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, March 30, 2019

Antifascism 101: A Beginner's Guide to Dog-Whistles

The dominant sense of any word lies uppermost in our minds. Wherever we meet the word, our natural impulse will be to give it that sense. When this operation results in nonsense, of course, we see our mistake and try over again. But if it makes tolerable sense our tendency is to go merrily on. I call such senses dangerous senses because they lure us into misreadings. 
—C. S. Lewis, Studies In Words
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Content Warning: Hate symbols and hate speech. Note that I will probably be engaging in some pretty dark humor to keep my spirits up because this stuff is fucking depressing.

What are dog-whistles, and why am I bothering you about them? Basically, dog-whistles are coded signals that will destroy our civilization, like everything else will; and I’m bothering you about them because I have no idea whether my fan base and Natalie Wynn’s have a lot of overlap, or whether it’s mostly just me, Ganymede, Basil Fitzgerald, and my sister.

Dog-whistles are key terms, phrases, and symbols (ranging from icons to gestures to memes) that members of a group can use to signal to each other that they’re part of the group, without revealing it to outsiders. The name comes from the literal dog-whistle: it sounds at a pitch too high for human ears to perceive, but dogs hear it just fine. To work, dog-whistles have to have another meaning in mainstream discourse; if they don’t, they may be private signals but they are not dog-whistles, because they identify the user as part of something unusual even if the general reader may not know what specifically.

Of course, dog-whistles are not necessarily a bad thing. Fan communities use dog-whistles (among other signals) all the time, for the pleasure of discovering each other in contexts that aren’t fan-specific the way chat boards and conventions are. A lot of early Christian symbolism consisted in dog-whistles: St Clement of Alexandria counseled Christians who needed symbols for signet rings (an important way of authenticating documents) recommended symbols susceptible to Christians interpretations like doves, harps, ships, and fish, as an alternative to depictions of gods or instruments of violence, during a period when the blatant depiction of a cross would have exposed its user instantly. Christians living under persecution have adopted the same means of survival in later ages. The Buddhist-Shinto figure of Kannon in Japan was often used by Japanese Catholics in the seventeenth and eighteenth century as a coded emblem of the Virgin—especially since she was a patroness of mothers and was often depicted holding a child. Dog-whistles can be a necessary way to communicate while maintaining secrecy, and secrecy can save lives.

But in the early twenty-first century, they have been put to sinister use by white supremacists. Overtly racist ideologies have been unacceptable in mainstream American political discourse for almost two generations now, as have most forms of totalitarianism, especially fascism and Communism. [1] But this doesn’t mean those things have gone away, nor that they are restricted to blatantly racist gangs like the Aryan Nation or the Klan. Every group—including fringe groups like Scientologists, flat-earthers, anarchists, and guys who still think Jamba Juice is good for you [2]—includes smart, cunning members who know perfectly well that they and their beliefs will be rejected if they’re revealed outright, and are prepared to strategize accordingly.

The ideal white supremacist dog-whistle is one that allows its user (let us call him Pye D. Piper) to say something perfectly innocuous, even something that any reasonable person would probably agree with, while simultaneously sending a different, coded message to fellow white supremacists so that they know the lay of the land. This has the double benefit of encouraging the white supremacist community, and also of deceiving ordinary people into supporting Mr Piper, or at least into considering him reasonable and harmless, when really he is playing a long game to advance white supremacist goals and ideology.

For people who aren’t white supremacists planning to fuck me over—when my crime is merely that of being a degenerate old queen with left-wing internationalist ideas, ‘whose religion involves allegiance to a foreign power,’ [3] and who opposes fascism, racism, classism, capitalism, the military-industrial complex, and Brett Ratner’s continued liberty to direct films—a word of caution is in order. One of the dangerous and frustrating things about dog-whistles is that they are, in themselves, innocuous. For instance, you may have heard about the OK sign attracting criticism as a racist code-signal: it got attention during the Kavanaugh hearings, for instance. Obviously the OK hand gesture is not an intrinsically racist symbol; no symbol is; it was not originally cooked up by racists, nor does it have a typically racist history behind it. It was adopted by white supremacists precisely because it was both recognizable and innocuous, and thus, for dog-whistling purposes, absolutely perfect. (That’s how the swastika itself started out. And even today, there are contexts like Jain and Buddhist iconography in which the swastika is just itself, a shape, without the hideous meaning we associate it with here in the West.) So the mere fact that someone uses certain dog-whistles doesn’t automatically mean they’re a crypto-facist. They could be an ordinary centrist or a good-faith conservative who’s been listening to Pye D. Piper and is humming the same tune in consequence.

And due to what makes dog-whistles work, the better-known a dog-whistle is, the less likely it is to represent a real white supremacist as opposed to someone who ran across it in perfect innocence and happened to repeat or reuse it for whatever reason. The list below may easily be obsolete within months, if it isn’t already. So, yeah, be aware that this could make you a little paranoid, and be careful not to tar and feather people too readily.

Here follows a non-exhaustive list of dog-whistles. I’ve arranged them into symbols, terms and slogans, and gestures; I’ve also given a brief run-down on the basic description, the origin of the thing (if I know anything about it), and how it’s used today (as far as I’m aware, and with the proviso that these uses can and will change as soon as outsiders start to recognize the dog-whistles for what they are).

Shit gets gross after this. Please be aware.

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The Swastika

Description: A cross shape with equal-length arms that are each bent at a right angle, all the bends pointing in the same direction.
Origin: A common device in art throughout Eurasia for tens of thousands of years; in some cultures it represents the sun. Formerly called the gammadion or the fylfot in English.
Use: Expired. The Nazi use of the swastika is so generally known that it doesn’t keep anything secret. Variations on the swastika and similar symbols may still see some usage, like the Thunder Cross and the Hands of Svarog (shown below), which some neopagans use.

The Black Sun

Description: A set of concentric circles with twelve Sig runes radiating from the center.
Origin: Though drawing on older symbols (including the swastika), the black sun shown here is first recorded as a design element in the 1936-1942 remodeling of Wewelsburg castle. Heinrich Himmler had purchased the castle in 1933 to serve as an SS center.
Use: Current. As a relatively simple geometric pattern, it’s easy to spot when you’re looking for it and easy to miss when you’re not. Its use has been complicated slightly by the fact that the Church of Satan has also employed the black sun; so, uh, give them the benefit of the doubt that they might just be Satanists, I guess.

The Wheel Cross

Description: A cross (usually with all four arms equal in length) with a halo or ring around the center; the arms may or may not extend past the ring.
Origin: Ringed crosses are a fairly obvious shape, but their best-known use is as symbols of Celtic Christianity, in which haloed crosses were extremely popular. Wheel crosses also resemble the usual guiding lines for firearm sights; the Zodiac killer used a form of the wheel cross as his personal sigil.
Use: Current. Thankfully, genuine Celtic stuff employs more specific forms like bell-flared cross arms, and elaborate decoration like trefoil knots.

The Iron Cross

Description: A cross (typically black) with equal-length, curve-flared arms, usually with an outlining band around its edge.
Origin: One of many heraldic forms of the Christian cross; the iron cross is a particular variant of the croix pattée, which always has equal-length, flared arms, but the flaring can take different forms (e.g. the Templars’ cross had small, angular flares at the end of each arm). The iron cross is a traditional military decoration, going back through Germany’s history and into the Kingdom of Prussia.
Use: Current.

The Odal Rune

Description: A diamond shape with its two lower sides extended into crossed arms.
Origin: One of the letters of the Elder Futhark, the earliest rune alphabet. (The Younger Futhark of Scandinavia and the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc are both descended from the Elder Futhark.) The Odal or Othala rune represented the o sound, and was named from the Common Germanic term ōþala, which could mean ‘lineage, descent’ or ‘inheritance, property, estate.’ Cf. Blood and Soil below.
Use: Current. Not many people outside certain fan communities and scholarly fields recognize any Germanic runes, and are likelier to assume that they’re references to Lord of the Rings than neo-fascist cosplay. Neopagans, especially those who follow Odinism or Asatru, also use this rune and many others as an inheritance from pre-Christian Germanic culture.

The Sig Rune

Description: Similar to a backwards, capital N with the vertical bars extended (thus resembling a stylized lightning bolt).
Origin: Another rune, but unlike the Othala rune, this one is derived from the Armanen runes of Austrian occultist Guido von List. An apostate from Catholicism who devoted himself to neo-pagan mysticism and racism—‘Ariosophy’ was his name for it—he claimed to have received a new formulary of the runic system in a vision (sure), expounding eighteen reformed runes, of which the eleventh was Sig. A pair of Sig runes was one of the insignia of the Nazi SS, partly because they looked like an angularized pair of s’s, and partly because the Nazis associated the rune’s name with the word Sieg, ‘victory.’
Use: Somewhat current, both independently and as an element in the black sun above. However, it is recognizable enough in doubled form as an element in a Nazi flag that it’s not likely to be used as often.

The Man Rune

Description: Similar to a capital Y with a third branch extending straight up.
Origin: Why hello again, totally unhistorical Armanen runes! Derived from the Algiz rune of the Elder Futhark, with the same shape but a different phonetic value. Often known as the ‘life rune,’ as far as I can tell on the basis of ‘literally no gorram reason whatsoever.’
Use: Current. This one is particularly insidious due to its similarity to a wide variety of totally innocent symbols. The Yr rune, which is the inverted form, is also used occasionally, and is, you guessed it, often known as the ‘death rune.’
Guys, if you need a hug you can just say so.

Origin: A reference to the Fourteen Words, a slogan concocted by white supremacist David Lane: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” A more forthcoming alternate is “Because the beauty of the White Aryan woman must not perish from the earth” and my God you people, chill the fuck out. Nobody’s trying to make white women stop existing. As you so creepily demonstrate, white women are popular.
Use: Current. Making numbers look harmless is super easy. May be combined with 88, explained below.

Origin: Alphanumeric code for AH, i.e. Adolf Hitler; likely also an allusion to the 18 Armanen runes.
Use: Current.

Origin: An allusion to David Lane’s 88 Precepts, a white nationalist manifesto; also alphanumeric code for HH, i.e. Heil Hitler.
Use: Current. Frequently combined with 14 as 1488, 8814, or 14/88; Lane claimed that the number 1488 was a key element in his (SIGH) Pyramid Prophecy, which apparently espouses literally every conspiracy theory: Aryans built the pyramids, the King James Bible is a Hermetic code text foretelling Lane’s own birth and work, and Francis Bacon was secretly Shakespeare.

Origin: An ethnonationalist catchphrase cooked up by the Nazi party (German: Blut und Boden). Used to express the idealized, racially ‘pure’ and geographically rooted ethnostate.
Use: Expired, as it’s a giveaway to anyone with more than a slight acquaintance with Nazi history. The rioters at Charlottesville in 2017 chanted it, along with “White Lives Matter” and “You will not replace us.”

Origin: A newer alternative to “white genocide,” coined when that phrase started to seem too dramatic. Basically this denotes a key concept in white supremacist ideology: that majority-white countries are being taken over by immigrants (optional extra: BECAUSE OF JEWS), who will hog all our resources and/or intermarry with whites, thus diluting and ultimately eliminating “the white race.”
Use: Somewhat current. It’s getting recognizable enough to act as a regular whistle instead of a dog-whistle, and is likely to expire soon accordingly.

Origin: Sounded better than “I’m really racist.” The phrase denotes a belief in (ugh) so-called “scientific racism,” the notion that there are empirical grounds for (i) classifying people into biologically different races that are (ii) typically ranked by intelligence, and considered superior or inferior accordingly. There’s also “sex realism,” which sounds better than “raving misogyny.”
Use: Nearly expired, I think. It is pretty transparent. The concept is often reached without the catchphrase, usually by starting with an ostensibly positive, widely-held stereotype about a non-white ethnicity (“Look, you’d agree that Asians tend to have higher IQs, right?”) and then … well, I was going to say ‘deteriorates,’ but it ain’t exactly starting fresh.

Origin: White nationalists love to think of themselves as defending Western civilization against the incursion of foreigners, especially brown and/or Muslim foreigners. (The fact that a lot of the brown foreigners, namely Latino immigrants, are as Western as anybody in the US and more Western than some, gets lost in here—I can’t think why.) More importantly, Western culture has in fact accomplished great things in addition to horrible things, so it’s an easy way to lure centrists, good-faith conservatives, and many liberals. If the white nationalist in question is a Christian, expect the Jewishness of Christianity to be downplayed or (in extreme cases) outright denied—though support for Israel as an (ethno-)state probably won’t be; if the white nationalist in question is an atheist or a neopagan, expect the Jewishness of Christianity to be played up as a reason to object to it, along with its deeply-rooted rejection of racial hatreds and its encouragement of “slave morality.”
Use: Current as hell, and it pisses me off, since I treasure Western culture even while I recognize its many flaws and sins. This one is a great dog-whistle for white racists, because as long as Western culture doesn’t become irreclaimably identified with white nationalism, there will always be an innocuous way to interpret “defenses” of it.

Origin: Sounded better than “I’m really, really racist.” The name comes from the French group Bloc Identitaire, a nationalist movement with a patchwork of right-wing ideologies (though generally united by their hostility to Islam). A number of white nationalist organizations, such as the American Identity Movement (formerly Identity Evropa) and the National Policy Institute (hi, Richard Spencer!). Racists of all kinds do tend to be preoccupied with ethnic identity, pretty much by definition, and white supremacists are no exception.
Use: Current—I think. It’s hard to tell.

The Roman Salute

Description: One hand is raised, usually at an angle and from the shoulder, with the palm facing down and the fingers together.
Origin: The Roman salute actually does go back to ancient Rome; even white supremacists don’t get every historical detail wrong (just most of them.) Mussolini adopted it for the Fascisti, and Hitler liked it enough to import it for the Nazis.
Use: Expired—kind of? It is immediately recognizable, and therefore much of its use as a private code signal is gone. Yet, for some reason, it remains easier to claim that using the Roman salute is “just being edgy and ironic” than it is to claim that bandying a swastika around is “just being edgy and ironic.”

The Volksfront Gesture

Description: A V-shaped hand sign, along the lines of the Vulcan salutation but without the thumb, often held over the heart.
Origin: Basically a gang sign, invented by the white supremacist group Volksfront. Volk is the German word for ‘people, nation,’ and since these are or should be the same thing as ‘ethnicity’ in white nationalist ideology, the word’s a popular one.
Use: Current, possibly; I don’t claim to have picked up on it. But of course it’s like the black sun symbol: plain as day if you’re looking for it, inconspicuous if you’re not.

The OK Sign

Description: Thumb and forefinger together in a circle, with the other three fingers extended.
Origin: As a gesture, this one’s obviously much older than its appropriation by ethnonationalists; it’s also a perfect example of the bottomlessly ambiguous atmosphere that crypto-fascists use to both communicate with each other, and at the same time gaslight the people who suspect them. Its association with neo-Nazis and the like is obviously arbitrary, which makes it easy to dismiss as just an example of left-wing paranoia. Moreover, it is, or seems to be, recent—as recent as 2017. It’s unclear whether the gesture became associated with white supremacism by their own design, through a 4chan prank, or by their own design which they then covered up through a 4chan prank. The Christchurch mosque shooter has famously flashed the OK sign in court, I guess because shooting a bunch of innocent Muslims, praising Trump for inspiring white nationalists worldwide, and donating hundreds of Euros to an Austrian neo-fascist didn’t sufficiently establish his racist street cred.
Use: Expired? Current? Honestly this one could be anywhere on the map, it’s so muddied.

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Like I said above, this list is not exhaustive, nor could it be since dog-whistles are constantly in flux. But I sort of feel like vomiting, so I’m done for now.

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[1] Yes, I'm aware that there are non-totalitarian, non-Stalinist, non-statist versions of Communism. No, I haven't yet read Horkheimer, Bakunin, Goldman, Zetkin, Gramsci, Grindelwald, Sluterevski, and OH MY GOD GET OFF MY LAWN. [2]

[2] If you caught the dog-whistles, congratulations, and all hail Party Monster and Dark Mother.
[3] Thanks for that gem, Locke.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Review: "Velvet Buzzsaw"

‘But why … you’ve said Lestat shouldn't have made you start with people … Did you mean … Do you mean for you it was an æsthetic choice, not a moral one?’
‘Had you asked me then, I would have told you it was æsthetic, that I wished to understand death in stages. [...] But it was moral. Because all æsthetic decisions are moral, really.’ 
—Anne Rice, Interview With the Vampire
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A couple weeks ago, partly on a whim and partly because of its star-studded cast—including Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, John Malkovich, and Toni Collette (who in my opinion can do no wrong even in bad stuff)—I gave Velvet Buzzsaw a try. And I gotta say, while uneven in its execution, it is a delightful, clever, seriously weird-ass movie.

The premise and plot are straightforward enough. It is set in the elite art world of Los Angeles, where inter-gallery rivalries, reviewers that can canonize or damn at will, and above all, whatever is the hot new thing, act as god-emperors. Josephina, a Haze Gallery employee, discovers that a recluse named Vetril Dease who lived in an apartment neighboring hers has died, and left behind him a massive trove of paintings—his own work. She quietly steals them and shows them to her gallery’s owner, Rhodora, and a professional art critic and new flame, Morf Vandewalt. Both immediately declare Dease a master, and the Haze Gallery begins to sell the paintings for tens of thousands of dollars, while carefully controlling the number of paintings available in order to inflate their market value.

But as Dease’s work is traded, and as a network of shallow, faithless, and constantly changing relationships swirls around the characters’ successes, some people begin to notice strange things: one man insists that the painted figures slowly move, Vandewalt discovers Dease’s horror-stricken past, and a scientist discovers that part of the paintings’ curious appearance comes from Dease mixing his own blood and flesh with the paint. And then, one by one, the people who have profited from selling Dease’s work begin to die in mysterious, theatrical ways …

Some minor perks: it was nice to see a little bisexual representation in this, with Gyllenhaal playing a bisexual man for the second time (yes Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain is bi, I will fight you on this). Also, the names in this are a preposterous delight. Vetril Dease? Morf Vandewalt? Rhodora Haze? Jon Dondon? HA! There may be significance in some of the names: Morf and Haze suggest a certain surreality, and Vetril Dease is an anagram of 'devil satire,' though apparently Gilroy found that name in a census record.

Hereafter Be Film Criticism/Spoilers
(skip to the closing paragraph if you hate either)

Dease’s spirit is the culprit; or, if you prefer, the paintings are, imbued through his flesh and blood with his own determination that they should be destroyed, and murdering those who work to thwart this purpose along the way. Dondon, a gallery owner, is throttled with his own scarf by a hand emerging from a display; Gretchen, a gossipy, manipulative curator, loses an arm in a malfunctioning interactive sculpture and bleeds to death, and is mistaken the next morning for a part of the piece; Josephina is lured into a mysterious display of graffiti-style paintings whose colors leak out of their frames and consume her, trapping her as a streetside mural; Morf, increasingly guilty over his harsh reviews and recognizing the peril of Dease’s work too late, is trapped by an animated sculpture and killed. Dan Gilroy, the creator and director of the film, embraces the campiness of his narrative machine, citing films like The Ring and Final Destination as inspirations. And the silliness of the violence (and occasionally of the special effects, as with Gretchen’s dismemberment) forms a counterpoint to the frivolity of the victims’ effete, insincere world.

Like many horror films, Velvet Buzzsaw is a pronouncedly moralistic film. Six deaths are shown in total. Two—Josephina, who made the initial discovery and enacted the initial theft, and Gretchen, a greedy Machiavellian of gallery politics—are both represented as having effectively become works of art, and these two are the victims least invested in actually appreciating art for its own sake: on finding out that her lover is abandoning the Haze Gallery to return to his lower-class art collective, Josephina tells him icily, and unwittingly mere minutes before her death, ‘What’s the point of art if no one sees it?’

Josephina’s decline in character is interestingly marked out toward its beginning, by her chance encounter with a man from Parlack (the company that owns the building, he explains); the name evokes the ‘person from Porlock’ who ruined Coleridge’s attempt to recollect his dreamt poem Kubla Khan. In this case, the disturbance is superficially opposite, since it is thanks to the man from Parlack that Josephina finds Dease’s work, yet Parlack and Porlock effect the same thing at a deeper level, namely the separation of their ‘targets’ from immersion in art; for it is, paradoxically, the discovery of Dease that seals Josephina’s fate as a woman who can no longer see art as something to be made for the mere pleasure of creation, and appreciated in those terms, but only as something to be profited from, whether the profit be in money or in prestige.

A slightly different Æsop is represented in the deaths of Morf and Rhodora. Morf, always a rather cruel, flippant critic, consents to Josephina’s request (while the two are romantically involved) to give a bad review to an artist that he actually does like. Rhodora is revealed early on in the film to have been one half of an anarchistic punk band, the eponymous Velvet Buzzsaw, in her younger days; yet when we meet her she is the queen of LA’s most snobbish elite. Both, Morf especially, get some handle on what is going on as the bodies and bizarre occurrences pile up; Morf is genre savvy enough not only to notice that his own haunting by Dease began from the point where he corrupted his integrity as an art critic to satisfy his lover, but to try to deal with the problem by locking away his own pieces by Dease and begging Rhodora to do the same with all the remaining collection. Too little, too late: the sculpture that kills him is one he had given a withering review to at the beginning of the film (before Dease’s work had been discovered by anybody), which he had criticized not for being poor in technique or a fundamentally bad idea, but basically for being something he had seen done before.

Rhodora seems to be within inches of escape. She has every piece of art, by Dease and everyone else, removed from her home and securely stored. But there are two pieces of art that she cannot divest herself of, a pair of tattoos. One is seen briefly on her arm, early in the film, and reads ‘No Death No Art’; but her downfall is the other, which is appropriately on the back of her shoulder, just out of sight. It is her band name, surrounded by a buzzsaw, and when she accidentally recreates a Dease composition, her tattoo becomes animated and tears her apart.

Three characters who are intimately involved with the Dease plot do escape with their lives: Coco (played by Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things fame), Piers, and Damrish. Coco is a young office assistant who is trying to learn the game of rivalry and manipulation that helped make the other characters successful—in practice, angling to be the next Gretchen. But, after being taken on as a personal assistant by three of the victims and finding each of them dead the next morning, she releases a perfectly timed scream of ‘FUCK ME!’ and gives up on LA entirely. The only thing of Dease’s that she takes with her, perhaps unwittingly, is his cat, and as far as we know from the film she is spared: not profiting from his art directly at any point, and generous enough to care for his cat, we might even read it as Dease’s ghost driving her away out of kindness.

Piers and Damrish, two professional artists, escape Dease’s wrath in a different way. They admire his art as art, and in fact it helps inspire Damrish to reject the elite art world and return to the salt-of-the-earth collective that he had been part of before. Piers, who is presented through most of the film as feeling that he’s lost his creativity after getting sober, is captivated by Dease’s paintings, and works hard to rediscover his own artistic passion; and the credits play over Piers on the beach, alone, drawing sweeping curves and loops and shapes with a piece of driftwood, once again creating simply to create and not for some ostensible profit.

The flaw that makes Velvet Buzzsaw good rather than great is closely linked to one of its finest virtues. The script, acting, and cinematography are all exquisite; but because the film is attempting a certain campiness in its horror, it leaves the viewer with a bizarre clash of tones. Ideally the craftsmanship should have contributed to the atmosphere of the striking, yet essentially superficial art world. But the expert execution makes these characters and their concerns feel more profound than they have any right to, and in consequence, the deaths come of as an uneasy mixture of tragic with tragicomic. I think the correct solution here would have been to make the more apparently dignified characters (e.g. Josephina and Gretchen) just a little more over-the-top than they are, to draw the film into the campiness that was Gilroy’s stated aim. The unevenness of tone in the movie as it stands is a serious problem—it either gives the audience whiplash or, more likely, produces a vague sense of distaste that can’t be definitely pinned on any one thing (unless it were the truly goofy special effects used for Gretchen’s dismemberment).

Should You Watch It?

I give Velvet Buzzsaw a firm B+, and it would’ve scraped an A if it had fixed its tone problem. So I’d say that if you have a particular taste for satire, horror, or modern art, you’ll likely enjoy this film. If you’re neutral toward those things, I wouldn’t avoid this movie by any means, but I wouldn’t make a point of seeing it. And finally, if you dislike any of the three but you’re trying to be open-minded, this is not the film by which to give them a second chance: go with a horror-satire like Tucker and Dale vs Evil or a genuine horror classic like The Babadook instead.

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Monday, March 4, 2019

"Stop Crying."

His feet among the tulips, his hands brush the roses and the lilies.
‘This is love,’ he says, laying his fingers on my throat,
Forcing me down to bow.
‘I know it hurts, I know it’s harsh,
I know it feels nothing like any loves you know,
But you have to trust me,’
As I writhe and gasp and my eyes blur:
‘This is what real love is.’
The thorns scrape on my skin
And I cannot feel my knees or my wrists.
‘This is love. Stop crying.’

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The New York Times ran a profile of gay priests recently, with the tagline: ‘It is not a closet. It is a cage.’ The response to it from a number of spokesmen for Catholicism, via blogs and social media has been, shall we say, cool. Jennifer Fitz (of whom I had not heard before, but I gather that she is a generally and justly respected blogger in conservative Catholic circles) wrote a reply that has been shared a good deal.
I’ve been reading about your plight in the New York Times. So let’s go ahead and clear something up right now: Most Catholics don’t give a rip who it is you’re not having sex with. We know that abstinence is hard. Those of us practicing NFP probably don’t have a ton of sympathy for you, because at least you aren’t obliged to spend all night lying in bed next to the person you’re not having sex with, but when we can get over ourselves, sure, we get it. … Also, when you took your vows, the whole ‘celibacy’ thing wasn’t exactly foisted on you by surprise. … Those of us doing the Catholic thing know very well what it’s like to wrestle with temptation. Honestly we don’t give a crap about your tormented coming-out story, because we know it’s a distraction. Satan wants to keep you constantly looking inward, gazing at your story of shame and pity … You don’t have to be part of the angst-obsessed intelligentsia who show off how erudite they are by daring say in the NYT words that make 6th grade boys snicker. You could just be a Catholic. … I know it’s a struggle. I know this because everyone struggles with their vocations. That’s how life is. Come struggle with us.
In a similar vein, Fr Thomas Petri OP of the Dominican House of Studies down in DC, which I’ve had the pleasure of visiting more than once, had the following to say on Twitter:
I have no patience for priests who ‘come out’ as gay and insist that the priesthood is some sort of cage. Nobody forced you to become a priest. The faithful don’t need to deal with your issues, pal. They don’t deserve to deal with any of our issues. We serve them. Period. … The last thing the faithful need are priests who make their sexuality their primary identity. ‘Being gay’ and ‘coming out’ may seem to you, Father, as being true to your authentic self, but that’s contrary to your ordination, which makes your authentic self a person in persona Christi in the service of the people of God. If you can’t live that way, if you can’t give yourself freely, without making your sexuality ‘a thing’ in this equation, then be a man, be noble, and as our Holy Father Pope Francis says: leave the priesthood. … A Father cannot help his children if he’s a broken distracted mess of a man requiring them to pick him up and set him aright.
Let’s take a second look at those responses, in the context of the aforementioned New York Times piece. The NYT:
Gregory Greiten was 17 years old when the priests organized the game. … Leaders asked each boy what he would rather be: burned over 90 percent of his body, paraplgeic, or gay. Each chose to be scorched or paralyzed. Not one uttered the word ‘gay.’ They called the game the Game of Life. The lesson stuck. Seven years later, he climbed up into his seminary dorm window and dangled one leg over the edge. ‘I really am gay,’ Father Greiten, now a priest near Milwaukee, remembered telling himself for the first time. ‘It was like a death sentence.’ … Many priests have held the most painful stories among themselves for decades: The seminarian who died by suicide, and the matches from a gay bar found afterward in his room. The priest friends who died of AIDS. The feeling of coming home to an empty rectory every night.
… Father Greiten decided it was time to end his silence. At Sunday Mass, during Advent, he told his suburban parish he was gay, and celibate. They leapt to their feet in applause. … His archbishop, Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee, issued a statement saying that he wished Father Greiten had not gone public. Letters poured in calling him ‘satanic,’ ‘gay filth,’ and a ‘monster’ who sodomized children.
And Mrs Fitz:
Most Catholics don’t give a rip … We know that abstinence is hard. Those of us practicing NFP probably don’t have a ton of sympathy for you, because at least you aren’t obliged to spend all night lying in bed next to the person you’re not having sex with … But same-sex attraction? Yawn. … We don’t give a crap about your tormented coming-out story …
Concluding with the valediction:
Your Real Catholic Friends

Returning to half a dozen selections from the NYT:
Father Bob Bussen … was outed about 12 years ago after he held Mass for the LGBTQ community. ‘Life in the closet is worse than scapegoating,’ he said. ‘It is not a closet. It is a cage.’
Today, training for the priesthood in the United States usually starts in or after college. But until about 1980, the Church often recruited boys to start in ninth grade—teenagers still in the throes of puberty.
‘My family does not know that I struggle with this. I’ve never told them. I believe the Church’s teaching on marriage, sexuality—just trying to understand what it means for me. It may sound kind of strange. I feel like, what I struggle with, I hope I can help other Catholics not lose their faith.’ [From a gay priest who asked not to be identified]
‘This is not the whole story of who I am. But if you don’t want to know this about me, do you really want to know me? It’s a question I’d invite the people of God to ponder.’ — Father Steve Wolf
All priests must wrestle with their vows of celibacy, and the few priests who are publicly out make clear they are chaste.
‘Why stay? It is an amazing life. I am fascinated with the depth and sincerity of parishioners, the immense generosity. The negativity out there doesn’t match what is in my daily life, when I see the goodness of people. I tune into that, because it sustains me.’ — Father Michael Shanahan
And returning to Fr Petri:
I have no patience for priests who … insist that the priesthood is some sort of cage. Nobody forced you to become a priest. The faithful don’t need to deal with your issues, pal. They don’t deserve to deal with any of our issues. … ‘Being gay’ and ‘coming out’ may seem to you, Father, as being true to your authentic self, but that’s contrary to your ordination … If you can’t give yourself freely, without making your sexuality ‘a thing’ in this equation, then be a man … : leave the priesthood.
I would have hoped no thoughtful Catholic could write anything so callous. My cold comfort is that maybe people like Mrs Fitz and Fr Petri who are making these unfeeling remarks didn’t actually read the article with any serious attention; their scorn, ignorance, and cruelty may be far less deliberately malicious than they appear. And it does afford some small encouragement to think that there may be less deliberate malice in the world than a glance would suggest.

But let’s analyze the outlook these reactions represent.

First, Mrs Fitz and Fr Petri both display a startling inattention to what this New York Times article was actually about. It wasn’t about gay sex. Yes, the article does deal frankly with the fact that not all priests observe the vow of celibacy that they made; but—as intrinsically important and wrong as that infidelity is—it isn’t the point. Nor does any one of the priests in question, named or anonymous, make any complaint whatever about celibacy. That isn’t what they’re focusing on, still less what they’re objecting to. They say in so many words that it is being forced to keep silent about their orientation that is painful, isolating, and (in some cases at least) deeply damaging. The cultural demand of secrecy, not the canonical demand of celibacy, is what they are talking about.

Second, the confident assurances Mrs Fitz gives that married lay Catholics like herself entirely understand the difficulties of celibate gay priests. These assurances are so astonishingly off-base that, for me (and I dare say for many other gay people), they completely wreck her credibility. Comparing the temporary difficulty of being unable to have sex with your spouse, with a hopeless dread of one’s own sexuality that’s so severe it leads some men to consider suicide, is worse than insensitive; it is revolting. Speaking for my own adolescence—and I was spared more than many gay teens—there were mornings when I woke up, and the first thing I felt was bitter disappointment that God hadn’t killed me in my sleep. Because then I wouldn’t have to face another day of being gay, and dealing with the ceaseless torment of being caught between my deepest desires and my deepest convictions. And Mrs Fitz has the gall to answer that, not only with a yawn, but with the statement that she and those like her, who say in so many words that they care nothing about these years of agony, are our real friends.

[I'd usually put a picture here for spacing, but suicide pictures are creepy as fuck, so no.]

More exactly, it probably never occurred to her that these years of agony exist. How should it? Straight people don’t usually have to deal with the doubt, self-hatred, and anxiety that gay people do. And she’s already said she neither intends nor wants to listen to us about those things: she’s already decided what is and isn’t important in our lives. What we feel, think, or say doesn’t matter.

I take this to be the fruit of a deeper and equally misguided idea: that, because we each have a cross to bear, therefore everyone’s cross is equally heavy, or at least that my neighbor’s cross is as heavy for him as mine is for me. What this would amount to in practice, would be that nobody really suffers more than anybody else, at least not proportionately. And somehow, a theoretical equality of suffering always seems to open the sluice-gates for those who want to tell others to stop complaining: if I’m enduring my suffering, and yours can’t really be worse than mine, then I don’t have to be any more compassionate to you than I feel like the world in general is to me. That's not the truth. Our crosses are tailor-made and, therefore, undemocratic in the highest degree; so that pity, courtesy, humility, generosity, solidarity, and gratitude would have a place to flourish.

Nor do Mrs Fitz or Fr Petri once touch on the fact that so much of the pain of being gay in the Catholic Church comes not from inside us, but from outside. Christian culture in America frequently treats us as legitimate targets for everything from tasteless jokes to scapegoating for terrorist attacks. And Catholic subculture is not an exception. No matter how emphatically or how often Catholics talk about intrinsic human dignity and the importance of avoiding bigotry and being mindful of the difference between a person and their actions, we’ve seen you talk on Facebook about how agents of the gay agenda are trying to corrupt schoolchildren. We’ve heard your chuckling remarks about faggots when you thought no outsiders were listening. Look at the example the NYT article opened with. What do you think it does to a person, to be told that everyone you know would rather be paralyzed than simply happen to be gay? To be told that just feeling attraction to other boys instead of girls is as bad as, worse than, being tortured with fire over your entire body?

Maybe they think that rehearsing the point that ‘You are more than your sexuality’ is what’s called for here. I would like to assure them that LGBTQ people are in fact very well aware of this. We did not need well-meaning heterosexuals to obtain this information. Like Fr Wolf said in the article, of course this doesn’t exhaust who we are; but when fellow believers can’t stand to hear about it at all, when the mere mention prompts lectures and even rebukes, that sends a message too.

Think for a moment, straight reader. Maybe you don’t think of yourself as bringing up your sexuality all that often. Maybe you aren’t dating anybody currently; maybe you prefer to be private about your personal life. But if you did want to talk about an ex, would you hesitate to do so because of how others might react? Would you try to think of neutral language you could use to disguise your former partner’s gender? Would you be ashamed or scared to comment, just conversationally, that a member of the opposite sex is attractive? Would you feel the need to disguise your natural, spontaneous sympathy with art or entertainment that depicts heterosexual relationships? Would you be frightened to tell your coworkers, your friends, your own family that you had a crush on somebody?

It’s this that starts to reveal why so many of us find the closet suffocating. ‘Coming out’ and ‘not coming out’ aren’t the options presented to LGBTQ people, priests or otherwise: the options we’re presented with are ‘coming out’ and ‘staying in.’ And staying in is quite a different thing: it is actively concealing, avoiding, minimizing, and distorting all discussion of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. How can anyone be expected to develop a healthy sense of self or normal, mature relationships while at the same time gagging one whole side of their character? Some people do manage to thrive even under those conditions, thank God; but I do not believe that we should be imposing those conditions, even as cultural standards. And maybe sexual orientation shouldn’t be that important, considered in a vacuum. But human beings don’t live in a vacuum. We can’t.

If Catholics truly want to support us in our lives of faith, they need to be prepared to hear about the actual content of those lives. The solidarity that Mrs Fitz and Catholics like her seem prepared to offer, will have nothing to do with that uncomfortable, unattractive, alien content; it will not be challenged to consider the privileges it enjoys which some do not, nor be called upon to make a deliberate effort to imaginatively empathize. That kind of ‘real friendship’ is worthless.

Fr Petri’s categorical objection to priests sharing their trials with parishioners was disquieting as well. Priests devote themselves to the service of God and the laity, yes; but priests are not supermen, and every Christian needs the support of other Christians, including those whose state in life is unlike his own. Would any Catholic seriously propose that a priest cannot learn from the holiness of the stay-at-home mother of six, the teenage girl with untreatable leukemia, the grandfather who just hit his seventeenth anniversary of sobriety? This desire to segregate the clergy from the laity is, precisely, clericalism: a snobbishness that sees in the laity only children to tend, and not brothers and sisters who may far outstrip their fathers, and who, in any case, have their own gifts from the Holy Ghost which were given to them for the good of the Body—including the good of priests. (St Catherine of Siena, a Dominican sister, remonstrated with the Apostolic See until it returned to the apostolic city.) Holiness does not only move ‘downward’ through the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Nor should priests who serve a God conceived in the womb of an unwedded peasant girl, living in a backwater of an unimportant province of a long-dead empire, expect it to.

Not that any of the priests in the NYT article actually said that the laity needed to be available as a support network for priests. Unless the mere mention that a priest is gay places such a colossal emotional burden on the laity, that it implicitly constitutes a priest abdicating his pastoral responsibility. Personally, I don’t think gay people are quite that defined by our sexuality; I think many laymen get it, and are willing to struggle alongside us, like real Catholic friends.

But this caste-like idea of superiority aside, such hostility to priests sharing their struggles (or their peace) is still misguided. Priests who seem unapproachable will not be approached; priests who seem inimitable will not be imitated. Catholics can rattle on all we like about needing people to model chastity, but without concrete examples of, for instance, gay chastity, the idea won’t land. Without the context that makes the model inspiring, it won’t inspire. How are young Catholics who begin to recognize their own attraction to the same sex supposed to recognize also that they could have a future, if the only people that they know have that same desire are people who have abandoned the Catholic faith?

I venture to add that, for some people, a veneer of perfection can be repellent rather than attractive: in the naïve it can provoke despair (‘How could I ever be like that?’), while in the cynical, it prompts suspicion (‘What’s he hiding?’). An authentic person is far more attractive, allowing the former to overcome his shyness and the latter to give trust a chance.

Chris Damian confronted another problem with this approach, one that is equal parts moral and practical.
Any priest who asserts that we both need greater transparency in the Church and also condemns those opening up about their particular experiences of sexual integration, is speaking out of both sides of his mouth. … This creates the present situation of hierarchical schizophrenia in responding to the Church’s crises. How can we expect the clergy to be honest about what is happening in their parishes when we expect them to dance carefully around what is happening within themselves?
This doesn’t mean that every gay priest must come out, which Damian acknowledges. It is certainly a personal decision. But it does mean that automatic rebuke for coming out is nonsensical. He goes on:
The laity want more honesty and transparency from priests. But over the last several decades, many in Church leadership have actively worked against this. … Father Petri is participating in the very practices that have perpetuated our crises: he is a priest in authority ridiculing other priests for being honest. Rather than resolving the problem, he is perpetuating it. I suspect that Father Petri means no ill will, but malice is not required to create harm. … The fact that Father Petri misses that the article is directed toward those like him and, instead, claims that the article makes demands on the laity demonstrates the manipulative blindness of a bureaucrat.
One thing the Church needs as a prerequisite to the reform she so badly requires today is unflinching honesty. And you cannot simultaneously encourage and punish the same quality. If you reward dissimulation, secrecy, and bald-faced lies about same-sex attraction, which isn't even a sin, how on earth is anyone supposed to find the courage to be sincere, forthcoming, and accurate about sins and crimes?

The toxicity of the closet, and of the priestly culture of hush that it’s interwoven with, is something I don’t believe most Catholics have faced, not because they’re completely heartless, but because they don’t want to; and I suspect they don’t want to because they are afraid that if they think about the closet simply in terms of what LGBTQ people want and need, it will threaten their faith. And not many Catholics are ever in the mood to have their faith threatened, especially right now, when threats to the credibility of the whole hierarchy are daily features of the news. But that’s not good enough. Not facing problems doesn’t make them go away. And castigating gay people—even when we go out of our way to affirm our orthodoxy and our chastity—for asking to be known and loved as we are, does less than nothing to confront the sins, or heal the wounds, of deceitfulness and corruption that the Church is in the throes of.

Do you want to show us genuine friendship, Catholic? Genuine love, support, and affection, of the kind that every person (gay or straight) needs to thrive as a Christian, as a human?

Then listen to us. Talk with us. Pray with us. Laugh with us, eat with us, weep with us. Go to art galleries with us, invite us to your eight-year-old’s birthday party, watch cheesy fifties sci-fi movies with us, have us over for poker night. Do the normal stuff that life consists in, and include us in it; and let us tell you what’s on our hearts when that’s what we need. Because, now and again, every one of us needs that.

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