Wednesday, December 28, 2016

I want my daddy

A pope can be challenged.  He makes claims to being infallible, but few people these days actually believe that.  In the first place, the doctrine of infallibility is only intended to apply to times when the pope speaks officially on doctrine, “ex cathedra.”  And only twice has it been invoked.  The first time was in 1854, when Pius IX declared that Mary was born without having inherited the sin of Adam – the notion of so-called “immaculate conception,” frequently misunderstood to refer to Christ’s conception.  The second time was in 1950, when Pius XII declared that Mary entered Heaven in bodily form. Whether she died first is left open to question.

Popes can and do make mistakes at other times, but if you are a catholic you are required to believe without question that these two events took place.  Pius XII, labeled “Hitler’s Pope” by his detractors for his decision to go easy on Hitler rather than risk the loss of church property and authority, was quite specific on the doctrine of infallibility.  “(I)f anyone,” he declared, “which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which We (sic - capital letter) have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.” 

Times change.  Here we are in 2016 and Francis, the current pope, issues a book length guideline on family life under the title, Amoris Laetitia.  We all know people have been leaving the church in droves, not over doctrinal conflicts, which most people seem to be able to leave to their “betters” in the hierarchy.  But over what is roundly perceived to be unrealistic demands on their behavior.  In an age when half the marriages end in divorce in many modern nations, being told you can no longer have access to the sacraments because you've divorced and remarried strikes many as cruel.  Traditionalists insist rules are rules and the church’s truth cannot be made subject to the ebb and flow of cultural norms.  Modernists, on the other hand, argue we learn as we live, and while some things cannot change (the divinity of Christ and his resurrection, for example, or the importance of charity and compassion), common practices which do not affect one’s faith may.  And here is where Pope Francis has tuned in.  Many traditionalist bishops have urged that communion be denied to legislators who support candidates who support a woman’s right to an abortion, for example.  But in Amoris Laetitia, footnote 351, Francis writes, “I would also point out that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak'.” 

Cardinal Burke (center, in red)

This move on Francis’ part has many conservatives in the church and traditionalists in the hierarchy up in arms.   In June of this year a group of Catholic scholars, 45 of them, addressed a letter to the cardinals asking them to help get the pope to backpedal on these efforts to reform the church from within.  Four Cardinals: Burke, Caffara, Brandmüller and Meisner responded by addressing the pope with what is called a dubia, or a request for clarification. Five dubia, actually. They are listed here.  Basically, they ask for clarification on the old questions of whether divorce is to be allowed, and whether a person who divorces is not committing adultery when remarrying and how one is supposed to reconcile the teachings of the church with one’s individual conscience.

Francis has chosen, so far at least, not to reply.  To put a positive spin on his silence, the cardinals are suggesting it is a signal that the issue should be reflected upon some more before proceeding.

Those who want to celebrate this pope as a liberal or a modernizer seize on his welcome focus on pastoral care over the rigidity of doctrine and the policing of the people in the pews.  But what you find in reading Amoris Laetitia is unmistakeably a restating of the old rules – marriage is forever, sex is for the purpose of reproduction, and one does not mess with Mother Nature.  In other words, no sex outside of marriage, no gay sex, no gay marriage, and put a stop to sex changes right now.

What’s a progressive to do?  We're in the same boat with Hillary Clinton supporters, who wish she had won out against von Clownstick, knowing all the while it would only have meant more corporate control, more military solutions, more of the same old same old.  With the pope, you get these wonderful moments when he expresses personal humility, like that moment in the plane when he mused, “Who am I to judge?”  But then you get this rehashing of the medieval notion that sex is the basis of morality, women are ultimately subordinate to men, and homosexuality is “inherently evil.”  One is admonished to love the sinner, but hate the sin, and your protestations that your love is not sin fall on deaf ears.

“Progressive” as he may at first appear relative to the likes of Cardinal Burke, famous for his silks and satins, and his embrace of the good old days when the mass was in Latin, performed by an elitist clique of men with special access to the deity, Francis is still the head of a ruthlessly authoritarian institution.  Ironically, because he is pope, there are people in the church farther to the right than Attila the Hun who would punish these four cardinals for even questioning the authority of the pope in the first place.  Sort that all out, I dare you.

But to the point.  How, I ask you, does one go through life hating the good within you without falling apart, knowing in your heart of hearts that homosexual love, like any other form of love, is a beautiful thing, that it enhances and does not detract from the inclination to charity and compassion, generosity and caring?  And how does one get through life undamaged if, after marrying badly out of youthful ignorance and inexperience, you know you will never be able to use that experience to give yourself a second chance at companionship and family?

The Roman Catholic Church has had a number of times in its history when it revealed its stunning imperfections for all to see.  The selling of indulgences to build St. Peter’s led to the Reformation.  The hypocrisy of the church’s support for the powers that be in the slave-owning societies of Brazil and the United States, among other places, and for tyrannies in Latin America and elsewhere help to explain the appeal of Marxism and “godless communism.”

And today?  This apparently lovely decent man I take Jorge Mario Bergoglio to be, who expends great effort trying to get the church to spend less time on ritual and ceremony and finger-pointing and shaming and more on pastoral care and embracing the poor and the outlier, tries an end-run around the traditionalists with Amoris Laetitia.  It’s basically an appeal for flexibility, for making the church a bigger, more inclusive port in the storm. But the conservatives seize upon his strategy of using ambiguity, and call him on it.  In forcing him into a corner, they reveal he was doing little more than adjusting the deck chairs on the Titanic in the first place.  This is not the pope speaking ex cathedra. It's the pope speaking as a man, fallible and seeking.  What the cardinals are clearly longing for is the good old days when the pope had no doubts.  They want their daddy back the way he was when he had all the answers.

How very much a matter of the zeitgeist.  America wants its Boss-Man - never mind his imperfections and limitations.  Hungary and Austria are moving toward fascism and the rest of Europe circles the wagons as well against the imagined Muslim invader.  And the church wants this pope of theirs to cut it out with all that uncertainty of his.  Get with the drill.

I’d love to be able to like the Roman Catholic Church.  When she’s good, she’s very very good.  A source for schools and hospitals and countless numbers of caring priests and other religious doing their best to relieve pain and suffering.  We feminize her.  Call her "Mother Church." See her as warm and embracing.

But when she’s bad, she’s worse than horrid.  And not feminine at all.  She's more like daddy at his pig-headed best, driving down the road too proud to ask directions. 

I remember how I used to pepper my mother with questions and hear her say, "Ask your father."  I did.  And he always had all the answers.

I also remember the time when I came across an old Model T in an empty field not far from my house.  I used to pretend to drive it, but for years my legs were too short to reach the pedals.   And by the time they did, the engine was missing.

Eventually, somebody came and towed her away.

photo credits:


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Moonlight - a film review

Barry Jenkins (front) with the three actors who play
Chiron at three different stages of life, in Moonlight
Every once in a rare while a movie comes along that blows you away.  You sit, when it’s over, and watch the credits, milking it for the last bit of energy.  Whether you feel like bursting into tears or just feel good all over, you know you’ve seen a film you will remember.  Such was the case with Moonlight, a story in three acts about a boy at about ten, then seventeen, then twenty-seven, give or take, who struggles to survive life with a drug-addicted single mother in a Miami inner city ghetto.

The last time I remember being this taken with a movie was with Brokeback Mountain.  If you are gay and your first experience of sexual self-discovery was sabotaged by a religious upbringing, you will have shared the thrill I experienced seeing a love story told to a universal audience to widespread appreciation of the film craft and understanding of the challenges gay people face.  Moonlight shares this with Brokeback Mountain.  But what writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and screenwriter/director Barry Jenkins have given us is two-for-one.  It’s not only the story of a gay kid whose childhood is an endless string of bullying events; it’s also what Te-Nihisi Coates has called the “best take on black masculinity ever.”    Three-for-one, if you add in growing up poor.  Four-for-one for having a mother who will throw you under the bus to get high.  And whom you have to love anyway because you know there’s nobody who has ever loved you more or ever will.

I think The Wire, that crime drama television series set and produced in and around Baltimore, Maryland, should be required viewing for all American high schools and recommended for anyone who wants to understand the failure of American democracy on multiple levels.  And I think Moonlight should be required viewing for anybody who has ever turned their back on the problem of racism in America or suggested that there are people who are simply no good and deserve to be locked up forever.  What Jenkins and the cast of Moonlight have managed to do is portray a close-up look at addicts and thugs before they get that way, while they are becoming that way, and after they come through the storm and find themselves still standing.  A lot the worse for wear, but still standing.

Perhaps I’ve given too much away, but I don’t think this will take away from your experience with the film.  The story is told, probably because it is autobiographical for both Tarell McCraney and Barry Jenkins, with such empathy and it conveys such a sense of authenticity that you are very likely to want to see it more than once.

When I do see it again, I imagine I will find more and more to take in.  Sophie Gilbert has a review article in The Atlantic in which she writes of the symbolic power of water in the film.  There are moments like the one when a bully reveals his vulnerability by a quick glance over his shoulder. And when Little, as the protagonist is known in his young years, asks his benefactor if he’s the man who supplies his mother with drugs.  Scenes which speak volumes about human complexity.  And scenes which make you appreciate that for all of Jenkins' talent as a writer, Jenkins the director also knows that some things are best conveyed visually. 

The story brings home the truth of the saying, “to know all is to forgive all.”  Or, if that’s asking too much of you, at least you can understand the universal appeal of the Christian command to forgive those that wrong you, even when you are surrounded by evidence this command is readily preached but rarely taken seriously.

You’ll find my enthusiasm matched by a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, by six Golden Globe Nominations, by ten Critics’ Choice Awards. The New York Times claims it’s the best movie of 2016, the Boston Globe calls it a cultural watershed, and the praise goes on and on.

When you’re done, you may want to do as I did and make the rounds of interviews with Barry Jenkins and the cast.  They go on and on on YouTube.  Skip Charlie Rose, who asks so many wrong questions.  But have a look at the one done by:

Ta-Nehisi Coates, for The Atlantic:

Moonlight is why we go to the movies.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

You picked the wrong city, you cowardly piece of s***

Rayk Anders
Rayk Anders is a 29-year old independent journalist known for his comments on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.  A young shit-kicker who has received some fame/notoriety, depending on your orientation.  His weekly commentaries have attracted up to four million viewers, according to Wikipedia.  As of November 2016 he has, according to the same source, about 75,000 YouTube subscribers (including yours truly, by the way), and has drawn about 8.4 million responses since he began in August of 2013.  He has the kind of passion Keith Olbermann shows, albeit with less stridency.

This presentation he gave the day after the attack on the Christmas Market at the Kaiser Memorial Church in Berlin gives you a sample of his style and tone.  His language is raw, and he’s directly in your face.  I found it on the French Huffington Post here.  The German version gives a title to his address: "To the Cowardly Piece of Shit behind the wheel."

Have a listen to Anders' rant.  Some have suggested that he’s a phony limelight seeker.  Nonsense.  Lots of people have trouble with people who step up and speak while we stay silent, say the things others are still mulling over.  I think they do our work for us.  Without whistleblowers, without people who cry “ouch”, what chance do we have to survive the madness that is coming down these days?  

Enough of the “let’s all be reasonable,” I say.  Let’s get out in the street and the marketplace and scream a while.  Reason, by all means, if and when you see reason working.  But we seem to be living in a world where truth no longer sways, where the inmates have taken over the asylum, where Mitch McConnell can persuade his fellow Republicans to steal a president’s right to name a Supreme Court justice, where a presidential candidate accused of rape can get the case thrown out on the excuse he’s a presidential candidate, where planes go down with that most magnificent of men’s choruses, the Russian Army Chorus, where it’s almost certain now the fight against global warming is over for a time.  The world has gone mad.

So what if one young man calls a terrorist a “cowardly piece of shit”?  Is that the kind of thing that we should get upset about these days?

I love Berlin. Absolutely love Berlin. In my history of things that never happened, it's my home. I love it that this guy born when I was nearly fifty speaks out and gives an in-your-face defence of the city and its people.  Love every word of his magnificent diatribe. Love the evidence that the younger generation still has the stuff of fighters-back.

Here it is in the original German, with French subtitles.  I can’t find an English translation, so I did one.

If you have not been following the news, the terrorist in question was a young Tunisian man named Anis Amri, who was on the run through France and Italy before he was shot and killed in Milan by the Italian police.

Anders' challenge to Amri will go unheard by the killer.  The spirit of the challenge, in my view, remains undiminished.

Here in Berlin, on Breitscheidplatz behind me, less than 24 hours ago, a person drove a truck into the Christmas market.  And as things stand now, the culprit is at large and is presumed to be armed.  But, you cowardly piece of shit, no matter where you come from, no matter where you are, you’ve picked the wrong city.  Berlin has two world wars in its bones. Check out any damn old folks' home and you'll find people who can tell you about bodies piled up in a city reduced to ashes. You can’t go more than two hundred meters in any direction without running into a memorial for the victims of war, persecution or death.  This city has known hell.  And now you come along with your fucking truck, here to Berlin, and you think you’re going to knock the Berliners off their feet?  
Look.  I can tell you what’s going to happen.  We will take care of the injured, we will bury the dead, and we will never forget.  And we will go on.  The Christmas market closed for only a day.  And not out of fear, but out of respect for the victims.  The people of Berlin will not only resist, they shit on you.  And you chose the perfect place in this Christmas market here in the heart of Berlin at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.  But have you looked around, you piece of shit?  The top of this church is broken off, the walls are damaged.  It’s no accident, you genius, that you picked the Christmas market that stands in front of the perfect memorial to peace, not only in Berlin, but in all of Germany.  
And the pictures of this church will go out into the world and remind everyone that it has already seen terrible things and that people have gotten back up and gone on.  People will remember, and Berliners will be free.  They will laugh and cry and celebrate and mourn, but they will be free.  You may take away the good mood and damage the Christmas spirit.  But you can never take away freedom.  Berlin is the city that is the very essence of freedom.  Your cowardly attack changes nothing.

Vive la résistance!

photo credit 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Standing Tall - a film review

Standing Tall  (Tête en Haut) is an exceptionally good movie.  Whether you zero in on the social commentary, the story line, the drama, the insight into a world outside the daily routine, there’s much to bounce off of.  In my view, it is worth watching if only to see Catherine Deneuve still elegant, still going strong at 73.  She plays a judge in juvenile court who refuses to give up on what most of the world would see as a throw-away kid.  Or at least a “lock up and throw away the key” kid.  Also worth watching the film for are two more actors – newcomer Rod Paradot, who plays Malony Ferrandot, the kid in question, (from 7 to 17) who has virtually no impluse control and precious little empathy.  And seasoned actor Benoît Magimel, who plays Yann, the social worker assigned to Malony’s case.

Another reason to take in the film is to see how a juvenile system can work if the right people are running it.  And to watch the way in the French legal system a judge interrogates and engages instead of just sitting back and watching two opponents slug it out, trusting truth will out in combat.  These heroes of the French welfare system suffer from some of the same problems we have.  How hard it is, specifically, to get the world to give kids born into dysfunctional families a second chance when they have missed a chance at education to spend their entire youth fighting their own dysfunctional families and can’t be trusted not to slug you at the slightest pretext.

Filmmaker Emmanuelle Bercot chose to focus on a success story.  She might have selected a kid who falls through the cracks and simply banged the drum of social criticism.  Instead, she gives us a look into a rickety social welfare system held together by heroic adults committed to the notion that one does not, in fact, throw any child away.  And weaves the kind of story you don't realize you're being drawn into until it's done.

In the wrong hands, this narrative could easily have gone off the tracks and become maudlin or preachy or overdone.  It is arguably overlong, if you aren’t used to European cinema, where one likes to linger on faces and long shots of people walking from here to there.  But if you allow yourself to sit back and let the story build, by the end you’ll be standing and cheering for the whole human race.

A marvelous antidote to the temptation to think that with modern-day Europe and the U.S. circling the wagons to keep “us” in and “them” out, we ought to grab our dogs and head for the mountaintop and hope the madness passes.  At least that’s my take on things.  I trust you’ll find your own reason to fall in love with Catherine Deneuve for the tenth time and celebrate the arrival of newcomer Rod Paradot.

Who has to be the cutest teenager in a tuxedo you’ve ever seen.  Watch him stumble all over himself searching for words to thank his supporters when he gets the 41st César Award (the French Oscars) earlier this year, 2016, for most promising male actor.  

A must-see.

Available on Netflix streaming.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Reeling and grasping for direction

A friend of mine lives in Mexico, because his wife is unable to get healthcare in the United States.  Don’t ask.  You’ll just get me started on the American decision to allow corporations to profit off of visits to a doctor, and that’s a misery for another day.  For now, let me address the distress he’s going through.  He’s been spending much of his retirement time yacking it up with a bunch of other retirees who gather each week to discuss politics.  I love the idea of lifetime geezer education, so I’ve been inclined to cheer them on from afar.  Problem is, though, they seem to be so dispirited by the endless stream of bad news from Washington that they’re actually thinking of disbanding.

My heart goes out to them.  I wonder if I’d keep coming back week after week to rehash the latest illustration of how America is making an ass of itself before all the world.  The problem of greed behind it all.  Our talent for generating great wealth, and then making sure it stays in the hands of bankers and CEOs and not too much spills over to the hoi polloi who will just squander it on bread and circuses.

Besides our greed problem, there’s also the fact that we seem to be unable to think in terms of both/and.  Instead, it’s either/or.  Take the White Christian people, for example.  They started the place; shouldn’t they own it?  Many of them seem to think so.  Instead now there are non-whites everywhere you look, and some of them are even transgendered.

Here’s the problem.  We couldn’t figure out how to manage the rise of the have-nots without the white people haves having to let go of all the goodies they had acquired by getting here first.  So we picked a man to be president who we thought would make sure that wouldn’t happen.  At least he could slow the process down.

I wish I hated America, so I could have a good belly laugh at all this.  But I don’t laugh at people falling down the stairs and I don’t laugh at people shooting themselves in the foot. And when you ask young people on the street who we fought the Revolutionary War with and they answer Russia, I don’t laugh, either.  Ignorance makes me sad.  That’s why I became a teacher, because I saw ordinary common ignorance as something that was fixable. 

Some kinds of ignorance, of course, I just can’t help myself.  Like watching Pat Robertson (may he live forever) with his predictions that hurricanes will hit the coast of North Carolina because there are lesbians running loose in California.  Or Jim Bakker urging his Christian flock to recycle his potato soup buckets into elimination buckets.  No kidding.  Have a look here

Putting Trump and his men in charge of the henhouse is that kind of ignorance.  We once taught kids to think logically.  "A is bigger than B.  B is bigger than C.  Therefore A is bigger than C."  Today it's "Politicians are all bad.  Trump's not a politician. Therefore, Trump is good."

Inner city schools are a mess.  The solution?  Logically, replace them with charter schools. Appoint a billionaire friend who has dedicated her life to destroying the public school system to head up the Department of Education.  Killing two birds with one stone.  She can dismantle the Department of Education at the same time.  What happens to the kids we can't fit into the charter schools?  Look, I can't fix everything.

Solve the “too big to fail” banking problem by appointing Steve Mnuchin, former executive at Goldman Sachs to Secretary of the Treasury.  It appears that Trump's promised "draining of the swamp" (getting rid of corrupt politicians) means putting the people that corrupted the politicians in the first place in his Cabinet, cutting out the middle man.  Logical.

I can't handle the news anymore.  Every morning it's another outrage.  The accumulation of corporatist millionaires (what am I saying - billionaires!) in the new ruling oligarchy known as Trump's cabinet.  This morning there was a petition being passed around from a friend of mine in New York protesting the need for New Yorkers to foot a million dollars a day so that Mrs. Trump and her son can stay in the tacky gold tower they're used to.  Wouldn't do to have to move to that dump on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.  Not when you can stick the sucker-taxpayers for the rent to stay where you are!

It's called the new reality.  And I'm still getting word from my sister that God has answered her prayers by putting Trump in the White House.  She gets her information from Billy Graham's little boy, Franklin, so she knows it's good information.  Like so many other evangelicals, the folks now fixing to dismantle Medicare and raid the Social Security coffers to the benefit of the superrich have figured out these are single-issue voters who can be had simply by promising to repeal Roe v. Wade. And making sure their leaders keep them informed as to God's will.

Just don't know what to do.   I can't live with this much depression.  But I can't shake it, either.  Got to get back to normal.  Got to find a way not to take this in and make it feel like such a personal attack.  Not doing well at all.

Wish I could watch Trump piss off China by talking with Taiwan and laugh.  Laugh at watching that Carson bozo take on the country’s big city mayors as head of Housing and Urban Development. Laugh as Trump backs another truckload of alligators up to the swamp he promised American suckers he would drain.

I’m going to suggest to my friend in Mexico that they rename themselves the Resisters of Rosarito Discussion Group.  Sticking your head (my head - obviously I'm talking to myself here first and foremost) in the ground will not satisfy.  It will only allow the pain to dig in and fester.  There has to be resistance.  Catharsis never comes with denial.

If you’re not going to fight, what are you going to do? 

Seriously.  What to do?  I am a fan of Robert Reich, whom I see in Indian restaurants here in Berkeley from time to time when he's not on YouTube urging people to organize and fight back. And of Elizabeth Warren.  And Van Jones is out there beating the pavements once again.  And of course, there's Bernie Sanders, who just keeps on running like an old Model T.  Love that guy.

But organizing and fighting back, for me, are easier said than done. I live in California. Do I knock on doors or join a telephone bank to get my democratic neighbors to vote for electors who are guaranteed to vote democratic already?  Do I join the secession movement? Do I move to Wyoming or North Dakota where my vote will have a greater influence on the Electoral College?

Do I pay more attention to what’s happening across the pond in Europe and Britain?  Keep abreast of Geert Wilders in Holland, Marine le Pen in France?  Austria narrowly escaped electing a fascist head of state in this week's election, but nobody thinks the winner can hold out against them forever.  Hungary is already in the hands of a thug who is systematically dismantling the courts and oversight bodies..  Germany is struggling with a cross between the Tea Party and a Trump Rebellion in the “Alternative for Germany” Party, which only won 4.7% of the national vote in the 2013 election (and therefore was not entitled to any seats because the country has a 5% minimum requirement).  Three months ago, however, they were able to gain recognition in ten of Germany's sixteen state parliaments.   

All part of the same Trump show.  The legitimate gripes by the have-nots against the wealth generators who have not figured out how to distribute the wealth equitably.

My friends, many of them, insist I need to get away from the computer and cultivate my own garden.  Problem with that is that in this age of connection, the national garden is our own garden. Another alternative, also common among my friends, and one which I lean toward quite strongly, is to kvetch. Sit hour after hour at the computer and keep track of all the injustices and shout OUCH day after day after day. At least it relieves some of the pressure.

Big news here in the East Bay this week is the fire in East Oakland.  Death count is now up to 34.  The artsy-fartsy crowd without a pot to piss in can’t afford the $2500 a month rent in Oakland (It’s $3500 across the Bay in San Francisco), so they gather together in death traps.  All part of the same problem.  The wealth generated locally by Silicon Valley is great for those who can afford the two, three, five, ten-million dollar homes you see advertised everyday in the San Francisco Chronicle.  Not so great on an artist’s income.  Haves, superhaves, and have-nots.  At least we're not at each other's throats yet.

Democracy?  Pretty much gone.  Vulture capitalism is still alive, but the natives are getting restless.

The stock market is at an all-time high.

I think I’ll do Christmas this year.