It was even better than I remembered it. One aspect of the movie stood out in sharp relief: the way so very many people in Boston knew for years that there was something horrible going on with priests and children in the Archdiocese, but engaged in a conspiracy of silence. It wasn’t that they knew details; it’s that they didn’t want to know details. They wanted to look away because facing the truth was too difficult.
What I can’t get out of my mind now is thinking about all the women who have been sexually abused and assaulted by men who got away with it. Take Harvey Weinstein, for instance. Everybody in Hollywood knew what he was doing, or if they didn’t know specifically, they certainly had reason to know he was a lecherous bully. Nobody cared. To tell the truth about Harvey Weinstein would have brought down their world on their head, same as those victims in Boston. It was an informal conspiracy of silence.
Spotlight was my second-favorite film of 2015, and it totally did hold up on rewatching. There’s something mesmerizing about the atmosphere director Tom McCarthy creates, both in the specific time period and how the ensemble works together. Very lived-in and natural, which makes the story they are investigating all the more devastating and immediate.
Rod, author of The Benedict Option andCrunchy Cons, covered the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s, which eventually caused him to leave Catholicism for Orthodox Christianity. This has made his blog an excellent source of informed commentary on the intersection of religion and politics.
I can’t tell you how much I was nodding along to David Brooks’ column “What Moderates Believe”. The whole thing is quote-worthy, but here are some highlights:
Politics is a limited activity. Zealots look to the political realm for salvation and self-fulfillment. They turn politics into a secular religion and ultimately an apocalyptic war of religion because they try to impose one correct answer on all of life. Moderates believe that, at most, government can create a platform upon which the beautiful things in life can flourish. But it cannot itself provide those beautiful things. Government can create economic and physical security and a just order, but meaning, joy and the good life flow from loving relationships, thick communities and wise friends. The moderate is prudent and temperate about political life because he is so passionate about emotional, spiritual and intellectual life.
Truth before justice. All political movements must face inconvenient facts — thoughts and data that seem to aid their foes. If you try to suppress those facts, by banning a speaker or firing an employee, then you are putting the goals of your cause, no matter how noble, above the search for truth. This is the path to fanaticism, and it always backfires in the end.
Partisanship is necessary but blinding. Partisan debate sharpens opinion, but partisans tend to justify their own sins by pointing to the other side’s sins. Moderates are problematic members of their party. They tend to be hard on their peers and sympathetic to their foes.
That last part is so true, much to the chagrin of some of my debate partners. Even if we partly or mostly agree on a certain topic, with the perspective of “the other side” rattling around in my head I’m liable to push back against whatever views we share on the topic. Though it sounds like devil’s-advocating, I don’t do it for the sake of being contrarian. It’s merely an acknowledgement of the part of me that compulsively empathizes with the viewpoint of my idealogical opposite.
I can’t decide if this is a gift or a disease. Part of me wishes I could dedicate myself to a particular cause and banish all doubt about it. Being in the messy middle is a frustrating and sometimes lonely experience, and the walls are always closing in. Turning beliefs into deeply held convictions and advocating for them would provide a reassuring clarity of mission and reduce or eliminate the need for constant vacillation.
But I have to be honest with myself and others about where I stand, even if that means not standing in one place. “Humility is the fundamental virtue,” writes Brooks. “Humility is a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself — a form of radical honesty. The more the moderate grapples with reality the more she understands how much is beyond our understanding.”
Realizing how little I know, how wrong I probably am, is freedom. It’s freedom from the self-imprisonment we impose on our minds when we insist we know everything, and that everyone else must agree with us or else.
This phenomenon of dogmatic certainty is most evident these days in the ongoing battles between “I love punching Nazis” SJW types and the jack-booted white nationalists #MAGA crowd. These are two groups who are very sure of their beliefs and righteousness of their causes. Hat-tip to Rod Dreher for spotlighting these posts, which illustrate why they are two sides of the same coin:
It’s not fun being a political orphan, or being constantly mired in a swamp of second-guessing. But I’m a moderate because I have to be, and I will not apologize for this. I am open to hearing your opinion, even if I don’t like it and tell you so. The times are too dark to not struggle for the light.
First, a disclaimer: I am (briefly) in The Benedict Option. When Dreher put out a call on his blog for examples of Christian-run businesses, I emailed him about Reba Place Fellowship, the intentional Christian community that over the years has spun off church ministries into actual businesses, like a bicycle repair shop and an Amish furniture store. Months later, in a reply to my comment on one of his unrelated blog posts, he told me I was in the book, much to my surprise. And sure enough, on page 189 there was my name and a short paragraph adapted from my email about Reba.
I felt compelled to alert Dreher about RPF not only because I think they are a living, functional example of the Benedict Option in action, but also because I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s blog for a while, really enjoyed his books Crunchy Cons and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and hoped his new one would contribute to the conversation about religious engagement in civic life.
The Benedict Option really does feel like the secular successor to Technopoly. The two books share a pessimism about the Way Things Are Now and a dire outlook of what’s to come. Dreher’s thesis is that Christians have lost the culture wars and need to reconsider their embedded relationship with the wider (Western) culture, in order to strengthen what’s left of the Church before a new anti-religion dark age descends. This seems like a natural response to the trajectory of Postman’s theory of the Technopoly, which he defines as “totalitarian technocracy” and “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.”
Written 25 years ago, several passages in Technopoly would be right at home in The Benedict Option, like the one about the erosion of cultural symbols:
In Technopoly, the trivialization of significant cultural symbols is largely conducted by commercial enterprise. This occurs not because corporate America is greedy but because the adoration of technology preempts the adoration of anything else. … Tradition is, in fact, nothing but the acknowledgment of the authority of symbols and the relevance of the narratives that gave birth to them. With the erosion of symbols there follows a loss of narrative, which is one of the most debilitating consequences of Technopoly’s power.
And Technopoly’s hollow solipsism:
The Technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advantage. It promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside all traditional narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells, instead, of a life of skills, technical expertise, and the ecstasy of consumption. Its purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing Technopoly.
Technopoly offers so much more to unpack, much of it specifically related to technology and education, but another nugget I thought aligned very well with Dreher’s Benedict Option is Postman’s call for “those who wish to defend themselves against the worst effects of the American Technopoly” to become “loving resistance fighters.” He defines a technological resistance fighter as someone who “maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.”
Religious resistance fighters don’t “run for the hills” as critics of the Benedict Option would have it say. (Though Dreher does end the book with Benedictine monks in Italy literally running for the hills after an earthquake destroys their monastery—a reasonable action, but ironic given his frustration for the “run for the hills” criticism.) In fact, the work of resistance requires direct engagement within the larger cultural life. But it also requires deliberate and distinctive separation—if not physically, then spiritually, ethically, and intellectually.
Dreher bemoans the submission of churchgoers to the pressures of secular culture (i.e. the Technopoly), whether it’s the now widespread acceptance of gay marriage, the rootless and self-interested browsing of different churches, or the unfettered access to technology parents allow their children. The principles in the Rule of St. Benedict, originally established for sixth-century monks cloistered away from the chaotic post-Rome Europe, offer a way for modern Christians to shore up their spiritual discipline while reconnecting with ancient traditions.
Most of his proposals (neatly summarized here) should not be terribly controversial among committed believers, though some, like pulling your kids out of public school, seem unduly influenced by his alarmism and are much easier said than done.
But that seems to be his point: Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. Monks don’t join a monastery to sit around and avoid the world; they work hard! They take the claims and commandments of their Savior and Scripture seriously and endeavor to follow them.
Postman has been proven right. He didn’t live to see today’s wholesale surrender to smartphones and Silicon Valley’s tech-utopianism, but he’d have a serious case of the “I told you so”s if he did. Whether Dreher’s predictions for the demise of Christianity also come to pass remains to be seen, but you don’t have to be a doomsday prepping zealot to realize that it is good to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.
According to my records I read more than ever in 2016. Partially this was due to starting as a book reviewer for two library trade journals, thus increasing the volume of pages coming my way. But I also made more time overall for reading, because I love it and I work at a library and there are too many books out there and I’ll never have this amount of free time once I have kids. So here are my top 10 books from 2016, ranked:
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
I don’t cry while reading books. I didn’t cry while reading this one, but I came close. Written in the final months of Kalanithi’s life, it’s the story of the young neurosurgeon’s career intertwined with his struggle against his lung cancer diagnosis. Kalanithi had a master’s in literature along with his medical training and it shows; linking left- and right-brain thinking, he builds upon his close familiarity with morality with a deep, probing search for meaning.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Jahren, whose father was a scientist and mother loved literature, embodies both worlds in this memoir that contrasts her journey as a struggling biologist with the lives of the trees she studies. So much wisdom, humor, and hard-won experience in this book. I copied many sentences for future reference and inspiration. Would make a good pairing with When Breath Becomes Air.
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
I tend to read more nonfiction than novels, so I try to make the fiction I read worth the time. This thriller certainly was. From the deadbeat Doug to the nefarious blowhard pundit Bill to the troubled Charlie to even the maybe-hero Scott (not Gus: Gus was cool), Hawley nestles illustrations of masculinity’s destructive toxicity within a well-crafted, slow-boiling whodunit that’s also a superb character study.
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard
Another stranger than fiction historical yarn from the author of Destiny of the Republic. If you only know Winston Churchill from World War II, check out this wild chapter of his younger life when he was an ambitious, vainglorious scion of British nobility who was captured as a war correspondent in the Boer War.
Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride
From the author of a personal favorite The Good Lord Bird comes this impressionistic portrait of the Godfather of Soul’s rise and fall. McBride eschews the typical conventions of biography in favor of a more journalistic approach, interviewing Brown’s loved ones and others who knew him well to compose a rich tapestry of a complicated man.
But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman
The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture by Glen Weldon
Not at all a comics person, so I appreciated this very thorough yet propulsive history of Batman since his inception in 1939. Since I listened to the audiobook I can’t speak to how Weldon’s voice comes through on the page, but in my ear it was amazing. Any listeners of Pop Culture Happy Hour will greatly enjoy this as a kind of extended, uncut Gleniana—my favorite part being his adoption of Comic Book Guy’s voice whenever he quotes the overheated prose of indignant nerds.
Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Workshopby Nick Offerman
Trademark Offerman: delicious prose, self-deprecating humor, child-like glee, and a humble appreciation for just being there, so to speak. It’s a beautiful book, mixing bountiful wood-porn photos, short essays, and step-by-step instructions for a variety of projects, one or two of which I’d like to attempt. But really, it’s worth it for the “Best Way to Fell A Tree” comic alone.
Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson
Johnson is a master storyteller, weaving disparate elements together into a rich and seamless tapestry of technology and human history. That the book also has its own companion podcast of the same name is fitting, as his writing is just as pleasing to the ears as it is on the page. It’s a great book for all curious readers but especially for the history-averse, who will enjoy the fast pace, topical diversity, and abundant trivia. (See also: Johnson’s How We Got to Now.)
When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future by Abby Smith Rumsey
One of the first books I reviewed for Library Journal, and the first starred review I gave. You know a book is good when it discusses the Sumerian cuneiform, ancient Greek mnemonics, Gutenberg’s press, Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, and the Internet Archive.
Favorite non-2016 books I read this year:
Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots by Rod Dreher
Amidst the remains of the modern GOP, I hope this book is salvaged from the rubble and becomes a foundational text for revival. Review here.
The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage
Standage points out that a Victorian transported to the twenty-first century would not be terribly bewildered by the Internet, given how similar it is to the telegraph. (Though the space shuttle would probably blow their minds.) Though eventually eclipsed by the telephone, the telegraph was the first and arguably one of the biggest sudden technological leaps we’ve experienced. Time and space instantly shrunk; information that used to travel at the speed of the horse suddenly arrived instantaneously, and the new industry’s standards would continue to inform new technologies, including the new Internet. There are so many particular times and topics we today know little about, simply due to the steady march of time and new technology. Niche history books like this one perform a great service in looking back and illuminating what came before us in a digestible and fascinating story.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopiaby Michael Booth
Read this for research before visiting Scandinavia this last summer. Proud to be one-eighth Finnish and Norwegian! Booth’s baffled British perspective nevertheless finds a lot to admire in the Nordic Way. See also: Anu Partanen’s The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life and Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism by Nima Sanandaji.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migrationby Isabel Wilkerson
As good as advertised.
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanchesby S.C. Gwynne
Excepting the unfortunate overuse of italics for emphasis, which made many lines seem like political ad narration, this book was amazing. Gwynne’s prose is so muscular it’s like every paragraph is a pushup. How does Quanah Parker not have an HBO miniseries about him yet? If all you know about the Comanche is from The Searchers, check this one out immediately, followed by Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend.
In Station Eleven, survivors of a global pandemic and subsequent post-apocalyptic chaos decamp to an abandoned airport in Michigan and eventually establish a Museum of Civilization, comprised of assorted artifacts from life before “year zero,” when the pandemic paralyzed the world and rendered much of the stuff that had comprised their lives useless. The Museum was a place of remembering — the old ways, the things they had once cared about — but also for preparation. Though the world of Station Eleven is dark and uncertain, if civilization were ever to rise again from catastrophe, the wares and wisdom held in the Museum, however haphazard and incomplete, would form the basis of renewal.
This wonderful and trenchant book popped into my mind as I read a different but just as wonderful and trenchant book: Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher. I’ve followed Rod’s blog for years, and read (and recommend) his memoir The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Though Crunchy Cons was published in 2006, standing as the Republican Party now is before a dark abyss, ready to jump as soon as Donald J. Trump is named their nominee for president, Republicans need the Crunchy Con Manifesto more than ever.
As a self-proclaimed social conservative, Dreher focuses his criticism and encouragement on his fellow conservatives and those under the Republican Party umbrella. But I couldn’t believe, as a moderate independent who tends to lean left but supports some small-c conservative principles, how much I was nodding along while reading this book. Anyone who doesn’t fit into tidy political molds or abide all the shibboleths of establishment Democrats or Republicans will feel at home with one of the topics Dreher spotlights, which include consumerism, food, home, education, the environment, and religion.
The original subtitle lays out the thesis well: “How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).” Bombast aside, the juxtaposition of otherwise contrary stereotypes establishes the general sense of counterculture that pervades the book. Whether Dreher is talking to conservative homeschoolers or liberal organic farmers, their common refrain is a disillusionment or dissatisfaction with the status quo, with the cult of the bottom line and efficiency, or with how “everybody else” does things. It’s why Dreher can find more common ground with liberals on anti-consumerism than the free-trade fanatics in his own party, and why he feels more comfortable spending a little more for quality food at Whole Foods than get unethically produced cut-rate meat at the nearest SuperMegaMart.
Take the chapter on Home, or more specifically houses and how their style and place can affect their owners’ lives. The McMansions and cookie-cutter homes littering suburbia may be efficiently built and ostensibly indicative of financial success, but as bland, soulless carbon copies they fall short on fostering hominess and familial integrity. (One guy in the book likens getting one to dating the prom queen with a drinking problem: it’ll start out nice but quickly sour when someone prettier comes along.)
As an insecure teen I sometimes felt ashamed by my family’s simple, one-story house that wasn’t as big as some of my friends’ houses, that didn’t have its own rec room or backyard golf course or enormous kitchen. But in retrospect I’m glad for it, and glad my parents still live there, in a cozy house with character that they didn’t hastily buy with a bad mortgage and have to dump when the economy crashed. Despite my siblings and I having our own rooms, the more intimate size of the house allowed (or forced as it sometimes felt) us and my parents into closer proximity. It was harder to flee to our rooms and avoid each other. Obviously the size of one’s house doesn’t directly correlate with the quality of the family within it, but it does help create a culture — for good or for bad.
Similarly, the choices we make about education can have profound effects on the quality of the upbringing of one’s kids. The Drehers are passionate about (and financially capable of) homeschooling their children for several reasons, the biggest one seeming to be that they’d rather take responsibility for their kids’ rearing than abdicating it to others:
If you don’t educate your children for metaphysical truth and moral virtue, mainstream culture will do it for you. Absent shared commitment to these spiritual and moral verities, it is hard to see how we renew our families, our communities, and our country with an ethic of duty, self-restraint, stewardship, and putting the needs of people, not the state or corporations, first.
Though I’m a proud public school kid, and made it through without the scars others have (and may still harbor), the idea of forming my own children, rather than letting the state and wider culture do it, makes more and more sense as the state of public education gets bleaker and less hospitable to anyone who deviates from state-sponsored directives.
The same theory applies to religion. Though I didn’t go to a private religious school, those I know who did seemed to have an equal or even less chance of remaining in the faith as those who got their religious education solely from church. What matters most, I think, is the example that’s set by parents and the larger community, more than what is said or dictated. A kid whose parents set a positive example of marriage and life, who let their deeds speak for them rather than adopting a “Because I said so” strategy, will probably be much more likely to buy in to whatever religion or ideology they’re steeped in.
Whatever it is, it has to mean something more than whatever the wider culture is providing. “A religion in which you can set your own terms amounts to self-worship,” writes Dreher. “It has no power to restrain, and little power to inspire or console in times of great suffering. No matter what religion you follow, unless you die to yourself — meaning submit to an authority greater than yourself — it will come to nothing.”
Above all, according to Dreher, the crunchy con values authenticity: “In a world filled with the cheap, the flashy, the plastic, and the immediate, we hunger deeply for things that endure. We are the kind of people who long for the Permanent Things,” a phrase borrowed from Russell Kirk, the putative godfather of the crunchy con movement. The book Dreher is working on now concerns the “Benedict Option,” a model of community and cultural engagement (or lack thereof) for Christians who find the secular world increasingly hostile to people of faith. I suspect it will dovetail directly from the crunchy con impulse for smaller, enduring, and prudent living, and hope it will provide more practical wisdom for how to live out the crunchy con creed.
My fool’s hope for the Republican Party is that whatever emerges from the rubble of the modern GOP will include Crunchy Cons as a foundational text. A party that supports families fully rather than sundering them, that protects rather than pillages the environment, that promotes prudence and virtue over consumption and the bottom line, that values humanity and the living over materialism and Mammon — that’s the kind of party I could join.
Standard operating procedure for making year-end culture lists says to rank your ten favorite films/albums/books, but I’ve recently soured against this convention. Choosing a pre-determined number of “the best” among many great works, as all award shows do, is great entertainment but entirely arbitrary. So this time around, I decided to institute my own arbitrary yet entertaining convention of naming the best 13 films, albums, and books from 2013 I encountered last year.
This omnilist honors the fact that consuming art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I don’t wait to watch a movie until I finish reading a book, or until I’ve listened all the way through an album. These things happen concurrently, swirling around my head and heart together like cultural stew. With that in mind, I heard, saw, and read a lot in 2013, but these are the ingredients (divided by form and alphabetized) that came together the best in 2013.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
I followed Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut and ISS commander, on Twitter during his mission last year. In addition to the beautiful ISS-view photos of cities he’d frequently post, Hadfield made several short videos documenting how quotidian tasks like cutting fingernails and using the toilet are accomplished in zero gravity. Likewise, his memoir brought his life as a pilot and astronaut down to earth, describing the lessons on leadership, work, and sacrifices he’s learned both on this earth and outside of it. Entertaining, informative, and very insightful, this book shows that Neil DeGrasse Tyson isn’t the only Space Publicist out there.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher
I heard about this book after I started reading Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative. At times memoir, biography, history, and cultural commentary, Little Way documents Dreher’s struggle to come to peace with the small Louisiana hometown he fled, and his saintly sister Ruthie, a schoolteacher who happily stayed put. When Ruthie gets terminal cancer, Dreher sees how the town he couldn’t wait to leave rally around his sister and her family, leading him on his own emotionally-fraught journey home. Dreher writes honestly, lovingly, and critically of his sister while pondering the true meaning of home.
The Ocean at the End of the Laneby Neil Gaiman
This was the first book I read in my nine-novel November marathon, and it ended up being one of my favorites. It also initiated me into the Gaiman oeuvre, something I’m keen on exploring more after reading this novel. The prose’s lean style allowed the fantastical elements of the story to interplay nicely with the more grounded parts, like the boy’s interactions with his father and the new woman in his life. I often forget how life could seem more terrifying as a child, but I forget just as often that we undervalue the strength that kids have to overcome that terror.
Unapologeticby Francis Spufford
I found this very much of a feather with N.D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, another whirlwind theology book I read this year. While I also enjoy the earnest, intellectual theological writings of C.S. Lewis and the like, books like this one breathe much-needed fresh air into the faith-based discourse that can often come off as stuffy and anticultural. This is a book of and for the heart. Spufford isn’t asking if we can believe the reality of God; he’s asking if we can feel it. The Message translation of the Bible set out to rewrite the scriptures in contemporary language to keep its message “current and fresh and understandable,” but I think Unapologetic does this far better.
12 Years A Slave
It’s hard to avoid the trap of talking about a film like this in award-season terms, judging its quality and worth by its viability as an award contender. This film is and will be an award-winner, but that descriptor in itself doesn’t say much about the tense, focused interpretation of Solomon Northup by Chiwetel Ejiofor, or Michael Fassbender’s typically immersive and impressive performance as a strident slaveowner. Two decades before the Civil War, Northup fought against the dehumanizing institution of slavery as an unwilling combatant, a Northern free man in a Southern slave’s shoes. If Abraham Lincoln became the biggest political lever of the Civil War, then Northup was the fulcrum. This film duly honors the pressure and pain Northup endured serving as the metaphorical fulcrum of the struggle against slavery’s destructive regime.
When I saw this with Jenny in Chicago this summer, we got to the showing a few minutes early and walked into the theater. The movie was already playing, which I found odd since I knew we were a bit early. But we sat down and watched what we soon figured out was the very last scene. Lightbulb: we were in the wrong screening room. We went to the correct room and watched it from the beginning, but I found this snafu altogether fitting: seeing the end of this film (and presumably of the all-time-great series) at the beginning echoed the start of the whole trilogy, which found Jesse trying to convince Celine, despite all the odds and circumstances, to take a chance on him. Kudos to Richard Linklater & Co for making this beautifully wrenching and wrenchingly beautiful series happen.
Though another (very fine) 2013 film already has this title, Gravity could have just as easily been named The Spectacular Now. For all its fireworks and heart-pounding brinksmanship and wide-eyed views of Earth and outer space, Gravity never departs from the now, the relentlessly present moment Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s astronauts are experiencing. Director Alfonso Cuarón grabs hold of us right away and says, Betterhold on… and we do, barely.But the spectacle of the ensuing ninety minutes, for me, wasn’t just a nonstop roller-coaster (which it pretty much was), but a series of beautiful images like the one at top: Bullock’s capsule, accompanied by flaming space debris, catapulting toward Earth like a chariot of fire.
In a year full of thoughtful, challenging films, this one has inspired the most post-viewing contemplation. It’s a kind of Rorschach test for the digital age: when you see this story of a broken, unsocial man who is befriended by, then falls in love with, a highly intelligent and customized operating system, do you think it’s a dream or a nightmare? Does this futuristic fable portend the end of human interaction, or does it show technology’s restorative promise? That the similarities between Her‘s near-future setting and the present day are so many—the constant connection to mobile devices, the self-imposed social isolation—suggests that we don’t have to wait for the future to answer that question.
Like Someone In Love
I don’t watch horror films because I don’t want to be haunted. Little did I know that Abbas Kiarostami’s follow-up to Certified Copy would be as haunting as anything I’ve seen in a while. There’s nothing paranormal in this Tokyo drama, but rather a fraught, mysterious air that permeates the simple story of an elderly widower connecting with a prostitute in unexpected ways. Like This Is Martin Bonner (below), the restraint Kiaronstami shows tightens everything on screen like a vice. No shot or line of dialogue is wasted. (This was released in 2012 but not in the U.S. until 2013).
Short Term 12
If Her is for the brain, then Short Term 12 is for the heart. This portrait of the staff and patrons of a short-term foster care facility for at-risk teens focuses on Brie Larson’s Grace, but moves around the facility’s sphere, capturing connections between Grace and the kids, and between the kids themselves. When Grace’s own troubled past starts hijacking her attempts to guide the teens through their own crises, her tough shell starts to crack. In addition to having young actors who can actually act, this movie sympathizes with the risk opening up requires.
This Is Martin Bonner
“I’m inclined to believe that director Chad Hartigan is some kind of superman when it comes to restraint.” That was critic Jeffrey Overstreet (who has been a particularly passionate supporter of this film) on Martin Bonner, which follows a pastor and a prisoner on their interweaving paths through life. Overstreet rightly praises the film’s restraint, which other faith-based films often lack. But the faith in This Is Martin Bonner isn’t didactic or caricatured; it’s real, which means it’s messy and imperfect but infused with love. This is currently available on Netflix, so see it while you can.
House of Cards
Like any good work of art, House of Cards rewards repeated viewings. Knowing the full trajectory of the first season allowed me, when rewatching it, to see all of Frank Underwood’s gears turning as his master plan progressed. It’s also a visual feast, taking the noir aesthetic from the David Fincher-directed pilot and propelling us further into the dark underworld of politics and power-wielding. Not sure if I have Valentine’s Day plans yet, but I hope season 2 will be part of them.
Lucius EP by Lucius & Days Are Gone by Haim
(I’m cheating here by listing two separate albums in one slot: my omnilist, my rules.) Wedding receptions are pretty much the only place I full-on dance. But when listening to Lucius and Haim, I can’t help myself. How can you not move and sing along to the Michael Jackson-flavored “Falling”? Or to Lucius’ “Turn It Around”? If women-powered dance rock groups is becoming a trend, consider this guy on the bandwagon.
Rod Dreher recently wrote about Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s comments about, essentially, how happy he believed Black Southerners were in the 1950s before the civil rights movement. To Dreher, Robertson’s comments demonstrate the power of narrative, of the stories we tell ourselves and how they affect how we see the “truth” of our own situations, even when we don’t see the whole truth:
You can tell a lot about who has the power in a particular culture by what you are not allowed to talk about without drawing harsh censure. And in turn, the thoughts you are not allowed to have become internalized, such that you train yourself not to see things that violate those taboos. In the 1950s rural South, a white man was not allowed to speak out against the injustices inflicted on blacks; is it any wonder that he wouldn’t “see” them?
This amazing book takes an angle I’d never considered before when thinking about and studying the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s: that of the journalists, publishers, and other press figures who were instrumental in wrestling the civil rights struggle to the front page as the movement simmered after World War II to its boiling point in the ’60s.
In newsreels and history books we’ve seen a great deal of the figures directly involved in the decades-long civil rights fight: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, the Little Rock Nine, Bull Connor, George Wallace, and many others. But what of the people behind the cameras, the ones braving the fire hoses of Birmingham and angry mobs in Greensboro right along with activists to capture the moment for print, radio, or the nascent television news?
For a thesis statement of sorts, Roberts and Klibanoff go back to what they view as the foundational work from which all academic and journalistic interpretations of the postwar civil rights movement emerged: An American Dilemma, a comprehensive study of race in America underwritten by the Carnegie Foundation and spearheaded by Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish economist and sociologist.
The study found the central problem to be an overwhelming ignorance among Whites (in the North and South alike) about the lives and living conditions of Black Americans. It was easy for Whites to ignore the discrimination Blacks faced every day because they didn’t see it. White newspapers completely ignored the Black community and the Black press along with it. Myrdal believed that to overcome “the opportunistic desire of the whites for ignorance,” the Black community needed one thing: publicity. “There is no doubt,” he wrote, “that a great majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts.”
Facts, they say, are stubborn things. But so were the segregationists. And the thought of high-minded out-of-towners coming into the South to tell good Christian people what’s wrong with them and upend generations of tradition didn’t sit well with angry sheriffs and townspeople, who would have every judge and jury (all white, of course) on their side should they decide to teach someone a lesson, or worse.
As a Mississippi attorney put it to Freedom Summer volunteers venturing into the South: “a dark highway at midnight was no place to lecture a Mississippi deputy sheriff with a second-grade education on the niceties of constitutional law.”
Still, the whole point of the civil rights movement, and one that Martin Luther King understood deeply, was to shine a light into the dark places. To walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and bring reporters along for the walk. King knew, as did the other movement leaders in SNCC, CORE, and NAACP, what Myrdal knew: publicity meant power. The more White America would be exposed to the everyday injustices Black Americans faced, the more likely they would be to sympathize and inspire positive action.
The Emmett Till trial was the catalyst. That gruesome murder and clear miscarriage of justice coupled with the earth-shattering Brown v. Board of Education decision to start the movement snowballing toward bus boycotts and Little Rock, through the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins and Ole Miss, each encounter seeming to attract more attention than the last.
While the Freedom Riders and marchers were enduring fire hoses and batons and angry mobs, journalists were close by to report on it. They understood as much as their subjects the power of the pen and camera, and had to wield that power in unexpected ways.
Peter Kihss, a New York Times reporter who was reporting the Autherine Lucy saga at the University of Alabama, decided to abandon traditional journalistic remove and intervene when an elderly Black man became surrounded by an unruly mob. “If anybody wants to start something, let’s go,” he told the crowd. “I’m a reporter for The New York Times and I have gotten a wonderful impression of the University of Alabama. Now I’ll be glad to take on the whole student body, two at a time.”
A similar situation involved John Chancellor, newspaperman turned NBC broadcaster, in the infancy of television news. Chancellor was gathering reactions in Mississippi after the Till trial when “a flying wedge of white toughs” descended on him and a Black woman he was interviewing:
Chancellor squared off against them and held up the only object he could find to defend himself, an object whose power he had not, until that moment, truly fathomed. Thrusting his tiny microphone toward the men, Chancellor blurted out, “I don’t care what you’re going to do to me, but the whole world is going to know it.”
He later called his microphone “the technological equivalent of a crucifix.” The microphone and the newspaper and the camera collectively became a tool and a weapon. They performed the basic service of documenting reality, ugly and unvarnished as it was, while also fighting back against the South’s deeply entrenched culture of silence and racial hegemony.
Their power seemed to coalesce in the fall of 1963 when they broadcasted Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and then the news of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four Black children. Having the nation witness events like those up close, according to Jack Gould of the New York Times, was a major hurdle overcome for the Negro race as a whole, because until then its biggest challenge had been “communicating and dramatizing” its struggle: “Not to the integrationists, not to the unyieldingly prejudiced, but to the indifferent white millions for whom integration or segregation was of scant personal concern.”
In other words, to the Phil Robertsons of the day. The story White Southerners like him had been telling themselves (and anyone else who had dared to disrupt the narrative) about race and their culture disagreed with the reality of being Black in America. It took over a decade of protests and violence and struggle and political hand-wringing, but finally, Myrdal’s prescription for publicity was working. It wasn’t a panacea, but it was progress.
However, when hit with the reality of someone else’s story, some, like Gov. George Wallace, ignored the cognitive dissonance and dug in their heels. While Phil Robertson is no George Wallace, their shared inability to see beyond the stories they told themselves left them blind to what the cameras were showing in bright lights.
It’s easy to judge from afar in situations like this without thinking about the blind spots we’ve self-imposed today. Racism isn’t over, nor discrimination writ large. The press is different today, as is its power. We’re not so enthralled by television or newspaper editorials anymore. Publicity itself seems an inadequate solution for dealing with the problems we face today when all people do in our selfie-obsessed world is publicize. Simply getting a hashtag trending on Twitter won’t solve homelessness or end abortion.
In that way, our problem is the same as that of generations before us: we need the courage to hear new stories, to not wait for tragedy to spur us to action, and to follow the Atticus Finch model of walking (or marching?) a mile in someone else’s shoes.
The Race Beat goes into great detail about the individuals and institutions involved in this decade-long story. Courage, cowardice, and great copy abound on every side of the tales told that, all together, paint a lush picture of how the movement and its press worked together to change the country forever.
Rod Dreher, in his new book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, writes about his sister Ruthie’s fight with lung cancer and about his complicated relationship with his family and small-town life in Louisiana. After her diagnosis, Ruthie told her doctors and loved ones not to tell her specifics about her condition, nor even how long she should expect to live. Dreher didn’t understand why:
If I had cancer, I’d demand to know everything at once, on the theory that information is power. And then, me being me, I would surely brood over it incessantly. Ruthie, on the other hand, figured that information would be disempowering. She understood that she was in some respects living an illusion, but if she was going to live at all, she had to be able to curtain off the terror of death.
Dreher later expands on how Ruthie’s way of dealing with information that collided with her worldview or pre-existing opinions was often handicapping to her and harmful to him, but this is an instance where it seems her ruthless resolve served her well. Like Dreher, I am someone who values information-gathering for a number of reasons: to expand my mind, to gain sympathy for the other side of an argument, to weigh all consequences of a decision or action. I’ve found this trait has served me well in a number of ways.
But I also get stuck in my own head, and the constant theorizing and hand-wringing and countering my own inner arguments gets very tiresome. In a situation like Ruthie’s, throwing on more hard truths wouldn’t have helped: “All the extra information could only sap her will to resist. The truth — the whole truth, that is — would not set her free, but would make her captive to anxiety, and tempt her to despair.”
Though I’m not battling cancer, I know that the more voices and information I add to my thought-stream, the more overwhelming it seems to get. (Maybe I’m the type of person Matthew 11:28-30 is talking to.) Sometimes I would love to be more like Ruthie Leming — sure of my life’s purpose, simple in my goals, and sacrificial above all. But I’m not. At least, not always. This has been Dreher’s discovery, documented in LittleWay, and will continue to be part of mine.The book contemplates what made him eager to leave his hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana, and decades later what brought him back. Ruthie’s way is central to this story, and it’s one that will stick with me for a long time.
(Meanwhile, Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative has become essential reading.)