Why doesn’t Natalie Portman boycott the U.S., too?

Natalie Portman

As we saw on Tuesday, Jerusalem-born Oscar-winner Natalie Portman, who is a dual American and Israeli citizen, was supposed to go to Israel this summer to accept the Genesis Prize, which is known as the “Jewish Nobel” and which they presumably decided to give to Portman because they figured that movie stars don’t get enough awards. The other day, she showed her gratitude by kicking the Genesis Prize Foundation in the cojones. She holds an Israeli passport, but doesn’t want to set foot in Israel right now. When accused of buying into the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement, she denied the charge, saying she simply doesn’t like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We suspect that she doesn’t care for Donald Trump either, but that doesn’t cause her to flee the U.S. No, somehow Israel is the only country that it’s cool to boycott. Not that it has anything to do with anti-Semitism, of course.

Benjamin Netanyahu

In a powerful op-ed, Ben-Dror Yemini wrote that her unwillingness to travel to the Jewish state “was seen, rightly, as a move aimed at reinforcing the boycott” and that “Israel’s haters haven’t received such a significant gift in a long time.” Whatever her specific motives, observed Yemini, the fact remains that “[a]nyone who boycotts Israel bolster our haters, the demonization campaign and the boycott movement, which opposes Israel’s actual existence.” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz made the same point: “Natalie Portman has played into the hands of the worst of our haters and of the worst of the anti-Semites in the Middle East,” Steinitz charged. “Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism. Boycotting Israel has elements of anti-Semitism.” Would Portman boycott, say, China or Russia?

Caroline Glick

Columnist Caroline Glick cited a 2015 interview in which Portman, asked if she “was shaken” by the Charlie Hebdo massacre, “said toughly, ‘Listen, I’m from Israel.’” Glickman commented: “In other words, Portman, who moved with her family to the U.S. when she was 3, appropriated the toughness Israelis have been forced to cultivate in the face of their neighbors’ continuous aggression to cultivate a tough-girl image of herself.” Glick wondered: “If Portman cancelled her participation in the ceremony because she hates Netanyahu, why did her representative say she was distressed by ‘recent events’? Netanyahu didn’t assume power ‘recently.’ He’s been in office for nine years.” If her decision was motivated by Bibi-hatred, “the Genesis Prize Foundation should sue her for fraud since it means that she never intended to accept the prize and she deliberately sabotaged the foundation’s work.”

Gal Gadot

Meanwhile Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, didn’t criticize Portman – he criticized the Genesis Prize Foundation for picking her in the first place. “If the Genesis prize wanted to honor an actress,” he suggested, “they should have honored Gal Gadot, who has repeatedly shown her pride in being Israeli, supporting Israel during times of difficulties and is married to a Jewish person raising Jewish kids.” Good point. How did they come to pick Portman? “The selection of the Genesis Prize Laureate,” the Foundation’s website explains, “is a multi-step process.” It involves both a Selection Committee and a Prize Committee, both of which are tasked with ensuring that the winner has “a commitment to Jewish values,” is “proud of their Jewish identity,” and enjoys “a meaningful connection to the Jewish People and/or to the State of Israel.” Oops.

Boycotting Israel: Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman

The Genesis Prize, according to its website, “honors individuals who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values.” The prize, first given in 2014 and often called the “Jewish Nobel,” is awarded by the Genesis Prize Foundation and comes with a $1 million check. Winners have included New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, actor Michael Douglas, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and sculptor Anish Kapoor. This year’s laureate is – or was – actress Natalie Portman, who won an Oscar for Black Swan and more recently played Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the movie Jackie. On its website, the Foundation also noted her humanitarian work with FINCA, a microfinancing program, and WE, a charity that “empowers youth.”

Portman in Jackie

The award was to be presented to Portman in June. But on April 19 came news that the prize ceremony was off. Portman had announced that she would not attend the event – because she refuses to set foot in Israel. This is particularly interesting news, given that Portman was born in Jerusalem and is a joint American and Israeli citizen. Her explanation: “Recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.” Therefore “she cannot in good conscience move forward with the ceremony.” According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “Portman did not specify which events caused her distress, although the United Nations and the European Union recently called for investigations into the use of live ammunition by Israel’s military following clashes along the border with Gaza that have left dozens of Palestinians dead and hundreds wounded.”

Amos Oz

Portman’s action seemed unusual, given her record. In 2009, she stood up agains anti-Israeli calls for a boycott of the Toronto Film Festival. She wrote, directed, and starred in a 2015 Hebrew-language film adaptation of Amos Oz’s memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, which deals in large part with the founding of Israel. After it was announced that she would be receiving the Genesis Prize, she expressed gratitude and pride in her “Israeli roots and Jewish heritage.” She has nothing but contempt, however, for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he has called a “racist.”

Miri Regev

After Portman’s turndown, Israel’s cultural minister, Miri Regev, stated what seemed to be obvious: Portman, she said, has “fallen like a ripe fruit into the hands of the BDS movement supporters.” In a reference to the title of Portman’s film version of Oz’s memoir, Regev lamented that Portman was “joining those who treat the story of the success and the miracle of Israel’s revival as a tale of darkness and darkness.” In response, Portman claimed that her refusal to go to Israel had nothing to do with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement; she maintained, rather, that she didn’t want to share a platform with Netanyahu, who was scheduled to speak at the award ceremony. And then what happened? Tune in on Thursday.

The Red Cross and the Nazis: a dark chapter

Gerald Steinacher

Sometimes the people who end up being useful stooges can be those who have – or who think they have – the noblest of intentions. A new book by University of Nebraska historian Gerald Steinacher, Humanitarians at War, draws attention to the lamentable conduct of the International Committee of the Red Cross during World War II. Founded in 1863, the ICRC was responsible for the conference that first formulated the Geneva Conventions, and during the wars that followed was permitted by all belligerents to operate behind their lines and take care of wounded soldiers and prisoners of war. The Red Cross, it must be said, was a remarkably modern and humanitarian conception.

Carl Jacob Burckhardt

But the execution has not always matched the conception. The ICRC’s record is not spotless, and the worst chapter in its entire history undoubtedly came during the Holocaust, when the ICRC was under the de facto leadership of its official second-in-command, Carl Jacob Burckhardt (its president, Max Huber, was largely out of commission during that period), a Swiss diplomat and anti-Semite. As Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale, notes in a recent review of Steinacher’s book for the Wall Street Journal, Burckhardt’s fear of Communism caused him to view Nazism “as a bulwark of civilization and a necessary evil.” Although the ICRC, since 1933, had been receiving letters from German concentration camps making it clear just how horrible the treatment of inmates was, Burckhardt was determined to keep a lid on it all, praising the commandant of Dachau, for example, “for his discipline and decency.”

That was just the beginning. Not long after the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, at which Nazi leaders agreed on the objective of exterminating the Jews of Europe, the ICRC became aware of this resolution. But it said nothing about it and did nothing about it.

Samuel Moyn

To be sure, it could be argued that there was little or nothing the ICRC could have done to prevent the execution of Hitler’s Final Solution. But Burckhardt’s problematic attitude persisted after the war. Silent on the Holocaust, he spoke up against the Nuremberg trials, calling them “Jewish revenge.” “Red Cross officials,” writes Moyn, “attempted to whitewash the record of Nuremberg defendant and high-ranking Nazi diplomat Ernst von Weizsäcker. After the Holocaust, the ICRC—by then helmed by Burckhardt—even abetted the flight of Nazis such as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele by providing them with travel papers.”

Adolf Eichmann

It has been known for a long time that the ICRC helped Nazis escape Europe; at first, the ICRC’s excuse was that a relatively small number of Nazis had successfully misrepresented themselves as innocent refugees and taken advantage of an overburdened Red Cross bureaucracy to evade justice. But Steinacher’s research on the subject, published in his 2011 book Nazis on the Run, showed that the numbers of Nazis helped in this fashion by the ICRC – as well as by the Vatican – were “much higher than thought.” Thanks to the ICRC, in fact, no fewer than “90% of ex-Nazis fled via Italy, mostly to Spain, and North and South America – notably Argentina.” As Steinacher has documented, individual ICRC officials and local ICRC delegations in Europe knowingly held out a helping hand to Hitler’s former henchmen. Their motives varied: some were acting “out of sympathy for individuals”; others had sympathy for the Nazi cause. Whatever the case, the Nazi chapter of the ICRC’s history is a profoundly tainted one, serving as a salutary reminder that even the most pristine of images can be seriously deceptive.

Standing with Hamas: Richard Falk

Richard Falk

UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk’s ban from Israel – and from the Palestinian territories under its control – didn’t prevent him from submitting so-called reports about the human-rights situation in those territories. In a 2009 report, he called Israel’s Gaza offensive a war crime – a judgment that was dismissed by the U.K. government as partisan. In a 2010 report, he accused Israel of committing apartheid. In 2011, he used the term “ethnic cleansing.” In 2012, he criticized Israel for its military response to rocket attacks from Gaza. Repeatedly, he called on international bodies to condemn, investigate, and prosecute Israel for its purported crimes – and repeatedly he turned a blind eye to the barbaric terrorist actions by Hamas and others to which Israel’s “crimes” were a thoroughly defensible defensive response.

Susan Rice

He also called for boycotts of Western companies – such as Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Volvo – that had even the remotest ties to Israeli West Bank settlements, and even threatened to initiate lawsuits against them. The then U.S. representative at the UN, Susan Rice, reacted with anger to Falk’s high-handed nonsense, describing his call for a boycott as “irresponsible and unaccceptable” and saying that his “continued service in the role of a UN Special Rapporteur is deeply regrettable and only damages the credibility of the UN.” Israel agreed, calling Falk’s report “grossly biased” and demanding his dismissal. Canada’s Foreign Ministry weighed in too, describing Falk’s report as “biased and disgraceful” and saying that if he did not withdraw it, he should resign.

Hamas: victims

But he didn’t quit. And he didn’t withdraw any of his reports or alter any of his conclusions. He stayed on the job, and kept using it as a platform from which to bash Israel – and to paint Hamas and other terrorist groups as victims. For good measure, he also demonized UN Watch, an independent human-rights NGO that monitors the lies and outrages that are daily fare at a Human Rights Council run by countries that don’t know the meaning of the term.

Ban Ki-moon

Even as Richard Falk was systematically savaging Israel, he continued to shift the blame for 9/11 from its jihadist perpetrators to George W. Bush and, perhaps, unnamed others in Bush’s political orbit. These comments not only brought more criticism from Susan Rice, who again called for his dismissal. Even Ban Ki-moon, the then Secretary-General of the UN (and a man who was usually restrained, often maddeningly so, on such matters), spoke up, calling Falk’s claims “preposterous” and “an affront to the memory of the more than 3,000 people who died in that tragic terrorist attack.” But Ban added that he was in no position to fire Falk – only the UNHRC itself could do that.

John Baird

Falk also offered his opinions on later terrorist acts. After the Boston Marathon murders, he described them as “blowback” from U.S. actions – an implicit defense of the Tsarnaev brothers and an affront to their victims. This obscene remark drew angry criticism from Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, who said that the UN “should be ashamed to even be associated with such an individual,” and, once again, from Susan Rice, who said that it was “[p]ast time for him to go.” In 2011, Falk posted online an anti-Semitic cartoon depicting a dog in a yarmulke (although he later insisted it was not a yarmulke but an IDF helmet). There ensued yet another round of calls for his resignation. This time even Falk’s supervisor at the UNHCR, Navi Pillay, recognized the cartoon as anti-Semitic, but she didn’t fire him – because, she said, he had apologized. Any questions?

Beijing leans on UCSD

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The Dalai Lama

By now, of course, we’re used to college students who don’t get the idea of free speech trying to cancel lectures by people they disagree with. But even we were surprised to read a recent article in Quartz about student outrage at the University of California at San Diego over plans to have the Dalai Lama, of all people, deliver the keynote at the commencement ceremony this June.

Which students were outraged? Why, those from Communist China, who, like their government back home, consider the Dalai Lama – the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet – a terrorist. “Just hours after the announcement” of the Dalai Lama’s big gig, reported Quartz’s Josh Horwitz, the campus’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) did what any good little subject of a totalitarian regime would do: they passed the news on to their consulate. They also posted a statement online saying that the invitation to the Dalai Lama

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The CSSA at UCSD

contravened the spirit of respect, tolerance, equality, and earnestness— the ethos upon which the university is built. These actions have also dampened the academic enthusiasm of Chinese students and scholars. If the university insists on acting unilaterally and inviting the Dalai Lama to give a speech at the graduation ceremony, our association vows to take further measures to firmly resist the university’s unreasonable behavior. Specific details of these measures will be outlined in our future statements.

“Comments from Chinese students on Facebook,” noted Horwitz, were “couched in rhetoric commonly used to rally for inclusivity on campus.” The Dalai Lama was denounced as “oppressive,” the invitation as racist and an affront to “diversity.” A Chinese alumni group wrote a letter to the university chancellor insisting that UCSD should

spread a message that brings people together, rather than split them apart. During the campus commencement, there will be over a thousand Chinese students, families, and friends celebrating this precious moment with their loved ones. If Tenzin Gyatso [the Dalai Lama’s real name] expresses his political views under the guise of “spirituality and compassion,” the Chinese segment of this community will feel extremely offended and disrespected during this special occasion.

This from obedient subjects of a Communist country whose leaders, going back to Mao Zedong, have not only “offended and disrespected” more than a few people but killed more human beings than any other regime in recorded history.

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A library at UCSD

Horwitz pointed out that this dust-up wasn’t a first. In 2008, Chinese students at the University of Washington protested the awarding of an honorary degree to the Dalai Lama. The difference this time was the canny use by protesters of the language of inclusion and diversity. Another important factor here is the fact that, as China’s international status has risen, Chinese students at American universities, who used to behave themselves and keep a low profile, have found their voices and sought to throw their weight around. According to Horwitz, it’s widely believed that branches of the CSSA serve as conduits “for Chinese consulates to promulgate Communist Party orthodoxy” at non-Chinese universities. Only a week before the UCSD protest, a Chinese diplomat in London urged the cancellation of a Durham University talk by a Chinese-Canadian human-rights activist.

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Tsering Topgyal

Dr. Tsering Topgyal, a Tibetan UCSD alumnus told Horwitz, observed that “If the Chinese students wish to exploit diversity, they would come across as more convincing if they were more committed and supportive of this principle back home.” It would certainly be nice if one of the things they learned during their years of study in the United States is the value of freedom and the need to resist tyranny.

Will Smith’s Dubai dreams

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Will Smith

“Dubai dreams the way I dream,” effused actor Will Smith at a recent press conference in the luxe emirate to promote Suicide Squad, his latest horribly reviewed, massively profitable contribution to the art of cinema. “It really flows with who I am….You never know why a city speaks to you… it’s just the energy of progress here.”

As we’ve seen, this is a dude who fancies himself a deep thinker, a moral authority, a preacher of good values and responsible parenting, and an all-around paragon of principle. He plainly thinks he’s worked out an intellectually sophisticated and ethically admirable philosophy of life that he’s obligated to share with us lesser beings. When his daughter, Willow, now 15, tweets that “ANYTHING that I EVER do is geared towards the evolution and vibrational elevation of this planet through the inspiration of individuals,” it’s because she’s been hearing her father and her actress mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, spout this kind of inane New Age rhetoric ever since she was in the cradle.

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Willow Smith

And yet there he was, Will Smith, the fount of all that self-consciously high-minded claptrap, sitting in front of a worshipful media audience at the Mall of the Emirates, rhapsodizing over a country that Freedom House considers “not free” – a sharia-ruled country where public kissing and drinking alcohol are punishable by 80 lashes, where premarital sex is punished by 100 lashes, and where adultery, apostasy, and homosexuality are punished by death. Yes, death. (Usually stoning.)

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Will Smith skydiving in Dubai

It’s a country where critics of the regime are routinely imprisoned, tortured, and “disappeared.” A country where Muslim women, in accordance with sharia law, are at best second-class citizens: they’re prohibited from marrying non-Muslim men (even though Muslim men can wed non-Muslim women); the law recognizes their husbands’ absolute right to rape and beat them at will; and their own rights are thoroughly subordinated to men’s in cases of divorce, child custody, and a range of other matters.

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Marte Dalelv after her release

It’s also a country where a woman who accuses a man of rape is likely to be flogged and imprisoned as punishment for having had extramarital sex. (Three years ago, a Norwegian woman, Marte Dalelv, was sentenced to sixteen months in Dubai after saying she’d been raped; she was released and allowed to return home only after her case sparked international media outrage.) 

Did Will Smith take a stand on the UAE’s barbaric human-rights practices? No. He didn’t say a word.

But hey, this doesn’t meant that he and his wife, Jada, shy away from speaking up about moral outrages. After all, it was just a few months ago that Jada courageously addressed (in the video below) an equally appalling example of man’s inhumanity to man – namely, the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had failed to nominate any persons of color for this year’s acting awards. (Many observers speculated that Jada was irked that Will hadn’t received an Oscar nod for his movie Concussion, even though he’d made the short list at the Golden Globes.)

Unsurprisingly, the UAE media welcomed Smith’s harsh remarks about his own countrymen – the Donald Trump followers he wants to see “cleansed” from society, the “Islamophobia” he views as primitive and misguided. But this slick know-it-all didn’t seem to be remotely aware (or, perhaps, simply didn’t care) that he was savaging his fellow Americans in a nation where any criticism of its own public officials or royals is absolutely verboten. Where, indeed, the very freedom of expression that makes Smith’s entire career possible is severely restricted – along, we might add, with the freedom of religion and of assembly that, back in the U.S.A., allow him to spout his vapid creed before the TV cameras without fear of incarceration, torture, or death.

Will Smith loves Dubai – and Dubai loves him!

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In Dubai in 2014, Will Smith donned Arab garb with his singer pals Tyrese and Maxwell

We’ve been talking about Will Smith‘s recent promotional trip to Dubai. It’s important to note that it wasn’t his first time there. Far from it: as one local news report explained, he “visits Dubai all the time.” He first set foot in Dubai “about 15 years ago.” In 2014, he went there to celebrate the birthday of a singer friend who goes by the name of Tyrese.

He loves the place. At the press conference about his new picture, Suicide Squad, he praisedDubai’s golf courses. He hailed its WiFi. He gushed over its movie theaters and skydiving. 

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Smith at his Dubai presser

He was quick to point out, moreover, that his kids (and fellow superstars) Willow and Jaden share his love for the United Arab Emirates. They performed there last year. And Willow went back “just a couple of months ago.” On that trip, “she FaceTime’d me from out in the desert on a camel.” Will volunteered that he thought “the cross of modern technology and the region’s ancient mode of transportation” exemplified by her using FaceTime while perched atop a dromedary was “beautiful. Really beautiful.”

Smith explained that, in addition to promoting his movie, one reason for his Dubai visit was his disgust over Islamophobia in America. He made it clear that he regards some Americans’ concerns about Islam as ignorant and misinformed. “I’m in Dubai and I’m having fun and I’m tweeting and I’m showing pictures,” he said cheerily. “Hey, doesn’t look like they hate me, does it?”

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Dubai

No, they sure don’t. Not as long as he’s ready, willing, and eager to provide the United Arab Emirates with such stellar PR.

But seriously: the man is so narcissistic, apparently, that his test of a country’s moral compass is how it treats him. Him. Not anyone else. Him. Period. 

One question, though. Is this self-styled “student of world religion” as ignorant as he appears to be about the horrific reality underlying the shining towers of Dubai? Or is it just that he doesn’t give a damn about how Dubai treats others, so long as it treats him like a prince?

dubai2The big news that came out of Smith’s press conference was this: he’s so fond of Dubai that, as one local journalist put it, “he hopes to soon make a movie in the Middle East about the Middle East.” Smith himself said that he “had a couple of ideas” for pictures and admitted that he’d met “a few times” with Dubai’s film commission. “I love it here,” he effused, “and I’d love to be a part of the mining of stories from this region.”

But his main reason for wanting to make a film in Dubai, he emphasized, is not personal but educational. As one Emirates reporter put it, “he wants to help teach his home country more about the region.” Or, to quote Smith’s own words: “The Middle East can’t allow Fox News to be the arbiter of its imagery. Cinema is a huge way to be able to deliver the truth of the soul of a place to a global audience.”

That wasn’t all. He had even more to say about the wonders of Dubai. “Dubai,” he pronounced, “dreams the way I dream.” 

Meaning what? We’ll finish up tomorrow.

Deep thoughts with Will Smith

Yesterday we took a gander at movie star Will Smith, who aside from being a huge movie star is a legend in his own mind – a thinker of deep thoughts, a preacher and teacher who, along with his equally evolved wife Jada Pinkett Smith, seeks to help the rest of us to approach his own sky-high level of enlightenment. (As radio personality Robin Quivers put it: “They have this attitude that they know everything and nobody else knows anything.”)

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With Ellen Degeneres

This is a guy who has spent much of his career telling people like Ellen Degeneres and Charlie Rose about his philosophy of life. Some choice excerpts from these interviews can be viewed on a You Tube video entitled (what else?) “Will Smith’s Philosophy of Life.” Samples:

“Greatness is not this wonderful, esoteric, elusive, godlike feature that only the special among us will ever taste. It’s something that truly exists among all of us.”

“Being realistic is the most commonly traveled road to mediocrity.”

“Our thoughts, our feelings, our dreams, our ideas are physical in the universe. If we dream something, if we picture something, if we commit ourselves to it, that is a physical thrust toward realization that we put into the universe.”

“There’s a flow of the universe that I’ve grown to know just how to go with it.”

As we noted yesterday, Will and Jada have passed their wisdom – and their prophetic calling – onto their children, Willow and Jaden. The result: both kids, still in their teens, are, like their father, eager to do their part to alter human consciousness. In 2013, Time magazine ran a tongue-in-cheek piece, “Is Jaden Smith the World’s Next Great Philosopher?”, in which reporter Ed Dodds analyzed recent Twitter musings by the then 15-year-old (“All The Rules In This World Were Made By Someone No Smarter Than You. So Make Your Own”; “If Newborn Babies Could Speak They Would Be The Most Intelligent Beings On Planet Earth”; “If Everybody In The World Dropped Out Of School We Would Have A Much More Intelligent Society”) in light of the writings of Kant, Locke, and other great thinkers. 

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Jaden and Willow

In 2014, Vice magazine had a similar stratagem, consulting a philosophy professor to help decipher Willow and Jaden’s pronouncements in a recent interview with the New York Times. (Some of their comments, to be sure, didn’t require much interpretation. Jaden: “We don’t think a lot of the music out there is that cool. So we make our own music.” Willow: “There’re no novels that I like to read so I write my own novels, and then I read them again, and it’s the best thing.”)

Last December, a friend of Jaden’s told Us Weekly that “Jaden sees himself as a modern-day prophet and is working on a collection of essays….They’re new takes on string theory and chaos theory, but more mystical….Jaden thinks he has spiritual ties to people in other dimensions and galaxies, and they are helping him write….He hopes to have a spiritual following when he releases these.” (Let us underscore that our intention here isn’t to mock these teenagers; it’s to note the nature of the impact that Will and Jada’s homemade metaphysics has had on their offspring.)

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Will Smith at his Dubai presser

Anyway, as we noted yesterday, Will recently went to the UAE to promote a new movie, Suicide Squad – and to spread his special brand of enlightenment to the people of Dubai. At a press conference, he was asked some questions about America. He proceeded to brutalize Donald Trump and his admirers, whose vocal support for the businessman’s presidential candidacy Smith welcomed as an opportunity to “get to know who people are” so that they can then be “cleanse[d]…out of our country.”

Yes, you read that right: Will Smith – this highly evolved being who presumably views as utterly immoral Trump’s intention to ban foreign Islamic extremists from the U.S. and to curb mass illegal immigration through Mexico – has no problem talking about “cleansing” America of natural-born citizens whose politics differ from his own.

But that was just the beginning of his press conference. More tomorrow.

Mr. Smith Goes to Dubai

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Will Smith

Will Smith, the movie actor, is a man of solid values, profound thoughts, and high principles. If you don’t believe that, just ask him. He’ll tell you himself, over and over again, just how deeply he’s thought about the meaning of human existence, about how to formulate his personal ethics and put them into practice, and about how to instill those values in his son Jaden and daughter Willow, both of whom he pushed into showbiz at age six.

Along with his actress wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will has cooked up a whole special language in which to talk about life, goals, and the universe. It’s not just enough, they explained to Oprah Winfrey in a 2010 interview, to marry, have kids, earn a living, and try to make a happy home. No, when “two spirits join together” in wedlock you need a shared “vision” because there is “so much more you have to be dedicated to.”

As Jada put it, she and Will are “two big beings that came together,” and once they saw their kids growing up and becoming “their own beings,” they realized they needed to form a “family business” aimed at scoring cosmic achievements. They needed to encourage their progeny to devote their inborn “excellence” to the high purpose of doing “service to greatness” and of “advanc[ing] and elevat[ing]” humanity.

Just as Will has done in movies like The Pursuit of Happyness [sic] and After Earth – and Willow, in turn, has done in her megahit music video “Whip My Hair.”

But Will and Jada aren’t content with just instilling values in their kids. As Will told Oprah, “I don’t want to be an icon. I want to be an idea….I want to represent possibilities. I want to represent magic, right? That you’re in a universe and two plus two equals four. Two plus two equals four only if you accept that two plus two equals four. Two plus two is going to be whatever I want it to be.” He went on to assert the importance of making choices: “There’s a redemptive power that making a choice has. Rather than feeling like you’re an effect to all things that are happening.” And he asserted his belief “that I can create whatever I want to create….I feel very strongly that we are who we choose to be.”

Okay, some of it doesn’t entirely make sense, some is neither original nor profound, and some is just plain hooey. But what more can you expect from a guy who for years was ranked by Forbes as Hollywood’s most bankable star, and was repeatedly included on its list of the richest Americans under age 40 – and who therefore, one imagines, is surrounded constantly by handlers who won’t stop telling him how brilliant he is?

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Will and Jada

Anyway, the point is that Smith isn’t content to give the world cinematic masterpieces like I, Robot and Hitch. He wants to enlighten us. He thinks he knows stuff. And he especially thinks he knows a lot about religious and spiritual stuff.

The fact that he’s donated a lot of money to Scientology – and that he sounds an awful lot like a Scientologist, and starred in the horrible movie After Earth, which is packed with themes that, according to many critics, seem to have been drawn from Scientology – has sparked rumors that he’s a secret member of that sect. He’s denied it, maintaining instead that he finds ideas worth using in a variety of faiths.

I’m a student of world religion,” he said in a 2007 interview, “so to me it’s hugely important to have knowledge and to understand what people are doing.”

Which brings us to his recent visit to – of all places – Dubai.

Tune in tomorrow.

Happy birthday, Fidel!

FILE - In this July 26, 2006 file photo, Cuba's President Fidel Castro pauses as addresses a crowd of Latin American students gathered in Pedernales, in Holguin province, Cuba, for the anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks. As Fidel Castro gets ready to celebrate his 90th birthday on Aug. 13, 2016, many Cubans today openly describe themselves as capitalists, and say time has proven that Castro’s economic ideas do not work. (AP Photo/ Javier Galeano, File)
Fidel Castro, in a photo accompanying the Atlantic Monthly’s report on his 90th birthday

When Fidel Castro turned 90 on August 13, some of the leading news organs in the English-speaking world took the opportunity to commemorate the occasion. How? By recalling his decades of tyranny, torture, and terror? Nope. Mostly, they chose to portray Fidel as “the great survivor” – which, as it happens, was the title of Will Grant‘s piece for BBC News, for which Grant journeyed to Fidel’s hometown to collect cozy stories about the Great Man’s childhood.

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This heroic image accompanied the New Yorker’s 90th birthday tribute

It was dismaying, but hardly surprising, to witness the readiness of one major news organization after another to whitewash Fidel’s brutality and to pretend that he’s actually accomplished anything positive for his freedom-deprived people. Take CBS News, whose Portia Siegelbaum provided us with the adorable information that Fidel spends most of his birthdays “sharing a cake with young children.” Cuban TV, she noted, had recently been broadcasting “a massive class in Cuban history” every night; it seemed not to have occurred to her that this offering by the state-run media might be less history than propaganda.

Siegelbaum also told us that “most Cubans feel Fidel Castro has earned the right to celebrate reaching 90.” What was her evidence for this claim? She didn’t say. How do you perform a scientific survey of such questions in a country where the people risk being imprisoned and tortured if they whisper a single word in criticism of their leaders? (One thing’s for sure: very few of the 1.5 million Cubans who’ve fled their island prison to live in the U.S. feel the nonagenarian dictator “has earned the right to celebrate reaching 90.” Not to mention the opinions of the long-dead victims of Che’s firing squads and those who perished in Fidel’s prisons.)

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Fidel with Che Guevara, in a photograph for the New York Times – his revolution’s #1 international propaganda tool

Concluding her piece, in what was apparently meant as some sort of affectionate salute to Fidel’s enduring influence, Siegelbaum actually called him “the man who for more than five decades set the political discourse on what life should be like on the largest of the Caribbean islands.”

Um, yeah, Portia – that’s called dictatorship.

Then there was Jon Lee Anderson‘s Fidel piece for the New Yorker, in which the word dictator appeared exactly twice – not to label Fidel, but to describe, first, the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo and, second, Fidel’s predecessor, Fulgencio Batista. Anderson summed up the purported highlights of Fidel’s rule – the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the hundreds of alleged CIA attempts to kill Fidel – but there was no mention of the soul-crushing, economy-destroying Communist system itself, or of Fidel’s mass incarceration, torture, and murder of thousands of his own subjects.

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The Guardian, in illustrating its Fidel-turns-90 piece, went with this touching shot

Calling Fidel an “elder statesman” in “the twilight of his life,” Anderson reflected that the ongoing changes in Cuba “must be deeply poignant” for the old man, accepted with credulity the claim that Fidel’s chief concerns nowadays are with “the risks posed by arms proliferation, global warming, and food scarcities,” and stated, in a sentimental concluding flourish, that Fidel, at the most recent Party Congress, “reaffirmed his faith in Communism, in the future of Cuba, and the legacy that he believed Cuba’s Communists had forged.” As if this “legacy” were anything other than pure, unadulterated evil.

CNN’s Patrick Oppmann made one of the most curious choices of all, putting front and center the hundreds of supposed murder attempts that Fidel supposedly survived over the decades. Fidel, Oppmann wrote, “has lived much of his long life in the spotlight – and much of it in the crosshairs – surviving a half century of assassination plots.” (It seemed highly likely that the authors of several of these birthday pieces were working from the same official Havana press release.) No mention, naturally, of the number of people Fidel managed to bump off during that half century. Oppmann cited Fidel’s “reputation as a cheater of death” – never mind, again, his longtime career as a dealer of death.

castro1Instead of acknowledging, moreover, that the overwhelming majority of those who wanted Fidel dead were freedom-loving Cubans, many of whom had been tortured by Castro’s henchmen and forced to flee their beloved homeland, Oppmann painted Fidel as the victim in a struggle against (who else?) the Mob: “Few had as much reason to want Castro dead as the American mafia.”

In short, a shameful showing by the Western media. But of course we should have expected that the 90th birthday of Cuba’s vile old despot would bring the useful hack-journalist stooges crawling out of their ratholes.