White Supremacy’s Origin & Mission: “Exterminate All the (non-white) Brutes”

I just finished watching Raoul Peck’s four-part documentary “Exterminate All the Brutes.” It documented the process and effects of European colonialism in the Americas, Africa, and South Asia.

Peck is a Haitian-born film maker who directed the award-winning film “I Am Not Your Negro.”  Time Magazine called his latest effort perhaps “the most politically radical and intellectually challenging work of nonfiction ever made for television.”

Peck himself describes the documentary’s topic as nothing less than the deep origins of the ideology of white supremacy. He says his film is intended to “counter the type of lies, the type of propaganda, the type of abuse, that we have been subject to all of these years.”

Whitewashed History

The perpetrators of such falsehoods are not merely right-wingers like Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. They’re the worst, since they actively advocate whitewashed “Patriotic History” lest white civilization be exposed as basically avaricious, racist, and genocidal.

However, unwitting culprits also include would-be progressives who find it understandably difficult to face up to unquestionable historical fact.

Over the last week or so, the latter were exemplified for me in the reactions of two very smart and well-intentioned friends responding to the topic at hand. One of them felt compelled to leave half-way through the first episode of “Exterminate. . .” He commented as he left the room, “This is just too violent for me. It’s all too gratuitously graphic.”

The second reaction had come a week or so earlier in another context. In my blog, I had lamented the magnitude of what David E. Stannard has called The American Holocaust. It wiped out more than 100 million Native Americans in a single century.

In response, my second friend countered that the deaths were overwhelmingly due to diseases the Europeans introduced. Hence the deaths were mostly inadvertent and unintentional. The colonizers, said my friend, preferred to have the indigenous alive in order to enslave them.

While I could sympathize with my first friend’s feelings, I couldn’t agree with his conclusions and reactions. Peck’s film shows that nothing depicted on screen (or even portrayable there) could possibly equal the actual violence of the historical events the documentary so compellingly recounts. There was nothing gratuitous about it. No matter the blood and gore, it remained inevitably understated.

As for the “inadvertent” slaughter of Native Americans. . . That’s emphatically not the story that Peck tells. Nor is it supported by what we know about the nearly endless list of American Indian wars, and historical events such as the Indian Removal Act, and the “Trail of Tears,” along with the declarations of famous Indian fighters like Andrew Jackson and George Custer.

Peck’s Argument

But Peck’s argument goes far beyond Indian wars and Stannard’s American Holocaust. It recapitulates the whole of European history.

According to Peck, three words summarize that saga. They are civilization, colonization, and extermination. That’s where the film’s title comes from. For Peck, the project of the civilizers and the colonizers is clear. It was to exterminate all the brutes – meaning all the non-whites who inhabited the resource-rich territories lusted after by comparatively resource-poor Europeans.

The natives were considered brutes by Catholic theology, by notions of “progress” and eugenics fostered by Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and by the macabre success of mass-produced guns and canons in crushing the poorly armed pre-industrial opponents of the colonizers. That gory achievement enabled Europeans to complete their circle of theological inference with confident invocations of divinely approved “manifest destiny.”

In rebuttal, Peck reviews more than 1000 years of Europe’s false and misleading ideology and narrative. The West’s official story routinely overlooks the continuity between the mayhem entailed in the continent’s religious wars on the one hand and its denial of the holocaust of New World Native Americans on the other. Europe’s official narrative also conveniently disregards connections between the Jewish holocaust and ruling class support (especially by the U.S.) for genocidal dictators across the planet, particularly in the Global South.

Bottom-Up History

“Exterminate All the Brutes” is unique in that it tells the irrepressible story of western civilization from the bottom-up. It tells us that today’s society emerged pari pasu with the development of capitalism in the 10th and 11th centuries. From its beginning, the new system’s accumulation of riches depended on the looting, murder and exile of Jews and Muslims during the Christian Crusades.

Then, with the Spanish Inquisition, the ideological concept of race became enshrined into law by distinguishing between pureblood Christians contrasted with those same Jews and Moors who could be dispossessed with impunity.

The resulting accumulation of wealth facilitated the financing of Europe’s expeditions eastward and eventually into the New World. There it became possible for Europeans to plant their flags and claim ownership of huge swaths of land regardless of who happened to be living there. Such imperial ideology also justified the enslavement of millions of African tribals. All of it was ratified by continental monarchs and by papal authority.

Next came the West’s idea of progress. Spurred by Enlightenment thought, by Darwin’s evolutionary insights and by emerging eugenics, Europeans came to justify wars against “primitive” peoples by the theory that they were genetically inferior to whites and as such were predestined to disappear from the face of the earth anyhow. Killing and/or enslaving them merely abetted and advanced an entirely natural process.

Conclusion

Yes, by his own account, Raoul Peck’s “Exterminate All the Brutes” provides a condensed matrix of histories usually kept intellectually disparate – the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African tribals, and the extermination story of Jews under Hitler. The matrix shows connections between religion, capitalism, the idea of progress, and the development of weapons of mass destruction all contributing to the planet’s seemingly endemic problems of hunger, poverty, war, wealth disparities — and the ideology of white supremacy.

Concluding with a searching analysis of the Jewish Holocaust, the matrix shows that the Holocaust was no historical aberration contradicting the west’s emphasis on Enlightenment, democracy, humanism and universalism. Instead, the Holocaust was all part of the older “wheel of genocide” that goes back to the emergence of capitalism, and to the Crusades, the Inquisition, Manifest Destiny, Indian Removal, and to more contemporary Regime Change wars.

As for its call to action, Peck’s documentary concludes with a summons to a national dialog on race and white supremacy. The conversation would start with the recognition of the genocide of Native Americans, followed by admission that western accumulation of vast wealth was made possible by the enslavement of Africans. It would then face the fact that after the Revolutionary War, a major purpose of the U.S. military and of police became the murder of Indians, the regulation of slaves, and the control of their freed descendants.

All of this must be faced fearlessly before healing can begin. As Peck puts it, “It is not knowledge we lack. We already know enough. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know.”

Pixar’s “Soul”: Profound Spiritual Wisdom from a Soulless Corporation

Isn’t it ironic that one of the most powerful businesses in the world, the Disney conglomerate, has ended up being one of our nation’s most effective spiritual teachers?

I mean, in Disney you have a typical heartless corporation that controls so much of our deceitful mainstream media and our superficial entertainment industry. Yet that very transnational firm has consistently produced popular art that calls viewers to introspection, identification with wildlife and nature, and to qualities of generosity, selflessness, and love.

I’m thinking of celebrated productions like “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and even “Bambi.” Arguably, such animated films issue more effective calls to spiritual values (especially to the young) than do most churches.

How that’s possible remains a mystery to me.  It’s probably because even Disney Productions discerns a deep hunger for meaning in audiences throughout the world. So, in its effort to enhance its bottom line, it acquires scripts authored by spiritually attuned writers. But that’s only a guess.

The Film

Nevertheless, that was probably the case with Disney’s latest issuance, “Soul” whose screenplay was written by Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers. It’s a charming, comedic yet penetrating probe into the meaning of life and death. Its depiction of the afterlife suggests characterization as a poor man’s version of Dante’s Divine Comedy. It has all the ingredients: a guided trip through the great beyond, a painful process of purgation, and finally arrival at peaceful beatitude.

(At this point, some might think it appropriate to give a “spoiler alert,” though that hardly seems necessary for a spiritually themed work like “Soul.” It’s not some cliffhanger. In any case, be forewarned.)

More specifically, as Disney’s first all-black production, “Soul” tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a frustrated middle school band teacher obsessed with jazz and landing his dream job of playing piano in a quartet headed by a diva saxophonist named Dorothea Williams.

Joe is himself an unappreciated musical genius as becomes evident every time his riffs transport him into the “Zone” of his prodigious brilliance. In his audition for the Williams quartet, the diva immediately recognizes Joe’s talent and hires him on the spot.

Joe is overjoyed. On his way home, he practically floats and dances down the streets of NYC. In his distracted oblivion he is narrowly missed by busses, cars, motorcycles and bikes. However, Joe himself doesn’t miss an open manhole, which swallows him up and apparently ends his life.

The next thing he knows, he’s is in the afterlife on his way towards the Bright Light invariably reported in the accounts of most near-death experiences (NDE). But possessed by his obsession with finally realizing his dream job, Joe refuses to die.

The Underworld

So, instead of escalating into the world of light, he’s returned to heaven’s underworld – a kind of limbo – a so-called “Youth Seminar” where unborn souls are prepared by the recently departed to enter into bodies on planet earth. There Joe is introduced to a rebellious unborn soul (Tina Fey) called #22 (seemingly because she was the 22nd soul ever created).

Despite its status as a truly “old soul,” #22 has remained unembodied for eons because she finds the prospect of life on earth boring. No mentor, no matter how prestigious – not Copernicus, Marie Antoinette, Abraham Lincoln, Karl Jung, George Orwell, Mother Theresa, or Muhammad Ali – has been able to successfully coax 22 to incarnate on the Milky Way’s “stinky rock,” where she knows that life is inevitably soul crushing.

Despite that history, Joe Gardner accepts the task of mentoring #22 in hopes that if successful, he might be allowed to return to earth and his dream gig. Joe is convinced that if he can help 22 find her passion – her Spark – then her fierce resistance to life on earth will dissolve.

So, acting like Dante’s Virgil, Joe leads 22 through the “Great Before.” She accompanies him as he reviews his own life and identifies jazz as the spark which had given his frustrated existence the modicum of meaning it’s had. From there the two travel through the Hall of Everything where Joe shows 22 her own life’s possibilities as a baker, fire fighter, artist, librarian, mathematician, gymnast, office worker, or astronaut. Not surprisingly, 22 remains unmoved.

However, it’s at this point that roles suddenly reverse as the unborn soul takes pity on Joe. He’s unlike any of her previous mentors, she says, because his life has been so sad and pathetic. Despite the fact that 22 can’t imagine why Joe wants so desperately to return to such pathos, she leads her mentor to the Zone – a state between the physical and spiritual – where he’s made to recall the times his music has induced a state of happiness and bliss.

From there, 22 takes Joe to the Realm of Lost Souls where she introduces him to “a guy I know” – a mad psychedelic captain, a self-described “mystic without borders.” Captain Moonwind (who doubles as a NYC sign spinner on the other side) helps lost souls find their way out of obsessions and anxieties that leave them disconnected from life. For instance, he once helped liberate a soulless hedge funder from his alienated labor. In the aftermath, the frustrated Wall Streeter completely trashes his obsessed, anxious and confining work environment while finally screaming “I’m alive! I’m alive!”

To the tune of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Moonwind ferries Joe and 22 across the Sea of Lost Souls. On the way, the captain tellingly instructs Joe that lost souls are not that different from those striving to live constantly in the Zone. In both cases, he warns, “When your joy becomes an obsession, you end up tragically disconnected from life.”

With the warning ringing in his ears, and after entering a deep state of meditation, Joe and 22 suddenly find themselves returned to earth – to the intensive care unit where Joe’s NDE began. He’s not dead after all. However, both Joe and 22 are surprised to find that they remain completely displaced. Joe’s personality is now located in the hospital’s therapy cat, Mr. Mittens. Meanwhile, 22 finds itself animating Joe’s just-revived body.

Desperate and confused, the two narrowly escape from intensive care and emerge onto NYC’s noisy, smelly and dirty streets. It’s in this Purgatorio that Joe resumes his role as 22’s Virgil. Trapped in the cat’s body, he is intent on leading his newly ensouled form to what he imagines as heaven – the Half Note Jazz Club where his platonic Beatrice (Dorothea Williams) awaits him impatiently.     

Purgatorio

On the way, 22 learns more about inhabiting Joe’s body. For the first time, she discovers the soul-purging joys of pizza; of simply walking, sky watching, taking a shower, tasting toothpaste, and of fitting into a comfortable old brown suit. She recognizes a kindred spirit in 12-year-old Connie, Joe’s gifted middle school trombonist who finds school stultifying.  When Connie expresses her boredom with school, 22 approvingly quotes her former mentor, George Orwell, “State-sponsored education is like the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.”

22 even revels in subway rudeness and in the talent of an underground street musician. Above all, 22 likes “jazzing” – spontaneous self-expression or any kind. 

Now Mr. Mittens is the one to object. “No,” he insists, jazz is a completely other category. “Music and life,” he says, “operate by very different rules.”

Undeterred, 22 continues jazzing during a visit to Joe’s neighborhood barbershop. There, with Mr. Mittens sitting in her lap, Dez the barber reveals the possibility of finding joy in a second-choice career even when one’s first choice has been frustrated. Despite his genius at cutting hair, Dez explains that he originally wanted to become a vet. However, since barber school was less expensive than training for veterinary medicine, Dez chose the former. But it’s made him “happy as a clam.”

The lesson is not lost on Mr. Mittens. His wide eyes tell that he’s thoughtfully considering his own life in the light of Dez’s revelation. Meanwhile he listens incredulously as 22 philosophizes free form while Dez cuts the hair on the head she’s now thinking with.

Everyone’s enthralled as she pontificates about “existing as a theoretical construct in a hypothetical waystation between life and death. . .  left wondering whether all this (obsessed and over-focused) living was really worth dying for.”

Then she responds smartly to Paul, a hip barbershop customer, who rips Joe for falling short of his dreams. 22 fires back, “He’s just criticizing me to make up for the pain of his own failed dreams.” Her barbershop audience laughs at Paul derisively.

Later, 22 ecstatically explains to Joe: Didn’t you see? “I was jazzing.”  

22’s jazzing continues through the next stage of Joe’s purgatory – an encounter with his mother who has constantly urged her son to abandon his musical ambitions in favor of steady employment with pension and health care.

Still encased in Joe’s body and tentatively coached by Mr. Mittens, 22 boldly responds on Joe’s behalf, “Mom, I’m just afraid that if I died today, then my life would have amounted to nothing.”

That particular jazz riff opens Mrs. Gardner’s heart. In tears, she embraces her son and tells him how proud she is of him. She adds that his deceased father would have been proud too. She even gives Joe his dad’s handsome wool suit to wear at the anticipated performance that evening.  (Joe’s father too had been a musician dependent for support on his wife’s real job as a seamstress. No wonder she was worried about Joe.)

Paradiso

Finally, Joe arrives at the Half Note Jazz Club. By now, with the help of Captain Moonwind and a brief return to the Great Before, the difference between Joe and 22 has been completely overcome. Joe’s come to realize that 22 is the same as his own unappropriated unborn soul.

Whole at last, Joe is now ready for his beatific vision. Imagining that it will happen on the Half-Note’s stage, Joe persuades Dorothea Williams to rehire him despite his late arrival at the jazz club.  Reluctantly, she acquiesces.

However, all doubts vanish as Joe gives the performance of his life thrilling everyone present including his mother and Ms. Williams herself. Amid the applause, Joe’s mother is heard shouting proudly, “That’s my son!”

Nonetheless in the aftermath, Joe remains strangely detached. In effect, he wonders aloud, “Is that all there is? I’ve been waiting for this my entire life. I thought it would be different.”

The diva explains, “You’ve been like a fish discontent with his water habitat because he’s been searching for the ocean. You’ve had what you’ve been looking for all your life. It’s what you live in, move in and where you have your being.”

With that, Joe’s penny finally drops. Now his life flashes before him summarized in the symbolic trinkets that awakened the soul of # 22:

  • A Metro pass
  • A pizza crust
  • A piece of a bagel whose other half had been thrown into the tip basket of that subway musician
  • The lollypop Dez the barber shared during the session in his “magic chair”
  • A spool of blue thread that Joe’s mother used to refashion his father’s wool suit
  • A seed from a maple tree brought by a gentle breeze into Joe’s waiting hand

Yes, Dorothea’s version of Beatrice was right: Joe’s had everything he’s needed right from the beginning – in his father’s sharing his passion for jazz, in fireworks over New York City, in the heat blowing from city street grates, in the taste of pecan pie, in the star filled sky . . .

So have we all.

Conclusion

Such “morals of the story” might strike some as typically Hollywood – trite truisms generated algorithmically by pretentious but ultimately soulless corporations interested only in easy pandering to the peasant gallery. However, conclusions of this sort overlook the fact that most preaching and motivational talks contain similar messages. Fact is: we need the reminders.

Nonetheless, the morals of “Soul” go far beyond what’s already been itemized. A more comprehensive catalog might include the following.

  • Life on planet earth need not be boring or meaningless.
  • Death is not our enemy, but a portal to profound insight and expanded awareness.
  • Animals from which we evolved (symbolized in Mr. Mittens) continue to guide us.
  • So do previous human incarnations (like 22’s George Orwell and Muhammed Ali) who somehow persist as our mentor guardian angels.
  • When our joys become obsessive, they disconnect us from life’s richness.
  • Even our “dream jobs” are comparatively insignificant – carried out in the equivalent of a small basement jazz club.
  • The same holds true for the heroes we idolize (like the self-important diva Dorothea Williams).
  • In the light of impending death, (if we’re lucky) consciousness of such relativity eventually dawns as we realize that wish fulfillment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
  • Instead, life is about overcoming separations – male from female, black from white, animal from human, body from soul.
  • It’s important “to jazz” and free flow at every opportunity; music and life both operate by the same rules.

These insights merit not only superficial review, but serious meditation by those whose spiritual hunger evokes them from sensitive writers like Docter, Jones and Powers despite their employment by Disney.

Do yourself a favor and see Pixar’s “Soul.” It will set you on the path of Dante, Virgil, Beatrice — and Joe Gardner.

“Hamilton” Revisited: You Read It Here First !

Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical, “Hamilton,” is back in the news. The day before Independence Day, Disney + made available the filmed version of the acclaimed musical.

This time, however, in the light of Black Lives Matter and its reassessment of our nation’s patriotic statuary, some critics have understandably muted their praise for the play and its unmitigated hagiographic rehab not only of Alexander Hamilton, but of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

All of them, of course, were enslavers of Africans and brutal exterminators of Native Americans. (Remember the part of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence that describes the latter as “the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is the undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”) 

The soft-pedaled praise has made me feel cautious vindication. That’s because nearly five years ago, I incurred the wrath of my family by critically reviewing “Hamilton,” a play they all adored.

I’m sure you can understand their reaction. Not only did they adore the play, but my daughter and her husband (at great expense) had brought our entire family to see it in November of 2015. So, in their eyes my commentary demonstrated not only Philistine insensitivity, but an exceptionally high quality of ingratitude by looking a gift horse in the mouth.

In fact, the blog offended everyone to such an extent that all three of my adult children immediately unsubscribed from my blog. (And they haven’t re-subscribed since.) Whenever “Hamilton” is mentioned in our family, the story of my betrayal is enthusiastically rehearsed by everyone including my young grandchildren.

Nonetheless, it’s in that spirit of cautious vindication that I republish my original piece. I do so without change, except for my regret that I didn’t credit Ishmael Reed for the Eichmann line in the piece’s last sentence.

_____

The “Hamilton” Minstrel Show

In the era of Black Lives Matter, how do you get Whites (including the Fox News crowd) to give standing ovations to Blacks and Browns presenting a play about the era of slavery and “Indian” extermination?

Simple: You (1) forget about Black Lives Matter, extermination and slavery and (2) make the play a “reverse” minstrel show where (3) a cast of what Malcolm X called “house Negroes” pretend to be white and celebrate the very people who oppressed and slaughtered their own forebears.

And there you have it: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feel-good musical “Hamilton,” which is currently setting box office records on Broadway before enthusiastic, overwhelmingly white audiences.

It’s a whiteface minstrel show without the grease paint.

In “Hamilton,” mostly black and Hispanic actors cavort and grin through performances redolent of Stepin Fetchit. Without a hint of conscious irony, they domesticate their communities’ hip-hop resistance medium to celebrate the slave merchant, Alexander Hamilton and the Indian Exterminator, George Washington.

And white people love it. That’s because “Hamilton” is the Horatio Alger story our culture loves and uses against the poor, especially people of color.

“Hamilton’s” about a lowly illegitimate Scotsman from the Caribbean who at the age of 19 comes to New York City bent on making a fortune and achieving immortality. An unabashed social-climber, young Alexander sees himself as the embodiment of “his country.” He is “young, scrappy, and hungry” with plenty of brains but no polish — a real diamond in the rough.

So he joins the revolution, marries into the rich slave-owning Schuyler family, rises to prominence in the Continental Army, fathers a son, authors most of the Federalist Papers, has an affair, becomes Secretary of the Treasury and is killed in a duel with Aaron Burr.

Actually, Hamilton turns out to be a real buffoon. He’s self-centered and arrogant. Though a criminal in the eyes of the slaves and “Indians,” he and his kind are obsessed about his “honor” and are willing to kill and be killed for honor’s sake. Three duels mark the play. One eventually causes Hamilton’s own death; another takes the life of his son. He’s one of the “Founding Fathers,” who routinely crushed slave and “Indian” uprisings without mercy, but then self-righteously took up arms against England. Their issue (as the play puts it): taxes on tea and whisky!

The play overflows with comatose irony.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is the Puerto Rican artist who produced “Hamilton’s” music, lyrics and book. Though his people know plenty about the horrors of colonialism, he doesn’t seem to get it either. Instead, he presents his work as a celebration of post-racial patriotism. He has said “We’re telling the story of old, dead white men but we’re using actors of color, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience.”

Apparently, the actors are just as clueless. They’re doing a minstrel show for the descendants of the Massa.

It’s like their Jewish counterparts cavorting and grinning through a celebration called “Eichmann!”

Jordan and Gender: Workers’ Power to Undo Patriarchy

Like every other basketball fan, I’ve just finished watching ESPN’s ten-episode series, “The Last Dance.” It was about the 1997-’98 championship year of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ – their sixth such triumph in eight years.

The series took on special meaning for me, since at the same time, I was reading the late Allan G. Johnson’s book, The Gender Knot: unraveling our patriarchal legacy. Johnson’s analysis made me realize that I was witnessing in the Jordan video saga the stark exposure of the same system Johnson was explaining in his book. Feminist scholar, bell hooks, calls it the “white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy.” That’s the oppressive paradigm in which all of us – men and women alike – live and move and have our being. Hooks and Johnson agree on that point.

But Johnson goes further. He suggests guidelines for escaping the paradigm to make room for its replacement. Following Episode 10 of “The Last Dance,” I found myself wishing Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls had followed their direction. If they had, we might today be living in a very different world.

 Before I get to that, consider first The Gender Knot, and then “The Last Dance.” Together they reveal our patriarchal dilemma.

The Gender Knot

The main thought of The Gender Knot is that every one of us is influenced by a powerful force called patriarchy. It represents our culture’s fundamental paradigm – its unspoken social arrangement and set of assumptions – this one driven by men’s fears and their need to control. It promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered. It’s what undergirds capitalism, racism, classism, and, of course, sexism.

For Johnson, patriarchy sets the rules of the game. It’s like we’re playing “Monopoly” barely aware that its instructions force us to adopt attitudes and activities that would be disturbing in other situations. “Sorry to drive you into bankruptcy,” we might find ourselves saying, “but those are the rules of the game.”

Understood in this sense, patriarchy governs the jokes men tell, our banter with other men. It governs male self-images as we compare ourselves with peers, competitors, co-workers, friends, characters in movies and on the field of play. It also governs workplace interactions between labor and management.

For many, that thesis in itself might be familiar. What was not as familiar (to me at least) is Johnson’s more penetrating insight that patriarchy is not primarily about men’s fearful and controlling relationships with women.

Instead, patriarchy is chiefly about relations among men. Psychologically, it’s about men justifying and protecting our “manly” and strong self-image before other men whose scrutiny hovers over every aspect of life – on the athletic field, at the bar, in the stadium, in the bedroom, and on the job. In all of these venues, we judge ourselves through a patriarchal gaze. At the deepest level, then, it’s other men we fear – how they might threaten, ridicule, replace, or even rape us.

Economically, it’s about how they might fire us from our jobs after our work has made them rich.

Jordan’s Last Dance

Those watching “The Last Dance” with such analysis in mind can see it played out in the series.

It brings us into the hyper-male context of locker room, court, fawning reporters, and fans. (Virtually no women have significant roles in any of the episodes.) It’s an entirely man’s world and so provides a kind of petri dish for observing and testing Johnson’s theory about men’s fears and desire to control. It also provides a context for analyzing the bigger patriarchal issue of white supremacist capitalism.

At the psychological level, “The Last Dance” displays situations where males must continually prove their fleeting manly worth through attitudes and activities that would be disturbing in other situations. The rules of the basketball world turn them into super patriarchs – openly, proudly (but also fearfully) competitive, aggressive, greedy, self-promoting, belligerent, domineering, vengeful, trash-talking, and preening – again, in an exclusively man’s world completely devoid of women and children.

All of that is true especially of Michael Jordan, the principal focus of the ESPN series. Under the threat of inevitably waning powers and the advent of younger rising stars, he’s driven to constantly prove he’s the best by vanquishing and humiliating all comers. He has to defend his position as GOAT (greatest of all time) by winning more scoring championships, All Star Game nominations, MVP awards, Olympic gold medals, and (above all) NBA championships than any other player.

And that brings us to the economic aspect of “The Last Dance” and its unwitting depiction of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. . .

Though universally admired, Jordan’s a kind of tyrant on the job. In labor terms, he’s the ultimate foreman. As a result, grown giants of men – Michael’s teammates – alternately cower and obsequiously smile under M.J.’s judgmental gaze. His leadership style embodies the fear and control Johnson identifies as patriarchal system’s underlying values. So, he berates his teammates, makes fun of them, gets up in their faces, laughs at them, calls them names, and (on one occasion at least) punches them out – all for the sake of more efficient production.

Ironically, Jordan is particularly hard on his boss, Jerry Krause, the General Manager of the Chicago Bulls. Jordan constantly taunts him for being fat and short – at 5’6, a full foot below his tormentor. But like a kid bullied in the school yard, Krause too does the sheepish smiley thing, rolls over and takes it.

However, beneath it all, Krause, perhaps the most unathletic person in the story, is actually its most powerful patriarch. Yes, he’s fat, short and white in a world of giant African American supermen. Yes, they make fun of him and resent his taking credit for the Bulls’ success and for his vendetta against Phil Jackson, the team’s popular coach.

But in the end, it’s Krause along with Jerry Reinsdorf (the Bulls’ owner) who’s the boss – the one who finally decides to break up the greatest basketball team of all time. And this despite his “workers’” desires and those of millions of fans.

And the reason?  In episode ten, Reinsdorf explains why. It’s the money. It’s profit. Referring to some of his frontline players, he said, “Now after the sixth championship, things are beyond our control, because it would have been suicidal to bring back Pippen, Steve Kerr, Rodman and (unintelligible). Their market value was going to be too high. They weren’t going to be worth the value they’d be getting in the market . . . So, . . . I realized we were going to have to go into a rebuild. . .”

In other words, the reason for not pursuing a seventh world championship was that that the organization would have to pay the workers too much. So, white ownership and management (Reinsdorf and Krause) bit the bullet. Or, rather, they forced their African American workers and the consumers of their product to do so.

But that’s the point. It’s the way the racist capitalist patriarchy works. It delivers to a few (usually white) men absolute power over the many. If it were up to the workers, if it were up to the consumers, the Bulls would have gone on to compete for and probably win a fourth consecutive championship. But it wasn’t profitable to the powerful few. So, it didn’t happen.

So much for consumer sovereignty. So much for workers’ rights.  

Lines of Greatest Resistance

Confronted with such dynamics both psychological and economic, Johnson’s Gender Knot asks its central question: What would it take to shift the entire paradigm even as so clearly depicted in “The Last Dance?” What can be done to transform the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal paradigm both psychologically and economically?

Johnson’s answer: take the line of greatest resistance. That’s because, like all paradigms, the very purpose of patriarchy’s system is to shunt all of us towards lines of least resistance. Its intention in all spheres is to make it easy for us to go along to get along.

On the other hand, effective resistance means:

  • Following Gandhi and embodying the paradigm we’d like to see the world adopt.
  • Realizing that most of humanity’s 250,000 years were lived under matrifocal, matrilineal, non-capitalist societies.
  • Therefore, rejecting the myth that patriarchal capitalism is somehow inevitable and permanent.
  • Giving up the comforting idea that there’s nothing we can do to synchronize our lives and decisions with history’s ineluctable paradigm shift.
  • Rejecting the related myth that change is meaningless or irrelevant unless we’re around to see it. (We can’t use our human lifespan to judge social progress.)
  • Embracing in every sphere every chance to interrupt the flow of “business as usual.”
  • Daring to make people feel uncomfortable.
  • Beginning each day with the question, “What risk for change will I take today?”
  • To that end, adopting the slogan “Organize, organize, organize.”

Conclusion

The great Larry Bird once described Michael Jordan as “God pretending to be Michael Jordan.” Indiana Pacers legend, Reggie Miller, called him “Black Jesus.” Such transcendent references make me think. . .

Imagine if the collection of black workers called the Chicago Bulls led by their highly driven and charismatic foreman had shared the consciousness explained in The Gender Knot. What if they had organized, interrupted the flow of business as usual, and taken (admittedly large in their case) risks for change in the white supremacist system of capitalist patriarchy?

What if Michael Jordan had used his charisma and marvelous talents in the service of Johnson’s suggestions? What if the Bulls had not simply rolled over for the two Jerrys — Krause and Reinsdorf? What if they had employed their unprecedented status and star power in the eyes of millions worldwide to similarly raise public consciousness about the patriarchal paradigm that oppresses us all.

What if Jordan and company had just said “No!? We’re embracing and appropriating our own power. What’s more, we’re going to organize the NBA Players’ Association into a collective worker-owned cooperative run by us, for us, and for our fans? After all, you owners need us more than we need you. You’re history!”

It would have been revolutionary – and not just for the NBA.

That’s what might have been. But it’s not just fantasy. Changes like that are entirely possible. The fact is that workers united have far more power than Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls ever had.

And as both The Gender Knot and “The Last Dance” suggest, the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy is more vulnerable than it seems.     

Betrayed: Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans”

At last the left-wing environmentalists have come to their senses. Even the most extreme of them like Michael Moore has admitted that climate change is a hoax. So-called energy alternatives do more harm than good. And nothing can or should be done to address the Chicken Little faux problem of global warming – unless it’s reducing the number of people who have irresponsibly overpopulated the planet.

That’s the position adopted by more than one right-wing commentator gloating over Moore’s newly released documentary, “Planet of the Humans.” And for those who haven’t paid attention to the environmental movement, the evaluation might well ring true.

The film Itself

In making its case, “Planet of the Humans” for instance presents formidable rows of solar panels as perhaps only enough to energize a kitchen toaster. The film demonstrates that the elements required to manufacture wind turbines and electric cars require environmental devastation that destroys tribal lands and exactly parallels the coal industry’s mountaintop removal. And biomass is just crazy. The same holds true for ethanol and elephant manure. Too often, the purveyors of solar and wind technologies turn out to be fly-by-night con artists.

As for the heroes of the environmental movement, there just aren’t any (except, perhaps, for India’s Vandana Shiva who in a brief cameo dissents from biomass madness). Forget about the Sierra Club and Al Gore. Gore’s in bed with Virgin Airlines’ Richard Branson, Mike Bloomberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Barack Obama, and the Koch brothers. They’re all compromised, interested only in corporate profit, and speak uniformly with forked tongues.

The same holds true for Bill McKibben and his organization 350.org. He’s fumbling, inarticulate, and evasive – just the opposite of how many of us have seen him repeatedly over the years in venues like Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now.”

No wonder climate change denialists loved the film. Observing their gleeful victory dances will disappoint progressives who likely find themselves upset with Michael Moore, whom so many have come to admire for his other films and his general political leadership. Even a sense of betrayal might not be out of place as the film undercuts an environmental movement at a particularly crucial juncture where time to save the planet is rapidly running out.

Josh Fox’s Counterpoint      

In response to such understandable disappointment, Josh Fox the producer-director of “Gas Land,” – a documentary critique of the fracking industry – appeared recently on Krystal Ball’s and Sagaar Enjeti’s “Rising” news program. There, Fox criticized “Planet of the Humans” as fundamentally misleading. He pointed out the film’s puzzling misdirection in support of its thesis that renewable energy is not the panacea for climate change that environmentalists claim. However, according to Fox, “Planet of the Humans” errs when it:

  • Attacks and dismisses the basic premise of the alternative energy movement that relies on solar and wind sources, but not exclusively as the film suggests. Alternative energy must be complemented by reductions in consumption, by conservation of public lands, and by recycling and reusing.
  • Holds instead that reduction of consumption and population control represent the only viable ways forward. (The Malthusian overtones of such argument are especially reprehensible, Fox said, during a time of pandemic.)
  • Focuses on 10-year old technology as if huge strides have not been made in the past decade with both solar and wind power
  • Similarly advances the arguments that are not merely 10-years but 40-years old. They mirror perfectly what the fossil fuel industry has been saying during that near half century despite the fact that its leaders have known the links between their product and climate change the whole time. Even with that knowledge, they’ve argued (as the film itself implies) that the need for and viability of alternative energies is a matter of debate. In reality however, virtually the entire scientific community is in contrary agreement on the issue.
  • Spends an extraordinary amount of time addressing the pitfalls of biomass as though it were a major part of the alternative energy proposals. (In reality it accounts for 1.4% of non-fossil fuel alternatives.)
  • Ignores the environmental movement of the past 10 years, while arguing at the same time that a new more radical environmental movement is required
  • Specifically, avoids mentioning the extremely important Green New Deal, the Sunrise Movement, and the work of activist heroes like Naomi Klein, Greta Thunberg, and Bill McKibben around divestment from the fossil fuel industry. Instead, McKibben is specifically singled out as though he were a shill for the industry he’s been working against for decades. He’s criticized for support of biomass despite the fact that he informed the filmmakers beforehand that this is no longer the case.
  • Ignores the fact that most within the alternative energy movement stand in agreement with the filmmakers’ position that capitalism and renewable energy do not mix. At this moment of crisis with its need for an F.D.R.-like mobilization of productive resources, socialism is much more compatible with the movement’s goals.

Additional Points of Criticism

One could add to Fox’s criticism the facts that:

  • As John Gilkison has indicated, criticizing today’s electric cars for their continued dependence on coal, oil and gas is like disqualifying Model Ts in 1908 as viable transportation alternatives because they still relied on horse drawn wagons for delivery of materials to the Ford factory.
  • Obviously, wind power is not dependent on mountaintop removal procedures. In fact, mountaintops in Vermont do not at all represent the ideal spot for wind generators. Those would be found in the wind corridor stretching from North Dakota and Montana in the north to western Texas in the south.
  • Biomass does, of course, have a valuable place among today’s energy alternatives. It takes the form of fuel for wood stoves used by individual homeowners to supplement the energy generated by their rooftop panels.  
  • The film misleads on the subject of population. At one point, it says that in a period of just 200 years, the globe’s population increased by a factor of 10. During the same period, energy consumption “on average” rose by the same measure. Clearly however, figures for average energy consumption make it appear that everyone on the planet is equally responsible for energy depletion. They are not. The United States with less than 5% of the world’s population, consumes around 25% of its energy. Meanwhile people on the African continent and elsewhere in the Global South consume far less. So, rather than giving the impression that there are too many people in the world, it would be more accurate to say there are too many Americans. The film avoids making that specific, but hugely important point.

Conclusion

“Planet of the Humans,” of course, is correct in positing that energy corporations like BP and Exxon are trying mightily to co-opt the concept of green technology. Moreover, the corporate version of energy alternatives continues to centralize and control solar and wind sources in massive plants. So, they build expensive energy-intensive installations that depend on solar panel arrays the extent of football fields or on thousands of easily destructible mirrors located in the desert to reflect and somehow gather the sun’s energy. The business model of these concerns has them retaining control of “smart grids” just as they did with the dumb ones formerly powered by oil and coal.

Moore’s film is correct: such “solutions” are top-down and hugely problematic.

However, there are more democratic bottom-up models of energy production. These have homeowners installing solar panels and water heaters on their own rooftops. Bottom-up models similarly turn every office building into its own energy production unit. In this way, solar energy democratizes production and takes it away from the giant corporations. Even today it has those concerns actually paying consumers for the energy homeowners’ solar panels feed back into the larger system. Jeremy Rifkin, for example, has written a great deal on this.

So, we’re left wondering why Michael Moore chose to ignore such patent truisms. Instead, he leaves his audience without constructive scientifically founded hope or alternative. He releases this disturbing film at this particular point in history when the Green New Deal is on the table. He gifts its opponents with the argument that even the “extreme left” now admits that anthropogenic climate change, if it exists at all, represents an insoluble problem.

Why in the face of contrary evidence, did Moore choose to support the right’s position like that? Why ignore the advances in the opposite direction that have emerged over the last 10 years? Why vilify climate heroes like Bill McKibben?

There are no apparent answers to these questions. Michael Moore’s credentials as filmmaker and progressive activist are impeccable. Progressives are still scratching their heads. . .

“Where’s My Roy Cohn?”: A U.S. Coup D’état by Nihilists, Mobsters, Pedophiles and Blackmailers

Recently, I spent two weeks in Tijuana working with Al Otro Lado (AOL). I’ve written about that experience here, here, and here.

AOL is a legal defense service for refugees seeking asylum mostly from gang-rule in Mexico and Central America. The emigrants want escape from countries whose police forces and allied power holders are controlled by ruthless drug rings whose only goal is accumulation of money and social dominance.

As I did my work helping clients fill out endless forms concocted by those who would illegally exclude them, everything seemed so hopeless. I wondered how those gangs achieved such power? Isn’t it a shame, I thought, that entire countries are now controlled by criminal mobs with names like “MS 13,” “Nueva Generacion,” and “18?” How sad for these people!

Then, during my flight home to Connecticut, I happened to watch the documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” (WMRC).  It introduced viewers to the dark and criminal mentor of Donald Trump.

On its face, the film illustrated the absolute corruption of the U.S. government as the unwavering servant of the elite as the only people who count. But in the light of my experience in Tijuana, it made me realize that our country too is literally controlled by shadowy gangs to an extent even worse than what’s happening south of our border. I mean, the United States of America now has the most prominent protege of Roy Cohn, an unabashed mafioso, actually sitting in the Oval Office! Both Cohn and, of course, his disciple turn out to be absolute nihilists without principle or any regard for truth.  

The film made clear how both men tapped into a similar nihilist strain within huge numbers of Americans who identify with the Republican Party and ironically with the Catholic faith and Christian fundamentalism.  Nonetheless, WMRC wasn’t explicit enough in probing either Cohn’s corruption, that of Donald Trump or of our reigning system’s complex of government, education, church and mainstream media.

It failed to show how the phenomena of Roy Cohn and Donald Trump represent mere surface indications of a profoundly anti-democratic coup d’état that has gradually unfolded in our country over the last 40 years. The actuality of this takeover was revealed most clearly in the recent impeachment proceedings. They provided a kind of last straw undeniably exhibiting how nihilist “Christians” have seized power in perhaps irreversible ways.    

The Film  

To see what I mean, begin by watching “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” for yourself. It not only details Cohn’s life as an infamous New York mafia consigliere. It also shows how he started his career in crime as the 23-year-old advisor of the equally villainous Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. (McCarthy, of course was the force behind the nation-wide communist scare of the early 1950s.)

However, most importantly WMRC describes the film’s subject as the mentor of Donald Trump. By both their admissions, each recognized in the other a kindred spirit. Each used mafia and friends in high places (from Ronald Reagan to New York’s Cardinal Spellman) to enrich himself in terms of power and money. In the end, the alliance brought Trump to “the highest office in the land.”

To that point, here’s the way the film’s (highly accurate) preview-teaser reads: “Roy Cohn, a ruthless and unscrupulous lawyer and political power broker, found his 28-year career ranged from acting as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist-hunting subcommittee to molding the career of a young Queens real estate developer named Donald Trump.”

In the course of the film, witnesses testify that Cohn taught Trump his basic approach to life. To wit: here are Cohn’s (and by extension, Donald Trump’s) implicit Ten Commandments. They also summarize the guiding principles of perhaps the majority of the most prominent politicians in the U.S. and across the world:

  1. Value money as the highest good.
  2. Manipulate the law to enhance personal wealth and privilege
  3. Put your own interests above everyone else’s
  4. Bully opponents mercilessly
  5. Wrap yourself in the flag while you do so
  6. Never admit wrong-doing or failure
  7. When accused change the subject and make vigorous counteraccusation
  8. Lie unceasingly with great confidence and bluster
  9. Declare even the worst defeat a victory
  10. Win at all costs

All of that was actually Cohn’s personal ethos. It worked for him throughout his life. It is reaping at least short-term benefits for Donald Trump as well. In fact, with Cohn as his mentor and as the man’s protege, Donald Trump would seem to merit all the adjectives on the film’s cover envelope: ruthless, unscrupulous, powerful, flamboyant, notorious, despicable . . .

Deeper Corruption

Unmentioned however in the film is Cohn’s connection with the very way our country (and the world) is run. It’s largely a blackmail game connected not merely with money and power, but with sex, pedophilia, blackmail and complete disregard for truth or moral principle. In fact, Whitney Webb’s four-part study of pedophile-racketeer, Jeffrey Epstein is called just that: “Government by Blackmail.”

And right at its heart, we find Trump mentor, Roy Cohn, listed prominently among figures like the Mafia kingpin Myer Lansky, and Lew Rosenstiel (of Schenley distilleries). For decades following World War II, they were real powers behind mayors, governors, congressmen, senators, presidents, and (yes) behind the world’s remaining kings and potentates, along with assorted church officials.

In fact, according to Webb, all during the ’70s and ’80s, Rosenstiel, Lansky’s close friend, regularly threw what his fourth wife (of five) called “blackmail parties.” The photos and recordings gathered there long kept Lansky out of trouble from the federal government. They also delivered entire cities to Mafia control in the post WWII era. In the end, Lansky blackmailed numerous top politicians, army officers, diplomats and police officials. He had photos of FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover in drag and performing homosexual acts.

Again, according to Webb’s research, Rosenstiel’s protegee and successor as blackmailer-in-chief was Roy Cohn himself who was closely associated with the Mafia bosses referenced prominently in “Where’s My Roy Cohn,” as well as with J. Edgar Hoover and the Reagan White House. (Nancy Reagan even phoned Cohn to thank him for enabling the election of her husband.)

Simultaneously, Cohn took on the central role in the blackmail pedophile hustle Lansky and Rosenstiel had started. As usual, its main targets were politicians often interacting with child “prostitutes.”

That was the real source of Cohn’s power. So were his dear friends in high places including (besides Clinton, the Reagans and Trump) Barbara Walters, Rupert Murdoch, Alan Dershowitz, Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein, Chuck Schumer, William Safire, William Buckley, William Casey, and top figures in the Catholic Church.

It’s those latter figures that connect Cohn’s pedophile ring as inherited by Jeffery Epstein even with the Church’s child abuse scandal. It directly involved the aforementioned “American pope,” Francis Cardinal “Mary” Spellman of New York, and Cardinal Theodore “Uncle Teddy” McCarrick of Washington D.C. Father Bruce Ritter’s Covenant House (a multi-million-dollar charity for homeless and run-away boys and girls) was also deeply implicated. In fact, when Ritter’s involvement in sex acts with his underage wards came to light, it was secular powers more than ecclesiastical forces that rallied to his defense.

Right-Wing Coup and Presidential Impeachment

All of that leads me back to where I started – to the right-wing coup d’état whose final straw debunked any pretense of democracy that may have been persuasive to some before impeachment proceedings put them completely to rest. “Where’s My Roy Cohn” showed the profound extent of the take-over in question – never far distanced from predominantly male sexual perversion.

Yes, we all know about such depravity within the Catholic Church – all the way up the chain of command. But the Cohn film along with the ancillary Epstein revelations it ignores reveal the centrality of that debauchery to standard operating procedure among government officials in the United States and across the world. It’s evidently what they do.

Am I exaggerating? Go back to the above list of Cohn’s and Epstein’s “friends.” See for yourself: they include presidents, princes, prelates, professors, pundits, pushers, and publishers.  All of them have always had a lot to fear from the tapes and videos made by Cohn. But the same holds true for the ones confiscated from Epstein’s special safe, and from the still unpublished manifestoes of passengers on Epstein’s “Lolita Express” to the man’s “Orgy Island.” Additionally, there’s remains a lot to learn from the testimony of Epstein’s procurer, Ghislaine Maxwell. Inexplicably the latter remains at large and allegedly unlocatable by international agencies possessing the world’s most sophisticated technology.

In other words, what we know about connections between Cohn, Epstein, the Mafia, CIA, DOJ, White House, and church officials represent the mere tip of an iceberg whose continued submersion seems assiduously assured by the agencies involved, by Britain’s royals, and other powerful entities — all aided and abetted by an entirely cooperative MSM.

[And no: it’s not baseless “conspiracy reasoning” to implicate the deep state officials just mentioned – not in the face of Jeffrey Epstein’s mysterious “suicide” whose suspicious circumstances (within a specifically federal prison) include transgression of standard protocols for prisoners on suicide watch, missing surveillance tapes, sleeping guards, unexplained screams reported by fellow inmates as coming from Epstein’s cell, and lack of follow-up by the MSM.] 

In other words, it’s not just that our country has been taken over by right-wing mobsters. No, it’s much more than that: our very world is run by gangsters, pedophiles, blackmailers, and their enablers – with Donald Trump its most recent and blatant evidentiary manifestation of anti-democratic policies.

Ignoring the rest of the world for a moment, consider what we’ve learned from the impeachment process about the extent of America’s de facto coup under Donald Trump whose criminal actions have gutted the Constitution of the United States at its core. Thus:

  • There no longer remains a separation of powers.
  • An indicted executive can control his own trial.
  • Subpoenas mean nothing to the reigning executive. By his decree alone, he can override summonses, forbidding those receiving them from appearing in court.
  • Impeachment “jurors” can embrace unmitigated bias with impunity announcing their judgment well before the trial’s commencement.
  • The presiding judge – even as he acknowledges the appearance of his court’s politicization – can with straight face permit a “trial” without evidence or witnesses.
  • Thus, prosecutors (i.e. the very House of Representatives) are left entirely impotent.

The hell of it is that these are all merely the latest developments in a criminal, unconstitutional, and anti-democratic process that has been in motion for nearly half a century. It has attacked the very pillars of democracy including the Supreme Court, Public Education, the mainstream media (MSM), and the Catholic Church – not to mention the Christian fundamentalists who constitute the heart of the Republican Party. It’s no wonder that Noam Chomsky has identified the latter as the most dangerous organization in the history of the world.

To be more specific, its “Christian” base hold firmly to tenets like the following that can only be described as “Cohnistic,” Trumpian, nihilistic, or (in religious terms) heretical:

  • There are no basic ethical principles (except that abortion is immoral).
  • Human life has no value except in its fetal stages.
  • The concept of truth is completely meaningless. This is because the public’s attention span and memory are so limited that repeated deceits make no lasting impression and will soon be forgotten.
  • The U.S. Constitution (except for the Second Amendment) is entirely insignificant.
  • There are two sets of laws, one for the elite and another for the rest of us.
  • As legal persons, corporations have more rights than living human beings.
  • International law applies only to U.S. enemies, never to the United States or its allies.
  • While the United States has the right to assassinate, bomb, drone, invade and occupy wherever it wishes, defense or retaliation against such aggression is criminal and liable to maximum punishment.

Conclusion

Do you see what I mean in describing our situation here in “America” as worse than our neighbors to the south?  

It’s a truism to observe that whatever imperial governments – from Rome to Great Britain to our own – do abroad eventually returns to haunt them at home. My experience in Tijuana coupled with watching “Where’s My Roy Cohn” underlined the veracity of that terrible axiom. It all made me realize that our government has been taken over by cynical nihilists – and more than that by mobsters, pedophiles, blackmailers and heretical religious fanatics.  

So, my take-away from border work in Tijuana is not only dismay, sadness, and despair for refugees at or border. It’s the same sentiments for ourselves.

With elections on the horizon, it’s also the question, what are we going to do about it? We have to determine which available candidate is freest from the sick contagion I’ve just described.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: An Epic Masterpiece

Last night Peggy and I accompanied Peggy’s brother to a local theater to see Quentin Tarantino’s “Once upon a Time in Hollywood.” All of us came away disappointed and wondering why we didn’t leave the theater about half an hour into this two-hour-forty-five-minute marathon, even though it featured A-list actors including Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Al Pacino. We all agreed the film was too long, too slow, too violent, and on the whole seemed pointless.

I’m glad we didn’t leave. After-thought has made me realize that we would have missed a thought-provoking and revealing parable about entertainment-fantasy and its influence on our lives. Even more, the film had the epic quality of all the great classics, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses. It was about our lives’ journeys, their purpose, about love and friendship.

After all, the film’s very title alerts the viewer to Tarantino’s larger intent. “Once upon a time” is the way all fairy tales, myths, legends, and fables begin. They are vehicles for teaching larger truths — for rewriting history. Typically, they feature:

  • A main character (all of us) facing decline and death
  • A long, twisted journey
  • Its quest for meaning in the second half of life
  • The character’s double who is more grounded and wiser
  • A child who inspires and teaches
  • An alternative community representing the story’s readers
  • And mirroring the condition of the main characters
  • Class struggle between the communities
  • A blind man who more clearly sees life’s true purpose
  • A dog who saves the day
  • All resulting in insight about how our lives might be different

Significantly, “Once upon a Time in Hollywood” is set in 1969, the year of the bloody murder of actress, Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and four of Tate’s friends at the hands of the infamous Charles Manson family of hippie stoners. In fact, the whole story can be understood as a commentary on that tragic event as encapsulating American life with its senseless violence specifically provoked by the art of directors such as Quintin Tarantino. As such Tarantino’s own film is a kind of self-parody – yet another feature often characterizing the great literature just referenced.    

“Once upon a Time in Hollywood” is about a washed-up TV actor, Tom Dalton and his stunt-man double, Cliff Booth. Tom’s an actor whose identity has been fixed by the success of his past role as an old West bounty hunter. Everybody knows him that way. But in mid-life, he suddenly finds himself jobless, filled with self-doubt and lacking clear direction. He wants to maintain his Hollywood image and lifestyle and is terrified with the prospect of losing them. Who is he without his on-screen role? He’s afraid of death and life’s inevitable call to enter its second half.

Meanwhile, Tom’s stunt-man double (his real self) is a doer. He’s entirely capable of accomplishing in real life, what Tom does only in film. Whereas Tom pretends to be brave, take chances, fall off horses, fight and prevail, Cliff actually does those things. What’s more, Cliff’s not worried about his image or living large. He’s content to be in effect Tom’s butler and chauffeur. His home is a beat-up Airstream trailer; he eats Kraft Macaroni, and his only companion is his fierce and obedient pit bull, Brandy. The dog is actually Cliff’s better half; like his master, he’s simple, faithful, loving, and valiant. Brandy is to Cliff what Cliff is to Tom.

So, shadowed by his double and better-self, Tom sets off on his journey. Tarantino drives the theme home by introducing virtually every character in terms of their footwear – cowboy boots, sandals, go-go boots, and bare feet.  Everybody’s on a journey. Tom’s own has him advised by standard Hollywood types – always telling him how to cope with life’s changes by adopting new roles, different costumes, makeup, facial hair, and public image. For them, everything is image and performance.

However, Tom’s best professional advice comes from an eight-year-old girl far wiser than her years. Trudi Fraser tells Dalton to sober up, pay attention to his craft, be true to himself in the roles he plays, and never break character. As a result of listening to her, Tom delivers his greatest performance in a film called Lancer. For him, it’s the turning point in his professional journey. Yet, we find, there’s much more for him to learn. Life’s not merely about professional success.

It’s his better self, Cliff Booth, who makes the deeper discovery.  And ironically, it’s the Manson Family who conveys that truth. Led on by a flirtatious Siren, Cliff suddenly finds himself in the midst of the Manson family. Significantly, they live in an abandoned movie lot owned by a declined movie mogul, George Spahn.  

Over the objections of the Manson Family members, Cliff insists on consulting his former colleague who turns out to be a blind oracle revealing life’s true meaning. He’s Booth’s interior voice who’s deeply asleep and must be shaken back into awareness. Sightless, old George can’t even remember his former meaningless life. He doesn’t recognize Booth or remember who Tom Dalton is. He only knows that Squeaky Fromme (Manson’s best-known disciple) loves him and that he wants to please her. Loving her is what’s truly important to him, nothing else.

Moreover, the Manson community itself teaches Booth. It proves to be deeper and more loving than the Hollywood assemblage of self-seeking individuals that the Manson Clan mirrors. Yes, they spend their lives in exactly the same way of their better-off counterparts. They even live on an abandoned movie lot and spend their days watching old movies on TV. For them, it’s all sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  

However, overwhelmingly composed of women, the Mansons have abandoned the Culver City rat race. They dumpster-dive for food. But more importantly, they exhibit solidarity, sympathy and support for members who suffer or are in danger.

The contrast leads them on the one hand to resent the actual self-centered lives of Hollywood personalities, and on the other to imitate their on-screen violence. (Here’s where the class-struggle comes in.) They reason: The films we’ve watched from childhood have taught us lessons. The actors we’ve admired have advocated senseless violence, and they live like selfish pigs. So, let’s get our revenge and do some violence on them.”

And that brings us to Tarantino’s ironic, over-the top, cleansing and healing climax. (Spoiler alert!) In a riot of shooting, stabbing, beating and burning, Hollywood’s fantasy triumphs over real life. The heroic dog, Brandy comes to the rescue; the Mansons are decimated; Sharon Tate, her child and her friends are saved. History is re-written.

But more importantly, in terms of Tarantino’s fabulous intent, Tom Dalton and Cliff Booth discover their actual identity with one another. The two halves of Tom’s personality are united in expressions of their deep friendship. Tom gets over himself and joins a larger community of literally resurrected souls.

As a result, all of us are called to resurrection, love, and friendship. We’re called to own our True Selves.

I’m glad we stayed to watch it all.

“In the Heights” Answers the Immigrant Question in Arts-Friendly Westport Connecticut

On Mothers’ Day, the immigrant invasion that Donald Trump has warned us about, finally reached my new hometown of Westport, Connecticut. It came in the form of Lin Manuel Miranda’s sparkling musical, “In the Heights.”  My daughter and son-in-law generously took us to see the play.

At first glance, a performance in Westport might seem literally out-of-place. After all, it’s is one of the most affluent cities in the country. By contrast, Miranda’s play is set in a poor barrio located in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. However, “In the Heights” succeeded in bringing two disparate communities together in a mutual appreciation that should characterize all interactions between “Americans” from the north and those from the south.

Let me explain.

Westport is the home of Wall Street investors, lawyers and insurance brokers.  But the town of 26,000 clearly has a social conscience. At least in part, that’s because in the 1930s it was an artist colony animated by the horizon-widening presence of its venerable “Country Playhouse.”

A converted barn right out of a Rooney and Garland movie, the Playhouse was later adopted by local residents, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who inspired its renovation. Over the years, many famous authors, television personalities and actors from Hollywood and Broadway have been drawn to Westport by the playhouse and its theatrical sprites. The best-known personalities include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bette Davis, Robert Redford, Ann Hathaway, Keith Richards, Martha Stewart, Jim Nantz, Phil Donahue, and Christopher Walken.

Miranda brought together Westporters proud of such lineage on the one hand and immigrants far from such pedigree on the other. And guess what: there was not even one of President Trump’s frightening rapists or gang members among the latter. Instead, they included a street graffiti artist, a snow-cone vender, a bodega proprietor, the owner of a small taxi service, his dispatcher, a sassy beautician and her staff of three, and a college student from Stanford University. Over a period of 90 minutes we came to know and care about each one of them.

The characters came from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Yet all of them had lived in New York for years hardly even noticed as somehow out-of-place. Like many of their real-life counterparts, those the Trumpists call “invaders” were marvelous singers and dancers. Each had a story of family idiosyncrasy, love, economic struggle and high aspiration.

Countering Trump’s cheap clap-trap, “In the Heights” underlined the unmistakable gift-to-America brought by its Latinix citizens. They are hard workers with lofty aspirations, and rich cultures with enviable family values, joy, music, dance, colorful language, resourcefulness, patience and faith. They love their children and grandparents. They scrimp and scrape and help each other with their meager resources. With patience and faith, they endure blackouts (recalling months without power in post-Maria Puerto Rico) that render them powerless in more ways than one, without diminishing their indominable carnival spirits.

Capturing all of that, and following the triumph of “Hamilton,” this earlier musical by Lin Manuel Miranda once again displays the author’s unmistakable genius. (Its first draft was written when he was only 19 years of age.) Its main storyline belongs to Nina Rosario, the first in her family to attend college. Her whole barrio is proud of her and her scholarship to Stanford. However, she disappoints herself and her parents when she secretly drops out in March of her first year, because the work necessary just to pay for her books cut so deeply into her study time. (By the way, her bio reminded me of the students I taught over my 40 years of teaching in Appalachia’s Berea College in Kentucky. Its familiarity brought tears to my eyes.)  

Returning home for summer vacation, Nina causes a family crisis, when she finally informs her parents that she has lost her scholarship. Initial parental chagrin and anger soon turns into resolve to sell the family taxi cab business in order to finance their daughter’s college costs.

Meanwhile, Nina falls in love with Benny, an African-American who works for Nina’s father and the only one in the story who does not speak Spanish. Nina’s parents’ own prejudice doesn’t allow them to see Benny as worthy of their daughter. But Benny too has his own aspirations. He wants to learn Spanish. He wants to start his own business. He’s serious – and deeply in love with Nina. Their duet, “Sunrise,” makes that touching point.

But in the end, it’s elderly Claudia, the matriarch recognized as abuela by everyone in the barrio who saves the day.  Before her sudden passing, she wins the lottery and immediately shares it with her grandson, who in turn shares it with others. Her image and spirit rendered permanent by the barrio’s graffiti artist prevents the neighborhood from disintegrating. Her memory successfully overcomes the centrifugal force of poverty, crime, and economic hardship. The strength of such family ties, memories and tradition hung like a bright shadow over the entire performance.

Not surprisingly, and thanks, I’m guessing, to their art-friendly context, Westporters accepted all of that with open arms and a standing ovation. It was as if the audience recognized themselves in these on-stage first- and second-generation immigrants. And of course they did – precisely because that’s what all of our families are or have just recently been.

Too easily we forget that. We’re all immigrants, aren’t we? At the most basic level, our ancestors were absolutely no different in any way from those we Westporters watched on stage. We’re no different from those our “leaders” fear and cage.

Yesterday’s audience thankfully realized that those Mr. Trump calls “invaders” deserve welcome, appreciation, and standing ovations reserved for the local “celebrities” whose families themselves were once immigrants like those now living in Washington Heights.

Everyone deserves the honor now given to Lin Manuel Miranda. Everyone merits the response we all gave the Country Playhouse yesterday afternoon. That’s the lesson my new neighbors taught me on Mothers’ Day in their hallowed theater.      

“Mary Magdalene” Saves My Lent

I didn’t feel good about my Lent this year – until Holy Week. I don’t know why, but my heart just wasn’t in it till then. However, beginning on what used to be called Holy Week’s “Spy Wednesday,” a whole series of events unfolded that returned me to the spirit that should have characterized the previous 40 days. Its highlight was experiencing an extraordinary film that I want to recommend here. It’s called simply “Mary Magdalene.” It raises questions about women’s leadership in today’s Catholic Church.

What I did just before seeing the film prepared me. It began on Wednesday when I watched an Italian production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” The next night brought a brief celebration of Maundy Thursday at our new non- denominational Talmadge Hill Community Church. The following morning, I took part in a two hour “way of the cross” through the town of nearby Darien. Immediately afterwards, came a “Tre Ore” observance at the town’s Episcopal Church. The recollection of Jesus’ three-hours on the cross was marked by long periods of silence broken by seven sermons delivered by ministers from a whole variety of area churches. (At times the latter seemed like a sermon slam, with the clear winner the entry delivered jointly in dialog by our own two pastors from Talmadge Hill.)

Then on Holy Saturday, Peggy and I took in “Mary Magdalene,” directed by Australian, Garth Davis. For me, it was Holy Week’s capstone. To begin with, Joaquin Phoenix embodied the best Jesus-representation that I’ve seen so far. It was understated, believable, sensitive, compassionate, and challenging. Phoenix’s mien and demeanor reminded me of the Jesus forensic archeologists have estimated looked like this:

But it is Mary Magdalene (played by an unglamorous, but beautiful Rooney Mara) who supplies the eyes through which viewers finally see the peasant from Galilee. She’s a midwife, we learn. Far from the one defined as a prostitute by Pope Gregory the Great in the late 6th century, she rejects intimate relationships with men. “I’m not made for marriage,” Mary explains to the shock of her scandalized father, brothers and suitor. “Then, what are you made for?” they demand. All of them join together and nearly drown her as they attempt to exorcise the demons responsible for her refusal to submit to marital patriarchy.

Nevertheless, Mary persists and eventually tags along with those following Jesus – the only woman among the band of men called apostles. She herself is baptized by Jesus. She also pays closer and more perceptive attention to Jesus’ words than the others. She even gently corrects her male companions, suggesting that their interpretation of the Kingdom of God entailing violent revolution might be mistaken. Peter’s comment about such impertinence is “You weaken us.” But in the end, Mary quietly retorts, “I will not be silenced.”

Soon Jesus commissions Magdalene to baptize women.  As a result, they end up following the Master in droves. From then on, we see Mary habitually walking next to Jesus as he treks across Palestine’s barren landscape from Galilee through Cana and Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. At the last supper, after washing Jesus’ feet, she sits at his right hand. Clearly, she’s in charge and a leader of men nonpareil.

At one point in the journey to the Holy City, Mary unmistakably demonstrates her unique leadership. She implicitly reminds viewers of the words John the Evangelist attributes to Jesus, “The one who believes in me, the works that I do shall (s)he do also; and greater works than these shall (s)he do . . . (JN 14:12) For after witnessing Jesus restore a dead man to life, Mary herself emulates the healer’s ritual and restores to life a score of people left for dead by the brutal Roman occupation forces. None of the males among Jesus’ followers even dares such close imitation of Christ.

Then there is Magdalene’s relationship with a young smiling, cheerful, and very sympathetic Judas. He came to follow Jesus after his wife and child had been brutally killed by the Romans. So, he hears Jesus’ words about God’s Kingdom as a promise that Jesus will inspire and lead a retributive rebellion against Rome. But after Jesus’ participation in a direct-action demonstration in Jerusalem’s temple, Judas appears worried that Jesus is losing resolve and direction. So, in an evident effort to force Jesus’ hand, the apostle cooperates in Jesus’ arrest and collects the reward on his head. Judas fully expects that his teacher’s plight will mobilize his followers to the uprising Judas confidently anticipates. When that doesn’t happen, Judas is filled with despair. He returns home. The next we know, he’s hanging from the lintel of his hovel’s doorway.

Of course, there is no uprising. Jesus is arrested, tortured, and crucified. Afterwards, his limp body is placed in the lap of his mother. He’s then buried. While the other apostles flee, distancing themselves from the corpse, Magdalene faithfully sleeps on the ground outside the tomb. In the morning, she’s awakened by Jesus’ voice. He’s clothed in martyr’s white. Without uttering a word, she quietly sits on the ground next to him, convinced that he has come back to life.

So, she returns to the site of the last supper and tells Peter and the others her good news. They refuse to believe her. It’s at this point that Mary says those words, “I will not be silenced.”

According to Pope Francis, that refusal and her bringing of Good News to the apostolic leadership has merited for her the title of “apostle of apostles.” She is more important than any of them.

As you can see, I’m grateful to “Mary Magdalene” for salvaging my Lent. However, her story makes me wonder about the absence of female leadership in Francis’ church.

How about you? See the film and decide for yourself.

Jesus, the Law, and “Les Miserables” of Today

Les-Miserables[1]

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 62; 1-5; Ps. 96: 1-3, 7-10; I Cor. 12: 4-11; Jn. 2: 1-11

During our family’s recent Christmas trip to France, we spent a couple of evenings watching “on location” films. We saw Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and loved it. Owen Wilson did such a good job of imitating Allen himself. And seeing Wilson wander through the famous sites we were passing each day was great fun.

But on a more serious note, we also took in “Les Miserables” which was such a success back in 2013. At the Golden Globes that year, “Les Miserables” won the “best film” award in the category of musicals and comedies. Hugh Jackson was named best actor for his portrayal of Jean Valjean. Anne Hathaway won best supporting actress for her role as Fantine. She went on to win an Oscar as well.

Watching the film in France this time made it especially poignant. I ended up in quiet tears at its conclusion.

“Les Miserables” is Victor Hugo’s familiar tale of Jean Valjean, a Christ figure intimately connected with today’s Gospel reading about Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana.

Following the royal restoration after the French Revolution of 1789, Valjean was convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving children. He was sentenced to twenty years of hard labor in the most brutal conditions.

Having completed his sentence under the watchful and threatening eye of the cruel Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe in the film), a bitter and vengeful Valjean journeyed homeward. As he passed through the town of Digne, he was given food and shelter by the kindly Bishop Myriel, the pastor of the local cathedral.

But Valjean is not impressed. He rises in the dead of night, steals the bishop’s silverware and candelabra, and flees the rectory. Soon he’s captured by the gendarmes. When he’s dragged back to the bishop by the police, Bishop Myriel secures Valjean’s release by confirming the thief’s lie that the stolen goods had been given him as a gift by the priest. Valjean cannot believe his ears. The bishop’s act of generosity, forgiveness, and mercy transforms him. He goes on to become a successful factory owner and champion of the poor.

However the former convict has broken his parole. So he’s pursued by his prison tormentor, Inspector Javert. Javert is determined to return Valjean to chains. The inspector is a lawman in the strictest sense of the word. He believes he is doing God’s work in pursuing Valjean, and often prays for success in his mission.

Nonetheless towards the film’s end, Javert falls into Valjean’s hands. His former ward has the opportunity to kill Javert with impunity for opposing the People in their revolution against the French crown. Yet Valjean refuses to do so, opting instead to follow the example of bishop Myriel, even though releasing Javert means Valjean will likely return to prison.

Javert can neither believe nor accept Valjean’s generosity. In his eyes, since the law has been broken, Valjean must pay the price. Yet Valjean has acted towards him with such generosity. . . . Javert doesn’t know how to handle such kindness. His life dedicated to law enforcement now seems entirely wasted in the light of Valjean’s compassion and wonderful disregard of the law. Confused and disheartened Javert commits suicide.

Of course, Victor Hugo’s tale is much more complex than that – and much more beautiful. (The singing and lyrics are gorgeous!) But that’s the story’s kernel – a portrayal of a conflict between love, compassion, and mercy on the one hand and respect for the law on the other. That’s what makes it relevant to today’s Gospel.

There we find Jesus attending a wedding. With the other revelers at this feast of seven days, he’s been dancing, singing, eating and drinking already for days. Then the wine runs out. The party is in danger of losing its spirit; the guests will go home; the bridal couple will be disgraced. So Jesus responds to the alcohol shortage by providing about 200 gallons of the best wine the partiers had ever tasted. Significantly, he takes the large stone vessels full of water for ritual washing according to Jewish law, and turns that water into wine. As a result, the fun never stops. And believers have never ceased telling this story – the very first of Jesus’ “signs” as John calls them. We’ve come consider them miracles.

But let’s take John at his word. He sees this rather trivial event at what turns out to be Jesus’ coming out party as a sign, a symbol, a metaphor. . . . (I say “trivial” because on its surface nothing “great” is accomplished. A party is saved from petering out. Some friends – the bridal couple and their families – save face. But was that worth this exercise of divine power?) Nevertheless, John says this is a sign. But of what?

The answer, of course, is that changing water into wine so early in John’s story constitutes an image providing indication of Jesus’ entire mission as John understands it. Jesus’ mission is to obey the spirit of the law even when that means disobeying its letter.

In John’s poetic narrative, the letter of the law is cold, hard, and insipid – as hard and frigid as the stone vessels John takes care to mention, and as tasteless as water in comparison with wine. But it’s even worse than that. The law as Jesus will criticize it in John’s pamphlet is routinely used against the poor (people like Valjean in Hugo’s tale) – the lepers, prostitutes, beggars, Samaritans, tax collectors, and the generally “unclean.” The law is used to oppress “Les Miserables.” Meanwhile, the privileged and elite use legalisms for their own benefit – to enrich themselves and elevate their prestige. Jesus, John is saying, has come to transform all of that.

He has come to change the water of the law’s letter into everything wine symbolizes. The wine of Jesus’ teaching and life is meant to lift the spirit. (It’s not for nothing that alcohol is called “spirits.”) Wine is red like blood not colorless and neutral like water. Wine relieves pain. It evokes laughter, and singing and dancing as it did for the revelers at the Cana wedding feast. Wine enlivens life which, John implies, has more to do with a seven-day party than with what happens in the Temple (or our churches!).

We need to be reminded of all that don’t we? That’s especially true today when the law is used so clearly against the poor, while the rich typically escape its reach. Think about the way our political “leaders” villainize the world’s most impoverished people. They tell us that the dirt poor are the cause of the very problems they and their rich friends have produced. (For example, the poor had nothing to do with the Great Recession whose disastrous effects are still ruining the lives of the poor and middle classes.)

Even worse, the coalition of the rich creates refugees by sending planes, missiles and drones to destroy the homes, schools, hospitals of already desperate people throughout the Middle East and Global South. They overthrow the governments the poor have elected, and afterwards install dictators and drug lords to take their places. Then they complain when the refugees they’ve created seek escape in countries like our own.

In the process, distressed mothers and their children are described as drug dealers, gang members, and murderers. So, in the name of unjust laws, our leaders rationalize the separation of pre-teens from their parents and even create baby jails. Meanwhile, the business of privatized prisons prospers, while their dungeons are increasingly filled with the poor and minorities.

In the meantime, the those who dedicate their lives to exposing such crimes are treated like Jesus and Valjean. The Julian Assanges and Chelsea Mannings — the whistle-blowers of the world – are arrested, tortured and threatened with life imprisonment. “The law is the law,” the criminal arresters remind us. Once again, it’s the story of Jesus and Jean Valjean all over again.

Like “Les Miserables,” John’s story of Cana can raise our consciousness about all of that. The tale of water turned into wine can move us to defend the poor, powerless, imprisoned and whistle-blowers that the law routinely oppresses. Jesus’ example calls us to celebrate “spirit,” and feasts, and food, laughter and dancing. It invites us to destroy by our own hands the law-worshipping Javert who resides within each of us.

Both John the Evangelist and Victor Hugo call us to imitate those who dedicate their scandalous lives to obeying the Spirit of God’s Law by disobeying the letter of human law.