Power of Parables

Parables come in all sizes and shapes, horror movie-shaped, some of them.  In my perpetual struggle to catch up, I finally got to see Get Out.  One of the raft of well-made, intelligent horror films that have been released recently, it’s been out long enough that I suspect my spoilers will be well known.  The Armitage family, resident in upstate New York, has been kidnapping and using African-Americans to make up for the perceived weaknesses of their family and friends.  One of their main means of obtaining victims is through their daughter Rose, who brings her boyfriends home for the weekend so they can be hypnotized by her psychiatrist mother and operated on by her neurosurgeon father.  The reveal comes slowly, but the discomfort begins early on.

Released early in the Trump White House tenure, the movie is a study in an intense xenophobia that nestles somewhere between Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives.  It’s inherently uncomfortable watching Chris Washington, the protagonist, being treated as if his very presence requires constant comment in the world of white privilege.  He, of course, had misgivings before ever climbing into Rose’s car, but her convincing display of liberalism was enough to overcome his hesitation.  For me, watching the film made it clear that privilege is something assumed, even when it isn’t had in any explicit way.  The Armitage family and their friends are well-to-do but even if the setting were more mundane the message would still have worked—our culture imposes and reimposes its message of white superiority in subtle ways that the camera captures here.

Quite apart from its nature as a parable, Get Out is a demonstration of the social consciousness of horror.  Its reputation as a debased, low-brow appeal to all that’s unsavory to watch is misplaced at times.  While Get Out is uncomfortable it’s that way for a reason.  Were it not, it would lose its important message.  All privileged people need to be able to see through the eyes of those who are culturally disenfranchised, and although the “us versus them” mentality is problematic it has to be faced honestly and openly.  The very fact that a human construct like race could be used as the basis for a horror film in America raises questions that ought to make all of us squirm.  Setting the story in New York, where prejudice might be supposed not to remain only underscores how deeply its roots have grown.  Horror with a conscience is perhaps as much a vehicle for social change as it is a genre more honest than often supposed.  That’s how parables tend to be.

Six Impossible Things

Solipsism, as a philosophy, has its attractions.  The idea behind it is that since all we can truly know is our self, the self is the only being that really exists.  This outlook is expressed in tragicomic form in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.  Written in Vonnegut’s characteristic style, there’s confusion and continuity, and almost a mockery of the gullibility of readers.  Kilgore Trout, a penurious science fiction writer, wrote a novel where one character was human amid a planet of robots programmed to act like people.  Dwayne Hoover comes to believe this is true and acts on it, with several other characters ending up in the hospital.  The story ends with the narrator realizing, I think, that he’s the only real human being because he made up this entire novel.

As someone who generally works alone, and whose lifestyle includes early rising and early sleeping, solipsism suggests itself from time to time.  Writers tend to spend quite a bit of time in their own heads, either reading or expressing their own thoughts via their craft.  Anyone who’s been a victim of a solipsist (and we all have) knows that such a viewpoint is wrong, but it does address one of consciousness’ deepest fears—how do we know what others know or experience?  We keep secrets.  We hide our weaknesses and insecurities.  We show others, most of the time, only what we want them to see.  Addressing the individualism of the late sixties and early seventies, Vonnegut takes to task a society that still promotes prejudice and wages war.

Vonnegut experienced war and it’s clear that it haunted him for the remainder of his life.  He tried, and often succeeded, in finding some hilarity in life, but it always seems to stop short with a slap of cruelty.  I’ve been reading quite a few of Vonnegut’s novels over the past few years.  He’s a writer that mixes profundity with frivolousness in such an easy way that it’s beguiling.  Breakfast of Champions is, despite being an easy read, a difficult book.  Quickly finished with its goofy doodles and swift pace, it leaves you feeling as if you’ve been poisoned with an idea, somehow.  Or maybe it’s just me.  For this year’s reading challenge I’ve selected two more of Vonnegut’s novels, but I haven’t decided which ones yet.  I think about asking others, but then I remember that if he’s right in this one, there’s really nobody else to ask.

Ouch! Ouch!

The cold and flu season seems to have had an extended life this year, what with snow still falling in April and yet another week of cooler weather in the forecast. Although there’s no cure for the common cold, we do have the ability to prevent many maladies with a vaccine. Under eight years of Republican governance, New Jersey had become quite friendly to those who don’t want their kids vaccinated, despite being the most densely populated state in the union. The reason many objectors give? “It’s against my religion.” There was a massive outcry recently when a bill was approved that requires religious objectors to state what their religion is and what exact tenet of that religion vaccination actually violates. The statements of those opposed show that religion was largely being used as an excuse by those who didn’t want their children inoculated. Confirmation class has a purpose after all.

Social responsibility, of course, reaches beyond the home. In fact, it begins as soon as we open the door. Add to that the fact that most people can’t describe the basic beliefs of their own religion accurately and you have a real case for contagion. When you sign up to join a religion—what a capitalistic idea!—you generally go through training classes to let you know what you’re publicly proclaiming you believe. Given that religion deals with everlasting consequences, you might think most people would pay close attention, embedding the facts deeply. That, however, often isn’t the case. Beliefs are handed down like family heirlooms, or are gleaned from watching television (usually Fox). One’s religion is useful for making excuses, but people hate to be challenged on this point.

In the right’s continuing war on social responsibility, they’ve been pumping the media full of anti-vaccine fear. Vaccines, they’ll aver, use human embryos. Any other other form of conspiracy theory can be used to turn hoi polloi against them. Our society was built into what it is by as many people as possible agreeing that when it comes to the good of all, individual prejudices sometimes have to be overlooked. It’s natural enough for parents to be concerned for the wellbeing of their children. It’s sadly ironic when their “religion” tells them that the most basic protections are somehow evil. Who can help but to think of Abraham holding the knife above a bound Isaac on the altar? That is, if they happen to be of a certain religion, and if they paid attention during their version of confirmation class.

Equal Frights

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Working in Midtown Manhattan, it’s rare for a week to go by without passing through a street that’s set up for a film or television shoot. New York isn’t the largest city in the world, nor does it have the tallest buildings, but it is a city instantly recognizable at a glance. It is also a haunted city. The original Ghostbusters was a New York movie, but the reboot may be even more so (although largely shot in Boston). I’m having difficulty remembering the last time I enjoyed a movie so much. I laughed until the tears came, and the theme of spirits loose in the city appealed to that part of me that loves the strange and unusual. With several nods to the original, and cameos from the surviving cast, this is a child of love that outshines its parent. It’s almost as if it makes the original even better than it was to begin with. This is a movie with a mission.

Clearly one of the factors in making the film so good was the fact that women were the leads. They show at once the empathetic, and funny, intelligent, and challenging—roles that women routinely both possess and face. The characters have trouble being taken seriously by the males around them, yet they are fully as qualified as and indeed, know more than the establishment. Discouraged and downtrodden, they press on, saving New York City. This may be the first time women have been envisioned is such a salvific role. They are scientists, scorned for their brains and for their gender, and yet they overcome.

Sure, there’s fantasy involved here, but fantasy with a message. I applaud this movie that not only entertains, but also makes profound statements at the same time. It gives a rare glimpse of what the world would be like if men were treated with the demeaning outlooks that they already frequently give to women. It is a feminist movie, but not an angry one. I left the theater genuinely elated. Of course, I loved the first Ghostbusters, despite all the cigarettes and sausages. Still, those who made the movie had the grace to bless this new venture that takes viewers into a world where we rely on women to solve the problem. Once it’s solved, however, they are shoved into the background so that the powers that be can take the credit. It is a movie for our times. I would’ve gone to see it for the ghosts alone. I came out, however, knowing that I had seen something not only enjoyable, but which might, if taken seriously, begin to change attitudes and prejudices which haunt us to this day.

Business Beating

Politics is about power. Say what you will about the Bible, but at least they were clear about it in those days. Kings were alpha males, not public servants. In the light of Orlando we can see how little has changed. Random acts of violence grow more and more lethal and the politicians filibuster, inflating the room with hot air to avoid this issue because this is an election year. An election year where one of the candidate’s cheers can barely be distinguished from “Sieg Heil” and we have put ourselves into a place where such a tragicomedy was possible. Maybe even inevitable. Meanwhile fifty people are dead, joining the many innocents who just happened to be at the wrong place—is there any right place in a land of abundant assault weapons?—in a land of limited freedom. The press argues about exactly what type of gun was used. Maybe that model should be taken off the shelves.

Our alpha males have, at least in states like New Jersey, and increasingly on the national front, modeled bullying. Bullies are nothing without their threat of power used against you. In the same day when schools and social programs emphasize over and over that bullying is unacceptable, bellowing bulls insist on their way and the crowd goose-steps in ecstasy. Those who are different are dangerous. After all, straight white men were here first. They won this country fair and square through genocide, as any Native American can tell you. And you get your way by refusing to compromise. Refusing to reason. Give vent to testosterone and call your opponent out for being a female. Land of the aggressive, home of the grave.

Gun violence may not be preventable completely in a nation where guns are a commodity just like anything else. Religion is a commodity. The ninety-nine percent are a commodity. The spoils are there for the taking by a bully and his thugs. It used to be that organized crime was illegal. Now it’s politics. How much did you pay in taxes last year? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know there was an exemption clause just for being rich. I grew up in a family with simple morals. Right and wrong. We learned that taking something that didn’t actually belong to you, or not contributing when everyone must, is wrong. Taking what’s not yours is stealing. And that especially includes lives. How naive we were! Politics is about getting your own way. Guns make that possible. Heil to the thief.

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Dairy King

In the way that only social pundits can generate stereotypes, people born between 1979 and 1994 are called “the entitlement generation.” Large scale social attitudes, it is alleged, set an almost unbreakable Zeitgeist that defines us neatly so that we can be made easier to handle. Obviously I don’t fit into that generation, but as I watch the super-rich—often old enough to know better—claiming that they shouldn’t pay taxes because they do such good for society simply by existing, I wonder if the pundits might’ve missed the boat. An antonym to entitlement, it seems to me, is social responsibility, gratitude even. That’s why I find a story in Time from back in April so encouraging. Hamdi Ulukaya, the president and CEO of a successful yogurt company (Chobani), decided to give his full-time employees, in a reverse kind of tithing, a 10 percent share of the company. After all, one can only eat so much yogurt.

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This generous action sets out in sharp relief some of the dangers of quotidian capitalism. Many of those who feel that unencumbered free enterprise is the only fair system don’t spend long enough looking around themselves. I’m sure studies must exist that explore what the cubicle mentality does to people. Working in a little cell, open to the view of others to ensure you aren’t slacking, knowing that someone on the floors above is getting rich from your efforts, it’s hard to believe the system’s working. Descend to street level and those who don’t even rate as drones will meet your eyes, if you keep them open. We are in the habit of discarding people as just another resource that can be remaindered and wasted. Let them eat yogurt. Social obligation? What’s that?

No, entitlement didn’t begin in 1979. Perhaps the most obvious idealist in this country the past century was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He repeatedly earned the wrath of the entitled wealthy for wanting to set up social safety nets to help the poor. When the United States entered World War Two, he realized, however, that military contracts had to allow for owners to get rich otherwise they wouldn’t contribute to the effort. If you’ve got the money to keep yourself safe, what do mere concepts as liberty and fairness mean to you? Wealth entitles personal survival, obviously. Let the others fend for themselves. There are companies with a conscience, but the fact that they stand out so clearly against the backdrop of business as usual should be telling us something. As you chew this over, you might consider having a Chobani. Go ahead, you’re entitled.

Father’s Day

DadI’m not completely stupid.  I know that the Father’s Day ads with which I’ve been peppered all month are nothing personal.  They’re intended to tug at the sentimental heartstrings and get me to spend some money on dear old Dad.  As one of the generation for whom computers were a new household commodity well after college was over, I know that I’m part of a fairly large demographic of middle-age users.  I do wonder, when I see these ads, how many other readers ponder the fact that their fathers have died and that Father’s Day is an occasion as much of mourning as it is of celebrating.  While I know, dear reader, that you’re not my therapist, my father died many years ago after a lifetime of separation from my brothers and me.  I can’t claim to have known him, except in unguarded moments looking into the mirror at the blue eyes he contributed to my genetic code, along with other aspects I can only imagine.
 
Father’s Day can, of course, be a day to honor the memory of, as well as buy things for, dad.  Holidays, however, aren’t really holidays without the changing of hands of lucre.  Although I never tried to think much about it, I never spent a Father’s Day with my father.  I know I’m not alone in this, but many are the days when I believe I would have benefited from a bit more instruction than I received on that front.  “Majoring in religion is not the best career choice,” might have been one of those nuggets I could’ve done with hearing.  The women in my family seemed  to think it was okay.  Even one of my dad’s ancestors was a clergyman.  I like to think that fathers might be able, in some cases, to see farther than their sons.  Call it male bonding.  Call it being a man in a post-patriarchal world.  Call it confusion.
 
I’m all for honoring parents.  I also tend to think people are basically good and that by far the majority of people try to do what they think is right.  They may not have much with which to work, but they try.  I can also think of better ways of honoring them than spending money.  Maybe we could try restructuring society so that those who start out with little might have resources available to move ahead.  If some father’s child has obvious gifts, might we not offer a way for that child to use them and thrive?  As a father myself, I can think of nothing that would make me happier than to see my child have better prospects than I’ve had.  Instead I see a society of one-percenters encouraging us to spend a bit more since, after all, fathers measure their worth in stuff.  The stuff that really matters, at least for this father, include those no longer here as well as those who are yet to inherit.