Archive for February, 2017

Trumpism reveals religious right’s moral bankruptcy

February 28, 2017

unknownTheir support for Trump starkly proves the moral fraudulence of the religious right — those fundamentalist bible-thumpers with their in-your-face Christianity and moralistic preening.

My friend Rob Boston has written cogently about this in a recent issue of The Humanist magazine. (I’ve previously reviewed his book.)

Eighty percent of evangelicals voted for Trump, which, Boston says, “demonstrates the paucity of moral values [they] so often claim to champion.” Because he is “everything the gospels say Jesus was not — crass, boorish, narcissistic and full of anger. Immature, vain, power-hungry . . . .”

A thrice-married, adulterous gambling casino magnate, whose comprehensive ignorance even extends to the proper way to quote Bible verses!

images-1But all that might be forgivable. What’s not is his absolute moral turpitude. One of the Ten Commandments (that the religious right is always shoving at us) condemns lying (“false witness”). It’s a key sin. And there could hardly be a bigger, more aggressive liar than Trump. His whole politics is based on lies and manipulation, “alternative facts,” and viciously attacking the press for reporting it. How can religious believers, if they take their faith seriously, condone such a liar?

And such a cheater. He built his fortune on screwing people — screwing investors and partners in his projects, screwing workers and contractors out of what he owed them, milking those properties for rich payments to himself and then declaring bankruptcy, leaving others to eat the debts. unknown-1Is this what Jesus taught? The Jesus who chased money-changers from the temple? (He even told followers to pay their taxes — “Render unto Caesar” — which Trump apparently violates too.)

And how can these religious folks prattle about ethical truths when they back the culprit of the massive Trump University fraud, scamming people’s life savings? Is this too what Jesus taught?

Did he not also tell us to “turn the other cheek?” Not “thou shalt tweet vindictive insults.”

The Gospel According to Saint Donald

The Gospel According to Saint Donald

I had actually hoped the “grab them by their pussy” tape — brazen boasting of sexual assault — might finally lift the scales from the eyes of Trump’s religious supporters. You know, the “family values” preachers. But no, they had fallen into a moral black hole.

They may answer that God works in mysterious ways; can choose an unlikely man to do his work. A lame, twisted rationalization. If God chose such a perfect monster as Trump, he must have a perverse sense of humor. Or else he’s testing his flock, to see who so misunderstands and betrays his message that they embrace this reptile. And then he’ll smite them.

They may also say it’s mere pragmatism; that Trump is wicked but will do good things. What naive fools. Placing power in evil hands does not usually work out well. But in any case it’s a deal with the Devil. They’re selling out their souls for worldly things. And as for those worldly policies they’re buying, I don’t see much Christianity in them anyway. Building a wall, breaking up families to deport people, and slamming our door on refugees fleeing violence and oppression does not exactly fit with the teachings of Jesus either.

Thus is the false mask of their “Christianity” ripped away. A bunch of hypocrites. And these are the people saying atheists can’t be moral without religious faith!

unknown-3To the contrary, that exemplifies what nonsense you get with belief in a false god. No wonder they’re so morally mixed up. One’s responses to the problems of life and the world cannot make sense (moral or otherwise) when grounded upon a fundamentally wrong assumption about the nature of reality.

A stroke of insight

February 25, 2017

It’s said that a key to happiness is gratitude for what you have. I am extremely grateful for my brain. Not that mine is so special; all human brains are. Jill Bolte Taylor’s 2008 book, My Stroke of Insight, is a good reminder of this.

Jill and her brain

Jill and her brain

Jill, 37, single, awoke one day with a bad pain in her head. She had trouble with normal morning routines. Something was very wrong. A congenital malformation of blood vessels in her brain had suddenly blown, flooding it with blood, which is toxic to neurons. In short, a stroke.

Jill was a neuroanatomist – a brain scientist. She, if anyone, was capable of understanding what was happening. And she knew well that with a stroke, time is of the essence; the faster treatment begins, the better the outcome. Yet her detailed chronicle of that morning is agonizing to read. It took her quite a long while to connect the dots and decide to get help, because the stroke was wreaking havoc with her mental functioning. And that worsened with every passing minute as the hemorrhaging continued.

Still, it seemed puzzling that she didn’t act right away, while she still had most of her wits. I was reminded of Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air. He was a neurosurgeon who got cancer; he too delayed getting help, rationalizing his severe symptoms as just due to the stresses of his intensive medical training. But he should have known better. When he finally got himself checked out, it was too late. He was 37 too, when he died.

imagesBy the time Jill at last grasped the situation, she was so incapacitated that taking action was becoming increasingly difficult. She sat immobilized in front of the phone. The part of her brain responsible for  numbers had been particularly hard hit. In intermittent moments of relative lucidity, she somehow managed to locate a card with her doctor’s number, and even to dial it. But then could not speak.

The doctor figured out who was calling. “Go to Mount Auburn Hospital,” she said. That was all. I was appalled. Jill couldn’t even talk.

Eventually, she also managed to dial her office. A colleague, alarmed, went to her apartment, and got her to a hospital, probably saving her life.

But here is a fascinating point. One reason for Jill’s delay is that she was loving what she was experiencing.

images-1Very generally, our two brain halves differ; the left is considered to be the rational side, housing our cognitive skills, while the right brain is the artistic, creative, intuitive side. Note that while normally, one cannot really separate the two, experiments cutting the connection between them (e.g., to control epilepsy) reveal that in some ways there really are two separate personalities inhabiting the one skull.

The stroke ravaged Jill’s left hemisphere – so, she says, it “no longer inhibited my right hemisphere, and my perception was free to shift such that my consciousness could embody the tranquility of my right mind. Swathed in an enfolding sense of liberation and transformation, the essence of my consciousness shifted into a state that felt amazingly” like what Buddhists call nirvana. “I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.” (My emphasis)

unknown-2Buddhist meditation practice also aims for a kind of annihilation of the self, and this too Jill experienced. She even writes of losing proprioception – the brain’s monitoring of the body. The boundary between one’s body and what’s outside it is something second nature to us, but for Jill that melted away. She describes it as feeling fluid rather than solid (a feeling that didn’t go away for years). I was reminded of the Buddhist asking a hot dog vendor, “Make me one with everything.”

Proprioception is only one element of our sense of self. How the self is created is something we don’t yet truly understand. (For an excellent discussion of that problem, click here.) But as a brain scientist, Jill sheds some light by describing how she lost her self. unknown-3She talks of the brain constantly engaged in reminding you who you are, what your life is about, how you fit into the world, etc. – an unremitting effort like that of a performer keeping a row of plates spinning atop sticks. Jill’s brain stopped doing it, and her very selfhood dissolved away.

She recovered, but it was a tough eight-year slog. Much of her mind had to be rebuilt, reprogrammed – she was like an infant needing to learn the most basic things about life and the world. The hardest, she says, was reading: “I had no recollection that reading was something I had ever done before, and I thought the concept was ridiculous. Reading was such an abstract idea that I couldn’t believe anyone had ever thought of it, much less put forth the effort to figure out how to do it.”

images-2Her mother moved in to help her. Another challenge was the total loss of her number sense. When her mother asked her, “What’s one plus one?” Jill pondered before responding: “What’s a one?”

Motivating herself was hard. Nirvana still beckoned. Jill had to constantly consciously decide to exit from the “enticing and wonderful” right hemisphere “la-la land” of “divine bliss,” and engage her recovering analytical left mind. And she says she wondered how much of her “newly found right hemisphere consciousness, set of values, and resultant personality” would have to be sacrificed in order to recover her left-brain skills. In fact, she now recognized aspects of her past personality – egotism, argumentativeness, meanness, and various hang-ups – that she’d rather leave behind.

images-3And the way she saw things now, those characteristics reflected her left brain having exercised dominance over the right brain; but that dominance was not beyond her control. She says her stroke revealed that it was actually up to her to decide the relationship between the two sides of her brain in shaping her personality. This may be easier said than done, but Jill seems to feel she has done it, and that it is possible for anyone to do it.

The key to such control, she says, is to recognize when she’s hooked into a negative thought loop. She lets it run for about 90 seconds, then consciously asks her brain to knock it off. This must be done with intensity, Jill says, and she tries to get her brain onto different, better thoughts. (I believe I myself do a lot of what Jill prescribes; but click here for a counter-story.)

All this is an ultimate argument for free will; and Jill does provide some powerful evidence for it.

I will end with this quote from the book: “our minds are highly sophisticated ‘seek and ye shall find’ instruments. unknown-4We are designed to focus in on whatever we are looking for. If I seek red in the world then I will find it everywhere. Perhaps just a little in the beginning, but the longer I stay focused on looking for red, then before you know it, I will see red everywhere.”

This is highly relevant to our political lives.

Melania sues a blogger: the Trumps, libel laws, and the media

February 21, 2017

First Lady Melania Trump sued a Maryland blogger for $150 million for libel, and he reportedly settled by paying her a “substantial sum.” Such cases are commonly settled because a court fight is so costly. The blogger had suggested that Mrs. Trump had once been a paid “escort,” which he conceded was unsubstantiated. Other similar suits remain pending.

images(When I looked online for a photo — whoah! More of a first lady than we’re accustomed to seeing. I chose one of more tasteful pictures, at left.)

President Trump, hyper-allergic to criticism, has long called for changing libel laws to make suing easier. He is probably thinking of the British system, where the defendant has the burden of proof. This is a huge scandal, and has made Britain a mecca for shameful libel suits. Like Holocaust denier David Irving suing an author who wrote of his historical distortions, putting her through hell to defend herself in court (depicted in the recent film Denial).

Trump also probably wants to change the Times v. Sullivan doctrine. That was a 1964 Supreme Court decision saying that when someone criticizes a public official in the performance of their duties, a libel suit must prove not just falsity but actual malice and reckless disregard for truth.

images-1This makes it very hard for politicians to sue, and is a major bulwark against their abuse of libel laws.* Which is a very real problem in other countries. Singapore’s late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was notorious for using libel suits to persecute political opponents who criticized him, sometimes bankrupting them in the process.

Donald Trump too is notorious for litigiousness; he’s been involved in at least three thousand lawsuits. He wants looser libel laws so he can sue even more people. But it’s also part of his bigger project to destroy the American news media as an independent information source that holds people like him accountable for lies and misdeeds. He has already succeeded partway, his constant baseless attacks having damaged mainstream media’s credibility in the minds of many people.

images-2It’s sickening when the biggest liar in political history calls the press dishonest, “the enemy of the American people.” To the contrary, it’s Trump’s vile rhetoric that’s dishonest and a real danger to America. This is how dictators start. Democracy needs a robust free media to expose lies, corruption, and bungling. Now more than ever, with this egregious presidency!

Getting back to Melania, her feeling hurt by that blog might be understandable. Except that when you enter the White House, especially in today’s febrile political climate, you have to expect a certain amount of garbage thrown at you. images-3The Obamas certainly endured a lot of that (notably from Mr. Donald J. Trump, loudmouth of lying “birtherism”). But the Obamas didn’t go around suing folks. It’s unbecoming for a first family; and frightening to use that power to intimidate critics. America is not Singapore.

Meantime, remember Trump’s press conference claiming to separate himself from his businesses? With all those piles of suppposed documents? Yet another Trump fraud. I wish someone had had the balls to go up and look inside those folders. unknownBut the performance at least showed recognition that exploiting the oval office for private profit is totally inappropriate (if not criminal).

Mrs. Trump, in contrast however, appears unashamed about aiming to cash in on her public position. Her lawsuit claimed that the blogger damaged her potential for anticipated “multimillion dollar business relationships” and other “major business opportunities” expected from her first ladyship. The breathtaking frankness, at least, is refreshing.

Let them sue me for this blog.

unknown-1* Times v. Sullivan saved the posterior of yours truly, sued for $1.5 million for libel in 1973 when I authored a critical book about Albany’s political machine.

Selling girls in Afghanistan

February 19, 2017

You’re a thirteen year old girl, in Afghanistan, when your father sells you to a warlord as his fourth wife; with two of your sisters thrown into the deal, for his henchmen. (One soon burns herself to death.)

unknownThis is The Pearl That Broke its Shell, a 2014 novel by Nadia Hashimi. I’ve written before about how such “traditional” culture blights male-female relations, reviewing Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. At least the guy in that book was almost a human being, almost trying.

Pearl tells the stories of Rahima, the thirteen year old, and her great-great-grandmother Shekiba. Here’s something I learned about: Rahima spent some time as “Rahim,” a bacha posh, a girl living as a boy. This is not a transgender thing. Rather, it’s to evade all the societal restrictions on girls, and people wink at it. Thus “Rahim” could go to the market alone and haggle with vendors, thus helping her mother.

As a wife, Rahima was strictly confined in the warlord’s house and her role consisted of household chores, sexual servitude, and taking beatings. The only difference from being in prison was child-bearing. So maybe the better analogy is to slavery.

unknown-1Being a warlord with four wives might sound like a cool gig. Would I want it? No thanks. And a Henny Youngman joke is not coming here. When I compare the deep, warm, human relationship I have with my (one) wife against the cold, harsh, inhumane ones portrayed in these books, I weep with gratitude for our culture and what it gives us – and I weep for people in societies like Afghanistan’s, who don’t even know what they’re missing.

One thing missing is romance and seduction. Being a sexual object is a wife’s duty. Thus, her own sexuality is no part of the equation. It was striking that the lone male character in Pearl portrayed with a modicum of humanity nevertheless, when deflowering his new wife Shekiba, did it with no preliminaries. Not even an explanation to soften what was about to happen (and it didn’t take long). Whatever word Afghans use for this act, it cannot rightly translate as “lovemaking,” and sounds about as much fun as Trump’s pussy grabbing. Again , no thanks.

Hirsi Ali

Hirsi Ali

I think often of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir Infidel, talking of her arrival in the Netherlands as a refugee, after life in various Muslim countries. It was like landing on a different planet. Very quickly her eyes were opened to this being a good society, that enables people to live good lives. Much unlike her own past homes.

As for Rahima, her warlord hubby develops buyer’s remorse, and spots another chick he fancies; but a Muslim can’t have more than four wives. images-2Rahima realizes this does not bode well for her. She is disposable, literally; can be simply killed to reopen the fourth-wife slot, and nobody would do a thing. But there’s a happy ending; Rahima manages to escape to a women’s shelter in Kabul.

Unfortunately most Afghanis have no escape route.

Democrats versus Trumplicans

February 15, 2017

I’ve been writing a lot about politics because we’re in a seminal crisis.

1024x1024There’s been much discussion on how to respond. The post-inaugural women’s marches and other protests were great; I cheered them on; I joined an airport protest myself.

But the kinds of issues most such protests have emphasized (refugees, reproductive rights, gay rights, equality, climate change, etc.) do not resonate with Middle America. As David Brooks has written, “The crucial problems today concern the way technology and globalization are decimating jobs and tearing the social fabric; the way migration is redefining nation states; the way the post-World War II order is increasingly being rejected as a means to keep the peace.” You’re not relevant if you’re not engaging with these critical issues.

unknownDonald Trump does, with a full-throated brutalist economic (and barely veiled ethnic) nationalism. “America first” is a crude hammer blow. Pink hats aren’t much of an answer.

That’s why Democrats lost the last election. The stereotype used to be that they were the party of working people; Republicans the party of the rich. Demographically at least that was somewhat true. But no longer. Today Democrats are the party of effete urban intellectuals and minorities. Yet they still feel an entitlement to working class votes. They’re forever whining about folks voting against their economic interests. Democrats don’t understand people voting their values rather than interests. (And often don’t understand economics besides.)

images-1True, Clinton did win the popular vote – by dint of huge majorities in California, New York and Massachusetts. But the electoral college was specifically designed so that big states don’t rule and, unfair or not, we’re stuck with it.

Democrats know they must reconnect with the wayward rustbelt blue collar types. But no real strategy has emerged. They remain flummoxed. They take heart that millions who voted for Trump had actually previously voted for Obama. However, since then something has changed.

The Trump campaign was not just a symptom of that change, but a catalyst. It opened a Pandora’s box. It gutted what had been a generally accepted civic compact about the basis on which our politics is conducted. The conditions that induced a lot of those past Obama votes ceased to exist. imagesWhy eat your vegetables when cake and candy are now on offer? Trump gave many people a type of voting opportunity they’d never had before.

And though some of us are horrified by Trump’s doings, his voters are mostly ecstatic. They feel they’re getting – at long last – exactly what they voted for, and what they want. It’s a Grand Folly, immensely harmful, to them most of all, but trying to convince them is futile. unknown-1They tune out hectoring voices. Virtually every newspaper in the country condemned Trump. That was unprecedented. And had no effect.

Democrats live not just in different locales, but on a different planet. The country is so polarized that the two camps won’t listen to each other. That’s how Trump gets away with monumental contempt for truth, ethics, and decency.

unknown-2Republicans, having drunk the Trump Kool-Aid, are now drunk on power, giving vent to every nasty tendency that lurked in their darker recesses. As witness their idiotic vote to silence Elizabeth Warren, which any reasonable person must abhor.

Meantime a Democratic party that continues moving left and nominates a Sanders or Warren (or, God forbid, Cuomo) type, and talks about gender and climate and complicated government programs, and whines about the rich, will not win against a Trump who grabs his voters by their pussy and they like it.

Yet his core support is still a minority, and some voters at least are persuadable. Brooks again: “If the anti-Trump forces are to have a chance, they have to offer a better nationalism, with diversity cohering around a mission, building a nation that balances the dynamism of capitalism with morality.”

It’s not an easy sound-bite case to make, it takes vision and courage, but it’s the right path. It’s centered upon the fundamental principles of freedom, openness, and global engagement that I have enunciated, that have in fact given us a more peaceful and more prosperous world, with more people thriving, than ever before. Today all that’s endangered as never before.

Republicans have abandoned those principles, that they used to stand for (and America used to stand for) – leaving vacant a vast territory of what ought to be the country’s natural and sensible political center. Democrats should move smartly to occupy that territory.

unknown-3But they still don’t seem to get it. I cannot yet join them. I’ll give up arguing for a third party; if we didn’t get one in 2016, we never will. However, I still have hope that America will ultimately weary of, and prove itself better than, the Trump horrorshow.

My Valentine’s Day poem

February 14, 2017

Microsoft Word - LOVE POEMS cover copy.docxMy wife being a poet, I’ve been writing poems for her for occasions like Valentine’s Day, birthdays, etc. (I published a little book of them.) When she was learning Spanish, I wrote some in Spanish, which I’d studied in high school. Lately she’s been learning German, so I thought I should write her Valentine’s Day poem in that language. The only problem was that I never studied it.

However, my mother was born in Germany, and I got some familial German exposure – mainly hearing her daily two-hour telephone debates with her mother (always on the same subject, “whether Lotte has been a good daughter”). Also, I’m a coin dealer, and buy a lot from big German auctions, whose catalogs of course use the language.

imagesSo I decided to try writing a poem, with my very limited vocabulary. Actually, it almost wrote itself – with just a bit of help from Google Translate (very handy; you can use it to translate my poem). One word I made up (Germans like long combination words):

Ein Valentinstaggedicht

In unserer welt
Von sturm und drang,
Mit einem weissen haus
Wo wohnt ein
Du bist mein fels
Mein leuchtendes licht,
imagesMeine wunderbare frau;
Ich liebe dich


The Time Lords and the Leap Second

February 11, 2017

images-1My previous partner used to call me “The Time Lord” (taken from Dr. Who). Because I was a stickler for punctuality. When I was an administrative law judge, and a hearing was scheduled for 10:00, it started at 10:00 – not 10:01. (Except once or twice when I overslept.)

As you may know, a “day” is from one sunrise to another; the year has 365 days, the time it takes for the Earth to circle the Sun. Except that it actually takes 365-1/4 days. unknown-2So we have leap years. Except that it doesn’t take exactly 365-1/4 days either. So we omit the extra leap day once every 100 years. Except for every fourth century, when we don’t. This keeps things just about right.

Our “hour” is based on dividing by 24 the planet’s rotation time. The hour, minute, and second, are as long as they are simply so that 60x60x24 equals one day, with no need for any fudge factor, like with leap years. However, here too there’s a wee problem. The rotation is slowing! It actually now takes a teensy bit more than 24 hours. The discrepancy wasn’t noticed until we started measuring time with super-accurate atomic clocks.

The world actually does have Time Lords. You’ve heard of “Greenwich mean time?” That refers to all clocks being set by reference to a master clock in Greenwich, England. images-2This system’s superintendents are the Time Lords (so to speak). It’s one o’clock when they say it’s one o’clock. And to keep time absolutely accurate, since 1972 they’ve inserted, every other year or so, an extra second into the year, based on their calibration of the Earth’s current rotation time.*

A one-second adjustment might seem like no big deal. But whereas, in past epochs, people were content merely to tell time roughly by hours, lacking timepieces capable of greater accuracy, today’s world runs on global time synchronicity down to the millisecond. And it’s actually important that the exact time in New York matches the exact time in Tokyo.

For example (as Michael Lewis’s book Flash Boys, about high speed trading, illuminated), it’s crucial for financial transactions that the sequence of events – purchase orders and their execution – occur unambiguously. The extra leap second throws a monkey wrench into this. It might be no problem if, when the Greenwich Time Lords insert the leap second, all clocks and computers and time-incorporating mechanisms throughout the world automatically adjust. But of course they don’t.

There have been global gabfests trying to straighten this out. A lot of people don’t like it that some self-important British nerds get to decide what time it is, and to change it on whim. But not surprisingly the Brits are extremely reluctant to let go of this vestige of the epoch when they really did rule the world.

images-4So far, no resolution has been achieved. For a Time Lord like me, it’s terrifying to think that when my watch says it’s 10:00, it may actually be 10:00:01.


* Without such adjustment, the discrepancy would cumulate, and in around 20,000 years, noon and midnight would be switched.

What “Charles” did yesterday

February 11, 2017

unknownAt yesterday’s joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Trump welcomed him to “the very famous white house.” When I mentioned this to my wife, it cracked her up as much as it did me.

Meantime, though, I was mildly surprised to hear Trump pronounce Abe’s name correctly (“AH-bay”).

But that was countered moments later when the Prime Minister remarked how previously Trump had mispronounced his name as “Abe,” as in Abe Lincoln. Followed by a riff on how great Abe Lincoln was.

unknown-1Trump is no Abe Lincoln. You might think a president, preparing to meet a foreign leader, would be sure to ask his staff how to pronounce the guy’s name. But our president believes he already knows everything. No matter how often that’s proven wrong.

The shitstorm continues

February 7, 2017

images-1In Shirley Jackson’s story “Charles,” a child returns from kindergarten each day with a new tale of outrageous misbehavior by “Charles,” the class bad boy. So I sometimes ask my wife, “Did you hear what Charles did today?” Referring, of course, to you-know-who.

On Saturday, after hearing a news report, I ran to tell her the latest: saying the injunction against his Muslim travel ban was issued by a “so-called” judge!

Meantime (trying to defend the indefensible) the administration denies it is a Muslim travel ban. Seriously? After so memorably announcing in the campaign, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States . . . .”

Then he said the U.S. is no better than Russia with regard to political killings. Well — at least here, unlike in Russia, presidential critics suffer only childish insulting tweets. So far.

And he continues calling the press dishonest — him, the biggest liar and fraudster in political history.

And then there’s his attack on the Johnson amendment, supposedly in the name of freedom of speech and religion.

unknownNamed for Lyndon Johnson who sponsored it as a senator, the law denies tax exemption to religious outfits that endorse political candidates. This actually just clarified longstanding policy. The tax exemption for charitable, educational, and religious organizations has never applied to ones engaging in partisan politics.

This restricts no one’s freedom. Anyone is free to back any political candidate. But if you do, you’re not entitled to tax exemption. And political donations have never been tax deductible. The Johnson amendment prevents getting around that by routing a donation through a “church” which then passes it on to a candidate.

Trump’s vow to “destroy” the Johnson amendment, if successful, would open the floodgates for churches to not only engage in partisan politics, but also to launder political money to make it tax deductible.* A very bad idea.

unknown-1From a very bad man. America is full of wonderful people — how did we get this creep as president?

* I actually favor a (limited) tax credit for political contributions, as a form of public campaign finance, to combat pay-to-play culture. But that’s a very different matter.

Movie Review: “Arrival”

February 5, 2017

The film starts with a reverie about memory: how it doesn’t work the way we think.* The protagonist, Louise (Amy Adams), is given what appears to be a standard type of back-story: memories of raising her daughter, after a marital split; and the daughter’s early death. However, these memories are, indeed, not what they seem; and this eventually turns out to be key to the whole film.

images-3Soon come the aliens: 12 giant sleek spaceships landing mysteriously across the globe. Ours is in Montana. Louise is a hotshot linguist, swooped up by the military to crack the language barrier and learn why they’re here. Right away, I’m thinking: these aliens obviously have mega-advanced technology; they come seemingly wanting to communicate; but with no means for doing so? Really? However, one must suspend disbelief and accept the story’s premise.

Louise and some guys are taken inside the alien ship, where they’re subjected to the usual proctology examinations.

unknownNo, just kidding. Actually, they meet Abbott and Costello.

Those are the names they give their two alien interlocutors. Their language sounds something like whale talk. The aliens look like something aquatic too. Their written language, we’re told, does not correlate with the sounds. images-2They write by squirting stuff that resolves into circles with woolly protrusions, like smoke signals. Soon Louise has compiled a dictionary and is communicating in their own language. I felt like I missed a scene, showing just how she achieved this breakthrough.

Well, Louise is smart; but, typical for such movies, most other humans are idiots. I thought I was back in one of those 1950s space operas. After a month of nothing ostensibly happening (a month!), we see a Limbaugh-type loudmouth ranting that these aliens pose a great danger and should be attacked. (I think a lot of people would have gone a lot more haywire a lot sooner.) Then China gives the aliens a threatening ultimatum. Then people around the world trying to talk to all the ships idiotically cut off communication with each other. images-1And some trigger-happy American soldiers do attack, with the consequences you might expect. Haven’t any of these fools ever seen any of those old sci-fi movies? Don’t they know the aliens, or monsters, or whatever, are never vulnerable to our puny retro weapons?

Long story short, it won’t surprise you to learn that Louise saves the world. More: the message she finally gets from the aliens transforms all of life as we know it. She also gets the guy — but not for keeps it would seem. To explain all this would be a spoiler. But here’s a hint: it has to do with the very fabric of time itself. Her memories were not memories.

Maybe I’ve made this sound like a silly movie. It’s not. It is beautifully done, and the story arc is altogether subtle, surprising, and thought-provoking. Whether it makes coherent sense is beside the point.

*I have written about this fascinating topic — click here.