Thursday, November 28, 2019
"A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" is the movie America needs right now. Just go see it and don't even bother reading the rest of this review. It's okay if you have no idea what the movie is about. Really. Believe me.
In "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," Tom Hanks gives the performance of a lifetime as Mr. Rogers, a beloved American children's TV icon. Hanks inhales and exhales Rogers, and somehow manages to ice the cake with his own unique Hanksian genius. Fred Rogers was a devout Christian. He demonstrated, rather than preached, Christianity. The Mr. Rogers of ABDITN is a saint, in the very best way. He brings joy and hope to those around him, often in surprising ways. And, yes, that is why you should see "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." That part of the movie earns a 10 out of 10.
The rest of the movie is standard-issue soap opera, and it's more of a 7 out of 10. Matthew Rhys stars as Lloyd Vogel, a cynical, muckraking journalist who is assigned to profile Mr. Rogers. I don't know if Rhys is a good actor. Maybe director Marielle Heller told him to mope so that the viewer would know that Lloyd is a tortured soul. In any case, Rhys mopes. He looks sad and unkempt. He is abrupt with others.
In real life, people who have hidden wounds often do not look sad all the time. Rhys' one-note performance doesn't open any windows of insight into what it's like to have had an abusive parent.
Susan Kelechi Watson plays Lloyd's wife Andrea. These two never convey the chemistry of a married couple in a complicated relationship. Watson looks picture-perfect in every scene. Her makeup is perfect; her clothes are pristine. She's supposed to be playing an attorney and new mother. Totally not believable to anyone who has spent any time with a new, working mother.
Watson's and Rhys' shared scenes left me cold and confused. What are they to each other?
Chris Cooper plays Lloyd's abusive dad, Jerry, who comes back into Lloyd's life. Again, I just didn't feel that anything real was at stake in these scenes.
The domestic strife scenes in this movie struck me as paint-by-numbers, as someone writing in a writing class, someone who hasn't really lived or felt the material but knew that a thrown fist and an illness diagnosis would get paint-by-numbers reactions from the audience.
My other concern is more about substance than style. The movie sends the message that if you are nice to people, even people who have proven themselves to be unreliable, those people will be nice to you back.
In fact in real life one of the key lessons of being abused is "Don't allow yourself to be vulnerable to abusive people, and yes sometimes you have to walk away and not look back."
So, no, the rest of "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" does not live up to Tom Hanks' terrific performance, or Mr. Rogers living out of Christian values. But that's okay. Go see the movie anyway. And bring a hankie.
|The angel in question|
Tuesday morning, November 26, I was feeling overwhelmed. The week before I had made a trip to Washington, DC, to attend the Poland: First to Fight conference, where I was an invited speaker. I drove alone in a twenty-year-old car. I stayed the first night in Maryland, with a friend from high school. After that I was in a hotel in DC. I'm chronically ill and Tuesday, November 19, was a bad night. No sleep and lots of pain.
No matter. I had to get up on Wednesday and deliver my talk. Overall, I loved the conference. I talk more about it here and here.
Taking time off from work left me with a lot of work when I got back. I was frantically trying to catch up with semester-end attention to students. I was also freaking out because I had not cleaned in a while.
I MUST CLEAN.
That morning I received an email from Bill, an old grade-school and high-school friend who is now a lawyer. Last year he kindly volunteered to walk me through legal issues around my brother Joe's death. I had gone to legal aid and legal aid made it almost impossible to talk to a real person. I had to fill out forms, make appointments, and wait forever. After the long wait, every last thing that legal aid lawyer told me, with such pompous feigned authority, turned out not to be true.
Thank God for Bill. I don't know how to thank Bill for Bill.
It looks like the legal matters around my brother Joe's death will be resolved soon.
Feeling sad. My family, the only family I've ever had, is almost all dead.
Obsessing on my students.
Thinking about my family, each in turn, my mother, my father, my brothers, my sister, our dogs and cats.
A while back, I donated some money to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It's in DC, and it's the biggest Catholic Church in America.
As a thank you, they sent me a Christmas carol CD in the mail. I wasn't sure what it would sound like. I put the CD on the player to have some music while cleaning.
I reached up above a cupboard to dust some objects up there.
I own as little as possible. I'm not into stuff. I don't have knickknacks; I don't even have posters on my walls.
But after Joe died I was invited to go through his house, what was once my house, and take stuff.
My God, what do you take?
My mother was big on knickknacks. Many of her knickknacks were still there, almost two decades after her death. Even though I didn't much want them, I was horrified by the inevitable: strangers would soon enter this house and sell or junk things that had been precious to my mother, and that I associated with her.
I took a ceramic owl, a snow globe, and the angel you see pictured here. I also took some linens that my mom had apparently purchased on her final visit to her birthplace, Slovakia. She had packed those linens away and they were as fresh and crisp as when she first bought them. I resolved to use them. I do.
I have had the knickknacks in my apartment for the year and a half since Joe's death.
I pay just about zero attention to them.
Tuesday morning, while dusting, I realized that the angel has a music box inside. I looked at it. What song does it play, I wondered?
The little label affixed to the bottom of the angel statue said, "Do not over wind."
At that moment, my little voice said, "You have to listen to this song now. It will be a message."
I said yeah, right. What message would my deceased mother or brother send me? Nothing positive. Our family was not lovey-dovey. Understatement.
My little voice was insistent, and it was urgent. It kept saying, "You have to hear this song now. Right now. It won't be the same later. You have to hear it at this moment."
I was like, all right, all right.
I played the music box song.
It was "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."
I thought, okay, nice song, but ...
and then I realized that the exact song playing on the CD I had just received in the mail from the Basilica, at that exact same moment that I was listening to the angel music box was "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."
Friday, November 15, 2019
The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity
Douglas Murray's New Book Will Make You Angry, or Angrier
If you enjoy gritting your teeth, balling your fists, and throwing objects across rooms, you'll just love Douglas Murray's latest, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity. Murray is the forty-year-old author of The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. A handsome, charismatic Oxford grad, Murray speaks with a plummy accent. He not only appears on mainstream media like the BBC, the BBC has actually apologized to him. While reading his books, I have to ask how he gets away with it.
In 2015, Murray wrote, "French Muslims were increasingly aligning themselves with Islamist values … It is no coincidence that France has the largest percentage of Muslims in its population of anywhere in western Europe. Wherever the concentration gets above a certain level (perhaps 20 per cent), consequences follow." Why is Murray allowed in the mainstream while heroes from Tommy Robinson to David Horowitz to Ayaan Hirsi Ali are sidelined to non-person status? Is it because Murray is gay, and therefore a beneficiary of the very privilege his latest book skewers? I don't know.
In The Madness of Crowds, Murray invites the reader to teeth-gnashing at various events and trends, all involving homosexuality, women, race, and transsexualism. He starts strong. The book's introduction is a fist shaken at the woke powers and principalities of political correctness. People nowadays are "irrational, feverish, herd-like, and simply unpleasant." This isn't just a rant, the intro promises. We must "see the causes" and "get to the root." What is that root? "All of our grand narratives [religion and politics] have collapsed." Life is now reduced to "getting rich" and "having whatever fun is on offer." A new religion has arisen. That religion is Marxist in its platform and advanced by new tech companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, all of which are run by true believers.
This new religion atomizes and tribalizes society. Our most important characteristics are our race, sex, and sexual orientation. We are deemed worthy or worthless, we are attended to or rejected, based on these superficial characteristics. This religion offers no stable organizing principle. What was virtuous at one time is sinful at another. We must "organize along whichever system of justice emerges from the perpetually moving hierarchy … it is a system that is not just unworkable but dementing, making demands that are impossible towards ends that are unachievable."
We must live lies. For example, we must profess that a man is a woman. "As anyone who has lived under totalitarianism can attest, there is something demeaning and eventually soul-destroying about being expected to go along with claims you do not believe to be true."
Murray's goal in the face of this madness is to be a kind of mine-sweeper. He can't fix the whole kit and kaboodle, he acknowledges, but he hopes to "help clear some terrain across which afterwards other people may more safely pass." Exactly since Murray is one conservative who is allowed in mainstream media, he may very well be successful in this goal.
In his first chapter. devoted to homosexuality, Murray expresses exasperation at how often gay-themed stories are "crow-barred" into other media. Murray mentions the lack of fellow-feeling among what comedian Dave Chappelle calls "the alphabet people." Murray, just like Chappelle, mentions that gay men and lesbians "have almost nothing in common;" both are suspicious of bisexuals; and trans people present challenges so unique that some, including many lesbians, would like to disassociate from them.
Murray says that in the past, gay people wanted to be seen as like everyone else. Now, though, radicals want difference. People who identify as gay want to be accepted into society; people who identify as queer want to tear down society. Case in point: attacks on Bruce Bawer for pointing out, in his 1994 book, A Place at the Table, that some groups are self-defeating in their extremism. Bawer was denounced as a "piece of ----" and "a disgrace to the queer nation." "What queer nation?" Murray asks. Murray observes that dramatizations of sadomasochistic behavior in gay pride parades are "off-putting." Peter Thiel, a gay man who endorsed President Trump, was stripped of his gayness by many commentators. The authentic gay must be on the extreme left.
Again in his intro, Douglas promises that he will not be overwhelmed by the tsunami of a mad crowd, but rather he will rise above and provide root causes, thus, his second chapter on Marxism, especially as it manifests in the social sciences as taught on elite university campuses.
In the old, Marxist formulation, the capitalists were on the top, sucking up the wealth that would be better shared. Now, in the new pyramid that social justice warriors want to shatter, white males are on top, sucking up all available privilege, attention, and worth. White males must be brought low and their opposite numbers, trans Muslims, say, must be elevated.
Theorists like UC Berkeley Professor Judith Butler insist that gender is nothing but a "reiterated social performance," not the result of a "prior reality." In 1988, Prof. Peggy McIntosh gave the world "White Privilege," describing how all whites are much better off than any and all non-whites. One item on McIntosh's list: "I can buy band-aids that match my skin tone." Seriously? What color is this woman? And where may one purchase these magic band-aids? Another: "I can criticize my government." Yeah, Peggy, it's amazing how black people aren't allowed to criticize the government.
In 1985, Argentine-born Professor Ernesto Laclau advised roping persons who feel aggrieved about their lives into class struggle. Laclau was "explicitly setting out to try to find a new class of exploited person." Working class people had failed to recognize their exploitation. They "let down their theoreticians and had generally failed to follow the path of progress that had been laid out for them." Laclau described a plan to bring more people into Marxist revolution.
Laclau issued his call just four years before the Berlin Wall came down. Communism may have been exposed as the most murderous ideology in history, and a spectacular failure in living up to any of its promises, and so hated by its subjects that they rioted with joy when the wall holding them in was torn down. But some man somewhere was bummed because he faced ridicule for his desire to dress in women's clothing, and he and others similarly simmering in resentment could be radicalized and convinced that tearing down heterosexual white men elevated them.
In this new revolution, victimization was the coin of the realm. Women were victimized and must be believed if sexually assaulted. When a female, leftist scholar, NYU's Avital Ronell, sexually harassed her male graduate student, the very same scholars who argued for the new Revolution of the new oppressed supported the empowered scholar, rather than the serf grad student. I'm shocked, shocked! Judith Butler, one of Laclau's colleagues, co-signed a letter identifying Ronell as a special princess who must not be interfered with. Her "grace," her "keen wit," demanded that she be "accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation." Paging George Orwell, author of Animal Farm.
Murray closes his chapter on Marxism with levity, citing a series of hoax publications, including "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct," and "Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon." Scholars, real scholars, admirable scholars, published these articles to expose the excesses of woke culture in the Ivory Tower.
Another foundation of our current insanity, Murray reports, is tech. The tech titans are woke, and they crush anyone who speaks any taboo truth. Too, tech provides the means to spread social panics. Murray mentions, but does not dwell on, the January, 2019 cyber lynching of a group of schoolboys. The boys were Catholic, from the south, majority white, obviously male, wearing MAGA hats, and were marching for life. They were hated for all these reasons.
One Nathan Philips, self-identifying as a "Native American elder," approached the boys while banging a drum and chanting. Like wildfire, video of this encounter spread across the internet, accompanied with quite literal demands for the boys' grisly murder.
The tech titans are hypocrites. "Google's workforce is only 4 percent Hispanic and 2 percent African-American … Asians make up 35 percent of Google staff" though Asians make up 5 percent of the US population. And, as we all know, China don't play. Tech does what China tells tech to do.
Tech's selective un-personing is telling. Women have been banned from Twitter for stating that men are not women. Yesterday women were the oppressed victim, and gained status thereby. Today, men announcing themselves as women get to bully women, and indeed to make death threats against women. The victim status of men-as-women supersedes the victim status of women.
Murray reports the results of a series of Google image searches. Searching "European art," for example, is designed by Google to send out images of black people. Search "white men" and receive images with captions saying, "White men are bad." Da, da comrade.
Google and Facebook combined, Murray reports, employ at least 40,000 people whose job it is to "moderate content." Patreon employs a "Trust and Safety Team" to discern who is adequately woke enough to use that platform. What's that knock at the door? Never fear, it's the "Trust and Safety Team."
A personal note: recently I received notification that Facebook had deleted one of my posts, a post made in a small, private group I moderate myself. Facebook would not show the post to me, though I asked – I wanted to know what I had posted that broke Facebook rules. Facebook sent me this note, and I promise you this is really what it said, "Danusha, this is what you can do. You can remove Danusha from the group."
Murray opens his chapter on race with Martin Luther King dreaming that his children should "one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." I'll pause that the reader may weep.
"Skin color is everything," Murray reports. Murray unearths bizarre attacks on tall, handsome, white, rich actor Armie Hammer. Hammer starred as both of the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network and he was perfection in Call Me By Your Name. But, you know, he's white. And male. And heterosexual. And rich. So let's bash him on the internet. We should count our lucky stars that so far Zuckerberg, Brin, Dorsey, et al, have not yet figured out how to operate a guillotine through the internet.
For me the best part of Murray's race chapter is his no-holds-barred critique of 2015 MacArthur Genius Grand winner and grievance monger Ta-Nehisi Coates. I'm not going to describe that critique to you. I want you to read it for yourself, and shoot Murray an appreciative note afterwards.
One of the challenges I face as a Christian is that I often want to say, "Christ, or the Judeo-Christian tradition, offers the solution here," and I hesitate to do so, because I know people hate being proselytized. Murray is an atheist, but in a couple of places in his book he acknowledges that Christ, or the tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, does indeed offer the solution here. Towards the end of his chapter on race, Murray says, "Equality in the eyes of God is a core tenet of the Christian tradition." I'd add that equality in the eyes of God is central to Judaism as well, enshrined in Genesis and Talmudic interpretations of Genesis.
We live in secular societies, and we can't impose that religious tenet. Without that foundational belief, though, we flounder. It's a belief found in perhaps the single most famous American sentence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Without that, we fall prey to hierarchies and tribalism that could destroy the fabric of our society.
Murray invokes Christianity in a chapter entitled "Forgiveness." Tech-driven woke lynch mobs are allergic to forgiveness. Every time a name arises in popular culture someone combs through the new celebrity's past and finds evidence of sin. Witness a story Murray does not cover. 24-year-old Carson King held up a sign asking for beer money at a sporting event in September, 2019. He gained fame and used that fame to raise millions of dollars for a children's hospital. Reporter Aaron Calvin, of the Des Moines Register, dug up posts made when King was 16 years old. King's sponsors dropped him.
Christianity is big on the concept of forgiveness, and that concept, along with equality in the eyes of God, is a social lubricant that allows us to get along with each other. Without it, society becomes pricklier. "We have created a world in which forgiveness has become almost impossible … a world where nobody knows who is allowed to give alleviation for offense but where everybody has a reputational incentive to take it and run with it. A world in which one of the greatest exertions of power is constantly exerted – the power to stand in judgment over, and potentially ruin, the life of another human being … this is one of the surest ways imaginable to embed every tribal difference that already exists." Murray writes. Nietzsche predicted that once we gave up on God, we'd flounder, because we'd still feel guilt over our own sins and anger at others, and we'd have no route to reconciliation.
Murray cites transsexualism as the current ultimate stalking horse for the woke. Transsexuals constitute a tiny percentage of the population. There is debate, and inconclusive statistics, about the best way to treat gender dysphoria. Not so long ago, leftists themselves felt perfectly comfortable making jokes about gender dysphoria. In the past few years, suddenly and unpredictably, that males could be denied entry to women's rape crisis centers, prisons, bathrooms, waxing salons and changing rooms has suddenly been held aloft as proof that Western Civilization is hopelessly oppressive and must be dismantled brick by filthy brick. Anyone who questioned this suddenly emerging deep truth was publicly cyber-lynched.
Murray opens with a sobering anecdote. Nancy Verhelst, Murry tells us, was a Belgian girl with a distant, unloving mother who preferred her three brothers to Nancy. Nancy got surgery meant to turn her into a man, Nathan. This surgery left her feeling depressed. "I do not want to be a monster," she said. She then requested state-assisted suicide, and the government complied, killing Nathan / Nancy.
Murray could have ended the chapter right there, but he goes on. Children are encouraged by virtue signaling adults and greedy doctors to take puberty-blocking drugs that damage their bodies for life, and to undergo drastic surgery before they are out of their teens. As a brief visit to YouTube can attest, quite a few of these children later regret this path, and wish they could have their natural bodies back. If their parents object, the parents can be alienated from the children by the state, or by intrusive and dogmatic health care professionals and school administrators. These professionals might not be true believers themselves, but they are terrified of being fingered and un-personed as "transphobes."
"I felt like I was on a conveyor belt," says one young man who regrets that this agenda was forced on him. He has to wear a restrictive undergarment to hide his permanently femininized breasts, even though he jumped off the belt. Dr Johanna Olson-Kennedy, who touts gender reassignment for underage children, famously said, "Here's the thing about chest surgery [surgical removal of a girl's breasts]. If you want breasts at a later point in your life, you can go and get them."
Think you've hit the bottom of the barrel? How naïve. Dr Johanna Olson-Kennedy's husband, Aydin Olson-Kennedy, is a trans man. Mr. Olson-Kennedy raised funds to remove the breasts of a Down's syndrome girl.
As much as I value Murray and this book, I have reservations. Murray says that The Bell Curve was never criticized on a factual basis. In fact it was, by world class scientists. Murray writes about women from a great remove; I don't get the sense that he's ever met or talked to a feminist. No, not all of us think that expressing hatred toward men is a feminist thing to do. And, no, I can't get all worked up about twenty-year-old Drew Barrymore, in 1995, doing a fourteen-second dance on David Letterman's desk, and revealing nothing to the audience more than some side-boob. I don't think that pretty young women's playful flirtatiousness is a threat to all I hold dear. In fact playful flirtatiousness is very much part of what I hold dear. I don't need no ayatollahs of any ideological stripe.
I really want Murray and anyone who tilts at the politically correct windmill to acknowledge how divorced from real people's real lives is the nattering of a Judith Butler or a Ta-Nehisi Coates. Butler and Coates, Twitter bannings and just about any woke event that transpires on an elite university campus are just so much kabuki theater. Butler, Coates and others of their ilk have never lifted up anybody.
Yes, you can be banned from twitter for using the f-word for a gay man. But that doesn't make high school any easier for many gay kids. I know a lesbian who was dragged from a moving car by her high school classmates. Similarly, no matter how overwhelmingly powerful feminism may seem to Murray, I know four women who were raped and chose not to pursue charges because they assumed, probably correctly, that they would suffer from the criminal justice system and might never achieve a conviction. Millions of people celebrated Nathan Philips in their Facebook posts after the Lincoln Memorial confrontation with the Catholic schoolboys. And all that Facebook fawning, and all those dream catchers sold in New Age shops, don't change the fact that too many Native Americans still drink themselves to death.
The gap is monstrous between what the cossetted Ta-Nehisi Coateses and Michael Eric Dysons say on NPR and how the black people I know live real lives. I know young black people who have never eaten fresh fruit, have no idea who their father is, and can't speak Standard English. Millions of other "underclass" African Americans share their fate. Tech's woke machinations and Ivy League symposiums have zero impact on them.
In my estimation, black conservatives offer the black underclass their best hope, but they probably will go to their graves never reading Shelby Steele, Larry Elder, Thomas Sowell or John McWhorter, men who, I know, would inspire them and give them hope they can't get anywhere else.
I also disagree with Murray about Marxism as the best label for the ideology behind wokeness. Marxism is a part, but not the entire edifice. What we confront is Team Anti-Western Civilization, and its reach is pervasive. Woke culture privileges Muslim identity over all other identities. Witness leftists' notorious human sacrifice of black journalist Juan Williams when Williams dared to admit that when he sees passengers with "Muslim garb" on airplanes, he gets nervous. Marxists would have no reason to un-person Williams in deference to Islam. Team Anti-Western Civilization does have a reason for this privileging. Team Anti-Western Civilization embraces black people when black people can be used to undermine majority culture. Team Anti-Western Civilization chooses Islam over a black man because Team Anti-Western Civ sees Islam as better able to topple its enemy. Very nice, suburban, bourgeois ladies I know, women totally unconnected to Marxism, unthinkingly express a conviction that anything Western is oppressive, inferior, and to be shunned. No to Christianity in any form; yes to kitschy dream catchers, utterly fake "Wicca," and little Buddha statues.
Murray's book is more of a sustained rant than a map to a better future. Here's my suggestion: courage, commitment, organization, and action. Those invested in Western Civilization need to find their cause and advance it boldly. Citizens need to educate themselves so that they can respond when someone says that Christianity is genocidal, that white men are uniquely evil, that America is oppressive, that men are women. And then, knowledge in hand, advance on education, commerce, journalism, and social media, not belligerently, but lovingly, and embody what one believes. The response to, "My school is pushing trans extremism and anti-American propaganda" is not "I will homeschool." It's "I will become a teacher" or "I will get elected to the schoolboard" or "I will lobby textbook publishers," or "I will organize with others and change what the school is doing."
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery
Sunday, November 10, 2019
I love movies and I love writing movie reviews. I'm not going to write a review of "Jojo Rabbit." I'm just going to say, "Go see Jojo Rabbit." This movie made me and the person I saw it with laugh, cry, and think. It's the best theatrical-release movie I've seen in 2019, and 2019 is almost over. It's audacious, courageous, moving, unforgettable, original, deeply human, and it gets under your skin. Reward this kind of filmmaking with your ticket-buying dollars.
"Jojo Rabbit" is about a ten-year-old Hitler Youth member living in a German city during the waning days of World War II. He's just a child so he has swallowed Nazi ideology whole. He has an imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler. Jojo lives with his mother, and he attends Hitler Youth meetings.
Making a comedy about Nazism is a tough task. Many have tried and failed. One false move and this movie would be splat all over the floor. There are no false moves. "Jojo Rabbit" is supremely confident. It moves like a well-oiled machine. I don't want to say much more because I want you to be surprised and delighted as I was.
I can say the performances are terrific. I found Sam Rockwell, as a Hitler Youth commander, to be particularly compelling. His final scene in this film is one that will stay with me for a long time.
Scarlett Johansson as Jojo's mother ripped my heart right out of my chest. Rebel Wilson is hysterically funny. Thomasin McKenzie has the gravity of a veteran performer twice her age, and when she finally smiles an innocent, little girl smile it tugs at your heart. Archie Yates, as Jojo's fat friend, is adorable. The tall, thin, pale man who played the Gestapo commander is appropriately terrifying and also funny.
This may have been a low-budget movie but the production values are high. The interiors send you back in time eighty years. Scarlett Johansson wears a green art-deco sweater I wanted to reach through the screen and borrow, and maybe never return.
Taika Waititi as Hitler is, at first, simply funny. But then there's a scene where he really unleashes, and it's terrifying. It's clear that Waititi has watched video of Hitler giving speeches and managed to mimic every crazed, hate-mongering gesture.
Go see this movie. Please. And you're welcome.