1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Holy Legion of Diana Moon Glampers

I came across an article in First Things that lamented the lack of substantive guidance concerning film found on the American bishops' website. For some reason this got me thinking of Diana Moon Glampers (the portly, matronly villain in Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron").

This story is common in public secondary schools here in the States, but in case you've forgotten the tale, here's the climax:

Harrison placed his big hands on the girl’s tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers.  And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang!

Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.

They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun.

They leaped like deer on the moon.

The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it.

It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling.

They kissed it.

And then, neutralizing gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time.

It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.
 Poor Ms. Glampers! As in her (future) day as today, people so often want the end without a messy means. In this story "we the people" want absolute equality and the enforcement mechanism is a horror.

The Legion of Deceny had the best of intentions: filth ran rampant in film (for the 20s and 30s, that is) and they created a simple rating system that was meant to protect pious hearts, minds and eyes from temptation. What has always made me curious about this approach is the censor (or "guidance counselor" if you prefer): how is he protected from the filth? Is he like an exorcist who has a designated role in which he gets special protection? In other words, doesn't the censor endanger his own soul?

In this I'm reminded of a friend who recounts that the private Christian school she went to had a cheer-leading squad. After each game, the principal and assistant principal (two white guys) would review footage of the girls performance to ensure that their short dresses were of appropriate length as they "reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun." Yeah, protecting everyone's morals, I'm sure.
Censors of the soul (and body) are alive if not well. For all I know, they are legion.

Permission granted 

In film, fiction and other areas of creative expression, some look for someone else's permission to view or read certain works. I can sympathize with this at one level: in our hyperactive age, it seems that one simply doesn't have the time to judge for oneself. Alas, the price of the shortcut (trusting in the wisdom of the impeccably safe expert) is alienation. But wait, there's more: you also get absolution from responsibility engaging the world with all of its ambiguity. Disengagement is magically transformed into piety and virtue. I call that a bargain.

Without a willingness to take risks, it is impossible to mature. And maturing is simply the fruit of being edcuated - continually. I have had parents complain that the text I assigned or the film I showed was scandalous or too suggestive or simply "too confusing" for their son or daughter. I think they are often being a bit disengenous when they say this. For all I know, it's true: their son or daughter doesn't "get it," but the punchline is that neither does mom or dad. That's the real problem: mal-educated parents who are unwilling to try to understand.

I should note that in none of these cases did the works appeal to prurient interests nor did they contain an excess of nudity or gratuitous violence. I'm very circumspect in what I share with students.

So, what's going on here? Am I watching the "dumbing down of America" before my eyes?

My pet theory is that there are a lot of good, faithful Catholics who simply want to be spared the drama of interpretation. This is where the censors or gurus or experts come in: they certify content for us. Their slogan could be, "We think so you don't have to!"

T.S. Eliot warns of this pathology:

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good (Choruses from "The Rock").
I don't think that Catholics in America are so obtuse that we need a revitalized Legion of Decency (such travesties can be entrusted to our evangelical friends!); what we need to do is to begin educating ourselves. In no little part, this is why the Church exists for us.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Am I wrong? Am I wrong?! ("No, Walter, you're not wrong, you're just an ...")

Are today's fashions something new? Nah, just recycled from back in the day. Check it: fashun

Finding Emo OR "Have you no sense of deceny, sir?"

This is perhaps the kind of thing one might expect on The Phil Donahue Show (my generation) or Oprah Winfrey or what have you. To see our President use his office as a platform for such emotional pandering is sickening.

Here's the segment.

I don't blame Mrs. Wheeler or her husband. If such evil befell me and mine, I'm sure I want to do whatever I thought might be constructive. Nevertheless.

The basis for political discourse is not "emotionality" (see Sergeant Lincoln Osirus/Kirk Lazarus/Robert Downey, Jr.) but a reasoned conversation. This is precisely the kind of excess of the passions that Socrates feared. In his trial (see "The Apology" by Plato) he refused to bring in his family as part of his defense. He said that to do so would be to distort Justice. He wouldn't pander.

Obviously, not even the "Narcissist-in-Chief" equates himself with Socrates, but he could get a clue from him. If emotionality is what you got, you ain't got much.

It would be constructive to use research, statistics and data in the gun control debate, but we'll see continue to see overblown rhetoric on both sides.

Bedtime for Democracy.



Love him or hate him, gotta LOVE Jello's wry sense of humor

Sunday, April 14, 2013

That which we (good Catholics) don't speak of

In his fascinating study of violence, scripture and culture, Gil Bailie notes that "myth" is related a word that means silence or shut up (see Violence Unveiled). Thus in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, the boogeymen become "Those We Don't Speak Of."  In Catholic circles there are some things we don't speak of. Here's a short list of vexation (emendations and footnotes could certainly be added):
  1. Good intentions are enough (TWDSO: the results are deplorable - in art, music and most every form of cultural engagement). Question: Where are our Walker Percys, Flannery O'Connors and Graham Greenes? Answer: Nowhere to be seen on the cultural stage.
  2. We no longer have an Index of Forbidden Books (TWDSO: we have a cramped version of Catholic orthodoxy that insists only certain authors ought to read; put differently, we [the laity] lack the critical skills to discern good from bad so we outsource our responsibility to "safe" sources).
  3. Social justice has made great strides (TWDSO: we underpay lay church workers and justify it with recourse to a spiritualized justification). Ah, yes, Who Would Jesus Exploit? Hello! The social teaching of the Church applies to the Church herself. Duh!
  4. Education is something we do to / for others (TWDSO: we think we have the answers and that we can thus convert them [da pagans], missing the need for introspection -- not to speak of motes and planks!). How many Catholic institutions are merely secular with Jesus as window dressing? Christ should inform every aspect of our teaching and evangelization efforts. Yet we often revert to a kind of Protestant evangelism (tell about Jesus and let Jesus extract them out of the world) versus authentic evangelization (education of the whole person, in his/her circumstances in life and the tools to be salt and light). I need it, you need it, we all need it.
  5. Scandal is everywhere (TWDSO: much truth is left unsaid and we end up preaching only to "the choir."). The question becomes, "Is it safe?" (a la Marathon Man!) not "Is it true?"
Well, that at least is a start.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Fairly imbalanced: the Denver Post on gun control

http://www.pensitoreview.com/Wordpress/wp-content/themes/mimbo2.2/images/still-fox-news-idocracy.jpg Dear Editor,

One continually finds reference to the ominous "gun lobby" in the pages of the Denver Post, but not much is said about the anti-gun lobby. I've wondered why. Then I opened today's op-ed pages and found what might be the explanation: the anti-gun lobby is you, Denver Post. Well, if you are not the anti-gun lobby, you are definitely a key and influential sympathizer.

How else does one explain two op-ed pieces, three letters to the editor and two cartoons excoriating, mocking and demonizing the pro-gun side against one sly pro-gun letter?* 1500 words to a mere 80. This betokens not only advocacy for gun prohibition (yeah, that worked real good before; even “better” than the War on Drugs) but a deep-seated fear. This is America, so you can advocate for whatever you want but hysteria is no way to run a newspaper. Coloradans of all political persuasions deserve better.

*Note: You can find all of the anti-gun pieces on the Denver Post website, but here's a sample.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Political Pitfalls

I've recently becoming engaged in writing my senators and congresspeople (state and federal) over proposed new laws concerning firearms. I'm a bit scandalized that it was this issue that awoke me from my political slumbers, but perhaps we can't choose what will serve as a spark to get us moving. In the process of listening to right and left debate the issue, and watching myself become involved, it has become clear that both sides not only reduce the issue to opposing soundbites, but also reduce the humanity of the opposition.

Here in Colorado, one agitated pro-gun guy left a nasty voice-mail for a female African American representative in which he hoped for her violent demise; on a national lefty talk show, Randi Rhodes opined that gun manufacturers don't care how many innocent people die by the abuse of their product as long as they make a profit.

Emotions are a wonderful thing. They can draw us closer to reality (think of how love allows one to better see the beloved). They can also have the opposite effect: they can occlude reality and make us disconnected from others.

Party of God?

When it came to political activism, Jesus never met people's expectations. In Jesus' day as in our own, there were plenty of “leaders” who had all the answers but misconstrued the questions. In St. Mark's gospel we read of this example:

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and of the Herodians; that they should catch him in his words. Who coming, say to him: Master, we know that thou art a true speaker, and carest not for any man; for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar; or shall we not give it? Who knowing their wiliness, saith to them: Why tempt you me? bring me a penny that I may see it. And they brought it him. And he saith to them: Whose is this image and inscription? They say to him, Caesar' s. And Jesus answering, said to them: Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar' s, and to God the things that are God' s. And they marvelled at him.

Jesus doesn't give them an answer and yet He does give them the opportunity to face the question in the right way.

In America today, there is no lack of answers, but there is an abysmal absence of thoughtful questions. Democrats and Republicans count of the people's ignorance and sloth to win votes and the media gleefully repackages these political reductions of reality.

From gun-control to education to “sexual health,” seemingly everyone is willing to demonize the opposition and reduce debate to a shouting match. In such an environment, one could retreat to a cozy apolitical ghetto. Or one could decide to be a protagonist.

The recovery of the human

Antagonists and antagonisms are never lacking. The question is not really What would Jesus do? but How do I face the whole of reality? (and this includes the political). This is a personal work that cannot be placed on the shoulders of others – no matter how correct we view their positions. Catholics in America need fewer gurus, not more. Ours is an age of alleged experts and this applies to the ecclesial and secular environments. This does not mean that others cannot be witnesses or guides for us; it simply means we need to take seriously the personal responsibility that being Christian is.

Perhaps what Catholics can bring into the public square is not necessarily better answers, but to see and bear witness to the questions that lie at the heart of our political dis-ease. Of the need for this, one can simply think of how one views the opposition (of whatever sort): are they even human?

Getting back to my vexation over the gun-control issue above, I can assure you that I've had moments of doubt about the humanity of political opponents. In short, it's been quite easy to shift from seeing them as folks made in the image and likeness of God to viewing them as hostile matriarchs and metrosexuals trying to “take ma guns away from me.” But this way of thinking is useless.

For real political progress to occur in America, there needs to be acknowledgment of our human needs and our solidarity with others, regardless of party or politics.

Fr. Julián Carrón recently noted that in Europe politicians are “more defined by party alignments than by self-awareness of their ecclesial experience and the desire for the common good” (La Repubblica, 10 April 2013). Our recent national election bears out that this is true not only for politicians, but for the electorate as well.

We don't need more political parties, but we do need to attend to what is most human in ourselves and in others.