Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Review: The Myth of the Muslim Tide

The Muslim Problem. It’s true that every generation of Americans experiences some sort of fear and dread of a massive invasion of undesirables. The utopian Puritans feared the pacifist Quakers. The Anglican planters feared the Baptist-converting Scots-Irish poor. The Federalists in office feared the Republican-leaning French and Irish. The white Christians feared the Chinese Confucians. The list goes on.

Unfortunately, any discussion about the perceived threats of some immigrant group is clouded by conflicting worldviews, contrived facts, and sloppy reporting. Case in point: When Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy produced Shariah: The Threat to America: Team B II Report, many concerned Christians promoted it without seriously analyzing its content. Two clues should’ve alerted its readers: First, unlike the historic anti-Communist Team B, the Team B II didn’t have access to secure information by which to draw their conclusions. Second, it was such a badly written report, full of misrepresentations and fallacies, that anyone who was anti-Muslim should’ve been embarrassed about it.

There’s a lack of calm, serious discussion about possible threats from immigrant groups, especially those whose racial, religious, and cultural identities vary significantly from the norm. Couple this with the population doom scare, and we’ve got a serious problem. Enter journalist Doug Saunders, neither a friend of Islam nor a stranger to terrorist attacks. In The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?, he confronts some of the key arguments levied against Europe’s and America’s newcomers. What he exposes are a deep Christian envy of Muslim success and what I’d say is a historic American desire to see a spiritually weak Europe fall. Most complaints about the Islam religion can easily be made about Christianity and Judaism, and the charges of non-patriotism are often equally true or worse for non-Muslims in every country.

What I appreciated most is the way Saunders handles the population arguments, showing how facts are often misconstrued and how broader trends are ignored in favor of demographic reports that produce mass hysteria. “Demographic transition” is occurring in Muslim countries, as would be predicted with ongoing changes in the economy, women’s education, and politics. While many Americans would have us believe otherwise, evidence shows that Muslim immigrants do assimilate with the native cultures, politically, culturally, and – yes, most definitely – demographically.

Although I was generally pleased with Saunders’ work, I do question his constant appeal to the past. Yes, Eastern European Roman Catholics and Jews have unquestionably assimilated. Even Latin Americans, West Indians, and Asians, who he neglects to mention, have pretty much assimilated. But the hidden assumption behind Saunders and others pointing this out is that the assimilation of a previously spurned immigrant group is desirable. If the past tells us anything, it would be that the assimilation of Muslims into the American mainstream is inevitable. But to say that that’s the way things should be requires a judgment call, and one I doubt any nativist would agree with.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Review: ‘Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel’

Awkward but witty, the soon-to-be released Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel isn’t gushworthy, but it captures the intellect and personality of the woman who made “fashion editor” a permanent part of the English language. The documentary film screened last Monday, courtesy of LACMA’s Costume Council, who lasted year featured the highly entertaining Bill Cunningham New York. In contrast, Diana Vreeland is considerably more subdued in its humor. Audio and television interviews take the place of narration, so the viewer literally hears the story of “Mrs. Vreeland” in her own (often exaggerated) words. As to boost the effect, her life is caricatured through clips from Audrey Hepbern’s Funny Face (1957) and the French film Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966).

Unschooled but intelligent and worldly (in the best sense), the dancer-housewife-socialite revolutionized the fashion magazine industry. She made fashion models celebrities, celebrities fashion models, and socio-cultural commentaries a regular feature of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. Having experienced style from the 1920s to the 1980s, she was a natural choice as consultant for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. A woman who knew everyone you might say “worth knowing” and pushed the limits of acceptability in fashion, she nevertheless seemed to be following that which was perfectly logical and acceptable to her. She refused to be confined by a “feminist” label, and she didn’t allow a lack of conventional beauty to deprive her of a passionate marriage.

An unusual and forceful woman, Diana Vreeland certainly makes for a life well worth the study. The film was based on a book by the same name title written by her granddaughter-in-law, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, and includes interview clips of her sons, grandsons, and even a great-granddaughter curiously reading advice snippets from her Harper's Bazaar column “Why Don't You?” Although “Mrs. Vreeland” apparently wasn’t the most conventional of mothers – in fact, she often was seen as extremely embarrassing – the family isn’t trying to use the film to sway the audiences’ impressions of her. Fact is fact, and corroborated by the testimonies of multiple witnesses (e.g., photographers, models, designers). I think it’s safe to say they’ve preserved her legacy with truth.