 20s, there’s a lot of weed smoked and, eventually, coke snorted. It’s not so different from The Social Network, except that Mark Zuckerberg was creating something, and Efraim is just a middleman between arms buyers and sellers.

But the biggest difference between these guys and Silicon Valley is in style. The dudes are Jewish, just like Zuckerberg, but they’re from an insular, probably lower-middle-class Jewish background, while Zuckerberg went to Exeter and spent a couple of years at Harvard. (It seems Diveroli and Packouz are Sephardic.) They could just as well be Italian- or Irish-Americans—anyone who grew up in a tight-knit ethnic enclave, who got seed capital from a guy with a chain of dry cleaners (in real life, apparently, the financier was a Mormon in Utah) not a venture capitalist. Efraim has more in common with Melanie Griffith’s working-class striver from 1988’s Working Girl than with the privileged wonks of The Social Network; he was kicked out of high school after ninth grade and was just 18 when he started AEY. (The movie has them the same age, early 20, but David is really four years older.)

Of course, Efraim isn’t meant to be a role model. He’s open about his use of prostitutes; in fact, he’s unable to imagine any other kind of relationship with a woman. When he sees a girl he likes in a nightclub, he offers her $1,000 to blow him in his car, saying, “Why don’t we pretend we’ve had the three dates.” (Her boyfriend saunters by and decks him.) There are signs early on that Efraim’s also unable to be the “best friend” to David that he claims.

The two men get a huge, historic ammunition contract—but they make a sloppy mistake, and their comeuppance is only a matter of time. And as the business expands, Efraim spends more time doing cocaine and becomes suspicious and mean. We sense his unraveling in a scene of a trainee orientation. At the end of his spiel, Efraim asks if the trainees have any questions. “What does AEY stand for?” one guy asks. Efraim says, “It doesn’t stand for anything. Like IBM. Does IBM stand for anything?” The trainee says, “Well, actually it does. It stands for International Business Machines.” And Efraim shouts at him, “Get the fuck out of my office!” Then, “Anyone else have a question?” Silence. That bullying moment is, in fact, pure Trump. And you know then that Efraim is killing his newborn company.

Efraim and David get to the point where their work has an effect on the fate of nations. But Efraim is brought down because he becomes a pig. You could say it’s one of the things people do when they become addicted to coke, but you could also say people who want to punish themselves in certain ways use coke to do that. There’s a sadness deep in Efraim, beneath the hustle and the manic joy. The second time I saw the movie, I realized that part of Jonah Hill’s terrific performance is giving Efraim a peculiar laugh that sounds like sobbing. His bravado is a defense against depression.

How about David? There’s the obligatory scene where Packouz comes to his estranged baby mama, Iz, repentant, saying he’ll go back to doing massages, and she says she was always OK with that. Iz (a thankless role played by Ana de Armas) is from a modest Hispanic immigrant background. At the end of the movie, David’s back to schlepping that massage table around. Is Todd Phillips telling us that this is all life has to offer him?

A surprise ending suggests “no.” Because, of course, Todd Phillips’ heart isn’t with the normal, mediocre life. How could it be? What kind of wildly successful comedy director lives that way? War Dogs doesn’t believe that it’s equally good to decide the fate of nations or to give massages, and why shouldn’t we agree? Why do the same old shit for 40 years and then go nameless to your grave?

War Dogs doesn’t offer any easy answers; the potential happy ending for David comes with moral ambiguity. Everything costs something. But the movie forces us to ask: Why not try for the big time, whatever that means to you?


A Modest Proposal: The Burkino, for Men

Saturday, September 3rd, 2016

originally published in the New York Daily News, September 3 2016 (

Introducing the burkino: A modest proposal in the spirit of equality

Why not men too? (NEIL HALL/REUTERS)
BY Judith Miller Ann Marlowe
Saturday, September 3, 2016, 5:00 AM

Fashion Week is coming. So in the spirit of audacious runway creativity, here’s a new sartorial concept for the Muslim Middle East — and a way to at least partially solve the French “burkini” challenge: the “burkino,” full-body-covering beachwear for men.

Brimming with cultural outrage, French officials from 30 municipalities recently decided to protect precious laïcité , or secularism, by banning women from wearing full-body bathing suits, calling the mere choice of modest swimwear a “provocation.”

Free-speech advocates have strongly objected. How can France, which shattered social convention back in 1946 by inventing the bikini and whose national motto starts with the endorsement of of liberté , tell women what they can and can’t wear at the beach or pool? Indeed, France’s highest administrative court recently struck down one town’s burkini ban on grounds that it violates civil liberties and that the garb poses no threat to public safety.

Yet the bathing suit battle seems likely to continue, as towns continue insisting that the burkini is actually a veiled (so to speak) attempt by Islamist fundamentalists to impose religious dress, and hence Islamist values, in what France considers religion-free public space.

Now, with tongue in cheek, a long-time fashion insider, Kym Canter, proposes a bold compromise: appropriately demure beachwear for men.

Rather than making it illegal for women to cover one’s hair and body, why not offer Muslim men an opportunity to express solidarité — another French value — with their shrouded wives and sisters? In fact, in the name of gender neutrality, why should France not insist upon it?

Many Islamic scholars argue that the modesty imperative applies to both men and women (though over time, patriarchies being what they are, women have borne the brunt of the prophet’s insistence that women should cover their “adornments” and that men and women dress and act to avoid temptation).

“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest,” instructs the Koran. So let us level the sartorial score.

Canter, a fashion trend-hunter and entrepreneur, thinks the potential market could be huge. She would like to offer the burkino in four basic colors — black, navy, gray and safety orange — and in all sizes: small, medium, large, extra and super extra large. She would also like to offer a paunch-concealing model, in all sizes.

Consider the side benefits. Until now, devout Muslim men have looked enviously at their heavily covered wives and daughters, shielded from public view, wondering how they, too, could enjoy beachwear consistent with the modesty that some interpretations of their faith impose on women in public spaces.

The burkino would also end the fat-shaming that affects so many male beach-goers. No more need Muslim men fear that their imperfect bodies will be the object of scorn or search in vain for an alternative to standard male beach attire — bare chests and baggy shorts, or, worse, form-fitting Lycra briefs.

And European beach-goers will no longer be able to accuse Muslim men of hypocrisy for dressing like secular Europeans while insisting that their wives cover up.

But wait, there’s more. Devout Muslim men, like their mothers, sisters, and wives, would no longer have to worry about getting sunburned.

Yes, it’s a bit tricky to do the breast stroke, or the butterfly, in the burkino. But isn’t that a small price to pay for the psychological, physical — and spiritual — security burkinos would provide?

Some men might resent being asked to give up water skiing, for instance, in the name of Islamic modesty. But others will take the plunge. For the brave, the burkino’s moment has come.

Miller is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute.