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We’ll Always Have Paris

“Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic.”
Four Lions (2010)

I’m going to be a little bit of a dick here, because I don’t like a lot of what I’m seeing here on social media, which I’m too dumb to ignore at a time when I know I should. Don’t get me wrong, the outpouring of sympathy is nice; guilt-tripping memes, renewed calls to prayer and/or arms, and victim-blaming is not.

Prayer will never work. People need to take action, but not the kind of action that has been taken thus far. The western world’s fourteen years of Whac-a-Mole® in the Middle East has not worked. Call me cynical, but I don’t believe diplomacy can succeed, either. The U.S. has been secretly and not-so-secretly backing political coups, most of them leading to tightly controlled dictatorships, for more than half a century. This form of “diplomacy” is unacceptable from a country that is supposed to value freedom of choice.

But even diplomacy in a more honest fashion, in which we step back and try to talk to Middle Eastern leaders like grown-ups, will not work. When Muslim extremists gain political power through legitimate means, they do not talk to anyone like grown-ups, not even the moderate Muslims—their alleged brothers and sisters—stuck under their thumb. When they gain power through conquest, they talk even less like grown-ups.

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150 Films #4: Aliens (1986)

Here’s the thing about Alien: it doesn’t really have characters. It has charismatic actors with a ton of personality, who bring things to the characters that have little bearing on the story, but the closest it comes to “character” is in making Ash (Ian Holm) seem vaguely untrustworthy. Horror tends to get away with this lack of character more than other genres; the mark of a great “line ’em up and knock ’em down” slasher story often has less to do with the writer(s) making the audience care about the characters and more to do with the actors leaving a memorable impression. Nobody wants Harry Dean Stanton or Yaphet Kotto to die, but what do we know about their characters?

They’re blue-collar grunts in charge of keeping the ship operational, and they want even shares. That’s it. Why do we care about them? Because they’re Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto, and they just will that type of good energy.

In most ways, Aliens merely ups the ante of its predecessor, adding horror to an action-movie template by giving us more aliens, more firepower, and more fighters—and having them still get their asses kicked. But in important ways, James Cameron’s screenplay deviates from the “raise the stakes” mentality by playing with the slasher convention of “memorable actor over deep character.” Playing on our collective memories of Ash, he casts professional scary motherfucker Lance Henriksen as the android Bishop, whose gentle calmness is made into a potential threat just because of the actor playing him. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Paul Reiser radiates kindness and decency as Carter Burke, Company man and eventual turncoat.

More importantly, though, Cameron gives Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) an arc. Granted, the arc was largely removed in the theatrical cut, but it informs Weaver’s performance throughout. After returning to Earth after 57 years floating in deep space, the first (and only) thing Ripley wants to know is what became of her daughter. Burke tracks her down and informs Ripley that she died a few years prior. This pivotal scene, restored in the director’s cut, lets the audience know three things: (1) Ripley is mourning both the loss of her daughter and the loss of her motherhood, (2) Ripley really has nothing to live for, and (3) Burke isn’t all bad (casting his eventual deception into a more interesting shade of gray).

Cameron adds much subtler character moments to the ensemble of Space Marines, as well: the intense bond between the otherwise depthless Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Drake (Mark Rolston), Hudson’s (Bill Paxton) occasional moments of seriousness and competence, Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) straining to prove himself after realizing early on how out of his depth he is… As the body count rises, this small (sometimes very small) amount of texture enhances characters beyond mere memorable performances. When Drake, who can’t have more than ten lines of dialogue, is among the first to die, Vasquez’s anguish says everything about their bond; because she cares, we do.

This, more than anything, is what elevates Aliens among the original in my book. It’s not about Cameron following the beats of the first film while relentlessly upping the ante, or the decision to shift the genre from “a haunted house in space” to an action/war film. It’s the small touches that enhance this film. Cameron is wise enough to know he lacks the element of surprise, so he shifts the focus from, as Gene Shalit might say, scares to care. Also, lots of guns and shit blowing up.

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150 Films #3: Alien (1979)

Let’s get this out of the way off the top: I haven’t seen every Ridley Scott film, but I’ve seen most of them, and I only like three: Kingdom of Heaven (the director’s cut), White Squall, and Alien. Some directors do very little for me, like Martin Scorsese, but at least I can see why others like him. Ridley Scott’s most highly regarded films—like Blade Runner and Gladiator—have mystified me. Why do people like these movies? How did Thelma & Louise get so huge? Why hasn’t anyone noticed the patchwork of garbage he pumps out between the hits are the rule, not the exception?

The first time I saw Alien, I had no idea who or what a Ridley Scott was. I was an innocent lad of perhaps 12. I had a friend at school who had somehow finagled his way into the “cool kid” crowd despite his passionate love of Star Trek: The Next Generation and soccer (shudder). We were both late to the TNG party, so when WPWR started playing reruns every day after school, we’d race home to watch the episodes and call each other to discuss what had happened. Conversation often lingered on Counselor Troi’s costuming and whether or not Ensign Ro was hot without the weird Bajoran nose ridges, but we were into it more for the sci-fi than the babes at that point.

This friend moved away at some point and we lost touch, so I’ll call him Sean since I can’t solicit his permission to talk about him on the blog. Sean came from an increasingly popular ’90s fad: the broken home. His dad had disappeared long before we were friends, his mom had remarried, and he had the misfortune of suddenly having an older stepsister that every guy in school wanted to bone. Wait, maybe that’s why the cool kids liked him. I remember him getting distressed more than once when he found out a “friend” had used him to get in good with his sister. The point of bringing this up isn’t to rehash 20-year-old gossip; the fractured family unit and older stepsister allowed him a gateway into things my parents would not approve.

That’s how I ended up seeing Alien—eventually. One afternoon, riding bikes around town, we were talking Trek when he brought up a more mature variation on the space opera. “Have you ever seen it?” he asked.

Seen it? I’d barely even heard of it. My dim awareness came courtesy of repeated viewings of Spaceballs. My mom had explained to me that John Hurt’s cameo was a parody of the movie Alien, the only movie my dad ever walked out of (because he was totally grossed out by “that scene”). So I kinda had that ruined for me, ultimately, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

Sean described it as “like Star Trek, only more realistic.” He also told me it was incredibly violent and full of action, and the sequel Aliens was “even better, because it has more action.”

The very thought excited me. Plus, I knew my parents had seen it, so they’d know whether or not I was old enough to see it. When I got home, I asked if we could rent the movies.

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150 Films #2: Action Jackson (1988)

Thanks to the magic of the alphabet, 150 Films kicked off on what I hope is an unusually serious note. Above the Law has the gloss and intensity of a straight-ahead action movie, but level-headed Andrew Davis tempers it with gritty Chicago locations and a serious political thriller story. This gave me license for both short-form political ranting and exalting both Davis and Steven Seagal to what I believe are their rightful places among the cinematic firmament. Together, they made a truly great action thriller, high above the dumb fun Seagal would later make.

But I like dumb fun, which is why I’m glad the alphabet blessed me with an immediate follow-up as sublimely stupid as Action Jackson.

Joel Silver, one of the few contemporary über-producers who has become a household name, does not get his proper due. Because he cut his teeth on early Walter Hill collaborations (48 Hours, Streets of Fire, Brewster’s Millions) and made himself a household name through blockbuster action films (the staggering run of Commando, Predator, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard), he often gets lumped into the Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson camp of hyper-masculine, coke-fueled insanity.

It’s my contention that Silver has both a better eye for quality and a much better sense of humor about his work than other action producers. Almost from the instant he became an “overnight” success, Silver became almost perversely dedicated to satirizing a genre he helped popularize. While putting his offbeat authorial stamp on relatively serious action franchises, as well as modestly successful one-offs like Ricochet (1991), he was also producing subversive mockery of his own work via Road House (1989, same year as Lethal Weapon 2), The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990, same year as both Die Hard 2 and Predator 2), Hudson Hawk (1991), and The Last Boy Scout (also 1991).

What is Action Jackson, then? Is it the first self-conscious satire of the Silver brand, or is it merely an absurd, ragingly stupid film enhanced by Silver’s twisted authorial stamp? Let’s call this a rhetorical question, because I don’t think the answer matters. Regardless of intent, Action Jackson, from moment one, fills the screen with over-the-top bombast and cartoonish silliness.

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150 Films #1: Above the Law (1988)

You know something, Fox? Right now in Europe, they’re trying some 80-year-old camp guard for Nazi war crimes, and all around our country they got guys on death row for murdering one, two, three guys. And they probably deserve what they’re going to get. But you and I… We know a couple of people that are personally responsible for the death of what? Fifty thousand non-military personnel? Librarians, teachers, doctors, women, children—all dead! We’ve wiped out entire cultures! And for what? Not one CIA agent has ever been tried, much less accused of any crimes. You guys think you’re above the law. Well, you ain’t above mine.
— Nico Toscani (Steven Seagal), Above the Law

You can say plenty of harsh things about Steven Seagal (and many have), but one fact is undeniable: he knows how to make an entrance.

Little is known about the origin story, but legend has it that super-agent Michael Ovitz made this happen.  Detractors like to describe it as a modern Pygmalion, with Ovitz believing he could turn even a talentless lump of an aikido instructor into an action star.  This theory doesn’t explain how or why Seagal took such an unusually proactive role, given his total lack of Hollywood experience.  He produced the film alongside director Andrew Davis, and together, they co-wrote the original screenplay.  They, not Ovitz, created the Seagal brand, and in crafting Above the Law, they delivered a star vehicle that really could have launched any nincompoop into superstardom.

For a big, dumb action movie, Above the Law has both an unusual narrative density and an atypical (especially for the time) liberal leaning.  This is not the America-first, kill-’em-all jingoism of your Stallones, your Schwarzeneggers, or your Norrises.  It’s not the winking smartassery of your Willises, your Van Dammes, or your Gibsons.  It’s not even the abject weirdness of your Bronsons, your Weatherses, or your Lundgrens.

Above the Law means fucking business.  Although it has little in common politically, its tone most closely resembles Clint Eastwood’s ’80s output.  Yeah, I compared Steven Seagal to Clint fucking Eastwood.  Watch the Dirty Harry sequels or Firefox, Pale Rider, Heartbreak Ridge—hell, even City Heat displays a level of thoughtfulness and complexity lacking in other action films.  Both Eastwood and Seagal made films that, for all their violence and oftentimes unpleasant salacity, served as atypically personal meditations on themes of violence, American culture and politics (including sexism, gun control, imperialism, and corruption), and our increasingly complex and confusing role as a world power.

Compare such meditations to the latter-day output of Charles Bronson, a personal favorite of mine.  Bronson, too, made strangely personal action films, but they lacked the passion and intensity.  Bronson’s films, which I once described as “a paranoid fever dream where all the fears of the elderly have come true” (a description I stand by), all depict a world gone rotten.  They implicitly romanticize the Greatest Generation and suggest, at their core, that the old codgers could and should reshape the world they want with the use of comically oversized, handheld chain guns.  There is a certain poetic purity to that simplicity, but it has more in common with the one-track mind of Stallone and Schwarzenegger than the more cerebral output of Eastwood and Seagal.

For all the murder and mayhem and church bombings present in Above the Law, it cuts off quite a wide swath of 1980s international politics.  Seagal stars as Nicolo Toscani, an aikido master turned disgraced CIA agent/Vietnam vet turned Chicago Police narcotics detective, whose familial Mafia ties prove invaluable to his work.  A character with that kind of backstory, in lesser directorial hands than Davis’s, could have been an overstuffed, contradictory mess.  But Seagal and Davis use every part of the buffalo, paying off Nico’s textured mythos with a complicated plot involving CIA drug kingpins using their dirty money to back shady Latin American dictators to further expand their empire.

Standing at the intersection of this massive, global deception is Nico, a man of integrity, the sort of man you would want when international government agencies—the alleged upholders of the law—corrupt their duties and fail those they represent.  How do you blow the whistle on a massive CIA drug/money-laundering/election-buying conspiracy?  They’re all in on it.  Well, sometimes there’s a man, and well…  He’s the man for his time and place.  And fortunately, this is a man of brutal, often shocking violence.

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The 150 Films Project

I’ve decided this blog needs to lighten the fuck up…sometimes. Over the past year, this place has gone from somewhat satirical mockery of the media to cranky, somewhat smartassy critiques of what I perceive as dumb people. I can’t say that’s what I want it to be, because I’m not nearly as cranky in real life as I come across on the blog. This place has always been a repository for rants and randomness, and my interest in religious issues, politics, and economic affairs has become the source of many of these rants.

As a result, I’ve made a few pledges to myself. First, no more Twitter. I’ve followed a number of atheist activists, who post articles or retweet commentators with horrible opinions. These atheists make me laugh, the articles sober me, the idiocy enrages me… And I can’t take it. I have enough anxiety about aspects of my life I can control; I don’t need to shoulder the things I can’t. That doesn’t mean I’ll make like an ostrich; I’m just not going to subject myself to this angrifying stuff constantly.

Second pledge: no more Sunday morning news shows. Holy shit. I don’t even think I need to explain this one.

Third pledge: no election coverage. It’s September of the year before the fucking election. First of all, stop it, media. More importantly, I don’t need it. On one side, I don’t need to waste time caring about Donald Trump and Ted Cruz; on the other, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. They’re fucking idiots, and at least half of them (probably all) will be out of the race by the end of the year. So why waste the emotional energy on the stupid, terrible things they say? I’ll still be aware of the stupid, terrible things Republicans say without actually seeing/hearing/reading daily examples of it.

The happiest I’ve ever been was in 2012, when I was so mired in finishing Overzealous that I managed to ignore the entire 2012 election. I can’t overstate how great it was to completely not give a shit about election year. (I caught up earlier this year by reading the book Double Down, which took several hundred pages to tell me, “You didn’t miss anything.”) Given my stance on voting, which isn’t likely to change based on the current candidate pool, what the hell is the point of frustrating myself every time these assholes come out to stump? The only person I even marginally care about is Hillary Clinton, who will be the Democrats’ nominee and whose questionable behavior (I’m not just talking about her e-mail issues) may be disastrous. And at this point, I can’t honestly say which is worse: her winning, or her losing. But frankly, this is something that might be worth worrying about a year from now, not today.

See? I can’t stop myself.

Too bad. I’m going to force it. And I’m not going to Sorkin this shit, where a conversation about “Who’s on First” spins out into a middle-aged man blustering about MY SON STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF A FIELD IN AFGHANISTAN. I’ll still have my rants from time to time, but for the foreseeable future, I will devote the majority of my effort to a single project.

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Sensitivity Straining

In the past, I’ve made light of a concept I find absurd: the notion of atheist discrimination and persecution. It’s absurd generally, but especially in a mostly free country like the United States. I’m aware that in less free, more religious countries, an individual’s atheism is a brave, dangerous choice. I’m also aware that in some cases, atheists publicly speaking out against religious atrocities has led to threats, violence, and murder, which is why a handful of atheist critics choose anonymity. I think, when I’ve mocked the idea of “atheist discrimination” in the past, I’ve made that distinction clear.

However, until recently I’ve never taken the time to properly think through the notion of atheist discrimination in the U.S. One reason it always strikes me as laughable is because it’s always couched in terms of government and employment. Although it obviously happens, it is neither appropriate nor legal for government officials to discriminate on the basis of their (or your) religious beliefs. The same goes for employers. So naturally, I think it’s silly when I read articles complaining that the U.S. military “discriminates” against atheists (they don’t). I think it’s equally silly when government discrimination is painted with the same brush as private discrimination, as when the Boy Scouts of America disallow atheists. That’s their choice and their right as a private, Christian organization. You want an atheist scouting organization? Start one.

What is both more concerning and upsetting to me than the vague notion of unprovable discrimination by unseen forces is the very real human cost of atheist discrimination.

A few weeks ago, I watched a video of a lecture given by an atheist activist, Katie Kruse. The video is 46 minutes long, but I’d recommend watching it if you feel the way I do. The lecturer, Katie Kruse, explains how her experiences as a missionary in China led to her loss of faith. In order to do justice to that, she explains her entire faith journey, from a childhood as an evangelical Christian to a young adulthood obsessed with learning the roots of the faith, to her missionary work and subsequent loss of faith, and finally, to the aftermath of “coming out” as an atheist.

I understood the journey. I know people like Kruse who haven’t lost their faith, so the early story was familiar. The atheists and agnostics I know are of a stock that never started out particularly religious; it was foisted on them by parents, but they never bought in. Some feared the consequences of their parents (or others) finding out; some tossed it back in their parents’ face as a form of rebellion. I’ve even read accounts of religious folks who faced dire consequences for abandoning their faith (even Scientologists), although I’ve never personally met any.

What resonated with Kruse’s story was the particular challenge of continuing to live in a world she had built around evangelical Christianity. In many of the accounts I’ve read, people are either excommunicated, or they’re forced to flee a brutal regime; in both cases, they mostly lose contact with the loved ones who wouldn’t necessarily understand what had changed or why. Kruse stayed where she was. She had to reckon with family and friends who would, at best, struggle to understand the shift in point of view. As someone whose biggest frustration is being misunderstood, this hit me hard.

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We Need the Eggs

A friend recently brought to my attention a conspiracy, a real conspiracy, to destroy a company producing egg-free mayonnaise. The article originally sent to me pitches this as an “anti-vegan” conspiracy, but the reality is much less exciting; at best, it’s a pro-egg conspiracy. The questions on my mind have little to do with the mayonnaise itself. I want to know why and how there would be, of all things, a pro-egg conspiracy.

The answer is deceptively simple. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) apportions $1.3 billion per year to a division called the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which among other duties currently administers 22 “Research & Promotion” programs, “requested, funded, and driven by industry.” The AMS states that it “provides oversight, ensuring fiscal responsibility, program efficiency, and fair treatment of participating stakeholders.” That sounds just lovely.

One of the 22 programs the AMS administers is called the American Egg Board. They came up with, among other things, the “Incredible Edible Egg” slogan and the annoyingly amusing Kevin Bacon & Eggs t-shirt. As you might guess, they put a lot of effort into the “promotion” half of “Research & Promotion.” The Board states that it is funded through roughly $20 million in annual assessments of egg sales (ten centers per 30-dozen case of eggs sold).

Appointees to the Board are selected by the Secretary of Agriculture, from a list of egg producer nominees. The Board itself sprung fully formed from Congress’s thigh in 1974, as part of the “Egg Research and Consumer Information Act.” Among other things, the law states that “[i]t has long been recognized that it is in the public interest to provide an adequate, steady supply of fresh eggs readily available to the consumers of the Nation… It is therefore declared to be the policy of the Congress and the purpose of this Act that it is essential and in the public interest, through the exercise of the powers provided herein, to authorize and enable the establishment of an orderly procedure from the development and the financing through an adequate assessment, an effective and continuous coordinated program of research, consumer and producer education, and promotion designed to strengthen the egg industry’s position in the marketplace.” Luckily, “[n]othing in this Act shall be construed to mean, or provide for, control of production or otherwise limit the right of individual egg producers.” What a relief!

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Gun Control

Here’s the deal, guys: gun violence doesn’t only matter on the days high-profile shootings get endless media coverage. I’ve seen an uncomfortable number of posts today suggesting the shootings of Alison Parker and Adam Ward have shed new light on the gun control debate. This is not true; the only difference between it and any other shooting is the fact that it happened live on television.

In Chicago alone, nearly 300 people have been shot dead so far this year. Over 1600 people have “merely” been wounded in a shooting. Just in Chicago. Just this year. This is a problem every single day, everywhere in this country. When a violent shooting saturates the media for a day or two, I would ask that you pause and reflect on the fact that such shootings happen so often, the media views them as mundane. It’s only when there’s a “sexy” angle that they pretends to care, and a new angle on a mundane problem doesn’t make it different or more important or more urgent. It makes it frightening—frightening that the thousands of others murdered by guns in a given year aren’t acknowledged by the media until an “interesting” or “compelling” shooting occurs.

Now, for those of you who are less than sympathetic to the endlessly expanding list of shooting victims: the Second Amendment, in its vagueness, is not a tacit endorsement of anyone who chooses to collect a dozen assault rifles to store in a secret floor vault along with some gold doubloons and a package of Food Insurance. I agree with the spirit of the Second Amendment, in its original historical context: a new nation, with a new view of personal and political freedom, surrounded by European colonies and Indian settlements with uncertain allegiances, having recently fought and won its freedom from a powerful empire’s formidable military, believed that to prevent the reemergence of tyranny, the only rational way to protect both citizen and nation was to empower the individual to arm him or herself. History shows this belief was not exactly incorrect, but the framers failed to anticipate a time and place when guns would outnumber men, and the need of guns to fight for freedom would be outweighed by the want of guns to murder people for really, really lame reasons.

“But wait!” you’re bellowing. “What about the need of a well regulated militia for the security of a free state?” You’re looking at the American military, the most powerful force the world has ever known, and you’re cowering in your makeshift bunker, surrounded on all sides with chalkboards scrawled with paranoid nonsense, and you’re ascared of what will happen if the wrong person(s) gain responsibility for that force.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also worry about that, sometimes. But remember the following: A ragtag group of untrained civilians, led by nerdy political philosophers, won their independence from the British Empire, which boasted the most powerful military the world had ever seen. History is rife with examples of small forces defeating enormous, well-organized military powers, from the Greeks at Thermopylae to, unfortunately, ISIS in the Middle East.

You don’t need to be Goliath to beat Goliath. So relax, and learn to embrace a world where you’ll maybe get to keep one handgun and one hunting rifle, registered and plugged into a national law enforcement database. When the time comes to rise up against the government, at least they’ll know the names of the people coming after them.

What’s that? You’re a lifetime member of the NRA worried about how this will hurt your beloved arms-manufacturing industry? Relax; the federal government spends $600 billion a year on “defense,” and they sell a shit-ton of American arms to foreign militaries. The arms trade won’t go anywhere, so neither will your limited, well regulated number of personal weapons.

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Islamic State of Mind

Yesterday morning began inauspiciously, with me reading of an awful op-ed that attempted to divorce ISIS’s horrific pattern of sexual enslavement from the Islamic faith. Among other defenses, the author, Boston University assistant professor of religion Kecia Ali, pulls out a couple of old chestnuts: that the Qur’an “arose” in a world where slavery was a given, that ISIS’s fundamentalism is “superficial and selective” (unlike those who choose to ignore the pro-slavery, pro-rape passages in the Qur’an?), and that the west, not Islam, is to blame for all of this.

I’d like to dissect that a little bit, but first, let me tell you how the day closed: with the news that ISIS blew up a 2000-year-old religious temple in Palmyra. This news comes less than a week after the news that 81-year-old Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who spent four decades in charge of the Palmyra excavation, was interrogated, tortured, and beheaded by ISIS. Afterward, they strung his body up from a lamppost and placed the head below.

Early reports stated that they were looking for gold, but over the past week, it has come to light that the true agenda of the militants is to “purge paganism” from the world. They believed al-Asaad had secretly buried antiquities. Since they overtook Palmyra in May, it has been reported that ISIS has destroyed several other religious artifacts, including the first-century Lion of al-Lat, believed to be the “consort” of the pre-Islamic Arabian goddess of Mecca. Now, they’ve destroyed a temple to Baalshamin, alternately a god and a title for other gods, including famed Yahweh competitor Ba’al.

These actions beg an obvious question: is this about religion, or isn’t it? Apologists like Kecia Ali would have us believe that the violence perpetuated by ISIS might use scripture as justification, but it is not really religion driving the behavior. If it was, then why don’t all Muslims behave this way? The simplest answer is that social attitudes progress in spite of religion. Ali criticizes the “superficial and selective” interpretation of the Qur’an, but as I love saying of any holy book: all that bad shit is still in there. If you “choose” to interpret the horrible passages as the inerrant word of God, how can anyone tell you that you’re religiously wrong? It’s right there.

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