Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Men and Monsters, Part I

Why? McVeigh told us at eloquent length, but our rulers and their media preferred to depict him as a sadistic, crazed monster who had done it for the kicks. 
—Gore Vidal, on the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 
It was Adela, yet it was not. It was her height, and had her movement. The likeness appeased Wentworth, yet he did not understand the faint unlikeness. He was up to her now, and he knew it could not be Adela, for even Adela had never been so like Adela as this. That truth which is the vision of romantic love, in which the beloved becomes supremely her own adorable and eternal self … that was aped for him then. The thing could not astonish him, nor could it be adored. It perplexed. He hesitated.
‘Who are you? You’re not Adela.’
The voice said: ‘Adela!’ and Wentworth understood that Adela was not enough, that Adela must be something different even from Adela if she were to be satisfactory to him, something closer to his own mind and farther from hers. She had been in relation with Hugh, and his Adela could never be in relation with Hugh. He had never understood that simplicity before. It was so clear now.
—Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell

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Trigger Warning: Terroristic Language and Ideologies

On Monday the twenty-third, in Toronto, a man named Alek Minassian drove a van into a crowd of pedestrians and killed ten people. He faced the Canadian police, shouting ‘Kill me’ and apparently pointing a gun at them (it was later determined he had none), but was taken down without a shot by the incredibly brave Officer Ken Lam, and is now awaiting charges for his terroristic murders. Immediately before the spree, Minassian posted this on his Facebook page:
Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!
And, like a number of other people, I’m left wondering, What the fuck is going on with men in America right now?

Minassian was part of the self-styled online ‘incel’ movement, a portmanteau-abbreviation of involuntary celibate. I call it a movement only for lack of a better word. It isn’t monolithic or doctrinaire. For many, participating the incel community seems simply to be an expression of loneliness and depression in the face of sexual frustration, and some incel forums police radicalism quite strictly. But there are others in the community who pass from experience to philosophy, arguing that desirable women—‘Stacies’—are shallow and cruel, and only respond to muscular, alpha-type men—‘Chads’—whom the incels cannot become due to poor genetics. Incels, they reason, are thus deprived by an unjust social hierarchy of the sex they have a right to.

This might sound like an unfair caricature of even the lunatic fringe. It isn’t. Here is some of the milder content from ‘BlkPillPres,’ screenshotted by journalist David Futrelle:
This shit right here [the Toronto attack] is lifefuel for me and exactly what I was talking about, too many ER [Elliot Rodger] guys are using guns so its expected and they get taken down very quickly these days, not only that but having these killings only take place with guns makes normies feel safe. … You can’t ban hatred, hatred is all it takes to go do a mass killing event. This is literally what I asked for, somebody finally breaking the mold … ER doesn’t always have to be violent, it just has to be strategic and punish normies in some way, they need to be in constant fear for EVERY ASPECT OF THEIR LIFE …

I won’t horrify you with more of this satanic filth, and I sure as fuck won’t link to their website. Suffice it to say that it does not improve as it goes on.

Now, obviously men like this are outliers—if this were normal, what we’d have is not ghastly news stories, but civil war and socio-economic collapse. And obviously not all of the incel community is this way; a lonely young man can have any number of grievances, justified or not, without turning to violence to resolve them. And even among young men who get, in one way or another, radicalized, [1] not all turn to violence nor go this far. But the fact that these outliers are common enough to be noticed at all is what’s creepy and frightening, and it would behove us all to know what’s happening.

There are a number of stock answers, for this and other explosions of violence in our time, that I find rather unsatisfying. The language and identity of victimization that can be found in a lot of Incel forums, and indeed in a lot of contemporary culture. The tendency of some feminists to rail against men indiscriminately. The misogynistic male sense of entitlement to sex. The culture of death, fostered by euthanasia and abortion, that degrades all human dignity into human usefulness. Toxic masculinity and its impossible standards. Lack of gun control. Class warfare. Video games. Smoking in bed. Sunspots. Neap tides. eBay.

Any or all of those things could be contributing factors, but my gut’s telling me that no one of them, nor the sum of them, is the whole story. Now, from here forward, I’m embarking on a speculative examination of what the underlying problem may be. I doubt I have all the relevant facts at my disposal, and I welcome others’ input; nonetheless I’ll go ahead and speculate, because if we all just sit around with our thumbs up our asses for fear of being wrong, nothing will improve.

Let’s take a step back. Starting with the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, there have been at least eighty mass shootings or terrorist attacks (foiled or successful, minor or major) on American soil, an average of one every three or four months for the last twenty-five years. These acts of violence have come from many very different sorts of men [2]: differing ethnic backgrounds, religions, parts of the country, and professed principles. Ravening, sexually motivated hatred of attractive women and of the men who sleep with them seems to be a comparatively new motive, while racism (principally against blacks), outrage over killings in the Middle East at the hands of the US military, homophobia, and anti-abortion wrath are long-standing culprits—though school shootings seem to present a much more puzzling problem, partly because, contrary to popular belief, mental illness and a history of bullying aren’t consistently to be found in shooters.

So … what? Are we supposed to think that, sometimes, dudes just kind of snap, apropos of nothing in particular, and decide to kill some folk?

I think there are two causes, one sociological and one spiritual. I want to explore both at greater length: here I’ll content myself with a précis of each.

The sociological one is that a lot of men today feel powerless—whether in the sense of having nothing worthwhile to do with their potential, or in the sense of feeling inadequate and weak. This isn’t to shunt aside the crippling loneliness that afflicts so much of Western culture, but the pain of that loneliness is shaped by the feeling of powerlessness, too; and powerlessness is, not necessarily a more important, but a different thing for men than it is for women. [3] The ‘primal’ expressions of characteristically male aggressor instincts aren’t needed in a technocratic, sedentary society (such as they arguably were even as late as the Industrial Revolution). The traditional institutions and expressions of masculinity, except for football I suppose, have been largely sidelined, de-gendered, or dismantled—and perhaps justly. But with nothing put in their place, men are left without the tools of coming to understand ourselves as men that most societies depend on for cohesion, and that most individuals use to build a sense of self. And that’s an ideal breeding ground for the alienated, angry, hurt young man who’s been given nothing constructive to do with his fire, and decides to turn that fire against others, to prove to them and especially to himself that he does have it.

The spiritual cause is harder to explain, without sounding superstitious. A person who doesn’t mind sounding superstitious might just drily point out that nearly the whole US is after all built on top of an Indian burial ground. The way I would put it is that I believe, or rather suspect, that we are a nation under judgment. Lots of fire-and-brimstone televangelists and hysterical Catholic conspiracy theorists like to say we’re under judgment because we tolerate the sin of Sodom; and I agree with them, if we turn to the pages of Scripture to find out what it in fact has to say about the sin of Sodom.
Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good. … Thou also, which hast judged thy sisters, bear thine own shame for thy sins which thou hast committed more abominable than they: they are more righteous than thou … [4] 
And it isn’t just our cruelty to the poor (stop to reflect for a moment that many US cities have laws against private citizens giving to the homeless, and that many if not most have laws against panhandling; that is, laws against people in need asking for help). Consider. The US regularly interferes in the internal affairs of foreign nations, up to and including military action with no declaration of war and no international approval. That military action regularly incurs civilian casualties—or, to de-sanitize that concept a little, our boys regularly wind up killing unarmed men, women, and children. The US is the only country on earth to have ended a war with nuclear weapons, whose effects are completely uncontrollable, and did it by targeting civilian populations. This administration and the last two are all known for holding prisoners without counsel or trial indefinitely, and for practicing torture on prisoners, sometimes hundreds of times. That’s a pretty formidable list of war crimes; especially considering how many of them we packed into just the last quarter-century.

Did we really think there would be no consequences? That God would ignore all this?

In 1995, Timothy McVeigh, a veteran of the Gulf War (aka ‘Operation Desert Storm’), bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City. One hundred and sixty-eight people were killed, nineteen of them children due to the presence of a daycare center in the building; it was the single deadliest terrorist attack on American soil—for the next six years. He was mostly dismissed as a sadistic psycho by the press, but the truth is that he was something far more frightening: an eloquent, driven, rigorously consistent man with a defective conscience. But his defective conscience was a mirror of ours, and he held that mirror right up to our faces.
The [Clinton] administration has said that Iraq has no right to stockpile chemical or biological weapons (“weapons of mass destruction”)—mainly because they have used them in the past. Well, if that’s the standard by which these matters are decided, then the US is the nation that set the precedent. The US has stockpiled these same weapons (and more) for over 40 years. The US claims this was done for deterrent purposes during its “Cold War” with the Soviet Union. Why, then, is it invalid for Iraq to claim the same reason (deterrence) with respect to Iraq’s (real) war with, and the continued threat of, its neighbor Iran? 
The administration claims that Iraq has used these weapons in the past. We’ve all seen the pictures that show a Kurdish woman and child frozen in death from the use of chemical weapons. But, have you ever seen those pictures juxtaposed next to pictures from Hiroshima or Nagasaki? I suggest that one study the histories of World War I, World War II and other “regional conflicts” that the US has been involved in to familiarize themselves with the use of “weapons of mass destruction.” 
Remember Dresden? How about Hanoi? Tripoli? Baghdad? What about the big ones—Hiroshima and Nagasaki? (At these two locations, the US killed at least 150,000 non-combatants—mostly women and children—in the blink of an eye. Thousands more took hours, days, weeks, or months to die.) If Saddam is such a demon, and people are calling for war crimes charges and trials against him and his nation, why do we not hear the same cry for blood directed at those responsible and involved in dropping bombs on the cities mentioned above? 
… Hypocrisy when it comes to the death of children? In Oklahoma City, it was family convenience that explained the presence of a day-care center placed between street level and the law enforcement agencies which occupied the upper floors of the building. Yet, when discussion shifts to Iraq, any day-care center in a government building instantly becomes a “shield.” … Whether you wish to admit it or not, when you approve, morally, of the bombing of foreign targets by the US military, you are approving of acts morally equivalent to the bombing in Oklahoma City. [5]
And so we have to ask ourselves a very nasty question. Was Timothy McVeigh wrong only because bombing innocent people is wrong no matter the pretext? Or was he also wrong because even that wouldn’t wake us up?

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[1] I don’t propose to belabor the question of whether the kind of men who do these things count as terrorists. When your stated aim is to change society through violent acts that inspire fear, you’re a terrorist. You don’t need to be a Muslim, a Basque, an alienated veteran, or any other specific subcategory to qualify.
[2] Nearly all of them men. The only female shooter I came across in my research was Rachelle Shannon, an anti-abortion fanatic who attempted to murder Dr George Tiller (yes, that George Tiller) in 1993.
[3] Obviously I’m speaking in generalities, for convenience’s sake.
[4] Ezekiel 16.49-50, 52.
[5] An Essay on Hypocrisy, written and published in 1998 while McVeigh was in prison.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Review: "A Quiet Place"

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Horror seems to be experiencing something of a renaissance. After a decade or three of mostly formulaic and forgettable movies, films like V/H/S, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Babadook, The VVitch, Hush, The Invitation, and IT are a cut above the jump-scare-bound slasher films and predictable monsters of the nineties. I don’t often see movies while they’re still in the theater, but I went to see A Quiet Place, and loved it.

The premise of the film is that a race of man-eating creatures (whose origin, wisely in my opinion, is never explained) that are blind and hunt by sound have taken over, and those who survive have done so by never making more noise than a whisper, even creating safe outdoor paths out of sand on which they walk barefoot. The story follows a family eking out an agricultural living in the countryside, raising a deaf daughter and a hearing son—and trying to construct a soundproof room in their home, due to the baby they’re expecting. But even before the birth, keeping silent isn’t easy.

The Strong Points

The acting is outstanding at every point, whether spoken or signed. The cinematography is beautiful, taking in great sweeping shots of upstate New York’s forested mountains; the clear autumn sunshine provides a creepy counterpoint to the terror stalking the characters. The use of silence, which so many movies are afraid of, is superb, varying enough with ambient and exceptional sounds to engage the viewer, while still being continuous enough to effectively communicate the sense of massive wariness that is a ceaseless aspect of these characters’ lives. Even small details, like substitute Monopoly pieces made from yarn, are incorporated.

Like Hush, A Quiet Place made innovative use of a deaf protagonist. Ironically enough for a medium that started without sound, there don’t seem to be many of these: The Miracle Worker, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and Children of a Lesser God are the only others I’m familiar with. The film doesn’t (as Lonely Hunter did) break with the not-wholly-satisfying tradition of having the character’s deafness be central to the movie, and perhaps it couldn’t, given its premise; but it does avoid the more blatant pitfall of representing deafness solely as something to be overcome, and gives the character in question opportunities to use it to her advantage in key ways.

The Weak Points

The script isn’t great. The acting and directing compensate considerably; but the dialogue tends to fall victim to cliché in the more emotional moments of the film, which in turn causes their artistry to lurch uncomfortably. The plot, likewise, has some flaws. A few of them are continuity problems (how’d that monster get there?), a few are plausibility problems (why would they have kept batteries in something they’d never use?), and a few are just rather stereotypical story decisions that I was hoping A Quiet Place would be clever enough to avoid.

The biggest flaw, to my mind, however, was the decision to eventually show the monsters not only clearly, but close up. Almost any monster is frightening in proportion to its aura of mystery; but filmmakers love showing off their special effects, and A Quiet Place failed to resist the temptation. The result is that, from being an eerie, unearthly presence that we barely glimpse save by their ravagings early on in the movie, close to the end we get something that sort of looks like a cross between an inside-out ear model and a wet cockroach. Gross, but not nearly as intrinsically scary. A more imaginative cinematography might have allowed the concluding scenes to avoid this.

Should You See It?

Totally. Flaws notwithstanding it is an excellent film, plus John Krasinski with a beard is pretty hot. I place it right on the cusp between B+ and A-, in the same territory as IT.

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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ten Years in Rome

‘You know I’m not one for a life of mourning. I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from his mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without him … the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I’m not quite bad enough to do: to set up a rival good to God’s. … It may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, he won’t quite despair of me in the end.
‘Now we shall both be alone, and I shall have no way of making you understand.’
‘I don’t want to make it easier for you,’ I said; ‘I hope your heart may break; but I do understand.’ 
—Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited 
Trying to appreciate a thing is a good way to find that thing’s best qualities, and men are things, especially to a hustler. Many men are heroic in their refusal to be pathetic, and hustlers are sometimes the only people to get a glimpse of a man in his loneliness, or in the weakness of his desire. And it is sometimes only by seeing this contrast—of a man on his knees who is normally an image of strength—that we can perceive the heroic aspect. 
—Rick Whitaker, Assuming the Position

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Welp. As of March 23rd (by the civil calendar) or 31st (by the liturgical), I’ve now been a Catholic for ten years. Weird.

I feel like I should have some “What have we learned?” shit to offer; and, I guess, I sort of do. I’ve definitely learnt that Catholicism is much more human than Protestantism. The idealism of my Calvinist upbringing was a severe, bloodless thing, without the tenderness of flesh or the warmth of breath, unable really to imagine a Christian still entangled in disobedience. The bad Catholic, such a staple of life and art, was a hissing and a byword to my Protestant compatriots: proof that Catholicism didn’t “work.” It was not, as Catholics like the late Fr John Neuhaus would put it, evidence of the power of the Catholic Church to retain ‘the affectionate loyalty of the erring.’

I’m often eager to defend Protestantism to my fellow Catholics, and not only because my mother is a convinced Protestant—I have no higher an opinion of Catholic snobbery today than I did ten, or twenty, years ago. Yet I did after all leave Calvinism for Catholicism, and I think that, subconsciously, this was one of my reasons: I could be a bad Catholic and still be a Catholic. I couldn’t be a bad Protestant at all; that notion was excluded by the Protestants’ own definitions. For in most of the versions of Protestant theology I knew, obedience was the fruit of real faith—which meant in turn that a lack of obedience suggested a lack of faith. Addiction, weakness, and backsliding were understood, in an abstract way; but there were no Protestant versions of Francis Tarwater or Fantine or Sebastian Flyte. Little though I liked to admit it, Pharisaic idealist that I was, I could not breathe that air.

And, well, there’s little use denying it: I couldn’t be a good Protestant because I’m gay. Not that no gay people make good Protestants, but I sure couldn’t. I’m a fiercely sensual creature, with intense admiration of and limited capacity for asceticism. As a bad Catholic, I can manage.

Not that any of this was explicit in my mind when I converted. In my conscious mind, everything was about the intellectual dimension. The sole, simple question was whether (as far as I could discern) Catholicism was true; and the answer to that question was Yes. And although I understand myself now far better than I did then, I don’t regret my answer, nor think I arrived at it for inadequate reasons. If I did I’d probably leave the Church. But, as frail and foolish as I was even then, I believe that in becoming a Catholic, I struck rock. And my ten years on that rock, as difficult as they’ve often been, have only reïnforced that conviction.

It is, no doubt, ridiculous to imagine that I know What My Life Is About at the age of 30. One can hardly grasp the question’s meaning until one’s early teens; and then one is rather preöccupied with hormones and the merry hell they play with, just, everything, for the next ten years, so that one’s power of concentration is curtailed. But, if I have learned any of the things that my life is about, a recurring theme is that God loves mangled things.

That matters for me, because I’m a mangled thing. My earliest introductions to sexuality, and specifically to my sexuality, were internet porn and a series of encounters that have to be described with the word ‘statutory.’ And—partly because of that—at 30 years old, I’m still a scared, shy little boy in a lot of ways.

There are those who would object to me describing myself as mangled. I am more than my wounds, more than my sexuality, more than my history, whatever. To them I can only say that it’s no charity to try and take my wounds away from me. There’s a triumphalism and a weird shame about being sad that pervades American culture, including American Christianity, including American Catholicism. As though suffering and pain constituted some kind of moral failure. And yes, self-pity and wallowing are bad for you; so are repression and fake niceness. Telling a mangled person that their wounds aren’t real or aren’t important is demeaning, not encouraging. More deeply, the urgency with which some people object to this sort of language hints at something: a belief, perhaps unconscious, that really God doesn’t love mangled things, that he has the same shallow addiction to the obviously attractive that we do. That his love is as flawed and self-interested as ours.

And anyway, what does that sort of aversion to darkness have to do with the Scriptures—looking not only to Job’s protests or Jeremiah’s laments or Abraham’s horror of great darkness, not only to the Passion itself even, but to the attitude evinced by Christ and his Apostles after the Resurrection? Where are Jesus inviting Thomas to put his hand into the gash in his ribcage, or Paul’s glorying in weakness and knowing nothing but the Crucified? That gash was a different thing on Easter Sunday (and is now) than it had been on Good Friday, but it was still a gash. I don’t know what glory is going to look like, but the mess and the hurt are going to be in it, in a way that makes them beautiful.
Crown him the Lord of love!
Behold his hands and side,—
Rich wounds, yet visible above,
In beauty glorified:
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his burning eye
At mysteries so bright!

I still don’t know where my life is going, toward a boyfriend or permanent singleness, and I no longer know how much that matters. But I’m a lot more okay with that than I used to be. Like I said, I’m a scared little boy; and even though I don’t exactly trust this purported Father that I’ve barely met, I’m not as set on running away and hiding as I used to be. I’m too shy to say much or ask for anything, but I can watch and listen a little. And that's something.

You must learn to bear for God’s sake the trial of being displeasing to yourself, said St Teresa. I used to hate that quote so, so much; but it’s become a favorite. We are far less patient than he is.

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