Films saturated with terror and sadism have issued from Hollywood in such numbers recently as to become commonplace.
Films saturated with terror and sadism have issued from Hollywood in such numbers recently as to become commonplace. The trend undoubtedly had its source in the requirements of wartime propaganda. The original task was to depict the threat of Nazism to the American public—Gestapo tortures, shining parades that alternated with silent agonies, life under the oppressive atmosphere of Nazi-conquered Europe, etc. But even in wartime, the trend went beyond exposing brutality. Along with anti-Nazi films, a number of movies appeared that cultivated the same kind of horror sheerly for the sake of entertainment. And now, with the war over, the species continues to flourish and to increase.
Thrillers are a venerable type in the films. But the current vogue is unique in its predilection for familiar, everyday surroundings as the setting in which crime and violence occur. The criminals in Shadow of a Doubt and Orson Welles’ The Stranger settle down in plain small towns, places where no one would ever dream of meeting a killer in the flesh. Nightmares are seen in bright daylight, murderous traps are sprung just around the comer. Everyday life itself breeds anguish and destruction. And at the same time the villains become more prepossessing; they charm innocent girls and win the confidence of guileless bank-tellers. The Frankenstein monsters of the past made us shudder at first sight, but the contemporary monster can live among us without being recognized. Evil no longer marks and defines a person’s face or manner.
Thus the weird, veiled insecurity of life under the Nazis is transferred to the American scene. Sinister conspiracies incubate next door, within the world considered normal—any trusted neighbor may turn into a demon.
Despite Hollywood’s old fondness for ruthless violence and for the raw and grotesque, the cruelty it now so obsessively depicts is of a kind rarely seen before on the screen. Now it originates from compulsive, sadistic urges, is less animal—one might say that it is less spontaneous. In Dark Corner, a private detective is pursued by a gunman; he captures his pursuer and smashes his hand to make him confess the reason for his pursuit. Later the gunman sneaks into the detective’s apartment and knocks him down; as he is about to leave, he turns suddenly and steps with the full weight of his body on the hand of his unconscious victim. The same lust to inflict wanton pain manifests itself in the scene in Lost Weekend in which the drunkard, after a night spent in delirium brought on by alcohol, has a hallucination in which he sees a mouse gnawing a hole in a wall and trying in vain to squeeze through it; then a bat that has been hovering about the room pounces on the animal and kills it while it is caught in the hole. As the tiny shrieks of the mouse die away a rivulet of blood slowly trickles down the wall. It is a vision that reveals for a moment the tabooed depths of our bodily existence.
Titles such as Shadow of a Doubt and Suspicion (both Hitchcock movies) are typical of the emphasis many recent productions place, not so much on outright sadism, as on the permanent menace of it. Apprehension is accumulated; threatening allusions and dreadful possibilities evoke a world in which everybody is afraid of everybody else, and no one knows when or where the ultimate and inevitable horror will arrive. When it does arrive it arrives unexpectedly: erupting out of the dark from time to time in a piece of unspeakable brutality. That panic which in the anti-Nazi films was characterized as peculiar to the atmosphere of life under Hitler now saturates the whole world.
The recent and already mentioned Dark Corner goes the limit in terrorizing the audience. The private detective cannot imagine why he should be trailed by a gunman and gropes desperately for the identity of his enemy, only to find out in the end that what is at issue has nothing to do with him: the power behind the scenes—an unscrupulous “master mind” intent on killing his wife’s lover—has staged the hunt in order to shift suspicion from himself to the detective, whom he considers a suitable scapegoat. The effect of terror, however, is only heightened by this combination of meaningless suffering and arbitrary persecution.
Hand in hand with sadism in recent movies goes the morbid. Physical’ handicaps are elaborated upon and mental horror is added to crude violence. The main character of The Spiral Staircase is a mute servant girl employed in the household of a maniac who murders physically imperfect women in order to improve the human race. Spellbound and Somewhere in the Night exploit amnesia to build up suspense.
Also much favored is the theme of psychological destruction: the pianist in Gaslight and the psychiatrist in Shock no longer shoot, strangle, or poison the females they want to do away with, but systematically try to drive them insane. The tide in Hollywood has turned toward sick souls and fancy psychiatrists. And many a current melodrama suggests that normal and abnormal states of mind merge into each other imperceptibly and are hard to keep separate. The young lieutenant in Shock returns from the war to learn that his wife has been taken to a mental clinic. Was she not always healthy and full of good sense? A naive young man, he is frightened by the thought of what nature can do, unaccountably, to an ordinary person—and his fright makes the sympathetic audience realize that none of us is immune to mental disorders.
Thus, unlike the gangster movies of the depression era, the new films deal less with social abuses than with psychological aberrations. And this time the failure of the movies to offer or suggest solutions has become particularly striking; the all-pervasive fear that threatens the psychic integrity of the average person seems accepted as inevitable and almost inscrutable. Here a comparison between the recent Italian movie Open City and the bulk of our American anti-Nazi films is highly illuminating.
Open City exhibits the horrors, mental and otherwise, met by the Italian resistance in its struggle against fascism, with an uninhibited realism generally foreign to similar Hollywood productions. A Communist is tortured to death before our eyes; sophisticated cruelty, depravity, sordidness, are shown with unimaginable intensity. But at the same time the Communist martyr’s determination, the priest’s faith, and Pina’s natural magnanimity are shown to us in such a way that they appear as real as the terror that engulfs them. In this “morality play”—which is what Dorothy Thompson calls Open City—human dignity is practiced, not merely proclaimed; and even though the resistance leaders are hopelessly doomed, the vital power of their convictions wears down Nazi morale.
The American anti-Nazi films do not battle evil at such close quarters—as a rule they merely circumvent it. The heroes and heroines of such movies as Edge of Darkness, This Land Is Mine, Joan of Paris, and others, endure Gestapo tortures no less bravely than the Italian partisans of Open City, but more often than not their victories are pure cloak-and-dagger acts that leave the enemy’s ideological defenses intact. Hitlerism, undermined in an essential sense in Open City, remains virtually undefeated in Hollywood films—which seem to walk on eggs the moment they approach the positive aspects of that which they defend. Impressive surveys of Nazi might in Prelude to War and others of the army morale films are contrasted with strangely evasive scenes from life under democracy that betray indecision rather than confidence, lip-service instead of action. In almost every one of the anti-Nazi movies made in Hollywood a character comes to the fore at some moment, appropriate or otherwise, to recite as if by rote a eulogy of the democratic life and of the brave new world to come. But a creed that had a real hold on its adherents would not need to be so explicitly and superficially proclaimed; it would be an intrinsic part and culmination of the drama of the whole film.
Among the movie thrillers without a political message, Lost Weekend stands out for its attempt to invest horror with meaning. The drunkard here, after a bout with delirium tremens, swears off drink. But this conversion comes only at the very end of the film and is much too sketchily rendered to efface the impression of his confirmed alcoholism. Thus it seems a sham conversion.
Nor is the drunkard’s hallucination exhibited in order to account for his change of heart; on the contrary, the illusion of a change serves but as a pretext for wallowing in the details of the hallucination, which are savored, illicitly, for their own sake.
But most of the current thrillers do not even pretend to motivate or excuse or rationalize the introduction of sadistic horrors. The urgency of the emotional need that is at the present moment satisfied by vicarious participation in these specific varieties of cruelty, violence, and fear becomes sufficient excuse in itself. Such being the case, the happy endings by which the movies finally escape from their psychological horrors become even more meaningless than usual. The feeling of uneasiness stirred up in the audience at the spectacle of an everyday world full of totalitarian horrors is left unrelieved. The sickness of the psyche is, essentially, taken for granted, and the impression remains that nothing can be done to cure it.
All these movies manifest an unusual interest in the physical environment against which their action unrolls. Chance arrangements of inanimate objects are made conspicuous, somber backgrounds assert themselves. In The Spiral Staircase, the scene of the maniac’s first murder is a hotel room somewhere above an old-fashioned movie house; the opening sequence dwells on the ambiguous borderline between crime and pleasure by emphasizing the startling proximity of the two décors. One of the leitmotifs of Dark Corner is the staircase of a dilapidated rooming house at the foot of which a ragged little girl is forever blowing her penny whistle. The little girl, an apparition rather than a real person, seems to incarnate the rooming house’s despondency. A similar staircase also marks a decisive turn in Lost Weekend: the drunkard falls down its whole length and then enters upon the final stage of his Calvary.
The last two movies feature Third Avenue and its iron-work, its bars and its pawnshops, as the region of anarchy and distress. (Significantly enough, shots of street life were also prominent in German films of the pre-Hitler Weimar Republic period that described the tragedies of instinct-possessed beings.) There is nothing accidental about this. People emotionally out of joint inhabit a realm ruled by bodily sensations and material stimulants, a realm in which dumb objects loom monstrously high and become signal posts or stumbling blocks, enemies or allies. This obtrusiveness of inanimate objects is infallible evidence of an inherent concern with mental disintegration.
But movies not only cater to popular demands; they also reflect popular tendencies and inclinations. The conclusion therefore would be that inner disintegration, whatever its stages, has actually become a wide-spread phenomenon. And the images persistently repeated on the screens of our movie theaters suggest that uncontrolled sadism and apprehensiveness are involved in this disintegration. The hope of winning “freedom from fear” seems to stem from a great increase in feelings of fear. But here, with an impotence similar to that already remarked upon in their anti-Nazi versions, the present Hollywood thrillers are unable to demonstrate any counter-measures that would work to restore mental stability. The horrors are never incorporated in a meaningful pattern that would neutralize them. This would indicate that real life itself fails to suggest such a pattern. Whether society be a spiritual vacuum or a battlefield of irreconcilable beliefs, it seems no longer to provide a shelter for the individual, or principles that would compel his integrity.
In The Three Caballeros, Walt Disney—whose films reveal him as particularly sensitive to contemporary undercurrents of feeling—shows us a universe tom to pieces as though it had been hit by a cluster of atomic bombs. That shattered universe is symptomatic of the way we feel about the world now around us, as Barbara Deming has suggested in “The Artlessness of Walt Disney,” a recent article in the Partisan Review. Amid the debris of such a universe dark impulses are sure to find freer play.
If such is indeed our predicament, a general desire for some sort of inner restabilization or reconstruction would seem very natural. That this desire does exist is indicated by the popularity of two other types of films at present, along with the horror thrillers. One type dramatizes psychoanalytical healing to show how mental balance can be restored from within: half-magician, half-mechanic, the psychoanalyst or psychiatrist lifts the seventh veil from before his patient’s soul, ponders the scattered fragments of that soul, and in no time at all fits the jigsaw puzzle together again, with the result that the patient once more functions normally—like a repaired watch.
The other type of “therapeutic” movie shows us Catholic life, and intimates that reintegration may be obtained from without, under the ministrations of the Church. Chaotic civilization is confronted with the articulate community of the faithful, and understanding priests take over the care of those who lack for mental shelter. Canon Roche in The Green Years likens his vocation to that of a doctor. “The mind is father of many ills,” he says to a young man whom he wants to become a clergyman. “As a champion of truth, you cure the body as well as the soul.” Exponents of wishful thinking, the screen priest as well as the screen psychoanalyst rise out of a reality in which things have fallen apart and the center no longer holds.
The problems to which these current trends in Hollywood film-making lead can barely be touched upon in the space of this brief article. That the kind of horror formerly attributed only to life under Hitler, in the anti-Nazi thrillers, has now been acclimated to the American scene, is more than accidental. Aside from the genuine and constant affinity between sadism and fascism, it seems probable that the sadistic energies at large in our society at the present moment are specifically suited to provide fuel for fascism. And it is in these energies, in this emotional preparedness for fascism, that the real danger lies, more than in the agitators and rabble-rousers who, when the circumstances are right, will be able to manipulate them for tangible ends. Hatred of minorities feeds on the fears of the majority, and unless these fears subside the hatred will continue to multiply.
The particular fear we have to deal with here springs, in the final analysis, from a crucial dilemma. Caught in the snarls of the free-enterprise system, we nevertheless view with apprehension the totalitarian potentialities inherent in any sort of planned economy. Democracy, with its individual freedom, seems economically out of joint, so that it must resort to makeshifts and breed nightmarish dreams of fascist pseudo-solutions worse than the ills they are intended to cure. Shall we be able to preserve individual freedom under collectivism?
In France, the traditional sanctuary of individual liberties, this sense of having reached an impasse is especially strong. Tormented by it, the Existentialists in the beginning wooed nothingness or indifference or fatality in a last-ditch stand against the powers closing in on the individual from all sides.
The political and social struggles of our time are not concerned merely with external changes and new borders—they involve the very core of our existence. A civil war is being fought inside every soul; and the movies reflect the uncertainties of that war in the form of general inner disintegration and mental disturbance.
Fear can be exorcised only by an incessant effort to penetrate it and spell out its causes. This is the prerequisite of redemption, even though the outcome may be unpredictable. It would be a hopeful sign if films were to appear in this country that, like Open City, really showed the principles of human integrity at grips with a deranged world—and showed them as positive forces, with a reality at least equal, if not superior to, the forces of cruelty and violence and to the fear upon which these feed. Yet it remains for life to offer these principles and confirm their efficacy.
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Hollywood’s Terror Films
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.