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Friday, July 20, 2012

Batman: Sick Product of a Sick System





I hated "Batman: The Dark Knight Rises." I posted the review, below, on the International Movie Database in 2008. 

"Batman: The Dark Knight" is a tacky, trashy, mindless, ultra violent, pointless piece of garbage. It will bore anyone with a mature mind. "The Dark Knight" consists of one sadistic, pointlessly violent scene after another. There is no point to these scenes except to extract money from the pockets of sheltered teenage boys who have had no experience of real life, and those who think like sheltered teenage boys who have had no experience of real life. "The Dark Knight" is a drug. It pushes violence and sadism. That's it. That's what you get for your ten bucks.

"The Dark Knight" is a sick product of a sick culture. What's the difference between a blockbuster death-fest like this, and an act of actual terrorism? The terrorists who crashed planes on 9-11 killed over three thousand people. How many deaths do films like this contribute to? How much suffering? Pointless, ugly, violent, sadistic movies peddle violence as the drug of choice to mindless consumer hoards who lack discrimination, life experience, wisdom or balance. Teenage boys who hide out in their parents' basements playing video games and having no experience of three-dimensional reality see a movie like this and conclude that the world is like this: cool criminals torture passive victims and meet no resistance. Hey, Thanks, Hollywood, for flushing your refuse into young male minds. Let's call it cultural terrorism. Ka-ching. How much more violent and sadistic will such films have to be in the future to make that cash register sing? Let's up the ante.

The Plot? Heath Ledger puts on a ridiculous series of ticks, costumes  and make-up and tries really hard to get taken seriously as a master criminal / master actor. There is no real performance there because there is no real life there. In one scene, Ledger, a slight young man, murders a very large, muscular, professional criminal, and a black man – white supremacists will like that part – with a pencil. No. In real life that would not happen. Nor, in real life, would a man who shoots his every accomplice be able to do any of the things Ledger does in this movie – blow up hospitals, rig boats for explosions, etc.

The movie is utterly implausible. This won't matter to its fans, who live in the fantasy world of video games and internet sites devoted to their fantasy. These fanboys talk only to other fanboys who worship films like this as they do. In their solipsistic little computer-generated echo chamber, "The Dark Knight" is the greatest film ever made. These fanboys have no contact with anyone not exactly like themselves, and can't see any flaws in their judgment. Though saturated in violence, these fanboys can't even see why a skinny guy like Ledger murdering a muscular, hardened criminal with a pencil is a silly, nasty, scene that exists only to up the sadism ante, not to have any relationship with reality. Though saturated in violence, these fanboys would panic at the merest contact with the real world, with the real violence occurring in places like Iraq, or federal prisons.

Christian Bale is an interesting actor and was fun to watch in the previous batman. He's hardly onscreen here. There is nothing interesting about the sets or costumes, and as for the special effects, how many chase scenes and big explosions have been onscreen recently? Nothing new. Nothing interesting.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Fate of a Homosexual Boy in Muslim Morocco by Abdellah Taia

Mummified remains of an Incan child sacrifice, pre-Columbian Argentina.
"No one saved me ... "

I read Abdellah Taia's essay, excerpted below, in the New York Times the other day. It is one of the saddest, most haunting, and most beautifully written essays I've ever read.

***

A Boy to Be Sacrificed
Abdellah Taia
Published: March 24, 2012
New York Times

In the Morocco of the 1980s, where homosexuality did not, of course, exist, I was an effeminate little boy, a boy to be sacrificed, a humiliated body who bore upon himself every hypocrisy, everything left unsaid. By the time I was 10, though no one spoke of it, I knew what happened to boys like me in our impoverished society; they were designated victims, to be used, with everyone's blessing, as easy sexual objects by frustrated men. And I knew that no one would save me — not even my parents, who surely loved me. For them too, I was shame, filth. A "zamel."

Like everyone else, they urged me into a terrible, definitive silence, there to die a little more each day.

How is a child who loves his parents, his many siblings, his working-class culture, his religion — Islam — how is he to survive this trauma? To be hurt and harassed because of something others saw in me — something in the way I moved my hands, my inflections. A way of walking, my carriage. An easy intimacy with women, my mother and my many sisters. To be categorized for victimhood like those "emo" boys with long hair and skinny jeans who have recently been turning up dead in the streets of Iraq, their skulls crushed in.

The truth is, I don't know how I survived. All I have left is a taste for silence. And the dream, never to be realized, that someone would save me. Now I am 38 years old, and I can state without fanfare: no one saved me.

I no longer remember the child, the teenager, I was. I know I was effeminate and aware that being so obviously "like that" was wrong. God did not love me. I had strayed from the path. Or so I was made to understand. Not only by my family, but also by the entire neighborhood. And I learned my lesson perfectly. So deep down, I tell myself they won. This is what happened.

I was barely 12, and in my neighborhood they called me "the little girl." Even those I persisted in playing soccer with used that nickname, that insult. Even the teenagers who'd once taken part with me in the same sexual games. I was no kid anymore. My body was changing, stretching out, becoming a man's. But others did not see me as a man. The image of myself they reflected back at me was strange and incomprehensible. Attempts at rape and abuse multiplied.

I knew it wasn't good to be as I was. But what was I going to do? Change? Speak to my mother, my big brother? And tell them what, exactly?

It all came to a head one summer night in 1985. It was too hot. Everyone was trying in vain to fall asleep. I, too, lay awake, on the floor beside my sisters, my mother close by. Suddenly, the familiar voices of drunken men reached us. We all heard them. The whole family. The whole neighborhood. The whole world. These men, whom we all knew quite well, cried out: "Abdellah, little girl, come down. Come down. Wake up and come down. We all want you. Come down, Abdellah. Don't be afraid. We won't hurt you. We just want to have sex with you."

They kept yelling for a long time. My nickname. Their desire. Their crime. They said everything that went unsaid in the too-silent, too-respectful world where I lived. But I was far, then, from any such analysis, from understanding that the problem wasn't me. I was simply afraid. Very afraid. And I hoped my big brother, my hero, would rise and answer them. That he would protect me, at least with words. I didn't want him to fight them — no. All I wanted him to say were these few little words: "Go away! Leave my little brother alone."

But my brother, the absolute monarch of our family, did nothing. Everyone turned their back on me. Everyone killed me that night…

Abdellah Taïa is the author of the novel "An Arab Melancholia." This essay was translated by Edward Gauvin from the French.

Link to the full essay.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, and My Own Dark Night of the Soul


Reading the news about Jerry Sandusky, Penn State football coach and serial child rapist, and Joe Paterno, football coach hero and enabler of Sandusky, is hitting too close to home for me. I'm nauseated. I'm tearful. I'm fighting a crisis of faith.

Something too much like this story happened to me. And the news coverage makes it fresh in my mind.

I talk about a lot of this in "Save Send Delete."

***

After receiving my MA from UC Berkeley under Alan Dundes, a truly great scholar, I went to Indiana University in Bloomington for the PhD. Berkeley did not offer a PhD in my field.

I had no money. Previous to grad school, I had been a working class child of Eastern European peasant immigrants. I had worked through college as a nurse's aide. After graduating I served in Peace Corps twice. I came back and worked, with just the BA, as an adjunct professor in an inner-city Community College, teaching English to new immigrants. Nurse's aide, Peace Corps volunteer, inner-city English teacher: you don't make a lot of money at any of those fields. And, I had already spent a lot on tuition at UC Berkeley.

I told the department at IUB (Indiana University Bloomington) that I would really need some kind of work in order to survive as a PhD student. They put me to work for a Professor. Let's call her Prof. X.

It was immediately evident to me that Prof. X wasn't all there. She assigned me bizarre, Sisyphean tasks. One day she told me to go to the library and find research on children.

Anyone who knows anything about research will know that this is a crazy request. No one looks for "research on children." You look for research done in the last year on the impact of food dyes on fourth graders' test scores – something specific like that.

I attempted to communicate this to Prof. X. She became flustered, and angry, and then just told me to sit in a room with a desk in it. And that was it. For an eight-hour work day.

One day I got a phone call. My father was dying.

I told Prof. X. She said I couldn't leave. She needed me to type up the program for a conference she'd be hosting.

That night, I cried. Around two a.m., I went out into the street and threw an empty bottle against the pavement. Then I went into the house, got a broom, and swept up the broken glass.

I had learned at UCB: There is a pecking order on American university campuses, and it has little to do with hard work or intelligence. It has everything to do with politics. I had learned from what statements got laughter and applause, and what statements arouse protest, from who got funding and who did not, from whose research drew praise from professors, that I, a working class Polish Catholic, had no status on this or any other American college campus.

I had two choices: I could go to my father's deathbed, and lose the chance to get the PhD that I thought would enable me to give voice to my people's concerns in academia and in the wider culture, or I could let my father die without me, and get the PhD, which, of course, would be, suddenly, exposed as completely hollow.

I decided to go to my father's deathbed. He died just as my train was pulling in to Penn Station. I stayed for the funeral, then turned around and went back to Indiana. I missed only four workdays. I had plenty of time to type up the program for the conference. I began doing so.

My boss began to behave badly toward me.

I won't go into detail here.

A few days before Christmas, I couldn't take it anymore. I went to a dean. I have never cried so hard in my life. People would later ask me how my ear burst. It may have been this episode of crying.

I told the Dean I was leaving. I had begun to pack my bags.

The Dean moved me into an emptied-out office on campus. She told me she needed me to stick around.

"We need someone to testify against her," the Dean said. "Someone like you, with nothing to lose. Someone with no pension, no scholarship. You see, she's been doing stuff like this, and worse, for years, but no one will speak out against her, because no one wants to be accused of being sexist or racist." Prof. X was an African American woman.

This Dean began sending me on a round of appointments, appointments that lasted till the end of the spring semester.

I was to meet with the top officials of the IUB campus. These meetings would be announced to me at the last minute. I was just to report to room ABC at such-and-such a time.

I sat in leather chairs in rooms with heavy curtains. I met with people in suits and gleaming shoes. It was always the same: dates. Times. Actions. What exactly did she do to you? I had to tell the story, over and over again, to complete strangers. And then I would be dismissed.

Over and over again, I heard. I heard these exact words, from these officials' own mouths: she's a bad person. She's done much worse to others. She almost killed one person. She's a sociopath. But no one will speak out against her because no one wants to be accused of being sexist or racist.

All these good people knew. And they did nothing. Because it might inconvenience them.

I began to find it hard to walk down hallways. I heard a popping sound in my ear. I began to vomit uncontrollably.

I did not realize it at the time. My life, as I knew it, my hopes for the future, were ending.

My inner ear burst. For the next several years, I would be chronically ill, often completely paralyzed, not only unable to move, but unable even to imagine movement. Nystagmus rendered my eyes all but unusable. I couldn't read. I couldn't even recognize myself in a mirror. I would lie on a couch, all day long, in a fetal position, rising only to vomit.

And so began a new round of appointments. I went to doctor after doctor. They denied me treatment. They didn't know anything about vestibular disorders. They couldn't treat me because I didn't have health insurance or money. Or they experimented on me. Inner ear disorders are "orphan diseases": little studied and little understood. The experiments were not successful. My symptoms continued.

A judge who had just been removed from the bench, for a time, for unfair treatment of female claimants, in spite of supporting testimony from physicians, career specialists, an IU official and a nun who came to testify for me, turned down my SSDI claim.

I had no income for years. I lost my life savings. Every sock I wore in those days, I found on the street. I got food from a food bank. At times, I stole food.

I wrote to everyone I could think of to write to: Oprah Winfrey, Polish American organizations, Senator Lugar, Evan Bayh. Mostly my attempts to get help were ignored. Sometimes I received insulting replies.

I tried to contact the priest at the church where I attended services – and where I donated volunteer labor. I needed a one-on-one conversation. Why can't I get medical care? Why is God doing this to me?

Father was always too busy, the secretaries always said.

During all the years I went through this, in spite of numerous efforts, I never was able to find a priest who would talk to me.

A friend said to me that I had to suffer at the hands of Prof. X because I am white, and therefore guilty. I deserved it, somehow, and Prof. X was correct to do what she did. She was just getting justice for slavery.

"My only friend is darkness," as psalm 88 says.

***

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story, "Young Goodman Brown," that describes a Puritan man attending a witch's Sabbath one night and finding all the good people of town present. He becomes cynical. He becomes convinced that there is no goodness in the world. Because, after all, the people who represented goodness were all exposed as bad.

And that's what's killing me in this Joe Paterno / Jerry Sandusky coverage. All those "good" people on the Penn State campus. The deans, the administrators, representing goodness. All bad.

Power is what matters.

Appearance is what matters.

Goodness is just a sham to enable power to do what it wants.

***

One of the people I wrote to was State Senator Vi Simpson. I didn't expect much. She was a state senator. Not very powerful.

Her legislative aide, Rick Gudal, read the letter. He responded. He was on the case for years, until Dr. Richard T. Miyamoto, at Riley Children's Hospital, in Indianapolis, performed a pro bono surgery that permanently stopped my symptoms overnight.

***

One Palm Sunday in Bloomington a man turned around to shake my hand during the "Sign of Peace" ceremony. I gasped when I saw his face. I refused to shake his hand. He was one of the IUB officials I had been sent to to testify.

That one gesture – not shaking that one man's hand – was my one moment of … what … revenge? Certainly not justice.

I met with IU official Deborah Freund. She asked me directly what I wanted done to Prof. X. I had been alerted that that question would come up during our meeting, and I had been told to prepare an answer.

I was, and am, a Christian, if an often-doubting one. I said I wasn't interested in revenge; that that was not the Christian way. In any case, Prof. X struck me as more reptile than human. I don't mean that as a schoolyard insult, but, rather, as a diagnosis. Prof. X demonstrated for me the concept that evil is not so much a presence, as an absence. She seemed the void, her skull an empty can. Nothing there. How do you punish emptiness? Insert something?

I wanted to say to Deborah Freund, and I hope that this is what I actually said, "Prof. X is the smallest particle of this ugliness. The larger part is all those 'good' people who knew exactly what she was and enabled her, because to take a stand against her would inconvenience them. That is what needs to change."

***

It's now many years since these events. In the interim, some of the folks who knew me back at IUB have googled me and become my facebook friends. They are, for the most part, leftists. They festoon their facebook pages with evidence of their commitment to glorious causes. Sometimes they berate me for not being part of the movement.

And I think, but I never say this out loud: For years, you knew me in Bloomington. You knew I often couldn't walk or see. You never once offered me a ride. You offered me no support in my search for health care. You never visited me on a day when I could not move. You just ignored everything I was going through, because it was too much a downer. And now you lecture me about your glorious leftist cause?

I don't say this to them. I guess I've just said it here.

***

My crisis of faith comes back to me as I read about Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky, as I confront all the "good" people at Penn State who could have done something, and who did nothing.

When those who represent goodness are exposed as empty suits, one is tempted – by the Devil, I, as a Christian, believe – tempted to believe that goodness itself is mere show.

I know that that is not true.

I remember Rick Gudal.

In the essay Political Paralysis, I write about a Bloomington man, Mark Braun, who stopped on a snowy day to give me a ride when the illness was striking me as I was trying to walk home and I began to weave, visibly, on the street.

There is goodness out there. A goodness that is reflective of God, the source of all goodness, so says Psalm 16.

I remind myself of the victim who had the courage to speak publicly of what Jerry Sandusky did to him. I focus on his courage, on his determination to help other victims. Not on all the noise and hoopla of glorious Penn State, all those six-figured deans and administrators who publicly represent goodness and are just the fancy cake icing hiding putrescence.

I am telling myself this.

I am struggling against the sense that all goodness is just show. That all that motivates and animates the world is power.

I always try to end blog posts on an upbeat note. This is my upbeat note: my tradition, the Judeo-Christian one, is there. It beat me there. "Eli eli lama sabacthani?" "My only friend is darkness" "O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more." My tradition gives me voice and acknowledges the darkness. That is no small thing, one discovers, when confronted with it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Islam is Beautiful, but Catholics Like to Torture

Just another day at the beach for us Catholics. 

I recently blogged about Molly Linehan.

Compare that blog entry with Prof. Robert Orsi, the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University.

Two years ago, Prof. Orsi denounced the Catholic church as repressive and on the side of torture. See here. And here.

First Things Blogger RR Reno asks, "Can we imagine a chair of Jewish Studies who repeats simple-minded slanders against Jews: rootless cosmopolitans, money grubbing shysters, and other libels? Orsi’s comments operate at the same level."

***

In "Save Send Delete" I talk about what it's like to be a low-status college professor who also happens to be Catholic and Politically Incorrect. When I talk to my friends about what goes on on college campuses, I think, sometimes, they think I am making it all up. It's all too Alice-through-the-looking-glass for them.

You mean people – students, teachers – get punished for asking real questions? You mean people face prejudice because they are Catholic? You mean you are not allowed to mention the bad things that members of certain protected groups have done, from Communists to Muslims, without facing some backlash from a superior?

Yeah. A lot of the time, that's exactly what it's like.

Why is it that way? One big reason. The Golden Rule. He who has the gold, makes the rules.

The fight for funding in academia is slightly less decorous, slightly less competitive, than a school of sharks thrashing over chum. There are too many PhDs out there, and not anywhere near enough jobs or funding.

Political Correctness rules on campuses today, and those who tell you how "beautiful" Islam is and how torturous Catholics are receive endowed chairs and occupy velvet-lined chambers and alternate universes graced with job security and health insurance and paid sabbaticals that the rest of us toiling, sweating, low status galley slaves can only dream about.

I'm not blogging about this to protest criticisms of the Catholic Church. I've criticized the Catholic Church loudly enough and often enough to receive hate mail from those more loyal to Rome than I. I'm not here to tell you all Muslims are terrorists; I grew up with Muslims. My county in NJ has one of the US' highest populations of Muslims. As I talk about in "Save Send Delete," I've had Muslim friends, lovers, students, coworkers and bosses all my life. A Muslim man drew my blood the other day. (And he did a great job. I felt almost nothing and the needle prick has disappeared.) I was able to chat – VERY briefly – with him in Arabic, and commiserate with him about the dire fate of his loved ones in Homs.

Rather, I'm protesting this grotesque reality – to say, on a college campus, that there are some sound reasons for criticizing Islam, and there are some sound reasons for admiring some aspects of Catholicism, is a risky thing for a professor or a student to do.

Friday, July 6, 2012

National Catholic Reporter: Americans Demonize Muslims; Christians Must Learn "to Recognize the Humanity in" Muslims

Zafran Bibi and her daughter Shabnan. Photo by Greg Bearup.
Molly Linehan. Source.
The National Catholic Reporter, winner of the "General Excellence" award from the Catholic Press Association from 2000 through 2011, published a July 2, 2012 article entitled "12 Catholic Women under 40 Making a Difference." Molly Linehan, 35, a graduate student, was one of these twelve women. Linehan is the Alwaleed Bin Talal Scholar at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

In the profile of Molly Linehan, The National Catholic Reporter alleges that Americans engage in an "amazing" "continuing demonization of Islam." Christians need to learn "to recognize the humanity in 'the other.'" "The Other" is a charged social science term. Its use implies that Americans and Christians have selected Muslims to demonize, dehumanize, lie about, and irrationally hate.

In Pakistan, Linehan witnessed "the beauty of Islam, especially its own strong sense of social justice."

Jesus would approve of Linehan's work promoting Islam, she said, because "Jesus witnessed nonviolence to us."

The discerning reader will have noted a few problems with this National Catholic Reporter article.

There is no amazing continued demonization of Islam in America. Yes, there are marginalized people who say socially unacceptable, extreme things about Islam in private conversations with trusted friends and in anonymous internet posts.

Were these same people to make these statements publicly, in conversations with a wider circle of friends or in public statements, these people themselves would be demonized. They would be fired. Ask Juan Williams, who made a mild, public confession of his own nervousness when boarding a plane with passengers wearing Muslim attire. Williams was fired and he was demonized. He was fired even though everyone knows that everyone – including the most Politically Correct holier than thou travelers – including Molly Linehan – including the staff of the National Catholic Reporter – share Williams' anxiety.

Islam has been inoculated against public criticism. One can say the most egregious things about Catholics, about Evangelicals, in recent years, as anti-Semitism rises, about Jews. One can joke about people with Indian accents and about Buddhist meditation.

One cannot criticize or joke about Islam. Ask Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris, who had to "go ghost" – who had to enter something like the witness protection program – after she innocently suggested an "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day."

The inoculation of Islam against criticism, against even jokes – never mind the "amazing continued demonization" that Linehan and the NCR fantasize about – is not just an empty social convention. The inoculation of Islam against criticism has a body count.

Just one example: there was one red flag after another in the career of Major Nidal Hasan. For heaven's sake, Hasan made a powerpoint presentation arguing for jihad. His fellow officers saw this powerpoint. They saw multiple other red flags. They did not speak up about this loose cannon about to fire on innocents, because they were afraid of being labeled "Islamophobes." The Fort Hood Massacre is the result of this fear of being labeled an Islamophobe.

Molly Linehan speaks of the "Beauty of Islam" and the "social justice" in Islam she encountered in Pakistan. The National Catholic Reporter did not pause to quiz her about this line. They might have.

The majority of women in prison in Pakistan are in prison because they were raped.

That is not a typo.

Islam's beautiful social justice requires that four adult Muslim males witness a rape for it to count as a rape. Otherwise, a woman who complains of rape is confessing to adultery, and, in Pakistan, she is punished. Zafran Bibi is just one such victim.

Another form of allegedly Islamic justice in Pakistan is gang rape. Mukhtaran Bibi is but one of the more famous victims; there are countless others, including Christian girls.

Robert Spencer has kept a careful eye on the impact that the tens of millions of dollars Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal has lavished upon Georgetown University. His reports can be accessed through the google search here. In brief, Spencer alleges that, in line with an ancient, international proverb, students and scholars at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding "sing the praises of him whose bread you eat." Hindi offers an even less attractive, more telling version of this proverb: "Be a slave to him whose bread you eat." In America, we are more likely to say, "Don't bite the hand that feeds you."

Spencer's concerns can be summed up thus: Because the Saudi prince lavishes so much money on Georgetown and its students, the recipients of the money become Public Relations agents for Islam. They close their eyes to any honest assessment of Islam, and emphasize flattery of Islam. If any problem arises, they blame the big, bad, Americans, the big, bad Christians, who "demonize the other" who are blind to Islam's beautiful justice, who need to be coached on "Muslim-Christian understanding" by recipients of millions of Saudi petro-dollars.

The National Catholic Reporter.
Twelve Catholic Women Who Are Making a Difference.
Molly Linehan Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Scholar.