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Monday, July 2, 2018

"America Is Just Like Nazi Germany!" The Anatomy of a Liberal Social Media Panic




"America Is Just Like Nazi Germany!"

The Anatomy of a Liberal Social Media Moral Panic

After 25 years online, I am trying to understand social media moral panics. Comparing and contrasting liberal social media panics with Jewish and Christians rituals may provide some insight.

People want to create. People also want to destroy. The human urge to destroy is dangerous, so societies channel it into controlled ritual. Ritual sacrifice is one form of socially mediated destruction. In Genesis, Abraham and his wife Sarah grow old without children. Children are essential to traditional people. God promises Abraham a son. Sarah finally gives birth to Isaac. God orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

How to understand such a harsh tale? Abraham is widely considered to be the first historical Jew. As the first, he is the one to establish precedent by breaking with the past and founding new ways. Abraham came from Ur, where human sacrifice was practiced. He traveled to Canaan, and was surrounded by practitioners of child sacrifice. The Bible is rife with emphatic condemnations of this child sacrifice. When God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God was not suddenly reversing his position. Rather, he was asking Abraham, "Are you willing to surrender what you most cherish to your relationship with me?" God couldn't ask Abraham for his Maserati, his 401K, or his dreams of Hollywood, because traditional people don't have those cherished possessions or ambitions. God was telling Abraham, and the reader, that we may be required to surrender everything to our relationship with God. After Abraham agrees to sacrifice Isaac, God explains that Isaac's sacrifice is not to take place. Thus Abraham broke with his natal culture of Ur, and the surrounding Canaanite culture of child sacrifice. God offered Abraham a ram. Abraham thus established the Jewish practice of animal, not human, sacrifice. Requirements for a Jewish sacrifice are rigid and complex. See Leviticus 1, here. Judaism strictly inhibits and prescribes the human urge to destroy. After the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jews could no longer perform animal sacrifice. Some Jews interpret circumcision as a "part for the whole" sacrifice to God.

Catholics are required to attend mass weekly. The central ritual of Catholic mass is a re-enactment of Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross, and the apostles drinking of wine and eating of bread that stand in for Jesus' flesh and blood.

Sacrifice is not the only ritual of destruction. Jews and Christians are both called upon to seek out what is unacceptable in themselves, to eliminate it, and to rededicate themselves to their values. Maimonides outlined three stages for a Jewish confession: verbal acknowledgement of sin, remorse over that sin, and a commitment to renewal for the future. For Catholics, confession to a priest is a necessary sacrament.

The values Jews and Christians rededicate themselves to involve service to others. Jews and Christians must participate with God in nurturing God's creation. Jews commit to tikkun olam. Christians must tend to the needy, as described in Matthew 25:35-36. Neither Jews nor Christians are adjured to, or believe that they can, save the world. They acknowledge a Higher Power and their own humility. Both Judaism and Christianity honor do-able, small deeds. Jesus praises a widow who donates a small coin, the so-called "widow's mite." Judaism cherishes the Lamed Vav Tzadikim, or 36 righteous saints. These saints, who are both utterly humble and completely anonymous, by living their quiet days in accord with God's commandments, keep the world turning. Indeed, the Talmud states that to save just one life is to save the entire world.

Finally, both Jews and Christians profess creeds. Neither the Shema nor the Apostle's creed prescribe hatred for, or exclusion of, any person or group.

Yes, apparently, humans need, want, and benefit from carefully choreographed destruction. Rituals that meet this need involve blood-letting, real or symbolic, the rejection of the tainted, the reaffirmation of community norms, and public declarations of faith.

In lieu of these rituals, my social media contacts practice moral panics. It works like this. Bob posts poetry. Betty posts photos of her garden, videos of her gamboling dogs, and pictures of her dinner along with recipes. Liz posts updates on her genealogical research. Roger posts his award-winning photos of scenic spots around the world. All is well in Facebook-land.

Roseanne Barr tweets a crude insult about Valerie Jarret. White nationalists march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jack Phillips declines to accept a commission to design a cake for a same-sex wedding. North Carolina says that biological males must use restrooms set aside for males. Israel shoots arsonists targeting farmland with wind-borne incendiary devices. The Trump Administration decides to adhere to the letter of the law regarding illegal immigrants.

It's as if someone pressed a button. Mammatus clouds blot out the sun. Ominous pipe organ music crashes. Bats stream across skies of lurid orange and purple. Goodbye to cute puppy photos! No more flowers! It's a social media panic! Caps lock on! Blood is about to flow. The creed will be re-consecrated. True believers will rededicate themselves to community values. The unclean will be exorcised. The tribe will emerge tight as a phalanx and unwaveringly orthodox.

Social media moral panics share many of the following features.

THEATRICALITY. Social media panics are highly theatrical in many ways. They appear to exhibit ORCHESTRATION. Posts appear, like starlings in a murmuration, to be deployed by an unseen hand. Every one of my liberal contacts, from southern California to northern Maine, from heartland Indiana to beachfront Hawaii, spontaneously belches forth sulfur as if fed by the exact same underground lava flow. One candidate for the unseen hand manipulating the masses like so many marionettes is cable TV. If CNN or MSNBC needs a panic, it incites one.

Posts rapidly increase in number and ferocity. Betty, rather than posting once or twice a day, posts ten times in rapid succession. She usually uses words like "puppy," "hydrangea," and "corn bread recipe." Suddenly she is using words like "genocide," "fascist" and "torture." Participants themselves do step in to attempt orchestration. They say to each other, "Please don't post any jokes or cute cat videos today. Frivolity is inappropriate given that children are being tortured … Christian Nazis are persecuting transgendered people seeking relief in a public restroom … Roseanne is bringing back slavery days."

Social media panics generally last, like the common cold, a week to ten days. After they have crested and are reaching their denouement, participants, again, attempt to orchestrate their extinction. "We've all been ravaged by recent news. We owe it to ourselves to feed our souls a bit. Let's everyone post something uplifting." And, so, recipes begin to appear again, along with cute puppy and kitten videos, photographic records of craft projects, and photos of nature scenes.

TIMELESSNESS. One of the most important tasks that rituals perform is the structuring of time. During a rite of passage, a child becomes an adult. Thus, the passage of time from the past to the future is emphasized. But a rite of passage also defies time. The child undergoes the exact same rite undergone by his father, and his grandfather, stretching back through the mists of history.

Just so with social media rituals. Years ago, the social media panic prompt was alleged American "Islamophobia" in the wake of 9-11. Today the prompt is immigration policy regarding children. But all the rituals are the same in that they all freeze and defy time.

Just as in a play, when performers temporarily adopt costumes, scripts, and personas, those involved in social media panics temporarily adopt others' pain as fodder for their performance. Immigrants are fleeing poor economic conditions and gang violence in Central America. Numerous American charitable concerns have been involved in Central America for decades. As far as I know, none of my Facebook friends who are now wailing and gnashing their teeth over Central Americans have previously posted a word about Central America. None has ever previously mentioned supporting, either through donations or labor, any of the groups working to make Central America a better place. It is safe to say that after this panic passes, they will rarely if ever mention Central America or its long-suffering populations again. Thus, the topic of the panic changes, but the panic, like all rituals, remains essentially the same. 

The language of the panic is HISTRIONIC. Peter Fonda tweeted, "We should rip Barron Trump from his mother’s arms and put him in a cage with pedophiles." Barron Trump is twelve years old. After George Zimmerman was acquitted, one of my Facebook contacts, a mild-mannered, roly-poly comic book artist, said that he wanted to give Zimmerman a "Drano enema." In the wake of the Trump administration's child separation, one of my Facebook contacts has daily accused Trump of "torturing children." He has also called anyone who supports the Trump administration "Satanic." He insists that facilities to house immigrants are exactly like Dachau. I'm not sure why he didn't go with the more famous camp, Auschwitz. Possibly because "Auschwitz" is harder to spell.

After the word "Hitler" begins to wear thin, posters go down the hierarchy: Goebbels, Himmler, Eichmann, Speer. Just this morning I found, in my Facebook feed, a Mike Luckovich cartoon featuring the Nazi Mount Rushmore: Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, and Goering. Luckovich's cartoon equates White House press secretary Sarah Sanders with Joseph Goebbels. Such cheap Nazi analogies are the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial. The Holocaust exists, to panic participants, only to serve their need to get attention.

SCRIPTED. No matter what the topic of the latest wave of hysteria, the DEMON is always the same: Americans, Christians, Western Civilization, white people, men, Republicans, Southerners, and Israel. As reliably as Bond or comic-book-superhero-movie villains, these demons plot to destroy the world. Bwa ha ha.

Jews and Christians acknowledge that sin resides within each human heart. Thus the need for self-examination, confession, and renewal. Panic participants do not acknowledge any sin in their own hearts, or any need for self-examination, confession, or renewal. Their CREED recites hatred against, and the necessary destruction of, their chosen demons. America is a racist hellhole. Christianity is an oppressive, irrational monstrosity. Western Civilization is a wasteland of shame. Southerners are white trash rednecks. Israel is an apartheid state. Anything that the archdemon, the heterosexual, Christian, American white man has achieved or thought or innovated, he stole from an oppressed person of color.

To Christians, original sin is rebellion against God. We are all guilty. To panic participants, racism is the original sin and only the designated demons are guilty of it. Even the transgendered bathroom debates involved accusations of racism. People who want to prevent biological males from using the same facilities as vulnerable little girls are accused of being "racist." "Racist" is the worst insult imaginable, and so it is furiously hurled no matter the panic du jour.

Because panics must always pillory the same demons as being guilty of the same sin, that is, the sin of racism, panics are highly SELECTIVE. I have never seen atrocities committed against Christians qua Christians or Americans qua Americans prompt a panic.

In April, 2013, Muslim terrorists bombed the Boston Marathon. In a photo, one can see Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, after he placed his backpack bomb right next to Martin Richard, an eight-year-old Catholic schoolboy. Martin can be seen in a photo online, carrying a handmade poster that reads, "No more hurting people. Peace." Tsarnaev murdered this child, and others, because, as he himself wrote, according to the Koran 61:10-12, murder of non-Muslims guaranteed him a place "among all the righteous people in the highest levels of heaven." In court, Dr. Henry Nields provided intimate details about exactly what Tsarnaev's bomb did to little Martin's body, and the "overwhelming" pain Martin felt before he bled to death. Participants in the current immigration panic post much about children's welfare. None of them said a word, not on my Facebook page, at least, in 2013 after the death of Martin Richard.

I have never seen a panic prompted by atrocities committed by non-Christian, non-Westerners against other non-Christian, non-Westerners. Communist, officially atheist, traditionally Confucian China puts Muslims in re-education camps. Muslims are forced, against their religious beliefs, to dance, and publicly to declare, "Our income comes from the Communist Party, not Allah." My Facebook contacts show no sign of caring.

Buddhist Burmese commit ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims. Not a peep. According to an April, 2018 report in the New York Times, Hindu men in northern India kidnapped an eight-year-old Muslim girl, committed unspeakable atrocities against her, including gang rape, and murdered her. I saw no evidence that any of my social media contacts were even aware that this occurred. One panic participant plays audio of immigrant children crying. This murdered girl's cries are inaudible to panic participants.

In 2012, Kassim Alhimidi beat his wife, Shaima Alawadi, to death in their California home. He insisted that Islamophobes murdered her. The Alawadi murder was piggybacked with the Trayvon Martin shooting. Linda Sarsour published "My Hijab is My Hoodie." Non-Muslim women donned hijabs and posted their photos online as part of Facebook's "One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi." "Women Worldwide of All Faiths Post Pictures of Themselves in Headscarves After Race Hate Murder" shouted the Daily Mail. After a trial revealed that Alawadi was beaten to death by her husband, there was no social media panic protesting honor killing or Koran verse 4:34 that advises husbands to beat their wives.

On Wednesday, June 20, 2018, at the height of the immigration panic, Lesandro Guzman–Feliz was dragged from a bodega in the Bronx and stabbed to death in the street. His assailants used a machete and other knives. Guzman-Feliz was a good kid, actively pursuing, through the Explorers program for high school students, a career as a police officer. His attackers were members of a Dominican street gang known as the Trinitarios. Video of their atrocity appeared online. Community members expressed despair that bystanders did not intervene. Six of the suspects in the murder were arrested in Paterson, New Jersey, my city.

I posted about Lesandro's murder, and his grieving mother, and other gang-related killings, like the 2007 Newark Schoolyard Shootings. Terrance and Natasha Aeriel, Iofemi Hightower, Dashon Harvey, all good, African American kids, were shot by MS 13 gang members in a schoolyard in Newark. I was teaching in Newark at the time. I remember the palpable tension between Blacks and Hispanics on the public buses I took to and from work. I invited those involved in the immigration panic to mourn, with me, for Iofemi Hightower and Lesandro Guzman-Feliz. I invited them to consider how their feelings might differ if they lived in neighborhoods where gang murders occurred. None responded.

DIVORCE FROM OBJECTIVE REALITY. Perhaps the surest proof that the social media panic is a ritualized behavior is its theatrical divorce from objective reality. One would think that those engaged in the panic would focus on changing laws, taking up a collection, or volunteering to contribute to others alleviating the human suffering in question. In fact I have never seen, among my own contacts, a social media panic that involved any of these actions. No donations, no volunteering, no petitioning of elected officials. Hundreds of people are focused on problem X, and, during the social media panic, anyway, none of them does a thing to address the real-world aspects of problem X.

In fact, efforts to alleviate wrong are mocked as a drop in the bucket. Again, Jews and Christians are to "walk humbly with your God." We are not in charge; God is. We can't save the world, but we can donate a small coin, as did the widow. Panic participants reject such efforts as insignificant. The entire edifice must be brought down.

This divorce from objective reality is most obvious to me when it comes to panics involving race. My most fervent social media contacts on race are white liberals who have chosen to live not only in towns with few to no Black residents, they often live in states with few to no Black residents. I've known Chet for over a decade. I've never seen him talk to a Black person. I've never seen a photo on his walls of a Black person. He hosts parties with dozens of guests, none of them Black. He has no idea who Shelby Steele is, or any other Black conservative. Chet is certain that America is a white supremacist hellhole, and that only the ushering in of socialism will change that. 

I've known Igor, a curmudgeon, for a quarter of a century. Igor does not give dollars to bums; he does not send sympathy cards to bereaved friends; he does not pet dogs; he does not wish anyone "Merry Christmas," though he will say "Happy Holidays" if it will piss someone off. I'm not sure he's ever managed to utter two sentences together without a reference to himself.

Igor is one of the most enthusiastic participants in social media panics that I know. The interesting part is not what occurs in his posts; they are boilerplate. "Christians are hypocrites; America is Nazi Germany; my heart bleeds, it bleeds, I tell you, for these poor people of color / immigrants / transsexuals." He's been posting the same script for twenty-five years. Rather, it's the replies that make you sit up and take notice. Igor's hundreds of fans applaud him. "Igor, you are compassionate / empathetic / sensitive / kind / woke." Social media panics, like all theatrical productions, demand OSTENTATIOUS DISPLAY and APPLAUSE.

Panics are also divorced from objective reality in that they are often based on a dubious body of alleged facts. This is nowhere more the case than in the immigration panic. As even mainstream media has pointed out, every feature of the current panic has existed, in greater or lesser form, under previous administrations. In June, 2018, CNN's Brooke Baldwin said to US Senator Tammy Baldwin, "So many people in this country are certainly outraged by the cages, the thermal blankets, and the facilities housing these kids. You know, they were all there in 2014 under President Obama. And my question to you, Senator Baldwin, did you speak up against them then?" Senator Baldwin never replied.

Also in June, 2018, Rachel Maddow melodramatically broke into tears when reporting what she insisted was "new news" just "broken by the Associated Press" that young children were placed in "tender age shelters." This isn't new. "Tender age" was terminology used during the Obama administration. Further, as The Federalist pointed out, in 2105, 21,000 children were separated from parents who had committed crimes. There was no panic that year over those separations. In 2014, the Brookings Institution wrote of 47,000 Central American children who entered the US without any adult. No panic in 2014 condemned the parents who tossed their own children away. I wonder if Rachel Maddow cried when covering what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's heaven-earning bomb did to Martin Richard's little body. I wonder if she even covered that victimized American child at all.

Perhaps the most Orwellian fabrication of the immigration panic was the exploitation and misrepresentation of the suffering of Yanela Hernandez, the toddler featured on TIME's cover as emblematic of children separated from parents. Yanela's father, Denis Javier Varela Hernandez, a port captain, alleged that his wife Sandra, against his wishes, abandoned him and her three other children, paid a coyote six thousand dollars, and attempted to enter America illegally because "she always wanted to experience the American dream." US Border Patrol Agent Carlos Ruiz, who does not in any way resemble Heinrich Himmler, strikes the viewer as a kindly, concerned, Hispanic man. In his CBS This Morning interview, he described his own responsible and compassionate behavior toward this child, whose mother has abused her as a human shield to facilitate her breaking the law.

In fact, though, the entire social media panic over immigration policy is based on absurdity. Participants insist that America is the equivalent of Nazi Germany, and that Donald Trump is the equivalent of Adolf Hitler. They insist that America is racist and that racist America "destroys Black bodies," in the words of lefty darling Ta-Nahisi Coates. And then they go on to insist that the only salvation for Central American immigrants is to be admitted into the racist, sexist, United States, thus, to any rational mind, undermining their beloved Nazi analogies. Can you imagine anyone in 1939 insisting that Jews must be admitted into Nazi Germany? "If America’s so evil, why does the left think immigrants keep coming?" Heather MacDonald asked in the New York Post.

DESTRUCTION RATHER THAN CREATION. These panics always invoke destruction of their stock demons as cure. This focus on destruction is related to the participants' rejection of the Judeo-Christian emphasis on self-examination, confession of sin, and rededication to participation in God's plan of salvation through humble service. Panic participants do not examine themselves. They are utterly unaware of their own hypocrisy, their own unthinking, trance-like theatricality. Rather, they scrutinize their chosen demons, obsessively seeking evidence of their cherished sins: racism, sexism, homophobia. Unlike Jews and Christians, who examine themselves, confess their sins, and rededicate themselves to obedient service to God and their fellow humans, panic participants do not serve. They do not feed the hungry, or cloth the naked. Their underlying assumption, expressed or not, is that such acts are a waste of time. Western Civilization is hopelessly corrupt. The widow donating her tiny coin, the Lamed Vov Tzadikam's humble and anonymous adherence to God's law, are worse than useless. What is needed is a violent revolution that will take down the entire corrupt edifice of Western Civilization.

During the immigration panic, I repeatedly pointed out that Maryknoll and other Christian organizations have been working in Central America for years. Indeed, not a few martyrs have given their lives to such work. See, for example, Sister Maura Clarke and her companions. Aid organizations accept donations, and they offer many volunteer opportunities for persons eager to help Central Americans. I mentioned Father Gregory J Boyle, whose Homeboy Industries helps rehabilitate former gang members. These posts were, for the most part, ignored.

The POLITICAL SYSTEM of a social media panic is ONE-PARTY RULE. Its ECONOMICS are MONOPOLISTIC. The contested COMMODITY is VIRTUE. Only one side may lay claim to it. The THEOLOGY of a social media panic is MANICHAEAN. Those involved in the moral panic are virtuous. Participants flamboyantly display their commitment to orthodoxy, and, thus virtue. Public declarations of the CREED are as loud and repetitive as the fall of a hammer in a blacksmith's shop. There is no such thing as one's private conscience during a panic. One must be seen to be declaring the creed, loudly, repetitively, in lockstep.

Gad Saad observed that during the 2018 immigration panic, UNESCO tweeted the phrase "No human being is illegal" ten times. Saad said that anyone who uses simple repetition to make a point is the intellectual equivalent of a kindergartner. UNESCO is a piker. I have Facebook friends who have posted dozens of times that Trump's America is the equivalent of Nazi Germany.

Those who do not make public declarations of fealty to orthodoxy are accused and purged. As one of my social media contacts put it, anyone who disagreed with him about immigration is "Satanic." Any solution to the problem at hand can come only from the only virtuous side. There can be no negotiation, no compromise, no listening to one's opponent. 

The heterodox are purged. Normally grandmotherly Betty issues fiats. "If you agree with ___, you are not fit to associate with. Your exposing me to your toxic bigotry poisons my world. I have a chronic illness, and just reading your posts worsens my symptoms. I am an open-minded, caring, empathetic, nurturing person, and I'd like nothing more than to invite all my Facebook friends over for a big meal of my special, homemade jambalaya, but I will not allow haters on my page. Please remove yourself, or I will unfriend you."

Those who refuse to repeat the creed are challenged. Example: "If you don't agree that Roseanne's post is racist, and is part of systematic, structural oppression of Black people in this country, unfriend me right now." During the Charlottesville social media panic, I received negative feedback because I refused to sign on with the phrase that "Charlottesville is the world epicenter of hate." "What about ISIS-controlled territory? North Korea? The caste system?" I asked. I was unfriended and blocked by two men because I recommended that we attempt to understand, and initiate dialogue with, white nationalists, rather than to demonize and ostracize these men who are, like it or not, our fellow citizens. In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that liberals are more likely to unfriend someone because that person's political views differ from their own.

David Horowitz, a former leftist, has written, "Tainting and ostracism of sinners is in fact the secret power of the leftist faith … This spectacle … is a warning to others not to try [independent thought.] … The community of the left is a community of meaning and is bound by ties that are fundamentally religious … For the left [politics] is the path to social redemption … it is about us being on the side of the angels, and them as the party of the damned."

After Horowitz left the left, stripped of elevating ideology, "For the first time in my conscious life, I was looking at myself in my human nakedness, without the support of revolutionary hopes, without the faith in a revolutionary future – without the sense of self-importance conferred by the role I would play in remaking the world. For the first time in my life I confronted myself as I really was in the endless march of human coming and going. I was nothing."

Well, yes. "What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" asks Psalm 8. And yet, Judaism counsels each person to feel as if God created the world just for him. Christianity teaches that "Jesus died for you." Jews' and Christians' intimate connection with a loving God serves as a shield against human insignificance. We don't have to save the world. We can't. We participate with God in nurturing the world, through the acts we are capable of performing that, feeble though they are, mean much to God.

Horowitz's powerful words spark compassion in my heart as I think of my latest unfriending. I posted a brief objection to ubiquitous and constant equations of Trump's America with Nazi Germany. One of my Facebook contacts called me a liar – she insisted, astoundingly, that she had seen no such comparisons. I briefly and politely indicated that I do not interact with those who falsely accuse me of lying. My Facebook contact responded, at length, in ten different posts. I read none of them. I responded to none of them. Finally, after three days of her posting every day, she sent me a private message, over three hundred words long, accusing me and our "conversation" of exacerbating her health problems, deepening her depression, causing her to obsess on death, and "shutting her up." She also sent me a TED talk on empathy, entitled, "How I Have Conversations with People Who Hate Me."

Applying the insights provided by Horowitz, we can see that my former Facebook friend had invested her very identity in her open-borders stance. To encounter someone who does not share her point of view didn't just irritate her, it devastated her. Social media panics are not about alleviating suffering. They are about the universal human urge to use religious ritual to establish identity. They are serious business indeed.

Quotes are taken from The Collected Writings of David Horowitz: The Black Book of the American Left IX: Ruling Ideas. Los Angeles: Second Thoughts Books, 2017: 166, 144.

This piece first appeared at Front Page Magazine, here


Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete and Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype. Her book God through Binoculars will be out later this year.



Sunday, June 17, 2018

Happy Father's Day 2018

My dad and my brother Joe


Every abused kid faces this question: disclose, or live a lie?

Abuse survivors live like someone sliding down the wrong side of a cheese grater. We must develop moves that civilians never even need to imagine.

And it never stops. Getting out of the house is no escape. I could not have managed, decades ago, when I ran out, that I'd be as old as I am now, and still making those moves worthy of Shaun White, Olympic snowboard champion.

There are problems with disclosure, and problems with non-disclosure.

If you don't disclose, you live a lie. No one can ever have any idea who you are.

If you disclose, one of the biggest problems is this. Some-not-all civilians exploit your misfortune to elevate their own status.

"Oh, you were abused.

Oh, your abuser was evil. Low class. Stupid. Irredeemable. Less than I, the pure civilian who would never harm a child. I'm rational. I'm fair. I'm kind. I'm above-it-all. I do everything right.

And you, the abuse survivor. You're probably wounded and inferior and dirty and I need to be magnanimous with you. Did you know that abuse survivors are ninety percent more likely to be abusers themselves? It's a good thing you never had kids. And I will be sure never to leave you alone with any kid I have. In fact I will go out and have a kid just so I can be sure never to leave you alone with that kid.

If you and I ever disagree about anything, from a presidential candidate to how much a tip to leave, I will say something like, 'Well, with your history, I can understand how you'd say something that stupid.'"

I wish I could say that it isn't like that, but it is like that.

So, you don't disclose, and civilians have no idea what you went through, and no idea who you are, or you do disclose, and civilians have no idea what you went through and no idea who you are.

A few things.

The folks who hurt me are full human beings. They have their own histories, which I do not feel free to disclose. I can say that every one of them went through various tracts of Hell that you probably can't even imagine.

The other day I was chatting with Liron and I mentioned, in passing, just one biographical event that one of my abusers went through. Liron was aghast. Of course I'm in the US and she is in Israel, so I'm guessing at her reaction. She wrote, "Oh, God … " When someone writes "Oh, God dot dot dot," you gather that what they've heard has overwhelmed them and they don't know what else to say.

But then, political being that she is, she followed up with, "But he was white, so his story is of no importance. White privilege."

Yeah. The hell that this loved one went through was, well, it was hell. But, he was white, so it has no importance.

That's it about my entire family. What courage, what strength, what endurance they managed to marshal, has no importance. And now, with my brother Joe's recent death, they are all but all gone. When I'm taking my dirt bath, that history dies forever, and no one will ever know. And rich, white liberals will slather over all that history with "white privilege."

Otto wrote an essay for my blog called "Ripples of Sin." You can read it at the link below.

Otto talks about having been an abused kid. Otto is very frank. He does identify his father as an abuser, and, indeed, a former Nazi officer.

I knew Otto in high school and I met his dad. I know more details about the abuse than Otto goes into in that account. They are very tough. You would not want anyone to do to you what was done to Otto. I wish that, as a seventeen-year-old girl, I had had superpowers, and I could have rescued my classmate. I did not, and I regret it. Really. I look back on that time and "not rescuing Otto" is a big hole in my life story.

When Otto and I chat now, every now and then, he will mention his dad. Otto may catch sight, in a wrought iron fence, of a bad weld. Or a good weld. Pretty much always, Otto's voice is full of admiration for what a great, strong, competent, proud iron worker his dad was. How much Otto learned by watching his dad work with iron. Otto is no slouch himself. He learned to work with his hands somewhere, from someone. His dad.

Me? One day I went for a walk. Heck, every day I go for a walk. It was summer, and in Jersey in summer you can assume that on any give afternoon, the sky is suddenly going to morph from benign, creamy, Disney blue to bruised, sun-strangling, mammatus clouds.

I was in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and I had not thought to bring any rain gear. The storm came up that suddenly. I wasn't really sure how to get back to the house I was visiting. The rain was pelting down. My shirt was becoming transparent and I was shivering. My head switched back and forth, disoriented. Had I turned on this road, in this anonymous suburb, or …???

An SUV pulled up. It was a family member. Someone who had done some pretty bad things to me. Things that, if I told you, would make you go, "Oh My God dot dot dot." This person was aware that I had gone for a walk in an unfamiliar neighborhood and left without rain gear. This person got into an SUV and drove around randomly until I was found. I got into the SUV and was given a safe ride back to shelter.

My family is the only family that has ever lived in the house in which my brother Joe just passed away. I'm not asking for replays of memories of that house, and its now deceased inhabitants: my mother, whose hand I held as she died in my childhood bedroom, my father, who also died in my childhood bedroom, Joe, Mike, Phil, who died on my birthday, Antoinette, who died just three years ago as I was massaging her feet. Even though I am not summoning up these memories, they are pounding against my eyeballs as if Joe's death had installed a Dolby cinema projector into my brain.

Yesterday, I was trying to take a relaxing bath, and all of a sudden I found myself, with my family, at Fountain Spring Lake. The sky was so blue. The sun struck every one of the bubbles from the springs pumping out water and turned the bubbles into baubles, into frothy gems between my little girl toes.

Facebook friend Rusty said something to me about how I can write about my family with so much love. Love is what is real. Evil is the absence of God, and its substance will not withstand. "Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning." "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

Romeo Dallaire, the United Nations officer who was a peacekeeper in Rwanda during the genocide, said that he believes in evil, because he witnessed it. He touched it. And he said he believes in God as well, for the same reason. During the genocide, he felt the palpable presence of both evil, and God.

As a child, I witnessed evil, face to face. I recognized that evil is not a person, it is a force that a person surrenders to, however temporarily.

God, too, is real. Like Romeo Dallaire, I know that from my encounter with evil. I encountered God, as well, and no matter how many snarky things atheists and Christophobes say to me, I know that my God is real.

So Happy Father's Day. Here's a picture of my dad and my brother Joe.

And here is Otto's essay:


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

"First Reformed" 2018 Paul Schrader.



Paul Schrader's New Film "First Reformed" 
Promises Unique Insights Into Christianity
It Delivers the Cliché Rich, White, Male, American Villain 
and a Perverse Distortion of Jihad.

As soon as I heard about "First Reformed," I knew I had to see it. Reviewers were calling it a "masterpiece." Rotten Tomatoes assigns "First Reformed" a 98% rating. Screenwriter and director Paul Schrader has been nominated for or won just about every big award there is. He wrote the scripts for "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "Affliction," and "The Last Temptation of Christ."

Schrader was raised in the Reformed Church. He attended a Christian high school and college. He thought about becoming a minister. Schrader said he was inspired in the making of "First Reformed" by "Ida," a 2013 Polish film whose central character is a nun.

One of the first things the viewer notices about "First Reformed" is the aspect ratio. Most modern films are rectangular in shape, and they stretch from edge to edge of the wide cineplex screen. Films from Hollywood's Golden Age are more square-shaped than movies made today. "First Reformed" is filmed in 1:33 aspect ratio, as was "Ida." The image is square-shaped; the sides do not stretch to the edges of the screen. At first, I wondered if a theater technician would arrive to adjust the projector. When no technician arrived, I realized that Schrader had made a conscience artistic choice.

Pawel Pawlikowski, who made "Ida," chose the 1:33 ratio to recreate the "antiquated" look of a 1950s TV screen. Was Schrader saying, with this old-fashioned aspect ratio, that religious faith is old-fashioned, and has no place in the modern world? There are other clues in "First Reformed" that might support that interpretation. Rev. Toller, the main character, uses a flip phone. He drives an old car. These accoutrements could also be explained as exemplary of his poverty. Some reviewers say that the aspect ratio is meant to communicate claustrophobia. Religious faith closes you in, limits you. Schrader himself said that the aspect ratio is about "withholding" from his audience.

The second thing the viewer notices is that the very first image, that remains onscreen for some time, would be perfectly at home in the opening of a horror film. The first image is that of a church, specifically, a two-hundred-fifty-year-old, Protestant, New England church from the colonial era. With its white clapboard siding, plain, high steeple, and Greek revival lines, the church announces, loud and clear: the birth of the United States, Protestantism and the Enlightenment, the cultural matrix from which America emerged. That such a quintessentially American structure would be so closely associated with horror films caused me to reflect. I had plenty of time to reflect. "First Reformed" is a slow-moving film, and the image remained onscreen for a long time.

We have a tradition of associating horror with New England architecture. This tradition goes back to Edgar Allan Poe's 1839 short story "The Fall of the House of Usher," inspired by a Boston mansion built in 1684. In 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne published "The House of the Seven Gables," also about a seventeenth-century New England home. Too, Stephen King lives in Maine. Our authors, true to our Western tradition of self-criticism, have looked long and hard at the sins of our ancestors, like the Salem witch trials and the slave trade that built many New England fortunes.

Churches like the one in "First Reformed" are our cultural ancestors. It is good that we can criticize the bad that came of our tradition, but maybe it is time to reassess why it is so easy to associate its signatures with horror films. Maybe now is as good a time as any to find the best in our past. If an American film opened with a shot of a mosque, no fan of American popular fiction and film would have any reason to associate the mosque with horror. And, yes, I am mentioning mosques for a reason, as will become clear, below.

The church stands alone and silent. The setting is winter. The most frequently repeated technique of horror film is to focus for a long time on something ostensibly benign, but known to the audience to be a trope of hidden danger – a church, a doll, the hallway of a family home. Movies require action and tension. If the camera is focused on an immobile, benign object that appears to be in conflict with nothing, the tension builds inside the viewer herself. That inner tension springs when, at the last minute, something horrific explodes onto the screen. Paul Schrader is a Hollywood veteran. He knows all this. And, indeed, something quite horrific, bloody, gory, and frightening will explode out of this church and onto this screen. But not just yet. This is an art movie; the viewer must exercise patience.

A. O. Scott, writing in the New York Times, also found "First Reformed" to be evocative of horror. Scott says that horror films scare us with a supernatural presence, whereas "First Reformed" is about a horrifying supernatural absence, specifically, the absence of God. Scott quotes a poem. "The breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land," that is, America. Our nation is now Godless.

Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Toller. In films like this, the viewer always looks for meaning in character names. Toller may indeed be an allusion to John Donne's line, "send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee." This is a quote from a poem that emphasizes that no man is alone, but, rather, his fate is intertwined with all other fates. The other message in the line is a memento mori. When you hear a funeral bell, Donne counsels, don't ask for whom the funeral is being held. It's ringing for you. "Toller," the ringer of the bell, is here to inform you that we are all doomed. And by "we" the movie means humans, plants and animals as well. As usual, one can hold out hope for cockroaches.

Rev. Toller is in his late 40s. His son was killed in Iraq. His wife left him. Toller is pastor in upstate New York. In a poignant scene, Toller shows visiting children a secret door in the church. This door leads to a hiding place for escaping slaves. The church was a way station on the Underground Railroad. Nowadays, though, Toller doubts the church's relevance. The church is now more of a way station for tourists, who visit its giftshop and buy t-shirts, hats and other tchotchkes emblazoned with its logo. A good percentage of Toller's dwindling congregants are women he has had sex with and rejected, and women who want to have sex with him but haven't yet. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is a parishioner who is a member of the latter group. Do I have to tell you what to make of the name "Mary"? Mary is the Madonna, the mother of Jesus Christ.

Ethan Hawke's face is alive to every nuance of every utterance. When teaching the children about the Underground Railroad, he is authentically paternal. When counseling one of his nuttier congregants, he is authentically gritty and sardonic. I so wish Hawke's Oscar-worthy performance were in a richer, deeper film. His performance's quality and intensity diminishes everything else onscreen, nothing of which is as well-crafted.

Amanda Seyfried never elevates Mary beyond "generic blonde." Toller's superior, Rev. Jeffers, is played by the charismatic Cedric Kyles. The viewer is curious about Jeffers, a large, handsome black minister in a bespoke suit who shepherds a megachurch. Is he, unlike Toller, sincere in his faith? Is he a prosperity gospel con artist with a private jet? Is he schtupping his parishioners? We never plumb Jeffers' character. The script allows Jeffers to say only enough to be a convenient foil for Toller. Philip Ettinger is gifted with a juicy part as a would-be terrorist, but his zealous obsession never rises above the pique of a couch potato whose favorite TV show was pre-empted by breaking news.

Toller's church interior is typical of a New England, Greek Revival, Protestant, colonial-era church. His living quarters echo the same eras and style. Toller, when at home, walks through the kind of doorways, and looks out the kind of windows, one might see the Thomas Jefferson character pass and gaze through in a film about the Declaration of Independence. The windows are framed with neo-classical columns; the doorways topped with entablatures. Mary's home interior, on the other hand, features Arts and Crafts touches.

Both Toller's home interior and Mary's home interior are almost bare. Toller's has a bed, and that's about it. Mary has a couch and a lamp in the shape of an eyeball. (God sees all. This is an art movie, remember.) Schrader has said that the minimal set reflected his goal to keep things simple. Whether he intended it or not, placing Toller and Mary in architectural settings that their figures never manage to fill had a different impact on this viewer.

Greek Revival, Colonial architecture flourished during this country's founding. In harkening back to the Greek Classical era, our Founders were celebrating rationality and hope. "Man is the measure of all things," the Ancient Greeks said. Give me where to stand, and I can move the world, Archimedes vowed. The Arts and Crafts movement, which inspired Mary's dwelling, flourished at the turn of the twentieth century. It reflected hope as well, along with earthiness and creativity. Toller and Mary are like midgets attempting, and failing, to inhabit the footsteps of giants. The architecture surrounding them, and all that that architecture implies, dwarves them. With their fear, their despair, and their confused failing, they never live up to the ambitions of their cultural ancestors. Like it or not, Lilliputian Mary and Toller, surrounded by resonant architecture, are figures of cultural decay.

Mary's slacker husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), is an environmental terrorist wannabe. "Michael" means "Who is like God?" The answer is no one, and that's certainly true of Michael. Mary is pregnant; Michael wants her to abort his son. Toller, who lost his son in the Iraq war, tells Michael that bringing a child into this world is much better than sending one out. Michael argues that by the time his child is an adult, climate change will have raised the oceans. Overpopulation will have caused famine. Species are dying out at alarming rates. It is a crime, Michael insists, to bring a child into this world. Later, Mary reveals to Toller that she has discovered that Michael has prepared a suicide vest. Toller, rather than reporting the vest to the police, takes it home. Implausible? Well, you tell me. You've got explosives that could kill you; do you really want them in your bedroom? There are easier ways to remodel.

Toller, meanwhile, must duck the attentions of Esther (Victoria Hill), a beautiful, caring, professional, Christian woman who loves Toller and with whom he has made love. When Toller and Esther converse, they do so in front of a wall with Biblical verses written on it in giant lettering. I don't suppose Schrader is often accused of subtlety. Toller wants nothing to do with Esther. Esther clearly cares for Toller, and he can't stand that, possibly because her caring is a reminder to him of what a basket case he is. Possibly because his egotistical rejection of Esther is analogous to his rejection of community, or a caring God. Or maybe it's just that Esther is pushing fifty, a spinster, and she wears glasses and her brown hair in a bun. Mary is younger, has no glasses, and wears her long, blonde hair down. When Toller finally says to Esther, "I despise you," Hawke is cruelly convincing as a cold, jilting lover. 

There is much emphasis on waste. Toller's toilet is clogged. He is shown using a plunger and drain cleaner. Toller urinates blood. Jeffers says that Martin Luther composed "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" while seated in an outhouse, attempting to have a bowel movement. Pastor Jeffers sings the song with scatological emphasis. These references to waste are reflected in Michael's obsession with human waste despoiling the planet.

Michael shoots himself in the head. In an unnecessary scene, that possibly strained the film's low budget, the viewer is treated to a graphic image of a dead body in the snow, brains visible, blood all around. Michael asked that his ashes be scattered at a toxic waste dump. Rev. Toller must stand at the shore of a post-industrial slough and see the world as Michael saw it: doomed.

First Reformed is to celebrate its two-hundred-fiftieth anniversary with a re-consecration. Jeffers has invited Edward Balq (Michael Gaston.) Balq is a rich, white, American, Christian male. He's an industrialist. He manufactures … does it really matter what he manufactures? It's something that is destroying the earth. Anyway. He manufactures paper. Balq reprimands Toller for participating in Michael's dispersal of ashes. Jeffers supports him. After all, Balq donates the money that keeps the door of the church open. In addition to Balq, the governor and many other V.I.P.s will be at the re-consecration. Oh, and Toller has visited a doctor. And the doctor has told him what the viewer has already suspected, seeing his bloody urine. Toller may have cancer.

If you watch as many movies as I do, you know exactly what will happen next. Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously said, "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." Rev. Toller, secret drunk, assuming he's dying anyway, has taken enviro-terrorist Michael's doom-saying to heart. He, Toller, will don the suicide vest. He will do this at the re-consecration, in the presence of all those bad white, Christian, American men who are despoiling the environment. He'll also get rid of Esther, that pious spinster who doesn't have the decency to disappear after exploitative sex.

If you watch as many movies as I do, you will also feel so disappointed. A rich, white, American, Christian industrialist is the bad guy? Really? Talk about a diabolus ex machina – a stereotypical villain who has nothing to do with anything that has gone before, no organic integrity for the movie you've been watching, and none for the real-life issues the film wants to address. For a really villainous white male, Schrader should have just injected Hans Gruber from "Die Hard" into "First Reformed."

A fan review written by thirty-year veteran Pastor Dave Gipson pointed out the silliness of Balq. Churches being "underwritten by evil corporations is not a usual scenario. I know of no churches that receive corporate funding. It simply doesn't work that way. And if Schrader had bothered to ask anyone, they could have told him."

Not just rich, white, American, Christian men damage the environment. It is also damaged by poor agriculturalists who burn forests and increase desertification. In Muslim and Hindu societies, little girls are forced to marry adult men and pump out as many babies as possible as quickly as possible, whether the farmstead can feed them or not. In much of the "Global South," any concept of environmentalism has yet to gain popular support.

If Schrader really wanted a believable villain who uses his money to control what can and cannot be said about theology, he need look no further than Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who writes big checks to Georgetown University, which pumps out pro-Islam "scholarship."

"First Reformed" depicts Toller as utterly isolated, as if no Christian had ever engaged in activism. When Toller attempts to discuss environmental destruction, Jeffers swivels his chair so that its back is facing him. This is nonsense. The current pope, author of "Laudato si': On Care for Our Common Home," has linked environmentalism with Christian faith. There are the Berrigan brothers, Jim Wallis, Martin Sheen, The Catholic Worker and the Nuns on the Bus. There are Christian communities, like the Amish, who live with minimal modern conveniences. There are eco-friendly Bruderhofs, Christian communes, in New York state, close to the setting of "First Reformed." If Rev. Toller really wanted to help the environment, he would have many Christian allies. Indeed, he would have allies in industry. There is nothing the modern industrialist wants more than a "clean" image.

Since 9-11, The Religion of Peace website claims, Muslim terrorists have carried out tens of thousands of terror attacks. Suicide attacks are "the preferred tactic of Islamist terror organizations." Children, from Africa to Israel to Afghanistan to Indonesia, are frequently deputized to carry out suicide attacks. In 2017, the United Nations reported that, "Since 2014, 117 children – more than 80 per cent of them girls – have been used in 'suicide' attacks across the region" of Nigeria and Chad. How many Dutch Reformed ministers in upstate New York have donned suicide vests? And yet "First Reformed" depicts Toller and Jeffers bemoaning "jihadism" among Christians. One reviewer called the film a "Calvinist jihad."

A website quotes Schrader equating Christianity and Islam. Christians, Schrader insisted, are prey to "a jihadist fantasy. It’s not much different than the Muslim kid who has that same fantasy. Christians have been having it for thousands of years … It is built into the DNA of Christianity. Christianity can be jihadistic just as easily as Islam."

In one interview, posted online in Italian, Schrader said his character's donning of a suicide vest is, "Part of Christendom. Christianity started as a blood cult, you had to sacrifice animals … Songs like the one in the film where they say 'Did you wash yourself in the blood?' What does it mean to wash oneself in the blood? … This is jihadism. When we talk about Muslim 'madmen' and their jihad, we should remember that this aspect of our religious tradition, however, is like jihadism!"

Paul Schrader exploits the MacGuffin, or plot device, of a suicide vest to solve his problem. What is Schrader's problem? This – spirituality is largely an interior phenomenon. Spirituality is about what people think, feel, hope, and work toward over years. Movies are about grabbing the viewer's attention with sensational, novel, action. Exploding cars, or, for something really new, an exploding car being driven by Godzilla. As Schrader said in an interview, "Everything inside cinema rebels against spirituality. Cinema is based on action and based on empathy. These are not elements in the transcendental toolkit. In many ways, people who try to do spiritual or contemplative films are working against the grain of the medium itself."  

Wait, there's more. Movies are about sex and violence. We've already addressed the violence. Let's address the sex.

One night, Mary shows up at Rev. Toller's residence. She asks to lie on top of him. My first thought: the movie has suggested that he has cancer in his abdomen. Isn't having a pregnant woman lying on top of him going to hurt? Guess not. As Mary lies on top of Toller, their bodies levitate – another trope from horror films, specifically "The Exorcist" – and they float through blissful space. They envision magnificent nature scenes. Then they see environmental destruction. Afterward, Toller insists that Mary not attend the re-consecration. He's ready, willing and able to blow Esther up, but not Mary.

Now, Mary is a young, pregnant woman whose terrorist husband just committed suicide. She's got to be feeling at least three different species of crippling trauma. The script doesn't allow Mary even to hint at the kind of agony, rage, and fear that a real woman would undergo under such circumstances. Mary is merely a mannequin there to function as Toller needs her to function. This "daring" "progressive" movie is as misogynist as atheists imagine Christianity to be.

The day of the re-consecration, Toller dons the suicide vest. If nothing else, I thought, this movie is going to go out with a bang. Toller looks out the window. Mary, against his wishes, has shown up. Drat. Toller removes the suicide vest, and does what any one of us would do under similar circumstances. He wraps his chest in barbed wire, lacerating and bloodying himself. "If it bleeds, it leads." Schrader, not himself a man of faith, with no other cards to play, keeps eyeballs on the screen with shock value.

Inside the church, Esther begins singing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," a song about how comforting faith is. Esther is an inferior fool. Esther doesn't care about the environmental degradation of the planet! Esther is too clingy and pious to confront man's meaningless isolation in an uncaring universe! Esther wallows in religion's phony comfort.

Toller, wearing barbed wire the way a Tannenbaum wears tinsel, pours himself a frat-house-sized helping of drain cleaner. Sure, he's going to off himself in the most painful way possible, but he's also doing something far more important in an art film. He's creating a metaphor. He is clogged with waste. He needs to be cleaned out. Just like the planet! As he is about to raise the glass to his lips, Mary opens the door. She sees bloodied Toller preparing to scarf down poison. She rushes to him and slathers him with passionate kisses. Hey. It would make for an unforgettable Drano ad.

Ending with sex, Schrader takes the same route that "Ida" took. "Ida" is a slow, quiet bore of a movie centered on an all but silent, not particularly bright Catholic nun. As this black-and-white, subtitled snooze-fest limps to its close, the nun removes her veil and she has sex.

The one interesting character in "Ida" is Wanda. Wanda is a sexy, complicated smart-mouth. Wanda is based on Helena Wolińska-Brus, a Soviet-era Communist judge who sent many Polish heroic anti-Nazi fighters to torture, death, and unmarked graves. Nuns are stupid and boring. Communist murderers are sexy, smart, and complex. This is the movie that inspired "First Reformed." 

"First Reformed"'s problems are reflective of many films made by atheists about believers. The atheist stereotype is that those of us who believe in God are stupid, pious, bores – like poor Esther, who is worthy to be blown up, or Ida the nun, who is only interesting in the final scenes, when she removes her habit and spreads her legs. Schrader and Pawlikowski both prescribe, in their films, the antidote for crises of faith. One must get laid. To both these directors I would say, with Blaise Pascal, that there is an "infinite abyss" inside every man that "can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."

Ironically, Schrader's film repeatedly references Thomas Merton. Merton had everything a man could want. He enjoyed worldly success and certainly lots of sex. And Merton gave it all up to become a cloistered monk. Church history includes many who "had it all" and threw it all away to live spiritual lives. Saint Augustine, Katharine Drexel, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius Loyola, movie star Dolores Hart, model Olalla Oliveros, some-time actor Karol Wojtyla, all left varying degrees of wealth, privilege, success, power and happiness to pursue something that Paul Schrader never manages to hint at in "First Reformed."

This essay first appears at the FrontPageMag website here.

Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete and Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype. Her book God through Binoculars will be out later this year.



Tuesday, June 5, 2018

In Search of Bread and Butter Leaves. A Trip to Steam Town in Scranton, PA

In search of bread and butter leaves.

For many, many years I have wanted to return to Scranton, PA, and its nearby suburb of Throop. I grew up in NJ, the land of Sinatra and The Sopranos, Philip Roth, Bruce Springsteen, and Ruben Hurricane Carter. New Jersey is diverse, but in the New Jersey of my childhood, certain ethnic groups dominated: Italians, Blacks, Dutch, Puerto Ricans, Jews. Mine were not in the mix. In this very diverse state, *we* were weird.

When I went to Throop, though, it was *normal* to be Polish and Slovak.

My memories of childhood visits to family there are mostly good. I remember a mountain that glowed blue and smelled of sulfur. I remember polka dancing and abundant wild mushrooms my Polish relatives gathered and home-canned.

My parents were immigrant kids during the Depression, and they experienced real hardship. My mother remembered receiving cardboard shoes from the Poor Board. She used to remove her shoes while walking to school and walk along railroad tracks – easier on the feet.

My dad talked about being sent to reform school, St. Michael the Protector. My mom talked about reading Street and Smith romances by streetlight. I can now google "St Michael the Protector" and "Street and Smith" and discover something of the lost world of my parents' childhood.

There was one thing they talked about that I've never been able to track down. They said that, during the Depression, when they were very poor and very hungry, they used to go into the woods and find something called "bread and butter leaves." What were these leaves? For years I've tried to find the answer, but I am still unsure.

I just now Googled "bread and butter leaves" and I find some references that were not on the web the last time I did this search. Some call hawthorn leaves "bread and butter leaves." Now it is my duty to eat a hawthorn leaf and see if it tastes like bread and butter.

My mother used to tell me that the most delicious thing she ever ate was the beet cakes of her native Slovakia. When we finally went to her village and ate those beet cakes, I wanted to throw up. I hope I don't have the same reaction to bread and butter leaves.

During my trip to Scranton, I visited #SteamTown, a museum dedicated to steam trains. At first, I thought that I would not like it, that going there was just a traveler's duty. But I LOVED Steam Town. In fact, I cried.

I value order, and human creativity, and energy, and progress. These trains represent all these virtues. In their presence, I felt as if I were in the presence of vast, iron poems. Each part was so carefully calibrated to correspond to another part. All the parts are perfectly calibrated to perform together. The blood, sweat and tears that went into these trains moved me greatly.

When the steam train era passed, it took so much muscle and passion and poetry, discipline and ambition with it. We live in a different world.

Explanation of pictures of me with the signs. I mention Scranton, and Throop, in "God through Binoculars." I may use these pictures someday in relation to the book.