Twenty-one was “the perfect wolf”

He was a legend — he never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished rival

Twenty-one was like history’s highest-status human leaders: Not a ruthless strongman but a peaceful warrior

Twenty-one was "the perfect wolf": He was a legend -- he never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished rival
(Credit: andamanec via Shutterstock)

“Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?” Without looking at me, Rick McIntyre quizzes me like a Zen master during one of the strangest conversations I’ve ever had. He’s trying to lead me into a realization about the roots of mercy by talking about superheroes as we’re looking through telescopes in subfreezing weather while watching wolves eating an elk a mile away on a frozen, snowy slope. Rick, a ranger here in Yellowstone National Park, conducts the whole conversation without taking his eyes from his scope. Rick follows free-living wolves every day. I’ve never seen real wolves before, so my eyes are glued to my scope too.

“If ever there was a perfect wolf, it was Twenty-One,” says Rick, using the wolf’s research-collar number as his name. “He was like a fictional character.

“Twice, I saw Twenty-One take on six attacking wolves from a rival pack — and rout them all,” Rick recalls. “I’d think, ‘A wolf can’t do what I am watching this wolf do.’ Watching him felt like seeing Bruce Lee fighting.”

Wolf territorial fights resemble human tribal warfare. Wolves often target the rival pack’s alphas, seemingly understanding that if they can rout or kill the experienced leaders, victory will be theirs.

Twenty-One distinguished himself in two ways: He never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished rival. But why? A wolf letting vanquished enemies go free seems inexplicable. Rick’s question about Batman and the Joker is his koan-like way of trying to lead me to a big-picture explanation as to why. But I’m not getting it.

Rick is saying that history’s highest-status human leaders are not ruthless strongmen like Hitler, Stalin and Mao. They are Gandhi, King and Mandela. Peaceful warriors earn higher status. Muhammad Ali — who has been called the most famous man in the world — was a practitioner of ritualized combat who spoke of peace and refused to go to war. His refusal cost him millions of dollars and his heavyweight title, yet with his refusal to kill, his status rose to unprecedented height.

For humans and many other animals, status is a huge deal. For it, we risk much treasure and blood. Wolves do not understand why status and dominance are so important to them, and for the most part, we don’t either. In wolf and human alike, our brains produce hormones that compel us to strive for status and assert dominance. Dominance feels like an end in itself. We don’t need to understand why.

Here’s why: Status is a daily proxy for competition. Whenever mates or food are in short supply, the high-status individual has preferred access. What’s at stake is survival, and ultimately, reproduction — the chance to breed, to count. Our genes don’t need to let us understand why; they just need us to want it. One could hardly expect that wolves would understand, any better than we do, what drives us all. But I still don’t get what this has to do with Batman.

“So, Rick,” I ask, my eye still in the scope watching several ruddy-faced wolves bedding down in snow to sleep off a big meal they’ve just finished, “why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?”

“In admiring the hero who restrains himself” — Rick has clearly thought about this — “we are impressed with the hero’s power.” Rick elaborates that in what’s been called the greatest movie of all time, Humphrey Bogart has won the love he has sought. But he arranges things so that the other man does not lose his wife and is not hurt. We admire him for strength combined with restraint.”

But could wolves have such an ethic? If a human releases a vanquished opponent, the loser’s status suffers anyway and the victor seems more impressive. You’ve already won and you show tremendous added confidence. If you show mercy, you gain even more status. But could a wolf be merciful? A wolf might be a super-animal, but he ain’t no superhero.

In wolf Twenty-One’s life there was a particular male, a sort of roving Casanova, a continual annoyance. He was strikingly good-looking, had a big personality, always doing something interesting. “The best single word is ‘charisma,’” says Rick. “Female wolves were happy to mate with him. People absolutely loved him. Women would take one look at him — they didn’t want you to say anything bad about him. His irresponsibility and infidelity; it didn’t matter.”

One day, Twenty-One discovered Casanova among his daughters. Twenty-One caught him and was biting him. Various pack members piled in, beating him up. “Casanova was big,” Rick says, “but he was a bad fighter.” Now he was totally overwhelmed and the pack was finally killing him.

“Suddenly Twenty-One steps back. Everything stops. The others are looking at Twenty-One as if saying, ‘Why has Dad stopped?’” Casanova jumps up and — runs away.

Casanova kept causing problems for Twenty-One. So, why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker so he simply doesn’t have to keep dealing with him? It doesn’t make sense — until years later.

After Twenty-One’s death from age, Casanova became the model of a responsible alpha male. Though he’d been averse to fighting, Casanova died in a fight with a rival pack. But everyone in his own pack escaped — including grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Twenty-One.

Wolves can’t foresee such plot twists any more than can people. But evolution can. Anything that’s helped descendants survive will remain in the genetic heirloom, a driver in the behavioral toolkit.

So, say you’re a wolf; should you let a beaten rival go free? I think the answer in both wolves and in our own tribal human minds is: Yes — if you can afford to. Sometimes, your rival today becomes, tomorrow, a vehicle for your legacy. Perhaps that is the basis for magnanimity in wolves, and at the deep heart of mercy in men.

Excerpted from “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel” by Carl Safina, published by Henry Holt and Company LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Carl Safina.  All rights reserved. 

Carl Safina’s work has been recognized with MacArthur, Pew and Guggenheim fellowships, and his writing has won Orion, Lannan and National Academies literary awards and the John Burroughs, James Beard and George Raab medals. Safina is founding president of the not-for-profit Safina Center at Stony Brook University. He hosted the 10-part PBS series “Saving the Ocean With Carl Safina.” “Beyond Words” is his seventh book. He lives on Long Island, New York.

The US Supreme Court and marriage equality


27 June 2015

By a vote of 5 to 4, the US Supreme Court on Friday upheld the right of same-sex couples throughout the United States to legally marry. The decision, long overdue, invalidates laws in a minority of US states that prohibit recognition of same-sex marriage and arbitrarily discriminate against homosexuals.

Under the legal regime as it had existed until yesterday, 36 of the 50 states had recognized same-sex marriage, but the rest had not. This meant that a couple could marry in one state, only to find that their marriage was not recognized in another state. Under the US Constitution, states are required to give “full faith and credit” to each other’s official acts, records and proceedings.

Same-sex couples and their children also found themselves subject in many states to humiliating and discriminatory limitations on the privileges afforded to other married couples. They were treated differently in areas such as inheritance, taxation, parenthood, adoption, guardianship, health care benefits and other matters.

The majority decision—authored by conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined by Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—referred to previous Supreme Court decisions intended to “correct inequalities in the history of marriage, vindicating precepts of liberty and equality under the Constitution.” Accordingly, the court declared that “the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.”

The decision sweeps away an accumulation of reactionary laws passed by state legislatures seeking to appeal to right-wing and religious fundamentalist elements. It is a setback to efforts to infiltrate essentially religious criteria into the legal system in violation of the principle of separation of church and state.

The fact that the decision was reached by just one vote is, given the obvious democratic issues at stake, extraordinary. The tirades of dissenting justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, John Roberts and Samuel Alito are reactionary and obscene.

Notwithstanding all of the above, the self-congratulatory euphoria in sections of the political establishment and media is unwarranted and hypocritical. Especially grotesque were the attempts of the Obama administration to cloak itself in the mantle of freedom, equality and progress.

“This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts,” Obama declared. “When all Americans are treated as equal, we are more free. My administration has been guided by that idea.”

This from an administration that has presided over an attack on the most basic democratic rights and a historic transfer of wealth from the broad mass of the population to the super-rich. It has advanced pseudo-legal arguments for assassination of US citizens, shielded war criminals and torturers, persecuted whistleblowers, overseen the expansion of illegal domestic spying, deported immigrants en masse, and has constantly sought to accommodate itself to the far right on a host of matters relating to the separation of church and state.

The Supreme Court, too, has trampled on the Constitution and rode roughshod over basic democratic principles. This same Supreme Court is responsible, among the many other reactionary decisions that could be named, for a decision in recent weeks upholding the Obama administration’s assertion of the arbitrary power to deny an immigration visa to the spouse of a US citizen based on vague invocations of the so-called “war on terror.” So much for “the sacred institution of marriage”!

At the same time, the court is concerned about its own legitimacy and the majority opinion yesterday repeatedly references “public opinion.” The justices no doubt had the recent experience in Ireland very much in mind, which saw voters overwhelmingly approve same-sex marriage legislation. Given that the right to same-sex marriage has enthusiastic support among a new generation of young people, the majority on the Supreme Court was concerned that a decision denying that right would destroy whatever shred of confidence the population retained in the institution.

The public support for marriage equality reflects the basic commitment of the broad mass of humanity to democratic rights and the ability of the working population to overcome previous prejudices. The political establishment confronts vast changes in popular consciousness of a broadly democratic character that it neither encouraged nor welcomes.

While it has increasingly relied on identity politics focused on matters of race, gender and sexual preference to conceal the basic class divisions in American society, for many decades it utilized reactionary laws against the rights of gay people as part of its efforts to cultivate backward and fascistic layers.

It now feels the need to make certain tactical adjustments to preempt a further development of mass democratic sentiment along independent working-class and socialist lines. This is especially the case in light of demonstrations around the country against police killings and other signs of growing social discontent.

The political establishment is prepared to make concessions on some issues, particularly those that have a base of support among more privileged layers of the upper-middle class, while continuing its policy of social counterrevolution against the working class at home and imperialist bullying and war abroad.

Nobody should be fooled into thinking that the American ruling class has suddenly “seen the light.” No democratic right can be secured outside of a struggle against the ruling class and the capitalist system. The defense and expansion of democratic and social rights must be anchored in an independent political movement based on the working class. Otherwise, what is granted one day can easily be taken away the next.

Tom Carter

Where is Gay America going next?

future queer


JUNE 23, 2015

THE DAY IN 2011 THAT I WENT TO THE OFFICE of the city clerk in lower Manhattan with my partner Dustin to register for our domestic partnership was coincidentally also the first day same-sex partners were allowed to register for marriage in the state of New York. A reporter was on hand, hoping to get a quote. As a prompt, she told us that the state’s marital forms had not been updated: Any couple registering that day would be required to designate one person as the man, and the other, the woman. Did we have any reaction?

“We’re not here for that,” we said, smiling, as we passed her, and then we found we had to keep saying it at every point of the process, to all of the helpful clerks at each step who reminded us that we could register to marry instead. We thanked them and continued on to get our partnership. We had discussed marriage and decided it wasn’t for us, not yet, maybe not ever. A domestic partnership suited us. We joked a little afterward about which one of us would have been the man, which the woman, but without question, I had the uncanny sense of entering another world, one in which government officials recognized our relationship in a friendly, helpful way, even if we weren’t going to marry—and even if the forms weren’t quite ready for the many people like me about to get married. I remember thinking: This is the future.

I’ve lived through several of these moments. In 1995, for example, whenhighly active antiretroviral therapy, or what became known as the “AIDS cocktail,” was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and then later entered the lives of my friends with HIV or AIDS, I went from worrying if they were going to live, to worrying that they still smoked too much now that they were going to live. Or in 2007, when my sister, who’s a teacher, invited me to speak to her high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and the students there asked me why I didn’t come out in high school. I had to explain that such an act was unimaginable for a boy from Maine in 1984—as was anything like a student Gay-Straight Alliance—and I could tell my past was as unimaginable to them as their present was to me.

Or in 2008, when the Democratic National Convention adopted “Health care is a right” into its platform for the presidency. I remembered staffing a volunteer table for ACT UP in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood in 1991, on the corner of Castro and 18th Street, and on my table were posters, stickers, and t-shirts that bore the same slogan in all caps—ACT UP slogan house style.

I wore one of those shirts to model for passers-by. People walked by me, uncomfortably most of the time, but on occasion, someone would come up and ask for a sticker or a t-shirt, and it felt like a little victory. This presidential platform moment, while huge, felt strangely small at the same time—still not enough.

ACT UP was trying to explain to Americans that AIDS could affect all of us, that health care that ended once your disease was expensive could affect more than gay men with HIV or AIDS. We were trying to tell them about the future—a future they didn’t yet see and would be forced to accept if they failed to act. But there was an epidemic of denial happening alongside AIDS, the belief that you could not get AIDS, not really, unless you were gay—and that you would never need the protections people with HIV needed. In 1990, health care was not something most people feared losing, and employer-based health care was not yet considered a business cost too high to bear. Blue Cross Blue Shield was not yet run for profit. But we had seen our friends and lovers abandoned by doctors and shunned by hospitals, and as we knew only too well, drug companies were run for profit, and there were drugs that needed to be tested in order for people with HIV to survive. The number of people infected in 1990 seemed too low to the people running spreadsheets at drug companies, and so they weren’t doing the tests on drugs that they could. There was no upside for them in making drugs that they believed would only benefit perhaps 50,000 people. This is a fate any American with a rare disease has faced—not just people with HIV—they quickly learn that their lives are the cost of doing business.

As of 2013, according to the World Health Organization, 35 million people were estimated to be living with HIV or AIDS globally, and 39 million have died from the disease. The epidemic of denial won, and now everyone knows there is money in the making of drugs for AIDS. There is now, sadly, a great deal of money in it. And, as some of my old ACT UP friends have noted, there is now no money in curing it. Instead, there is PrEP, the one-pill HIV, pre-exposure prophylaxis, which promises condom-free sex, if you can afford it, at a price tag for the uninsured of $8,000 to $14,000 a year.

WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF WHAT YOU’VE INVENTED?That’s a question I often ask my students in fiction writing, as a way to get them to generate plots organically out of the little scenes that first come to them. So what are the implications of what we’ve invented?

For many Americans, marriage equality represents a capstone “here at last” moment for gay people, but it really is more of a beginning.

I live in a world today that I never would have imagined possible. I can serve in the military as openly gay, if I wanted. I can join my friends as they passionately, freely, and publicly debate the merits and downsides of the sex life that PrEP makes possible. I can choose from male, female, and “custom,” as well as my preferred pronoun, on my Facebook profile, where I get notices about the upcoming reunion of ACT UP SF alongside updates about my upcoming high school reunion. And, yes, I can marry in 37 states.

The pursuit of marriage equality has changed us. We privilege the life of couples over those who might never marry in a way we never did before. For many Americans, marriage equality represents a capstone “here at last” moment for gay people, but we know it really is more of a beginning. It is still legal to be fired for being gay or transgender in more than half of U.S. states. Those openly gay soldiers, should they marry, can be denied shared retirement benefits for their spouses in states where marriage equality is not (yet) the law. Increased trans visibility and the conversation around gender identities have generated more awareness than ever before about trans lives, and has resulted, for example, in advances, such as the inclusion of trans girls in the Girl Scouts. Yet terrible violence against trans people continues, often as brutal murders, many of them left unsolved, should they even be investigated, especially against trans people of color. Religious conservatives, meanwhile, are busy using the courts and legislatures to try to deny us the rights we have only recently gained—claiming that upholding the laws that have been passed oppresses their religious freedom, and that they must be allowed the liberty of their bigotry.

And so it is with a very strange sort of ambivalence that I await news regarding marriage from the Supreme Court. I feel we are at the edge of another one of those uncanny thresholds—that the future is sneaking up on me again. At my most pessimistic, I fear that this decision, along with the appearance of PrEP, is a sign of some sort of Freudian repetition cycle the whole country is in, in which marriage equality is always being fought for and decided, and AIDS is always the ground for advances in treatment instead of a cure—all while these other very serious issues also need attention, and we fight forever over the same inch of ground.


IF I WERE TO WRITE A NOVEL ABOUT A GAY MAN LIKE MYSELF in the future—let’s say the year 2035—his ability to marry another man, whatever the Supreme Court ruling, wouldn’t be in question—it could even be the conventional choice, the one his friends laugh at even as they attend because they love him. He might even be descended from two generations of officially recognized gay marriages. “Gay,” “Queer,” “Straight,” “Same-Sex”: these would be deeply retrograde terms—orthodoxies to be resisted, or historical fictions, even. Given the press of overpopulation on us now, I could imagine my character as having chosen a childless, single queerness, and could depict this as the green choice, sexually and emotionally. The rearing of children could be something that is done only rarely, especially given its increasing cost. More and more, having children is something only the wealthy can afford in the United States, so in 2035 it wouldn’t be science fiction to imagine an entrenched oligarchy as the only class legally allowed to have them. In a political twist, China’s one-child policy could be seen retroactively as both visionary and not having gone far enough.

My protagonist could find the process of questioning his sexuality and gender as normal as we now find deciding what to watch on television. He might have no single sexual identification—omnisexuality—and that could be the overwhelmingly mainstream norm. Or he could be a part of an elite group of wealthy gay men, all of them seronegative and residing in an intentional community sexually sealed off from anyone who can’t pass a credit check and an HIV test.

Marrying more than one person at the same time might also be possible for him within this system, especially if marriage is finally seen as the economic system it is—with fundamentalist Mormonism as something of a model for the legal future queer, but more like if the sister wives all ran away with each other and set up a home together. Or maybe my protagonist lives closeted inside a Christian radical white supremacist plantation state, complete with death camps for sexual deviants, married to a woman who is, perhaps, closeted herself.

Yet, when I think of the future for myself in real life and not fiction, I stick to what I know. Which is almost nothing. My hope is that marriage equality queers marriage, rather than straightening queers—that we reinvent it and keep reinventing it, and sexuality is finally acknowledged as having no inherent moral value except, perhaps, when it is ignored. But my generation never planned for this. Many of the men and women who might have showed us how to grow old while being queer are dead, and most of us, well, we didn’t think we’d live this long, either. One of the most punk rock things I can think of now for me and my friends from ACT UP, is for us to grow old with the people we love, however we choose to do it. Getting to be an old queer is our next revolution.

If I am alive in 2035, I will be 67, and I can easily imagine myself stepping down from a plane in Berlin to begin my retirement with Dustin, who, while he doesn’t quite believe in marriage and may never marry me, will also never leave me. In Germany, our immigration status as a domestically partnered couple is today protected in a way it wouldn’t be, say, if we were moving to the United States. And given the way marriage equality is in some states delegitimizing domestic partnership as a path to shared benefits, it could be that, at that time, we would be moving to avoid being forced to marry.

If I’m still in the United States, most likely, I’d be in the Catskills, having expanded the hunting cottage I just bought with my partner and our friends, Kera and Meredith, into something like a retirement compound. Kera and Meredith’s son Theo will be 23 by then, have just graduated college, if we still educate our young that way. Dustin and I are his gay uncles, and I will have taught him to pee standing up in the woods—we’re working on it now—and he won’t probably even remember it.

The future I can’t imagine, but want to imagine, is one where we’re all at peace, working toward something else. I find myself wanting to ask the religious right, which has fought so hard, all my life, to demonize me, if that is really the best use of their time on this earth. Because, as I think of my future, I think of all that I could have done if I hadn’t been fighting for the right to the basic freedoms we’re all supposed to enjoy as Americans—freedoms gay people have never fully had. I hope we find some way to live together in peace. I just don’t yet see how.

Alexander Chee’s new novel, The Queen of the Night, is forthcoming in February 2016 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By David Walsh
24 June 2015

Directed by Julie Taymor; written by William Shakespeare

Julie Taymor’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream was screened in a number of movie theaters in North America this week for one night only (on or about the summer solstice). The film was shot during a run of Taymor’s version of the play at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn in 2013-14.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream [Photo credit: Theatre for a New Audience]

Scholars theorize that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Nights Dream, perhaps for an aristocratic wedding, in the mid-1590s. The comic-magical play, one of the few whose basic outline the dramatist did not derive from another source, has several interconnected plot strands.

Duke Theseus of Athens and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, are making preparations for their wedding day; four young lovers—Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius—attempt to sort out their relationships, in the face of a host of external and internal pressures; Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of Fairyland, are in the midst of a quarrel, with all sorts of implications for the natural world around them; a group of Athenian “mechanicals” (workmen) are rehearsing a play, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe [a story that resembles Romeo and Juliet], to be performed at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.

Much of the play takes place in the moonlit woods presided over by Oberon and Titania. Angered at his queen, Oberon has his “sprite,” Robin “Puck” Goodfellow, locate a flower whose juice, smeared on the eyes, will make any creature fall in love with the next person—or animal—he or she sees. Puck changes the head of one of the workmen, Bottom the weaver, into a donkey’s, and Titania, on seeing him, falls madly in love.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream [Photo credit: Theatre for a New Audience]

Meanwhile, the four lovers are stumbling around the forest. At first, both Lysander and Demetrius are in love with Hermia, much to the unhappiness of Helena, who adores Demetrius. After Puck drops some of his potion in the wrong eyes, Lysander and Demetrius direct their affections and attentions toward Helena, who becomes convinced that the other three have conspired to play a cruel prank on her.

Bottom passes the time with Titania and her attendant fairies, until Oberon and Puck intervene and restore him more or less to his previous condition. In the end, Oberon and Titania are reconciled, the three other couples find their way to the altar, and Bottom and his fellow workmen stage their play successfully at the wedding reception.

Taymor (born 1952) is best known for spectacular theater stagings, especially of The Lion King (1997) and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (2010). She has directed a number of films, including Titus (1999, based on Shakespeare’s bloody Titus Andronicus), Frida (2002), Across the Universe (2007) and The Tempest (2010). While visually intriguing, none of these films was an artistic success. Frida, about the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, was significantly misconceived.

Taymor’s work in general has seemed a triumph of style over substance. Fortunately, with A Midsummer Nights Dream she has taken on a work that brings her considerable skill to the fore. Imaginatively staged and exuberantly performed, Taymor’s effort is largely a delight. If it does not explore the play or its themes deeply, and it does not, it certainly allows an audience to experience something of the work’s relentless beauty and poetry.

The play takes place on a stage deeply thrust into the audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. A central image is a giant silk bed-sheet that makes itself into a balloon, a sky, a sort of hammock, a projection screen and a good deal more. Taymor makes great use of lighting, harnesses, trapdoors and a variety of equipment, especially in the Titania-Oberon-Puck scenes.

Kathryn Hunter as an androgynous Puck, who twists herself into any number of poses, is thoroughly engaging, as are David Harewood as Oberon and Tina Benko as Titania. A crowd of small children charmingly represent the fairies. To her credit, Taymor has made the play accessible to contemporary audiences, without sacrificing the original play.

There is something genuinely breathtaking, almost “unbearable” (as I noted in a review of Michael Hoffman’s 1999 film version of the play), about the sweetness of the language in A Midsummer Nights Dream. This is Oberon to Puck:

Thou rememb’rest
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the sea maid’s music?

And further:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and eglantine.

And that sweetness is powerfully brought out here, by Taymor, Harewood, Benko and Hunter in particular.

As we noted in 1999, A Midsummer Nights Dream is perhaps “the gentlest of Shakespeare’s works.” That review went on:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream[Photo credit: Theatre for a New Audience]

“Puck plays his pranks, and Oberon takes his relatively harmless revenge on Titania, but this is not a nightmare, it is a dream born of a warm summer night. Oberon takes pity on Helena, ‘a sweet Athenian lady … in love with a disdainful youth.’ Puck says, although mistakenly, of Hermia lying near Lysander: ‘Pretty soul, she durst not lie / Near this lack-love, this kill-courtesy.’ Later Oberon instructs Puck to prevent a fight between jealous Demetrius and Lysander, and declares his intention to release Titania from her spell, ‘and all things shall be peace.’ Or, as Puck puts it, even more suggestively, ‘Jack shall have Jill, / Naught shall go ill.’”

One of the remarkable themes of the play, bound up of course with great changes in social relations in Shakespeare’s time, is the extraordinary and novel malleability of human personality and emotions. Granted that Oberon and Puck intervene supernaturally from time to time, but the four young people, as well as Titania herself, demonstrate that love, for example, is hardly a sentiment fixed for eternity.

Demetrius observes that his love for Hermia—which he was only cured of the night before!—“seems to me now / As the remembrance of an idle gaud / Which in my childhood I did dote upon.”

Titania declares her undying love for Bottom at the beginning of one scene (“O, how I love thee! how I dote on thee!”) and, only a few scant moments later, once having woken from her “visions,” exclaims, “How came these things to pass? / O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now!”

As we noted in 1999, A Midsummer Nights Dream suggests “a world of infinite possibility. After all, this is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays in which a man on the Bottom sleeps with (or by) a Queen, at her instigation no less. In the forest in the middle of the night in a dream all things pass into one another and are transformed, love and hate, man and animal, spirit and matter.”

The rapid, dramatic changes of Taymor’s set and design have the advantage of suggesting something of this transmutability.

The weakest point here is Max Casella’s Bottom, or rather, not the actor, but Taymor’s direction. Casella is far too broad, with his clichéd New York-New Jersey accent, and works far too hard for broad and rather cheap laughs.

Shakespeare was not writing his play principally for “mechanicals,” for laborers, although they formed a section of his audience. And certainly there is a degree to which the playwright laughs along with Duke Theseus and the rest of the Athenian elite at the artistic-theatrical pretensions of the weaver (Nick Bottom), carpenter (Peter Quince), bellows-mender (Francis Flute), tinker (Tom Snout), joiner (simply “Snug”) and tailor (Robin Starveling).

As occasionally foolish as the “mechanical” actors are, however, their essential geniality, solidarity and sincerity come through. Is there a genuinely warmer moment in Shakespeare than that in which Bottom makes his reappearance, after losing his asses’ head, among his fellow artisans?


Where are these lads? where are these hearts?

QUINCE [and the others]

Bottom! O most courageous day! O most happy hour!


Masters, I am to discourse wonders: but ask me not what; for if I tell you, I am no true Athenian. I will tell you every thing, right as it fell out.


Let us hear, sweet Bottom.

Essential to the success of the “mechanical” scenes is the workers’ spirit of togetherness. Despite their various idiosyncrasies, they stick up for and stand by one another. In Taymor’s version, Brendan Averett as Snug, Joe Grifasi as Quince, William Youmans as Starveling, Jacob Ming-Trent as Snout and Zachary Infante as Flute all do well, even memorably. Infante’s “death scene” as Thisbe is quite remarkable. On the other hand, portraying Bottom as something of a scene-stealer and “ham,” and not simply an enthusiast, is a mistake and detracts from the work.

Whatever intentions he had in his head to begin with, Shakespeare was Shakespeare, and once he began to work through a character’s situation, he generally got to the heart of things. We recently noted the comment by Orson Welles that Shakespeare’s Falstaff (who appears in a number of the history plays) was “the most completely good man, in all drama.” Then Bottom is certainly one of the kindest and most endearing.

He is the favorite of the artisans; during the time he spends away from them in Titania’s company, they are at a loss. He has, according to Flute, “the best wit of any handicraftman in Athens,” and he is “the best person, too,” adds Quince. “O sweet bully Bottom,” cries Flute, sadly.

We noted in 1999: “The weaver is unfailingly thoughtful and considerate, and apparently unfazed by any of the astonishing things that befall him. When Titania unexpectedly proclaims that she loves him, he replies, ‘Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that.’ Nonetheless, it is not unthinkable, for ‘to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.’

“Offered the part of a lover in the workmen’s theatrical, Bottom expresses the desire to play a ‘tyrant’ instead. No one is less fit for such a part. So concerned is he about the ladies in the audience becoming frightened, because a lion appears in the piece, he explains that were he to play the part, ‘I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove. I will roar you an ‘twere any nightingale.’

“Worried as well about the impact on the female spectators of his character killing himself, Bottom suggests adding a prologue in which he will explain that ‘we will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus [his character] is not killed indeed; and for the more better assurance, tell them that I, Pyramus, am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver. That will put them out of fear.’ I think Harold Bloom is entitled to assert in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human that Bottom is ‘a sublime clown … a great visionary … and a very good man, as benign as any in Shakespeare.’”

In any event, despite the missteps in this regard, Taymor’s A Midsummer Nights Dream is enjoyable and absorbing. It will open more widely later in the year.

Porn and video game addiction leading to ‘masculinity crisis’, says Stanford psychologist

 A leading psychologist has warned that young men’s brains are being ‘digitally rewired’ by unprecedented use of video games and pornography

A leading psychologist has warned that young men are facing a crisis of masculinity due to excessive use of video games and pornography.

Psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University Phillip Zimbardo has made the warnings, which form a major part of his latest book, Man (Dis)Connected.

In an interview on the BBC World Service’s Weekend programme, Zimbardo spoke about the results of his study, an in-depth look into the lives of 20,000 young men and their relationships with video games and pornography.

He said: “Our focus is on young men who play video games to excess, and do it in social isolation – they are alone in their room.”

“Now, with freely available pornography, which is unique in history, they are combining playing video games, and as a break, watching on average, two hours of pornography a week.”

Zimbardo says there is a “crisis” amongst young men, a high number of whom are experiencing a “new form of addiction” to excessive use of pornography and video games.

Zimbardo gave a TED talk in 2011 outlining the problems facing young men’s social development and academic achievement, which he puts down to excessive use of porn, video games and the internet.

He cited the example of a mother he met while conducting the study whose son does not see the problem in playing video games for up to 15 hours a day.

Zimbardo said: “For me, ‘excess’ is not the number of hours, it’s a psychological change in mindset.”

Giving an example of the mindset of a gaming and pornography-addicted young man, he says: “When I’m in class, I’ll wish I was playing World of Warcraft. When I’m with a girl, I’ll wish I was watching pornography, because I’ll never get rejected.”

Zimbardo claims that this relatively new phenomenon is affecting the minds of young men. the research he and his team conducted for the book, he says: “It begins to change brain function. It begins to change the reward centre of the brain, and produces a kind of excitement and addiction.”

“What I’m saying is – boys’ brains are becoming digitally rewired.”

He also mentioned the growing problem of a disputed phenomenon called ‘porn-induced erectile dysfunction’, or PIED: “Young boys who should be virile are now having a problem getting an erection.”

“You have this paradox – they’re watching exciting videos that should be turning them on, and they can’t get turned on.”

An article from Psychology Today, however, argues that there are no demonstrable scientific links between porn consumption and erectile dysfunction.

In his opinion, the solution is to accept that the problem is serious – parents must become aware of the number of hours a child is spending alone in their room playing games and watching porn at the expense of other activities.

He also blamed negative images of men in the American media, which show men as being “slobs, undesirable, only wanting to get laid and being inadequate in doing that.”

He also called for better sex education in schools – which should focus not only on biology and safety, but also on emotions, physical contact and romantic relationships.

The pressing issue of male mental health is now a much more prominent concern than it once was. Last year saw the first Male Psychology Conference at University College London, intended to encourage the British Psychological Society to introduce a male specialist section, to sit alongside its female equivalent.

Zimbardo believes that excessive, solitary use of video games and porn is seriously stunting boys’ social development

The charity Campaign Against Living Miserably, or CALM, was started in 2006 and has gained a high profile in recent years, for its efforts to encourage men to discuss mental health problems and bring down the male suicide rate.

Phillip Zimbardo is famous for the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which 24 students were asked to play the roles of ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ in a mock prison at Standford University. Intended to last for two weeks, the experiment was abandoned after six days, after the previously normal ‘guards’ became extremely sadistic and the ‘prisoners’ became submissive and depressed.

The experiment is believed to demonstrate the extreme impressionability and obedience of people when they are presented with a supporting ideology and power.


Rolling Stone’s retraction of University of Virginia gang rape story


By David Walsh
7 April 2015

On April 5, in a major and well-deserved humiliation, Rolling Stone magazine, the US biweekly devoted primarily to popular culture, was forced to retract its story “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” published November 19, 2014. The 9,000-word piece reported as fact the claims of “Jackie,” a female student at the University of Virginia (UVA), about a horrific gang rape alleged to have taken place in September 2012 at a fraternity house on the campus in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The sensationalist article, by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, caused an uproar. Major publications such as the New York Times, including its columnist Nicholas Kristof, and the Washington Post, along with the entire crowd of pseudo-left and feminist activists, leaped on the story, asserting that it confirmed the existence of a “rape culture” in the US and on college campuses in particular. The obvious inconsistencies and implausibilities in the Rolling Stone “exposé,” however, impelled other journalists, including some at the Post, to look further into the allegations. The article’s claims began to unravel within a few weeks of publication, with Rolling Stone editors noting “discrepancies” and backing away from the story on December 5.

On December 11, the WSWS described the piece as “a defamatory travesty of journalism,” adding: “The article, in fact, is a mass of unsubstantiated allegations and anecdotes, stereotypes and dubious statistics. There is almost nothing in the article that can be pinned down as fact. It is neither convincing nor believable.”

As a damage control measure, Rolling Stone management eventually commissioned Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, and two colleagues, to investigate the writing and publication of “A Rape on Campus.” The release of their results Sunday evening prompted the magazine’s retraction. In another response to the report, the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity in question, announced plans Monday to launch a lawsuit against Rolling Stone, accusing the magazine of “reckless reporting.”

The Columbia inquiry (available online here) documents Rolling Stone’s failure to apply the most elementary journalistic standards and procedures.

The report argues that the magazine’s “repudiation of the main narrative in ‘A Rape on Campus’ is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.”

In fact, the lengthy and inflammatory article was published on the say-so of one young person, with virtually no corroborating facts. For example, Jackie said she had spoken to three friends the night of the alleged attack, September 29, 2012, and told them she had been sexually assaulted. However, Jackie asserted that the three had later turned against her, and Jackie discouraged Erdely from contacting them. The reporter made no serious effort to get in touch with these key witnesses. When they were eventually contacted, the trio contradicted Jackie’s story in important ways. Coll and his colleagues comment: “The episode reaffirms a truism of reporting: Checking derogatory information with subjects is a matter of fairness, but it can also produce surprising new facts.”

Erdely never provided Phi Kappa Psi the details of the alleged assault, including its date. The Columbia report notes that if Rolling Stone “had given the fraternity a chance to review the allegations in detail, the factual discrepancies the fraternity would likely have reported might have led Erdely and her editors to try to verify Jackie’s account more thoroughly.”

Similarly, incredible as it may seem, Erdely and Rolling Stone accepted Jackie’s refusal to provide them with the name of the supposed ringleader of the attack, a lifeguard at the university aquatic center she claimed had asked her out on a date that night.

“There was, in fact, an aquatic center lifeguard who had worked at the pool at the same time as Jackie and had the first name she had used freely with Erdely. He was not a member of Phi Kappa Psi, however. The police interviewed him and examined his personal records. They found no evidence to link him to Jackie’s assault.

“If Rolling Stone had located him and heard his response to Jackie’s allegations…this might have led Erdely to reconsider her focus on that case. In any event, Rolling Stone stopped looking for him.”

These failures to establish the basic facts of the case—even as to whether the alleged ringleader actually existed!—are so egregious that they hardly permit an innocent explanation. Either Rolling Stone, in existence for almost five decades and with a readership of 1.5 million per issue, is run by complete amateurs or incompetents, or, more plausibly, something else is at work. That “something else,” in this case, is the gravitational pull of identity politics and the upper middle class circles obsessed with sex, gender and race. The rational and objective consideration of facts flies out the window when these fixated layers perceive their interests to be at stake.

Erdely’s own notes from a July 2014 conversation with a UVA staff member, commented on by the Columbia report, reveal “she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show ‘what it’s like to be on campus now…where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture.’”

The Columbia report is extremely narrow, limiting itself to the immediate facts of the case. It never asks the obvious: how was such a “journalistic failure” possible? In fact, the authors of the report accept the essential ideological framework within which the Rolling Stone article was produced. They bend over backward to offer excuses for Erdely and company: “Social scientists, psychologists and trauma specialists who support rape survivors have impressed upon journalists the need to respect the autonomy of victims, to avoid re-traumatizing them and to understand that rape survivors are as reliable in their testimony as other crime victims. These insights clearly influenced Erdely, [and editors Sean] Woods and [Will] Dana.”

This is nonsense. The issue is not whether rape is a terrible crime. What’s taking place, however, is not a sudden outpouring of sympathy for sexual assault victims, in the face of an epidemic, on the part of the government, the media and university officials. In fact, a layer of right-wing political scoundrels, in and around the Democratic Party, is cynically making use of an emotive and painful issue to advance its own agenda.

The Columbia investigation notes the role of the White House in this process: “The Obama administration took up the cause [of sexual harassment on campus]. It pressured colleges to adopt more rigorous systems, and it required a lower threshold of guilt to convict a student before school tribunals.”

As we noted last November in regard to Harvard University’s new, anti-democratic sexual misconduct policy: “Obama’s sexual assault publicity stunt is directed in particular at shoring up support for the Democrats among those liberal and ‘left’ layers of the upper middle class mesmerized by questions of personal identity.”

The “progressive agenda” today of the affluent left includes and hardly goes farther than support for gay marriage, opposition to the “rape culture” and an obsession with race. All of this is meant to divert attention from the crimes of the White House and the relentless attacks on the working class in the US. The hysteria over supposedly widespread rape in the US and elsewhere is part of the effort to bamboozle some people and intimidate others.

For certain selfish layers, Obama’s initiative on sexual assault on campuses far outweighs his role in murdering thousands through drone strikes, ordering NSA spying and launching undeclared wars in various parts of the globe.

The “Rape on Campus” incident is a fiasco for Rolling Stone. However, the publication has made clear it has no plans to dispense with Erdely’s services or anyone else’s, and that it is quite happy with the “safeguards” in place. Everything will go as before, including the editors’ devotion to identity politics.

After apologizing in a perfunctory manner to “all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students,” the magazine goes on to worry about the impact its article might have on similar allegations in the future: “It is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.”

Along the same lines, the Columbia report authors write: “It would be unfortunate if Rolling Stone’s failure were to deter journalists from taking on high-risk investigations of rape in which powerful individuals or institutions may wish to avoid scrutiny but where the facts may be underdeveloped.”

“Rape culture” advocates like Jessica Valenti of the Guardian, formerly of theNation, will certainly not be deterred. After the Charlottesville Police Department issued a report March 23 indicating that it had “exhausted all investigative leads” and concluding “that there is no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article,” Valenti insightfully commented, “‘No evidence’ of a rape does not mean that a rape didn’t happen” and referred to the police merely finding “inconsistencies” in Jackie’s story. In fact, the police found no basis whatsoever not only for the allegation of a crime in 2012, but for other incidents the young woman initially reported.

The UVA incident has to be seen in the context of the ongoing assault on democratic and constitutional rights in the US, spearheaded by the Obama administration and acquiesced to by the pseudo-left. Neither in Rolling Stone’s apology nor the Columbia report do the critical questions of democratic rights, including the presumption of innocence and due process, come up. Allegations of sexual misconduct are treated as fact, unless a debacle like the present one makes that untenable. The implications are profound.

The author also recommends:

Rolling Stone magazine and the University of Virginia rape allegations
[11 December 2014]

Harvard’s new sexual harassment policy, democratic rights and the new right
[11 November 2014]

Politics, Money And Religion: 5 Things We Learned From Indiana’s RFRA Debate

The uproar caused this past week by Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act proved one thing about America. Nothing stirs up conversation more than the intersection of religion, money and politics.


On Thursday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a “fix” for the RFRA, stating explicitly that the law cannot be used to discriminate based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

That isn’t good enough for some opponents of the law, such as Angie’s ListAngie’s List, which wants to see the RFRA appealed completely. And, it may take quite a while for Indiana’s image to recover from the national battering that it received.

I spoke about the business reaction to RFRA on PBS NewsHour on Thursday night, and it struck me that the situation was something of a milestone in changing perceptions about the business community.

Here are five things we learned this past week during the RFRA debate.

1) Customers trump conservatism. Dozens of corporations, from Eli LillyLilly to Angie’s List to Apple Apple, spoke out against RFRA this past week. To be sure, Apple’s opposition might be a given, since its CEO, Tim Cook, is openly gay.

But other firms on the list can hardly be considered bastions of liberal attitudes. In the case of RFRA, however, the law threatened to discriminate against, employees, customers, and their friends.

When it comes down to it, companies want to do business in places where they are welcome. RFRA put lie to “Hoosier hospitality” in a big way.

2) All local is politics. In the 20th century, former House Speaker Tip O’Neill contended all politics are local. Now, all things local are political. You can thank the internet and social media for creating a sense of community across the country.

When something happens in one state, we now hear about it in rapid fashion. And, while it is still possible for political moves to take place under cover of darkness, there is a lot more light when the sun rises than there ever has been before.

The vehement reaction to Indiana’s law is why Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson insisted on a revision before he would sign an RFRA there, and why Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder told his legislature to not even bother sending him one.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

3) America is in a protesting mood. Why was there uproar over Indiana when there are at least 20 other RFRAs across the country? The answer is timing. The Indiana debate took place in an atmosphere when people are willing to protest.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen the Occupy movements. We’ve seen the marches in Ferguson, and the reverence paid to the commemorations in Selma. It’s been a long time coming, but Americans are once again ready to collectively protest when they see something that they feel is unjust.

That also goes the other way, in the case of Indiana. The pizza parlor owners who said they wouldn’t serve a gay wedding have actually received $500,000 in donations from supporters.

4) Fixes have to come fast. The lightning fast speed of the modern world means that there’s no time to dawdle, because your state’s image can be blotted in the blink of an eye.

Last Sunday, I predicted that Pence would ask the legislature to repeal or fix RFRA by the end of the week. It seemed clear there was no other choice, to quiet the upset. And, Indiana responded with alacrity.

In February, 2014, the same thing happened in Arizona, whose legislature passed an RFRA bill. Within days, it became clear that the NFL might pull the 2015 Super Bowl from Phoenix should the bill take effect. Rather than risk losing a prestige event, former Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill.

5) Gays have a lot of friends. As I reported earlier this week, Indiana only ranks No. 19 in the U.S. in terms of its LGBT population. Despite seeing its population diversify as it has embraced the tech sector, Indianapolis is hardly San Francisco or New York.

But as I said on NewsHour, the actual number of gays and lesbians in a city or state doesn’t matter much any more. Their friends will come to their assistance. As I said on the NewsHour, we all know someone who is LGBT, and the community enjoys a circle of support.

In Indiana, that circle of support demanded action, and got it. And, we all learned a lot from that.


Originally published at on April 3, 2015.