Ben Carson, the Neurosurgeon Who Can’t Think

Along with Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson is way ahead of the pack for the Republican presidential nomination.

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD – MARCH 8, 2014: Neurosurgeon and author Ben Carson speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
Photo Credit: Christopher Halloran /

What does it say about higher education, that you can graduate from Yale and still believe that the devil made Darwin do it?  What does it say about medicine, that you can both be a gifted neurosurgeon and also declare, “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away”?

Along with Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson is way ahead of the pack for the Republican presidential nomination.  When Trump, an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says that climate change is a hoax, I can believe it’s a cynical lie pandering to the Republican base, rather than an index of his ignorance.  But when Carson, a retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, denies that climate change is man-made, or calls the Big Bang a fairy tale, or blames gun control for the extent of the Holocaust, I think he truly believes it.

It’s conceivable that the exceptional hand-eye coordination and 3D vision that enabled Carson to separate conjoined twins is a compartmentalized gift, wholly independent of his intellectual acuity. But he could not have risen to the top of his profession without learning the Second Law of Thermodynamics (pre-meds have to take physics), without knowing that life on earth began more than 6,000 years ago (pre-meds have to take biology), without understanding the scientific method (an author of more than 120 articles in peer-reviewed journals can’t make up his own rules of evidence).  Yet what does it mean to learn such things, if they don’t stop you from spouting scientific nonsense?

This hasn’t hindered his campaign.  Participants in focus groups of Republican caucus and primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, conducted in recent days by Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, used these words to describe Carson: “deep,” “thoughtful,” “intelligent,” “smart,” “brilliant,” a “top mind.” I get this.  According to a recent Public Policy Polling report, 46 percent of Carson supporters (and 61 percent of Trump supporters) think President Obama was not born in the U.S., and 61 percent of Carson supporters (and 66 percent of Trump supporters) think the president is a Muslim.  Carson’s being called brilliant by that base ain’t baffling.

What I don’t get is how his rigorous scientific education and professional training gave Carson’s blind spots a pass.  Was it, in George W. Bush’s memorable phrase, “the soft tyranny of low expectations”?  Or was it the tyranny of fundamentalism over facts?

In the humanities, the equivalent conundrum is the failure of a deep appreciation for masterworks of art, literature and music to instill virtue.  I first came across this disturbing indictment when I was an undergraduate at the chief rival of Carson’s alma mater.  My field of concentration (Harvard’s pretentious term for “major”) was molecular biology, and I would have quickly flamed out if I’d maintained that science was consistent with creationism, or any of the other canards that survived Carson’s education.  But I was also in love with literature, and ended up with a doctorate in it.  On the way there, what troubled me about my studies was an essay called “To Civilize Our Gentlemen” by George Steiner. Its thesis ran so counter to the bedrock of an elite education – the belief that the humanities humanize – that I went to England for two years to study at Cambridge with Steiner, as passionate an embodiment of academic high culture as could be, in order to reconcile my love for humanistic learning with its apparent inability to prevent barbarism.

My copy of the essay, and the book it appeared in, “Language and Silence,” is full of a 20-year-old’s underlining and marginalia (“right on!”).  These are some of the passages that jangled me:

“We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to the day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that is ear is gross, is cant…. The simple yet appalling fact is that we have very little solid evidence that literary studies do very much to enrich or stabilize moral perception, that they humanize…. Indeed, I would go further: it is at least conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text… diminishes the sharpness and readiness of our actual moral response…. The capacity for [moral response]… is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fictions, and thus the cry in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room…. [S]urely there is something terrible in our doubt whether the study and delight a man finds in Shakespeare makes him any less capable of organizing a concentration camp.”

When Wolf Blitzer asked Carson if he wanted to amend or take back his comparison of Obama’s America to Nazi Germany, he replied, “Absolutely not.” Am I comparing Carson to Nazis? Absolutely not. I’m comparing the compatibility of a scientific education and intellectual ignorance with the compatibility of a humanistic education and moral ignorance.

The simple yet appalling fact is that we have at least some solid evidence that a top scientific education and a distinguished career in medicine does not make a man any less capable of believing untruths to be true and truths to be false.

I don’t know how I’d react if a shooter opened fire in my classroom.  Maybe I’d risk my safety to protect others. Maybe I’d be too petrified do anything. But I do know the feeling that would devastate me if someone I loved became “a body with bullet holes”; it would not be the feeling that the Second Amendment is in jeopardy. It is at least conceivable that the clinical detachment required by a doctor to deal with the deaths in this room makes the deaths in the next room less urgent, less real.

I know plenty of physicians of whom that is not true. But when Ben Carson blames a mass murderer’s victims for failing to foil him, I know of at least one man of science whose capacity for moral response has been absorbed by fictions.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at

Israeli forces step up repression in Jerusalem, West Bank


By Jean Shaoul
10 October 2015

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has responded to the escalating violence between right-wing Israeli Jews and Palestinians by blaming the crisis on “Islamic extremism” and putting Israel on a war footing.

Violence provoked by right-wing zealots, who want the government to take control of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque compound and allow Jewish prayers on the entire site, has spilled over beyond the predominantly Palestinian areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem into Israel itself. It has the potential to spark a third Palestinian intifada (uprising) or even a bitter religious civil war.

It could also ignite protests throughout the Arab world, disrupting Israel’s relations with Washington, and its Arab and Muslim neighbours that it has been covertly aiding in the US-backed war to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

So tense is the situation that Netanyahu cancelled Thursday’s meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin that was to mark 50 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Instead, speaking alongside his military and security chiefs, at his first press conference since the violence erupted in September, Netanyahu said, “Hateful terrorists are trying to hurt our people.” He blamed Hamas, the Islamic Movement in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and countries in the region for fomenting unrest over “lies” that Israel was seeking to change the arrangements at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound known as the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims and as Temple Mount to Jews.

Netanyahu has ordered the police to stop government ministers and Jewish and Palestinian legislators from entering the al-Aqsa compound, saying, “We do not need more detonators to ignite the ground.” He did so while stressing that his primary obligation was the security of Israel and for this he needed international support for “anti-terror” measures.

After praising the security forces, which have killed two Palestinian children and injured more than 1,600 Palestinians since October 3, he said, “Israel has always known how to push back the terrorists and build the country.”

Israel had already taken measures to “root out the terror,” he said. These included the temporary closure of Jerusalem’s Old City to Palestinians without Jerusalem residency, the outlawing of the Muslim guardians of al-Aqsa, strict limitations on Palestinian worship at the compound, the authorisation of the use of live-fire against stone throwers, minimum jail sentences of four years for petrol bombers and stone throwers, and the fast-track demolition of the homes of relatives of Palestinians who carry out attacks.

These repressive measures follow the dispatch of four additional Israel Defence Forces battalions to the Nablus area in the northern part of the West Bank, which was put on lockdown, and the banning of Palestinians under 40 years of age from the al-Aqsa compound. Police reinforcements have been sent to the Old City and the surrounding area, and barricades have been erected all over East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu called on the opposition parties to form a National Unity Government, saying that there were no real differences between them. His right-wing coalition has a majority of just one in the Knesset.

The far-right settler movement has been cultivated by the ruling Likud and other ultra-nationalist and religious parties ever since the 1967 June War that brought the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Syrian Golan Heights under Israeli control. Their call to establish exclusive Jewish control of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque is a flagrant breach of the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, which supervises the Islamic Endowment that manages the Muslim holy sites in East Jerusalem and allows Muslims to pray there—with Jewish worship confined to the Wailing or Western Wall.

The 35-acre al-Aqsa complex in the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the third holiest site in Islam. The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism. It was Ariel Sharon’s provocative march into the al-Aqsa compound, escorted by a massive armed guard in September 2000, that sparked the second intifada.

Numerous attempts have been made to bring the compound under Israeli control as part of longstanding Zionist plans to Judaicize the city, remove most of its Palestinian inhabitants and surround it with Jewish settlements—thereby cutting East Jerusalem off from its Palestinian hinterland. The aim is to remove any possibility of the Palestinians claiming East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Netanyahu claims to be committed to the status quo. But he has repeatedly allowed provocations in the al-Aqsa compound, which has become the focal point of the right-wing settler project to take control of the entire West Bank.

Tensions have risen markedly since the end of August after police prevented Palestinians from entering the area between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m., while allowing right-wing Israeli groups under heavy guard to tour the compound, in defiance of objections raised by the Islamic Endowment.

Protests and demonstrations erupted all over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, resulting in frequent clashes with the security forces in which dozens of Palestinians and several soldiers were injured.

Since then, the violence has escalated. On Thursday, six Israelis were wounded and an assailant shot dead in separate stabbing attacks in Tel Aviv, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. These incidents follow the shooting or stabbing to death of four Israelis and three attackers in a series of attacks since last week.

There have been violent incidents outside the occupied territories, including the suburbs of Tel Aviv and towns in southern Israel. On Friday morning, an Israeli man went on a stabbing spree, wounding three Palestinians and an Arab Israeli citizen. Police arrested the man but did not identify him, although they said his motive for the attacks was “nationalistic.”

An Israeli Arab woman tried to stab a security guard Thursday at the central bus station in Afula, an Israeli city near the West Bank, but was shot and taken to hospital.

In Bethlehem, Israeli security forces shot and killed a 13-year-old boy returning home from school during clashes with local youth. His death, the sixth Palestinian child killed by the military or settlers in the West Bank this year, followed an announcement by Netanyahu that Israel was “at war” with stone throwers, and prompted further demonstrations and clashes.

Video footage of the clashes in the West Bank has emerged showing Israeli undercover soldiers dressed as Palestinians taking part in the stone throwing, before suddenly drawing their concealed weapons and turning on the Palestinians to carry out arrests. The Israeli army has not as yet commented on the footage, but the practice is reportedly widespread.

Settlers in the West Bank have carried out numerous attacks on Palestinians, their homes, cars, orchards and mosques that go unpunished. According to the Palestinian organisation Ahrar Centre for Detainees’ Studies and Human Rights, there were at least 126 attacks or acts of vandalism against Palestinians during the first four days of October. In Jerusalem, Israeli mobs have gone on the rampage chanting, “Death to the Arabs” and assaulting bystanders.

For the past week, the settlers, whose leaders in the Yisrael Beiteinu, the Jewish Home party, Likud and various religious parties have criticised Netanyahu for his “soft” approach towards the Palestinians, have camped outside his official residence in Jerusalem. They are demanding further measures against the Palestinians and the building of a new settlement for every Palestinian attack.

A crucial weapon in Netanyahu’s armoury is the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas called on Palestinians to avoid an “escalation” with Israel, confirming his role as Israel’s policeman. He told a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organisation executive committee in Ramallah Tuesday, “We do not want a military or security escalation between us and them.”


Guantanamo’s Child, Thank You for Bombing, The Hard Stop: Filmmakers take on the global “war on terror” and police violence at home

By Joanne Laurier

8 October 2015

This is the fourth in a series of articles devoted to the recent Toronto International Film Festival (September 10-20). The first part was posted September 26, the second part October 1 and the third part October 3.

The case of Omar Khadr

The “war on terror” is a lying, noxious phrase, endlessly invoked to justify the American ruling elite’s drive for global dominance. This week marks the 14th anniversary of the US military’s invasion of Afghanistan, an exercise in sociocide, which has led to the deaths of tens of thousands and the further laying waste of the already impoverished nation.

The tragic encounter of American imperialism with the Afghan people goes back to the late 1970s, when the Carter administration incited and fomented Islamic fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden, as part of the strategy of undermining the Soviet Union. The criminality of US policy in Central Asia knows almost no bounds.

Michelle Shephard and Patrick Reed’s documentary, Guantanamos Child: Omar Khadr, concerns itself with the Canadian-born youth who was captured in Afghanistan by US forces in 2002 during an airstrike and assault that killed all the anti-American insurgents except the grievously wounded, 15-year-old Omar. He was sent to the Bagram Air Base, site of a notorious US prison in Afghanistan, and tortured, before he was transferred to the even more notorious Guantanamo Bay internment camp in Cuba.

Omar Khadr and Dennis Edney

Treated like a “terrorist”—for having fought as a soldier against an invading army—by the criminals in the American government and their junior partners in Canada, Omar, in 2005, became the only juvenile to be tried for war crimes.

In 2010, he pleaded not guilty to “murdering” US Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer during the 2002 firefight. Three months later, he changed his plea, his only means of obtaining release from the Guantanamo hellhole. Over the strenuous objections of the Harper government in Ottawa, Omar was repatriated to Canada in 2012. Since his release in May 2015, Khadr has resided with his lawyer Dennis Edney in Edmonton, Alberta.

As the Shephard-Reed film reveals, Omar Khadr is a remarkable young man, as is his feisty, Scottish-born attorney. Through extensive interviews,Guantanamos Child constructs a nightmarish picture of Omar’s ordeal at the hands of the American military.

Guantanamo’s Child

Although the bright and soft-spoken Omar is forthright in declaring that he was fighting “for a cause: fighting invaders,” the filmmakers are far more defensive about his role. In fact, the initial portions of the documentary tend to take the “war on terror” and the accompanying propaganda campaign at face value, as though “everything changed” as a result of the 9/11 attacks. The implication is that the “Americans” may have overreacted, but they had every right to “defend” themselves.

Any objective examination of the post-9/11 measures by the Bush administration would conclude that the actions corresponded to a long-standing agenda, involving massive US intervention in the Middle East and Central Asia in pursuit of energy supplies and, more generally, American imperialist geopolitical objectives, and that the terrorist attacks merely provided a pretext.

Missing in Guantanamos Child is any reference to the history of the region. There is no indication that the bin Laden forces were financed and encouraged by the CIA. It should be noted that Shepard, who wrote a book in 2008 entitled Guantanamos Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr, is the national security reporter for the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s largest daily newspapers.

All in all, it seems fair to argue that documentary reflects the views of that section of the Canadian elite that is not happy with the country’s current relationship with Washington, with what it perceives as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s subservience, and is taking the opportunity to “stick it” to the US over the Khadr case.

In any case, whatever the serious weaknesses of Guantanamos Child, the majority of the film is devoted to allowing Omar to speak openly about his past and present condition—unusual in the pro-war media propaganda world. He has an insightful, mature and cautious voice.

Omar Khadr was born in Toronto in 1986, but spent much of his childhood in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The film briefly discusses his family and his early life.

As Guantanamos Child reveals, after his 2002 capture, the teenager suffered extensive psychological and physical abuse. In one striking scene, a repentant Damien Corsetti, a former US interrogator at Bagram, who was nicknamed “The Monster” for using techniques such as the “Human Mop” (forcing prisoners to wipe up their urine on the floor with their own bodies), movingly talks about how Omar’s youth and bravery humanized him. This contrasts to the self-justifying remarks made by a former CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) official, who features prominently in the film.

Also interviewed are the well-spoken Moazzam Begg and Ruhal Ahmed, both British citizens who bear witness to the horrors perpetrated in American prisons—Moazzam having been incarcerated with Omar at Bagram and Ruhal with him at Guantanamo. In addition, Omar’s mother and sister make critical, but unsurprisingly disoriented, remarks about the invaders.

The film also shows Omar’s amazing fortitude. Despite his age, and imprisonment for more than a decade, he never cowers before his tormentors and their false accusations. He also defied the incredible odds against being released from Guantanamo.

During the 2002 firefight, the Americans inflicted serious wounds on Omar, including two holes in his chest, that would eventually destroy one eye and greatly impair the other. Were it not for the intrepid efforts of Edney—his lawyer who was initially not allowed access to Omar for four years—he would still be locked away as an “enemy combatant” in the internment camp.

These two remarkable individuals and their bond drive the movie, but as well highlight the documentary’s major internal contradiction: Omar himself is prima faci e evidence of the inhuman, illegal nature of the war. Unfortunately, the filmmakers never follow the political logic of the story of their protagonist and the forces who calumniated and tried to destroy him.

Thank You for Bombing

From Austria comes Thank You For Bombing, directed by Barbara Eder (Inside America, 2010), which provides an unflattering portrait of contemporary journalists on assignment in war zones.

Thank You for Bombing

The fiction film comprises a triptych of stories related to the war in Afghanistan. The first concerns an Austrian reporter, Ewald (Erwin Steinhauser), forced by his boss to go to Afghanistan. Clearly suffering from a post-traumatic nervous disorder that has rendered him incontinent, Ewald sees a man at the airport who may or may not have been involved in the murder of his cameraman during the war in Bosnia. Neither his unsympathetic editor nor his sympathetic wife are inclined to believe a man plagued by horrible wartime memories.

The next two segments are indictments of the unrelenting careerism and opportunism of war correspondents. In the first, American reporter Lana (Manon Kahle) will stop at nothing to obtain an interview with two US soldiers in Afghanistan who allegedly have burned copies of the Koran. The episode is based on the incident that memorably set off massive protests in 2012. Lana bribes and cajoles anyone and everyone to obtain what will be a major “scoop.”

The two soldiers, more like caged wild animals, are being held in an isolated bunker by the American military. Lana buys her way into their presence. But after the interview, they turn the tables on her. She allows herself to submit to gross humiliations and a near-rape to get the story. Although a revealing sequence, the encounter between Lana and the two offending soldiers takes on a gratuitous character at a certain point. It does, however, depict a demoralized, dehumanized American army.

In the movie’s final chapter, Cal (Raphael von Bargen), once a respected journalist, is tired of waiting for the bombs to begin falling. He even tries to stage young Afghan boys throwing rocks at American soldiers. A heavy drinker, he gets fired. On a drive in the middle of nowhere, a tragic accident takes the life of his driver, which has little impact on the callous reporter.

Eder’s Thank You for Bombing is rightfully contemptuous of the media, but says little or nothing about the war itself. It is critical of ambitious journalists who use and abuse the native population, going so far as to be grateful for the dropping of American bombs that will devastate the country, thus giving them new headlines. Although an angry protest (one assumes against the war), the movie suffers from a lack of serious context.

During the question-and-answer period after the film’s public screening in Toronto, director Eder explained that the work was based on real incidents that she fictionalized to safeguard the identities of the journalists.

Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol

The talented Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol was shot on location in Gaza, the first film made in the Israeli-devastated enclave in many decades. Other locations included Jenin, Amman, Beirut and Cairo.

The Idol

Abu-Assad’s film is based on a true story. It recounts how, in 2013, 22-year-old wedding singer Mohamad Assaf, from a refugee camp in Gaza, won the second season of Arab Idol, the Middle East version of the American talent show. Assaf became an overnight sensation and was named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador.

The movie is very energetic, but a more sanitized and official work than Abu-Assad’s previous films, which include Paradise Now (2005) and Omar (2013). Its best moments portray the monumental difficulties faced by the Palestinian population in Gaza. In one quasi-humorous scene, there is a power outage—obviously a frequent occurrence—when the singer is auditioning via Skype and the generator catches on fire, ending his immediate chances. In other sequences, Abu-Assad’s camera takes in Gaza’s mountains of rubble and destruction.

Getting into Egypt to audition in Cairo obliges Mohamad to scale barbed-wire capped walls, bribe certain border guards and sing verses from the Koran to others, only to find the auditions closed to those who do not already have a ticket. He overcomes that obstacle too. All the while, he recalls the words of his beloved, teenage sister who died because the family lacked the cash for a kidney transplant: “We are going to be big and change the world.”

The film is clearly an attempt to find something uplifting in what is a catastrophic situation. “It’s not just about the winning, but the route to the winning,” says Abu-Assad. “The story of Gaza is very interesting to me. It’s about people who have been collectively punished, and yet they have this will to survive, the will to succeed. It’s a universal theme.”

At the movie’s screening in Toronto, the crowd cheered wildly, identifying with the Palestinian singer’s struggles and triumph. Abu-Assad must be well aware, however, that this is a fascinating but unique incident, which will not in any way change the abominable conditions of the Gazans.

A police murder in North London

The Hard Stop

The Hard Stop is a documentary that explores the murder of Mark Duggan, an unarmed young black man, gunned down by London’s Metropolitan Police in 2011. Directed by British-Ghanaian George Amponsah, the film features two of Mark’s closest friends, Marcus Knox-Hooke and Kurtis Henville, as well as various family members.

The 29-year-old’s killing sparked riots that began in Tottenham, a working class area in North London, and spread across the country.

Amponsah places his film in the context of the coroner’s inquest into the killing, which in January 2014 found Duggan’s death a “lawful killing” although the jurors unanimously agreed that the father of six was unarmed when he was shot.

While showing the conditions and difficulties facing youth in poor neighborhoods like Tottenham, the film does not entirely disassociate itself from the false idea that race is the predominant factor in police violence, even though Duggan’s family is biracial. The uprisings ignited by Duggan’s murder were fueled by the abysmal social conditions and poverty of the entire population, black, white and immigrant.

Laudably, during the film’s question-and-answer session after the screening, Kurtis Henville said that “every life, not just black lives, matter.”

The latest from Michael Moore

Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next is not a much-needed comment on the American government’s never-ending invasions and wars. Far from it. Moore simply tells the generals to “stand down.” The filmmaker then becomes a one-man army that “invades” various countries to appropriate not geopolitical advantage—but beneficial social or political ideas or practices.

From Italy, for example, he takes their lengthy vacations; from Finland, their education system; from Slovenia, free college; from Iceland, the dominance of women in politics and banking (we are told that women’s DNA makes them less aggressive); from Norway, a more humane penal system; from France, gourmet school lunches; from Germany, the ability to confront the legacy of the Holocaust (as opposed to the situation in the US, where supposedly through the prison system the “white man” is once again resurrecting slavery); and from Portugal, the legalization of drugs (Moore happily poses with three cops who look like remnants of the Salazar/Caetano fascist dictatorship).

With the film’s potted racialist history of the US and its view that women should rule the world, Moore has, of course, added identity politics into the mix in his “happy film,” as he calls it.

It is hardly accidental that Moore has been so inactive since Barack Obama took office in early 2009. (Capitalism: A Love Story came out that year.) His new movie is a ludicrous attempt to cover for the Democratic Party, hoping against hope that he can convince it to adopt policies that, he takes pains to point out, all originated in the US. His is the most pathetic and hopeless of perspectives.

Moore has become a sometime critic of the Obama administration, after endorsing the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008 and supporting the auto bailout in 2009, which halved autoworkers’ pay. He is hopelessly tied to the Democratic Party and capitalist politics by a thousand strings. While excoriating Obamacare, for example, as “a pro-insurance-industry plan,” he termed the plan a “godsend” because it provides a start “to get what we deserve: universal quality health care.”

The filmmaker is a compromised and increasingly discredited figure.


Time Out of Mind: Richard Gere as a homeless man in New York City

By Robert Fowler
5 October 2015

Director Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind, with Richard Gere, is a sincere yet flawed film that attempts to portray the struggles of a homeless character named George Hammond.

Time Out of Mind

Moverman’s previous efforts include directing the Iraq war drama The Messenger (his debut as a director) and writing or co-writing I’m Not There (the Todd Haynes film about Bob Dylan) and the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy .

In the opening scene of Time Out of Mind we discover a disheveled George Hammond (Gere) sleeping in a bathtub in an abandoned apartment. He is roused by an officious building manager ably played by Steve Buscemi. The building manager insists on removing George as quickly and efficiently as possible, and despite protestations from our protagonist he succeeds in doing so.

After being forced out of the building, George wanders aimlessly throughout the city. He is accompanied by the sights and particularly the sounds of New York, which serve as the film’s soundtrack. Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski chose to shoot Time Out of Mind in what might be considered a neo-realist style, with hand-held and hidden cameras. We hear off-screen conversations from passersby and there are several long-distance shots of George.

One would assume that this is an attempt to depict the isolation that George and so many homeless individuals must feel, but, unfortunately, in this case it comes across as contrived, and in the end creates an unnecessary distance between George and the viewer. One feels Moverman missed an opportunity or perhaps was reluctant to delve more profoundly into the depths of George’s plight.

As the very loose narrative unfolds, we learn that George has lost his job, that his ex-wife is dying from cancer and that he is estranged from his daughter, Maggie (Jena Malone). Along the way he befriends a gregarious African American man by the name of Dixon (Ben Vereen) in a homeless shelter. They soon become an “odd couple” in a rather clichéd fashion. That being said, Dixon, played competently by Vereen, comes across as the more true to life of the two homeless men. He is a former jazz musician who, despite his predicament, is consistent in his liveliness and ability to find humor and hope.

Some of the more authentic moments in the film come in the form of George’s difficulties with government bureaucracies and homeless shelter officials who insist on seeing some sort of identification. One empathizes strongly with George’s frustrations in these circumstances as he desperately tries to remember his social security number, home address, date of birth and other pieces of information, under constant passive-aggressive interrogation from detached bureaucratic mouthpieces. Moverman attempts to balance this with a scene involving a friendlier homeless shelter attendant who pointedly tells George: “I was once in the position you are now.”

George attempts to reconnect with his daughter Maggie on a couple of occasions. First at a laundromat, then in the bar where she works. Again, these moments, although well-intentioned, seem contrived and quite “Hollywoodish” in both their writing and acting. Predictably, Maggie is aloof and embarrassed at what her father has become. However, toward the film’s conclusion, she does have second thoughts about her coldness.

The inevitably repetitive nature of life on the streets is a strong focus of the film. This approach has mixed results. George pleading for change, for example, although quite realistic, failed in many respects as these moments seemed to lack an urgency and desperation. The little money George receives from the streets is spent on alcohol and clothes. There are vague allusions to George having a drinking problem, but for Moverman to harp on this aspect of his personality seems a bit lazy.

Time Out of Mind

Gere’s performance is earnest, but terribly self-conscious. He overdoes the naturalistic grunts and sighs, trying too hard throughout. Perhaps all this “special effort” is unsurprising as Gere had championed the script for many years seeking a suitable director.

Gere found his man in Moverman, who explains in an interview with Indiewire, “The project came with Richard. He approached me, he told me about a script that he had, an old script, and a character that he’s been obsessed with. That’s where the conversation started. In a way the movie came pre-cast. Otherwise, I would never, ever cast Richard Gere.”

According to, the actor was affected by reading Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets, “a memoir by a homeless person called Cadillac Man. ‘I loved the book because it was artless,’ Gere says. ‘He didn’t know how to write, and, so, the writing, of course, was wonderful.’ Gere met with Cadillac Man—a meeting that gave the actor the confidence to go ahead with Time Out of Mind. For three weeks, dressed in secondhand clothes, he roamed the streets. He’d scour Dumpsters for food, he’d stand at curbs, he disappeared in the thrum and hustle.”

There’s no reason to doubt Gere’s genuineness or his social concern. Another major film performer, Paul Bettany, has directed a film called Shelter, which opens in a limited run in the US November 13, about a homeless couple in New York (with Jennifer Connelly, Bettany’s wife, and Anthony Mackie)

Moverman further explained, “I didn’t make this film as some homeless advocate who is in the trenches for years, or as anyone with any kind of righteousness or superiority on this issue. I’m just like anybody else, I ignore people as much as anybody else. I think we all live complicated lives and we have lots going on. We have a lot of narratives happening in our hands and strands of communication. Reality is really something that we have to block out sometimes, or we can’t help but block out. I think that the movie opened our eyes, for sure, to noticing people more and to maybe being more conscious about it, which is the only thing you can hope for. It’s not a movie with a solution.”

Nobody is expecting Moverman to offer a “solution” to the crisis of homelessness in a two-hour film but surely an artist can at least offer a strong and clear point of view. Instead, Moverman opts for a false objectivity, convinced, no doubt, that he is showing “life as it really is.” In fact, this passivity is bound up with a certain superficiality, an unwillingness to go terribly deep into the social problem or the character’s psyche.

In terms of the housing crisis, as the WSWS has noted in numerous articles, the spiraling cost of living in New York City has forced thousands of people onto the streets. The official total of those living in shelters is over 60,000.

During Michael Bloomberg’s tenure (2002-2013) as mayor of New York, the homeless population is estimated to have increased somewhere between 60 and 70 percent. After his successor Bill de Blasio’s first year in City Hall, the total number of people sleeping in homeless shelters was 58,469. The number of people currently sleeping on the street on any given night is in the range of 4,000.

The great difficulty in finding affordable housing is obviously a major factor. A recent report on the real estate web site StreetEasy pointed out that it is impossible for a worker in New York making the city’s minimum wage, $8.75 per hour, to find an apartment. Meanwhile, the average sale price of a Manhattan apartment is $1.87 million. According to an article in Forbesmagazine, there are currently 78 billionaires residing in New York City.

At one point in Time Out of Mind, George cries “We don’t exist! We don’t exist!” This is a rare and powerful moment in the film that rings true for thousands and thousands of New York residents. Such have been the devastating consequences of the profit system.

Is the dotcom bubble about to burst (again)?


In Silicon Valley, millions of dollars change hands every day as investors hunt the next big thing – the ‘unicorn’, or billion-dollar tech firm. There are now almost 150, but can they all succeed?

Have you heard the story about the tip from the shoeshine boy, a Brit called James Pallot asks me on my last day at TechCrunch Disrupt. I have, I say, though later I Google it to get the facts straight.

It’s attributed to Joseph Kennedy, paterfamilias of the Kennedy clan who, in 1929, was getting his shoes shined by a young boy who was also making confident predictions about which stocks would rise. For Kennedy, it was a moment of revelation. He sold his portfolio. Not long afterwards, Wall Street crashed and the world was plunged into the greatest depression ever seen. So a tip from the shoeshine boy is a sign that the bubble is about to burst. That the wave of confidence will finally crash upon the shore. That the jig is up.

Pallot used to be the digital editorial director of Condé Nast in New York and now he has a startup. But then, we’re at the world’s biggest startup conference in San Francisco, a few miles down the road from Silicon Valley where the world’s greatest concentration of technology startups first started up.

His company is in the booming field of VR, or virtual reality, which is to 2015 roughly what Rubik’s Cubes were to 1982, though with rather bigger potential consequences. Pallot claims it’s the logical next step for journalistic content. In 20 years’ time, you won’t be reading this on the page, I’ll probably be leading you by the hand through a 3D rendering of a virtual TechCrunch conference floor. Or, more likely, you’ll be leading yourself and I’ll be claiming jobseeker’s allowance.

But anyway. In the meantime, Pallot asks me if I’ve heard of the tip from the shoeshine boy. I have, I say, and tell him it’s been on my mind. Because for three days, I’ve been hearing about “unicorns” – a Silicon Valley term for companies that have been valued at more than $1bn. When this usage was first coined, less than two years ago, there were 39 of them. Today, there are 147. Or as Matthew Wong, a senior analyst at CB Insights, tells me: “The funding is at levels that we haven’t seen since 2000.”

As those with longer memories will recall, that was the year the dotcom bubble burst. It needs explaining because there are an awful lot of people at TechCrunch whose memories simply don’t go back that far: the typical startup founder is male and in his 20s. Back in 2000, Google was less than 18 months old and Facebook wasn’t even a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye – he was still at high school. (At 31, he’s now practically Silicon Valley’s elder statesman.)

Everything has changed. And is changing at an ever-faster pace. Eight years ago, TechCrunch launched its Disrupt conference with 45 startups. This year, there are 5,000 of them. Over three days I talk to founders of companies from San Francisco and Texas and Uruguay and Beirut and Stockholm and Tel Aviv and Warsaw. There are apps for crowdfunded mortgages and cheaper divorces and better sex. There’s “Expedia for golf” and “Facebook for cars” and “Nest for water” and “Tinder for dogs”. There’s a virtual reality teddy bear, a device that claims it will be able to read your emotions via a contact lens in your eye and another that will automate your home cannabis farm (marijuana is a big deal in Silicon Valley right now). I miss the panel on nuclear fusion startups but they’re around.

They’ve all paid upwards of $3,000 (£1,900) to be here and they’re all trying to attract the attention of Silicon Valley’s biggest beasts. The VCs – venture capitalists to you and me. The money guys.

“How do you spot them?” I ask Peter Becronis, the founder of a real estate startup called Owner’s Vault. “Oh, it’s easy,” he says. “They’re all men, older guys who are in jeans and brown boots and perhaps a blue jacket. Oh, and a good watch. They’re the ones who shuffle past you trying not to catch your eye.”

It’s a long shot for the likes of Becronis to be here, but not a total pipe dream. Because hundreds of startups are being funded each month. Vast sums of money are changing hands. Crunchbase, TechCrunch’s sister site, lists the deals that are being done on a daily basis. On the day I write this, I check it and find 24 companies that have just received funding, including Kreditech, which got $92m (it uses “big data and complex machine-learning algorithms to credit score everyone worldwide”) and Medium, which received $57m (it’s a platform that has found another new business model that seems to involve not paying journalists).

Every month the amount of money being invested in early-stage startups goes up. And every month, more and more people are starting to use the B-word. Bubble. The last time this amount of money was swilling around, we know how it ended. “Back then, a lot of websites launched but that’s all they were, websites,” Mike Butcher, TechCrunch’s editor-at-large, tells me. “Now in 2015, all those technologies that were predicted – AI, drones, VR – have all turned up. The innovation is real. And it just continues to get bigger and bigger. There are more VC firms here than you can poke a stick at.

“Is it a bubble?” he asks and then answers the question himself, vividly, if not entirely clearly. “It depends. How many unicorns can you fit through the eye of a needle? Anyway, unicorns are over. It’s all about decacorns now. Companies that are worth tens of billions of dollars.”

In 2000 the bubble was in publicly listed companies – organisations like the then upstart AOL, which bought Time Warner for $164bn, the largest merger in America business history, and then most spectacular blow-up. Or in Britain,, whose share price peaked at 511p before crashing to 80p a month later. Both companies survived, unlike many, but it was a long struggle back up for both of them. (In a neat bit of circularity, AOL bought TechCrunchalong the way.) In 2015, it’s private money flowing into companies that may or may not go public one day.

The shoeshine boy wouldn’t be tipping stocks in 2015, but what would he be doing? I ask Ned Desmond, the chief operating officer of TechCrunch. He thinks for a moment. “He would probably be an Uber driver who has his own angel investment line,” he says.

But James Pallot tops that. He’s flown in from JFK and had his shoes shined in the airport. “And the guy had a startup. I literally got a tip from the shoeshine boy! He was trying to find an investor for his national shoeshine franchise.” But then, in many ways, there has never been a better time to be a startup. Niko Bonatsos, a VC with General Catalyst Partners, tells me that the sheer number of companies at TechCrunch “speaks volumes about how the barriers to entry have been removed. It’s really easy to start a company. And lots of companies from other parts of the world see this as a lottery ticket. And for some of them, it will be. It’s the survival of the fittest. And the luckiest.”

Pallot and his co-founder are currently “bootstrapping” their company, Emblematic Group, which is creating virtual reality news content. “Bootstrapping” is Silicon Valley jargon. It means getting by with what you’ve got. It’s how people have set up companies since the dawn of capitalism. You start a business with a bit of money you already have and you try to attract customers and build it from there.

“Bootstrapping” is how you figure out if there’s a market and, if so, how you reach it. It’s also, like, totally 20th century. The reason 5,000 companies pay $3,000-plus to come to TechCrunch is because Silicon Valley has another model. People – strangers – will give you vast sums of cash to build your company into a global brand overnight. If you can deliver the killer pitch. The pitch that convinces the valley’s top VCs that you are the next Facebook, the next Uber, the next Airbnb.

“It doesn’t work like this in the rest of the world,” Ned Desmond tells me. “In Indonesia or Turkey or wherever, normal business culture demands collateral and security. Venture investing has none of that. You are investing in potential.” You’re gambling, basically. Silicon Valley, in 2015, is a giant casino. And the bets are so large because the potential payoffs are so huge. The next Google has to start somewhere.

So is it a bubble? “Everything is cyclical,” says Desmond. Does he remember the last crash? “I was there! I was in it. It was terrible. We had just launched a magazine, Business 2.0. Even the name sounds so cringeworthy now. We launched in May 2000 with a record number of advertisements. We had 150 ad pages. A year on, we had 15.”

This is not exactly an answer, so I try again. Is it a bubble? “We published a graph showing the unicorns. It’s a hockey stick. It’s near vertical growth.”



The Oregon school shooting and America’s brutal society


3 October 2015

The killing of nine students and the wounding of seven others by 26-year-old Chris Harper-Mercer at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon on Thursday have once again revealed something deeply dysfunctional in American society.

Harper-Mercer opened fire on students in multiple classrooms in the campus’s Snyder Hall. He was subsequently killed in the course of a shootout with police outside the hall.

In coming days, more information will emerge about the particular psychological motivations—and illness—that led to Thursday’s events. Some details have begun to come out. Social media accounts belonging to Harper-Mercer indicate that he held a confused mix of right-wing nationalist ideas. A Myspace account had numerous pictures glorifying members of the Irish Republican Army. The name he chose for an online dating website, IRONCROSS45, is apparently a reference to a medal awarded by the Nazis. In his dating site profile he identified as a conservative Republican but noted organized religion as one of his dislikes.

In a recent blog post, Harper-Mercer reveled in the attention Vester Flanagan received when he killed two news reporters on live television in August. He then encouraged readers to view the video of the killing that Flanagan had posted on social media, saying, “It’s a short video but good nonetheless.”

The killings at Umpqua Community College are the latest in a seemingly endless series of horrific tragedies. The website, which has tracked mass shootings in the United States since 2013, reports that there have been at least 296 incidents so far this year in which multiple people have been killed or wounded by gunfire.

A recent study by Harvard researchers Amy Cohen, Deborah Azrael and Matthew Miller found that between 1982 and 2011 the average amount of time between mass shootings in which more than four people were killed or wounded was 200 days. Since 2011 the number of days between shootings has fallen to an average of 64, meaning there has been a three-fold increase in the rate at which such killings occur.

The list of mass killers includes: 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killed six people on January 8, 2011; 24-year-old James Holmes, who killed 12 and wounded 58 in a movie theater on July 20, 2012; 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who shot dead 20 first graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012; 22-year-old Elliot Rodgers, who killed seven and wounded seven on the UC Santa Barbara campus on May 23, 2014; 21-year-old Dylan Storm Roof, who shot and killed nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 18 of this year.

Even such a limited accounting gives a picture of a truly sick society. No economically advanced country comes close to the number and frequency of mass killings in the United States.

In a rambling press conference held in the wake of Thursday’s shooting, US President Barack Obama struggled to account for yet another mass shooting during his tenure in office. “Somehow this has become routine,” he said fatalistically. “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.” At a press conference the next day Obama reinforced his loss for an explanation, superstitiously blaming all violence on “original sin.”

As he has done many times before, to the extent that he offered any explanation, Obama blamed lax national gun control laws, a problem that he said could be solved by the passage of the correct piece of legislation. “We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. So the notion that gun laws don’t work, or just will make it harder for law-abiding citizens and criminals will still get their guns is not borne out by the evidence,” he argued.

Obama’s proposed solution to mass shooting—mainly aimed at increasing the power of the state and the police—will do nothing to actually address the underlying social issues that give rise repeatedly to such tragedies.

While each shooting has its own peculiarities, a phenomenon that occurs with such regularity must have deeper causes. What is the social environment that produces them? Decades of the suppression of class struggle and the promotion of individualism. An ideology that explains individual failings or successes as the product of personal characteristics, leading to deep disillusionment and alienation.

A general sense of hopelessness pervades among a generation of young people, who, if they were lucky enough to go to college, are saddled with a trillion dollars in student loan debt, with no prospect of a decent paying job that provides them with a good standard of living.

As for pervasive violence, this applies first and foremost to the state and the ruling class that controls it. Over the last two and a half decades, which encompass nearly the entirety of Harper-Mercer’s life, the United States has been at war in one country or another more or less continuously, resulting in the deaths of more than a million people and displacement of millions more. The shooter has grown up during the “war on terror,” which has been used by the ruling class to foster an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion, and to justify all manner of violent actions by the state.

Under Obama’s drone assassination program, open murder has become the official policy of the US government. The president and other government officials publicly boast of “taking out” people placed on their kill lists, including American citizens. While the US government keeps secret how many people it has killed with drones, conservative estimates based on public reports indicate that thousands, including women and children, have been summarily executed without charge or trial.

Domestically, a society riven by growing economic inequality has at the same time been increasingly militarized, with military service glorified at every possible moment as the highest service to the nation. Police forces have been armed to the teeth with armored vehicles and assault rifles making them indistinguishable from military units. Killings and brutality are routine, with nearly 900 people murdered in encounters with the police so far this year.

The United States remains the last economically advanced country that imposes the death penalty. Since 1976, 1,416 people have cruelly and inhumanely been put to their death. So far this year there have been twenty-two such state-sanctioned murders.

The solutions routinely advanced in the wake of such shootings will do nothing to address the causes of mass killings that are rooted, in the final analysis, in America’s brutal society.

Niles Williamson