Movie Review: 13 Hours [SPOILERS]

So last night, my wife and I made it out to see the movie, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. I’ve been asked by numerous people for a review of the film, so here it is. If you’ve read anything in the news about Benghazi, you know how it ends, It’s impossible to tell this story without a few minor spoilers, so while I’ve tried to keep the. to a minimum, if your intent is to go into this movie with an absolutely clean slate, this is one review you might want to skip. You have been warned.

The Film

George Orwell has been traditionally (though probably erroneously) attributed with the quotation, “people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

Whether or not he ever said those words, I’ve never seen them more masterfully portrayed than they are in this film.

Much has been made of the politics in this movie. The events in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, are, after all, an inflection point in our history that have impacted – and will continue to impact – the legacies of one, and perhaps two, United States Presidents.

But to see this, first and foremost, as a political film is to miss the point. It is not. The only politics in the theater for this film are those you bring with you.

President Obama is never shown in the film, is never referenced by name, and is heard only once for a few seconds, providing background commentary on the events of the Arab Spring in Libya that led up to the climax covered in this film. Hillary Clinton is never shown, heard, or referenced at all. While there is definitely a political subtext, you will likely interpret it through your own personal preferences and biases, and if you enjoy this sort of film, you will likely do so here regardless of your political bent.

And what, precisely, is “this sort of film?” One thing to note is that this does not carry the usual disclaimer that it is “based on a true story.” Instead, the caveat is that “This is a true story.”

The distinction is important. The film is told from the perspective of a handful of contractors employed by the CIA to provide security for a hidden “Annex” in Benghazi, a couple miles away from the consulate where the attack began. From the perspective of those men, the events in this film are what actually happened.

The best way I can think to describe those events is as a juxtaposition of two other “true-to-life” movies: Black Hawk Down and Hotel Rwanda.

The former comparison is obvious: It is a film about brotherhood-in-arms, camaraderie, and the shared understanding that only happens between people who repeatedly and completely entrust one another with their lives. It is also apropos, in that (as characters in the film state explicitly) one of the political sensitivities around the events in this film was a government desperate to avoid another “Black Hawk Down” scenario, turning Benghazi into another Mogadishu.

The second comparison is less obvious . . . so much so that it took processing through this film with my wife for me to grasp it. She’s the one who initially drew the link for me: This is a film about what it means to be totally and completely abandoned, helpless, on your own, fearing for your life, while at the same time entrusted with protecting – as best you can – the lives of those around you who are counting on you to keep them safe.

In Mogadishu in 1993, while there was the same red tape, the same delays, and the same bureaucratic ass-covering at work, whatever else they knew, the men on the ground knew that their leadership (in particular, Major General William Garrison) would do whatever it took to bring them home (which he in fact did, sacrificing his own career in the process). The men in Benghazi in 2012 had no such assurances. The key emotion portrayed almost nonstop throughout the combat portions of this film is . . . hopelessness. From the moment the shooting starts, there is a sense that none of them are getting out alive. The fact that most of them do is a testament to the genuine heroism of the people on the ground.

The comparison to Rwanda in 1994 is more of a “what if” scenario. The heroics of Paul and Tatiana Rusesabigina, as portrayed in Hotel Rwanda, saved 1,268 of their countrymen and foreign workers at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, fearing for their lives the whole time, and assuming they’d never make it out of the city alive.

One wonders how many more could have been saved if they’d had just a half-dozen highly trained and heavily armed contract personnel protecting them, as the CIA Annex had in Benghazi in 2012.

And this is where my own political biases kick in. As I said earlier, the only politics in this movie are the ones you bring with you. Here are some of mine:

The political dispute surrounding the Benghazi attack is captured in a single, throwaway exchange between two characters that goes something like:

CIA Paramilitary Contractor: They’re saying on the news that this started as some kind of protest about anti-Islamic films?

State Department Security: We didn’t see any protest!

CIA Paramilitary Contractor: Just reporting what’s on the news, bro.

It seems important to note hear that the most full-throated case for that (now known to be non-existent) protest was made by Dr. Susan Rice – currently President Obama’s National Security Advisor, and at the time his ambassador to the United Nations.

Dr. Rice, it must be noted, was on President Clinton’s National Security Council during the events in Rwanda in 1994, and has been quoted repeatedly as urging caution and inaction from the U.S. government in the Rwandan crisis, saying, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?”

She claimed to have learned her lesson thereafter, saying “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” And indeed she did, becoming a staunch champion of intervention against the genocidal Sudanese government during that country’s longstanding civil war.

But in Benghazi, with about three dozen American lives at stake, Rice again became an apologist for inaction for the sake of political expediency. Rather than admitting that this was a meticulously-planned terrorist attack (flying in the face of President Obama’s repeated assertions that al Qaeda and its affiliates were “on the run,” and threatening his upcoming reelection bid), Dr. Rice (and her boss, Hillary Clinton, and her boss, President Obama) chose to blame a YouTube video, and chose to hang three dozen Americans out to dry.

And for being on the wrong end of the most important national security crises of the last two Democratic administrations, Dr. Rice received a promotion from UN Ambassador (which, importantly, requires Congressional confirmation) to National Security Advisor (which does not.)

That inaction is another theme that ties these three movies together. In Black Hawk Down, red tape prevents General Garrison from sending everything he’s got to support his men, and he ultimately has to rely on a UN-controlled Pakistani armored convoy to get them out. In Hotel Rwanda, again the inaction of the US and the international community is center stage, as Rusesabigina eventually has to bully a UN commander into providing a way to safety.

In 13 Hours, one central theme is “Where the h**l is the U.S. military??”

We see the CIA personnel desperately calling for support from Tripoli, from Aviano Air Base in Italy, and from anywhere else within flying distance . . . all to no avail. We see shots of F-16s idling on a runway, ready to take off, but with their pilots inside with no orders. We see Glen Doherty – a CIA contractor and former Navy Seal – arguing with his superiors in Tripoli, assembling a hodge-podge quick response team, begging, borrowing, and bribing his way into Libyan air transport from Tripoli to Benghazi, and then battling his way to the Annex to exfiltrate the embattled Americans (giving his life in the process).

We see the shots from the American drone overhead . . . always watching, but never intervening.

We see the assumptions from the men on the ground that the watching drone is armed and will provide minimal air support, and the assumption that heavier support in the form of U.S. gunships is no doubt on the way. The understanding is that this is normal operating procedure. But thanks to the dithering bureaucrats (seen only on camera, when they are seen at all), the normal rules don’t apply here.

Conversely, we see the Libyan armored convoy that shows up to finally relieve the besieged compound, and the Libyan military transport that eventually flies them out.

The juxtaposition is stark, and is duly noted by the men on the ground.

Such juxtaposition is repeatedly and masterfully portrayed throughout this film. Michael Bay is, I think, an underappreciated director. That feels odd to say, given his critical and popular acclaim, but most of his notoriety is his penchant for making lots of things go “boom” in very loud and flashy ways. There’s certainly plenty of that in this film, but it’s the little things that were most noteworthy to me:

We see State Department IT Contractor Sean Smith enjoying “Call of Duty” during his off-hours, just moments before he is thrust into real-world combat for which he is woefully unprepared. A video game, we learn, is nothing compared to the real deal.

We see the U.S. Ambassador, in Benghazi to do a very important job, but protected only by two under-armed and inadequately-trained State Department security personnel in what is described as “the most dangerous city on earth.”

We see the six “rough men” of the CIA contract security team – men who have spent most of their adult lives receiving and doling out violence – spending the brief hours between firefights musing about their loved ones, their children, and the families they just want to get home to see one more time.

We see those same “rough men” with a child in their gunsights . . . a child who is using a cell phone (likely, it is implied, to provide targeting coordinates to the terrorists who are trying to kill them). We see those men unable to shoot a kid, even one who presents an immediate and deadly threat. It is left ambiguous as to whether their forbearance cost two of those men – Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty – their lives.

We see the CIA officers belittling and grumbling about the security team that hampers their ability to do their job . . . but when things come down hard, we see those same officers – men and women not equipped to handle a full-blown firefight, doing everything they can to support the people who are there to keep them alive. And in the aftermath, one of those who complained the loudest in the beginning sums it all up in the end: “I don’t know how you made it out of there alive, but I know how we did.”

The Heroes

One of the movie’s greatest strengths, I think, is its decision to forego the casting of “A” list actors in any of its roles. That, I think, made it more powerful than the star-studded Black Hawk Down, despite both being equally poignant and important films with similar messages. It made the necessary suspension of disbelief just a little bit easier: Instead of watching Josh Hartnett, Ewen MacGregor, Orlando Bloom, Eric Bana, and Tom Sizemore, I felt like I was watching Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty, Jack Silva, Tonto Paronto, Boon Benton, Tig Tiegen, Oz Geist, Sean Smith, and Chris Stevens.

It felt that much more “real,” and allowed me to fully and completely respect the heroism of the real people involved, rather than their portrayals by actors with famous faces.

And make no mistake, this is first and foremost a movie about heroes . . . and not just the men who gave their lives . . . and not just the men who fought.

The CIA officer who repeatedly complains that her security detail is hampering her ability to do her job, but then spends most of the attack calling everyone she can think of and begging for air support to protect the men of that security detail: She is a hero.

Another CIA officer who bridles at the need for private security guards, and then spends the whole fight talking to his Libyan contacts, trying to figure out if the Americans have any friends left in the city: He is a hero.

The under-trained and under-equipped State Department security guard who panicked, got disoriented, and accidentally placed his colleagues at risk while driving them to safety in a bullet-ridden and burning armored car: He is a hero.

Even the movie’s “villain” . . . the risk-averse CIA station chief who started out the day just wanting to ride out his last assignment and retire – the pseudonymous “Bob” who, according to the movie’s perspective, might have saved the ambassador (while placing his own people and mission at significantly greater risk) if he’d let his security team off their leash sooner: He, too, is a hero.

And of course, the men of who placed themselves between their countrymen and women and scores of heavily-armed terrorists are heroes.

And the four men who gave their lives are heroes:

Tyrone Woods – the leader of the CIA contract security team in Benghazi who spent the entire movie warning of danger, only to be proven entirely right, and to give his life to save the very people who failed to heed his concerns.

Glen Doherty – the leader of the CIA contract security team in Tripoli who spent the entire movie cobbling together a rescue force and somehow managing to get it from Tripoli to Benghazi, only to be killed at the tail-end of the fight before he could see his efforts succeed.

Sean Smith – the State Department IT guy who was sent into the most dangerous place on the planet, unprepared and unequipped for what he would find there, and who went anyway.

And Ambassador Chris Stevens – the dedicated public servant with a vision for a better Libya, who voluntarily put himself in harm’s way in an attempt to make his vision come true, and who gave his life in the process.

Those are the names we know. But for me, the unsung and unappreciated hero of the film was a Libyan translator named Amahl. Amahl regularly places himself in harms way to help the Americans, going with them on dangerous operations despite having no combat skills or training. He’s there solely because he’s the only one fluent in Arabic. When the fighting starts, he’s “volun-told” to travel with the CIA contractors from the Annex to the consulate, because without an Arabic speaker there is no way for them to navigate the dangerous roads controlled by several hostile factions that stand between the two locations. He’s given a helmet, body armor, and a pistol . . . none of which he has the slightest clue how to use, and with the team makes his way to the compound, frequently under a hail of bullets. As they pile into the armored vehicle, one of the CIA contractors upon seeing Amahl in the ill-fitting protective gear, trying to figure out which end of the pistol to hold onto and which end goes “bang,” remarks to his buddy, “Welp . . . he’s not coming back.”

And yet, he does.

After returning to the annex, when the Libyan security forces charged with protecting the compound have all fled in anticipation of the coming attack, Amahl stays. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes he is told to get himself safely home, out of harm’s way, “We’re not going to need a translator any longer.”

“No!” he says, incredulous that the suggestion would even be brought up. “I’m with you guys.”

And he is. Completely.

And in a scene that left me with tears in my eyes, as the survivors are finally evacuated to the airport, they tell Amahl to get in the truck and come with them to safety.

“I’m going home,” he says.

And he does . . . in one of the film’s penultimate shots, we see Amahl shambling off down the street to his house. The American heroes get to retreat, to evacuate, to retire to lives as insurance adjustors with their wives and their children, with the hardest and worst night of their lives behind them, haunting their dreams and their memories.

Amahl, though, walks home past still-burning vehicles on bullet-riddled streets, back to his house in the most dangerous city on earth . . . back into a life with neighbors who, moments before, were trying as hard as they could – fighting and dying – in an attempt to kill him.

It’s an obvious truth, but one that bears repeating: Heroism is not a uniquely American trait.

The Takeaways

I said earlier that this is not a film about politics. And yet, for me, it was. As someone whose education and interests delve deeply into the national security realm, I’ve followed news of the story of Benghazi closely ever since it occurred. But this film drove home several things for me – things that seem much clearer now that I’ve seen them from the perspective of those who were there that night.

The Obama Administration’s Difficult Position: First off, I understand now that the administration’s decision to obfuscate the origin of the attack was not entirely political. Yes, as I noted above, politics was indisputably a factor. But in the immediate aftermath there was an urgent need to protect as much information about the CIA’s operations in Benghazi as possible. That played into the CIA station chief’s “stand down” order, as well as into the administration’s “You Tube” misdirection. You see, the movie makes clear that the CIA was there to interdict a very specific, and extremely deadly threat: specifically, the proliferation of “Man Portable Air Defense Systems” (MANPADS). These shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles are the sorts of things that literally keep people up at night, because they’re everywhere on the international arms market, and if someone can manage to smuggle one of these things into a Western country, one guy planted at the end of some runway at a major airport could start bringing down civilian airliners at will.

As Vice President Biden might say, that’s a Big F-ing Deal. And so it’s at least understandable why the administration adopted the posture it did for as long as that mission remained secret. What’s inexcusable is the fact that they stuck with that story after it was disproven, for the sake of political expediency and in order to win an election, even to the point of demonizing and discrediting the families of some of the victims.

The Democratic Legacy of Failure:
Second, this movie is just the latest chapter in a very long list of democratic inaction in the face of foreign policy crises. Democrats rightly criticize Republicans for often being too quick to act in the national security realm without an adequate plan for doing so. But the Democrats’ failing is the opposite one . . . time and again they would rather take no action at all, than risk taking one that might put their personal positions at risk. Action without regard for the consequences can be dangerous. But inaction without regard for the consequences can be just as dangerous.

Contractor Love: One of the most pleasantly surprising things, for me, was the fact that this movie focused heavily on paramilitary contractors . . . and for once they weren’t the film’s villains! As a government contractor myself, one of the things that irks me about Hollywood is how often they resort to the easy trope that contractors – being mostly American males employed by the for-profit private sector – are easy to demonize, and are thus often painted as the “bad guys.” I know first-hand the value of contractors: we are flexible – easy to hire, fire, and move around – and we often provide skills that can be difficult to find or efficiently allocate among the federal workforce.

In my case, the skills I bring to the table are a combination of solid writing, editing, and communications expertise, combined with a deep knowledge and understanding of national security strategy and policy. In this movie, the skills brought to the table by the film’s featured contractors were highly trained tactical expertise and weapons training unparalleled even by the military’s elite special operators or the security personnel employed by the government. When one of the CIA officers complains about being “handled” by her security contractor, saying that she knows what she’s doing because it’s her fourth (I think it was?) tour in-country, the security contractor protecting her laconically replies, “It’s my twelfth.”

And the film very accurately captures the disparity with which contractors are sometimes viewed by government personnel. I’ve experienced it both ways: I’ve had government clients who viewed me as an integral and valuable part of their team and didn’t care that I drew my paycheck from a private company. I’ve also had clients who thought that my contractor status made me a second class citizen – one whose presence they had to tolerate because they were told to do so, but one who couldn’t possibly be as valuable as a “real” government employee.

This film captures both perspectives . . . sometimes within the same characters, who grow to appreciate the presence and abilities of contract personnel over the course of the movie.

And the movie blows one all-too common misperception about contractors completely apart: Patriotism doesn’t necessarily draw a government paycheck or wear a uniform (or even, in one scene, pants). Despite being employed by a for-profit company, the contractors portrayed in this film were every bit as patriotic and dedicated to serving (and if need be, dying for) their country as were their colleagues serving in the military, the State Department, and the CIA.

I’ve never been called upon to risk my life for my country, but I’ve known contractors who have. And let me assure you, that portrayal is entirely accurate.

Hollywood Sea Change: Fourth, while it showed up only in subtexts, it was refreshing to see a film that was so unabashedly pro-American, and that didn’t tiptoe around political sensitivities. This was the movie about Benghazi that I wasn’t sure it was possible for Hollywood to make. But they did, and they did it right.

When I see a film that touches on politics, I’m used to leaving the theater feeling “lectured at” . . . either the film implicitly criticizes beliefs I hold dear, or implies villainy in people I support, or treats aspects of my worldview as inexcusably misguided and beyond the pale of a reasonable belief system. This is particularly true where the military and national security are concerned. One great example is “Lions for Lambs,” which I loved in spite of its overt and intentional “preachiness” in service to a pacifist worldview with which I mostly disagree.

It was nice to be on the other side for a change, and this seems to be a more and more frequent occurrence in Hollywood. It’s a welcome shift to observe.

Those Emails: Finally, there is one important tie-in to the ongoing scandal around Secretary Clinton’s exclusive use of a private, unsecured email system to receive and store sensitive (including highly-classified) information. At one point, the team assembled by Glen Doherty in Tripoli is joined by two Delta Force special operators, who tell Doherty that their mission is “classified document retrieval and destruction.” That is: two men voluntarily dove headfirst into the most serious firefight faced by American personnel in years outside of an actual war zone, for the sole purpose of protecting with their lives some of the same information Hillary Clinton was cavalierly storing on her private, unsecured email server. To my mind, that fact alone – and her casual disregard for it – should forever disqualify her from the role of Commander in Chief.

And speaking of Hillary Clinton . . .

To me, this felt like the biggest absence of the film – and it was an intentional one. This was the story of the men on the ground, and while we know in retrospect the names and faces of the people making the decisions that impacted their lives that night (among them President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, and AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham), the men and women in harm’s way at the time did not. Turning this into an explicitly political film would have detracted from their story, and I’m glad Bay chose not to do so.

But in my own mind, I can’t help but add in the roles Bay left vacant.

This election season has been a tough one for me. I’ve long been a “political junkie,” and have been looking forward to this election for a long time, due to the incredible stable of political talent on the Republican side of the aisle. At present, of the candidates still in the race, my personal preference lies with Marco Rubio. But more significantly than that I’ve been drastically disappointed by the role Donald Trump has played in this election. I think he’s a horrible person, makes a cartoonish candidate, and would be a dangerous President.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

I’ve long taken the position that if it came down to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I would likely vote third party or cast no vote for President at all. I haven’t seen this matchup as a choice between the “lesser of two evils,” but simply a choice between “two evils.”

After seeing this movie, I’m not so sure.

First off, we know that the people on the ground – to include Ambassador Stevens, who was handpicked for the job by Clinton according to emails recovered from her server – warned that security in Benghazi was sorely lacking, and that the threat level was incredibly high. We know that his concerns went unheeded by State Department leadership, and were retroactively (and speciously) blamed on Republicans in Congress to score political points.

Second, we know that Clinton and others knew almost immediately that this was a premeditated assault that took a great deal of advanced planning. Their immediate concerns with protecting the CIA’s presence and mission in-country are, as I noted, perfectly understandable. But we know (again from Clinton’s emails) that much of their concern was with protecting her political future. To that end, she persists in lying about the nature of the attack to this day.

Finally, we know Clinton doesn’t take seriously any criticism of her role in the attack response or her handling of emails regarding that attack or any other sensitive information in her possession as Secretary of State. She stated as much explicitly on ABC News just a few days ago, when she told host George Stephanopoulos, “This [the latest revelations about highly classified information in her unsecured emails] is very much like Benghazi . . . Republicans are going to continue to use it, beat up on me. I understand that. That’s the way they are.”

She’s right. The two scandals are very much alike, but not at all in the way she thinks.

Earlier, I called the events of Benghazi in September 2012 an “inflection point in our history.” And so they are. And for me, this movie served as a personal inflection point as well. For the first time, this film had me wondering whether a President Donald Trump might just be a slightly less worrisome proposition for the security and future of our country than a President Hillary Clinton. Trump expresses a lot of ideas I find disturbing to the point of being dangerous. But Clinton has actually held the reins of power herself, and has already proven herself a danger to the security of this country. We now know from her emails that her intent was to use her involvement in Libya’s transition away from Qaddaffi as one of the “crown jewels” in a resume carefully calculated to commend her for the Presidency. Obviously, that didn’t work out so well, and the events of September 2012 are just one of many strands in her effort to paper over a disaster that is, at least in some part, of her making.

I’m as yet unresolved as to whether or not I could actually bring myself to vote for Donald Trump in order to keep Clinton away from the Oval Office . . . and I still have hope that I may never have to make that choice . . . but for the first time I am seriously considering it.

As I said, though, that’s my own political filters and biases talking. As far as the movie itself, do yourself a favor and go see it. And as my wife says, “bring Kleenex.” Regardless of the way you feel about this nation’s national security and intelligence apparatus (military, civilian, and contractor alike), you will come away with a newfound respect and regard for those rough men who stand, at this very moment, ready to do violence on your behalf.

Planned Parenthood: The Enemy of both Life and Choice

I’ve been waiting to comment on the recent drama surrounding Planned Parenthood until more information became available, but with the release of the fifth video this week, there’s not a lot more that can be said. The Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the group behind these videos, says it has released less than half of the videos the organization has in its possession, and in fact some of them may never see the light of day given that a LA County Superior Court Judge and a Federal Judge who bundled $230,000 for President Obama’s last campaign have both issued temporary restraining orders against releasing videos involving certain Planned Parenthood business partners, based on the time-honored legal standard of: “you can’t do that because it might make the people I support look bad.”

These orders have not, though, prevented the group from releasing footage of Planned Parenthood staff themselves. Perhaps there’s worse footage waiting in the wings, but it seems as though any additional footage can only confirm what we already know from these first five releases.

And what, precisely, is that? In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll note here that I haven’t gotten through the several hours of unedited footage yet. I tend to be Boehner-esque in my lack of control over my lacrimal glands, so watching things like this make me start bawling, not to mention turning my stomach and just being flat out horrifying. I also have young kids at home, including a 9 month old baby, so my already-weak stomach is considerably more so when violence against small children is involved. What I have seen is incredibly difficult to watch, and would be even without a baby of my own at home. Watching it while thinking of her sleeping upstairs is next to impossible. So I haven’t watched everything. But what I have watched thus far is bad enough.

Here’s how bad . . .
Continue reading Planned Parenthood: The Enemy of both Life and Choice

40 Questions: Asked and Answered

I’ve stayed fairly quiet in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same sex marriage nationwide in the United States. My views on same-sex marriage are hardly a secret, but there are several things about the way this case was decided and the likely (and already beginning) aftermath that have me concerned. As a result, my feelings on the topic are very mixed, and I simply hadn’t found the right forum in which to share them.

Until now.

I’ve seen an article going around the Internet from Kevin DeYoung, writing at The Gospel Coalition, entitled “40 Questions for Christians Now Waving Rainbow Flags.” I’ve had a number of friends post this article and ask for thoughts and responses. I’m not much of a flag-waver myself, but I am happy for the people who can now get married, and have been vocal in supporting their ability to do so. That being the case, I thought I’d share my answers to DeYoung’s questions. As always, in sharing these thoughts I am speaking for myself, and myself alone. Your mileage may, and probably does, vary. I’m sure there’s plenty of material below for those on all sides of this issue to find offensive, so if your preference is to read only things you agree with, I’d advise you to stop here.

Continue reading 40 Questions: Asked and Answered

The Day I Met My Daughter

I had a brand new experience this past Friday. I met my daughter for the first time. It was exhilarating . . . unbelievable . . . mind-blowing. It was a thousand different adjectives for which the English language doesn’t have words.

When Heidi was pregnant with Tristan, we decided to be “surprised.” We never had an ultrasound and didn’t know whether he was a boy or girl until he was in our arms and we could check all his parts for ourselves. We never regretted that decision, but this time we decided for a variety of reasons that we wanted to know in advance, and seeing that little girl on the screen this morning, I’m so very glad we did.

Continue reading The Day I Met My Daughter

How Far Fallen?

Any “regular readers” here will know that I’m a graduate of Patrick Henry College, a small, Christian liberal-arts college here in Northern Virginia. Since my time at the school, they’ve established the Faith & Reason Lecture Series, described on the school’s website as a semiannual, “day-long shared experience that involves a presentation by a faculty member or guest, lunch with the speaker, small-group discussions, and an afternoon question-and-answer session with a faculty panel.”

The most recent such lecture occurred on Friday, September 13, 2013. It was given by faculty member Dr. Stephen Baskerville, and was entitled Politicizing Potiphar’s Wife: Today’s New Ideology. I was not present at the initial lecture (though I plan to attend a follow-up session for alumni later this week). However, after reading the content of the lecture, I am left with grave concerns about the state of education at my alma mater.

It’s long, but if this is a topic that interests you and if you have not already done so, please read the above link before you proceed. I fear what follows will make little sense otherwise, and I dislike presenting only my perspective on an issue without the reader having an opportunity to become familiar with the other side. If a discussion of academic rigor, logical argumentation, and what it means to have a “Christian education” does not interest you, you probably won’t care to read further, though you’re certainly welcome to do so.

Continue reading How Far Fallen?

Why THIS Millennial Left the Church

. . . and why he has no intention of going back anytime soon . . . 

 

Rachel Held Evans wrote a blog post at CNN recently that set off a miniature firestorm among those interested in spiritual things and the state of the Christian church in the United States. Her post, entitled, “Why millennials are leaving the church,” has elicited strong reactions. Most of the ones I’ve read have been largely negative.

Unfortunately, both Evans’ original article and every response to it that I’ve encountered, suffer from over-generalization. The assumption at work is that there is A Reason for millennials leaving the church. Detractors fill in terms like “narcissistic” or “consumerist” to try to explain the emotions that drive young people out of the walls of church buildings . . . as if everyone who leaves does so because the church isn’t catering specifically enough to their own individual whims. What has largely been lacking in the discussion – particularly from the “anti” side, but even from Evans’ perspective – is the stated viewpoint of an actual millennial who has actually “left the church.”

Having been what I like to call a “post-congregational Christian” for the past seven years, I thought I’d offer one. I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself – like I said, there is no single reason for the phenomenon Evans observes. What follows are my reasons.

Continue reading Why THIS Millennial Left the Church

Where we are. Where we’ve been.

I woke up this morning deeply discouraged about the future of our country. Conservatives like to say that we are a “center-right nation,” but in a country where the challenger can win independents handily and still lose the election that is clearly no longer the case. Many, myself included, thought the polls showing Obama ahead based on 2008 demographics couldn’t possibly be right . . . that 2008 was a historical anomaly centered on the man himself, and that after the pendulum swung the other way in 2010, everything would revert to the norm in 2012. We were wrong. I was wrong. 2008 was a realignment, and the face of the country changed. That being the case, it’s worth looking back at the country we left behind us four years ago.

Four years ago, I wrote a post on this blog intended to calm the fears of readers on the right who were worried about the fate of the nation in the face of what everybody knew would be an overwhelming victory for Barack Obama. It’s never as bad as it seems, I wrote, and the election of a staunch far-left liberal masquerading as a post-partisan moderate is not the end of the world.

I will not be writing any such comforting words this time. This time the electorate’s rose-colored glasses were off. The far-left liberal ran as exactly what he is. He ran a small, vicious and mean campaign based on character assassination, and was reelected anyway. It really is as bad as it seems. It may be worse.

Continue reading Where we are. Where we’ve been.

Stepping Back from the Ledge: On the Obamacare Opinion

Let me preface this by saying that I am no legal scholar, merely a long-time hobbyist and sometimes court-watcher. That said, I wanted to share some unorthodox thoughts on today’s PPACA decision and the man who authored it. I’ve deliberately avoided reading much in the way of commentary on today’s opinion from either side, choosing instead to read the opinion itself and formulate my own thoughts on it. And here they are, for any who care to read them. Take them for what they’re worth . . . which is roughly equivalent to the amount you paid to read them here.

Continue reading Stepping Back from the Ledge: On the Obamacare Opinion

Books, Films, Wars, and Adventures in Missing the Point

So there’s been a lot going on in the world of late – both in my own personal world and in the larger world around me. Oddly, a lot of them seem connected in my mind (which occasionally also means that they are connected in real life).

In a lot of places this weekend, the first of three movies based on the wildly popular objectivist novel “Atlas Shrugged” was released, to either wide acclaim or harsh criticism that is only partially dependent on one’s political viewpoint.

In Africa, the U.S. and other countries continued to engage in what people who think the word “war” is too icky are calling a “kinetic military action” in support of rebels who seek to unseat meglomaniacal dictator Moammer Qadhaffi . . . or Moamar Kadafi . . . or Muammar Gaddafi . . . one of those guys.

Meanwhile, the evangelical world was rocked to its core recently when Rob Bell, the pastor of Mars Hill – a well-known megachurch – released a book called “Love Wins,” which is either a testament to the love of God or a heretical embrace of universalism depending on who you ask. Actually, the evangelical world began rocking well before the book was ever released, since theological luminaries like John Piper, Mark Driscoll and Al Mohler took Rob Bell to task for his heresy based solely on a promo video he put out before it was even published.

Finally, in my own personal life, I’ve been reading a series of fantasy novels I’ve recently discovered: Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series.

Believe it or not, all these things seem related – at least to me – by more than the fact that they all seem to be happening at the same time.

As far as Atlas Shrugged, I’m hoping to see the movie in the very near future since it’s based on one of my favorite books, and from what I’ve heard the movie does a pretty good job living up to the book at least in this first installment.

In reading reviews, I came across this assessment – not so much a review as a political essay from a commentator who is something less than a fan of Ayn Rand. He, in turn, points to what he calls the “definitive repudiation of Rand,” written by Whitaker Chambers in 1957.

The commentator laments Ayn Rand’s influence on the Tea Party movement, and says that “No one who, as a mature adult, espouses [the philosophy of Atlas Shrugged] without reservation should be taken seriously” (Personally, I have a hard time taking seriously someone who espouses anything without reservation). Chambers, on the other hand, seems to use Rand’s rabid atheism to reject her entire philosophy out of hand . . . without reservation, so to speak.

As far as Libya, we’re mucking around seemingly without a clue as to what we’re doing there. Our objective is to help the Libyan rebels, or unseat Qadaffi, or defeat his hired merceneries, or bomb the crap out of some desert, or secure the nation’s oil supplies, or . . . whatever. Sometimes it seems like our entire purpose there is to just do something already! Ultimately, the absolute best-case scenario is probably a democratic government that is not hostile to the U.S. or its interests. How close we’ll end up to that best case is anybody’s guess.

I have yet to read the book Love Wins, so I won’t speak on what I don’t know . . . but I will say something about the controversy that’s brewing around the book. More on that a bit later.

As far as the “Sword of Truth” series, I’ve recently discovered that this series I’m enjoying has actually been made into a TV show as well, called “Legend of the Seeker.” The TV show is fairly boiler-plate fantasy/sci-fi stuff: Hero on the run from evil villain flits from place to place lending aid to random helpless strangers in passing. The characters and the stories they find themselves in are fairly accurate to the books, with some necessary alterations making it fit better on the small screen. But it really loses something in the broader scheme of things.

What it loses, is the same thing that connects all these random strings.

Unlike the TV show, the “Sword of Truth” books tell a sweeping, epic story of a brilliant, courageous young leader whose most earnest and sincere desire is to bring about a world of peace, justice and equality . . . and that’s just the story’s villain. That last sentence is not a typo.

His vision of “peace” is a world under the rule of one empire with him at its head. His idea of justice entails severe repercussions against any who stand in his way or dare to voice a countervailing opinion. His view of equality is that those who are successful are only so through avarice and greed . . . and that such success is therefore evil. Because everything one has is undeserved, in this worldview, misery is virtuous and charity is an obligation. The hero combats this view relentlessly, noting in one of the books that “Charity, if you have the means, is a personal choice, but charity which is expected or compelled is simply a polite word for slavery.”

In the TV show, the hero runs around helping those too weak to confront a difficult destiny. In the books, the hero shows people that they are strong enough to forge their own destinies. In that way, the TV show manages to miss the point rather comprehensively, almost turning the entire point of the books on its head at times.

Here’s the connection between all these random things: I think we’re suffering from a fundamental misunderstanding of freedom. In the TV show . . . in Libya . . . in the reviews about Atlas Shrugged . . . in the way we think about Hell . . .

The problem is that we think freedom is an end in and of itself. It’s not. Goodkind gets that fact in his novels. For Goodkind . . . for Rand . . . for me . . . freedom is a valued ideal, but one that only has value because of a greater ideal: self-determination.

Aren’t those the same thing, though? I don’t think so. I think freedom is merely a pathway that makes self-determination easier. Freedom is a circumstance controlled externally, whether by a government or another entity or individual. We can be free or not free, based solely on factors we cannot control.

When it comes right down to it, freedom is simply a variable in the number of choices available to me. Self-determination, on the other hand, is the act of making those choices, rather than having them made for me. Only I can decide whether to be self-determined or not. Nobody can take that away from me. Either I decide my own fate or I let somebody else do it. Even someone who has no freedom has this choice . . . even if it is the martyr’s choice between surrendering what one believes or dying for it. This quality that none can take away is that which makes me, me. It is my core. My character.

It is my soul.

And what about Rob Bell? How does all of this relate to a book about Hell?

Here’s how: One of the themes of self-determination that runs through both Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series is the theme of personal responsibility.

Some would say that Hell is, itself, the incarnation of personal responsibility . . . that it’s not a conscious decision of a vengeful God to cast people there, but that they choose to go there on their own accord as a natural consequence of their choices. C.S. Lewis, for one, seems to take such a view of Hell in his writings. I can’t speak for Rob Bell’s view because I haven’t read the book, but that’s not the point I want to make anyway. I want to make a similar point about his critics. Namely this:

What are they so spun up about?? If Bell is wrong, he’s wrong. So what? Who cares?? Presumably, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Al Mohler and all the rest believe themselves to be “in the club” . . . so the only logical reason they could have for being so wound up about Bell is that they’re afraid to conceive of what a universe without hell would mean for them.

And what would it mean?? Simply that their beliefs, their actions, their every thought and word and deed would have to come from the core of who they are . . . and not from a fear of eternal damnation, fire and brimstone.

Self-determination, in other words.

After all, if I’m doing what I’m doing . . . If I believe as I do . . . simply because someone else is threatening me with a gun (or a lake of fire), then that’s just another external factor like freedom, or the lack thereof. I’m not really determining anything in and of my self.

Here’s how Matt, from the blog “Church of No People” puts it:

I might know why Universalism pisses off so many evangelicals. For most of us, if we were standing in line at the heavenly security checkpoint and God let in a drunken wife beater right before us, we’d whine because that’s not fair. We tried all our lives to walk the walk. We said the sinner’s prayer, we went to church, we fed the hungry, we followed God’s will. Why should a bunch of heathans and wife abusers, and Democrats and homosexuals get to go when they didn’t do one blasted thing they were supposed to? Does all the obedience and believing we did count for nothing?

If you are struck by the unfairness of everyone getting into heaven, it just shows that somewhere in your mind, you are still banking on the things you did in life to get into heaven, not God’s grace. Who am I to tell Jesus what the limits of his grace are? But that’s exactly what we do. Universalism always gets one reaction from reformed types and evangelical types: “There’s no way in hell those people are getting into heaven, and you’re going to hell just for suggesting otherwise!”

I have never heard a reformed or evangelical say to a Universalist, “I hope you’re right.”

There is something absolutely, painfully wrong with that.

The thought Matt puts words to here is the reason why, personally, I don’t think the whole Rob Bell controversy matters two hoots – simply because my relationship with God doesn’t depend on whether hell exists or not. I just can’t bring myself to care. I choose a relationship with God, regardless.

Others are free to do so – or not – as they choose, and to deal with whatever consequences arise from their choices. I’ll be more than happy to talk to them about my choice and share my reasons for it, but at the end of the day, what they choose is up to them.

This misunderstanding about self-determination also extends to how we think about situations like that in the Middle East. We set up new democracies who vote in new governments, and we call it a win as long as they’re not shooting at us.

What we never do is get to the heart of the matter. Take Iraq, for example, or Afghanistan. It is wonderful that these nations have the ability now to elect their own leaders and write their own

laws. But has anybody told them that each of them is free to draw his or her own destiny? For that matter, how self-determining can a person be when their culture tells them that it is more important that they are a Sunni, or a Shiite, or a Kurd, than it is that they are an individual??

If we’re going to support rebels against tyranny, that’s what we should be telling them. Not “you now have the ability to elect your own leaders from your own sect or ethnic group” but instead, “you have always had the ability to write your own future!”

And finally, this misunderstanding extends to many of those who read (or see) Atlas Shrugged. In the Whitaker Chambers “takedown” of Ayn Rand that I linked earlier, Chambers essentially asserts that Rand’s libertarian philosophy shares a logical conclusion with the Marxism she loathed. Where Marxism’s end result was a totalitarian regime that attempted to control every bit of life through force, Chambers asserts that Rand’s end result is a technocratic regime that controls every bit of life through a shared view of what is “rational” and ostracism of anybody who does not share that view. I can see how Chambers might reach that conclusion, but in order to get there, he has to ignore one thing. He has to ignore self-determination.

Yes, Rand believes in freedom. Yes, she believes in the superiority of the “men (and women) of mind.” Yes, she believes that reason is the ultimate arbiter of truth. Yes, she believes that people who fail to choose these things is in the wrong. But what she never does is deny them the right to make that choice.

Think whatever you wish about each of these beliefs of hers. Just realize that they are not the point. Each of these flows from a deeper belief. The belief that each of us is, by definition, a self-determined being. I think it’s possible to hold to that deepest belief, and not reach all of the same conclusions Rand did. So I think Chambers misses the point.

That point is simply this: We may be a fractured culture composed of different traditions from hundreds of different histories, but the thing . . . the ONE thing . . . we all share is the ability to make our own rational decisions. That is what sets us apart from animals. It is even, if we look at the way they are portrayed in Scripture, the thing that sets us apart from angels. For those of us who are Christians, it is something that is so innate in us . . . so important to the core of who and what we are . . . that God was willing to allow us to exercise it in Eden, even with the full knowledge that we’d choose wrong, and that our choice would cost the life of His Son.

When we miss the point . . . when we get hung up on lesser goals, even such laudable goals as freedom or democracy or charity . . . we betray who we are. Let us pursue these lesser goals, but let us always do so out of our own self-determination . . . not because we ought, but because we choose to.

It’s not that freedom doesn’t matter. It’s just that self-determination matters so much more!

Practicality

In a Facebook conversation about my “Three-Letter Worldview” series of posts, a friend and relative of mine, Carla, challenged me to write out “how I would put the worldview into practice in a country . . . how does my worldview translate to governing?”

She applied it to my self-described libertarianism and asked, “What is the practical application for governing in a democracy such as ours? . . . How would a Libertarian or libertarian [Ed: big or little “L” . . . for the record, I consider myself the latter, not the former] set up a system of government for 300 million+ diverse human beings to live under?”

I promised to respond, and then things got a bit crazy . . . My job got very busy, and then the area got hit by two major snowstorms in the course of a single week. On top of that, I’ve been helping my wife with the advertising and graphic design for a benefit concert she and a friend are planning for Save the Children to aid earthquake victims in Haiti.

So I’ve had very little time to write. But now that things are slowing down, I wanted to respond to Carla’s question.

First, my worldview is primarily that – a view of the world . . . an interpretation of what I see around me and how I see it working (or not working, as the case may be). It is not intended as a political system or a treatise on government.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that my worldview has no implications for what I consider “ideal” government. What it does mean is that, in choosing what form of government I will assent to live under, I am willing to settle for less than ideal, if in the meantime I can work – and encourage others to work – in directions consistent with that ideal.

But all that is not answering the question – it’s merely talking around it.

That said, Carla has posed a question that is really three:

1) How does my worldview translate to governing?
2) What is the practical application of my worldview toward government in a democracy such as ours?
3) How would I (or any libertarian) set up a system of government for 300 million people?

First: How does my worldview translate to governing? To tell the truth, my worldview as I have laid it out here doesn’t really speak much to how governing works, except to follow the advice of my favorite founding father, Thomas Jefferson, who said, “The government that governs least governs best, because the people discipline themselves.”

Note that this commonly repeated quote is usually truncated. Generally only the first half is recalled, but my worldview is dependent on both halves – a government that is restrained, and a governed citizenry that are restrained themselves . . . by themselves.

That’s basically the only broad implication my worldview as I have laid it out here has on governing, but the question that you are surely asking at this point is, “how is that practical??”

This threads very neatly into Carla’s second question “What is the practical application of my worldview toward government in a democracy such as ours?

To begin with, as I stated fairly explicitly in my worldview series, the views I hold are fairly government-agnostic. I believe that the views I hold are just as true in a democracy as they are in a dictatorship. The only difference is that, under some governments, the penalty for living a live consistent with those views may be more or less severe.

That being the case, one of the most hospitable forms of government to this worldview is that of a representative republic. Contrary to Carla’s assertion, we do not live in a democracy. This makes a tremendous difference because a republic is by far friendlier to the views I have espoused. In a democracy, a whimsical populace can inflict whatever it wishes, as long as it persuades a majority of its members to agree. In a republic, that populace is far more restrained by several factors – the supremacy of codified law, the separation of power into multiple decision-making bodies, and restrictions on how far even a legitimate majority is allowed to go in imposing its will over the minority.

But that’s only a side discussion. The main discussion on this question is one of practicality. How is it practical to expect that people control themselves, rather than relying on the government to control them?

The problem is that this question presumes some sort of government that is not, itself, made up of people – subject to the same whims, faults, limitations and errors as any others. The only really just government would be a government ruled by one truly perfect human being . . . and no such thing exists, or ever can.

This being the case, any government at all is a concession . . . a surrender of control over our own choices. But it is a necessary concession if we are to live in relationship with one another. Anarchy – the absence of any government – simply pits everyone against each other in a harsh, primal struggle for survival.

What, then, should we look for in our government on a practical level? I believe that perhaps the most harmful force in our current national character has been the drive toward relativism . . . the belief that everything is subjective, and that nothing is universal.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that at least 99% of all the standards anybody holds – including, probably, some of my own – are misguided and wrong. But 99% is not the same as 100%. In order for a society to function . . . indeed, in order for there to be any concept at all of justice, good, or right . . . something must be universally true. Otherwise, these words are just so many letters combined in an aesthetically pleasing order.

So yes . . . I believe most of what each and every one of us believes to be true is, in fact, probably wrong, either by virtue of being incomplete or being off target. On a practical level, this means that we should not endeavor to impose our beliefs, behavioral systems or tastes on each other. The laws of this country should strive to respect the choices each of us make for ourselves. The only laws I would like to see . . . the only ones I believe to be truly “just” . . . are those which prevent us from imposing our will on each other . . . those which prevent us from *eliminating* one another’s choices.

Therefor, my answer is that, in our democracy, we should strive to eliminate as many laws, bureaucracies, and systems of control as possible. And where it is not possible, we should maximize the ability of those under the laws to make choices within them. If there must be politicians, then let us strive to elect politicians who believe this, rather than those who are simply out for more control. And where there are none who truly believe it, let us elect those who at least find it in their best interest to pretend that they do.

Carla’s final question is a bit different. Her first question had one foot still firmly in the theoretical world, and one in the practical. Her second question moved fully to the practical realm, but dealt with how to apply my worldview politically to our existing nation-state.

Her third question starts from scratch, and asks how a libertarian would set up a system of government for 300 million people such as those living in this country.

I cannot answer for all libertarians, but I will answer for myself, and my answer will be similar to the one I gave for the last question . . . that is . . . it’s the wrong question. How would I set up a government for 300 million people? I wouldn’t.

This may seem like a cop-out, but really it is not. A government is not something I believe can be legitimately “set up” for people. In order to be legitimate, they must set it up themselves – whether by electing representatives, choosing the strongest warrior to be their king, selecting the best hunter to be their tribal chief, or simply allowing citizens to participate in a direct democracy.

To be honest, I think it would be easier to establish an ideal government from scratch than it would be to try to turn our country, with its history, its many diverse cultures, its baggage and its existing power structures into that ideal government. While I don’t subscribe to the view that “we can’t get there from here,” I do think it’d be one hell of a trip to do so.

The problem with this whole discussion is the fact that it focuses too much on government. This is, I think, one of the key problems with small “L” liberalism . . . that is, the left wing political viewpoint in America today. Like Carla did in asking these questions, liberalism focuses on government for everything. See a problem? What can the government do to fix it? Have a good idea? Let’s pass a law and have the government put it into practice! See someone in need? Let’s have the government help them out.

Frankly, I just don’t see the government that way. A government is just a particular structure put in place by people who seek to protect themselves. But in doing so, they sacrifice complete control over their own choices, and once they have given the government a little of that control, it will always seek more.

That’s where the liberal comes in . . . the typical liberal trusts the government, trusts it enough to willingly hand over his or her own control to solve that problem, to make something of that good idea, or to help that person in need. The typical liberal truly believes that the government is the entity best suited to make those decisions.

I think that’s giving the government . . . and the people who operate it . . . way too much credit.

What’s the alternative then? How do we build up a truly effective system of self-government?

The key is not government, but culture. Whether we’re talking about an existing system or one built from the ground up, the key is to start with the broadly-shared cultural belief that what we’re building is a good thing.

“But,” you say, “doesn’t that fall afoul of your earlier assertion that we shouldn’t force our beliefs on one another?”

Not at all. I don’t advocate forcing this belief on anybody . . . I simply believe that my ideal culture cannot exist in its absence. Besides, the belief I’m talking about is already broadly shared among much of western civilization. Those who believe in God call it the “golden rule,” but it is known by various secular aphorisms as well, “live and let live,” “let sleeping dogs lie,” “don’t tread on me.” These are all manifestations of the same thing. I prefer the Biblical expression because it is somehow fuller . . . deeper than the others. “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” is just another way of stating the foundational libertarian principle. It says, “I would like to be allowed the freedom to make my own choices, and because that is what I would like, I will give you that freedom as well.”

So the very first thing I would do to move this country – or ANY country – toward my ideal is work to instill within its people the importance of this vital principle. Right now, we have no central guiding principle . . . quite honestly, we have very little by way of cohesive culture at all, any more. Some of us operate on the hippocratic, “first, do no harm.” Others operate on the principle of “take what you can get.” Still others operate on various manufactured ethical codes that claim to have their basis in some form of religion or moral code, but few if any of these are truly internally consistent. Most are contradictory, and virtually all – when they find themselves with a hand on the strings of government – simply pull those strings in their direction, figuring that when an opposing viewpoint recaptures the reins it will do the same. All of these codes are, in some ways at odds . . . either with themselves, with each other, or both.

I’m afraid, Carla, that I probably haven’t really answered your questions. I suspect what you were looking for is an outline of how to restructure our government along libertarian lines, according to the worldview I outlined on this blog. The problem is, that is not - and was never - the point. The point is to outline how I, myself, try to live. Personally, I believe that if more people lived this way, we would all be happier, healthier, and more alive than we are now, but that’s not my choice – it’s theirs.

I can wish they would choose as I have, but truly I don’t have a lot of hope for that. So in the meantime I will simply keep developing my thinking, and keep sharing it with others. I may not be able to impact 300 million people, but perhaps I can impact one or two.