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Sunday, June 17, 2018

Happy Father's Day 2018

My dad and my brother Joe

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh, you were abused.

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

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

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

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

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

A few things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here is Otto's essay:

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

"First Reformed" 2018 Paul Schrader.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This essay first appears at the FrontPageMag website here.

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

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

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

In search of bread and butter leaves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Show Trial of Roseanne Barr: Selective Outrage, Double Standards, Misogyny and the Victim Caste System

The Show Trial of Roseanne Barr
Hypocrisy, Selective Outrage, Double Standards, Misogyny and the Victim Caste System

When I was younger, I was a politically active leftist. It seemed impossible to me to be anything else. The right was evil. Period. We leftists were compassionate. We valued diversity. We let people color outside the lines. We supported artistic, creative societies. And, in our leftist world, everyone was equal.

In April, 1992, during the LA Riots, 18-year-old Crips gang member Damian Williams attacked white truck driver Reginald Denny. As a recording news helicopter hovered overhead, Williams smashed Denny's head with a cinder block, then triumphantly flashed gang signs. Williams refused to express remorse, saying that "It's a lot of things that happened to my people by the hands of Mr. Denny’s nationality." In other words, Denny is white, Williams is black, so Williams had a right to attack Denny.

Shortly after the attack, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters made it a point to visit Williams and to give him a job. Waters insisted that it was wrong to demonize Williams. It is wrong to judge people on the worst thing they had ever done. The rioters needed to be understood not as thugs, but as full human beings, capable of redemption.

In more recent days, Nancy Pelosi insisted that no one should call MS-13 gang members "animals." MS-13 gangsters are notorious for decapitation, stabbings, and tearing out human hearts. They have murdered innocent teenagers with bats and machetes. "The spark of divinity … dignity and worth" exist in "every person," Pelosi insisted.

Restorative Justice is rooted in this idea, that each person, no matter how flawed, is capable of redemption. Restorative Justice is "a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders. This can lead to transformation of people, relationships and communities."

Diversity was another leftist value, I was convinced, a value intertwined with compassion and equality. The "Salad Bowl" model of society encouraged everyone to be his or her unique self. We didn't have to assimilate as in the "Melting Pot."  

Leftist compassion and diversity made room for flourishing creativity. I associated right-wing people and views with sterility, with a life void of art. We leftists knew that artists could be a bit off-kilter, and they needed leeway to color outside the lines. Without that leeway, we'd be living in a boring, homogenized world. Sure, William S. Burroughs, Billie Holiday, Lenny Bruce and Kurt Cobain were heroin addicts. Sure, Woody Allen had some weird personal relationships. Sure, John Lennon beat women and kids and announced himself "more popular than Jesus" and superior to "thick and ordinary" Christians. Cut them some slack; otherwise, we wouldn't be able to sing along to "Imagine."

And we leftists were so broad-minded that we separated the artist from the art. Roman Polanski drugged and raped a thirteen-year-old girl, but he made great movies. One could appreciate "The Pianist" without approving of the rape. 

On May 29, 2018, Roseanne Barr, creator and star of the award-winning TV show Roseanne (1988-1997) and its reboot Roseanne 2017-2018, posted the following on Twitter: "Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby = vj." The post is ugly gibberish, so much so that it requires interpretation. What the heck was she saying? Roseanne Barr was insulting Valerie Jarrett, former president Barack Obama's senior advisor. Within hours, ABC publicly announced that it was canceling "Roseanne 2018," the highest-rated and most-watched new show of the year.

And, within hours, the left, in the wider world and in the microcosm of my Facebook page, betrayed every value I was once naïve enough to think of as associated with the left.

Let's start with Roseanne Barr herself. She is mentally ill. She has acknowledged as much herself. When she was 16, she was hit by a car and suffered traumatic brain injury. She was institutionalized for eight months at Utah State Hospital, where she had a baby that she put up for adoption. She has also worked as a parking lot prostitute. In 1991, she made the horrendous accusation that she was a victim of parental incest. She accused both her mother and father of "lurid, grotesque, disgusting" things. These accusations deeply disturbed her family members. Roseanne later acknowledged that the accusations were false. "I think it's the worst thing I've ever done … It's the biggest mistake that I've ever made." When Oprah Winfrey asked why she did it, Roseanne replied, "I was prescribed numerous psychiatric drugs, incredible mixtures of psychiatric drugs to deal with the fact that I had – and still in some ways have and always will have – some mental illness.

Valerie Jarret is hardly the first person Roseanne has insulted. Roseanne threatened George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin. Roseanne made a mockery of the Star Spangled Banner at a San Diego Padres game. She massacred the song, and concluded by grabbing her crotch and spitting. President Bush condemned her performance as "disgraceful." Perhaps Roseanne's most grotesque public insult was to Holocaust victims. In 2009, for a publication called "Heeb," Roseanne donned a Hitler mustache and swastika armband, and posed next to an oven with a tray full of burnt, human-shaped cookies.  

My liberal Facebook friends, and celebrities in the wider society, have been falling all over themselves to send Roseanne to the guillotine. She's a "racist," arguably the worst thing, certainly the most career-ending accusation, one can hurl in our society today. Facebook post after Facebook post, news article after news article, is feeding on Roseanne's mistake with the inexorable fervor of vultures picking over a corpse. There is no getting between the grabbing beaks and the bloodied carcass.

Why? Roseanne's show has always worked to include appealing, fully rounded black characters. In February, 2018, Roseanne explained in detail to the Hollywood Reporter her desire to have African-American-centered plots both in the old show and the new one.

Rather, what Roseanne is, and what she has been for her entire life, is a person with mental health issues. Anyone with eyes and a heart can see that. Any truly compassionate person would recognize that Roseanne is handicapped. Any compassionate person truly committed to diversity and inclusion would be the adult in the room and address Roseanne's provocative and irrational behavior as a manifestation of her mental illness. Remember Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi insisting on the full humanity of violent criminals? Remember compassion and understanding? Did Roseanne receive any of that? Heck no.

Why are my liberals friends, and arbiters of morality like the New York Times' Charles M. Blow and CNN's Van Jones insisting that outrageous Jewish comic Roseanne Barr is the unlikely reincarnation of KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest? More on that question, below.

Roseanne said something weird and ugly. Her attackers insist that she suffer. One wonders why the many who repeatedly equated President George W. Bush with a chimp have been able to escape any sanction. One can find a compilation of Bush = chimp images here. Wanda Sykes quit the Roseanne show after the tweet. Yes, that would be the same Wanda Sykes who called Donald Trump an "orangutan." Bill Maher also called Trump an orangutan. Stephen Colbert called Donald Trump's mouth Vladimir Putin's "cock holster." Running gags refer to an imaginary incestuous relationship between Trump and his daughter Ivanka, and to Trump's sons as Frankenstein's monster. Any list of offensive comments that the left has found entirely acceptable would be all but infinite. Jokes about Sarah Palin as a "white trash c---" once flooded media. Colin Kaepernick, recent winner of an Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award, wears socks that depict white police officers as pigs. Barack Obama invited rapper Common to the White House. Common sang a praise song to a cop killer. What we have here is a double standard. And a betrayal of the ideal of equality.

Another betrayal, so obvious if it were  snake it would bite you. Roseanne insulted a high school shooting survivor, a Holocaust survivor, and all Holocaust victims. For ABC, those insults were A-OK. It was only when she insulted Valerie Jarret, a mixed race woman who identifies as African American, and in that stupid insult invoked the Muslim Brotherhood, that Roseanne had to pay a price.

The left's insistence that Roseanne must pay for the Jarret tweet, but that Roseanne and others have received permission to insult Jews, poor whites, women, shooting victims, and Donald Trump's children is a betrayal of equality. The left has established a victimology caste system. Juan Williams learned a similar lesson. Juan Williams is an African American journalist. He used to broadcast via National Public Radio. In October, 2010, Williams said, "When I get on the plane … if I see people who are in Muslim garb … I get nervous." NPR CEO Vivian Schiller fired and denounced Williams, saying he needed a psychiatrist. In the leftist victim caste system, Williams' African American identity was superseded by Muslim identity.

I do not ask that Colin Kaepernick be fired, in spite of his hateful socks. I've never protested against Common, or Vivian Schiller, or Stephen Colbert. I want to live in a world with free speech. I once did not. I lived in the former Soviet Empire. In some ways, Poland in 1988 was the most depressing place I've ever lived; it was even more depressing than the time I spent working in an African country ranked as one of the poorest on earth. The Soviets demonized art and beauty and divergent thought and coloring outside the lines. Self-righteous thought police rounded up those who spoke thoughts deemed inappropriate and turned them into non-persons. No doubt that was a tragic human rights violation, but it also created, for me, a severely depressing, homogenized landscape I find it difficult to describe. When I returned to Poland ten years after the fall of communism and saw diversity and color on the labels of food items in a supermarket, I wanted to fall to my knees and thank God. That's not hyperbole. You have no idea how much you need the presence of creative people until you live in a world scrubbed of that presence.

My Facebook feed is flooded with posts from people who are convinced that they are better than Roseanne and that they are suited to judge, condemn, and un-person her. Not a single one of these Facebook Robespierres could do what Roseanne did – make people laugh and create an historic television show. I would not want to live in a world inhabited only by the righteous and incorruptible.

I know I will face resistance in saying this, but, yes, artists do need leeway to color outside the lines. Yes, I do think "The Pianist" is a great movie even though its creator, Roman Polanski, raped a child. Yes, Polanski should have felt the full weight of the law. But, no, no one is only the worst thing they have ever done. And, yes, creative people are often not the most virtuous people. If you respect Wagner's operas, if you read Hemingway, if you swing to Sinatra, you are enjoying the work of men who lived lives far south of sainthood. Do you really want to live in a world scrubbed of Wagner, Hemingway, Sinatra, Miles Davis, and so many others? Do you really want to be the judge who decides whom to put on the train?

What should ABC have done? Reprimanded Roseanne, yes. Distanced themselves from her comment, yes. Perhaps order her, for the length of her contract, to stay off of twitter. ABC could have applied Restorative Justice. Bring Roseanne and Valerie Jarrett into a room, and work out a peaceful solution that satisfied all. But no. Liberals refused to extend to Roseanne Barr the compassion they did not spare Damian Williams and MS 13. 

Now, why have liberals been so quick to abandon their own values, their own compassion, equality, diversity and appreciation of artistry in their rush to un-person Roseanne Barr? Here's why. "Roseanne" was a great show because it depicted people who are usually mocked. "Roseanne" treated poor whites with dignity. On "Roseanne," poor whites had agency. They were not talked about, they talked. The left loves to talk about poor white people. The left becomes uncomfortable when poor white people do the talking themselves. The left wants its own doctrine to emerge from the mouths of poor white fictional characters. We are supposed to be Tom Joads, puppets for our superiors, from fellow-traveler John Steinbeck to millionaire blue-collar-wanna-be Bruce Springsteen. In a famous speech from the novel "Grapes of Wrath," author John Steinbeck has his working-man character, Tom Joad, say, "I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there." Bruce Springsteen echoed this speech in the lyrics of his song, "The Ghost of Tom Joad."

I've lived among working people all my life. We don't talk like this. What do we say? The kind of things Roseanne and Darlene and Dan say on their show. The show ABC just silenced. The left doesn't want poor white people to speak for themselves, because when we do so, we burst the left's mythic bubble.

The eight hundred pound gorilla in the room is, of course, Roseanne's support of Donald Trump. Me? I didn't vote for, and I do not support, Donald Trump. But, again, I do like art, and I want to live in a world where artists get to decide for whom they vote. So I don't much care that Roseanne supports Trump. Her support of Trump and her show are two different things. I am not so rigid, not so totalitarian, that I require the artists whose work I value to vote for the same candidates I vote for. Unfortunately, too many people are fixated on control. They need their artists to share their politics. And there's more. When poor whites don't parrot their betters' politics, the left feels especially betrayed. We poor whites are supposed to be grateful to the left, not rebel against it. Roseanne was uppity. She didn't toe the party line. Freedom of speech is not a gift all are allowed to enjoy. Kathy Griffin can pose ISIS-style, with a graphic, bloodied mock-up of Trump's severed head. That's freedom of speech. Colin Kaepernick can depict white cops as pigs. That's freedom of speech. But a working-class-identified white woman cannot leave the ideological reservation. She, nutcase on drugs that she is, and that she always has been, posts some incoherent gibberish, no better or worse than what she posted about George Zimmerman. But a mixed race woman, identified as "black," is involved. Islam is involved. Great! We can railroad Roseanne on a charge of racism! That is a career-ending charge.

In 2015, another uppity woman, Farkhunda, berated a mullah who sold magic charms at a mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan. Farkhunda was a devout Muslim. Her understanding of her faith demanded that charms not be sold. The mullah, seeing a threat to his income stream, falsely accused Farkhunda of burning the Koran. A mob of men formed and rapidly beat Farkhunda to death. The murderers, proud, excited, happy, videotaped their righteous murder. You can view it on the web. Different continents, different ideologies, drastically different punishments. But the same mob fervor, the same false charge, and the same misogyny. In both cases, a woman got out of line. A false accusation was deployed to return to the status quo.

This much is undeniable: critics and awards committees devoted to television as an art form praised the "Roseanne" show as groundbreaking, as historic, as artistically worthy. It set viewership records. It won Emmy Awards, Golden Globe awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, American Comedy Awards, Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, TV Guide Top TV Show Awards, a Peabody Award, and a People's Choice Award. The show has been the subject of numerous scholarly publications. In all the recent show-trial hubbub, we forget how remarkable it is that the center of this cultural milestone was one smart-mouthed, fat, blue-collar woman. The type of woman most despised in our society, most without a cheering section. We are now consigning the flawed woman who wrote this history for us to non-person status. Not because she's a racist, because she manifestly isn't. Our real motivation for consigning her to non-person status is that she left the reservation.

This piece first appeared at Front Page Mag here

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

Friday, June 1, 2018

"Pope Francis: A Man of His Word" 2018. Please See This Movie

Please go see "Pope Francis: A Man of His Word," the 2018 documentary by Wim Wenders. Just by going to a theater to see this film, you will be making the world a better place. Why? Because this is a beautiful, moving, engaging film about life's big questions. It turns its camera on people so poor they live in garbage dumps, on pollution, mass migration, on victims of natural disasters, and asks how to respond to all this in an ethical way.

About how many other movies can you say that? If you financially reward the makers of this film, more filmmakers will produce more beautiful, deep movies. And the world will be a better place.

Almost from the first moments of this film to the last, I had tears running down my face. I'm a movie lover and I loved this movie, not just because it is good in a moral sense, but because it is well made. Wim Wenders, the filmmaker as well as the narrator, is an award-winning director who gave us "Wings of Desire" and "The Buena Vista Social Club."

The film opens, in a sense, in heaven. Wenders turns his camera on heavenly clouds. Wenders' voiceover lists all that is wrong with the world, and asks how we can go on. The clouds break, and Wenders shows us an ancient Italian town, and invokes another Francis, St. Francis of Assisi. Wenders uses mention of the medieval St. Francis to highlight the life of the current Pope Francis.

Francis is shown carrying out his day-to-day life. He visits with very poor people in places like Brazil, the Philippines, and the Central African Republic. He has intimate contact with the sick, those disposed by hurricanes, and the aged. Those he visits tremble during their encounters. Their eyes glow. They weep. They exult.

Francis also visits the wealthy and powerful: Vladimir Putin, the Trumps, and congress. American legislators John Boehner, Marco Rubio, and others are shown helplessly wiping away tears as Francis speaks.

In other scenes, Francis looks directly into Wenders' camera and speaks from his heart. He teaches with confidence and authority, but in a kindly, not a didactic or superior, way.

You don't have to agree with everything Francis says to cherish this movie. I certainly don’t. On the one hand, as I watched, my rational mind developed arguments against some of Francis' positions. But my heart was still moved, because Francis is so obviously a well-meaning person trying to make his way through a very challenging world.

I disagree with Francis most on two related points. First, he says that one should never assume an attitude of proselytizing. I disagree. Christians must proselytize. Maybe there is a nuance here I am missing. If so, the film never clarifies.

Francis appears to endorse the mass migration of unvetted, military-age Muslims into Europe while, in the film, in any case, ignoring the real-world problems caused by that migration. And Francis romanticizes poverty, in my opinion.

Rather than romanticizing poverty, Francis should endorse efforts to end poverty. If women's status were elevated, and if women controlled their own fertility, their societies would advance and there would be fewer people living in abject poverty. Further, capitalism and even greed should not be demonized. Jesus had warm relations with rich people, and he spoke of the necessity to build on investments.

Francis says kind things about women and homosexuals without advancing any change in policy that would communicate the official church recognition of the full humanity of women and homosexuals, not just heterosexual men.

Even when I was disagreeing with Francis, I was loving this movie.

Now, to the naysayers. In "The Federalist," Maureen Mullarkey called the film "religious pornography" and identified Pope Francis as analogous to Hitler. Movie reviews don't get any weirder than that. Mullarkey hates Francis' kind words about homosexuals. She trashes the film.

This hateful review is followed by comments by hundreds of hateful people, some identifying as Catholic, who are utterly comfortable comparing Pope Francis to Hitler.

For that reason alone, you need to see this movie.