Sunday, January 18, 2009

Hollywood takes a machinegun to history

Goodies and baddies, monsters and victims... three recent films are great fun, but are miles from reflecting reality

Typical: you wait half a century for a Hollywood film to tackle the myths and taboos of the Second World War, and then three come along at once. The Reader (with Kate Winslet), Defiance (with Daniel Craig) and Valkyrie (with Tom Cruise) have each, in different ways, sought to break from the one-dimensional interpretations of the past. Hollywood has traditionally depicted the horrors of the war as a Manichean struggle between good and evil: SS camp guards as inhuman monsters, Jews as defenceless victims herded to their deaths.

Winslet plays an SS camp guard with humanity; Craig plays Tuvia Bielski, the Jewish partisan who waged guerrilla war against the Germans in Poland; and Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944.

The Reader is fiction, but the other two films claim to be depictions of real events, and will be judged as simple truth by the 12 to 15-year-olds who make up the majority of today's film audiences. Both are great entertainment; but both are flawed history, for the reality of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, and German resistance to Hitler, is far more complex, morally demanding and fascinating than film will allow.

In challenging one myth, Hollywood demands that we accept another. Cruise plays a piratical Stauffenberg, a good German conscience in a snappy Third Reich uniform and an eye-patch, setting out on a crusade to slay the Nazi dragon. The real Stauffenberg was no saint, and the plot to kill Hitler was not some simple redemptive act by a group of heroes.

Stauffenberg was an old-fashioned aristocratic nationalist. He never joined the Nazi party, but he was delighted when Hitler overran Poland and in raptures as the Nazi army rolled into Western Europe. His conscience was little troubled by the enslavement of Poles to feed the ravenous Nazi war machine: "The population here are an unbelievable rabble; a great many Jews and a lot of mixed race. A people that is only comfortable under the lash," he wrote in a letter to his wife. Oddly enough, Cruise does not say these lines in the film.

Some of Stauffenberg's fellow plotters against Hitler had previously played active roles in support of the Holocaust. Some were bent on protecting German conquests in the east by securing a favourable peace with the Anglo-American alliance. Stauffenberg was increasingly appalled by the atrocities of the Nazi regime but, like so many at the time, his motives were mixed, his heroism far from clear-cut. The July plotters were ambitious, as well as brave. These were not soft-hearted democrats, but hard-nosed militarists intent on mounting a coup to oust a leader who was losing the war.

Defiance performs a similarly simplifying role for the equally knotty subject of Jewish resistance. For decades the Jews murdered during the Holocaust have been portrayed as passive victims, a myth that subtly insinuated that Jews were somehow complicit in their own destruction. Films like Schindler's List and The Piano compounded the idea that Jews were terrorised and helpless.

To right that wrong we now have Craig, armed with sub-machinegun and granite jaw, fighting back against Nazi oppression in the forests. Once again the truth is more complicated, and more interesting. Bielski's fighters were linked with Soviet partisans and some suspect that the effort to save Jews was mixed in with a political imperative, to drive out the Germans and usher in Soviet rule. More troubling still is the murder of 128 Poles at Naliboki in May 1943, in which the Bielski group may have been implicated.

Jews undoubtedly did resist the horror, and sometimes with guns. They fought back in the Warsaw ghetto, blew up Treblinka camp and even managed to destroy one of the four crematoriums at Auschwitz. In some cases, they fought with nothing. One communiqu, from the resistance at Vilna Ghetto declared: "When total destruction threatens us we must come out to fight even if we have no arms and must fight with our bare hands."

Physical resistance by Jews was seldom recorded, for the simple reason that none of the resisters lived to tell the story. One of the few photographs of resistance shows a young man emerging from the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto, surrounded by Nazi soldiers. He survived the picture by a few minutes; the strange half-smile on his face is immortal.

But most resistance by Jews does not fit easily into the action-hero template demanded by Hollywood, and provided by Craig, because it was heroism of a quite different sort. Jewish resistance was more often spiritual than armed. Sustaining Jewish culture in the ghetto, sabotaging German material in slave labour camps, saving fat that might have been eaten in order to light a candle: these were all small, common but unromantic acts of resistance.

Merely to survive was an act of defiance, but a quiet death was also a way to fight back. As Martin Gilbert has written: "Even passivity was a form of resistance. To die with dignity was a form of resistance." It is not, however, a form of resistance that lends itself easily to the big screen.

The German [Jewish] writer T.W.Adorno once declared: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." What he meant, I believe, is that art simplifies and reduces history that is messy, ugly and often unsatisfying. There are no easy answers. As the Holocaust survivor in The Reader insists in the final reel: "Nothing good came out of the camps. Nothing."

The Nazi Holocaust is the most difficult subject of the 20th century, but in its insistence on straightforward heroes Hollywood flattens out complexity into a satisfying morality tale. Perhaps only works of pure imagination, such as The Reader, can really do justice to the painful moral intricacies, for when entertainment and history come into conflict, entertainment always wins.



Nerds are picking apart Valkyrie, Tom Cruise's new film about a German attempt to assassinate Hitler. Cruise's character, Claus von Stauffenberg has amputated fingers in one scene but is fully fingered the next, and a bathtub that appears in another has "modern fixtures, including a hand-held massage/rinse nozzle". Some say the biggest mistake was making the film.

Where Sweatshops Are a Dream

Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about "labor standards," I'd like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh. This is a Dante-like vision of hell. It's a mountain of festering refuse, a half-hour hike across, emitting clouds of smoke from subterranean fires. The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn. Then the smoke parts and you come across a child ambling barefoot, searching for old plastic cups that recyclers will buy for five cents a pound. Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage.

Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don't exploit enough. Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children. "I'd love to get a job in a factory," said Pim Srey Rath, a 19-year-old woman scavenging for plastic. "At least that work is in the shade. Here is where it's hot."

Another woman, Vath Sam Oeun, hopes her 10-year-old boy, scavenging beside her, grows up to get a factory job, partly because she has seen other children run over by garbage trucks. Her boy has never been to a doctor or a dentist, and last bathed when he was 2, so a sweatshop job by comparison would be far more pleasant and less dangerous.

I'm glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers in dangerous factories. Yet sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty. At a time of tremendous economic distress and protectionist pressures, there's a special danger that tighter labor standards will be used as an excuse to curb trade. When I defend sweatshops, people always ask me: But would you want to work in a sweatshop? No, of course not. But I would want even less to pull a rickshaw. In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn't the bottom.

My views on sweatshops are shaped by years living in East Asia, watching as living standards soared - including those in my wife's ancestral village in southern China - because of sweatshop jobs. Manufacturing is one sector that can provide millions of jobs. Yet sweatshops usually go not to the poorest nations but to better-off countries with more reliable electricity and ports.

I often hear the argument: Labor standards can improve wages and working conditions, without greatly affecting the eventual retail cost of goods. That's true. But labor standards and "living wages" have a larger impact on production costs that companies are always trying to pare. The result is to push companies to operate more capital-intensive factories in better-off nations like Malaysia, rather than labor-intensive factories in poorer countries like Ghana or Cambodia.

Cambodia has, in fact, pursued an interesting experiment by working with factories to establish decent labor standards and wages. It's a worthwhile idea, but one result of paying above-market wages is that those in charge of hiring often demand bribes - sometimes a month's salary - in exchange for a job. In addition, these standards add to production costs, so some factories have closed because of the global economic crisis and the difficulty of competing internationally.

The best way to help people in the poorest countries isn't to campaign against sweatshops but to promote manufacturing there. One of the best things America could do for Africa would be to strengthen our program to encourage African imports, called AGOA, and nudge Europe to match it. Among people who work in development, many strongly believe (but few dare say very loudly) that one of the best hopes for the poorest countries would be to build their manufacturing industries. But global campaigns against sweatshops make that less likely.

Look, I know that Americans have a hard time accepting that sweatshops can help people. But take it from 13-year-old Neuo Chanthou, who earns a bit less than $1 a day scavenging in the dump. She's wearing a "Playboy" shirt and hat that she found amid the filth, and she worries about her sister, who lost part of her hand when a garbage truck ran over her. "It's dirty, hot and smelly here," she said wistfully. "A factory is better."


Wanted for hate crime

Sooty and sweep above

After a week which has seen 11 football fans arrested for alleged homophobic chanting and the royals embroiled in a controversy over racist language, how long before the 'hate crimes' vigilantes widen their net still farther? The Home Office definition of a 'hate crime' is: 'Any incident... which is perceived by the victim or any other person (my italics) as being motivated by prejudice or hate.' On that basis, Prince Charles could have his collar felt for referring to his polo partner as 'Sooty' - even though the gentleman in question has no problem with his nickname. The fact that no offence was either intended or taken would not be enough to stop him being charged, provided someone - anyone - made a complaint.

This puts the power of prosecution in the hands of any self-righteous, malevolent mischief-maker, of which we have no shortage. For instance, one phone call to Kent Police could close down Margate's Winter Gardens. The coming attractions at the seaside theatre feature not only 4 Poofs And A Piano, but also Sooty In Space.

In my capacity as a gay icon, I once worked with 4 Poofs And A Piano, who have been sadly absent from our television screens recently as a result of Jonathan Ross's little local difficulty. I've still got the T-shirt to prove it. They turned up on one of my old TV shows after they were refused permission to register the name 4 Poofs And A Piano as a trademark. The authorities said that someone could find the name offensive. The 4 Poofs protested that, given they were the poofs in question, no one could possibly take offence. If that's what they chose to call themselves, what was the problem? None of this cut any ice with the Trademark Taliban, who continued to insist that 'poofs' was intrinsically insulting and therefore could not receive official endorsement.

As for Sooty In Space, the possibilities for prosecution are two-fold, both racist and homophobic. Not only is 'Sooty' considered to be an outrageous racial slur, but Sooty himself spends the entire show with someone's hand up his backside. One phone call to the Old Bill from the Margate branch of Stonewall and it would be: 'Izzy-wizzy, let's get busy!'

Think I'm kidding? Log on to the Kent Police website and click 'diversity'. The only difficulty would be knowing which branch to complain to. You're spoiled for choice. There's the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Action Group, which gives lesbians, gays and bisexuals an 'influential voice that will be listened to' and guarantees 'a dynamic forum for positive action'. This isn't to be confused with either the Gay and Transgender Action Group or the Kent Police Gay and Lesbian Support Group. If they don't take your complaint seriously, you could ring the Kent Homophobic and Transphobic Reporting Line on Freefone 0800 328 9162. Be assured: 'We know in Kent that homophobic crime is still going unreported. This needs to change!' Then there's the Hate Crime Action Group, the Minority Ethnic Action Group and the Fairness Action Group, all of which come under the umbrella of the Diversity and Fairness Strategy Board, part of the new Citizen Focus Performance Gold Group, chaired by a Deputy Chief Constable.

They all have to justify their existence-somehow. Which is why they are urging you to report any potential 'hate crime', however trivial. Between them, they should be able to cobble together some kind of charge that will stick and ensure that Sooty and the 4 Poofs are banged up in Maidstone nick for the next ten years.

I dread to think what all this is costing, both in terms of hard cash and the monumental waste of police time, sitting around in committee meetings, talking bollo and ticking boxes. And this madness isn't confined to Kent, it's replicated in every police force across the country, in triplicate. (I hesitate to say 'in spades'.) Remember this the next time some Chief Constable complains about 'lack of resources' and says he can't afford to put bobbies on the beat or investigate burglaries. What's that, Sooty? Bye, bye, everybody. Bye, bye.


Half of civil servants deserve to be fired, says former UK trade minister

Many civil servants deserve the sack, a former government minister has said. As many as half could be axed, delivering better value for taxpayers, ex-trade minister Lord Digby Jones suggested to MPs. He admitted the civil service was ' honest, stuffed full of decent people who work hard' but added: 'Frankly the job could be done with half as many, it could be more productive, more efficient, it could deliver a lot more value for money for the taxpayer. 'I was amazed, quite frankly, at how many people deserved the sack and yet that was the one threat they never ever worked under, because it doesn't exist.'

The comments from the one-time head of the Confederation of British Industry were seized on by anti-waste campaigners who said his suggestion would slash the cost to the public purse of pay, perks and gold-plated pensions. But union chiefs said he was 'naive and insulting', while the Cabinet Office said the civil service was already making savings of 26.5billion.

Lord Jones was among a number of non-political experts appointed by Gordon Brown to be part of his ' government of all the talents', or GOATs, in July 2007. He was handed a peerage to allow him to take a ministerial post because he had not been elected. He resigned during last October's reshuffle after apparently becoming disillusioned with his role. His outburst came while giving evidence to an inquiry by the Commons' public administration committee. He told the MPs that the job of junior minister was 'one of the most dehumanising and depersonalising experiences a human being can have'. He added: 'The whole system is designed to take the personality, the drive and the initiative out of a junior minister.'

The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents 300,000 staff in 200 government departments and agencies, said civil servants would find Lord Jones's remarks 'grossly insulting'. General secretary Mark Serwotka said: 'These are narrow minded and naive comments which show a complete lack of understanding of what the civil service does. It has already suffered 80,000 job cuts, which has damaged service levels.'

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office, which oversees the civil service, said staff numbers had fallen while 'efficiency gains' had topped 26.5billion. 'They are doing more for less,' she said. 'The civil service is leaner while remaining the driving force behind excellent public services.'

But Matthew Elliott, of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: 'Lord Jones is right - there is serious overstaffing and woeful mismanagement in large tracts of the civil service. There is plenty of fat that could be trimmed.' Lord Jones's appointment as a minister was criticised by Labour MPs because he was not a member of the party. He hit back by saying promoting trade and investment 'should transcend' party politics. But he found himself at odds with Government plans to tax 'non-doms' - British residents based abroad so they pay less to the Exchequer. Earlier this month he said Mr Brown's VAT cut would not help the economy, claiming it was 'pointless, fatuous and doomed to failure'.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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