Friday, March 11, 2016

New ESPN '30 for 30' documentary to look back at Duke lacrosse case

March 9, 2016
From left to right: David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, the three members of the 2006 Duke lacrosse team who were falsely accused of sexual assault.(Getty Images)
The story was one of the most sensational of the 2000s, a bad brew of race, class, sports, and in the end, significant prosecutorial misconduct against three former Duke University lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper. After months of press attention and an irrevocable stain on the Duke athletic program, North Carolina attorney general Roy Cooper declared on April 11, 2007 in exonerating lacrosse players Reade Seligmann, David Evans, and Collin Finnerty: “In the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly.”
ESPN Films vice president John Dahl said his division had been thinking about doing a 30 for 30 documentary on Duke Lacrosse since 2012, but they could never land on the right filmmaker. That changed last year when Dahl re-connected with Marina Zenovich, director of the 2008 Emmy-winning documentary "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," who Dahl had met years earlier. Dahl said he had always wanted to work with Zenovich and through Lightbox, a multiplatform media company run by Academy Award and Emmy-winning producers Simon Chinn and Jonathan Chinn that has employed Zenvoich, a match was made last fall. 
The wait was worth it for ESPN. Zenovich has delivered a highly compelling and well-paced 102-minute film called “Fantastic Lies,” which debuts March 13 at 9 p.m. ET, exactly 10 years to the day the Duke lacrosse players hosted their infamous party. 
“For me this case is about prosecutorial misconduct and false accusations mixed with a prosecutor and police department that did not have anyone to answer to,” Zenovich said. “The issues of prosecutorial misconduct and police misconduct are very alive and very scary for people who end up that in situation. I hope people will say, 'Hey, next time I won’t jump to conclusions' but I think we live in a time where they do.”
The film took about a year from conception to completion. The toughest challenge: convincing the families of the players and those connected to Duke to talk on camera. Zenovich said she tried for months to get parents and players to do so, but received no after no. The same went for Duke University authorities (all requests for Duke administrators were turned down.) Dahl said he first saw an 83-minute rough cut in mid-July and at that point there was no parents or any players on film. 
Slowly, Zenovich gained the trust of a handful of parents including Tricia Dowd, the mother of lacrosse player Kyle Dowd, and that opened the door to others. Eventually, Phil and Kathy Seligmann (the parents of Reade Seligmann), and Kevin Finnerty (the father of Collin Finnerty) spoke for the piece. The parents are far and away the most impactful people in the film. Reade Seligman, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans, the three indicted players, declined interviews, citing a shared belief that they wanted to put the case behind them. The focus of the film is very much on the three accused, as well as fellow player Ryan McFadyen (who wrote an infamous email that became misconstrued as an admission of guilt) and the case's lawyers. 
Zenovich was able to convince two members of the team—Tony McDevitt and Rob Wellington—to do on-camera interviews. 
“This was still very alive and such a painful event for so many people,” Zenovich said. “It was a tough film to make and I am very proud of it. We tried very hard to be fair in the storytelling.”
As for the other principles in the story, Zenovich said she went to a correctional facility in Raleigh to meet with Crystal Magnum, the stripper at the party who is currently serving a jail term for second-degree murder in another case. Mangum agreed to an interview, but ESPN’s request was turned down by the Durham prison authorities. “She still seemed to have a different idea of what actual happened other than the facts that I gathered,” Zenovich said. “I didn’t know how that interview would go but I would have done it.”
Zenovich said she made both personal and third-party attempts to interview Mike Pressler, the former Duke lacrosse coach, but he was unwilling to go on camera. The filmmakers ended up interviewing author and former SI staffer Don Yaeger, who co-wrote Pressler’s book It’s Not About the Truth. Zenovich said she ran into Duke President Richard Broadhead by accident in Durham at an inn and introduced herself. 
“He said something to the effect of, ‘That’s a very old story,’” Zenovich said. “He didn’t want to touch it.” 
Zenovich also discussed the project with Mike Nifong, the disbarred and disgraced former Durham County district attorney who prosecuted the case, on two occasions (November 2014 and April 2015). He declined their interview request. “I wanted to try to understand what he thought he was doing,” Zenovich said. “Ambushing him for an interview would not have accomplished what we wanted to do.”
Dahl said he believed the Duke Lacrosse story was particularly relevant today given social media and how fast stories can spread. “What happened in that case speaks to a lot of what we deal with today,” Dahl said. 
Check it out. It’s worth your time.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ with Tina Fey is surprisingly sharp and funny

March 3, 2016
There aren’t enough movies in which Tina Fey fires an AK-47 while grinning maniacally. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” turns out to make excellent use of her established skills while revealing new ones: It’s “30 Rock Me to the Casbah.”
Episodic, loose and observational, “WTF” is more a magazine article than a movie — it’s based on a memoir by a war correspondent who spent several years in and around Kabul, Afghanistan — but it’s brilliantly told. It’s funny, odd and endearing, as drenched with detail as Afghanistan is with craziness (typified by the Islamist fanatics who are seen “executing” old TV sets by shooting them).
Fey plays Kim Baker, a bored TV producer (the real Kim was then a Chicago Tribune reporter) who volunteers to become an embed in Kabul. Immediately, she loses an envelope full of money at the airport and spends a TV interview being blinded by her own hair as it whips around her face in the wind. A friendly but hard-charging general (Billy Bob Thornton, wearing a mustache that makes him look more like a member of the Eagles than a Marine) introduces her to the 4-10-4 rule: Ladyfolk who might be rated a 4 back home seem like 10s to the men starved for female companionship, but then revert to being 4s upon returning home. Turning to a comely fellow war reporter (Margot Robbie), Kim says, “What are you, like, a 15?”
Without playing up Fey’s tendency to whine and call it feminism, the script, by Fey’s longtime collaborator Robert Carlock, makes it clear that war, particularly in a Muslim country, is a much more complicated experience for a woman. Peeing amid a crowd of men isn’t an option, but on the other hand, Kim is welcomed by some village women for a secret chat in which they inform her that they, not terrorists, have been the ones blowing up the village wells built by the Marines. The women would rather walk to the river for water because it’s their only opportunity to share gossip.
All of this is funny, fresh and convincingly reality-based, but it isn’t until the second half that the movie begins to form a plot. Kim takes friendly fire from New York (a producer tells her that Afghanistan reports are starting to suffer from “chronic same s - - t, different-day-itis”) at the same time that she is liaising with an acerbic but kind-hearted Scottish photographer (a priceless Martin Freeman) who winds up with a very different war experience than the one for which he signed up. Directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (recovering from last year’s so-so “Focus”) score the Scot’s big scene with Harry Nilsson’s light-rock classic “Without You,” and it’s weirdly great.
I don’t expect the “Deadpool” audience to get this, but: Movies used to be about something besides fantasy and other movies. It’s a vast, interesting world out there that few writers bother to go out and bring back. “Whiskey Tango” isn’t just a sharp and engaging film. It’s almost miraculous that it even exists.

Five peerless pleasures of watching Downton Abbey

Scott Murray

March 10, 2016

Downton Abbey rewards viewers over its six seasons.
Downton Abbey rewards viewers over its six seasons. Photo: Channel Seven


Few series reward re-viewing  like Downton Abbey. From its first episode, one can detect and thrill at the themes and storylines that will inspire writer-creator Julian Fellowes throughout. It is there in the way Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt​) so sweetly attends to the unwelcome John Bates (Brendan Coyle), and in how the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and butler Charles Carson (Jim Carter) do battle against the dying of the light to maintain the standards of a country house they both so treasure. I have seen all of Downton Abbey many times and I never intend stopping. And I will continue to be delighted by the exquisite narrative patterning – of how Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) must deal with the death of his fiancee, and things said, before he can move on and marry Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), and then how Mary must deal with the death of Matthew, and things said, before also moving on – just as I will cheer loudly at each dazzling aphorism from the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith).


It is a truth not universally acknowledged, but the criminals of Downton inhabit downstairs. There's a rapist, a murderer, a terrorist, a black marketer and so on. True, they are offset by some of the finest people around – Anna; the aspirant secretary, Gwen Dawson (Rose Leslie); the saintly Phyllis Baxter (Raquel Cassidy); and, of course, Old Grumpy himself, Carson – but we expect no less. More than a century of British screen entertainment has told us the kindest and best are below stairs. What one didn't expect was the family upstairs to be portrayed without cliched vilification, but as generally thoughtful, caring and generous. Grantham may look weak and vacillating at times, but in a crunch he invariably proves himself to be an honourable man. Carson may be an absolute stickler for the correct rules of behaviour (including that servants stand when he enters a room), but it is upstairs that a fuller understanding of what is right and proper prevails. Marxist class war has been challenged by the belief that, "We all have different parts to play and we must be allowed to play them", as Grantham tells Matthew.


From the start, Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) is a smouldering mess of jealousy, furious that her sister Mary, and not she, was engaged to Titanic fatality, cousin Patrick. And when Edith discovers that Mary is not totally adverse to Patrick's replacement as heir, Matthew, Edith attempts to steal him away. Rejected, she dispatches a letter to the Turkish Ambassador denouncing Mary for a romantic dalliance with Kemal Pamuk (Theo James). Edith is a monster, so how is it that we spend so much of the succeeding five series caring so deeply about her, hoping that she ultimately finds happiness? It is because Fellowes is a brilliant writer, constantly upending our expectations and resurrecting to likeability characters of seriously evil intent, be it terrorist Tom Branson (Allen Leech) or the sinister duo of Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) and Sarah O'Brien (Siobhan Finnernan). Fellowes succeeds so well that even within Barrow we begin to sense goodness, a hero in the making.


There can be no doubt that Fellowes loves, understands and celebrates women in a way arguably too few male writers do. He revels in their strength, feminine wiles, intelligence and courage, and even – from the safety of his typewriter – their feuds. Who could  possibly make a cuter couple than the forever-sparring Dowager Countess and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton)? All of Downton's women have their lesser moments, it is true, but these would barely reach in total the height of an ant against the mountain of collective female greatness.


Lady Mary is one of  the finest portrayals in literature, film or television of the struggle to do right, even when it thwarts personal desire. Mary holds to the upper-class insistence that a public exhibition of emotion is an impoliteness to others, and for this she is regularly misjudged. It is Anna and Carson who best understand Mary's fineness and inner turmoil, kind servants who observe every key moment of their mistress' aristocratic life, and provide the emotional connection and counsel Mary's family often cannot. And while Carson and Grantham may be the ageing, noble leopards presiding over a greatly changing age, if there is only one seat left on the lifeboat, pray that it be given to Lady Mary. She is the one who will safely see us home.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Neoconservatism Died So Trump Could Live

"Make America great again" proceeds from a very different appeal than "national greatness" conservatism.

Michael Lind argues that the Trump phenomenon is the result of neoconservatives’ abdication of responsibility. According to Lind, figures like Irving Kristol once defended (white) working class interests. But:
…in the last quarter century many of the blue collar voters who had been integrated into the FDR-to-LBJ Democrats and then became “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s have had no intellectuals or policy wonks of their own, no think tanks and magazines that respected their values and interests. Organized labor, which once represented their interests, is nearly extinct outside of the public sector. The cultural left despises and vilifies working-class white men as privileged bigots, period. Neoliberal “New Democrats” focus on an audience of tech billionaires and Wall Street financiers. Conservatives praise the service of working-class men and women in uniform—but God forbid that the same heroic veterans should ask for a raise or a higher Social Security benefit or try to join a union or vote for paid family leave. Lacking any establishment advocates and sympathetic intellectuals, on left, right or center, many white working class Americans have therefore turned to demagogic outsiders like Trump. Where else are they to go?
Lind is too charitable to his former boss. Rather than a coherent movement, Kristol’s neoconservatism was an alliance of convenience based on the requirements of the Cold War. Neoconservative instincts in domestic and foreign policy were linked by the assumption that a broadly prosperous America would possess the moral resolve and economic resources to defeat Communism. With the Soviet challenge removed, neoconservatives lost the political glue that held them together.
That explains why neoconservatism in its original sense vanished almost overnight. After 1989, neoconservatives who were sincerely concerned about the working class, such as Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan drifted back toward the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Although they had provided intellectual ammunition to the DLC, these figures ended up on Clinton’s left.
Those whose main interest lay in international hegemony, on other other hand, drifted toward the conservative movement. Like Kristol himself, they were happy to trade their previous enthusiasm for a limited welfare state for the more reliable support of an interventionist foreign policy they found among Republicans.
There were a few exceptions to the bifurcation of neoconservatism. In 1997, David Brooks proposed a national greatness conservatism that would reunify liberals and hawks. But with Communism gone, Brooks was unable to explain the point of greatness. He acknowledged in his famous article that “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness.”
The greatness Trump invokes is something very different than this shallow appeal to energy for its own sake. Rather than the moral equivalent of war, it’s about apparently small things: meaningful work, economic stability, ordered communities. Neoconservatives defended these small things when they they could be used as weapons in a great ideological struggle. Trump treats them as desirable in themselves.
To be clear, I don’t think Trump’s signature combination of nasty rhetoric and self-proclaimed genius for negotiation are likely to secure these goods. But I understand why people are excited by the fact that he seems to take them seriously. Lind is right that conservatives who want to succeed in politics and policy need to learn how to talk about small things without stooping to Trump’s level. In doing that, we have to depart from the neoconservative example rather than imitating it.
Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

An Open Letter to the Conservative Media Explaining Why I Have Left the Movement

Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio
Let me say up front that I am a life-long Republican and conservative. I have never voted for a Democrat in my life and have voted in every presidential and midterm election since 1988. I have never in my life considered myself anything but a conservative. I am pained to admit that the conservative media and many conservatives’ reaction to Donald Trump has caused me to no longer consider myself part of the movement. I would suggest to you that if you have lost people like me, and I am not alone, you might want to reconsider your reaction to Donald Trump. Let me explain why.
First, I spent the last 20 years watching the conservative media in Washington endorse and urge me to vote for one candidate after another who made a mockery of conservative principles and values. Everyone talks about how thankful we are for the Citizens’ United decision but seems to have forgotten how we were urged to vote for the coauthor of the law that the decision overturned. In 2012, we were told to vote for Mitt Romney, a Massachusetts liberal who proudly signed an individual insurance mandate into law and refused to repudiate the decision. Before that, there was George W. Bush, the man who decided it was America’s duty to bring democracy to the Middle East (more about him later). And before that, there was Bob Dole, the man who gave us the Americans with Disabilities Act. I, of course, voted for those candidates and do not regret doing so. I, however, am self-aware enough to realize I voted for them because I will vote for virtually anyone to keep the Left out of power and not because I thought them to be the best or even really a conservative choice. Given this history, the conservative media’s claims that the Republican party must reject Donald Trump because he is not a “conservative” are pathetic and ridiculous to those of us who are old enough to remember the last 25 years.
Second, it doesn’t appear to me that conservatives calling on people to reject Trump have any idea what it actually means to be a “conservative.” The word seems to have become a brand that some people attach to a set of partisan policy preferences, rather than the set of underlying principles about government and society it once was. Conservatism has become a dog’s breakfast of Wilsonian internationalism brought over from the Democratic Party after the New Left took it over, coupled with fanatical libertarian economics and religiously-driven positions on various culture war issues. No one seems to have any idea or concern for how these positions are consistent or reflect anything other than a general hatred for Democrats and the Left.
Lost in all of this is the older strain of conservatism. The one I grew up with and thought was reflective of the movement. This strain of conservatism believed in the free market and capitalism but did not fetishize them the way so many libertarians do. This strain understood that a situation where every country in the world but the US acts in its own interests on matters of international trade and engages in all kinds of skulduggery in support of their interests is not free trade by any rational definition. This strain understood that a government’s first loyalty was to its citizens and the national interest. And also understood that the preservation of our culture and our civil institutions was a necessity.
All of this seems to have been lost. Conservatives have become some sort of schizophrenic sect of libertarians who love freedom (but hate potheads and abortion) and feel the US should be the policeman of the world. The same people who daily fret over the effects of leaving our society to the mercy of Hollywood and the mass culture have somehow decided leaving it to the mercies of the international markets is required.
Third, there is the issue of the war on Islamic extremism. Let me say upfront that, as a veteran of two foreign deployments in this war, I speak with some moral authority on it. So please do not lecture me on the need to sacrifice for one’s country or the nature of the threat that we face. I have gotten on that plane twice and have the medals and t-shirt to prove it. And, as a member of the one percent who have actually put my life on the line in these wars movement conservatives consider so vital, my question for you and every other conservatives is just when the hell did being conservative mean thinking the US has some kind of a duty to save foreign nations from themselves or bring our form of democratic republicanism to them by force? I fully understand the sad necessity to fight wars and I do not believe in “blow back” or any of the other nonsense that says the world will leave us alone if only we will do that same. At the same time, I cannot for the life of me understand how conservatives of all people convinced themselves that the solution to the 9-11 attacks was to forcibly create democracy in the Islamic world. I have even less explanations for how — 15 years and 10,000 plus lives later — conservatives refuse to examine their actions and expect the country to send more of its young to bleed and die over there to save the Iraqis who are clearly too slovenly and corrupt to save themselves.
The lowest moment of the election was when Trump said what everyone in the country knows: that invading Iraq was a mistake. Rather than engaging the question with honest self-reflection, all of the so called “conservatives” responded with the usual “How dare he?” Worse, they let Jeb Bush claim that Bush “kept us safe.” I can assure you that President Bush didn’t keep me safe. Do I and the other people in the military not count? Sure, we signed up to give our lives for our country and I will never regret doing so. But doesn’t our commitment require a corresponding responsibility on the part of the president to only expect us to do so when it is both necessary and in the national interest?
And since when is bringing democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan so much in the national interest that it is worth killing or maiming 50,000 Americans to try and achieve? I don’t see that, but I am not a Wilsonian and used to, at least, be a conservative. I have these strange ideas that my government ought to act in America’s interests instead of the rest of the world’s interests. I wish conservatives could understand how galling it was to have a fat, rich, career politician who has never once risked his life for this country lecture those of us who have about how George Bush kept us safe.
Donald Trump is the only Republican candidate who seems to have any inclination to act strictly in America’s interest. More importantly, he is the only Republican candidate who is willing to even address the problem. Trump was right to say that we need to stop letting more Muslims into the country or, at least, examine the issue. And like when he said the obvious about Iraq, the first people to condemn him and deny the obvious were conservatives. Somehow, being conservative now means denying the obvious and saying idiotic fantasies like “Islam is the religion of peace,” or “Our war is not with Islam.” Uh, sorry but no it is not, and yes it is. And if getting a president who at least understands that means voting for Trump, then I guess I am not a conservative.
Fourth, I really do not care that Donald Trump is vulgar, combative, and uncivil and I would encourage you not to care as well. I would love to have our political discourse be what it was even thirty years ago and something better than what it is today. But the fact is the Democratic Party is never going to return to that and there isn’t anything anyone can do about it. Over the last 15 years, I have watched the then-chairman of the DNC say the idea that President Bush knew about 9-11 and let it happen was a “serious position held by many people,” watched the vice president tell a black audience that Republicans would return them to slavery if they could, watched Harry Reid say Mitt Romney was a tax cheat without any reason to believe it was true, and seen an endless amount of appalling behavior on the part of the Democrats which is too long to list here and which I am sure you are aware. And now you tell me that I should reject Trump because he is uncivil and mean to his opponents? Is that some kind of a joke? This is not the time for civility or to worry about it in our candidates.
Fifth, I do not care that Donald Trump is in favor of big government. That is certainly not a virtue but it is not a meaningful vice since the same can be said of every single Republican in the race. I am sorry but the “we are just one more Republican victory from small government” card is maxed out. We are not getting small government no matter who wins. So Trump being big government is a wash.
Sixth, Trump offers at least the chance that he might act in the American interest instead of the world’s interest or in the blind pursuit of some fantasy ideological goals. There is more to economic policy than cutting taxes, sham free trade agreements, and hollow appeals to “cutting government” and the free market. Trump may not be good, but he at least understands that. In contrast, the rest of the GOP and everyone in Washington or the media who calls themselves a conservative has no understanding of this.
Rubio would be — as Laura Ingram pointed out this week — nothing but a repeat of the Bush 43 administration with more blood and treasure spent on the fantasy that acting in other people’s interests indirectly helps ours. Cruz might be somewhat better, but it is unclear whether he could resist the temptations of nation building and wouldn’t get bullied into trying it again. And as much as I like Cruz on many areas he, like all of them except Trump, seems totally unwilling to admit that the government has a responsibility to act in the nation’s interests on trade policy and do something besides let every country in the world take advantage of us in the name of “free trade.”
Consider the following. Our country is going broke, half its working-age population isn’t even looking for work, faces the real threat of massive Islamic terrorist attack, and has a government incapable of doing even basic functions. Meanwhile, conservatives act like cutting Planned Parenthood off the government or stopping gays from getting marriage licenses are the great issues of the day and then have the gumption to call Donald Trump a clown. It would be downright funny if it wasn’t so sad and the situation so serious.
It is not that I think Donald Trump is some savior or an ideal candidate. I don’t. It is that I cannot for the life of me — given the sorry nature of our current political class — understand why conservatives are losing their minds over him and are willing to destroy the Republican Party and put Hillary into office to stop him. All of your objections to him either apply to many other candidates you have backed or are absurd.
I don’t expect you to agree with me or start backing Trump. I would, however, encourage you to at least think about what I and others have said and to understand that the people backing Trump are not nihilists or uneducated hillbillies looking for a job. Some of us are pretty serious people and once considered ourselves conservatives. Even if you still hate Trump, you owe it to conservatism to ask yourself how exactly conservatism managed to alienate so many of its supporters such that they are now willing to vote for someone you loath as much as Trump.
I would also encourage you to stop insulting Trump voters. Multiple conservative journalists — Kevin Williamson to name one — have said, in so many words, that Trump supporters are welfare queens, losers, uneducated, and bums. I am a Trump supporter. My father is a Trump supporter. We both went to war for this country. My father spent 40 years in the private sector maintaining this thing we like to call the phone system. I have spent the last 20 years in the Army and toiling away doing national security and law enforcement issues for the federal government. Just what exactly have any of the people saying these things ever done for the country? Where do they feel entitled to say these things? And more importantly, why on earth do they think it is helping their cause?
I am sorry, even if you can convince me Trump is the next Hitler, I don’t want to be associated with that. I don’t want to be associated with a movement that calls other Americans bums and welfare queens because they support the wrong candidate. If I wanted to do that, I would be a leftist.
Perhaps none of this means anything to you and the movement has left me behind. If it has, I think conservatives should understand that it is leaving a lot of people like me behind. I can’t see how that is a good thing.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

An Exemplary Wife

A Saudi woman struggles for her husband, a political prisoner
By Jay Nordlinger — March 8, 2016
Ensaf Haidar is playing a familiar role, and it is a very difficult role: wife of a political prisoner, who finds herself in exile, spending her time campaigning for her husband. Trying to keep him alive, trying to win his release.

Avital Sharansky did this for nine years. I remember watching her on television, on shows like Nightline. She was touching, impressive (pretty, which helped). She was the wife of Anatoly Shcharansky, who was in the Soviet Gulag. Later, in Israel, he became Natan Sharansky.

More recently, Geng He has played the role. She is the wife of Gao Zhisheng, the heroic Chinese human-rights lawyer.

I could name many more wives. They rise to the occasion. They say they can do no other. But still: They rise to the occasion.

What would you and I do, in a similar situation? As well as they, we can hope.

Ensaf Haidar lives in Quebec — Sherbrooke, specifically — where the winters are very different from those of her native Saudi Arabia. In January, I asked her some questions. One was about the weather. What did she think of the winter?

A Quebec winter is harsh, she said, but “the Canadian people are so warm and welcoming that I can barely feel the cold.”

She considers herself very lucky to be in Canada.

Ensaf is the wife of Raif Badawi, one of the most famous political prisoners in the world. He is a Saudi liberal, 32 years old. He advocates the most basic human rights — freedom of expression, freedom of conscience. He was imprisoned in 2012.

It was in 2000 that he and Ensaf met. They met “by accident,” as Ensaf says. He was a friend of her brother, and occasionally her brother lent her his phone. One day, she wound up talking to Raif. They liked each other. They had a lot in common. They thought alike. They “clicked,” in short.

The two could not meet face to face, of course — this being Saudi Arabia. But they talked on the phone every day. For two years.

Creatively, they arranged to catch glimpses of each other. Theirs was a Romeo and Juliet-style romance, complete with balcony scene. How could that be? Well, Ensaf would stand on her parents’ balcony, and Raif would loft letters to her.

They never met — truly and properly — until the day he arrived at her home to ask her hand in marriage. Her family flatly refused. But Raif wore them down, with his friendliness, persistence, and charm.

He and Ensaf married in 2002. They honeymooned in Syria, which was a haven of liberalism, compared with their own society.

For several years, they enjoyed what Ensaf describes as a normal life. Raif was an entrepreneur, the owner of an English-language school and an information-technology school. The couple had three children, two girls and a boy.

In 2008, Raif did something fateful: He started a website, Free Saudi Liberals. He wanted a space in which he and his fellow citizens could discuss fundamental issues of concern to them. What kind of society did they want to have? What kind of society did they have a right to have? What was the place of religion in the state? Should there be any separation of religion and state at all? What about women? Should they be followed around by police, when they are unaccompanied? Should they be forbidden to celebrate national holidays, along with men?

And so on.

Let me note that Raif’s older sister, Samar, is a human-rights advocate as well. She is a story unto herself. She too has been in prison. She has been charged with disobeying her father. And she has driven — that is, she is one of the Saudi women who have had the audacity to drive a car.
As I said, she is a story unto herself, but I will continue with Raif (and Ensaf).

Free Saudi Liberals caught the attention of free-thinking people. They flocked to it as to an oasis in the desert. In equal measure, it caught the attention of the authorities — who froze Raif’s bank accounts and forbade him to travel.

Ensaf’s family was alarmed (understandably). They took legal steps to force her to divorce Raif. She would have none of it.

Being the troublemaker’s wife, Ensaf received death threats. Eventually, she and Raif decided that it was best for her and the children to go abroad. He would join them, they thought, in a couple of months.

First, Ensaf and the children went to Egypt, and then Lebanon. They received their ultimate asylum in Canada.

In 2012, Raif was arrested. Among the charges were “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and “going beyond the realm of obedience.” When all was said and done, the sentence was ten years, plus a thousand lashes. The lashes were to be administered 50 at a time, every Friday, for 20 weeks.

The first flogging occurred on January 9, 2015. Raif was led to the square outside the Juffali Mosque in Jeddah. Handcuffed and ankle-shackled, he was hit 50 times, as a crowd of hundreds cheered.

“Allahu akbar!” they shouted. (“God is great!”)

Later, Ensaf saw this event on a leaked cellphone video. “Every lash killed me,” she said.

The 50 lashes the next Friday did not occur. The authorities said that the prisoner’s wounds from the first lashes had not healed sufficiently. Ensaf believes that a second lashing would have killed him: Raif is slight of build, and, while in prison, has developed diabetes.

That second lashing? It has been postponed Friday after Friday after Friday. To this day, it has not occurred.

One reason, almost certainly, is that the first lashing provoked an international outcry. The lashing took place two days after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. “Je suis Charlie” was a universal slogan. People also picked up “Je suis Raif.”

Raif’s lawyer was Waleed Abulkhair, another human-rights advocate, who was also his brother-in-law — Samar’s husband. He is another story unto himself. Waleed founded a group to monitor human rights. He also founded a salon: called “Samood,” meaning “resistance” or “steadfastness.” As at Free Saudi Liberals, people could talk about the fundamental issues.

To read a column by Waleed in the Washington Post, go here. To read another, go here.

In 2014, he himself was arrested: charged with “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” among other offenses. They sentenced him to 15 years in prison. To be followed by a 15-year travel ban.
So, they are trying to sideline him for life, it seems.

As you can see, this is a family drama, as well as a personal one, and a political one, and an international one. To add to the drama, Samar and Waleed have recently divorced, though Samar continues to campaign for him.

Raif Badawi is a cause célèbre. There have been protests around the world in his behalf, often outside Saudi embassies. Governments have raised his case with the House of Saud. In the time-honored fashion of dictatorships, the house has complained about “attempts to interfere in our internal affairs.”

The Saudis’ marquee prisoner, Badawi, has received many awards (in absentia, of course). Last year, he was given the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which comes from the European Parliament. His wife, Ensaf, went to pick it up. Here is some of what she said:
“Raif Badawi was brave enough to raise his voice and say no to their barbarity. That is why they flogged him.”

“Free and enlightened ideas are considered blasphemous in the ideology adopted by Arab societies, in which every free thought is decadence and a diversion from the true path.”

“Raif is not a criminal. He is a writer and a free-thinker — that is all. Raif Badawi’s crime is being a free voice in a country that does not accept anything other than a single opinion and a single thought. He is just a thinker who refused to be part of the herd following clerics living outside of time and governing by unjust and tyrannical laws.”

Ensaf told me that Raif’s winning the Sakharov Prize helped his cause a lot, in Europe — not so much in the U.S., but in Europe, yes. It “helped psychologically,” Ensaf said.

The Saudi government destroyed Raif’s writings — his blogposts — but not all of them: His allies were able to retrieve some of them. They have been put into a book called “1,000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think.”

One of the entries is called “No to Building a Mosque in New York City.” The (London) Telegraph published it:
On September 11 we remember the painful day of a terrorist attack that resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 people. Coinciding with that painful memory, many Muslims in New York are calling for an Islamic centre, including a mosque and a social lounge, to be built in the same area where the World Trade Centre stood. 
What pains me most is the boldness of New York’s Muslims, who did not think about the thousands of people who died on that dark day and their families. This brashness has reached the limits of insolence. What bothers me even more is this chauvinist Islamist arrogance they display; they disregard the innocent blood spilled because of the plans of barbaric and brutal masterminds under the slogan of ‘Allahu akbar’. 
The question I must ask, as a global citizen first and a citizen of the country that originated those terrorists, is very simple: Why the arrogance? What kind of racist discrimination against innocent human blood allows us to demand such a thing?
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the ordinary American: how open-minded are we going to be if a Christian or a Jewish person attacks us in our very home? Will we build a church or a synagogue for them in the same location as the attack?
I highly doubt that.
(Of course, the Saudi government does not permit the building of churches or synagogues regardless.)

Ensaf Haidar, too, is about to publish a book — another component of her campaign for her husband. Called “The Voice of Freedom,” the book tells Raif’s story, and hers, and theirs.

I ask what her days are like. “Hard,” she says. “There are no words to describe how difficult it is to wait, just to wait without knowing what will happen.” Her biggest fear is that Raif will be tried for apostasy — the penalty for which is death, usually by beheading.

She does her best to remain calm, if only for the sake of her three children. They are growing up in Quebec — and the boy, exhibiting the assimilation of the very young, has become a rabid hockey fan. He plays the sport with his friends, and they root like mad for the Montreal Canadiens.

For a long time, Ensaf had weekly phone calls with her husband — terribly brief, but regular. She has not been able to speak with him since December 11. She believes that his condition is very poor. He needed medical care, and asked for it. When he was denied it, he went on hunger strike, to get it. Instead of giving him medical care, they moved him into solitary confinement.

As if the couple didn’t have enough trouble, both their families have disowned them. Their parents don’t want the three children to grow up abroad. They are worried they won’t become good Muslims. Raif’s father has appeared on Saudi television, to denounce his son. This must buy him some space in Saudi society. Shame falls on everyone associated with a dissenter. (So should glory.)

About the Saudi government, Ensaf does not want to say anything right now. Any word, apparently, might be harmful. She does want to talk about her adoptive country, for which she’s so grateful: “Canada has made me feel that I matter as a human being.”

Her main hope is that “free societies will pressure the Saudi government to release Raif.” The United States would be especially helpful here.

Let me say that Saudi Arabia is our ally, and necessarily so. But we citizens should not close our eyes to the fact that, really, this is a ghastly dictatorship, imprisoning and torturing some of the very best of that country.

For years, many of us have hoped for the appearance of Sharanskys, Sakharovs, and Solzhenitsyns on the Arab scene. They exist, obviously. They may not be world-class scientists or writers, but they certainly exist, and they are very brave.

Ensaf Haidar is brave too. She says that it is “normal” to defend one’s husband. But some people can’t rise even to normality. Raif and Ensaf are an extraordinary love story, kindred spirits — two people who found each other in a desert, in more than one sense. Ensaf thinks they are destined for each other.

I will close with a humble fact. I think it says a lot.

If Ensaf filed her taxes as a single parent, it would be to her advantage. But she refuses. She insists on filing as married. Because she is.

Book review: "Off The Grid," by C.J. Box

Red Desert locale holds deadly secrets

By Leslie Doran
Special to The Denver Post
March 6, 2016

"Off The Grid," the latest C.J. Box novel about Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, takes readers into new territory. Instead of the usual stomping ground in the wilds of Wyoming's Bighorn mountains, he travels to the state's barely populated, six million-acre Red Desert, which spills over into both northern Utah and Colorado.
As this adventure opens, Joe's longtime friend Nate Romanowski returns (after nearly dying in the last book, "Endangered"). While Joe is a stand-up citizen, Nate has a sketchy past with the law. He is living off the grid, wanted by the Feds. Nate and Liv, his girlfriend, are in hiding on a friend's ranch in southern Wyoming.
The abrupt appearance of two members of a mysterious government agency known as the Wolverines ends Nate's escape from the law. They intend to recruit Nate for his special skills, including his reputation as a master falconer to help them find the son of an ambassador to the U.S. from the Middle East.
These agents claim concern about national security, since the missing man's last known location was the Red Desert. They are worried that his disappearance near a facility where data from many government facilities involved in the war against terrorism is stored could be a major threat.
Meanwhile Joe is up in his beloved mountains on his 47th birthday. He is heading home for a family birthday dinner when he gets a frantic call for help by some researchers who have lost track of GB-53, a GPS-collared 500-plus pound grizzly bear who wandered over into Joe's territory from Grand Teton Park.
It is the first day of hunting season and the woods are full of potential human targets for a hungry grizzly. When the worst happens, Joe must deal with the consequences and track the dangerous predator into unknown territory.
Then eccentric Wyoming Governor Spencer Rulon calls Joe for a meeting. Rulon is leaving office and wants Joe to look into reports that something might going on in the Red Desert and also he thinks that the Feds have sent Nate there on a mission. He wants Joe to pursue the missing grizzly to the Red Desert, using it as a cover to find out what is going on.
Box also brings Joe's daughter Sheridan, a college senior, into the action by sending her on a camping trip with her weird roommate, Kira. Apparently Kira has connected with a group of volunteers online who want her to work on a mysterious worthy cause located in the wilds. Since Kira is a city girl from California, she has neither equipment or experience for this and begs Sheridan to come along to help.
These are but a few of the many threads woven together by Box. Eventually the action centers in the remote Red Desert, where normally the only inhabitants include pronghorns, hawks and a herd of wild horses.
Box is master at involving issues that affect the West. The old versus the new. Environmental concerns versus new development and energy extraction. Endangered species protection versus use of private lands. Fiercely independent Westerners. Box plumbs these issues and integrates them skillfully into Joe and Nate's lives, causing big problems and sometimes threatening their lives.
Readers will race to keep up with the action.