Friday, January 28, 2011

Just Say No to Hollywood Horror Films

I have enjoyed movies all my life. I watch documentary, fantasy, rom-com, foreign, thriller, and action films. I no longer watch horror movies, however, and here are my reasons.

First, horror movies represent a simplistic moral universe. As Scream (the first) pointed out, teens engaged in behaviors deemed inappropriate for their age group die first and horribly. For example, the sweet high school girl, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, spends Halloween carving pumpkins and protecting two young charges while her self-absorbed peers smoke, drink, and have sex in an empty house nearby. The killer brutally executes those self-indulgent teens, then stalks the babysitter who has come to his attention by wandering into the house of death in search of her friends because she wants to be sure they are safe.

The babysitter’s spunky though. Fear cannot paralyze her. Life, including the lives of her two young charges, is precious, and she fights for it, proving that wit, resourcefulness, selflessness, strength, and perseverance win the day. She endures while Michael Myers returns to a maximum-security cell in an institution for the criminally insane.

The movie’s moral universe suggests that self-indulgence is a straight-line march to an agonizing death whereas the right stuff grants the protagonist another day. Still, even this simplistic moral universe has some reprehensible components. Racial minorities die early horror films. Women who dress provocatively will not only die, they will also be required to run for their lives before losing. We, the viewers, follow the woman’s desperate flight, hoping with her that she is faster, that she can outwit her predator, but alas, she never does. She stumbles or turns down the wrong alley or locks herself inside the one room in which the killer has already hidden.

Her flight and her almost certain death are two more reasons I do not see horror films anymore. First, I do not believe that a woman running for her life, only to lose it at the hands of a man, should be provocative or entertaining. One in every four real women will face an abuser, most often an intimate partner. One in six women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape.

Given all this real violence perpetrated against women, why would we want to add portrayals of violence to the messages we send to men, women, and children? Although there may be no proven quid pro quo effect between violent speech or films and violent crimes, why run the risk of encouraging those who are prone to commit abuse or violence? A society that endorses violence as entertainment is a society that tacitly refuses to protect victims by reducing their suffering to the price of admission, making us a nation of voyeurs. As Charlotte Bunch said, “Sexual, racial, gender violence and other forms of discrimination and violence in a culture cannot be eliminated without changing culture.” So stay home. Do not buy a ticket to, rent the DVD, or download a horror film.

The second reason that I refuse to watch horror films and avoid violent crime shows is the number of graphic, gratuitous death scenes. Mr. Monk, Shawn Spencer, Gus Guster, and Jessica Fletcher find bad guys and restore justice without spreading pools of sticky blood, mummified corpses, or maggots on display. They are forces for good, fighting evil without becoming tainted and twisted themselves. Some recent big budget films starring Gerard Butler or Mel Gibson feature protagonists that main, torture, slaughter, and stalk very bad men, the line separating the protagonist from the villain very thin indeed.

While I am not naïve and I have surely witnessed blood and mayhem on film without becoming violent myself, I still cannot condone the atavistic, voyeuristic appeal to the depravity that resides within. Let us rise above our hearts of darkness to prefer nobler pursuits. Let us have the courage to demand the truth about the human experience without the scales heavily weighted to our weaker moments. Let us show compassion to all those preyed upon and victimized.

Friday, January 21, 2011

From Intolerant to Tolerant: The Wisdom of Gandhi

Harper Lee imbued her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, with the spirit of empathy. Atticus’ advice to Scout is a metaphor for empathy when he tells her she must walk in the shoes of another to truly understand him. Atticus wants Scout to put herself in the place of others, to see through their eyes, to walk the ground they must walk. He teaches her tolerance and understanding with this advice--just as he teaches Jem the same lessons by forcing him to read to Mrs. Dubose and learn about the whole woman, not just the despicable racist woman.

When Gandhi wrote that “Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding," he suggests that the absence of empathy is a plague upon societies. He suggests that Atticus’ lessons are essential lessons for the next generation, and I agree.

Intolerance drove the Puritans to this continent. Yet once here, where they could worship freely and govern themselves, they became mirror images of the persecutors they had just fled. They exiled voices raised in opposition to their own. Anne Hutchison and Roger Williams were two forced out, forced to start anew. Williams argued that the Church and State should be separate and that Puritans had no right to take land from the Native Americans because their Bible granted them sovereignty. He founded Rhode Island under new more egalitarian principles once ousted for his convictions.

The Puritans were among the first to implement the three strikes penalty and used it upon Quakers who returned to Puritan villages to proselytize a third time. Quakers were merely evicted first, punished after a second visit, and hanged after a third. Quakers were not the only objects of Puritan justice: the Pequot Indians were brutally slaughtered when they refused to acquiesce to Puritans demands.

The history of the United States, from colonial to revolutionary and modern times, is a tale of intolerance. The Puritans fled religious persecution, only to re-create it here. The colonists revolted because the King and Parliament failed to respect and uphold colonial points-of-view. Post-revolution, the country prospered by acting with extreme prejudice against those racially different; planters and land-owners persuaded themselves that slavery was appropriate and necessary. Even after the nation had fought itself to be rid of slavery, segregation institutionalized and furthered intolerance, suppressing the promise of African-Americans.

Still, immigrants came, some unwillingly and many quite willingly because this nation promised a better tomorrow for them. They fled famine, poverty, and powerlessness to transform themselves for their children and children’s children. The Irish, for example, were persecuted even though they looked like their persecutors. Religion divided them from the Anglican majority in England and carried over in Protestant America. They endured. They thrived. They became American citizens.

Years later, the Vietnamese immigrated to the U. S., many at the invitation of the U. S. after the American soldier left Vietnam. Those who were given sanctuary found a different persecutor instead after settling along the coast to take up lives as fishermen. There, the old terrorist organizations from the late 1800s, including the Ku Klux Klan, intimidated the Vietnamese shrimpers by overcharging them for boats, coercing bait shops to block Vietnamese fishermen from buying bait, and even burning their boats (Galveston Bay, TX from 1979-1981).

Now, the targets are Middle Eastern and Latino, and now, intolerance is legislated in states like Oklahoma and Arizona. Persecutors go by political party names and take advantage of social networking and the media to increase their following and petition their government for repressive laws.

None of this history is admirable. None of it should make us nostalgic for some form of good old days, and none of it takes into account the contributions of immigrants. Levi and Strauss, nineteenth-century immigrants, provided the ubiquitous and ever more fashionable riveted clothing, better known as blue jeans. A Belgian-born immigrant, Baekeland, provided an early useful plastic, Bakelite. Tesla, originally from Serbia, gave the world radio. Gideon Sundbach, a Swede who immigrated, improved the zipper that became an essential tool for the U. S. Army during World War I. The simple Q-tip was given to the U. S. by Gerstenzang, a man born in Poland.
African-American inventors are many; George Washington Carver, a former slave, is one of the most famous among them.

We do not truly know what the good old days were if we wish to return to them. The world, this nation in particular, slowly turns toward the good. We become less barbaric. We become more tolerant. We search our souls for truth and answers to questions for justice. Much of this evolution is the result of understanding--of empathy. We must continue to heed the wise advice of those few souls who seem further along the spiritual evolutionary scale, souls that include advocates for equality, seekers of justice, men like Gandhi who also counseled:

"I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest . . . whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [independence] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away." - Mohandas Gandhi

Let us ask ourselves Gandhi’s questions as we contemplate regulation, reform, taxes, health care, gun violence, political vitriol, and immigration. Let us find tolerance within through empathy.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Pima County (AZ) Sheriff Dupnik

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, speaking at a press conference after the violence perpetrated against Congresswoman Giffords in Tuscon, said, “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government….The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

News giants such as Brian Williams on Dateline, January 9, and Matt Lauer on Today, January 10, seemed as skittish as colts in the presence of such plain talk. Each was reluctant to endorse Dupnik’s point of view, perhaps because to do so would be to share the blame. After all, the collective media--not Williams or Lauer alone or in particular--are guilty of spreading half-truths, distortions, and outright lies. For example, when Sarah Palin and others began to use the phrase death panels to inspire fear and generate opposition to health care reform, the media did not challenge the use of the term. They simply reported it--as if their job is merely to regurgitate whatever newsmakers and celebrities say. If that is the task for the Fourth Estate, then they are little more than a ventriloquist’s dummy, mouthing messages they did not conceive and certainly did not critically consider.

The fake news, available on The Daily Show, August 20, 2009, exposed the lie by inviting Betsy McCaughey, one of the leading spokeswomen for death panels, onto his show and asking her to identify the passage in the health care bill that made death panels law. She hemmed, hawed, stalled, and read, but she simply could not do it because such inferences or conclusions were completely invalid--as invalid as the notion that health care reform is a government takeover, the phrase that was named Political Lie of the Year for 2010. Yet, the mainstream broadcast media, the source from which most Americans receive their daily doses of news, have spent precious little research time, much less air time, exposing the lies of death panels or government takeovers. In my opinion, their complicity has contributed to the divisive, vitriolic atmosphere that America now must endure. Politicians take advantage of this vacuum by seizing the phrase of the day and substituting it for genuine debate and discussion.

Let more Sheriff Dupniks step forward to exercise their First Amendment privileges. Let the other points of view be heard. Let the phrases of the day be challenged. Let the truth emerge from the marketplace, and let no more David Koreshes, Timothy McVeighs, Dylan Klebolds, Eric Harrises, or Jared Lee Loughners be misled by the inability to consider critically what they read and hear. Sheriff Dupnik is right and courageous: one need not pick up a gun to know that a shot will be fired somewhere, sometime.

Friday, January 7, 2011

"The King's Speech"

I found a seat in a sold-out theater to see The King’s Speech tell the story of King George VI’s life-long struggle to overcome stuttering. In his struggle, the future king--Bertie to his friends--accepts the friendship and tutelage of a commoner, Lionel Logue. Both men, as portrayed in the film, are remarkable and courageous. Their story should remind us of the power of empathy and understanding as well as the amazing courage with which millions face their days.

As the film begins, Bertie’s wife, the future Queen Elizabeth, managing her husband’s medical treatment, finds and interviews speech specialists. She is present during most treatments, and she fully supports her husband’s decisions not to continue. As portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter, Queen Elizabeth loves her man and understands that he has a voice worth hearing, a voice worth finding.

Geoffrey Rush creates Lionel Logue, Bertie’s patient, clever, and brash mentor, a man who also cares deeply about the King’s voice. His methods may be intuitive and unorthodox, but his motives are never self-serving. His empathy is palpable in many scenes, and it is instrumental in healing the King’s speech.

The King himself, as interpreted by Colin Firth, learns a bit about empathy himself in his first encounter with the commoner Logue. He also demonstrates great courage. First, he cares about his nation, empire, and duties as a leader capable of inspiring his subjects. In fact, he cares so much that he refuses to accept his stutter. Second, he endures a bit of bullying by his father in an effort to live up to the demands and duties of king. His brother, Edward, the future Duke of Windsor, is worse. He mocks and humiliates Bertie, yet Bertie tries to honor the line of succession and his king, the older brother.

Third, Bertie proves his courage when he returns to Logue’s version of therapy, defends Logue against the powerful archbishop, and steps into the broadcast booth when he must announce, as King George VI, that Britain is at war. In spite of fear--of failure and of continual humiliations--he faces down his demons and the microphone to deliver a deliberate, clearly enunciated speech.

His courage honors the courage of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who return maimed, yet they sally forth as knights, learning to walk with and on titanium. They endure the pain to build upper body strength enough to lift themselves in and out of wheelchairs, to propel them up and down basketball courts, to ski down mountains, and to run marathons. If they return with Traumatic Brain Injury, they and their families fight for their own voices, asking that the nation not forget, that the nation find the funds to give these veterans a voice.

The 9-11 First Responders’ sacrifice is as monstrous and heroic as veterans’. They did not hesitate to rush in to chaos and dare death itself. They remained, trusting the authorities when they played down the toxicity of Ground Zero. Then, they became sick-too sick to work; they lost their health insurance as well as their health. Many lost their lives. Still they struggled to speak--for nine long years. Their voices were faint, soft, lost in the chaos of patriotic fervor, but in December 2010, they found a voice. The nation granted them aid, promising not to forget.

When you stumble across courage, when you summon your own courage, when you witness courage portrayed on film or stage, consider the unimaginable acts of courage undertaken for the greater good: the whistle-blowers who want our food and medicines to be safe; the soldiers who do their duty; the teachers who shape our future and believe in our kids; the kings who overcome. Consider also the ordinary individual with a missing arm, an artificial leg, a stutter, or scars; the individual who must use a service dog to navigate the world; the frail elderly who needs a helping hand. Prove your own courage by not turning aside. Prove your empathy. It has the power to heal.