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Sunday, March 26, 2017

"Get Out" 2017 Inherent White Evil, Black Powerlessness, and Sacralized Black on White Violence

The following review appeared in FrontPageMagazine here

Get Out is one of the most celebrated and successful films of 2017. In late February, it opened at box office number one. It has a 99% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Its success is remarkable for a low-budget, 103-minute, R-rated horror film that cost only $4.5 million to make and that features no box office stars. It is comedian Jordan Peele's debut as a director. Peele is the first African American director to debut a film that earned more than $100 million. Why is Get Out so successful, and what does its success say about, and to, America?

Get Out opens on Dre (Lakeith Stanfield), a black man walking through an American suburb. He is talking on his cell phone. His comments reveal that he is lost and afraid. The suburb is a foreign, threatening terrain where young black men like himself assume that they are prey animals and might be murdered by irrational whites at any moment. A car drives up. The car's driver attacks the young black man and places his body in the trunk of the car and drives off. During this scene, the song "Run Little Rabbit" is heard on the soundtrack. The song's lyrics include, "On the farm it's rabbit pie day … Bang bang bang goes the farmer's gun. Run rabbit run." The song emphasizes Dre's innocence and vulnerability, white people's status as predatory killers, and the white penchant for consuming black people whole, literally or metaphorically.

Cut to Rose (Allison Williams) and Chris (Daniel Kaluuya). Rose, a beautiful, very thin, and refined young rich girl, is taking Chris, her photographer boyfriend, to her parents' home. "Will they be okay with my being black?" Chris asks. Of course, Rose reassures him. "If my father could have voted for Obama a third time, he would have."

When the couple arrive at Rose's palatial home, her neurosurgeon father, Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) does indeed assure Chris that if he could have, he would have voted for Obama three times. He also tells Chris that his father had been a champion runner, but had been bested by Jesse Owens, a black athlete who was simply better than a white man. Rose's mother, Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist.

Chris also meets the black maid, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), and the black groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson). Both servants behave strangely. They smile as if they were ordered to smile and they speak in forced pleasantries.

Rose's brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is very pale – his paleness emphasizes his whiteness and his evil. He is rude to Chris.

Weird, rude brother Jeremy reminded me of the Christopher Walken role in Annie Hall, where Walken played the weird, very white brother of a Jewish man's WASP girlfriend. In that film, Woody Allen's character, Alvy Singer, feels excluded and harshly observed by his girlfriend's Gentile family. Allen milks much humor from the disconnect between his character and the Walken character. I hoped for similar humor in Get Out – the film is advertised as a comedy as well as horror and social commentary – but I was disappointed. Peele is no Woody Allen.

Brother Jeremy and father Dean commit what Essence magazine, Vox The Verge and many other reviewers have called "microaggressions" against Chris. They tell him that because he is black he would probably make a fine athlete. Dean tries to converse in Black English. Rose rolls her eyes and repeatedly comes to Chris' defense. In fact, she had earlier defended Chris from a police officer.

Get Out has been praised as a truly scary horror film, a very funny comedy, and a deeply insightful masterpiece that proclaims necessary truths about black-white relations. I saw it in a multiplex and I heard no laughter, gasps, or applause from the racially mixed audience. What I did hear was quite a few seats bouncing up and slapping their backs as patrons exited the theater. The early scenes are slow. Like many a low-budget film, Get Out badly needs to be edited. Midway in the film I had to wonder, when will the chills and laughter and deep insights begin? I despaired that they ever would.

Get Out begins to tug at the heartstrings – and manipulate the viewer – almost halfway through. Late at night, Chris gets up from bed to go outside and catch a smoke. Back in the house, he encounters Missy, his girlfriend's mother. Missy hypnotizes him by stirring her tea with a silver spoon. Silver spoons are proverbial metonyms for wealth. The spoon is shown in close-up. The film's low budget is obvious – the spoon appears to be cheap stainless steel.

Chris' mother had died in the street after being struck by a car. He was a fatherless child at the time of this accident and he did nothing to help his mother. He felt too helpless. Chris carries a heavy weight of guilt and shame.

Missy exploits Chris' vulnerability. She uses his memory of his mother's death to implant in Chris a feeling of complete paralysis. As long as Chris is looking at the hypnotizing silver spoon, he can't move and he can do nothing to help himself. White Missy, with her name reminiscent of antebellum Southern hierarchies, has effectively castrated him. She has used his guilt and shame over his failure to rescue his forebears against him.

The camera moves in for a tight close-up. Tears flow from Chris' large eyes, down Chris' cheeks. This poignant image is used in the movie poster. To simulate the hypnosis effect, the film shows Chris flailing while falling helplessly through empty space – the film dubs this "the sunken place." The scene of a sobbing, helpless, victimized man falling through space while contemplating his mother's death is heart-wrenching. Missy, looking very cold, manipulative, and all powerful, releases Chris from his hypnotized paralysis and he returns to bed. His memory of what Missy did to him is unclear. He suspects that this white woman has harmed him, but he's not sure how or why.

The next day, several elderly, well-dressed, and very polite white people drive up in expensive cars. They are very nice to Chris, as they smile at him and make conversation. There is one black man in the group, Logan (Lakeith Stanfield). Like the servants Georgina and Walter, this black man among rich white people speaks in a strange manner, with the same forced pleasantries and plastic smile. Chris is convinced he recognizes this black man, not as Logan at all, but as Dre, an acquaintance who disappeared while walking in a white suburb at night.

The blacks at the Armitage house, Logan, Georgina, and Walter, all appear to be attempting to communicate something to Chris, but they all fail. In these attempts to communicate, they appear, as Chris appeared, to be utterly helpless and under some alien remote control. In fact, when Georgina tries to say something, she is silenced by sound from Missy's silver spoon. Georgina cries; Walter runs; Logan's nose bleeds. Logan staggers up to Chris and struggles to produce the words "Get out." Chris does not understand.

One of the guests, Jim (Stephen Root), is blind, but an art aficionado. He praises Chris' photography. He says that an aide describes Chris' photographs to him. Jim recognizes that Chris has a talent that he never had. Jim acknowledges that even when he was sighted, his photography was mediocre, not as good as Chris' work.

While Chris and his girlfriend Rose go for a walk, back at the house, there is a silent auction. Dean stands in a gazebo. Before him is an attractive, life-size photograph of Chris. Dean signals amounts by holding up his fingers. Bidders, the elderly rich, white guests, raise Bingo cards to indicate a bid. Dean raises the price higher and higher by holding up more and more fingers. Finally Jim, the blind artist who envied Chris' photographic ability, places the final, highest bid.

Get Out's horror begins in its final scenes. Chris discovers that his white girlfriend Rose is in fact a decoy. She lures healthy, handsome, talented black men to her parents' home. There her mother, a psychiatrist, hypnotizes the men. Her father, the neurosurgeon Dean, removes their brains and places the brains of elderly white people into young black bodies. Jeremy also brings young black victims to the home, but he does so more violently than does Rose. It was Jeremy who had kidnapped Dre, in order that the elderly rich white man, Logan, could take over his body. Georgina and Walter are in fact the Armitage grandparents, in new black bodies. Walter, the black man parasitized by the brain of the Armitage grandfather, is a very fast runner. The grandfather had been beaten in a race by a black man, Jesse Owens. His brain is now in a new, superior, black body, the body of a black runner.

Just so, Jim, the mediocre white photographer who has gone blind, "purchased" Chris from Dean in the auction. Now Dean will place Jim's brain in Chris' body.

Missy had hypnotized Chris so that Chris would be paralyzed and helpless when it came time for Dean to remove his brain and place a white man's brain inside his skull.

At the last minute, through quick thinking and heroics, Chris manages to overpower and to murder all of his opponents. In a series of grisly killings, Chris stabs Jeremy to death. He impales Dean on the antlers of a taxidermy deer head trophy. He burns Jim. He stabs Missy. He drives Georgina into a tree and shoots and strangles Rose, who takes a long time to die and who pleads for her life by telling Chris she loves him. Walter shoots himself. The remaining black part of his brain realizes how awful the situation is; suicide is his only hope. At one point in all this carnage, the song "Run Rabbit" plays again. The suggestion is that Chris is merely a helpless "rabbit" and that he had to murder all these predatory white people, and white people disguised as black people, in order to save his own life.

Indeed, Chris' very name exculpates him from any guilt for this massacre. His first name identifies him as a Christ figure; his last name, Washington, identifies him as a nation founder and hero.

As Chris, splattered with blood and gore from white victims, stands amidst the multiple dead bodies, a police car pulls up. The viewer assumes that the police will arrest Chris, a black man, for murdering an entire white family in a rich, white suburb, and, indeed, that was the original ending of the script.

Rose, who, though shot and strangled, is still not dead, sees the police car and begins to beg for help. We are to conclude that the police will side with her, even though clearly she is the guilty one and Chris is blameless and killed only to defend his own life.

In fact, though, the police car's driver is Rod, Chris' loyal black "bro," who rescues Chris.

Get Out enjoys a 99% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which insists that the film "seamlessly weaves trenchant social critiques into a brilliantly effective and entertaining horror/comedy thrill ride." Stephanie Zacharek at TIME wrote "Peele succeeds where sometimes even more experienced filmmakers fail. He's made an agile entertainment whose social and cultural observations are woven so tightly into the fabric that you're laughing even as you're thinking." Huffington Post says that Get Out is "reason to go to the movies." Will Leitch at The New Republic says that Get Out captures, "the sense that no matter where you turn, no matter how many people claim they're on your side ... they're out to get you." MTV's Amy Nicholson wrote, "Young black men know their lives are in peril." Manohla Dargis in The New York Times said that the film captures "real life." Joe Morgenstern in The Wall Street Journal said Peele showed "explosive brilliance." The Toronto Sun called Get Out a "masterpiece." There are too many more over-the-top accolades to quote them all.

Reviewing a film is obviously a subjective process, but a few objective facts can be adduced. Among the top ten films at RT, Get Out's 99% is the highest rating. Reviewers resorted to rarely used superlatives to praise a low-budget freshman effort. One critic dared to criticize the film; one of the film's stars condemned this critical reviewer, Armond White, who is a man, and an African America, as a "bitch" on twitter. There is a price to pay for critiquing Get Out.

Amateur, and often anonymous reviewers at the International Movie Database are not so sure of Get Out's genius. There, three pages of reviews call the film "slow," unpolished, "ponderous," "self-important," "overrated," "boring," "predictable," "obvious," and "racist."

Is Get Out a racist film? The truth can be found in the answer to a simple question. Could an analogous film about any group other than American whites gain such high praise? Hell no. Imagine a movie that depicted Chris, an innocent, defenseless, vulnerable white girl, dating a black man. The black man takes Chris to his stereotypical ghetto home, where his friends and relatives insult and demean her. She is then auctioned off and prepped for surgical removal of her superior and desirable white body, which will host the brain of a black woman who can achieve happiness only by living out the rest of her life as a white woman. Chris saves herself in a bloodbath, by stabbing, impaling, shooting, immolating, and strangling every last black person with whom she has interacted. Such a film would be denounced and receive a zero score at Rotten Tomatoes.

Imagine a film depicting a Christian girl who has a Jewish boyfriend whose partners in crime want to exploit her body parts. Wait – you don't have to imagine such a story. Tragically, the blood libel has existed for centuries. In this anti-Semitic motif, Jews kidnap Christian children in order to drink their blood. The blood libel appears in works of art from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to the 2002 Egyptian TV series Horseman without a Horse. Circulation of the blood libel has sparked tens of thousands of Jewish deaths in pogroms. Writer and director Jordan Peele is playing with fire, the deadly fire of hate.

Indeed there are no positive white characters in Get Out. They appear to be nice. They make friends with a black person. They even make love to a black person, and defend him to the police. They repeatedly state that they voted for a black man for president and would do so three times if they could. All this is a smokescreen. In the marrow of their bones, whites are evil. Nothing can change white evil. The only solution is to massacre them.

One might conclude that writer director Peele has some issues he needs to work out. Indeed, Peele has announced on Twitter that "we're all in the sunken place," that is the Missy-induced paralysis that aids whites in parasitizing black bodies. "The sunken place means we're marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us," Peele said, to his 696,000 twitter followers, and to the mainstream press that has provided extensive positive publicity to his film.

Jordan Peele is a highly successful celebrity, and at not yet forty-years-old he has a record-breaking, history-making # 1 movie that has the current highest rating on Rotten Tomatoes – and he feels "marginalized." He feels that "the system silences us."

Peele attended the Calhoun School, a prestigious prep school on the Upper West Side. It describes itself as "a leader in progressive education." Its yearly tuition is estimated to be $38,400. Peele has a degree from Sarah Lawrence, one of the top liberal arts colleges in the US. Peele's TV show won a Peabody and two Emmys. Jordan Peele's mother is white. His wife, Chelsea Peretti, is white. She's a graduate of Barnard, an exclusive women's college. Her brother Jonah Peretti founded Buzzfeed and co-founded The Huffington Post – publications that have extensively and positively publicized Get Out.

For his lead character, Peele did not chose an African American actor; rather, he chose Daniel Kaluuya, a British son of Ugandans. Kaluuya does not look like an African American because virtually all African Americans who descend from slaves are of mixed race. On average, African Americans have 25% non-African ancestry: 24% European and almost 1% Native American. That Kaluuya is not American and does not look like most African Americans has been noted by no less an authority than Samuel L. Jackson, who stirred controversy by saying, "I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother … What would a brother from America have made of that role? Some things are universal but [not everything is]."

Kaluuya voiced his frustration with Jackson's comment, "When I'm around black people, I'm made to feel 'other' because I'm dark-skinned. I've had to wrestle with that, with people going 'You're too black' … This is the frustrating thing, bro — in order to prove that I can play this role, I have to open up about the trauma that I've experienced as a black person. I have to show off my struggle so that people accept that I'm black. No matter that every single room I go to, I'm usually the darkest person there. You know what I'm saying? I kind of resent that mentality. I'm just an individual … I see black people as one man… I resent that I have to prove that I'm black. I don't know what that is. I'm still processing it."

There are multiple ironies here. Jordan Peele, a member of America's elite, insists that he lives in the sunken place where evil whites hypnotize, paralyze, and silence him. Perhaps because he is very much a part of white America, he chooses an African actor, one not American, who doesn't look or sound American, to play an African American. Kaluuya's status as pure Ugandan is perhaps meant to seal his virtue – he is not tainted by evil white blood. But that pure status puts off no less an authority than Samuel L. Jackson, a leading black actor who has played in significant films that address race, from Jungle Fever to A Time to Kill to Django Unchained. In response, Kaluuya, playing the lead in a hate-mongering race film, protests that he must "show off his struggle" to prove to people that he is adequately black. We've come full circle. Showing off struggle, showing off trauma, is exactly what Jordan Peele is doing. He's a lucky man who has lived a lucky life and he's now insisting that he lives in the "sunken place" like all other black people. Kaluuya says, "I'm just an individual … I see black people as one man." Sorry, Daniel. When you play the lead in a movie that depicts all whites as racist, no matter how nice they seem, when you participate in a cinematic massacre of whites justified by that purported evil, you really aren't telling a universal human story about just one man. You are mongering a very specific race hatred.

NPR asked Peele if the film were meant to address the death of Trayvon Martin. Peele replied that his goal was to depict "the fear that a black man has walking in a white suburb at night." Dre, the black man in the opening scene, is merely walking. Trayvon Martin, according to sworn testimony, publicly available facts, and forensic evidence, was not in a rich, white neighborhood. The Retreat at Twin Lakes, the scene of the Martin shooting, is 50% white, 20% Hispanic, and 20% black. It is not particularly wealthy, and at the time of the Martin shooting, it had a history of break-ins by young black men. Martin was not walking on the street or sidewalk, but behind homes. George Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer – the watch that had started up in response to burglaries. According to Zimmerman, Martin punched him in the face and was pounding Zimmerman's head into a concrete sidewalk. He threatened Zimmerman with death. After a struggle over the gun, Zimmerman shot Martin. Zimmerman is about as white as Jason Peele – he has one white parent and one Afro-Peruvian parent. In short, if the opening scene of Get Out is a commentary on the Trayvon Martin shooting, it is a racist, hate-mongering lie from start to finish.

Hate-mongering art often incites real-life violence. Will anyone be so inspired by Get Out that he harms another? I don't know, but of this I am sure: Get Out is part of a flood of cultural material that harms African Americans. The film's undeniably powerful motif of an evil white woman sadistically hypnotizing and paralyzing African Americans in order that they can be commodified and parasitized is just a part of a larger liberal message. Blacks are powerless. They can do nothing to help themselves. White racism is eternal and omnipotent. It dooms every effort any African American ever makes. Even when you cannot see it, feel it, or hear it, it is there. As star Daniel Kaluuya said in The Guardian, white racism is omnipresent, "There's an undercurrent, even if when you look at it factually or objectively, nothing has been said."

Director Jordan Peele echoes Kaluuya. "the parents are very welcoming. They don't skip a beat. They don't care about the color of his skin, which to me was like almost creepier because of what we know this world to be." When white people treat black people in a non-racist way, that's "creepy."

The only solution the film offers is killing all whites, in the goriest ways possible. No, I don't think Peele would argue this in so many words. Which means, in his worldview, there is no solution.

The reality is that Peele needs no solution. He is a comfortable and lucky man leading a comfortable and lucky life. He's not addressing the problem of race in America; he's addressing the problem of a lack of racism in the life of lucky persons like himself. It is safe to guess that he is attempting to seal his own authenticity as a black man by making Get Out. The poor blacks who are na├»ve enough to believe his message – that all-powerful white racism has doomed them for life – are the one who will be the real victims of this film.

Lent / Tarot / Generations: The Ten of Coins

The ten of coins speaks of generations. It depicts a grandfather, his children, grandchildren, and dog, seated at the gate of a city. I look at this card and I think, generations, patriarch, inheritance, the consequences of the past on the future, the role of a person as a member of a family and a wider society, and a civilization.

The word "patriarch" immediately puts me in mind of the Old Testament and my stream-of-consciousness takes me to Jewish survival.

There's a few questions I like to ask my students semester after semester.

"Which nationality is stupid?"

Semester after semester, they know Poles, or Polaks, are stupid. The Polak joke is not yet dead.

"Whom did the Nazis mass murder first and last, as part of an organized killing program?"

I have never had a student who knew the correct answer: handicapped people. My students, like most people, are stunningly ignorant on this major historical reality. And their left-leaning, Christophobic professors have successfully brainwashed them to believe that Nazism was a Christian project that victimized only Jews.

And I ask, "What percent of the world's population is Jewish?"

They always give inflated numbers. Fifty percent. Thirty percent. When I tell them that Jews make up less than one percent of the world's population, and that that's all they've ever made up, their eyes open wide. Muslim students are especially dubious. They just can't believe it.

As is obvious from my blog posts and Save Send Delete, I doubt God a lot. And I wrestle with equally powerful faith. Sometimes my faith springs from concrete, real world realities, and one of those realities is Jewish survival. More than once I have sat across the table from a Jewish atheist double daring me to convince him (always a him) that there is a God. I just look at him and think, "Is not your mere existence proof enough?"

Jews are a tiny portion of the world's population, they have been repeatedly targeted for annihilation, with their enemies coming close to wiping them off the face of the earth. The three-thousand-year-old Merneptah Stele includes the earliest recorded mention of Jews. That mention is a brag that Egyptian King Merneptah has wiped Jews off the face of the earth: "Israel is laid waste and his seed is not."

In 722 BC the Assyrians eliminated ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. Rome destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, and changed the name of the province from Judea to Palestine in an act of cultural genocide. Later Romans banned Jews from entering the city. Josephus says that the Romans killed a million Jews. The Jewish population plummeted in the first century and it took centuries for that population to rebound.

The list goes on and on. Jews driven out of England and Spain. Hitler. Muslim persecutions, exiles, and terrorism.

And yet, after thousands of years, this tiny population has survived, as has its language. I can't think of any parallels of a small, ancient people, its book and its language, surviving for so long. If you can, please let me know.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Lent / Tarot / The Empress

Jacob Seisenegger. Mother with Her Eight Children

Some tarot cards are complex and it has taken me years fully to plumb them. And maybe I'm flattering myself in announcing that I have plumbed them.

Other tarot cards are much more up front. The Empress is mom. She's mother nature. She's Mary the mother of God. She's a woman and she is generative. She creates.

Tarot readers rush to add that this card can refer to a man, if he creates and nurtures life or art or other gifts. And it can refer to a spinster, like me. I teach, I counsel, I produce writing.

Here's the thing.

I wish the institutional church, Catholic and Protestant, would get that memo, would get what Neo-Pagans and Wiccans get. That unmarried, childless women can have some value.

The institutional church luuuuuuuvs moms with kids. The more the merrier. One reason the Catholic Church is so eager to welcome illegal immigrants. Low-income Latina women have more kids.

Kids are soldiers for the ideological army. Kids are butts in the pews. Kids are donations in the collection plate. Kids are the future.

So the institutional church luuuuvs moms with kids.

I generally refuse to debate abortion because I hate the arguments I hear from *both sides.* Is there anybody out there like me? Who wants to throttle both the pro-choice people and the pro-life people? Who finds both sides anti-human, cruel, abusive, murderous?

Of course a fetus is not a baby. Of course a fetus is human. Of course you can't force a woman to gestate a fetus against her will. What do you plan to do, pro-life people? Chain all fertile women to beds? Of course there is a moral cost for stopping a beating human heart. Of course there should be fewer abortions and of course no law will make that happen.

I wish Christians were pro-life because they are, well, pro-life. But too many Christians are only pro-life as long as that life is a fetus inside a woman who doesn't want to be pregnant.

If you are pro-life, you care about your adult neighbor who doesn't have health insurance and just got a cancer diagnosis.

That happened to me. The Christians I knew, including the staff and the priest at the church where I attended mass, and the staff of an award-winning Catholic hospital, whom I turned to for help, turned me away. "We have nothing for you. Sorry." No kind word, no advice, no alternative options, nothing.

I posted about it on Facebook and my vociferous pro-life Catholic Facebook friends ignored my post. They couldn't even take the time to type, "I'm sorry this happened to you."

I found help with friend Robin, who was raised Jewish, who is an agnostic (AFAIK) and a secular hospital far away.

The institutional church opposes abortion, I suspect, because abortion means fewer butts in the pews.

I grew up in the world before Roe v Wade. I was surrounded by immigrant and first-generation Catholic women who had many children. It was miserable. The women complained endlessly. Any affection between parent and child was strained and rationed. There were crowded homes and many illnesses and runaways and unwanted teen pregnancy and boys in jail. There was real hunger. There was plenty of child abuse.

I'm pro-choice largely because of that child abuse. Women who have kids because they have no other option visit a great deal of suffering on countless numbers of children.

The Catholic Church insists that it sees men and women as equal – specifically, as separate but equal. Women have been designed by God to produce and raise children. Men have been designed by God to do everything else: think, lead, play sports, invent, research, write, speak, preach.

When a woman has a baby, she is doing what God wants her to do. When a woman thinks or writes or speaks or does anything else, she is unnatural and invading men's space.

And we wonder why our schools are closing, our churches are being turned into public spaces, and, no matter how many fertile Latinas we import and protect from ICE deportation, our pews empty out. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Lent / Tarot / The Devil

Even hardcore atheists and materialists, even cocky fans of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, freak out when The Devil pops up in their tarot reading. As well they might. This is the Devil, the author of calamity, the hand on the hilt of the sword thrusting death, disease and destruction into soft, defenseless bodies. 

Many tarot readers are Pagans or New Agers who have a chip on their shoulders against Christianity, so they reverse previous meanings. To them, the Devil card is positive – it's all about healthy passions suppressed by the Judeo-Christian tradition and Western Civilization. The Devil is the hand offering you devil's food cake.

Me, I see no need to redefine the Devil. I see it as the little voice whispering in the ear of the abusive parent, "Hit harder and longer." The Devil is Hitler's last, best friend. The Devil is the father of lies.

Given that I've written a book, "Bieganski," that talks much about WW II and Nazism, I've repeatedly tried to wrap my mind around human evil. I read an account of the Weimar Republic, or the Beer Hall Putsch, or I watch a documentary about Germany in the 1930s, and I try to understand how Germany went from being the clean, advanced, tolerant country it was renowned to be and how it became – in less than a decade – hell on earth.

No matter how many times, and in how many formats, I encounter the story of the rise of Nazism, something is always missing.

I think of Nazism's rise in the microcosm as something like this. I am standing on a crowded subway and someone pushes me. I know I should not do this, but I give in to temptation and push the other person back. The person turns around and yells at me. I yell back. So far, so easy to understand. Then, suddenly, one of us grabs an innocent bystander, skins the person alive, and eats their liver. That escalated quickly. How to understand? There's a missing step here.

In other words, there is this giant leap from a decent, civilized Germany that was knocked back on its heels and feeling a big combative, to Germany as over-the-top evil.

I think the missing link is the Devil. I think people handed their consciences over to the dark side.

One example: Franz Stangl, the SS commandant who ran the Treblinka extermination camp. For Stangl, his big leap away from normal behavior came when he declined to recognize his victims as human beings.

"They were cargo. I think it started the day I first saw the extermination area in Treblinka. I remember Wirth standing there, next to the pits full of black-blue corpses. It had nothing to do with humanity – it could not have. It was a mass – a mass of rotting flesh. Wirth said 'What shall we do with this garbage?' I think unconsciously that started me thinking of them as cargo ... I rarely saw them as individuals. It was always a huge mass. I sometimes stood on the wall and saw them in the tube – they were naked, packed together, running, being driven with whips."

Stangl made a decision. He decided to see human beings as "cargo." That made his work possible for him.

Stangl made another decision. He decided he was innocent because he had no *intention* to murder his victims. He was just following orders.

After the war, journalist Gitta Sereny interviewed him. Her interviews apparently stripped from Stangl his diabolical justifications for his own behavior. He finally admitted to her, "In reality I share the guilt ... Because my guilt ... my guilt ... only now in these talks ... now that I have talked about it all for the first time." Before the day had passed he was dead of a heart attack. Sereny's probing questions, and her silences, were an exorcism.

Tarot offers the antidote to The Devil card. For me the antidote is found in the ace of cups, which I mentioned second in this series of lent meditations. The ace of cups depicts divine love. Its symbols speak to me of Jesus' incarnation and his self-sacrificial and salvific death on the cross.

The Devil card clearly references two other, much more positive, cards.

The pope on The Hierophant card holds his right hand up in a gesture of blessing. Two of the pope's fingers point heavenward; two point to earth. His thumb links the earthly and the heavenly. "Pontiff" meant "bridge-builder" and the pontiff's hand gesture reminds us of bridges between heaven and earth. The Devil's hand mocks and perverts the pope's gesture, insisting that there ain't no such bridge.

The Devil card also refers to The Lovers. In The Lovers, Adam and Eve enjoy Eden under the protective wings of an angel. They are free to enjoy Eden, and free to choose to eat the fruit that will kick them out into the real world. Adam and Eve in The Devil card are not free. They are chained. They are slaves to darkness. That's why some read The Devil card as addiction.

A few words on the iconography of tarot's Devil. He wears an inverse pentagram on his head. A pentagram, or five-pointed star, is analogous to a human figure. The top point of the star is analogous to the head. The arms of the star are analogous to human arms. The feet of the star are analogous to human legs and feet.

When one reverses a pentagram, the feet are skyward and the head points down. In this position, the groin is over the head. The groin is where we urinate, defecate, and copulate. The stomach is where we feel hunger. The groin is where we feel lust. The heart and the head moderate our drives, but in the reverse pentagram, the heart and the head point down; the groin dominates. Just as The Devil wants.

Tarot's Devil is a chimera. He has the wings of a bat, the feet of a bird, the horns, beard, and shaggy thighs of a goat. Chimeras, animals of mixed parts, are scary. Chimeras violate our sense of order and proper separation. The Jersey Devil is a chimera, with the wings of a bat, the legs of a crane, and the face of a horse.

The Rider-Waite-Smith devil was inspired by Eliphas Levi's illustration of Baphomet. Baphomet is a name associated with Mohammed. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Lent / Tarot / Potential: The Ace of Coins

Lord Frederic Leighton: The Widow's Prayer 

"When he looked up he saw some wealthy people putting their offerings into the treasury and he noticed a poor widow putting in two small coins. He said, 'I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest; for those others have all made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood.'"

I love this passage.

When I'm going through dark times and finding it hard to have faith, I read passages like this and recognize, again, that Jesus was something special. My lack of faith is a sea of darkness; he is the high beam of a lighthouse.

He gets it.

Few do.

Relativists insist that Jesus is like other teachers. He's another Lao Tzu or Buddha or Mohammed or Thor. No, he's not. I know because I've read other scriptures. Jesus is unique.


There's a phrase I can't stand: "I wish I could do something."

We can all do something. If we want to do something, we do it. If we don't want to do something, we don't do it.

If you want to do something, do it, no matter how small.

Want to save the world but you can't? Sit down, right now, and write a check to an organization that is working on something you care about.

I earn a laughably small sum of money. I donate – modest sums – to a number of organizations: St Jude's Hospital, World Wildlife Fund, Audubon Society, Humane Society, public radio. If someone who lives paycheck to paycheck and subsists on rice and beans, can "do something" *you* can do something.

Pray for someone. Send a card. Offer a shoulder. Make a call. Pay someone a compliment. Connect two people who might enhance each other's lives. Remember someone's birthday or anniversary or story and remind him or her. Forgive someone. Assume the best of another person. Hold your anger. Hold your insult. Encourage others.

Don't say to people, "I wish I could do something."

Jesus is urging you on, with the widow's mite story.

Today's reflection brought to you by the randomly drawn tarot card, the ace of coins. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Beauty and the Beast 2017 Standing Ovation

Within ten minutes of "Beauty and the Beast" 2017. I wanted to rise from my seat and applaud. Within twenty minutes I had laughed, gasped, and been wowed. I can't say "go see it." You will see it. It's going to be a classic.

I saw a ten a.m. matinee, thinking that I'd avoid the crowds. No way. The theater was full. Some little girls were dressed in fairy tale gowns. In spite of the film's length, I didn't see anyone bail – no one left the theater and never returned. When the film ended, the audience broke out in applause.

I love watching lots of money and talent explode on every inch of my visual field. "Beauty and the Beast" slathers on the money *and* the TLC. Someone took the time to paint roses on the lintels of a cottage, and to costume Belle in bloomers so she can ride a horse, and to wrinkle the noses of the CGI wolves when they growl.

"Beauty and the Beast" feels very much like a fairy tale. It has the plot conventions and morality of a fairy tale. The wolves menace when menacing wolves are needed to move the plot along, and they are nowhere to be seen when Belle needs to ride through that forest without being interrupted. This is how fairy tales work. They have their own logic. A peasant crone entering a rich man's house, begging for alms and being refused – that is the classic spark of a witch frenzy, or a curse.

Watching Emma Watson delighted me just as watching Julie Andrews in films like "Mary Poppins" and "Sound of Music" once did. Watson is an intelligent, dignified, decent human being and that comes across in her every move. She's never the dumb blonde, never the shrinking violet or damsel in distress, never the flirtatious coquette who has nothing to recommend her but her curves. She inhabits the role of a smart, inquisitive, integral human being.

Twinkly-eyed old pro Kevin Kline is a favorite. Ewan Macgregor somehow manages to turn on the charm even as he is nothing more than a CGI candlestick. Emma Thompson imbues a "there, there now" maternal instinct into a Cockney teapot, Stanley Tucci, Audra MacDonald, and Ian McKellan are more jewels in the cast.

You can practically smell the testosterone coming off of Luke Evans as Gaston. He's both funny and menacing, just handsome enough and just oily enough.

The few complaints I have with this film I had with the animated version as well. I wish there were more time spent building a relationship between The Beast and Belle, and less time spent on chase and fight scenes, but I recognize that this is primarily a film for children and kids don't want to watch the kind of subtle interaction and tender moments that Jean Cocteau depicted in his live action, adult-oriented 1946 "La Belle et la Bete."

I do think that Gaston is an anti-male character. Gaston is not just a bad guy. He's an indictment of traditional masculinity. But that's a whole 'nother essay.

I do wish we had had more time with The Beast generally. Dan Stevens is a very good looking man. I wanted more of him, both before and after transformation, and more of The Beast. But you can't have everything. For that, there's fan-fiction, and there's a lot of it on the web.

About the protests. LeFou casts yearning glances in Gaston's direction, and there is a very brief shot of him dancing with another male character. And … that's it. *All* the movie does is remind us that there are gay people among our friends, neighbors, and fairy tale characters. There is nothing graphic or inappropriate for children. In fact, most children won't even notice LeFou's orientation. I'm not even sure I would have, had I not read articles about protests before going to see the film.

Too many Christians are willing financially to support violent, misogynist, and graphic films, TV shows and video games. If you liked the violent movie "Logan," if you voted for a man who speaks about grabbing – ahem – if you laugh at contemptuous humor, and yet you protest this lovely film, you need something that this movie provides – a magical mirror. Not so you can see far away, but so you can see yourself. 

Lent / Tarot / Will: The Magician

James Johnson Old Testament Women
I didn't want to write a Lent / Tarot post this morning. I received a particularly devastating rejection on my writing yesterday.

On the other hand, I'm a big believer in sticking to vows. As Woody Allen says, "Eighty percent of life is just showing up."

The deck slapped me in the face with today's tarot card. My randomly chosen card was the Magician, the card that depicts human will impacting the world.

As a writer, I feel utterly frustrated and silenced. I'm trying to say important things, but – as I have been told – I am not a member of a privileged group, and no matter how well I write, who really is going to buy a book about the life of a poor, white, Polish & Slovak, Catholic spinster who is trying to make a living in academia while struggling with various illnesses and other catastrophes?

Rarely do editors say anything negative about my writing. Rather, they compliment my writing. It's my subject matter, and my telling the truth about that subject matter, that repulses them. And it's not just me. In today's America, poor whites are among the most silenced. That silencing helps to account for Trump's victory.


The Magician depicts a man whose will changes the material world.

Again, I didn't want to write anything, and so I thought of saints or Biblical texts that might best illustrate this type of dynamic mover-and-shaker.

The text I immediately thought of was Proverbs 31. As it happens, this passage depicts a mover-and-shaker who just happens to be female.

So much the better.

"She obtains wool and flax and makes cloth with skillful hands. Like merchant ships, she secures her provisions from afar. She rises while it is still night, and distributes food to her household. She picks out a field to purchase; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. She is girt about with strength, and sturdy are her arms. She enjoys the success of her dealings; at night her lamp is undimmed.

She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle. She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy. She fears not the snow for her household; all her charges are doubly clothed. She makes her own coverlets; fine linen and purple are her clothing. Her husband is prominent at the city gates as he sits with the elders of the land.

She makes garments and sells them, and stocks the merchants with belts. She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs at the days to come. She opens her mouth in wisdom, and on her tongue is kindly counsel. She watches the conduct of her household, and eats not her food in idleness.

Her children rise up and praise her; her husband, too, extols her: 'Many are the women of proven worth, but you have excelled them all.' Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her a reward of her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Lent / Tarot / Industry: The Eight of Coins

Want to understand the Catholic Church in which I and my peers grew up?

There's a great scene in a great movie, 1959's "The Nun's Story." The film is directed by Fred Zinnemann, who also did "High Noon." It is a classic cinematic treatment of a woman's real life (It's based on a true story).

Audrey Hepburn plays Sister Luke, the daughter of a famous surgeon. Her only goal in life is to become a nun and a nurse who does medical work in the Belgian Congo. She enters a convent and gives up everything – her hair, her name, her memories. She becomes a kind of machine. The moment the bell rings her out of bed in the morning, she must fall to her knees and begin praying. She can't look at her face in a mirror. She can't reminisce. All she is allowed to have is her power to serve.

She's not even allowed to have her excellent mind. Her Mother Superior orders her to fail her medical exam as an exercise is self-abnegation.

Audrey Hepburn played many pixie, gamine roles where she was somehow always falling in love with a man much older than she was – Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire (!!!). Filmmakers recognized that Hepburn, youthful as she was, had a gravitas that few age-peer male actors could match. So they hitched her to grandpa.

In "The Nun's Story," though, Hepburn plays a very, very smart nun so powerfully you feel you are watching a documentary. As Sister Luke sits down to take her oral medical exam, she struggles to give incorrect answers to questions. Good Catholic girls are obedient, and she wishes to obey her mother superior.

The examiners are astounded. They know this woman. They know her mind could dance rings around these questions.

As the exam progresses, and as the viewer's hands knot up in her lap, something gives. Sister Luke begins to give all the correct answers to the questions. I can hear Hepburn even now; the scene is so powerful I remember the replies. She talks about where malaria hides in the body of its vector, the mosquito.

Sister Luke disobeyed Mother Superior. She is guilty of the sin of pride – she showed off her great mind. While Sister Luke's intellectual inferiors are given coveted assignments to serve in the Belgian Congo, Sister Luke is punished for passing the medical exam with such high marks. She is sent to an insane asylum. There she will work with the most dangerous patients. One of them physically assaults her.

That's the Catholic Church in which I grew up. One in which one must not be proud, especially if one is a woman. One in which a woman may not be smart. That was for boys. One in which you were punished for knowing something your superiors did not know, especially if you were female.

That Catholic Church is not dead and gone. When I interact, not with the folks in the pews, but with anyone – anyone – who has any status, title, or authority in the church – I constantly feel that I am to shut up and let the superiors do it. Whatever it is. And to hold them in awe, and to erase my female self.

Even when I was a kid, I recognized that this was sick and wrong. If I ever do leave the Catholic Church, misogyny will be the primary reason.

Yes, a Mother Teresa can obtain superstar status. But a little girl, or her grown-up peer, who knows the answer that her superior does not know is still persona non grata, in my experience.

Jesus does say a lot about humility. "The last shall be first and the first shall be last." But he never ordered women to act dumb. But he also did not hide his own intelligence, and he was happy to have intelligent conversations with women.

His longest conversation, and it is a deep one spanning society and theology, is with a woman – the Samaritan woman at the well. He also discussed heavy matters with Mary, and chided Martha when she gave her sister Mary a hard time about conversing with Jesus when there was housework to be done. Jesus said, "No one who lights a lamp hides it away or places it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand so that those who enter might see the light."

People like Sister Luke's Mother Superior told generations of girls to hide their light under a bushel basket.

Their job is to shine.

Today's Lent meditation is brought to you by the eight of coins, a card that shows an industrious person creating – and proudly displaying his creations for the world to see, assess, and perhaps benefit by. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Lent / Tarot / Effort: The Seven of Wands

Studying folklore and living in the Third World both helped me to see the Bible with new eyes.

One thing you see is the effort.

People are constantly trying really hard for things, putting themselves on the line, going to the limit of their abilities.

That's evident right from the start.

Abraham and Sarah try hard for a son. Abraham tries to save Sodom and Gomorrah from God's vengeance. Jacob tried to get Rachel as a wife and puts forth Herculean effort for her hand.

Use of the word "Herculean" reminds me that the Greeks told stories with effort, too. In Greek stories, it is often semi-divine heroes who put forth effort, like Achilles.

In the Bible, average people try very hard and accomplish things.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in the lives of Biblical women, who have names and personalities.

I don't think I know the name of any non-Greek female servants from Greek stories.

In the Bible, though, we know the names, and the dreams, of outsider, non-Jewish women, like Hagar and Ruth, and of barren, old women like Sarah and Elizabeth. These are low status people, and yet they are allowed, in Biblical texts, to have dreams and goals and ambitions.

That's remarkable. The women I know from Native American stories are not named individuals but are rather archetypes, like Corn Maiden or The Girl Who Married a Star.

That they are individuals is remarkable, and it's also remarkable that they put forth effort to achieve their own personal, idiosyncratic goals. I didn't see a lot of that in Hindu stories I encountered when I lived in the Indian subcontinent. In those stories, blind luck or mindless devotion to a deity were often the drivers of the plot.

VS Naipaul talked about this lack of emphasis on personal initiative in his book "India: A Wounded Civilization." TE Lawrence talked about fatalism among Arab Muslims. There is the Arabic phrase "It is written" that implies predestination in all areas of life, and, therefore, fatalism. There's a really good, brief discussion of Muslim fatalism here.

In the New Testament, there are instances of characters jumping very far from their expected roles, and behaving in ways that would be so strange and foreign as to be open to ridicule, condemnation, and even punishment. They do this because they want to get next to Jesus, and Jesus rewards them. In a couple of cases, he says, "Your faith has saved you." Mind – he's not saying, "I, God, saved you," he's saying, "Your faith saved you."

A woman with a bad reputation interrupts a high-status dinner party to wash Jesus' feet with her tears, dry his feet with her hair, and anoint his head with expensive perfume. That's pretty wild behavior. Jesus responds by saying, "Your faith has saved you."

A short tax collector, Zacchaeus, climbs a tree so that he can see Jesus beyond the heads of people taller than he is. Jesus singles him out for praise.

A Roman centurion – one of those who have been crucifying and tormenting Jews for decades – begs Jesus to heal his beloved servant. Jesus immediately offers to travel to the centurion's home to heal the servant. The centurion then goes even further beyond the bounds of normal behavior and says, no, don't come to my house. I know that if you just say the word, from here, my servant will be healed. Jesus is astounded on this level of faith, and he heals the servant.

Personal initiative pays off. That's a very big message for a body of stories to convey. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lent / Tarot / Yes: The Three of Cups

Today I drew the three of cups. Some call the three of cups the "yes card."

I looked at the yes card for about five seconds before I knew what I would blog about today.

I would blog about no.

Jesus says, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him."

We ask, and God says no.

I don't understand this.

Here's a no. My brother Phil had already been killed. He was only 23.

Mike was 33, and he received a cancer diagnosis.

He was married, with a son. His wife was pregnant with their daughter. He was studying to be a minister.

He was surrounded by Christians who loved him and prayed intensely for his recovery.

He died.

And that's all I've got. I have no interpretation or commentary. I just have this giant NO from God.

I do resent God telling us to ask for things, and promising that he will answer with a yes, and then answering with a no.

I have never heard a satisfying response to this question. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Lent / Tarot / The Depths: The Moon

St Teresa of Avila as depicted by Bernini by Tamara De Lempicka

Some people say, "I have trouble believing in God." Or they say, "I have trouble believing in life after death." Or they say, "I wish I could be creative."



I have never not believed in God. Not even for a second. I have never not believed in life after death. I have been visited by the palpable presence of departed loved ones, as well as other non-incarnate spirits, all my life, and I take their involvement in my life, and my conversation with them, for granted. And … creative? I have trouble turning it off.

When I close my eyes to sleep at night, often, not always, unbidden, fantastic designs flood my vision. I could never create this stuff while fully conscious – I am a writer, not a visual artist. My rare attempts at visual design – Halloween pumpkins, pretty cakes – are stilted, lumpen, and hopelessly amateurish.

But just the act of closing my eyes and trying to sleep releases it. The designs that flash before my closed eyes are always fully realized, and museum-worthy. They might be in the style of Japanese prints or Orientalist paintings or Art Deco – they are always ornate and they appear in complete detail. I can't say that I create them. Something in my mind shoots them out. I watch these designs unfurl and I am amazed and entertained.

My sister Antoinette was the same way. Her mind was always percolating. When we went for long drives, we would "write" spontaneous novels, using passing roadside markers as the stuff of our story. Once we passed a Jehovah's Witness house of worship and our main character was named Kingdom Hall.

One of my roommates said to me once, "Don't ever take drugs. You don't have to. What people try to experience with drugs is going on inside your head all the time."

Is having this kind of brain, a wild horse of a brain, a naked dancer in the desert brain, good or bad? It's both.

Tarot is a deck of 78 cards that attempts to limn the entirety of human experience. The English language tries to do the same thing with 171,476 words. According to Google, that's the number of current words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Given the limited number of cards, it's a given that the cards will have numerous meanings.

The Moon card can be taken very positively, and it can be taken very negatively.

The Moon represents the depths of the human mind and soul, and the depths of meaning and life experience. Humans are diurnal creatures. The moon is the nocturnal light. Humans stumble at night, but they also, away from the day's distractions, touch primal fire.

Good or bad?

On the good side, The Moon represents inspiration and spiritual experience and deep personal truths.

On the bad side? Well … The Moon depicts a domesticated dog beside a wild wolf. Do you miss the dog's domestication, his ability to poop outside, perform tricks, and fit in? Is that wolf a good animal to have around or a scary one?

I know a lot of people who just adore wolves – as wolves exist on calendars, needlepoint pillows, and black velvet paintings.

Me? I met a wolf once. Face-to-face, no barrier in between me and the wolf. I was encouraged to pet him. Feeling peer pressure, I did pet the wolf. I looked deep into the wolf's eyes, and I saw deadly, carnivorous hunger, expert skill at satisfying that hunger, and no conscience. Ever since that brief, terrifying encounter, I have had no romantic feelings about wolves.

On the other hand, is there any sound that so rouses what is deep within is better than the sound of a wolf howl … at an appropriate distance?

The depths may be the font of our life or they may be a featureless room with a metal bed in a locked ward. The Moon card covers both: inspiration and madness.

I'm Catholic. We do both – inspiration and madness – better than any other of the major Christian denominations. Hinduism, though, outdoes even Catholicism. Sadhus leave their homes and families, allow a mentor to break their penises, and live the rest of their lives naked, except for a covering of ash, never cutting or combing their hair, eating only what is donated to them by passers-by. I met such men. One of them sat behind me on a bus in India. I asked him to share some deep wisdom with me. He said something snarky.

I do wonder about a whole pamphlet-full of Catholic saints. I don't want to piss off too many people but I have to mention Padre Pio. I doubt that his stigmata were real.

My stance regarding the phenomena referenced in The Moon card is pretty simple. Is this hurting or helping? If you had a dream about a dead relative and it soothed you, so much the better. If you have dreams that torment you and anti-anxiety medication makes the dreams go away and you feel calmer, all hail modern pharmaceuticals. If you follow your art and you and your loved ones starve, maybe it's time to get a day job. If you have that day job and feel suicidal, maybe it's time to work your creativity into the nine-to-five routine. Even naked dancers in the desert need to apply sunscreen.

On the other hand ... All great truths begin as blasphemy. We need the moon. We need the desert. We need people who see what we don't see, and we need to pay attention to our own taboo visions.