Thursday, May 29, 2014

What I Learned from the Girl with the Pentagram Purse

One of the subjects that I cover every year in my Apologetics class is the question of whether or not the Church is sexist. During this section we discuss the famous "wives, be submissive to your husbands" passage in Ephesians. Obviously the students' have a whole variety of opinions on this matter, but what  essentially comes out of our discussions is the general consensus that while men and women are equal, their roles are not merely interchangeable. However, on occasion a student will try to argue that the differences are purely cosmetic; "defining men and women in such a limited way is not only anachronistic, but frankly insulting." In a way this critic is right, consigning the sexes to these narrow categories is wrong, not because these categories are altogether false, but because they can only begin to tell the story of what men and women mean respective to the human race. Indeed, how can one even begin to explain what the word "mommy" represents to a child, or what the behavior of a father (for good or ill) means to his son. Some truths are just too large to be summarized in a clever meme.

The classic Ephesians stereotype 

I remember one year in particular a former student of mine objecting to these "binary" categories on similar grounds. My sense was that she simply felt that "loving" was the same as loving, and that whether you are a man or a woman, it essentially comes down to the same thing. Consequently, she explained, the differences spelled out in a passage like Ephesians are at best unnecessary, and at worst misogynistic. She felt particularly irritated when we discussed the importance of the role of men in families. In spite of all my efforts to prove to the contrary, she left class that day visibly displeased with me and unsatisfied by my answers. The subject was never again broached in class, but several months later we ran into each other at Mass. After a brief (but pleasant) exchange, she walked away- and I would of thought nothing more of the issue… but for something my wife said to me; "Was that a pentagram on her handbag?" When it comes to fashion, I try to give my students as much leeway as possible, but frankly it creeped me out that she would bring something like that into Mass with her. 

The pentagram has a bit of a murky history, but in recent decades it has come to be associated with the occult, and in particular with Wicca/witchcraft. The truth is it may have only been an accident. She may have known nothing of its implications, and simply brought it in because she liked the way it looked. However, considering her general cultural savviness, and her overall intellectual awareness, I would be relatively shocked if she knew nothing of its larger meaning. But whatever her intentions, there is an interesting correlation here, a logical connection between Wiccan spirituality and feminism, a link between neo-paganism, and this girl's general displeasure with traditional notions of masculinity.

Oftentimes, especially in our day and age, there is a very sympathetic reason why women are compelled to reject classical notions of masculinity (see the above photo), and quite frequently, it has very little to do with what it means to be a Christian. Many women are hurt and angry at men, not because men exhibit Christian chivalry, but because they exhibit pagan chauvinism. Thus embittered, these women are commonly drawn to a form of feminine idolatry which is presented and celebrated under the guise of gender equality. In any case, androgyny is not equality, it is rather the worst of both worlds, for it seeks to feminize what is masculine, and masculinize what is feminine. While the temptation is understandable (especially in a world where men are constantly abrogating their duties), choosing to worship everything feminine (as well as effeminate), often reduces the female species to a bunch of self-absorbed divas/tyrants.

All will love me and despair!

Ironically, women who submit to this kind of thinking shut themselves off to true affection and equality, either because they will not countenance any man who is masculine enough to have his own thoughts, or because they have allowed themselves too often to be vulnerable to the wrong type of men. It is a sad fate to consign one's self to this sort of isolation out of fear of being used and/or hurt by the aforementioned "scrub". However, every romantic story/relationship is predicated, not upon a narrative of dominance, but upon a magnificent see-saw of shifting power, a see-saw which only elevates in order to elevate the other person. The solution is not to take away a man's masculinity, it is to teach him how to use it in the service of his beloved. If you take away the unique power of one or the other, the game ends, and you really do have quite a boring game of see-saw. Yet the point here is not simply to come up with a quaint, if helpful, metaphor to describe the nature of romance- but rather to learn how to love something outside of yourself, something which is radically different from you. Allowing another to have power over you (i.e. being vulnerable) is one of the prerequisites of love. If you cannot be "had" then you cannot know love. However, the deeper purpose of learning how to love and serve the opposite sex goes well beyond pure sentiment. Indeed, when I learn how to serve my wife, I learn how to love and serve God (i.e. another one who is radically different from myself, and who also seems incomprehensible to me at times). Thus, the problem with nature worship is that in the end it is not worship at all, but rather self-worship.            

But worst of all, what Wiccan spirituality really embodies is something which is utterly antagonistic to true feminism. Ironically, this hyper-identification with mother-earth actually militates against femininity. In fact, this type of spirituality is more akin to the hyper-masculinity of Sharia Islam. For both in many ways are a kind of fearful repudiation of the opposite sex. In the case of the former, it is an ideology which exists (in part) as a means of rejecting patriarchal authority, while in the case of the latter it exists (at least in part) to muffle and hide the more subversive and democratic power of the feminine. The true compromise between these extremes can be more clearly seen in the tenets of Christianity; the vertical and the horizontal cross-beams of the crucifix, the creation and redemption of mankind, the magnificent maternity and paternity that are perpetually celebrated in the Church. But as it is we are presently embroiled in a war of the sexes. One side wants to neuter man and make him androgynous, while the other side wants to drape femininity with a kind of curtain of indistinguishability. But as Scripture clearly reveals, both men and women together comprise the face of God. Hence, to remove the beauty and power of even one of the sexes is to disfigure His image altogether, and to usher in an age which is truly impotent and incapable of revealing the glory of God.    

Sunday, May 18, 2014

If Planned Parenthood Had a Super Hero… Oh Wait, They Do.

In the post below I offer an analysis of the above Planned Parenthood infomercial/Saturday morning cartoon from hell. Be sure to watch it before reading, for one can only really appreciate the bizarre brazenness of it by observing it first hand. All I can say is either they meant this to be honest and in your face, or they did so subconsciously. But whatever their reasoning, be forewarned that much of what you are about to see is stunningly cynical and crude, and frankly reveals precisely what Planned Parenthood is at its core.

Beyond all the pious talk about mammograms and other kindly services which may or may not be provided by Planned Parenthood clinics, there are also informational videos like this one. This is not a spoof or a satire as it would seem, but rather a video that was released a few years back. The truth is I could have selected one of any number of their videos (I decided to pass on the one on sado-masochism), but I figured that this one captures in a particular way the jadedness of their worldview.

The first time I ever saw this short film, I felt that it was outrageous, but I hardly paid much attention to any of the intimate details. Nevertheless, as I viewed it on subsequent occasions (particularly as a conversation starter with my students about the organization in general), I slowly began to observe some of the more subtle (and not so subtle) propaganda. Moreover, even my students began to point out things to me that I hadn't noticed.

For example, one of them commented; "Boy, she sure murders a lot of people for a superhero!" Another pointed out; "Aren't heroes supposed to save lives? I didn't actually see her save anyone." Indeed, like a birth control add distracting you from the dangerous side effects of the drug all while presenting sexy images of women sitting poolside with umbrella drinks, so you might also miss the fact that this super hero has gone on a remarkably "subtle" killing spree (if one can use that phraseology).

The video begins by attempting to draw an analogy between one's every day choices (like "choosing to eat organic vegetables" or "stopping at a red light"), and choices like whether or not one should terminate a pregnancy. Because we all know that aborting a child is exactly like choosing your favorite produce. Thus begins the epic journey of our so-called heroine, the woman whose murderous pogroms make us question why anyone would root for her at all.                    

Her first victim is a creepy abstinence preacher. From what I can gather, he is supposed to remind us of some sort of 70s style cartoon drug dealer, while she is supposed represent the everyday hero who protects the children from the peddler of lies. More importantly, she is meant to come off as someone who is "with it" (though her cultural references are not), while he is meant to appear smarmy and small in every way.    

Yet as this 70's style super hero goes around disposing of those with whom she disagrees, her rationale for doing so is more than a little disconcerting. In the first case, she ultimately drowns her adversary, filling a garbage can with water and shoving him in it; "It's time to take out the trash." I will not even get into the disturbing parallel that can be drawn between what she does to this man, and what Planned Parenthood does to fetus' in general. Ironically, once she disposes of this creepy abstinence preacher, she is the one (not he) who actually gives the children a "safety kit", which may or may not contain "emergency" drugs. In others words, who is the drug dealer here anyway? Then as our "hero" leaves the scene of the crime, the children all nod in unison, declaring like a bunch of brainwashed sheep; "Because we have a choice".

Arriving at her second stop, our superhero encounters a bunch of zombie-like pro-life protesters, holding up inchoate signs; "Under the constitution they are permitted to protest," she says, "but mostly I just wish they would go away." After stating this, the woman abruptly pulls out her "condom blaster" and covers them up with a giant condom. Moments later the zombies explode in smoke and flames- presumably never to be heard from again. In response to this she declares; "That's more like it! Open for business!" Hmmm, how does one even begin to address the many ways to interpret that one? But whatever the case, making undesirables "go away" seems to be part and parcel of the original Planned Parenthood philosophy.

Next this "superhero" makes her way to Washington D.C. where we see a helicopter (for some reason) drop a giant condom on the Washington monument. The memorial itself is meant to represent the nations gratitude to our first Founding Father, George Washington. What is meant by this action? Who can say exactly. Seeing the Washington Monument as a phallic symbol is one thing, but add to that the bizarre inclination to shroud everything in latex, and what you have is an obsession with sterility that defies all explanation.

While in D.C. she encounters a lawless senator (as seen below) who has no regard for the Constitution, and who is apparently fond of cooking "I can do whatever I want to stew." Enraged by his actions, she decides to take the senator and plunge him into the boiling green stew. Eventually she allows him to surface again, but once he has re-surfaced he has been transformed into a stuck pig who simply parrots back what she wants him to say. Thus, only after he has been boiled and lobotomized in this stew is he found acceptable by this all-conscending and superior super hero.

Lastly, the woman flies all the way to Ethiopia, hoping to bring her saving wisdom to the four corners of the globe (particularly to the poor). However, when she arrives, a Western doctor (presumably from Planned Parenthood) has already arrived and indoctrinated the people. Surrounded by huts, and a host of one child families, this doctor explains how she wants to make sure that "every child is a wanted child." We can only speculate as to the fate of the children that were ultimately determined to be unwanted.

At the end of this stunningly paternalistic scene, we discover that "coffee grows on trees in Ethiopia". Yet the purpose of this statement is not merely to highlight the fact that coffee is important to Ethiopia's economy, but rather to point out that "family planning" will bring "Morebucks" (as the brand is called in the video) to any nation that implements it. Previously our superhero promised the conservative Senator in Washington that there would be billions for him to spend if only he would support "women's reproductive health", so also we are informed that Africans will have more far more revenue if they will only follow this regimen. Yes, she admits in essence that one of the best arguments for abortion and contraception is that it puts more money in your pocket. Some might be inclined to call that blood money.

Lastly, it is worth at least pointing out the unusual nature of this superhero's costume/appearance. First of all, before she even puts on her "super gloves," we observe that her finger nails are more like talons or tiny knives than normal nails. And then when she transforms into her super hero persona, her mask, especially when seen from behind, looks like a set of devil horns. OK, maybe I have an overactive imagination, but I can't help feeling that there is a certain level of blatant mockery going on here.

In any case, as the cartoon infomercial comes to a conclusion we are told that Planned Parenthood "welcomes everyone, regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or income." Practically everyone imaginable is mentioned here. Yet there is a glaring omission. Indeed, amidst this universal embrace of all people, there is no mention of children born or unborn, nor is there mention of the weak and handicapped. And of course we have already seen with what dignity she treats her opposition. One of my students cleverly quipped after watching this final scene; "Where is her sidekick??? Oh that's right, she probably killed him too…" Some people will dismiss this cartoon as a joke, and they would be right to call it a joke. Still, there is one thing that is essential to remember about humor- there is always some truth to it. Tragically, there is more than a little truth in this video, and what is most terrifying of all, the people from Planned Parenthood are barely even trying to conceal it.                

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Heresy of Friends vs. the Orthodoxy of Seinfeld

Perhaps the two most enduring and popular sitcoms over the past twenty years have been Seinfeld and Friends. However, in spite of the fact that both of these shows enjoyed (and still enjoy) similar success, they are, in my view, at opposite ends of the spectrum. While the show Friends is built on a glamorous lie, Seinfeld, in stark contrast, is built on the exposure of that lie. Indeed, even while both shows frequently exhibit characters living immoral lives, of the two, only Seinfeld seems to be aware of this fact.

You might wonder why I choose to use theological terms for something that would generally be regarded as secular. The reason is simple: what a heresy is at its core is a spiritual shortcut, an alternate (and often easier) route to get to a desirous end. What orthodoxy represents (at least in this instance) is an attempt to expose a falsehood by demonstrating in reality the fate of those who actually live this lie.

First of all, it should be pointed out that the show Friends is not the only TV series that has made a living off of this kind of deceitful and misleading narrative. From Three's Company to Frasier to Cheers to Two and a Half Men, there is a longstanding tradition of promising a kind of "happily ever after" in spite of unscrupulous behavior.

But what exactly is the nature of this narrative? In essence it is the view (as perfected by the show Friends) that the goal of life is to maintain a kind of adolescent charm. The cult of cool demands that I be always fashionable, witty, attractive- and whether I have pets or children (which often amounts to the same thing), they must never become more than a projection of myself. If I do choose to have children it is preferable that they be the result of cohabitation, surrogacy, a sperm donor, or some other non-conventioal method (e.g. Phoebe and Ross). If they happen to be born in the context of marriage, so be it (sigh), but make sure that you make it look as arbitrary and as unintended as possible. Whatever happens, you mustn't let your audience think that you prefer children to be born in the context of a conventional marriage. If such a connection is unfortunately made, then make it clear that not one of these aforementioned circumstances is preferred to the other. In fact, go out of your way to make marriage seem the least desirable arrangement, lest people begin to judge the other characters on this basis.

As a favor to her brother Phoebe agrees to carry a child for him and his older wife. How's that for a clever way of introducing a weird incestuous plot line into a popular show? 

Speaking of sex, which is really the entire engine of this particular lie, make sure that the sex is always as sexless as possible. In other words, present the men as a race of testosterone-filled geldings with a side of sensitivity, and make the women seem perfectly content to play along with this godforsaken behavior (remember that hilarious episode where Chandler and Joey kept compulsively watching porn… a riot I tell you). And just for the fun of it, on occasion, you might want to make the women seem more sex-starved and exploitative than the men. This is the kind of equality we're after… equality of libido. Indeed, insofar as it is possible, make the men and women (in this way) morally indistinguishable, so that whomever they sleep with- and under what circumstances- it will matter very little. Now in order to appear somewhat responsible in such affairs, it may be necessary that every once in a while you have an episode about violence and/or sexual assault, but keep these few and far between, because if we seem to be too concerned about the right use of sexual behavior, people may begin to associate negative consequences with bedding complete, or at least relative, strangers.

What might also be useful in this project is to blur the lines between platonic friendships and romance. After all, it is not enough to create sexual tension among "friends" (like Three's Company used to do), we must regard such reckless bed-hopping as a form of hilarity. And furthermore, let this bed-hopping be so ubiquitous that one actually loses track of who has slept with who. Such "friendships" should seem inevitable. In fact, let the audience believe that one cannot be friends with someone unless that friendship ultimately culminates in some sort of "romantic interlude"- the only real question is, when will it occur?  SNL even quipped about this some years back in one of their satirical commercials; "Tonight on a very special episode of Friends, Chandler and Joey get together. Why? Because there's no one left…" Brilliant! But the question is, why is such a critique funny at all, when, as a general rule, we do not find their behavior problematic?

Isn't it great to know that over the nine years that this show was in primetime these lovable characters collectively slept with up to 140 people (some Friends enthusiast actually calculated it), and all this without any real consequences at all. So how does one end a show wherein no one is really capable of a stable relationship? Well, of course, you have them ride off into the sunset with a guarantee that they will live happily ever after with whomever they are last paired. This is one of the advantages of writing a last episode- you are not responsible for developing a story line around conjugal fidelity. Nevertheless, one might wonder why the virtue of sexual and moral fidelity would be the concluding mark of a show where the only real constant was inconstancy.

It is worth noting that most shows like this do end with some sort of romantic vow, even while spending the rest of the time on the air crapping on said vow. Yet in spite of this hypocrisy, people are willing to accept the lie that sex means everything and nothing at the same time, and that furthermore such promiscuity will not only not harm these individuals, but that it really is the key to their youth and charm.

In so many ways Seinfeld is a marvelous antidote to this. There is not a thing wrong with depicting immoral or evil characters on TV and in movies- what is shameful is pretending as if those characters (along with their behavior) are reputable and exemplary. The show Seinfeld basically existed to mock people that live like this, and better still in the end, to mock even those that would have sought to celebrate and/or emulate these figures.

In a stroke of genius, Jerry Seinfeld (along with the co-creator Larry David) sought, in the final episode, to offer a bit of perspective on just how shallow and narcissistic these characters were. In point of fact, Elaine, Jerry, George, and Kramer were in many ways not all that different from the cast members of Friends. They were all basically promiscuous, narcissistic, over-grown children who were more interested in being clever and fashionable than growing up. Yet in spite of these similarities, the two shows ended very differeently.

In the final episode of Seinfeld they all travel to Paris together on vacation, but due to Kramer's clumsiness the plane begins to take a nose dive. Such is the perfect set-up for a dramatic (and ironic) conclusion to the series. Most people look for the final episode to be heartwarming- and for there to be some sort of resolution to any relationship drama. But that's precisely where this show is honest in a way that most others are not. The point is these characters are completely narcissistic, so why would they all of sudden become models of virtue in the last episode. "We aren't men!" as Jerry once declared to George. Consequently, when the plane goes down and the various characters start to feel the need to express their true feelings to one another, they are unceremoniously interrupted by the fact that the pilot has gained control of the plane once again. It is almost as if the writers are mocking the idea that the show should end with some sort of sincere testimony, when these characters are practically incapable of such sincerity. Appropriately the plane, as well as the plot, is re-routed to Boston, where the passengers are able to get out and walk around the neighboring town of Latham until the problem is fixed.

While there, they are arrested for essentially watching (and laughing) as an obese man is robbed. Under the so called Good Samaritan law, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are arrested and brought to trial on account of the fact that they did "nothing" to help him. Many of the people they encountered and/or wronged over the years are brought in to testify against them. All four of the defendants are ultimately sentenced to one year in prison for their failure to assist a citizen in need. What is incredibly apropos about this trial is the fact that these characters are not convicted for murder or fraud, but rather for being awful human beings. Especially in an age where we regard "goodness" as tantamount to having a pleasant disposition, this conclusion reminds us that while we loved watching these characters, they are exactly where they belong.

Many critics and fans despised (and decried) this conclusion because they felt that it was an insult to the fans who had loved and followed these characters over the years. For my part, I felt that it was not only consistent with the spirit of the show, but in some ways a rather philosophically astute end to it. Indeed, Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, and Dante could hardly have invented a more innovative modern hell for these Godot-like figures, who never get anywhere in their lives, feel nothing for their victims, and simply wind up repeating the same mistakes over and over again with no real sense of contrition (in the final moments of this episode the characters reenact the same dialogue that took place between George and Jerry in the very first episode). They never grow or change. They are like the tragic and pitiful ghosts from the famous C.S. Lewis' novel The Great Divorce. All of them are sitting in a holding cell together, either quipping about something, annoying someone, or brooding over the unjust fate that has befallen them. In truth if Friends were as honest as Seinfeld, the final episode would have ended with a least a few of the characters contracting some sort of venereal disease. This is why Jerry Seinfeld is a genius, and why the show Friends, while clever, is ultimately little more than a clever lie. For in case of the former, we are taught to laugh at the characters because they are complete and utter fools, while in the case of the latter, we are invited to laugh at them so that their behavior might seem to us progressively more palatable. If you are looking to cure yourself of this infernal malady, simply watch the below clip ten times in a row without pausing: