Remembering my father in law, Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin, my father in law, passed away earlier this year after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He would have been 66 today. I wish you could have met him.

I met Bob nearly two decades ago, in the days when I was falling deeply in love with his daughter and carefully trying to earn the respect of her parents. Early on I recognized he was a man of intense pride, whose sense of purpose was derived from his ability to help others and serve as a rock for the family. He was strong and stoic, an early riser, always in control, always prepared, with a meticulously-kept house. Some of this, I figured, must have reflected that traditional New England Catholic culture of a generation ago that he’d grown up in, which hung its hat on uprightness and discipline, and was understated and reserved in terms of outward emotional expression.

But I also knew that wasn’t entirely it. Bob was also, it seemed, limitlessly capable. He was full of answers, and could troubleshoot nearly any problem, especially those that were mechanical in nature (Bob was a talented engineer who, even in his 60s, was constantly being headhunted by firms in the area). Oftentimes, after Zina and I had bought our first house, he’d pay us a visit and would within minutes busy himself with fixing something — a leaky toilet valve, a loose base board, and unhinged closet door. If there was a problem, chances were that Bob could fix it for you, and I knew he felt exhilarated when he did.

The irony was that Bob was a deeply passionate and, I came to learn, emotional human being. He was the antithesis of one’s stereotype of a rigid-thinking, robotic engineer. He loved truth and was unusually imaginative and curious. This extended to his spiritual life, and as a teenager he embarked on a religious journey which ultimately culminated in his becoming a lifelong Baha’i. I can only speculate how bizarre this must have seemed in those days, no matter the degree of love and support from Bob’s family, in what I would imagine was a heavily-Catholic community of Woburn, Massachusetts in the early 1970s. But, knowing Bob, I also can not imagine it having gone any other way. He was the embodiment of the phrase, “Let us be lovers of the Sun of Truth, regardless of the horizon it emerges from.” In becoming a Baha’i he had found a way to keep honoring Christ and to keep believing in God, in all of His beautiful mysteries, while embracing a Faith which exalted things like scientific inquiry, intellectual humility, and open-mindedness. He grabbed on early in life and never let go.

He was, of course, unusually loving and attentive with his three grandchildren, to whom he was known as Buppa. On many occasions he and Alhan would come to our house and hustle Zina and me out the door, eager to play with the kids. He would spend hours with them, particularly our oldest son, Kenz, constructing something out of blocks, or Legos, or whatever was available. He delighted in teasing the kids with jokes and puns. He was tall and strong and ready to lift them up and toss them playfully in the air whenever he came through the door. Zina often joked about what a mix of excitement and terror it must have been for them to be hoisted in the air by this giant human. One time Bob had taken the kids out to the backyard swing set while Zina, Alhan, and I chatted inside. Suddenly, I heard Zina yell something as she stared out the window. Bob had been swinging our two-year-old daughter Aya, with a comically-inappropriate degree of velocity and height for a toddler, the kind of swinging that makes you wonder if centrifugal force could ever make a swing flip all the way around. There were many “oops” moments like that, when Bob’s enthusiasm for the kids needed to be reined in for the sake of child safety.

Every now and again I saw these two sides of Bob’s personality — the stoic, capable engineer and the passionate, emotional man — collide, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. The first time I visited his and Alhan’s house in Nashua, New Hampshire, I brought a fancy pie I had picked up from a gourmet bakery down the street from my apartment. Bob volunteered to heat it up in a glass dish in the oven. “Will that break?” Alhan asked. Bob confidently assured her it wouldn’t, but in fact it did, and the heat cracked and splintered the glass. Zina asked if there was any way we could salvage the pie; he begrudgingly said there wasn’t. I could tell he was embarrassed and furious with himself as he apologized and threw the whole thing in the trash.

There were some problems, in other words, that even someone like Bob couldn’t solve, and this heartbreaking reality must have fallen with a heavy weight on him in his last year-and-a-half living with cancer. I remember speaking with him a few weeks after his diagnosis and feeling surprised by how confident he was in the face of such challenging odds. He was reading books, scouring forums, consuming various health foods, exercising vigorously, all in addition to his chemotherapy. In other conversations we had those days he talked about praying to God and accepting His Will, but I couldn’t help wonder if his immense talent for finding answers and solving difficult problems had now become a massive spiritual test. It’s one thing for any of us to profess detachment in the face of our own mortality, to say we will be ready to give up our physical garment when the time arrives. It’s another thing altogether to keep that perspective when death is on one’s doorstep, especially when one has become accustomed over decades to succeeding in the face of nearly every challenge.

COVID-19, in many ways, took a difficult situation and made it worse. This, I think, is one of the hidden catastrophes of the pandemic, that so many individuals were essentially stripped of contact with their loved ones during the time in life when such contact was most urgently needed. Bob and the family made the best of it, when conditions allowed; being outside with a mask on goes a long way, as we have all learned. Yet we also learned that for people living with potentially terminal illnesses, there is a fine line between living with urgency and accepting defeat. Striking the right balance between the two must be agonizing even in normal times, when a terrible virus isn’t standing in the way of an ill person reaching out and embracing his loved ones.

In one of my favorite passages from the Baha’i Holy Writings, Baha’u’llah asks:

Whither can a lover go but to the land of his beloved? and what seeker findeth rest away from his heart’s desire? To the true lover reunion is life, and separation is death. His breast is void of patience and his heart hath no peace. A myriad lives he would forsake to hasten to the abode of his beloved.

Bob passed away in his home on February 13th, 2021. His wife was by his side, praying for his soul as he went. His daughter and grandson were a floor above, having held his hand and told him they loved him minutes earlier. Given the life Bob lived, it was fitting. May we all be so deserving, that when we are called to the land of the Beloved, we might be surrounded with the same grace, dignity, and love.

How a non-Christian learned to appreciate Christmas

Since my childhood, I’ve had a bit of an odd relationship with Christmastime. Mind you, what Christmas actually represents (or is supposed to represent) was never the issue. Growing up in a Baha’i family, we respected and honored the personhood of Jesus Christ. I was introduced to Jesus’s life and teachings in Baha’i Sunday school, in fact, and later on in life discovered that the Baha’i scriptures are filled with passages honoring Him. During my elementary school years, my mother insisted I take part in the annual Christmas pageant, a responsibility I begrudgingly accepted, even as my Jewish classmates were conspicuously free to sit it out. This was the case even as we had no Christmas tree in our home and didn’t exchange presents (we had our own Baha’i holidays, after all). “People need to know that Baha’is believe in Jesus”, my mother insisted.

On the other hand, every year as the holiday approached, Christmas served as a reminder that I didn’t quite fit in. Like many kids whose parents came from abroad, the awareness of difference set in at a young age. I was a brownish kid with dark eyes and an unruly mop of coarse black hair. My clothes were slightly odd, and my lunch box contents even odder. The holiday felt like the sum total of everything that made me different, with reminders everywhere — Christmas lights strung up on every house, Christmas movies on TV, Christmas songs on the radio — that we were just different.

I am hesitant to say it, but as an adult, I still find much of this time of year unbearable. It’s not the feeling of being different, per se, but more so the fact that Christmas in much of American culture has become a vulgar monument to materialism. The cacophony of TV commercials, the aggressive driving on the highways back and forth to the malls, the scramble to catch the hottest post-Thanksgiving sale — it all just makes me want to withdraw and stay inside. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to point out the irony that the anniversary of the birth of Christ, who angrily confronted the money-changers and demanded dignity for the poor, is now commemorated by a mad, collective dash to buy new plastic toys and electronic gadgets.

In recent years, however, I’ve discovered a way some people celebrate Christmas that is somewhere in between religious devotion and rampant consumerism. I sense it was the way more people in this country marked the occasion in the past, before some of the more materialistic elements took over. I would describe it as this: Christmas as a symbol — whether religious or secular — of love, hope, and peace and earth.

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What the world needs now is love

Lately I’ve been reflecting on how much of the music of the 60s and 70s echoed a simple message: we can change the world with love.

I’m a child of the 80s, but one of my favorite songs is Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now is Love” from 1965. There are countless songs from around the same time that preach some variation of that theme. Chances are that you know lyrics to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” from 1967. Another is the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” from the same year. Imagine a song with the following lyrics ever making it to the top 40 today:

If you hear the song I sing/You will understand (listen!)/You hold the key to love and fear/All in your trembling hand/Just one key unlocks them both/It’s there at your command

Come on people now/Smile on your brother/Everybody get together/Try to love one another/Right now

This all sounds so quaint today. How adorable of those hippies to believe the world’s problems could be solved with such a neat, simple solution! But the truth is that the people of that era were neither simple nor naive, nor were the problems they faced any less daunting than the ones we face today. That generation was staring down the barrel of near-certain nuclear annihilation, cities literally on fire with racial strife, and a seemingly pointless, bloody war being waged on other side of the globe. It is remarkable that so many musicians of that era looked at the landscape in front of them and declared some version of the message, “What the world needs now is love.”

The truth is, they were right. And they are right today, and they will still be right one thousand years from now.

There is enough cynicism, enough debate, enough arguing. Don’t ever doubt the real solution. It’s love.

Where did we go wrong? A mid-mortem on America

There’s plenty of hand-wringing about the future of the United States these days. About two-thirds of us believe the country is on the “wrong track”. Meanwhile, academics observe evidence of a free-fall in our democratic institutions. Others are more somber, likening the current environment to the beginnings of a sort of diffuse, decades-long civil war. I, personally, do not find any of those assessments to be overly alarmist. In other words, I think we are in deep trouble.

When I say “deep trouble”, I’m not talking about our public policies. Indeed, there is cause for deep frustration there: we are doing too little to curb global warming and other forms of environmental catastrophe, our tax code and other economic policies are still heavily slanted towards the very wealthy, healthcare and higher education costs are ballooning, and on and on.

In fact, what’s even more worrying is that the capacity of the American society to assess, discuss, and ultimately solve difficult problems seems to have been destroyed. The degree of political polarization has become so intense that it is already starting to manifesting itself occasionally in the form of violence. As I and countless others have written, a culture of perpetual anger, outrage, and finger-pointing has become endemic. It is no wonder that our elected officials refuse to negotiate and compromise with one another. If they are truly representative of us, then why would they?

Everyone, of course, has their own ideas of what has, and is still going, wrong. Here are mine, in deliberately simplistic terms:

  1. We all have a deep-seated spiritual and emotional problem. This is not unique to the American people, and it is not unique to the year 2020. Call it whatever you will. “Selfishness” is all-encompassing enough. “Narcissism” is not overly harsh. As I’ve argued on this website countless times, we tend to think we (or those in our group) are always right, and we make little effort to question our own thinking, consider the opinions of those we disagree with, or ponder how we might improve ourselves.
  2. Technology has probably made it worse. It used to be the case that we all listened to and read the same news. Those days are over. Social media now makes it such that information that is pleasing to our egos gets pushed in front of our eyeballs, while uncomfortable things are sent to the back, thereby hardening are existing beliefs and prejudices. Meanwhile, the IT revolution has made sensationalism the only way for news outlets to make money. Cable news has become a form of reality TV, and newspapers struggling to stay afloat are reduced to clickbait factories. This is how so many of us eventually come to embrace irrational, myopic, and — in some cases — extreme beliefs.
  3. Elections in America have become extraordinarily expensive. It costs a tremendous amount of money to win higher office in this country now. The election that just passed cost $14bn, more than doubling the election of four years ago, and exceeding the entire annual economic output of 81 countries. A significant contributor to this has been the weakening of constraints on campaign finance, and of requirements to disclose the origins of campaign money. The effect is that political candidates’ tone and messaging are pushed to the extreme in a bid to excite those who are actually inclined to donate, a subset of voters who are less likely to be moderate and more likely to be highly partisan.

There are plenty of people out there who are eager to tell you about points #2 and #3, but few that are ready to acknowledge point #1: We have a deep-seated spiritual and emotional problem. Not surprisingly for anyone already familiar with the Baha’i Faith, I see this as the main issue. It is the actual fire; the other two things are simply its accelerants.

Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the faith whom Baha’is revere as a Messenger of God, essentially asked all human beings to efface their own egos, put aside their prejudices, and embrace a culture of love, unity, and fairmindedness. He asked these things of us not simply for the sake of goodness and virtue, but because without making these changes, human civilization is prone to destroy itself. Likening God’s teachings to the prescriptions of a divine Physician, he wrote: “Witness how the world is being afflicted with a fresh calamity every day… Its sickness is approaching the stage of utter hopelessness, inasmuch as the true Physician is debarred from administering the remedy.”

Making these changes is not easy. Rather, it requires the individual to truly humble him or herself and seek the assistance of the Divine, in a similar way that a participant in Alcoholics Anonymous defeats addiction by humbly calling on the assistance of a Higher Power.

Among the things that the Baha’i teachings asks us to change about ourselves which, in my opinion, are directly related to this country’s current predicament are:

Not pointing fingers at others. “Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner.” We can stop indulging our own personal fantasy that we are somehow woke, and it is others who are in need of education.

Being fair-minded about what is true and what is not. “[B]e adorers of the sun of reality from whatsoever horizon it may appear.” And: “[S]ee with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others… know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.” No matter how good it feels to see messages on social media that confirm what we already believe, we must actively question ourselves, and seek out and consider the views of others.

Never seeing another human being as an opponent. “See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness.” We have got to stop talking about people who disagree with us as somehow on another team, or even worse, as members of some enemy army.

To start to turn around American society does not require all of us to instantaneously become Baha’is, or even for us all to start believing in God. But we must somehow start living and breathing these principles, and thus begin to regenerate our culture. If we do, then the flames that have been fanned by technological and political changes might start to die out. In practical terms, the social media algorithms pulling us towards narrow-mindedness will begin to dull, our neat intellectual echo chambers will start to become more porous, and the inflammatory rhetoric of our politicians will eventually to fall upon deaf ears.

Incidentally, Baha’i scripture itself tells us that this type of awakening is not only possible in American society, but it is in fact inevitable. “May America become the distributing center of spiritual enlightenment,” prayed ‘Abdu’l-Baha in 1912, asserting that the nation would one day come to “lead all nations spiritually”. Shoghi Effendi later clarified that America’s lofty spiritual destiny would be attained only after considerable hardship. “Then, and only then,” he wrote, “will the American nation… be able to fulfill the unspeakably glorious destiny ordained for it by the Almighty.”

That last passage was written during the unparalleled darkness of the Second World War. The world’s challenges are different now, of course, but in many ways they are equally daunting. The forces of technology and political division in this era of history are immense, and many people are now coming to recognize the terrifying abyss that those forces threaten to pull us down into. The task before us as Americans is to pull ourselves in the opposite direction, with even greater force, towards things like humility, fair-mindedness, understanding, and togetherness. Let those principles guide us, and perhaps we’ll be worthy of our noble destiny.

Solving America’s problems will take a new kind of bravery

Lately as I’ve watched protests against racism and police brutality spread across the U.S., a bit from one of my favorite songs has been ringing through my head:

I contemplate

Believin’ in karma

If those on top could just break

We’d be eatin’ tomorra’

That’s from rapper Nas’s 2001 track, What goes around, which takes the listener across a landscape of injustice, hearbreak and despair: the drug dealer who meets his violent end, the poor who are preyed upon by fast food and beverage companies, the white suburban teenager trying in vain to meet the impossible standards of female beauty, the deadbeat dad who’s ultimately rejected by his adult children, and on and on. The message that ominously rings throughout this collection of vignettes is stated bluntly in the song’s final stanza: “What goes around comes around.”

This song probably doesn’t make anyone’s top ten list for an artist who is, arguably, his genre’s greatest-ever lyricist. Yet I have always found it irresistibly electric.

The problem with it is that its ultimate conclusion is wrong.

Embedded in the song, and in many other forms of art, is the notion that justice comes simply from the vanquishing of those who perpetrate injustice. If only those who are good could triumph over those who are evil, then justice would be restored. This message is as ancient as the Bible and as ubiquitious today as Star Wars. I think its ubiquitousness in art is due to the fact that it is easy to understand and even easier on our egos. With each of us believing that we are in the “good” category, it demands no difficult internal struggle, no uncomfortable self-reflection. On the contrary, it gives us a sense of comfort in knowing that no change in our own character and behavior is necessary. The responsibility for all change and effort is external.

The tendency to put everything in such simplistic, Manichaen terms removes the need for critical thought, and boils complex human problems down into more comfortable, self-aggrandizing one-line assertions.

Racism exists; we must stand up to the racists.

Environmental degradation is rampant; we must confront the fossil fuel companies.

Police abuse keeps happening; we must protest the police.

Women are debased and disrespected; we must shame those who are guilty of doing so.

And on and on.

The reality is that most forms of injustice are not simply solved by defeating the right people, no matter how convenient that is to believe. These problems arise from enormous systems of interactions that involve millions or billions of people; those we see as the perpetrators are often the figureheads of those problems, but not their architects.

It will take a special kind of bravery to admit that we — all of us — are in fact the architects.

The issue of police brutality in America against blacks and other ethnic minorities, which is the subject of recent protests across the U.S., is itself far more complex than we would like to admit. Among the societal problems upon which this horrifying reality rests are, in no particular order:

1) An adversarial system of negotiation between unions and employers, with the former seeing oversight and exposure to discipline as a chip at the bargaining table.

2) The seemingly perpetual under-funding of state and local governments, which among other things means police departments must hire from pools of less educated applicants.

3) The ghettoization of whole portions of American society into poorer, higher-crime areas, meaning the residents of those areas have far more interactions with police, with each interaction carrying with it the chance for a deadly mistake.

4) A private prison system which incentivizes over-policing, over-prosecuting, and over-incarcerating, with ripple effects throughout communities and across generations.

5) A level of income inequality that is at its worst in a century, including a stagnancy in wages for the poor and middle class which exacerbates social problems such as addiction, depression, and stress among people of all backgrounds.

Regardless of what we tell ourselves, none of these problems can be eradicated by shouting louder and protesting harder. They require nuanced thinking, reasoned debate, and good faith collaboration.

The very effort to confront such problems with force and competition against some “other”, in fact, risks making them worse. We raise our voices louder, while those on the other side retreat to their ideological bunkers, with each of us entrenching ourselves deeper in our comfort zones. Occasionally we succeed in defeating our enemies, giving us a fleeting sense of accomplishment and a paper-thin veneer of justice. We feel like we’ve accomplished something, and we relax until the next crisis. Yet the systems remain intact, like gnarled roots under the soil.

As I’ve written before, there must be an alternative to this competition-based, power-obsessed, us-versus-them approach to problem solving. We Americans are thankfully waking up to longstanding injustices, but our own sense of self-righteousness limits us only to the easiest of responses. Few are ready to sit down and talk; even fewer are ready to listen. Narcissism is rife, and someone else is always to blame. Principles like love, unity, understanding, peace, forgiveness, brotherhood, spirituality — which had their rightful place in the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s — are now seen as quaint and naive. My greatest fear as an American is that after yet another generation’s worth of protesting, shouting, and demanding, our ultimate despair will be the realization that we’re right back where we started.

Don’t believe in God? You should still think about becoming a Baha’i.

milky-way-1023340_960_720Much of what I’ve written on this blog of late hasn’t been directly connected to the Baha’i Faith and issues of spirituality. Well, this post is going to be an exception.

This post is, first and foremost, for people who consider themselves agnostics and atheists. If you consider yourself in that broad category, please keep reading.

I am going to make this as direct and straightforward as possible: I think more people with ambiguous or even skeptical feelings towards the existence of God should think about becoming Baha’is.

How could this possibly be, given that a bedrock principle of the Baha’i Faith is that God exists? It’s because, as I have written about before, the concept of God in Baha’i doctrine is purposefully mysterious. God is described as ultimately “unknowable”, even as we are encouraged to cultivate our own sense of spirituality, and to “know and love” our Creator.

The best way I could think to articulate this is through a dialogue between two people. So, if you will indulge me, here is an entirely fictional discussion between “Jack”, a once-agnostic person who came to call himself a Baha’i, and this blog.

Note that Jack is not a real person, but much of what you’ll read below is inspired by numerous individuals I’ve met over the years who became Baha’is, some of whom had some measure of spiritual inclination and belief before they found the Baha’i Faith, and others who were pure atheists. I tried to capture the spirit of some of those conversations in the rest of this post. Note also that though Jack is depicted as someone with a Christian background (I had to pick something), the spirit of the conversation I hope applies to people of all backgrounds.

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Break the idols

Today marks 200 years since the birth of the Báb in 1819, an occasion that Bahá’ís are celebrating around the world.

A video was commissioned for the occasion, which I had a chance to watch last weekend (you can watch it here). The most striking part of that video for me? The words below, from a poem by Tahirih, the great heroine of the Báb’s faith and one of the titanic women of Middle Eastern history. The full poem, entitled “Look up!” is as follows:

No ranting shaykh rules from his pulpit throne 

No mosque hawks holiness it does not know

No sham, no pious fraud, no priest commands! 

The turban’s knot cut to its root below!

No more conjurations! No spells! No ghosts! 

Good riddance! We are done with folly’s show!

The search for Truth shall drive out ignorance 

Equality shall strike the despots low

Let warring ways be banished from the world 

Let Justice everywhere its carpet throw

May Friendship ancient hatreds reconcile

May love grow from the seed of love we sow

Tahirih, known around the world also as Qurrat’ul’ayn and Zarrin-Taj, was the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the Bab’s life and mission. She was an unapologetic iconoclast, and in discovering the Báb’s message I can only imagine the exhilaration she felt, like finding a long-lost home where you finally felt like you belonged, and which in your heart you always knew existed.

In times gone by, iconoclasts broke physical idols, the meaningless distractions and symbols of arbitrary power. Today we are tasked with breaking other idols, though this time instead of physical totems they are rigid dogmas, destructive prejudices, and stale institutions.

Which idols are we to break in our own lives? I hope you let the spirit of the Báb and the poetic words of Tahirih be your guide.

Now would be a good time to remind ourselves that the concept of “race” is mostly nonsense

faces-2679755_960_720Gillian Tett in the FT wrote a short-and-sweet piece on Franz Boas and his groundbreaking work on race one century ago. It serves as a refreshing reminder of a now ancient finding of science: “race”, for all intents and purposes, is little more than a social creation.

In the early 20th century, Boas was commissioned by the US government to study the physical traits of recent immigrants to New York. At the time, the country was in the midst of a wave of immigration, and with it, a rising feeling of xenophobia. The prevailing view of scientists at the time was that there were not only distinct “races” within the human species, but a natural hierarchy in their state of evolution and refinement, one that could actually be measured physically by things like head size.

As it turned out, Boas found no such natural differences between the races; immigrants’ physical characteristics were more closely linked to their place of upbringing than their place of ancestry. Among his conclusions was that “every classification of mankind must be more or less artificial”, a radical thought at the time. The obsession with finding difference in the “other”, according to Boas, was based in prejudice, not in science.

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My local food truck trusts me with their money. Why?

A while back I wrote a post called “This nation is built on trust and self-service fountain beverages”, which was about how casual dining chains often trust you not to steal their drinks. It has always been amazing to me that these places trust me with an empty cup that they’ve given to me for free to actually fill it up with water rather than Orange Fanta.

A taco truck near my office had me thinking about this concept lately. It’s cash only, and I ordered three tacos for $9. After I collected my food and was about to hand the guy at the window a $20 bill, he quickly pointed to an open cash register and asked me to take the change myself. I’d never seen that before, and I thought it was awesome.

Why would a business do this? Aren’t they afraid of someone not paying the right amount, or worse yet, taking money out of the register rather than putting money in? The clear calculation that a business like this makes is that whatever they lose in customers cheating them, it’s worth it not to have to slow down the whole assembly line by taking off the latex gloves, handling the cash transaction, and putting them back on.

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What have we learned since the Cold War? Not much, apparently.

Above: Dolph Lundgren and Sylvester Stallone as eternal enemies in Creed II. Below: real-life competitors-turned-friends Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.

I finally watched the movie Creed II, which I had looked forward to for a while, since it’s essentially a sequel to the iconic Rocky IV of my childhood. If you haven’t seen either of these movies, let me summarize: in Rocky IV, the American boxer Rocky Balboa fights the Russian Ivan Drago during the Cold War. In Creed II, Rocky and Drago as old men serve as mentors to younger versions of themselves — in Rocky’s case, the son of his deceased friend and former competitor; in Drago’s case, his own son.

I saw Rocky IV as a kid but didn’t fully appreciate it until I got older. Why? Because the film, made in 1985, became a testament to American hysteria over the supposed Soviet menace that was prevalent before the USSR collapsed. The Russians are depicted in the film as technologically advanced and frighteningly efficient; the Americans, on the other hand, are poorly equipped and developmentally behind, but in the end triumph with sheer will and grit. A montage from the film is now famous for its ridiculousness: a svelte, clean-cut Drago trains in a gleaming facility complete with electronic gadgets and scores of lab coat-clad observers, while a bearded, woolen-looking Rocky pulls logs through the snow in what appears to be the Siberian wilderness. This seven-minute segment alone deserves to have a place in the syllabuses of college students seeking to understand the perverse psychology of the Cold War.

Of course, after the Cold War ended and Westerners got to look under the hood of the Soviet Empire, they realized they had it backwards. Yes, the Soviets had indeed managed to put a satellite in space and a man in earth’s orbit before the Americans. And just like the Americans, they had built enough nuclear weapons to kill all human life on earth many times over (impressive!). Of course, as the Iron Curtain was pushed aside, the world realized it was the Soviets who were struggling to keep up, not the other way around.

How does one follow up a film like Rocky IV, which so perfectly captured the erroneous thinking of the age? How do you make a sequel to a film that missed the truth so badly, its enduring legacy is as a farcical monument to national self-delusion? Apparently, by pretending that nothing happened.

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