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Sunday, June 26, 2016

"Free State of Jones" 2016 Moving, Authentic, Important

"Free State of Jones" is a moving, authentic, important film. Matthew McConaughey gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Newton Knight, an historic figure. I forgot I was watching Matthew McConaughey and felt that I was watching Newton Knight. I've really never seen a performance quite like McConaughey's here. His Newt Knight is the most manly man in any room – or swamp – and yet he is also as tender as a mother.

In the early Civil War battle scenes, he plays a nurse. Knight is not shown mowing down the enemy with impressive, explosive gunfire. Rather, he is shown risking enemy fire in order to save men's lives, or to retrieve and bury the corpse of a boy shot in battle on his first day. My tears flowed freely during these scenes. Later, Knight himself cries after one of his men is hanged. But Knight gets his revenge, an eye-for-an-eye revenge scene that I won't soon forget.

Newton Knight was a white Mississippi farmer. He was the grandson of a slaveholder, but Knight owned no slaves himself. He served in the Confederate army, but deserted in 1862, after serving for almost a year. He was outraged by the Twenty Negro Law, that allowed families who owned twenty slaves to exempt one family member from service for every twenty slaves they owned.

Knight and other deserters formed The Free State of Jones, declaring their loyalty to the Union, and flying the stars and stripes rather than the stars and bars. After the war, Knight worked for Reconstruction and married Rachel, a freed slave woman. His children also married cross-racially. He died in 1922. As might be expected, he is a controversial figure in Mississippi. Fans of the Confederacy denounce him as a traitor. Others celebrate him as one white Southerner who had a conscience and resisted white supremacy.

Newt Knight was clearly someone with a bucketload of charisma. His power inspired men to fight to the death against their own nation. McConaughey radiates charisma in this role. He is masterful and yet intimate. I'd follow this Newt Knight into battle and feel proud to do so.

"Free State of Jones" is receiving negative reviews. It's easy to see why. There is something in this film to anger multiple grievance mongers.

First, race hustlers will hate this movie. Race hustlers want the official story to be that all whites are supremacists and all blacks are heroic. A film that depicts a white man who worked for black rights is taboo. Race hustlers anathematized "Mississippi Burning" and "The Help" for the same reason. Such a shame that the race hustlers' ideological blindfolds make it impossible for them to appreciate great art.

Liberals might hate this film for a couple of other reasons. I don't know if I've seen a movie where almost every scene hinges on how guns are used. Almost everyone is armed, and uses those weapons to keep breathing and to settle disputes. Even little girls have guns and use them heroically. Second amendment fans may love this film. It depicts what they dream of: oppressed citizenry taking up arms to defeat their own government.

In addition to clinging to their guns, these rebels cling to their God and their Bibles. This is one of the most religious American films I've seen in a while. It's an historical fact that Newt Knight was a devoutly religious Primitive Baptist – he didn't drink, for example. The film drives home Knight's Christianity. He is shown in a long scene using a quill to record a birth in his Bible. In one heartbreaking scene, a slave who has been sexually molested survives psychologically by reciting verses from Genesis. "Free State of Jones" practices a muscular Christianity. One eye-for-an-eye scene takes place in a church.

Republicans will be torn about "Free State of Jones." On the one hand, Knight, like many populist leaders, preaches against economic inequality. "No man should be poor just so that someone else can be rich." I can hear theater seats squeak as Republicans head for the exits. Knight's words, though, reflect the facts. Poor white Southerners were sabotaged by the slave economy and they knew it. That's why they deserted.

But Republicans, if they sit through the entire film, will see how the Republican Party was the favored choice of freed slaves in the post-Civil-War era.

There is a narrative problem in the film. The viewer expects "Free State of Jones" to end after the Civil War. I actually began tying my sneakers, readying to leave the theater. But the film keeps going in what feels like an anti-climax. Gary Ross, the filmmaker, wants to make a point: the Civil War was *not* the happy ending. The KKK rose up, and Jim Crow became entrenched. Black men who tried to exercise their right to vote were lynched. This is an important point, but the film should have been better structured so its narrative flow didn't stop before the film itself did.

"Free State of Jones" was clearly made by sticklers for authenticity. Everyone looks dirty and tired. The clothes look like clothes people wore in the nineteenth century. A confederate officer's uniform looks baggy and tacky, not sparkling and admirable. Scenes are shot in lamplight. I loved this aspect of the film, as will Civil War re-enactors.

 I review "Conjuring 2" here and "Me Before You" here

"The Conjuring 2" 2016 Un-Scary Schlock, But Vera Farmiga is Great

I'm easily frightened by movies. I've never been able to get through Disney's "Pinocchio." "The Conjuring 2" is one of the least scary movies I've ever seen. I laughed out loud several times. I thought it was so ridiculous, heavy-handed, absurd, over-the-top.

I was actually scared during one scene. Patrick Wilson, as paranormal investigator and allegedly Catholic anti-demon commando Ed Warren, wades into standing water underneath a suburban home. Everyone knows anyone who wades into standing water in a domestic setting risks being electrocuted. Alas, the only menace Warren faces is the cardboard outline of a standard-issue specter who rolls up behind him. Boo!

The other scary factor: how old Franka Potente, who plays paranormal investigator Anita Gregory, has gotten. Back in 1998's "Run Lola Run" Potente was the embodiment of youth. Now … she's in her forties. Scary.

I honestly don't know what filmmaker James Wan was trying to achieve. Was he really trying to make a scary movie, or was he trying to make a meta-commentary on how schlocky scary movies can be? I hope the latter, because that is what he has achieved. The saving grace of the film is the presence of Vera Farmiga, an actress who deserves so much better than this, but who shines like sterling amidst the dross.

"The Conjuring 2," just like the original "The Conjuring," is based on an allegedly true story. In 1977, in Enfield, England, two sisters, 11 and 13, claimed to be experiencing demonic possession. They were the child of a single mother and lived in a council house, that is a government welfare house. There was video footage proving that one of the girls was faking.

Never fear. Ed and Lorraine Warren, an American couple who sold themselves as real live paranormal investigators and exorcists, showed up.

"The Conjuring 2" wallows in 1970s nostalgia. That there even is such a thing as "70s nostalgia" is evidence of the demonic. The men all wear wide lapels and wolfman sideburns. There is a lot of emphasis on retro tech, like bulky reel to reel tape recorders – the kind that actually could capture Satan's voice, whereas today's handheld digital devices just don't pack the same punch.

There is a loooong pointless scene where Patrick Wilson, as Ed Warren, treats the possessed children to an imitation of Elvis Presley singing "I Can't Help Falling In Love with You." Watching this endless scene, I really wondered what was going on with James Wan, the director. Is he tired of cheap, teen horror and does he want a career as an artiste and auteur?

"The Conjuring 2" is really hard to look at. The allegedly haunted Enfield council house is visually repugnant. There are threadbare, royal blue chairs on a threadbare, royal blue rug. If you have any taste at all, you know what horror I dare invoke with these words. Everything in the house is begrimed. It looks as if a toddler had been rolled in molasses and car exhaust and then set loose on every fixture. And of course the family is so poor that they can't afford a single one-hundred watt bulb. The house is kept at forty-watt level throughout the film.

The allegedly scary stuff: kids levitate and speak in deep voices. A scary nun appears. If you've ever gone to Catholic school you are laughing as hard as I was at this point. The nun looks so much like Marilyn Manson that I'm sure his lawyers are asking for their cut of the film's box office.

There are some cinematic classics in the horror genre. James Whale's Frankenstein is indelible. "The Haunting" from 1963 is one of the most profound and disturbing films ever made. These films are about so much more than James Wan's bag of tricks, which consists of sending an impaired person into a dark space – say, Patrick Wilson after he's been partially blinded by escaping steam from a broken radiator, having that person stumble about, holding the camera on one spot for a long time, and then having a scary nun pop suddenly into the frame. Horror classics have something truly menacing and challenging behind the costume.

There is something truly scary behind "The Conjuring 2" and behind the Amityville Horror, another Warren cause celebre. In both cases, we are talking about broken families. We are talking about kids who have troubled relationships with their parents, or absent parents. Shenanigans like the Warren's obscure the real facts that really need to be addressed. At least two of the children who grew up in the Amityville home say that they were abused by their stepfather. We were so busy looking for demons in that house we couldn't see the kids being hurt.

Another disturbing aspect of this film. I'm really sick of James Wan's exploitation of Catholicism, a religion he evidences zero respect for but loves to exploit in order to plump up his box office. Wan is constantly tossing crucifixes, rosaries, and clerical garb onto his piles of junk. Ed Warren, in "Conjuring 2," references the Catholic Church so many times it is monotonous. Wan is from Malaysia, a Muslim majority country. He is himself Chinese. I do not see him denigrating Islam or Confucianism in his films. He wants to avoid any risk of true horror.

I review "Me Before You" here and "Free State of Jones" here.  

"Me Before You" 2016 Moving In Spite of Itself

"Me Before You" was made to appeal to the lowest common denominator. In spite of myself, though, I was moved by and I enjoyed this film.

"Me Before You" is a romance between a perky, poor, not spectacularly beautiful girl and a rich, suicidal, model-handsome quadriplegic. You may have begun gagging already. I understand, and believe me, everything that you fear may be wrong with such a film is wrong with this film. It talks down to its audience. Its play with dangerous ideas is a child playing with matches. And yet, I cried.

I think two things save "Me Before You" in spite of all that's wrong with it.

Sam Claflin plays the part of Will Traynor, the rich, handsome, suicidal quadriplegic. Claflin is young, ripped, and handsome enough to be in a toothpaste commercial. He is really good. I believed everything he did. I was right there with him. I felt his pain and desperation.

Janet McTeer, a multiple-award-winning actress, is the soul of the film. She plays Will's mother. She is given very little to do, but she pops in and out regularly. There is an infinite sadness and terror in her eyes. I'm a former nurse's aide and I'm very familiar with dealing with family members of afflicted people. Janet McTeer is superb. She shows the exact strength, vulnerability, and hoping-against-hope of the loved ones of the wounded and doomed.

"Me Before You"'s plot doesn't do anything you wouldn't expect it to. If you go to the movies to be surprised or intrigued, stop right now. But you already knew that when you saw the movie poster of the perky girl sitting on the lap of the very handsome man in a wheelchair, as they gaze lovingly into each other's eyes.

"Me Before You" takes place in the England that exists only in the imagination of fans of Masterpiece Theater, Jane Austen adaptations, and Merchant Ivory films. This is very much not the England of Sadiq Khan and Brexit or even of royal family scandals.

There are very rich people who also have good taste. There are poor people who are warm, simple-minded, and humble, not at all resentful or bitter about their place. Sort of like Hobbits. There is sweeping, green countryside defined by rambling stone walls and trout streams. There is a big, fat castle – yes, really – overlooking everything.

Weather? It's either blue skies, burgeoning lilacs and hydrangeas, or gently drifting snow outlining the castle battlements, or perfectly formed autumn leaves. Thomas Kinkade is the meteorologist.

Louisa "Lou" Clark is a cutie pie poor girl. Emilia Clarke, who plays Louisa, telegraphs how adorable Lou is in every scene. She is constantly dimpling her cheeks and wriggling her eyebrows as if they were migrating caterpillars looking for a leaf to pupate on. Look, if you wanted to smack Emilia Clarke during every scene of "Me Before You," could you please send me a Facebook friend request? Does the word "subtlety" appear in Emilia Clarke's dictionary? Or "teamwork"? In every scene she demands attention. Actors should never work with babies, animals, or Emilia Clarke.

Lou is supposed to be really poor. Lou never wears the same item of clothing twice. Her clothes are unique designer finds. Her shoes alone would go for a few hundred bucks. Oh, but she's this noble poor girl. Yeah, right.

The filmmakers here keyed their film to teenage girls who love clothes more than life itself and who have short attention spans. My utterly subjective estimate: no scene in the film lasts for more than ninety seconds. You think there's going to be a serious discussion, or even three consecutive lines of dialogue, about the issues at play here: can afflicted people live worthwhile lives? Is suicide ethical? Will this film encourage the handicapped to off themselves? But that never happens.

It's safe to guess that Will's quadriplegia is, to the filmmakers, merely a plot device. Tweener girls find guys attractive, but are anxious about real physical intimacy and all it entails. Also, tweener girls don't want to be obliterated by masculinity. They want to exist in a world where they are the center. And, tweener girls are anxious that they aren't pretty enough.

Thus, "Me Before You" gives tweener girls a very handsome, ripped hero who couldn't engage in physical intimacy even if he wanted to. And he is so needy and so isolated that the tweener girl's cuteness and spunkiness and fashion choices become the center of his world. And she doesn't have to be beautiful to be the center of the universe to this handsome guy who, if he were not a quadriplegic, would be the hottest date in town.

Yes, it is all pretty awful, right down to Lou's boyfriend, who is an endurance athlete obsessed with his physical performance, but insensitive to Lou's emotional needs  – he is meant to contrast with the lovable quadriplegic. One man can run but can't feel. One man can feel but can't walk. Oh good grief.

And yet I cried while watching this film. In spite of everything, Claflin's and McTeer's performances opened my heart.

 I also review "Free State of Jones" here 

and "The Conjuring 2" here

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

"Save Send Delete" is "Fun, Pervy, Christian Apologetics"

Prodigious Amazon reviewer Peter Sean Bradley, who reviews serious books about Catholicism, has posted a review of Save Send Delete. Please rush on over to Amazon and buy Save Send Delete today. It is relatively cheap lately. (Prices go up and down.) The Amazon page for Save Send Delete is here.

Peter's review is below. You can see it at Amazon here

This is an unusual book of apologetics.

There are other "correspondence-style" books that consist of the exchange of correspondence between believer and non-believer, or between varieties of non-believers. Such books used to consist of exchanges of letters, but e-mails have taken over. What these books have in common is that they are published with the agreement of both sides and the "form" of the exchange is only in the background.

This book is far different from the norm. In this book, the reader sees only one side of the exchange, that of the believer, the non-believer's side being omitted out of a respect for his privacy. This format makes the presentation "choppy" and sometimes requires the interpolation of information from subsequent emails to make sense of the topics referenced in prior emails. This "choppy" reading experience is common to anyone with experience reading another person's email chain (as a lawyer, I know this experience), and there are times when I really, really wished I could see what the non-believer had written.

The book is also unusual in being a kind of roman a clef. The author insists that this is a real email exchange with a real atheist doyen. She calls the atheist Lord Randolph Court-Wright, Marquis of Alnwick, "Rand" for short, and offers clues to his identity - English, tall, good-looking, on television - which are tempting clues. (She also provides interludes with her friend, an actress who - maybe - accepted the role of DA in Batman.).) Take the clues at face value..or not.

The book opens with the author sending a long email upbraiding "Rand" for things he said as part of a Bill Moyers' presentation. Moyers had introduced Rand as a "skeptic," but, as is typical of the modern variety of "skeptic, Goska observes " were as dogmatic in your atheism as a Monty Python parody of a pope." Goska challenges Rand with the fact that Western science has always been braided with religious Commitment. Goska also challenges Rand's manhood by arguing that his commitment to atheism may just have a lot to do with being a sexual and social loser in the high school hierarchy. (She also mentions Jung's "synchronicity" in her first email, which will come back in a later email.)

Goska, or the character in her book - I honestly could not tell if these emails were entirely bona fide or invented - is surprised – shocked! mortified! – when Rand responds.

One of the interesting features of the modern internet age is how the mythic/legendary figures that we never used to interact with suddenly pop up on the internet as real human beings with real feelings. As an Amazon reviewer, I know how it feels when the living person who bled and fought to put their thoughts and feeling into a text reaches out to critique my critique of their work.

The email conversation then takes off in the usual direction that emails conversations take – everywhere, i.e., the existence of God, the problem of evil, the meaning of life, etc.

Goska is not in any sense a trained Christian apologist, and I suspect that she has absolutely no desire to be a Christian apologist in any formal sense. She is, however, a thinking person and a Catholic and she has thought about the great questions from her life experience as reflected through the prism of lived Catholicism. This makes her presentation substantially different from the normal "debates" that these kinds of books take. Most of her arguments do not fall in the great patterns of apologetic arguments, which may be why Rand probably found countering her arguments baffling (and she is not afraid of simply telling Rand that his arguments are nonsense, which must have been a new experience for him.) For example, in what I thought was the best part of the book, after Rand raised the atheist's chestnut of the "problem of evil" – which they can milk for all its emotional worth – Goska appealed to her own experience of suffering – and that of people she knows – to turn the emotional appeal around on him:

"Atheists like you say that you can't believe in God because there is so much suffering in the world. That's imperialism. You presume to speak for others, others who do not want you to speak for them. You start with the Holocaust. Fair enough. Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who rescued Jews. Not only was she still a Christian after her imprisonment in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, she prayed for, and received, God's gift of forgiveness when one of the cruelest camp guards approached her after the war. Oswald Rufeisen, a Jewish survivor, became a monk. Elie Weisel, who survived Auschwitz, believes."

Atheists point to suffering from the outside, not the inside. We all do. We look at a person who has been crippled and we wonder how he could live that way because we can't imagine ourselves living that way, but people do get crippled and they find joy and love – and, yes, even value – in their life as it exists. Atheists are good at expressing the horror of suffering, but they may not understand suffering from their privileged outsider perspective.

As someone who lives in the inner city and teaches the disadvantaged, and because of her own health care issues, Goska appreciates the significance of analyzing suffering from the inside. That perspective allows one of the best paragraphs on the subject I have ever read:

"Ninety percent of the suffering people I know choose, not to work their way out of the Hell to which fate has condemned them, but to upholster it. My students, my friends, visibly, actively choose to exacerbate the most hated features of their lives. Dating an abusive man? Heck, why not up the ante and get pregnant by him. Working a dead-end job? Here's a great idea – start drinking. That will really improve things. Lost everything in a flood, fire, war, and brokenhearted over that? A suggestion – don't, whatever you do, move on; don't enjoy the present moment. Cling to your memories of what is gone, and your sense of yourself as a victim."

I know a lot of people who suffer because they are in the business of "upholstering" their own private Hell. (This is not a question of blaming individuals; it is a question of recognizing human nature.)

Goska also makes the common sense observation:

"It wasn't suffering per se that made me a better person. It was my response to it. I had two choices: to be sucked under, to become a monster from which my best self would recoil, or to strive to keep my head above water. As best as I was able, I chose the latter – I strove. I approached every feature of my suffering: loneliness, pain, paralysis, despair, terror, rage, waste, poverty, as an obstacle on a course I was running for my own spiritual growth in the eyes of God – and, nobody else. That choice is what made all the difference."

Atheists, of course, argue that God could have done it different – he could have made self-improvement a matter of scoring well on tests or something equally trite, which never answers the question of whether this would actually end suffering; perhaps, the new standard of suffering would be "failing a test."

Atheists don't answer the problem of suffering so much as make suffering meaningless. A Christian – specifically, a Catholic Christian – accepts that the reason God uses suffering is not known to us presently but accepts that God must have a good reason for it, particularly since He suffered in his humanity in the Passion and the Crucifixion. In my own time of suffering, I discovered Pope John II's Salvifici Dolores, in particular this passage:

"8. In itself human suffering constitutes as it were a specific "world" which exists together with man, which appears in him and passes, and sometimes does not pass, but which consolidates itself and becomes deeply rooted in him. This world of suffering, divided into many, very many subjects, exists as it were "in dispersion". Every individual, through personal suffering, constitutes not only a small part of that a world", but at the same time" that world" is present in him as a finite and unrepeatable entity. Parallel with this, however, is the interhuman and social dimension. The world of suffering possesses as it were its own solidarity. People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation, the trial of their destiny, or through their need for understanding and care, and perhaps above all through the persistent question of the meaning of suffering. Thus, although the world of suffering exists "in dispersion", at the same time it contains within itself a. singular challenge to communion and solidarity."


"29. Following the parable of the Gospel, we could say that suffering, which is present under so many different forms in our human world, is also present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one's "I" on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love which stirs in his heart and actions. The person who is a " neighbour" cannot indifferently pass by the suffering of another: this in the name of fundamental human solidarity, still more in the name of love of neighbour. He must "stop", "sympathize", just like the Samaritan of the Gospel parable. The parable in itself expresses a deeply Christian truth, but one that at the same time is very universally human."

An atheist might hand-waive about the evolutionary significance of "compassion," but confining it to a purely material world is a challenge.

And this is what happens to Rand when he is forced to explain to a suffering person why that suffering person should not end her suffering by suicide – he fails and lapses back into the numinous. Goska responds:

"ME: You can use all the big words you want, Rand. I've got a thesaurus, same as you. But if you boil it down and put it in plain English, there is NOTHING materialist about your argument. You are chickening out and adopting the stance of a believer in a transcendent reality. "Precious," "sacred," "the dignity of the human person" – did you think I would not notice that you lifted that phrase straight from the Vatican? "a whole which transcends" – you even use the word!!! – "the sum of its parts." "Spirit" !!! Oh, Mister Man, you are in a world of trouble. The Vocabulary Police levy WEIGHTY fines when an atheist uses the word "spirit.""

I have always felt that atheists should be fined when they use words like "progress" in the sense of achieving a "better" state closer to some "goal" since there can be no such thing in atheism.

This exchange rang true for me. Atheists – at least the modern "New" variety – are deconstructionists. Their game consists of shifting the burden and announcing how they don't find evidence persuasive, actually they refuse to consider evidence as "evidence." Their intellectual muscles have atrophied, but they don't know it because they can smuggle in Christian concepts into their arguments as if those concepts didn't have a Christian substructure. In fact, Goska gets an admission from Rand that would never happen in a formal setting:

"He caved in and confessed that, yes, he doesn't know how to craft a purely materialist defense of the value of human life – we had been talking about that – and then he changed, jumped, from one tone to another."

On which point, I found Goska's points about God to be eminently satisfying to my Catholic sensibilities (honed as they are by decades of reading Aquinas). Here is one:

"On the other hand, I don't believe in a God who, the moment you cast your lot in with him, or read that bestseller about the power of positive thoughts, makes you happy, pretty, and rich. I do believe that there is a supernatural entity who can make you feel 100 % better instantaneously, and his name is Satan. Feeling angry? Smash in someone's face. In pain? Inject heroin. Poor? Steal. All sins provide quite the rush. Nine out of ten hedonists and ten out of ten cowards recommend Satan as their deity of choice."

Everyone suffers; Christ suffered; deal with it.

Another one:

"The students in my folklore classes read myths from various cultures, and, especially if they're also reading authors like you, they dismiss all myths with a wave of the hand and a comment like, "It's all the same nonsense." It isn't all the same and it isn't all nonsense. These verses communicate the unique identity of the Judeo-Christian God. Our God is not Ba'al or Tiamat or Apollo or Allah. Our God is the Word – logos – truth and reason.

The village Hinduism I knew was typified by stories in which a not particularly good or even observant man accidentally engaged in an act that was similar to worship, and reaped rewards thereby. One example: the village drunk got lost in the forest and began to cry over his fate. His tears wet the exposed tip of a Shiva lingam, most of which was buried underground. The man didn't see it, had no intention of worshiping, and was not conscious of weeping on a lingam, but his tears were close enough to the libations a pious person would spill that Shiva rewarded the man anyway. A tale: a Brahmin leaves his wife for a prostitute, kills his parents, and eats taboo foods. One day he accidentally overhears a sermon about Shiva. When he dies, the god of death comes to carry him off to deserved punishment for all of his heinous crimes, but Shiva intervenes and takes the sinner to Mount Kailas, close to heaven. The moral is very blunt: all that matters to the gods is that they get what they want – worship – by hook or by crook."

The slogan "Our God is not Ba'al or Tiamat or Apollo or Allah. Our God is the Word – logos – truth and reason" is one that I want to memorize.

Obviously, I am doing extended quotations because there is so much of this book that I want to remember.

A frustrating part of the book was the weird prurient romanticism of the book. Anyone who has been involved in internet dating should have been able to recognize the signs from the first email. The flirtatiousness that turned into what seems to have been an obscene letter at the end. Goska clearly identified where Rand was coming from in her first letter – a frustrated wannabe Casanova who now has the notoriety and can live out his teenage fantasies….but so ineptly. The flirtation went both ways and even developed to the extent of the two planning to meet in Paris, when Rand suddenly discovers that he and his wife – previously a heartless, alienating bitch – "can work things out." As a person with not an insignificant amount of experience in internet dating – and having listened to women talk about their internet dating experiences – this is such a cliché that I don't understand how Goska could not have seen it coming from the second email.

I found this part of the book "weak," but – hey! – if it is real life, and this part seems like real life, then one of the doyens of atheism is a "macher" and a "perv," which shouldn't be surprising because notwithstanding the "Mr. Spock" air of logical detachment that they want to exude, we can see in the real life antics of Richard Carrier and Michael Shermer, that at heart, they are still the lonely teenage boys with acne who never got to date the prom queen.

This is an unusual book of apologetics. It is worth reading. It's also fun, apart from the pervy creep factor of the famous atheist engaging in what looks like "grooming behavior."

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Animal Totem Tarot by Leeza Robertson and Eugene Smith: A Review

From Eugene Smith Website
Leeza Robertson's Animal Totem Tarot is illustrated by Eugene Smith. The deck was published by Llewellyn in March, 2016.

Eugene Smith's mastery in depicting biologically accurate animals in authentic poses and activities is one of the strongest aspects of this deck. Animal-themed tarot decks tend to be more fantastical than representational. The cats in the Baroque Bohemian Cats' Tarot are dressed in elaborate silk finery and posed as opera singers and other Prague citizens. In the classic Rider-Waite-Smith deck animals are obviously stylized metaphors: the lion in Strength, the dog in the Fool, the horse that Death rides, the rabbit in the queen of coins, the falcon in the nine of coins, the birds in the swords suit. In tarot, one finds cute animals, grotesque animals, anthropomorphized animals and mythologized animals. There are actually relatively few tarot decks that depict animals looking how they really look, and behaving as they really behave.

The animals in this deck are so true to life that they could serve as illustrations in field guides. These are not the animals you'd find in a Walt Disney cartoon. These are the animals you'd find in forests and fields. The Fool looks as grasshoppers do when they jump: forelegs tucked under, and back legs extended, antennae swept back. The Magician is a fox, leaping over the snow, as foxes sometimes do when hunting for small rodents hidden under snow. The six of swords features a sugar glider coming in for a landing. The Hanged Man depicts a honeypot ant. These are ants that hang upside down from underground chambers, their abdomens, distended with nectar, hanging beneath them like piñatas.

Smith's style is similar to the sketching found in comic books. The deck's color palette is limited and restrained. As would be expected in a deck based on real animals in their natural state, beiges, browns, greens and grays predominate, with muted blue, gray, black and white skies. The ten of swords ventures out a bit with a dab of sunset red on the bleak gray horizon. Temperance, a pink flamingo, is the most jarringly colored card in the deck; there is a rainbow in the background, and the pink bird stands in turquoise water. These bright colors don't work well with Smith's ink sketching in this card. In fact, in many cases, I preferred the black-and-white reproductions of the cards in the companion book better than the cards themselves, given how muted and limited the colors were in the cards, and given the high quality of Smith's sketches.

The quite beautiful card backs are a blue starburst design with rust, salmon, and beige floral elements interspersed with leaping animals. They are not fully reversible.

The cards are borderless. Most depict mammals. Twenty depict birds. Ten depict insects. One depicts an arachnid – a black widow spider. Seven depict fresh and salt water fish, mammals, and other aquatic creatures. Three depict reptiles and amphibians. One depicts a snail and one depicts an island.

Most of the creatures in the cards are wild animals in natural settings with no human elements. Some are domestic animals: an alpaca near a shed, chickens in a wire coop, an ox pulling a cart, raccoon dog pelts slung over a wagon, a pearl reflecting a glimmer from a distant lighthouse, reindeer pulling a sled full of brightly wrapped gifts, a rook perched on a chess piece, a skunk in a garden, an octopus next to a shipwreck. There are no human figures in the cards.

The images on the cards are simple and easy to grasp. For example, the Hermit card depicts a praying mantis. The mantis takes up about seventy-five percent of the card. The background is blue-grey sky. Background details are limited to the bare essentials. The Animal Totem tarot is not a busy deck.

Given how straightforward and accurate these illustrations are, and given that they depict real creatures behaving in real ways, the Animal Totem Tarot would make a great deck for a child who loves the outdoors. Explaining each card to the child would teach many lessons about natural history.

Some of my favorite cards in the deck, either for their visual appeal alone or the combination of design plus meaning include the following.

The High Priestess is a mostly blue, gray, and black card. A moon hangs in the sky and a black widow spider hangs on her web. In the ace of wands, a firefly lights up the inside of a mason jar suspended from a stick leaning in a forest glade. The six of wands is a prize-winning, honey-producing beehive. In the Wheel of Fortune, a ladybug spreads her wings. The eight of cups is a salmon swimming upstream. In the Moon, a great grey owl flies between two trees. In the ten of cups, an emperor penguin couple nestle their chick. In the nine of swords, a whip-poor-will sings outside a sleeper's window. A pigeon lies dead underneath dusky Paris skies in the ten of swords. A polar bear on an ice floe gazes up at the aurora borealis in the Hierophant card. The Devil is a bobcat who has cheated a man-made trap of a rabbit. In the four of coins, a squirrel hides coins underground. In cross section, we can see that one buried coin has begun to sprout.

Some of the cards depict suffering. Death is a California condor feeding on carrion. The five of coins is an image of five dead raccoon dogs, a primitive canid species often brutally exploited in the Chinese fur trade. The five of cups depicts a capybara, a large rodent, dead from a bloody wound in its side.

The Animal Totem Tarot comes with the Guide to the Animal Totem Tarot, a 347 page paperback book. There is a black-and-white full-page illustration of each card on the left, and a two-page explanation of the card on the right. Each explanation begins with the creature in the card addressing the querent. A white wolf, the queen of swords, says, "I know I can be cold when I need to be, bold when I have to be, and as blunt as I can be. There is much to do and you must get to it. There is time for discussion and a time for decision-making. The time for discussion is over; now is the time to make a decision and get on with it already." Robertson then addresses the querent in her own voice, informing us how the card should be used in regard to business and career, family and relationships, health and well-being, and as a card of the day journal prompt.

Author Leeza Robertson blogs for Witches and Pagans dot com, and her reflections in the guide are those one would expect from a modern American witch or pagan. "I tend to see the Devil as a liberating force," she writes. In reference to the Justice card, she writes, "the truth is a fickle thing…one must move beyond a single truth and seek a more collaborative outcome." In her description of the Hierophant card, she says, "did religion colonize faith and separate it from our sense of self?" In her comments on Judgment, Robertson writes, "The universe knows no good and no bad; it just knows energy."

I like this deck, but I don't love it. It's possible that since I do know a lot about animals, I can't feel comfortable with Robertson's assignments. Her knight of cups is a blue-footed booby. This bird is notorious as a siblicide. Parents have two chicks, and the older one kills the younger one while the parents stand by doing nothing to intervene. I can't associate this bird with the romantic, idealistic knight of cups. The three of coins, also known as the genius card, a card depicting creativity, is a giraffe. I see no special relationships between giraffes and creative genius, even after reading Robertson's explanatory text.

Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Harambe, the Japanese Boy, Sue Klebold, and Parental Responsibility

I've read variations of this post maybe a hundred times by now: "You can't judge Michelle Gregg, the mother of Isaiah Dickerson, the three year old boy who climbed into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Young children move quickly. She could have looked away for just a second.

You can't judge her. She did nothing wrong. She bears no responsibility. It's hard being a parent.

Parenting is the hardest and most important job in the world. Nobody can judge parents. Parents never do anything wrong, and they are not responsible even when they do. So shut up."

"One day my attention slipped for one minute and my toddler had swallowed all my valium and we had to have his stomach pumped. You can't blame me! It happened so fast!"

"One day I was engrossed in an Oprah episode and I accidentally dressed my baby in barbecue sauce, garnished him with gingered carrots and cilantro, and stuck him in the microwave on 'high' for ten minutes, remembering to rotate halfway through. Don't judge!!!"

Confession: these posts may as well come from Mars, they are so foreign to me.

I'm a big believer in personal responsibility.

Years ago, I read an anthropology text called The Functions of Folk Costume in Moravian Slovakia. It was about life in a small village in my mother's homeland. I knew from her stories that in small villages, people police each other. If you cross the line, your neighbors let you know.

The book said that when a woman committed adultery with another woman's husband, the cuckolded wife would chop off the cheater's braid and nail it to the door of the church.

That will get people's attention.

NO I'm not recommending this for Michelle Gregg. In fact I beg people to back off and do nothing to Michelle Gregg.

Unfortunately, vigilantes have gone so far as to threaten her. I hope and pray that that stops, and that law enforcement keeps Gregg safe.

I don't want to see any revenge taken against Michelle Gregg.

What would I like?

I would like to hear an apology from Michelle Gregg. A resolution to be a more attentive mother. A word to other mothers to be similarly attentive. An offer to pay whatever damages she can afford to pay.

And then we forgive her, and move on. No threats. No lambasting. Forgiveness.

My guess is that she hasn't apologized because she believes she did nothing wrong. Her Facebook posts and public statements seem to suggest as much.

Also I'm guessing that she probably will sue the zoo for millions of dollars, and if she acknowledges any responsibility, that would sabotage the golden ticket her negligence may have delivered to her.

Recently Japanese parents disciplined their seven-year-old son, Yamato Tanooka, by leaving him alone in the forest. In this brave new world where parents never need take responsibility for any mistake, I suddenly feel the need clearly to state: this is very bad parenting.

In contrast to the Harambe story, Takayuki Tanooka, father of the abandoned boy, issued a heartfelt, tearful. public apology. I actually cried.

"My excessive behavior caused my son such pain and inconvenienced so many people. For that I am deeply sorry. The very first thing I said to my son was, 'I am so sorry for having caused you so much pain. Daddy is really sorry.' We have raised him with love. I admit what we did was excessive. I had no idea it would end up like this. I deeply regret my excessive behavior, but I did what I thought was best for him. We loved him before, but I hope to give him even more attention now." There's much more. It's heartbreaking. (Source)

You may be thinking, "Yeah, but, this is the putz who left a seven-year-old boy alone in the forest. Should we take anything he says seriously?

My answer: It doesn't matter whether he is a callous jerk and what he is saying is merely for show, merely in response to societal pressure.

It matters that he said it.

It matters that his neighbors will be watching him like a hawk, and watching his son, as well.

It matters that the state will be keeping tabs on this son.

It matters that this man knows that he lives in a society where if he screws up again, there will be hell to pay, because Japanese society, based on Confucian values, puts a premium on the parent-child relationship.

It matters that his man knows that a box of rocks will fall on his head if he screws up again, and that box of rocks will be delivered to his head by his surrounding culture.

So it doesn't really matter if, deep inside, he is an uneducable putz. His society matters.

What society surrounds Michelle Gregg and Deonne Dickerson? A society that says "You can't judge parents about anything. Parents never make mistakes. Don't be so judgmental."

Anne Marie Hochhalter, a survivor of the Columbine Shooting reports that Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the shooters whom I would prefer not to name, wrote to her, the survivor.

This survivor made the letter public. That letter is below.

Anne Marie Hochhalter wrote back to Sue Klebold. She forgave Sue Klebold. That's astounding. Even more, she expressed compassion for the pain Klebold must feel for having a son who committed such a heinous crime, and then committed suicide.

This extraordinary exchange of letters was made possible by Sue Klebold's extraordinary gesture of a full apology.

Taking responsibility. Apologizing. The "Never blame parents for anything" camp will never experience either, because they decline to take responsivity for their actions.

Full text of the letters between Sue Klebold and Anne Marie Hochhalter are below.

"Dear Anne Marie,

Our prayers have been with you each day as we read about the terrible ordeal you and your family have experienced. We read that you had been transferred to Craig Hospital, and we were so thankful that you had progressed to the point where you could enter a rehabilitation facility. Though we have never met, our lives are forever linked through this tragedy that has brought unspeakable heartbreak to our families and our community. With deepest humility we apologize for the role our son, Dylan, had in causing the suffering you and your family have endured. Your recovery process will be a long and difficult road, and we hope that the support of people all over the world will help you find strength and courage as you meet the many challenges you have yet to face. When we read reports of your progress, we marvel at your resolve. It is still terribly difficult for us to believe that the son we knew could play a role in causing harm to you and others. The reality that he shared in the responsibility for this senseless tragedy is beyond our comprehension. We offer our love, support, and service as you and your family work to gain control over your lives. May God watch over you during your recovery process and beyond. May each day bring you successes, however small, that bring you hope and encouragement.


Sue and Tom Klebold"

Anne Marie Hochhalter wrote back:

"I think it's appropriate that the program that you are appearing on is named "20/20". Hindsight is truly 20/20 and I'm sure you have agonized over what you could have done differently. I know, because I do the same thing with trying to think of ways I could have prevented my mother's death. I have no ill-will towards you. Just as I wouldn't want to be judged by the sins of my family members, I hold you in that same regard. It's been a rough road for me, with many medical issues because of my spinal cord injury and intense nerve pain, but I choose not to be bitter towards you. A good friend once told me, "Bitterness is like swallowing a poison pill and expecting the other person to die." It only harms yourself. I have forgiven you and only wish you the best." (Source)

Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete

There is a shorter version of this essay at American Thinker here

Sunday, June 5, 2016

On Not Mourning Muhammad Ali

This photo is all over the web right now.
I do not know the photographer
so I can't give credit. 
The internet has offered me a chance to speak, and allowed my words to reach people.

The internet has taught me to be quiet, and allowed my silence to reach people.

Recently a couple of pop stars died: David Bowie and Prince.

David Bowie recorded a handful of songs I like – "Under Pressure," "Little Drummer Boy," "Major Tom," "Let's Dance," but his death was a matter of indifference to me.

I don't even consider Prince's product to be "music." To me he's just disposable, income-generating noise.

I like using language and all kinds of zinger putdowns of Prince's product whizzed through my mind. I wanted to post them and be funny and sharp.

I didn't.

I didn't because three internet friends I care about a lot, Judy, Dan, and Andrea, apparently were deeply moved by Prince's death.

So, I held my fire. Facebook taught me to be a better person.

I care a lot about the death of Harambe, a 17-year-old silverback gorilla who was shot to death at the Cincinnati Zoo after Michelle Gregg allowed her four year old son Isaiah Dickerson to climb into the gorilla enclosure.

People belittle those of us who care about Harambe's death and Gregg's negligence. People called us "shallow." People called us "intrusive" and "schoolmarmish." People gripe about people griping. How dare we publicly express our opinions? Why didn't we all just shut up?

Fair enough. You want to call me shallow and schoolmarmish? Go for it. Knock yourself out.

I have free speech to talk about Harmabe and animals and zoos and lousy parenting, and you have a right to call me names.

Here's the irony – one of the people making fun of us for caring about Harambe is now all boo-hoo because Muhammad Ali died.

As a little kid, I had an adult-level of loathing for Muhammad Ali.

Arrogant. Hated his own country. Member of an utterly bizarre and idiotic racist cult that calls all white people "devils." The Nation of Islam. They teach that a black scientist named Yakub created white people.

When Malcolm X had an epiphany and left the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Ali broke with Malcolm X. Astoundingly incorrect.

Ali called Islam "my religion not your religion." To Ali, Islam was a black religion, and Christianity was a white religion.

The Muslim Slave Trade dwarfed the Atlantic Slave Trade. When Muhammad Ali became a Muslim, slavery was still legally and openly practiced in Saudi Arabia. There are videos of slave markets in Saudi Arabia. See here.

Christianity ended slavery. Christians fought and died to end slavery. Islam never ended slavery. There are black slaves in the Muslim world today. See here.

Muhammad Ali was a propagandist for pure evil.

Ali said "Integration is wrong. We don't want to live with the white man; that's all … No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters"

If this hypocrite had any integrity at all, he would have left the US and gone to live in Saudi Arabia, where he could purchase some of his fellow black people as slaves.

Muhammad Ali made his living by savagely beating other human beings. And being beaten in turn. He destroyed himself. He suffered from a disease that was probably caused by being punched.

Boxing. Human beings watching other human beings damage each other. Evil. Nauseating. Sick. Twisted. Sadistic.

To hell with boxing. Those of you who celebrate it, please know that you celebrate the mangling of human bodies and lives.

And you, who call me "shallow," for caring about Harambe's death, say that it's what – noble? – to mourn Muhammad Ali.