Trumbo: A Tangential Movie Review (Of Sorts)

Trumbos been out for a while. I realize that. Somehow I missed it when it was in theaters, so I rented it from Redbox.

Trumbo is based on a true story. I love that. And I love Bryan Cranston, who plays the lead character. I mean, who doesn’t love Bryan Cranston? Weirdos, that’s who.

Trumbo follows the travails of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted in the late 1940s because he was a communist. He was even sent to prison for contempt of Congress when he refused to answer a question from the House Un-American Activities Committee about his affiliation with the Communist Party USA. The first amendment guarantees freedom of association, but constitutional liberties are a trifle when you’re defending American values.

Dalton Trumbo wrote movie classics such as Roman Holiday and Spartacus. But he wrote the former under a fake name because of the whole blacklist thing. The latter starred Kirk Douglas, who defied the blacklist and let the Trumbo cat out of the bag.

A commie as a hero? That’s sure to make Donald Trump supporters really mad. And communism/Marxism is indeed terrible. Communists are responsible for the deaths tens of millions of people in the 20th century. Joseph Stalin‘s human rights violations far exceeded anything the House Un-American Activities Committee was doing at the time.

But that’s not the point. And none of it excuses the human rights violations and un-American activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee, nor the complete disregard J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI had for basic American liberties.

Which brings me to my point. I think reactionaries and radicals are cut from the same cloth. The biggest difference is that one is right wing and the other is left wing. And in case you’re wondering, I describe myself as a fiscal moderate and civil libertarian.

In my experience, both radicals and reactionaries tend to be dogmatic and intolerant of anyone who has a different viewpoint. Both are prone to human rights violations when they have power. They often fail to realize that no one ever gets everything they want, and so pragmatism and compromise are essential. They frequently have the attitude that you’re either for them or against them. So I’m against them both.

But the thing is, it’s not a crime to be a communist. There’s that whole first amendment thing. If someone actively plots to overthrow the United States government then they’re committed a crime. But the crime isn’t being a communist, or being an Islamist, or being a Dudeist. The crime would be plotting violent acts against the government or civilians.

Except that a Dudeist would never even contemplate that. He’d be like, “All this revolution stuff is, like, fucking with my Zen, man. I’m gonna light up a jay. Who wants to call for pizza?”

Besides, in the United States right wing reactionaries are a much bigger threat than left wing radicals. The US is a conservative country by international standards, and there are way more reactionaries than there are radicals here. Plus, reactionaries tend to come from demographic groups that currently and historically have had far more power than other groups.

Look at it this way: reactionaries like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump actually have a chance of becoming president. But in Europe, Hillary Clinton would be called a moderate. And while Bernie Sanders would be called a liberal, his views are mainstream in many parts of Europe. Besides, Sanders doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of Congress passing his key policy proposals.

And here’s a question: can you name the 2016 Communist Party USA presidential candidate? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone? As far as I can tell, there isn’t one.

Oh, by the way, Trumbo is an enjoyable movie with some really good acting. Especially the part where he’s writing scripts in the bathtub. (I think there were several scenes like that.) Anyway, I highly recommend it.

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Religion, Secularism, & Atrocity

Religious atrocities are central to the atheist critique of religion. Christians often respond with a litany of atheist atrocities such as mass murder by communist regimes. 

Even when religion or anti-religiousness is directly to blame, we must ask: What does this prove? That one is better than the other? If both sides are guilty of atrocities, it would seem that we need to dig deeper than the veneer of belief systems. 

Criticism is the life breath of reason. When religious and political regimes commit atrocities, it is not because they are inherently evil, but because they too easily become evil when they refuse to permit criticism.

Taking it a step further, all ideologies need to seek out criticism. But communism and religion typically fail to do this.

It is politically correct to declare religion (especially Islam) innocent of any culpability for atrocities committed in God’s name. An unasked question, however, is this: If religion is not responsible for evil committed in its name, then is religion also not responsible for good committed in its name?

For example, one controversial theory claims that slavery was really abolished because it is incompatible with modern industrial capitalism, but religious sentiments served as a good marketing strategy for abolitionism because economic self-interest was too crude a reason. 

But wouldn’t capitalists love free labor? There are key reasons why they wouldn’t. For one, capitalism is based on incentive and self-interest. If you work hard, you’ll earn more money. A slave, however, will still earn nothing regardless of how hard she toils. But slaves do have an incentive for passive resistance, such as “accidentally” breaking tools, not bothering to think of ways to improve efficiency, and pretending to be stupid. Further, education is important in a modern capitalist society, but slave education was prohibited because knowledge is power.

Yet, it doesn’t seem plausible that the moral and religious sentiments of abolitionists (some of whom were also critics of capitalism) were less than sincere. The point is that religion is intertwined with politics and economics. Put another way, religion is not mutually exclusive from other social institutions. 

It’s not a matter of religion or politics. Instead, it’s the combination of religion, politics, economics, culture, and so on. Likewise, communist atrocities involved politics and economics, but atheism was in the mix too.

Further, the dividing line between secular and religious atrocities is not always clear cut. Nazism featured a confluence of two disturbing ideologies, one secular and one religious. Social Darwinism justified racism as survival of the fittest, and this created a new rationale for anti-Semitism, which the Nazis borrowed directly from Christianity. Hitler (a lapsed Catholic) was quick to sign a concordant with the Vatican upon taking power in Germany. And the Vatican, unlike its unrelenting criticism of communism, remained silent on fascism until after World War II.

Religion didn’t invent violence, and neither did atheism, although at times both have encouraged it. Only studying what promotes peace, and understanding what creates violence, will enable us to find ways of stopping atrocity. But simplistically blaming religion or atheism for the world’s problems is unlikely to get us anywhere.