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September 7, 2003 Reviews

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Some notes on what seems to be out there, and what some of us have sampled....


Talking with terrorists and Bill O'Reilly, a book on violence in God's name...

Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, by Jessica Stern Ecco/HarperCollins, 368 pp., $27.95

Well, I've been meaning to read this book since Jessica Stern wrote a New York Times editorial August 21 arguing that the average Iraqi feels he or she has more to gain from Al Qaeda these days than from the US military. 

Of course that meant she was, over the next several days, chatting on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC about that contention.  I must admit she did not come off that well.  She was plodding and simplistic and rather reticent.

I suppose when one teaches at Harvard and writes for the academic community, being asked to be the left-wing counter-balance to the always assertive and often over-the-top Ann Coulter is a stretch.

Coulter flat out says Joseph McCarthy was an American hero who did the right things in the fifties, even if some whiners think they got hurt, that all liberals and all democrats are guilty of treason, that Timothy McVeigh should have bombed the New York Times and killed everyone there and we all would have cheered, that the world would be a better place if John Kerry and Gray Davis had being killed by friendly fire while they were serving in the military.  And she says it all with a smile.

Poor Jessica Stern.  The hosts fired quick questions at her and insulted her, and acted as proxy for "patriotic Americans" who didn't care for her contentions, and others generally dropped their quick quips before she could give a reply, which she seemed to think should be in the form of full paragraphs.  Cut to commercial.  Jessica Stern returns to Harvard with her tail between her legs. 

Writing a book is not the same as playing hardball with the big boys of public opinion.  Books are one world, and talk shows another.

Stern teaches terrorism and foreign policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.  Not the best training ground for mixing it up with Bill O'Reilly in the No Spin Zone on Fox News.  He has a masters degree from Harvard but he doesn't like to talk about it, and does his best to act otherwise.  Jessica, think about that.

But this is a curious volume.  For more than four years, Stern found and interviewed a series of quite unsavory characters, from convicted Jewish terrorist Yoel Lerner to antiabortion crusader and doctor killer Paul Hill (see Mail "Heavy") to Fazlur Rahman Khalil, leader of the group suspected of killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, to Al Qaeda foot soldier Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, who was convicted of helping to plot an embassy bombing in which well over two hundred people died.

She does acknowledge up front that from these interviews it remains unclear who was using whom.  "Here is the unspoken bargain between us," Stern writes of one face-to-face meeting.  "I make myself vulnerable and they will not harm me.  I must strive not to reveal fear, and to trust that they won't hurt me, despite their machismo and manufactured rage.  And they, in turn, will consider telling me the truth, but only half-truths.  That is our bargain."  That could apply to all the interviews, I suppose.

Each chapter is labeled according to what Stern thought to be the principal grievances of those she interviewed, starting with the alienation of fundamentalist members of an American and Christian fellowship, the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord, whose sworn enemies are "humanists, communists, socialists, Zionists and the United States' 'Zionist Occupied Government.' "

Next is Hamas, the most violent faction in the ongoing intifada, whose members work relentlessly to address the humiliation of the Israeli occupation, not only in the West Bank and Gaza but throughout the land they feel is their birthright. The same piece of disputed turf is the home of Gush Emunim, Kach, and other modern-day Jewish groups whose grievances are said to be based on history.

And so on and so forth.  Almost everyone Stern interviewed said they were doing God's will, defending the faithful against the lies and evil deeds of their enemies.  Such stuff, she says, "often masks a deeper kind of angst and a deeper kind of fear - fear of a godless universe, of chaos, of loose rules, and of loneliness."  It may be that many are "projecting fears and inadequacies on the Other."

Well, maybe so.  But what is there to do about that?

She quotes these folks at length, as they rationalize their actions and explain their beliefs.  The interviews perhaps "humanize" these men who are more commonly considered "pure evil" or "great heroes" depending on your point of view.  From those I've skimmed you get a lot of detail. 

But the policy recommendations are pretty standard - shake up the conditions in the places where these guys gain followers and be loving.  "We need to respond - not just with guns, but by seeking to create confusion, conflict, and competition among terrorists and between terrorists and their sponsors and sympathizers.  We should encourage the condemnation of extremist interpretations of religion by peace-loving practitioners."  Yeah, yeah.  And the book is divided into two sections - one on grievances that give rise to terrorism and one on types of holy war organizations - and there's not much new there.

Stern she tells the reader that as a secular Jew she had, when she began her work on terrorism, she had "a prejudice in favor of religion."  "It seemed to me that faith made people better - more generous, more capable of love."  She explains that she reached this conclusion on the basis of reading in high school about the French mystic Simone Weil and knowing a nun who was a friend of her own grandmother.

Well, she found out religion has other purposes.



Still offensive after all these years: the ultimate Monty Python movie...

    New on DVD - Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, Universal, 20th Anniversary Edition, a two-disc DVD set ($27) featuring audio commentary, new prologues and sketches, and a comprehensive retrospective documentary.


    Monty Python's The Meaning of Life was the last film starring this British comedy troupe of John Cleese, the late Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin.  Of course my favorite part is the big musical production number "Every Sperm Is Sacred," a really unfair a rather funny satire about a destitute Catholic couple who must sell their sixty or so children for medical experiments to pay bills.  See comment on that in this week's mail - Mail "Heavy" - where it is mentioned in another context.  Hey, I loved the dancing nuns!  Or there is the Mr Creosote story, the tale of an outrageously obese patron of a fancy restaurant who turns the place into a vomitorium before he explodes from excessive gluttony.


    Eric Idle comments on how the film was received at the Cannes festival.  "Once we got to Creosote and the food and the vomiting, the French just went nuts.  They laughed and laughed and laughed. Orson Welles was on the jury that year.  It was a wonderful experience to be there and feel it really work." 


    Well, twenty years ago the film did win the top prize there.  Yeah, of course they like Jerry Lewis too.


    It seems John Cleese never liked the film that much.  It was just a compendium of unrelated sketches, really.  "It's a sketch film... the last time I saw it, when I screened it for a charity event, I liked it better than I remembered.  I thought there were some really good things in it.  It just has all the faults of a sketch movie.  In an ordinary movie, provided the story is good, you can have five or six really funny scenes and nobody minds the scenes that aren't funny because they are part of the story.  But when you are doing a sketch movie, every single scene has to be funny or else it looks like an anticlimax."


    And Cleese didn't like making a film by committee - "... it came out such a dog's breakfast.  I also had the experience of seeing stuff in the movie I hadn't voted for.  I thought at this grand old age - I was 44 - I should be doing things where I am really making my mistakes rather than making other people's."


    So it doesn't really hang together.


    Eric Idle remembers how that happened - "Once I came up with the concept of the meaning of life and we kind of got with the idea and the title, it needed a whole other rewrite to make it also about the seven ages of man.  So the one story would go through time.  That was very close to being done, but John wouldn't do any more writing.  So it's his fault!  I can entirely blame him."

    Yeah, yeah.  But what Idle admires most about the movie is that "it's still offensive."  Cool.

    Recommended.  Even if the French like it.


    Upcoming jazz events...

    For those of you out here, and those who might just visit, jazz notes.

    This is what's coming, with my comments.

    Kenny Burrell and the UCLA Jazz Band
    Lunaria  10351 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles
    September 8, 15, 22, 29
    As jazz guitarists go, well, he is the master; at least he is now that Joe Pass is dead.  And one should not dismiss the student musicians around him.  We live in the age of technique, and everyone has excellent chops.  And sometimes they have taste and musicianship.  Hope for the best.

    Bill Watrous Big Band
    Jazz Bakery  3233 Helms Ave., Culver City
    September 8
    The hall is really irritating, kind of like a junior high school gym set up for a concert.  And Bill Watrous is REALLY irritating, a bombastic trombone player who often stays way up there in the upper register, sounding like a goat with severe flatulence.   But the tempos scream and it should be quite loud and thumping.  I have one of his old albums, The Tiger of San Pedro, and I stopped listing to it twenty years ago.  All technique, no taste.  All hat, no cattle.

    Oregon (Ralph Towner, Paul McCandless, Glen Moore and Mark Walker)
    September 9
    Jazz Bakery  3233 Helms Ave., Culver City
    I listened to these guys back in the seventies.  They were new age before there was new age.  They were doing "the wave" before the soporific mellow jazz stations.  They used to do music to get stoned to.  I wonder what they're up to now?

    Joshua Redman Elastic Band
    Catalina Bar and Grill  1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood
    September 9-14
    Redman can do anything on the tenor saxophone.  Technique beyond belief.  Gets a bit enamored of his considerable skills, but has relaxed in recent years and actually plays music now and then.  I play tenor.  I am in awe.  But some of what he does may not be worth doing, even if it is extraordinarily difficult.  I have three of four of his albums and they're pretty good.

    Jack Sheldon
    Jax Bar & Grill  339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale
    Every Thursday
    The ultimate journeyman trumpet player, and he must be a thousand years old by now.  Never disappoints.  Never surprises.  And Glendale is a nice town.

    Natalie Cole, George Benson, Chris Botti, Brian Culbertson & others
    UCLA Los Angeles Tennis Center / Straus Stadium   405 Hilgard Ave, L.A.
    Mercedes-Benz Wave Fest
    Beware of anything associated with "The Wave."  I like my old, beat-up SLK, but I'll not attend this.

    Pete Jolly Trio
    Spazio  14755 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks
    September 13
    And he's still around?  Interesting, and next door to the shop where I buy pipe tobacco.