Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Confederates On the Second Floor

Today my son and I went to the local art museum, and we saw an exhibit up on the second floor called “Homes and Heroes of the Civil War.” The exhibit was made up of two things: tintypes of Confederate officers, and photographs of the big houses they lived in.

photo by Jim DiVatale
Also, rocking chairs.

Now, I have Northern friends who find it incredible that Southern museums and historical institutions still routinely do this kind of thing. I wish I were more startled by it than I am. A few years ago, a colleague of mine expressed surprise that I came from a city (Jacksonville, FL) that had a Robert E. Lee High School. Why was that so surprising? I asked. He looked at me like I was insane. “Because Lee was a traitor, and he should have been hanged,” he said matter-of-factly. I gazed at him in horror. This is not the sort of thing you say in your out-loud voice down here.

To be honest, “traitor” sits as uneasily with me as “hero.” Confederate soldiers weren’t heroes for taking up arms against their government. They weren’t heroes for fighting and giving their lives to protect slavery. Nobody gets to be a hero for that. The slaves who lived and loved and died with the iron on their necks, the slaves who managed to build lives of dignity, forge families, nurture hopes and dreams, all in the grinding rack and daily prison of slavery – those are the heroes. The people who died to keep them in chains? Not heroes. But I don’t think it’s as cut-and-dried as traitor, either; lots of those soldiers were boys—literally boys—who were doing what they thought was the right thing by their community and their God. Many of them had no real choice. Many of them found themselves in impossible situations. Most of them didn’t own slaves. People are complicated, as complicated then as they are now. Though the war was about slavery, people don’t always fight for the reasons a war is “about,” and people carry with them into battle a complex freight of justifications, motivations, hopes, and ideas.

That’s why slapping a “heroes” label on them shortchanges the complexity of their time and their souls. They did rebel against their country, and they did lose. I’m grateful they lost, as we all should be. It’s tough to live in a place where the Sons of Confederate Veterans march in our Fourth of July parade, and where it’s not a given that people will be glad the Confederacy lost – in fact, it’s a pious commonplace to wish the opposite. I say tough, but it’s not really tough for me, because I’m white, so things like that don’t knife me to the bone the way they would if I were not white. I can shrug and roll my eyes and say, well, you know. That’s just the way it is.

More and more, the way it is looks like the way it was.

I bought a recently published book at the art museum, called Marietta: Gem City of the South. It’s a nice coffee table book – look at all the big pretty houses, look at the pretty things, look at all the record of white people’s lives. One of the biggest antebellum mansions in my neighborhood, Ivy Grove, was built by Cobb County’s biggest slaveholder, Edward Denmead. Denmead made his money hiring out slaves to build the Western and Atlantic Railroad, though you wouldn’t know that he dealt in the sweat of enslaved bodies from this book, which delicately calls it “contract work.” Anyway, Denmead, who was quite the contractor, built himself quite the house. The lavish full-page color photographs record his house’s every renovation through the centuries, and the lives of the illustrious white people who made it their home. In the corner of a page, there is a black-and-white photograph of a brick slave “cottage.” The laconic caption says simply that the cottage survived on the Ivy Grove property through the 1980s, when it was torn down to make way for a tennis court.

Ivy Grove decorated for Christmas on the 2009 Tour of Homes

That story kind of makes me want to burn down Ivy Grove, with a few of its former owners for kindling.

The houses of white people are preserved; the houses of black people are erased. The lives of white people are recorded; the lives of black people are ash on the wind. Did a historic preservation committee try to stop the Brown family, before they snuffed out one of the last records of antebellum black life in Marietta? Probably not. That’s not the way things work around here, where one or more Browns probably sat on that historic preservation committee. Besides, history is white.

In 1861, more black than white people lived in Marietta. Of course, you wouldn’t know it from my local museum’s exhibit, which referenced not a single black resident or wartime experience. Where are their houses? What were their names? We have only tantalizing glimpses preserved in wills, in public deeds, in the records of First Baptist Church, which noted down the name of the young black girl who dared to ask for a black mission to be founded, where black folk could worship away from the hot close confines of the upper-story room that looked down on the white folks’ Baptist sanctuary. Her request was granted, and that mission became Zion Baptist Church, which survives today, catty-corner from First Baptist. “Founded by Former Slaves,” their sign proudly proclaims. There aren’t any pictures of their first little church in that big coffee table book I bought, or of any other remnants of African-American life around here. History is white.

The name of the author and compiler of that doorstop of a book (which by the way I shelled out 70 bucks for) is Douglas Frey. That’s a pretty interesting name in these parts. William J. Frey was the sheriff of Cobb County, back in the early years of the twentieth century. It was on his property that Leo Frank was lynched, and Frey was one of the ringleaders of the lynching – or, as this book calls it, “the abduction and hanging of convicted child murderer Leo Frank.” I don’t actually know if Douglas Frey is related to that infamous Frey, but from the wording of that, it wouldn’t surprise me. Frey is still a powerful name around here, and the mention of Leo Frank can still make a room go uncomfortably quiet. The past, as Faulkner has it, isn't even past.

They way it is looks like the way it was.

History is written in bricks and mortar; what survives is what we believe. What doesn’t survive is invisible. For many years, this city was the home of more than just the people who lived in the grand homes with the grand names. It was the home of the black people who cooked, swaddled, scrubbed, tended and built this little city. There won’t ever be a coffee table book about their houses for sale in my local art museum, and no one calls them heroes.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Letter to the Guy Whose Sermon I Just Had To Sit Through Without Texting or Scrolling Ebay

Dear Well-Meaning Christian Pastor:

Your sermon today spoke of the faithlessness of the Jews. Not as the main thrust of your sermon, but as a sidelight, really, a rhetorical stopping-point on the way to your glorious conclusion about the perfection of Jesus Christ. At least, I think that was probably your conclusion: I confess I was really not listening by that point. It was hard for me to hear anything past the hatefulness and ignorance of your statements about Jews.

You say that some thousand years after the time of David, God’s people had stopped listening and obeying, and had shown continual faithlessness to God’s law. You are reading Jewish scriptures, written by Jews for other Jews, to prove the inadequacy of Jews. Anything appear ironic or distasteful in that to you?

You claim that Jewish infidelity led directly to the oppression and slaughter meted out to the Jews first by the Babylonian Empire, and later by the Roman Empire. Good, so just to review: it’s the Jews’ own damn fault. They did it to themselves. In case you haven’t read much patristics, you’re standing in some pretty august company by making those claims. John Chrysostom, whose nickname means “golden-mouthed” but whose more accurate name might be “potty-mouthed,” literally invented the genre of anti-Jewish diatribe in his many sermons and speeches excoriating the Jews of his own time for their imagined faithlessness both to Christ and to their own law. He launched, or rather gave shape and body to, an anti-Semitic tradition that Christianity spread everywhere it went like a noxious virus, and that infected Christian thought at every level.

Before I forget, please remember to be a complete dick to everyone related to me for the next two thousand years. 

That tradition bore tragic fruit in the innocent bodies of millions of Jews long before the twentieth century and its concentration camps even happened. Pogrom after pogrom, senseless slaughter after senseless slaughter, from the Rhineland to the shores of Spain. Jews were the first victims of the Crusades, the first to be tossed from their homelands, the first to be blamed for plagues, the first to suffer and starve and die. Children were butchered, along with men and women whose only crime was in fact their faithfulness to their understanding of God. The Holocaust, or what Jews refer to as the Shoah, was not carried out for explicitly religious reasons, but the foundation on which it stood, the cultural ground that watered it, was the centuries of marginalization and hatred that Christianity wrought for the Jews. The name of Jesus made life a bitter hell for the Jews, so before you piously sermonize about anything to do with the Jews, before you dare to speak of their faithlessness, learn more about their history and the faithfulness they paid for with their bodies and their children’s lives.

The Jews of Barcelona forced to answer Christian arguments about Jesus and the claims of Christianity, overseen by the Christian King of Spain. Hey, guess who won? Also, guess which group had to wear the stupid hats.

Yes, Jewish scriptures are full of prophetic calls to greater fidelity to Torah. The very fact that these records, these prophecies and exhortations, have been so lovingly and carefully preserved for you to read from is evidence of the faithfulness of Jews. They literally gave their lives to preserve the words of Torah and Tanakh, just so you can have a weapon to smugly beat them with all these centuries later. You are reading the spiritual diary of a people not your own, and it’s a document intended to be read within the Jewish community, and meant for Jewish ears. We all say things to our own that we wouldn’t say to those outside our community. How bitter then to hear the devoutly preserved words of the prophets, constantly exhorting their people to do better, and better, and better, turned against those same people as evidence of their inadequacy and faithlessness.

It occurs to me that Jesus himself, that pre-eminent Pharisaical rabbi, rejected the facile causality of sin and catastrophe. Who sinned? the disciples want to know, hearing of nearby death and destruction. It’s a question we might want answered today, reading our own headlines of violence and gunfire. Who sinned? And Jesus tells them: nobody. Nobody sinned, morons. People don’t die because God is raining destruction on them, he tries to tell his disciples. Stop thinking like children. Stop being children, and stop turning God into a mirror of your own petty vengefulness.

You might not know it, but there is a substantial segment of the Orthodox Jewish community that applies that theology of vengefulness to the Shoah itself. By their twisted reasoning, God allowed six million of his people to be slaughtered because of the “faithlessness” of Reform Judaism. You know, it was the liberals who did it. Kind of like when Pat Robertson said that God visited Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans because of gay people, or that the Twin Towers fell because of abortion. There’s no difference between that, and saying that the Roman oppression or Babylonian Exile happened because of the sins of the Jews.

But wait! you might say. The Jews themselves often interpreted those events (and all others that befell them) as the action of God, so why can’t I? Simple. It’s because when they do that, it’s a people wrestling with their identity and their relationship with God. When you do it, it’s some douchebag telling a minority group what to think. It’s Romney speaking at the NAACP and telling them not to expect free stuff. When you do it, it’s antisemitism. Assuming the right to speak as a member of a minority group whose experiences and history you have not participated in, and whose identity you cannot share, is inappropriate behavior – or more colloquially, being an asshole. It’s the same reason you can’t use the n-word, in case that one is news to you too.

One final point, and this is about your idea of history, because yeah, that is messed-up too. Christians often have the idea that the Judaism of the first century CE was in “turmoil,” or “crisis,” or something like that. But then, Jesus! And boom, everything is fine. These people are right to the extent that Judaism is always in turmoil. You can know this by discovering that Judaism is made up of Jews. “Ten Jews, eleven opinions,” is not just a saying, it’s a spiritual truth, and it applies to the first century as well as our own. Judaism is a religion of dialogue and intellectual debate, of the push-and-tug of fierce questioning. After the Torah, the Talmud is Judaism’s great holy text, and that’s nothing but volume upon volume of debate. Rav Pinchas says this, but Rav Nechemya says this, and Rav Shmuel resolves this by. . .  and so on, and so on, for the next sixty-odd volumes, depending on your edition and your patience. That same sort of debate characterized the Judaism of the first century, and was not a sign of its weakness, but of its strength. Yes, first-century Judaism was a rich ferment of differing ideas about God, emergent ways of approaching God and leading his people, and conflicting ways of dealing with authority. Kind of like twenty-first century Judaism, or twenty-first century Christianity. Here’s a good rule of thumb: before speaking of another religion, do it the courtesy of assuming it is at least as multivalent and complex as your own. Especially when it’s, you know, thousands of years older than your own.

I write all this as someone whose love of both Judaism and Christianity is profound, and who thinks that both religions are breathtakingly beautiful. I write as someone who has laid tefillin and said her rosary (though not at the same time), as someone who has chanted Torah and lit candles to the Virgin, and as someone who has invoked the prayers of Rabbi Akiva and Mother Teresa. I will feel torn between the two halves of myself my life long, and finally I can’t do any better than to say, I love here, and I love here, and I cannot say which love is greater. Like the rabbis of the Talmud, I leave the final settling of the question to the Holy One. So maybe we can start to move toward a Christianity that is not founded on the necessary inadequacy of Judaism or of Jews, or of anyone, but on the wholeness and perfection of all of us as children of God.

Blessed be God, and blessed be His Kingdom, now and forever.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Dueling Sherlocks! Why Euripides Is Disappointed In You.

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows is a wretched little movie. There isn’t anything much to like here, and I thought long and hard about whether I was being fair: do I dislike Guy Ritchie’s film so much just because it has the bad fortune to inhabit the same cultural moment as Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s infinitely superior Sherlock?

Probably, but too bad.

Getting closer to the camera isn't going to make me like you more. 

This is a boring movie, and that’s the most damning adjective available, for movies. The most boring part of all is the interaction between Holmes and Watson, and how badly do you have to fuck up if you can make that boring? I ask you. So here is Ritchie’s chief sin, and it has nothing to do with the irritating slo-mo fights (that way all the fights get to happen TWICE, yippee!) or preeningly arty camera angles or even the self-conscious sepia steampunk of this imagined England. Hell, it’s not even that godawful flavor-saver on Jude Law’s mouth. No, Ritchie’s chief sin is that he has no idea what to do with myth.

Because Sherlock Holmes is the prototypical modern Western myth. Fandom, by most accounts, began with Sherlock Holmes. For the first time, a sort of collective hysteria gripped readers, and Conan Doyle’s fans even managed to exert enough pressure on the writer to force him to bring his hero back from what was intended to be his final end on the Reichenbach Falls, so spoiler alert, in case you’re illiterate and from before 1891. Fannishness is an engagement with the text so profound it upends authorial control of the story, and it would be hard to come up with a better example than those early Holmes fans wailing and tearing their hair outside Conan Doyle’s London townhouse – unless it’s 1960s Trekkies circulating samizdat fanfiction at Trek conventions, or the nine million Twilight photomanips on tumblr. I don’t personally understand fannish behavior; the Fitzwilliam Darcy action figure perched on my computer is a badge of ironic hipster humor, it should be obvious to anyone. And the Avengers action figures are there to help me think.

Mythdom works like sainthood did in the ancient church: you’re in if the people say you’re in. If you can get enough people to make a pilgrimage to your shrine, and buy your medals and fingerbones and whatnots, and if you can work up enough enthusiasm for your story, then boom, you’re a saint. (Getting your breasts cut off or your eyeballs torn out helps too.) After all, there’s a decent case to be made that fannishness began not in the late 19th century, but in the early fourth. So the people have spoken, and Sherlock Holmes belongs to all of us. By now there have been so many versions (and parodies) of Holmes that your average yurt-dweller would probably recognize the iconic deerstalker hat, if not the stories themselves.

Thus Guy Ritchie is screwed, because he doesn’t have the first clue what to do with myth. And what do you do with myth? You make it new. It’s as simple as that. If I’m telling a story that everybody knows (HINT: we know Sherlock falls off the fucking waterfall, asshole) you have to tell it in a new and interesting way, where interesting has nothing do with camera angles.

This is a lesson mastered by the Greeks some 2500 years ago. In the late fifth century BCE, Euripides wrote a play about Helen and the Trojan War. Only, Euripides wanted to make Helen a sympathetic figure to his audience (a tough sell) so he decided he would interpret the myth in an unusual way. In Euripides’ telling, Helen never got on that ship with Paris and ran away with him to Troy. No, see, what actually happened was, the gods tricked Paris into thinking he had the real Helen, when in fact what he had was a god-created phantom, and the real Helen was spirited away by the gods to Egypt, where she remained chaste and dutiful, waiting for her husband to come rescue her. So ten years of war, countless heroes dead, the blood-soaked destruction of Troy itself – all for less than nothing. The war wasn’t just petty; it was profoundly pointless. Paris never got his prize, and Menelaus never lost his wife. In re-interpreting the Trojan War myth cycle, Euripides was hinting at the larger emptiness behind every lying casus belli, every dead soldier who thinks he died for honor. That took some balls, in a society gripped by the final bloody throes of the Peloponnesian War, and whose young men were dying at a fearsome rate for the same honor Euripides mocked on that stage. Euripides didn’t tell a story; he interpreted it.

And that, of course, is Guy Ritchie’s sin. His tired, repetitive movie tells us what we already know, and doesn't interpret a single goddamn thing. Case in point: are they, or aren’t they? (Sleeping together, that is.) Homosexual or not, the relationship between Holmes and Watson certainly blurs the line between homosocial and homoerotic, and modern interpretations have to address this question in a way that fascinates and engages the audience. Moffat and Gatiss do it by turning all the surrounding characters into proxies for the doubts of the viewers—even their landlady thinks they’re gay, fer Chrissake! And so Martin Freeman’s poor Watson is perpetually shouting, I’m not gay! at a world that pats him on his repressed little head. It’s a funny bit, and it’s respectful of the real sexual tension as well as the real ambiguity in the Holmes-Watson relationship. Ritchie’s answer to this issue? Throw a dress on Holmes and make him and Watson roll around on the floor of a train. Hey, I know, put some make-up on Holmes, too! ‘Cuz that’ll be like, gay and stuff. Don’t gay people wear drag? Whatever, it’ll be funny.

What an ass.

"How sad is it that the nearest thing to honesty in this film is that I'm playing a cocaine addict?" 

Anyway, I’m super depressed now, so I'm gonna go back to re-watching episode three of season two of the BBC Sherlock. And then I’m gonna have my Black Widow action figure make out with Hawkeye some more while Captain America and everybody watches. But, you know, ironically.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Brave As You Wanna Be

A thumbnail review of Brave: a charming, utterly engaging little film that is probably not going to get the reviews and attention it deserves, because it’s mainly, you know, about girls and stuff.

Pixar has done its best to disguise the whole girl-ness situation by placing weapons and fighting in almost every clip of the trailer that isn’t taken up with scenery shots, but basically, it’s an unfixable problem. Consistently, throughout this film, women have discussions that have nothing to do with any man. They talk about things like fate, and magic, and honor, and the power of storytelling, so right away you can see where their conversations are going to be irrelevant. The problem doesn’t stop there: the supposed heroine doesn’t even end up with a boyfriend, or any hint of one. What the heck is up with that? Even Mulan had a boyfriend, for pity’s sake. It’s almost like Pixar wants girls to get the message that they are actually complete individuals without a male attached. Good luck selling tickets with that.

At the showing we attended yesterday, there were little girls clutching their Merida dolls, but no little boys in sight. It’s depressing, but statistically true, that girls will buy boy toys, but boys (or their parents) won’t buy girl toys. Because obviously, if the girl stuff was any good, it would be for boys. (Note to the under-10 crowd: this remains true when shopping for shoes in later life, too.) So I don’t predict huge commercial success for Brave, and there will probably be lots of reasons cited for its lackluster performance at the box office, but they will all mask the simple truth that the movie stinks of girl.

It also stinks of too many cooks at the production table. I wonder if Pixar got increasingly nervous about a movie so heavily reliant on single-gender appeal, and began futzing with the recipe, because at times it was unclear if the movie inhabited 19th century England, or 5th century Germany, or what. Those gender roles were awfully confused. Was it a female-dominant society, or wasn’t it? Both could be true, depending on the time period in Scotland. Was Merida the heir of the kingdom, or wasn’t she? Were we worrying about marrying her off respectably, or choosing her second-in-command as she ruled the kingdom herself? Her triplet brothers were the most obvious tell, and I’d lay good money they were thrown in at the last minute as a hopeful injection of boy. All they really managed to do was confuse the inheritance issue, and act annoying. I’d wager most boys are too smart to identify with indistinguishable characters whose only function is to annoy the big people, and run around squealing adorably like a collective Chihuahua.

But narrative confusions aside, this is just a gut-punchingly gorgeous film, visually speaking. We ended up plunking down the money for the 3D because we didn’t want to wait another 50 minutes for a 2D showing, and for once the money was absolutely worth it. The attention to detail in this animation is almost painterly, and I found myself wanting shots to just freeze-frame an instant so I could drink it in. The highlands of Scotland may have been the most fully developed character in the movie, outside of Merida’s hair. And I don’t mean that disparagingly: that hair was beautifully rendered, moving like a live thing in every shot. As a redhead who has struggled her whole life to contain her unruly head of fuzz, I enjoyed Merida’s cosmetological abandon.

So if you like cinematic beauty and strong female characters, go see this movie. It might just be the antidote to Magic Mike, Spiderman, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and (dare I say it) The Avengers.